I’ve just gone a month without my mobile phone. This wasn’t a digital detox; it was due to appalling customer service from Apple and EE. This has meant that I’ve not been very social on social media. It got me wondering what Lawrence would be like if he had a Twitter account. On one level I think he’d enjoy ranting and raging about whatever took his fancy. He’d probably enjoy the freedom of expression, given he experienced so much censorship during his life. But I don’t think he’d enjoy the hoi polloi having freedom of expression. He’d let them know in no uncertain terms and his account would be closed down before it had ever really began.
While without phone I experienced a very different Nottingham on my walks into work each day. I heard the leaves rustling as I kicked them, I learned to tune into the distant chime of Little John in the Council House so that I knew the time, and I began to notice recurring patterns, such as the three cleaners who fag it every morning at 8.50am after finishing the early shift at the High School. Not having headphones on or tapping away at a device meant I was temporarily connected to the world rather than a device.
We can guess what Lawrence’s feelings about mobile phones would be from the essay Insouciance, which was originally published as ‘Over-earnest Ladies in the Evening News’ on 12 July 1928. It starts with him wandering out barefoot onto a balcony to serenely contemplate the ‘sulky’ mountains in the distance, cherry trees, and two men slushing their scythes downhill.
Unfortunately for Lawrence he’s not ‘allowed to sit like a dandelion on my own stem’ and pleasantly muse over his surroundings because he’s bookended between two white-haired little ladies who have decided today is the day to shed off their shyness and share with him their opinions on Italy, Signor Mussolini, ‘and the empty desert spaces of right and wrong, politics, Fascism and the rest’.
Lawrence is not interested in ‘abstract liberty’ or any of the other preoccupations that remove him from the here and now. He wonders why ‘modern people almost invariably ignore the things that are actually present in them’. At this exact moment in time he is only interested in one thing, the ‘different amount of effort’ in the mowing techniques of the two men. This reveals a lot about Lawrence the writer and his acute attention to detail, observing that the elderly man in ‘shabby trousers’ deploys a ‘jerky advance’. His stiffness results in ‘crunching the end of his stroke with a certain violent effort’.
Perhaps because he was nearing the end of his life, Lawrence doesn’t want to use up energy worrying about the ‘void of politics’ and ‘abstract caring’ instead he requires a more freer connection with the world.
‘What is actual living? It is a question mostly of direct contact. There was a direct sensuous contact between me, the lake, mountains, cherry trees, mowers, and a certain invisible but noisy chaffinch in a clipped lime tree. All this was cut off by the fatal shears of that abstract word Fascism.’
For the month I was without a phone I started to develop a direct contact with the world and my immediate environment. The world revealed itself as a serious of colours and patterns and I found my place somewhere in it. It is impossible to be insouciant with social media because it demands your constant attention. A medium of 140 characters lends itself to ever more ‘abstract’ words because these are required to stand out in the technological void. This is not freedom of expression. There is nothing free about reducing the meat of the self to lists, tags, and trending topics. This is a shredding of self rather than a direct contact with the world.
‘When it comes to living, we live through our instincts and our intuitions’ concludes Lawrence. It’s instinct that made Lawrence flee from the old white-haired ladies just as it was instinct that told me not to hurry up and get my phone fixed. ‘But it is intuition’ which enabled Lawrence to feel the ‘sulkiness of the mountains’ and each of the scythe-strokes ‘in the silence of the intense light’. Technology attempts to be intuitive but really it’s a right pain in the arse. How can you ever truly feel or understand something that is constantly updating itself and changing just for the sake of it. This is obsolescence. It is very different to the seasonal change of rusting leaves that I was able to observe for one month while my phone was broke.
Is there a place for ‘Insouciance’ in our DH Lawrence Memory Theatre? Perhaps it could be represented by a dandelion? In 2019 we will be creating a travelling memory theatre that explores Lawrence’s life through artefacts. If you want to submit an idea, you can do so here.