Coronavirus and Literature: What we can learn from D.H. Lawrence

Lawrence and coronavirus (1)

Frustrated with modernity and the literary establishment, D.H. Lawrence travelled the globe in search of Rananim. He believed a new way of being was possible, making this the philosophical focus of his novels. Can his ideas on community help us during these difficult times? Expect a few tantrums on the way…  

Although he would have enjoyed the solitude, D.H. Lawrence wouldn’t have coped very well with lockdown. Not because he was rubbish at following rules, but because he was a proper fidget. After leaving Britain in 1919 he travelled the globe, never settling in one place for more than two years. He refused to own property, making home in disused cabins at the top of mountains or being put up by friends. There were numerous reasons for his peripatetic lifestyle, but here we’ll focus on one: Rananim.

It’s believed that Lawrence first came across the concept of Ranamim when his friend S.S. Koteliansky sung the Hebrew chant Ranani Zadikim l’Adonoi to him. The two met in 1914 and were together in Barrow-in-Furness when WWI was declared. This was a significant time to bond as it marked a very difficult period for Lawrence as he suffered from poverty, political persecution – his wife was German, and frustrations with the censor that would plague his entire career. This is best captured in a letter to Edward Garnett in June 1912, when Lawrence really let rip:

“Curse the blasted, jelly-boned swines, the slimy, the belly-wriggling invertebrates, the miserable sodding rotters, the flaming sods, the snivelling, dribbling, dithering palsied pulse-less lot that make up England today. They’ve got white of egg in their veins, and their spunk is that watery it’s a marvel they can breed. They can but frog-spawn — the gibberers! God, how I hate them! God curse them, funkers. God blast them, wish-wash. Exterminate them, slime.”

This letter was in response to publisher William Heinemann who had rejected the first draft of his third novel, Sons and Lovers. This was eventually published in 1913 but it didn’t take long for it to be banned from libraries. His next novel, The Rainbow (1915) was seized under the Obscene Publications Act and burned. Although it didn’t contain any naughty words, it was deemed anti-British for daring to question everyday fundamentals such as work, religion, and relationships.

Lawrence was as frustrated with the publishing industry as he was with modernity. Industry dehumanized community and destroyed the natural landscape, whereas war demanded blind conformity to the flag and a further loss of individuality. He felt like he was the only one who could see this ‘Ugliness. Ugliness. Ugliness’ and so began to develop a philosophy for life through his novels. To do this he had to get away from Britain sharpish, and so embarked on a ‘savage pilgrimage’ of self-imposed exile.

“I shall say goodbye to England, forever, and set off in quest of our Rananim” he wrote to Koteliansky, on 12 January 1917. Rananim was the concept of a utopian community, a place where humanity could rise from the ashes of the past and old values, and purged of evil, be reborn in peace and love. Away from modernity and consumerism, it would be possible to find “a good peace and a good silence, and a freedom to love and to create new life.” The phoenix became his personal emblem, as he too was rising out of the flames and being reborn.

20190405_140549
S.S. Koteliansky

It would be a mistake to interpret this as the desire to create some kind of hippy commune or scribal gathering. This is evident from Lawrence’s time in Taos, New Mexico. Mabel Dodge Luhan, a wealthy patron of the arts, invited the Lawrence’s to stay with her in 1921. She wanted him to capture the spirit of Taos in the same way that he had done with Sea and Sardinia (1921). She too was trying to escape modernity and believed that bringing the greatest thinkers and artists together in one place would help build a better world than the one currently being destroyed by war and industry.

Lawrence was apprehensive at first, asking whether he’d encounter “a colony of rather dreadful sub-arty people”. He wasn’t a fan of literary crowds who he described as “smoking, steaming shits”. He was also cautious of “meeting the awful ‘cultured’ Americans with their limited self-righteous ideals and their mechanical love-motion and their bullying, detestable negative creed of liberty and democracy.” But he eventually turned up a year later after taking a detour via Australia and Ceylon.

There was an immediate clash of personalities and they quickly fell out. He hadn’t travelled halfway across the world to further her status. So, he headed off to the hills to live in a cabin. It was here, away from the crowds, that he was truly happy, embarking on a series of DIY projects – carpentry, glazing and putting up shelves, living simply and writing under a tree.

We are being asked to self-distance at the moment and many of us our finding it difficult. But Lawrence chose to get as far away from people as he could, writing, “I only want one thing of men and that is that they should leave me alone”. What he really meant was anybody who banned his books or didn’t share his world view.

His search for kindred spirits took him to many countries, but it never quite worked out. At his most desperate he considered ploughing his savings into a boat, “I would like to buy a sailing ship and sail among the Greek islands and be free…free! Just to be free for a little while of it all…with a captain and a couple of sailors, we could do the rest.”

Lawrence teaches us to seek out Rananim in our lives. We may not have the freedom to replicate his nomadic lifestyle, but we are starting to think about what community means, or, at the very least, have introduced ourselves to the neighbours for the first time.

Rananim doesn’t exist in a single place or location, location, location – so don’t expect Kirstie Allsop to source it out for you. Rather it’s a state of mind shared with likeminded people. So, don’t expect to find it too soon. In a letter to Catherine Carswell he explains, “I think people ought to fulfil sacredly their desires. And this means fulfilling the deepest desire, which is a desire to live unhampered by things which are extraneous, a desire for pure relationships and living truth”.

Lawrence lived through the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918 which killed 50 million people – more than died in WWI. He had terrible health throughout his life and eventually succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 44. He was not happy with the world he was born into, or perhaps more accurately, unhappy with the way that world was being destroyed by industry, pollution and greed. Sound familiar?

It seems fitting, then, that during lockdown, where everything “extraneous” has been removed, the rainbow, the title of Lawrence’s 1915 novel, has become the symbol of hope during these difficult times. This once banned book which dared to demand a different way of being holds a message in the final paragraph that we can all relate to.

“She saw in the rainbow the earth’s new architecture, the old, brittle corruption of houses and factories swept away, the world built up in a living fabric of Truth, fitting to the over-arching heaven.”

This article was originally published on the Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature websitein response to the challenges presented by coronavirus. 

dhl-trunkIn the D.H. Lawrence Memory Theatre we are exploring Lawrence life through artefacts. We officially set sail in November 2019 to mark the centenary of his self-imposed exile. You can submit artefacts here, or join in the conversation on Instagram or leave a comment below.

Fantazius Mallare and the art of Wallace Smith

 

dedication

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.

Art by Wallace Smith for "Fantazius Mallare" by Ben Hecht (1922)

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.

drawing1a-sml
The daimon tree that so irritated Lawrence. It is the first illustration in the novel.

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.

drawing4a-sml

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”.

witter 52cf354ec8d6b.image
Lawrence, Bynner and Frieda

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.

dhl-trunk energyThe 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

 

How huge gamble by Lady Chatterley lawyers changed obscenity law forever

Step this way … PA/PA Archive

In this guest blog, originally published in The Conversation, Sue Rabbitt Roff of University of Dundee, explains how “a watershed in British obscenity law had been achieved without any discussion about the illegal sex acts central to the novel”. Skip to page 258 of Lady Chatterley’s Lover to see if you would have made the same gamble as barrister Jeremy Hutchinson…

Jeremy Hutchinson, who has died at 102, was one of England’s finest criminal barristers. He was counsel of choice for some of the most high-profile cases of his era. He defended the likes of Christine Keeler and Great Train robber Charles Wilson and also obscenity cases against novels like Fanny Hill and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Later known as Lord Hutchinson of Lullington, his role defending Penguin Books after it published the unexpurgated version of the DH Lawrence classic is particularly memorable. It remains the landmark case in British obscenity law.

But look at the details and something extraordinary emerges: Penguin’s decision to publish 200,000 copies on the advice of Hutchinson and joint lead counsel Gerald Gardiner was a massive gamble. It set up a case that were it not for the incompetence of the prosecution could easily have gone the other way.

Obscenity and England

Lady Chatterley’s Lover had only ever been legally published in abridged versions in the UK, starting in 1932. Though by 1960 the unexpurgated edition was sold in Europe and America and could be obtained under the counter in London if you knew where to go, Penguin co-founder Allen Lane wanted to publish a cheap paperback of the full thing.

The idea was to put it out at 3s 6d, the same price as ten cigarettes, to make it affordable for the “young and the hoi-polloi”. The excuse was the 30th anniversary of Lawrence’s death from tuberculosis at the age of 45.

When Penguin consulted Hutchinson and Gardiner, the lawyers retreated to reflect. A trial under the new Obscene Publications Act seemed inevitable. The act’s first paragraph stated that material will be deemed obscene if it contains elements that tend as a whole “to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely … to read, see or hear” it.

Jeremy Hutchinson. PA/PA Archive

The act included a new defence in cases where the offending segments were “for the public good on the ground that [they are] in the interests of science, literature, art or learning”. In consultation with several literary experts, Hutchinson and Gardiner felt most of the racy scenes and bad language – including (30) “fucks” and (14) “cunts” – could fall under this defence. Lawrence, after all, was one of the most highly regarded writers of his era.

Hutchinson was concerned about page 258, however, where anal sex crops up – albeit obliquely. It has Oliver Mellors, the lover in the book’s title, trying to divorce his wife Bertha Coutts and being accused by her “of all unspeakable things”. Clifford Chatterley writes a letter to his own wife saying that Coutts has aired details about her marriage to Mellors which are “usually buried down in the deepest grave of matrimonial silence”.

But, he comments:

Humanity has always had a strange avidity for unusual sexual postures, and if a man likes to use his wife, as Benvenuto Cellini says, ‘in the Italian way’, well that is a matter of taste.

Lady Chatterley has pause for thought:

Connie remembered the last night she had spent with [Mellors], and shivered. He had known all that sensuality, even with a Bertha Coutts! It was really rather disgusting. It would be well to be rid of him, clear of him altogether.

Her friend Duncan Forbes then makes light of it:

If he’s made love to his wife all ends on, hasn’t he a right to? She ought to be proud of it.

While homosexual anal sex between consenting men was legalised 50 years ago in the UK, the heterosexual equivalent became legal only at the millennium in England and Wales and was highly illegal in 1960. (The 2001 film Bridget Jones’ Diary celebrated legalisation with a pretty explicit scene between Renée Zellweger and Hugh Grant.)

Illegal acts could still potentially use the public good defence, but Hutchinson feared it made the case much harder to win. Gardiner and the experts at the meeting dismissed his fears. In these more innocent times, they were betting that the prosecution wouldn’t grasp the point and omit it from their case. Hutchinson agreed to go ahead and advised Penguin accordingly.

Allen Lane and the edition. PA/PA Archive

Your witness

The defence called 35 professors of literature, authors, journalists, editors, critics, publishers and child education experts, and four Anglican churchmen. Each declared the book had sufficient literary merit to deserve publication for the public good. (Those less convinced of Lawrence’s genius begged off – Enid Blyton declared she had never read the book and “my husband said no at once”.)

Lead prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones cross-examined only 14 of the 35. He lost most of those rounds, and sometimes his temper in the process. It was only in his closing speech he said to the jury:

Would you look at page 258. It is a passage which I have not – and I do not think anybody has – referred to during the course of cross-examination, or indeed at any time during this trial. It … describes what is called the ‘night of sensual passion’.

He read out the whole passage remarking: “Not very easy, sometimes, not very easy, you know, to know what in fact he is driving at in that passage.”

It’s not clear how many jurors understood the passage; some were said to be visibly shocked. Certainly Griffith-Jones had missed the significance entirely, having referenced it only to underline the book’s general depravity. Mr Justice Byrne summed up with no reference to anal sex either. The issues were, he said, promiscuity and adultery described in words that were “normally obscene”.

The jury returned in three hours and found Penguin not guilty. Neither the clergy nor any of the other experts had been examined on anal sex and it is not clear whether they realised they were implicitly defending it or not. A watershed in British obscenity law had been achieved without any discussion about the illegal sex acts central to the novel.

In the wake of this case, publishing in Britain became considerably more liberal. Had Hutchinson not agreed to advise Penguin to take that extraordinary gamble, things could have panned out very differently.

Sue Rabbitt Roff, Part time tutor in Medical Education, University of Dundee.This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 

Writing obscenity: from Lady Chatterley to the Earl of Rochester

Jacob Huysmans
 

In this blog, originally published in The Conversation, Claudine van Hensbergen, of Northumbria University, Newcastle argues that “the purpose of literature is to make us feel, and to give us new ways of experiencing and thinking about the world around us.” When D.H. Lawrence spoke openly about sexual relations he was labelled obscene. Similarly, argues van Hensbergen, the Earl of Rochester has been unfairly perceived as pornographic due to his use of language…

The judge’s copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover used in the landmark 1960 obscenity trial of DH Lawrence’s famous novel is to be sold at auction in October. The paperback copy will be sold with a fabric bag, hand-stitched by the judge’s wife Lady Dorothy Byrne so that her husband could carry the book into court each day while keeping it hidden from reporters. The lot includes the notes on significant passages that Lady Byrne had helpfully marked up on the book for her husband, and a four-page list of references she had compiled on the headed stationery of the Central Criminal Court.

After six days of evidence and only three hours of deliberations, the jury found in the favour of Penguin Books, its verdict allowing the publisher to print copies of the novel for the first time. The trial was seen as a victory for liberal ideas over the old establishment. In literary terms, it signalled the opportunity for authors to write with a new type of language and freedom.

First edition of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, 1060.
Twospoonfuls via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-NC

But was Lawrence really the first writer to use obscenity in literature? And were liberal readers of the 1960s the first to appreciate the literary potential of obscene words and sex scenes? In short, the answer is no. The literary world which Lawrence and his fellow modernist writers inherited was that of the Victorian establishment. An establishment that had silenced earlier writers who, like Lawrence, used obscenity for literary ends.

One of the most important writers to be wiped from the publishing record during the 19th century was the poet John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. Even today, we continue to find the obscene language and images found in Rochester’s poetry shocking. Take, for example, his A Satyr on Charles II a critique of the monarch as a man governed by his penis:

 

 

‘Tis sure the sauciest prick that e’er did swive,

The proudest, peremptoriest prick alive.

Though safety, law, religion, life lay on ’t,

‘Twould break through all to make its way to cunt.

Restless he rolls about from whore to whore,

A merry monarch, scandalous and poor.

Following his death in 1680 publishers scrambled to produce editions of Rochester’s poems – correctly perceiving the public appetite for his verse. An initial run of pirate editions of Rochester’s poetry was quickly supplanted with an authoritative collection, produced in 1691 by the leading literary publisher of the day, Jacob Tonson. Tonson is credited with popularising John Milton’s (up to that point, fairly unsuccessful) poem Paradise Lost and also producing the first footnoted editions of William Shakespeare’s collected plays.

So why did a respectable publisher such as Tonson take the gamble of printing Rochester’s verse? The answer lies in the recognition of Rochester’s poetry as literature rather than obscenity. Just as with Lady Chatterley’s Lover, we need to read past the obscene language and images of the work to understand what Rochester is really saying.

The animal in human skin

Rochester is a poet of the human condition. He strips man down to his barest drives and desires to see the animal lurking underneath. In this way, he was much like the contemporary philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who famously pronounced that life was “nasty, brutish and short” and that underneath it all man was a beast like any other.

For Rochester, the sexual realm is just another place where we see (and feel) this stark reality. Rochester strips away all sense of love and romance from his depicted sexual encounters. And there are many of them. His images are those of the mechanics of sex, its failures, disappointments and disease. Take his notorious poem, The Imperfect Enjoyment, a work that opens with a scene indicating the sexual promise to come:

Naked she lay, clasped in my longing arms,

I filled with love, and she all over charms …

Quickly, this promise is destroyed. The poem’s speaker prematurely ejaculates:

But whilst her busy hand would guide that part

Which should convey my soul up to her heart,

In liquid raptures I dissolve all o’er,

Melt into sperm, and spend at every pore.
A touch from any part of her had done ’t:
Her hand, her foot, her very look’s a cunt.

The speaker’s lover encourages him to try again, but to no success:

Trembling, confused, despairing, limber, dry,

A wishing, weak, unmoving lump I lie.

The obscene language Rochester employs in The Imperfect Enjoyment – and the sexual act on which it focuses – led generations of readers to view the work as pornographic. But this is to misread the poem. The clue is in the title: the poem portrays the ultimate failure of desire. The emptiness of human experience. And its cold, clinical and obscene language (sperm, spend, pore, cunt) is contrasted throughout the poem with phrases that point to the scene’s absent romance (the sexual act “should convey my soul up to her heart”, but it doesn’t).

The beast within

Rochester is often seen as a dangerous or obscene writer in the way he glamorised the licentious world of the Restoration court. But when we read his poetry more closely, we find little glamour in the language expressed. His verse exposes human feeling and behaviour, showing the superficiality of our social world with all its polite manners and codes of behaviour. And the use of obscene language is key to that project. As Rochester succinctly phrased it in his correspondence, “Expressions must descend to the Nature of Things express’d”.

The Victorians couldn’t cope with Rochester’s poetry, and there were no editions of his work published in the 19th century. It wasn’t until 1963, in the wake of the Chatterley trial, that American scholar David M. Vieth began work on a modern uncensored edition. Vieth gave us back the real Rochester and made it possible for readers to access his poems once again.

Obscenity might not make for comfortable reading, but that’s often its point. The purpose of literature is to make us feel, and to give us new ways of experiencing and thinking about the world around us. For Lawrence this involved using a new language that cut across class and gender in celebrating the sexual act – for Rochester it involved looking into the mirror and confronting the beast within.The Conversation

Claudine van Hensbergen, Senior Lecturer in 18th Century English Literature, Northumbria University, Newcastle.  This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

dhl-trunk garter

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 represent his struggles against obscenity laws and censorship and the right to freely express ideas? In 2019 we begin 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