Student Essay: Lawrence as an eco-critical writer.

Tayla-Sam Malyon is an English student at Nottingham Trent University. As part of her dissertation she was asked to create a visual essay that explored one aspect of Lawrence’s work. She decided to explore Lawrence as an ecocritical writer through the poem Snake. You can see this and other visual essays created by students at our YouTube channel: D.H.Lawrence: A Digital Pilgrimage.  

Written whilst Lawrence was in Sicily in 1923, Birds Beast and Flowers is a collection of poems that encapsulates not only Lawrence’s adoration for nature but his growing consciousness of the implications of humans on wildlife. Snake is probably the most famous poem in the collection and captures the moment a man encounters a snake at a water trough.

The narrator is in two minds about the snake, in some parts of the poem he seems to be admiring the snake referring to him as a “king” and “god”, and in others “the voice of [his] education [is saying to him] He must be killed”. In Reversing The Fall: The sense of place in D.H Lawrence, John Middleton Murray claims, “man has two distinct fields of consciousness, two living minds” he likens one to our human nature, a primary mind and one as the secondary mind, which is all that we are taught by society. We can see Lawrence representing both these ‘minds’ or states of consciousness through the admiration yet fear of the snake. According to Lawrence Buell, a pioneer of ecocriticism, the four characteristics that make a text environmentally aware are as follows:

  1. The nonhuman environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history.
  2. The human interest is not understood to be the only legitimate interest.
  3. Human accountability to the environment is part of the [preferred] text’s ethical orientation.
  4. Some sense of the environment as a process rather than as a constant or a given is at least implicit in the text.

There is a sense of the above-mentioned biocentrism here as Lawrence genders the snake ‘him’ while also referring to it as ‘someone’. When he waits for it to finish drinking, it gives the impression there’s an equality between them. At first he shows the snake respect, “someone was before me at my water trough, And I, like a second-comer, waiting”. However, as the poem progresses, seemingly out of nowhere, the narrator becomes aggressive and throws a log to scare the snake away. He goes on to scorn his “human education” for making him commit such a “mean act”. This shows the human accountability Buell mentions when characterising environmental texts. Furthermore, we get a sense that Lawrence is aware the cracks in the earth serve as a home for the snake and not a known place he can describe as a ‘framing device’, “out the dark door of the secret earth”.

Poorani claims “The ecocritical interpretation manifests the destructive tendency and loss of humanitarianism towards the benevolent nature”. Looking at Snake through an eco-critical lens, Lawrence appears to be highlighting the disturbed balance between nature and humans, condemning how we have come into their habitat yet are taught to scare them out of it instead of living harmoniously.

dhl-trunk GREENTo 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.  

On the Dangerous Ambiguity of the prefix ‘Eco’

DHL Boot
I found this uncredited image at Sott.net and changed the colours/filters and added the Phoenix symbol.

In this guest blog, Stephen Alexander, author of Torpedo the Ark, questions the use of the prefix ‘eco’ for a wider discussion around language and fascism, blood and soil.

Many scholars – including some who should know better – continue to fetishise the prefix eco- and think that by simply placing it in front of words including criticism, feminism, and politics, they can sex-up their research and immediately make it seem more vital and contemporary.

But ecological thinking – which, ironically, often prides itself on being radical – has a long and essentially conservative history that can be traced back to figures on the völkisch far-right keen to promote a pessimistic vision of the world that is not only anti-urban, anti-capitalist and anti-science, but fundamentally illiberal and anti-humanist in character. Indeed, whilst this post-Romantic German tradition pre-dates National Socialism, it was nevertheless within the Third Reich that such thinking was first put into practice and formed a key component of Nazi aesthetics and ideology.    

Now, of course, I’m not suggesting that a concern for the environment automatically makes one a fascist. But I am pointing out that nature-based ideologies are very often used to legitimate Social Darwinist beliefs and that many reactionaries have called for a neo-feudalism based upon rural values and natural divisions. We can see this in the work of two figures closely associated with ecologism in England during the inter-war period – John Hargrave and Rolf Gardiner.

The former was convinced that modern life had produced a ‘mentally and physically deficient race’ that couldn’t even be relied upon to breed sufficiently. A self-declared pantheist and Anglo-Saxon nationalist, Hargrave hoped to create a new national myth or substitute folk-memory for the English. To this end, he founded a movement in the 1920s – the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift – which was meant to establish a counter-culture founded upon ‘the distinctive German brand of serious nature-worship’.

In practice, this meant that members spent most of their time hiking, camping, or making their own clothes, but they lent all their activities an earnest spiritual significance that rather absurdly combined Native American ritual with Norse mythology. Although they never numbered more than a few hundred members, the KKK could claim several public figures as supporters, including Havelock Ellis, Julian Huxley, and H. G. Wells. D. H. Lawrence was at least partly sympathetic. In a letter to Rolf Gardiner, he wrote:

‘I read the Kibbo Kift book with a good deal of interest. Of course it won’t work: not quite flesh and blood. […] The man alternates between idealism pure and simple, and a sort of mummery, and then a compromise with practicality. What he wants is all right – I agree with him on the whole, and respect him as a straightforward fighter. But he knows there’s no hope […] And therefore, underneath, he’s full of hate.’[1]

By the outbreak of the Second World War, Hargrave had become increasingly isolated and irrelevant on the political scene. And by the end of the War he’d found his true calling as a faith healer and eco-mystic.

As for Rolf Gardiner, Lawrence profoundly influenced the thinking of a man who would become one of the founders of the Soil Association in 1945. But what really interests is how easily Gardiner also came under the sway of National Socialism. Always an active Germanophile and Nordicist, Gardiner became a fervent exponent of Blut und Boden in England in the 1930s and dreamt of an Anglo-German political union.

His major written work, published in 1932 and dedicated to Lawrence, is a semi-religious work entitled World Without End. In it, Gardiner calls for a spiritual rebirth and a new attitude towards ‘nature, the soil, to sex and to politics’.

Whilst, to his credit, he rejected any ‘nonsensical racial theory’ – not least because of his own half-Jewish background – he nevertheless enthusiastically greeted the Nazi assumption of power in 1933 and was soon on warm personal terms with the Nazi Minister for Agriculture Walther Darré. Both men agreed on the importance of living according to ecological law, which, of necessity, means the subjection of the individual to the ‘larger organic authority’ of the Natural Order.[2]

In sum: we all need to exercise caution before we take an ecocritical turn – because you never know where it might lead …

dhl-trunk GREENIn the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts to try to understand this complex writer.  How do we capture his views on nature and alternative living while exercising caution about using the prefix ‘eco’? What would the Kibbo Kift have looked like if it’d been devised by Lawrence? 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.

REFERENCES

[1] D. H. Lawrence, The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, Vol. VI,  ed. James T. Boulton and Margaret H. Boulton with Gerald M Lacy, (Cambridge University Press, 1991). Letter 4268, dated 16 January 1928, pp. 267-68.

[2] Gardiner was also an associate of Lord Lymington and the rather sinister English Array. A journal edited by Lymington, The New Pioneer, to which Gardiner was a frequent contributor, affirmed a form of eco-nationalism in which an analogy was drawn between farm and nation, effectively transforming citizens into livestock. For further details on this and many of the other points discussed here, see Anna Bramwell’s Ecology in the Twentieth Century: A History (Yale University Press, 1989) and her earlier work Blood and Soil: Walther Darré and Hitler’s Green Party (Kensal Press, 1985). Readers of Lawrence interested in his relationship to German culture and his green critique of industrialism and technology, should also see Anne Fernihough’s D. H. Lawrence: Aesthetics and Ideology, (Oxford University Press, 1993).