Monday, August 2, 2010

D. H. Lawrence’s “Classic American” studies (Part 1)

D. H. Lawrence who wrote, "Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it." D. H. Lawrence is a strange duck. I sometimes think I don't believe a single thing he writes, but nevertheless, grudgingly, enjoy reading him. In this book his subject is American Literature, and while he never strives to be clear, I suppose he has in mind American writers when he made this famous statement. I don't think he intended a universal principle. That would be greater nonsense than he usually succumbs to. When we read on we don't find writers who can't be believed; so what was he up to when he said this? Here is what I think: Further on he writes, "But there sits the old master, over in Europe. Like a parent. Somewhere deep in every American heart lies a rebellion against the old parenthood of Europe. Yet no American feels he has completely escaped its master. Hence the slow, smouldering patience of American opposition. The slow, smouldering corrosive obedience to the old master Europe, the unwilling subject, the unremitting opposition." Is this true? Not today it isn't. Few Americans today believe Europe their master -- many, notoriously, believe the opposite. But it helps to realize that Lawrence wrote his book between 1917 and 1923 and probably had writers like T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and their expatriate rat-pack in mind. What he writes makes perfect sense when we think of them. Many American intellectuals, in those days, moved to Europe and treated it as though it were their master. It wasn't until the thirties that intellectuals quit moving there. In fact the thirties saw a reversal, Europeans moving to America to escape their "Totalitarian" Masters. When we read on, Lawrence tells us that we Americans should give up thinking of Europe as our master. How could we do that if what he intended above was a Universal principle -- if we are all in thrall to Europe? Actually, we aren't, but Pound, Eliot and a number of others were; so when Lawrence wrote, "Never trust the artist. Trust the tale," he probably had in mind the American expatriates he was critical of and not the writers he goes on to discuss in this volume.

The first writer Lawrence discusses at length is Benjamin Franklin. Lawrence is offended at Franklin's rules: "Middle-sized, sturdy, snuff-coloured Doctor Franklin, one of the soundest citizens that ever trod or 'used venery'. I do not like him." Well, I was never that drawn to him either, but I never credited him with trying to destroy Europe: But Lawrence has: "The pattern American, this dry, moral, utilitarian little democrat, has done more to ruin the old Europe than any Russian nihilist." Does Lawrence really mean anything by this? Probably not. He is enjoying his rant. He takes the opportunity to establish his own creed and rules to contradict those of Poor Richard. Here are some of them:

1. Temperance -- Eat and carouse with Bacchus, or munch dry bread with Jesus, but don't sit down without one of the gods.

2. Silence -- Be still when you have nothing to say; when genuine passion moves you, say what you've got to say, and say it hot.

4. Resolution -- Resolve to abide by your own deepest promptings, and to sacrifice the smaller thing to the greater. Kill when you must and be killed the same: the must coming from the gods inside you, or from the men in whom you recognize the Holy Ghost.

6. Industry -- Lose no time with ideals; serve the Holy Ghost; never serve mankind.

10. Cleanliness -- Don't be too clean. It impoverishes the blood.

12. Chastity -- Never 'use' venery at all. Follow your passional impulse, if it be answered in the other being; but never have any motive in mind, neither offspring nor health nor even pleasure, not even service. Only know that 'venery' is of the great gods. An offering-up of yourself to the very great gods, the dark ones, and nothing else.

Further down Lawrence writes, "Benjamin, I will not work. I do not choose to be a free democrat. I am absolutely a servant of my own Holy Ghost." What Lawrence means by his Holy Ghost seems to mean his own "sacred" desires.

The next American writer he examines is the Frenchman, Hector St. John de Crevecoeur who wrote Letters from an American Farmer, "which enjoyed great vogue in their day, in England especially, among the new reformers like Godwin and Tom Paine." Further down Lawrence writes that "Hazlitt, Godwin, Shelley, Coleridge, the English romantics . . . were thrilled by the Letters of an American Farmer."

Lawrence tells us, "You can idealize or intellectualize. Or, on the contrary, you can let the dark soul in you see for itself. An artist usually intellectualizes on top, and his dark under-consciousness goes on contradicting him beneath. This is almost laughably the case with most American artists. Crevecoeur is the first example. He is something of an artist, Franklin isn't anything."

Does anyone read Crevecoeur today? I can't imagine why they would, but perhaps Lawrence did prior to 1923 and had to get him out of his system.

Next Lawrence discusses Fenimore Cooper. Lawrence apparently grew up reading Cooper and wasn't willing to abandon him, despite his intensely critical spirit. "There'll never be any life in America till you pull the pin out and admit natural inequality. Natural superiority, natural inferiority. Till such time, Americans just buzz round like various sorts of propellers, pinned down by their freedom and equality." What is Lawrence up to here, supporting the British Aristocracy? I don't think so. He wasn't born well, but he was "naturally superior" to everyone else. I suspect him of an incipient meritocracy.

Further down Lawrence writes ". . . the folds of the Great Serpent would have been heavy, very heavy, too heavy, on any white man. Unless the white man were a true renegade, hating himself and his own race-spirit, as sometimes happens." This could be a description of Ward Churchill who hates the "white man" even though he is a white man himself, and loves (and falsely claims to me) the Indian. The Great Serpent is not too heavy for Ward Churchill.

On page 59 Lawrence writes, "Democracy in America was never the same as Liberty in Europe. In Europe Liberty was a great life-throb. But in American Democracy was always anti-life. The greatest democrats, like Abraham Lincoln, had always a sacrificial, self-murdering note in their voices. American Democracy was a form of self-murder, always. Or of murdering somebody else." This is pure D.H. nonsense. He wrote this shortly after the First World War, which was European, and prior to the Second World War. While he didn't live to experience that war, he did experience some of its precursors. I think "self-murdering" is a fair description of twentieth-century Europe. Lawrence was probably had in mind our civil war when he referred to "self-murder," but then why didn't he say so? Why pretend that "American Democracy was always anti-life"? Why pretend that there is a principle involved when there clearly isn't?

"And Natty, what sort of a white man is he? Why, he is a man with a gun. He is a killer, a slayer. Patient and gentle as he is, he is a slayer. Self-effacing, self-forgetting, still he is a killer." And you were happy to call on him when your European wars got out of hand weren't you? There was sense to Natty Bumpo's killing. He killed for food or self-defense, but why did your Europeans kill each other, and then ignore your killing to call Natty Bumpo a killer?

On page 68, Lawrence writes "The essential America soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never melted." Does that sound like anyone you know, you Americans? Me neither. But Lawrence was never afraid of making sweeping generalizations with very little evidence. In 1922 Lawrence and Frieda began spending their time in Taos, New Mexico, culminating in their buying a ranch in 1924. Perhaps it was in New Mexico that he decided the American soul was "hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer." You New Mexicans must have scared the little British knee-britches right off of him.

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