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

Lawrence and coronavirus (1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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S.S. Koteliansky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing the Australian bush: DH Lawrence’s wildflowers

David Herbert Lawrence dived deep into the psychology of the Australian landscape in Kangaroo.
Flickr/Duncan~

 

In this guest blog, originally published in The Conversation, Christopher Pollnitz of University of Newcastle explores how the Australian landscape has been described and used in Lawrence’s 1923 novel, Kangaroo. If nothing else, argues Pollnoitz, Lawrence makes “us look, and look again, at the environment. For that, he is worth a medal”.


The indifference — the fern-dark indifference of this remote golden Australia. Not to care — from the bottom of one’s soul, not to care. Overpowered in the twilight of fern-odour. Just to keep enough grip to run the machinery of the day: and beyond that, to let yourself drift, not to think or strain or make any effort to consciousness whatsoever.

D. H. Lawrence, from Kangaroo (1923)

As D. H. Lawrence circled the globe, he made a point of going to the barber’s – this despite his trademark beard – and of buying a pot of honey. The barber in Thirroul, he noted, was an unusually intelligent young man, au fait with political trends in the 1920s and able to put an English visitor in touch with social life in the NSW South Coast village. The honey he would taste to commune with the vegetative spirit of place.

Lawrence tried defining the “spirit of place” in his Studies in Classic American Literature. It was, he contended, a “great reality,” albeit one that operated via emanations or effluences. It produced a race or a nation as much as it was produced by a people seeking to establish themselves in terms of their homeland. Tied up with Lawrence’s thinking about spirit of the place was a melange of ideas about indigenousness, race theory, and occult universal wisdom. Such ideas all speak at once, and are questioned, discarded, and reformulated, in Lawrence’s Kangaroo, a novel he wrote in ten weeks – all but the last chapter – while living under the Illawarra Escarpment in Thirroul.

Morning light on the Illawarra Escarpment, which runs behind Thirroul.
Flickr/Kaptain Kobold

He sailed into Circular Quay and disembarked on 27 May 1922, close to the spot where his medallion used to be on the Writers’ Walk. It is unclear when the medallion was deleted from the Walk, but its disappearance probably had more to do with the perceived sexual politics of Lawrence’s other fiction than with any concern about the writing of place in Kangaroo.

A Scottish writer and influential academic in Australia, J.I.M. Stewart, wrote in early praise of the novel’s descriptions of nature. Poet Judith Wright took it further; comparing Kangaroo with Patrick White’s Voss, Wright commended Lawrence’s insight into what she too thought was missing from the psychology of twentieth-century white-colonial Australians – any appreciation of how the continent itself, its flora and fauna, might provide the platform for a grounded sense of national identity.

Strange, then, that in the twenty-first century some have found it desirable to expunge from Australian literary history a writer who, as well as setting a novel on the east coast, has had an impact on the finest Australian-born poets and novelists. Strange and futile. Attempts to censor Lawrence out of consciousness are counter-productive, as the Lady Chatterley trial proved fifty years ago. A better plan of action is to engage with his ideas.

Kangaroo includes a succession of quirky bush vignettes, starting with one in the Perth Hills. Lawrence stayed there a fortnight, and met and talked with Mollie Skinner. He later co-wrote The Boy in the Bush with Skinner, or rather rewrote her first draft. In the first chapter of Kangaroo the Lawrentian character, Richard Lovatt Somers, recalls night-walking in the West Australian bush, and romanticises –that’s to say, lets himself be frightened by – the “huge electric moon” and the bush “hoarily waiting.” He senses the bush “might have reached a long black arm and gripped him.” Fortunately, as this colonial fear fantasy never eventuates, Somers’s feeling for the landscape grows progressively more nuanced.

Somers-Lawrence also observes tree trunks charred by bush fires and a burn-off as he returns from his night-walk, the red sparks glowing under the southern stars.

Once Somers reaches Thirroul, renamed Mullumbimby in Kangaroo, the novel develops a plot and complication. Will Somers let himself be recruited to the Diggers, a right-wing paramilitary organisation?

Thirroul glimpsed from the Illawarra Escarpment.
Flickr/davidlkel

By now a reader, curious whether the “long black arm” of Chapter I was an over-extended Aboriginal limb, will be noticing that indigenous characters are conspicuous by their absence, while white characters are indifferent to any activism not directly reflecting northern-hemisphere political contests and wars.

In Chapter X, after a “ferocious battle” with his wife Harriett, Somers climbs the Escarpment and looks back down over a dark mass of “tree-ferns and bunchy cabbage-palms and mosses like bushes” to the narrow coastal strip. A relic of the coal age, the vegetation tempts Somers to enter into a “saurian torpor,” to succumb to “the old, old influence of the fern-world,” under which one “breathes the fern-seed and drifts back, becomes darkly half-vegetable, devoid of pre-occupations.” What would now be called the New Age rhetoric of this passage conflates geological periods with the millennia in which human societies began developing cosmogonic myths. The dodgy subtext might be that, to attune itself to the Escarpment’s spirit of place, colonial Australia needs to dumb down its Western consciousness – dumb it down until it can vibrate in indigenous accord with the spirit of place.

While the botanically trained Lawrence knew perfectly well that ferns reproduce from spores, he also knew, from J.G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough, that he who takes the mythical fern-seed between his lips has the power to become invisible and see into what is hidden in the earth. Giving Lawrence the benefit of the doubt, another subtext is that European Australians need to develop new ways of apprehending an ancient environment.

As for tree-ferns being survivors of the dinosaur age, Lawrence might have also noticed that the Escarpment was, and remains, a lively skink habitat.

Lawrence’s knowledge of the initiation rituals which showed Aranda men their spiritual identities in the Central Australian desert came from another of Frazer’s anthropological works, Totemism and Exogamy. The climax of Kangaroo, a blood-letting in the streets of Sydney, is a hideous parody of such rituals. This clash between Diggers and unionists brings neither victors nor victims a jot closer to belonging to the continent.

Disillusioned by the riot, Somers and Harriet make a last springtime excursion, to the Loddon Falls. The Loddon rises above the Escarpment and flows inland, disappearing underground into a “gruesome dark cup in the bush.” That alien spirit of place to which European consciousness must learn to accommodate is still being registered. But the passage joins others, in Twilight in Italy and “Flowery Tuscany,” as an ecstatic hymn to floral abundance and variety. It’s great fun for local readers, who have to guess at misnamed flowers (the “bottle-brushes” are banksias) or unnamed flowers from their descriptions. My guess is that the “beautiful blue flowers, with gold grains, three petalled … and blue, blue with a touch of Australian darkness,” are Commelina – common name, scurvy grass, probably because it is useless for fodder.

“ Blue, blue, with a touch of Australian darkness.‘
Flickr/Kate’s Photo Diary

Admittedly, Lawrence described the stems of this blue-flowering creeper as “thin stalks like hairs almost,” making it sound more like the Austral bluebell or even Dianella. Possibly he was conflating more than one flower in memory, for the whole wildflower paean in the last chapter was written from recollection, after he arrived in New Mexico.

There is nothing utilitarian, then, about the descriptions of the Australian bush in Kangaroo. Or perhaps there is, marginally. At least one council has begun to use Commelina as an ornamental ground cover, so helping distinguish it in the public mind from bush-suffocating infestations of the South American Tradescantia. What can be claimed for Lawrence’s brilliant botanical shorthand – “blue flowers … gold grains, three petalled” – is that even now he has the power make us look, and look again, at the environment. For that, he is worth a medal.

Christopher Pollnitz is preparing a critical edition of Lawrence’s Poems and is a member of a bush care group.The Conversation He is Conjoint Senior Lecturer, University of Newcastle This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

dhl-trunk GREENIn 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 his time in Australia? Do we have space for some prehistoric ferns? 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