Eliot’s authority threatened to settle the quarrel, until the critic F.R. Leavis declared Lawrence the finest and most “life-affirming” novelist of the century. Only Lady Chatterley’s Lover was “false,” Leavis thought, and he declined to give evidence when the book’s publisher was tried under the Obscenity Act in 1960. Worse than false or obscene, according to Simone de Beauvoir, the novel was irretrievably the work of a male chauvinist. In her book Sexual Politics (1969) Kate Millet elaborated Beauvoir’s position and condemned Lawrence as hysterically misogynist. Others ran to his defense. From this point on the number of studies on Lawrence multiplied. Yet however important and brilliant he is considered to be, every critic has his or her reservations. The novelist Rebecca West, who compares Lawrence to Dante and Saint Augustine, nevertheless feels that Women in Love was a failure. Lawrence’s biographer Philip Callow greatly admires Women in Love, but decides that St. Mawr, which Leavis thought Lawrence’s best work, is no more than “an assault on the reader by plastering contrived symbolism over the tale with impatient crudeness.” Even the English novelist Geoff Dyer, who, in Out of Sheer Rage, has written one of the most perceptive, affectionate, and idiosyncratic accounts of a reader’s relationship with Lawrence, remarks that “some of Lawrence’s works would have benefited from thorough, careful revision.”
From Ford Madox Ford’s comment on the first typescript down to the pres- ent day what is remarkable is the critics’ assumption that they know what it means to create art and that their irritation on reading much of Lawrence indicates a shortcoming on his part, a refusal to be an artist. Yet rereading his work today one can’t help feeling that this embattled critical heritage was exactly what Lawrence wanted. Here after all was a man who would start writing spirited responses to the bad reviews he expected even before they appeared. “All truth,” he wrote, “and real living is the only truth—has in it the elements of battle and repudiation.” A book was the beginning of a fight. Art, in the sense of the tidy, the manageable, the mellifluous, was the bolt hole of the weak-hearted.
In 1912, recently returned from death’s door, Lawrence met Frieda Weekley, née Richthofen, the aristocratic, German-born wife of an English history professor and mother of three. Six years older than Lawrence, Frieda was bored. Less than two months after their meeting, she and Lawrence ran off together to Germany, then Italy. “Can’t you feel how certainly I love you and how certainly we shall be married…?” he wrote to her. She couldn’t quite, but Lawrence burned her bridges by writing about the affair to her husband. Frieda lost custody of her children. To prove she was a free agent, she betrayed Lawrence immediately and openly. He hung on. So dramatic for both of them was the break with their pasts, with respectability, with financial common sense, that their relationship and eventual marriage had to be made into a myth to compensate for what they had lost. They were man and woman forged by sex into a couple against the world.
Before meeting Lawrence, Frieda had briefly been the lover of the unorthodox psychoanalyst Otto Gross. She encouraged Lawrence to read modern psychology. Over the next five years, under her influence, he wrote his two most substantial novels, The Rainbow, an account of changing relations between men and women in marriage over three generations, marking a transition from traditional to modern mores, and Women in Love, which picks up the story of two of the young women in The Rainbow and brings it into contemporary times.
While writing these books he put together the ideas which, with regular variations and volte-faces, would feed his writing to the end. They can be crudely summarized thus: the traditional community in which man lived in close relation to the natural world was now gone. The mental life has triumphed over the physical. Freud is the culmination of this disaster, reducing the unconscious as he does to an exclusively mental repository of dirty secrets and simply ignoring the life, conscious and unconscious, of the body. With nothing natural remaining, society is now divided into the industrialized masses, “a poor blind, disconnected people with nothing but politics and bank-holidays to satisfy the eternal human need of living in ritual adjustment to the cosmos,” and intellectual elitists who do nothing but culti-vate their arid personalities:
Now men are all separate little entities. While kindness is the glib order of the day…underneath this “kindness” we find a coldness of heart…. Every man is a menace to every other man…. Individualism has triumphed.
Lawrence, in short, was anticipating the thinking of those anthropologists (Louis Dumont, for example) who would see the passage from traditional to industrial society as a move to a situation where relationships would inevitably be characterized by conflict. With the old hierarchy gone, a search for some new authority whose power might go beyond that of the individual will was more than appropriate.
Writing in the grim years of World War I, contemplating wholesale slaughter across the Channel, suspected (thanks to his German wife and his own aggressively expressed pacifism) of spying at home, reduced to poverty, Lawrence did not find it difficult to imagine that doomsday was at hand. An element of futurism begins to creep into his work. Old codes of behavior are irrelevant, or at best a weapon to use against those still gullible enough to respect them. Real authority is conspicuous for its absence.
The opening of the novella The Fox (written 1918) is typical: two young women are sitting in their lonely house on the farm that inexplicably and without any experience they have decided to run. Comes a knock at the door. “Hello?” Immediately one of the women picks up a gun: menace, conflict. In the event, it is only a returning soldier who imagined that his grandfather still owned the place. The women are aware that according to traditional rules, the man ought to go and find a bed in the village. Instead they offer to put him up. The village will gossip, but they are free, modern spirits and don’t care. Drawn to one of the women, the soldier immediately decides to marry her and after only a few days, without any preamble or flirtation, abruptly proposes. The effect is unsettling for both the woman and the reader. Why is he behaving like this? “Why shouldn’t I?” is the man’s refrain. There are no rules. His stalking of the woman is likened to his hunt for the fox that has been disturbing the farm animals. When the marriage is threatened by the second woman, the soldier contrives her death. Lawrence offers no criticism; on the contrary the soldier is presented as sincere in his desire to make a successful marriage. However, the initial instinct of going for the gun on his first arrival is now fully justified. When Lady Chatterley and her husband meet Mellors at the beginning of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the gamekeeper is striding swiftly with his dog and gun and turns their way, “as if about to attack them.”
If English society really was in the state Lawrence described, then of course it had to be saved, or else destroyed. Lawrence wasn’t sure which. Saved by being destroyed perhaps. In any event something radical was required and where could it start but with the one-to-one relationship? Here sex was crucial. Sex was the one thing that might put man and woman, perhaps man and man too, in touch with the deeper forces of nature. It thus became necessary to narrate sexual encounters candidly and in detail, to follow the interplay between psychology and sensuality, the surrender, or refusal to surrender, of the frantic individual mind.
Very soon Lawrence began to reverse the biblical sense of the verb “to know” when it referred to sex. Rather than “knowing” another, a positive sexual encounter became an “unknowing,” a shedding of self in oneness. The values he hated, Lawrence was aware, were encoded in the language. He would have to do battle with that too. “Gudrun lay wide awake, destroyed into perfect consciousness,” he says in Women in Love when one couple’s lovemaking has been nothing more than two willful individuals rubbing against each other. “They could forget perfectly,” he says of the effect of his preferred kind of sex. Standard syntax and lexical values are attacked, reversed, regenerated. Writing The Rainbow, Lawrence declared that it was “a novel in a foreign language I don’t know very well.”
But if the goal was “unknowing,” why was he engaging in all this speculation? With Lawrence the intellect is always constructing its own defeat. “Don’t ever mind what I say,” he writes in 1913, “I am a great bosher and full of fancies that interest me.” The novel, insofar as a story must be grounded in reality, open to incident and multiple interpretations, becomes the vehicle that will disarm his dogmatic theorizing, a weapon against himself. “Never trust the artist, trust the tale,” he says.
On the other hand Lawrence really did want to sort out the question of how a man and woman should behave once they had succeeded in shedding their personalities in sex; the problem being that the society around them was not of the traditional variety in which such relationships might flourish. What was needed then was a favorable micro-community. Again and again, in novels and life, Lawrence floated the project of “a few men with honor and fearlessness,” sailing the South Seas or working the land. Or if that couldn’t be arranged—and it never could—at least he might have one male friendship not based on talk and opinions, but on a physical and permanent bond, something that would provide the context for the marriage between man and woman, as the relationship that Birkin seeks to achieve with Gerald in Women in Love is seen as essential to the success of Birkin’s partnership with Ursula. To bemused friends Lawrence would propose a Blutbruderschaft, an eternal friendship that would survive complete frankness and assert stability despite conflict. But Lawrence’s frankness was notoriously brutal. “You are a dirty little worm,” he wrote to Middleton Murry, perhaps the most serious candidate for blood brother. Not surprisingly, no one took up Lawrence’s offer.
Meantime, despite their sexual union, man and woman continued to have different opinions. He would not be bullied, Lawrence yelled at Frieda. She didn’t want to be bullied either. They fought bitterly. Lawrence appreciated the comedy in this, the bathos of petty domestic wrangling after the mind-altering sensual experience, the high-flown rhetoric of social regeneration. “It is the way our sympathy flows and recoils that really determines our lives,” he decided. By the time he was writing Women in Love this was the rhythm of the novels: the genius lies not in any one scene, and certainly not in the overall form, but in the “flow and ebb,” the constant shifts of tone, biblical apocalypse, living-room knockabout.
In 1915 The Rainbow was banned for obscenity. “I curse my country with my soul and body,” Lawrence announced. America, he decided, was the place for him. And he began to write Studies in Classic American Literature, a book of megalomaniac ambition which offers brilliant insights into, for example, Fenimore Cooper’s wish-fulfillment in fantasized friendships between white and Native Americans and Hawthorne’s ambivalent presentation of moral purity in The Scarlet Letter.
Of course many critics have written perceptively on the literature of another nation without ever having visited it, but what is astonishing about the Studies is Lawrence’s aggressive confidence, already hinted at in the provocative title of the book (many at the time would have seen the combination of “classic” with “American” as an oxymoron), that living as he then was in a remote Cornish village he could grasp not only the essence of this or that writer, but his relationship to the whole dynamic of American history, in short what made writers “classically” American.
As always, the style of the book is characterized by Lawrence’s willingness to offend. Opening with a claim that the original American vision of freedom was nothing more than the escaped slave’s eagerness to be without a master, he gives us a paragraph that would not seem inappropriate to the present debate on Iraq:
Men are free when they belong to a living, organic, believing community, active in fulfilling some unfulfilled, perhaps unrealised purpose. Not when they are escaping to some wild west. The most unfree souls go west, and shout of freedom. Men are freest when they are most unconscious of freedom. The shout is a rattling of chains, always was.
In 1917, just when Lawrence had decided he must go to America to assist in turning this negative freedom of escape to the positive freedom of the “believing community,” the British authorities took away his passport, on the grounds that he was a possible German sympathizer. It wasn’t until 1919 that he was able to leave England, never to return except for brief visits.
At this point the writer’s story is picked up in the most attractive of recent Lawrence biographies, Philip Callow’s Body of Truth: D.H. Lawrence: The Nomadic Years, 1919–1930. Despite the rich detail, a pattern rapidly emerges. Always obliged to count pennies, suffering from pneumonia, malaria, tuberculosis, Lawrence travels from Italy to Ceylon, to Australia, New Mexico, and Mexico in search of communities still in touch with the natural world, still observing older hierarchies and accepting the authority they implied. In each place he and Frieda go they seek to establish that small benevolent group of like-minded folk that in some modern way might offer the vital sustenance unavailable in mechanized, industrial England.
What is remarkable, however, about Lawrence’s response to the countries he visits is how his evident desire to be impressed by pre-modern communities is never allowed to cloud his judgment. Over a number of years in New Mexico he had ample occasion to observe various native Indian tribes and eventually came to the conclusion that
the consciousness of one branch of humanity is the annihilation of the consciousness of another branch…. And we can understand the consciousness of the Indian only in terms of the death of our consciousness.
The impasse is dramatized in the story “The Woman Who Rode Away,” where a dissatisfied American wife rides off to live with an Indian tribe, only to find herself drugged and sacrificed to native gods in a fertility rite. In Mexico, meanwhile, so abject, as Lawrence saw it, was the fate of the indigenous people under an alien Christianity that he wrote a novel describing the revival of a local, pre-conquest religion, complete with hymns, liturgy, and prayers. The heroine of The Plumed Serpent, a middle-aged Irish widow, succumbs to the religion with its emphasis on blood dignity and male authority when she marries its high priest and, together with another man who claims to be the living manifestation of the religion’s God, Quetzalcoatl, forms a trinity of white and dark blood. Depending on what one is after in Lawrence, The Plumed Serpent, with its visionary descriptions of a surrender of Western consciousness to primitive spiritual forces, is the best or the worst of his books. Certainly it is the one where Murry’s claim that Lawrence’s real aim was “to discover authority” makes most sense.
But the perplexity generated by the peoples he visited was as nothing to Lawrence’s puzzlement with the problems of forming an ideal community of his own. In Living at the Edge: A Biography of D.H. Lawrence and Frieda von Richthofen, Michael Squires and his wife Lynn Talbot set out to write a biography of the marriage. What emerges, though the authors never quite say as much, is Lawrence’s one great blind spot as far as his life was concerned: while he and Frieda thought of themselves as building a beneficent micro-community, they were in fact seeking in the company of others the friction necessary for keeping their own relationship alive. For from the moment Lawrence took his wife away from her first husband, their love had always fed on the tension with a third party. They rarely ever lived alone.
Middleton Murry and his wife, Katherine Mansfield, the poet Witter Bynner, the painters Esther Andrews and Dorothy Brett, and the journalist Mabel Dodge Sterne (later Luhan) were among scores of friends invited to live with or near the Lawrences. Obliged to witness the couple’s savage, often physically violent marital arguments, they soon found themselves taking sides, becoming confidants, in some cases even imagining themselves as possible future partners of one or the other. But no sooner did a third party presume too much than he or she was brutally dismissed. Very soon they would be reading unflattering descriptions of themselves in Lawrence’s next book. In response, many of them wrote their own accounts of the experience, all mixing venom, affection, and incomprehension. Such was Lawrence’s utopia. As a publicity machine, it was extremely effective.
Accused of clumsy repetition in the prose of Women in Love, Lawrence came up with the famous response that “every natural crisis in emotion or passion or understanding comes from this pulsing, frictional to-and-fro, which works up to a culmination.” But this appeal to the artist’s mimetic vocation was actually something of an afterthought. Immediately prior to this and rather more belligerently, Lawrence defends his style: “The only answer is that it is natural to the author.”
And what was “natural to the author”? to Lawrence? Every Lawrence narrative begins with admirable dispatch, a great sense of direction and purpose. It is the man stripping down for combat. After a mammoth tussle it ends in mutual exhaustion, collapse, loss of direction. Why? Because the weariness of exhausted combatants creates the only oneness that Lawrence can imagine in the modern world.
In Women in Love, Birkin, the character who most resembles Lawrence, invites his friend Gerald to enter into a blood brotherhood. Gerald refuses, but he does agree to wrestle naked with Birkin. Needless to say, it is Birkin who chooses the form of combat and teaches Gerald how to fight according to his rules. Gerald is physically stronger, but Birkin is subtle, with an iron will. Nobody wins. At the end both men are so tired they pass out, though with Birkin lying on top.
This is the experience that Lawrence would like his readers to have at the end of his books. This is the purpose of that rhythmic, seductive, irritatingly repetitive style. It leads us to what can best be described as a catharsis of exhaustion. The process of reading Lawrence, as he sees it, is the “real living” of battle, the creation of truth. After a few hundred pages, writer, hero, and reader alike are all quite overwhelmed and weary. Lawrence was not alone in developing this aesthetic. Christina Stead, Samuel Beckett, and Thomas Bernhard would all in their different ways practice something like it. But it was Lawrence who got there first. In her autobiography, Frieda wrote: “We fought our battles outright to the bitter end. Then there was peace, such peace.”
In 1925 Lawrence had his first lung hemorrhage in Oaxaca, Mexico. In a fit of combative energy, between 1926 and 1928 he produced three different versions of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, proud that his last novel was guaranteed to become a monumental scandal. Meantime, in a desperate effort to impose authority, he refused to admit that he had tuberculosis, as if belligerent denial (disease wasn’t natural to the author) could determine the truth. Shortly after his death, Frieda and Lawrence’s family began to fight over the estate. Then there was a dispute over the future of his ashes. To avoid their being stolen Frieda had them set in cement in a little shrine in Taos. An image of the phoenix was placed on top. Lawrence would rise again from the critical conflagration that was about to begin. Art or no art, nothing, life had taught him, is more seductive than a fight.