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.

Black History Month: The influence of D.H. Lawrence on Claude McKay 

claude and DHL

“Is life strife, is it the long combat?
Yes, it is true. I fight all the time.
I am forced to”
The Battle of Life, D.H Lawrence

“If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!”
If We Must Die, Claude McKay

As a rebel writer, D.H. Lawrence spent his entire life fighting against people and systems. Ideas expressed in early novels, such as The Rainbow (1915), took on the ideologies of religion, marriage, family, sexuality, and national identity. In the subsequent Obscenity Trial, Judge Sir John Dickinson went as far as to describe the novel as anti-British, claiming that Lawrence was mocking the very principles that British soldiers were defending. Lawrence was very good at winding people up.

To compound matters, Lawrence married a German woman on the outbreak of WWI and moved to Cornwall, where he was accused of being a spy and had his passport removed. On and on the battles went throughout his short life – and not just with his novels. When he turned his hand to painting and exhibited works at the Warren Gallery in 1929, 13 were seized and placed in a prison cell! The Daily Telegraph reported the paintings were “gross and obscene” the likes of which had “never been seen in London before”.

Understandably, Lawrence came to resent intellectualisation and what he described as “mental consciousness”. This form of thinking produced “ugliness, ugliness, ugliness” and was responsible for the “iron machine” of industrialisation and the subsequent exploitation of workers in favour of profit. A world in which people lived in their heads had a dehumanising effect, further removing man from his natural connection with the environment. It is little wonder, then, that Lawrence developed a philosophy of “blood consciousness”, a more sensuous and guttural connection with the world which was incorrectly interpreted as smut by the censor.

Given that Lawrence fought the establishment throughout his life, it is perhaps not such a surprise that he was an influence on black American poets of the 1940s and 1950s, specifically Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, or so argues Leo Hamalian in a journal article from 1990. As Langston Hughes put it, “Negro writers, just by being black, have been on the blacklist all our lives”. If it was difficult for a miner’s son with a provincial accent to be accepted by the literati, imagine how difficult it was for a black person.

Claude McKay (September 15, 1889 – May 22, 1948), one of the pioneers of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, detailed the intense racial violence against black people in poems such as ‘If We Must Die’. Originally attracted to communist ideas, he helped form the African Black Brotherhood as a means of achieving social emancipation. Like Lawrence, he travelled far afield to find peace. He lived in the UK and USA, experiencing every form of racism imaginable, had an “ecstatic welcome” in Russia due to his political beliefs, before heading to the more open-minded Parisian backstreets. However liberal Paris was, there was still a lot of work to be done. He wasted no time highlighting the stereotyping of sexualised black figures in the art world which he argued helped to reproduce social hegemonic values that legitimated (European) white supremacy over Afro-Caribbean identities.

claude and dhl quote

Like Lawrence, McKay’s novels outlined an instinctual/intellectual duality. But the two writers had very different reasons for doing this: Lawrence was desperate to escape modernity and so outlined a philosophy of spiritual individualism which he called Rananim – a search for a community of like-minded people. It could be argued, for example, one of his main objections to the war was not moral, rather resentment at being told what to do and where to go!

McKay wanted to empower black people. He implored individuals to stand up for their rights and to be accepted as equals. It goes without saying this came with real risks, most notably lynching and murder. McKay’s travels, then, were not so much about escape but rather finding acceptance within modernity. This is perhaps best exemplified in his 1928 novel Home to Harlem which gave voice to romantic homosexual relationships while forging a distinctive black identity for the “uprooted black vagabonds” – such as himself – who found themselves exploited and used in Western communities.

Writing in his autobiography, McKay states that in Lawrence “I found confusion – all of the ferment and turmoil, the hesitation and hate and alarm, the sexual inquietude and the incertitude of this age, and the psychic and romantic groping for a way out.” Lawrence’s appeal, “lay instead in his compulsive and impassioned struggle to overcome the psychological traps that threatened to imprison and destroy man’s direct appreciation of life and it’s mysteries in the modern age.”

Lawrence grew up in a mining village, McKay came from a family of peasant farmers. They both understood what it meant to struggle. They knew what it was like to have a domineering matriarch in the family. McKay expressed this in poems such as ‘December 1919’ and ‘Mother’, Lawrence addresses it in just about every novel he ever wrote. They also shared similarities in their social status as outsiders in the world of Literature, as well as being young men with strong ideas on how to forge their way in the brave new world. But the trait that McKay felt best mirrored his own was a “psychological restlessness that drove him steadily towards artistic achievement and away from marginal existence of his natal community in his own life.”

home to harlemIn 1977, McKay was posthumously awarded the Order of Jamaica for his contribution to literature. As a left wing liberal he paved the way for future generations of black writers, such as James Baldwin, who would continue his fight. His natal community was proud of what he achieved. The same can’t be said of Lawrence, despite being part of the canon, and paving the way for everyone to swear more freely. He famously wrote, “I can be anywhere at home, except home”. Eastwood has never forgiven him.

Article source: D.H. Lawrence and Black Writers Author(s): Leo Hamalian Source: Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Spring, 1990), pp. 579-596 Published by: Indiana University Press

dhl-trunk blackIn November 2019 we will launch our D.H. Lawrence Memory Theatre. It will be comprised of artefacts that piece together Lawrence’s life, offering an alternative to the linear biography. How do we represent his influence on writers such as Claude McKay? How do we get across complex ideas like blood consciousness? Get involved and help us bu submitting an artefact here.

D.H. Lawrence and his Immortal Bird, the Phoenix

Badger with phoenix
David Brock with the Phoenix tapestry. Photo: James Walker

In this guest blog, David Brock explains how the phoenix became an iconic symbol of Lawrence’s intellectual and spiritual struggles, as well as being a familiar sign used by local businesses close to his birthplace of Eastwood. David also discusses how he came to become the owner of a phoenix tapestry created by Lawrence and Frieda during their troubled stay in Cornwall.   

The phoenix was a frequently employed symbol in D. H. Lawrence’s day. Insurance companies, in particular, favoured it. There were Phoenix Cottages in Eastwood, and a Phoenix Coffee Tavern. The famous mythical bird featured in the catalogue produced by Haywoods, the surgical goods factory in Nottingham, where Lawrence worked as a clerk for a few months, in 1901, before leaving due to illness.

Owing to its association with Lawrence, the phoenix is still a familiar sight to Eastwood residents and visitors, clearly visible on canopies, set as metal studs into the pavement and as the name of the local snooker hall. And many companies large and small throughout the country employ it, even those as seemingly mundane as Phoenix Mould Tools Ltd. or Phoenix Damp Proofing!

Pheonix_stuff eastwood

But, Lawrence was first seriously struck by this ancient symbol, and drawn to adopt it as his life-long and dearly-held symbol of regeneration, on being given a book containing Christian iconography. From being connected to the sun-god in Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilisations, the pagan phoenix becomes an image of resurrection used by Christianity, representing the triumph of life over death, as in the Easter story.

It became D.H. Lawrence’s own great religion of life that man must die away from the disastrous living-death of mass industialism in order to be reborn into a more complete existence, and the phoenix represented his hope for this regeneration of humanity splendidly. In Lawrence’s fiction, many of his characters break down and lose their former consciousness before achieving individual renewal. The central character and eponymous hero of Aaron’s Rod, for instance, must undergo the phoenix experience, having “to go to destruction to find his way through from the lowest depths”.

A century ago, in order to distance himself from horrendous critical attacks – his great novel, The Rainbow, had been prosecuted, banned and burned in the streets of London, outside the courthouse, by the Public Hangman, rather deterring publishers from taking on any other of his works – Lawrence moved to that most pagan part of the country, Cornwall. While living near Zennor, and helping on the farm at Higher Tregerthen, Lawrence embroidered a tapestry of a phoenix. It represented his deep desire to found a new community, leading to a new civilisation, from what he regarded as the ashes of the old. He gave this phoenix to his young farmer friend, William Henry Hocking, who was very much impressed by Lawrence and Frieda, never having previously come across such lively free spirits. I am now the proud owner of the tapestry phoenix, as you can see in the picture, which I purchased from an auction a long time ago.

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 (16th, 30th May and so on). Any enquiries, please contact David at vegan.lawrentian@gmail.com

dhl-trunk redIn the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts to try to understand this complex writer. How do we represent the phoenix or Lawrence’s ideas on community and creating a new civilisation?  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