REVIEW OF BOOKS
Gabriel Pearson on Lawrence as a puritan and messiah
As Emile Delavenay's massive critical biography* shows, Lawrence's life-work continually precipitated itself in sudden, violent crises, tests and trials. He tested himself and he tested others. In Sons and Lovers, the test was on Miriam. on her as if it were a burden or a growth. His tearing of Frieda away from her husband was like some fundamental existential examination: "Look! We have come through," as though he had got a starred first in Reality. The test is not remotely fair: Delavanay has no difficulty in showing how Miriam's failure was really Lawrence's own. He projected on to her his own deep, organic diffidence and then, as examiner, ploughed himself in her. But part of the test he set reality and his readers and his lovers and his disciples was this very unfairness.
Life was unfair, lovely but unfair. We might explain this conviction by his tubercular lungs or the horrible good luck of his being his mother's psychic lover at the age of eight. Or perhaps we have with every reluctance to retreat to the word "genius." However grudgingly, we have to acknowledge that Lawrence's unfairness springs from the very marrow of his genius. He knew he could make the world live in his prose. His gift was absolute, needed stimulation perhaps but was essentially self-engendered. That too was colossally unfair. It simply exploded the world of liberal egalitarianism and drove him to estimate himself and others by the absolute measure of how much beauty and power lived in them.
The universe was itself under trial and. as Delavenay shows, though riddled with the arrows of his desire, it failed to come up to scratch and edged away in evasion and torpor. Delavenay's story is Lawrence's desperate attempt to catch it, bring it back home, to redeem its nullity and recalcitrance. The Great War was a spectacular instance of the world's failing the test. " At the time when the holocaust of Verdun was drawing to a close," our French professor grimly notes, " . . . what worried Lawrence . . . was that they might shave off his beard, symbol of his 'isolate manhood '." Lawrence's concern with his beard as against the butchery of Verdun is undeniably reprehensible but not D. H. Lawrence: The Man and His Work Emile Delavenay (Heinemann £9) absurd if we follow the Lawrentian logic that our beards or egoisms or unique flesh or claim to messianic inspiration are our one defence against mass butchery or mass-capitulation in general. He had himself only by the luck of his genius evaded the mass fate of being working class.
Certainly, in much of his writing, there is a radical failure of compassion and sympathy in his view of working class life. But it measures the narrowness of his escape and how far acquiescent niceness and genuflective piety would be part of the trap. Delavenay notes the pattern of flight in Lawrence's life and work as though that represented some signal failure of decency or courage. But again his flight was his genius. The unfair luck of his genius got him out of the social and psychological equivalents of Verdun. It is hardly surprising he came to worship unfairness and to elevate the unique dispensation of genius as the principle of reality itself.
This again is why he worshipped himself as Christ. "The novelist," Delavenay gloomily notes, "creates a universe in which he plays the part of demiurge, a vision of the Last Judgment with himself as god and archangel." Lawrence could coolly observe that "the Crucifix, and Christ, are only symbols. They do not mean a man who suttered his life out as I suffer mine. They mean a moment in the history of my soul, if I must be personal." And quietly, to Cynthia Asquith, he confesses, "the war finished me: it was the spear through the side of all hopes and sorrows." The world not only failed the test; it resolutely persecuted Lawrence with its failure as though it were his failure; some failure to live enough, to risk enough, to die enough. He seems haunted by a failure of self-transcendence. It is deeply embedded in his relationship with Frieda. Salvation hinges upon his attempt to make their married flesh conceive a new !leaven and new earth. The apocalypse is courted in the bedroom and the kitchen, wrnere it is always threatened with failure by the spirit of farce.
Lawrence's daring and courage seem most typified by his braving of that farcical, giggling spirit which must have looked out at him from the corner of many of his friends' eyes rind which lurks derisively on the margins of his pages. This absurd, unique flesh of mine is sacred is what Lawrence argues and not only sacred but real. Delavenay, poker-faced, shows Lawrence's perpetual pursuit and assertion of that reality. He will remake the universe, if he has to, using the magic key of Madame Blavatsky, or the racial myths of Stuart Houston Chamberlain (whom Delavenay isolates as an important influence of the war years) or whatever anthropology or theosophy or boshology offers.
Delavenay painstakingly documents Lawrence's attempts from 1912, onwards to set himself up as a messiah, a redeemer, to realise a kingdom on earth which will consolidate his own feeble kingdom of the flesh. Under the name Rananim, Lawrence plotted a communist society devoted to the mysteries of the flesh, of which he would be high priest; at one time, Lady Ottoline Morrel was to be high priestess. Where Rananim was located remains obscure; sometimes it was a community in England, sometimes an island elsewhere. Through Rananim would-be associates and disciples were tested out -'Russell, Lady Ottoline, Middleton Murry. All inevitably failed. Indeed, Lawrence's Great War con sists not so much in his persecution as in a restless quest for brotherhood and community which never materialised. There Was indeed some actual persecution. Delavenay convincingly suggests that the suppression of The Rainbow for obscenity in 1915 was as much a matter of Lawrence's politics as of morals. But Lawrence was not otherwise treated with undue severity. The war was a trauma because it trapped him :n England, cut off his means of flight and, through his inability either to resist or ignore it, brought home the real limits of his powers of transcendence.
Delavenay ends the first of his two volumes with the end of the war and Lawrence once more poised for flight. The war had seen the writing of The Rainbow and Women in Love completed. It is interesting to have a French view of those two novels. Delavenay prefers The Rainbow and finds its structure the more original. I would guess that contemporary English critical judgement would make more of Women in Love. Delavenay sees Women in Love as essentially satirical, and obfuscated by a highly esoteric psychology Which can only be understood by reference to Lawrence's occult interest. Otherwise, Women in Love is more conventional; it lacks the circular architecture of The Rainbow and exists as a string of episodes of doctrinal assertions.
There something in this. There is a disconcerting variety of writing in Women in Love and it lacks a compulsive total rhythm. But as a test or trial of the reader and indeed of Lawrence himself, in terms of the risks it takes and the failure it courts, it is surely the central Lawrence novel. For here the edge of the conventional and the superficial is set jaggedly and without evasion against the sacred Mysteries of the flesh. Lawrence challenges us to see the banal and the mechanical actually redeemed, on the page, from sentence to sentence, almost from word to Word. There is the scene where Birkin and Ursula have just made love (or something) in the parlour of the Saracen's Head: After a lapse of stillness, after the rivers of strange dark fluid richness had passed over her, flooding, carrying away her mind . . . and leaving her an essential new being, she was Lt quite free, she was free in complete ease, her complete self . . . And now behold, from the smitten rock of the man's body . . . came floods of ineffable darkness and ineffable riches.
They were glad and could forget perfectly. 111 ey laughed and went to the meal provided. .1. here was a venison pasty, of all things, a large broad-faced cut ham, eggs and cresses and red beetroot, and medlars and apple-tart, and tea.
There is something deliciously prim about that final comma "and tea." It reads like a hamper prepared by Rat in The Wind in the Willows and points up a Georgian aspect to Lawrence. Realii,stically, one recognises that even an essential new being" might be Pleasantly peckish. And one is surely, unlike the protagonists, unable to "forget Perfectly." Naturally, these ironies are all very easy and I only indulge them to show the enormity of the risk that Lawrence trans. He dares us to snigger, dares us not 6.2 find that venison pasty (" of all things ") and broad-faced ham a sacra ment, as holy as it is homely. And when — the biggest test of all — we learn a couple of lines on, that "the tea-pot poured beautifully from a proud slender spout" we are invited to read with the eyes of the risen flesh, not of the derisive sneering spirit.
It is doubtless the Puritan in Lawrence that demands this transvaluation of the commonplace and the problem for the reader is identical with that he encounters in Milton's description of Adam and Eve and their culinary arrangements: "No fear lest dinner cool." Milton we can be sure was fearless but modern readers are swept with a blind panic of embarrassment. In Milton and Lawrence juxtapositions of sacred and profane are proclaimed without irony. The reader is dared to be ironic at the cost of profaning against the very lifeblood, of the author. To find Lawrence funny at this juncture is to lend a hand or at least a jeer at his crucifixion.
This passage is extreme of course, and elsewhere Lawrence takes safer risks which put his reader rather than himself on trial. Talking of Ibsen, he asks, "and if the son of Ghosts must die, still I live, who am the flesh and the blood, the same as he. . . . We are tired of going rigid with grief or insane, over a little spilt life. The sun will lick it up" Lawrence is not out to shock; certainly, the passage implies a total denigration of the privileged ego, but the challenge is to find this denigration not a desecration. Lawrence insists that reality is in the living flesh and that it is intolerably lucky to be alive when others are dead. "For of the flesh all things are possible," and that boast is made good in the way the dead phrase "flesh and blood" is raised sacramentally to the higher power of "the flesh and the blood." More breathtaking still is the way Lawrence collars Ibsen directly, refuses to be impressed by what seems to be his ultimate weapon of modern tragic pathos, the ending of Ghosts upon the cry of "The Sun, the Sun." With his contemptuous
phrase — "the sun will lick it up" — Lawwrence dismisses all our most cherished priorities and bourgeois presumptions. It is that giddy feat, that dare, for which the adept goes to Lawrence again and again.
Yet if Lawrence is a luminary, of the first magnitude, his beams, by the same token, are poisonous and dangerous. I did not think that I would like Delavenay's big book: he bores away at Lawrence with a conscientious glumness that ought to be depressing and in a style that — even allowing for translation from the French — is drastically uneventful. He nags and harasses Lawrence for his irresponsibility, his duplicity, his asociality. And his own straightness, his refusal to be magnetised and transfixed is oddly reassuring. Delavenay offers his own mass against Lawrence's brilliance and the result is less a denigration of Lawrence — though I think a case could be made for this being the primary thrust of the book — than a kind of shading that makes the brilliance bearable, absorbs the poison and proves the viability of quite cautious and mundane inquiry within that circle of tremendous power.
Delavenay is right to insist on pitching the life against the art. Lawrence fed 'his own existence into his writing to an unprecedented degree. What makes the experience of reading Lawrence so unequable and daunting is the sense of naked encounter and wrestle with the man himself. Delavenay quietly accepts the challenge of this situation and his study unembarrassedly connects biography, ideas and criticism in a total view that neither succumbs to the glamour nor attempts to substitute itself for the power of Lawrence's genius. Lawrence comes through unimpeded but not uninterrogated. Beyond this, I should report that I found this a book which at the level ..)f sane, solid fact informed and enhanced its subject. Lawrence lives through it and against it, and however much Delavenay purses his lips, there is a generosity here which does not betray its subject.