In response to:
A Genius, But from the November 19, 1964 issue
To the Editors:
I find myself supremely troubled by Christopher Ricks’s dissent on D. H. Lawrence, and all the more so because I am not sure that this very shallow attack is worth being bothered about. Lawrence, however, is worth defending, as even Mr. Ricks would agree, since his statement of “the crucial question” is oddly juxtaposed with, in fact even given secondary importance to, “our duty to read and to admire.” I think part of the trouble is that although Mr. Ricks weakly wails his But, he is cowed by the genius to which he seems to admit, but which, suspiciously enough, he never tries to define. And some of the reason for this may be that for him there are two Lawrences: Lawrence of the compelling words and Lawrence who had ideas which must be abstracted from those words. I am not sure that this is a feasible, or even a useful operation. In this connection, just by the way, I am rather uncomfortable about happily gliding over the assertion that Frieda “seems to have been a very faithful exponent of what he [Lawrence] most believed.” Especially since Mr. Ricks makes it apparent that Frieda is a bit unreliable and not quite “clearly a remarkable person.” If Frieda, with her devotion to Lawrentian principles, cannot really be trusted to make a good job of abstracting Lawrence’s ideas, I fail to see why we should accept the premise that Mr. Ricks is qualified to do it.
In fact, this is just the problem with Lawrence: nobody, not even Lawrence, knew “what he most believed.” The entire body of his work is one suffering attempt to find out, an attempt beautiful both for its “compelling words” and for the honesty that was never able to resolve all the keenly felt complexities of becoming into any simple theory of Being. Lawrence was after Being and perhaps the greatest But that can be hurled against his genius is that he never found it. It is therefore that one can never take any single work, any single answer, and call it Lawrence. Lawrence is the entire body of his work and what that work finally conveys is nothing more than all the keenly felt complexities. It is no small feat for any writer to succeed in painting so sensitively this vast, glorious, and awful canvas.
This is no attempt to solve the enigma of Lawrence. He is not so easily defined, just as the great truth of the problems with which he deals is that they are not easily solved. But I am galled by oversimplification through division and abstraction. Frieda’s explanation for Lawrence’s hatred is stupidly put, but it is not so stupid as the definitiveness of the statement that “hate is hate.” Love and hate and the relationship of these two are more than “a puerile paradox.” The paradox is central in Lawrence, and it is not beneath the concern of men like Freud, Rilke, Donne, and Blake, to name a few, men who have not been satisfied with building tinker toy structures out of the chaotic mass of electrons that is humanity. It is puerile, however, to dismiss the paradox with platitudes about English niceness and the necessity thereof, or to tell the voice of honest indignation that, after all, life can’t be always so intense, and for good reason. Even here, in his “major objection,” Mr. Ricks is only trembling somewhere in the pale abyss of abstraction, far from the very real complexities of life and of Lawrence. Intensity? Passion? One is often tempted to repeat the platitude that these were the spectres from whom Lawrence fled, for Lawrence was always in flight. If one must ask, “why did he so often preach and act, hate?” perhaps the only answer will be that he never arrived at the Place where Contraries are equally true. Perhaps he is not quite a genius, in the Blakean sense, and perhaps he ought to be crucified for not being quite a Christ, also in the Blakean sense. But with Blake and with another book of platitudes we can only say, Would to God that all the Lord’s people were prophets. Would to God that The New York Review would find some of them.
January 14, 1965