Lawrence's Mexican hat'

The Visionary D. H. Lawrence
January 20, 1995

The blurb to this book says: "D. H. Lawrence is often seen either as an artist whose novels are spoiled by the intrusion of ideas or as a philosopher whose ideas happen to be expressed in fiction; neither of these perspectives does justice to the unity and complexity of Lawrence's vision."

In this book, the author, we are told, "places Lawrence in the tradition both of great Romantic poet-philosophers including Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Carlyle, and Emerson, and of the visionary thinkers Nietzsche, Heraclitus, and Jacob Boehme". The problem, then, is to do with how we should read Lawrence; for, if Lawrence's ideas "intrude" upon his work (as they often do), do we read the work and ignore the ideas, or do we say that the work, according to our norms of reading and valuation, has been "spoiled by the intrusion", or do we accept that it belongs to some alternative tradition in which this intrusion upon the supposedly "pure" world of creative forms is possible? As Robert Montgomery says rightly in his introduction: "(The) divergence of critical opinion (on this matter) is so extreme that is raises the question whether our critical categories are adequate to deal with a phenomenon like Lawrence."

Montgomery, however, does not so much attempt to answer this question directly, or to explore in what ways, or why, "our critical categories" might be inadequate, as take a more traditional scholarly approach, and, chapter by chapter, offer us a study of influences on Lawrence the "poet-philosopher". Some of these attempts to locate Lawrence in the context of his influences are very illuminating. For instance, Montgomery is right when he takes issue with the idea of Lawrence as a dualist, and places the idea of "polarity" instead "at the heart of Lawrence's vision".

But a comparison between, say, Lawrence and Coleridge, as drawn by Montgomery, does not really solve the problem of how are we to read Lawrence? -- despite the useful affinities and parallels it may yield. In our attempts to see more clearly the peculiar contours of "a phenomenon like Lawrence", it would be at least as useful to delineate the differences between these two writers, and the specific sort of problems that reading each raises, as to note the similarities between them. When we read Coleridge, we find the philosopher and the poet are in two exclusive but related compartments, one influencing the other; we can perhaps "understand" Coleridge's poetry better if we have also some knowledge of his theories, because they inform the creative work on a subliminal, profound level; but they do not really "intrude" upon it as Lawrence's opinions do on his. Lawrence's inability to let his philosophical side inform his creative work only silently, his frequent inability to distance himself from his opinions when writing fiction or poetry means that he makes a kind of demand on our critical response as readers that neither Coleridge nor Shelley does. In fact what remain as relatively mutually exclusive binary opposites in their work -- poetry and philosophy -- in Lawrence are held in the dynamic, more complicated, sometimes more exasperating, relationship of polar opposites.

The other thing to be noted -- and this point is insufficiently acknowledged in the book -- is that most of the poets or philosophers Montgomery compares Lawrence with wrote before the advent of industrialisation or in a just-industrialised England; their ideas are primarily aesthetic or metaphysical attempts to define man's relationship to the world, or, in some cases, to the industrialised world. Here "man" is still a universal category, and the "world" is still a single entity "out there", ravaged, in later periods, by industrialisation. Lawrence, however, is writing in the world of colonialism, of the new forms of capitalism, of dying indigenous cultures; in this new world of internationalised transportation, he is aware both of the emergent middle-class society in America and of the South American village.

More than any other Modernist Lawrence was aware, in an unsentimental but profound way, of the shadow of the Mexican Indian falling across his page, of the intractable difference of non-Western cultures, and what this would mean in the colonial world where one of the primary relationships, whether one admitted it or not, was the relationship between white and non-white peoples.

Thus, while we find the metaphysical urgency of many of the concepts of the older philosophers surviving in Lawrence, we also find that very often these concepts have been modified and rewritten to accommodate political and cultural meanings; they become his way of exploring the new world. For instance, the Heraclitean ideas of "flux" and "change" become charged in much of Lawrence's writing with the non-metaphysical resonances of the constantly changing and shifting colonial world.

Similarly, it is interesting and necessary to observe how Coleridge's "polarity", which, as Montgomery demonstrates, is a metaphysical concept important to Lawrence, evolves in his work to take on a more political meaning. Montgomery defines "polarity" thus: "The poles of the magnet are by definition fundamentally opposed to each other; each is the negation of the other . . . Yet the opposite poles are necessary to each other, and neither can exist alone, each defining and constituting itself in relation only to its opposite. Despite their antithetical nature, each yet paradoxically exists only in and by and through the other. We can distinguish them but we cannot divide them."

This is remarkably like Saussure's insight in linguistics that no sign has an absolute or independent meaning, but derives its meaning differentially, by its relation to other signs that are part of the social construct which is language. Saussure's insight on "difference" was later picked up and politicised by literary theorists to define relationships between western and non-western cultures, and to indicate that no tradition possessed an absolute set of terms into which the terms of another tradition could be translated. In Lawrence, writing in the colonial world and attempting to grasp the new set of meanings and cultural interrelationships that world was bringing to birth, it would seem that "polarity" has been rewritten in much of his work, especially his later fiction and poetry and in his travel writings, as "difference".

Amit Chaudhuri is a novelist and visiting fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford.

The Visionary D. H. Lawrence

Author - Robert E. Montgomery
ISBN - 0521 45213 9
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £32.50
Pages - 248pp

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