“Otherwise it was black darkness; one breathed darkness.”—D.H. Lawrence, The Rainbow
When it comes to literary tastes, we’d all do well not to take the opinions of writers we already admire too seriously. For instance, don’t let Vladimir Nabokov’s invective against Dostoevsky detour the actual reading of, say, Crime and Punishment or The Brothers Karmazov. And don’t let Waugh’s and Joyce’s dismissal of D.H. Lawrence do the same. Great writers hating great writers is a symptom of epic genius. I know the power of influence from experience; it kept me from touching anything D.H. Lawrence wrote for quite a long time.
None of the three writers mentioned above—whom I deeply admire—had a very high opinion of D.H. Lawrence. In the face of my uninformed prejudice, however, two idiosyncratic reasons drew me to Lawrence anyway. One, we shared the same alma mater (Nottingham University). Two, he hailed from a working class family, the son of a miner; he didn’t have the uber-educated childhood that most of his fellow writers had. I could relate, and gave Lawrence a chance.
What I discovered: Lawrence was a damn good writer. Now, this doesn’t mean he’ll satisfy the standards of the last century’s great English craftsmen, his prose being wild and often grammatically a bit off-beat, but it is difficult to find another writer of the last century whose power to evoke—poetically, intuitively and metaphysically—the wonder and beauty of creation better than Lawrence.
There are very few writers I know of who sow more discontent with the modern world than Lawrence. After putting a book of his down, our world of machines—with its incessant obsession with near-sighted utilitarianism, mechanical philosophy, materialism, false sexuality and crude capitalism—feels like a self-revelation of falsity, a soulless delusion completely undeserving of anything called humanity. His work pulsates with a poignant desire, groaning even, for paradise regained. And despite his frequent sparring with Christianity, he can’t help but retell, with subtle references, familiar biblical stories. As the Roman historian Sallust said in Of Gods and the World, “These things never happened, but are always.”
Regarding Lawrence, G.K. Chesterton wrote how he “was in favor of very ancient things…and notably one of the most ancient things on earth: the worship of the earth itself, the great Mother, Demeter.” Lawrence
“was in fact in violent revolt against anything and everything that can be called modern. He did not merely hate industrial machinery and the servile society it has produced. He hated practically all the effects of science and public education and even political progress.”
To say the least, this is not the kind of thing you’d expect to hear about a writer whose books were constantly being banned for obscenity, notably pornography. The great irony of the charge was that it came as a moral judgment. In an age that was vociferously reducing the human to a soulless machine, Lawrence came along and painted humanity as a sensual being with a real soul.
Judging by Chesterton’s words we might be tempted to think Lawrence was a bipolar schizophrenic. On the one hand a tree-hugging liberal, on the other a raging right-wing lunatic. Of course he was neither. To cast Lawrence into such political camps would be a gross anachronism. Lawrence was something altogether different, a mysterious outsider to everything and everyone: “I feel a great stranger, but have got used to that feeling, and prefer it to feeling ‘homely’. After all, one is a stranger, nowhere so hopelessly as at home.”
Loneliness and alienation from both ourselves and the natural world were his great themes.Modern science didn’t have to rape and pillage the earth in the name of progress, it could move with more caution. It could think twice about construing the natural world as just a great, vast mindless machine to be manipulated by the purely accidental and soulless imps it produced (ourselves).
But how to reconcile the loss?
Lawrence feels the loss in everything. He intuits that it has something to do with the loss of wonder. If his was an age that was truly on the road of cultural progress, why then did it condemn its “workers to ugliness, ugliness, ugliness: meanness and formless and ugly surroundings, ugly ideals, ugly religion, ugly hopes, ugly love, ugly clothes, ugly furniture, ugly houses, ugly relationships between workers and employees”? Lawrence knows that the loss of genuine communion with ourselves, with others, and ultimately with God, has something to do with a loss of beauty.
In Lawrence’s best novel, The Rainbow, there is a recurrent theme of the “darkness beyond,” the formless void girding creation and consciousness together. The novel is a magnificent and intricate foray into three generations of the Brangwen family, set in eighteenth century Nottinghamshire and culminating in the first decade of the twentieth, a period which saw rapid transformations of both intellectual and natural landscapes. Upon the threshold of this cultural shift stands Tom Brangwen and his foreigner wife, Lydia, with her daughter, Lena, from a previous marriage. Take these few selections from their life:
“…with a slow insinuation of a kiss that made something break in his brain, and it was darkness over him for a few moments.”
“A darkness had come over Lydia’s mind. She walked always in a shadow, silenced, with a strange, deep terror having hold of her, her desire was to seek satisfaction in dread, to enter a nunnery, to satisfy the instincts of dread in her, through service of a dark religion. But she could not.”
“A darkness was on her, like remorse, or like a remembering of the dark, savage, mystic ride of dread, of death, of the shadow of revenge.”
“And when he looked at her, an overmuch reverence and fear of the unknown changed the nature of his desire into a sort of worship, holding her aloof from his physical desire, self thwarting.”
“When he came to, as if from sleep, he seemed to be sitting in a timeless stillness. What was he listening for? He seemed to be listening for some sound a long way off, from beyond life.”
The allusions to Genesis are redolent. And there is certainly something in these passages that give warrant to Chesterton’s chief complaint against Lawrence, namely: “He [Lawrence] confessed, in effect, that he could only worship Demeter from the neck downwards. He could only do it by setting the subconsciousness against consciousness, or in other words, the dreams against daylight.” Chesterton quite rightly thought that Lawrence too easily dismissed reason—what happens above the neck—and in particular the articulation of reason found in the great theological edifices of Christian thought.
Lawrence seemed to think that reason could only be the bastard son of a soulless mechanical philosophy, the madman of logic that Chesterton so brilliantly describes in the beginning of Orthodoxy, “The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.” But the logician doesn’t have to be mad because, as Chesterton says, “Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.” But, then again, maybe Lawrence was so pessimistic because so much of what he saw in the daylight of the modern world was “ugliness,” an ugliness created by dull imaginations, by votaries of the mechanical philosophy.
Nevertheless, Chesterton thought there to be “something grand about D.H. Lawrence groping blindly in the dark,” even if “he was really in the dark, not only about the Will of God, but the will of D.H. Lawrence. He was ready to go anywhere; but did not really know where to go next.”
Indeed, Lawrence was truly grand. He was also the perfect picture of a man caught between two disparate worlds. Lawrence was heir, whether he liked it or not, to two rival experiences of consciousness and the world it perceives. To put it much too simply, Western civilization is caught in the crossfire of Saint Augustine and Friedrich Nietzsche; between Nietzsche’s Madman proclaiming the death of God and the erasing of the horizons of being, making way for the Übermensch—the deployment of a dark will to power behind every experience—and Augustine’s ever-present God, the God so intimate in our every experience of being and consciousness as to be nearer to ourselves than we our to ourselves, yet simultaneously infinitely and qualitatively beyond us, the hidden and manifest God.
The history of the West is the history of the disappearance and replacement of Augustine’s ever-present God who fills and transcends every experience with the formless void of Nothingness lurking behind every act of will, the night behind every day. The French novelist, Georges Bernanos, was right to say that “the modern world is but Christianity gone mad.” Modern consciousness feels hauntingly like Genesis retold, a beginning that does not begin with the transcendent God but with darkness, the formless void that must be grasped and shaped into whatever form our ominous wills descry.
The tension between these two worlds is played out in the lives of Lawrence’s characters. And it’s not always dark and formless and void behind their minds. After about a hundred pages into The Rainbow—which is a beautiful meditation on the enigma of ourselves to others and even to ourselves, and how love gets tangled up in its web—a sudden light breaks forth through all the darkness, it doesn’t solve the mystery we are, but rather casts a divine light upon the mystery. Violence gives way to peace. Nietzsche gives way to Augustine. It is quick and sudden like lightning, there and gone. But it is there. The divine for Lawrence is not an easy deus ex machina. His gods are dark, but his God is Light. Lawrence, like the rest of us, has a hard time distinguishing the two, but he does distinguish them. Take this moment when the violent tensions of Tom and Lydia’s marriage—a kind of local mimesis or picture of a cosmic drama, à la Adam and Eve—transform into the peace of communion, two becoming one:
“Everything was lost, and everything was found. The new world was discovered, it remained only to be explored. . . . [They] had passed through the doorway into the further space, where movement was so big, that it contained bonds and constraints and labours, and still complete liberty. She was a doorway to him, he to her. At last they had thrown open the doors, each to the other, and stood in the doorways facing each other, whilst light flooded out from behind to each of their faces, it was the transfiguration, the glorification, the admission.”
The formless void, darkness, is important for Lawrence. And rightly so; it is, after all, the place we spend most of our days. However, it is not large enough for the human soul. The soul demands something infinitely larger than the void. Playing in the void can only give limited freedom to its subjects; it is the bad infinite of an unconstrained will, the will of Nietzsche’s Madman. Lawrence may spend most of his time groping in the dark, but at least he recognizes a transfiguration when he sees one. This is what makes him, in the words of Chesterton, “grand.”