“Nobody Likes Being Called a Cesspool”

The Bad Side of Books BY D. H. Lawrence. edited by Geoff Dyer. New York: New York Review Books. 512 pages. $20.

My relationship with D. H. Lawrence began in high school, when I bought a copy of Sons and Lovers more or less at random and proceeded to read it all the way through, by which I mean that my eyes literally traversed every page and recognized that the English language was there recorded in some complexity. But the words, instead of building a reality I could enter and move around in, were like a continually dying fluorescence. I had no idea what was going on. What registered was something like “words, words, flower, sentence, words, coal mining” (like I knew what a coal mine was). As far as I was concerned, Sons and Lovers appeared out of nothing and to nothing it returned. All I knew when I was finished was all I knew before I plucked it, more or less at random, off the shelf: that it was a “classic.”

So it remained between me and D. H. Lawrence, a situation of somewhat ashamed incomprehension, until, in my twenties, I received a hardcover edition of The Rainbow as a gift from the shittiest boyfriend I ever had. Overnight I became a devotee of the cult of Lawrence. There is no life situation, for a heterosexual woman, that can prepare her so well to fall into a Lawrentian hole than a high-drama, mutually narcissistic, obsessive relationship with an inadequate man, no way that more prepares you to be seduced into what is seductive and to (eventually) resist what needs resisting, yet to hold on to a vision of a world of perfect, horrifying union between lovers—horrifying because it threatens the only thing that Lawrence believed was worth anything, the individual soul.

Lawrence was a mystic, consumed with a vision of each person’s soul as utterly foreign to all others, and yet capable of finding a form of human connection that is so vast that it can contain, as he writes in The Rainbow, “bonds and constraints and labours” and still be “complete liberty.” There is no writer more keenly interested in how men and women relate to one another, or in relatedness as such: the tension between the self—inviolate, contained, individual, isolate—and the couple. He imagined the task of art is the same as the task of life—to be in true relationship to one’s surroundings, in a dynamic flow. He believed the novel was a worthwhile form because in it every part is related to every other. He was a mystic seeking absolute truth, which now seems passé, and precious. His voice is as heady and vague as it is pure and urgent, and even his “worst pages,” as his contemporary Catherine Carswell wrote, “dance with life that could be mistaken for no other man’s.”

David Herbert Lawrence was born on September 11, 1885, in Eastwood, Nottingham, sixty miles south of Leeds. His father was a coal miner, and his bourgeois mother, he wrote in a third-person summation of his life, “Autobiography,” was “the cultural element in the house.” Lawrence, the fourth of five children, trained as a schoolteacher and began publishing poems in the English Review. His first novel, The White Peacock, was published when he was twenty-five. (He gave his mother an advance copy on her deathbed.) In 1912 he ran off with Frieda Weekley, a married woman with children, and for the rest of their lives the couple lived mostly abroad, though he and Frieda returned to England during World War I. “In 1915 The Rainbow was suppressed for immorality,” he wrote in “Autobiography,” “and the sense of detachment from the bourgeois world, the world which controls press, publication and all, became almost complete. . . . Henceforth he put away any idea of ‘success,’ of succeeding with the British bourgeois public, and stayed apart.” Lawrence and Frieda lived in Sicily; traveled to Ceylon, Kandy, and Australia; settled for a time in Taos and Mexico; tried out England again—the climate didn’t agree with him, nor did anything else about it; and returned to Italy, where he wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover. He died in the South of France on March 2, 1930, of tuberculosis. Misunderstood and maligned, he was said to be polite and charismatic, dogged in his commitment to his own ideals, though he did not revel in the controversy he could not help but provoke. His biographer John Worthen notes that “a vicious review of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1928 had left Lawrence murmuring, ‘Nobody likes being called a cesspool.’”

In the introduction to The Bad Side of Books, a new collection of D. H. Lawrence essays, Geoff Dyer, who made the selections, makes the case for Lawrence as “our perpetual contemporary,” by which he means, I think, that despite Lawrence’s cultural fetishism, his worship of essentialist sexual and gender identities, his mysticism, and awful thoughts like “Life is more vivid in me than in the Mexican who drives the wagon for me,” he deserves to be read—that he is relevant. This is the sort of thing one is almost required to say today, when as a culture we are incapable of justifying reading or writing anything except on the grounds of contemporary application, but the fact is that Lawrence has never been relevant. He has never been any generation’s peer, least of all his own. The Bad Side of Books is arranged chronologically, and excludes essays that are in print elsewhere; there is nothing here from Studies in Classic American Literature or Mornings in Mexico. The jacket copy makes the strange and symptomatic claim that this edition of marginal writing is a good introduction to Lawrence, but anyone making first acquaintance with the author via these writings is likely to find him something of a raving maniac—not an altogether incorrect impression, though perhaps not a full one. I would instead recommend The Bad Side of Books either for those readers who already have a context for Lawrence, be it a bad affair or something else, or who are serious students of the essay form.

Re: the essay, there is much to learn here, though nothing, I am sure, that could be imitated with any success. As an essayist, Lawrence is blazingly opinionated, confidently erudite, incapable of staying on subject, tediously philosophical and abstract, marvelously precise in his descriptions, almost disturbingly sensual in his evocation of place, and breathtakingly, thrillingly prone to sweeping generalizations. His beginnings are very strong. These are the opening sentences of “Introduction to These Paintings,” an essay that eventually gets around to being about Cézanne:

The reason the English produce so few painters is not that they are, as a nation, devoid of a genuine feeling for visual art: though to look at their productions, and to look at the mess which has been made of actual English landscape, one might really conclude that they were, and leave it at that. But it is not the fault of the God that made them. They are made with aesthetic sensibilities the same as anybody else. The fault lies in the English attitude to life.

The English, and the Americans following them, are paralysed by fear.

I love this passage. I love how it is broad and indefensible and could never be written today. I love how it contains Lawrence’s usual vitriol against the English but also his hopeful belief that humanity in general is capable of much more than it has thus far achieved. As he writes in the introduction to Giovanni Verga’s Mastro-don Gesualdo, a work of Italian realism, “man always becomes what he passionately thinks he is; since he is capable of becoming almost anything.”

Lawrence wrote many of the pieces in The Bad Side of Books for money, which he was always short of, and hated. When he returned to Eastwood, in 1926, during a coal strike, where he felt “a devouring nostalgia and an infinite repulsion,” he wrote that England was on the verge of a class war. He knew people needed money and property to live—he needed money and property to live. But he added that “I know we had all better hang ourselves at once, than enter on a struggle which shall be a fight for the ownership or non-ownership of property, pure and simple, and nothing beyond. . . . Our vision of life is all wrong. We must be prepared to have a new conception of what it means, to live.”

The root of spiritual sickness, he writes, is ugliness. “The country is so lovely,” he writes in “Nottingham and the Mining Countryside,” and “the man-made England is so vile.” He recalls that the colliers he knew when he was a boy had a refined consciousness, an instinct for beauty that was killed by the raw materialism of their nagging wives and a national consciousness that privileged “material prosperity above all things.” It is easy to spot the misogyny and romantic illusion at work, but I cannot deny that I, too, have felt despair at the ugliness of certain towns and cities, believe that physical beauty enlivens the soul and that deprivation of it is a kind of crime, and know that while you cannot live without money, living for it is death. Lawrence was so obsessed with life, so mad in pursuit of some vital, embodied relationship between self and world, that he believed that the meaning of the crucifixion was not that Christ rose to Heaven but that he rose to “His life of the flesh, the great life, among other men”: “Now comes the true life, man living his full life on earth, as flowers live their full life, without rhyme or reason except the magnificence of coming forth into fulness.” His examples of “the beauty of life” are revealing: first, columbine flowers, specifically “the way they dangle”; then, “the delicate way a young girl sits and wonders,” then, “the rage with which a man turns and kicks a fool dog that suddenly attacks him.” These elements—the beauty of landscape, the mute mystery of femininity, and the coiled, reactive anger of masculinity—are everywhere in his work.

D.H. Lawrence, Lake Chapala, Mexico, 1923. Witter Bynner; Courtesy University of Nottingham Manuscripts and Special Collections
D.H. Lawrence, Lake Chapala, Mexico, 1923. Witter Bynner; Courtesy University of Nottingham Manuscripts and Special Collections

In argument, he has the habit of starting somewhere strange and illuminating and winding up in a place no one else wants to be. “Pornography and Obscenity” observes that the purveyors of pornography have a hatred of sex as great as that of “the greyest Puritan,” but that the real trouble with pornography is that it leads to the vice of masturbation. “In masturbation there is nothing but loss. There is no reciprocity.” It is helpful, when reading Lawrence, to ask what is behind the surface target: in this case, his ideal of the couple. He builds a world from his conviction that sex between two people is a form of expanded consciousness, a spiritual activity that means more than the release of physical energy. “Two people may destroy one another in sex,” he writes. “But they cannot just produce the null effect of masturbation.” Lawrence does, as Kate Millett wrote, surround sexuality with “liturgical pomp.” Behind the reciprocity there often lurks what we would have to call a phallic consciousness. Yet “if he did not reach the truth,” as Rebecca West writes in an elegy that closes The Bad Side of Books, “he at least came nearer it than we did.” The truth that Lawrence came nearest to, in my mind, had to do with the contradictions of human intimacy—how the desire to be known and know others is cut with the desire to isolate oneself. Lawrence was always attuned to the way that we are driven by the feeling of some greater possibility—of love, of fulfillment, of some ecstatic state—lying just beyond.

That isn’t to say that we can ignore or put aside the parts of Lawrence that are icky or despicable. It takes no effort to justify on the basis of style, but it’s disrespectful and stupid to ignore what a writer is using style to say. We shouldn’t read Lawrence in spite of his ideas, but because they can teach us how such ideas come to be. The haunting piece “Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine” begins with an astonishing series of descriptions and ends with Lawrence invoking hierarchies in nature to justify colonial conquest. But before he even gets there—while he is still just bludgeoning the porcupine, “squat like a great tick,” to death, asserting that “things like the porcupine, one must be able to shoot them, if they get in one’s way”—we can already hear him hardening himself.

When it comes to style, though, the revelation of this collection is the “Memoir of Maurice Magnus.” Magnus was a gentleman clinging to respectability, a nothing writer descended from the Kaiser, who leaned on Lawrence for money and in the end killed himself with cyanide; Lawrence despised him as a man and admired him as a “great spirit of human consciousness . . . a strange, quaking little star.” Lawrence’s memoir was published as the introduction to Magnus’s memoir of his “foul” service in the foreign legion. It is an unforgettable piece of storytelling, specific and sharp with vivid humor, largely stripped of the abstraction and spiritual lament that can so quickly feel overdone in Lawrence, like a heavy perfume that clogs the nostrils. I knew that Lawrence sometimes wrote like this: “But woman, issuing from the other end of infinity, coming forth as the flesh, manifest in sensation, is obsessed by the oneness of things.” But this, I am delighted to discover, is also Lawrence: “Then the gorgeousness goes out of his indignation. He takes it off with the red trousers. Now he is just a sordid little figure in filthy corduroys.” So nasty, so precise.

What Lawrence can do with just one adverb—the poor, maligned adverb!—is like a miracle: “It was a sunny day,” he notes while visiting Magnus in the monastery where he is hiding from his creditors. “I looked down on the farm cluster and the brown fields and the sere oak woods of the hill-crown, and the rocks and bushes savagely bordering it round.” It’s noun, noun, noun, noun, then bam, that animation of the landscape, and you glimpse Lawrence, behind the page, eyes blazing, the source and reflection of the violence he sees. Lawrence doesn’t cover the landscape with description; he creates an alternative landscape in the mind. “The red-fezzed soldiers leaned like so many flower-pots over the lower rail.”

“In the pause towards the end of April, when the flowers seem to hesitate, the leaves make up their minds to come out,” he writes in “Flowery Tuscany.”

For some time, at the very ends of the bare boughs of fig trees, spurts of pure green have been burning like little cloven tongues of green fire vivid on the tips of the candelabrum. Now these spurts of green spread out, and begin to take the shape of hands, feeling for the air of summer. And tiny green figs are below them, like glands on the throat of a goat.

I can’t really picture a fig tree—are they tall? are the branches dense?—but I can see the little cloven tongues of green fire take the shape of hands, and then all of a sudden there’s that goat, with glands on his throat, whatever that looks like. Now instead of thinking about figs, I am wondering about goats, and how Lawrence lived such a life that these throat glands were a comparison that he had at the ready. But I don’t very much mind that I have been taken out of my mental picturing and returned to Lawrence. What is special about his images, I have learned after many years of trying to imagine them, is the way they always fall apart into language. “Spring begins with the first narcissus, rather cold and shy and wintry,” he writes in the same essay. “They are the little bunchy, creamy narcissus with the yellow cup like the yolk of the flower.” I have no idea what this flower looks like and don’t care. Those phrases—“bunchy, creamy” and “yolk of the flower”—I can never forget.

Christine Smallwood is a writer living in Brooklyn.