Sun-Struck: On the Question of Solar Sexuality and Speculative Realism in D. H. Lawrence

dhl hope

In this guest blog, Stephen Alexander, author of Torpedo the Ark, attempts to relate Lawrence’s work to recent trends in philosophy; speculative realism and object-oriented ontology.                                                                                                                                

“How strange it would be if some women came

forward and said:

We are sun-women!

We belong neither to men nor our children nor

even to ourselves

but to the sun.”

– D. H. Lawrence, Sun-Women [1]

Indeed! This would be queer, wouldn’t it? And yet this is precisely the phenomenon that I wish to discuss: what might be termed solar sexuality or sun-fucking. Like many forms of edgeplay, if such a practice promises bliss and fulfilment, so too does it risk death. Indeed, one of the arguments that I wish to put forward is that in learning how to love and be loved by the sun in a cosmic-carnal sense, one is left dehumanised and stripped naked before an uncaring universe wherein integral being ceases and life is soon extinguished. Thus what I’m offering here is a not simply a mixture of Lawrentian fantasy and pagan astro-porn, but a counter-vitalism that can be thought of either as a perverse form of speculative realism, or an aggressive material nihilism. What I’m not interested in is the sun understood mythologically, or as an object of religious veneration. For me, the sun is neither alive, nor is it a god.

For Lawrence, however, as for many other people who share his predilection for vitalism and divinity, the sun is more than a material object that can be adequately described and understood by physicists and astronomers. And if, primarily, Lawrence is concerned with the relationships between men and women, he nevertheless insists on the importance of the relation between humanity and the sun. Thus the first question that arises is how might we best define or determine this relationship? Is it, as the story ‘Sun’ suggests, potentially erotic in character? Might we really talk of ‘sex’ between a woman and the sun? Certainly we might, if we choose to subscribe to Lawrentian metaphysics. For Lawrence explicitly states that sex is solar in origin, describing it as a “majestic reserve in the sun”.[2] This is an interesting and novel definition and one that obliges us to think of sex in a far wider sense than usual; as something “so much more than phallic, and so much deeper than functional desire”.[3]

Because Lawrence thinks of sex as a type of solar activity within the living tissue of men and women, perhaps the term that best describes our relation to the sun is correlation. For there is clearly a notion of mutual interdependence between the sun and humankind in Lawrence’s work: we can’t think one without thinking the other. And yet, correlation – something which, as a philosophical concept, we’ll be returning to in the closing remarks – doesn’t sound a very Lawrentian term and I think Lawrence would be happier speaking about correspondence.

For correspondence, implies a far closer level of intimate proximity between terms: they become not merely interdependent, but analogous at a certain level. There is also a vital implication: abstract figures or ideas correlate; living things correspond and communicate. And so it’s not surprising to find this term, correspondence, being used frequently within Lawrence’s work when he wishes to discuss human relationships with non-human bodies and forces. To give but one example of many, in the first version of his essay ‘The Two Principles’, he writes:

“There certainly does exist a subtle and complex sympathy, correspondence, between the plasm of the human body … and the material elements outside. The primary human psyche is a complex plasm, which quivers, sense-conscious, in contact with the circumambient cosmos.”[4]

Correspondence, we can therefore agree, is a privileged term in the Lawrentian vocabulary. And doubtless its appeal lies in the fact that it is the more religious term: for correspondence is an essentially theological doctrine, associated with Emanuel Swedenborg, who believed in a correspondence between spiritual and natural forces extending to all objects in the physical world. If, for Swedenborg, ultimately everything corresponded to God, then, for Lawrence, all things seem to refer back to the sun, understood as a religious symbol, rather than a real object.

Not only does Lawrence wish to reject modern cosmology, he hopes to reverse it. In particular, he wants to reverse the idea that life evolves from matter. On the contrary, he argues, the material universe results from the breakdown of primary organic tissue. This is the central claim of his anti-scientific vitalism and Lawrence insists on this point in full knowledge that it is, as a matter of fact, not the case.[5]

Unfortunately, Lawrence is not alone in this opposition. Rather shamefully, many philosophers have also often been antagonistic and condescending towards science, accusing it, for example, of dogmatism or naïve realism. But, unlike Lawrence, I do not believe a so-called ‘life-mystery’ has ultimate control over the mechanistic and material universe, nor: “If it be the supreme will of the living that the sun should stand still in heaven, then the sun will stand still.”[6] This is simply an occult conceit: the frankly preposterous belief that there can be a magical suspension of the laws of physics at the behest of human will power.[7]

That said, I understand Lawrence’s objection to positivism and his response to the inhuman scale of the universe as given to us within astronomy. When you first encounter the facts and figures of the universe you can indeed become “dizzy with the sense of illimitable space”.[8] But I think we should accept the challenge of this and affirm our ‘imprisonment’ – Lawrence’s word – within an indifferent, uncaring, essentially godless universe. Nihilism is not something to fear, or seek to overcome, but, as a form of intellectual integrity, something to affirm.[9]

Lawrence, I know, wants imaginative wonder and release and would rather have religious myth than scientific description, as the former guarantees him this. Essentially, he’s a theo-humanist and a fantasist, who dismisses empirical evidence in favour of subjective ‘truth’ as he feels it. And so he prefers astrology to astronomy. And why not, when the former is so much more flattering to our sense of self-importance? For astrology gives us man translated in onto-cosmic terms. Lawrence writes:

“In astronomical space, one can only move, one cannot be. In the astrological heavens … the whole man is set free, once the imagination crosses the border. The whole man, bodily and spiritual, walks in the magnificent field of the stars … and the feet tread splendidly upon … the heavens, instead of untreadable space.”[10]

The first sentence is doubtless true: our being is mortal and terrestrial and we do cease to exist in human terms once we venture into the “horrible hollow void”[11] of outer space. But I don’t like Lawrence’s desire to place his feet upon the heavens – it seems an impertinence and embarrassingly allzumenschliches. Small and insignificant, Lawrence wants to project himself into “the great sky with its meaningful stars and its profoundly meaningful motions”.[12] He wants to declare his unity with the cosmos. But this is surely the same kind of transcendental egoism that Lawrence ridicules Whitman and others for. He boasts that he is not afraid to feel his own nothingness “in front of the vast void of astronomical space”,[13] but, actually, he does seem afraid when confronted with reality and ontological hollowness.

However, scared or not, Lawrence at least knows what it is he wants: a release of the imagination in order that it might make him “feel stronger and happier”.[14] Science doesn’t provide this, he asserts. At best, it satisfies the intellect, even as it gives us a sun and a moon that are “only thought-forms … things we know but never feel by experience”.[15] This, I have to say, is a bit rich. For so too are the sun and moon given us by astrology only thought-forms – and, arguably, nothing but colourful thought-forms, whereas the sun spoken of within astronomy has some actual basis in material reality.

So if, in a sense, I agree with Lawrence that we have ‘lost the sun’ in the same manner and for the same reason we have lost all things as things in themselves,[16] still I might question what the best way to recover the sun is: poetry, astrology, eroticized sunbathing? Or perhaps a speculative and material form of philosophy that will liberate us from the personal entanglement of correlationism.

sun dhl

D.H. Lawrence’s Sun

Originally written in 1925, ‘Sun’ was significantly revised three years later and it is this ‘unexpurgated’ text to which I’ll be referring here. The central protagonist, Juliet, is an embryonic Lady Chatterley: rich, bored, and sexually frustrated. However, instead of taking a human lover, she establishes an erotic relationship with the sun, that strangest of strange attractors. Such a relationship is both pleasurable and dangerous: the sun kisses us into life, but it cares nothing for the personal, the egoic, or the human. In fact, as we shall see, it incinerates these things and, as one commentator rightly notes, whilst the sun helps Juliet overcome her depression, it also challenges her pale-faced American idealism and her status as a modern independent woman. For whilst the Italian sun is rather less fierce and demanding than the Aztec sun that thrives upon blood, nevertheless it is just as relentless and Juliet’s body “is made to acknowledge its subjection to the inexorable processes of fertility and procreation, in spite of her will’s resistance”.[17] Clearly, there’s a sexual politics being promoted in this biological fatalism, though whether it’s solar or simply sexist in origin is debatable.

The story opens with Juliet’s husband and mother being instructed by her doctors to take her away into the sun. Despite her initial scepticism, she allows herself to be carried away from the New World to the Old: from a land of steel, to a land of olive trees and lemon groves. It sounds lovely – and it is lovely. But initially, Juliet is unimpressed:

“She saw it all, and in a measure it was soothing. But it was all external. She didn’t really care about it. She was herself just the same, with all her anger and frustration inside her, and her incapacity to feel anything real.” [20]

We have already noted this loss of world and the feeling of being somehow out of touch with things in the phenomenal universe; certain only of our own subjective thoughts and feelings; our own rage, rather than the physical reality of objects. Again, the question is what can we do about it. For Lawrence, it invariably seems to involve taking your clothes off:  “‘You know, Juliet, the doctor told you to lie in the sun, without your clothes. Why don’t you?’ said her mother.” [20] Juliet responds aggressively to this suggestion: “‘When I am fit to do so, I will. Do you want to kill me?’” [20], she demands.

It seems a slightly hysterical overreaction, but, actually, she’s quite right to fear for her mortal well-being. For the sun will destroy her, even when she feels strong enough to go naked before it. In becoming sun-woman, Juliet sets off on an “adventure into the material universe”[18] and hers is not a story of a being among beings, nor a tale of human self-discovery, but, rather, a flirtation with death. As we will see, her soul “is in a sense dehumanised”[19] in its encounter with the sun in its stark reality and her story offers us a “vision of life hovering tiny and isolated”[20] against a solar system where individuality is spent and meaningless.

sun gazing

Sun-Gazing

Juliet’s solar affair begins one morning “when the sun lifted himself molten and sparkling, naked over the sea’s rim” [20] and she finds herself transfixed whilst lying in her bed:

“It was as if she had never seen the sun rise before. She had never seen the naked sun stand up pure upon the sea-line, shaking the night off himself, like wetness. And he was full and naked. And she wanted to come to him.

So the desire sprang up secretly in her, to be naked to the sun. She cherished her desire like a secret. She wanted to come together with the sun.” [20]

There are a couple of points I’d like to comment on here. Firstly, note the typical engendering of the sun. In most cultures and languages the sun is invariably male. This lazy sexual dualism, that divides everything into polarised male and female forces, is not only untenable, but it fosters and perpetuates a deeply reactionary sexual politics. Happily, even within loyalist Lawrence circles such binary thinking is today met with suspicion and deserved hostility.

Secondly, I’d like to say something about the odd practice of sun-gazing. Throughout the story Juliet continually looks at the sun and there is an esoteric practice that advocates precisely this: staring at the rising or setting sun for unusually prolonged periods, in order to gain physical and spiritual well-being. The fact that looking directly at the sun, even for a short time, can cause solar retinopathy and lead to permanent damage or blindness, is not something that seems to cause proponents of sun-gazing any real concern. They don’t deny such risks, but they do play them down and many assert that, if done with due diligence, sun-gazing can actually improve eyesight.[21] Indeed, some sun-gazers claim that not only does the practice make you feel happier and healthier, but it can directly increase your energy levels and thus radically reduce the need for food: that one can, as it were, meet one’s nutritional requirements directly from sunlight, a bit like a plant. The fact that people don’t possess chlorophyll and so cannot photosynthesise is discreetly overlooked and, as with other forms of inedia, there is no credible scientific evidence to support this claim.

sun fuck

Sun-Fucking

Having decided to give herself to the sun in order to fulfil her desire, Juliet attempts to find a suitable spot where she may consummate her solar-sexual relationship. She realises that it will have to be away from the house – and away from people. But it is not easy finding a place in the modern world in which one may go hidden and alone in order to have “intercourse with the sun” [21].

However, find such a place she does and here, in a series of explicitly eroticised passages, Lawrence describes how Juliet strips naked and gives herself to the sun, exulting in the fact that ‘he’ was no human lover: “She could feel the sun penetrating into her bones: nay, further, even into emotions and thoughts.” [21] She is left feeling not only sun-kissed, but sun-dazed, and sun-fucked. If Lawrence’s language, with its incantatory rhythm and its porno-poetic quality encourages us to think more fully the nature of solar-coition, so too does it have something troubling about it: something voyeuristic and, indeed, sexually violent. For Juliet is stripped and subject not just to the gaze of the sun, but also to the gaze of the reader, who is invited and encouraged to stare at her nakedness just as the sun looks down upon her body laid bare and described in detail. As Juliet is penetrated by the sun, “she lay stunned with the strangeness of the thing that was happening to her” [21]. Can a woman, we might ask, ever give consent to sexual intercourse with the sun? It’s debatable. Indeed, we might also enquire, as in the case of Leda or the Virgin Mary, is this not ultimately a form of rape to which we bear witness?

Less disturbing, but perhaps more surprising, is Lawrence’s sometimes rather crude use of sexual punning and double entendre. When he tells us that Juliet wanted to have intercourse with the sun and come with the sun, I think he fully intends for the sexual connotation to be heard and understood. The verb, to come, for example, meaning to orgasm, would certainly have been familiar in the 1920s, although probably not used in polite society. I’m surely not the first reader to find this peculiar mix of mytho-religious language and sea-side postcard eroticism (taken to its climax in the Chatterley writings) less than successful.

woman-sun-goddess

Becoming Sun-Woman

Despite being ravished by the sun during this first encounter and left feeling dazed and violated by the sun’s power, Juliet’s only vital concern is now for the sun: “She was thinking inside herself, of the sun in his splendour, and his entering into her. Her life was now a secret ritual.” [23] And so, every day, she went at some point to her secret spot among the cactus, wearing only a light wrap and sandals, so that “in an instant … she was naked to the sun” [23]. Soon, she feels as if she knows the sun “in every thread of her body” [23] and she becomes increasingly confident and carefree: “Her heart of anxiety … had disappeared altogether … And her tense womb, though still closed, was slowly unfolding, slowly, slowly, like a lily bud under water, as the sun mysteriously touched it.”[23]

This is followed by a passage crucial to the anti-humanism of the story:

“With her knowledge of the sun, and her conviction that the sun was gradually penetrating her to know her, in the cosmic carnal sense of the word, came over her a feeling of detachment from people, and a certain contemptuous tolerance for human beings altogether. They were so un-elemental, so un-sunned. They were so like graveyard worms.” [23-4]

This seems a bit harsh – and Juliet isn’t only thinking of sophisticated urbanites, or middle-class persons such as herself and her husband, for even the local peasants “with their donkeys, sun-blackened as they were, were not sunned right through. There was a little soft core of fear … where the soul of man cowered in fear of death, and still more in fear of the natural blaze of life. … All men were like that. – Why admit men!” [24]

Why indeed? And yet, fairly soon after reaching this conclusion, this is exactly what Juliet decides to do: to disappointingly admit a man; a sun-darkened peasant with a donkey and a wife and a hard-on.[22] We’ll meet this peasant and his erect penis shortly. But what I want to stress here is how her new contempt for sun-fearing mankind results in Juliet being far less cautious about being seen naked by the local people and increasingly insouciant: all she cared about was being thought beautiful by the sun and not the judgement of society. This might be thought liberating, but we must remember, of course, that the sun doesn’t care about her in the least: this is just her fantasy and conceit.[23]

As her misanthropy and insouciance continue to develop side-by-side, so too does her skin begin to change colour: “all her body was rosy, rosy and turning to gold. She was like another person. She was another person.” [24] This makes her sun-proud and sun-happy: to lose that white, un-sunned body that the Greeks thought fishy and unhealthy and to become at last a transhuman sun-woman:

“It was not just taking sun-baths. It was much more than that. Something deep inside her unfolded and relaxed, and she was given to a cosmic influence. By some mysterious will inside her, deeper than her known consciousness and her known will, she was put into connection with the sun, and the stream of the sun flowed through her, round her womb. She herself, her conscious self, was secondary, a secondary person, almost an onlooker. The true Juliet lived in the dark flow of the sun within her deep body, like a river of dark rays circling, circling dark and violet round the sweet, shut bud of her womb.” [26]

It’s interesting how Lawrence is at pains to stress that what Juliet is doing is something entirely different to and so much more than the sunbathing indulged in by millions of other women around the world: interesting, but not entirely convincing. Clearly, for Lawrence, becoming sun-woman isn’t just a matter of removing your clothes and lying naked in the sun.[24] Indeed, for Lawrence, most modern women have no nakedness and if they strip it is merely to flaunt their bodies in a peculiarly non-physical, optical aspect. Today, says Lawrence, in or out of her knickers makes very little difference to her desirability: “She’s a finished off ego, an assertive conscious entity, cut off like a doll from any mystery. And her nudity is about as interesting as a doll’s.”[25]

Leaving aside this slight towards modern women – and indeed towards dolls – the key point is that, for Lawrence, if you want to have sex with the sun then you have to do more that seek out yourself in the sky: you have to discover solar otherness and accept the cost and the consequence of so doing. If you only seek out yourself in your relationships – be it with human or non-human lovers – then it is just a form of narcissism and you may as well just masturbate.

As Juliet becomes increasingly subject to the sun, or, perhaps, we should say sexually objectified by the sun, she spends more and more time naked, admiring her own red-gold breasts and thighs, and aware that, in spite of herself, her womb was beginning to open “wide with rosy ecstasy, like a lotus flower” [28]. It’s at this point she encounters the peasant and her desire switches from sun to man: a man who is in her eyes the sun made flesh. As he looks at her, transfixed by her nakedness, she experiences the same “blue fire running through her limbs to her womb … spreading in helpless ecstasy” [29] as she feels before the sun. This fire flows between them: “like the blue, streaming fire from the heart of the sun. And she saw the phallus rise under his clothing” [29].

phallus
Haesindang Park (해신당 공원), also called Penis Park, is a park in South Korea. 

Phallic Philosophy

Strangely, it always becomes necessary to speak about the phallus when thinking about the sun: for what is an erection other than the body of man declaring: I am the Sun. As Bataille writes, the verb to be and the integral erection tied to it, is ultimately nothing other than an articulation of amorous solar frenzy.[26] For the erection, like the sun, is something that rises and falls and scandalizes, being equally obscene, equally demanding; a quasi-miraculous phenomenon resulting from a complex interaction of factors, often triggered by some form of sexual stimulation, though this need not always be the case. Indeed, Lawrence explicitly challenges the idea that love calls potency into being. On the contrary, he suggests, it is power that gives rise to love: and it’s not love, but power – which is essentially solar power – that is the first and greatest of the ‘life mysteries’. Arguably, this is what Juliet is after: a taste of power that comes to us from outside; not something self-generated, or which can be bought with American dollars: “However smart we be,” writes Lawrence, “however rich and clever … it doesn’t help us at all. The real power comes in to us from beyond. Life enters us from behind, where we are sightless, and from below, where we do not understand.”[27] And so, to be sun-fucked is, also, to be sodomised and some of us might once more think of Bataille and his notion of the solar anus at this point.

Juliet wants to live, and to live she must have life and life is power. Or, perhaps more precisely, it is the feeling of power [Machtgefühl] – which comes, ironically, through the expenditure and exercise of power, not from its possession. When one is powerful, like the sun, one gives oneself away: the solar economy is supremely wasteful: it shines and shines to no end on one and all. Lawrence writes:

“We must live. And to live, life must be in us. It must come to us, the power of life, and we must not try to get a strangle-hold upon it. …

But the life will not come unless we live. That is the whole point. ‘To him that hath shall be given’. To [her] that hath life shall be given life: on condition, of course, that [she] lives.

And again, life does not mean length of days. Poor old Queen Victoria had length of days. But Emily Brontë had life. She died of it.”[28]

This is a profoundly provocative thought: Life kills! Energy eventually escapes its entrapment within form and is liberated back into the solar flux and that’s all life is; a temporary arrest of sunlight. And that’s all death is; a release of sunlight. And those who live with the greatest intensity and imitate the sun often die young, burning out like tiny stars. Those who go on and on into old age either lack vitality, or they are monsters of stamina like Picasso. As a rule, it is better to live fast and die young than live like one who has never known the power of the sun, or the love of another in whom the sun can be glimpsed.

So, Juliet wants life and to feel the power of life in herself. She achieves this primarily via a direct relationship with the sun, but she also toys with the possibility of fucking a man in whom the sun is embodied: in whom she sees the sun rise – or at least the penis stir into tumescence. First, we might say, she opens her womb to the sun; then she thinks about opening her legs to the man. For the phallus, according to Lawrence, is the bridge not just between man and woman, or the present and the future, but also between humanity and the cosmos: it is the phallus which connects us sensually to the stars and which is the symbol of our unison with all things as things.[29] And it’s this that Juliet wants – not the man per se.

Initially, however, Juliet retreats from this first encounter and attempts to collect herself – which is not so easy when your womb is “wide open like a lotus flower … in a radiant sort of eagerness” [29] and sexual desire for the sun, the man, and the sun-in-man, dominates your consciousness. Not, as I have said, that she is personally interested in the peasant. As a human being, he doesn’t exist for her and is far too much of “a crude beast” [30] to take seriously. However, “the strange challenge of his eyes had held her, blue and overwhelming like the blue sun’s heart. And she had seen the fierce stirring of the phallus under his thin trousers” [30]. Thus, for Juliet, he is the sun on earth and she feels him so powerfully, that she can’t ignore him: “And her womb was open to him.” [30]

However, despite their mutual attraction, “she had not the courage to go down to him” [30] and he lacked the courage to approach her. As in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, there are three things standing in the way of love: class, culture and convention. But, before we get too carried away, we might like to stop and ask, as one critic asks, just what precisely would be demonstrated “by a middle-class woman’s odd half-hour of anonymous sex with a peasant”?[30]

Would it really have shown ‘courage’ to have let herself be fucked by the latter? Wouldn’t it have just been exploitative: a form of sex tourism and sexual objectification? We might argue that just as Juliet is objectified by the sun into an impersonal sun-woman and open womb, then so too is the peasant objectified by her into a walking dildo and sperm bank. I’d like to say a little more on this idea of sexual objectification, as it is central to any discussion of the wider sexual politics of this story.

 

object
Objectification 4 by Lee Tonks

Objectification

 

Whilst within philosophy objectification refers to the process by which abstract concepts are treated as if they were concrete objects, it is more commonly understood to refer to the manner in which people – human subjects – are treated as things: things to be exploited, for example, in the labour market; things to be fucked in the bedroom; or things to be disposed of in the death camps: tools to be used, toys to be played with, corpses to be burnt.

Thus, usually, and with good reason, objectification is seen as a bad thing and people don’t like to be treated as objects. That is to say, they don’t want to be stripped of their humanity by which they mean, amongst other things, their autonomy, their agency, their individuality, etc. These things are what most people pride themselves on and upon which they assemble a whole series of human rights. Thus to be seen or treated as an object or thing is, in a word, degrading.

Often, it is within the amorous realm that this question of objectification continually comes to the fore. Indeed, for many feminists objectification is always sexual objectification  and is a form of violence in itself, closely tied to fetishism, in which the body, parts of the body, or qualities such as shape, size, and colour are invested with greater erotic fascination than the person as a whole.

But if we are to rethink the object and rethink relations in terms of seduction, then this issue is no longer so straightforward. We might then ask for example: What’s wrong with being appreciated physically and impersonally? Why is it any better to be valued for one’s ideas, rather than one’s breasts? What’s wrong with judging by appearance? These are questions rarely raised, however, and objectification remains one of those issues that seems to unite critics across the political spectrum, although there are maverick commentators, like Camille Paglia, who contend that the ability to see other people as objects is a species speciality closely tied to our ability to conceptualise and think aesthetically (i.e. it’s a good thing and is that which, ironically, makes us distinctly human).

Paglia, however, belongs to a small minority of thinkers. Most who discuss objectification continue to regard it as a morally and politically problematic issue, often tied to discussions around pornography, but which has its philosophical roots in the work of Immanuel Kant, who believed that all forms of extramarital sex invariably resulted in objectification. Obviously, therefore, Kant would almost certainly not have approved of Juliet’s projected dalliance with an Italian peasant. For Kant, all human beings have an absolute ‘inner worth’ or dignity and it’s morally imperative that each person respects not only their own humanity, but the personhood of others. And this means never merely treating them as a means, but always as an end in themselves. Like Lawrence, he strongly objects to instrumental sex in which one of the partners is treated as a mere toy or tool for the other’s own pleasure and purposes.

Personally, I find it difficult to share this concern about diminished personhood and loss of integrity etc. I don’t see what’s so great about being a subject, or what’s so objectionable about being an object. In fact, I’m almost tempted to agree with Alan Soble who argues that human subjectivity is simply an anthropocentric conceit and that no one can therefore be ‘objectified’, as no one actually possesses any higher ontological status. Thus, for Soble, there can be no moral objection to Juliet’s proposed sexual exploitation of the Italian peasant.   Indeed, it might be argued that very often people like feeling useful; to feel that they have no instrumental part to play in society is what makes many men and women feel unhappy. Clearly the peasant is sexually interested in Juliet and one doubts very much whether he – unlike Mellors – would have any objection to becoming ‘her ladyship’s fucker’. Probably he would be more than happy to serve as a willing stud-animal and solar substitute to the rich, beautiful foreigner. With that thought, let us now return to the tale and to its conclusion.

sun womb
Sun Womb by Mara Friedman

Fate

Juliet now has a problem: “The sun had opened her womb, and she was no longer free” [30]. And then, unexpectedly, her husband, Maurice, arrives on the scene. At first she has to struggle to remember him and the fact that she was married. But with her troublesome womb-flower in full bloom she thinks to herself ‘at least he’s a man’ – even if, in his dark-grey business suit, he looks “pathetically out of place” [32] on the Italian hillside: “like a blot of ink on the pale, sun-glowing slope” [32].

Understandably, Maurice is rather taken aback by the sight of his sun-ravished wife. She looked like an obscene goddess: “standing erect and nude … glistening with the sun and with warm life” [32]. And yet, somehow, “she did not seem so terribly naked” [32]. It was as if she were clothed in the fire of the sun, like the Scarlet Woman of Revelation. Nevertheless, she makes him nervous: for it was a new woman he saw before him, with her “sun-tanned, wind-stroked thighs” [33] – not the white-skinned woman he had waved off months earlier from New York harbour. Nervous or not, he felt a strange desire “stirring in him for the limbs and sun-wrapped flesh of the woman … It was a new desire in his life, and it hurt him” [33] as all new feelings do:

“He was dazed with admiration, but also, at a deadly loss. He was used to her as a person. And this was no longer a person, but a fleet, sun-strong body, soulless and alluring as a nymph …” [33]

To Juliet, however, her husband is now revealed as “utterly, utterly sunless!” [34] and he casts a cold, grey shadow over the flower of her womb. She tells him that she can never go back to New York and her old life: that she cannot abandon the sun. He, to be fair, agrees that it would be best for her to stay. But, really, how can she stay? Stay and do what? Sunbathe for the rest of her days until she is old and wrinkled? Stay and be pleasured by a sun-vital peasant who exists for her only as a kind of “inarticulate animal” [37] whom she might fuck? Admittedly, the latter idea still tempts her. For sex with the peasant: “would be like bathing in another kind of sunshine, … and afterwards one would forget … It would be just a bath of warm, powerful life … the procreative bath, like sun” [37].

And for Juliet, this would be most welcome. For she was “so tired of personal contacts, and having to talk with the man afterwards” [37]. With the peasant, she could take her satisfaction and have done. And, should she conceive a child with him, well, so what? Why shouldn’t she? It would, she tells herself, “be like bearing a child to the unconscious sun” [37]. This thought again arouses her desire: “And the flower of her womb radiated. It did not care about sentiment or possession. It wanted man-dew only …” [37]

But, despite the promptings of her sperm-thirsty womb, Juliet refuses this solar-biological destiny and chooses instead to submit to a more conventional fate: to remain married to Maurice and to bear his children: “She was bound to the vast, fixed wheel of circumstance, and there was no Perseus in the universe, to cut the bonds” [38], writes Lawrence.

And that is how the tale ends: with circumstance and society more powerful even than the sun, or the desire for impersonal sex. This suggests, surprisingly perhaps, that solar-erotic forces are pretty feeble after all. Or, alternatively, that Juliet was not the sun-woman that Lawrence dreamed of, but just another bored, rather selfish and narcissistic middle-class woman flirting with the possibility of a foreign affair, before settling back into a bourgeois life that promised to always pop an olive into her vodka martini.

dhl hope

Coda: On Correlationism (Towards a Speculative Realism)

I’d like to close this paper on a contemporary philosophical note and return to an idea that I briefly mentioned in the opening remarks, namely, the idea of correlation:

“By ‘correlation’ we mean the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other. We will henceforth call correlationism any current of thought which maintains the unsurpassable character of the correlation so defined. Consequently, it becomes possible to say that every philosophy which disavows naive realism has become a variant on correlationism.”[31]

I think Lawrence often falls into this correlationist trap. Indeed, he often willingly jumps into it. For he’s not really interested in the stars, animals, trees, or other objects, but only in their relation to man, who, in turn, cannot be considered outside of his relation to the world. That’s the contradiction or paradox at the heart of his writing. For whilst he repeatedly insists that he wants to know the great outside – that inhuman space of the savage exterior etc. – like all critical thinkers after Kant, Lawrence too is fundamentally interested in consciousness and language and these concerns keep him tied to a form of correlationism.

Quentin Meillassoux writes that if so many recent thinkers have insisted so adamantly that their thought is entirely oriented towards the outside, “this could be because of their failure to come to terms with a bereavement … For it could be that contemporary [thinkers] have lost the … absolute outside of pre-critical thinkers: that outside which was not relative to us … existing in itself regardless of whether we are thinking of it or not …”[32]

Lawrence has lost the sun as a thing-in-itself and he knows it. And like a lot of recent theorists, whilst he might rage against ideas of representation, this in no way means he is prepared to abandon the more originary correlation between thought and being, or Dasein and world. Perhaps this is why he ‘instinctively’ hates the statements made by science such as ‘the universe is 13.5 billion years old’, or ‘the sun is 4.6 billion years old’, because these statements obviously posit a pre-human and non-human cosmos and Lawrence, for all his professed anti-humanism, simply doesn’t want (or know how) to think such ideas.[33]

But whilst we may not like what empirical science tells us about the universe and those events that are “anterior to the advent of life as well as consciousness”,[34] the fact is that these statements exist and present a very real and very serious challenge to those philosophies that are reliant upon some form of correlationism. For they tell us something about an independent reality that has been met with scepticism and contempt for over two hundred years. Further, they oblige us to ask how we are to grapple with scientific statements “bearing explicitly upon a manifestation of the world that is posited as anterior to the emergence of thought and even of life – posited, that is, as anterior to every form of human relation to the world?[35]

Put simply, the sun pre-dates us: it has ancestral reality, i.e. a reality that comes before “the emergence of the human species – or even anterior to every recognized form of life on earth”.[36] Lawrence, as I have said, seems not to want to admit this, or is careless of its significance. For if life is in fact “inscribed in a temporality”[37] within which it is just one rare event among others, then it is far from being the crucial and determining factor that vitalists believe; it is simply a stage, rather than an origin. Lawrence flatly denies this: but then, as I have said, he’s not interested in that which is factually correct, but only in that which is imaginatively true for him as a human being. He wants a meaningful universe and the universe is meaningful “only as a given-to-a-living (or thinking)-being”.[38] He wants to know the sun; but he wants to know the woman naked beneath the sun to whom the latter is made manifest still more. He hates idealism, but he is himself a subjective idealist par excellence. For ultimately, argues Meillassoux, “every variety of correlationism is exposed as an extreme idealism, one that is incapable of admitting … what science tells us about … occurrences of matter independent of humanity”.[39] [18].

Of course, it might be asked what harm does it do for our philosophers and poets to remain idealists at heart? The answer is that it does the very greatest possible harm; for it lends credibility and support to the forces of stupidity and fundamentalism: “And our correlationist then finds herself dangerously close to contemporary creationists: those quaint believers who assert today, in accordance with a ‘literal’ reading of the Bible, that the earth is no more than 6,000 years old”.[40]

Surely no one wants this? At any rate, I don’t want it. And that’s why I have become increasingly frustrated with much of Lawrence’s thinking and, indeed, uncomfortable with a good deal of modern European philosophy – including works by authors who are still often uncritically cited as intellectual authorities in academic circles.[41] What then do I want? Well, like Meillassoux, whilst obviously wishing to “remain as distant from naive realism as from correlationist subtlety”,[42] I ultimately want the very thing  that Lawrence claims he wants: i.e., to achieve what modern philosophy has been telling us for the past two centuries is impossible to achieve: “to get out of ourselves, to grasp the in-itself, to know what is whether we are or not”.[43] I want, in other words, to think a world without thought and to think things as things.

Further, like Ray Brassier, I wish to push nihilism – understood not as something to be overcome, but as a vector of intellectual discovery – as far as possible. For rather than trying, like Lawrence, to safeguard the experience of human meaning and value from the incursions of scientific discovery, I think philosophy today should deploy its full intellectual resources to facilitate the disenchantment of the world. So, yes, I want to know the sun, but not a mythological sun, or a metaphorical sun, or the ideal sun of Plato. I want to know the real sun: the sun that will never know humanity, even as it burns the earth to a cinder and fucks us all. For we would do well to remember in closing Nietzsche’s fable:

“Once upon a time, in some remote corner of that universe which is dispersed into innumerable twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowledge. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of ‘world history’, but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever animals had to die.”[44]

– And when the human adventure into thought is all over, nothing will have changed.

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. Stephen is one of our featured writers and has submitted something. You’ll have to wait to find out what it is. 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

Notes   

[1] D. H. Lawrence, ‘Sun-Women’, in The Complete Poems, ed. Vivian de Sola Pinto and F. Warren Roberts, (Penguin Books, 1977), p. 525.

[2] D. H. Lawrence, ‘The Novel’, Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays, ed. Bruce Steele, (Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 190.  

[3] Ibid., p. 189. Despite this remark, Lawrence cannot resist offering us a phallocentric model of sex in ‘Sun’ as we will see.

[4] D. H. Lawrence, ‘The Two Principles’, First Version, 1918-19, Studies in Classic American Literature, ed. Ezra Greenspan, Lindeth Vasey, and John Worthen, (Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 260.

[5] Lawrence is not alone in developing a metaphysics that rests upon some organic, sentient, or vital term: Hegel gives us Geist; Schopenhauer, Will; Nietzsche, Will to Power; and Deleuze, Life. The thing that unites these thinkers is that they simply cannot accept or take seriously “the possibility that there is nothing living or willing in the inorganic realm”. In other words, there is an underlying agreement (rooted in Kant’s transcendental idealism) that “anything that is totally asubjective cannot be”. And this is so even in writers like Lawrence who are otherwise highly critical of traditional metaphysics and notions of the subject. See Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude, trans. Ray Brassier, (Continuum, 2009), p. 38.

[6] D. H. Lawrence, ‘Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance’ (1920-1), Appendix IV: Studies in Classic American Literature, p. 395.

[7] Ultimately, we might suggest that Lawrence is not simply concerned with questions of correlation or correspondence between mankind and the cosmos, but in exercising the direct control of mind over the material universe, the independence of which he describes as illusory. Thus, whilst he is not interested in the scientist’s attempt to understand the laws that govern the latter, he remains fascinated by the magician’s attempt to exert  ‘life-power’ over mechanistic forces and matter.

[8] D. H. Lawrence, ‘Introduction to The Dragon of the Apocalypse, by Frederick Carter, in Apocalypse and the Writings on Revelation, ed. Mara Kalnins, (Cambridge University Press, 1980), p. 46.

[9] I find myself in agreement here with Ray Brassier, who argues that nihilism is an important “speculative opportunity” and an “unavoidable corollary of the realist conviction that there is a mind-independent reality”. See the Preface to his Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. xi.

[10] D. H. Lawrence, ‘Introduction to The Dragon of the Apocalypse, by Frederick Carter, in Apocalypse and the Writings on Revelation, p. 46.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., p. 47.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., p. 51.

[16] Actually, I’m not sure that even here I agree with Lawrence. For he suggests that we have lost the sun by coming out of ‘responsive connection’ with it, but how could that be? For if we are connected, as he says, via an “eternal vital correspondence between our blood and the sun”, then we surely couldn’t break such a relationship, any more than, for example, we could choose to ignore the laws of gravity. Lawrence, however, insists that once we exchange our religious-mythical understanding of the sun for a scientific conception, then it no longer revitalises us, but, on the contrary, subtly disintegrates the very blood within our veins. See Apocalypse, p. 77. See also Fantasia of the Unconscious, where he pushes his correlationism to the extreme and insists that: “The sun sets and has his perfect polarity in the life-circuit established between him and all living individuals. Break that circuit, and the sun breaks. Without man, beasts, butterflies, trees, toads, the sun would gutter and go out like a spent lamp.” Psychoanalysis of the Unconscious and Fantasia of the Unconscious, ed. Bruce Steele, (Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 188.

[17] Neil Reeve, ‘Introduction’ to D. H. Lawrence’s The Woman Who Rode Away and Other Stories, ed. Dieter Mehl and Christa Jansohn, (Penguin Books, 1996), p. xxxi. Note that page references to the story ‘Sun’ as it appears here (based on the Cambridge edition of 1995), will be given directly in the text.

[18] D. H. Lawrence, ‘Dana’ (intermediate version, 1919), Studies in Classic American Literature, p. 320.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., p. 321.

[21] I’m thinking here of the so-called Bates Method, a form of alternative eye-care developed by William Bates (1860-1931), who counted the visually-impaired Aldous Huxley amongst his famous followers.

[22] This turning to the man is, I think, rather disappointing, but predictable to anyone who knows anything about Lawrence’s sexual politics. I’m fairly relaxed about Juliet losing her ‘independence’ and indeed her humanity in order to become a sun-woman. But I’m a little more troubled by the idea that even sun-women ultimately need to find men for validation and need, in particular, for men to gaze upon them with desire. Lawrence falls back into a conventionally phallocentric way of thinking the moment he tells us that whilst sun-women might not belong to their husbands, they remain subordinate nevertheless to sun-men: “walking each in his own sun-glory / with bright legs and un-cringing buttocks.” See ‘Sun-Men’, The Complete Poems, p. 525.

[23] To be fair to Juliet, many women within our society are encouraged to develop a high degree of narcissism, due to the fact that they are endlessly judged on their physical appearance, rather than on their ideas and achievements. This preoccupation with always looking young, slim, sexy and attractive, leads to a form of self-objectification: women adopt a male attitude towards their bodies and find erotic satisfaction in displaying their own flesh and being gazed at. Of course, men are also increasingly subject to powerful regimes that determine their masculinity and appearance: in fact, it might be argued that within consumer culture we are all objectified and narcissistic as a consequence.

[24] As Lawrence makes clear in Apocalypse, the only way modern men and women can get back the sun is via a form of religious worship: “We can’t get the sun in us by lying naked like pigs on a beach.” Indeed, according to Lawrence, the sun hates sunbathers who have failed to strip themselves of “the trash of personal feelings and ideas” and get down to their genuinely “naked sun-self” and it destroys them even as it bronzes their skin. See pp. 76-8.

[25] D. H. Lawrence, ‘…… Love Was Once a Little Boy’, Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays, ed. Michael Herbert, (Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 346.

[26] See Georges Bataille, ‘The Solar Anus’, in Visions of Excess, ed. Alan Stoekl, (University of Minnesota Press, 1985), pp. 5-9.

[27] D. H. Lawrence, ‘Blessed are the Powerful’, in Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays, p. 325.

[28] Ibid., p. 322.   

[29] See, for example, what Lawrence writes in Lady Chatterley’s Lover Version I, in The First and Second Lady Chatterley Novels, ed. Dieter Mehl and Christa Jansohn, (Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 132-33.

[30] Neil Reeve, ‘Introduction’ to D. H. Lawrence’s The Woman Who Rode Away and Other Stories, p. xxxi.

[31] Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude, p. 5.

[32] Ibid., p. 7.

[33] Just to be clear on this important point: it doesn’t matter whether Lawrence chooses to think such statements true or false, but the fact that he is completely unconcerned with the status of a discourse – namely, the modern scientific discourse – which “renders the verification or falsification of such statements meaningful”, does bring shame upon him. As Meillassoux argues, what’s at stake here is empirical science in general and the remarkable fact that only the latter allows us to have a rational and meaningful debate “about what did or did not exist prior to the emergence of humankind, as well as what might eventually succeed humanity”. It is science and only science – not myth, religion, or poetry – that posits dia-chronic statements and makes dia-chronic knowledge possible (i.e. knowledge of a world without witness). Whether Lawrence likes it or not, no man, god, or sentient being need be on the scene for the world of objects to exist and to carry on just as it has always carried on; solar activity, for example, occurs irrespective of life. See After Finitude, pp. 113, 114.

[34] Ibid., p. 9.

[35] Ibid., pp. 9-10. Again, note that there are of course not just ancestral statements concerning events that occur in a pre-human time, but also ulterior statements which refer to possible events in a post-human era. As indicated above, Meillassoux uses the term dia-chronicity to refer to all such statements that describe events that are either anterior or ulterior to our own relation to the world.

[36] Ibid., p. 10.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid., p. 15.

[39] Ibid., p. 18.

[40] Ibid.

[41] These philosophers – and I prefer not to name names – are ones who have, if you like, hastily surrendered the right to refute religious belief on the ground of logic. Meillassoux writes: “It is important to understand what underlies this attitude: religious belief is considered to be beyond the reach of rational refutation by many contemporary philosophers not only because such belief is deemed by definition indifferent to this kind of critique, but because it seems to these philosophers to be conceptually illegitimate to undertake such a refutation.” In other words, subscribing to a strong model of correlationism results in lending support to the notion that “reason has no right to deploy its own resources to debate the truth or falsity of dogma”. It thus – often inadvertently – collaborates with irrationalism and allows for a return of a return of fundamental religious faith. This has been an ironic consequence of postmodernism. See After Finitude, p. 44.

[42] Ibid., p. 27.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘On Truth and Lies in a Non-moral Sense’, in Philosophy and Truth, ed. and trans. Daniel Breazeale, (Humanities Press International, 1979), p. 79. Note that I have modified the translation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Promo video: Green by D.H. Lawrence

In our third blog exploring Look! We Have Come Through! we have created a YouTube short (thanks Izaak Bosman) to celebrate the poem ‘Green’. This was originally published in the Poetry Review (1914) and then in an anthology of imagist poetry in 1916, meaning that Lawrence could no longer be simply cast as a Georgian poet.

Lawrence started and ended his career with verse, writing around 750 poems. One of his earliest collections was Look! We have come through! which was written between 1911 and 1917 and followed on the tails of Love Poems and Amores.

In the forward to the collection, Lawrence states ‘These poems should not be considered separately, as so many single pieces. They are intended as an essential story, or history, or confession, unfolding one from the other in organic development, the whole revealing the intrinsic experience of a man during the crisis of manhood, when he marries and comes into himself. The period covered is, roughly, the sixth lustre of a man’s life.’

Graham Hough describes the collection as ‘simply the development of an intelligible train of feeling through a number of fragmentary occasions’. These fragmentary occasions are mainly structured between 1912-14, the period when Frieda Weekley left her husband and three children and eloped with Lawrence, before marrying him once her divorce came through. Consequently, the poems were written on the hoof in Germany, Austria and Italy.  Given the scandal their relationship aroused, it’s not surprising that Bertrand Russell chose to snort ‘They may have come through, but I don’t see why I should look.’

The collection includes this somewhat unnecessary ‘argument’ before the poems, detailing Lawrence’s relationship verbatim. ‘After much struggling and loss in love and in the world of man, the protagonist throws in his lot with a woman who is already married. Together they go into another country, she perforce leaving her children behind. The conflict of love and hate goes on between the man and the woman, and between these two and the world around them, till it reaches some sort of conclusion, they transcend into some condition of blessedness.’

Perhaps to get across this struggle, Lawrence uses free verse (which doesn’t adhere to set structures) having previously used closed forms. The flexibility of form allows him to articulate, in the immediate, the trials and tribulations of love as two people struggle to unite their wills. As Joyce Carol Oats notes, ‘For Lawrence, as for Nietzsche, it is the beauty and mystery of flux, of “Becoming,” that enchants us; not permanence, not “Being.” Permanence exists only in the conscious mind and is a structure erected to perfection, therefore airless and stultifying.

One poem in the collection that particularly stands out is ‘Green’. This was published in an anthology of imagist poetry, Des Imagistes (1916), meaning that Lawrence could no longer be simply cast as a Georgian poet. Imagism, according to the British Library, ‘was a small but influential poetry movement that flourished between 1912 and 1917. It was crucial in the development of modernist literature. Rebelling against Romantic and Victorian verbosity, Imagists abandoned poetic metre and traditional narratives. Instead they cultivated short, exact poems in vers libre (free verse) built around distilled, emotionally-intense single images that often depicted the natural world. They drew influence from Japanese haiku as well as ancient Greek lyric poetry’. However, the Modernist Journals Project states that ‘Imagism was anything but a cohesive movement’ and instead ‘resembles a Gerhard Richter painting, a fuzzy work of art undertaken by several artists with different styles over a long period of time, or perhaps a William Burroughs-like cut-up composition aimlessly meandering in search of the “image.”’

frieda green

The inspiration for ‘Green’ was Frieda’s eyes, which Lawrence compares to dawn. Dawn represents the beginning of an unknown new day, and her eyes represent a new unknown love: ‘For the first time, now for the first time seen.’ The use of assonance throughout the short poem (green, between, seen/ sun, undone) helps weave these elements (love, new day, nature) together through the colour green. If green were to be used in Georgian poetry it would most likely be as a reference to nature and fields. Here it is something more spiritual, more transient, a ‘becoming’ to use Joyce Carol Oates expression.

The imagists were established by Ezra Pound in 1912 in opposition to the perceived parochial outlook of the Georgian poets. Lawrence may very well have been included, along with other established names such as Richard Adlington, as a means of validating this new poetic movement. His books may have been banned and burned, but his reputation was a commodity always ready to be exploited. This was certainly the case with the publication of Look! We Have Come Through! which Andrew Nash has argued was taken on by Chatto and Windus as a means of resurrecting an otherwise dying brand. Frank Swinnerton, part of their new editorial board, agreed to publishing Lawrence ‘on the ground that Lawrence’s name would be valuable to our list’. There is no such thing as a bad reputation.

It’s worth noting that another seminal Nottingham writer, Alan Sillitoe, refers to Doreen’s eyes in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), as ‘green like novelty matches’. Clearly this colour means a lot to folk from the East Midlands.

dhl-trunk GREENIn the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts to try to understand this complex writer.  Was he a Georgian poet, or an Imagist, or simply someone who defied categorisation? How do we incorporate the colour green into our design? 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 Youtube shorts

Promo video: Figs – a very secretive fruit

Ficus carica L., aka the fig, was so popular 9,000 years ago that folk in Palestine lined them up in groves to ensure local supplies were met, thereby predating grain cultivation. D.H. Lawrence would have admired the fig during his Italian sojourn, but it only made its way into Europe during the 15th century after being plundered from Persia, Asia Minor and Syria. The above video was created to celebrate Lawrence’s seductive ode to this sun-ripened fruit, but the fig has been a source of reverence for centuries. Figs have come to symbolise fertility, peace and prosperity in many world religions, including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism and Buddhism. In Ancient Greece, athletes scoffed as many as they could get their hands on, believing it would enhance speed and strength. King Nebuchadnezzar II had them planted in the hanging gardens of Babylon whereas Egyptian kings were buried with them to please the mother goddess Hathor who would emerge from a mythic fig tree to welcome them into the afterlife. Figs also appear in the Old and New Testament, offering remedies for illness – both medical and social. Hezekiah, King of Judah, recovered from a plague of boils after his servants applied a paste of crushed figs to his skin. Whereas the fig leaf provided Adam and Eve with a bit of dignity after an apple left them rotten to the core. Or as Lawrence puts it: ‘She got the fact on her mind, and quickly sewed fig-leaves/ And women have been sewing ever since’.

Hathor
Egyptian goddess Hathor pops out of a Fig tree to greet you in the afterlife. Nice.

Although Lawrence’s naughty poem has become synonymous with the fig, it appears elsewhere in literature. In The Bell Jar (1963), Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel about a young woman’s descent into madness, Esther encounters a fig tree and later reflects ‘I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story’. But it is best known in the 5th century epic poem The Mahavamsa, which covers the early history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, and sees the Buddha gaining enlightenment under a fig tree.

Lawrence writes that ‘The fig is a very secretive fruit,’ so secretive in fact that it defies definition. Ben Crair, writing in The New Yorker, explains ‘a clever botanist would sell them at the florist, with the fresh-cut roses’. This is because a fig is technically a ball of flowers, with enclosed flowers that bloom inwards or as Lawrence writes ‘There was a flower that flowered inward, womb-ward;/ Now there is a fruit like a ripe womb’.

This unique fruit, I mean flower – or more accurately a syconium, requires pollination to reproduce and this can only be done by a fig wasp which is just small enough to crawl inside. And not just any fig wasp by the way! Each of the 750 varieties has its own unique species of fig wasp to do the business. So next time you sink your teeth into the ‘glittering, rosy, moist, honied, heavy-petalled’ interior, remember you are most likely chomping into a female fig wasp that got stuck.

Mike Shanahan in Ladders to Heaven explains that this process of codependent evolution has been going on for sixty million years. The fig, unlike seasonal fruit, can be found all year round, making it a vital food source for over 1300 bird and mammal species. High in potassium, iron, fiber, and plant calcium, it has also been essential to survival of certain species in times of want. A 2003 study of Uganda’s Budongo Forest found that figs were ‘the sole source of fruit for chimpanzees at certain times of year’. I doubt these species would care to be instructed on the best way to eat this keystone fruit as Lawrence does in his poem, taking the Italians to task:  ‘But the vulgar way/ Is just to put your mouth to the crack, and take out the flesh in one bite.’

Mike Shanahan is particularly enamoured with the Strangler breed of fig which grows ‘from seeds dropped high on other trees by passing birds and mammals. By starting out high in the forest canopy instead of on its gloomy floor, the strangler seedlings get the light they need to grow with vigour. As they do, they send down aerial roots that become thick and woody, encasing their host trees in a living mesh. They can even smother and kill giant trees, growing into colossal forms’. Shanahan also points out that the struggles faced by the Strangler fig would inspire the British biologist Alfred Russel Wallace to develop his own theory of evolution by natural selection, independently of Charles Darwin. High-energy figs may also have helped our ancestors to develop bigger brains.

However you eat yours, and for whatever purpose, we hope you enjoy our short video, lovingly put together by Izaak Bosman.

OTHER PROMO VIDEOS

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 Lawrence’s playfulness in poems such as Figs? Does the poem draw out important issues regarding nudity and shame or does the idea that ‘ripe figs won’t keep’ chide with modern attitudes towards female sexual identity? Just as Figs have been around for centuries, so to women have faced centuries of insults. 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.

 

Figs

D.H. Lawrence

The proper way to eat a fig, in society,

Is to split it in four, holding it by the stump,

And open it, so that it is a glittering, rosy, moist, honied, heavy-petalled four-petalled flower.

Then you throw away the skin

Which is just like a four-sepalled calyx,

After you have taken off the blossom, with your lips.

But the vulgar way

Is just to put your mouth to the crack, and take out the flesh in one bite.

Every fruit has its secret.

The fig is a very secretive fruit.

As you see it standing growing, you feel at once it is symbolic :

And it seems male.

But when you come to know it better, you agree with the Romans, it is female.

The Italians vulgarly say, it stands for the female part ; the fig-fruit :

The fissure, the yoni,

The wonderful moist conductivity towards the centre.

Involved,

Inturned,

The flowering all inward and womb-fibrilled ;

And but one orifice.

The fig, the horse-shoe, the squash-blossom.

Symbols.

There was a flower that flowered inward, womb-ward ;

Now there is a fruit like a ripe womb.

It was always a secret.

That’s how it should be, the female should always be secret.

There never was any standing aloft and unfolded on a bough

Like other flowers, in a revelation of petals ;

Silver-pink peach, venetian green glass of medlars and sorb-apples,

Shallow wine-cups on short, bulging stems

Openly pledging heaven :

Here’s to the thorn in flower ! Here is to Utterance !

The brave, adventurous rosaceæ.

Folded upon itself, and secret unutterable,

And milky-sapped, sap that curdles milk and makes ricotta,

Sap that smells strange on your fingers, that even goats won’t taste it ;

Folded upon itself, enclosed like any Mohammedan woman,

Its nakedness all within-walls, its flowering forever unseen,

One small way of access only, and this close-curtained from the light ;

Fig, fruit of the female mystery, covert and inward,

Mediterranean fruit, with your covert nakedness,

Where everything happens invisible, flowering and fertilization, and fruiting

In the inwardness of your you, that eye will never see

Till it’s finished, and you’re over-ripe, and you burst to give up your ghost.

Till the drop of ripeness exudes,

And the year is over.

And then the fig has kept her secret long enough.

So it explodes, and you see through the fissure the scarlet.

And the fig is finished, the year is over.

That’s how the fig dies, showing her crimson through the purple slit

Like a wound, the exposure of her secret, on the open day.

Like a prostitute, the bursten fig, making a show of her secret.

That’s how women die too.

The year is fallen over-ripe,

The year of our women.

The year of our women is fallen over-ripe.

The secret is laid bare.

And rottenness soon sets in.

The year of our women is fallen over-ripe.

When Eve once knew in her mind that she was naked

She quickly sewed fig-leaves, and sewed the same for the man.

She’d been naked all her days before,

But till then, till that apple of knowledge, she hadn’t had the fact on her mind.

She got the fact on her mind, and quickly sewed fig-leaves.

And women have been sewing ever since.

But now they stitch to adorn the bursten fig, not to cover it.

They have their nakedness more than ever on their mind,

And they won’t let us forget it.

Now, the secret

Becomes an affirmation through moist, scarlet lips

That laugh at the Lord’s indignation.

What then, good Lord ! cry the women.

We have kept our secret long enough.

We are a ripe fig.

Let us burst into affirmation.

They forget, ripe figs won’t keep.

Ripe figs won’t keep.

Honey-white figs of the north, black figs with scarlet inside, of the south.

Ripe figs won’t keep, won’t keep in any clime.

What then, when women the world over have all bursten into affirmation?

And bursten figs won’t keep?

On the Dangerous Ambiguity of the prefix ‘Eco’

DHL Boot
I found this uncredited image at Sott.net and changed the colours/filters and added the Phoenix symbol.

In this guest blog, Stephen Alexander, author of Torpedo the Ark, questions the use of the prefix ‘eco’ for a wider discussion around language and fascism, blood and soil.

Many scholars – including some who should know better – continue to fetishise the prefix eco- and think that by simply placing it in front of words including criticism, feminism, and politics, they can sex-up their research and immediately make it seem more vital and contemporary.

But ecological thinking – which, ironically, often prides itself on being radical – has a long and essentially conservative history that can be traced back to figures on the völkisch far-right keen to promote a pessimistic vision of the world that is not only anti-urban, anti-capitalist and anti-science, but fundamentally illiberal and anti-humanist in character. Indeed, whilst this post-Romantic German tradition pre-dates National Socialism, it was nevertheless within the Third Reich that such thinking was first put into practice and formed a key component of Nazi aesthetics and ideology.    

Now, of course, I’m not suggesting that a concern for the environment automatically makes one a fascist. But I am pointing out that nature-based ideologies are very often used to legitimate Social Darwinist beliefs and that many reactionaries have called for a neo-feudalism based upon rural values and natural divisions. We can see this in the work of two figures closely associated with ecologism in England during the inter-war period – John Hargrave and Rolf Gardiner.

The former was convinced that modern life had produced a ‘mentally and physically deficient race’ that couldn’t even be relied upon to breed sufficiently. A self-declared pantheist and Anglo-Saxon nationalist, Hargrave hoped to create a new national myth or substitute folk-memory for the English. To this end, he founded a movement in the 1920s – the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift – which was meant to establish a counter-culture founded upon ‘the distinctive German brand of serious nature-worship’.

In practice, this meant that members spent most of their time hiking, camping, or making their own clothes, but they lent all their activities an earnest spiritual significance that rather absurdly combined Native American ritual with Norse mythology. Although they never numbered more than a few hundred members, the KKK could claim several public figures as supporters, including Havelock Ellis, Julian Huxley, and H. G. Wells. D. H. Lawrence was at least partly sympathetic. In a letter to Rolf Gardiner, he wrote:

‘I read the Kibbo Kift book with a good deal of interest. Of course it won’t work: not quite flesh and blood. […] The man alternates between idealism pure and simple, and a sort of mummery, and then a compromise with practicality. What he wants is all right – I agree with him on the whole, and respect him as a straightforward fighter. But he knows there’s no hope […] And therefore, underneath, he’s full of hate.’[1]

By the outbreak of the Second World War, Hargrave had become increasingly isolated and irrelevant on the political scene. And by the end of the War he’d found his true calling as a faith healer and eco-mystic.

As for Rolf Gardiner, Lawrence profoundly influenced the thinking of a man who would become one of the founders of the Soil Association in 1945. But what really interests is how easily Gardiner also came under the sway of National Socialism. Always an active Germanophile and Nordicist, Gardiner became a fervent exponent of Blut und Boden in England in the 1930s and dreamt of an Anglo-German political union.

His major written work, published in 1932 and dedicated to Lawrence, is a semi-religious work entitled World Without End. In it, Gardiner calls for a spiritual rebirth and a new attitude towards ‘nature, the soil, to sex and to politics’.

Whilst, to his credit, he rejected any ‘nonsensical racial theory’ – not least because of his own half-Jewish background – he nevertheless enthusiastically greeted the Nazi assumption of power in 1933 and was soon on warm personal terms with the Nazi Minister for Agriculture Walther Darré. Both men agreed on the importance of living according to ecological law, which, of necessity, means the subjection of the individual to the ‘larger organic authority’ of the Natural Order.[2]

In sum: we all need to exercise caution before we take an ecocritical turn – because you never know where it might lead …

dhl-trunk GREENIn 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 his views on nature and alternative living while exercising caution about using the prefix ‘eco’? What would the Kibbo Kift have looked like if it’d been devised by Lawrence? 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] D. H. Lawrence, The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, Vol. VI,  ed. James T. Boulton and Margaret H. Boulton with Gerald M Lacy, (Cambridge University Press, 1991). Letter 4268, dated 16 January 1928, pp. 267-68.

[2] Gardiner was also an associate of Lord Lymington and the rather sinister English Array. A journal edited by Lymington, The New Pioneer, to which Gardiner was a frequent contributor, affirmed a form of eco-nationalism in which an analogy was drawn between farm and nation, effectively transforming citizens into livestock. For further details on this and many of the other points discussed here, see Anna Bramwell’s Ecology in the Twentieth Century: A History (Yale University Press, 1989) and her earlier work Blood and Soil: Walther Darré and Hitler’s Green Party (Kensal Press, 1985). Readers of Lawrence interested in his relationship to German culture and his green critique of industrialism and technology, should also see Anne Fernihough’s D. H. Lawrence: Aesthetics and Ideology, (Oxford University Press, 1993).

How Lawrentian ideals have come to influence future generations of poets

look book jackets
This is our second blog exploring the influence of Look! We Have Come Through! This time David Brock explores how Lawrentian ideals, particularly those of renewed inner life, have come to influence future generations of poets and artists. He pays particular attention to Steve Taylor’s collection The Calm Centre, which picked lines from Lawrence’s ‘Song of a Man Who Has Come Through’ to preface his own book of verse on the theme of individual enlightenment.

In an enlivening introduction to a 1990s Wordsworth edition of D.H. Lawrence’s Poetry, Albert Glover writes of the amazing breakthrough Lawrence made as man and poet on finding fulfilment in love and marriage. ‘Everything Lawrence wrote after Look! We Have Come Through! [the cycle of love poems he produced during this important phase] comes from a soul forged in the ecstasy of spiritual awakening’, Glover asserts, before quoting the memorable, mysterious opening of Lawrence’s ‘Song of a Man Who Has Come Through’. . .’Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!/ A fine wind is blowing the new direction of time. . .’ This being ‘the prophetic stance of the risen man’, Glover suggests.

A present day writer, thinker and poet, Steve Taylor (who gave spell-binding, unscripted talks to the Lawrence Society in its glory days, about Lawrence as Pagan, and as Mystic, and now appears annually in Mind, Body and Spirit magazine’s list of ‘the world’s 100 most spiritually influential living people’), has picked lines from this key poem to preface his own book of verse on the theme of individual enlightenment. Entitled The Calm Center, it features an introduction by spiritual teacher and author of The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle.

Of the Lawrence poem in question, composed around the time of Lawrence’s marriage to Frieda, on 13th July 1914, the late great Keith Sagar writes that it is ‘about life and art, about Lawrence the married man and Lawrence the poet’, and that it ‘consists almost entirely of images – wind, chisel, fountain, angels.’

What is the ‘wind’ which Lawrence speaks of? Keith suggests it signifies the release of a new imaginative, poetic energy suddenly at large, and which may provide him with inspiration so powerful it may break through the rock encasing our soul, to open up a new ‘Pagan paradise’ – the Hesperides – where the golden apples offer a life free from the old (Eden apple) fear of sin.

The poem ends with ‘the three strange angels’ knocking on the door, at night. Lawrence is ready and willing to face this disturbing challenge – ‘Admit them, admit them’. Together with his wife, he feels able to save the seeds of creativity – these wind-blown, winged gifts – from a world descending into war and destruction. And, as Keith also puts it, the ‘exorcism’ of Sons and Lovers has brought the re-birth of Lawrence’s ‘demon’ – a force now ‘free to become no longer the writhing repressed half of a split psyche.’

Steve Taylor’s therapeutic poems (which are reflective discourses, rather in the manner of Lawrence’s Pansies) reveal how we too might heal our mental ailments, achieve this ‘new’ Lawrentian ‘wholeness and courage’, and find a ‘self’ free of negativity ‘which can recognise and respond to the sacred’, within what Frieda called ‘the great vast show of life’.

One must be prepared to change. As with Lawrence there are difficult questions and challenges. ‘The Off-Loading’ is reminiscent of one of Lawrence’s most famous final poems, ‘Phoenix’, in asking ‘Are you willing to give yourself up?’ It is only when you can let go that ‘you’ll be empty, peaceful and light/ and ready to float free’ – rather like Lawrence’s ‘immortal bird’ rising from the flames.

There are poems about engagement with trees, something Lawrence understood uncannily well. It is of unfathomable value – balm to the suffering soul – to wake up to nature and reconnect in this profound way.

‘The Project’ is concerned with permitting your inner self to unfold and have expression.

‘The End of Desire’, about the erroneous pursuit of false goals in life, feels pure Lawrence, while Steve’s concluding poem ‘The Essence’ has that grand Lawrentian theme that we can each be a living manifestation of cosmic energy.

Lawrence’s remarkable verse contains next to nothing that is ‘chaff’. In common with his other work, it offers a great and nourishing influence on succeeding generations of writers, whose own uplifting poetry can achieve similar spiritual breakthroughs, leading to the awakening of new ‘integrity’, ‘vital sanity’ and holistic being. Steve Taylor’s latest volume offers this Lawrentian vision of renewed inner life and fulfilling emotional health.

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 and track his influences? What are you personally ‘willing to give up’ and how does this compare with Lawrence’s own principles? How do we represent renewed inner 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.

Look! We have (nearly) come through! D.H. and Chatto & Windus

chatto_logo rage

In 2019 we will launch our D.H. Lawrence Memory Theatre to mark the centenary of Lawrence’s self- imposed exile. But what was it about 1919 that led to him turning his back on his country of birth for good? There are many reasons why Lawrence had had enough of the ‘grey ones’ but censorship was particularly frustrating, on both a financial and artistic level. But while his bad boy reputation put off many publishers, it offered a lifeline to Chatto and Windus who hoped to rejuvenise their flagging reputation. This is the first of two blogs exploring the history of Look! We Have Come Through!

WWI had a profound effect on many people, not least the 17 million soldiers and civilians who were killed. Industrialisation and technology, the bastions of modernity, were more accurately bastards, and bloody ones at that. Progress just meant you got to the grave quicker. The Great War, in addition to suppressing individuality for the greater good, would see Lawrence booted out of Cornwall, after he was accused of being a spy. The locals didn’t take kindly to his marriage to a German woman. All in all, he had plenty of reasons to turn his back on Blighty. But driving this desire to flee as far away as possible was his absolute frustration with the censors, the ‘aunties,’ the ‘grey ones’.

Sons and Lovers (1913) had already been banned from public libraries. But The Rainbow, published in September 1915, would only stay in print for two months before it was seized under the 1857 Obscene Publications Act. Unlike Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) a decade later, the novel didn’t include any obscene words. But as prosecutor Herbert Muskett declared ‘it was in fact a mass of obscenity of thought, idea, and action’.

The novel included a Lesbian relationship, but at the time there wasn’t a law against this behavior (as there was with male homosexuality). Lesbianism was very much a love that dare not speak its name, mainly because men were the only ones allowed to do the talking. Women were only given the right to vote in 1918 and even then, only some women. But this gave publisher Methuen a get out of jail card as they were able to play dumb about what was going on in the novel.

In a review in the New Statesman, JC Squire, suggested the characters in Sons and Lovers were under ‘the spell of German psychologists’, for daring to question fundamentals of their life (religion, love, relationships), and by implication were anti-British in nature. Judge Sir John Dickinson therefore ruled that the book ‘had no right to exist in the wind of war’, and that Lawrence was in effect mocking the very principles British men were fighting to defend. One of these men happened to be Dickinson’s son, who was killed in battle a few weeks before the trial. Lawrence never stood a chance. But just to wind him up a bit more – not that he needed provocation – copies of The Rainbow were burned by a hangman outside the Royal Exchange.

Lawrence faced a dilemma all writers encounter at some point in their career, but one that was particularly pertinent to modernists at the time: Did he continue to experiment and push boundaries, remaining true to himself, or conform in order to sell books and put food on his plate.

However, a recent paper by Andrew Nash suggests the relationship between authors and publishers was more dynamic and that it was Lawrence’s name that attracted Chatto & Windus to publish Look! We Have Come Through! in 1917. The poetry collection details Lawrence’s relationship with his wife, Frieda, and had previously gone under the title of Man and Woman and later Poems of a Married Man.

Look! We Have Come Through! was rejected by Duckworth who had previously published The Prussian Officer and Other Stories (1914), Amores (1916), and Twilight in Italy. These provided a broad range of Lawrence’s work in the form of short stories, poems, and essays, so they couldn’t be accused of being unsupportive.

Chatto & Windus accepted the manuscript and Nash believes this was partly because ‘the firm was entering a period of transition and was soon to regain a position of pre-eminence in British publishing’. These changes were largely brought about by Geoffrey Whitworth (1883–1951) and Frank Swinnerton (1884–1982)’. Arnold Bennett was particularly impressed by Swinnerton who he said had ‘turned Chatto & Windus from a corpse into the liveliest thing of its sort in London’.

‘The editorial dynamics of the firm’ writes Nash ‘manifested itself in a style of publishing that often placed literary concerns before those of business. Swinnerton’s role in the firm was especially significant and illustrates an important trend in literary publishing of the period. Authors were becoming more actively involved in publishing and more closely engaged with policy-making decisions. For writers like Lawrence this was crucial. Swinnerton was an important advocate for his work.’

However, Swinnerton was perceptive enough to see how Lawrence could help elevate the flagging status of the company. His report notes recommend publishing the collection ‘on the ground that Lawrence’s name would be valuable to our list. I could not emphasise this point too strongly. Lawrence has a decided following, and his name has a real distinction’.

Percy Spalding letter

Nash observes that ‘the publishing policy of Chatto & Windus in this period serves to illustrate that, in spite of the constraints of censorship and wartime production costs, there were forces in mainstream publishing that were keen to embrace modern literary forms and issue the work of authors whose subject-matter was challenging and potentially dangerous and whose popular appeal was small.’

Swinnerton had to convince Percy Spalding, who objected to the ‘sexual imagery and the conflation of love and religion’ within the collection and demanded that ‘Song of a Man who is Loved’ and ‘Meeting Among the Mountains’ were omitted from the volume as a condition of publishing. ‘Song of a Man who is Loved’ would be reinstated into the collection in 1928 when Secker published the Collected Poems.

Given his history, Lawrence had to compromise. His agent Pinker got the brunt of his frustrations: ‘Publishers are fools, one wants to spit at them — But it is not worth while making a real breach’. In a letter to Amy Lowell he wrote ‘This is a one bright beam in my publishing sky. But I shall have to go and look for daylight with a lantern’.

But Lawrence being Lawrence there were additional demands, such as the setting of the six-part poem ‘Ballad of a Wilful Woman’ on separate pages, irrespective of what this might cost the publisher or wartime restrictions on paper.

Edward McKnight Kauffer cover

The avant garde cover was designed by Edward McKnight Kauffer whose influences included futurism, cubism, and vorticism, making this a very modern publication that stood out from other publications on the Chatto and Windus list. It wasn’t to everyone’s liking. A reviewer in Sketch complained that the incomprehensible cover ‘looks like a mixture of two broken combs and the fragments of a knife-cleaner’ and that this ‘ought to warn you to expect something desperately eccentric’. This, of course, is exactly what the publishers wanted; literature and art that broke with the prevailing aesthetic and moral conventions of the period. However, this ambition did not translate into sales and it was time for Lawrence to find a new publisher for his next work.

Source: D.H Lawrence and the publication of Look! We have come Through! by Andrew Nash The Library, Volume 12, Issue 2, 1 June 2011, Pages 142–163,

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 Lawrence’s relationship with agents and publishers? How important was he to literary modernism? How do we convey his frustration at being constantly censored? 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.

Promo video: Floraphilia

To celebrate the release of Floraphilia, our latest insta promo video, Stephen Alexander has kindly shared his paper ‘Floraphilia: Or the Revenge of the Flowers’ which he gave to Treadwell’s Bookshop. Stephen 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. 

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, characterised 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]

Lawrence the cabbage

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

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. So, 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.

van-gogh-sunflowers-self-portrait-715

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.

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.

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 Lawrence’s relationship with nature or the ‘violent hierarchies and orders of rank he had such a fondness for constructing’. 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 PROMO VIDEOS

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.

 

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.