D.H.LAWRENCE :GENIUS OR JOKE?
A paper delivered at the annual general meeting of the D H Lawrence Society at the Julian Ashton Art School annexe at Georges Heights, Mosman on Sunday 20 July 2006. My theme is from Joseph Conrad and his tale, The Shadow Line: Only the young, he wrote, have such moments. One closes behind one the little gate of mere boyishness and enters the enchanted garden. One goes on. And time, too, goes on till one perceives ahead a shadow-line warning one that the region of early youth, too, must be left behind.
On this side of the shadow line is shimmering sunshine, endless possibilities, experiment, enjoyment and heartbreak. The enchanted garden of youth.. On the other side of the shadow line is maturity. Summer leads on to winter. Sunshine ends in rain. Everything is cut and dried. No man is an island entire of itself. A fool and his money are soon parted. We call it the real world and we learn to live in it. Some call it the getting of wisdom. Perhaps it is.D.H.Lawrence is sometimes a good travelling companion … but only for part of the way. My proposition is that the polemical Lawrence, the prophet sometimes now dismissed as a “national joke”, lingered too long in the enchanted garden — right to the end. But the enduring Lawrence, the poet and genius, crossed the shadow line.
It was hard to escape D.H.Lawrence in my youth in the late 1940’s. Everybody in Sydney had a view about him. Over here was James McAuley with the Lawrence poem he had set to music (“Green”). Over there was P.R.Stephensen, publisher of Lawrence’s dreadful paintings, still telling his often tall stories about the great emancipator. Here was Professor John Anderson refining his variation of Lawrence’s creed of sexual freedom, the Andersonian doctrine of “comic copulation” (without the illusions of either sentimentality or phallocentricity.) And here was the poet and dramatist Ray Mathew, a true Lawrencian who sensed a sympathetic homosexual spirit in Lawrence. Above all Lawrence had written a famous novel about Sydney, its politics and its dark gods. Kangaroo seemed to lead some of its readers past the vacuity of Australian life to a land of poetry and mystic promise.
There were also the critics¢â¬âA.D.Hope ridiculing Lawrence as overrated, muddled, na¯ve and boring, or Kenneth Slessor mocking his ambiguous profundity. Shortly after Lawrence left Australia in 1922, his new novel Aaron’s Rod was the dernier cri among the avant-garde. Kenneth Slessor, 21, poet and journalist, wrote this verse review for his newspaper The Sun of 25 October, 1922 :
To those who hold decomposed souls in abhorrence
This wink is as good as a nod.
Look out for frightfully deep Mr Lawrence,
And likewise avoid ‘Aaron’s Rod’.
But these sceptics were a minority.Lawrence certainly influenced me. I do not recall all the details. But there are a few scars of old sores to quicken the memory. About fifty years ago I wrote an essay on Lawrence’s thought — a Current Affairs Bulletin. A little later I wrote a book called The Case of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Not everything etched out on these relics is wrong. But more of that later. Lawrence’s popular notoriety — as distinct from his literary prestige — was based on one famous or infamous novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and the two causes it championed. One was the battle against censorship The novel was Lawrence’s final , certainly his most shattering salvo. The other was the Sexual Revolution. The novel was his last manifesto. Let us dispose of this issue of censorship first. In the fifteen prodigious years before his death in 1930, Lawrence became a hero and martyr in the censorship wars. The principal landmarks were The Rainbow (banned 1915), Women in Love (prosecuted 1916), Pansies (bowdlerized 1929), Paintings (destroyed 1930) and Lady Chatterley’s Lover (expurgated,1932). The Home Office in London had a huge file on him. Lawrence also wrote important polemics such as Obscenity and Pornography distinguishing obscenity (which may be necessary) from pornography (which is “the deepest and most dangerous cancer of our civilization.”) He had every right to say to Rhys Davies shortly before his death: “All you young writers have me to thank for what freedom you enjoy. It was I who set about smashing down the barriers.”
The explicitness of its sex scenes and four-letter words ensured that Lady Chatterley’s Lover was banned throughout most of the world for about thirty years. But at last, in 1960, Penguin Books won its test case, before a London jury, and the right to publish the novel unexpurgated.In Australia the book remained banned. Not only the novel but the principal book about the case. The English journalist C.H.Rolph wrote a respectable account called The Trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. In an extraordinary act of authoritarian paternalism the Australian Customs department banned it too.
This is where I have my little footnote in the drama. The Sydney publisher, Horwitz Publications, asked me to help them frustrate the Customs department by writing a book on the case, drawing on the detailed reports of the trial in the London newspapers, especially The Times and The Guardian which were of course freely available Australia. I would also add my own commentary. Since the book was published in New South Wales, it was beyond the authority of federal government and its agencies. We knew that the State Government had no interest in taking us on. The book was called The Case of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (price six shillings). It is a slight book of no importance except as a document of liberal opinion of its time. Like everyone I was impressed by the accumulation of evidence which writers, academics, clergy and psychologists gave of the book’s merit. They ranged from E.M.Forster and Rebecca West to Richard Hoggart (one of the heroes of a recent BBC Four film of the trial ). Even the skeptics, like the Lawrencian F.R.Leavis who thought the novel overrated, held their tongues, because everyone was sick and tired of censors dictating what we may or may not read. But soon after the trial there was an unexpected turn of events. John Sparrow, Warden of All Souls, Oxford, published a remarkable essay in the London magazine Encounter. He pointed to obscure passages that, once explained, become clear. The novel not only validates but celebrates sodomy. The gamekeeper sodomises Lady Chatterley. In her biography of Lawrence, Brenda Maddox insists that if the Crown had really understood these passages and had drawn the jury’s attention to their meaning, Penguin Books would have been found guilty of publishing an obscene article in breach of the Obscene Publications Act. The prosecution would have succeeded. She may be right. It is not simply that sodomy was a felony punishable by life imprisonment. Felonious or not, it is hard to imagine that in 1960 a British jury would have condoned it. (This was some years before “Last Tango in Paris”.) But in the trial even the Crown, cautious at least in this, seemed to think that the book was a plea, however reprehensible, for free, natural and normal love. Like many readers I had thought that the novel was often comical in word and action. But I too had certainly missed what Warden Sparrow picked up. As it turned out, the triumph of Penguins Books opened, to coin a phrase, the floodgates, and in due course censorship of books totally disappeared, even of the pornography that Lawrence had bitterly condemned. His fine distinction between obscenity and pornography may have appealed to the fastidious but was, understandably perhaps, beyond the administrative powers of government authorities. Most of us, perhaps all, rejoiced at the time at the success of the hundred years war against censorship. Lawrence had won his great crusade, in the end. No doubt the author of Obscenity and Pornography would have been aghast at the tidal wave of pornography that swept through the publishing and the entertainment industry. But for better or worse the issue was settled. This brings us to the second great theme of Lawrence’s polemics — the Sexual Revolution. From the beginning of his career, he was preoccupied with the crisis of civilisation. He was one of the many before the first world war who denounced the dehumanizing effect of industrialization and modernity. The English guild socialists, the French syndicalists, and the Catholic or Chesterbelloc distributivists , and many others, all eloquently deplored the sterility, emptiness and ugliness of modern industrialized life. This current of thought became a torrent during and after the War — which was widely seen as the mechanized suicide of the West and, later, as a rehearsal for the Holocaust and Hiroshima. The popular justification of industrial capitalism was that it increased our material standard of living. There is no doubt it did. But Lawrence’s conviction was that the price of “the plausible ethics of productivity” was too high. Better the old frugal and unspoilt England, he said, than material prosperity, mass production, Passchendaele, and “the rampant, raging meanness of the democratic mob” of Lloyd George, Mussolini or Hitler.But these big ideas — plain or fancy — do not explain Lawrence’s peculiar appeal. That came with his teaching that we could and should do something about the collapse of civilization — in our own decisions about our own lives. We should secede from the dehumanizing, industrializing, repressive new industrial order. We should liberate ourselves by enrolling, above all, in the sexual revolution. Liberate yourself first and there will be at least a chance of social salvation. He did not mean casual promiscuity, a sort of permanent P&O cruise. He meant a return to the dark gods — the gods who prevailed before the repressive Christian and Jewish gods had unmanned us. For many, this was intoxicating stuff. But Lawrence was in an almost impossible dilemma. He believed, as almost all English poets had believed over the centuries, that man and wife are one flesh, that marriage is sacramental, and adultery a betrayal. As he once put it : “Your most vital necessity in life is that you shall love your wife completely and implicitly and in entire nakedness of body and spirit. This is my message as far as I’ve got any.” But in March 1912 he met the Baroness Frieda von Richthofen, then Mrs Ernest Weekley, and she changed his life. The Baroness was not only the most sexually uninhibited woman he had met. She also introduced him to a new world of Germanic sexology, sexual politics, Freudianism and Nietzscheanism – and all sorts of Wagnerian dwarves from Otto Gross to Wilhelm Reich. Her basic message — her theory and practice — was the liberating magic of free love. Bertrand Russell used to say that Lawrence’s eloquence was his alone but the ideas were Frieda’s. That is an exaggeration but it would be foolish to underestimate her influence on his life and thought. His work may be seen as an attempt to reconcile his puritanism and her libertarianism. It was a hopeless quest. He could not square the circle. Nor could his critics. That was certainly my experience fifty years ago when I attempted an analysis of Lawrence’s ideas in an essay that turned into the Current Affairs Bulletin. When I tried to sum up to his sexual theories, I threw up my hands: “The reader, ” I wrote, “must make what he can of these expressions.”
I put the essay aside in the mid-1950’s It obviously needed more work. Then about 1959 Owen Harries read it and suggested that I tidy it up, without trying to solve all the problems, and offer it to the Current Affairs Bulletin for its series on The Modern Mind. A generous editor, the late J.L.J.Wilson, told me that I did not present the D.H.Lawrence at whose feet his generation had sat in the 1920’s. But he agreed to publish the essay, in June 1959 (price 6d.). My friend Ray Mathew reviewed it in the old fortnightly Observer. I had tried too hard, he said, to read Lawrence as a systematic thinker. Lawrence was essentially unsystematic and inconsistent; his ideas changed from day to day, and each new book was a discovery (“a session on the analyst’s couch”, as he put it). Mathew was right — up to a point. Lawrence often changed his mind, but the basic preoccupations, his Problematik, did not change, and this is what I had tried to explore. Mathew himself had oversimplified in presenting, or misrepresenting, Lawrence’s secret agenda as homosexuality.
I found it impossible to go along Lawrence and his dark gods. Even so sympathetic and scholarly a biographer as John Worthen, in his recent study, sanitises Lawrence’s underlying creed as simply the validation of the body as against the soul. There is more to it than this. Worthen merely notes in passing Kate Millett’s attack on Lawrence’s misogyny but offers no refutation. He does not mention Warden Sparrow’s reading of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. He dismisses Bertrand Russell’s view of Frieda’s influence on Lawrence as that of a malicious old man.
But we do not have to agree with those many English critics who now treat Lawrence as “a national joke”, although it is easy to see why they do. Ken Russell’s films have much to answer for. His images of Lady Chatterley and the gamekeeper gamboling naked in the English woods, of Alan Bates and Oliver Reed wrestling naked in the firelight, and of Glenda Jackson seducing the bulls and the steers in Women in Love, contributed significantly to the national joke. And what of the wild Mexican Indians ritually murdering The Woman in The Woman who Rode Away? Is this what sexual freedom comes down to? What happens to our children as we are being initiated into the Aztec sexual cult of Quetzalcoatl? (Significantly Lawrence’s characters never have children.) When we have read Aaron’s Rod, are we expected to follow Aaron with his flute, leave wife and family on Christmas Eve, and submit to some masterful masculine hero?
Yet Worthen may be on the right track after all. Now that censorship is abolished, the sexual revolution triumphant, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover a school text, we can at last enjoy Lawrence’s fiction without the distraction of his ancient polemics. We can go beyond the prophet and the national joke and return to the artist and the poet. To the genius. I feel ungrateful to be so skeptical about Lawrence’s polemics. I began with Conrad. Let me end with him:
I remember my youth and the feeling that will never come back any more the feeling that I could last forever, outlast the sea, the earth, and all men; the heat of life in a handful of dust, that glow in the heart that with every year grows dim, grows cold, grows small, and expires — and expires too soon, too soon — before life itself.
I too remember my youth. Do we not all recall those days, those dear vanished days when were so unhappy — and we pored over Lawrence’s stories and poems looking for guidance? It was indeed an enchanted garden. But sooner or later we had to cross the shadow line.