September 11, 2019

Imagining What D.H. Lawrence Would Make of Brexit: A Birthday Adventure

I am English, and my Englishness is my very vision.
—D.H. Lawrence, in a letter from October 1915

By Stuart Mitchner

Earlier the same year, in another letter to another friend, Lawrence wrote, “I know that I am the English nation — that I am the European race.”

You may be thinking, how outrageous, that a mere mortal could ever presume to make such a statement. But then this is no ordinary mortal. The website for “Important Events on This Day, September 11,” begins, inevitably, with a 10-line paragraph about the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center; after an inventory of other  events, including a 1973 military coup in Chile and a 1941 speech  by Charles Lindbergh accusing “the British, the Jewish, and the Roosevelt administration of trying to draw America into World War II,” the site concludes with “D.H. Lawrence, born Sept. 11, 1885,” followed by a biographical notice almost twice as long as the entry on the American apocalypse.

“Apart he would remain”

Meanwhile you may be wondering what Lawrence would make of his homeland’s chaotic struggle to withdraw from the European Union, but what’s to wonder? We’re talking about someone who once claimed to be England and Europe; here’s a Nottinghamshire coal miner’s son daring to encompass nations through the sheer impertinent imperishable force of his will and his work. However: “Without a people, without a land. So be it. He was broken apart, apart he would remain.” After quoting those lines about the protagonist of Kangaroo (1923) in his biography D.H. Lawrence: The Life Of an Outsider (Counterpoint 2005), John Worthen is tempted to “discount the passion of Lawrence’s utterance: to see it as an exaggeration. His passion to leave England was not: ‘I don’t care where I go, as long as I can turn my back on it for good.’ “

Although Worthen seems to be backing up his subtitle, it’s difficult to square the idea of an “outsider” with someone who says his “Englishness” is his “very vision” and that he is the English nation and the European race, both statements cited in a chapter headed “Isolated and Independent: 1917-1919.” Surely there’s more than enough evidence in Lawrence’s work to show that his creative identity, his motive force, is to imagine himself inside everything, whether it’s a country or a woman or a bat or a pomegranate.

Making and Unmaking

One thing I’m sure of is that whatever Lawrence would make of England’s current turmoil he would viscerally detest the word brexit, condemning it as a linguistic deformity and refusing it the dignity of an uppercase “B.” Also, the implications of a phrase like “what he would make of something” shouldn’t be taken lightly. An essay by Lawrence on Boris Johnson’s U.K. would be a savage orgy of making and unmaking. After performing sarcastic variations on the ugly little word (“our daily brexit, to brexit or not to brexit”), he’d make a mockery of the slapstick confusion put in play by the referendum (another word that would have him cringing), picturing the crazed PM at the lead of a pack of Keystone Kops chasing after an insanely stoic Buster Keaton with a BREXIT sign on his back leading them into a ditch as big as China (as it happens, Boris has been quoted recently claiming that he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than request another delay).

But however much a hypothetical Lawrence might enjoy the spectacle of England getting its knickers in a twist over the bungled withdrawal, he’d end by taking it as seriously as he’d have taken the 9/11 attacks. Love it or hate it, he’d manage both extremes without coming down on either side.

Blitzing American Lit

Lawrence’s love/hate, yes/no, sublime/ridiculous duality is the dynamic I found so exciting as a student confronted for the first time by the take-no-prisoners style of Studies in Classic American Literature. What a deadly title, I thought. Academic, boring, prosaic, just the boost I needed to put eight years of work and travel between me and graduate school. But the real boost came when I started reading the original Anchor paperback and found myself on board for the crazy-brilliant, totally outrageous adventure Lawrence was making out of American literature.

This was at a time in my reading life when James Joyce reigned supreme. The magnificent Richard Ellman biography having just been published, the greatness of Ulysses cast its impenetrable shadow over everything and everyone, all “the little fellows,” as Nora Joyce once referred to her husband’s rivals. No doubt she’d have put Lawrence in the same category and so would many of us who didn’t know any better in those days. What he made of Cooper, Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville, among others, suggested the arrogant, unrelenting power of a world view of life that would have been repellent if it hadn’t been so exhilarating, so free and fierce. It was a joy to read of  “Fenimore lying in his Louis Quatroze hotel in Paris passionately musing about Natty Bumppo and the pathless forest,” or of “that blue-eyed darling Nathaniel” who “knew disagreeable things in his inner soul” and “was careful to send them out in disguise.” And of Melville, who was “clumsy and sententiously in bad taste … even in a great book like Moby Dick…The artist was so much greater than the man …. Oh dear, when the solemn ass brays! brays! brays! … But he was a deep, great artist” whose “book commands a stillness in the soul, an awe.”

Lawrence’s rude negatives made the breathess positives seem all the more credible and significant. Say what he might about “blue-eyed Nathaniel” after pages of deliriously, apocalyptically riffing, The Scarlet Letter was a great book, “a marvelous allegory, one of the greatest allegories in all literature,” with “its marvelous under-meaning! And its perfect duplicity.” Nevertheless, Lawrence kept his iconoclastic mojo working right up to the last word, ending with “that blue-eyed Wunderkind of a Nathaniel. The American wonder-child, with his magical allegorial insight.”

This is the Lawrence I like to imagine writing on Brexit or brexit, not to mention 9/11, a spirited stylist on a roll, having shameless, wonderful, enlightening fun, cutting loose, damn the gatekeeper and full speed ahead.

The Power of Mediocrity

Writing on September 11, 2013, the last time we printed on Lawrence’s birthday, I quoted his sometime friend John Middleton Murray observing in 1956 that “Lawrence was alone in the depth of his prescience of the crisis of humanity which has developed since his death.” Although Murray was referring to World War II, Lawrence’s prescience extends not only to 9/11, it covers the Bush administration’s catastrophic invasion of Iraq (aided and abetted by W’s lapdog British PM Tony Blair), and the rise of Trump, the mad cartographer. Take this sentence from Part IV of Apocalypse: “They will only listen to the call of mediocrity wielding the insentient bullying power of mediocrity: which is evil. Hence the success of painfully inferior and even base politicians.” A few sentences later: “Society consists of a mass of weak individuals trying to protect themselves, out of fear, from every possible imaginary evil, and, of course, by their very fear, bringing the evil into being.” The rough beast of the 21st century can even be read into the post-Great War opening paragraph of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which ends, “We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.”

Had Lawrence had been around on Sept. 11, 2001, what he’d have made of it could have gotten him in trouble had he gone the way of this passage from Mornings in Mexico: “I like to think of the whole show going bust, bang!—and nothing but bits of chaos flying about…. I like to think of the world going pop! … When someone mysteriously touched the button, and the sun went bang, with smithereens of birds bursting in all directions.”

But it’s just as likely he’d have come at the event with the grace and wonder of a passage from Fantasia of the Unconscious that calls to mind the annual resurrection of the towers in the form of two soaring shafts of blue light: “The living live and then die,” passing away “as we know, to dust and to oxygen and nitrogen” and perhaps “direct into life itself … direct into the living.”

Lady Chatterley in Paris

A few days ago, while looking online for a Brexit-Lawrence connection, I landed on the website of Catherine Brown, the vice-president of the Lawrence Society and head of the English Faculty at London’s New College. In Paris this May to attend the unveiling of a plaque at 60 Blvd Montparnasse, where Lawrence stayed in March-April 1929 while arranging for the publication of a cheaper edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Brown gave a talk on Lawrence and Brexit at the British Council. Her tour of the pertinent passages in the fiction and letters at is both fascinating and informative. Visitors to her site should also have a look at Brown’s no less fascinating and informative photo essay on Lawrence in Paris in 1929.

Keeping Lawrence Home

Finally, there’s the Brexit-pertinent news of the crowdfunding campaign to keep a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the United Kingdom. The copy in question was previously owned and annotated by Sir Laurence Bryne, the judge who presided over the 1960 obscenity trial that opened the gates to Lawrence’s last and most famous novel after 30 years’ banishment. The catch is that the judge’s copy was sold to an overseas buyer at Sotheby’s last year for £56,250, which is how much English PEN will have to raise to keep Lady Chatterley in England. Remain? Or Leave? The UK arts minister Michael Ellis is taking no chances. He placed an export ban on the novel in order to keep the book in the United Kingdom.