Floraphilia: Or the Revenge of the Flowers

To celebrate the release of Floraphilia, our latest insta promo video, Stephen Alexander (with Thomas Bonneville) have kindly allowed us to share the below paper. Lawrence was described as a Priest of Love in Christopher Miles 1981 film. In Dawn of the Unread, Kevin Jackson said he was more of a Priest of Loathe. And in the following paper, Stephen Alexander offers a fascinating reading of Lawrence that anticipates much of the work that people like Annie Sprinkle are now doing under the title of ecosexuality. 

Opening Remarks

Flowering plants don’t just grow in soil, they are also rooted in our hearts and blossom in our literature; from Wordsworth’s daffodils to Sylvia Plath’s poppies. We love flowers and our love itself is like a red, red rose, just as the columbine is the emblem of our foolishness, the marsh-lily the symbol of our corruption and the narcissus conveys our vanity.[1]

To be indifferent to flowers is, my therapist tells me, a symptom of clinical depression and the beauty of flowers has long been an accepted cultural fact. In language as in art, we have formed an unnatural alliance with flowers and some, like Oscar Wilde, fervently hope that in the next life they might even become-flower: which is to say, beautiful, but soulless. Our affection, however, isn’t necessarily returned, because plants aren’t sentimental. And nor do flowers exist merely to serve the symbolic function we assign to them.

So whilst, on the one hand, I would like to speak about our erotic entanglement with flora, on the other, I want also to develop the idea of what might be termed the revenge of the flowers – that is to say, the manner in which they challenge the supposed superiority of animal life and conspire to eventually triumph over our attempts to create a fully idealized, humanized and mechanized world. For it is well to remember from the outset that not only are we individually destined to putrefy into plant food and thereby assist in ‘pushing up daisies’, but if collectively we continue along the same world-destructive and species-exterminating path then that nemesis of all human endeavour, the weed, might yet conquer.

For while the colossal power of man and his machines may seem to be absolute and supreme, it’s worth recalling that plants have ancestral reality[2] and that we remain completely dependent on them to provide the air we breathe and the food we eat. We can pave the world over with concrete and tarmac, but in the absence of chlorophyll, we can’t use sunlight to photosynthesize nutrients directly from carbon dioxide and water and thus, in the final analysis, it’s grass – that most unassuming of all plants – that continues to provide the foundation for life on earth.[3]

And so, although we like to think that we, as human subjects, are masters of all worlds, including the world of plants, and that gardeners, farmers, botanists, and genetic engineers today determine which flowers will be allowed to bloom and which will be pushed into extinction, this is really perhaps nothing more than an anthropocentric conceit. Indeed, it might even be the case that the reverse is true. In other words, that our life is not only dependent upon plants, but is in a very real sense also determined by them; that ultimately we are in much the same position as insects and other animals that serve simply to disseminate plant DNA. This sounds a little over-dramatic at first: provocative, but unconvincing. But doesn’t a bee also regard itself as the active and autonomous subject in a world full of seemingly passive flowers? “But we know that this is just a failure of his imagination. The truth of the matter is that the flower has cleverly manipulated the bee into hauling its pollen from blossom to blossom.”[4]

Likewise, in a co-evolutionary relationship such as that between humanity and the potato plant, for example, conventional and convenient distinctions between subject and object become meaningless: we shape them and they shape us. The fact that humanity has evolved to become aware of its own activity “makes no difference whatsoever to the … potato taking part in this arrangement”.[5] Just as long as we keep planting, picking, and peeling ’em and agreeing ‘Yes! We want fries with that’, then the spuds are satisfied.

It is perhaps, if you’re a humanist, a little disconcerting to think like this: to acknowledge that in comparison to the buttercup, the greatest monuments of mankind won’t last a moment and to concede that plants are just as complex and sophisticated – just as cruel and exploitative – as us. However, the undeniable truth is that they have been evolving for millions of years and have in that time been endlessly inventing “new strategies for survival and perfecting their designs for so long that to say one of us is the more ‘advanced’ really depends on how you define the term”[6] and on which advances you care to place a value. We can walk and talk, and that’s an achievement, but plants have a genius for organic chemistry and are expert at “transforming water, soil, and sunlight into an array of precious substances, many of them beyond the ability of human beings to conceive, much less manufacture”.[7]

To be clear, then, what I’m calling for in this paper is, if you like, a new kind of narrative about man and nature: one that moves beyond the three traditional narratives with which we are all too familiar. Namely: (i) the heroic narrative in which humanity is struggling against nature; (ii) the romantic narrative in which paradise is regained and man merges into some kind of spiritual unity with nature; and (iii) the eco-apocalyptic narrative which might best be characterized as an “environmental morality tale, in which Nature pays man back for his transgressions”.[8] Contrary to these tired mythological storylines, I would like to provisionally sketch a speculative and realist narrative in which all forms of flora and fauna are regarded primarily as objects: not necessarily equal objects, but equally objects nevertheless, caught up in the same orgy of sex, violence, and random mutation that we like to call life.

woman flowers

On the Genealogy of Florals

In his best-selling (but irritatingly folksy and philosophically naïve) book, The Botany of Desire (2002), Michael Pollan provides a rather nice summary of how flowering plants, or angiosperms, came into the world and changed everything. I’d like, if I may, to read this account to you, before then developing some of the points he touches on in greater detail whilst taking this essay in an altogether different direction:

“Once upon a time, there were no flowers … There were plants … ferns and mosses, conifers and cycads, but these plants didn’t form true flowers or fruit. Some of them reproduced asexually, cloning themselves by various means. Sexual reproduction was a relatively discreet affair usually accomplished by releasing pollen onto the wind or water; by sheer chance some of it would find its way to other members of the species, and a tiny, primitive seed would result. This prefloriferous world was a slower, simpler, sleepier world than our own. Evolution proceeded more slowly, there being so much less sex, and what sex there was took place among close-by and closely related plants. Such a conservative approach to reproduction made for a biologically simpler world, since it generated relatively little novelty or variation. Life on the whole was more local and inbred.

The world before flowers was sleepier than ours because, lacking fruit and large seeds, it couldn’t support many warm-blooded creatures. Reptiles ruled, and life slowed to a crawl whenever it got cold; little happened at night. It was a plainer-looking world, too, greener even than it is now, absent all the colours and patterns (not to mention scents) that flowers and fruits would bring into it. Beauty did not yet exist. That is, the way things looked had nothing to do with desire.

Flowers changed everything. The angiosperms … appeared during the Cretaceous period, and they spread over the earth with stunning rapidity. … Now, instead of relying on wind or water to move genes around, a plant could enlist the help of an animal by striking a grand co-evolutionary compact: nutrition in exchange for transportation. With the advent of the flower, whole new levels of complexity come into the world: more interdependence, more information, more communication, more experimentation.

The evolution of plants proceeded according to a new motive force: attraction between different species. Now natural selection favoured blooms that could rivet the attention of pollinators, fruits that appealed to foragers. The desires of other creatures became paramount in the evolution of plants … Beauty had emerged as a survival strategy.

With flowers came fruit and seeds, and these too, remade life on Earth. By producing sugars and proteins to entice animals to disperse their seed, the angiosperms multiplied the world’s supply of food energy, making possible the rise of the large warm-blooded mammals. Without flowers, the reptiles, which had gotten along fine in a leafy, fruitless world, would probably still rule. Without flowers, we would not be.

So the flowers begot us … [and in] time human desire entered into the natural history of the flower, and the flower did what it has always done: made itself still more beautiful in the eyes of this animal, folding in its very being even the most improbable of our notions and tropes. Now came roses that resembled nymphs … peonies bearing the scent of women. We in turn did our part, multiplying the flowers beyond reason, moving their seeds around the planet … For the flower it was the same old story, another grand co-evolutionary bargain with a willing, slightly credulous animal …”[9]

So, to be clear, the angiosperms first began their evolutionary divergence from the non-flowering and fruitless plants known as gymnosperms around two hundred and twenty million years ago. But it wasn’t until some eighty million years later that flowering plants as we would recognise them today, characterized by their colourful floral effects and swollen, edible ovaries, fully blossomed into the world and superseded the gymnosperms as the dominant terrestrial plant form.

Interestingly, however, there is no continuous fossil record to show precisely where, when, or how flowering plants evolved from non-flowering plants and for Darwin the apparently sudden appearance of flowers into the world posed something of a problem for his theory of evolution; so much so, that he famously referred to it as an ‘abominable mystery’.

Mysterious or not, without flowers, an angiosperm would be just another green plant: all leaf and naked of seed. Arguably, the same is true of people: they either blossom into full being like a bright red poppy, or they remain closed up within a mass of foliage and growing fat like a cabbage. But sadly, many people seem to resent the shameless, scarlet flowering of poppies: perhaps it seems excessive in an age of austerity. Or perhaps there are health and safety issues over these tiny ‘hell flames’. Whatever the reason, most of us prefer fat green cabbages: you can rely on them. You can cook them. And you can eat them. But our great writers and philosophers teach us that life isn’t the same as self-preservation and that even reproduction isn’t the ultimate clue to being. What matters, in people as in plants, is precisely the flowery excess that accompanies reproduction. D. H. Lawrence, for example, writes:

“The excess is the thing itself at its maximum of being. If it had stopped short of this excess, it would not have been at all. … In this excess, the plant is transfigured into flower, it achieves itself at last. The aim, the culmination of all, is the red of the poppy …”[10]

For Lawrence, there’s something contemptible about those individuals who never burst into flower, but choose instead to “linger into inactivity at the vegetable, self-preserving stage … like the regulation cabbage”.[11] Better, he suggests, to become even a foul-smelling weed than to remain tightly enclosed within your own greenness, getting fatter and fatter whilst all the time turning rotten at the core.

Perhaps he’s right: I used to think he was right. But now I’m not so sure: now it seems to me that even cabbages have their place in the world and I have to admit that I find it increasingly difficult to establish the violent hierarchies and orders of rank that Lawrence, like Nietzsche, had such a fondness for constructing. Indeed, even to make the comparison between two different forms of being such as a poppy and a cabbage seems absurd and unnecessary. Why, we might ask, is it legitimate to sneer at those plants – or those beasts – which have collaborated with the process of domestication? Why celebrate and revere the wolf whilst denigrating the domestic dog? Or why, like Lawrence, rhapsodise about the scarlet poppy but hold the fat green cabbage in contempt? Domestication is about more than simply making wild things docile. And, actually, wild nature, if you like, continues to unfold just as splendidly in the cabbage or potato as in the poppy or rarest mountain flower – as it does in us and the grazing cattle. To think otherwise is simply another failure of the imagination and to fall into a simple-minded romanticism that equates the great outdoors with vital authenticity and civilization with the loss or corruption of such.

So, for now, let us return to our botanical musings; we can always come back to Lawrence’s philosophical moralizing a little later.

Flowers, then, as we have said, are the overtly – some might say obscenely – colourful sex organs of the flowering plant and are what distinguishes them from other, earlier forms of seed producing plant. And flowers have allowed angiosperms to largely dominate the earth by making them far more adaptable to many kinds of environment. Their stamens for example – i.e. the male organs of the plant, containing the pollen sacs – are not only better evolved for the process of pollination than the corresponding organs in gymnosperms, but they have also become modified to decrease the danger of self-fertilization, thereby permitting greater diversification and allowing angiosperms to fill more ecological niches.[12]

The pollen grains, or sperm producing cells of flowering plants, are also much smaller than the gametocytes of the gymnosperms. This results in a significantly decreased period of time between pollination (i.e. the pollen grain reaching the carpel or, if you like, the cunt of the plant) and fertilization of the ovum. Obviously, this also has a clear evolutionary advantage. Once the ovum has been fertilized, the carpel and surrounding tissue develops into the fruit which is often attractive to and edible by a wide range of seed-dispersing birds and beasts.

But it’s not just the fruit that attracts the attention of dumb animals. If plants frequently use chemicals to repel creatures that might do them harm, other substances are designed to do just the opposite: i.e. to delight and arouse by stimulating and gratifying the senses. Plants intoxicate with beauty, mind-altering chemicals and the promise of food. It was a strategy that seduced the birds and the bees: and it was a strategy that seduced us. Whether we like to admit it or not, people are effectively exploited by angiosperms in the process of seed dispersal in much the same way as many flowering plants use insect sex-slaves to do their dirty work. We might even ask: did mankind invent agriculture, or did the grasses themselves put us to work, enticing us to cut down the forests so that they might spread across the face of the earth?

Again, if this question sounds a little preposterous or absurd, I’m actually being quite serious here. Certainly, if nothing else, I think we might all agree that insects are frequently exploited, enslaved and even sometimes eaten by flowering plants, so maybe I should begin by saying a little more about the erotic phenomenon of entomophily before then examining the mutually abusive, mutually beneficial relationship between man and flower.

Pollination, quite simply, is the botanical term for fucking. It is the process by which one plant receives the pollen from another. Ideally, this pollen will be from a plant of the same species so that fertilization can readily take place and viable seeds form, but it might be noted that plants generally are far more promiscuous and quicker to successfully hybridize (or cross-breed) than animal species. Some angiosperms are pollinated abiotically by the wind, some by water. And some rely upon small animals, such as bats or hummingbirds. But the majority, around 80%, enlist the help of roughly 200,000 different types of insect. It is, if you like – and somewhat paradoxically – a perfectly natural form of artificial insemination.[13]

To be strictly accurate – and contrary to what I said a moment ago – insect pollination is more a form of paid sex work, or prostitution, rather than slavery; because when plants are fucked by insects the latter usually get something sweet in return for their services: namely, nectar. Like us, and, indeed, many other animals, insects love sweetness and the desire for nectar or fructose has been an important factor in evolution; unsurprisingly when one considers that sugar is the form in which nature stores food energy. Thus, in exchange for a little sweetness, animals have provided a means of sexual transfer and allowed plants to extend their range.

However, this is not to say that the insects are entering into the relationship with full consent (whatever that might mean in the world of bugs and bees and cigarette trees) and most seem blissfully unaware that they are playing such a crucial role in plant reproduction.[14]

Further, there are times when male insects are sexually duped by a plant with sex organs that have evolved to look like the female of their species. Some orchids, for example, have parts that look uncannily like bees or flies, depending on the species in question. The insect is attracted not by the pretty colours or the alluring scent of the flower, nor even the promise of a sugary drink, but by the prospect of being able to mate. Desire, then, as Michael Pollan argues, is inherent within the very nature and purpose of flowering plants and the relative lack of glamour by comparison amongst the non-flowering plants is doubtless tied to the fact that their reproductive strategy doesn’t rely upon the seduction of other species.

Amusingly, Pollan also informs us that the Victorians believed this game of mimicry was intended to scare away insects, so that the flower could, like the Virgin Mary, immaculately conceive or self-pollinate. As he points out:

“What the Victorians failed to consider was that the [orchid] might resemble an insect precisely in order to attract insects to it. The flower has evolved exactly the right pattern of curves and spots and hairiness to convince certain male insects that it is a female as viewed, tantalizingly, from behind. Botanists call the resultant behaviour on the part of the male insect ‘pseudocopulation’; they call the flower that inspires this behaviour the ‘prostitute orchid’. In his frenzy of attempted intercourse, the insect ensures the orchid’s pollination … effectively disseminating the flower’s genes, if not his own.”[15] [76]

The French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari discuss this in A Thousand Plateaus, with particular reference to the case of an orchid and a wasp. However, they argue that it should be understood in terms of becoming based on a series of ‘deterritorializations’ and subsequent ‘reterritorializations’ and not in the more conventional terms of mimesis, mimicry, lure, etc. suggested here. They write:

“The orchid deterritorializes by forming an image, a tracing of a wasp; but the wasp reterritorializes on that image. The wasp is nevertheless deterritorialized, becoming a piece in the orchid’s reproductive apparatus. But it reterritorializes the orchid by transporting its pollen. Wasp and orchid, as heterogeneous elements, form a rhizome. It could be said that the orchid imitates the wasp, reproducing its image in a signifying fashion …  But this is true only on the level of the strata – a parallelism between two strata such that a plant organization on one imitates an animal organization on the other. At the same time, something else entirely is going on: not imitation at all … but a veritable becoming, a becoming-wasp of the orchid and a becoming-orchid of the wasp. Each of these becomings brings about the deterritorialization of one term and the reterritorialization of the other; the two becomings interlink and form relays in a circulation of intensities pushing the deterritorialization ever further. There is neither imitation nor resemblance, only an exploding of two heterogeneous series on the line of flight composed by a common rhizome that can no longer be attributed to or subjugated by anything signifying.”[16]

You might be asking by now what – if anything – this aparallel evolution or game of becoming played out between two things that have absolutely nothing to do with each other, has to do with us. And how are we implicated in the sex life of flowers, other than economically, for example (and it deserves to be noted that the free pollination of flowering plants by insects saves the human economy billions of dollars each year).

Well, for one thing, if insects do most of the pollinating work, so too do people play a not insignificant role and for many species of flowering plant “the great love of their lives now is humanity”.[17] However, we are as Michael Pollan rightly points out, a perverse species and our love has frequently driven the evolution of flowers “toward the extraordinary, freakish, and precarious beauty of a Madame Hardy rose or a Semper Augustus tulip”.[18] Such flowers carry in their form, colour and scent our ideas and desires. And so if our love is like a red, red rose, so too is a red, red rose, reflective of our love and ready to mutate like femininity in any direction, no matter how extreme or ludicrous, simply to please.[19]

It might appear that we are screwing with nature, but of course, the willingness of flowering plants to participate within our mad games of fantasy and desire has proven a highly successful strategy for survival and success and there are certainly a lot more flowers in the world today, than there were before men took an interest in them: “For a flower, the path to world domination passes through humanity’s ever-shifting ideals of beauty.”[20]

And thus, although we self-importantly regard cultivation as something people have done to plants, it is also just as much a ploy by which the plants have exploited us and our desires – including our most excessive notions of beauty – to advance their own interests. Plants have done what they needed to do; i.e., exploit the world in which they find themselves growing. Thus mutations “that nature would have rejected out of hand in the wild sometimes prove to be brilliant adaptations in an environment that’s been shaped by human desire.”[21] By being so adaptable, so promiscuous, and so perverse, plants outlived the age of the dinosaurs and they will doubtless outlive the age of man.

And, in the meantime, they will doubtless continue to tease and to fuck with us just as we fuck with them. Indeed, mightn’t it be the case that hay-fever or pollinosis is a type of reprisal? For what is the allergic reaction to pollen suffered by many millions of men, women and children each spring and long into the summer months other than a sexually transmitted disease? We are, quite literally, pestered and assaulted by flowering plants that unrestrainedly allow their sperm-producing cells to be carried by any passing breeze into the eyes, ears, nose and throat of any passing person. The irritation caused as our body reacts to defend itself from what it perceives to be a threat, is arguably a sign that there remains a primal hostility between flora and fauna.[22]

As with herpes, there is presently no cure for hay fever. However, an article in The New Scientist three years ago suggested that ‘organic masturbation’ with fruit and vegetables might alleviate the problem. It turned out to be an April Fool’s Day joke.[23] But, many a word spoken in jest … The revenge of the flowers starts with a runny nose – who’s to say in what humiliating circumstances it might end?

Birkin Among the Flowers

I was tempted at this point to provide illustrative photos or film to show that, as a matter of fact, immoral if potentially allergy-relieving sexual contacts between people and vegetation are already quite common and that not all plant-human penetration is non-consensual. For whilst no one really wants or asks for a nose full of pollen, many men and women are happy it appears to insert carrots, cucumbers, and courgettes into those places usually reserved for cocks, tongues, fingers, toys and – if it takes your fancy – small rodents. But, then I was reminded by Christina that this is meant to be a literary salon of some kind and we are here ostensibly to discuss books and ideas, philosophy and the fine arts, rather than give pornographic power-point presentations. Besides, just because a woman might choose to insert a banana into her vagina, it doesn’t necessarily mean that she is on the road to building a body without organs, or that she’s had done with the judgement of God.

And so, let us turn our attention then to a very strange scene from a very disturbing novel, Lawrence’s Women in Love, in which the central male protagonist, Rupert Birkin, has just been given a bash on the head by his girlfriend Hermione, with a stone paper-weight. Don’t ask why: it doesn’t really matter, does it? Hermione recalled afterwards that “she had only hit him, as any woman might do, because he tortured her”.[24] So fair enough, I suppose. But the blow was a serious one and as he fled the scene Birkin was barely conscious. Nevertheless, he managed to make his way “out of the house and straight across the park, to the open country, to the hills”,[25] where many flowers and trees were growing, and spots of rain were beginning to fall. Lawrence continues:

“He was happy in the wet hill-side, that was overgrown and obscure with bushes and flowers. He wanted to touch them all, to saturate himself with the touch of them all. He took off his clothes, and sat down naked among the primroses, moving his feet softly among the primroses, his legs, his knees, his arms right up to the arm-pits, then lying down and letting them touch his belly, his breasts. It was such a fine, cool, subtle touch all over him, he seemed to saturate himself with their contact.

But they were too soft. He went through the long grass to a clump of young fir-trees, that were no higher than a man. The soft sharp boughs beat upon him, as he moved in keen pangs against them, threw little cold showers of drops on his belly, and beat his loins with their clusters of soft-sharp needles. There was a thistle which pricked him vividly, but not too much, because all his movements were too discriminate and soft. To lie down and roll in the sticky, cool young hyacinths, to lie on one’s belly and cover one’s back with handfuls of fine wet grass, soft as a breath, soft and more delicate and more beautiful than the touch of any woman; and then to sting one’s thigh against the living dark bristles of the fir-boughs; and then to feel the light whip of the hazel on one’s shoulders, stinging, and then to clasp the silvery birch-trunk against one’s breast, its smoothness, its hardness, its vital knots and ridges – this was good, this was all very good, very satisfying. Nothing else would do, nothing else would satisfy, except this coolness and subtlety of vegetation travelling into one’s blood. How fortunate he was, that there was this lovely, subtle, responsive vegetation, waiting for him, as he waited for it; how fulfilled he was, how happy!”[26]

“Really, what mistake he had made, thinking he wanted people, thinking he wanted a woman. He did not want a woman – not in the least. The leaves and the primroses and the trees, they were really lovely and cool and desirable, they really came into the blood and were added on to him. He was enrichened now immeasurably, and so glad.

It was quite right of Hermione to want to kill him. What had he to do with her? Why should he pretend to have anything to do with human beings at all? Here was his world, he wanted nobody and nothing but the lovely, subtle, responsive vegetation, and himself, his own living self.

It was necessary to go back into the world. That was true. But that did not matter … He knew now where he belonged. He knew where to plant himself, his seed: – along with the trees, in the folds of the delicious fresh growing leaves. This was his place, his marriage place. The world was extraneous.

He climbed out of the valley, wondering if he were mad. But if so, he preferred his own madness, to the regular sanity. He rejoiced in his own madness, he was free. He did not want that old sanity of the world, which was become so repulsive. He rejoiced in the new-found world of his madness. It was so fresh and delicate and so satisfying.

As for the certain grief he felt at the same time, in his soul, that was only the remains of an old ethic, that bade a human-being adhere to humanity. But he was weary of the old ethic, of the human being, and of humanity. He loved now the soft, delicate vegetation, that was so cool and perfect. He would overlook the old grief, he would put away the old ethic, he would be free in his new state.”[27]

“He wondered again how much of his heaviness of heart, a certain depression, was due to fear, fear lest anybody should have seen him lying naked with the vegetation. What a dread he had of mankind, of other people! It amounted almost to horror, to a sort of dream terror – his horror of being observed by some other people. If he were on an island … with only the creatures and the trees, he would be free and glad, there would be none of this heaviness, this misgiving. He could love the vegetation and be quite happy and unquestioned, by himself.”[28]

I don’t know about you, but every time I read these passages, or hear them spoken, they strike me as not only profoundly queer but absolutely astonishing – far more disconcerting than the later passages in the novel describing acts of sexual shenanigans between Birkin and Ursula. That said, the last time I discussed Birkin’s night among the flowers here at Treadwell’s, I was surrounded by an audience of witches who seemed to find the idea of al fresco masturbation and sex with plants perfectly acceptable and, indeed, perfectly common-place. For them, it was a kind of ‘spiritual’ practice; an orgasmic-communion with nature, or a calling-up of vital energies, etc. And it probably remains the case that most people who want to take their clothes off and hump trees or ejaculate on the undergrowth are a little pagan, or potty – or both.

Not that I’m attempting to dismiss or ridicule the idea that we can establish some form of sympathy with the inhuman and non-human world of flowers. Indeed, those who know me will vouch for the fact that I go further than this and insist also on the validity and importance of establishing intimate contacts with inanimate things as well, not just living plants, animals, or other people. My real concern at the moment, indeed, is with objectum sexuality, rather than floraphilia. But that’s another talk, another night. So, returning if I may to the Lawrence passages, let’s begin to think through what they might tell us and how they might relate to earlier ideas discussed.

It might reasonably be suggested that what’s primarily going on here is that Birkin is in the process of forming what Deleuze and Guattari termed a rhizome, or an unnatural alliance between himself and the vegetal world, similar to that formed between the wasp and the orchid or, if you prefer, the owl and the pussy cat who went to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat. It’s a deterritorialization of sex from its traditional object and aim; a setting free of desire to roam and eventually reterritorialize on all kinds of new things, in all sorts of strange new ways. Indeed, the great and intoxicating truth that Birkin demonstrates is that we can form loving relations not just with anyone – but anything and everything.

At this point, the objection is often raised that whilst this makes for fairly entertaining theory, it doesn’t really provide a legitimate or satisfactory form of practice. And someone usually says something along the lines of: ‘Yes Stephen, I can see how sex with plants might be some people’s cup of tea – but it’s not really a form of love though, is it?’ And they’re right: it’s not really love. At least not in the conventional and orthodox sense of the word, which is to say love that has been sanctioned by God and which involves the right persons doing the right things at the right time in the right place with the right organs etc. – a model that is so restrictive and so reductive that it makes one want to immediately run outside and commit acts of erotic atrocity like Diogenes in the market place.[29]

However, let it suffice for me to point out to those law-abiding individuals who think that love should circulate exclusively within a system of moral legislation, that were it not for Eve daring to consort with serpents and eat of whatever fruit she pleased, then none of us might have attained to carnal knowledge, or experienced the full range of earthly delights. Ultimately, love is tied to transgression and to crime – not to obedience or conformity with social convention.

In fact, one might argue that the furthest forms of love are precisely those branded as paraphilias in which strange connections are sought out and one dreams of establishing an inhuman relationship with alien forces, or heterogeneous terms and territories as Deleuze and Guattari would say. Quite clearly, in this scene Birkin is caught up in a process of becoming-plant via a series of perverse participations none of which involve imitation or identification. It’s a question of extracting from his own sex the particles that best enter into proximity with those emitted by the plants and which produce within him a micro-florality.

If, usually, when we love, we do so in order to seek out ourselves, that’s almost certainly not the case here. For Birkin is not depositing his sperm amongst the foliage in the same way as he might come inside a woman and one suspects that he isn’t even that concerned with his own functional pleasure or the banality of orgasm.[30] What really excites Birkin, even more than the delicious touch of the plants on his bare skin, is that he might enter into a new way of being and release the flows and forces and strange feelings presently overcoded by his humanity. Or, put more simply, that he might blossom and unfold into his own poppiness. The problem with having a human being as a lover, is that their body often doesn’t serve to set anything free; rather, it gives impersonal desire personal expression and in this way it acts as a zone of containment, or a point of blockage – a dead end if you like, no matter how you choose to penetrate it. In other words, the anus is a cul-de-sac and the vagina is a freshly dug grave.

Of course, there is, I admit, something utopian in this belief that we might discover via molecular-desire and floraphilia a new world in which we each contain an infinite number of impersonal selves and the anthropomorphic representation of sex is shattered once and for all: a future in which love will no longer mean boy-meets-girl, but boy becomes-girl, boy becomes-animal, boy becomes-plant, etc. And these days I have a lot of reservations about advocating a libidinal revolution and promoting a politics (or a botany) of desire. But, even after the orgy, I think it remains true to say that perversions make happy – and, indeed, help us become more sensitive and sophisticated individuals.

However, this is not to argue that the only way to form an intimate relation between yourself and the world of plants is to roll around naked like Birkin in the wet hill-sides, saturated with a mixture of pollen and semen. Nor does it mean having to masturbate with the contents of your vegetable drawer. For art also serves as a method of becoming. Thus it is that when Van Gogh paints sunflowers, for example, “he reveals, or achieves, the vivid relation between himself, as a man, and the sunflower, as sunflower”.[31] The canvas itself acts as a ‘zone of proximity’ wherein something is exchanged between them: the artist becomes-object, just as the object in turn becomes pure line and colour.

For clearly painting is not simply an attempt at representation. And Van Gogh was not looking to produce an image of the sunflower with photographic accuracy – we have cameras for that and they can visualise and record the world in far greater detail than even our greatest painters. But what they can’t produce is the vision on the canvas which is “utterly intangible and inexplicable, the offspring of the sunflower itself and Van Gogh himself … forever incommensurable with the canvas or the paint, or Van Gogh as a human organism, or the sunflower as a botanical organism”.[32]

That’s the power of painting: it gives us this third thing, which, in this case, is a kind of human-flower hybrid that blossoms in the fourth dimension as a form of perfected relationship and becoming “where no Kodak can snap it”.[33] And for Lawrence, our life hinges upon this “achieving of a pure relationship”[34] between ourselves and the world around us. That, he says, is how we ‘save our soul’ and enter into the kingdom of bliss – by coming into contact with other people, animals, trees, flowers, stars and things of every kind; an infinity of perfected relations, large and small, with animate and inanimate, organic and inorganic, real and virtual objects.

But it’s not easy to come into touch in this way: to form a new relation with the world is bound to be painful, if only because it involves the breaking of old connections and loyalties “and this is never pleasant”.[35] But there you go: just as our strength merely preserves whilst it is our sicknesses that advance us, so too do we live in bright red splendour like the poppy via acts of infidelity and not by staying true to old attachments like a fat green cabbage forever stuck in the same old cabbage patch.[36] In the end, it’s Judas and not Jesus who will save us; because what threatens us most in this life is not sin, but boredom.

Closing Remarks on the Revenge of the Flowers and the Bio-Chemical Paganism of Plants

I’m well aware that most philosophers, remaining theo-humanists at heart, don’t much care for flowers, unless they’re the never-fading flowers of an ideal heaven, or the immortal pensées of some great thinker.

They don’t mind the thick leafy stems of plants; for these are at least suggestive of strength and phallic dignity and reach up towards the sun. But they don’t like “the insane contortions of tendrils” that twist and twine and “bear witness to the fact that all is not uniformly correct in the impeccable erection of plants”.[37] Nor do they like thinking of the “roots swarming under the surface of the soil, nauseating and naked like vermin … loving rottenness just as leaves love light”.[38]

But most of all, they hate flowers: they hate their scent, they hate their sex, and they hate the fact that their beauty is somehow tied not to the uprightness of stems, but to rootedness in the dark earth and richly perfumed eroticism. Give the most beautiful roses to a philosopher and they are likely to strip the petals and discard them with contempt into the nearest ditch or latrine, as if the very sight of something that expresses such wanton loveliness is more than they can bear.

With barely suppressed rage, they annihilate the transient and temporal beauty of flowers: ‘Look!’ they cry, as they frantically pull away the petals like madmen: ‘Look how ugly and vulgar these flowers really are! How immoral and deceitful!’ And, in a sense, they’re right. For if most people continue to believe flowers to be beautiful in a noble-classical sense, this is only because they have become accustomed to seeing them from the perspective of a particular artistic ideal, or in conformity with a certain convention of beauty.[39] In other words, flowers have become a kind of mannerism with us. But look more closely, beyond the cliché, and it soon becomes evident that “most flowers are badly developed and are barely distinguishable from foliage; some of them are even unpleasant, if not hideous. Moreover, even the most beautiful flowers are spoiled in their centres by hairy sexual organs.”[40]

Continuing and developing the argument that all flowers are flowers of evil in their weird and twisted imperfection (characterized brilliantly by Ruskin as their ‘Gothic’ nature),[41] Bataille writes:

“Thus the anterior of a rose does not at all correspond to its exterior beauty; if one tears off the corolla’s petals, all that remains is a rather sordid tuft. Other flowers, it is true, present very well-developed and undeniably elegant stamens, but … it becomes clear on close examination that this elegance is rather satanic: thus certain kinds of fat orchids, plants so shady that one is tempted to attribute to them the most troubling human perversions. But even more than by the filth of its organs, the flower is betrayed by the fragility of its corolla: thus, far from answering the demands of human idealism, it is the sign of their failure. In fact, after a very short period of glory the marvellous corolla rots indecently in the sun, thus becoming … a garish withering. Risen from the stench of the manure pile – even though it seemed for a moment to have escaped it in a flight of angelic and lyrical purity – the flower seems to relapse abruptly into its original squalor: the most ideal is rapidly reduced to a wisp of aerial manure.”[42]

This, if you like, is the first aspect of the revenge of the flowers: they undermine and mock our emasculated idealism with their obscene reality, reminding us that beauty and desire have nothing to do with permanence or purity. For despite what our poets and philosophers and grandmothers would desperately wish them to be, flowers are not ‘the faded expression of an angelic ideal’, but, on the contrary, “a filthy and glaring sacrilege”.[43]

Equally galling to our transcendental philosophers, is the fact that the flowering plant blossomed long before man and will continue to blossom long after we have vanished from the face of the earth; that even the common dandelion has more endurance – and thus, for an idealist, more value – than any categorical imperative. What? A cactus will outlive Kant!

Do our modern philosophers secretly realise for all their insistence to the contrary, that the thing-in-itself, including the flower-in-itself – which is really only to say the flower as it exists outside of human consciousness – blooms just as gaily in the world without a Latin name attached? I think they do. But you’ll never get them to admit it of course, for such is the depth of their correlationism.[44]

This is the second aspect of the revenge that flowers: they make those who continue to posit Man at the centre of the universe and as the measure of all things feel secretly stupid. For flowers – like the insects that pollinate them – do not need us and they malevolently reveal the presence of a world that requires neither human understanding nor, ultimately, any form of sentient observation to keep on turning.

Personally, I like to know this: to know there is a world out there; a real world with flowers in it. And I think it’s important not only to acknowledge this, but to live accordingly; which means endeavouring to meet the flowers on their own terms, rather than transplanting them into our all-too-human world as cut-and-dried objects of knowledge to be placed under a microscope, popped into a vase, or poetically assimilated.

The latter, is precisely what Wordsworth was guilty of. He just couldn’t help anthropomorphizing the primrose for example and making it part of his own life. In other words, due to his inherent idealism and desire to smelt the world into Universal Oneness, Wordsworth “ousts the primrose from its own individuality”.[45] He doesn’t allow it to have its own peculiar primrosiness; instead, it must be identical with him and all nature indeed must be romanticized and made ‘Sweet-Williamish’ as Lawrence jokes. As a rule, we should always beware of people – and particularly poets – who claim to love flowers, small animals, babies, or beautiful sunsets. For more often than not it simply means they are looking to impose their own ego over things that can’t answer back. And that’s not love: that’s just impertinence.

What then is love? There are many possible answers to this question and I’ve already offered one or two earlier in this paper. But surely the most important aspect of love is the attempt to know things as things in themselves and not as things for us, or as things as we would like them to be. We have to learn to let things come to presence and accept the singular reality of their being, as well as the ‘untouched chaos’ that functions as an imperative within them, bubbling up like a volcanic core.[46] So, yes, we can go forth in desire to the flowers – as Birkin went forth – but becoming-plant is never a question of trying to incorporate their lives into our own selves with a kind of egoistic and anthropomorphic lust.

I would hope and trust in closing that this is perfectly understood in a roomful of witches, for whom plants have always had a magical, and, indeed, sacred reality: they can nourish, they can heal, they can poison, they can intoxicate, but most of all they can teach us something of import about the world – as indeed, they can teach us something of import about our own experience of the world; namely, that what superstitious persons and folk psychologists amusingly think of as ‘spiritual’ knowledge or insight, is entirely a material effect of bio-chemistry.

This is not necessarily to denigrate the experience or call the religious faculty into disrepute, but simply to agree with Aldous Huxley that “‘In one way or another, all our experiences are chemically conditioned, and if we imagine that some of them are purely ‘spiritual’, purely ‘intellectual’, purely ‘aesthetic’, it is merely because we have never troubled to investigate the internal chemical environment at the moment of their occurrence.’”[47]

In other words, as Baudelaire recognised, all visions of paradise are artificial. And, this being the case, I can see nothing wrong with those who choose to systematically modify their brain chemistry with alcohol and drugs, rather than utilize more tedious methods involving fasting, chanting, and prayer. To glimpse pink elephants dancing across the ceiling is no less meaningful than to see a host of heavenly angels gathered on the head of a pin. We might, if you like, refer to a ‘flat ontology’ of virtual objects in which gods and demons, unicorns and leprechauns are all equally present and correct.[48]

Of course to certain minds “the use of drugs for spiritual purposes feels cheap and false”[49] – and doubtless this is in part tied to the fact that drugs are largely derived from the realm of plants. For as Michael Pollan writes, the fact that we can “take a leaf or flower and use it to change our experience of consciousness suggests a very different sort of sacrament … at odds with our loftier notions of self”.[50] He continues:

“Plants with the power to revise our thoughts and perceptions … challenge the cherished Judeo-Christian belief that our conscious, thinking selves somehow stand apart from nature, have achieved a kind of transcendence.

Just what happens to this flattering self-portrait if we discover that transcendence itself owes to molecules that flow through our brains and at the same time through the plants in the garden? … Does it mean that spirit too is part of nature?”[51]

I think it does mean this: that is to say, I think it means that the visions that result from hallucinogenic drugs, for example, are evidence not of supernatural realms and other dimensions, but simply of powerful and seductive plant chemistry. Now, whilst it’s obviously true that “no entheogenic plant or fungus ever set out to make molecules for the express purpose of inspiring visions in humans”,[52] nevertheless, the moment that shamans and wise-women discovered just what these molecules could do, “the plants that made them suddenly had a brilliant new way to prosper”[53] and to fuck with us: for what ultimately is Dionysian intoxication other than nature overpowering mind and a way in which man is reconciled not with heaven, but with the earth once more?

The Judeo-Christian tradition – which is as much an anti-natural creed as well as a supernatural faith – has always understood the danger posed by plants to its own authority: “for they threatened to divert people’s gaze from the sky, where the new God resided, down to the natural world all around them”.[54]

This then is the final revenge of the flowers: and it is, I think, something for which we should be thankful: they cause us to dream – but at the same time, paradoxically, they disenchant us and, quite literally, bring us back down to earth and to the here and now. The notion that spirit “might turn out in some sense to be matter (and plant matter, no less!)”,[55] obviously threatens a long established and long-cherished dualism, but to be pagan is to affirm this idea with a happy heart and to worship forever the goddess Flora.

Notes and References

[1] Although this paper is concerned with floraphilia rather than floriography or the secret language of flowers, it is worth noting how this Victorian method of coded communication between illicit lovers in which a wide variety of plants enabled individuals to express feelings which otherwise could not be spoken has continued to this day – albeit in a restricted, clichéd and commercialized manner. Interestingly, as Michael Pollan points out, flowers “have always borne the often absurd weight of our meaning-making”, but they have arguably solicited such, as signifying “is precisely what natural selection has designed flowers to do”. In other words, flowers acted as “nature’s tropes long before we came along”. See The Botany of Desire, (Bloomsbury, 2003), p. 75.

[2] By ‘ancestral reality’ I refer to a reality that is anterior to the emergence of humanity. The term will be readily understood by those who are familiar with the work of Quentin Meillassoux. The point being made is not simply that plants have existed for a long time prior to mankind – and may well continue to exist for a long time after all traces of humanity have been eradicated from the face of the earth – but that this tells us something of importance long-denied within modern philosophy; namely, that reality exists mind-independently. Whether we like it or not, we don’t need to be on the scene for dandelions to evolve and flower quite happily. I will say more in relation to this (for some very obvious) point later in the essay. For those who are interested in Meillassoux’s ‘speculative materialism’ and his challenge to philosophy in the post-Kantian tradition, see After Finitude, trans. Ray Brassier, (Continuum, 2008).

[3] Plants belonging to the grass family are by far the most important to us, providing as they do the basis and the bulk of our diet as well as livestock feed. Such plants include rice, corn, wheat, oat, barley and rye. And flowering plants also provide us with many non-edible resources that are central to the human economy, such as wood, paper, fibre and, of course, numerous drugs and medicines.

[4] Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire, p. xii.

[5] Ibid., p. xiii.

[6] Ibid., p. xvii.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., p. xxiv

[9] Ibid., pp. 116-119.

[10] D. H. Lawrence, ‘Study of Thomas Hardy’, in Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays, ed. Bruce Steele, (Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 11-12.

[11] Ibid., p. 12. For those who are interested, Lawrence continues his attack on cabbages and people who have fallen into the condition of cabbages (i.e. fat self-sufficiency and self-conscious egoism) in ‘The Crown’. See Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays, ed. Michael Herbert, (Cambridge University Press, 1988).

[12] As Michael Pollan notes, although many flowers, like the lilies, possess both male and female organs, they go to great lengths to avoid pollinating themselves and thereby defeating the floral point, which is the mixing of genes that cross-pollination ensures: “A flower can avoid self-pollination chemically (by making its ovule and pollen grain incompatible), architecturally, (by arranging stamen and pistil in the flower so as to avoid contact), or temporally (by staggering the times when their stamens produce pollen and their pistils are receptive).” See The Botany of Desire, p. 78.

[13] More recently, human activity has come to play a crucial role in pollination and plant evolution. Indeed, some flowers are now so reliant upon agricultural and horticultural practices and techniques that they couldn’t survive without us. However, I am certainly not suggesting that there is anything ‘wrong’ or even ‘unnatural’ about artificial selection. In fact, we might ask whether there has ever been such a thing as natural selection. Even if the answer to this is yes, the fact remains that today “the crisp conceptual line that divided artificial from natural selection has blurred” thanks to the global presence and dominance of humanity. Today, even the weather is an artefact and for a great many species of both plant and animal ‘evolutionary fitness’ has come to mean “the ability to get along in a world in which humankind has become the most powerful evolutionary force”. The whole world has been domesticated and inasmuch as it still makes any sense to speak about the ‘wilderness’ or ‘untamed nature’, the latter is entirely dependent upon us for its preservation. See Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire. The lines quoted are in the Introduction, p. xxi.

[14] Although the majority of visiting insects do not usually pollinate flowers with purposeful intent, there are exceptions to this. The yucca moth, for example, which services – unsurprisingly – the yucca plant, deliberately transfers pollen from anther to stamen. And it does so from biological imperative; for it is crucial for the yucca moth to ensure the survival of the yucca plant, as not only does it deposit its eggs in the yucca flower, but the yucca moth caterpillars feed exclusively on yucca seeds.

Because the yucca flower, due to its unique design, can only be pollinated by the yucca moth, both moth and flower are thus completely dependent upon one another and have an exclusively symbiotic relationship. Most flowering plants, however, are not so fussy or faithful and happily allow themselves to be pollinated by all kinds of creepy-crawlies, or lovers who come on gossamer-wing.

[15] Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire, p. 76.

[16] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi, (The Athlone Press, 1988), p. 10.

[17] Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire, p. 79.

[18] Ibid., p. 84.

[19] Whilst it’s true that the majority of flowers have both male and female organs, in the human imaginary we tend to assign them a single sex, according to whether their forms suggest notions of masculinity or femininity. However, for one reason or another, most people seem to regard most flowers as being ‘female’ and therefore to equate the cultivation of flowers with the construction and imposition of female gender identities is not outlandish – although clearly in need of much closer interrogation than I can give it here.

[20] Ibid., p. 86.

[21] Ibid., p. 89.

[22] Those who suffer from hay fever do so due to the fact that they are hypersensitive to the protein molecules released by the pollen grains. These molecules are understood to play an important role in communicating with the pistil (i.e. the female part of the flower); allowing the pollen to first ‘identify’ itself and thence to seek ‘consent’ for fertilization (i.e. to effectively play a game of molecular seduction). Although I do not have the opportunity to comment at length on the manner in which plants communicate amongst themselves, I would like to stress that they can do so. Further, I am tempted to posit, like Lawrence, the existence of what he calls ‘sap-consciousness’. This is not to say that plants are conscious as we are conscious, or that they can think conceptually in terms of ideas: they are essentially mindless. I agree, however, with Deleuze and Guattari who argue that the plant “contemplates by contracting the elements from which it originates” in a process of pure sensation: “It is as if flowers smell themselves by smelling what composes them … before being perceived … by an agent with a nervous system and a brain”. In other words, consciousness “is a faculty of feeling coextensive with the tissues” of living organisms. Whether such hylopathism can legitimately be pushed all the way towards an out-and-out panpsychism, in which even inorganic matter can be said to have some level of sentience, is debatable. See Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, trans. Graham Burchell and Hugh Tomlinson, (Verso, 1994). The lines quoted are on p. 212.

[23] See The New Scientist, April 1st edition, 2009. The humorously-intended article which I have not so much summarized as imaginatively adapted for my own purposes in this paper, is available on-line at: http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn16872-masturbation-could-bring-hay-fever-relief-for-men.html

[24] D. H. Lawrence, Women in Love, ed. David Farmer, Lindeth Vasey and John Worthen, (Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 106.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., p. 106-07.

[27] Ibid., p. 107-08.

[28] Ibid., p. 108.

[29] The ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes was one of the founders of Cynicism. He was a controversial figure in Athens, not least of all because of his penchant for masturbating in public in order to challenge social and cultural conventions and embarrass Plato.

[30] As Deleuze tells us, there is an entirely false bond established between desire and pleasure and the latter is ultimately that which interrupts the former and acts as an extrinsic limit upon it. If you wish to construct a plane of consistency within desire, then you must find a method to defer the moment of orgasm (though of course, you’re under no obligation to want to construct such a plane).

[31] D. H. Lawrence, ‘Morality and the Novel’, in Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays, p. 171.

[32] Ibid.

[33] D. H. Lawrence, ‘Art and Morality’, in Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays, p. 168.

[34] D. H. Lawrence, ‘Morality and the Novel’, in Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays, p. 171.

[35] Ibid., p. 174.

[36] I said we’d return to the moralizing and this game of dualist opposition.

[37] Georges Bataille, ‘The Language of Flowers’, in Visions of Excess, ed. Allan Stoekl, (The University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 13.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Arguably, Michael Pollan is guilty of writing about flowers and beauty in this all too conventional manner in The Botany of Desire. He insists that flowers epitomise beauty for mankind and that by studying our ‘ancient attraction’ we might learn something about what he calls the ‘deeper mysteries of beauty’. Such writing betrays the fact that despite his attempts to resist and challenge a ‘blinkered humanist perspective’ and to write a work from a plant’s eye-view, ultimately Pollan’s attempt to develop a posthumanist philosophy fails for precisely the reason that Ian Bogost points out – namely, it is not posthuman enough. If and when Pollan does grant an apple or a potato a degree of subjectivity, he does so only in order that he might then mobilize them into his critique of modern industrialized practices of monoculture and genetic modification. Such a critique “serves and recommends cooperative practices of biodiversity, a value whose explicit purpose is to extend human life and well-being” and to keep in place all the old clichés to do with beauty and desire. See Ian Bogost; Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing, (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), p. 8.

[40] Georges Bataille, ‘The Language of Flowers’, Visions of Excess, p. 12.

[41] Ruskin, who had a significant influence on Lawrence’s thinking in this area, stressed the ‘unnaturalness’ of nature and its unfinished, savage and spiky, non-ideal character. A typical passage might be the following taken from his seminal essay ‘The Nature of Gothic’:

‘Nothing that lives is, or can be, rigidly perfect; part of it is decaying, part nascent. The foxglove blossom […] is a type of the life of this world. And in all things that live there are certain irregularities and deficiencies which are not only signs of life, but sources of beauty.’

For a discussion of Ruskin’s work in relation to Lawrence’s, see Anne Fernihough’s D. H. Lawrence: Aesthetics and Ideology, (Oxford University Press, 1993), and Amit Chaudhuri’s D. H. Lawrence and ‘Difference’, (Oxford University Press, 2003), in which the above passage from Ruskin is quoted p. 209.

[42] Georges Bataille, ‘The Language of Flowers’, Visions of Excess, p. 12.

[43] Ibid., p. 13.

[44] I am referring here once more the work of Quentin Meillassoux, mentioned in a note at the opening of this paper. His term ‘correlationism’ refers to any current of thought which maintains that there is a permanent correlation between thinking and being and the belief that we only ever have access to this correlation and never to either term considered apart from the other. As Meillassoux also points out, it is perfectly plausible to suggest that “every philosophy which disavows naïve realism has become a variant on correlationism”. See After Finitude, p. 5.

[45] D. H. Lawrence, ‘…… Love Was Once a Little Boy’, in Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays, p. 334.

[46] I am grateful to Graham Harman for this idea of objects having a molten inner core and that this is the place “where reality unfolds” – not the mind of God, or the human imagination. See ‘Physical Nature and the Paradox of Qualities’, in Towards Speculative Realism, (Zero Books, 2010). The line quoted is on p. 133.

[47] Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception (1954), quoted by Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire, p. 185.

[48] A flat ontology refers to any ontology that rejects the real/imaginary, or natural/cultural distinctions and treats all objects – physical or virtual, material or abstract – on an equal footing. As indicated earlier in the text, I am happy to endorse Ian Bogost’s maxim that all things equally exist, yet they do not exist equally. The concept is developed at some length by Levi Bryant in his work on Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) and those who are interested might like to read The Democracy of Objects, (Open Humanities Press, 2011). Ian Bogost’s discussion of the principle and his subsequent development of it into what he terms a ‘tiny ontology’ can be found in his Alien Phenomenology.

[49] Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire, p. 186.

[50] Ibid., p. 193.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid., p. 157.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid., p. 190.

[55] Ibid., p. 186.

Other short Promo videos from our YouTube channel D.H. Lawrence: A Digital Pilgrimage.

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Promo video: The English are so Nice (so very very nice)

 

The English weren’t very nice to D.H. Lawrence. They booted him out of Cornwall during WWI under the pretence of being a spy. They censored his work and banned his books. When he exhibited his art at the Warren Gallery, thirteen of his paintings were seized and placed in a prison cell for daring to show pubic hair. The English weren’t very nice to D.H. Lawrence and so he let them know in this wonderfully acidic poem.

The above video includes footage of some very nice English people. Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary who recently referred to Muslim people as ‘letterboxes’ on account of their cultural dress; Nigel Farage, that very nice Englishman who has fought for British independence from the E.U while drawing a European paypacket in the process; and let’s not forget Keith Vaz, the extremely nice politician who met Romanians at Luton airport on 1 January 2014 to tell them how welcome they were to the country. Yes, England continues to remain a very nice country and our current batch of politicians seem to be even nicer than the nice English people Lawrence mentions below.

The English are so nice
so awfully nice
they are the nicest people in the world.

And what’s more, they’re very nice about being nice
about your being nice as well!
If you’re not nice they soon make you feel it.

Americans and French and Germans and so on
they’re all very well
but they’re not really nice, you know.
They’re not nice in our sense of the word, are they now?

That’s why one doesn’t have to take them seriously.
We must be nice to them, of course,
of course, naturally.
But it doesn’t really matter what you say to them,
they don’t really understand
you can just say anything to them:
be nice, you know, just nice
but you must never take them seriously, they wouldn’t understand,
just be nice, you know! Oh, fairly nice,
not too nice of course, they take advantage
but nice enough, just nice enough
to let them feel they’re not quite as nice as they might be.

 

Other short Promo videos from our YouTube channel D.H. Lawrence: A Digital Pilgrimage.

 

Outside the Gate: Sulphurous Politico-Theological Speculations on Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent

Torpedo the ArkIn this guest blog, Stephen Alexander, author of Torpedo the Ark, offers some sulphurous-theological speculations on Lawrence’s Plumed Serpent. Stephen weaves many philosophical ideas into his writing, prodding, poking and interrogating the “unexplored realm of dangerous knowledge” – but always with a toothy smile. Stephen is one of the commissioned writers for the Memory Theatre

Just as there is a hardening of attitude towards the political question in Nietzsche’s work post-Zarathustra, so too in Lawrence’s fiction and essays during the period 1915-1926 is there a decisive move away from the liberal-humanist and Christian-moral tradition of the West. This move comes to a climax in The Plumed Serpent.

Richard Aldington writes in an introduction to the above that it is a “curious and original novel with no affinities”,[1] but this is not so. For in fact, the novel has many affinities and does not appear to be half so curious if one has knowledge of the cultural, philosophical, and political context in which the book was written and first published (1926). As Frank Kermode indicates in his study of Lawrence, even the novel’s occult preoccupations were surprisingly widespread within modernist circles: “A blend of theosophy, socialism, sexual reformism, evolutionism, religious primitivism, was common enough in the avantgarde thinking of the time”.[2]

It is precisely this blend of anti-democratic politics, pagan religion, and experimental language which makes The Plumed Serpent a highly controversial and disturbing work; as irritating in style as it is disquieting in content.

Throughout the text, Lawrence betrays an increasing frustration with the limitations of language when it comes to expressing those powers and forces (or ‘dark gods’) that move outside of human consciousness. Just as the book’s central character, Don Ramón, has difficulty articulating his new ‘life-urge’, so too does Lawrence struggle to articulate the novel, believing as he does that most readers do not want to hear a new conception uttered in an alien tongue: “For the machine of the human psyche, once wound up to a certain ideal, doesn’t want to stop” and thus treats every new word as “Evil and anti-civilization”.[3]

But Lawrence courageously pushes thought onto new territory regardless, refusing to dwell safely within doxa and revealing how “thought is impoverished when it fails to think relentlessly”.[4] Lawrence also obliges us to adopt an alien viewpoint, for it is only by becoming-Aztec, for example, that we are able to gain a wholly other (and not merely different) perspective upon our own condition and critically examine those presuppositions and prejudices that characterize modernity.

In other words, The Plumed Serpent allows us to interrogate and to loosen “the aura of necessity and sanctity surrounding categories of the present”.[5] And to do this from a position that is paradoxically both in real time and space (the novel is set in the historical Mexico of the 1920s) and yet also unfolds in the fictional and neo-mythical universe that Lawrence creates. The ‘problem’ – and for some commentators it’s a serious concern – is that Lawrence fails to divide these worlds cleanly and clearly enough so that, as Michael Bell points out, he constantly seems to stray beyond accepted aesthetic limits in order to explore new possibilities of action and new realms of knowledge.

Via use of idiosyncratic narrative techniques and radical literary devices which transgress the usual conventions of the novel, Lawrence manages to make plausible that which is improbable and transform the quest for the impossible into an apparently reasonable demand. We are all left as readers asking of the novel “how speculative or literal a spirit its Utopian project is to be understood?”[6]

Untitled
Artwork: Dawn of the Unread

Again, for some critics this is deeply problematic. For others, however, “much of Lawrence’s significance lies in his attempts to relate his ontological vision to the everyday and communal realms”.[7] Like Nietzsche, Lawrence endeavours to show how philosophy and art might both have a more profound and congenial relation to life by mixing together elements of prophecy and politics in an attempted substantiation of mystery.

Jürgen Habermas suggests that Nietzsche and his successors become so transfixed by the radiance of the extraordinary that they “contemptuously glide over the practice of everyday life as something derivative or inauthentic”.[8] But this is profoundly mistaken. As we will see, the notion of immanence is of vital importance to Nietzsche and those, like Lawrence, who write after him. For thinking overcomes metaphysics not by transcendence, but by grounding itself in the body and in the phenomenal realm of everyday things.

It is true, however, to say that what such authors understand by the term ‘world’ is much wider than simply the limited and known space in which man acts and his daily existence. This space is simply a little clearing of morality and reason fenced off from the wider, darker, inhuman environment outside the gate. Unfortunately, writes Lawrence, “the wondrous Victorian Age managed to fasten the door so tight, and light up the compound so brilliantly with electric light, that really, there was no outside, it was all in. The Unknown became a joke”[9] and it is still a joke (or a zone of horror) for humanists such as Habermas.

It is because of this – because the outside and the extraordinary remain ludicrous notions to the guardians of the interior who dominate ‘serious’ discourse today – that we still find it difficult to take what Lawrence says seriously. We find his fictional and theoretical analysis of modernity stimulating, stylish, disturbing and so on, but without ever really considering the possibility that he was right: right to invoke the forces of the outside in order to shatter conventional models of political thinking; right to seek out ways in which to enter what Foucault memorably termed the space d’une extériorité sauvage and which Nietzsche had already identified as that “unexplored realm of dangerous knowledge”[10] full of “tigers and palm trees and rattle-snakes”[11] and all the other marvels that the hot sun hatches.

This is the realm where King Kong still bristles in the darkness and human sacrifice remains the most sacred ritual. In The Plumed Serpent, Lawrence challenges us to do our thinking here; thinking which may have tragic results for man, but which might also help to restore to the world an aura of primordial wonder. And that’s why it remains an important – if little loved – novel within Lawrence’s body of work.

This is a revised extract from Outside the Gate (Blind Cupid Press, 2010). You can read more of Stephen’s thoughts at torpedotheark.blogspot.co.uk

dhl-trunkIn the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts to try to understand this complex writer.  How do we capture the “unexplored realm of dangerous knowledge”? Or the anti-democratic politics, pagan religion, and experimental language of novels such as The Plumed Serpent? In 2019 we will be building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved and submit ideas here.

REFERENCES 

[1] Richard Aldington, Introduction to D. H. Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent, (Penguin Books, 1982), p. 7.

[2] Frank Kermode, Lawrence, (Fontana Press, 1985), pp. 60-1.

[3] D. H. Lawrence, Kangaroo, ed. Bruce Steele, (Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 297.

[4] William E. Connolly, Political Theory and Modernity, (Basil Blackwell, 1988), p. ix.

[5] Ibid., p. 6.

[6] Michael Bell, D. H. Lawrence: Language and Being, (Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 196.

[7] Ibid., p. 205.

[8] Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, trans. Frederick Lawrence, (Polity Press, 1994), p. 339.

[9] D. H. Lawrence, Kangaroo, p. 285.

[10] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. R. J. Hollingdale, (Penguin Books, 1990), I. 23, p. 53.

[11] Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. R. J. Hollingdale, (Penguin Books, 1969), ‘Of Manly Prudence’, p. 165.

The Last Portrait of DH Lawrence by Hewitt Henry Rayner

hewitt-henry-rayner-portrait-of-david-herbert-lawrence This rare portrait of Lawrence by Australian artist Hewitt Henry Rayner, etched in 1929, is thought to be the last portrait made of Lawrence before he died on 2 March 1930. If you’ve got £3,000 to £5,000 going spare, it’s up for auction at Cheffins Fine Art Auctioneers, Cambridge on Thursday 11 October. 

In 1923, 21 year-old Hewitt Henry Raynor left Melbourne, Australia and headed to England to pursue his dream of becoming an artist. One year earlier, Lawrence had set off in the other direction, taking a detour to Australia on his way to New Mexico. Raynor settled in London, attending the London Royal Academy of Art where he was taught by Walter Sickert. He would remain in the capital for the rest of his life, returning to Melbourne for a brief visit in 1931. Lawrence never settled anywhere for too long, and very rarely returned back to his country of birth. The two would meet in 1929 when Raynor produced what is thought to be the last portrait taken of Lawrence.

Rayner was an etcher who perfected the drypoint technique, creating over 500 drypoint plates during his life. This is believed to be the largest body of drypoint work of any mid-20th century artist, most of which were produced after 1926. Unable to afford copper plates, Raynor used any type of metal he could get his hands on, such as oil containers and sweet tins. He didn’t have proper engraving tools either, instead opting for second-hand dentists’ drill bits, which he found more suited to the task. Sustainable approaches are all the vogue now, but Rayner’s techniques were born out of economic necessity – he only achieved notoriety after his death. This was due to numerous factors which we’ll look at in a moment, but it’s worth briefly giving a potted history of etching.

Printmaking of all varieties had a low standing in the 19th century due to it being perceived as a reproductive craft and therefore not worthy of exhibition at the Royal Academy. But a change in style in the mid-1800s saw it gain in popularity, eventually resulting in the formation of the Society of Painter-Etchers in 1880. As Art Schools began to develop up and down the country, the techniques were taught, and the discipline was taken more seriously.

 

Etching reached its peak in the 1920s when prices became so inflated they were unaffordable to traditional collectors. Instead they had to settle for anthology books celebrating reproductions, such as the annual Fine Prints of the Year. These prices were partly inflated by the publishers, who limited print runs to create a scarcity value. To put this into context, in 1929, the year that Raynor made his sketch of Lawrence, one print by DY Cameron went for a staggering £640 at Southeby’s. According to the CPI Inflation Calculator, that’s the equivalent of around £38,500 today. Although back then it would have got you quite a few houses.

It was during the 1920s that ‘come up and see my etchings’ became code for wealth, although in contemporary culture it became a romantic euphemism whereby women were lured up to bedrooms under false pretences. In Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man (1934) the narrator reassures his suspicious wife that the lady she had seen wander off ‘just wanted to show me some French etchings’.

900px-Tools_of_etching.svg

Lawrence took up painting towards the latter end of the 1920s, though this wasn’t for money or popularity. Painting simply offered an alternative mode of expression that was more pleasurable in process than writing.

“I disappeared into that canvas. It is for me the most exciting moment – when you have the blank canvas and a big brush full of wet colour, and you plunge. It is just like diving in a pond – there you start frantically to swim. So far as I am concerned, it is like swimming in a baffling current and being rather frightened and very thrilled, gasping and striking out for all you’re worth. The knowing eye watches sharp as a needle; but the picture somes clean out of instinct, intuition and sheer physical action. Once the instinct and the intuition gets into the brush-tip, the picture happens…”

Lady Chatterley’s Lover had been banned in 1928 and so painting offered an escape from the frustrations of the literary world. Or so he thought. His first exhibition at the Warren Gallery in June 1929 was swiftly closed on grounds of indecency with thirteen of his paintings placed in a prison cell (all of the seized paintings depicted public hair). Outraged by the latest bout of censorship he began work on the aptly named poetry series ‘Nettles’ which included the line: ‘Virginal, pure policeman came/ and hid their faces for very shame’.

Lawrence had been too ill to leave Italy to attend the exhibition in June 1929. Instead he sent Frieda on his behalf. This means that the portrait by Raynor must have been sketched during his last visit to the UK although I am not sure when. When the two did meet, I wonder how Lawrence would have viewed Rayner’s success, given the financial difficulties he had experienced throughout his own career while Rayner was at his peak. But the subsequent Wall Street Crash put an end to the etchings market and Rayner spent the ‘hungry years’ of the 1930s trying to sell his prints door to door. After being injured during the London Blitz, Raynor became more reclusive. He passed away in 1957, a few years before the Chatterley ban was lifted.

Both had a few things in common, though some of these connections are only apparent in retrospect. There was Australia, self-imposed exile, and art. Both were turned down for military service for WWI and WWII respectively. Both produced a phenomenal output of work yet struggled with poverty, with neither getting the recognition they deserved during their short lives. We know from the memoirs of Dorothy Brett and Knud Merrild that Lawrence was highly critical of their work and always had an opinion on how their art could be improved. So what would he have made of Raynor’s etching? Needless to say he would have found fault.

RELATED READING

  • Etching from the MMA Timeline of Art History (metmuseum.org)
  • MOMA information on printing techniques and examples of prints (moma.org)
  • Etching revival Twitter account (com)
  • The Print Australia Reference Library Catalogue (com)
  • Cheffins Fine Art Auctioneers (co.uk)
  • Hewitt Henry Raynor website (co.uk)
  • The Artist’s Studio: What Is Etching? com.au

dhl-trunkIn the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts to try to understand this phenomenal writer.  How do we capture the censorship of his art? Do we need a slideshow of the various portraits that were made of him during his life? In 2019 we will be building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved and submit ideas here.

DH Lawrence Festival 2018

DH Lawrence Festival of Culture 2018 cover-page-001 (1)

On September 11th the world changed forever. DH Lawrence was born. This year’s festival includes a broad mix of events from literary walks to short story discussion groups. For the first time ever the birthday lecture is not taking place on Lawrence’s birthday. Instead it will take place on Saturday 8th September. This is simply because it is easier for people to attend at the weekend. It’s given by film director Christopher Miles and is our festival highlight.  

Eastwood Walk “The Lost Girl Trail”
Tuesday 4th September from 2.00pm
A guided walk led by Sheila Bamford from the D.H Lawrence Society.
VENUE: Meet at The Sun Inn, Eastwood, Notts. ADMISSION: Free

Poetry Reading and Group Discussion
Wednesday 5th September, 7.00pm
In his first published volume of verse (“Love Poems and Others” Pub 1913) Lawrence
included four poems written in Eastwood dialect “Violets” ; “Whether or Not”; “A Colliers
Wife” and “The Drained Cup” . The reading group—led by Dr. Andrew Harrison of the D.H. Lawrence Research Centre at the University of Nottingham, will include readings of these poems and give participants the opportunity to explore such issues as Lawrence’s
transcription of local speech. Copies of the poems will be made available on the night.
This event is put on by the D.H. Lawrence Society but is an open event.
VENUE: Horse and Groom Pub, Moorgreen, NG16 2FE. ADMISSION: £2

Talks and Workshop, ‘Singing Eastwood’
Thursday 6th September, 2.00pm – 6.00pm
Celebrating a rich musical history through Eastwood’s former chapels and the
entrepreneuring work of Arthur Linwood, who for many years composed and published
volumes of anthems, running a successful business for half a century in Eastwood’s High
Street. Memory of these establishments, now defunct, will be brought back to life in this
surviving flourishing chapel, together with a recent discovery of Linwood scores.
VENUE: Eastwood Baptist Church, Percy Street, Eastwood, NG16 3EP. ADMISSION: Free.

Concert, ‘Beauvale Priory and the Carthusians’
Friday 7th September, 7.30pm
Beauvale Priory, a scheduled monument just outside Eastwood, was home to a
contemplative Carthusian Order, historically important as the home of the two Priors
Robert Lawrence and John Houghton, who were among the first English martyrs to be
executed at the Reformation. The beautiful Catholic Church at Hill Top, with its important chapel dedicated to these two Saints, is a perfect place to house this concert, possessing a fine organ and good acoustics. The programme, performed by the organist and composer Alan Wilson, together with friends, traces through music and words the formation, prosperity, destruction and resurrection of this important shrine. Reference is also made to D.H.Lawrence’s short story ‘A fragment of stained glass’.
VENUE: Our Lady of Good Counsel, Roman Catholic Church, Hill Top, Eastwood. NG16 2AQ ADMISSION: Free

F.R. Leavis Society and D.H. Lawrence Society Conference
Saturday 8th September, 10.00am – 5.00pm
A one day conference with invited speakers from the F.R. Leavis Society and the D. H.
Lawrence Society givings papers, and the opportunity for Q and A and open discussion.
This conference is primarily for members of the Leavis Society or the Lawrence Society but non-members are welcome.
VENUE: Eastwood Hall Conference Centre, NG16 3SS. ADMISSION: £33 including coffee/tea and lunch. Please contact Bob Hayward or Malcolm Gray to book a place. Bob Hayward n279hayward@btinternet.com
Malcolm Gray mjgray220@gmail.com

dh-lawrence-birthday

The D.H. Lawrence Society Birthday Lecture
Saturday 8th September at 7.00p.m.
The annual D.H. Lawrence Society Birthday Lecture is to be given this year by Christopher Miles. The Birthday lecture is open meeting. Christopher Miles directed the 1982 film “Priest of Love” with Ava Gardner, Janet Suzman and Ian McKellan as D.H. Lawrence. He also directed the film adaptation of Lawrence’s short story “The Virgin and the Gypsy” starring Joanna Shimkus, Franco Nero and Honor Blackman. In his Birthday lecture Christopher Miles will be talking on “Those Paintings”—the paintings of D.H. Lawrence.

The birthday lecture is my personal highlight of the festival. When I asked Christopher to elaborate on what we could expect from his talk he said: “I explain why Lawrence took up painting so late in life in 1926, and why 13 of his paintings exhibited at the Warren Gallery in London were taken by the police and put into a prison cell. Would they shock today, and are they still banned – some may shock today and the ban has never been lifted. Even liberal Waterstones in Nottingham wouldn’t show a couple of them in 2003. I’ll show that he began his first affair by copying a certain romantic picture when he was 24, and sending it to a girlfriend. So he had been painting for sometime before 1926. Lawrence had more painter friends than writers, so I examine how they influenced him, and what influence each of them had on his writing, and his own artistic efforts. As well as a new discovery of how the Theosophy movement influenced his writing as well as his painting. His final, large paintings were done while he was writing Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and a link is made to show his psychological thinking at the time, as he tries to say in paint what he said in print. I also show at the end how one country, and ancient race of people, influenced his painting the most, just three years before he died in Vence.”
VENUE: Eastwood Conference Hall, Mansfield Road, Eastwood, NG16 3SS. Admission: £2

Visit and Literary Walk (Fanny and Annie)
Sunday 9th September at 2.00pm
In 1919 D.H. Lawrence began work on a short story “Fanny and Annie”. He used the
old Morley Chapel as part of his location. The opportunity now exists to visit the old
chapel and walk around the area—with some possible readings from the story. There will be some light refreshments. This visit has kindly been offered by the owner of the house to Lawrence Society members.
VENUE: The Old Chapel, Morley Almhouse Lane, Morley, Derbyshire, DE7 6DL.

The Early Life of D.H. Lawrence
Wednesday 12th September, 2.00pm – 3.00pm
The D.H. Lawrence Birthplace Museum and writers group Chapter & Verse are
hosting an event to celebrate the Eastwood writer’s early life. A representative
of the D.H. Lawrence Birthplace Museum will give a talk on Lawrence’s early life and home. Afterwards there will be the chance to handle some artefacts from the museum and to see some of the writing produced by members of Chapter & Verse. Refreshments will be available to purchase from the Durban House Café.
VENUE: The café at Durban House Day Spa, Mansfield Road, Eastwood, NG16 3DZ
ADMISSION: Free

D.H. Lawrence and the Communities of the Erewash Valley
Saturday 15th September, 2.00pm to 5.00pm
An informal event of talks, readings-prose and poetry, work and leisure.
VENUE: The Breach House Garden Road Eastwood Notts ADMISSION: Free

The Pit, the Pub, and the Plough
Saturday 15th September, 2.00pm – 5.00pm
David Amos, Harry Riley and many others explore Lawrence through three key features of Eastwood life.
VENUE: Breach House, Eastwood. ADMISSION: Free

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There are other events scheduled during the festival which are not listed above. You can read about these by downloading the festival brochure here. It is also worth noting that where an event is listed as ‘free’ it is polite to leave a donation. Money is donated to heritage organisations related to specific events and includes: Breach House, Eastwood Memory Cafe, upkeep of local chapels. 

dhl-trunkIn the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts to try to understand this phenomenal writer of novels, poetry, plays, essays, letters, and philosophy.  Perhaps the festival will give you some ideas? In 2019 we will be building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved and submit ideas here.

RELATED READING

Promo video: Jelly-boned swines

DH Lawrence was a man famed for his rage. When I was the literature editor for LeftLion magazine I created a feature called The Endless Rage of DH Lawrence, whereby we had him mouthing off about modern problems. It was great fun to write, and a weird experience as I spent a lot of my time wondering what Lawrence would say if he was asked if he wanted a carrier bag after purchasing a pack of chewing gum in Tescos. How he would loathe the incompetence of modern life.

Lawrence’s rages could consist of an irrational outburst or simply scalding someone because he disagreed with their view point. But often his rage was born out of frustration. Take June of 1912 as an example. Lawrence had fallen in love with Frieda Weekley, a married woman and mother of three children. He persuaded Frieda to run away with him but her husband, Ernest, wasn’t making things easy for them, demanding that his wife return home or else she would never see her children again. Their affair was an absolute scandal, especially given the taboos around divorce and the prevailing morality of the time. Lawrence also had the first draft of his third novel, Sons and Lovers, rejected by William Heinemann. He needed the money in order to provide for Frieda, and so these two issues culminated in an explosive volley of vitriol to Edward Garnett, his friend and literary editor, on 3 July, 1912.

“Curse the blasted, jelly-boned swines, the slimy, the belly-wriggling invertebrates, the miserable sodding rotters, the flaming sods, the snivelling, dribbling, dithering palsied pulse-less lot that make up England today. They’ve got white of egg in their veins, and their spunk is that watery it’s a marvel they can breed. They can but frog-spawn — the gibberers! God, how I hate them! God curse them, funkers. God blast them, wish-wash. Exterminate them, slime.

I could curse for hours and hours — God help me.”

We’ve taken a few extracts from the letter and included it in the video above, which you can also find on our Instagram account. We absolutely love Lawrence when he’s in a rage. Nobody else can do spiteful and witty like him. This scathing attack on his perceived enemies suggests if Lawrence were alive today, he’d hold his own in a rap battle!

In the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to think differently about literary criticism. Instead of following a traditional linear narrative, such as a biography, we want to tell Lawrence’s life through artefacts. We believe that this is the best way to represent a complex and contradictory life. But how do we capture this rage? Perhaps we will have a drawer in our memory theatre that doesn’t quite open so that audiences get frustrated trying to interact with it. Or maybe we need a rage-ometer that calculates the velocity of Lawrence’s moods at different periods in his life. And how about your own rage? Do we need some kind of recording device so that the public can vent off about Brexit, zero hour contracts, and being forced to hear about Kim Kardashian every time we switch on the TV?

The above short is our first real promotional video for the project and one that we hope will encourage you to submit an idea that captures this most entertaining element of Lawrence’s life. The video editing was by a very talented 2nd year English student called Izaak Bosman. It was originally created for our instagram account but we’ve also reformatted it to include it on our YouTube channel.

Now get angry…

dhl-trunkIn the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts.  Was Lawrence’s rage some kind of coping mechanism, or was he genuinely angered by those around him? Can we trace particular moments when he was at his angriest? Perhaps we could all do with being a bit angrier today instead of hiding behind our glossy online avatars and disingenuous status updates. In 2019 we will be building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved and submit ideas here.

Other short Promo videos from our YouTube channel D.H. Lawrence: A Digital Pilgrimage.

 

‘Track Nottingham’ Paper Boats on Private Road

track Nottingham

Shaun Belcher started a multimedia project in 2010 exploring local history in two locations, one of which was Nottingham. He began uncovering some incredible stories, such as Albert Einstein giving a guest lecture at Nottingham University College (as it was known then) on 6 June 1930. A section of blackboard he used to show his calculations is preserved in the university’s archives. The university also holds many artefacts relating to DH Lawrence, but we’ll come back to his connection with the College later on.

As Shaun began to amass more of these hidden histories he began to share his findings through art, talks and more recently, poetry. For the 2018 Nottingham Poetry Festival the poems were written ‘large’ and illustrated for display in Jermy & Westerman’s secondhand bookshop on Mansfield Road.

The project has the working title of Track Nottingham which Shaun explains “takes individual ‘derives’ as the starting point for poems that literally ‘track’ individuals’ movement through urban and rural space and their interactions with the current technology to analyse how art and technology interact.”

poem

So far he has written three poems about Picasso, Chaplin and DH. Lawrence which neatly bookend three concurrent aspects of modernity in Painting – Film – Literature. Shaun said “I am interested in the relation between technology and how these individuals were enabled to move and in turn have their works ‘distributed’ by the new channels of literary and film distribution and their link to networks of travel especially the railway.” Through poetry, Shaun hopes to map these hinterlands of change. He is keen to stress that “no person is an island and no artist is independent of the tentacles of mass distribution and technological change”. The poems are also stories about relationships played out against 19th, 20th and 21st century backdrops. One of these relationships is that of DH Lawrence and Frieda Weekley.

Private road and ernest weekely
Frieda (L) Private Road (M) Ernest Weekley (R)

After coming first in the King’s Scholarship Examination in 1904, Lawrence received a grant to attend Nottingham University College (now part of the Arkwright building owned by NTU) but had to work for a year as an uncertified teacher at the British School in Eastwood in order to save £20 for the advance fees. He enrolled in September 1906 at the age of 21 and graduated in 1908. Although he found the experience disappointing he was interested in the botany and French course taught by Prof Ernest Weekley, the then husband of Lawrence’s future wife Frieda. Frieda and Ernest Weekley lived on Private Road, Sherwood and an enthusiastic Lawrence came to have a chat with his Professor one afternoon and immediately fell in love with Frieda. There are varying accounts on how quickly the two became lovers but which ever version of history you believe, the relationship was built on pain and against the backdrop of World War I. This had particular resonance as Frieda was not only a married woman, but a distant relation of Manfred von Richthofen, the “Red Baron”. All of which inspired Shaun to write the following poem.

PAPER BOATS ON PRIVATE ROAD

A lone slim figure in Sunday best gets off the tram on Woodborough Road,
Hesitates then proceeds down Private Road until it dog-legs east at his destination
As he turns along the high brick wall he hears children’s laughter, a maid calling
He stands at the gate hidden by trees and calls, the maid comes to the gate

Later she recalls his patent leather shoes and his smart appearance that day
Frieda stands at the French Windows, behind the red curtains, eyes sparkling like a hawk
He is ushered into the sitting room, red velvet curtains caught in the breeze billowing
Initial stiffness is washed away in a heated conversation about Oedipus and women

D.H. Lawrence is being bewitched by this most ‘un-English’ and strong-willed of women,
Her exotic and erotic vibrancy entrances him, already struggling to escape this England
Her husband delayed by work she leads him past then in to her bedroom,
An English sparrow in the talons of a German hawk he is taken in hand, finds himself

Then they are both entwined in secrecy, taking tram and train to secret assignations
One day with her daughters they play on a local stream with paper boats
He flicks matches at them saying look it is the Spanish Armada come to sink England
Two paper boats catching fire in a Nottinghamshire backwater, then phoenix-like rising

From the crazed machinery of Edwardian England, the conservatism of suburbia
Sometimes of an evening Frieda would dash up Mapperley Plains just seeking freedom
In a cottage near Moor Green they continued their first loving act on Private Road
Under Pear-blossom, ‘a fountain of foam’, Frieda crawls naked over him, he writes a poem

To her and to freedom, to his sexual and intellectual fulfilment with a gushing woman
By May 3rd they were sat together on a night-boat to Ostend, that old England fading
A peaceful Anglo-German union as the two empires ramped up production of munitions and cruisers
The Suffragette movement beginning… the war to end all wars looming.

Paper boats burning…

dhl-trunkIn the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts.  How do we get across Lawrence’s relationship with Frieda? If Ernest Weekley hadn’t excelled in his teaching, Lawrence would never have visited his house. Can we convey this chance encounter somehow? In 2019 we will be building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved and submit ideas here.

RELATED READING

Review: The Daughter in Law at Arcola Theatre.

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Jack Gamble directs DH Lawrence’s The Daughter in Law at the Arcola Theatre. Set during the 1912 miner’s strike, the play explores conflict in the workplace and home. Ellie Nunn is electrifying as Minnie Gascoigne. 

I’ve never seen The Daughter in Law performed before so it was with great eagerness that I headed to the Arcola theatre, Dalston after reading a glowing review in The Guardian that described it as ‘arguably the best account of working-class life in British drama’. Lawrence wrote eight plays during his brief lifetime, but only The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd made it to the stage where it was performed in 1916. It would shock middle class Edwardian critics with its ‘sordid picture of lower class life’.

Lawrence came from a family of coal miners. His father, Arthur, worked as a butty at Brinsley Colliery, which would take the life of his Uncle James in 1880. Industrialisation was also responsible for the destruction of the natural landscape, a theme that recurs throughout his work. Lawrence knew intimately about the world in which he was describing, enabling him to vividly and accurately capture life in mining communities from the inside.

The Daughter in Law is set during the 1912 strike when miners, along with Dockers, railway workers, and other labourers, fought for better pay. Miners pay was dictated by the market, meaning a lower wage packet when sales were low. Pit-clothes were no longer provided by the company, adding another additional cost. This had particular resonance for Lawrence as his paternal grandfather, John Lawrence, moved to Eastwood in the 1850s to be company tailor at Brinsley colliery, stocking huge rolls of flannel to clothe the workforce.

One million miners came out on strike in February 1912. They were partly vindicated with the passing of the Coal Mines Minimum Wage Act on 29 March 1912. Although it wasn’t as much as they had sought, it at least guaranteed a minimum of 6s 6d a day nationwide, although in Nottinghamshire it was slightly higher at 7s 6d.

All of these themes are drawn out in the play, which focusses on the two Gascoigne brothers, Luther (Harry Hepple) and Joe (Matthew Biddulph), Luther’s new wife, Minnie, and the domineering mother who rules over the family home. But where there should be unity, we instead see a series of conflicts. Blackleggers (workmen who refused to join the strike) infuriate the Gascoigne brothers because their selfish actions belittle the cause of other miners, echoing sentiments that would be drawn out a century later in the 1984 miner’s strike when Nottingham gained the unfortunate title of ‘Scab City’.

Lawrence frames this dispute in a way that thoughtfully balances out the perspectives of the affected characters. Minnie is frustrated because her husband is emotionally withdrawn, unable to turn to her for love and support, whereas Luther feels emasculated by his wife as she has substantial savings that could bail them out of the situation. In a fit of petulance, he threatens to draft in another housewife to do the chores so that Minnie can experience the humiliation of blacklegging in the domestic sphere. Minnie responds by blowing her entire savings on a shopping spree. It’s an act of independent defiance, but an indulgence that infuriates Luther so much that he burns some of her newly acquired possessions. As despicable as both of their actions are, it finally brings them together as they are now equal in their poverty.

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Minnie is the absolute star of the show, thanks to an electrifying performance by Ellie Nunn. She dominates the stage; screaming, shouting and shrieking her frustrations to spellbinding effect. Members of the audience around me jerked up in shock when she started laying into her husband, which was partly due to the intimate set design that positioned the audience closely around their candlelit front room.

One noticeable absence from the play was the father, killed previously by an accident down the pit. Therefore this is as much a play about the hardships of women, struggling on, as it is about the men. This enables Lawrence to explore the role of the matriarch. Mrs Gascoigne (Veronica Roberts) over coddles her sons, which is understandable given the loss of her husband. But in smothering her sons she inadvertently suffocates all around her. This acts as the climax to the play when Minnie confronts her mother in law with the plea “how is a woman to have a husband if all the men belong to their mothers?”

The Daughter in Law is written phonetically, capturing the harsh north Notts dialect that’s inflected by the Erewash Valley and Derbyshire. Lawrence uses dialect to convey a character’s social class, education, and intelligence. It’s notoriously difficult to pull off, something I explored recently in the BBC Radio 4 series Tongue and Talk. The cast generally did alright, especially with the hard northern Notts words (tode yer/told you) but at moments Mrs Purdy (Tessa Bell-Briggs) was slipping into Brum and Scottish. To the London audience this must have sounded very authentic, but I was wincing in places. But the rapid-fire dialogue and the intensity of the acting quickly dragged me back into the narrative.

The Daughter in Law ran from 23 May–23 June 2018 at Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, Dalston, London E8 3DL.     

1909               A Collier’s Friday Night                   First performed in 1939

1910-11         The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd        First performed in 1916

1912               The Merry-go-Round                       First performed in 1973

1912               The Married Man                              First performed in 1997

1913               The Fight for Barbara                      First performed in 1967

1913               The Daughter in Law                       First performed in 1967

1918               Touch and Go                                   First performed in 1973

1925               David                                                  First performed in 1927

Lawrence also wrote two incomplete plays Altitude (1924) and Noah’s Flood (1925)

dhl-trunkIn the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts.  Is there a place for his plays and if so, how do we represent them? How do we explore the conflicts raised in The Daughter in Law or the inner conflicts that drove Lawrence into exile? In 2019 we will be building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved and submit ideas here.

Student Essay: Kim Nguyen on controversy and Women in Love

Kim Nguyen is studying  English and Film Studies at Nottingham Trent University. She created her first ‘visual essay’ as part of a third year module called English and Creative Industries Project. The visual essay explores how Lawrence’s work continues to cause controversy long after his death through Ken Russell’s film adaptation of Women in Love.  

D.H Lawrence was an English novelist, poet, playwright, literary critic and painter. He was regarded as one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. He was often described as a controversial writer whose work was constantly censored due to the explicit nature of his work. Controversy has been commonly associated with his novels however it did cross over to his other art forms including his paintings and poems which were also censored due to the topics that he touched upon.

As his career grew, D.H Lawrence began to receive negative reviews from the public, building an undesirable reputation from the scandal and outrage. His most infamous work was his last novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, however The Rainbow, published in 1915, was seized and suppressed under the 1857 Obscene Publications Act two months after publication. In Prosecutor Herbert Muskett’s words the novel was “in fact a mass of obscenity of thought, idea and action”. During these times lesbianism was unthinkable, and even talking about such desires was unheard of. There hadn’t even been a law to punish it yet! By the final chapters Ursula Brangwen’s sexual activities were frequent and directly addressed. Lady Chatterley’s Lover on the other hand was banned in the US until 1959 and England until 1960. Similarly to The Rainbow it was banned due to the graphic details of the sexual relationships it explored. His poetry was equally controversial, being censored due to his attack against politicians and the issues he raised about repression and imperialism. His work in all art forms emphasised the idea of freedom, demonstrated through nudity and nature in his paintings, as well as his novels and poetry. The controversy even continued after his death, when his novels were turned into films.

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Take Women in Love for example, the sequel to The Rainbow. Women in Love was Lawrence’s fifth novel. He began writing it in 1913, later completing it in Cornwall during World War I, before being expelled after unfairly being accused of being a spy. The novel was eventually published in 1920. Influenced by Freudian psychoanalysis, Lawrence explored our connection to nature and the repressive, controlling aspects of our psychology and the way it bounds our society with rules and structure.

In 1969, screenwriter Larry Kramer and director Ken Russell came together to produce the first film adaptation of Women in Love. This came 39 years after Lawrence’s death yet was still causing controversy and raising questions about decency. The film became most notable for its ‘Japanese wrestling scene’, making the film the first to show full frontal male nudity. The film connected with the sexual revolution and bohemian politics of the late 1960’s and helped challenge Hollywood conventions. Russell uses film as an explicit medium to fully demonstrate Lawrence’s descriptions of the sexual acts and the relationships that individuals had with one another.  The film starred Alan Bates and Oliver Reed. The casting of Oliver Reed was particularly appropriate as Reed courted controversy due to his hedonistic lifestyle and rebellious attitude towards prevailing morality. Alan Bates sported a beard which created a slight resemblance to Lawrence which fit well with his character Rupert Birkin as Birkin was a self-portrait of Lawrence.

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Kim visited Breach House last year and was shown around by David Amos and Malcolm Gray

Linda Ruth Williams, a professor of Film Studies at the University of Southampton, highlighted the fact that the film adaptation came about only two years after sodomy for men over 21 was made legal in Britain, so the timing of the film was not carefully planned as it was still a time when most people were only just beginning to accept these types of relationships. Needless to say, the reception of the film was not positive from all audiences.  After Penguin and the British Publishers won the famous trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960 it became harder to prosecute on grounds of obscenity allowing film producers to turn their attention to more violent and sexual scenes. It paved the way for more creative freedom and expression. The persecution of D.H Lawrence, and the issues his work raises, has enabled future generations of writers and artists to explore these themes in more explicit ways.

dhl-trunkIn the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts. How do we represent the controversy that followed him throughout his life and continues to linger long after his death? Perhaps we can include some models of naked Japanese wrestlers that we can view through a peephole? In 2019 we will be building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved. Submit ideas here.

#Monday Blogs Tongue and Talk: Dialect poetry featuring DH Lawrence

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DH Lawrence was a master of dialect. His plays, novels and poetry captured the rawness of mining communities with such precision, it frightened the life out of middle class Edwardian critics. As part of a BBC Radio 4 series Tongue and Talk: Dialect Poets, I’ll be visiting Lawrence’s childhood home Breach House, and exploring ‘pit talk’ and the Nottingham accent with various poets and musicians.    

Like DH Lawrence, I grew up in a mining village. Whereas he was born north east of Nottingham in Eastwood, I was raised in Cotgrave, five miles south east of the city centre. Cotgrave derives from an Old English personal name, Cotta, + grāf, (grove or copse). So over time we went from ‘Cotta’s grove’ to the more sinister Cotgrave. Our respective divides across the city also influence the way we speak and use dialect, even though we might be referring to the same word. This is best illustrated by the commonly used word ‘mardy’. I pronounce this ‘mardeh’ using what Al Needham calls the south Notts ‘eh’ or ‘ah’. Living on the Derbyshire border, Lawrence would have experienced the trimming off of syllables, shortening it to mard as in ‘Eh, tha’rt a mard-arsed kid’ a famous line from his poem The Collier’s Wife.

Mardy is a brilliant word. It means sulky, as in a badly behaved child, and is used throughout the East Midlands as well as parts of Sheffield and Yorkshire. However, it can also mean non cooperative, bad tempered or terse in communication, attributes we can definitely associate with DH Lawrence. In 2017 Toby Campion selected it as his word for Leicester as part of the Free the Word campaign.

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The modern headstocks of Cotgrave Colliery and Brinsley Colliery where Lawrence’s father worked.

Lawrence came from a family of coal miners. His father, Arthur, worked as a butty. The butty was popular during the early part of the nineteenth century when the coal miners were not directly employed by the owners. The butty acted as a contractor, putting together a team to mine coal at an agreed price per ton. I had a slightly different experience growing up. My mother was a typist and my stepfather was a manager of a company in Mansfield. But in the eyes of the locals, anyone who didn’t work down the pit was a ‘posho’. Therefore we were fair game for the occasional kicking. These were rough times, particularly during the Strike of 84. Like Lawrence, I couldn’t wait to escape.

Lawrence would vividly capture life growing up in a mining community in novels such as Sons and Lovers, his Eastwood trilogy of plays, and dialect poetry such as The Collier’s Wife. I’ve done this through a BBC Radio 4 series called Tongue and Talk: The Dialect Poets. In episode 2, broadcast on Sunday 20 May at 4.30pm, I’ll be exploring the Notts dialect and the ‘pit talk’ of mining communities.

One of the guests on the programme is David Amos, an eight generation miner and fellow member of the DH Lawrence Society. David has been working as a research assistant with Natalie Braber at Nottingham Trent University on mining heritage projects. He invited me to attend a rehearsal for Songs and Rhymes from the Mines as part of the Nottingham Poetry Festival. Bill Kerry III told me he had discovered that his grandfather had worked down Ormonde Colliery at the same time as Owen Watson, author of Strong I’th’ Arm – The Rhymes of a Marlpool Miner (1975) and so he’s turning his poems into folk songs to make them accessible to new generations. Meanwhile Al Rate (who also uses the pseudonym Misk Hills) has penned some new songs inspired by pit talk, introducing new generations to words such as ‘powder monkey’. This was the poor bogger who had to set off the explosives down the mine. Such songs are a reminder of how dangerous life was down the pit, something beautifully captured in Lawrence’s poem The Collier’s Wife. In this, a miner has had yet another accident down the pit:

It’s a shame as ‘e should be knocked about

Like this, I’m sure it is!

‘E’s ‘ad twenty accidents, if ‘e’s ‘ad one;

Owt bad, an’ it’s his!

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A visual narrative celebrating D. H. Lawrence’s dialect poem by Russell Hopkins at Cargo Collective.

The wife in the poem has seen and heard it all before and is more bothered about the compensation as food still needs to be put on the plate. You can hear David Amos read the entire poem is one go during our show. I only managed the first verse.

When Lawrence used dialect in his early plays about life in a mining community they were dismissed as a ‘sordid picture of lower class life’ with middle class Edwardian critics unimpressed with ‘its lack of verbal beauty’. Lawrence was a master of dialect, using multiple variations of speech patterns that drew influences from the Erewash Valley, Derbyshire and Notts. By using dialect, Lawrence enabled the reader to understand a collier’s particular social class, their education, and their intelligence. The way his characters spoke represented the history of the community, even down to what street they lived on.

Lawrence’s family moved many times across Eastwood, upscaling each time. So during the programme we visit ‘Breach House’ where the family of seven lived between 1887 until 1891. To enter Breach House is to step back in time to Edwardian Britain. Moleskin trousers hang up above the fireplace, the snap tin is on the table, and the Bible and piano take pride of place in the ‘best’ room. Of course it would have been nice to record the show in Durban House, where a young Lawrence and other miner’s sons would go and collect their father’s wages, but this was sold off by Broxtowe Council and has now been converted into a spa – which I guess is more preferable than a Spar.

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David Amos holding up a pair of Moleskin trousers. Plaque outside Breach House.

Breach House was the inspiration for The Bottoms in Sons and Lovers, my favourite Lawrence novel. It opens with this wonderful description:

‘To accommodate the regiments of miners, Carston, Waite and Co. built the Squares, great quadrangles of dwellings on the hillside of Bestwood, and then, in the brook valley, on the site of Hell Row, they erected the Bottoms. The Bottoms consisted of six blocks of miners’ dwellings, two rows of three, like the dots on a blank-six domino, and twelve houses in a block.”

The novel also helped solve another mysterious word from my childhood: blue. But if you want to know what this means then either read Sons and Lovers or tune into Talk and Tongue on the iPlayer. Let us know what you think on Twitter using the hashtag #TalkandTongue. The programme was a Made in Manchester production.

dhl-trunkIn the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts. How do we represent his childhood growing up in Eastwood? What role does coal have to play in his writing? How can we incorporate dialect into our memory theatre? In 2019 we will be building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved. Submit ideas here.

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#MondayBlogs Samuel Morley: Philanthropist, political radical, and abolitionist.

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Photo of Samuel Morley bust in the arboretum by James Walker

When DH Lawrence attended Nottingham High School he would most likely have taken a detour from Waverley Street and headed through the arboretum. The arboretum was the first designated public park in Nottingham selected under the authority of the Enclosure Act 1845. It was opened on 11 May 1852 at a cost of £6,554 7s. 10d. At the bottom of the arboretum is a bust of the philanthropist Samuel Morley (15 October 1809 – 5 September 1886) by Joseph Else. In this guest blog, Ali Emm gives us a potted history of this much loved philanthropist and political radical. 

The youngest son of Sneinton-born John Morley, Samuel was born and raised in London where his father had moved to expand his hosiery business, I & R Morley, co-founded with his brothers at the end of the eighteenth century. If you wanted a proper pair of stockings, theirs were what you splashed out on.

John Morley was no stranger to good deeds, himself having been Mayor of Nottingham and a Luddite sympathiser – even though his factories came under attack – as well as being involved in setting up the Mechanics Institute, a place where artisans and mechanics could go to learn, improve their skills and socialise. So it’s no surprise that he raised Samuel and his five siblings to think for themselves from the get-go, telling them, “I will tell you why I am a Nonconformist and why I am a Liberal, and, if you think I am right, you can be as I am and do as I do, but you are perfectly free to form your own conclusions.”

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Map of the arboretum

Samuel was educated until he was sixteen and was considered a methodical student; something that stood him in good stead for when he began working in his father’s business in 1825. His first job at Morley’s was in the counting house, and he stayed there for seven years to learn the business. With factories established across the Midlands and in London, it wasn’t until Samuel left the counting house that Morley’s branched out into flannel under his management. As brave a move as this was – and however much we all love a bit of flannel these days – it wasn’t too successful and he quickly realised that his strength was in numbers, so he returned to the counting house.

Samuel and his brother John took over from their father in 1840, working together until John’s retirement in 1855. It was in 1860, when Samuel’s uncle passed away, that he became the head of the Nottingham business as well. He visited to determine how the business should be handled and employed Thomas Hill as manager. Morley didn’t interfere with the management of the Nottingham businesses, even making Hill a partner in 1870, but made sure he was kept up to date with the welfare of employees, their state of health and all that stuff business owners don’t usually seem to give much of a damn about.

In fact, Morley’s factories in the area were considered the best in the North Midlands: clean, light, well ventilated. He also paid top price for labour and introduced pensions. This might not seem much of a big deal, but his pension scheme was introduced forty years before the Old Age Pension Act was brought in. A nice little anecdote about Morley was when he gave a gift of £5 to a workman. The worker was asked how he reacted, to which he said, “What did I say? I could do nowt but roar.”

Under the Morley/Hill partnership, the Nottingham business was expanded to include a factory on Manvers Street; on the corner of Newark Street. Their choice of location was influenced by Sneinton’s long-established hosiery-making trade, meaning there was a skilled workforce available. They had a bit of bad luck though, with two serious fires in the factory’s early years, the second of which was the costliest blaze in Nottingham’s history at the time. The factory was eventually rebuilt, and went on to employ 500 workers. There was another Morley factory in Daybrook – now, unsurprisingly, a block of flats – and in 1879 the Alfred Street factory, which once created work to a further 350 people, is home to Backlit, an independent gallery and studio space for artists.

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Alfred Street factory, now home to Backlit. Image from Leftlion.co.uk

Although kind and concerned with the wellbeing of his workers, Morley was a stickler who couldn’t tolerate bad work or laziness, and he loathed waste. He also considered drinking to be an unmitigated evil and regularly spoke up about temperance and total abstinence, especially to working men. Challenged once by a labouring man who interrupted Morley’s speech on abstaining, he was asked, “Do you go without yourself? I dare say, if the truth’s known, you take your glass of wine or two after dinner and think no harm of it. Now, sir, do you go without yourself?”

Of course, Morley did like to have a couple of glasses with his dinner. “This rather shut me up for an instant,” Morley said when recounting the story, “but when I looked round at those poor fellows whom I had been asking to give up what they regarded – no matter how erroneously – as their only luxury, I had my answer ready pretty quickly. ‘No’, I said, ‘but I will go without from this hour.’” True to his word, he didn’t touch another drop, with the exception of a couple of ‘medicinal’ drinks during a period of illness on the insistence of his physician.

A dedicated father, Samuel wrote to his eight children regularly when he or they were away from the family home. He kept all correspondence from them, and these letters show an openness in their relationships in that they freely discussed their successes and failures with him. He encouraged his children in all their hobbies – even though he was not partial to any sports or pastimes himself, preferring to work, lobby and help the church – but he drew the line at dancing, which he objected to greatly.

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Image taken from http://www.abolitionseminar.org/before-the-civil-war/

To say that he wouldn’t compromise on his morals would be an understatement. Morley was no wallflower, especially where reform was concerned. In late 1854, the Crimean War was in full swing and, partly as a response to this, the Administrative Reform Association was formed with Samuel Morley as president. A pressure group – of which Charles Dickens was another notable member – aimed to expose abuses of the departments of state, and Morley believed that the necessity for this reform existed long before the war and would exist long after its conclusion.

An abolitionist, Morley helped to free an escaped American slave, Josiah Henson. Henson went on to document his life in Uncle Tom’s Story of His Life: an Autobiography of the Rev. Josiah Henson. This later inspired the classic anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. When asked to join the anti-slavery movement that was part of the American Civil War, he declined stating, “… while the South disgusts me with its shameless advocacy of its ‘peculiar institution’ as the ‘corner-stone’ of its government, I cannot sympathise with the North, for it is, I fear, abolitionist in proxy – only through force of circumstance – and not from the conviction of the inherent immorality in slavery, or humane consideration for the welfare of the slaves.” So no half measures from him then. On the more positive side of things, it wasn’t long after this request that he consented to stand for the town of his ancestors, Nottingham, in 1865.

He was one of two Liberal candidates in the running against the Conservative Sir Robert Clifton. Never one to be associated with anything boring, the election fight was said to be “the most sharp and bitter of any throughout the country.” As is often our way, the borough was once notorious for its lawlessness, and it was during the elections that this old spirit came to the fore in support of Clifton; riots broke out and the mob ruled.

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Samuel Drawing – Samuel Morley Statesman by Mary Evans Picture Library

On one occasion, the magistrate sat in the Exchange Buildings with the entire body of the borough police gathered round for protection, and a reserve set up in another building, while the crowd wielded stones, bludgeons and faggots; bundles of steel to you and me. This crowd then moved on to the hotel where Morley was staying and pelted him with stones, forcing him to remain hidden until they’d passed. These rather unsavoury sorts were the notorious Nottingham Lambs, a right bunch of ruffians who’d do pretty much anything for the price of a couple of pints. Rabble rousing and rioting aside, Morley just swung it with 2,393 votes over Clifton’s 2,352.

Sworn in, his early impressions of parliament weren’t that great, but he hung on to the hope that he could do some good. Morley was unseated by petition after his peers voted him out of parliament in April 1866. A bit of a blow, he questioned if he’d been sufficiently suspicious of friends, but took solace in the fact that he’d maintained integrity. He stated, in regard to the election, that “he never said a word he wished unsaid, or did a deed he wished undone.”

The Bristol branch of the Liberal party still believed in him and made it clear that they still wanted Morley in their corner, so when a seat became available, they approached him. In a case of ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’, when the Nottingham branch heard, they grovelled a bit to try and get him back.

He was defeated in Bristol and the hopes of electors at Nottingham were revived, asking Morley again to represent Nottingham. However, it seemed that the opponent in Bristol had been up to no good, Morley accusing him of “gross and illegal acts”, and in June 1868 his opponent was unseated. Morley – probably really politely and not with a two finger salute – declined to return to Nottingham and stood as Bristol’s representative for seventeen years.

A long-time fan of Gladstone, you’d think he would have been pretty chuffed to be offered a peerage by him. But when Gladstone wrote to him with the offer in 1885, Morley turned it down because he didn’t want to appear to have gained personal advantage from his selfless acts. If only all politicians thought that way, eh? With regards to wealth, Morley also saw this as a means to an end, giving it value based only on its use for noble purposes. He felt that it laid upon him the most binding obligations, and that he was accountable not only for the right use of it, but the best use possible. What a guy.

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William Gladstone (Getty Images)

He received hundreds of letters annually asking him for his help. Allegedly he read each one, and at the top left-hand corner of each is a note in his hand, brief but functional: yes, no, litho (letter of refusal to be sent), inquire further, impossible, sorry, unable, acknowledge, don’t know, apologies for delay, or amounts to be sent in appeals for money. Solely chucking money at things wasn’t what he was about, though. If he gave to societies, he personally acquainted himself with their work, would visit the churches he gave assistance to, and took pains to make sure that the beneficiaries of his help were the right ones, offering his knowledge in tandem with any donations.

One of the reforms that Morley believed in most was the introduction of a National Education scheme. England was behind most ‘great’ countries when it came to educating the lower classes. More than two thirds of children were left without ‘instruction’ and Morley spent 25 years trying to convince the government to change this so that every child received a good education. More locally, in 1881, the University College, Central Library and Natural History Museum on Sherwood Street and Shakespeare Street were opened.

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University College, now part of the Arkwright Building at Nottingham Trent University. Source unknown.

The library, however, was a no-child zone and was only open to those aged fifteen and over, but Morley believed that young ‘uns should have access to libraries. He proposed to the mayor, “Everywhere in our towns the working classes are deluged and poisoned with cheap, noxious fiction of the most objectionable kind, I should be thankful to do something to counteract this mischievous influence, and if young people are to have fictitious literature, and I see no reason why they should not, to do something to ensure that all events, it shall be as pure and wholesome as we can provide for them. I gladly offer £500 as a commencement of a library for children…”

Nottingham Corporation didn’t hang around, and in 1883 a separate library for children was opened about 100 yards from the main library. It was the first of its kind, and although it’s not been used for this purpose for over eighty years now, the building’s still there today.

Later in life, he relaxed a little bit and conceded that entertainment and amusements were, in moderation, no bad thing. He became involved with the ‘Old Vic’ – the Victoria Temperance Music Hall – a theatre that had been reopened by another philanthropist, Emma Cons. Once known for being a place to get sloshed and see a bit of action, Emma Cons reopened it to provide moral and affordable entertainment, a place for temperance meetings and ‘penny lectures’ by eminent scientists.

These lectures helped pioneer adult education, and not just for the wealthy. Morley, satisfied that they were above board and not a den of iniquity, offered them his financial and personal skills. The popularity of the penny lectures led to the opening in 1889 of the Morley Memorial College for Working Men and Women. The college is still going today and maintains a lot of the original ethos it was built on.

Morley passed away in 1886, leaving an estate of £474,000. As you’d imagine, he made sure that this was all distributed and dealt with properly. He left instructions to the executors that they were under moral obligation to fulfil all the promises he had made in life. The money went to all the causes he had supported, plus he also left some legacies to long-serving workers in his firm.

After the publication of this blog we received an email from Carol Mills who believes there may be a more tangible link between Lawrence and Morley. Carol wrote: “The connection is mentioned in May Holbrook’s (nee Chambers) letter to her brother David, dated 28 November 1949, which is held in the Manuscripts & Special Collections at Nottingham University ref. LaCh56. In it she states that from the age of three, their maternal grandmother, Jane Newbold, was brought up by John Morley, of I & R Morley, as his daughter. Apparently, so the story goes, she fell in love with one of the Morley sons but something happened and she left. She had to earn her living by working in the Lace Market and moved in with her married sister. This is confirmed in the 1851 census. However, in the letter, May appears to confuse John Morley with Samuel his son and since that side of the family were based in London in the 1820’s, I wonder if the benefactor was Richard Morley, who remained in Nottingham.

The catalyst, whichever Morley was responsible for Jane’s upbringing, appears to be the suicide of her father, Thomas Newbold, which as far as I have been able to ascertain seems to have occurred in 1826 which fits in with Jane’s age. This tragedy forms the basis of Jessie Chamber’s short story ‘ The Bankrupt’ also held by the Manuscripts Department ref.LaCh/4/6. (Jessie Chambers being Lawrence’s childhood sweetheart and the person credited as kickstarting his writing career). Both Clive Leivers of the HFPS & myself have been researching this death, unable to trace any record but have recently discovered a newspaper report that may be relevant.”

dhl-trunkIn the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts.  The arboretum, which hosts Morley’s bust, would have been of great interest to Lawrence given his love of nature. In 2019 we will be building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved and submit ideas here.

This article was originally published in Leftlion

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#MondayBlogs Lawrence and Brett 6: You, Me and Capri

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Painting on the right is by Gorbatov (1928)

As summer 1925 came to a close, Dorothy Brett considered spending the winter on her own in the ranch in New Mexico. But Lawrence was worried for her safety and insisted she visit Capri, a small island off the Bay of Naples. She is issued with a letter to the Brewsters, and so begins her last adventure with Lawrence in our final blog from Brett’s memoir. 

Capri is a tiny island (10.4 km2) in the Tyrrhenian Sea off the Sorrentine Peninsula, on the south side of the Gulf of Naples. It became a popular refuge for artists, writers and celebrities after the publication of Discovery of the Blue Grotto on the Isle of Capri by the German artist August Kopisch (1838). By the 19th century it had become a haven for gay men and lesbians to live a more open life. One of its most famous residents was Compton Mackenzie, who lived here between 1913 – 1920, and who would later satirise the lesbian colony in his 1928 novel Extraordinary Women.

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Dorothy Brett spent five months with the Brewsters in their villa Quattro Venti, high up on the island. Brett’s initial description of Achsah Brewster conjures an image of an ageing Princess Leia ‘all in white, with a long floating veil draped over her hat and a long white cape that hangs loosely from her shoulders, has a pale face and white grey hair parted in the middle, which sweeps down on each side of her oval face…She is entirely unexpected – of no race and of no time’. Earl Brewster is ‘small, has gray hair, almost white, a sharp, pointed nose, and dark, dark eyes, with a strange, hidden look’.

Portrait of Achsah with Cimbrone Background 1918
Earl Henry Brewster, ‘Portrait of Achsah with Cimbrone Background’ (1918)

When Lawrence eventually turns up he’s looking very dapper to the point that Brett doesn’t recognise him at first in ‘a new brown overcoat, a new gray suit, a brown Homburg hat, brown shoes – heavens!’ During his absence, Brett’s mastered all of the local walks on the tiny island and acts as his guide. But despite admiring the ‘deep ultramarine blue’ of the sea and the olive trees that offer ‘a waving mist of silvery green’ Lawrence is shattered and the long walks are too much for him. He informs the reason for his visit is he has been very ill again and, uncharacteristically defeatist, confides he is becoming so tired of it all. ‘There is such a depth of weariness in your voice, so hurt a look in your eyes, that nothing I can say seems adequate. I look at the bright sea, the faintly smoking mountain; I can hardly bear to look at the weary man beside me – pale, fragile, hopeless.’

On such occasions, Lawrence would usually pick a country and head off to start a new life. But now his restlessness required a more radical solution. ‘I would like to buy a sailing ship and sail among the Greek Islands and be free…free! Just to be free for a little while of it all.’ As always he’s happy to get his hands dirty and just needs a captain and a couple of sailors to guide him. Frieda has also felt the brunt of his frustration and he confides ‘you have no idea, Brett, how humiliating it is to beat a woman; afterwards one feels so humiliated.’ Then he targets his frustration at those who can walk but don’t.

‘People never will discipline themselves enough; and they have absolutely no pride. Their legs mean nothing to them. Think what a beautiful, alive thing a leg is – so narrow and strong, with the sensitive sole of the foot at the end of it. This is why I like to wear thin shoes; I like to feel the earth; I like my feet to be as close to the earth as possible. I used to love to feel the water in the irrigation ditch at the ranch, running over my sandals, round my feet. Sometimes I wish I had never left the ranch, the horses, the ditch. I envy you going back there’

As a result of his illness and the usual struggles for money, Lawrence begins recounting the difficult struggles his parents underwent to survive. He is acutely aware that his sickness as a child would have had a profound effect on their finances as ‘to be sick meant the doctor; that meant any extra shillings went for the doctor’s fee and medicine’. He surmises that his brother Ernest’s death was the result of ‘those early days of semi-starvation, of never having enough clothes, enough warmth, enough to eat’. No wonder he resented money so much when it had the power to determine life itself.

Capri DHL and DB
Artwork is from http://picssr.com/photos/klaus-lelek/page28

It’s in the final chapter of Brett’s memoir that she is explicit about her love for Lawrence and gets a bit gushy. ‘I sit and watch you. The sun pours down relentlessly on your head; a heavy lock of hair falls over your face; your beard glitters red in the sun’. Then things get a bit more surreal as she imagines Lawrence morphing into Pan, ‘As I watch you, the meaningless modern suit seems to drop away. A leopard skin, a mass of flowers and leaves wrap themselves round you. Out of your thick hair, two small horns poke their sharp points; the slender, cloven hoofs lie entangled in weeds. The flute slips from your hand. I stare at you in a kind of trance’.

Their time together is coming to a close. The Brewsters are packing for India and Brett is set to sail to America. She offers to delay her trip but Lawrence insists she goes. They have one last adventure together and head off to Amalfi. Lawrence has been subjected to a vegetarian diet with the Brewsters which has given him a huge appetite. He eagerly wolfs down a large steak with onions and potatoes. They visit Villa Cimbrone in Ravello, sketching a blue Venus in the garden, then sit in the scenic belvedere Terrazzo dell’Infinito and watch the ships pass below.

villa cimb
Terrazzo dell’Infinito at Villa Cimbrone, Ravello.

Then it is finally time to say goodbye. Lawrence waits on the little stone pier as Brett heads for the awaiting steamer via a row boat. ‘You wave to me. I stand there in my white coat, waving back to you. Something – God knows what – tells me I will never see you again. I am filled with this dread apprehension, as I stand and wave and wave. You lean out of the carriage, a small figure, waving the blue and green scarf I have given you. And, still waving, you are borne round the bend of the road, and are gone…gone forever…’ Brett was wearing a white coat and has never worn white again since.

It’s a terribly sad end to their friendship, particularly as we learn in the epilogue that Brett had left out one important fact that was only allowed to be revealed after her death – she and Lawrence had attempted to match their spiritual relationship with a physical relationship in Ravello but it all went horribly wrong. In fact, it ended rather cruelly, with Lawrence storming out of the room complaining ‘your boobs are all wrong’ which left Brett feeling ‘ashamed, bewildered, miserable’. Lawrence would later fictionalise this incident in the short story Glad Ghosts, but this time the two would successfully get it on.

Brett’s memoir is a loving testament to their troubled but intensely close relationship. Its power lies in being written directly to Lawrence, rendering the reader a voyeur. She ends the memoir with ‘I could go on writing of you forever’ which I believe she could quite happily have done so. But Brett is a remarkable character is her own right. She turned her back on her aristocratic heritage, spent the rest of her life in New Mexico, and during Lawrence’s life acted, as John Manchester rightly points out, as a ‘soul image to Lawrence, a counterpart to his own inner feminine side.’ Together, they are one of the greatest literary love affairs never to have happened.

dhl-trunkIn the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts.  Lawrence is a complex individual and we need to capture all aspects of his personality if we are to represent him correctly. How do we capture his relationship with Dorothy Brett? His violenec towards Frieda? His desire to set sail and escape the rest of the world? In 2019 we will be building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved and submit ideas here.

FURTHER READING