Cultural Cohesion, p.21Clive James
Times Literary Supplement, January 5, 2001 ;
later included in The Best Australian Essays, 2001
More than forty years of self-imposed exile, though nowadays I make frequent visits home, have had the merit of keeping me out of Australian literary politics. Hence I have been able to take a detached view of developments in Australian poetry, which have been manifold, often beneficial and sometimes breathtaking, like a long, fully dressed version of the Sydney Olympics with the whole nation for an arena. As the previous two articles demonstrate, I have been unable, in recent years, to restrain myself from providing a commentary, but I had the advantage of knowing that whatever I said would do no harm. The day has passed when home thoughts from abroad could make much difference, either through encouragement or through belittlement.
There is no reason, however, to think that the literary politics I was glad to leave behind do not continue unabated. On the tom-toms I hear about hatreds between poets, feuds between editors and grisly forms of verbal assassination. But even from my distant perch, it is obvious that the Australian literary life, especially in poetry, also continues to be blessed by the local sense of the ridiculous, which rules out any posturings as a man of destiny. The careerism that infected American poetry after World War II took a more benign form in Australia. There was much jockeying for government grants—understandably, because with such a small population few writers of any kind can live on sales alone—but the prizes were not big enough to encourage foul play, and the worst injuries were to pride. Hardly anybody committed suicide, and despite the example of the erratically inspired Francis Webb it did not even become fashionable to go mad. The tragedies, when they happened, were more real than willed.
The worst tragedy was the early death from leukaemia of Philip Hodgins, who was greatly gifted, and fulfilled more of that great gift than his brief span and failing energy might have allowed. His poetry is not much known outside Australia. There is a lot of very good Australian poetry that isn’t, and what Australia must come to terms with is that this is a desirable state of affairs. When a burgeoning culture produces more wealth than it can easily export, it starts to get interesting, through sharing the condition of the mountain to which Mahomet must come, and the better mousetrap to which the world must beat a path.
FICTION AND LITERATURE
D. H. LAWRENCE
If one were to take a wax pencil and trace Lawrence’s travels on a globe of the world, the result would be an enigmatic squiggle: a squiggle that started off minutely preoccupied in Europe, was reduced still further to a fat dot formed by the cramped wartime movements within England, broke out, enlarged itself to a bold transoceanic zigzag which at one wild moment streaked right around the planet, and then subsided again into more diffident, European vagaries—still restless, but listless, tailing off. The pencil should properly come to a halt at Vence, in the Alpes Maritimes, although if we substituted for it another pencil of a different colour we might legitimately add one last, sweeping leg to the journey, as Lawrence’s mobility recovered in death and his ashes rode back mindlessly to New Mexico.
In a few minutes we could map the wanderings of nearly two decades. It wouldn’t tell us much, apart from the obvious fact that he liked to move about. He was in search of something, no question of it. Headquarters, the fissure into the underworld—it had many names. But one is permitted to doubt whether it could ever have been found, the doubt being engendered less by the world’s nature than by an assessment of Lawrence’s insatiable hunger for meaning. There is a tendency, once Lawrence’s odyssey has been identified as a spiritual quest, to suppose that Lawrence had a firm idea of his spiritual object: hence the notion that he was in revolt against twentieth-century society, or post-Renaissance Europe, or post-Columbian America, or whatever you care to name. Lawrence was in revolt all right, but the revolt encompassed almost everything he knew in the present and nearly all the past he ever came to know, and this ability to exhaust reality through intimacy shows up in his travels as much as in anything else he did.
It was not so much that familiarity bred contempt—and anyway, there were some familiarities of which he never quite tired—as that it bred unease. Never to find things important enough is the mark of a dreamer. Lawrence, thoroughly practical and businesslike in matters large and small, was no ordinary dreamer: nevertheless he could get no lasting peace from his surroundings, and as time went by felt bound to look upon them as an impoverished outwardness implying a symbolic centre—and this despite an unrivalled ability to reflect the fullness of physical reality undiminished onto the page. Lawrence is beyond the reach of any other modern writer writing about what can be seen, since whatever could be seen he saw instantaneously and without effort—which is probably why he could regard it as nothing but the periphery of the real. If he had lived longer, his novels might well have lost any touch at all with worldly objects: the sense of actuality which other men serve long apprenticeships to attain was for him a departure point. And again if he had lived longer, he might well have exhausted the Earth with travel. Had he not placed such an emphasis on turning inwards to the dark, fiery centre, we could by now have been tempted to imagine him turning outwards, away from the tellurian cultures depleted by the ravenous enquiry of his imagination and towards an uncapturable infinity that actually exists—orchestrations of dark suns, unapproachable galaxies peopled by Etruscans who stayed on top, nebulae like turquoise horses, the ocean of the great desire. Quetzalcoatl’s serape! Sun-dragon! Star-oil! Lawrence was in search of, was enraged over the loss of, a significance this world does not supply and has never supplied. For a worldling, his symbolist requirements were inordinate. As a spaceman he might have found repose. Heaven knows, he was genius enough not to be outshone by the beyond. He could have written down a supernova.
Supposing, though, that this was what his journeyings were all in aid of—home. The supposition is at least part of the truth, although by no means, I think, the largest part. If home was ever anywhere, it was at the Del Monte and Flying Heart ranches in New Mexico—whose mountains seemed to be the place he could stay at longest without feeling compelled to move on. Yet there were still times when he missed Europe, just as, in Europe, there were so many times when he missed America, and just as, on either continent, there were troubled times when he missed England. Headquarters tended to be where Lawrence was not. Places abandoned because they did not possess the secret could be fondly remembered later on—perhaps they had had the secret after all. But it never occurred to Lawrence that there was no secret. Out of all the thousands of pages of his incredibly productive short life, the great pathos which emerges is of this extraterrestrial unbelonging—far more frightening, in the long run, than the social challenges which by now we have absorbed, or else written off as uninformative propositions. Critical unreason often occurs in creative genius, but creative unreason rarely does: for a talent to be as big as Lawrence’s and yet still be sick is a strange thing. It’s easily understandable that people equipped to appreciate his magnitude as a writer should take the intellectually less taxing course, declaring Lawrence to be a paragon of prophetic sanity and the world sick instead.
Lawrence’s first travels were to London, Brighton, the Isle of Wight, Bournemouth. Readers of the early letters will be rocked back on their heels to find the same descriptive power turned loose on Brighton as later reached out to seize the dawn over Sicily, the flowers in Tuscany, the Sinai desert, the spermlike lake in Mexico and the ranches after snow. Then, in 1912, the first run to Metz, which was then in Germany: Waldbröl in the Rhineland, Munich, Mayrhofen in Austria. A walk over the Tyrol. Lake Garda. Back to England in 1913, then back to Bavaria. Lerici. England again. The war confined these short European pencil strokes to a fitfully vibrating dot within England, covering Sussex, Hampstead, Cornwall; an angry return to London after being houn
In 1919, free to quit England, he broke straight for Italy: Turin, Lerici, Florence, Rome, Picinisco, Capri. In 1920, Taormina, in Sicily. Malta. In 1921, Sardinia, Germany, Austria, Italy, Taormina again. (Taormina is a node, like—later on—Taos, and the Villa Mirenda at Scandicci, outside Florence.)
In 1922, the emboldened pattern struck outwards to Ceylon. Australia for two months. Then America: Taos, the Del Monte ranch, the mountains. In 1923 he was in Mexico City, New York, Los Angeles, Mexico again and . . . England. In 1924 France, Germany, New York, Taos. The Flying Heart ranch, alias the Lobo, alias the Kiowa. Oaxaca, in Mexico.
The year 1925 ended the period of the big pattern. After a wrecking illness in New Mexico he returned to London. Then Baden-Baden. Spotorno. In 1926, Capri, Spotorno and the Villa Mirenda in Scandicci—his last real place to be. Germany, England, Scotland. Italy.
In 1927 he toured the Etruscan tombs. A score of names cropped up in his itinerary: Volterra, Orvieto, Tarquinia—short strokes all over Tuscany and Umbria, the Etruscan places. Then to Austria and Germany, and in 1928 to Switzerland, with the Villa Mirenda abandoned. Gsteig bei Gstaad, Baden-Baden (the Kurhaus Plättig) and the Ile de Port-Cros, Toulon. From low-lying sun-trap to Höheluftkurort the short strokes moved trembling. Bandol, in the south of France. He was in Paris in 1929, then Palma de Mallorca, Forte dei Marmi, Florence, Bandol again. In 1930 Vence, and death.
Even in Vence he wasn’t too sick to use his amazing eyes. There isn’t a place on the list that he didn’t inhabit at a glance. And yet as we read on and on through the magnificence of his travel writings, a little voice keeps telling us that the man was never there. The man, the spaceman, never travelled except in dreams. Dreaming, while dying, of India and China and everything else that lay beyond the San Francisco gate. Dreaming of altogether elsewhere, of an England that was not England, of a Europe that was never Europe.
It was a great day, Frieda said, when they walked together from the Isartal into the Alps. Lawrence wrote it down, in a way that takes us straight there. But where was he? “We stayed at a Gasthaus,” he wrote to Edward Garnett, “and used to have breakfast out under the horse-chestnut trees, steep above the river weir, where the timber rafts come down. The river is green glacier water.” Compare this to one of the famous opening sentences of A Farewell to Arms—“In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels”—and we will find Lawrence’s descriptive prose both more economical and less nostalgic, the effortless reportage of an infallibly observant visitor.
Still on the same descriptive trail, go south to Italy (“I love these people”) and look at Lerici. “And in the morning,” he wrote to Lady Cynthia Asquith, “one wakes and sees the pines all dark and mixed up with perfect rose of dawn, and all day long the olives shimmer in the sun, and fishing boats and strange sails like Corsican ships come out of nowhere on a pale blue sea, and then at evening all the sea is milky gold and scarlet with sundown.” The fake-naive rhythms, suitable for consumption by titled ladies, can’t mask the searing power of that simplicity. “The mountains of Carrara are white, of a soft white blue eidelweiss, in a faint pearl haze—all snowy. The sun is very warm, and the sea glitters.” It still does, even though polluted with a thoroughness which even Lawrence would have hesitated to prophesy. “The Mediterranean is quite wonderful—and when the sun sets beyond the islands of Porto Venere, and all the sea is like heaving white milk with a street of fire across it, and amethyst islands away back, it is too beautiful.” It’s small wonder that Lawrence could talk about art having characteristics rather than rules, and even disparage the idea of art altogether. He had it to burn.
Reality offered Lawrence no resistance. Mysticism did, and it was into mysticism that he poured his conscious energy. Turning to Twilight in Italy, we can find something on every page to match the descriptions in the letters. Here is Lake Garda at dawn.
In the morning I often lie in bed and watch the sunrise. The lake lies dim and milky, the mountains are dark blue at the back, while over them the sky gushes and glistens with light. At a certain place on the mountain ridge the light burns gold, seems to fuse a little groove on the hill’s rim. It fuses and fuses at this point, till of a sudden it comes, the intense, molten, living light. The mountains melt suddenly, the light steps down, there is a glitter, a spangle, a clutch of spangles, a great unbearable sun-track flashing across the milky lake, and the light falls on my face.
But superb as this is, it isn’t what this book or any other Lawrence book is about. Twilight in Italy is about north and south, hill and dale—it is the tentative prototype for a great sequence of increasingly confident polarities, by which Lawrence the traveller was to go on splitting the world in two until there was nothing left of it but powder. The Bavarian highlanders, it appears, “are almost the only race with the souls of artists . . . their processions and religious festivals are profoundly impressive, solemn, and rapt.” Again, they are “a race that moves on the poles of mystic sensual delight. Every gesture is a gesture from the blood, every expression a symbolic utterance.” Your Bavarian highlander “accepts the fate and the mystic delight of the senses with one will, he is complete and final. His sensuous experience is supreme, a consummation of life and death at once.” Whether drinking in the Gasthaus, or “hating steadily and cruelly,” or “walking in the strange, dark, subject-procession” to bless the fields, “it is always the same, the dark, powerful mystic, sensuous experience is the whole of him, he is mindless and bound within the absoluteness of the issue, the unchangeability of the great icy not-being which holds good for ever, and is supreme.” Yes, it was all happening in Bavaria—or rather, it was all to happen later on in Bavaria. But the thing to grasp here is that word “dark.” Not only (as is well known) is it the key adjective in all of Lawrence, but Lawrence’s travels can usefully be summarized as an interminable search for a noun it could firmly be attached to.
No sooner is Lawrence in Italy than we discover that the Italians have dark interiors too. “The Italian people are called ‘Children of the Sun.’ They might better be called ‘Children of the Shadow.’ Their souls are dark and nocturnal.” A feature of the dark soul is unconsciousness, as in the spinning-woman, whose mind Lawrence can apparently read. “She glanced at me again, with her wonderful, unchanging eyes, that were like the visible heavens, unthinking, or like the two flowers that are open in pure clear unconsciousness. To her I was a piece of the environment. That was all. Her world was clear and absolute, without consciousness of self. She was not self-conscious, because she was not aware that there was anything in the universe except her universe.”
But the darkly unconscious haven’t got it all their own way. Much later in the book, during the fascinating passage that deals with the local production of Amleto, Lawrence spies a mountain-man in the audience: he is of the same race as the old spinning-woman. “He was fair, thin, and clear, abstract, of the mountains. . . . He has a fierce, abstract look, wild and untamed as a hawk, but like a hawk at its own nest, fierce with love . . . it is the fierce spirit of the Ego come out of the primal infinite, but detached, isolated, an aristocrat. He is not an Italian, dark-blooded. He is fair, keen as steel, with the blood of the mountaineer in him. He is like my old spinning woman.”
To reconcile this mountain-man with the spinning-woman, we must assume she was never dark-blooded, when a good deal of what we were told about her when we were reading about her suggested that she was. And indeed, looking back, we find that she hasn’t been given a dark soul or dark blood—she is simply “the core and centre to the world, the sun, and the single firmament.” Lawrence hasn’t at this stage entirely identified the dark soul with the earth’s centre, so it’s still possible to combine abstractness with being at the centre of the world, and, presumably, dark-bloodedness with not being at the centre of the world
The awkward truth is that Lawrence left his Bavarian highlanders behind in his opening chapter and forgot about them while writing the bulk of the book, which even without them would still be extremely difficult to puzzle out. The confusion confesses itself in the passage about Paolo and Maria. Paolo is a native of San Gaudenzio, and therefore a hill man—fair, eyes-like-ice, unalterable, inaccessible. Maria is from the plain—dark-skinned, slow-souled. “Paolo and she were the opposite sides of the universe, the light and the dark.” Nothing could be clearer. “They were both by nature passionate, vehement. But the lines of their passion were opposite. Hers was the primitive, crude, violent flux of the blood, emotional and undiscriminating, but wanting to mix and mingle. His was the hard, clear, invulnerable passion of the bones, finely tempered and unchangeable.” As an opponent to, or complement of, the passion of the blood, the passion of the bones was evidently judged by Lawrence to be somewhat unwieldy—it never again made such an unabashed appearance. Pretty soon, the blood’s passion became the only kind of authentic passion you could have.
In Twilight in Italy, though the destructive mechanization of the world had already clearly been perceived, Lawrence still had something to say for abstractness, intellectuality and cognate non-dark attributes. In 1915 he wrote to Lady Ottoline Morrell from Ripley, in Derbyshire: “It is a cruel thing to go back to that which one has been. . . . Altogether the life here is so dark and violent; it all happens in the senses, powerful and rather destructive: no mind or mental consciousness, unintellectual. These men are passionate enough, sensuous, dark—God, how all my boyhood comes back—so violent, so dark, the mind always dark and without understanding, the senses violently active. It makes me sad beyond words.” It’s not the first time that the word “dark” is used like a comma, but it’s one of the few times—all early—when Lawrence freely admitted the possibility that the dark soul could be as murderous on its own as intellect could. The emphasis was still on keeping a balance, on checking the word against the thing it was supposed to stand for. Lawrence’s later history is the story of darkness being awarded a steadily more automatic virtue, the periodic calls for an equilibrium of forces degenerating into unfathomable proposals about establishing the correct relationship between the components of darkness itself.
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