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DH Lawrence: The iconic English literary seer who stood apart from the herd

Saad Ghani


DH Lawrence’s call for “a new world — far older than the new one,” seems all the more relevant in the modern age — considering the turbulent world we reside in today, and the crisis of our abhorrent culture, where violence is widespread and humanity is at loss.

Born on September 11, 1885 in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, the ideas that Lawrence postulated during the later part of his career seem so pertinent to our age that it is almost astonishing that these are the thoughts of the man who breathed his last, 87 years ago.

Lawrence wanted a revolution “not in the name of money, power and filth, but of life.” His experiences during the First World War signalled to him that the world is sailing towards a great debacle. He wrote somewhere:

“The world of men is dreaming, it has gone mad in its sleep, and a snake is strangling it, it can’t wake up.”

If we closely analyse the way of the world as it is today, along with the ease of living, violence, bloodshed and wars have clearly become widespread. News channels and newspapers — filled with news about the loss of human lives, rapes, murders, riots, terror attacks and wars — remind us that the world today stands on the brink of destruction; human life has little worth, humanity has lost its authority on earth, and that we are heading for a disaster, if we failed to make amends.

The opulence of his oeuvre lies in the fact that it explored those dark recesses of human mind, which were somewhat left unexplored by the writers of his days. The rogue elephant of British literature was time and again attacked for morals by critics and by a public profoundly pious, with a distaste for his works. The British authorities too looked askance at most of his works. His fifth novel, The Rainbow (1915), after a hearing in London, was banned under the Obscene Publication Acts of 1857. Lawrence’s age was 30 at that time but he didn’t let the blow deter his determination to write freely and with great authority — the two qualities that set him apart from his contemporaries. Despite the setback, one of the greatest minds in the realm of English literature remained at work, and in the next decade or so, Lawrence went on to write five more novels including Women In Love (sequel to The Rainbow), a play, two works on psychology (Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious, and Fantasia of the Unconscious), two collections of short stories, five books of poems and a work of criticism (Studies in Classic American Literature).

In Fantasia of the Unconscious, admonitions that he presented didn’t go well with his critics. There are parts in the book, wherein one finds his thoughts to be irrational. The work is prophetic in nature, wherein, the reader will find Lawrence’s voice to be too preachy. He writes only some men are born “highly and delicately conscious. But for the vast majority, much mental consciousness is simply a catastrophe, a blight.” He writes further, “Our business, at the present, is to prevent at all cost the young idea from shooting. The ideal mind, the brain, has become the vampire of modern life, sucking up the blood and the life. There is hardly an original utterance possible to us. All is sickly repetition of stale, stale ideas. Let all schools be closed at once. Keep only a few technical training establishments, nothing more. Let humanity lie fallow, for two generations at least. Let no child learn to read, unless it learns by itself, out of its own individual persistent desire.”

In his novel Sons and Lovers (1913), Lawrence has projected himself in his delineation of the character of Paul Morel (son of a coal miner). Like Lawrence, Paul also had Oedipus Complex, disliked his father and his soul was always attentive to his beloved mother — seeing her fret, he used to feel depressed. Lawrence modified his romance with Jessie Chambers in the portrayal of Paul’s love for Miriam Leivers. Lawrence portrayed his sexual relationship with Alice Dax (a married woman) through Paul’s liaison with Clara in the novel. Throughout the novel, Paul struggles in retaining women’s love for him. Paul even admits to his mother once, his incapability to keep a girl for long. He says to her that though girls fell in love with him like mad, he cannot keep their love permanently. He had found both Miriam and Clara inadequate to his needs (physical and spiritual). Although Paul was conscious of some flaw in himself, he failed miserably to define it.

If one wishes to intelligibly understand Lawrence, then one ought to turn to his adroitly written letters, which serve as a sort of an autobiography. His letters acquaint one with his intellectual development as a writer, his disgust for the society he lived in, the war’s impact on him as an individual and as a writer, his belief that Europe of his days was moribund and his shrinking faith in his motherland. And when one examines his ideas and his way of life, it’s then that one arrives at the realisation that Lawrence was a true artist in every sense.

The artist, who was for the motto: “art for my sake”, defined the pure artist or the artist of real stature as the one, who has an air of insouciance in general and has nonchalance in money matters (Lawrence used to call money a “beastly possessive spirit”). He wanted living to be a “free thing” and not something that should be earned — a thought which seems obsolete today but says a lot about the free-spirited life that Lawrence was for.

Lawrence’s fate as a writer was marred by persistent attacks from critics; trials and tribulations, which didn’t remain restricted to the written word alone — it pervaded all spheres of his artistic life.

British critic FR Leavis insisted that Lawrence, like William Blake possessed a special talent. He wrote: “He had the same gift of knowing what he was interested in, the same power of distinguishing his own feelings and emotions from conventional sentiment, the same terrifying honesty.” Like Blake, Lawrence too was a painter. He revived his interest in painting quite later in his career. After writing somewhere: “Everything that can be painted has been painted, every brush stroke that can possibly be laid on canvas has been laid on”, and asserting that visual arts are at a dead end; at the age of 40, he began painting. As a writer, he was the master of his art but he had always been in love with the pictorial art. Despite never attending art school, his geometry and drawing were solid and he possessed proficiency in laws of perspective, which are all valuable traits in an artist.

In 1926, Lawrence began to take painting seriously while he was living with his wife, Frieda Lawrence in Italy. But Lawrence had been copying pictures since he was a young lad — he used to copy worthless scenes from magazines, reproductions of all sorts, also copied from nature. Lawrence believed that apart from developing skill and patience to dwell with pictures, an artist should also have a ‘purity in spirit’ — by which he meant that an artist may be an unscrupulous being but if he is capable of vigorously painting the living image of a few apples, he is pure in spirit. For him, purity in spirit was something nearer to the divine. To Lawrence, art was a form of religion — in his words “a form of supremely delicate awareness and atonement — meaning atoneness, the state of being at one with the object”.

To some extent, Lawrence’s fervent involvement with painting can be attributed to his confession that the written word couldn’t give him the delight and satisfaction that art offered. For him, there was a deeper joy in words but it was somewhat unconscious (may be words came to him unbidden). And with visual art, he derived a stronger and conscious delight. He found language somewhat inadequate in comparison with the power of visual art as a means to transport the life he endeavoured to put into his works.

In 1929, Lawrence’s first solo art show — featuring 25 artworks at Warren Gallery in London — met the same fate as some of his novels did. Thirteen paintings were seized by the police, and they were returned to Lawrence on the condition that they will never be exhibited in England again in the future.

It is, indeed, admirable, how Lawrence never slipped off his perch, despite the controversies that permeated his literary career. And the way he overcame hurdles to successfully establish his name in the vanguard of English literature, is a testimony to the fact that ardent efforts never go wasted.

(HT Media)

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