It’s too hot, he doesn’t like the food, and don’t get him started on the temples. Join literature’s hardest to please traveller in Ceylon…
It’s the 3rd April 1922 and Lawrence is in Ceylon. As usual, he’s worrying about money. He informs Robert Mountsier, ‘Travelling itself is hellishly costly, but while we sit here we spend little.’ Lawrence is not someone used to sitting still, but in the heat it’s a necessity: ‘Here it is monstrous hot, like being in a hot bell-glass. I don’t like it a bit. I don’t like the East. It makes me feel sick in my stomach’. The real problem, of course, is it is too hot for him to write: ‘I’m not working and feel I never should work in the east’. As we know, Lawrence needs to convert his experiences into a novel of some sort for a place to have value.
On the same day he writes to Mary Cannan. The letter comes with an explicit warning: ‘never travel round the world to look at it – it will only make you sick… Take my advice and don’t take far flights to exotic countries. Europe is, I fancy, the most satisfactory place in the end.’ That is, unless Lawrence is in Europe, in which case, he will hate it.
It doesn’t take long for his frustration to manifest into spiteful comments, ‘The east, the bit I’ve seen, seems silly. I don’t like it one bit. I don’t like their…hideous little buddha temples, like decked up pigsties…it’s better to see it on the cinema: you get there the whole effect, without the effort and the sense of nausea.’ Given Lawrence’s disdain for cinema and other forms of mass distraction, this is a backhanded compliment.
Next up is Catherine Carswell ‘Tropics not really my line…not active enough’ whereas Mabel Dodge Sterne is informed, ‘Ceylon is an experience – but heavens, not a permanence.’ To be fair, nowhere was a permanence for Lawrence. As Catherine Carswell would later observe in her memoir, Lawrence “disliked an air of everlastingness about a home. For him it must have something of the tent about it”.
In addition to being unbearably hot, he doesn’t like the food either. ‘Something about it all just makes me sick… I loathe the tropical fruits, except pineapples, and those I can’t digest: because my inside has never hurt me so much in all my 36 years as in these three weeks’ Mary Cannan, 5 April.
He then lists various alternative places he might visit (Sydney, California, England) before a bit of self reflection. ‘I need this bitterness, apparently, to cure me of the illusion of other places’.
Given Lawrence’s love of the natural environment, surely the vibrancy of the jungle would provide solace. Wrong (uh, uh. Wrong answer noise). Mabel Dodge Sterne is informed on 10 April that it’s a colourful racket due to ‘the thick, choky feel of tropical forest, and the metallic sense of palms and the horrid noises of the birds and creatures, who hammer and clang and rattle and cackle and explode all the livelong day’. As for the fruits, the scents make him feel sick and have an ‘undertaste of blood and sweat’.
But there is one positive to his visit. ‘I shall be fulfilling my real desire to approach America from the west, over the Pacific.’
Lawrence then calms down a tad, perhaps because he was planning to book tickets for West Australia at the end of the month and so could see a way out. ‘I’ve been in Ceylon a month and nearly sweated myself into a shadow’ he informs Austin Harrison, ‘Still it’s a wonderful place to see and experience.’
It strikes me that Lawrence always feels happiest when he is in transition between places. It’s the journey rather than the destination that matters. ‘One may as well move on, once one has started’ he informs S.S. Koteliansky. But as the next destination draws closer, he becomes anxious and fearful once more, perhaps because it signifies no longer being in limbo: ‘I am not at all sure we shall like Australia either’. (Letter, 17 April to S.S. Koteliansky).
Lawrence found the East draining. He wasn’t wired to sit still and contemplate. He was programmed to move, ‘and what’s more with haste’.
‘It seems to me the life drains away from one here’ he writes to S.S. Koteliansky on 17 April ‘One could quite easily sink into a kind of apathy, like a lotus on a muddy pond indifferent to anything. And that apparently is the lure of the east: this peculiar stagnant apathy where one doesn’t bother about a thing, but drifts on from minute to minute.’
So eager is he to escape the Buddha, he even contemplates settling down permanently in England or Italy if none of this works out.
At the end of April, he once more finds himself on the next adventure, this time to Australia. Nothing makes Lawrence happier than the liminal space of the sea: ‘Here we are on a ship again – somewhere in a very big blue choppy sea with flying fishes sprinting out of the waves like winged drops’ and although the East is not for him, his head once more fills with fantastical images and Ceylon gets the ultimate Lawrentian compliment, they are rendered pre-history: ‘the tropics have something of the world before the flood…’
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