Keep Calm and Carry On was a motivational poster designed by the Ministry of Defence in 1939 in preparation for the outbreak of World War II. The poster was intended to raise the morale of the British public, but no doubt it would have infuriated Lawrence, if he’d still been alive, as he hated instructions for emotions. In his essay Nobody Loves Me, which sounds a bit like a Morrissey song, he remembers the time he was curt with a friend who visited him in the Swiss Alps and gushingly declared ‘These mountains! – well! – I’ve lost all my cosmic consciousness, and all my love of humanity.’
Lawrence scalded his friend for her ‘exasperated frenzy of the moment’, finding her sentiments a bit too gushing. But later, after he’d had a few years to calm down, he acknowledged he’d been a bit spiteful and that his friend was simply trying to find a bit of inner peace. He is only able to come to this conclusion after rationalising that by ‘love of humanity’ she really means ‘being at one with the struggling soul…of our fellow man’. There’s nowt wrong with that, but of course there are rules…
The young have ‘shed the cerebral husk of generalisation from their emotional state’ as well as ‘the flower that was inside the husk’. Consequently the young say they care for ‘unseen people’ but really, they don’t care. And Lawrence sympathises with them for not caring. He goes as far to say that all of this caring for ‘the wrongs of unseen people has been rather overdone.’
It’s this kind of talk that often gets him into trouble. But it’s worth persevering with Lawrence as the hole he appears to be digging for himself will eventually bore through to the other side and reward you with light.
Although we can never really understand what it is to be one of the ‘unseen people’ – the collier, a cotton worker in Carolina or a rice-grower in China, ‘in some depth of us, we know that we are connected vitally…we dimly realise that mankind is one, almost one flesh’. But we lose this connection, this vibration, when we kill the ‘sensitive responses in ourselves’. All encompassing, pronounced benevolence – do gooders – are nothing more than a ‘form of self-assertion and of bullying’. Later on in the essay he develops this idea further, suggesting the last generation who claimed to care for humanity, for the plight of the Irish, Armenians and Congo Rubber negroes, were fake, self-conceited and only interested in proving they were far superior.
The way to kill any feeling is ‘to insist on it, harp on it, exaggerate it,’ criticisms which could quite easily be applied to Lawrence’s novels. But I digress. He simply hates generalisations and instructions for emotions: ‘Insist on loving humanity, and sure as fate you’ll come to hate everybody.’
Any kind of forced emotion imposes a tyranny on humanity as people don’t like to be forced to do things they don’t believe in. And this is why he would hate the Keep Calm and Carry On posters. ‘The slogan Keep smiling! Produces at last a sort of savage rage in the breast of all smilers, and the famous ‘cheery morning greeting’ makes the gall accumulate in all the cheery ones.’
If you force your feelings you end up damaging yourself. It creates ignorance and kills off real sensitivity.
Likewise the couple who claim to love England and would die for England are quite safe at the moment because ‘England does not seem to be in any danger of asking them’. But what about when England does need them? And what is England anyway? Lawrence rips these sentimentalised perceptions of an imagined nation apart, which is why he believes in the specific.
The rest of the essay delves into some generalisations about the role of men and women in marriage and gives Lawrence the excuse to justify the numerous arguments and fights he had with his wife Frieda. They were an odd couple who would never say anything like ‘I love you’ or ‘Keep calm and carry on’ just for the sake of it. They were brutally honest with each other. A sign of love is to confess ‘I could murder him, and that’s a fact. But I suppose I’d better not.’
It’s lucky Lawrence isn’t around today. He’d be fuming. To Kill a Mocking Bird has been removed from the school syllabus because difficult issues concerning race and identity might cause offence. Social media is nurturing a form of digital narcissism that panders so deeply to the ego that our eyes are in danger of rotating and facing inwards. Slogans have long been the preserve of advertising but now they’re infiltrating everyday life. In Nottingham you’ll find graffiti instructing people to have ‘a lovely day’ which makes me feel so miserable I return home when ever I read it. And even in Wilkos, the last bastion of poverty shopping, checkout staff insist on insisting you leave feedback about how well they’ve performed in scanning your Mars bar and a packet of bin liners. When this happens to you think of Lawrence and rage to the very smithy of your soul. Spit, scream and shout. On no condition, whatsoever, should you remain calm and carry on.
In 2019 we are launching a memory theatre to celebrate Lawrence’s self imposed exile from Britain. It will include artefacts that explore various facets of his life. Perhaps ‘cosmic consciousness’ will be one of them. Or rage. If you have ideas for artefacts we can include and would like to be involved in the project you can submit here.