#30WildBooks Lawrence, otherness and Moby Dick

30dayswild Moby Dick

Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust are hoping to increase our understanding of the value of nature and issues facing wildlife by suggesting 30 books to read throughout June (#30WildBooks). One writer not on their list is DH Lawrence. If he were to be included in a future campaign I would recommend Birds, Beasts and Flowers (1923) which, based on his experiences of the Mediterranean and the American Southwest, explores the poetry of nature and the otherness of the non-human world. But pick up any work by Lawrence and you’ll find a writer completely connected to his immediate environment. His Midlands novels explore the destruction of “the country of my heart” and the dehumanising effects of industrialisation, whereas his debut novel, The White Peacock (1911) includes references to over 140 different plants, flowers and trees.

“Under the froth of flowers were the purple vetch-clumps, yellow milk vetches, and the scattered pink of the wood-betony, and the floating stars of marguerites. There was a weight of honeysuckle on the hedges, where pink roses were waking up for their broad-spread flight through the day. Morning silvered the swaths of the far meadow, and swept in smooth, brilliant curves round the stones of the brook; morning ran in my veins; morning chased the silver, darting fish out of the depth, and I, who saw them, snapped my fingers at them, driving them back.” The White Peacock.

Lawrence’s short stories Adolf (rabbit) and Rex (dog) explore his childhood relationship with animals. In Adolf his father brings home a nearly-dead rabbit he’d found on his walk home. Through pure tenderness the rabbit is saved but goes on to cause havoc in the house, leaving droppings on saucers while helping itself to the sugar pot, much to the displeasure of his house-proud mother. Rex explores the naming of a dog donated to the family by an uncle. Like Adolf, the dog disrupts the order of the house and the mother wants him out. But he returns, “wagging his tail as if to say ‘Yes, I’ve come back. But I didn’t need to. I can carry on remarkably well by myself.'” It’s classic Lawrence, forcing us to see things from a different perspective.

One book on the Wildlife Trust’s recommended reading list is Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Lawrence helped establish Melville’s reputation after an essay published in Studies in Classical American Literature in 1923. It’s an incredible piece of literary criticism about the “tiresome New Englander of the ethical mystical- transcendentalist sort” and the #30WildBooks project gave me the opportunity to revisit it once more.

Moby Dick quote

You can feel Lawrence’s excitement reading this seminal book. It’s like it’s written in real time, becoming more frenetic as he jumps on the ship with Ahab on “the last great hunt”. He’s intrigued as to the symbolism of this “warm-blooded” and “lovable” Leviathan and suggests that the reason the whale was never worshipped by the South Sea Islanders, Polynesians, and Malays, was because “the whale is not wicked. He doesn’t bite. And their gods had to bite”.

Lawrence is fascinated by the other and how people change when placed in isolation. Here is it the wilderness of the sea that has a profound effect on Captain Ahab’s character.

“For with sheer physical vibrational sensitiveness, like a marvellous wireless-station, he registers the effects of the outer world. And he records also, almost beyond pain or pleasure, the extreme transitions of the isolated, far-driven soul, the soul which is now alone, without any real human contact.”

argonauts new

Lawrence analyses the “incredible crew” on the Pequod, exploring their relationships to each other and the outer world. They make The Argonauts seem like “mild lambs in comparison” as they’re “a collection of maniacs fanatically hunting down a lonely, harmless white whale.” Never one to overplay things, he is equally irked by “the sonorous mysticism” that “gets on one’s nerves”. As much as he recognises the novel as being unequalled in terms of “esoteric symbolism” it is also one of “considerable tiresomeness”, accusations that could equally be levelled at Lawrence’s later work, particularly The Plumed Serpent (1926). Kettle black, etc.

Lawrence’s is always able to see things from the non- human perspective: “Moby Dick, the great white whale, tore off Ahab’s leg at the knee, when Ahab was attacking him. Quite right, too. Should have torn off both his legs, and a bit more besides.” Touché .

Lawrence being Lawrence, he uses Melville as a prism through which to explore his own favourite topics, most notably; blood consciousness, the spinal cord, primordial cultures, spirituality and the obligatory bromance. This was picked up by critic John Middleton Murry: “He is not concerned with Melville in and for himself, in his own quiddity. Melville exists only as a paradigm for Lawrence. But the projection of himself that Lawrence makes by means of Melville is amazing (…) It does not matter in the least whether this is a true interpretation of Moby Dick: its importance lies in the self-revelation of Lawrence.”

It’s all about me…

Damn right.

Biographer Andrew Harrison (2016) takes this further, suggesting “the attempt to understand the Americans and, through them, his own work, implied an incipient desire to imagine an audience for (Women in Love).”

One other area of controversy is Lawrence’s assumption that Ishmael does not survive the wreck of the Pequod. Research by JoEllyn Clarey (1986) suggests this was because he was using the original English edition of Moby Dick that omitted the epilogue. Things are never simple with Lawrence, are they?

RELATED READING

  • 30 Wild Books to Read in June (dawnoftheunread.wordpress.com)
  • Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust website (nottinghamshirewildlife.org)
  • DH Lawrence – Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (xroads.virginia.edu)
  • Charles Olson, Call me Ishmael (San Francisco, 1947)
  • Michael J. Colacurcio, “The Symbolic and the Symptomatic: D. H. Lawrence in Recent American Criticism,” American Quarterly 27 (1975): 488. 28/Chase, p. 24.
  • Ren Wellek, “The Literary Criticism of D. H. Lawrence,” Sewanee Review 91 (1983): 598-613
  • JoEllyn Clarey “D. H. Lawrence’s “Moby-Dick”: A Textual Note,Modern Philology Vol. 84, No. 2 (Nov., 1986), pp. 191-195

REVIEW: Catherine Carswell The Savage Pilgrimage (1932)

catherine-carswell-booksCatherine Carswell first encountered DHL’s work on 18 March 1911 when she reviewed his debut novel The White Peacock for the Glasgow Herald. She began writing to him in 1913 and the two would remain in constant contact throughout his short life. Carswell met DHL in person in June 1914 when he came to England to get married. She was 35 years-old at the time and an established literary critic. From the onset she had a deep and lasting affection for Lawrence: “When I first set eyes on him, the immediately distinguishing thing was his swift and flamelike quality, which was quite unlike anything suggested by even the most fascinating type of British soldier or workman. I was sensible of a fine, rare beauty in Lawrence, with his deep-set jewel-like eyes, thick dust-coloured hair, pointed under lip of notable sweetness, fine hands, and rapid but never restless movements.”

They would see each other frequently between 1914 and 1919 before he embarked on his ‘savage pilgrimage’. On his infrequent returns to England he would stay with Catherine and her husband Donald. The last time she saw him in the flesh was in the autumn 1925. Of these many encounters she writes: “I have seen Lawrence under many circumstances but I never once saw him heavy or lounging, and he was never idle, just as a bird is never idle.”

The biography is written in a straightforward style and functions as an intimate portrait of a complex and misunderstood figure from somebody who knew him very well. The two kept in constant contact throughout DHL’s short life and so is worth reading for access to these letters. Chapters are prefaced with a list of work belonging to each period to help the reader understand an approximation of composition. Given Lawrence constantly rewrote work, this is useful in helping outline where he was ‘mentally’ at distinct periods of his life.

I want to understand Lawrence with fresh eyes and so I’ve read this biography before the many others (most of which benefit from retrospective analysis) because it was written so soon after his death. Indeed, Carswell states that DHL liked 9 hours sleep a night and was not a “Shavian ‘writing machine’” but he was aware that his life would not be as long as hers and therefore he had to crack on.

There are two things that strike me about this book. Firstly, she clearly had quite a thing for Lawrence but as a married woman was not prepared to push this further. DHL was also a firm believer in marriage and so on occasion it feels a little bit like The Remains of the Day. “Being married I had now one of the chief qualifications for inclusion in the Lawrence exodus. There were to be, if possible, no single males or females in the party – as with the denizens of the Ark.” The closest they get to any kind of affection is when DHL comments she looks ‘quite saucy’ in a small black felt hat. She describes herself as feeling ‘crushed.’

Both of them may have believed in marriage but as is well known, Frieda Lawrence was a very independent and free-spirited woman. Therefore when DHL packs her off “with a malicious grin on her face” to see her mother in Germany, the implication is what is making her smile so much. Carswell is too polite and reserved to state the obvious, whereas future biographers have been more explicit.

Secondly, and most importantly, Carswell wants to correct misleading interpretations of Lawrence’s life and motivations. She’s keen to point out that she does not have an exclusive access to his mind, but then neither does anyone. There are two major culprits in this department: John Middleton Murry and Mabel Dodge Luhan (nee Sterne).

Mabel Dodge Luhan was the wealthy patron of the Arts who invited Lawrence over to Mexico in 1922. She recorded her memories in Lorenzo in Taos, published on 1 January 1932. Carswell is keen to correct misleading and incorrect facts which she deems as innocent rather than malicious. Luhan’s book is “clearly an attempt to set down with care and honesty a personal impression” but “as an objective record, however, it must be regarded with caution.” Carswell finds her “inaccurate in her facts and wrong in her conjectures” and that she “often fails also in understanding the idiom used in talk both by Lawrence and Frieda – especially Frieda.”

Likewise Carswell takes exception to Luhan’s descriptions of Lawrence when preparing to travel as “fussy” or “inefficient.” Instead she found “he always appeared to me as a model of neatness and precision, neither wasting a movement nor permitting even a temporary disorder.” If Lawrence was being “fussy” in Luhan’s presence it was perhaps because he was eager to get away from her as “Mrs Luhan wanted of him what he had made Gudrun want of Gerald in Women in Love – to use him as an instrument for the furthering of her own ideas and purposes – spiritual, political, artistic.” Nothing was more likely to put “Balaam’s Ass in my belly” than Lawrence being moulded into someone else’s vision of himself.

Carswell has no reservations in ripping apart the traitorous accounts of John Middleton Murry whom she perceives as not only completely misrepresenting and misunderstanding Lawrence but utilising him for his own purposes. This took shape in Reminiscences of D.H Lawrence which first helped to fill the pages of the Adelphi magazine Murry was editing together and then in the hagiography Son of a Woman (1931).

There are so many instances of this that it will have to be in a separate blog, but this exchange from the infamous last supper at The Café Royal pretty much captures the feelings between the two. Murry walks over to Lawrence and plonks a smacker on his lips. He then turns to the other guests and says, “Women can’t understand this. This is an affair between men. Women can have no part or place in it.” To which Carswell replies, “Maybe. But anyhow it wasn’t a woman who betrayed Jesus with a kiss.” Ouch!

But perhaps her most prescient skill is to invert Murry’s criticisms by changing a few expressions to create “one of the most important things about Lawrence that can be said.” I’ve highlighted the main changes in red.

Murry’s criticism 

“In practice Lawrence’s belief seemed to mean pretending a harmony between impulses which were verily contradictory; to mean denying the spiritual consciousness and asserting it, to mean loving the world and hating it at the same moment, to mean nailing the flag of civilised consciousness to the mast and hauling it down in a single operation.”

Carswell’s adaption

If replaced with a few expressions, “we have In practice Lawrence’s belief established a harmony between impulses which hitherto have seemed verily contradictory; he has enabled us to deny the spiritual consciousness and to assert it in the same breath, to love the world and hate it at the same moment, to nail the flag of the civilised consciousness to the mast and to haul it down in a single operation.

If you want to save yourself from reading 292 pages then read the following letter which appeared in Time and Tide on 16 March 1930. It can be seen as not only a precursor to the book but an inherited ‘rage’ at unsympathetic and scandalous obituaries that tended to focus on controversy rather than the literary merits of her very close friend. It reads:

“The picture of D.H Lawrence suggested by the obituary notices of ‘competent critics’ is of a man morose, frustrated, tortured, even a sinister failure. Perhaps this is because any other view of him would make his critics look rather silly…Lawrence was as little morose as an open clematis flower, as little tortured or sinister, or hysterical as a humming bird. Gay, skilful, clever at everything, furious when he felt like it but never grieved or upset, intensely amusing, without sentimentality or affection, almost always right in his touch for the content of things or persons, he was at once the most harmonious and the most vital person I ever saw.

As to frustration, consider his achievement. In the face of formidable initial disadvantages and lifelong delicacy, poverty that lasted for three quarters of his life and hostility that survives his death, he did nothing that he did not really want to do, and all that he most wanted to do he did. He went all over the world, he owned a ranch, he lived in the most beautiful corners of Europe, and met whom he wanted to meet and told them that they were wrong and he was right.

He painted and made things, and sang, and rode. He wrote something like three dozen books, of which even the worst page dances with life that could be mistaken for no other man’s, while the best are admitted, even by those who hate him, to be unsurpassed.

Without vices, with most human virtues, the husband of one wife, scrupulously honest, this estimable citizen yet managed to keep free from the shackles of civilisation and the cant of literary cliques. He would have laughed lightly and cursed venomously in passing at the solemn owls – each one secretly chained by the leg – who now conduct the inquest. To do his work and lead his life in spite of them took some doing, but he did it, and long after they are forgotten, sensitive and innocent people – if any are left – will turn Lawrence’s pages and will know from them what sort of a rare man Lawrence was.”

Catherine Carswell (1932) The Savage Pilgrimage. Chatto and Windus. Reissued in 1981 with a memoir by John Carswell (1981) by Cambridge University Press.

A Savage Friendship: Catherine Carswell and John Middleton Murry

john-mm-and-cc

When it comes to literary spats, Catherine Carswell and John Middleton Murry’s squabble over D.H. Lawrence takes some beating. So incensed was Carswell at Murry’s misrepresentation of Lawrence that she quickly responded with The Savage Pilgrimage (1932). At first glance it looks like a biography, an intimate portrait fleshed out from personal letters and experiences, but its primary function is as a corrective to everything Murry stood for.

They began bickering in private shortly after Lawrence’s death in 1930. This became public when Carswell wrote letters to the Adelphi magazine in response to Murry’s Reminiscences of D.H. Lawrence which would eventually materialise into the hagiography Son of Woman (1931).

Murry founded The Adelphi magazine in 1923. It was modernist in outlook and originally aimed to promote Lawrence’s work but it ended up as the mouthpiece for Murry’s own literary and aesthetic values. Murry was establishing himself as a radical Christian literary critic and had already gained editorial experience on Rhythm, Athenaeum and The Signature – the latter a short lived magazine produced in collaboration with Lawrence.   

In The Savage Pilgrimage (1932), Carswell takes Murry to task about his reminiscences to such an extent that he served her with a writ on account of ‘slurs’ contained in the final 10 pages of her biography. These were eventually toned down and the book was reissued in 1933 by Secker. But, as is perhaps befitting of Murry’s vanity, he would go on to publish most of the ‘slurs’ he’d complained about so that he could respond to them in detail in the book publication of Reminiscences of D.H Lawrence (1933).

Carswell’s attacks on Murry come as early as page 19 when it becomes clear her dislike of him had been simmering way before Lawrence’s death. She recalls the story of Murry telling Lawrence his agent had received an advance of £300 for a new novel, The Rainbow (1915), based on the reception of Sons and Lovers (1913). The money was in fact to be paid on publication which could be a very slow process. Neither would this be the full amount once other factors had been taken into consideration (proof corrections, agent fees, etc). This lack of attention to detail infuriated Carswell as she was well aware that Lawrence was fastidious about money and lived a large part of his life in poverty. Fortunately Lawrence’s agent Pinker, a kind man who supported young experimental writers, was on hand to advance £45 out of his own pocket. Shortly afterwards the Royal Literary Fund made a grant of £50.

Murry and his wife Katherine Mansfield were witnesses at the Lawrence’s marriage in 1914. But the two men really began to bond at Greatham, Sussex where Lawrence was living during the first six months of 1915. Katherine Mansfield had gone to Paris and wasn’t well due to influenza and things were tense with Frieda on account of her restricted access to her three children. Murry’s timing was perfect as Lawrence had someone with whom he could share his philosophy of life with which involved a ‘withdrawal from the world’. The bromance was born and Carswell states Lawrence saw in Murry “a colleague and successor who would build up the temple when he, Lawrence, had cut out the ground.”

The Hebrew idea of Rananim had been raised by Koteliansky at a gathering in 1914 and Lawrence was struck by this utopian idea of sharing space with like-minded people. The Murry’s became the first to test this out when they moved in with the Lawrence’s at Zennor, Cornwall, but it didn’t work out. The Lawrence’s were eventually evicted from their cottage on 12 October 1917 after a visit from the military. A series of bizarre events – which included the sinking of a coal boat on the nearby rocks below Tregerthen and the fact that Frieda Lawrence was German – created suspicion that they may be spies. Although they weren’t formally charged they were clearly undesirables. The incident would sharpen Lawrence’s need to leave England and the desire to take his nearest and dearest with him.

The Lawrence’s were forced to live a nomadic existence, being put up by various friends. Money was incredibly tight and Carswell suggests that Murry, then the editor of Athenaeum, could have done more to help him out by commissioning work. He did accept Lawrence’s first contribution, The Whistling of Birds (written under the pseudonym of Grantorto) but rejected his next. Murry claimed he never got sent any more articles, which is contradicted by both Frieda and Koteliansky.

I find this criticism of Murry hard to accept. As an editor he has to select what is right for his readership and Lawrence is certainly not someone who would abide nepotism. But Carswell suggests that his lack of support may have been more malevolent. She argues Murry had already slithered out of reviewing The Rainbow (Carswell review of The Rainbow cost her her job of ten years on the Glasgow Herald) and that “now that he had some standing, we find not only that he could risk nothing to give Lawrence a hand, but that as time went on he lost no opportunity of disparaging Lawrence in public. Murry believed that Lawrence was finished, and he had his own growing reputation as a critic to safeguard. Carswell argues this is why every book by Lawrence that was reviewed was persistently slighted or attacked in the Athenaeum.

Carswell takes exception to various aspects of Murry’s reviews, not least his dismissing of Lawrence’s career as over by 1921. She cities Murry’s ‘The Decay of Mr. D.H Lawrence’ (Dec 17 1920 Athenaeum) as applying the terms ‘tortured’ and ‘neurotic’ to Lawrence’s work for the first time and his review of The Lost Girl (1920) pushing this further through dismissive language such as ‘sub human’, ‘quack terminology’ and ‘corrupt mysticism’. Carswell sees this as a malicious attempt to further his own reputation, declaring: “It was a carefully executed attempt of the very kind which best demonstrated the horror Lawrence believed to be inveterate in ‘Christian love.’ Under the pretence of ‘intellectual sincerity’ it was an effort to annihilate.” Ouch!

Given her intense personal relationship with Lawrence, it is fair to presume that Carswell knew him better than most. Her biggest gripe with Murry is his failure to recognise Lawrence as an experimental artist, for whom “a careless joie de vivre…was as native to him as his anger” and it was stuffy England that deprived him of the joy while feeding the anger.

To illustrate this Carswell analyses the play Touch and Go (1920) where Lawrence “makes the sculptress Anabel incapable of modelling more birds and animals, though she possesses genius, simply because she has lost that joy of life which had once enabled her to render in stone the thistledown lightness of a kitten. Until her joy returns, she will produce nothing lively. Lawrence knew so well what it was to feel inspired, that he could not fail to recognise the lack of inspiration in himself or in others.”

Escaping England became synonymous with survival. Rather than being “a morbid restlessness” Carswell suggests “may it not with quite as much justice be called sanity and courage? Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage was savage on account of his poor health and his determination, via self-medication, to find a climate that would temper his tuberculosis.”

But for Murry, the only savageness was Lawrence’s rebuke to return back to England and help support his new venture, the literary journal the Adelphi. The first issue was published in June 1923, five months after the death of his wife Katherine Mansfield, who too succumbed to tuberculosis. To make matters worse, Lawrence’s letters were critical of the opening issues. What perplexed Murry further was he saw in Aaron’s Rod (1922) and Fantasia of the Unconscious (1922) a cry for another man to help Lawrence create a new world. This world, for Murry, was contained within the pages of the Adelphi. He was obsessed by it, leaving Lawrence to compare him “like a moth, determined to whirl round and round the candle till he had either burnt his wings or understood the nature of light.”

Although extracts from Fantasia were published in the Adelphi, they only served to outrage the readership, with one reader questioning why Murry should want to publish an author who “spat in the face of Jesus”. This of course was the perfect reaction to Lawrence who believed the Adelphi “should attack everything, everything; and explode in one blaze of denunciation.”

Their already strained relationship was not helped when a homesick Frieda returned to England in August 1923 and Lawrence decided at the last minute to stay in Mexico and work on The Plumed Serpent (1926). When he finally made it over he was quick to notice the ‘chumminess’ that had developed between Frieda and Murry. There are numerous reasons for the development of this ‘chumminess’. Frieda was an independent spirit and required no encouragement when it came to developing friendships with men, whereas Murry may very well have seen her as a means of convincing Lawrence to return to England and support his own artistic endeavours. Whatever the reason, Lawrence was furious and Carswell states the attitude of the husband in the short story Jimmy and the Desperate Woman is expressive of his feelings at the time.

In 1926, after his trip around Mexico and back again, Lawrence gave Murry an ultimatum. He either had to stand by him or the Adelphi. Naturally Murry chose the latter. Lawrence’s last contribution to the Adelphi would be Said the Fisherman, printed in January 1927. Carswell believes that this story was a ‘hold-over’ as Lawrence wanted nothing to do with Murry’s vanity project any more.

According to Carswell Murry presents a distorted picture of Lawrence as a man with “a long thin chain round his ankle” unable to fully run away. But in this ‘cheap’ analysis she argues that Murry has omitted two fundamentally important reasons for Lawrence’s need to travel: art and his illness. Lawrence was the first to admit his first trip around the world was a form of running away. “But he needed absolutely to run from the world he knew and to see the world he did not know” most importantly with his own eyes. Carswell believed that Lawrence would eventually have settled down. If this had have been the case, one thing is for certain. She would not have been able to share this space with Murry.

See our previous blog review of Carswell’s The Savage Pilgrimage for more of this feuding.

Further Reading/Sources

  • D .H. Lawrence (1930) John Middleton Murry
  • Son of Woman: The Story of D. H. Lawrence (1931) John Middleton Murry
  • Reminiscences of D.H. Lawrence (1933) John Middleton Murry
  • The Savage Pilgrimage (1932) Catherine Carswell