on 29 April 2013
DH Lawrence is a difficult writer to weigh up. If he had wished, he could have been the greatest of Britain's C20th realist writers; or an English JM Synge; or conceivably an English Burns; or all three.
But he didn't wish. It wasn't enough for him to be an accomplished writer, he wanted to stand the world on its head. As a result his novels - apart from Sons and Lovers - are unsatisfactory, trying to see through the surface of life to the essential events of the soul, but not quite succeeding. And yet, you can't read them without realising that somehow, as few other writers, he matters.
Reading these essays, you find that he matters because things matter - everything matters - to him. It's probably as convenient a compendium of his thought as you could have, in a focused and approachable form. It includes pieces on relations between men and women, landscapes, traveller's tales, political systems, literature and art. Each one, dense with ideas, would justify its own review - but everything always comes back to his own philosophy, metaphysics, theology - or 'the venture into consciousness' as he calls it.
Lawrence repeatedly shows descriptive powers and a sense of humour which aren't always obvious in the novels; but his notions continually get mixed up with existential metaphors and sheer psychological projection. I suppose that's true of everyone to a degree; but Lawrence takes it further than most. Only he could make shooting a porcupine which was causing a nuisance on his New Mexico ranch the occasion, not only to reflect that we cannot live without suppressing other forms of life, but to smuggle in a value judgement about that fact: namely that any creature which suppresses others proves its moral superiority by that very fact. Might is right. Before we've noticed what is happening, we're carried off towards social Darwinism and quasi-fascism. Yet all the time, perhaps, all he was really doing was rationalising and projecting his distaste at having to kill the animal.*
So don't come to Lawrence for consistency or clarity of thought; all his attitudes are essentially personal, and he doesn't mind if they come into conflict. His refusal to compromise with the tawdriness and horror of our civilisation is his great strength but, in so far as it entails the complete lack of a social conscience, it's also his most serious weakness. There is no recognition in him that other lives are as important and maybe even as vivid as his; perhaps this fact is at the root of both his regretful rejection of Christianity, and his willingness to dally with fledgling fascism. He was ready to let all of us go to perdition, as long as he could follow his own solitary star - and yet, while disavowing any responsibility for the human race, he is always telling it where it is going wrong. Maybe that's really the way he absolves himself: 'I show you a better way; you won't follow it; very well then, I'll have nothing to do with you'.
But in the end it's that journey, the 'pilgrimage' as he called it, that is his most important legacy. With his quick intelligence and unerring instinct for hypocrisy, he shows us at every turn the utter insufficiency of our way of life; and he knew (unlike many others at the time) that simply to 'go back' was no solution. I don't believe he ever did find the answers, other than a lot of wishful thinking; but his remains a course well worth tracing. Lawrence's failure is more significant than most peoples' success.
*6.6.14 ETA: In her book 'Lorenzo in Taos' Mabel Dodge Luhan claims that, in fact, someone else shot the porcupine and Lawrence actually protested against it. If true, that really does put the cat among the interpretive pigeons; it casts Lawrence's later views in a quite different and far from attractive light. It appears that, rather than being someone who performed an unpleasant but necessary act for the general good, he came to wish he had unleashed the manly violence which at the time he repudiated.