Over 20 essays, Rick Gekoski provides potted histories and interesting anecdotes of the great authors and rare books he’s encountered during his time as a bookseller. The focus of this blog is on his acquisition of Sons and Lovers, the ‘jewel in the crown’ of his personal Lawrence collection.
‘Collectors are an odd lot, both obsessional and compulsive, secretive and relentless’ writes bookseller Rick Gekoski, but be wary of those who collect T.E. Lawrence and Winston Churchill as ‘their sense of self is fuelled by their association with a hero through whom they feel enlarged’. In Jungian terms this is known as ‘psychic inflation’.
So, what kind of person collects D.H. Lawrence? Well, I’ve certainly met one or two with a messiah complex during my time at the D.H. Lawrence Society and belligerence seems to be a recurring trait too. But these aren’t traits I’d associate with Rick Gekoski, author of Tolkien’s Gown.
The book opens with a scathing attack on Dennis Wheatley, ‘thriller writer, Satanist, erotomane, and bore’. But he also has a first edition of Sons and Lovers in a dust wrapper. ‘One of the striking oddities of the trade in modern books’ he explains is ‘that the dustwrapper of the book is worth ten times – sometimes much more – than the book itself. Books without their wrappers are regarded as incomplete, which seems a little silly, as if they were Chippendale chairs, without legs.’
Lawrence would certainly frown at the commodification of his work. In the essay ‘Pictures on the Wall’ he argues that having the same picture hung on the wall for years produces a ‘staleness in the home’ which ‘is stifling and oppressive to the spirit’. As we change our taste in art changes. Just because something costs a lot of money doesn’t make it irreplaceable. Similar sentiments apply to books. In the 18th century books were expensive and became a form of property that overwhelmed ‘any sense of literary delight’. It was libraries that transformed our relationship with books as they ceased ‘to be looked on as lumps of real estate, and came to be regarded as something belonging to the mind and consciousness, a spiritual instead of a gross material property’.
Gekoski is clearly not in the trade just for ‘gross material property’, though money does help. Books are an integral part of his life, and like children who eventually leave home, he misses them when they move on. Therefore, he provides a sketch of each book he purchases, as well as providing context, analysis and nuggets of literary history.
The dust wrapper on his newly acquired purchase includes a brief notice which is believed to be by Lawrence and states:
‘Mr. D.H. Lawrence’s new novel covers a wide field: life in a colliery, on a farm, in a manufacturing centre. It is concerned with the contrasted outlook of two generations. The title, Sons and Lovers, indicates the conflicting claims of a young man’s mother and sweetheart for predominance’
Gekoski explains that Sons and Lovers is one of the earliest to ‘use psychoanalysis as an organizing principle’ as well as one of the first working class novels written by someone from the inside. In it, Lawrence plays out his inner conflict of being torn between the ‘fierce ambition’ of his mother and his first love, Jessie Chambers – who had helped his revive some of the text. The mother’s perspective would win out, much to Jessie’s disappointment. The betrayal was too much, and their friendship soured.
The unfinished novel accompanied Lawrence when he eloped with Frieda von Richthofen in 1912. He wrote to Edward Garnett with great enthusiasm, explaining that Paul Morel – it’s working title then – ‘has got form…It’s a great novel.’
Edward Garnett was also a novelist, but ‘a better editor than he was a writer’ and warned that Heinemann was nervous of publication as ‘the tyranny of libraries is such that a book far less outspoken would certainly be damned’. Lawrence’s responded with his infamous ‘Jelly-Boned Swines’ letter, of which an extract features in the video below. Lawrence’s rage, observes Gekoski, ‘makes Conrad’s Mr Kurtz seem a liberal spirit, doesn’t it?’
Frieda helped Lawrence rewrite some of the passages, something that has been raised more recently in Annabel Abbs’ Frieda and Frances Wilson’s experimental biography The Burning Man. This was an unwanted emotional burden for Frieda who complained, ‘I had to go deeply into the character of Miriam and all the others; and when he wrote his mother’s death he was ill with grief and his grief made me ill too’.
Garnet trimmed the novel down by around 10% and Lawrence complimented him on his pruning, writing, ‘I hope you’ll live a long time, and barber up my novels for me before they’re published.’
Gekoski observes that ‘the finished book is a mélange of the perfectly realized and the inappropriately generalized, like so much of Lawrence’s fiction. Lawrence is never better than when he has his eye firmly fixed on an object. But when he lifts his head to consider, and to generalize, the prose is unrelentingly dead, and false’.
Perhaps Lawrence could have done with 20% of pruning…
Another Lawrence who needed editing was T.E. Lawrence. Garnett offered to abridge his Seven Pillars of Wisdom, a book of such verbosity that E.M. Forster politely concluded it ‘imparts not colour but gumminess’. Verbosity was also a deterrent to some publishers due to the time it would take a typesetter to lay out a book. Author Virginia Woolf, a semi-professional printer who ran the Hogarth Press with her husband Leonard, would have rejected publishing Ulysses not because of the content of the final chapter, but because she ‘estimated that it would have taken a professional typesetter two years just to set it’.
Editing out ‘gumminess’ is a vital part of publishing and entails many unsung heroes who have helped books become masterpieces. ‘Would Lord of the Flies have been so successful’ argues Gekoski ‘if editor Charles Monteith had not cut the first 12 pages describing a nuclear war and insisted deposited the boys directly on the island or the story?’
Sons and Lovers was published in 1913 by Duckworth. For Lawrence, ‘a novel was done when it went to the publishers’. But it was Garnett who requested Lawrence design the dust wrapper. These utilitarian objects were usually disposed of by bookshops on purchase and why dust wrappers before 1919 are so rare. Gekoski explains that Lawrence refused on the ground that it was difficult to illustrate a coalmine when he was living on a lakeside in Italy ‘with no coal mines within miles and miles’. Hence the typographic wrapper with Lawrence’s blurb on the front cover.
In ‘The Bad Side of Books’ Lawrence writes, ‘Books to me are incorporate things, voices in the air…What do I care for first or last editions? I have never reread one of my own published works. To me, no book has a date, no work has a binding’. In a later introduction to a bibliography of his work he wrote ‘A book that is a book flowers once, and seeds, and is gone. First editions or forty-first are only the husks of it.’
Gesoki confesses he is a man who loves the husks and laments selling his copy of Sons and Lovers in his first catalogue in 1982 for £1,850.
Rick Gekoski. 2004. Tolkien’s Gown and Other Great Stories of Great Authors and Rare Books. Constable. Hachette
Rick Gekoski’s Guarded by Dragons: Encounters with Rare Books and Rare Peopleis an illuminating insight into his fifty years of experience buying and selling rare books.The opening chapter reveals how D.H. Lawrence kickstarted his habit…
Rick Gekoski published his first novel, Darke, at the age of 72. But he is perhaps best known for his half a century selling rare books. As the title of his memoir suggests, the treasure he seeks is scarce, carefully buried, and ferociously guarded. But is he himself a dragon, guarding rare books he’s accumulated, or a heroic slayer? It would seem the latter, because once you’ve got the treasure, you want to trade it in for more. His is a life very much focused on the journey rather than the destination.
A rare book dealer requires two basic skills: to know when a book is buyable and when to sell it for a higher price. The best way to accumulate this knowledge is to serve an apprenticeship in a bookshop. He didn’t. He entered the rare book world as an academic and a collector. Thus, he becomes frustrated at conferences when young collectors demand he pass down trade secrets. But there is no elixir. Knowledge can’t be passed down. All you can do is go slay your own dragons and see what happens.
This ethos of experience shapes his memoir. Over thirteen chapters we see him play ping pong with Salmon Rushdie, upset a Poet Laureate, and get dragged through the law courts on more than one occasion. But our interest at The Digital Pilgrimage is the opening chapter ‘On Sabbatical with D.H. Lawrence’.
It’s late 1974 and the Gekoski’s and their newborn baby are on a first-class plane to New York to see his ferocious mother who is dying of cancer. He’s taken a much-needed sabbatical and ‘wangled’ a contract with Methuen for a critical book on Lawrence. The problem is, he doesn’t have the energy for sustained academic research. What he enjoys more is collecting the first editions he’s been accumulating for the research he has no intention of finishing. It’s all very Dyeresque – something he alludes to.
Research, however, provides him with the excuse to leave his pickle-eating baby with his wife while he visits a secondhand bookseller called William Hauser. ‘Bill’ is nearing retirement and flogging off his books at bargain prices. He visits him five times and the books get cheaper on each visit. We learn that price is not just determined by the value of the object, there are other variables at play. He pays £41 for 12 books and sells most of them, over the coming years, for £333. This would make him a dealer. But as he invests this in more acquisitions, he is also a collector. The fact that he has the books shipped over to Blighty – so that his wife doesn’t find out what he’s been up to – suggests he is either a shrewd businessman or a bit deceitful.
In 1975 books were cheap but hard to find. For example, unable to procure his own copy of Warren Roberts’ Bibliography of D.H. Lawrence, he photocopies it from his university library and then annotates it with his acquisitions – who he bought from, who he sold on to. He explains that ‘unlike work on the putative critical book, which was glacially slow and unenthusiastic over these years, my collecting was focused, passionate and highly organized.’
He becomes obsessed with Lawrence, detailing all his books sold at auction. Later, he convinces his bank manager to allow his to go further into the red so that he can acquire a collection of Lawrence books from an antiques dealer in Wales that include some rarities, such as signed first editions of Lady Chatterley. The dealer insists on being paid in cash.
Allow me a quick digression. During lockdown, I went a year and a half without drawing out cash. Everything went on my card. Then I went to Yorkshire to visit some relatives. First a pizza take-away in Pateley Bridge refused to accept card and pointed to ‘machine across the road, mate’. Then the following evening, a Thai takeaway would only deliver if we had £42.32 in cash. As a sweetener, they threw in two free bottles of Singha beer and would deliver in 25 minutes.
Back to the dodgy dealer.
The dealer gives firm instructions to meet him at a train station at 12. He hangs up before checking if this is convenient. ‘He knew I was keen’ explains Gekoski ‘and may well have known that university lecturers have a lot of free time’. Of course, he can’t resist. But takes a friend along with him just in case. The meeting is fraught with danger, but it’s worth it as the dealer’s collection includes some proper treasure, such as Bay – A Book of Poems, published by The Beaumont Press in 1921 and sold in three issues: 500 copies, 50 signed copies, 25 signed copies bound in vellum.
It’s at this point, after he’s been bundled into the back of a car, that he confesses that writers, collectors, raconteurs make ‘our stories smoother, funnier, more revealing’ because it makes for a better story. He is guilty of ‘unconsciously constructing a faux narrative in which I braved dragons, confronted a dragon, returned safely from the hunt with my treasure: a hero, of a modest sort’.
Gekoski may be an unreliable narrator but he’s certainly a compelling one. I only intended to read the opening chapter to get my Lawrence fix but ended up devouring the entire book in one sitting. In doing this I’ve gone on to discover that John Fowles was anti-Semitic and that John Updike had to explain what a blowjob was to Victor Gollancz. All of which, to use an Alan Sillitoe quote, is ‘cheap gossip for retail later’. Wonderful stuff.
This book was kindly leant to me by David Belbin, Chair of Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature. David is also a writer and a collector of first edition books.
Guarded by Dragons is available in HB for £18.99 from Constable at hachette.co.uk
The writer, essayist and broadcaster Kevin Jackson (3 January 1955 – 10 May 2021) was a true polymath, writing on a diverse range of subjects that ranged from Dante and Ruskin to the birth of Modernism. We commissioned Kevin to create ‘D.H. Lawrence Zombie Hunter’ for our previous digital literary project Dawn of the Unread. Here he explains why Lawrence was so suited to the zombie genre.
I’d really like to brag or moan about how hard it was to come up with the ideas for this comic, but to be frank, compared to a lot of the stuff I have had to research so as to provide material for Hunt Emerson (who is, by the way, one of the very few people I have met who is possessed of genius), this was a doddle.
First of all, Lawrence’s short life was packed with all the action you could need: tough childhood, early struggles, unlikely marriage to an exotic aristocrat whose cousin had been a legend of the Great War, passionate friendships and bitter feuds, then travel, travel, travel, all around the globe… Allowing for a little fantastical license here and there, the account of Lawrence’s life in this strip is pretty accurate. Most of the standard biographies don’t mention zombies, though.
Then you have the fact that DHL was a real Mr Angry – the Basil Fawlty of literary modernism. He has sometimes been called the “High Priest of Love”, because of the notorious sexy bits in his books, but High Priest of Loathe would be more apt. You name it, he was probably driven nuts by it. Among major twentieth century writers, his only rivals in rage were Ezra Pound (who went mad from anger, and not in a pretty way) and Louis Ferdinand Celine (who may also have been mad; if he wasn’t, he’s probably burning in Hell).
Finally – the biggest stroke of luck – the way in which Lawrence wrote about the people and the countries he hated was an almost perfect fit for the required zombie metaphor. He liked to snarl that his enemies were either half-dead (especially in the genital zone) or as good as dead; he described Britain as a giant graveyard, and as a vast open coffin sinking into the seas. Tweak those outbursts just a little and, voila! Lawrence’s “savage pilgrimage” from nation to nation becomes a one-man war against the zombification of the human race.
It might seem odd to say this, but it is this slightly barmy, ranting side of Lawrence that I now find most attractive. Like most people, I first read him as a teenager. For some teenagers, boys and girls alike, he has been one of the great liberating forces. But this was the seventies, when a new wave of feminism was on the rise, and Lawrence became a major villain – Public Male Chauvinist Pig Number One. And then I went to college and studied English, at a time when the previously overpowering presence of DHL’s biggest champion, F.R. Leavis, had finally withered and all but died. No one I respected so much as mentioned him, except with a shrug or a knowing sneer.
This was unfair, and unfortunate. One of the writers I did greatly admire in my teens (and still admire) was someone who seemed the precise opposite of Lawrence: Anthony Burgess. Where Lawrence was humourless and would-be prophetic, Burgess was funny – sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. Where Lawrence was ponderous, Burgess was fleet. Lawrence was a bar-room philosopher and a bully; Burgess was a polymath who wore his learning with wit and panache. And so on.
Yet – how odd this seemed – Burgess greatly warmed to this author who was so much unlike him. What Burgess responded to was Lawrence’s distance from the London literary elite – as a Mancunian, Burgess never felt comfortable with the Establishment; and his capacity for sheer hard work; and his sense that to be a writer is to be more than just someone who hawks their goods in the marketplace. Burgess also liked quite a lot of Lawrence’s prose, and explained why in a short, highly readable book about DHL, Flame Into Being.
It was that book which persuaded me to try to be more open-minded about Lawrence. When it comes right down to it, I still don’t like the smell of him, as it were. As a completely soppy dog-lover, I cannot forget the horrible incident in which he kicked a bitch almost to death because she had not obeyed his call. He was self-righteous, and narcissistic, and often very, very boring. I doubt I would have liked him, and I am sure he would have despised me. But, I’ll admit it. The bastard could write.
Original article published by Dawn of the Unread here
Elliot Morsia specialises in Modernist and Contemporary Literature. In this interview he discusses The Many Drafts of D. H. Lawrence: Creative Flux, Genetic Dialogism, and the Dilemma of Endings, recently published by Bloomsbury.
Tell us a bit about yourself…
I am half English (mother) and half Italian (father). I was born in London, where my family are mostly from – half having emigrated from Italy in the 60s – but I grew up in Kent on the south coast, before returning to London for university. I stayed in and around London while completing BA, MA and PhD degrees in English Literature and working for a year. I then moved to Oxfordshire to begin working for Routledge, where I have now been for a few years.
How did the book come about?
The seed of the book was an MA dissertation, which introduced ‘genetic criticism’ to Lawrence by focusing on the different versions of his little-known but enchanting short story ‘The Shades of Spring’ (itself a kind of forerunner for Lady Chatterley).
This book is the first to apply analytical methods from the field of genetic criticism to the Lawrence archives. What exactly is genetic criticism and why did you use this approach?
Genetic criticism is a relatively new way of reading, interpreting and studying literature. To do genetic criticism you simply follow the writing process/es for a particular work across manuscript drafts and alternative versions, rather than focusing your attention exclusively on one particular, final, published text. I came to do this in an organic way. I read Lawrence very widely and found traditional critical approaches, which focus on particular static texts too limiting. This eventually led me to genetic criticism, which focuses on dynamic texts. I find the approach equally liberating for any other author who possesses an archive. For example, I have also published a ‘genetic’ essay on David Foster Wallace, a very different author from Lawrence (though they do share archives (in the Harry Ransom Centre) and forenames).
The book unearths and re-evaluates a variety of themes in Lawrence’s work. Could you briefly tell us a little about these themes and why you chose them?
I discuss a range of well-known themes – like love, sexuality, the body, death – in a new way throughout the book by showing how these develop and morph across Lawrence’s drafts and alternative versions. I also pick up on lesser-known or completely overlooked themes, many of which are very important, like depression, or the problem of endings. However, one key theme which the book unearths is the opposition and interplay between flux and stasis, or process and product.
The book highlights how the very distinction between ‘process’ and ‘product’ became a central theme in Lawrence’s work. Please could you tell us a bit more about this distinction?
You can see this distinction in the very structure of Lawrence’s fiction, which so often switches between intense passages of dialogue (flux) and calm descriptive passages (stasis). This distinction, and rhythm, is also reflected in the writing processes, where the passages of dialogue are very often rewritten and revised, whereas descriptive passages are more often left intact. The theme is also reflected in the content itself. If you take Women in Love as the canonical example (and I think Women in Love is a terribly underrated novel, despite its acclaim; it is arguably the greatest novel of the 20th century!), the opposition between flux and stasis dominates much of the novel, from societal ills and relationships to the fate of individual characters, and Lawrence’s revisions and rewritings emphasize and shed light on this. The iconic episode in the chapter ‘Moony’, where Birkin stones the moon’s reflected image, is one of many examples which I discuss in the book.
Why do you think Lawrence had dilemma’s about finishing a piece of work? Is this something all writers go through (in that a book is never really finished because we constantly change as people) or was this type of dilemma distinct to him?
Lawrence rewrote the ending of each of the works which I look at in this book multiple times and it is probably the single most heavily rewritten section in each work. While revision and rewriting is almost universal to writers, it is a distinct dilemma to Lawrence in that Lawrence so often writes about the aforementioned opposition between flux and stasis and generally sides with what he sees as creative flux over deathly stasis. Rendering his own creative life into static, finished products of literature was therefore a kind of paradox for Lawrence, and I think his often carefree or even disdainful attitude towards his own works is a result of this dilemma. I discuss this dilemma in a few places in the book and focus on it almost exclusively in Chapter 8 (‘Writing an Ending’).
Was there one piece of work that Lawrence re-wrote more than others?
Something I emphasize in the book is just how frequently and intensely Lawrence rewrote his work. Aside from manuscript drafts, Lawrence also published alternative versions of many poems and short stories, and attempted to get earlier versions of one or two of the novels published, too. That said, he worked on various versions of Women in Love over the best part of eight years (sadly destroying many hundreds of manuscript pages), so that is probably the one I would single out above all others.
Why is Lawrence an important writer to you?
As I emphasize in the book, Lawrence is unique in the sheer breadth and extent of his work, which is acclaimed across almost the entire range of writing categories (letters, travel writing, psychology, history, poetry, long and short fiction, journalistic articles, literary criticism, and more), as well as his humble working-class origins, and, despite being slightly awkwardly grouped with ‘Modernist’ literature, there is a humble degree of accessibility to all of his work. And yet, despite all the reams and reams of writing, there is rarely any sense of tiredness or pessimism to be found in Lawrence (these are more likely to be subjected to rage, which is itself a kind of positive emotion in Lawrence!). To be slightly less uncouth, I also think there is a fascinating element of depth and complexity in Lawrence’s writings, a sense of impending revelation, to rival or surpass any of his great Modernist contemporaries.
The disruption caused by coronavirus has forced the D.H. Lawrence Society to embrace the digital age and invest in a funky new website, Twitter account and YouTube channel. This means that I am able to share their first online talk here, given by Fiona Fleming. In the four clips below she discusses the respective lives, loves and literary influences of Lawrence and Thomas Hardy. Out of Sheer Joy, I have provided my own summary…
Thomas Hardy (2 June 1840 – 11 January 1928) was a Victorian realist influenced by Romanticism. Born 45 years before Lawrence, his last novel, Jude the Obscure, was published in 1895, when Lawrence was ten. Hardy died the year Lady C was originally published. Both writers confronted controversial topics during their careers, risking censorship due to their interpretations of modernity and the prevailing morality of the time.
In terms of family, Fleming states that the Hardy’s were a tight clan, mainly because they remained together in Dorset throughout their lives. Dorset would be portrayed as the semi-fictionalised region of Wessex in his novels. Lawrence remained in contact with his family, but as he lived abroad from 1919 onwards, visits to the East Midlands were more sporadic. Eastwood and the surrounding mining communities would inform much of Lawrence’s early novels and plays, though he would write, ‘I can be anywhere at home, except home’.
Both writers were subject to the oppressive love of a matriarch whose aspirations for her children exceeded her own achievements. Church was a regular feature of their childhood. In Apocalypse, Lawrence would write, ‘I was brought up on the Bible and seemed to have it in my bones’ – which was read at him rather than to him at Sunday School. The overbearing dogmatism of a non-conformist church would, Fleming argues, lead to Lawrence’s loss of faith. However, he never lost his passion for hymns, adapting their symbolism to suit him where needed.
Hardy was also ushered into church life but was intrigued by ritual rather than any form of spiritual meaning. He would later become agnostic due to his own philosophical and scientific readings. He also loved church music, seeing hymns as a form of poetry. Although they both had very different ideas on what constituted a good hymn, especially ‘Lead Kindly Light’ which Lawrence felt was too sentimental.
In terms of education, FE wasn’t really an option due to financial restrictions. Therefore, they both self-educated as much as possible, drawing influence and education from friends and family around them. I often wonder what kind of person Lawrence would have become if he hadn’t encountered the likes of the Chambers and Hopkins families.
J.M. Barrie was a big influence on Hardy’s posthumous literary success, finding him a burial spot at Poet’s Corner and helping Hardy’s second wife, Florence, publish the definitive collection, The Life and Works of Thomas Hardy. Barrie also has a Nottingham connection. He worked as a journalist at the Nottingham Daily Journal between 1883 – 4. It’s believed that while he was here, he conceived of the character of Peter Pan and based the setting of Neverland on the Arboretum – the park he would walk through each morning on his way to work. Lawrence never met J.M. Barrie, partly because he was abroad but mainly because he detested literary gatherings which tended to attract ‘smoking, steaming shits’. One friend they had in common was literary critic, John Middleton Murry – although friend might be pushing it as far as Lawrence is concerned. Their relationship was doomed after the failed attempt at Rananim in Cornwall in 1916 and Murry’s moral betrayal via his editorship of the Adelphi. But then again, Lawrence fell out with everyone in the end (except perhaps Catherine Carswell).
Another mutual friend was the writer and socialite Lady Cynthia Asquith (1887 –1960) the daughter-in-law of H. H. Asquith, the prime minister whose threat to ennoble Hardy and Barrie (alongside 498 others) so frightened the House of Lords in 1911. Lawrence wrote to her regularly, describing her as a “Pre-Raphaelite ‘dreaming woman'”. Lawrence was intrigued by the aristocracy in terms of their grand families. His wife Frieda, of course, was born to aristocracy, but like Lawrence, had little interest in social status. Lacking Lawrence’s self-confidence, Hardy was desperate to climb the social ladder that his family had so successfully slipped down the previous century. His need to be respected can be found in an amusing anecdote about his morbid self-obsession with his own death. This tale was shared with Asquith by J.M. Barrie:
“[H]e often smiled over Hardy’s preoccupation with his plans for his own burial–plans which were perpetually being changed. “One day,” said Barrie,” Hardy took me to see the place where he wants most to be buried, and the next day he took me to see the place where he would like next best to be buried. Usually he says he is to be buried exactly in between his two wives, but sometimes he is to be so many inches.”
Fleming argues that Hardy’s vulnerability and lamenting for social status can be seen in novels such as Tess of the D’Urbervilles where Tess descends into poverty and obscurity. In the novel, traditional ways of life are slowly eroded by modernity, represented by effete city folk who are only able to ingest milk that has been watered down. Lawrence too wrote about how industry and modernity places a barrier between man and nature. But instead of mopping about, he went in search of primitive cultures and the ‘religion of the blood’. However, when he describes the coastline of Cornwall as belonging “still to the days before Christianity, the days of Druids, or of desolate Celtic magic and conjuring” he could be accused of creating worlds as equal fictional as Hardy’s Wessex.
Indeed, Lawrence’s great skill as a writer was the way he would impose his own values and sense of self into any topic he chose to write about. As he wrote on 5 September 1914: “Out of sheer rage I’ve begun my book on Thomas Hardy. It will be about anything but Thomas Hardy I am afraid – queer stuff – but not bad.”
Source: Fiona Fleming (You can join the D.H. Lawrence Society here) Special thanks also to ivebeenreadinglately.blogspot.com
In 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, but then a virus came along and everything has been put on hold. You can submit artefacts here, or join in the conversation on Instagram or leave a comment below.
To celebrate Easter, David Brock takes a look at Lawrence’s controversial take on the Crucifixion in the essay ‘Resurrection’ and how Easter eggs led to the novel The Man Who Died.
In our so-called ‘Christian country’, we’re told fewer couples choose to marry in church. But let’s welcome this greater honesty. And while Easter is a commercial bonanza now. . .the stores stacked with machine-laid eggs – Easter is symbolic of Oestrus, and the Pagan origin of our great spring festival.
Unsurprisingly, D.H. Lawrence – who was brought up steeped in the Bible and Christian mythology, and has been depicted as a Christ-like figure himself, even described by some as ‘messianic’ – offers some challenging, alternative suggestions when it comes to the Church, the Easter Story and the Resurrection. What he says can help us all to rise up again, achieving fuller being, at this most regenerative time of year.
Inspired by the sight of eggs at Easter, and at first called The Escaped Cock, the subsequent title of Lawrence’s controversial fictional version of Christ coming back to life, and emerging from the tomb, The Man Who Died, tells us quite a lot. This is a mortal ‘Man’, rather than a Saviour, King of Kings or Son of God. This ‘Man’ has died the death of his old self, and his new, individual, flesh and blood self, has returned to life. He is taking the first hesitant steps away from a past he now repudiates, towards his difficult but vital human resurrection. He is becoming ‘The Man Who Lived’, rather than ‘The Christ Who Died’.
In a short essay, ‘Resurrection’, Lawrence berates fellow writer, Tolstoy, for wanting Christ to go on ‘being crucified everlastingly’, and urges all of that ilk to ‘Put away the Cross; it is obsolete.’ For the ‘stigmata’ are ‘healed up’. And ‘The Lord is risen,’
The Cross has become the ‘Tree of Life’ again, Lawrence insists. It has taken root and is issuing buds. However, the multitudes are mistakenly putting their Lord on the Cross again.
Whereas those who are prepared to rise along with the Risen Lord can do so as lords themselves. Facing inwards towards the ‘Whole God’ – which is, our central living integrity, the hub of our being – on the ‘Wheel of fire’, we can all be lit up with ‘bright and brighter and brightest and most-bright faces’, Lawrence believes.
In his poem, ‘The Risen Lord’ Lawrence’s Jesus opens his eyes ‘afresh’, seeing for the first time ‘people of flesh’. Having conquered the fear of death, he must now ‘conquer the fear of life’ – living as a ‘man among men’. He rejects the old denial of substance and physical desires – ‘never can denial deny them again.’
This vision in Lawrence of us all as Lords of Life is infectious. The last of his Pansies, ‘Prayer’, written as his health declined, expresses an extraordinary wish. . .one we might share – ‘Give me the moon at my feet / Put my feet upon the crescent, like a Lord!”
David organises a D.H. Lawrence reading, study and performance group, The Lawrence Players, which meets fortnightly, between 5 and 7 pm in Chapel-en-le-Frith library (18th April, 2nd, 16th, 30th May and so on). The ultimate aim of the group is to raise the profile of this radical exciting author by performing his work on stage. Any enquiries, please contact David at email@example.com
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 get across Lawrence’s indifferent relationship with religion or the self-deification of his later works? Will chocolate eggs melt inside our memory theatre or hatch and rise from the flames? 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
Indeed! This would be queer, wouldn’t it? And yet this is precisely the phenomenon that I wish to discuss: what might be termed solar sexuality or sun-fucking. Like many forms of edgeplay, if such a practice promises bliss and fulfilment, so too does it risk death. Indeed, one of the arguments that I wish to put forward is that in learning how to love and be loved by the sun in a cosmic-carnal sense, one is left dehumanised and stripped naked before an uncaring universe wherein integral being ceases and life is soon extinguished. Thus what I’m offering here is a not simply a mixture of Lawrentian fantasy and pagan astro-porn, but a counter-vitalism that can be thought of either as a perverse form of speculative realism, or an aggressive material nihilism. What I’m not interested in is the sun understood mythologically, or as an object of religious veneration. For me, the sun is neither alive, nor is it a god.
For Lawrence, however, as for many other people who share his predilection for vitalism and divinity, the sun is more than a material object that can be adequately described and understood by physicists and astronomers. And if, primarily, Lawrence is concerned with the relationships between men and women, he nevertheless insists on the importance of the relation between humanity and the sun. Thus the first question that arises is how might we best define or determine this relationship? Is it, as the story ‘Sun’ suggests, potentially erotic in character? Might we really talk of ‘sex’ between a woman and the sun? Certainly we might, if we choose to subscribe to Lawrentian metaphysics. For Lawrence explicitly states that sex is solar in origin, describing it as a “majestic reserve in the sun”. This is an interesting and novel definition and one that obliges us to think of sex in a far wider sense than usual; as something “so much more than phallic, and so much deeper than functional desire”.
Because Lawrence thinks of sex as a type of solar activity within the living tissue of men and women, perhaps the term that best describes our relation to the sun is correlation. For there is clearly a notion of mutual interdependence between the sun and humankind in Lawrence’s work: we can’t think one without thinking the other. And yet, correlation – something which, as a philosophical concept, we’ll be returning to in the closing remarks – doesn’t sound a very Lawrentian term and I think Lawrence would be happier speaking about correspondence.
For correspondence, implies a far closer level of intimate proximity between terms: they become not merely interdependent, but analogous at a certain level. There is also a vital implication: abstract figures or ideas correlate; living things correspond and communicate. And so it’s not surprising to find this term, correspondence, being used frequently within Lawrence’s work when he wishes to discuss human relationships with non-human bodies and forces. To give but one example of many, in the first version of his essay ‘The Two Principles’, he writes:
“There certainly does exist a subtle and complex sympathy, correspondence, between the plasm of the human body … and the material elements outside. The primary human psyche is a complex plasm, which quivers, sense-conscious, in contact with the circumambient cosmos.”
Correspondence, we can therefore agree, is a privileged term in the Lawrentian vocabulary. And doubtless its appeal lies in the fact that it is the more religious term: for correspondence is an essentially theological doctrine, associated with Emanuel Swedenborg, who believed in a correspondence between spiritual and natural forces extending to all objects in the physical world. If, for Swedenborg, ultimately everything corresponded to God, then, for Lawrence, all things seem to refer back to the sun, understood as a religious symbol, rather than a real object.
Not only does Lawrence wish to reject modern cosmology, he hopes to reverse it. In particular, he wants to reverse the idea that life evolves from matter. On the contrary, he argues, the material universe results from the breakdown of primary organic tissue. This is the central claim of his anti-scientific vitalism and Lawrence insists on this point in full knowledge that it is, as a matter of fact, not the case.
Unfortunately, Lawrence is not alone in this opposition. Rather shamefully, many philosophers have also often been antagonistic and condescending towards science, accusing it, for example, of dogmatism or naïve realism. But, unlike Lawrence, I do not believe a so-called ‘life-mystery’ has ultimate control over the mechanistic and material universe, nor: “If it be the supreme will of the living that the sun should stand still in heaven, then the sun will stand still.” This is simply an occult conceit: the frankly preposterous belief that there can be a magical suspension of the laws of physics at the behest of human will power.
That said, I understand Lawrence’s objection to positivism and his response to the inhuman scale of the universe as given to us within astronomy. When you first encounter the facts and figures of the universe you can indeed become “dizzy with the sense of illimitable space”. But I think we should accept the challenge of this and affirm our ‘imprisonment’ – Lawrence’s word – within an indifferent, uncaring, essentially godless universe. Nihilism is not something to fear, or seek to overcome, but, as a form of intellectual integrity, something to affirm.
Lawrence, I know, wants imaginative wonder and release and would rather have religious myth than scientific description, as the former guarantees him this. Essentially, he’s a theo-humanist and a fantasist, who dismisses empirical evidence in favour of subjective ‘truth’ as he feels it. And so he prefers astrology to astronomy. And why not, when the former is so much more flattering to our sense of self-importance? For astrology gives us man translated in onto-cosmic terms. Lawrence writes:
“In astronomical space, one can only move, one cannot be. In the astrological heavens … the whole man is set free, once the imagination crosses the border. The whole man, bodily and spiritual, walks in the magnificent field of the stars … and the feet tread splendidly upon … the heavens, instead of untreadable space.”
The first sentence is doubtless true: our being is mortal and terrestrial and we do cease to exist in human terms once we venture into the “horrible hollow void” of outer space. But I don’t like Lawrence’s desire to place his feet upon the heavens – it seems an impertinence and embarrassingly allzumenschliches. Small and insignificant, Lawrence wants to project himself into “the great sky with its meaningful stars and its profoundly meaningful motions”. He wants to declare his unity with the cosmos. But this is surely the same kind of transcendental egoism that Lawrence ridicules Whitman and others for. He boasts that he is not afraid to feel his own nothingness “in front of the vast void of astronomical space”, but, actually, he does seem afraid when confronted with reality and ontological hollowness.
However, scared or not, Lawrence at least knows what it is he wants: a release of the imagination in order that it might make him “feel stronger and happier”. Science doesn’t provide this, he asserts. At best, it satisfies the intellect, even as it gives us a sun and a moon that are “only thought-forms … things we know but never feel by experience”. This, I have to say, is a bit rich. For so too are the sun and moon given us by astrology only thought-forms – and, arguably, nothingbut colourful thought-forms, whereas the sun spoken of within astronomy has some actual basis in material reality.
So if, in a sense, I agree with Lawrence that we have ‘lost the sun’ in the same manner and for the same reason we have lost all things as things in themselves, still I might question what the best way to recover the sun is: poetry, astrology, eroticized sunbathing? Or perhaps a speculative and material form of philosophy that will liberate us from the personal entanglement of correlationism.
D.H. Lawrence’s Sun
Originally written in 1925, ‘Sun’ was significantly revised three years later and it is this ‘unexpurgated’ text to which I’ll be referring here. The central protagonist, Juliet, is an embryonic Lady Chatterley: rich, bored, and sexually frustrated. However, instead of taking a human lover, she establishes an erotic relationship with the sun, that strangest of strange attractors. Such a relationship is both pleasurable and dangerous: the sun kisses us into life, but it cares nothing for the personal, the egoic, or the human. In fact, as we shall see, it incinerates these things and, as one commentator rightly notes, whilst the sun helps Juliet overcome her depression, it also challenges her pale-faced American idealism and her status as a modern independent woman. For whilst the Italian sun is rather less fierce and demanding than the Aztec sun that thrives upon blood, nevertheless it is just as relentless and Juliet’s body “is made to acknowledge its subjection to the inexorable processes of fertility and procreation, in spite of her will’s resistance”. Clearly, there’s a sexual politics being promoted in this biological fatalism, though whether it’s solar or simply sexist in origin is debatable.
The story opens with Juliet’s husband and mother being instructed by her doctors to take her away into the sun. Despite her initial scepticism, she allows herself to be carried away from the New World to the Old: from a land of steel, to a land of olive trees and lemon groves. It sounds lovely – and it is lovely. But initially, Juliet is unimpressed:
“She saw it all, and in a measure it was soothing. But it was all external. She didn’t really care about it. She was herself just the same, with all her anger and frustration inside her, and her incapacity to feel anything real.” 
We have already noted this loss of world and the feeling of being somehow out of touch with things in the phenomenal universe; certain only of our own subjective thoughts and feelings; our own rage, rather than the physical reality of objects. Again, the question is what can we do about it. For Lawrence, it invariably seems to involve taking your clothes off: “‘You know, Juliet, the doctor told you to lie in the sun, without your clothes. Why don’t you?’ said her mother.”  Juliet responds aggressively to this suggestion: “‘When I am fit to do so, I will. Do you want to kill me?’” , she demands.
It seems a slightly hysterical overreaction, but, actually, she’s quite right to fear for her mortal well-being. For the sun will destroy her, even when she feels strong enough to go naked before it. In becoming sun-woman, Juliet sets off on an “adventure into the material universe” and hers is not a story of a being among beings, nor a tale of human self-discovery, but, rather, a flirtation with death. As we will see, her soul “is in a sense dehumanised” in its encounter with the sun in its stark reality and her story offers us a “vision of life hovering tiny and isolated” against a solar system where individuality is spent and meaningless.
Juliet’s solar affair begins one morning “when the sun lifted himself molten and sparkling, naked over the sea’s rim”  and she finds herself transfixed whilst lying in her bed:
“It was as if she had never seen the sun rise before. She had never seen the naked sun stand up pure upon the sea-line, shaking the night off himself, like wetness. And he was full and naked. And she wanted to come to him.
So the desire sprang up secretly in her, to be naked to the sun. She cherished her desire like a secret. She wanted to come together with the sun.” 
There are a couple of points I’d like to comment on here. Firstly, note the typical engendering of the sun. In most cultures and languages the sun is invariably male. This lazy sexual dualism, that divides everything into polarised male and female forces, is not only untenable, but it fosters and perpetuates a deeply reactionary sexual politics. Happily, even within loyalist Lawrence circles such binary thinking is today met with suspicion and deserved hostility.
Secondly, I’d like to say something about the odd practice of sun-gazing. Throughout the story Juliet continually looks at the sun and there is an esoteric practice that advocates precisely this: staring at the rising or setting sun for unusually prolonged periods, in order to gain physical and spiritual well-being. The fact that looking directly at the sun, even for a short time, can cause solar retinopathy and lead to permanent damage or blindness, is not something that seems to cause proponents of sun-gazing any real concern. They don’t deny such risks, but they do play them down and many assert that, if done with due diligence, sun-gazing can actually improve eyesight. Indeed, some sun-gazers claim that not only does the practice make you feel happier and healthier, but it can directly increase your energy levels and thus radically reduce the need for food: that one can, as it were, meet one’s nutritional requirements directly from sunlight, a bit like a plant. The fact that people don’t possess chlorophyll and so cannot photosynthesise is discreetly overlooked and, as with other forms of inedia, there is no credible scientific evidence to support this claim.
Having decided to give herself to the sun in order to fulfil her desire, Juliet attempts to find a suitable spot where she may consummate her solar-sexual relationship. She realises that it will have to be away from the house – and away from people. But it is not easy finding a place in the modern world in which one may go hidden and alone in order to have “intercourse with the sun” .
However, find such a place she does and here, in a series of explicitly eroticised passages, Lawrence describes how Juliet strips naked and gives herself to the sun, exulting in the fact that ‘he’ was no human lover: “She could feel the sun penetrating into her bones: nay, further, even into emotions and thoughts.”  She is left feeling not only sun-kissed, but sun-dazed, and sun-fucked. If Lawrence’s language, with its incantatory rhythm and its porno-poetic quality encourages us to think more fully the nature of solar-coition, so too does it have something troubling about it: something voyeuristic and, indeed, sexually violent. For Juliet is stripped and subject not just to the gaze of the sun, but also to the gaze of the reader, who is invited and encouraged to stare at her nakedness just as the sun looks down upon her body laid bare and described in detail. As Juliet is penetrated by the sun, “she lay stunned with the strangeness of the thing that was happening to her” . Can a woman, we might ask, ever give consent to sexual intercourse with the sun? It’s debatable. Indeed, we might also enquire, as in the case of Leda or the Virgin Mary, is this not ultimately a form of rape to which we bear witness?
Less disturbing, but perhaps more surprising, is Lawrence’s sometimes rather crude use of sexual punning and double entendre. When he tells us that Juliet wanted to have intercourse with the sun and come with the sun, I think he fully intends for the sexual connotation to be heard and understood. The verb, to come, for example, meaning to orgasm, would certainly have been familiar in the 1920s, although probably not used in polite society. I’m surely not the first reader to find this peculiar mix of mytho-religious language and sea-side postcard eroticism (taken to its climax in the Chatterley writings) less than successful.
Despite being ravished by the sun during this first encounter and left feeling dazed and violated by the sun’s power, Juliet’s only vital concern is now for the sun: “She was thinking inside herself, of the sun in his splendour, and his entering into her. Her life was now a secret ritual.”  And so, every day, she went at some point to her secret spot among the cactus, wearing only a light wrap and sandals, so that “in an instant … she was naked to the sun” . Soon, she feels as if she knows the sun “in every thread of her body”  and she becomes increasingly confident and carefree: “Her heart of anxiety … had disappeared altogether … And her tense womb, though still closed, was slowly unfolding, slowly, slowly, like a lily bud under water, as the sun mysteriously touched it.”
This is followed by a passage crucial to the anti-humanism of the story:
“With her knowledge of the sun, and her conviction that the sun was gradually penetrating her to know her, in the cosmic carnal sense of the word, came over her a feeling of detachment from people, and a certain contemptuous tolerance for human beings altogether. They were so un-elemental, so un-sunned. They were so like graveyard worms.” [23-4]
This seems a bit harsh – and Juliet isn’t only thinking of sophisticated urbanites, or middle-class persons such as herself and her husband, for even the local peasants “with their donkeys, sun-blackened as they were, were not sunned right through. There was a little soft core of fear … where the soul of man cowered in fear of death, and still more in fear of the natural blaze of life. … All men were like that. – Why admit men!” 
Why indeed? And yet, fairly soon after reaching this conclusion, this is exactly what Juliet decides to do: to disappointingly admit a man; a sun-darkened peasant with a donkey and a wife and a hard-on. We’ll meet this peasant and his erect penis shortly. But what I want to stress here is how her new contempt for sun-fearing mankind results in Juliet being far less cautious about being seen naked by the local people and increasingly insouciant: all she cared about was being thought beautiful by the sun and not the judgement of society. This might be thought liberating, but we must remember, of course, that the sun doesn’t care about her in the least: this is just her fantasy and conceit.
As her misanthropy and insouciance continue to develop side-by-side, so too does her skin begin to change colour: “all her body was rosy, rosy and turning to gold. She was like another person. She was another person.”  This makes her sun-proud and sun-happy: to lose that white, un-sunned body that the Greeks thought fishy and unhealthy and to become at last a transhuman sun-woman:
“It was not just taking sun-baths. It was much more than that. Something deep inside her unfolded and relaxed, and she was given to a cosmic influence. By some mysterious will inside her, deeper than her known consciousness and her known will, she was put into connection with the sun, and the stream of the sun flowed through her, round her womb. She herself, her conscious self, was secondary, a secondary person, almost an onlooker. The true Juliet lived in the dark flow of the sun within her deep body, like a river of dark rays circling, circling dark and violet round the sweet, shut bud of her womb.” 
It’s interesting how Lawrence is at pains to stress that what Juliet is doing is something entirely different to and so much more than the sunbathing indulged in by millions of other women around the world: interesting, but not entirely convincing. Clearly, for Lawrence, becoming sun-woman isn’t just a matter of removing your clothes and lying naked in the sun. Indeed, for Lawrence, most modern women have no nakedness and if they strip it is merely to flaunt their bodies in a peculiarly non-physical, optical aspect. Today, says Lawrence, in or out of her knickers makes very little difference to her desirability: “She’s a finished off ego, an assertive conscious entity, cut off like a doll from any mystery. And her nudity is about as interesting as a doll’s.”
Leaving aside this slight towards modern women – and indeed towards dolls – the key point is that, for Lawrence, if you want to have sex with the sun then you have to do more that seek out yourself in the sky: you have to discover solar otherness and accept the cost and the consequence of so doing. If you only seek out yourself in your relationships – be it with human or non-human lovers – then it is just a form of narcissism and you may as well just masturbate.
As Juliet becomes increasingly subject to the sun, or, perhaps, we should say sexually objectified by the sun, she spends more and more time naked, admiring her own red-gold breasts and thighs, and aware that, in spite of herself, her womb was beginning to open “wide with rosy ecstasy, like a lotus flower” . It’s at this point she encounters the peasant and her desire switches from sun to man: a man who is in her eyes the sun made flesh. As he looks at her, transfixed by her nakedness, she experiences the same “blue fire running through her limbs to her womb … spreading in helpless ecstasy”  as she feels before the sun. This fire flows between them: “like the blue, streaming fire from the heart of the sun. And she saw the phallus rise under his clothing” .
Strangely, it always becomes necessary to speak about the phallus when thinking about the sun: for what is an erection other than the body of man declaring: IamtheSun. As Bataille writes, the verb to be and the integral erection tied to it, is ultimately nothing other than an articulation of amorous solar frenzy. For the erection, like the sun, is something that rises and falls and scandalizes, being equally obscene, equally demanding; a quasi-miraculous phenomenon resulting from a complex interaction of factors, often triggered by some form of sexual stimulation, though this need not always be the case. Indeed, Lawrence explicitly challenges the idea that love calls potency into being. On the contrary, he suggests, it is power that gives rise to love: and it’s not love, but power – which is essentially solar power – that is the first and greatest of the ‘life mysteries’. Arguably, this is what Juliet is after: a taste of power that comes to us from outside; not something self-generated, or which can be bought with American dollars: “However smart we be,” writes Lawrence, “however rich and clever … it doesn’t help us at all. The real power comes in to us from beyond. Life enters us from behind, where we are sightless, and from below, where we do not understand.” And so, to be sun-fucked is, also, to be sodomised and some of us might once more think of Bataille and his notion of the solar anus at this point.
Juliet wants to live, and to live she must have life and life is power. Or, perhaps more precisely, it is the feeling of power [Machtgefühl] – which comes, ironically, through the expenditure and exercise of power, not from its possession. When one is powerful, like the sun, one gives oneself away: the solar economy is supremely wasteful: it shines and shines to no end on one and all. Lawrence writes:
“We must live. And to live, life must be in us. It must come to us, the power of life, and we must not try to get a strangle-hold upon it. …
But the life will not come unless we live. That is the whole point. ‘To him that hath shall be given’. To [her] that hath life shall be given life: on condition, of course, that [she] lives.
And again, life does not mean length of days. Poor old Queen Victoria had length of days. But Emily Brontë had life. She died of it.”
This is a profoundly provocative thought: Life kills! Energy eventually escapes its entrapment within form and is liberated back into the solar flux and that’s all life is; a temporary arrest of sunlight. And that’s all death is; a release of sunlight. And those who live with the greatest intensity and imitate the sun often die young, burning out like tiny stars. Those who go on and on into old age either lack vitality, or they are monsters of stamina like Picasso. As a rule, it is better to live fast and die young than live like one who has never known the power of the sun, or the love of another in whom the sun can be glimpsed.
So, Juliet wants life and to feel the power of life in herself. She achieves this primarily via a direct relationship with the sun, but she also toys with the possibility of fucking a man in whom the sun is embodied: in whom she sees the sun rise – or at least the penis stir into tumescence. First, we might say, she opens her womb to the sun; then she thinks about opening her legs to the man. For the phallus, according to Lawrence, is the bridge not just between man and woman, or the present and the future, but also between humanity and the cosmos: it is the phallus which connects us sensually to the stars and which is the symbol of our unison with all things as things. And it’s this that Juliet wants – not the man per se.
Initially, however, Juliet retreats from this first encounter and attempts to collect herself – which is not so easy when your womb is “wide open like a lotus flower … in a radiant sort of eagerness”  and sexual desire for the sun, the man, and the sun-in-man, dominates your consciousness. Not, as I have said, that she is personally interested in the peasant. As a human being, he doesn’t exist for her and is far too much of “a crude beast”  to take seriously. However, “the strange challenge of his eyes had held her, blue and overwhelming like the blue sun’s heart. And she had seen the fierce stirring of the phallus under his thin trousers” . Thus, for Juliet, he is the sun on earth and she feels him so powerfully, that she can’t ignore him: “And her womb was open to him.” 
However, despite their mutual attraction, “she had not the courage to go down to him”  and he lacked the courage to approach her. As in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, there are three things standing in the way of love: class, culture and convention. But, before we get too carried away, we might like to stop and ask, as one critic asks, just what precisely would be demonstrated “by a middle-class woman’s odd half-hour of anonymous sex with a peasant”?
Would it really have shown ‘courage’ to have let herself be fucked by the latter? Wouldn’t it have just been exploitative: a form of sex tourism and sexual objectification? We might argue that just as Juliet is objectified by the sun into an impersonal sun-woman and open womb, then so too is the peasant objectified by her into a walking dildo and sperm bank. I’d like to say a little more on this idea of sexual objectification, as it is central to any discussion of the wider sexual politics of this story.
Whilst within philosophy objectification refers to the process by which abstract concepts are treated as if they were concrete objects, it is more commonly understood to refer to the manner in which people – human subjects – are treated as things: things to be exploited, for example, in the labour market; things to be fucked in the bedroom; or things to be disposed of in the death camps: tools to be used, toys to be played with, corpses to be burnt.
Thus, usually, and with good reason, objectification is seen as a badthing and people don’t like to be treated as objects. That is to say, they don’t want to be stripped of their humanity by which they mean, amongst other things, their autonomy, their agency, their individuality, etc. These things are what most people pride themselves on and upon which they assemble a whole series of human rights. Thus to be seen or treated as an object or thing is, in a word, degrading.
Often, it is within the amorous realm that this question of objectification continually comes to the fore. Indeed, for many feminists objectification is always sexualobjectification and is a form of violence in itself, closely tied to fetishism, in which the body, parts of the body, or qualities such as shape, size, and colour are invested with greater erotic fascination than the person as a whole.
But if we are to rethink the object and rethink relations in terms of seduction, then this issue is no longer so straightforward. We might then ask for example: What’s wrong with being appreciated physically and impersonally? Why is it any better to be valued for one’s ideas, rather than one’s breasts? What’s wrong with judging by appearance? These are questions rarely raised, however, and objectification remains one of those issues that seems to unite critics across the political spectrum, although there are maverick commentators, like Camille Paglia, who contend that the ability to see other people as objects is a species speciality closely tied to our ability to conceptualise and think aesthetically (i.e. it’s a good thing and is that which, ironically, makes us distinctly human).
Paglia, however, belongs to a small minority of thinkers. Most who discuss objectification continue to regard it as a morally and politically problematic issue, often tied to discussions around pornography, but which has its philosophical roots in the work of Immanuel Kant, who believed that all forms of extramarital sex invariably resulted in objectification. Obviously, therefore, Kant would almost certainly not have approved of Juliet’s projected dalliance with an Italian peasant. For Kant, all human beings have an absolute ‘inner worth’ or dignity and it’s morally imperative that each person respects not only their own humanity, but the personhood of others. And this means never merely treating them as a means, but always as an end in themselves. Like Lawrence, he strongly objects to instrumental sex in which one of the partners is treated as a mere toy or tool for the other’s own pleasure and purposes.
Personally, I find it difficult to share this concern about diminished personhood and loss of integrity etc. I don’t see what’s so great about being a subject, or what’s so objectionable about being an object. In fact, I’m almost tempted to agree with Alan Soble who argues that human subjectivity is simply an anthropocentric conceit and that no one can therefore be ‘objectified’, as no one actually possesses any higher ontological status. Thus, for Soble, there can be no moral objection to Juliet’s proposed sexual exploitation of the Italian peasant. Indeed, it might be argued that very often people like feeling useful; to feel that they have no instrumental part to play in society is what makes many men and women feel unhappy. Clearly the peasant is sexually interested in Juliet and one doubts very much whether he – unlike Mellors – would have any objection to becoming ‘her ladyship’s fucker’. Probably he would be more than happy to serve as a willing stud-animal and solar substitute to the rich, beautiful foreigner. With that thought, let us now return to the tale and to its conclusion.
Juliet now has a problem: “The sun had opened her womb, and she was no longer free” . And then, unexpectedly, her husband, Maurice, arrives on the scene. At first she has to struggle to remember him and the fact that she was married. But with her troublesome womb-flower in full bloom she thinks to herself ‘at least he’s a man’ – even if, in his dark-grey business suit, he looks “pathetically out of place”  on the Italian hillside: “like a blot of ink on the pale, sun-glowing slope” .
Understandably, Maurice is rather taken aback by the sight of his sun-ravished wife. She looked like an obscene goddess: “standing erect and nude … glistening with the sun and with warm life” . And yet, somehow, “she did not seem so terribly naked” . It was as if she were clothed in the fire of the sun, like the Scarlet Woman of Revelation. Nevertheless, she makes him nervous: for it was a new woman he saw before him, with her “sun-tanned, wind-stroked thighs”  – not the white-skinned woman he had waved off months earlier from New York harbour. Nervous or not, he felt a strange desire “stirring in him for the limbs and sun-wrapped flesh of the woman … It was a new desire in his life, and it hurt him”  as all new feelings do:
“He was dazed with admiration, but also, at a deadly loss. He was used to her as a person. And this was no longer a person, but a fleet, sun-strong body, soulless and alluring as a nymph …” 
To Juliet, however, her husband is now revealed as “utterly, utterly sunless!”  and he casts a cold, grey shadow over the flower of her womb. She tells him that she can never go back to New York and her old life: that she cannot abandon the sun. He, to be fair, agrees that it would be best for her to stay. But, really, how can she stay? Stay and do what? Sunbathe for the rest of her days until she is old and wrinkled? Stay and be pleasured by a sun-vital peasant who exists for her only as a kind of “inarticulate animal”  whom she might fuck? Admittedly, the latter idea still tempts her. For sex with the peasant: “would be like bathing in another kind of sunshine, … and afterwards one would forget … It would be just a bath of warm, powerful life … the procreative bath, like sun” .
And for Juliet, this would be most welcome. For she was “so tired of personal contacts, and having to talk with the man afterwards” . With the peasant, she could take her satisfaction and have done. And, should she conceive a child with him, well, so what? Why shouldn’t she? It would, she tells herself, “be like bearing a child to the unconscious sun” . This thought again arouses her desire: “And the flower of her womb radiated. It did not care about sentiment or possession. It wanted man-dew only …” 
But, despite the promptings of her sperm-thirsty womb, Juliet refuses this solar-biological destiny and chooses instead to submit to a more conventional fate: to remain married to Maurice and to bear his children: “She was bound to the vast, fixed wheel of circumstance, and there was no Perseus in the universe, to cut the bonds” , writes Lawrence.
And that is how the tale ends: with circumstance and society more powerful even than the sun, or the desire for impersonal sex. This suggests, surprisingly perhaps, that solar-erotic forces are pretty feeble after all. Or, alternatively, that Juliet was not the sun-woman that Lawrence dreamed of, but just another bored, rather selfish and narcissistic middle-class woman flirting with the possibility of a foreign affair, before settling back into a bourgeois life that promised to always pop an olive into her vodka martini.
Coda: On Correlationism (Towards a Speculative Realism)
I’d like to close this paper on a contemporary philosophical note and return to an idea that I briefly mentioned in the opening remarks, namely, the idea of correlation:
“By ‘correlation’ we mean the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other. We will henceforth call correlationism any current of thought which maintains the unsurpassable character of the correlation so defined. Consequently, it becomes possible to say that every philosophy which disavows naive realism has become a variant on correlationism.”
I think Lawrence often falls into this correlationist trap. Indeed, he often willingly jumps into it. For he’s not really interested in the stars, animals, trees, or other objects, but only in their relation to man, who, in turn, cannot be considered outside of his relation to the world. That’s the contradiction or paradox at the heart of his writing. For whilst he repeatedly insists that he wants to know the great outside – that inhuman space of the savage exterior etc. – like all critical thinkers after Kant, Lawrence too is fundamentally interested in consciousness and language and these concerns keep him tied to a form of correlationism.
Quentin Meillassoux writes that if so many recent thinkers have insisted so adamantly that their thought is entirely oriented towards the outside, “this could be because of their failure to come to terms with a bereavement … For it could be that contemporary [thinkers] have lost the … absolute outside of pre-critical thinkers: that outside which was not relative to us … existing in itself regardless of whether we are thinking of it or not …”
Lawrence has lost the sun as a thing-in-itself and he knows it. And like a lot of recent theorists, whilst he might rage against ideas of representation, this in no way means he is prepared to abandon the more originary correlation between thought and being, or Dasein and world. Perhaps this is why he ‘instinctively’ hates the statements made by science such as ‘the universe is 13.5 billion years old’, or ‘the sun is 4.6 billion years old’, because these statements obviously posit a pre-human and non-human cosmos and Lawrence, for all his professed anti-humanism, simply doesn’t want (or know how) to think such ideas.
But whilst we may not like what empirical science tells us about the universe and those events that are “anterior to the advent of life as well as consciousness”, the fact is that these statements exist and present a very real and very serious challenge to those philosophies that are reliant upon some form of correlationism. For they tell us something about an independent reality that has been met with scepticism and contempt for over two hundred years. Further, they oblige us to ask how we are to grapple with scientific statements “bearing explicitly upon a manifestation of the world that is posited as anterior to the emergence of thought and even of life – posited, that is, as anterior to every form of human relation to the world?”
Put simply, the sun pre-dates us: it has ancestral reality, i.e. a reality that comes before “the emergence of the human species – or even anterior to every recognized form of life on earth”. Lawrence, as I have said, seems not to want to admit this, or is careless of its significance. For if life is in fact “inscribed in a temporality” within which it is just one rare event among others, then it is far from being the crucial and determining factor that vitalists believe; it is simply a stage, rather than an origin. Lawrence flatly denies this: but then, as I have said, he’s not interested in that which is factually correct, but only in that which is imaginatively true for him as a human being. He wants a meaningful universe and the universe is meaningful “only as a given-to-a-living (or thinking)-being”. He wants to know the sun; but he wants to know the woman naked beneath the sun to whom the latter is made manifest still more. He hates idealism, but he is himself a subjective idealist par excellence. For ultimately, argues Meillassoux, “every variety of correlationism is exposed as an extreme idealism, one that is incapable of admitting … what science tells us about … occurrences of matter independent of humanity”. .
Of course, it might be asked what harm does it do for our philosophers and poets to remain idealists at heart? The answer is that it does the very greatest possible harm; for it lends credibility and support to the forces of stupidity and fundamentalism: “And our correlationist then finds herself dangerously close to contemporary creationists: those quaint believers who assert today, in accordance with a ‘literal’ reading of the Bible, that the earth is no more than 6,000 years old”.
Surely no one wants this? At any rate, I don’t want it. And that’s why I have become increasingly frustrated with much of Lawrence’s thinking and, indeed, uncomfortable with a good deal of modern European philosophy – including works by authors who are still often uncritically cited as intellectual authorities in academic circles. What then do I want? Well, like Meillassoux, whilst obviously wishing to “remain as distant from naive realism as from correlationist subtlety”, I ultimately want the very thing that Lawrence claims he wants: i.e., to achieve what modern philosophy has been telling us for the past two centuries is impossible to achieve: “to get out of ourselves, to grasp the in-itself, to know what is whether we are or not”. I want, in other words, to think a world without thought and to think things as things.
Further, like Ray Brassier, I wish to push nihilism – understood not as something to be overcome, but as a vector of intellectual discovery – as far as possible. For rather than trying, like Lawrence, to safeguard the experience of human meaning and value from the incursions of scientific discovery, I think philosophy today should deploy its full intellectual resources to facilitate the disenchantment of the world. So, yes, I want to know the sun, but not a mythological sun, or a metaphorical sun, or the ideal sun of Plato. I want to know the real sun: the sun that will never know humanity, even as it burns the earth to a cinder and fucks us all. For we would do well to remember in closing Nietzsche’s fable:
“Once upon a time, in some remote corner of that universe which is dispersed into innumerable twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowledge. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of ‘world history’, but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever animals had to die.”
– And when the human adventure into thought is all over, nothingwill havechanged.
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. Stephen is one of our featured writers and has submitted something. You’ll have to wait to find out what it is. 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
 D. H. Lawrence, ‘Sun-Women’, in The Complete Poems, ed. Vivian de Sola Pinto and F. Warren Roberts, (Penguin Books, 1977), p. 525.
 D. H. Lawrence, ‘The Novel’, Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays, ed. Bruce Steele, (Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 190.
 Ibid., p. 189. Despite this remark, Lawrence cannot resist offering us a phallocentric model of sex in ‘Sun’ as we will see.
 D. H. Lawrence, ‘The Two Principles’, First Version, 1918-19, Studies in Classic American Literature, ed. Ezra Greenspan, Lindeth Vasey, and John Worthen, (Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 260.
 Lawrence is not alone in developing a metaphysics that rests upon some organic, sentient, or vital term: Hegel gives us Geist; Schopenhauer, Will; Nietzsche, Will to Power; and Deleuze, Life. The thing that unites these thinkers is that they simply cannot accept or take seriously “the possibility that there is nothing living or willing in the inorganic realm”. In other words, there is an underlying agreement (rooted in Kant’s transcendental idealism) that “anything that is totally asubjective cannot be”. And this is so even in writers like Lawrence who are otherwise highly critical of traditional metaphysics and notions of the subject. See Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude, trans. Ray Brassier, (Continuum, 2009), p. 38.
 D. H. Lawrence, ‘Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance’ (1920-1), Appendix IV: Studies in Classic American Literature, p. 395.
 Ultimately, we might suggest that Lawrence is not simply concerned with questions of correlation or correspondence between mankind and the cosmos, but in exercising the direct control of mind over the material universe, the independence of which he describes as illusory. Thus, whilst he is not interested in the scientist’s attempt to understand the laws that govern the latter, he remains fascinated by the magician’s attempt to exert ‘life-power’ over mechanistic forces and matter.
 D. H. Lawrence, ‘Introduction to The Dragon of the Apocalypse, by Frederick Carter, in Apocalypse and the Writings on Revelation, ed. Mara Kalnins, (Cambridge University Press, 1980), p. 46.
 I find myself in agreement here with Ray Brassier, who argues that nihilism is an important “speculative opportunity” and an “unavoidable corollary of the realist conviction that there is a mind-independent reality”. See the Preface to his Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. xi.
 D. H. Lawrence, ‘Introduction to The Dragon of the Apocalypse, by Frederick Carter, in Apocalypse and the Writings on Revelation, p. 46.
 Actually, I’m not sure that even here I agree with Lawrence. For he suggests that we have lost the sun by coming out of ‘responsive connection’ with it, but how could that be? For if we are connected, as he says, via an “eternal vital correspondence between our blood and the sun”, then we surely couldn’t break such a relationship, any more than, for example, we could choose to ignore the laws of gravity. Lawrence, however, insists that once we exchange our religious-mythical understanding of the sun for a scientific conception, then it no longer revitalises us, but, on the contrary, subtly disintegrates the very blood within our veins. See Apocalypse, p. 77. See also Fantasia of the Unconscious, where he pushes his correlationism to the extreme and insists that: “The sun sets and has his perfect polarity in the life-circuit established between him and all living individuals. Break that circuit, and the sun breaks. Without man, beasts, butterflies, trees, toads, the sun would gutter and go out like a spent lamp.” Psychoanalysis of the Unconscious and Fantasia of the Unconscious, ed. Bruce Steele, (Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 188.
 Neil Reeve, ‘Introduction’ to D. H. Lawrence’s The Woman Who Rode Away and Other Stories, ed. Dieter Mehl and Christa Jansohn, (Penguin Books, 1996), p. xxxi. Note that page references to the story ‘Sun’ as it appears here (based on the Cambridge edition of 1995), will be given directly in the text.
 D. H. Lawrence, ‘Dana’ (intermediate version, 1919), Studies in Classic American Literature, p. 320.
 I’m thinking here of the so-called Bates Method, a form of alternative eye-care developed by William Bates (1860-1931), who counted the visually-impaired Aldous Huxley amongst his famous followers.
 This turning to the man is, I think, rather disappointing, but predictable to anyone who knows anything about Lawrence’s sexual politics. I’m fairly relaxed about Juliet losing her ‘independence’ and indeed her humanity in order to become a sun-woman. But I’m a little more troubled by the idea that even sun-women ultimately need to find men for validation and need, in particular, for men to gaze upon them with desire. Lawrence falls back into a conventionally phallocentric way of thinking the moment he tells us that whilst sun-women might not belong to their husbands, they remain subordinate nevertheless to sun-men: “walking each in his own sun-glory / with bright legs and un-cringing buttocks.” See ‘Sun-Men’, The Complete Poems, p. 525.
 To be fair to Juliet, many women within our society are encouraged to develop a high degree of narcissism, due to the fact that they are endlessly judged on their physical appearance, rather than on their ideas and achievements. This preoccupation with always looking young, slim, sexy and attractive, leads to a form of self-objectification: women adopt a male attitude towards their bodies and find erotic satisfaction in displaying their own flesh and being gazed at. Of course, men are also increasingly subject to powerful regimes that determine their masculinity and appearance: in fact, it might be argued that within consumer culture we are all objectified and narcissistic as a consequence.
 As Lawrence makes clear in Apocalypse, the only way modern men and women can get back the sun is via a form of religious worship: “We can’t get the sun in us by lying naked like pigs on a beach.” Indeed, according to Lawrence, the sun hates sunbathers who have failed to strip themselves of “the trash of personal feelings and ideas” and get down to their genuinely “naked sun-self” and it destroys them even as it bronzes their skin. See pp. 76-8.
 D. H. Lawrence, ‘…… Love Was Once a Little Boy’, Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays, ed. Michael Herbert, (Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 346.
 See Georges Bataille, ‘The Solar Anus’, in Visions of Excess, ed. Alan Stoekl, (University of Minnesota Press, 1985), pp. 5-9.
 D. H. Lawrence, ‘Blessed are the Powerful’, in Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays, p. 325.
 See, for example, what Lawrence writes in Lady Chatterley’s Lover Version I, in The First and Second Lady Chatterley Novels, ed. Dieter Mehl and Christa Jansohn, (Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 132-33.
 Neil Reeve, ‘Introduction’ to D. H. Lawrence’s The Woman Who Rode Away and Other Stories, p. xxxi.
 Just to be clear on this important point: it doesn’t matter whether Lawrence chooses to think such statements true or false, but the fact that he is completely unconcerned with the status of a discourse – namely, the modern scientific discourse – which “renders the verification or falsification of such statements meaningful”, does bring shame upon him. As Meillassoux argues, what’s at stake here is empirical science in general and the remarkable fact that only the latter allows us to have a rational and meaningful debate “about what did or did not exist prior to the emergence of humankind, as well as what might eventually succeed humanity”. It is science and only science – not myth, religion, or poetry – that posits dia-chronic statements and makes dia-chronic knowledge possible (i.e. knowledge of a world without witness). Whether Lawrence likes it or not, no man, god, or sentient being need be on the scene for the world of objects to exist and to carry on just as it has always carried on; solar activity, for example, occurs irrespective of life. See After Finitude, pp. 113, 114.
 Ibid., pp. 9-10. Again, note that there are of course not just ancestral statements concerning events that occur in a pre-human time, but also ulterior statements which refer to possible events in a post-human era. As indicated above, Meillassoux uses the term dia-chronicity to refer to all such statements that describe events that are either anterior or ulterior to our own relation to the world.
 These philosophers – and I prefer not to name names – are ones who have, if you like, hastily surrendered the right to refute religious belief on the ground of logic. Meillassoux writes: “It is important to understand what underlies this attitude: religious belief is considered to be beyond the reach of rational refutation by many contemporary philosophers not only because such belief is deemed by definition indifferent to this kind of critique, but because it seems to these philosophers to be conceptually illegitimate to undertake such a refutation.” In other words, subscribing to a strong model of correlationism results in lending support to the notion that “reason has no right to deploy its own resources to debate the truth or falsity of dogma”. It thus – often inadvertently – collaborates with irrationalism and allows for a return of a return of fundamental religious faith. This has been an ironic consequence of postmodernism. See After Finitude, p. 44.
 Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘On Truth and Lies in a Non-moral Sense’, in Philosophy and Truth, ed. and trans. Daniel Breazeale, (Humanities Press International, 1979), p. 79. Note that I have modified the translation.
In this guest blog, Stephen Alexander, author of Torpedo the Ark, questions the use of the prefix ‘eco’ for a wider discussion around language and fascism, blood and soil.
Many scholars – including some who should know better – continue to fetishise the prefix eco- and think that by simply placing it in front of words including criticism, feminism, and politics, they can sex-up their research and immediately make it seem more vital and contemporary.
But ecological thinking – which, ironically, often prides itself on being radical – has a long and essentially conservative history that can be traced back to figures on the völkisch far-right keen to promote a pessimistic vision of the world that is not only anti-urban, anti-capitalist and anti-science, but fundamentally illiberal and anti-humanist in character. Indeed, whilst this post-Romantic German tradition pre-dates National Socialism, it was nevertheless within the Third Reich that such thinking was first put into practice and formed a key component of Nazi aesthetics and ideology.
Now, of course, I’m not suggesting that a concern for the environment automatically makes one a fascist. But I am pointing out that nature-based ideologies are very often used to legitimate Social Darwinist beliefs and that many reactionaries have called for a neo-feudalism based upon rural values and natural divisions. We can see this in the work of two figures closely associated with ecologism in England during the inter-war period – John Hargrave and Rolf Gardiner.
The former was convinced that modern life had produced a ‘mentally and physically deficient race’ that couldn’t even be relied upon to breed sufficiently. A self-declared pantheist and Anglo-Saxon nationalist, Hargrave hoped to create a new national myth or substitute folk-memory for the English. To this end, he founded a movement in the 1920s – the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift – which was meant to establish a counter-culture founded upon ‘the distinctive German brand of serious nature-worship’.
In practice, this meant that members spent most of their time hiking, camping, or making their own clothes, but they lent all their activities an earnest spiritual significance that rather absurdly combined Native American ritual with Norse mythology. Although they never numbered more than a few hundred members, the KKK could claim several public figures as supporters, including Havelock Ellis, Julian Huxley, and H. G. Wells. D. H. Lawrence was at least partly sympathetic. In a letter to Rolf Gardiner, he wrote:
‘I read the Kibbo Kift book with a good deal of interest. Of course it won’t work: not quite flesh and blood. […] The man alternates between idealism pure and simple, and a sort of mummery, and then a compromise with practicality. What he wants is all right – I agree with him on the whole, and respect him as a straightforward fighter. But he knows there’s no hope […] And therefore, underneath, he’s full of hate.’
By the outbreak of the Second World War, Hargrave had become increasingly isolated and irrelevant on the political scene. And by the end of the War he’d found his true calling as a faith healer and eco-mystic.
As for Rolf Gardiner, Lawrence profoundly influenced the thinking of a man who would become one of the founders of the Soil Association in 1945. But what really interests is how easily Gardiner also came under the sway of National Socialism. Always an active Germanophile and Nordicist, Gardiner became a fervent exponent of Blut und Boden in England in the 1930s and dreamt of an Anglo-German political union.
His major written work, published in 1932 and dedicated to Lawrence, is a semi-religious work entitled World Without End. In it, Gardiner calls for a spiritual rebirth and a new attitude towards ‘nature, the soil, to sex and to politics’.
Whilst, to his credit, he rejected any ‘nonsensical racial theory’ – not least because of his own half-Jewish background – he nevertheless enthusiastically greeted the Nazi assumption of power in 1933 and was soon on warm personal terms with the Nazi Minister for Agriculture Walther Darré. Both men agreed on the importance of living according to ecological law, which, of necessity, means the subjection of the individual to the ‘larger organic authority’ of the Natural Order.
In sum: we all need to exercise caution before we take an ecocritical turn – because you never know where it might lead …
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 his views on nature and alternative living while exercising caution about using the prefix ‘eco’? What would the Kibbo Kift have looked like if it’d been devised by Lawrence? 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.
 D. H. Lawrence, The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, Vol. VI, ed. James T. Boulton and Margaret H. Boulton with Gerald M Lacy, (Cambridge University Press, 1991). Letter 4268, dated 16 January 1928, pp. 267-68.
 Gardiner was also an associate of Lord Lymington and the rather sinister English Array. A journal edited by Lymington, The New Pioneer, to which Gardiner was a frequent contributor, affirmed a form of eco-nationalism in which an analogy was drawn between farm and nation, effectively transforming citizens into livestock. For further details on this and many of the other points discussed here, see Anna Bramwell’s Ecology in the Twentieth Century: A History (Yale University Press, 1989) and her earlier work Blood and Soil: Walther Darré and Hitler’s Green Party (Kensal Press, 1985). Readers of Lawrence interested in his relationship to German culture and his green critique of industrialism and technology, should also see Anne Fernihough’s D. H. Lawrence: Aesthetics and Ideology, (Oxford University Press, 1993).
To celebrate the release of Floraphilia, our latest insta promo video, Stephen Alexander has kindly shared his paper ‘Floraphilia: Or the Revenge of the Flowers’ which he gave to Treadwell’s Bookshop. Stephen offers a fascinating reading of Lawrence that anticipates much of the work that people like Annie Sprinkle are now doing under the title of ecosexuality.
Flowering plants don’t just grow in soil, they are also rooted in our hearts and blossom in our literature; from Wordsworth’s daffodils to Sylvia Plath’s poppies. We love flowers and our love itself is like a red, red rose, just as the columbine is the emblem of our foolishness, the marsh-lily the symbol of our corruption and the narcissus conveys our vanity.
To be indifferent to flowers is, my therapist tells me, a symptom of clinical depression and the beauty of flowers has long been an accepted cultural fact. In language as in art, we have formed an unnaturalalliance with flowers and some, like Oscar Wilde, fervently hope that in the next life they might even become-flower: which is to say, beautiful, but soulless. Our affection, however, isn’t necessarily returned, because plants aren’t sentimental. And nor do flowers exist merely to serve the symbolic function we assign to them.
So whilst, on the one hand, I would like to speak about our erotic entanglement with flora, on the other, I want also to develop the idea of what might be termed the revenge of the flowers – that is to say, the manner in which they challenge the supposed superiority of animal life and conspire to eventually triumph over our attempts to create a fully idealized, humanized and mechanized world. For it is well to remember from the outset that not only are we individually destined to putrefy into plant food and thereby assist in ‘pushing up daisies’, but if collectively we continue along the same world-destructive and species-exterminating path then that nemesis of all human endeavour, the weed, might yet conquer.
For while the colossal power of man and his machines may seem to be absolute and supreme, it’s worth recalling that plants have ancestralreality and that we remain completely dependent on them to provide the air we breathe and the food we eat. We can pave the world over with concrete and tarmac, but in the absence of chlorophyll, we can’t use sunlight to photosynthesize nutrients directly from carbon dioxide and water and thus, in the final analysis, it’s grass – that most unassuming of all plants – that continues to provide the foundation for life on earth.
And so, although we like to think that we, as human subjects, are masters of all worlds, including the world of plants, and that gardeners, farmers, botanists, and genetic engineers today determine which flowers will be allowed to bloom and which will be pushed into extinction, this is really perhaps nothing more than an anthropocentric conceit. Indeed, it might even be the case that the reverse is true. In other words, that our life is not only dependent upon plants, but is in a very real sense also determined by them; that ultimately we are in much the same position as insects and other animals that serve simply to disseminate plant DNA. This sounds a little over-dramatic at first: provocative, but unconvincing. But doesn’t a bee also regard itself as the active and autonomous subject in a world full of seemingly passive flowers? “But we know that this is just a failure of his imagination. The truth of the matter is that the flower has cleverly manipulated the bee into hauling its pollen from blossom to blossom.”
Likewise, in a co-evolutionary relationship such as that between humanity and the potato plant, for example, conventional and convenient distinctions between subject and object become meaningless: we shape them and they shape us. The fact that humanity has evolved to become aware of its own activity “makes no difference whatsoever to the … potato taking part in this arrangement”. Just as long as we keep planting, picking, and peeling ’em and agreeing ‘Yes! We want fries with that’, then the spuds are satisfied.
It is perhaps, if you’re a humanist, a little disconcerting to think like this: to acknowledge that in comparison to the buttercup, the greatest monuments of mankind won’t last a moment and to concede that plants are just as complex and sophisticated – just as cruel and exploitative – as us. However, the undeniable truth is that they have been evolving for millions of years and have in that time been endlessly inventing “new strategies for survival and perfecting their designs for so long that to say one of us is the more ‘advanced’ really depends on how you define the term” and on which advances you care to place a value. We can walk and talk, and that’s an achievement, but plants have a genius for organic chemistry and are expert at “transforming water, soil, and sunlight into an array of precious substances, many of them beyond the ability of human beings to conceive, much less manufacture”.
To be clear, then, what I’m calling for in this paper is, if you like, a new kind of narrative about man and nature: one that moves beyond the three traditional narratives with which we are all too familiar. Namely: (i) the heroic narrative in which humanity is struggling against nature; (ii) the romantic narrative in which paradise is regained and man merges into some kind of spiritual unity with nature; and (iii) the eco-apocalyptic narrative which might best be characterized as an “environmental morality tale, in which Nature pays man back for his transgressions”. Contrary to these tired mythological storylines, I would like to provisionally sketch a speculative and realist narrative in which all forms of flora and fauna are regarded primarily as objects: not necessarily equal objects, but equally objects nevertheless, caught up in the same orgy of sex, violence, and random mutation that we like to call life.
On the Genealogy of Florals
In his best-selling (but irritatingly folksy and philosophically naïve) book, The Botany of Desire (2002), Michael Pollan provides a rather nice summary of how flowering plants, or angiosperms, came into the world and changed everything. I’d like, if I may, to read this account to you, before then developing some of the points he touches on in greater detail whilst taking this essay in an altogether different direction:
“Once upon a time, there were no flowers … There were plants … ferns and mosses, conifers and cycads, but these plants didn’t form true flowers or fruit. Some of them reproduced asexually, cloning themselves by various means. Sexual reproduction was a relatively discreet affair usually accomplished by releasing pollen onto the wind or water; by sheer chance some of it would find its way to other members of the species, and a tiny, primitive seed would result. This prefloriferous world was a slower, simpler, sleepier world than our own. Evolution proceeded more slowly, there being so much less sex, and what sex there was took place among close-by and closely related plants. Such a conservative approach to reproduction made for a biologically simpler world, since it generated relatively little novelty or variation. Life on the whole was more local and inbred.
The world before flowers was sleepier than ours because, lacking fruit and large seeds, it couldn’t support many warm-blooded creatures. Reptiles ruled, and life slowed to a crawl whenever it got cold; little happened at night. It was a plainer-looking world, too, greener even than it is now, absent all the colours and patterns (not to mention scents) that flowers and fruits would bring into it. Beauty did not yet exist. That is, the way things looked had nothing to do with desire.
Flowers changed everything. The angiosperms … appeared during the Cretaceous period, and they spread over the earth with stunning rapidity. … Now, instead of relying on wind or water to move genes around, a plant could enlist the help of an animal by striking a grand co-evolutionary compact: nutrition in exchange for transportation. With the advent of the flower, whole new levels of complexity come into the world: more interdependence, more information, more communication, more experimentation.
The evolution of plants proceeded according to a new motive force: attraction between different species. Now natural selection favoured blooms that could rivet the attention of pollinators, fruits that appealed to foragers. The desires of other creatures became paramount in the evolution of plants … Beauty had emerged as a survival strategy.
With flowers came fruit and seeds, and these too, remade life on Earth. By producing sugars and proteins to entice animals to disperse their seed, the angiosperms multiplied the world’s supply of food energy, making possible the rise of the large warm-blooded mammals. Without flowers, the reptiles, which had gotten along fine in a leafy, fruitless world, would probably still rule. Without flowers, we would not be.
So the flowers begot us … [and in] time human desire entered into the natural history of the flower, and the flower did what it has always done: made itself still more beautiful in the eyes of this animal, folding in its very being even the most improbable of our notions and tropes. Now came roses that resembled nymphs … peonies bearing the scent of women. We in turn did our part, multiplying the flowers beyond reason, moving their seeds around the planet … For the flower it was the same old story, another grand co-evolutionary bargain with a willing, slightly credulous animal …”
So, to be clear, the angiosperms first began their evolutionary divergence from the non-flowering and fruitless plants known as gymnosperms around two hundred and twenty million years ago. But it wasn’t until some eighty million years later that flowering plants as we would recognise them today, characterised by their colourful floral effects and swollen, edible ovaries, fully blossomed into the world and superseded the gymnosperms as the dominant terrestrial plant form.
Interestingly, however, there is no continuous fossil record to show precisely where, when, or how flowering plants evolved from non-flowering plants and for Darwin the apparently sudden appearance of flowers into the world posed something of a problem for his theory of evolution; so much so, that he famously referred to it as an ‘abominable mystery’.
Mysterious or not, without flowers, an angiosperm would be just another green plant: all leaf and naked of seed. Arguably, the same is true of people: they either blossom into full being like a bright red poppy, or they remain closed up within a mass of foliage and growing fat like a cabbage. But sadly, many people seem to resent the shameless, scarlet flowering of poppies: perhaps it seems excessive in an age of austerity. Or perhaps there are health and safety issues over these tiny ‘hell flames’. Whatever the reason, most of us prefer fat green cabbages: you can rely on them. You can cook them. And you can eat them. But our great writers and philosophers teach us that life isn’t the same as self-preservation and that even reproduction isn’t the ultimate clue to being. What matters, in people as in plants, is precisely the flowery excess that accompanies reproduction. D. H. Lawrence, for example, writes:
“The excess is the thing itself at its maximum of being. If it had stopped short of this excess, it would not have been at all. … In this excess, the plant is transfigured into flower, it achieves itself at last. The aim, the culmination of all, is the red of the poppy …”
For Lawrence, there’s something contemptible about those individuals who never burst into flower, but choose instead to “linger into inactivity at the vegetable, self-preserving stage … like the regulation cabbage”. Better, he suggests, to become even a foul-smelling weed than to remain tightly enclosed within your own greenness, getting fatter and fatter whilst all the time turning rotten at the core.
Perhaps he’s right: I used to think he was right. But now I’m not so sure: now it seems to me that even cabbages have their place in the world and I have to admit that I find it increasingly difficult to establish the violent hierarchies and orders of rank that Lawrence, like Nietzsche, had such a fondness for constructing. Indeed, even to make the comparison between two different forms of being such as a poppy and a cabbage seems absurd and unnecessary. Why, we might ask, is it legitimate to sneer at those plants – or those beasts – which have collaborated with the process of domestication? Why celebrate and revere the wolf whilst denigrating the domestic dog? Or why, like Lawrence, rhapsodise about the scarlet poppy but hold the fat green cabbage in contempt? Domestication is about more than simply making wild things docile. And, actually, wild nature, if you like, continues to unfold just as splendidly in the cabbage or potato as in the poppy or rarest mountain flower – as it does in us and the grazing cattle. To think otherwise is simply another failure of the imagination and to fall into a simple-minded romanticism that equates the great outdoors with vital authenticity and civilization with the loss or corruption of such.
So, for now, let us return to our botanical musings; we can always come back to Lawrence’s philosophical moralizing a little later.
Flowers, then, as we have said, are the overtly – some might say obscenely – colourful sex organs of the flowering plant and are what distinguishes them from other, earlier forms of seed producing plant. And flowers have allowed angiosperms to largely dominate the earth by making them far more adaptable to many kinds of environment. Their stamens for example – i.e. the male organs of the plant, containing the pollen sacs – are not only better evolved for the process of pollination than the corresponding organs in gymnosperms, but they have also become modified to decrease the danger of self-fertilization, thereby permitting greater diversification and allowing angiosperms to fill more ecological niches.
The pollen grains, or sperm producing cells of flowering plants, are also much smaller than the gametocytes of the gymnosperms. This results in a significantly decreased period of time between pollination (i.e. the pollen grain reaching the carpel or, if you like, the cunt of the plant) and fertilization of the ovum. Obviously, this also has a clear evolutionary advantage. Once the ovum has been fertilized, the carpel and surrounding tissue develops into the fruit which is often attractive to and edible by a wide range of seed-dispersing birds and beasts.
But it’s not just the fruit that attracts the attention of dumb animals. If plants frequently use chemicals to repel creatures that might do them harm, other substances are designed to do just the opposite: i.e. to delight and arouse by stimulating and gratifying the senses. Plants intoxicate with beauty, mind-altering chemicals and the promise of food. It was a strategy that seduced the birds and the bees: and it was a strategy that seduced us. Whether we like to admit it or not, people are effectively exploited by angiosperms in the process of seed dispersal in much the same way as many flowering plants use insect sex-slaves to do their dirty work. We might even ask: did mankind invent agriculture, or did the grasses themselves put us to work, enticing us to cut down the forests so that they might spread across the face of the earth?
Again, if this question sounds a little preposterous or absurd, I’m actually being quite serious here. Certainly, if nothing else, I think we might all agree that insects are frequently exploited, enslaved and even sometimes eaten by flowering plants, so maybe I should begin by saying a little more about the erotic phenomenon of entomophily before then examining the mutually abusive, mutually beneficial relationship between man and flower.
Pollination, quite simply, is the botanical term for fucking. It is the process by which one plant receives the pollen from another. Ideally, this pollen will be from a plant of the same species so that fertilization can readily take place and viable seeds form, but it might be noted that plants generally are far more promiscuous and quicker to successfully hybridize (or cross-breed) than animal species. Some angiosperms are pollinated abiotically by the wind, some by water. And some rely upon small animals, such as bats or hummingbirds. But the majority, around 80%, enlist the help of roughly 200,000 different types of insect. It is, if you like – and somewhat paradoxically – a perfectly natural form of artificial insemination.
To be strictly accurate – and contrary to what I said a moment ago – insect pollination is more a form of paid sex work, or prostitution, rather than slavery; because when plants are fucked by insects the latter usually get something sweet in return for their services: namely, nectar. Like us, and, indeed, many other animals, insects love sweetness and the desire for nectar or fructose has been an important factor in evolution; unsurprisingly when one considers that sugar is the form in which nature stores food energy. Thus, in exchange for a little sweetness, animals have provided a means of sexual transfer and allowed plants to extend their range.
However, this is not to say that the insects are entering into the relationship with full consent (whatever that might mean in the world of bugs and bees and cigarette trees) and most seem blissfully unaware that they are playing such a crucial role in plant reproduction.
Further, there are times when male insects are sexually duped by a plant with sex organs that have evolved to look like the female of their species. Some orchids, for example, have parts that look uncannily like bees or flies, depending on the species in question. The insect is attracted not by the pretty colours or the alluring scent of the flower, nor even the promise of a sugary drink, but by the prospect of being able to mate. Desire, then, as Michael Pollan argues, is inherent within the very nature and purpose of flowering plants and the relative lack of glamour by comparison amongst the non-flowering plants is doubtless tied to the fact that their reproductive strategy doesn’t rely upon the seduction of other species.
Amusingly, Pollan also informs us that the Victorians believed this game of mimicry was intended to scare away insects, so that the flower could, like the Virgin Mary, immaculately conceive or self-pollinate. As he points out:
“What the Victorians failed to consider was that the [orchid] might resemble an insect precisely in order to attract insects to it. The flower has evolved exactly the right pattern of curves and spots and hairiness to convince certain male insects that it is a female as viewed, tantalizingly, from behind. Botanists call the resultant behaviour on the part of the male insect ‘pseudocopulation’; they call the flower that inspires this behaviour the ‘prostitute orchid’. In his frenzy of attempted intercourse, the insect ensures the orchid’s pollination … effectively disseminating the flower’s genes, if not his own.” 
The French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari discuss this in A Thousand Plateaus, with particular reference to the case of an orchid and a wasp. However, they argue that it should be understood in terms of becoming based on a series of ‘deterritorializations’ and subsequent ‘reterritorializations’ and not in the more conventional terms of mimesis, mimicry, lure, etc. suggested here. They write:
“The orchid deterritorializes by forming an image, a tracing of a wasp; but the wasp reterritorializes on that image. The wasp is nevertheless deterritorialized, becoming a piece in the orchid’s reproductive apparatus. But it reterritorializes the orchid by transporting its pollen. Wasp and orchid, as heterogeneous elements, form a rhizome. It could be said that the orchid imitates the wasp, reproducing its image in a signifying fashion … But this is true only on the level of the strata – a parallelism between two strata such that a plant organization on one imitates an animal organization on the other. At the same time, something else entirely is going on: not imitation at all … but a veritable becoming, a becoming-wasp of the orchid and a becoming-orchid of the wasp. Each of these becomings brings about the deterritorialization of one term and the reterritorialization of the other; the two becomings interlink and form relays in a circulation of intensities pushing the deterritorialization ever further. There is neither imitation nor resemblance, only an exploding of two heterogeneous series on the line of flight composed by a common rhizome that can no longer be attributed to or subjugated by anything signifying.”
You might be asking by now what – if anything – this aparallel evolution or game of becoming played out between two things that have absolutely nothing to do with each other, has to do with us. And how are we implicated in the sex life of flowers, other than economically, for example (and it deserves to be noted that the free pollination of flowering plants by insects saves the human economy billions of dollars each year).
Well, for one thing, if insects do most of the pollinating work, so too do people play a not insignificant role and for many species of flowering plant “the great love of their lives now is humanity”. However, we are as Michael Pollan rightly points out, a perverse species and our love has frequently driven the evolution of flowers “toward the extraordinary, freakish, and precarious beauty of a Madame Hardy rose or a Semper Augustus tulip”. Such flowers carry in their form, colour and scent our ideas and desires. And so if our love is like a red, red rose, so too is a red, red rose, reflective of our love and ready to mutate like femininity in any direction, no matter how extreme or ludicrous, simply to please.
It might appear that we are screwing with nature, but of course, the willingness of flowering plants to participate within our mad games of fantasy and desire has proven a highly successful strategy for survival and success and there are certainly a lot more flowers in the world today, than there were before men took an interest in them: “For a flower, the path to world domination passes through humanity’s ever-shifting ideals of beauty.”
And thus, although we self-importantly regard cultivation as something people have done to plants, it is also just as much a ploy by which the plants have exploited us and our desires – including our most excessive notions of beauty – to advance their own interests. Plants have done what they needed to do; i.e., exploit the world in which they find themselves growing. Thus mutations “that nature would have rejected out of hand in the wild sometimes prove to be brilliant adaptations in an environment that’s been shaped by human desire.” By being so adaptable, so promiscuous, and so perverse, plants outlived the age of the dinosaurs and they will doubtless outlive the age of man.
And, in the meantime, they will doubtless continue to tease and to fuck with us just as we fuck with them. Indeed, mightn’t it be the case that hay-fever or pollinosis is a type of reprisal? For what is the allergic reaction to pollen suffered by many millions of men, women and children each spring and long into the summer months other than a sexually transmitted disease? We are, quite literally, pestered and assaulted by flowering plants that unrestrainedly allow their sperm-producing cells to be carried by any passing breeze into the eyes, ears, nose and throat of any passing person. The irritation caused as our body reacts to defend itself from what it perceives to be a threat, is arguably a sign that there remains a primal hostility between flora and fauna.
As with herpes, there is presently no cure for hay fever. However, an article in The New Scientist three years ago suggested that ‘organic masturbation’ with fruit and vegetables might alleviate the problem. It turned out to be an April Fool’s Day joke. But, many a word spoken in jest … The revenge of the flowers starts with a runny nose – who’s to say in what humiliating circumstances it might end?
Birkin Among the Flowers
And so, let us turn our attention then to a very strange scene from a very disturbing novel, Lawrence’s Women in Love, in which the central male protagonist, Rupert Birkin, has just been given a bash on the head by his girlfriend Hermione, with a stone paper-weight. Don’t ask why: it doesn’t really matter, does it? Hermione recalled afterwards that “she had only hit him, as any woman might do, because he tortured her”. So fair enough, I suppose. But the blow was a serious one and as he fled the scene Birkin was barely conscious. Nevertheless, he managed to make his way “out of the house and straight across the park, to the open country, to the hills”, where many flowers and trees were growing, and spots of rain were beginning to fall. Lawrence continues:
“He was happy in the wet hill-side, that was overgrown and obscure with bushes and flowers. He wanted to touch them all, to saturate himself with the touch of them all. He took off his clothes, and sat down naked among the primroses, moving his feet softly among the primroses, his legs, his knees, his arms right up to the arm-pits, then lying down and letting them touch his belly, his breasts. It was such a fine, cool, subtle touch all over him, he seemed to saturate himself with their contact.
But they were too soft. He went through the long grass to a clump of young fir-trees, that were no higher than a man. The soft sharp boughs beat upon him, as he moved in keen pangs against them, threw little cold showers of drops on his belly, and beat his loins with their clusters of soft-sharp needles. There was a thistle which pricked him vividly, but not too much, because all his movements were too discriminate and soft. To lie down and roll in the sticky, cool young hyacinths, to lie on one’s belly and cover one’s back with handfuls of fine wet grass, soft as a breath, soft and more delicate and more beautiful than the touch of any woman; and then to sting one’s thigh against the living dark bristles of the fir-boughs; and then to feel the light whip of the hazel on one’s shoulders, stinging, and then to clasp the silvery birch-trunk against one’s breast, its smoothness, its hardness, its vital knots and ridges – this was good, this was all very good, very satisfying. Nothing else would do, nothing else would satisfy, except this coolness and subtlety of vegetation travelling into one’s blood. How fortunate he was, that there was this lovely, subtle, responsive vegetation, waiting for him, as he waited for it; how fulfilled he was, how happy!”
“Really, what mistake he had made, thinking he wanted people, thinking he wanted a woman. He did not want a woman – not in the least. The leaves and the primroses and the trees, they were really lovely and cool and desirable, they really came into the blood and were added on to him. He was enrichened now immeasurably, and so glad.
It was quite right of Hermione to want to kill him. What had he to do with her? Why should he pretend to have anything to do with human beings at all? Here was his world, he wanted nobody and nothing but the lovely, subtle, responsive vegetation, and himself, his own living self.
It was necessary to go back into the world. That was true. But that did not matter … He knew now where he belonged. He knew where to plant himself, his seed: – along with the trees, in the folds of the delicious fresh growing leaves. This was his place, his marriage place. The world was extraneous.
He climbed out of the valley, wondering if he were mad. But if so, he preferred his own madness, to the regular sanity. He rejoiced in his own madness, he was free. He did not want that old sanity of the world, which was become so repulsive. He rejoiced in the new-found world of his madness. It was so fresh and delicate and so satisfying.
As for the certain grief he felt at the same time, in his soul, that was only the remains of an old ethic, that bade a human-being adhere to humanity. But he was weary of the old ethic, of the human being, and of humanity. He loved now the soft, delicate vegetation, that was so cool and perfect. He would overlook the old grief, he would put away the old ethic, he would be free in his new state.”
“He wondered again how much of his heaviness of heart, a certain depression, was due to fear, fear lest anybody should have seen him lying naked with the vegetation. What a dread he had of mankind, of other people! It amounted almost to horror, to a sort of dream terror – his horror of being observed by some other people. If he were on an island … with only the creatures and the trees, he would be free and glad, there would be none of this heaviness, this misgiving. He could love the vegetation and be quite happy and unquestioned, by himself.”
I don’t know about you, but every time I read these passages, or hear them spoken, they strike me as not only profoundly queer but absolutelyastonishing – far more disconcerting than the later passages in the novel describing acts of sexual shenanigans between Birkin and Ursula. So, let’s begin to think through what they might tell us and how they might relate to earlier ideas discussed.
It might reasonably be suggested that what’s primarily going on here is that Birkin is in the process of forming what Deleuze and Guattari termed a rhizome, or an unnatural alliance between himself and the vegetal world, similar to that formed between the wasp and the orchid or, if you prefer, the owl and the pussy cat who went to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat. It’s a deterritorialization of sex from its traditional object and aim; a setting free of desire to roam and eventually reterritorialize on all kinds of new things, in all sorts of strange new ways. Indeed, the great and intoxicating truth that Birkin demonstrates is that we can form loving relations not just with anyone – but anything and everything.
At this point, the objection is often raised that whilst this makes for fairly entertaining theory, it doesn’t really provide a legitimate or satisfactory form of practice. And someone usually says something along the lines of: ‘Yes Stephen, I can see how sex with plants might be some people’s cup of tea – but it’s not really a form of love though, is it?’ And they’re right: it’s not really love. At least not in the conventional and orthodox sense of the word, which is to say love that has been sanctioned by God and which involves the right persons doing the right things at the right time in the right place with the right organs etc. – a model that is so restrictive and so reductive that it makes one want to immediately run outside and commit acts of erotic atrocity like Diogenes in the market place.
However, let it suffice for me to point out to those law-abiding individuals who think that love should circulate exclusively within a system of moral legislation, that were it not for Eve daring to consort with serpents and eat of whatever fruit she pleased, then none of us might have attained to carnal knowledge, or experienced the full range of earthly delights. Ultimately, love is tied to transgressionandtocrime – not to obedience or conformity with social convention.
In fact, one might argue that the furthest forms of love are precisely those branded as paraphilias in which strange connections are sought out and one dreams of establishing an inhuman relationship with alien forces, or heterogeneous terms and territories as Deleuze and Guattari would say. Quite clearly, in this scene Birkin is caught up in a process of becoming-plant via a series of perverse participations, none of which involve imitation or identification. It’s a question of extracting from his own sex the particles that best enter into proximity with those emitted by the plants and which produce within him a micro-florality.
If, usually, when we love, we do so in order to seek out ourselves, that’s almost certainly not the case here. For Birkin is not depositing his sperm amongst the foliage in the same way as he might come inside a woman and one suspects that he isn’t even that concerned with his own functional pleasure or the banality of orgasm. What really excites Birkin, even more than the delicious touch of the plants on his bare skin, is that he might enter into a new way of being and release the flows and forces and strange feelings presently overcoded by his humanity. Or, put more simply, that he might blossom and unfold into his own poppiness. The problem with having a human being as a lover, is that their body often doesn’t serve to set anything free; rather, it gives impersonal desire personal expression and in this way it acts as a zone of containment, or a point of blockage – a dead end if you like, no matter how you choose to penetrate it. In other words, the anus is a cul-de-sac and the vagina is a freshly dug grave.
Of course, there is, I admit, something utopian in this belief that we might discover via molecular-desire and floraphilia a new world in which we each contain an infinite number of impersonal selves and the anthropomorphic representation of sex is shattered once and for all: a future in which love will no longer mean boy-meets-girl, but boy becomes-girl, boy becomes-animal, boy becomes-plant, etc. And these days I have a lot of reservations about advocating a libidinal revolution and promoting a politics (or a botany) of desire. But, even after the orgy, I think it remains true to say that perversions make happy – and, indeed, help us become more sensitive and sophisticated individuals.
However, this is not to argue that the only way to form an intimate relation between yourself and the world of plants is to roll around naked like Birkin in the wet hill-sides, saturated with a mixture of pollen and semen. Nor does it mean having to masturbate with the contents of your vegetable drawer. For art also serves as a method of becoming. Thus it is that when Van Gogh paints sunflowers, for example, “he reveals, or achieves, the vivid relation between himself, as a man, and the sunflower, as sunflower”. The canvas itself acts as a ‘zone of proximity’ wherein something is exchanged between them: the artist becomes-object, just as the object in turn becomes pure line and colour.
For clearly painting is not simply an attempt at representation. And Van Gogh was not looking to produce an image of the sunflower with photographic accuracy – we have cameras for that and they can visualise and record the world in far greater detail than even our greatest painters. But what they can’t produce is the vision on the canvas which is “utterly intangible and inexplicable, the offspring of the sunflower itself and Van Gogh himself … forever incommensurable with the canvas or the paint, or Van Gogh as a human organism, or the sunflower as a botanical organism”.
That’s the power of painting: it gives us this third thing, which, in this case, is a kind of human-flower hybrid that blossoms in the fourth dimension as a form of perfected relationship and becoming “where no Kodak can snap it”. And for Lawrence, our life hinges upon this “achieving of a pure relationship” between ourselves and the world around us. That, he says, is how we ‘save our soul’ and enter into the kingdom of bliss – by coming into contact with other people, animals, trees, flowers, stars and things of every kind; an infinity of perfected relations, large and small, with animate and inanimate, organic and inorganic, real and virtual objects.
But it’s not easy to come into touch in this way: to form a new relation with the world is bound to be painful, if only because it involves the breaking of old connections and loyalties “and this is never pleasant”. But there you go: just as our strength merely preserves whilst it is our sicknesses that advance us, so too do we live in bright red splendour like the poppy via acts of infidelity and not by staying true to old attachments like a fat green cabbage forever stuck in the same old cabbage patch. In the end, it’s Judas and not Jesus who will save us; because what threatens us most in this life is not sin, but boredom.
Closing Remarks on the Revenge of the Flowers and the Bio-Chemical Paganism of Plants
I’m well aware that most philosophers, remaining theo-humanists at heart, don’t much care for flowers, unless they’re the never-fading flowers of an ideal heaven, or the immortal pensées of some great thinker.
They don’t mind the thick leafy stems of plants; for these are at least suggestive of strength and phallic dignity and reach up towards the sun. But they don’t like “the insane contortions of tendrils” that twist and twine and “bear witness to the fact that all is not uniformly correct in the impeccable erection of plants”. Nor do they like thinking of the “roots swarming under the surface of the soil, nauseating and naked like vermin … loving rottenness just as leaves love light”.
But most of all, they hate flowers: they hate their scent, they hate their sex, and they hate the fact that their beauty is somehow tied not to the uprightness of stems, but to rootedness in the dark earth and richly perfumed eroticism. Give the most beautiful roses to a philosopher and they are likely to strip the petals and discard them with contempt into the nearest ditch or latrine, as if the very sight of something that expresses such wanton loveliness is more than they can bear.
With barely suppressed rage, they annihilate the transient and temporal beauty of flowers: ‘Look!’ they cry, as they frantically pull away the petals like madmen: ‘Look how ugly and vulgar these flowers really are! How immoral and deceitful!’ And, in a sense, they’re right. For if most people continue to believe flowers to be beautiful in a noble-classical sense, this is only because they have become accustomed to seeing them from the perspective of a particular artistic ideal, or in conformity with a certain convention of beauty. In other words, flowers have become a kind of mannerism with us. But look more closely, beyond the cliché, and it soon becomes evident that “most flowers are badly developed and are barely distinguishable from foliage; some of them are even unpleasant, if not hideous. Moreover, even the most beautiful flowers are spoiled in their centres by hairy sexual organs.”
Continuing and developing the argument that all flowers are flowers of evil in their weird and twisted imperfection (characterized brilliantly by Ruskin as their ‘Gothic’ nature), Bataille writes:
“Thus the anterior of a rose does not at all correspond to its exterior beauty; if one tears off the corolla’s petals, all that remains is a rather sordid tuft. Other flowers, it is true, present very well-developed and undeniably elegant stamens, but … it becomes clear on close examination that this elegance is rather satanic: thus certain kinds of fat orchids, plants so shady that one is tempted to attribute to them the most troubling human perversions. But even more than by the filth of its organs, the flower is betrayed by the fragility of its corolla: thus, far from answering the demands of human idealism, it is the sign of their failure. In fact, after a very short period of glory the marvellous corolla rots indecently in the sun, thus becoming … a garish withering. Risen from the stench of the manure pile – even though it seemed for a moment to have escaped it in a flight of angelic and lyrical purity – the flower seems to relapse abruptly into its original squalor: the most ideal is rapidly reduced to a wisp of aerial manure.”
This, if you like, is the first aspect of the revenge of the flowers: they undermine and mock our emasculated idealism with their obscene reality, reminding us that beauty and desire have nothing to do with permanence or purity. For despite what our poets and philosophers and grandmothers would desperately wish them to be, flowers are not ‘the faded expression of an angelic ideal’, but, on the contrary, “a filthy and glaring sacrilege”.
Equally galling to our transcendental philosophers, is the fact that the flowering plant blossomed long before man and will continue to blossom long after we have vanished from the face of the earth; that even the common dandelion has more endurance – and thus, for an idealist, more value – than any categorical imperative. What? A cactus will outlive Kant!
Do our modern philosophers secretly realise for all their insistence to the contrary, that the thing-in-itself, including the flower-in-itself – which is really only to say the flower as it exists outside of human consciousness – blooms just as gaily in the world without a Latin name attached? I think they do. But you’ll never get them to admit it of course, for such is the depth of their correlationism.
This is the second aspect of the revenge that flowers: they make those who continue to posit Man at the centre of the universe and as the measure of all things feel secretly stupid. For flowers – like the insects that pollinate them – donotneedus and they malevolently reveal the presence of a world that requires neither human understanding nor, ultimately, any form of sentient observation to keep on turning.
Personally, I like to know this: to know there is a world out there; a real world with flowers in it. And I think it’s important not only to acknowledge this, but to live accordingly; which means endeavouring to meet the flowers on their own terms, rather than transplanting them into our all-too-human world as cut-and-dried objects of knowledge to be placed under a microscope, popped into a vase, or poetically assimilated.
The latter, is precisely what Wordsworth was guilty of. He just couldn’t help anthropomorphizing the primrose for example and making it part of his own life. In other words, due to his inherent idealism and desire to smelt the world into Universal Oneness, Wordsworth “ousts the primrose from its own individuality”. He doesn’t allow it to have its own peculiar primrosiness; instead, it must be identical with him and all nature indeed must be romanticized and made ‘Sweet-Williamish’ as Lawrence jokes. As a rule, we should always beware of people – and particularly poets – who claim to love flowers, small animals, babies, or beautiful sunsets. For more often than not it simply means they are looking to impose their own ego over things that can’t answer back. And that’s not love: that’s just impertinence.
What then is love? There are many possible answers to this question and I’ve already offered one or two earlier in this paper. But surely the most important aspect of love is the attempt to know things as things in themselves and not as things for us, or as things as we would like them to be. We have to learn to let things come to presence and accept the singular reality of their being, as well as the ‘untouched chaos’ that functions as an imperative within them, bubbling up like a volcanic core. So, yes, we can go forth in desire to the flowers – as Birkin went forth – but becoming-plant is never a question of trying to incorporate their lives into our own selves with a kind of egoistic and anthropomorphic lust.
Plants have always had a magical, and, indeed, sacred reality: they can nourish, they can heal, they can poison, they can intoxicate, but most of all they can teach us something of import about the world – as indeed, they can teach us something of import about our own experience of the world; namely, that what superstitious persons and folk psychologists amusingly think of as ‘spiritual’ knowledge or insight, is entirely a material effect of bio-chemistry.
This is not necessarily to denigrate the experience or call the religious faculty into disrepute, but simply to agree with Aldous Huxley that “‘In one way or another, all our experiences are chemically conditioned, and if we imagine that some of them are purely ‘spiritual’, purely ‘intellectual’, purely ‘aesthetic’, it is merely because we have never troubled to investigate the internal chemical environment at the moment of their occurrence.’”
In other words, as Baudelaire recognised, allvisionsofparadiseareartificial. And, this being the case, I can see nothing wrong with those who choose to systematically modify their brain chemistry with alcohol and drugs, rather than utilize more tedious methods involving fasting, chanting, and prayer. To glimpse pink elephants dancing across the ceiling is no less meaningful than to see a host of heavenly angels gathered on the head of a pin. We might, if you like, refer to a ‘flat ontology’ of virtual objects in which gods and demons, unicorns and leprechauns are all equally present and correct.
Of course to certain minds “the use of drugs for spiritual purposes feels cheap and false” – and doubtless this is in part tied to the fact that drugs are largely derived from the realm of plants. For as Michael Pollan writes, the fact that we can “take a leaf or flower and use it to change our experience of consciousness suggests a very different sort of sacrament … at odds with our loftier notions of self”. He continues:
“Plants with the power to revise our thoughts and perceptions … challenge the cherished Judeo-Christian belief that our conscious, thinking selves somehow stand apart from nature, have achieved a kind of transcendence.
Just what happens to this flattering self-portrait if we discover that transcendence itself owes to molecules that flow through our brains and at the same time through the plants in the garden? … Does it mean that spirit too is part of nature?”
I think it does mean this: that is to say, I think it means that the visions that result from hallucinogenic drugs, for example, are evidence not of supernatural realms and other dimensions, but simply of powerful and seductive plant chemistry. Now, whilst it’s obviously true that “no entheogenic plant or fungus ever set out to make molecules for the express purpose of inspiring visions in humans”, nevertheless, the moment that shamans and wise-women discovered just what these molecules could do, “the plants that made them suddenly had a brilliant new way to prosper” and to fuck with us: for what ultimately is Dionysian intoxication other than nature overpowering mind and a way in which man is reconciled not with heaven, but with the earth once more?
The Judeo-Christian tradition – which is as much an anti-natural creed as well as a supernatural faith – has always understood the danger posed by plants to its own authority: “for they threatened to divert people’s gaze from the sky, where the new God resided, down to the natural world all around them”.
This then is the final revenge of the flowers: and it is, I think, something for which we should be thankful: they cause us to dream – but at the same time, paradoxically, they disenchant us and, quite literally, bring us back down to earth and to the here and now. The notion that spirit “might turn out in some sense to be matter (and plant matter, no less!)”, obviously threatens a long established and long-cherished dualism, but to be pagan is to affirm this idea with a happy heart and to worship forever the goddess Flora.
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 Lawrence’s relationship with nature or the ‘violent hierarchies and orders of rank he had such a fondness for constructing’. 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.
 Although this paper is concerned with floraphilia rather than floriography or the secret language of flowers, it is worth noting how this Victorian method of coded communication between illicit lovers in which a wide variety of plants enabled individuals to express feelings which otherwise could not be spoken has continued to this day – albeit in a restricted, clichéd and commercialized manner. Interestingly, as Michael Pollan points out, flowers “have always borne the often absurd weight of our meaning-making”, but they have arguably solicited such, as signifying “is precisely what natural selection has designed flowers to do”. In other words, flowers acted as “nature’s tropes long before we came along”. See The Botany of Desire, (Bloomsbury, 2003), p. 75.
 By ‘ancestral reality’ I refer to a reality that is anterior to the emergence of humanity. The term will be readily understood by those who are familiar with the work of Quentin Meillassoux. The point being made is not simply that plants have existed for a long time prior to mankind – and may well continue to exist for a long time after all traces of humanity have been eradicated from the face of the earth – but that this tells us something of importance long-denied within modern philosophy; namely, that reality exists mind-independently. Whether we like it or not, we don’t need to be on the scene for dandelions to evolve and flower quite happily. I will say more in relation to this (for some very obvious) point later in the essay. For those who are interested in Meillassoux’s ‘speculative materialism’ and his challenge to philosophy in the post-Kantian tradition, see After Finitude, trans. Ray Brassier, (Continuum, 2008).
 Plants belonging to the grass family are by far the most important to us, providing as they do the basis and the bulk of our diet as well as livestock feed. Such plants include rice, corn, wheat, oat, barley and rye. And flowering plants also provide us with many non-edible resources that are central to the human economy, such as wood, paper, fibre and, of course, numerous drugs and medicines.
 D. H. Lawrence, ‘Study of Thomas Hardy’, in Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays, ed. Bruce Steele, (Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 11-12.
 Ibid., p. 12. For those who are interested, Lawrence continues his attack on cabbages and people who have fallen into the condition of cabbages (i.e. fat self-sufficiency and self-conscious egoism) in ‘The Crown’. See Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays, ed. Michael Herbert, (Cambridge University Press, 1988).
 As Michael Pollan notes, although many flowers, like the lilies, possess both male and female organs, they go to great lengths to avoid pollinating themselves and thereby defeating the floral point, which is the mixing of genes that cross-pollination ensures: “A flower can avoid self-pollination chemically (by making its ovule and pollen grain incompatible), architecturally, (by arranging stamen and pistil in the flower so as to avoid contact), or temporally (by staggering the times when their stamens produce pollen and their pistils are receptive).” See The Botany of Desire, p. 78.
 More recently, human activity has come to play a crucial role in pollination and plant evolution. Indeed, some flowers are now so reliant upon agricultural and horticultural practices and techniques that they couldn’t survive without us. However, I am certainly not suggesting that there is anything ‘wrong’ or even ‘unnatural’ about artificial selection. In fact, we might ask whether there has ever been such a thing as natural selection. Even if the answer to this is yes, the fact remains that today “the crisp conceptual line that divided artificial from natural selection has blurred” thanks to the global presence and dominance of humanity. Today, even the weather is an artefact and for a great many species of both plant and animal ‘evolutionary fitness’ has come to mean “the ability to get along in a world in which humankind has become the most powerful evolutionary force”. The whole world has been domesticated and inasmuch as it still makes any sense to speak about the ‘wilderness’ or ‘untamed nature’, the latter is entirely dependent upon us for its preservation. See Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire. The lines quoted are in the Introduction, p. xxi.
 Although the majority of visiting insects do not usually pollinate flowers with purposeful intent, there are exceptions to this. The yucca moth, for example, which services – unsurprisingly – the yucca plant, deliberately transfers pollen from anther to stamen. And it does so from biological imperative; for it is crucial for the yucca moth to ensure the survival of the yucca plant, as not only does it deposit its eggs in the yucca flower, but the yucca moth caterpillars feed exclusively on yucca seeds.
Because the yucca flower, due to its unique design, can only be pollinated by the yucca moth, both moth and flower are thus completely dependent upon one another and have an exclusively symbiotic relationship. Most flowering plants, however, are not so fussy or faithful and happily allow themselves to be pollinated by all kinds of creepy-crawlies, or lovers who come on gossamer-wing.
 Whilst it’s true that the majority of flowers have both male and female organs, in the human imaginary we tend to assign them a single sex, according to whether their forms suggest notions of masculinity or femininity. However, for one reason or another, most people seem to regard most flowers as being ‘female’ and therefore to equate the cultivation of flowers with the construction and imposition of female gender identities is not outlandish – although clearly in need of much closer interrogation than I can give it here.
 Those who suffer from hay fever do so due to the fact that they are hypersensitive to the protein molecules released by the pollen grains. These molecules are understood to play an important role in communicating with the pistil (i.e. the female part of the flower); allowing the pollen to first ‘identify’ itself and thence to seek ‘consent’ for fertilization (i.e. to effectively play a game of molecular seduction). Although I do not have the opportunity to comment at length on the manner in which plants communicate amongst themselves, I would like to stress that they can do so. Further, I am tempted to posit, like Lawrence, the existence of what he calls ‘sap-consciousness’. This is not to say that plants are conscious as we are conscious, or that they can think conceptually in terms of ideas: they are essentially mindless. I agree, however, with Deleuze and Guattari who argue that the plant “contemplates by contracting the elements from which it originates” in a process of pure sensation: “It is as if flowers smell themselves by smelling what composes them … before being perceived … by an agent with a nervous system and a brain”. In other words, consciousness “is a faculty of feeling coextensive with the tissues” of living organisms. Whether such hylopathism can legitimately be pushed all the way towards an out-and-out panpsychism, in which even inorganic matter can be said to have some level of sentience, is debatable. See Deleuze and Guattari, What is Philosophy?, trans. Graham Burchell and Hugh Tomlinson, (Verso, 1994). The lines quoted are on p. 212.
 The ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes was one of the founders of Cynicism. He was a controversial figure in Athens, not least of all because of his penchant for masturbating in public in order to challenge social and cultural conventions and embarrass Plato.
 As Deleuze tells us, there is an entirely false bond established between desire and pleasure and the latter is ultimately that which interrupts the former and acts as an extrinsic limit upon it. If you wish to construct a plane of consistency within desire, then you must find a method to defer the moment of orgasm (though of course, you’re under no obligation to want to construct such a plane).
 D. H. Lawrence, ‘Morality and the Novel’, in Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays, p. 171.
 Arguably, Michael Pollan is guilty of writing about flowers and beauty in this all too conventional manner in The Botany of Desire. He insists that flowers epitomise beauty for mankind and that by studying our ‘ancient attraction’ we might learn something about what he calls the ‘deeper mysteries of beauty’. Such writing betrays the fact that despite his attempts to resist and challenge a ‘blinkered humanist perspective’ and to write a work from a plant’s eye-view, ultimately Pollan’s attempt to develop a posthumanist philosophy fails for precisely the reason that Ian Bogost points out – namely, itisnotposthumanenough. If and when Pollan does grant an apple or a potato a degree of subjectivity, he does so only in order that he might then mobilize them into his critique of modern industrialized practices of monoculture and genetic modification. Such a critique “serves and recommends cooperative practices of biodiversity, a value whose explicit purpose is to extend human life and well-being” and to keep in place all the old clichés to do with beauty and desire. See Ian Bogost; Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing, (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), p. 8.
 Georges Bataille, ‘The Language of Flowers’, Visions of Excess, p. 12.
 Ruskin, who had a significant influence on Lawrence’s thinking in this area, stressed the ‘unnaturalness’ of nature and its unfinished, savage and spiky, non-ideal character. A typical passage might be the following taken from his seminal essay ‘The Nature of Gothic’:
‘Nothing that lives is, or can be, rigidly perfect; part of it is decaying, part nascent. The foxglove blossom […] is a type of the life of this world. And in all things that live there are certain irregularities and deficiencies which are not only signs of life, but sources of beauty.’
For a discussion of Ruskin’s work in relation to Lawrence’s, see Anne Fernihough’s D. H. Lawrence: Aesthetics and Ideology, (Oxford University Press, 1993), and Amit Chaudhuri’s D. H. Lawrence and ‘Difference’, (Oxford University Press, 2003), in which the above passage from Ruskin is quoted p. 209.
 Georges Bataille, ‘The Language of Flowers’, Visions of Excess, p. 12.
 I am referring here once more the work of Quentin Meillassoux, mentioned in a note at the opening of this paper. His term ‘correlationism’ refers to any current of thought which maintains that there is a permanent correlation between thinking and being and the belief that we only ever have access to this correlation and never to either term considered apart from the other. As Meillassoux also points out, it is perfectly plausible to suggest that “every philosophy which disavows naïve realism has become a variant on correlationism”. See After Finitude, p. 5.
 D. H. Lawrence, ‘…… Love Was Once a Little Boy’, in Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays, p. 334.
 I am grateful to Graham Harman for this idea of objects having a molten inner core and that this is the place “where reality unfolds” – not the mind of God, or the human imagination. See ‘Physical Nature and the Paradox of Qualities’, in Towards Speculative Realism, (Zero Books, 2010). The line quoted is on p. 133.
 Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception (1954), quoted by Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire, p. 185.
 A flat ontology refers to any ontology that rejects the real/imaginary, or natural/cultural distinctions and treats all objects – physical or virtual, material or abstract – on an equal footing. As indicated earlier in the text, I am happy to endorse Ian Bogost’s maxim that all things equally exist, yet they do not exist equally. The concept is developed at some length by Levi Bryant in his work on Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) and those who are interested might like to read The Democracy of Objects, (Open Humanities Press, 2011). Ian Bogost’s discussion of the principle and his subsequent development of it into what he terms a ‘tiny ontology’ can be found in his Alien Phenomenology.
 Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire, p. 186.
In this guest blog, Stephen Alexander, author of Torpedo the Ark, offers some sulphurous-theological speculations on Lawrence’s Plumed Serpent. Stephen weaves many philosophical ideas into his writing, prodding, poking and interrogating the “unexplored realm of dangerous knowledge” – but always with a toothy smile. Stephen is one of the commissioned writers for the Memory Theatre.
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.
This rare portrait of Lawrence by Australian artist Hewitt Henry Rayner, etched in 1929, is thought to be the last portrait made of Lawrence before he died on 2 March 1930. If you’ve got £3,000 to £5,000 going spare, it’s up for auction at Cheffins Fine Art Auctioneers, Cambridge on Thursday 11 October.
In 1923, 21 year-old Hewitt Henry Raynor left Melbourne, Australia and headed to England to pursue his dream of becoming an artist. One year earlier, Lawrence had set off in the other direction, taking a detour to Australia on his way to New Mexico. Raynor settled in London, attending the London Royal Academy of Art where he was taught by Walter Sickert. He would remain in the capital for the rest of his life, returning to Melbourne for a brief visit in 1931. Lawrence never settled anywhere for too long, and very rarely returned back to his country of birth. The two would meet in 1929 when Raynor produced what is thought to be the last portrait taken of Lawrence.
Rayner was an etcher who perfected the drypoint technique, creating over 500 drypoint plates during his life. This is believed to be the largest body of drypoint work of any mid-20th century artist, most of which were produced after 1926. Unable to afford copper plates, Raynor used any type of metal he could get his hands on, such as oil containers and sweet tins. He didn’t have proper engraving tools either, instead opting for second-hand dentists’ drill bits, which he found more suited to the task. Sustainable approaches are all the vogue now, but Rayner’s techniques were born out of economic necessity – he only achieved notoriety after his death. This was due to numerous factors which we’ll look at in a moment, but it’s worth briefly giving a potted history of etching.
Printmaking of all varieties had a low standing in the 19th century due to it being perceived as a reproductive craft and therefore not worthy of exhibition at the Royal Academy. But a change in style in the mid-1800s saw it gain in popularity, eventually resulting in the formation of the Society of Painter-Etchers in 1880. As Art Schools began to develop up and down the country, the techniques were taught, and the discipline was taken more seriously.
Etching reached its peak in the 1920s when prices became so inflated they were unaffordable to traditional collectors. Instead they had to settle for anthology books celebrating reproductions, such as the annual Fine Prints of the Year. These prices were partly inflated by the publishers, who limited print runs to create a scarcity value. To put this into context, in 1929, the year that Raynor made his sketch of Lawrence, one print by DY Cameron went for a staggering £640 at Southeby’s. According to the CPI Inflation Calculator, that’s the equivalent of around £38,500 today. Although back then it would have got you quite a few houses.
It was during the 1920s that ‘come up and see my etchings’ became code for wealth, although in contemporary culture it became a romantic euphemism whereby women were lured up to bedrooms under false pretences. In Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man (1934) the narrator reassures his suspicious wife that the lady she had seen wander off ‘just wanted to show me some French etchings’.
Lawrence took up painting towards the latter end of the 1920s, though this wasn’t for money or popularity. Painting simply offered an alternative mode of expression that was more pleasurable in process than writing.
“I disappeared into that canvas. It is for me the most exciting moment – when you have the blank canvas and a big brush full of wet colour, and you plunge. It is just like diving in a pond – there you start frantically to swim. So far as I am concerned, it is like swimming in a baffling current and being rather frightened and very thrilled, gasping and striking out for all you’re worth. The knowing eye watches sharp as a needle; but the picture somes clean out of instinct, intuition and sheer physical action. Once the instinct and the intuition gets into the brush-tip, the picture happens…”
Lady Chatterley’s Lover had been banned in 1928 and so painting offered an escape from the frustrations of the literary world. Or so he thought. His first exhibition at the Warren Gallery in June 1929 was swiftly closed on grounds of indecency with thirteen of his paintings placed in a prison cell (all of the seized paintings depicted public hair). Outraged by the latest bout of censorship he began work on the aptly named poetry series ‘Nettles’ which included the line: ‘Virginal, pure policeman came/ and hid their faces for very shame’.
Lawrence had been too ill to leave Italy to attend the exhibition in June 1929. Instead he sent Frieda on his behalf. This means that the portrait by Raynor must have been sketched during his last visit to the UK although I am not sure when. When the two did meet, I wonder how Lawrence would have viewed Rayner’s success, given the financial difficulties he had experienced throughout his own career while Rayner was at his peak. But the subsequent Wall Street Crash put an end to the etchings market and Rayner spent the ‘hungry years’ of the 1930s trying to sell his prints door to door. After being injured during the London Blitz, Raynor became more reclusive. He passed away in 1957, a few years before the Chatterley ban was lifted.
Both had a few things in common, though some of these connections are only apparent in retrospect. There was Australia, self-imposed exile, and art. Both were turned down for military service for WWI and WWII respectively. Both produced a phenomenal output of work yet struggled with poverty, with neither getting the recognition they deserved during their short lives. We know from the memoirs of Dorothy Brett and Knud Merrild that Lawrence was highly critical of their work and always had an opinion on how their art could be improved. So what would he have made of Raynor’s etching? Needless to say he would have found fault.
In the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts to try to understand this phenomenal writer. How do we capture the censorship of his art? Do we need a slideshow of the various portraits that were made of him during his life? 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.
Shaun Belcher started a multimedia project in 2010 exploring local history in two locations, one of which was Nottingham. He began uncovering some incredible stories, such as Albert Einstein giving a guest lecture at Nottingham University College (as it was known then) on 6 June 1930. A section of blackboard he used to show his calculations is preserved in the university’s archives. The university also holds many artefacts relating to D.H. Lawrence, but we’ll come back to his connection with the College later on.
The project has the working title of Track Nottingham which Shaun explains “takes individual ‘derives’ as the starting point for poems that literally ‘track’ individuals’ movement through urban and rural space and their interactions with the current technology to analyse how art and technology interact.”
So far he has written three poems about Picasso, Chaplin and DH. Lawrence which neatly bookend three concurrent aspects of modernity in Painting – Film – Literature. Shaun said “I am interested in the relation between technology and how these individuals were enabled to move and in turn have their works ‘distributed’ by the new channels of literary and film distribution and their link to networks of travel especially the railway.” Through poetry, Shaun hopes to map these hinterlands of change. He is keen to stress that “no person is an island and no artist is independent of the tentacles of mass distribution and technological change”. The poems are also stories about relationships played out against 19th, 20th and 21st century backdrops. One of these relationships is that of DH Lawrence and Frieda Weekley.
After coming first in the King’s Scholarship Examination in 1904, Lawrence received a grant to attend Nottingham University College (now part of the Arkwright building owned by NTU) but had to work for a year as an uncertified teacher at the British School in Eastwood in order to save £20 for the advance fees. He enrolled in September 1906 at the age of 21 and graduated in 1908. Although he found the experience disappointing he was interested in the botany and French course taught by Prof Ernest Weekley, the then husband of Lawrence’s future wife Frieda. Frieda and Ernest Weekley lived on Private Road, Sherwood and an enthusiastic Lawrence came to have a chat with his Professor one afternoon and immediately fell in love with Frieda. There are varying accounts on how quickly the two became lovers but which ever version of history you believe, the relationship was built on pain and against the backdrop of World War I. This had particular resonance as Frieda was not only a married woman, but a distant relation of Manfred von Richthofen, the “Red Baron”. All of which inspired Shaun to write the following poem.
PAPER BOATS ON PRIVATE ROAD
A lone slim figure in Sunday best gets off the tram on Woodborough Road, Hesitates then proceeds down Private Road until it dog-legs east at his destination As he turns along the high brick wall he hears children’s laughter, a maid calling He stands at the gate hidden by trees and calls, the maid comes to the gate
Later she recalls his patent leather shoes and his smart appearance that day Frieda stands at the French Windows, behind the red curtains, eyes sparkling like a hawk He is ushered into the sitting room, red velvet curtains caught in the breeze billowing Initial stiffness is washed away in a heated conversation about Oedipus and women
D.H. Lawrence is being bewitched by this most ‘un-English’ and strong-willed of women, Her exotic and erotic vibrancy entrances him, already struggling to escape this England Her husband delayed by work she leads him past then in to her bedroom, An English sparrow in the talons of a German hawk he is taken in hand, finds himself
Then they are both entwined in secrecy, taking tram and train to secret assignations One day with her daughters they play on a local stream with paper boats He flicks matches at them saying look it is the Spanish Armada come to sink England Two paper boats catching fire in a Nottinghamshire backwater, then phoenix-like rising
From the crazed machinery of Edwardian England, the conservatism of suburbia Sometimes of an evening Frieda would dash up Mapperley Plains just seeking freedom In a cottage near Moor Green they continued their first loving act on Private Road Under Pear-blossom, ‘a fountain of foam’, Frieda crawls naked over him, he writes a poem
To her and to freedom, to his sexual and intellectual fulfilment with a gushing woman By May 3rd they were sat together on a night-boat to Ostend, that old England fading A peaceful Anglo-German union as the two empires ramped up production of munitions and cruisers The Suffragette movement beginning… the war to end all wars looming.
Paper boats burning…
In the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts. How do we get across Lawrence’s relationship with Frieda? If Ernest Weekley hadn’t excelled in his teaching, Lawrence would never have visited his house. Can we convey this chance encounter somehow? 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.