T. S. Eliot wrote of Henry James: “He had a mind so fine no idea could violate it.” That was a compliment. Eliot thought ideas were mostly out of place in art, or at least notoriously hard to keep in their proper place. Surprisingly, Eliot also commended James for keeping ideas out of his critical writings. Eliot’s critical writings teemed with ideas, indeed staggered under them.
Of course James had plenty of ideas, and so did his characters, but not the sort that Eliot deplored—not general ideas or, as we might say, ideologies. Those who do have ideologies—the feminists in The Bostonians or the revolutionaries in The Princess Casamassima, for example—are slightly ridiculous or slightly sinister. But their ideas don’t detract from those novels; they’re just materials, like the enigmatic adventurism of the Princess and the chivalrous absurdity of Basil Ransom. They are not the author’s ideas, and the novels are not written to propagate them. That would have been a violation, in Eliot’s sense.
Eliot thought D. H. Lawrence’s mind was continually and ruinously violated by ideas. He called Lawrence an “arch-heretic” (this was not a compliment) and a “very sick man”; and he devoted a good deal of After Strange Gods to deploring Lawrence’s regrettable effects on contemporary sensibilities. It was not a matter of individual depravity. Lawrence simply had the misfortune to be born without the indispensable mental resources of a traditional culture and the stabilizing moral bulwarks of a traditional religion. It was therefore perfectly natural that he could not think and that his characters had no conscience.
It has been an influential judgment—like all of Eliot’s—and it finds a faint echo in Geoff Dyer’s introduction to The Bad Side of Books, though he invokes not Eliot’s authority but Kate Millett’s in Sexual Politics, a book which could hardly be more different from After Strange Gods. “If Lawrence remains a great writer today,” Dyer opines,
that is due in no small part because his enduring freshness and force is found in the travel books, in poems that were scarcely even poems, and in the scatter of his essays. For Lawrence the novel, “the one bright book of life,” was the supreme test; that’s what he staked his life on. But many of his gifts were best displayed elsewhere.
“Freshness and force” falls well short of wisdom and genius; travel books, poems (that are “scarcely even poems”), and a scatter of essays—do these modest achievements add up to a major writer? In Out of Sheer Rage, his witty and exasperating book about not writing a book about Lawrence, Dyer acknowledged that he no longer cares for Lawrence’s novels. In his introduction to The Bad Side of Books, explaining why the collection is made up almost entirely of occasional writing, Dyer muses that “although Lawrence undoubtedly had a philosophy which he was keen to share with the world (to put it mildly), the effort involved him writing against his strengths.... Lawrence was often carried away by stuff about a metaphorical ‘river of dissolution’ but he noticed, with stunning clarity of vision, all the flora and fauna on the literal riverbank.” In Dyer’s British English “stuff” sounds more disparaging than in American English—for example, the expression “Stuff and nonsense!” There is comparatively little, then, of Lawrence’s philosophical (or “philosophical-ish,” as he put it self-deprecatingly) prose here. Of course, even in writing on ordinary subjects, Lawrence is always setting off little philosophical fireworks. But the grand fireworks displays—“Education of the People,” most of the “Study of Thomas Hardy,” Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine (except for the title essay), Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious, and Fantasia of the Unconscious—are unrepresented. For better and worse—mostly better, since nearly all the philosophical writing is collected in the two volumes of Phoenix, the more complete edition of Lawrence’s nonfiction, and in Psychoanalysis and Fantasia, which are available in a single paperback volume—The Bad Side of Books is a medley of Lawrence at his most observant, sensuous, and immediate.
Every writer is unique in some way; Lawrence was unique in most ways: in his prose style, with its frequently incandescent images and incantatory rhythms; in his personality (most of his friends testified that he was flame-like, more alive than anyone else they knew); and in his opinions, the usual reactions to which ran from amusement through incomprehension, incredulity, and ridicule to abhorrence. If any twentieth-century writer can be said to have lived with that hard, gemlike flame that Walter Pater recommended, it was Lawrence.
He was a vagabond. The Bad Side of Books is, among other things, a record of his wanderings. His lungs were weak, so he avoided northern winters. But even more than his health, or than the trickle of income that came from travel writing, he was drawn by an ardent curiosity, a curiosity that (sometimes) trumped even his generally formidable preconceptions. He lived in Florence, Rome, Sicily, Germany, southern France, Ceylon, Tahiti, Australia, Mexico, and, most consequentially, New Mexico.
Sometimes he came away chiefly with vivid descriptive writing, like the opening of “Flowery Tuscany”:
Each country has its own flowers, that shine out specially there. In England it is daisies and buttercups, hawthorn and cowslips. In America, it is goldenrod, stargrass, June daisies, Mayapple and asters, that we call Michaelmas daisies. In India, hibiscus and dattura and champa flowers, and in Australia mimosa, that they call wattle, and sharp-tongued strange heath-flowers. In Mexico it is cactus flowers, that they call roses of the desert, lovely and crystalline among many thorns; and also the dangling yard-long clusters of the cream bells of the yucca, like dropping froth.
But by the Mediterranean, now as in the days of the Argosy, and, we hope, for ever, it is narcissus and anemone, asphodel and myrtle.
But more often, the vivid writing was in the service of a vision. “New Mexico,” he wrote, “was the greatest experience from the outside world that I have ever had.”
The moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning shine high up over the deserts of Santa Fé, something stood still in my soul, and I started to attend.... In the magnificent, fierce morning of New Mexico one sprang awake, a new part of the soul woke up suddenly, and the old world gave way to a new.
There are all kinds of beauty in the world, thank God.... But for a greatness of beauty, I have never experienced anything like New Mexico. All those mornings when I went with a hoe along the ditch to the Cañon, at [my] ranch, and stood, in the fierce, proud silence of the Rockies, on their foothills, to look far over the desert to the blue mountains away in Arizona, blue as chalcedony, with the sage-brush desert sweeping grey-blue in between, dotted with tiny cube-crystals of houses, the vast amphitheater of lofty, indomitable desert, sweeping round to the ponderous Sangre de Cristo, mountains on the east, and coming up flush at the pine-dotted foot-hills of the Rockies! What splendor!
Along with several essays, Lawrence wrote a substantial piece of fiction set partly in New Mexico: the novella St. Mawr, which throws some light on the meanings the region had for him.
America meant all sorts of things to Lawrence, many of them adumbrated in his Studies in Classic American Literature (1923). In The Bad Side of Books, there’s an essay called “Pan in America” (1924), which starts from the cry that echoed around the Mediterranean as paganism faded: “The Great God Pan is dead!” What that meant, according to Lawrence, was that the possibility of life lived in spontaneous unison with nature dwindled as commerce, technology, and metaphysical religion advanced. Pan seemed still alive to Lawrence in the Indians of the Southwest, and he conjured a graphic account of the animist mind and imagination. But even there, Pan was “dying fast”; every Indian, Lawrence thought, “will kill Pan with his own hands for the sake of a motor car.” Who, given the choice the essay poses—“to live among the living, or to run on wheels”—would choose what Lawrence called “life”? Pretty much no one, he thought, though he returned to this opposition again and again.
Idiosyncratic though Lawrence was, this is the same choice posed by the entire Romantic tradition: Blake and Wordsworth, Ruskin and Morris, Wendell Berry and Norman O. Brown. Embeddedness, mystery, everyday beauty on one side; separateness, control, functionality on the other; limits versus progress. Rationalists often claim that Romantics are mere mystics and wholly impractical. That’s not true of most Romantics, and certainly not of the greatest ones, Ruskin and Morris. And even Lawrence was, for so loftily prophetic and gorgeously imaginative a writer, surprisingly practical. He was a miner’s child, comfortable from childhood with tools, and always putting up shelves or bookcases in whatever temporary lodging he and his wife, Frieda, found for themselves. The Lawrences bought and ran a small ranch in New Mexico for a couple of years after Lawrence’s revelation, and he was happy there.
“Nottingham and the Mining Countryside” (1929) is an account of a visit to the area he grew up in. By then he had seen the Tuscan hill towns, and so he wrung his hands and gnashed his teeth over the “great scrabble of ugly pettiness” the mining companies had created by way of villages for the miners in the hilly region. And he proceeded to offer an alternative building plan, along with an argument that “if they had done this”—eschewed ugliness and had a care for beauty—“there would never have been an industrial problem. The industrial problem arises from the base forcing of all human energy into a competition of mere acquisition.” I don’t know whether that’s a left-wing opinion or a right-wing opinion, but it makes fundamental sense.
In “Return to Bestwood” (1926), another homecoming essay, Lawrence arrives during the General Strike that convulsed England that year. The people, he recognizes, are his people, though both he and they have changed almost beyond recognition. They have lost even the few graces that lent dignity to the harsher, poorer form of life he knew as a child. “I feel I hardly know any more the people I come from,” he acknowledges sorrowfully, though they are also “the only people who move me strongly, and with whom I feel myself connected in deeper destiny.” From these wistful reflections emerges a political credo:
A few things I know, with inner knowledge.
I know that what I am struggling for is life, more life ahead, for myself and the men who will come after me, struggling against fixations and corruptions.....
I know that there is ahead the mortal struggle for property.
I know that the ownership of property has become, now, a problem, a religious problem. But it is one we can solve.
I know I want to own a few things, my personal things. But I also know I want to own no more than those.... I don’t want a fortune—not even an assured income.
At the same time, I don’t want poverty and hardship. I know I need enough money to leave me free in my movements, and I want to be able to earn that money without humiliation....
I know that we could, if we would, establish little by little a true democracy in England: we could nationalize the land and industries and means of transport, and make the whole thing work infinitely better than at present, if we would....
I know we are on the brink of a class war.
I know we had all better hang ourselves at once, than enter on a struggle which shall be a fight for the ownership or non-ownership of property, pure and simple, and nothing beyond.
I know that the ownership of property is a problem that may have to be fought out. But beyond the fight must lie a new hope, a new beginning.
In the early 1920s, profoundly disillusioned by the initial popular enthusiasm on all sides for World War I and the continued popular acquiescence in the war even after its futility and insane destructiveness became clear, Lawrence flirted with a not-very-well-defined authoritarianism in several of his novels. As a result, several generations of English and American leftists have come to the same conclusion as T. S. Eliot: Lawrence simply could not think, at any rate, about politics. I’d say the quoted passages, along with numerous others in The Bad Side of Books and the two volumes of Phoenix, suggest otherwise.
“Study of Thomas Hardy” (1914), one of his earliest nonfiction works, is, he admitted, “about anything but Thomas Hardy.” Along with Hardy (occasionally), it is about “Being and Not-Being” and their peregrination through history from the Jews of the Old Testament onward through Western civilization. Being and Not-Being usually appear in the character of the male and female principles, around which Lawrence spins an elaborate metaphysical theory, which can easily be vulgarized into the ideology of male supremacy that Kate Millett found everywhere in his writing. Whether it can be fashioned into something more innocent, or even useful, may never be known—he died, at forty-four, very much a work in progress.
When I think of Lawrence sub specie aeternitatis, I think of a few lovely lines that appear in “The Bad Side of Books,” the title essay of this collection. I have a feeling he would have liked to be remembered by them as much as by any other few lines he wrote. They are a memento mori but also, naturally—this being Lawrence—a memento vitae.
[T]o some men still the trees stand up and look around at the daylight, having woven the two ends of darkness together into visible being and presence. And soon, they will let go the two ends of darkness again, and disappear. A flower laughs once, and having had his laugh, chuckles off into seed, and is gone. Whence? Whither? Who knows, who cares? That little laugh of achieved being is all.
The Bad Side of Books
Selected Essays by D. H. Lawrence
Edited by Geoff Dyer
New York Review Books
$19.95 | 512 pp.