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”, 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 avant–garde thinking of the time”.
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”.
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”. 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”. 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?”
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”. 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”. 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” 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” full of “tigers and palm trees and rattle-snakes” 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
In 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.
-  Richard Aldington, Introduction to D. H. Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent, (Penguin Books, 1982), p. 7.
-  Frank Kermode, Lawrence, (Fontana Press, 1985), pp. 60-1.
-  D. H. Lawrence, Kangaroo, ed. Bruce Steele, (Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 297.
-  William E. Connolly, Political Theory and Modernity, (Basil Blackwell, 1988), p. ix.
-  Ibid., p. 6.
-  Michael Bell, D. H. Lawrence: Language and Being, (Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 196.
-  Ibid., p. 205.
-  Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, trans. Frederick Lawrence, (Polity Press, 1994), p. 339.
-  D. H. Lawrence, Kangaroo, p. 285.
-  Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. R. J. Hollingdale, (Penguin Books, 1990), I. 23, p. 53.
-  Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. R. J. Hollingdale, (Penguin Books, 1969), ‘Of Manly Prudence’, p. 165.