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

Why World War I cultivated an obsession with insects

Allied forces wearing gas masks at Ypres, 1917.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

In this guest blog, originally published in The Conversation, Rachel Murray of University of Bristol explains how a craze for popular entomology developed around World War I with films and popular insect books a source of fascination for modernist writers and thinkers, including Virginia Woolf, DH Lawrence, Ezra Pound, Katherine Mansfield, and Marianne Moore.

“The soldier is no longer a noble figure,” observed the war poet Siegfried Sassoon while serving on the Western Front. “He is merely a writhing insect among this ghastly folly of destruction.” 

It is little surprise that Sassoon turned to insects to express the plight of the World War I soldier. Many did. Bugs – both real and metaphorical – came to shape the way people thought and wrote about the experience of war, and this prompted a surge of popular interest in insects more generally.

This was the first fully industrialised, long-range conflict, in which the enemy was reduced to minute specks. On the front line, soldiers wore bug-like gas masks and camouflage uniforms for the first time, were strapped into new prototypes of military body armour, and crawled through the mud in tanks. The optics of war even caused the modernist writer Wyndham Lewis, who served as an artillery officer, to remark: “These battles are more like ant fights than anything we have done in this way up to now.”

The striking resemblance between humans and insects also stemmed from their close proximity on the battlefield. Lice, mosquitoes and flies thrived in the trenches, quickly becoming one of the main sources of illness and death among soldiers. Faced with the rapid spread of typhus, malaria, and trench fever (spread by lice), the War Office teamed up with entomologists to tackle this enemy within.

This led to a campaign of insect extermination, in which troops were regularly disinfected with chemicals designed to halt the spread of lice. Yet while this was going on, soldiers were also being subjected to poisonous gases from the enemy, some of which had previously been used as insecticides. One Dutch newspaper was quick to notice the parallel treatment of soldiers and insects.

De Groene Amsterdammer, May 9, 1915.
__De Groene Amsterdammer Archive__

In this satirical illustration from May 1915, the female embodiment of Germany, “Germania”, sprinkles insect powder over a tiny group of soldiers. At first glance, she appears to be delousing them, but she is in fact exterminating them with chlorine.

Yet if the conditions of war reduced human beings to bugs, then it was to these life forms that people turned in search of ways of understanding their predicament.

Bug mania

Jean-Henri Casimir Fabre.
_Wikimedia Commons_

Perhaps because people felt closer to insects than ever, in the period around World War I a craze for popular entomology developed.

Studies of insect life were in high demand, with more books devoted solely to bugs than ever before. Of particular interest to the British public was the work of French entomologist Jean-Henri Casimir Fabre, whose groundbreaking and often gruesome studies of the behaviour of wasps, beetles, mantises, and flies sold widely in the years surrounding the war. Fabre was a pioneering figure in the life sciences who demonstrated that more could be learnt about insects as living entities observed in their natural habitats than as dead specimens pinned in display cases.

The development of new film technologies also meant that the sophisticated behaviour of insects could be made visible to the human eye. In November 1908, nature documentary maker F. Percy Smith’s The Acrobatic Fly caused a stir when it was screened at a London cinema. Advertised on the front page of The Daily Mirror, the short film consisted of remarkable footage of a fly juggling various miniature items with its front legs.

After the war, the public appetite for bugs on screen continued to grow. From 1922, a series of nature shorts called Secrets of Nature was screened in British cinemas. Many of the films focused on the hidden lives of ants, wasps and beetles.

Modernist insects

This popular bug interest was also seen in the more canonical cultural output of the period. The films and popular insect books mentioned above were a source of fascination for modernist writers and thinkers, including Virginia Woolf, DH Lawrence, Ezra Pound, Katherine Mansfield, and Marianne Moore, who listed Fabre’s ten-volume collection, Souvenirs entomologiques (Entomological memories), in a list of “great literary works”. The poet William Carlos Williams even remarked: “Henri Fabre has been one of my Gods.”

Some writers were inspired by the remarkable ability of insects to thrive in inhospitable environments. Set during the war, DH Lawrence’s novella The Ladybird draws on Fabre’s account of the “sacred beetle” (also known as the dung beetle), which sculpts the waste products of larger animals into a home for its offspring. The text highlights the ingenuity of the dung beetle, emphasising its ability to transform death and decay into a source of new life.

Scanning electron microscope image of an ant.
Wikimedia commons

Others were drawn to Fabre’s account of the unique ways that insects perceive their surroundings. One of Wyndham Lewis’s characters remarks enviously that “the insect sees a different world to us, and possesses other means of apprehending it”, while in Virginia Woolf’s novel To The Lighthouse, artist Lily Briscoe longs to experience the compound vision of ants: “One wanted fifty pairs of eyes to see with.”

The turn to popular entomology in the years surrounding the war was no coincidence. While insects may have come to represent the degraded nature of human existence, studies of bug life helped writers and artists, as well as the public at large, to look beyond the wartime atmosphere of destruction, and to develop new ways of seeing themselves and the world around them.The Conversation

Rachel Murray, PhD Candidate, University of Bristol. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

dhl-trunk energyIn 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 the modernists’ fascination with entomology? What insects should be crawling through our draws? 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