How to celebrate heritage when your subject is ‘nomadic to the point of frenzy’

In November 2020 I gave a talk to the London Group of the D.H. Lawrence Society about progress of the D.H. Lawrence Memory Theatre. This is a project that Paul Fillingham and I have been working on for five years or so now. But the main purpose of the talk was to discuss the best way to celebrate heritage. This is a subject I’m very passionate about. Here’s a couple of examples of how it can go horribly wrong.

Culture imposed from above

Culture that’s imposed from above can cause antagonism and resentment. An example of this would be a sculpture plonked into a community with little consultation or awareness of those left to gawp at it every day. Instead of inspiring individuals, it becomes a totem of discontent: ‘the money would have been better spent cleaning up graffiti’; ‘they could have built a playpark for kids’, etc. An example of this is Jean-Pierre Raynaud’s Dialogue with History (1987) which attempted to commemorate the arrival of French settlers to Canada through a series of white cubes but looked like a Rubik’s Cube with the colour stickers peeled off. Nicknamed the toilet, it was criticized for failing to fit in with its 18th century surroundings. It was flattened in 2015.

Vanity projects for the artist

Some heritage is so divisive that discussions focus on the artist rather than the subject. An example of this is Maggi Hambling’s naked statue of feminist pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). It is appalling. Can you imagine someone commissioning a naked statue of Winston Churchill or Oliver Cromwell? Of course not. It wouldn’t happen. Hambling argued that her Silver Surfer statue wasn’t meant to represent Wollstonecraft, rather it’s for her. “Clothes define people,” she said, “As she’s Everywoman, I’m not defining her in any particular clothes.” But she’s not everywoman. She is slender, well- toned and perfectly formed. She is drawn from the male gaze, reinforcing the perfect body types that have oppressed women for decades. In terms of arousing public disgust, it is more offensive than Vasile Gorduz’s naked monument to Romania’s stray dogs, which is quite a feat…

The same old same old

Blue plaques and statues are great for selfies but rarely serve their purpose –capturing the spirit or essence of the person they claim to be celebrating. There is also a danger of over celebrating the life of a famous individual, and this is a problem I have with D.H. Lawrence’s birthplace of Eastwood.

Eastwood is in danger of becoming a Disney Park to Lawrence. Café’s, the Rainbow bus line, the Phoenix snooker hall, the local Wetherspoon, all bear some relation to his life and work. Some of this is done well, others not so. It must be suffocating for the locals to be constantly reminded of the man who couldn’t wait to get away from the place they are all stuck in during lockdown.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that we are celebrating our literary heritage and the Midlands should definitely aim for an equivalent of Bronte country or Hardy’s Wessex. But I just don’t think another statue will do it– the idea banded about by each new incoming Broxtowe MP. I explained why in a recent talk via Zoom to the London branch of the D.H. Lawrence Society.

Literary heritage requires imagination. D.H. Lawrence was a writer who was, according to Geoff Dyer, ‘nomadic to the point of frenzy’. He never settled in one place for more than two years and never owned any property. Despite this, heritage determines we render him static in perpetuity. If we are to celebrate Lawrence’s life, we need the form to reflect the content. We need something mobile, not static. This is the rationale behind the D.H. Lawrence Memory Theatre. It is a moveseum if you will; a travelling art exhibition modelled on Lawrence’s personal travel trunk, that curates Lawrence’s life through artefacts. It will retrace Lawrence’s steps across Europe and beyond, if and when we ever send Covid packing…

This project is not imposed from above but from within. It is a conversation. We want to create a space for many voices to think through the life of this contradictory and complex character. One artefact I want to include in the memory theatre is rage and so the talk helped generate reasons for Lawrence’s rage as well as ways that we can represent this as an artefact. You can read more about the talk in Catherine Brown’s review here.

Further Reading

Elliott Morsia on applying genetic criticism to the work of D.H. Lawrence.

Elliot Morsia specialises in Modernist and Contemporary Literature. In this interview he discusses The Many Drafts of D. H. Lawrence: Creative Flux, Genetic Dialogism, and the Dilemma of Endings, recently published by Bloomsbury.

Tell us a bit about yourself… 

I am half English (mother) and half Italian (father). I was born in London, where my family are mostly from – half having emigrated from Italy in the 60s – but I grew up in Kent on the south coast, before returning to London for university. I stayed in and around London while completing BA, MA and PhD degrees in English Literature and working for a year. I then moved to Oxfordshire to begin working for Routledge, where I have now been for a few years.

How did the book come about?

The seed of the book was an MA dissertation, which introduced ‘genetic criticism’ to Lawrence by focusing on the different versions of his little-known but enchanting short story ‘The Shades of Spring’ (itself a kind of forerunner for Lady Chatterley).

This book is the first to apply analytical methods from the field of genetic criticism to the Lawrence archives. What exactly is genetic criticism and why did you use this approach?  

Genetic criticism is a relatively new way of reading, interpreting and studying literature. To do genetic criticism you simply follow the writing process/es for a particular work across manuscript drafts and alternative versions, rather than focusing your attention exclusively on one particular, final, published text. I came to do this in an organic way. I read Lawrence very widely and found traditional critical approaches, which focus on particular static texts too limiting. This eventually led me to genetic criticism, which focuses on dynamic texts. I find the approach equally liberating for any other author who possesses an archive. For example, I have also published a ‘genetic’ essay on David Foster Wallace, a very different author from Lawrence (though they do share archives (in the Harry Ransom Centre) and forenames).

The book unearths and re-evaluates a variety of themes in Lawrence’s work. Could you briefly tell us a little about these themes and why you chose them?  

I discuss a range of well-known themes – like love, sexuality, the body, death – in a new way throughout the book by showing how these develop and morph across Lawrence’s drafts and alternative versions. I also pick up on lesser-known or completely overlooked themes, many of which are very important, like depression, or the problem of endings. However, one key theme which the book unearths is the opposition and interplay between flux and stasis, or process and product.

The book highlights how the very distinction between ‘process’ and ‘product’ became a central theme in Lawrence’s work.  Please could you tell us a bit more about this distinction?  

You can see this distinction in the very structure of Lawrence’s fiction, which so often switches between intense passages of dialogue (flux) and calm descriptive passages (stasis). This distinction, and rhythm, is also reflected in the writing processes, where the passages of dialogue are very often rewritten and revised, whereas descriptive passages are more often left intact. The theme is also reflected in the content itself. If you take Women in Love as the canonical example (and I think Women in Love is a terribly underrated novel, despite its acclaim; it is arguably the greatest novel of the 20th century!), the opposition between flux and stasis dominates much of the novel, from societal ills and relationships to the fate of individual characters, and Lawrence’s revisions and rewritings emphasize and shed light on this. The iconic episode in the chapter ‘Moony’, where Birkin stones the moon’s reflected image, is one of many examples which I discuss in the book.

Why do you think Lawrence had dilemma’s about finishing a piece of work? Is this something all writers go through (in that a book is never really finished because we constantly change as people) or was this type of dilemma distinct to him?   

Lawrence rewrote the ending of each of the works which I look at in this book multiple times and it is probably the single most heavily rewritten section in each work. While revision and rewriting is almost universal to writers, it is a distinct dilemma to Lawrence in that Lawrence so often writes about the aforementioned opposition between flux and stasis and generally sides with what he sees as creative flux over deathly stasis. Rendering his own creative life into static, finished products of literature was therefore a kind of paradox for Lawrence, and I think his often carefree or even disdainful attitude towards his own works is a result of this dilemma.  I discuss this dilemma in a few places in the book and focus on it almost exclusively in Chapter 8 (‘Writing an Ending’).

Was there one piece of work that Lawrence re-wrote more than others? 

Something I emphasize in the book is just how frequently and intensely Lawrence rewrote his work. Aside from manuscript drafts, Lawrence also published alternative versions of many poems and short stories, and attempted to get earlier versions of one or two of the novels published, too. That said, he worked on various versions of Women in Love over the best part of eight years (sadly destroying many hundreds of manuscript pages), so that is probably the one I would single out above all others.

Why is Lawrence an important writer to you?   

As I emphasize in the book, Lawrence is unique in the sheer breadth and extent of his work, which is acclaimed across almost the entire range of writing categories (letters, travel writing, psychology, history, poetry, long and short fiction, journalistic articles, literary criticism, and more), as well as his humble working-class origins, and, despite being slightly awkwardly grouped with ‘Modernist’ literature, there is a humble degree of accessibility to all of his work. And yet, despite all the reams and reams of writing, there is rarely any sense of tiredness or pessimism to be found in Lawrence (these are more likely to be subjected to rage, which is itself a kind of positive emotion in Lawrence!). To be slightly less uncouth, I also think there is a fascinating element of depth and complexity in Lawrence’s writings, a sense of impending revelation, to rival or surpass any of his great Modernist contemporaries.

You can purchase Elliott’s book from Bloomsbury for £76.50 .You can visit his website here