In this blog we explore Lawrence’s reactions to Wallace Smith’s illustrations in Fantazius Mallare, a novel which borrows its title from Fantasia of the Unconscious and pokes fun at artists who take themselves a bit too seriously…
Wallace Smith (December 30, 1888 – January 31, 1937) was an incredibly talented artist, able to apply his hand to a range of art forms, from comics, illustrations to novels. He spent a decade as a Washington correspondent. Then went to Mexico, producing illustrated reporting on the Carranza regime. Under the nickname of Vulgus, he contributed towards The Chicago Literary Times between 1923-4. The Times was a magazine set out in a tabloid format, cofounded by Ben Hecht and Maxwell Bodenheim. From here, Smith went to Hollywood, knocking out 26 screenplays, some of which were based on his own novels.
Like Lawrence, Smith felt the force of the censor during his life. Bessie Cotter (1935), the story of a street prostitute, was deemed indecent and banned in England. But it was his full page illustrations for Ben Hecht’s obscene and decadent satire Fantazius Mallare: a Mysterious Oath (1922), that caused the most hype, which was largely their intention. Hecht and Smith hoped that the ensuing obscenity trial would expose the flaws of the censor and bring about change. They planned to send review copies of the novel to the literati of the time and then have them called upon as expert witnesses. But it never got that far as only one witness was prepared to come forward. A tactic which would swerve Penguin better in the 1960 Lady Chatterley Trial.
Fantazius Mallare is the story of a mad recluse at war with reason. After destroying all of his work he seeks out a woman who will devote herself to his genius. Sound familiar? It begins: “FANTAZIUS MALLARE considered himself mad because he was unable to behold in the meaningless gesturings of time, space and evolution a dramatic little pantomime adroitly centered about the routine of his existence. He was a silent looking man with black hair and an aquiline nose. His eyes were lifeless because they paid no homage to the world outside him.”
According to Witter Bynner in Journey with Genius (1953), Hecht was making a deliberate attack on authors who took themselves a bit too seriously, authors who were “making fiction a blend of sex and psychoanalysis” and apt to self-deification. Bynner gave Lawrence a copy, asking if he would review it for The Laughing Horse. Lawrence agreed because he was offended by the trivial use of smuttiness. “Such bawdiness not only irked him personally but made more difficult for writers a free expression of decent candor.”
He didn’t take kindly to the personal digs either and quickly fired off his review. It’s suggested that he knew his review would not be published on account of some choice objectionable language. But the editor decided to blank out any words that may offend and publish it with a disclaimer.
In the review, Lawrence complains “there’s nothing in it but the author’s attempt to be startling. Whereas if he wanted to be really wicked he’d see that even a tree has its own daimon, and a man must lie with the daimon of a tree.” Lawrence reasons that “The word penis or testicle or vagina doesn’t shock me”. These are just naming conventions. He is quite aware of what parts constitute the human body. But then he relates this to one of his favourite antagonisms, mental consciousness. “I don’t keep my passions, or reactions, or even sensations IN MY HEAD. They stay down where they belong. And really, Fantazius, with his head full of copulation and committing MENTAL fornication and sodomy every minute, is just as much a bore as any other tedious modern individual with a dominant idea.”
Lawrence then latches onto this idea of “sex in the head” – one of his favourite bugbears – as if the mind and body are two completely different aspects, as in the Cartesian Self. “They start all their deeper reactions in their heads nowadays, and nowhere else. They start all their deeper reactions in their heads, and work themselves from the top downwards.” And then he invokes the powers of “the old, dark religions” who understood “God enters from below” which is the “original centre”. For somebody who dislikes the imbalances caused by mental consciousness, Lawrence doesn’t half like to dish it out. He’s incredibly prescriptive about what is and isn’t the right way to think and feel. Thus, Fantazius Mallare mocks the title of Fantasia of the Unconscious, Lawrence’s attempt to jump down the rabbit hole of cosmic existentialism.
Bynner surmises that Lawrence would have been equally annoyed with Andre Gide, should he have lived to meet him, when he wrote “What we call impulses of the heart is but the unreasonable jostling of our thoughts; it is still in the head that the drama is enacted, and it is again the brain that man needs in order to love”.
Walter Smith produced illustrative reports on the Mexican revolution, raising awareness of what was happening for the wider public. Lawrence and Bynner visited Mexico in 1923, but Lawrence had no interest in the first post-revolutionary President of Mexico, Venustiano Carranza, at least according to Bynner. Instead he was more concerned with “garnering notes about unworldly, noble Indians who should become followers of a new Quetzalcoatl, a new Lawrence”.
A good place to end this discussion is with the opening to Fantazius, the dedication to those “who achieve involved orgasms denouncing the depravities of others.. to the pedantic ones who barricade themselves heroically behind their own belchings; to the smug ones who walk with their noses ecstatically buried in their own rectums (I have nothing against them, I swear); to the righteous ones who masturbate blissfully under the blankets of their perfections.” Ouch!
Source: Witter Bynner, Journey with Genius. Bynner’s archival papers are at the University of Oregon.
The DH Lawrence Memory Theatre sets off in November 2019 to mark the centenary of Lawrence’s self imposed exile. Help us select artefacts to try to understand this complex writer. How do we represent his struggles against obscenity or his reactions towards Fantazius? Should there be a place on board for Witter Bynner? If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved and submit ideas here