Student Essay: D.H. Lawrence – Pornographic pervert or libertarian?

In this visual essay, Josh Whitehead explores Lawrence’s reputation as a controversial author and his fascination with blood and mental consciousness. This was created as part of his English literature dissertation at Nottingham Trent University in the module ENGL30512.

“My great religion is a belief in the blood, as the flesh being wiser than the intellect. We can go wrong in our minds but what our blood feels and believes and says, is always true.”

The sexual energy of D H Lawrence’s works, from Lady Chatterley’s Lover to his controversial nude paintings, were inspired by his belief in the equal importance of body and mind. This caused controversy, which matched his personal life.

Lawrence convinced German aristocrat Frieda Weekley to leave her husband and three children to become his wife. They married in 1914, just before the outbreak of World War 1. They attempted to settle down in Cornwall but were forced to leave due to suspicions that they were German spies due to Frieda’s heritage and their reclusive lifestyle. Angered and frustrated, they left Britain and traveled together to Italy, New Mexico and Australia, never staying anywhere for more than two years.

Lawrence believed in the primal connection of energies between two people, effectively displayed in monogamy. Frieda had other ideas and was frequently unfaithful. Her affair with Angelo Ravagli, the man she would marry after Lawrence died, inspired his final major novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover. At the time, critics were disgusted by the sexual acts detailed in the novel, such as sodomy. Although they were equally disgusted to read that a Lady of wealth might be attracted to someone of from the lower order.

In writing freely about sexual relationships was Lawrence attempting to free the chains of censorship? Was he a pornographic pervert? Or was he a free-thinking libertarian who helped usher in the permissive society?

Similar to Freud, Lawrence is commonly accused of finding the sexual in practically everything. However, this common misconception is due to Lawrence’s focus on the primal self, similar to the Romantics belief of having a natural connection to all living things. This living transmission, although occasionally expressed through sexual action, is more to do with the connection of two people as opposed to the pleasures associated with sexual intercourse.

In reference to the Biblical fall of man, Lawrence asks: “Do you imagine Adam had never had intercourse with Eve before that apple episode? Many a time. As a wild animal with his mate. It didn’t become ‘sin’ till the Knowledge-poison entered. That apple of Sodom. We are divided in ourselves, against ourselves.”

The apple is frequently used as an image of temptation and sin, Lawrence used it metaphorically to depict the imbalance between the mental consciousness and the primal; splitting both the mind and the body from one another. This separation, according to Lawrence, becomes the blood and mental consciousness; the view of blood being a sensual connection with the environment and against following the herd; Mechanical thinking leads to war.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover was published privately in Florence in 1928 to avoid the censor.  The story consists of a cross-class relationship involving a Lady and her gamekeeper; challenging the establishment “to think of sex fully, completely, honestly, and cleanly”. Lawrence wrote three versions of the novel, the second was called Tenderness, suggesting there was more to their relationship than lust. In the novel, Lady Chatterley is prepared to give up wealth and status to pursue a relationship with her true love.

Lawrence experienced censorship throughout his life but he refused to be silenced. When the critics banned his novels or seized his paintings, he simply ridiculed their prudishness in pithy poems, such as ‘13,000 people’ that I decided to read aloud on the D.H. Lawrence tram in Nottingham as part of my visual essay.

13,000 people

Thirteen thousand people came to see
my pictures, eager as the honey bee

for the flowers; and I’ll tell you what
all eyes sought the same old spot

in every picture, every time,
and gazed and gloated without rhyme

or reason, where the leaf should be
the fig-leaf that was not, woe is me!

And they blushed, they giggled, they sniggered, they leered,
or they boiled and they fumed, in fury they sneered

and said: Oh boy! I tell you what,
look at that one there, that’s pretty hot! —

And they stared and they stared, the half-witted lot
at the spot where the fig-leaf just was not!

But why, I ask you? Oh tell me why?
Aren’t they made quite the same, then, as you and I?

Can it be they’ve been trimmed, so they’ve never seen
the innocent member that a fig-leaf will screen?

What’s the matter with them? aren’t they women and men?
or is something missing? or what’s wrong with them then?

that they stared and leered at the single spot
where a fig-leaf might have been, and was not.

I thought it was a commonplace
that a man or a woman in a state of grace

in puris naturalibus, don’t you see,
had normal pudenda, like you and me.

But it can’t be so, for they behaved
like lunatics looking, they bubbled and raved

or gloated or peeped at the simple spot
where a fig-leaf might have been, but was not.

I tell you, there must be something wrong
with my fellow-countrymen; or else I don’t belong.

dhl-trunk garterTo see more visual essays and other interpretations of Lawrence’s work please see our YouTube channel: D.H.Lawrence: A Digital Pilgrimage.  We also post one minute films of Lawrence’s writing on our instagram account: dhldigitalpilgrimage In 2019 we will be begin building our memory theatre. You can submit artefacts here.  

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Student essay: The Rocking Horse Winner

In this visual essay, created by Sophie Thompson as part of her dissertation at Nottingham Trent University, she applies a psychoanalytic reading to Lawrence’s short story ‘The Rocking Horse Winner’.

D.H. Lawrence’s ‘The Rocking Horse Winner’ is an exploration of the effect that money has upon the lives of those who allow it to control the way they live one’s life. The protagonist, Paul, lives in a house that is haunted by the phrase “There must be more money!”, despite nobody speaking it. This can be understood as a metaphor for the desire for wealth in his mother being so loud that it echoes throughout the entire home. When Paul decides to ask his mother why they don’t have money, she assigns blame to Paul’s father on account of the fact he “has no luck”; to which Paul is quick to insist upon the opposite, asserting, “I’m a lucky person”, and thereby indicating to his mother that he possesses something his father does not.

In this way a Freudian psychoanalytic reading can be applied, specifically with regard to the Oedipus complex. This is with irony as Lawrence himself spoke negatively of psychoanalysis, describing Freud in Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious as “the psychiatric quack who vehemently demonstrated the serpent of sex coiled round the root of all our actions”. The Oedipus Complex is first introduced by Freud within his 1899 text The Interpretation of Dreams, and is said to occur during the latency stage of psychosexual development which spans age six through to puberty. Freud recognises the complex as the experience of an unconscious sexual desire for the parent of the opposite sex, which in turn causes us to compete for the affection of this desired parent with the parent of the same sex; deriving from an unexpected observation of the “part played by [the] father in the earliest sexual impulses of female patients”. The oedipal undertones in this scene in particular are enhanced by Lawrence admitting that “He didn’t even know why he had said it”, reflecting the unconscious desires voicing themselves without Paul being able to account for them.

As the narrative progresses, the oedipal complex within Paul grows more evident. After the interaction with his mother, Paul mounts his rocking horse and orders: “Now! […] Now take me to where there is luck! Now take me!” The mounting of the horse itself possesses an inherently sexual innuendo, but his commands can both be seen as asserting control over something to compensate for the lack of control he has in achieving the sexual interest he desires from his mother; but also the repeating of the word ‘now’ accentuates how desperate he is to obtain it. It is perhaps noteworthy that we do not meet the father within the narrative, and this desire for ‘now’ may therefore be Paul’s anxiety that at any moment his father may return, the prospect of which carries the castration complex. This complex, according to Freud, refers to the fear within the child that they face castration at the hands of the father in response to learning of their desires for the opposing parent, in order to prevent the child from pursuing their sexual interest. In this context, then, Paul is desperate to acquire the luck that his father does not have in order to win the affection of the mother whilst he is out of the picture.

rock
‘The Rocking Horse Winner’ was broadcast as a film in 1949.

When uncle Oscar learns of Paul’s success, Paul tells him: “I shouldn’t like mother to know I was lucky”, explaining that she’d stop him if she knew. One might apply a Freudian reading to this and infer that Paul’s belief that his mother would stop his luck derives from his unconscious recognition that he must ‘become’ his father in order to win the sexual affection of his mother. To achieve this, he would have to adopt his father’s unluckiness, also. In this way we see these supposedly unconscious human desires conflict with Lawrence’s attitude toward money: Paul’s complex once a domineering force in his life is now secondary to the obsession he has developed to winning money.

This attitude is made even more explicit within the end of the narrative, which sees Paul die after becoming overwhelmed at the news of winning eighty thousand pounds. Leading up to which Paul, who was once haunted by house’s cries for money, is incredibly reluctant to leave. His mother asks: “Why, you curious child, what makes you care about this house so much, suddenly? I never knew you loved it”, illustrating that he now understands the desire to earn money and is, so to speak, ‘deaf’ to the voices, as the ones in his head that now utter the same phrase are far louder.

dhl-trunkTo see more visual essays and other interpretations of Lawrence’s work please see our YouTube channel: D.H.Lawrence: A Digital Pilgrimage.  We also post one minute films of Lawrence’s writing on our instagram account: dhldigitalpilgrimage In 2019 we will be begin building our memory theatre. You can submit artefacts here.  

 

Indecision from an ‘island no bigger than a back garden’

It’s fair to say that British culture is defined by indecision. Presently, this is most evident with Brexit. On June 23, 2016 17.4 million voters (51.9 percent of the votes cast), backed leaving the EU while 16.1 million voters (48.1 percent of votes cast), favoured staying. The referendum proved one thing: the country was completely split. Nobody was entirely sure what they wanted. And so that split continues now, with talk of a second referendum and the countless permutations of possible exits. This has led the Tory party to implode as they squabble over who should be the next non-elected PM. We shouldn’t be surprised, though. This indecision was prevalent during the Civil War. In 1649 we executed Charles I for treason; had a very puritanical republic for eleven years under Oliver Cromwell; then restored Charles II to the throne in 1660.

As a nation, we oscillate with ease between seemingly binary opposites. We switch positions like musical chairs, and when the chairs have gone, we sit on the floor. I mention this because English PEN have launched a crowdfunding campaign to keep an annotated copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the UK. The copy was annotated by Lady Dorothy Byrne, wife of the Hon. Sir Laurence Byrne, the presiding judge of the 1960 obscenity trial against Penguin books.

The Arts minister, Michael Ellis, has determined that the book should stay in the UK and not be exported abroad. It is now deemed a national treasure, part of our literary heritage. The irony is not wasted on Lawrence scholars, given that the British government did everything it could to keep the novel out of print for so long. Lawrence was of regular interest to the censor. Other novels, poetry collections and a set of thirteen painting were all deemed unfit for public purpose, with copies of The Rainbow burned and the paintings locked up in a prison cell. It is little wonder that Lawrence dedicated so much energy towards getting out of England as quickly as he could and as far away as he could – travelling across Europe, Australia, and the Americas.

Philippe Sands QC, President of English PEN, said:

“DH Lawrence was an active member of English PEN and unique in the annals of English literary history. Lady Chatterley’s Lover was at the heart of the struggle for freedom of expression, in the courts and beyond. This rare copy of the book, used and marked up by the judge, must remain in the UK, accessible to the British public to help understand what is lost without freedom of expression. This unique text belongs here, a symbol of the continuing struggle to protect the rights of writers and readers at home and abroad.”

The copy was recently sold at auction to an overseas bidder for £56,250. English PEN have created a ‘Go Fund Me’ page to match the bid and keep it in Blightly. It is with this in mind that we have produced another short film for you that addresses parochialism and Lawrence’s views of the British. Written in 1924, Lawrence was infuriated that “an island no bigger than a back garden” should have such an inflated sense of grandeur. How true that sentiment remains today.

Lady C

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 represent the Lady Chatterley Trial? How do we determine what is obscene and what should be censored?  In 2019 we begin building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact get involved and submit ideas here

Promo video: Dreams

Dreams

All people dream, but not equally.
Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their mind,
Wake in the morning to find that it was vanity.

But the dreamers of the day are dangerous people,
For they dream their dreams with open eyes,
And make them come true.

According to D.H. Lawrence we all dream, but some dreamers are more unequal than others. There are those who dream at night with their eyes shut, and those who dream in the sun with their eyes wide open. Before we examine this a little deeper, let’s take a moment to reflect on the purpose of sleep given that it has become such a hot topic of late.

Lack of sleep can make us fat. It can increase the risk of a stroke. It can cause depression, etc – you get the picture. Whereas plenty of shuteye can improve concentration and productivity. Sleep functions as a kind of housekeeper that removes toxins in your brain that build up while you are awake. According to neuroscientist Matthew Walker (no relation), lack of suboptimal shut-eye levels can also have an effect on your testicles, and whether you live into your mid 60s. All of this got me thinking about my dad who proudly got by on 4-5 hours a sleep a night. For him, sleeping was an affront to life. You made the most of everyday and maximised the hours. He was overweight, had a stroke and died at 67. But he never suffered from depression and there was nothing wrong with his testicles – he had eight children. He was incredibly productive – running his own business because he hated people telling him what to do. His downfall wasn’t lack of sleep. It was a love of cigars, Mars bars and quadruple whiskies.

I don’t care much for the latest lifestyle tip. I’m old enough to have read that drinking wine is good for your health only for it to be reinvented as middle-class smack. Woe betide anyone taking more than two glugs on a school night. Lawrence would certainly scoff at such advice having lived his entire life in denial at his own poor health. The mere mention of a doctor sent him into a rage. So I doubt he would care to be told how many hours kip he needed to sleep each night.

Dreams, on the other hand, are more complex. They are either a weird by-product of sleep – like plastic is to oil, or some kind of clever programming that functions to preserve the brain, a bit like how a screensaver protects computer monitors from phosphor burn-in when not being used.

Our brains digest so much information throughout the day that it has to be processed somehow.  Take this blog. As I type my brain is also observing a messy desk with coffee stains, the picture of a dinosaur pinned to the wall behind the monitor, tuning into overheard Brexit debates in the office. This irrelevant data has to be classified, ordered and expunged. Dreams, then, are a bit like C Cleaner. They defrag. They take all of this collected information and mash it together into a surreal narrative. In this respect, dreams are incredibly democratic as all of the non-essential data gets a more prominent role when we hit the pillow. Tonight I’ll be dreaming of being chased by a coffee slurping dinosaur screaming ‘remain and you’ll die. Leave and you’ll be free’.

Lawrence wasn’t a fan of democracy, believing, like Nietzsche, that levelling down dimmed the light of those destined to lead. As abhorrent as that might sound to modern ears – and clearly it does have its problems – it needs to be seen in context. Lawrence’s work was censored, banned and vilified for daring to offer alternative ways of living on Planet E. The nation as a democratic ideal was responsible for an ugly passivity that brought about harm to the environment and stifled spiritual growth. Modernity claimed to bring about progress but all this meant was the destruction of the natural landscape, as well as producing bullets and bombs that would kill millions of people in the trenches.

Lawrence had no time for resting his head on a pillow and taking refuge in sleep. There were too many battles to be fought in daylight. We see this in his restlessness, making his way across the globe in search of Rananim, settling nowhere for more than two years, refusing to own property because he knew possessions ended up possessing you. We see it time and again in his novels, not least in Kangaroo where Richard Somers outlines ‘a new religious idea’ that ‘must gradually spring up and ripen before there could be any constructive change. And yet he felt that preaching and teaching were both no good, at the world’s present juncture. There must be action, brave, faithful action: and in the action the new spirit would arise.’

This is why Lawrence remains relevant today. He was a dangerous person in a peaceful sense. He dared to dream with his eyes wide open.

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 convey Lawrence’s ideas about dreaming with your eyes wide open when it’s a lot easier to keep them shut? In 2019 we begin building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact get involved and submit ideas here

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Promo video: We are Transmitters; but what are we transmitting?

D.H. Lawrence is a writer who divides opinion. He may be part of the literary canon, but he’s there begrudgingly, on the margins, peering in and mocking those revelling in their grandeur. For others he must be removed from the canon with haste. He’s sexist, a fascist and many other ‘ists’ that are often born from a simplistic understanding of his work – though not without reason. He is a complex and contradictory writer, adulated and abhorred in equal measures. Most definitely not average.

Ever since F.R Leavis (1955) labelled D.H Lawrence: Novelist, everyone has put claim to one element of his writing as distilling his essence more than others. Dallas Kenmare (1951), in Fire Bird: A Study of D.H Lawrence, would have us believe that everything that Lawrence had to say was contained solely in his poetry. Geoff Dyer (1997), points us towards his letters in Out of Sheer Rage. For others, his travel writing contains a simplicity and clarity of observation that found a more honest mode of expression than those novels that tend to go on a bit. More recently James Moran (2015), a professor of Modern English Literature and Drama at the University of Nottingham, puts the case forward for Lawrence to be recognised for his plays in his study The Theatre of D.H Lawrence, the first major book-length study of DHL’s plays for four decades.

Whatever our opinion of Lawrence, we can agree to disagree. He’s a complex bugger which is why we continue to gossip about him 89 years after his death. This is evident in the poem ‘We are Transmitters’, which, like much of his work, asks us how we want to live while telling us exactly how we should live. In places, it reads like a religious sermon (‘Give, and it shall be given unto you’) it’s imbued with the Protestant work ethic (have pride in your puddings and stool making) and then there’s that stuff about ‘sexless people transmitting nothing’ that will get the ‘ist’ crowd foaming at the lips because the smutty author is at it again. But Lawrence wasn’t really a smutty author. In many ways he was quite a prude. And of course, when he’s talking about ‘sexless people’ he’s not talking about ‘sex’, he’s talking about blood consciousness; ways of being and connecting with the world, and and and…

We are Transmitters

As we live, we are transmitters of life.
And when we fail to transmit life, life fails to flow through us.

That is part of the mystery of sex, it is a flow onwards.
Sexless people transmit nothing.

And if, as we work, we can transmit life into our work,
life, still more life, rushes into us to compensate, to be ready
and we ripple with life through the days.

Even if it is a woman making an apple dumpling, or a man a stool,
if life goes into the pudding, good is the pudding
good is the stool,
content is the woman, with fresh life rippling in to her,
content is the man.

Give, and it shall be given unto you
is still the truth about life.
But giving life is not so easy.
It doesn’t mean handing it out to some mean fool, or letting the living dead eat
you up.
It means kindling the life-quality where it was not,
even if it’s only in the whiteness of a washed pocket-handkerchief.

One of the aims of the D.H. Lawrence memory theatre is to drag Lawrence into the 21st century by transmitting his thoughts across media platforms and in byte-sized chunks that are more accessible to modern audiences. That’s why we’ve started the conversation on Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, here and there. We’re pretty certain he would have hated the digital age, as there’s nothing more sexless and artificial than screens mediating human contact. But he may have enjoyed the freedom of expression it allows, particularly given the lifelong censorship he endured.

Lawrence talked of finding Rananim – a community of like-minded people. He wanted to sail off around the world on a boat, live remotely up mountains, get his hands dirty with peasants in Europe. He was driven to move; attempting to find peace in a post-war world. Now we are doing that virtually and digitally across networks. The usual suspects are still out there trying to influence and manipulate our thoughts, but now they do this more subtly through algorithms. There’s no need to publicly burn books in the age of bots.

karina
Karina Bush. Go check her out at karinabush.com

In this complex, layered network of digital voices, we were sent a message from poet Karina Bush. Like Lawrence, Karina appears to be unsettled (in a good way). Over the last five years she’s lived in Europe, Asia and the US but is ‘not one of those travellers who jumps into a culture with a GoPro on my head’. Recently, Karina has become frustrated with ‘flat writing’ and the constraints of the physical page and is experimenting more with visual poetry. Consequently, she offered to make the abridged version of ‘We are Transmitters’ at the top of this page.

Lawrence, too, experimented with form. Alongside Joyce et al, he helped define new forms of modernist writing that would help us better understand the human condition. Digital should be seen as continuing this journey, this pushing of boundaries. Paul and I did this in Dawn of the Unread through embedded content, so as to create different layers of meaning in a text. Karina is doing it through visual poetry, and graphics that are constantly moving, refusing to be pinned down. We are all transmitters.

There are so many things wrong with our digital lives but there are so many magical things as well. Lawrence would have hated social media, but he’d have been brilliant on Twitter, scalding and lashing out at his peers as he did with his letters. He’d have hated the democratisation of thought but welcomed the freedom of expression. And although being ‘alone together’ online does not constitute proper community, it would be hard to imagine him not enjoying connecting with fellow Blutsbruders across the digital void. He fled across the world trying to find people, now this is being done on forums and digital spaces. The more things change, the more they stay the same. But, whatever mode of expression we adopt, we must be committed and do it well. We must say yes.

dhl Yes we can

This sentiment, outlined in ‘We are Transmitters’, reminds me very much of why Frieda put up with Lawrence’s tantrums. He was a yes man, and his lust for life was infectious – although I suspect Frieda would have preferred a few more orgasms from him too. Frieda wrote: “To me his relationship, his bond with everything in creation was so amazing, no preconceived ideas, just a meeting between him and a creature, a tree, a cloud, anything. I called it love, but it was something else – Bejahung in German, ‘saying yes’.”

 

dhl-trunk vibration noiseIn 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 transmit Lawrence’s ideas and what shape and form should they take? Do we need a bouncer to guard our memory theatre so that sexless people aren’t allowed in? In 2019 we begin building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact get involved and submit ideas here

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Karina Bush is an Irish writer and visual poet born in Belfast and now living in Rome. She is the author of three books, Brain Lace (BareBackPress, 2018), 50 Euro (BareBackPress, 2017), and Maiden (48th Street Press, 2016). She has a new book, Christo & Nicola, forthcoming from Analog Submission Press. For more, visit her website  and Instagram 

Promo video: Good vibrations

D.H. Lawrence lived in Cornwall from 30 December 1915 to 15 October 1917 in what he hoped would be a new beginning. It didn’t quite work out as planned. His short tenure on the edge of Britain would have a profound effect on his ideas, not least his developing fascination with cosmic vibrations and the mysterious secrets of primitive cultures emanating from the dark black granite coastline.

Prior to the move, Lawrence married a German woman called Frieda Weekley, a distant relation of Manfred von Richthofen, the ‘Red Baron’, on 13 July 1914, 15 days before the outbreak of WWI. The Rainbow, published in September 1915 lasted two months in print before being seized under the 1857 Obscene Publications Act. Prosecutor Herbert Musket declared it ‘a mass of obscenity of thought, idea, and action’. Critic JC Squire suggested Lawrence’s characters were under ‘the spell of German psychologists’, for daring to question fundamentals of their life (religion, love, relationships), and by implication were anti-British in nature. Judge Sir John Dickinson therefore ruled that the book ‘had no right to exist in the wind of war’, and that Lawrence was in effect mocking the very principles British men were fighting to defend. With no sense of irony, copies of The Rainbow were publicly burned, while ‘our’ boys fought for freedom on the Western Front.

If this wasn’t enough to rile the easily riled Lawrence, his passport was seized, meaning he was unable to fulfil his dream of moving to Florida to begin a new life, a new way of being. Cornwall represented his stepping stone to this other world. Lawrence described Cornwall as “outside England…Far off from the world”. Nick Ceramella writes that “in those nightmarish Great War years, he thought that Cornwall, with its calm atmosphere, was a welcoming shelter far from the war, the madding London crowd and its intellectuals, and the national institutions.” But he was wrong. He would face more parochial forms of prejudice, and the ignominy of being expelled under the Defence of the Realm Act, all of which would provide material for the ‘Nightmare’ chapter of Kangeroo (1923).

While in Cornwall, Lawrence started to develop his own philosophy of man’s place in the world. He described this as blood consciousness, whereby we should yield to our more inherent and intuitive nature, the opposite of mental consciousness – the kind of logic that resulted in his books being banned. These ideas weren’t new. In 1913 he wrote “My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as wiser than the intellect”. But now he had time to develop it further.

Jane Costin argues that Lawrence’s views on blood consciousness begin to change during his time in Cornwall. In particular, he senses a life force in the rocks, a latent energy that can connect blood consciousness with the primitive tribes that went before. He describes the landscape as belonging “still to the days before Christianity, the days of Druids, or of desolate Celtic magic and conjuring” (2L 493) and that the water “is so white and powerful and incomprehensible under the black rock, that is not of this life. I feel as if there were a strange, savage, unknown God in the foam – heaven knows what God it be” (2L 501).

Lawrence sounds very much like he is undergoing some form of epiphany, inspired by the landscape that is ‘like the first craggy breaking of dawn in the world, a sense of the primeval darkness just behind, before the Creation’. The phoenix is rising.

Lawrence was under an incredible amount of stress during this period, both financially and creatively, so it’s hardly surprising that the environment took on greater resonance. He was also isolated. His hopes of creating Rananim with John Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield were short-lived, forging wounds that never quite healed. It was also difficult for friends to visit due to wartime costs. Two return train tickets from London to Cornwall costs £7 whereas his entire rent of a cottage in 1916 was £5. It is for this reason that Andrew Harrison argues that in analysing Lawrence’s time in Cornwall we must ‘understand how desperately important the idea of Cornwall was to Lawrence.’

zennor 3
Zennor coastal path: photograph James Walker

When Lawrence and Frieda moved to Zennor, they were effectively isolated between the sea and the Moors. A lack of roads meant their cottage was cut off. This allowed the locals to retain old traditions, languages, and a ‘primitive’ way of life that felt very different to the metropolis. Lawrence, believing he had found new kin, would observe that ‘race is ultimately as much a question of place as heredity’.

The Zennor coastline is home to large lumps of granite that Lawrence felt ‘had its own life force’ and sent out ‘vibrations that could be detected by people who were sensitive to their own blood-consciousness and not dominated by mind-consciousness.’

dhl-hope

Lawrence’s essay on Edgar Allen Poe, published in 1918, draws on these feelings developed in Cornwall: ‘Surely all material things have a form of sentience, even the inorganic: surely they all exist in some subtle and complicated tension of vibration which makes them sensitive to external influence and causes them to have an influence on other external objects, irrespective of contact.’

The concept of a vibrating material world would be addressed more thoroughly in Fantasia of the Unconscious (1922), but it also gets a thorough working through in Kangaroo (1923), where we are informed ‘the body has its own rhythm, with the sun and with the moon. The great nerve ganglia and the subtle glands have their regular times and motions, in correspondence with the outer universe’.

The thing is, not everybody is able to tune into these vibrations, as Somers points out in Kangaroo: “I haven’t got only just the two eyes in my head that can tell the kettle from the teapot. I’ve got another set of eyes inside me somewhere that can tell real differences, when there are any. And that’s what these people don’t seem to have at all. They’ve only got the outside eyes.”

kangaroo
Artwork: Dawn of the Unread

Lawrence’s characters, like Lawrence, can be condescending, arrogant and preachy, while warning others not to be condescending, arrogant and preachy. Kangaroo also opens itself up to some pretty harsh criticisms, and rightly so. But if we put the observations of people as ‘ants’ and ‘canaille’ to one side for a moment, the novel is also an attempt to outline a new religious idea. The great ideas of modernity weren’t working and had simply led to war and industrialisation. Radical alternatives were needed, and Lawrence was prepared to offer up suggestions. To do this, he draws heavily on his experiences of Cornwall and WWI in Kangaroo.

Richard Lovat Somers is a bearded ‘thought adventurer’ essayist and poet who has left England after being detained there during World War I. He was harassed for his independent ideas and his political opinions and faced prejudice and suspicion because he was married to a German wife. Sound like someone we know….

Somers is frustrated by his contemporaries who he diplomatically describes as ‘carrion-eating, filthy-mouthed canaille, like dead-man-devouring jackals’. Realising he can’t change the rest of humanity – and that they’re probably not worth saving anyway – he discovers the great secret: ‘to stand alone as his own judge of himself’ and to leave ‘the mongrel-mouthed world’ to ‘say and do what it liked’.

Somers is absolutely seething at how he has been treated by humanity and can feel his spine sending ‘out vibrations that should annihilate them–blot them out, the canaille, stamp them into the mud they belonged to’. But we also learn that having a proper strop is actually very cathartic: ‘the death-hot lava pours loose into the deepest reservoirs of the soul. One day to erupt: or else to go hard and rocky, dead’. i.e. We can either use our rage to transform ourselves or we can allow it to solidify and render us passive.

It’s at this point in the book that some readers will have had enough of Somers tantrums and thrown the novel onto the fire. Mistake. This is the exact moment the novel takes on another layer of sophistication and broadens out into a scathing attack of ideology. ‘Say what you like, every idea is perishable: even the idea of God or Love or Humanity or Liberty–even the greatest idea has its day and perishes. Each formulated religion is in the end only a great idea. Once the idea becomes explicit, it is dead’.

Yes, we must have ideas but ‘persisting in an old, defunct ideal’ is what eventually brought down Rome, Constantinople, the Byzantine Empire, and ‘now our turn’. Can we apply this logic to the current political climate? Is capitalism, monarchy, national identity, gender, or the EU (I voted remain BTW) defunct ideals that are no longer worth persisting in? Answers on a postcard please…

Somers warns us (sounding a bit like a trailer for the new series of Game of Thrones) ‘If you sow the dragon’s teeth, you mustn’t expect lilies of the valley to spring up in sweet meekness’, therefore he decides to cut himself off from humanity altogether, and focus his attention on ‘the old dark gods, who had waited so long in the outer dark’. Winter is definitely coming…

The God in church is an ideal God. A product of mental consciousness. A human, oh so human invention. As is the money God, and modernity with its fallacious claims of progress. We are all wrapped up in our ‘nice, complete, homely universe’, worrying about ‘running their trains and making their wars and saving the world for democracy’ and consequently do not hear the ‘throb-throb-throb’ of something else calling. This throbbing, this vibration, offers a different way of being, a different connection with the world, and a way of acknowledging a dark unknowable God.

dhl-trunk vibration noiseIn the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts to try to understand this complex writer. How do we get across these cosmic vibrations and connections with the old dark Gods? Is there a place for blood consciousness and if so, how do we convey this? In 2019 we begin building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact get involved and submit ideas here

Other promo videos

Promo video: Green by D.H. Lawrence

In our third blog exploring Look! We Have Come Through! we have created a YouTube short (thanks Izaak Bosman) to celebrate the poem ‘Green’. This was originally published in the Poetry Review (1914) and then in an anthology of imagist poetry in 1916, meaning that Lawrence could no longer be simply cast as a Georgian poet.

Lawrence started and ended his career with verse, writing around 750 poems. One of his earliest collections was Look! We have come through! which was written between 1911 and 1917 and followed on the tails of Love Poems and Amores.

In the forward to the collection, Lawrence states ‘These poems should not be considered separately, as so many single pieces. They are intended as an essential story, or history, or confession, unfolding one from the other in organic development, the whole revealing the intrinsic experience of a man during the crisis of manhood, when he marries and comes into himself. The period covered is, roughly, the sixth lustre of a man’s life.’

Graham Hough describes the collection as ‘simply the development of an intelligible train of feeling through a number of fragmentary occasions’. These fragmentary occasions are mainly structured between 1912-14, the period when Frieda Weekley left her husband and three children and eloped with Lawrence, before marrying him once her divorce came through. Consequently, the poems were written on the hoof in Germany, Austria and Italy.  Given the scandal their relationship aroused, it’s not surprising that Bertrand Russell chose to snort ‘They may have come through, but I don’t see why I should look.’

The collection includes this somewhat unnecessary ‘argument’ before the poems, detailing Lawrence’s relationship verbatim. ‘After much struggling and loss in love and in the world of man, the protagonist throws in his lot with a woman who is already married. Together they go into another country, she perforce leaving her children behind. The conflict of love and hate goes on between the man and the woman, and between these two and the world around them, till it reaches some sort of conclusion, they transcend into some condition of blessedness.’

Perhaps to get across this struggle, Lawrence uses free verse (which doesn’t adhere to set structures) having previously used closed forms. The flexibility of form allows him to articulate, in the immediate, the trials and tribulations of love as two people struggle to unite their wills. As Joyce Carol Oats notes, ‘For Lawrence, as for Nietzsche, it is the beauty and mystery of flux, of “Becoming,” that enchants us; not permanence, not “Being.” Permanence exists only in the conscious mind and is a structure erected to perfection, therefore airless and stultifying.

One poem in the collection that particularly stands out is ‘Green’. This was published in an anthology of imagist poetry, Des Imagistes (1916), meaning that Lawrence could no longer be simply cast as a Georgian poet. Imagism, according to the British Library, ‘was a small but influential poetry movement that flourished between 1912 and 1917. It was crucial in the development of modernist literature. Rebelling against Romantic and Victorian verbosity, Imagists abandoned poetic metre and traditional narratives. Instead they cultivated short, exact poems in vers libre (free verse) built around distilled, emotionally-intense single images that often depicted the natural world. They drew influence from Japanese haiku as well as ancient Greek lyric poetry’. However, the Modernist Journals Project states that ‘Imagism was anything but a cohesive movement’ and instead ‘resembles a Gerhard Richter painting, a fuzzy work of art undertaken by several artists with different styles over a long period of time, or perhaps a William Burroughs-like cut-up composition aimlessly meandering in search of the “image.”’

frieda green

The inspiration for ‘Green’ was Frieda’s eyes, which Lawrence compares to dawn. Dawn represents the beginning of an unknown new day, and her eyes represent a new unknown love: ‘For the first time, now for the first time seen.’ The use of assonance throughout the short poem (green, between, seen/ sun, undone) helps weave these elements (love, new day, nature) together through the colour green. If green were to be used in Georgian poetry it would most likely be as a reference to nature and fields. Here it is something more spiritual, more transient, a ‘becoming’ to use Joyce Carol Oates expression.

The imagists were established by Ezra Pound in 1912 in opposition to the perceived parochial outlook of the Georgian poets. Lawrence may very well have been included, along with other established names such as Richard Adlington, as a means of validating this new poetic movement. His books may have been banned and burned, but his reputation was a commodity always ready to be exploited. This was certainly the case with the publication of Look! We Have Come Through! which Andrew Nash has argued was taken on by Chatto and Windus as a means of resurrecting an otherwise dying brand. Frank Swinnerton, part of their new editorial board, agreed to publishing Lawrence ‘on the ground that Lawrence’s name would be valuable to our list’. There is no such thing as a bad reputation.

It’s worth noting that another seminal Nottingham writer, Alan Sillitoe, refers to Doreen’s eyes in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), as ‘green like novelty matches’. Clearly this colour means a lot to folk from the East Midlands.

dhl-trunk GREENIn the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts to try to understand this complex writer.  Was he a Georgian poet, or an Imagist, or simply someone who defied categorisation? How do we incorporate the colour green into our design? 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.

Related Reading

Promo Youtube shorts

Promo video: Figs – a very secretive fruit

Ficus carica L., aka the fig, was so popular 9,000 years ago that folk in Palestine lined them up in groves to ensure local supplies were met, thereby predating grain cultivation. D.H. Lawrence would have admired the fig during his Italian sojourn, but it only made its way into Europe during the 15th century after being plundered from Persia, Asia Minor and Syria. The above video was created to celebrate Lawrence’s seductive ode to this sun-ripened fruit, but the fig has been a source of reverence for centuries. Figs have come to symbolise fertility, peace and prosperity in many world religions, including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism and Buddhism. In Ancient Greece, athletes scoffed as many as they could get their hands on, believing it would enhance speed and strength. King Nebuchadnezzar II had them planted in the hanging gardens of Babylon whereas Egyptian kings were buried with them to please the mother goddess Hathor who would emerge from a mythic fig tree to welcome them into the afterlife. Figs also appear in the Old and New Testament, offering remedies for illness – both medical and social. Hezekiah, King of Judah, recovered from a plague of boils after his servants applied a paste of crushed figs to his skin. Whereas the fig leaf provided Adam and Eve with a bit of dignity after an apple left them rotten to the core. Or as Lawrence puts it: ‘She got the fact on her mind, and quickly sewed fig-leaves/ And women have been sewing ever since’.

Hathor
Egyptian goddess Hathor pops out of a Fig tree to greet you in the afterlife. Nice.

Although Lawrence’s naughty poem has become synonymous with the fig, it appears elsewhere in literature. In The Bell Jar (1963), Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel about a young woman’s descent into madness, Esther encounters a fig tree and later reflects ‘I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story’. But it is best known in the 5th century epic poem The Mahavamsa, which covers the early history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, and sees the Buddha gaining enlightenment under a fig tree.

Lawrence writes that ‘The fig is a very secretive fruit,’ so secretive in fact that it defies definition. Ben Crair, writing in The New Yorker, explains ‘a clever botanist would sell them at the florist, with the fresh-cut roses’. This is because a fig is technically a ball of flowers, with enclosed flowers that bloom inwards or as Lawrence writes ‘There was a flower that flowered inward, womb-ward;/ Now there is a fruit like a ripe womb’.

This unique fruit, I mean flower – or more accurately a syconium, requires pollination to reproduce and this can only be done by a fig wasp which is just small enough to crawl inside. And not just any fig wasp by the way! Each of the 750 varieties has its own unique species of fig wasp to do the business. So next time you sink your teeth into the ‘glittering, rosy, moist, honied, heavy-petalled’ interior, remember you are most likely chomping into a female fig wasp that got stuck.

Mike Shanahan in Ladders to Heaven explains that this process of codependent evolution has been going on for sixty million years. The fig, unlike seasonal fruit, can be found all year round, making it a vital food source for over 1300 bird and mammal species. High in potassium, iron, fiber, and plant calcium, it has also been essential to survival of certain species in times of want. A 2003 study of Uganda’s Budongo Forest found that figs were ‘the sole source of fruit for chimpanzees at certain times of year’. I doubt these species would care to be instructed on the best way to eat this keystone fruit as Lawrence does in his poem, taking the Italians to task:  ‘But the vulgar way/ Is just to put your mouth to the crack, and take out the flesh in one bite.’

Mike Shanahan is particularly enamoured with the Strangler breed of fig which grows ‘from seeds dropped high on other trees by passing birds and mammals. By starting out high in the forest canopy instead of on its gloomy floor, the strangler seedlings get the light they need to grow with vigour. As they do, they send down aerial roots that become thick and woody, encasing their host trees in a living mesh. They can even smother and kill giant trees, growing into colossal forms’. Shanahan also points out that the struggles faced by the Strangler fig would inspire the British biologist Alfred Russel Wallace to develop his own theory of evolution by natural selection, independently of Charles Darwin. High-energy figs may also have helped our ancestors to develop bigger brains.

However you eat yours, and for whatever purpose, we hope you enjoy our short video, lovingly put together by Izaak Bosman.

OTHER PROMO VIDEOS

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 playfulness in poems such as Figs? Does the poem draw out important issues regarding nudity and shame or does the idea that ‘ripe figs won’t keep’ chide with modern attitudes towards female sexual identity? Just as Figs have been around for centuries, so to women have faced centuries of insults. 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.

 

Figs

D.H. Lawrence

The proper way to eat a fig, in society,

Is to split it in four, holding it by the stump,

And open it, so that it is a glittering, rosy, moist, honied, heavy-petalled four-petalled flower.

Then you throw away the skin

Which is just like a four-sepalled calyx,

After you have taken off the blossom, with your lips.

But the vulgar way

Is just to put your mouth to the crack, and take out the flesh in one bite.

Every fruit has its secret.

The fig is a very secretive fruit.

As you see it standing growing, you feel at once it is symbolic :

And it seems male.

But when you come to know it better, you agree with the Romans, it is female.

The Italians vulgarly say, it stands for the female part ; the fig-fruit :

The fissure, the yoni,

The wonderful moist conductivity towards the centre.

Involved,

Inturned,

The flowering all inward and womb-fibrilled ;

And but one orifice.

The fig, the horse-shoe, the squash-blossom.

Symbols.

There was a flower that flowered inward, womb-ward ;

Now there is a fruit like a ripe womb.

It was always a secret.

That’s how it should be, the female should always be secret.

There never was any standing aloft and unfolded on a bough

Like other flowers, in a revelation of petals ;

Silver-pink peach, venetian green glass of medlars and sorb-apples,

Shallow wine-cups on short, bulging stems

Openly pledging heaven :

Here’s to the thorn in flower ! Here is to Utterance !

The brave, adventurous rosaceæ.

Folded upon itself, and secret unutterable,

And milky-sapped, sap that curdles milk and makes ricotta,

Sap that smells strange on your fingers, that even goats won’t taste it ;

Folded upon itself, enclosed like any Mohammedan woman,

Its nakedness all within-walls, its flowering forever unseen,

One small way of access only, and this close-curtained from the light ;

Fig, fruit of the female mystery, covert and inward,

Mediterranean fruit, with your covert nakedness,

Where everything happens invisible, flowering and fertilization, and fruiting

In the inwardness of your you, that eye will never see

Till it’s finished, and you’re over-ripe, and you burst to give up your ghost.

Till the drop of ripeness exudes,

And the year is over.

And then the fig has kept her secret long enough.

So it explodes, and you see through the fissure the scarlet.

And the fig is finished, the year is over.

That’s how the fig dies, showing her crimson through the purple slit

Like a wound, the exposure of her secret, on the open day.

Like a prostitute, the bursten fig, making a show of her secret.

That’s how women die too.

The year is fallen over-ripe,

The year of our women.

The year of our women is fallen over-ripe.

The secret is laid bare.

And rottenness soon sets in.

The year of our women is fallen over-ripe.

When Eve once knew in her mind that she was naked

She quickly sewed fig-leaves, and sewed the same for the man.

She’d been naked all her days before,

But till then, till that apple of knowledge, she hadn’t had the fact on her mind.

She got the fact on her mind, and quickly sewed fig-leaves.

And women have been sewing ever since.

But now they stitch to adorn the bursten fig, not to cover it.

They have their nakedness more than ever on their mind,

And they won’t let us forget it.

Now, the secret

Becomes an affirmation through moist, scarlet lips

That laugh at the Lord’s indignation.

What then, good Lord ! cry the women.

We have kept our secret long enough.

We are a ripe fig.

Let us burst into affirmation.

They forget, ripe figs won’t keep.

Ripe figs won’t keep.

Honey-white figs of the north, black figs with scarlet inside, of the south.

Ripe figs won’t keep, won’t keep in any clime.

What then, when women the world over have all bursten into affirmation?

And bursten figs won’t keep?

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.

 

Promo video: The English are so Nice (so very very nice)

 

The English weren’t very nice to D.H. Lawrence. They booted him out of Cornwall during WWI under the pretence of being a spy. They censored his work and banned his books. When he exhibited his art at the Warren Gallery, thirteen of his paintings were seized and placed in a prison cell for daring to show pubic hair. The English weren’t very nice to D.H. Lawrence and so he let them know in this wonderfully acidic poem.

The above video includes footage of some very nice English people. Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary who recently referred to Muslim people as ‘letterboxes’ on account of their cultural dress; Nigel Farage, that very nice Englishman who has fought for British independence from the E.U while drawing a European paypacket in the process; and let’s not forget Keith Vaz, the extremely nice politician who met Romanians at Luton airport on 1 January 2014 to tell them how welcome they were to the country. Yes, England continues to remain a very nice country and our current batch of politicians seem to be even nicer than the nice English people Lawrence mentions below.

The English are so nice
so awfully nice
they are the nicest people in the world.

And what’s more, they’re very nice about being nice
about your being nice as well!
If you’re not nice they soon make you feel it.

Americans and French and Germans and so on
they’re all very well
but they’re not really nice, you know.
They’re not nice in our sense of the word, are they now?

That’s why one doesn’t have to take them seriously.
We must be nice to them, of course,
of course, naturally.
But it doesn’t really matter what you say to them,
they don’t really understand
you can just say anything to them:
be nice, you know, just nice
but you must never take them seriously, they wouldn’t understand,
just be nice, you know! Oh, fairly nice,
not too nice of course, they take advantage
but nice enough, just nice enough
to let them feel they’re not quite as nice as they might be.

 

Other short Promo videos from our YouTube channel D.H. Lawrence: A Digital Pilgrimage.

Promo video: Jelly-boned swines

DH Lawrence was a man famed for his rage. When I was the literature editor for LeftLion magazine I created a feature called The Endless Rage of DH Lawrence, whereby we had him mouthing off about modern problems. It was great fun to write, and a weird experience as I spent a lot of my time wondering what Lawrence would say if he was asked if he wanted a carrier bag after purchasing a pack of chewing gum in Tescos. How he would loathe the incompetence of modern life.

Lawrence’s rages could consist of an irrational outburst or simply scalding someone because he disagreed with their view point. But often his rage was born out of frustration. Take June of 1912 as an example. Lawrence had fallen in love with Frieda Weekley, a married woman and mother of three children. He persuaded Frieda to run away with him but her husband, Ernest, wasn’t making things easy for them, demanding that his wife return home or else she would never see her children again. Their affair was an absolute scandal, especially given the taboos around divorce and the prevailing morality of the time. Lawrence also had the first draft of his third novel, Sons and Lovers, rejected by William Heinemann. He needed the money in order to provide for Frieda, and so these two issues culminated in an explosive volley of vitriol to Edward Garnett, his friend and literary editor, on 3 July, 1912.

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

I could curse for hours and hours — God help me.”

We’ve taken a few extracts from the letter and included it in the video above, which you can also find on our Instagram account. We absolutely love Lawrence when he’s in a rage. Nobody else can do spiteful and witty like him. This scathing attack on his perceived enemies suggests if Lawrence were alive today, he’d hold his own in a rap battle!

In the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to think differently about literary criticism. Instead of following a traditional linear narrative, such as a biography, we want to tell Lawrence’s life through artefacts. We believe that this is the best way to represent a complex and contradictory life. But how do we capture this rage? Perhaps we will have a drawer in our memory theatre that doesn’t quite open so that audiences get frustrated trying to interact with it. Or maybe we need a rage-ometer that calculates the velocity of Lawrence’s moods at different periods in his life. And how about your own rage? Do we need some kind of recording device so that the public can vent off about Brexit, zero hour contracts, and being forced to hear about Kim Kardashian every time we switch on the TV?

The above short is our first real promotional video for the project and one that we hope will encourage you to submit an idea that captures this most entertaining element of Lawrence’s life. The video editing was by a very talented 2nd year English student called Izaak Bosman. It was originally created for our instagram account but we’ve also reformatted it to include it on our YouTube channel.

Now get angry…

dhl-trunkIn the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts.  Was Lawrence’s rage some kind of coping mechanism, or was he genuinely angered by those around him? Can we trace particular moments when he was at his angriest? Perhaps we could all do with being a bit angrier today instead of hiding behind our glossy online avatars and disingenuous status updates. 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 short Promo videos from our YouTube channel D.H. Lawrence: A Digital Pilgrimage.