Promo video: Floraphilia

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.[1]

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 unnatural alliance 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 ancestral reality[2] 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.[3]

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.”[4]

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”.[5] 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”[6] 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”.[7]

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”.[8] 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.

woman flowers

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 …”[9]

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 …”[10]

Lawrence the cabbage

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”.[11] 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.[12]

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.[13]

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.[14]

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.”[15] [76]

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.”[16]

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”.[17] 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”.[18] 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.[19]

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.”[20]

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.”[21] 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.[22]

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.[23] 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”.[24] 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”,[25] 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!”[26]

“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.”[27]

“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.”[28]

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 absolutely astonishing – 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.[29]

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 transgression and to crime – 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.[30] 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”.[31] 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.

van-gogh-sunflowers-self-portrait-715

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”.[32]

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”.[33] And for Lawrence, our life hinges upon this “achieving of a pure relationship”[34] 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”.[35] 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.[36] 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”.[37] 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”.[38]

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.[39] 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.”[40]

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),[41] 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.”[42]

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”.[43]

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.[44]

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 – do not need us 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”.[45] 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.[46] 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.’”[47]

In other words, as Baudelaire recognised, all visions of paradise are artificial. 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.[48]

Of course to certain minds “the use of drugs for spiritual purposes feels cheap and false”[49] – 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”.[50] 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?”[51]

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”,[52] 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”[53] 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”.[54]

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!)”,[55] 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.

dhl-trunkIn 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.

OTHER PROMO VIDEOS

Notes and References

[1] 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.

[2] 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).

[3] 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.

[4] Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire, p. xii.

[5] Ibid., p. xiii.

[6] Ibid., p. xvii.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., p. xxiv

[9] Ibid., pp. 116-119.

[10] 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.

[11] 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).

[12] 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.

[13] 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.

[14] 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.

[15] Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire, p. 76.

[16] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi, (The Athlone Press, 1988), p. 10.

[17] Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire, p. 79.

[18] Ibid., p. 84.

[19] 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.

[20] Ibid., p. 86.

[21] Ibid., p. 89.

[22] 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.

[23] See The New Scientist, April 1st edition, 2009. The humorously-intended article which I have not so much summarized as imaginatively adapted for my own purposes in this paper, is available on-line at: http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn16872-masturbation-could-bring-hay-fever-relief-for-men.html

[24] D. H. Lawrence, Women in Love, ed. David Farmer, Lindeth Vasey and John Worthen, (Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 106.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., p. 106-07.

[27] Ibid., p. 107-08.

[28] Ibid., p. 108.

[29] 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.

[30] 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).

[31] D. H. Lawrence, ‘Morality and the Novel’, in Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays, p. 171.

[32] Ibid.

[33] D. H. Lawrence, ‘Art and Morality’, in Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays, p. 168.

[34] D. H. Lawrence, ‘Morality and the Novel’, in Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays, p. 171.

[35] Ibid., p. 174.

[36] I said we’d return to the moralizing and this game of dualist opposition.

[37] Georges Bataille, ‘The Language of Flowers’, in Visions of Excess, ed. Allan Stoekl, (The University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 13.

[38] Ibid.

[39] 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, it is not posthuman enough. 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.

[40] Georges Bataille, ‘The Language of Flowers’, Visions of Excess, p. 12.

[41] 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.

[42] Georges Bataille, ‘The Language of Flowers’, Visions of Excess, p. 12.

[43] Ibid., p. 13.

[44] 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.

[45] D. H. Lawrence, ‘…… Love Was Once a Little Boy’, in Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays, p. 334.

[46] 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.

[47] Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception (1954), quoted by Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire, p. 185.

[48] 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.

[49] Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire, p. 186.

[50] Ibid., p. 193.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid., p. 157.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid., p. 190.

[55] Ibid., p. 186.

 

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#Mondayblogs: Ottoline, Lawrence and Russell

ot dhl bertie

In this guest blog, Tony Simpson, editor of the Spokesman (published by the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation) explores the literary relationships of Garsington Manor, former home to the Bloomsbury Group socialite Lady Ottoline Morrell.

In her memoirs, Ottoline Morrell, née Cavendish-Bentinck, describes how, around Christmastime 1914 and into the New Year, she had been reading some ‘very remarkable books’. The Prussian Officer, a collection of memorable short stories, was one of them.  Sons and Lovers and The White Peacock are mentioned specifically; ‘the scenes of which were laid in Nottinghamshire, and they had stirred up my early memories, which had lain dry and curled up’.

She describes riding through the ‘great oaks and grass rides’ of her childhood at Welbeck Abbey, where she lived from age six to her mid-teens. Later, after her mother died, she returned to the great estate, when she drove her ‘black ponies out on the dark dreary roads with their black hedges’. She describes how she would ‘feel excited and even a little nervous’ when she met groups of colliers on their way home from the pit. ‘These men, tall, black and mysterious, appeared rather fierce yet full of laughter and fun, joking together as they hurried pell-mell along the dark roads to tea, the grey winter light, a gleam of setting yellow sun behind them.’

welbeckabbey2
Welbeck Abbey (image from blog.cassinimaps.co.uk)

‘Excited and moved’ by the books, Ottoline wanted to get to know Lawrence, ‘whose home had also been in Nottinghamshire’. Their mutual friend, the writer Gilbert Cannan, made the introductions and, one evening in February 1915, Lawrence and his wife Frieda visited:

‘He was a slight man, lithe and delicately built, his pale face overshadowed by his beard and his red hair falling over his forehead, his eyes blue and his hands delicate and very competent. He gave one the impression of someone who had been under-nourished in youth, making his body fragile and his mind too active.’

Later, when Ottoline visited the Lawrences in Sussex, she was ‘extraordinarily happy and at ease’.

‘We at once went back to our memories of Nottinghamshire. We talked of the lovely wild commons, of Sherwood Forest, of the dark pit villages, of the lives of the colliers and their wives … He talked to me in the Nottinghamshire dialect … He also liked to talk of my family in Nottinghamshire … He used to please me by saying that the “Bentincks were always looked up to as being disinterested”.’

NPG x144134; Lady Ottoline Morrell by Numa Blanc Fils
Lady Ottoline Morrell by Numa Blanc Fils

Lawrence and Ottoline used to go for long walks over the Sussex Downs. She doesn’t say whether Frieda accompanied them. One day in early spring 1915, they went to the woods ‘still bare of leaves’. Lawrence showed Ottoline the ‘little flame-red buds of the trees not yet in leaf and said, “see, here is the little red flame in Nature”. Ottoline looked at him and thought, ‘in you, too, there certainly dwells that flame.’

On one visit to Sussex, Ottoline took Bertrand Russell with her. Bertie had been her lover for several years, and he had expressed a wish to meet Lawrence after reading the books Ottoline had shown him. On 1 January 1915, Russell noted that he was reading Sons and Lovers, the quintessential novel of Nottingham before the First World War. The first encounter between the two men ‘appeared a great success,’ Ottoline wrote, somewhat portentously.

‘He is infallible,’ Bertie said of Lawrence, on the way home. ‘He is like Ezekial or some other Old Testament prophet, prophesying. Of course, the blood of his nonconformist preaching ancestors is strong in him, but he sees everything and is always right.’

Ottoline had her doubts about such an assessment of Lawrence, and ventured her own reckoning, concentrating on Lawrence’s mother, who was, from what Lawrence had told her:

‘a very remarkable woman, who had great delicacy of feeling and distinction of mind: clear, orderly, dominating towards the children. Anyone who has read Sons and Lovers and Lawrence’s poems to her must have realised how important she was to him … She had so much in her character that satisfied him; she was sharp in retort and had a witty resistance — proud and erect — reserved — above all she had a complete admiration and devotion to him. No doubt as a result of her detachment from her husband she called forth his protective devotion and tenderness … ‘

Ottoline observed that the early habits of Lawrence’s home life were never shaken off:

‘He was quick and competent in cleaning a floor, washing up cups and saucers, cooking, nursing: violent in argument, free in expression and abuse.’

Russell thought Lawrence very young. Thirteen years his junior, Lawrence was 30 years old to Russell’s 43, when they met in 1915. Ottoline was 42. A week after that first meeting in February 1915, Russell wrote to Ottoline:

‘I have had a long long letter from Lawrence – saying it is no good to do anything till we get Socialsm – and thinking (as the young do) that because he sees the desirability of Socialism it can be got by a few years’ strenuous work. I feel his optimism difficult to cope with – I can’t share it and don’t want to discourage it. He is extraordinarily young.’

In his Autobiography, Russell looked back on those times:

‘during the summer of 1915 I wrote Principles of Social Reconstruction, or Why Men Fight as it was called in America without my consent. I had no intention of writing such a book, and it was totally unlike anything I had previously written, but it came out in a spontaneous manner. In fact I did not discover what it was all about until I had finished it. It has a framework and a formula, but I only discovered both when I had written all except the first and last words. In it I suggested a philosophy of politics based upon the belief that impulse has more effect than conscious purpose in moulding men’s lives. I divided impulses into two groups, the possessive and the creative, considering the best life that which is most built on creative impulses. I took, as examples of embodiments of the possessive impulses, the State, war and property; and of the creative impulses, education, marriage and religion [latter two are surprising choices!] Liberation of creativeness, I was convinced, should be the principle of reform. I first gave the book as lectures, and then published it. To my surprise, it had an immediate success. (I had written it with no expectation of its being read, merely as a profession of faith, but it brought me in a great deal of money, and laid the foundation for all my future earnings.)

Ottoline11Russell acknowledged Lawrence’s influence on Principles of Social Reconstruction:

These lectures were in certain ways connected with my short friendship with D H Lawrence. We both imagined that there was something important to be said about the reform of human relations, and we did not at first realise that we took diametrically opposite views as to the kind of reform that was needed. My acquaintance with Lawrence was brief and hectic, lasting altogether about a year. We were brought together by Ottoline, who admired us both and made us think that we ought to admire each other. Pacifism had produced in me a mood of bitter rebellion, and I found Lawrence equally full of rebellion. This made us think, at first, that there was a considerable measure of agreement between us, and it was gradually that we discovered that we differed from each other more than either differed from the Kaiser.

There were in Lawrence at that time two attitudes to the war: on the one hand, he could not be whole-heartedly patriotic, because his wife was German; but on the other hand, he had such a hatred of mankind that he tended to think both sides must be right in so far as they hated each other. As I came to know these attitudes, I realised that neither was one with which I could sympathise. Awareness of our differences, however, was gradual on both sides, and at first all went merry as a marriage bell. I invited him to visit me at Cambridge and introduced him to Keynes and a number of other people. He hated them all with a passionate hatred and said they were ‘dead, dead, dead’. For a time I thought he might be right. I liked Lawrence’s fire, I liked the energy and passion of his feelings, I liked his belief that something very fundamental was needed to put the world right. I agreed with him that politics could not be divorced from individual psychology. I felt him to be a man with a certain imaginative genius, and, at first, when I felt disinclined to disagree with him, I thought that perhaps his insight into human nature was deeper than mine. It was only gradually that I came to feel him a positive force for evil and that he came to have the same feeling about me.

I was at this time preparing the courses of lectures which was afterwards published as Principles of Social Reconstruction. He, also, wanted to lecture, and for a time it seemed possible that there might be some sort of loose collaboration between us. We exchanged a number of letters, of which mine are lost and his have been published. In his letters the gradual awareness of the consciousness of our fundamental disagreements can be traced. I was a firm believer in democracy, whereas he had developed the whole philosophy of Fascism before the politicians had thought of it. “I don’t believe”, he wrote, “in democratic control. I think the working man is fit to elect governors or overseers for his immediate circumstances, but for no more. You must utterly revise the electorate. The working man shall elect superiors for the things that concern him immediately, no more. From the other classes, as they rise, shall be elected the higher governors. The thing must culminate in one real head, as every organic thing must – no foolish republic with foolish presidents, but an elected King, something like Julius Ceasar …” ’

Ottoline9Russell continued on Lawrence:

‘His letters grew gradually more hostile. He wrote, “what’s the good of living as you do anyway? I don’t believe your lectures are good. They are nearly over, aren’t they? What’s the good of sticking in the damned ship and haranguing the merchant pilgrims in their own language? Why don’t you drop overboard? Why don’t you clear out of the whole show? One must be an outlaw these days, not a teacher or a preacher.” This seemed to me mere rhetoric. I was becoming more of an outlaw than he ever was and I could not quite see his ground of complaint against me. He phrased his complaint in different ways at different times. On another occasion he wrote: “do stop working and writing altogether and become a creature instead of a mechanical instrument. Do clear out of the whole social ship. Do for your very pride’s sake become a mere nothing, a mole, a creature that feels its way and doesn’t think. Do for heavens sake be a baby, and not a savant any more. Don’t do anything more – but for heavens sake begin to be – start at the very beginning and be a perfect baby: in the name of courage.”

“Oh, and I want to ask you, when you make your will, do leave me enough to live on. I want you to live for ever. But I want you to make me in some part your heir …” ’

Mortality notwithstanding, Russell probed deeper, saying of Lawrence:

‘He had a mystical philosophy of “blood” which I disliked. “There is”, he said, “another seat of consciousness than the brain and nerves. There is a blood-consciousness which exists in us independently of the ordinary mental consciousness. One lives, knows and has one’s being in the blood, without any reference to nerves and brain. This is one half of life belonging to the darkness. When I take a woman, then the blood-precept is supreme. My blood-knowing is overwhelming. We should realise that we have a blood-being, a blood consciousness, a blood-soul complete and apart from a mental and nerve consciousness.” This seemed to me frankly rubbish, and I rejected it vehemently, though I did not then know that it led straight to Auschwitz …’

Russell also put on record Lawrence’s positive impact on him:

What at first attracted me to Lawrence was a certain dynamic quality and a habit of challenging assumptions that one is apt to take for granted. I was already accustomed to being accused of undue slavery to reason, and I thought perhaps that he could give me a vivifying dose of unreason. I did in fact acquire a certain stimulus from him, and I think the book that I wrote in spite of his blasts of denunciation was better than it would have been if I had not known him.’

One consequence of their relationship may be the title, as Russell called his lecture outline ‘Philosophy of Social Reconstruction’ when he sent it to Lawrence in July 1915. In reply, Lawrence wrote:

‘Don’t be angry that I have scribbled all over your work. But that which you say is all social criticism: it isn’t social reconstruction. You must take a plunge into another element if it is to be social reconstruction.

Primarily, you must allow and acknowledge & be prepared to proceed from the fundamental impulse in man, for Wholeness of Movement, Unanimity of Purpose, Oneness in Construction. This is the principle of Construction. The rest is all criticism, destruction …’

Bertie seemed to have preferred ‘principle’ to ‘philosophy’ and, as we have heard, paid close attention to ‘impulse’.

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While Russell was writing what became Principles of Social Reconstruction, Lawrence was already working on the novel that became Women in Love, which was eventually published in the United States in 1921. He included a character very like Ottoline (Hermione Roddice), and gave her a terrible drubbing which upset Ottoline greatly. Ottoline wrote:

‘I read it and found myself going pale with horror, for nothing could have been more vile and obviously spiteful and contemptuous than the portrait of me that I found there. It was a great shock, for his letters all this time had been quite friendly, and I had no idea that he disliked me or had any feeling against me. I was called every name from an “old hag”, obsessed by sex-mania, to a corrupt Sapphist. He described me as his own discarded Mistress, who, in my sitting-room, which was minutely described, had tried to bash him over the head with a paper weight, at which he had exclaimed, ‘No you don’t, Hermione. No you don’t.’ In another scene I had attempted to make indecent advances to the Heroine, who was a glorified Frieda [Lawrence’s wife]. My dresses were dirty; I was rude and insolent to my guests.’

Philip, Ottoline’s lawyer husband, threatened to sue. Lawrence duly made a number of changes, including shifting Hermoine’s country home from one modelled on Garsington, the Morrells’ house near Oxford, to Willersley Castle in Derbyshire, which he styled ‘Breadalby’:

‘… a Georgian house with Corinthian pillars standing among the softer, greener hills of Derbyshire, not far from Cromford.’

The house is now a hotel, and you can refresh yourself in the gardens, beneath the trees, looking towards the sheer cliff opposite. It is a stunning location which Lawrence had studied closely.

‘Lunch was served on the lawn, under the great tree, whose thick, blackish boughs came close down to the grass.’

Those present included

‘… a learned, dry Baronet of fifty [Sir Joshua Mattheson], who was always making witticisms and laughing at them heartily in a harsh, horse-laugh … The attitude was mental and very wearying. Only the elderly sociologist, whose mental fibre was so tough as to be insentient, seemed to be thoroughly happy [some irony here?]. Birkin was down in the mouth. Hermoine appeared, with amazing persistence, to wish to ridicule him and make him look ignominious in the eyes of everybody … ’

Rupert Burkin shares Lawrence’s own insecurity and isolation. At dinner, our three main actors, Sir Joshua (Russell), Hermione (Ottoline) and Rupert (Lawrence), dominate:

‘The talk was very often political or sociological, and interesting, curiously anarchistic. There was an accumulation of powerful force in the room, powerful and destructive. Everything seemed to be thrown into the melting-pot, and it seemed to Ursula [like Frieda Lawrence?] they were all witches, helping the pot to bubble.  There was an elation and a satisfaction in it all, but it was cruelly exhausting for the new-comers, this ruthless mental pressure, this powerful, consuming, destructive mentality that emanated from Joshua and Hermoine and Birkin and dominated the rest.’ (Women in Love, p 101).

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In her memoirs, Ottoline wrote of Women in Love that

‘the setting of the house and garden were altered and some of the worst scenes expunged. But, alas, this was the end of my intimacy with Lawrence. I never saw Lawrence again, although he made several efforts through our mutual friends to see me. I did not think it would be possible for me to behave naturally or unself-consciously in his presence. The hurt that he had done me made a very great mark in my life.’

But that, as it turned out, was not the end of the story. Ottoline later wrote of Lawrence:

‘It was not until 1929, when Garsington had come to an end and when I was very ill, that I had any more communication with him. He then wrote to me some very sympathetic and delightful letters. He was obviously sorry and regretful for what he had done. After twelve years the wound had healed and I was very glad to hear again from someone who obviously was fond of me in a way that shows that his real feeling for me was good and appreciative, while now and always I feel he was a very lovable man.’

In May 1928, Lawrence wrote to Ottoline from Florence:

‘You’ve been an important influence in lots of lives, as you have in mine: through being fundamentally generous, and through being Ottoline. And she has moved one’s imagination. It doesn’t matter what sort of vision comes out of a man’s imagination, his vision of Ottoline. Any more than a photograph of me is me, or even ‘like me’. The so-called portraits of Ottoline can’t possibly be Ottoline – no one knows that better than an artist. But Ottoline has moved men’s imagination, deeply, and that’s perhaps the most a woman can do …’

Ottoline generously gave Lawrence the benefit of any doubt, writing:

‘The telegram from Aldous Huxley that reached me in March 1930, saying that Lawrence died peacefully, scattered all the vague hopes that I had of seeing him again. For I had always thought that we should have a time to laugh over our old quarrels, to disagree and argue, and to plan a new Elysian world.’

In a prefatory note to a later edition, Lawrence described the misery of the characters in Women in Love as occasioned by the war, although he did not expressly refer to the war. The novel was begun in 1913, and reflected the pre-war world, but the experience of war surely coloured its final text, which is shot through with the mutual isolation of the characters.

As we have heard, during summer 1915, Ottoline and Philip Morrell and daughter Julian were settling into Garsington, the manor house near Oxford that they had bought. In her memoirs Ottoline wrote:

‘… Philip had arranged a very comfortable flat at the Bailiff’s House for Bertie Russell, and I finished it and made it very comfortable … In my Journal I find:

“Bertie arrived yesterday and is settled in his rooms. I made them gay and pretty with flowers. He is gloomy and sceptical about everything, and about his own work, but it is really very good – a set of lectures on the New State; Social Reconstruction they are to be called. His brain seems to be working well, indeed very brilliantly … He went on to discuss his lectures and his view of truth – his own, of course, is scientific truth, provable by mathematics and physics, Lawrence’s is a subjective truth, something which is felt to be true, as an inward conviction that such a picture or a view is beautiful.’

Ottoline3

Later, Ottoline remarks of Bertie:

‘He only feels life through his brain, or through sex, and there is a gulf between these two separate departments. It is this that maddens and annoys Lawrence so much in him.’

Bertie wrote to Ottoline, telling her that:

‘ … Lawrence, as was to be foreseen, is disgusted with my lecture-syllabus – it is not mystical and Blakeish enough for him. He says one ought to live from the ‘impulse towards the truth’ which he says is fundamentally in all of us. It seems to me, in him, merely an impulse to mistake his imagination for the truth … Lawrence is just as ferocious a critic as Wittgenstein, but I thought W. right and I think L. wrong.’

Nevertheless, Bertie went to spend the weekend with the Lawrences, and it seemed to go rather well, so that his hopes rose. On Monday 19 July 1915, whilst returning by train, he wrote to Ottoline:

‘We talked of a plan of lecturing in the autumn on his religion, politics in the light of religion, and so on. I believe something might be made of it. I could make a splendid course on political ideas: morality, the State, property, marriages, war, taking them to their roots in human nature, and showing how each is a prison for the infinite in us. And leading on to the hope of a happier world … Lawrence is splendid. I like his philosophy very much now that I have read more. It is only the beginning that is poor.’

Bertie’s enthusiasm for Lawrence and his philosophy, perhaps encouraged by Ottoline’s fondness for her Nottinghamshire fellow, didn’t endure. However, Lawrence also wrote to Ottoline, saying:

‘… We think to have a lecture hall in London in the autumn, and give lectures: he on Ethics, I on Immortality. Also to have meetings, to establish a little society or body around a religious belief, which leads to action. We must centre in the knowledge of the Infinite, of God … You must be president. You must preside over our meetings … We mustn’t lapse into temporality.’

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What was Ottoline’s verdict on the relationship between Lawrence and Russell, whom she had brought together?

‘Could anything have made these two fine passionate men work together for the country and the causes they both so desired? I doubt it – they were both too self-centred and too intolerant of crtiticism. But when Bertie was writing Social Reconstruction they were often together, and Bertie has since told me that he was certainly stimulated by Lawrence’s ideas and introduced some of them into his book. But when Bertie showed the manuscript to Lawrence, his denunciation of it was so violent that Bertie nearly destroyed it, as Lawrence urged him to do. No, their friendship was not a lasting one. There was an instinctive enmity between the natural, impatient, and not profoundly educated man of genius, and the man who was also a genius in another sphere, where mind was the produce of long inherited leisure and discipline – an aristocrat, in fact, who possessed a mind that was a fine and delicate instrument, trained and disciplined in a university where it had had stimulating contacts with other learned men. It was true that Bertie was as great a rebel as Lawrence was, but his rebellion was a more rational one, not the wild, prophetic fury of Lawrence … ’

Spokesman Books’ website

Sources

  • D H Lawrence, Women in Love, Martin Secker, 1921
  • D H Lawrence, Harry T Moore, D H Lawrence’s Letters to Bertrand Russell, Gotham Book Mart, New York, 1948
  • Ottoline at Garsington, Memoirs of Lady Ottoline Morrell 1915-1918, edited by Robert Gathorne-Hardy, Faber and Faber, London, 1974
  • Bertrand Russell, Autobiography, Routledge, London and New York, 1969
  • Bertrand Russell, Portraits from Memory, George Allen & Unwin, 1956
  • Bertrand Russell, Principles of Social Reconstruction), George Allen & Unwin, 1916, (Why Men Fight in USA)
  • The Selected Letters of Bertrand Russell, The Public Years, 1914-1970, edited by Nicholas Griffin, Routledge, London and New York, 2001
  • Miranda Seymour, Ottoline: Life on the Grand Scale,  Hodder & Stoughton, 1992

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Long Read: Messiah and Apostle? Messianic Consciousness as Response to World War, in Lawrence, and Leavis

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Heward Wilkinson is a member of the F.R. Leavis Society. He has a special interest in the interface between religion, philosophy, the arts, and psychotherapy. This is the last of three thought provoking guest blogs he has kindly shared with us.  

‘Zwei Jahrtausende beinahe und nicht ein einziger neuer Gott!’

‘Nearly 2000 years and not a solitary new god.’

Thus Nietzsche in The AntiChrist, §19, duly blaming Christianity in the process ­ ‘this pitiful god of Christian monotono-­theism!’. In The Will to Power, in his invocation of nihilism, he hints that it is to do with the rise of science: ‘Since Copernicus man has been rolling from the center toward X.’ In the more complex analysis in The Genealogy of Morality he argues that science indeed arose from the truth­ seeking drive of Christianity. Complex ­ as usual with Nietzsche.

The Post-­Copernican Dimension

This, post-­Copernican vision of a world succumbed to science, is the background to the post­Sons and Lovers works of Lawrence, particularly the post-­war novels, Aaron’s Rod, Kangaroo, The Plumed Serpent, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. And it takes the form, gradually, of reclaiming the Old Gods, most centrally in The Plumed Serpent, in Messianic or Shamanic mode. What he does in The Plumed Serpent is almost unique, except, perhaps, in Science Fiction, which has less inhibitions than classically trained novelists do, yet without the primal creativity of the classically trained novelist. Tentative and delicate in Quetzalcoatl, almost arrogant in The Plumed Serpent, not even Joseph and his Brethren, amazing historical Re­-Creation as it is, has the God-­Creating impetus of The Plumed Serpent. The versions of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (together with A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover) are just as Messianic in a very different way. The Messianic had come to stay, right up to the work on which he was working at the end, Apocalypse.

Historicity

Later on I shall suggest that the source of the Messianic impulse in these works of Lawrence lies in historicity, in living, not antiquarian, history, that Leavis, despite his Apostolic stance in relation to Lawrence, also possesses, in his profound grasp of historicity, a version of the Messianic insight. Historicity might be, over­ simplifyingly, defined as: that in a moment of history which defines its irreversible uniqueness, inherently in communicative relation to past and future. But this Leavis could never quite lay hold of, because of his ambivalence about creative novelty, (however massively he celebrates it theoretically), as opposed to his preoccupation with creating a canon of achieved works. It is apparently a paradox that the supreme exponent of the canonical achieved work, Leavis, should have so celebrated ­ yet in this very way distorted! ­ the supreme master of the improvisatory novel, and short rhapsodic novel, Lawrence.

But once one realises the links between historicity and the Messianic impulse, one is then entirely free to recognise the wider Messianic impulse in most of the works of Modernism and Post­-Modernism ­ think of, for instance: The Wasteland, The Rainbow, A la recherche du temps perdu, Being and Time, Interpretation of Dreams, Process and Reality, Philosophical Investigations, Of Grammatology, The Wheel of Fire, Ulysses, Nostromo, The Magic Mountain, The Glass Bead Game, The Golden Bough, The Goddess of Complete Being (Ted Hughes), Commentary on Romans (Barth), History of the Synoptic Tradition (Bultmann).

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Garry Shead, Lawrence and Kangaroo, DH Lawrence Series 1993.

The Account of the War in Kangaroo

Most of these are written either after War or under the lurking shadow of inevitable War to Come. That is almost what defines them as modern works, or as the precursors, such as Nietzsche. And the link is made in an absolutely paradigmatic way in Kangaroo, in the chapters, The Nightmare, and the following chapter, Revenge Timotheus Cries, which prepare the way for The Plumed Serpent. In The Nightmare chapter, Lawrence relates, with meticulous fidelity, his experience of the transition from the gentlemanly world of the Asquith Premiership up till 1916, and then the Lloyd George and Horatio Bottomley years and the death of the gentlemanly pre­war world in favour of a kind of, as he evokes, indirect mob rule and mentality, and his and Frieda’s and their friends’ increasing humiliation and loss of privacy and autonomy at its hands, which had come near the point of destroying them, when the war ended. In Revenge Timotheus Cries he recognises both 1. the profound collective impulse of revenge, to be enacted on the grand scale in WW2:

‘One thing he realized, however: that if the fire had suddenly erupted in his own belly, it would erupt one day in the bellies of all men. Because there it had accumulated, like a great horrible lava pool, deep in the unconscious bowels of all men. All who were not dead. And even the dead were many of them raging in the invisible, with gnashing of teeth. But the living dead, these he could not reckon with: they with poisonous teeth like hyaenas.’

and, 2. the desire, Messianic or Shamanic, to delve into the realms older and deeper beneath modern consciousness and its wounds and need to retaliate:

‘Humanity could do as it liked: he did not care. So long as he could get his own soul clear. For he believed in the inward soul, in the profound unconscious of man. Not an ideal God. The ideal God is a proposition of the mental consciousness, all­too­limitedly human. “No,” he said to himself. “There IS God. But forever dark, forever unrealisable: forever and forever. The unutterable name, because it can never have a name. The great living darkness which we represent by the glyph, God.”

There is this ever-­present, living darkness inexhaustible and unknowable. It IS. And it is all the God and the gods.

And every LIVING human soul is a well­head to this darkness of the living unutterable. Into every living soul wells up the darkness, the unutterable. And then there is travail of the visible with the invisible. Man is in travail with his own soul, while ever his soul lives. Into his unconscious surges a new flood of the God­-darkness, the living unutterable. And this unutterable is like a germ, a foetus with which he must travail, bringing it at last into utterance, into action, into BEING.’

And this is then realised, primarily, in The Plumed Serpent. This vision comes to fruition in The Plumed Serpent.

Leavis’s recoil?

Leavis recoils from the actuality of The Plumed Serpent with, it seems to me, something near to contempt. Leavis’s final words on it in Thought Words and Creativity are:

‘But Mexico was not isolated or insulated; Ramon couldn’t realistically count on its remaining for long immune from outside interference.

I will say no more on this head; I will merely add to my adverse criticism this general observation: ‘important’, used by Lawrence in the way in the way he uses it in his evaluative placing of The Plumed Serpent, is a betraying word. It means that even Lawrence can be in a sense a victim of the absence of any sharp boundary between his discursive thought and his fully creative art.’

Leavis dismisses such a passage as the following:

‘Only from the flowers there is commingling. And the flowers of every race are the natural aristocrats of that race. And the spirit of the world can fly from flower to flower, like a humming­bird, and slowly fertilize the great trees in their blossoms. Only the Natural Aristocrats can rise above their nation; and even then they do not rise beyond their race. Only the Natural Aristocrats of the World can be international, or cosmopolitan, or cosmic. It has always been so. The peoples are no more capable of it than the leaves of the mango­tree are capable of attaching themselves to the pine.­­So if I want Mexicans to learn the name of Quetzalcoatl, it is because I want them to speak with the tongues of their own blood. I wish the Teutonic world would once more think in terms of Thor and Wotan, and the tree Igdrasil. And I wish the Druidic world would see, honestly, that in the mistletoe is their mystery, and that they themselves are the Tuatha De Danaan, alive, but submerged. And a new Hermes should come back to the Mediterranean, and a new Ashtaroth to Tunis; and Mithras again to Persia, and Brahma unbroken to India, and the oldest of dragons to China. Then I, Cipriano, I, First Man of Quetzalcoatl, with you, First Man of Huitzilopochtli, and perhaps your wife, First Woman of Itzpapalotl, could we not meet, with sure souls, the other great aristocrats of the world, the First Man of Wotan and the First Woman of Freya, First Lord of Hermes, and the Lady of Astarte, the Best­Born of Brahma, and the Son of the Greatest Dragon? I tell you, Cipriano, then the earth might rejoice, when the First Lords of the West met the First Lords of South and East, in the Valley of the Soul. Ah, the earth has Valleys of the Soul, that are not cities of commerce and industry. And the mystery is one mystery, but men must see it differently.’

This, of course, is none other than the doctrine Lawrence articulates in his magnificent review of Dostoievski’s parable, Ivan Karamazov’s parable. of The Grand Inquisitor , in which he defends the Inquisitor’s position, of affirming, (against what he sees as the too humanly demanding doctrine of freedom of the Gospel Christ), Miracle, Mystery, and Authority. Leavis never deals with this, and he also only occasionally refers to Dostoievski’s admirer, and paralleler, Nietzsche. Did he find this all too outlandish in a rather basic sense? In certain ways, despite himself, he remains within the ambit of the Whig Interpretation of History.

What is the recoil about?

So, does he, then, also recoil from the very possibility Lawrence is exploring? Does his viscerally Englightenment mind actually recoil from the essence itself of what Lawrence is trying to do, the summoning up of the old Gods of Mexico ­ or of anywhere, back behind Christianity? Countering Leavis, in this context, one is tempted to apply Dr Johnson’s dictum about women preaching to what Lawrence is doing in The Plumed Serpent: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Who else even came anywhere near this possibility? For instance, Nietzsche’s prophetic utterance in the face of the Copernican dilemma is an utterance which is undoubtedly in the full lineage of Messianic or Shamanic evocation: for instance, in the articulation of the Eternal Return in the section entitled The Vision and the Riddle.

Past Based Knowledge, Apprehension of the Future: Illustrations of the Messianic

If, in a very brief shorthand, ­ but following the Birkin of Women in Love, responding to the fictional Sir Joshua Matheson, the Bertrand Russell figure, ­ I were to argue that scientific knowledge essentially deals with the past, in patterned and law­-governed repetition of principles based on past data (a concept confirmed by Hume’s puzzles about causality and related matters, the black hole of empiricism), then, unless we radically review our conception of science, a direction in which Quantum Physics may be pushing us, to be sure, science contrasts with historicity, in that historicity deals in the unique and indeterminate in situations, which gives them their historicity, and which is connected with the reality that, for us, the future remains open, not totally, but still always in intrinsically unforeseeable ways, and that this is, as Lawrence always emphasises, at the core of our sense of life.

In the light of this, what happens in The Vision and the Riddle is revealing indeed. Nietzsche assumes as premise ­ as the dwarf with whom Zarathustra is contesting takes for granted! ­ that the cycle of existence is totally determinate, totally constrained by what has already happened, as deterministic as Spinoza. And then he precedes to attribute it to himself, as a volitional decision:

‘Must not whatever CAN run its course of all things, have already run along that lane? Must not whatever CAN happen of all things have already happened, resulted, and gone by?

And if everything have already existed, what thinkest thou, dwarf, of This Moment? Must not this gateway also—have already existed?

And are not all things closely bound together in such wise that This Moment draweth all coming things after it? CONSEQUENTLY—itself also? [my italic]’

‘With one mighty bound he was free’, as an episode of Flash Gordon, doomed in some ghastly situation in the previous episode, once began! In effect, Nietzsche is saying that, by an act of will, we actually turn the past into the future. And, of course, into our own unique subjectivity inthe process. It is the possession of a future which is the criterion.

Similarly, in The Future of Hegel, Catherine Malabou argues that, far from embodying the fixed finality of knowledge of which Heidegger accuses him, at the heart of Hegel is a plasticity which enables him to be open to a future ­ and philosophically therefore to have a future! -­ which is both, in a sense, absolute, yet indeterminate. And that this is what gives him his Messianic fascination for those who, in every epoch since he wrote, have found him hugely compelling and all-­influential. And in Spectres of Marx Derrida extracts from the political defeat of Marxism a Messianic promise, since now our relation with Marx has become open once more, and therefore full of seeds for the future. In the masterly The Goddess of Complete Being, Ted Hughes even finds in Shakespeare himself a creative and self-­transforming, a plastic, open-­ended patterning of transformations, which is Messianic, and directed at the profoundest and most paradigmatic faultlines of the epoch to which Shakespeare is writing in relation.

In them all, it is the reclaiming of a future which is, fatefully, at stake.

Leavis’s Canon as also historicity: Apostle into Messiah

But I end with the surprising, or, in light of historicity, not so surprising, recognition that, in this sense, Leavis himself becomes more than Apostolic in relation to Lawrence; he becomes, in his own right, Messianic. No one has a stronger sense of historicity than Leavis. His reshaping of the canon, in the footsteps of TS Eliot’s dissociation of sensibility, as such is dominated by historicity, and it is his legacy. It is not, in Nietzsche’s terms, an antiquarian legacy of historicity; it is a monumental one, in Nietzsche’s jargon; it is directed towards constituting an assured reservoir out of which the future may be forged. Whatever disagreements we may have with Leavis, this concept is of massive importance; that the concept of the possibility of a canon be taken forward to the future. Without a canon, there is no foundation of historical awareness and reflexivity from which even the dark Gods may emerge.

It is not an either/or. The canon is the opening from which a future may emerge, and, whilst Leavis and Lawrence, ­ or any of us, ­ may have different emphases regarding the nature of a canon, the minimum condition of a Leavisite dialogue with Lawrence is that we continue to claim the existence of a canon. The canon is foundational, in a Kantian transcendental sense. With the conception of a canon, we gather to ourselves once more a living conception of historicity as our creative source. This is the recognition implicit in Leavis’s work, especially his later work; even though, once the conception of historicity has dawned upon us, it opens up to Nietzschean or Hegelian or Lawrentian magnitudes, it is the Leavisian concept which remains ever potent, the more creatively its plasticity and historicity is released into life and force.

In The Plumed Serpent Lawrence uniquely dared to imagine a dialogue with historicity and primal history. Without this element in his creative imagination, he is domesticated, even neutered, and, whatever Leavis was, leaping towards life out of historicity, he too was neither domesticated nor neutered.

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The Long Read: Lawrence, the Mind of Europe, and the English Canon

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Heward Wilkinson is a member of the F.R. Leavis Society. He has a special interest in the interface between religion, philosophy, the arts, and psychotherapy. This is the second of three thought provoking guest blogs he has kindly shared with us.  

Why has Lawrence not been generally recognised as a great articulator of the Canon concept, and of the Canon? Well, first we need to recognise that while he thinks systematically, he writes contextually only, and so appears fragmentary. Secondly, we need to remind ourselves of the context in which he grew to maturity as a writer, in which he outgrew the perception of his contemporaries too fast. I am mainly going to appeal, synoptically, to very familiar things here.

First, when we see the novels in England which were being published in Lawrence’s time, even great ones, Great Tradition ones, like Nostromo and Henry James’s novels, and then note the qualitative leap which occurs with Sons and Lovers, and, even more, with The Rainbow and Women in Love, there is a leap of genius here, and it is not surprising that, for The Rainbow and Women in Love, adequate categories were not available till the 1950s. Becoming available at last, especially in Leavis’s work, published in Scrutiny and then DH Lawrence Novelist. Comparable relevant qualitative leaps in English are to be found in Ulysses, GM Hopkins, and the work of TS Eliot (but not fully on this scale till The Wasteland – and Yeats’s greatest work was later). But, for things on the same scale, with a comparable degree of modernity, we have to turn to Interpretation of Dreams, Jung’s Psychology of the Unconscious (now available as Symbols of Transformation),  American literature, especially Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, and Whitman, Russian literature, French Symboliste poetry, Thomas Mann and Rilke, and Schopenhauer and Nietzsche (and the still mainly unknown Kierkegaard). But Lawrence is doing something different even from all of these (perhaps the nearest to him is Melville).

By the time he reaches A Study of Thomas Hardy, which essentially lays down the major template, – his Empedoclean dialectic of man and woman! – for his vision of the Canon, only varied inessentially thereafter, and then the first versions of Studies in Classic American Literature, and in The Rainbow and Women in Love, by the middle of the WW1 decade, Lawrence has already attained an assurance that what he is doing involves a level of live understanding and innovation unique at that time in England, and, in many ways, in Europe. (He is confident enough by now to be able, however reluctantly, to defy his mentor and editor, Edward Garnett, who, quite on cue, just didn’t ‘get’ The Rainbow.)

Now, in relation to his articulation of the Canon, in the Study of Thomas Hardy and later, this is, further, easy to forget for two strangely opposed reasons, – both too much, and too little, as it were:

  1. On the one hand, he is now too familiar to us, paradoxically, precisely in his critical centrality. Thus, for instance, in such cardinal paradigms, which Leavis picks up, of the classical felicities of the Phoenix collection, as the essays on Galsworthy, on Hardy himself, or Wells’s The World of William Clissold. So we take for granted that there is nothing unique here; it is assimilated forthwith into the status quo.
  1. On the other hand, there is a criticism of Eliot’s, which Leavis dismisses a little too cavalierly (since it provides a special opportunity). It is often repeated; thus we have it in what he quotes from Eliot (an essay in an organ called Revelation) in The Wild Untutored Phoenix:

“’ For Babbitt was by nature an educated man, as well as a highly well-informed one: Lawrence, even had he acquired a great deal more knowledge and information than he ever came to possess, would always have remained uneducated. By being ” educated ” I mean having such an apprehension of the contours of the map of what has been written in the past, as to see instinctively where everything belongs, and approximately where anything new is likely to belong ; it means, furthermore, being able to allow for all the books one has not read and the things one does not understand — it means some understanding of one’s own ignorance.’”

Leavis dismisses Irving Babbitt, saying finally: “How can Mr. Eliot thus repeatedly and deliberately give away his case by invoking such standards? It is an amazing thing that so distinguished a mind can so persistently discredit in this way a serious point of view.” This, of course, sadly, if significantly, is ad hominem. Eliot’s point, right or wrong, is a bigger point than Leavis’s ad hominem response makes it. To address a first water mistake, even, with a ‘yes but’, as JL Austin intimates in Ifs and Cans, is an opportunity. Similarly, David Ellis has argued that, when talking of the biological psyche, Lawrence reasons with blatant inconsistency. True: but this is mostly confined to his pseudoscience, and I do not believe it is necessary to defend that, to justify his position in relation to Eliot’s argument, though it contributes of course to Eliot’s denial to him of ‘what is ordinarily called thinking’. I continue, then,

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The implicit core of Eliot’s argument is that, in his view, Babbitt has the concept of a Canon, and Lawrence does not. Eliot makes the same point in general terms (not about Lawrence but articulating the concept) in Tradition and the Individual Talent, which speaks of ‘the mind of Europe’, and latterly, specifically again, even thus late, in his introduction to Father Tiverton’s DH Lawrence and Human Existence, of 1951, which includes the phrase, ‘for Lawrence was an ignorant man in the sense that he was unaware of how much he did not know’.

For, without an order of valuation, grounded in organised ‘contours of the map of what has been written in the past’, there is no ‘seeing instinctively where everything belongs’, in the wider sense, and that implies an actual Canon. Clearly, also, Eliot believes, as does Leavis, that such a Canon must by its nature be non-arbitrary, that it is valid absolutely and apprehensible in some sense (because otherwise Eliot could not exclude Lawrence from the grasp of it). One might have a ‘relative’ Canon concept of sorts – ‘the psychoanalytic Canon’, or ‘the Protestant-Calvinist Canon’, ‘the Pali Canon’, – but those would be localised (but nevertheless purportedly non-arbitrarily, to the point of being the subject of heresy-hunting – ‘Jung is not part of the psychoanalytic Canon’, etc) within the frame in question. However, one could still ask, ‘Is the Psychoanalytic Canon part of the Western Canon?’and so on, thus recognising that this is a wider and general concept, or heuristically by its nature, and in the Kantian sense implicit in Leavis’s work, seeks to be as such.

But the Canon also changes with the addition of the new. And it is likewise changed by each new attempt to define it. Later on Eliot wrote: “Sensibility alters from generation to generation, in everybody, whether we will or not, but expression is only altered by a man of genius.” And to change expression is to change consciousness. Eliot indeed says, in Tradition and the Individual Talent:

“He must be aware that the mind of Europe—the mind of his own country—a mind which he learns in time to be much more important than his own private mind—is a mind which changes [my italic], and that this change is a development which abandons nothing en route, which does not superannuate either Shakespeare, or Homer, or the rock drawing of the Magdalenian draughtsmen.”

That is, supposedly, it assimilates. Though, – as this instance graphically shows, – it’s more rocky than that.

But, to be blunt, Eliot’s concept of the mind of Europe is nevertheless overly mentalistic. It is also too orthodox, – and too psychologically insecure, perhaps, if Leavis is correct, but that is secondary – to be able to assimilate Lawrence. Eliot’s positive concept and metaphysic of the Canon is classical and Catholic Christian, profoundly shaped by Aquinas and Dante. Lawrence’s is indeed supremely and radically religious or transcendant, but not in a way Eliot can engage with. So Lawrence is too novel for Eliot. In that, is he also too eclectic to imply Canonical organisation and geography? I believe not. The special recognition which Lawrence has re-awoken, after two and a half millenia, and which, from the Study of Thomas Hardy right up to its apotheosis in Apocalypse, is his touchstone, is an at least partly pagan, pre-Socratic, or Spinozistic, vision in which everything is gendered, and eveything is divine (‘All things are full of gods’, Thales). (Perhaps Russell’s greatest favour to Lawrence was pointing him towards Burnet’s Early Greek Philosophy.)

Eliot could not easily tolerate that degree of gender-pervaded pantheism. If we read Lawrence vertically, especially as he is simultaneously defiant both of religion and science, – both of orthodox Christian tradition, and of a good deal of modern cosmology and anatomy/physiology, – we can inevitably disagree and argue with him, – and this is where Eliot gets stuck, and pre-empts a judgement based on his assumptions about Christian Classicism.

But if we think about Lawrence horizontally, what do we find? We find, in spades, the Canon! I’ll just list some links to some miscellaneous headings, mostly obvious and well-known; there is a mass of them, with a mass of sweeping, effortlessly fluent, unifications, and this is the merest sketch (I am not qualified to do justice to his references to art and painting, but they are most emphatially there):

So then:

  • Evolution of Consciousness and Dissociation of Sensibility (Movements in European History, Study of Thomas Hardy, Twilight in Italy, Introduction to These Paintings, A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, etc);
  • Thomas Hardy (Study of Thomas Hardy, The Rainbow);
  • Herakleitos and the Pre-Socratics (Study of Thomas Hardy, Apocalypse);
  • The Bible (Apocalypse, Phoenix, The Rainbow, Study of Thomas Hardy, and much else);
  • Christian Tradition (Study of Thomas Hardy, The Rainbow, Apocalypse, A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which is actually very near to Roman Catholicism);
  • George Eliot (The Rainbow);
  • The Brontes (The Rainbow, Women in Love);
  • Dickens (The Lost Girl);
  • Fielding and Richardson, and the early English Novel (Study of Thomas Hardy, Introduction to These Paintings, etc);
  • The evolution of English Poetry from Chaucer onwards (Study of Thomas Hardy, Introduction to These Paintings, The Rainbow, etc);
  • Richard Wagner and the Scandinavian and Icelandic Edda (The Sisters – The Rainbow and Women in Love, which are modelled on Scandinavian Epic, almost as much as Hamlet is);
  • Shakespeare and the Greek Tragedians (Twilight in Italy, Study of Thomas Hardy, Galsworthy, Introduction to These Paintings, etc);
  • The American tradition: Hawthorne/Melville/Poe/Cooper/Franklin/Whitman, et al (Studies in Classic American Literature);
  • Dostoievsky, Mann, Flaubert, Galsworthy, Verga, etc (Phoenix, in spades);
  • Schopenhauer and Nietzsche (Study of Thomas Hardy, Twilight in Italy, Aaron’s Rod, Kangaroo, Plumed Serpent);
  • Tolstoy, especially Anna Karenina (The Rainbow, Fantasia of the Unconscious);
  • Freud, and Jung, JG Fraser, and Trigant Burrow (Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious, Fantasia of the Unconscious, Phoenix – Review of The Social Basis of Consciousness, The Rainbow, and Women in Love).

So, to repeat, if we read Lawrence vertically, as it were, we can disagree and argue with him. But if we think about him horizontally, we find, in extraordinary measure, the Canon. And this, in turn, opens up another view of his ‘metaphysic’. What is striking about Lawrence is how implicitly systematic he is, not a quality we commonly think of in relation to him. We are faced with the realisation that Lawrence is one of the most systematically Canon-based writers in the English tradition. Possibly the most systematic and comprehensive since Johnson and Coleridge. Ultimately, any Canon-based author has to have an implicit philosophy, and Lawrence of course has. So, although he is lacking in classical scholarship, in the sense of massive detail, his grasp of fundamentals is so radical and synoptic, that he alters our sense of history and the historicity of the Canon, not as dramatically as Hegel does, for Hegel was overtly systematic on a giant scale, but in similar mode, in terms of his dialectical gender pantheism. The initial template, the remarkable Study of Thomas Hardy, is his most dialectical and Hegelian analysis.

So, once we have grasped this, we can go back to the question: what lies behind the Canon, for Lawrence? His metaphysic, to which he gave such sustained and repeated attention. But we must make a broad distinction between the detailed content of the metaphysic, – concerning which there is scope for a veritable antheap of specific disagreements, which can overwhelm a more orthodox thinker like Eliot, – and the fundamental formal ground of the metaphysic.

The latter, despite the claims of Lawrence himself, and of Leavis, is of high generality and high abstraction. But it belongs to a tradition, to a perennial philosophy, of unity beneath dualities. It is epitomised in passages such the following from Fantasia of the Unconscious      

“Primarily we know, each man, each living creature knows, profoundly and satisfactorily and without question, that I am I. This root of all knowledge and being is established in the solar plexus; it is dynamic, pre-mental knowledge, such as cannot be transferred into thought. Do not ask me to transfer the pre-mental dynamic knowledge into thought. It cannot be done. The knowledge that I am I can never be thought; only known.”

This, like Freud’s formula, Wo Es war, soll Ich werden, reads like a piece of Herakleitos, or Empedocles, or Protagoras, and that, in neither case, is an accident.

Let us briefly remind ourselves of the cross-connections of such a statement. What is he saying?

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Arthur Schopenhauer (22 February 1788 – 21 September 1860)

When he says, it can never be thought, only known, he is close to thinkers like Bergson and Coleridge – and to Schopenhauer, and the later Wittgenstein. Schopenhauer writes:

The World as Will and Representation, Book I, §2: “But the subject, the knower never the known, does not lie within these forms [of time, space, and causality]; on the contrary it is always presupposed by these forms themselves, and hence neither plurality, nor its opposite, namely unity, belongs to it. We never know it, but it is precisely that which knows wherever there is knowledge.”

We can open up, more widely, the sweep of this tradition of a certain appeal to individual feeling as intuitive knowing, prior to reason, – what we might call, developing remarks of Leavis in Johnson and Augustanism, the tradition of primordial enactment or enactivity, – with such names as: Luther, Hobbes, Pascal, Vico, Hume, Rousseau, Hamann, Schelling, Coleridge, Blake, Keats, Dickens, Kierkegaard, Newman, FH Bradley, Heidegger, Derrida, Auerbach, McLuhan, and the Eliot himself of Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca; perhaps this is enough to place Lawrence’s vision in connection with the tradition.

I am running out of time. I can end with epitomising a greater sense of Lawrence’s remarkable rethinking of the Canon, by reference to what Leavis does with it, Lawrence’s, contribution. In a very characteristic way, in an intimation, Leavis comes within a hair’s breadth, a typically tantalising hair’s breadth, of making explicit Lawrence’s articulation of the Canon. This is an ostensibly fragmentary comment, in which, further, Leavis partially backpedals, or appears to backpedal, excessively, on Lawrence, in a way which subtly masks what Leavis is opening the way to recognising about him.

But, when its implications are concretely filled out, it actually stunningly confirms, convergently, from a different angle, what I am saying about Lawrence. The remark I am picking up upon comes in the Clark Lectures: English Literature in our Time and the University, when Leavis, having in the previous chapter compared Eliot’s understanding of Hamlet with Lawrence’s own in the chapter on The Theatre of Twilight in Italy, sketches his concept of how to use representative critiques of the play, including Gilbert Murray’s comparative study, Hamlet and Orestes, from 1914.

Those fortunate enough to have listened in person to his Clark Lectures, when they were delivered, will poignantly remember how Leavis, after nigh two and a half lectures on Eliot, after shaping, in the light of the concept of ‘dissociation of sensibility’, an implicit and profound articulation of the Canon, and after developing the canonical conception of Eliot as the paradigmatic English poet of the era, and also after articulating subtly, and in terms of examples from Eliot’s own work (La Figlia Che Piange), his life limitations, next remarked:

“But there is a more positive way of putting it: though still talking about Eliot I was not the less thinking about Lawrence, and I hoped that my audience would be too. There you have my intention: it was that the relevance of Lawrence, though I did not name him, should make itself felt, so helping me in the difficult business of suggesting how Lawrence comes in.”

That sense of precipitated unification, that sudden making explicit of the implicit, was overwhelming, and breathtaking in its felicitousness.

But, in the light of where we have now got to, we can now further see, that, in that instant of fusion, of crystallisation, Leavis has united the Eliotic vision of the Canon, in terms of the formula dissociation of sensibility, with the Laurentian vision of the canon, organised here around the nucleus of Tragedy, Greek Tragedy and Shakespeare, and the dual traditions of Greek, and Scandinavian, Epic.

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George Gilbert Aimé Murray, OM (2 January 1866 – 20 May 1957)

So here, taking his point of departure from Gilbert Murray, is what he says about Lawrence:

“Now Murray is delicately and very intelligently suggestive. But the student won’t, from reading his lecture, have learnt how the significance of what he finds there can be shown to be important for the appreciation of Shakespearian tragedy – how it can enter into the understanding of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The only help towards that I know is Lawrence. [my italic] No one approaching that chapter in the spirit of my suggestion will be in danger of taking it anything but critically – but the finding of essential insight in work about which one has to have critical reserves is a most important order of educational experience. And there is insight, decisive prompting insight, in Lawrence’s commentary on Hamlet. One may question the particular formulation he gives of the significance he finds, but the hint and the clue are compelling, and one realises that in the tragic Shakespeare – and in the greatest art – there is significance of that order conveyed. Shakespeare is not only a greater writer than Racine, but a greater kind of writer.”

And then a moment later he adds: “But I’m bound to add that I don’t see why it should be dismissed offhand as gratuitously Laurentian and obviously absurd.”

Now, this is not 1951, but 1967! Leavis was then lecturing nationally, busy articulating polemical follow ups to the Snow lecture, finalising the massive evolution of stance on Dickens, and the link with Blake (Clark Lectures, pp. 105-108), and working his way towards what he thinks of as his definitive commentary on Four Quartets in The Living Principle. Yet the formulaic qualifications are repeated several times. There is something strangely hidden in Leavis here, to continue to tease us, like Keats’s Grecian Urn. However, it does not prevent us recognising the cardinal point; Leavis has fused and integrated his development of the Laurentian Canon into a single whole, with his understanding of the ‘dissociation of sensibility’ based Eliotic poetic Canon (which is somewhat out of alignment with Eliot’s Anglo-Catholic Classicist one). Why do I say this?

Characteristically, it is there in the single sentence: The only help towards that I know is Lawrence. He is implying that Lawrence instinctively understands or presupposes the double ritual origin of Shakespeare via the lines of the Greek epic and the Scandinavian epic, to which he has just adduced Bertha Philpotts’ The Elder Edda, and Gilbert Murray’s Hamlet and Orestes. He is implying, in his, Leavis’s, own mastery of both Canons, the Eliotic and the Laurentian, and he is tacitly endorsing the validity, reach, and wider inclusiveness of the Laurentian Canon. 

© Heward Wilkinson, September 2016.

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The Long Read: A little Lawrence is a dangerous thing – Leavis on Lawrence on Shakespeare

Heward Wilkinson is a member of the F.R. Leavis Society. He has a special interest in the interface between religion, philosophy, the arts, and psychotherapy. This is the first of three thought provoking guest blogs he has kindly shared with us.  

The title of Lawrence’s, ostensibly counter-Nordic, Twilight in Italy (TW) is nevertheless Germanic, derived from Wagner, Twilight of the Gods, or Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, or both. The extended reflections on Shakespeare, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in the Theatre chapter, like A Study of Thomas Hardy, and The Rainbow, are also one of those parts of Lawrence’s writing indirectly most influenced by Jung, channelled by Otto Gross and Frieda. And, like so many others then, including TS Eliot, Freud and Jung, he was also buried in the depths of JG Frazer’s crypto-Casaubon-ish Key to All Mythologies, Also Known As The Golden Bough. There is, accordingly, a dialectical spaciousness, and a capacity to live with contradiction – as Keats and Whitman recommend – in all this, and in contemporary writings, such as A Study of Thomas Hardy – something which returns in full measure in the final work, Apocalypse, and other late non-fictional writings.

This (TW) is the work which then Leavis picked up and used in English Literature in Our Time and The University (ELU). I believe – if we put on one side the post-Richmond Lecture politicking – this is his critically most quintessentially perfect book after Revaluation. In it he comments compellingly on this chapter of Lawrence’s. Following his extraordinary and masterful account of TS Eliot’s significance as poet and critic, and his defence of Eliot’s highly relevant, and indeed parallel, concept of ‘dissociation of sensibility’, he then suggestively juxtaposes – or opposes! – Eliot with Lawrence in terms of their accounts of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  This juxtaposition/opposition, as so often with Leavis, the master of critical epitome, is potently elegant and coercively compelling. For a long time, I felt that it resolved the critical issues. But now I am asking myself, what if, for powerful and indeed intractable reasons, it actually simply holds them, masterfully, at bay? This is the dilemma I now find in this dialectic. If this is true, what are the reasons for it, and in what way might they, in a manner, be valid? And what does he, in some sense, miss about (or hold at bay) what Lawrence actually sees in Shakespeare?

I begin with a caveat. Leavis makes upon Lawrence the, to me, extraordinary comment (one among several significantly deprecatory, even hesitantly academic, ones in the same vein) on this chapter of Lawrence’s, that (ELU, p. 161):

The emphases are not those of criticism.

But perhaps, paradoxically, that does, however, apply to Leavis himself, in part, in the sense that this is a partly polemical and partly teaching text, where, indeed, he is not trying to give, what he says of Lawrence (ELU, p. 161):

….an essay on the play, concerned to give a balanced account of it.

So, thus cautioned, let us see what we can infer from both what he does say, and what he does not say.

Leavis takes one of Lawrence’s emphases and makes it central: the contrast between the mediaeval, divine right, ‘old’ King Hamlet, and the ‘modern’, ‘introverted’, Montaigne-influenced, ‘young’ Prince Hamlet. (And likewise, – implying, inter alia, a necessarily very deep relationship between life and work, – also the Montaigne-influenced author of Hamlet.) First he remarks:

I’m bound to add that I don’t see why it should be dismissed offhand as gratuitously Laurentian and obviously absurd. (ELU, p. 163)

Coming after all those disclaimers, do we perhaps wonder about this, with Freud, whether there may not be no ‘not’ in the unconscious? Why all this caution here, what does it mean? Perhaps! but continuons!

The murdered elder Hamlet is insistently and potently evoked as essentially the King, the ideal King and Father – worthy embodiment of the traditional idea and potency. No acceptable account of the Shakespearian significance can ignore that datum. Young Hamlet idolizes his father, but is presented, surely, as, in the qualities which make him what he is, essentially inconceivable as a second god-like Hamlet…… Shakespeare, having undertaken to rewrite the old Hamlet, could with profound imaginative force realise Hamlet the King, but he was also, as we say, a ‘modern’ – certainly not in the lag of his age. Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet didn’t – couldn’t – ‘in his involuntary soul’ (I use Lawrence’s phrase) want to be King and Father, supreme I, Hamlet the Dane, the Danish Fortinbras. (ELU, pp. 163-4)

Pausing for a moment, we wonder, in passing, whether the device of the Ghost is not, paradoxically, part of that modernity, and whether the egotism, and unconcern about his supposed son, a callousness transferred osmotically to Hamlet, the ostensible Ghost displays, is not an essential part of Hamlet’s problem? And whether, whatever its excesses, psychoanalysis has not taught us, at least, that we are prone to idealise where, in another mode of ourselves, we hate, fear, and resent?

Leavis then reverts to his argument with TS Eliot about the reductionist concept of significance involved in the ‘objective correlative’ formulation, which is part of his diminishing of Eliot by comparison with Lawrence (ELU, p. 64):

….who today will suggest that such a significance can’t be…. in the play….?

Could this, valid as far as it goes, but not necessarily decisive enough to underpin an entire critical indictment, (especially as Eliot, as we shall see, flips the other way up by the end of his essay), be a red herring, an inadvertant displacement and distractor from something Eliot and Lawrence have in common?

To be sure, Leavis goes on (ELU, p. 164):

Of course, there is more in Hamlet, which is certainly very complex, and in such a way, that the difficulty in arriving at an account of it which satisfies one’s total sense of it, justifies one’s thinking of it as peculiarly a ‘problem’. 

– the sort of remark which indeed makes one think wistfully of Leavis’s never-to-be-written book about Shakespeare. But it makes one, as well, be cautious about what his account may, or may not, implicitly exclude. But this disclaimer does not tell us, so we must infer from other indicators.

So, earlier Leavis has, – very rightly and impressively, in my view, – appealed to Gilbert Murray’s Hamlet and Orestes British Academy address of 1914 and to Dame Bertha Philpotts’ The Elder Edda (1920), as invoking a second ritual/dramatic origin of tragedy in the North, to parallel the Greek (with JG Frazer in the background, in the process arguably implicating Shakespeare in a living knowledge of Greek drama):

Miss Philpotts’ book…. establishes that there was a second ritual origin of tragedy in the North, and that a continuity of dramatic traditions runs down through the Middle Ages to Shakespeare, who therefore is at the point of intersection – or junction – of the two lines. (ELU pp. 162/3) [my italic] 

He then says (ELU p. 163):

Now Murray is delicately and very intelligently suggestive. But the student won’t, from reading his lecture, have learnt how the significance of what he finds there can be shown to be important for the appreciation of Shakespearian tragedy – how it can enter into the understanding of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The only help towards that I know is Lawrence. No one approaching that chapter in the spirit of my suggestion will be in danger of taking it anything but critically – but the finding essential insight in work about which one has to have critical reserves is a most important order of educational experience. And there is insight, decisive prompting insight, in Lawrence’s commentary on Hamlet.             

It seems to me there is a strong suggestio falsi here, the implication that Murray is the mere academic, who does not engage with the life issues, the existential issues, the living issues. But this, prima facie, enables Leavis to by-pass something which is to be found in all four of Murray, Philpotts, Lawrence, and TS Eliot – and also in the Wagner Der Ring der Nibelungen (huge influence on Nietzsche and Jung and Lawrence) which (as Levi-Strauss recognised) profoundly redacts the Norse materials, and also again, more recently, but congruently with all these, Ted Hughes, in Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being.

This something is what Murray brings out by drawing attention to the huge difficulties both Orestes and Hamlet are portrayed as having with women, a partial and certainly ambivalent, but also itself murderous (c.f., Sonnet 129) misogyny, which is, however, also present in King Lear and Macbeth, and Othello. On all this Lawrence writes (TW) in Twilight, making it clear as he does that this in Shakespeare is not a mere external taking over of elements from the traditionary materials:

Hamlet’s father, the King, is, like Agamemnon, a warrior-king. But, unlike Agamemnon, he is blameless with regard to Gertrude. Yet Gertrude, like Clytemnestra, is the potential murderer of her husband, as Lady Macbeth is murderess, as the daughters of Lear. The women murder the supreme male, the ideal Self, the King and Father.

This is the tragic position Shakespeare must dwell upon. The woman rejects, repudiates the ideal Self which the male represents to her. The supreme representative, King and Father, is murdered by the Wife and the Daughters.

What is the reason? Hamlet goes mad in a revulsion of rage and nausea. Yet the women-murderers only represent some ultimate judgement in his own soul. At the bottom of his own soul Hamlet has decided that the Self in its supremacy, Father and King, must die. [my italic] It is a suicidal decision for his involuntary soul to have arrived at. Yet it is inevitable. The great religious, philosophic tide, which has been swelling all through the Middle Ages, had brought him there.

The question, to be or not to be, which Hamlet puts himself, does not mean, to live or not to live. It is not the simple human being who puts himself the question, it is the supreme I, King and Father. To be or not to be King, Father, in the Self supreme? And the decision is, not to be.

And again:

The King, the Father, the representative of the Consummate Self, the maximum of all life, the symbol of the consummate being, the becoming Supreme, Godlike, Infinite, he must perish and pass away. This Infinite was not infinite, this consummation was not consummated, all this was fallible, false. It was rotten, corrupt. It must go. But Shakespeare was also the thing itself. [my italic] Hence his horror, his frenzy, his self-loathing.

‘The thing itself’ – significantly taken from the kenotic, self-emptying, moment (KL, III, iv) when Edgar as poor Tom, as ‘unaccomodated man’,  is confronted by the now mad King Lear – is here, for Lawrence, not pure unaccomodated man, but the apparent reverse, mediaeval aristocracy. (But, in that kenosis, it is aristocracy, noblesse oblige, which is emptied – c.f., ‘poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are’ etc, just a moment before, – and ‘poor Tom’ is of course really Edgar.) Shakespeare is therefore by Lawrence conceived as either an aristocrat – one of the ‘wolfish earls’ themselves, – or some ‘born descendant and knower’, as Whitman puts it, concerning the History Plays, in November Boughs:

Conceiv’d out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism – personifying in unparallel’d ways the mediæval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation) – only one of the “wolfish earls” so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works – works in some respects greater than anything else in recorded literature.

Shakespeare, too, is also ‘the thing itself’. So, psychologically, was Lawrence – a ‘born descendant and knower’, – although Lawrence’s life does fit his works, in spades, as William of Stratford’s manifestly fails to.

This recoil is associated by Lawrence with the interiorisation of woman-ness as Other, as not-Self, as Thou, as alter. Indeed, we recognise certain notes in this as ones presented more personally in Women in Love, Kangaroo, and elsewhere:

This is the tragic position Shakespeare must dwell upon. The woman rejects, repudiates the ideal Self which the male represents to her. [my italic] The supreme representative, King and Father, is murdered by the Wife and the Daughters.

These are elements which are writ large by Middleton Murry in Son of Woman, and which are clearly registered by TS Eliot in his responses to Lawrence, along with the more favourable and fascinated ones, such as CE Baron (Lawrence’s Influence on Eliot, Cambridge Quarterly, Spring 1971) noted in recognising how deeply Four Quartets is pervaded by Lawrentian echoes and resonances. We may add, they are in part expressed also in After Strange Gods itself, where Fantasia of the Unconscious is recognised as a masterly critique, to be read and re-read, of the modern world. (Once more, Eliot is here again endorsing a stance Murry has taken.)

It seems to me that Lawrence is quite clearly implicating himself, in the Coleridgean mode Eliot purports to repudiate, in this dialectic, when he says:

For the soliloquies of Hamlet are as deep as the soul of man can go, in one direction, and as sincere as the Holy Spirit itself in their essence. But thank heaven, the bog into which Hamlet struggled is almost surpassed.

To be sure this is a moment of his relative optimism, as in later chapters of Women in Love, but surely ‘as deep as the soul of man can go, in one direction’ must imply that Lawrence’s own soul has been there? Without going all the way with Middleton Murry’s partly lop-sidedly bereaved and rageful analysis, we can surely go so far as to say, this complex of issues was a lifelong struggle, never fully resolved, for Lawrence?!

One might say, Leavis has a certain tendency to idealise Lawrence, and only to see the archetypal and Frazerian dimension of Lawrence – but one which, as such, is neutralised in a peculiar way I shall come to. Thus, he hesitates to follow Lawrence into his animism!! In A Study of Thomas Hardy Lawrence writes (amongst similar notes, invoking the cosmic archetypal power of Egdon Heath):

Oedipus, Hamlet, Macbeth, set themselves up against, or find themselves set up against the unfathomed moral forces of nature, and out of this unfathomed force comes their death. Whereas Anna Karenina, Tess, Sue and Jude find themselves up against the established system of human government and morality, they cannot detach themselves and are brought down.

But it is clear from such a work as Twilight – and A Study of Thomas Hardy itself – that Lawrence does not think this is in antithesis to the personal, rather that we should not merely see the personal. In parts of Fantasia of the Unconscious, and Apocalypse, Lawrence endorses a degree of animistic belief into which Leavis cannot follow him. Consequently Leavis is drawn into a degree of transmuting Lawrence into a kind of Lawrentian Humanism, to set against the Christian nihilism, as Leavis sees it, of TS Eliot (Leavis turns Bunyan, and Cecil Sharpe’s Appalachian Puritans, into Humanists also). This is more George Eliot than TS Eliot; something of Lawrence is lost or neutralised here (Nietzsche has relevant comment on George Eliot in Twilight of the Idols). And therefore Leavis’s stance has elements of a belief position, rejecting the degree of affinity between TS Eliot and Lawrence, in the Flaubertian dimension, and in the archetypal dimension, and in their conjunction. TheAeschylus/Orestes note explored in Eliot’s The Family Reunion, which picks up just where the last part of Eliot’s essay on Hamlet left off, is relevant here, and I will just refer to that ending in passing (where Eliot duly and typically clearly reverts to his own variant of the Coleridgean position, overtly repudiated at the start of the essay) before stating what I think is Leavis’s essential dilemma:

We must simply admit that here Shakespeare tackled a problem which proved too much for him. Why he attempted it at all is an insoluble puzzle; under compulsion of what experience he attempted to express the inexpressibly horrible, we cannot ever know. We need a great many facts in his biography; and we should like to know whether, and when, and after or at the same time as what personal experience, he read Montaigne, II. xii., Apologie de Raimond Sebond. We should have, finally, to know something which is by hypothesis unknowable, for we assume it to be an experience which, in the manner indicated, exceeded the facts. We should have to understand things which Shakespeare did not understand himself.      

It seems to me that this is nearer than Leavis allows to Lawrence here (the final sentence, which I emphasise, being the clearest affinity to Eliot’s struggle):

For the soliloquies of Hamlet are as deep as the soul of man can go, in one direction, and as sincere as the Holy Spirit itself in their essence. But thank heaven, the bog into which Hamlet struggled is almost surpassed. [my italic]

So now I come to Leavis’s unsolved dilemma, which I believes makes sense of both the awareness of incompleteness in this criticism, with his attempts to resolve it by polarisations, – and the extraordinary recognition of the modern dilemma which underlies it, if we pass beyond the polarisations.

As with DH Lawrence: Novelist, even here, Leavis’s Lawrence remains more Eliot – George Eliot – than Lawrence. A little Lawrence is a dangerous thing. What do I mean?

Bertrand Russell once published a book entitled: Why I am not a Christian! Is the ultimately dismissive analysis of Four Quartets in The Living Principle Leavis’s version of this?!

But, thinking next of Lawrence, one might add, in relation to Leavis’s reserve about The Plumed Serpent: Why I am not a Pagan!

Thinking of Kangaroo, and the essay on Dostoievsky’s Grand Inquisitor, also of Yeats and Heidegger, one might add: Why I am not a proto-Fascist!

Thinking of Russell himself, one can add again, emphatically: Why I am not an Enlightenment Rationalist or Empiricist!

But, then, also, one may add, against TS Eliot: Why I am not a Feudal Mediaevalist! Leavis’s contempt for ersatz mediaevalism, and all erstaz archaism, is obvious.

But the problem is: Leavis is Enlightenment Man, but he is one with a Feudal-Pagan analysis, apart from his, always superb, recognition of those supreme moments of conjunction, transcending single epochs, which make possible the greatest poetry or poetic writing, for instance, that of Donne, that of TS Eliot, the author of Portrait of a Lady, and that of Mark Twain, the author of Huckleberry Finn and Pudd’nhead Wilson. 

But, because of Leavis’s implicit doctrine of ‘enactment’, ‘realisation’, or ‘creating realities’, or however we choose to label it, Leavis is enabled to both keep many of his positions in a tacit, implied, phenomenological epoche, mode, and, secondly, not to draw the logical conclusions of certain of the things he says, and of the positions he does take up. One might call this methodology Socratic, or an expression of Negative Capability, if it were not for the fact that Leavis so often assumes his own positions are actually unassailable, and can be taken as implied, since the process further does not actually put them in question.

But there is also a genuine Socratic element, and it comes out in the ‘letting the poetry speak for itself’ of his greatest criticism – such as: Judgement and Analysis (in The Living Principle); the chapter on Little Dorrit in Dickens the Novelist; and this critique of Eliot in ELU, though not the one in The Living Principle, which certainly does have ‘an axe to grind’.  

How to look through three lenses at once, through Leavis, through Lawrence, and through Lawrence to Shakespeare?! Yet is there a connection between this enigmatic, one-part-Socratic, aspect of Leavis, which one does not always associate with him, yet is, once noticed, clearly there, – and the present attempt (which indeed mirrors his own) to see through the three lenses at once? Leavis, overtly, is associated in the popular mind with a strident opinionatedness and categorical definiteness of attitude. But what we have here, in this enigmatic half-realisedness of his expressed vision, is something intrinsically elusive, and this we would associate with Eliot, and Eliotic post-modernism, stoicism, which Leavis relates to Flaubert, rather than associating it with Lawrence. But, then, if we look at Lawrence, at least in part, through Middleton Murry’s lens – yes, for sure lop-sided indeed as being part of his mourning Lawrence’s death, his coming to terms with his relation to Lawrence, and also primarily personal, mostly disregarding, crucially, the cosmic-archetypal dimension – then the Flaubertian dimension, the dimension of the intractably creative life-flaw, applies to Lawrence also.

On the one hand, despite Leavis’s critical genius, and his brilliant ability to catch on the wing some of the most marvellous features of Lawrence’s writing, and the huge service he did for Lawrence, is there an aspect of Lawrence, the primally cosmic conjoined with the human flaw, the gothically gruesome, and uncanny, element, the ‘tentacular roots reaching down to the deepest terrors and desires’ (TS Eliot, Ben Jonson in The Sacred Wood), which, unacknowledged, is essentially alien or foreign to Leavis, something he simply cannot stomach? Is this an element of enshrining Lawrence in Leavis? Yet, on the other hand, does he, in his implicit profound critical positioning of the modern dilemma, indeed take us to a point where Moses-Leavis himself cannot follow, but yet we can see Canaan, the promised land?

Is he, in fact, more at home with  Eliot, and with Eliot’s ‘overwhelming question’? Dare I ask, if some of his animus against Eliot is a recoil from something in himself? But does he at the same time evoke the protean dilemmas Lawrence, – who plays with them all one by one! – raises in us, by enacting the questions? In coming to grips with Lawrence, and Lawrence’s Shakespeare, though Leavis’s lens, are we even driven into moving to a more post-modern, and pluralistic, Leavisian-ism?

Having just been to the Globe King Lear, when the sole previous King Lear I had been to was the great Paul Schofield/Peter Brook King Lear of, I think, 1962, at the Aldwych, I say with deep  conviction, that it is hard, in a thoroughgoingly democratic and populist epoch, to recognise the actuality of Shakespeare, or of DH Lawrence, who are, or whose vision is, in a broad sense, aristocratic.

These things have become virtually undiscussible. Perhaps this post-modern Leavis we may have glimpsed, can take us towards becoming able to discuss them again.

Heward Wilkinson’s website

 

The Long Essay: Leavis and Lady Chatterley’s Lover

leavis

The following long essay is a transcript of a talk given by Bob Hayward at the D.H Lawrence Society on 9 March 2016. It was also presented at the 2016 Lawrence/Leavis Conference.

There are many, many ways of seeing the trial of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. Certainly one is: that it was Lawrence’s posthumous revenge on a Ruling Class that slandered and persecuted him for most of his writing life. He called the book ‘a bit of a revolution in itself, a bit of a bomb’ but he could never have imagined the radical impact of its delayed action thirty years after his death. It probably marked the beginning of a real revolutionary change in Britain. “I feel as if a window has been opened and fresh air has blown right through England “ was his step-daughter’s reaction.

By no means optimistic, Leavis acknowledged that a change in society had been registered by the trial but, as he chose to see it, in the defence of a bad novel. The Establishment, in the other hand, knew that it had ridiculously exposed itself by going after the book of a widely accepted great writer in order to continue its crusade against the pornography under the new Obscene Publications Act. Leavis saw the change in terms of emancipated sexual mores rather than the political implications. He would have us believe that the Prosecution was ‘defeated by its realization that it was confronted by a new and confident orthodoxy of enlightenment — that the world had changed since the virginal pure policemen came and hid their faces for very shame’. He was forgetting that Conversions on the road to Damascus have no standing in English courts. The Prosecution failed because it was confronted by the new Obscene Publication Act which was designed to protect literature from philistine censorship. The Prosecution failed because its senior counsel, Mervyn Griffith-Jones, apart from being wedded to a class-ridden mind-set anticipated in the pages of the offending novel, had insufficient literary sophistication even to read Lawrence, let alone assess the novel as a whole, as was now required to do under the new act. The Prosecution could not find one witness to argue for suppression, whereas the Defence had the luxury of vetting plenty for its cause. The so-called Orthodoxy of Enlightenment was more a figment of Leavis’s ironic scorn than a reality and the idea that Mervyn Griffith-Jones had the faculties to recognize any kind of enlightenment rather than just the exasperating line of highly coached witnesses for the Defence, still less to allow it to affect his adversarial duties is just whimsical thinking. Even in his closing speech to the jury he was still all-guns-blazing, reading out four-letter-word passages and lyrical sexual descriptions (which he could see only as pornography), including seven of the eight paragraphs of the ‘night of sensual passion’ which extols an act of intimate complicity punishable at the time of the trial by up to life-imprisonment for both lovers, thus making it the perfect crime. Perhaps some members of the jury had got away with it because not all of them were visibly shocked by the last-ditch innuendoes being lobbed by Griffith-Jones, who either would not, or more probably, could not, be explicit about the passage. Had he done so, would the Judge have directed the jury to find for the Prosecution? Now there is a conundrum to set against the ascendency of the Orthodoxy of Enlightenment!

Leavis’s judgements of the novel, as expressed in his Rolph-review, would have seriously embarrassed the defence because he denied the artistic integrity of the book as a whole work, implied an inadvertent pornographic element and suggested that the four-letter-words and sexual descriptions got past Lawrence only because he was not himself. It is doubtful whether the Defence, for all its testifying talent, would have easily rebutted these criticisms from Lawrence’s greatest advocate, argued, as they seem to be, with all his convinced authority and knowledge. These criticisms were calculated, after the trial, to discredit the expert witnesses. They did immeasurable damage to the book’s reputation, and, as far as I know, remain unchallenged, not least because the style of the review spins the reader around in confusing circles of thought.

Let us consider Leavis’s claims. First, Lawrence was in ‘an abnormal state’ when he wrote this novel. Second, there is ‘a disrupted integration in the artist’, ‘something gone radically wrong’. Third, there is ‘a passionate drive of willed purpose’ rather than directed creativity. So we have: abnormal state, disrupted integrity, willed purpose. In other words, we have some pathological condition plus some cloyingly defined split integrity but does the split integrity explain the willed purpose or is it to be inferred from it? Is the abnormal state to be inferred from the willed purpose? Why does the greatest literary critic not simply rely on literary criticism? Why the need to postulate disorders beyond his expertise or certainty – for he never met Lawrence?

Does Leavis give any proof for these extra-literary critical diagnoses? He offers in effect: ‘At this moment in his life…..he was ill – in fact, for all his incredible vitality, slowly dying – and inflamed with rage an disgust at the thought of the virginal pure policemen’. This would appear to be suggesting a cause for the ‘abnormal state’ or split integrity to both if they can be distinguished. ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’, however, was written three times over fourteen months (Frieda said two years but she was never entirely reliable) and was finished in January 1928. Lawrence would have to have been certifiably abnormal if ha had raged for fourteen months at ‘virginal pure policemen’, especially without any grounds, because those authorized prudes never seized his paintings until July 1929, eighteen months after he had finished the novel. What was Leavis thinking?

Lawrence’s protracted dying seems to have affected other people’s judgements more than his own (and still does: see Melvyn Bragg’s introduction to the Cambridge edition of ‘The Plumed Serpent’ for sheer sentimentality in place of facts). Slowly dying is not inconsistent with being an artist, as Leavis himself affirmed in his last book in 1976 in which he wrote: ‘But Lawrence couldn’t but go on manifesting the Laurentian genius till the day of his death in 1930’. This would make his aberrational fourteen months on ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ even more mysterious and raises the possibility that the inconsistency is Leavis’s rather than Lawrence’s. Of course Lawrence had tuberculosis, probably from childhood, but his immune system tended to keep on top of it. It showed itself in his illness in 1911 when he was told to give up teaching. It was diagnosed again in 1916 when he was classified as unfit for military service. Early in 1925 he nearly died in Mexico from typhoid and malaria (he thought he would die) and then, in the American military hospital in Mexico City, he was bluntly told in front of Frieda that indeed he had tuberculosis. This was a shock to her – and to him but only because he never wanted it to be brought out into the open. A doctor later took Frieda aside and advised her to get him back to New Mexico because he had tuberculosis ‘in the third degree’ and no more than one or two years to live. Frieda is the only source for this story, much repeated in biographies. The trouble with it is that there is no such thing as tuberculosis ‘in the third degree’ and Lawrence lived for more than five years. He managed his tuberculosis as well as anybody could: he knew there was no cure, so he put it to the back of his mind and got on with living and writing, even after haemorrhages more often reminded him that he was carrying the disease that was shortening his life.

Leavis considered Lawrence to be a creative writer of the greatest kind. During the last five years of his life, his technique as a writer was at its most accomplished. Just before ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ he had written ‘The Virgin and the Gipsy’ and between the second and final version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ he wrote ‘The Escaped Cock’ in which, drawing on his own sense of resurrection after his near death experience in Mexico, he imagines Christ slipping half dead out of the tomb and slowly coming back to life to find ‘the phenomenal world’, as Lawrence calls it, much more marvellous than ideas of heaven to salvation. This mundane resurrection of the son of man is just about the most perfect vehicle for turning the Laurentian credo into his felicitous art. Writing this story after visiting the Etruscan tombs, whose wall-paintings, he realized, could envisage no after-life better than this one, persuaded him to modify his style for the final version of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ by eliminating all religious vocabulary: no sacreds or holys or godlikes or divines. The discipline of keeping, more or less, to only this-world language and perception gives the writing its revelations of the profane enchantment of experience. Others might describe it differently or better. One critic wrote: ‘But so beautifully poised and sure is the art that there is a danger of mistaking the nature of its success. The success, I have implied, is conditioned by a narrowing down: criticism must take the form of the question: How comprehensive or generally valid is this solution?’ This was Leavis before he came into his wisdom on Lawrence but he would not, I think, have had too much insight into the paganised inspiration of the style.

I want to say something of the novel itself before turning to Leavis’s literary criticisms of it. In her introduction to ‘The First Lady Chatterley’, which survived its prosecution in America in 1944, Frieda reveals that Lawrence told her that he wanted to write ‘a romantic novel – a picaresque novel’ which she was unable to relate to the gamekeeper-character. Few people bother to notice that it was a revolutionary novel, revolutionary in the political sense. It was a revolutionary time. Between 1917 and 1927 fifteen monarchies fell across Europe, to say nothing of principalities. The class-struggle was to the fore in most societies. Lawrence’s contribution was explicitly non-violent by trying to unify with his art the lives of a high-born woman and a low-born man. The working-class gamekeeper can speak only in the dialect. The class-divisions between him and the lady are confronted with such unsqueamish honesty that at times Lawrence moves towards parody to assuage the obscenities of the historical and social injustice. Communism is prevalent in the book and by the end Parking, no longer gamekeeping, thinks that the problem of Connie’s social superiority being carried over into their marriage might be solves if she supported him in his work as secretary of the local Communist League. This idea excited him but presumably not Lawrence.

The book is finally revolutionary in a multitude of ways. I am emphasising the political because it has been ignored. Obviously if a lady turns her back on an aristocratic life for a relationship with a working man, and the writer endorses the choice, some criticism of the aristocratic lifestyle might be implied, in this case more than implied, and subsequently inferred by receptive or unformed minds. The artistic problem for this revolutionary intent is to make the relationship plausible. Lawrence tried a second version. The gamekeeper again speaks only in the dialect, with which the lady becomes infatuated, though he can string together a more standard English sentence if he makes the effort; this is so rare that she notices when he does it. In the interests of the plausibility, Lawrence elaborates more on their intimacies. This is the original reason for extensively describing the elusive moments of love-making but, as a writer, he must have relished the challenge. There are affirmations of divinity to be found in the man’s body by the lady, going so far as to tell her sister that she sees his penis as a little god. ‘It was as if she had touched god and been restored to life’ is one of the author’s more mystagogic submissions. Does he think that giving the relationship a religious provenance is enough to compensate for the social imbalance between the lovers?

Well, he put the work aside for months and when he wrote the final version, he had, as he said and as I have indicated, ‘dropped the god-symbol from his writing’. He later thought that doing so was probably a mistake (obviously, for male philosophers, desacralizing the penis or phallus was not just a solecism but an epistemological mistake). Although the new gamekeeper has the same working-class origins, Lawrence, no doubt compromising his original romantic ideas as we all do, gives him a cultural dimension and social versatility that his two previous incumbents did not have, thus mitigating the problems of inferiority. The natural world and the lovers’ intimacies are now described under the poetic of his new luminary-pagan style. In court, Helen Gardner maintained that Lawrence succeeded in putting into words experiences that are very difficult to verbalize, rather as mystics try to do. This is more constructive than Leavis could ever be about the sexual descriptions.

Leavis asks: ‘Why does Lawrence make the lover working class?’ Even to ask this question means that he is overlooking the revolutionary purpose, which seems to the elephant in the room for most critics. His answer to the question, which I am not sure anyone ever asked, is that Lawrence does not make the gamekeeper working class. He is ‘irretrievably and securely a gentleman’, according to Leavis. He is educated, owns some books, held a commission in the army and could pass himself off as a gentleman. Leavis ignores the little matter of his having neither the means nor the desire to be a gentleman and forgets that one truly irretrievable gentleman calls him ‘scum’ and ‘a bumptious lout’. There is little point in troubling over Leavis’s specious definition of a gentleman. It seems at best contrarian. No other serious reader has ever characterized Mellors, once a blacksmith, as a gentleman but it enables Leavis to ask his next question: ‘Why does Lawrence make him drop into the dialect – drop so much and on those occasions?’ In fact, Mellors speaks mostly in the dialect and to would be more accurate to say that he drops into the King’s English when he feels it appropriate. He speaks the dialect because he is not ashamed of his origins any more than he is ashamed of his manhood, though he recognizes that society would have him be ashamed of both. The dialect is part of his identity and this gamekeeper has the option of making it complicit with this manhood, whereas for the other two it was integral. In opting for the dialect, there is a spirit of anti-genteel defiance, catching the mood of the times, and there is also an erotic polarization in using it with a lady who accepts it and so endears herself. Mellors uses it, as Lawrence knew it could be used, for expressing all emotions because it comes from the tongues of people who have experienced all emotions. It can also be used to armour his susceptible humanity, when necessary.

Leavis answers the question, which only he has ever asked: ‘Why does Lawrence make the keeper drop into the dialect – and on those occasions?’ with what he says is a simple and, he imagines, generally acceptable answer, namely, ‘as a way of putting over the four-letter words – of trying to make the idea of their being redeemed for non-obscene and undefiant or “normal” use, look less desperate.’ This then is his explanation for the use of the dialect. It is more shallow than the one I give and I think it is obviously and significantly wrong. Leavis is so sure he knows why Lawrence deploys the four-letter words that he talks emphatically of his ‘hygienic purpose’ with them. If Lawrence imagined that a few pages of a novel could cleanse the four-letter words of centuries of taboo (one of the words goes back to the Romans and possibly to the Ancient Greeks), he would have suffered from delusions of authorial grandeur off the scale. So we have the bizarre idea of a man in an ‘abnormal state’ being criticized for a hygienic purpose that no English writer could ever have been insane enough to have.

Leavis claims that ‘Lawrence would have had a resistance to overcome in himself uttering the four-letter words with the ease and freedom with which the gamekeeper and Tommy Dukes use them’. Whether this is true or not is irrelevant. Leavis is not adducing artistic principle here. If writers were forbidden from putting into the mouths of their characters language which they could not easily and freely utter themselves, Shakespeare’s plays would never have been written. Lawrence uses the words in art-speech (which I think is the third realm) and even Leavis endorses his maxim: ‘Art-speech is the only speech’.
Four-letter words do not need redemption. They have a complete felicity without it. If versatility is any guide to frequency of use, they are among the most frequently used words in the language. They would appear to be our friends; they are certainly on the tips of most tongues. There are some general rules for them: the more public a situation, the less appropriate they are likely to be. The more private the situation, the opposite can be the case. Tommy Dukes uses four-letter words sparingly in little house-parties of friends and guests. ‘And naughty words scream like sirens, when uttered in the wrong environs.’ We know this happens. Do they scream like sirens in Sir Clifford’s drawing room? Perhaps, but we might ask whether Lawrence or Leavis would be more accustomed to such gathering of motley types as are presented there. Mellors’s use of the words with Connie could not be more private, that is, in their most intimate moments when there are no barriers. Leavis refers to the gamekeeper’s ‘treatment’ of Connie ‘on those occasions’ and he thinks that, because of some dormant class-resentment and ‘failure of wholeness’ and so on in the creative Lawrence, he does not realize how the gamekeeper (and therefore the author himself) is demeaning the lady. This is my inference form cutting through the Gordian Knot of tortuousness in the fourth from last paragraph. (When any prosecution pressed the idea of depraving and corrupting in obscenity cases in the 1960s and 70s, the jury always threw it out.) It must be said that Connie herself has no sense of being like a high-caste victim of an untouchable and by the end of the novel the reader sees her more fulfilled femininity has turned her into a woman who knows what she wants from life and who can be deflected by neither her disapproving sister, her apoplectic husband nor her demurring father, who is secretly proud of her (‘I hope you had a real man at last’.) because she is now the radiant daughter of his loins that he would want her to be.

Frieda said that Lawrence was scared when he wrote ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. He saw that his art was becoming more daring as it progressed through the three versions. He knew intuitively that the sexual description and four-letter words were justified and would be original in serious literature. The finished work is so rich in themes that I doubt whether he have could been explicit about them all. They are for readers to appreciate. The text, however, is explicit about one vindication of the four-letter words, and that is as the language of acceptance, more specifically acceptance of the body. This is of course one of the ways in which the words can be used. The body was for him an important concept for which he argued against the centuries of undervaluing it by the great religions, concerned, as they are, with things otherworldly and eternal. Lawrence’s faith was in the accessible wonders of bodily experience and he invoked their moral power to transcend society’s prejudices and of course the taboos of language. This faith is not too far removes from Leavis’s ineffable ‘well-head through which life and creativity bubble up from the unknown’.

Leavis believed that ‘the insistent renderings of sexual experience’ a phrase that would have improved the pleading of the senior prosecuting counsel, also represent a hygienic purpose. He even concedes that they ‘engage the creative art of the creative writer’ but he finds ‘a great deal in them strongly distasteful’. This begs the questions as to how he detects their hygienic purpose. How does he get this idea when the passages have the effect of deepening the intensity between the lovers in order to justify Connie’s leaving aristocracy for a better life? If readers cannot be inward with the descriptions of the acts of love-making, they cannot assess the novel. They are rather like Shakespeare’s nurse who cannot appreciate Juliet’s love for Romeo.

There is another extra-literary critical concept that Leavis fastens on Lawrence. He says (and the Prosecution would have welcomed this): ‘In the way of those frequent and insistent offers to evoke sexual experience in pondered, dwelling immediacy, there was a deep-seated pudeur going back to a finely civilized upbringing in a Victorian, working-class home’, a home that, by the way, contained a hard-drinking father and a jealous, quasi-incestuous mother but there is no need to cavil at Leavis’s evaluation of Lawrence’s home, though we might include the wider working-class community and its institutions, as well as Lawrence’s reading, in the formation of his sensibilities. I wonder when a working-class boy comes into full possession of his pudeur? I doubt if it would be a word bandied about in his home, or any home. Leavis seems to have plucked it from the margins of English usage. It is not to be found in many English dictionaries. It is in the 1981 Supplement of my old fifteen volume Oxford Dictionary in which Leavis’s ‘deep-seated pudeur’ is among the examples, all of which, except his, give it a negative nuance. He is the only one to make a virtue of it, not least by opposing it to his equally idiolectic use of ‘emancipation’ which throughout history has rarely had a pejorative meaning, except perhaps for closed minds offended by it. So with ‘pudeur’, Leavis is ascribing a positive sense to a negatively used word. You can use words however you like but, if you alter their connotation too far, there is a danger of seeming tendentious, or, if you are the greatest critic, confounding common sense.

The dictionary definition of pudeur is: ‘a sense of shame or embarrassment, particularly with regard to matters of a sexual nature’. Apart from the word ‘Victorian’, Leavis offers nothing that in fact points to Lawrence’s pudeur. Lawrence wrote more about sex than any other creative writer. His inspired preoccupation with the subject is inconsistent with a sense of shame or embarrassment about it. In ‘The Rainbow’ Will and Anna renew their marital desire by exploring intimacies in defiance of shame, which becomes part of the thrill. Ursula in ‘Women in Love’ loses her physical shames by sharing in the full range of Birkin’s amatory practices. And ‘The Night of Sensual Passion’ reads like a rhapsody on the anti-pudeur ethic. Pudeur could be regarded as a mildly neurotic frailty and it is pretty near disingenuous semantics to represent it, as Leavis does, as the essential source of Lawrence’s ‘exquisitively sensitive human delicacy’ when it is more likely to be associated with prudish or even sanctimonious tendencies. Pudeur can become a virtue only if it is apprehended and turned into something else, say, heroic acceptance of the body even when your own is emaciated or about to fail you as absolutely as possible.

When Leavis finds the gamekeepers ‘uninhibited talk’ with Connie ‘on those occasions’ ‘insufferable’, when he finds ‘something hateful conveyed in the intention of the dialect itself’, when he finds so much of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ ‘repellent’, is that because of his ‘still unvanquished pudeur’, in the sense in which everybody except him uses and understands the word, though not many people do use it? I have no way of knowing but I doubt it.

‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ is a complex, ambitious and thoroughly rewarding work of art. It was written, as it were, out of Lawrence’s moral concern for civilization. It is a unique novel. I cannot agree with any of the literary critical judgements that Leavis makes about it in his Rolph-review, not one, not a single one. His extra-literary critical judgements, so far as I can tell, are factitious. I suspect that he has created an orthodoxy of enlightenment about ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ and it will be a long time before the novel is rehabilitated. Leavis returned it to its insalubrious reputation with a vengeance.