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spacer.gif   MYSTICAL PEN: In Defense of D.H. Lawrence by David Novak
Posted by : cj on Sunday, December 05, 2004 - 10:09 PM
Chicago Poetry Reviews: Click Headlines .
In Defense of D.H. Lawrence Letter eX Challenges City Journal
--Chicago Poet David Novak Takes Theodore Dalrymple To Task--

In an essay in this summer’s City Journal, Theodore Dalrymple writes:

“[D.H.] Lawrence was an earnest, but not a serious, writer--if by serious we mean one whose outlook on life is intellectually or morally worthy of our consideration.”

This is a strong statement. Rephrased more simply and sincerely: Lawrence was a writer whose outlook on life is not intellectually or morally worthy of our consideration. Leaving aside the editorial “our” (which I believe does not include me), I wonder, is the statement correct?

Dalrymple’s essay focuses mainly on Lawrence’s novel, Lady Chatterly’s Lover:

“If there was a single event in our recent cultural history that established literal-minded crudity as the ideal of artistic endeavor, however, it was the celebrated 1960 [obscenity] trial.”

Aside from discussions of the relative shock value of the “F-word” as the more genteel amongst us like to refer to it (a word that I believe may have been used by Chaucer if not Burns), only one passage is excerpted in length: a brief conversation between Lady Chatterly’s father and the gameskeeper that has gotten her pregnant.

Only when coffee was served, and the waiter had gone, Sir Malcolm lit a cigar and said, heartily: “Well, young man, and what about my daughter?” The grin flickered on Mellors’ face. “Well, Sir, and what about her?” “You’ve got a baby in her all right.” “I have that honour!” grinned Mellors. “Honour, by God!”, Sir Malcolm gave a little squirting laugh, and became Scotch and lewd. “Honour! How was the going, eh? Good, my boy, what!” “Good!” “I’ll bet it was! Hah-ha! My daughter, chip off the old block, what! I never went back on a good bit of fucking, myself. Though her mother, oh Holy Saints!” He rolled his eyes up to heaven. “But warmed her up, oh, you warmed her up, I can see that. Hah-ha! My blood in her! You set fire to her haystack all right.”

The passage is referred to as crude, which I suppose it is, and unrealistic, which I dispute. Granted, the characters display a gross insensitivity to Mr. Dalrymple’s refined sensibilities of how people “ought” to talk to one another: “It reduces human relationships to the lowest possible denominator: humans become no more than farmyard animals.” Yet I’ve overheard people talk exactly like this, it is not uncommon. If it is too undignified to merit imitation in an artistic work, that, I suppose, is another issue, but as for the verisimilitude of the passage, I haven’t any doubt. I imagine Mr. Dalrymple would also strenuously object to the snippet of conversation overheard in The Waste Land’s public house--“It’s them pills I took to bring it off, she said./(She’s had five already, and nearly died of young George.)” T.S. Eliot, by the way, grouped Lawrence together with James Joyce as “two extremely serious and improving writers,” but I suspect Mr. Dalrymple would lump Eliot in the same stew with Lawrence of contributing to cultural degeneracy. One suspects it is more the “Scotchness” of the passage quoted to which Mr. Dalrymple, an Englishman, objects!

Mr. Dalrymple displays tremendous insight into the whole notion of “convention-flouting,” as witness his description of an earlier instance of the same behavior which has seemingly become rampant in our age of degeneracy:

In 1914, for example, Bernard Shaw caused a sensation by giving Eliza Doolittle the words “Not bloody likely!” to utter on the London stage. Of course, the sensation that this now-innocuous, even innocent exclamation created depended wholly for its effect upon the convention that it flouted: but those who were outraged by it (and who have generally been regarded as ridiculous in subsequent accounts of the incident) instinctively understood that sensation doesn’t strike in the same place twice, and that anyone wanting to create an equivalent in the future would have to go far beyond “Not bloody likely.” A logic and a convention of convention-breaking was established, so that within a few decades it was difficult to produce any sensation at all except by the most extreme means.

This is all well true; so why, then, one wonders, does Mr. Dalrymple not level his sights at the devil himself, Mr. G.B. Shaw, but instead take to task Lawrence as being the writer not worthy “our” consideration?

I would argue, that if Mr. Dalrymple is so eager to find relief from all the vulgarity of Lawrence, that he simply make the choice of not reading it. The novels of Lawrence never piqued my interest, but if anything, the heavy condemnation Lady Chatterly’s Lover seems still to evoke some forty years after its trial, along with the witty passage quoted, makes me interested in taking a look at it. It is, oddly enough, a resorting to the same prurient titillation decried--blame it on the editor no doubt!--that Mr. Dalrymple’s article at City Journal is titled “What’s Wrong with Twinkling Buttocks?” It seems a low-grade or ironic convention-flouting is acceptable, but use of the F-word or sexually-charged context is not.

The ancient historian M.I. Finley, in his essay “Etruscheria,” writes of Lawrence’s visit to the Etruscan tombs in 1927, “when he was already quite ill[,]... a period when life and death and their mystical meaning were often in his mind.” The reaction Lawrence had to those remains, “perfectly intelligible in terms of his general philosophy of life,” is quoted by Finley:

The Greeks sought to make an impression, and Gothic still more seeks to impress the mind. The Etruscans, no. The things they did, in their easy centuries, are as natural and as easy as breathing... And that is the true Etruscan quality: ease, naturalness, and an abundance of life, no need to force the mind or soul in any direction. And death, to the Etruscan... was just a natural continuance of the fullness of life.

To this Finley adds his comment:

Unmistakably Laurentian, but is it right or wrong? That is precisely the question one should not ask. As Richard Aldington rightly said in his introduction to Etruscan Places, “what Lawrence hoped to give in these sketches was the discoveries of his own poetic intuition, not scholarship.” Lawrence was writing about Lawrence all the time. If I want his kind of reaction, I go back to him every time.

It seems to me, this is appropriate. Lawrence ought not be the be-all-and-end-all authority to which one refers when one is investigating Etruscan Culture, nor less when one is seeking a moral philosophy by which to lead one’s life (perhaps Confucius would better serve for that); and yet, when one is hankering towards some “mystical meaning” of life, a stop by the works of Lawrence might be worth one’s while.

Despite the negative advertisement that Mr. Dalrymple’s essay gives to Lady Chatterly’s Lover, I have found Lawrence to be a writer worth my consideration, but I refer to his poetry. This perhaps sidesteps the issue of whether the writing is “intellectually or morally worthy,” as I don’t believe anyone places such stringent demands on poetry; but “mystically worthy,” certainly.

I return to his frequently anthologized poems “The Ship of Death” and “Snake” whenever, like Finley, “I want his kind of reaction.” To these poems I certainly recommend the reader; and while I have been too intimidated by the sheer bulk of his Collected Poems to purchase the volume, I imagine the intrepid reader might well find a variety of fascinating gems therein.

In “Snake” he tells how, “I looked round, I put down my pitcher, / I picked up a clumsy log / And threw it at the water-trough with a clatter,” to chase away the snake, “And immediately I regretted it. / I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act! / I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education.” The conclusion of the encounter, and of the poem, is: “And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords / Of life. / And I have something to expiate; / A pettiness.”

“The Ship of Death,” probably Lawrence’s most famous poem (and justly so), was directly the result of his visit to the Etruscan painted tombs, and the lines of it are too famous and too many to quote and do justice to what is nothing short of a masterpiece of its era: “Now it is autumn and the falling fruit / and the long journey towards oblivion. // The apples falling like great drops of dew / to bruise themselves an exit from themselves...” I may not hope to adequately summarize what Lawrence accomplishes in this poem, as seeming to reach mystic regions that are beyond my experience; but I think, anyone who has read it, will not cavalierly suggest its author intellectually or morally unworthy “our consideration.” Whatever excesses or lapses of good taste one may find in a book like Lady Chatterly’s Lover, are (I believe) more than made up for by the aesthetic of a really good poem--at least in regards to judging an author’s entire ouvre. We should hope to aim so high.

In a preface he wrote for his novel, Lawrence explained his purpose:

I want men and women to be able to think sex, fully, completely, honestly and cleanly. Even if we can’t act sexually to our complete satisfaction, let us at least think sexually, complete and clear....A young girl and a young boy is a tormented tangle, a seething confusion of sexual feelings and sexual thoughts which only the years will disentangle. Years of honest thoughts of sex, and years of struggling action in sex will bring us at last where we want to get, to our real and accomplished chastity, our completeness, when our sexual act and our sexual thought are in harmony, and the one does not interfere with the other.

That Lawrence may not have fully succeeded in his aim, I have no doubt--even his description of it sounds chaotic and confused. Yet it strikes me as an honorable aim, well above the mere “pornography” of which Mr. Dalrymple accuses him in his essay. (Robert Scholes, literary critic and semiotician, from whose essay “Uncoding Mama: the Female Body as Text” I draw my quotation from Lawrence’s preface, argues that Lawrence does not go far enough in his depiction particularly of female sexuality!)

In these days when censorship has begun to run rife, even at risk of descending into “cultural anarchy” (if I may use my words to describe what I think it is that Mr. Dalrymple hates or fears), it strikes me more important rather to support what one loves, than to attempt to demolish what one does not. If Lady Chatterly’s Lover is so “unworthy,” then cease to talk about it, and it will disappear in time. Meanwhile I believe nothing is helped by a carte blanche put-down of such a writer as Lawrence, when he has written material worthy the attention of readers today.

To argue otherwise, it occurs to me, crosses the line where conservative thought turns to fascism.

--David Novak
Author of "Against Holy War"

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Note: In an essay in this summer’s City Journal, Theodore Dalrymple writes:

“[D.H.] Lawrence was an earnest, but not a serious, writer--if by serious we mean one whose outlook on life is intellectually or morally worthy of our consideration.”

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