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Cultural cohesion, p.22
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       Cultural Cohesion, p.22

           Clive James
 

  Lawrence’s “dash” (his word) to Sardinia produced a book—Sea and Sardinia—which clearly shows his untroubled ability to uproot all the attributes he has just so triumphantly detected in a place, move them on to the next place and then condemn the first place for either not having them in sufficient strength or never having had them. In Cagliari the men “stood about in groups, but without the intimate Italian watchfulness that never leaves a passer-by alone.” Looks as if the Italians’ dark blood wasn’t dark enough, an impression confirmed by the menacing loins of the Sardinian peasant, “a young one with a swift eye and hard cheek and hard, dangerous thighs. . . . How fascinating it is, after the soft Italians, to see these limbs in their close knee-breeches, so definite, so manly, with the old fierceness in them still. One realizes, with horror, that the race of men is almost extinct in Europe . . .” Plainly the war period has helped sour Lawrence on Europe altogether, but even taking that convulsive time-lag into account, it’s still difficult to square up Sea and Sardinia with Twilight in Italy. The real difference, it appears, is that Italy is connu and therefore sterile, whereas Sardinia is unknown and therefore isn’t. “There are unknown, unworked lands where the salt has not lost its savour. But one must have perfected oneself in the great past first.”

  Whether in the vegetable market near the start of the book or at the peasants’ procession near the end, Lawrence’s colour sense is at its sumptuous best, and in general Sea and Sardinia is a remarkable piece of visualization. “When we came up, the faint shape of land appeared ahead, more transparent than thin pearl. Already Sardinia. Magic are high lands seen from the sea, when they are far, far off, and ghostly translucent like icebergs.” Beautiful writing, but no lasting pledge. Lawrence was in and out of Sardinia in a hurry, and spent a good half of 1921 sitting in Taormina getting sick of Europe, which can’t be said to exclude Sardinia. Just as Sardinia had it over Italy, somewhere else had it over the whole of Europe. “I would like to break out of Europe,” he wrote to Mary Cannan. “It has been like a bad meal of various courses . . . and one has got indigestion from every course.” He was thinking of “something more velvety”—Japan, perhaps, or Siam. The south of Europe was better than the north, but there was no denying that even the south had gone off: “I can’t get the little taste of canker out of my mouth,” he told Catherine Cars­well, “The people—” A few days later he was telling E. H. Brewster that they were canaille, canaglia, Schweinhunderei, stinkpots. “A curse, a murrain, a pox on this crawling, sniffling, spunkless brood of humanity.”

  In his mind Lawrence was already embarked for Ceylon, and in another few days Mabel Dodge—by inviting him to Taos—had made it possible for him to project his mental journey right around the globe. Europe was promptly pronounced to be “a dead dog which begins to stink intolerably.” England (in the same letter, written to S. S. Koteliansky) was declared “a dead dog that died of a love disease like syphilis.” Bad news for Koteliansky, who was living in it at the time. (This letter also featured the Lawrentian pearl about “one of those irritating people who have generalized detestations. . . . So unoriginal.”)

  “I feel I can’t come—” Lawrence wrote to Brewster in January 1922, “that the East is not my destiny.” Later in the same month, destiny doubled back, and Lawrence decided to go via Ceylon after all. “I feel it is my destiny,” he wrote to Mabel Dodge, “to go east before coming west.” Destiny pulled another double-cross in Ceylon, where Lawrence found the velvety Orient inane. “The East, the bit I’ve seen,” he told Mary Cannan, “seems silly.” As he frequently did when off-balance, he thought of England, telling Robert Pratt Barlow that “the most living clue of life is in us Englishmen in England, and the great mistake we make is in not uniting together in the strength of this real living clue—religious in the most vital sense—uniting together in England and so carrying the vital spark through . . . the responsibility for England, the living England, rests on men like you and me and Cunard—probably even the Prince of Wales. . . .” The Prince of Wales was indirectly responsible for Lawrence’s “Elephant” poem, the most tangible result of the Singhalese sojourn apart from a disillusioning close-up of inscrutable platoons of dark people with dark eyes—“the vastness of the blood stream, so dark and hot and from so far off.”

  As far as the East went, darkness was a dead loss. Not that the contradiction with many things he’d said before, or with nearly everything he said later, ever slowed him down. The task was to push his mystical system around the planet until it clicked; there was no obligation to explain why it kept going wrong.

  Australia was a country Lawrence couldn’t characterize . . . “the spell of its indifference gets me.” Mystical content, zero. “This is the most democratic place I have ever been in,” he wrote to Else Jaffe, “And the more I see of democracy the more I dislike it. . . . You never knew anything so nothing, nichts, nullus, niente, as the life here.” The situations in Kangaroo are mainly imported, and it’s doubtful if Lawrence ever gave Australia much thought after the first few days. Nevertheless the settings in Kangaroo have small trouble in being the most acutely observed and evocative writing about Australia that there has so far been—bearing out my point that Lawrence could reproduce reality with no effort whatsoever. Trollope, Kipling, Conrad, Galsworthy and R. L. Stevenson all visited Australia at one time or another, but if any of them was capable of bringing off a piece of scene setting like the opening chapter of Kangaroo, he didn’t feel compelled to. The moment he got to Thirroul, Lawrence despatched letters announcing his longing for Europe—the dead dog lived again. The central situation in Kangaroo looks to be about Italian Fascism—the Australian variety, which emerged much later, was very different. But Kangaroo is a bit more than a European play with an Australian set designer. It has an interesting early scene in which Lawrence makes Lovat out to be a prig, reluctant to lend Jack Callcott a book of essays in case it bores him. “ ‘I might rise up to it, you know,’ said Jack laconically, ‘if I bring all my mental weight to bear on it.’ ” There is a hint, here, that someone might have shaken Lawrence by urging him to lay off the intensity. It’s a rare moment of self-criticism, and almost the moment of self-deprecating humour. Lawrence was perhaps a touch less certain about the aridity of the Australian spirit than he let on.

  America. Lorenzo in Taos—it was a giant step. It rapidly became clear that the most dangerous item of local fauna was Mabel Dodge, the hostess who favoured will over feeling—a priority always guaranteed to grate on Lawrence, whose will and feeling were united in Destiny. “My heart still turns most readily to Italy,” he told Mary Cannan—a strong sign of unease—and “I even begin to get a bit homesick for England . . .” A certain sign. At this stage Lawrence had decided that the Indians couldn’t be copied. “And after all, if we have to go ahead,” he wrote to Else Jaffe, “we must ourselves go ahead. We can go back and pick up some threads—but these Indians are up against a dead wall, even more than we are: but a different wall.” And to Catherine Carswell: “Però, son sempre Inglese.” Even after moving to the Del Monte, putting a helpful seventeen miles between himself and the Mabel-ridden Taos, Lawrence was detecting the same innerlich emptiness in his surroundings as had wasted his time in Australia. Mexico, however, worked differently, and he was soon telling the much-maligned Middleton Murry that if England wanted to lead the world again she would have to pick up a lost trail, and that the end of the trial lay in—Mexico.

  The Plumed Serpent is a work of uncanny poetic force which manages to keep some sort of shape despite intense distorting pressures from Lawrence’s now-rampant mysticism. Kate, with her European blood and conscious understanding, is outdistanced by dark-faced silent men with their columns of dark blood and dark, fiery clouds of passionate male tenderness. In addition to the oppressive symbolic scheme, there are moments which lead you to suspect that the author might simply be cracked—as when he suggests that Bolshevists are all born near railways. Yet chapter 5, “The Lake,” is one of Lawrence’s supreme
stretches of writing. The boatman “pulled rhythmically through the frail-rippling, sperm-like water, with a sense of peace. And for the first time Kate felt she had met the mystery of the natives, the strange and mysterious gentleness between a scylla and charybdis of violence: the small poised, perfect body of the bird that waves wings of thunder and wings of fire and night in its flight.” Frail-rippling—what a writer. The transparent purity of the book’s descriptions is inseparable from its symbolic structure, which is an opposition between principles that no ordinary mortal will ever be able to clarify, since Lawrence himself could only grope towards them with incantatory phrase-making.

  The book’s incandescent set pieces—the burning of the images, the execution of the traitors and so on—are spaced apart by impenetrable thickets of unmeaning. “But within his own heavy, dark range he had a curious power,” Kate learns of Cipriano. “Almost she could see the black fume of power which he emitted, the dark, heavy vibration of his blood . . . she could feel the curious tingling heat of his blood, and the heavy power of the will that lay unemerged in his blood.” What the Bavarian highlanders and plains Italians had lost, the sons of Quetzalcoatl had gained.

  Lawrence learned about Indians during the hiatus between writing the tenth and eleventh chapters of The Plumed Serpent. His mystical conclusions are distributed between the later part of that novel (e.g., the snake in the fire at the heart of the world) and Mornings in Mexico, a travel book of unusual difficulty, even for Lawrence. Certainly he no longer pleads for a balance between the disparate consciousnesses of the white man and the dark man. You can’t, it appears, have it both ways. The most you can hope for is to harbour a little ghost who sees in both directions. Yet ghost or no ghost, Lawrence seems to be trying hard to belong to the Indian way, to the “abdomen where the great blood-stream surges in the dark, and surges in its own generic experiences.” What we seek in sleep, Lawrence says, the Indians perhaps seek actively, “the dark blood falling back from the mind, from sight and speech and knowing, back to the great central source where is rest and unspeakable renewal.” Relieved by some of his most brilliant descriptive passages, the rhetoric is short of totally suffocating, but still fearsomely turgid. It takes the letters to remind us that he could write in an unfevered way during this period. “Here the grass is only just moving green out of the sere earth,” he wrote to Zelia Nuttall, “and the hairy, pale mauve anemones that the Indians call owl flowers stand strange and alone among the dead pine needles, under the wintry trees. Extraordinary how the place seems seared with winter: almost cauterized. And so winter-cleaned, from under three feet of snow.” A cold towel for the reader’s forehead. Green glacier water.

  Back in Europe to stay, Lawrence unpacked his mystical machine and set about applying it to the Etruscans. At the same time, and without any disabling sense of contradicting himself, he started rehabilitating Europe, even the long-forsaken north. “I am very much inclined to agree,” he wrote to Rolf Gardiner in July 1926, “that one must look for real guts and self-responsibility to the Northern peoples. After a winter in Italy—and a while in France—I am a bit bored by the Latins, there is a sort of inner helplessness and lack of courage in them. . . .” Writing from Lincolnshire to E. H. Brewster, he claimed to have rediscovered “a queer, odd sort of potentiality in the people, especially the common people. . . .” The common English people, back in the running at long last! Whether or not the Prince of Wales qualified wasn’t stated.

  As a traveller through ordinary space, Lawrence got back on slanging terms with his repudiated Europe. Baden-Baden, for example, was a Totentanz out of Holbein, “old, old people tottering their cautious dance of triumph: wir sind noch hier. . . .” As a traveller through time and thought, he moved on a grander scale. Etruscan Places is a gentle book, endearingly characteristic in its handy division between Etruscan and Roman and disarmingly uncharacteristic in its emphasis on delicacy and humour: it’s the book of a strong man dying. “We have lost the art of living,” he writes, “and in the most important science of all, the science of daily life, the science of behaviour, we are complete ignoramuses.” The Etruscans weren’t like that. Their art had the “natural beauty of proportion of the phallic consciousness, contrasted with the more studied or ecstatic proportion of the mental and spiritual Consciousness we are accustomed to.” The contrast, as always, is asserted with a degree of confidence which is bound to draw forth a preliminary nod of assent. It remains a fact, however, that this kind of argument has practically nothing to do with post-Renaissance art or pre-Renaissance art or any kind of art, since art is more likely to depend on those two sorts of proportion being in tension than on one getting rid of the other. Lawrence’s binomial schemes were useless for thinking about art, as those of his disciples who tried to employ them went on to prove. Without them, though, we wouldn’t have had his art.

  In January 1928, Lawrence told Dorothy Brett that he still intended coming back to the ranch. “It’s very lovely,” he wrote to Lady Glenavy, “and I’d be well there.” But his seven-league boots were worn through, and he was never to get out of Europe alive. We have only to read “Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine” or the last part of St. Mawr to realize that his ashes ended up on the right spot. The mountains were a cherished place. They weren’t home, though. Home was at the Source, and the Source—he said it himself—is past comprehension.

  D. H. Lawrence, edited by Stephen Spender, 1972

  POSTSCRIPT

  Stephen Spender kindly asked me to write this piece for one of those collections of articles by many hands which are supposed to celebrate the many-sided genius of a great writer. Inevitably they end up remaindered, but the opportunity to write at some length can be beneficial for critics grown too accustomed to composing in a thousand-word breath. I thought Lawrence was a greatly gifted writer. I just didn’t think he was a great writer. To put it another way, I thought he could write but didn’t like what he wrote. In this piece I managed to express both halves of the antinomy with sufficient illustrative material to get beyond mere contentiousness and into the realm of reasoned argument. Since one of the principles I eventually developed as a critic was that a limiting judgement of an artist should be offered only after full submission to whatever quality made him remarkable in the first place, I count this piece as an early success. I ought to have ended it, however, with the logical conclusion that because Lawrence commanded a power of poetic evocation far beyond his capacity for prose argument, his most characteristic work should be sought amongst his poetry, where indeed it can be found: his animal poems are among the unignorable ignition points of twentieth-century literature, and no syllabus of modern poetry that leaves them out can be trusted as a guide to what it puts in.

  The Metropolitan Critic, 1994

  14

  THE PERPETUAL PROMISE

  OF JAMES AGEE

  The two volumes of Agee’s bye-writings called The Collected Poems of James Agree and The Collected Short Prose of James Agee don’t add anything revolutionary to our picture of the author, but what they do add is good and solid. The Collected Poems volume reissues the whole of the long-lost “Permit Me Voyage” and tacks on about three times as much other material, thereby vastly enlarging the field in which Agee can be studied as a poet. The results of such a study are likely to be mixed, since his disabling limitations as a poet are revealed along with the continuity of his dedication and seriousness: poetry just didn’t bring out the best in him. The Collected Short Prose volume, on the other hand, is a book which demands to be considered—some of the pieces collected in it are as weighty and as rich as scraps and shavings can well get.

  “He had so many gifts,” Dwight Macdonald once wrote of Agee, “including such odd ones, for intellectuals, as reverence and feeling.” Very true, and what is more he had them at an early age. The early Harvard Advocate short stories included here are quite astonishing in their moral maturity: the emotional wisdom that other men must strive to attain seems to have been present in
Agee as a gift, and it’s easy to see why he impressed his contemporaries as some kind of Rimbaud of the understanding—the range of sympathy inspires not just awe, but a certain dread. Indeed it’s possible to argue, in the light of these early efforts, that to have it all is to have too much. Men whose minds and talents grow through the recognition and correction of error probably find it easier to shape their lives. Agee had a deficient practical sense, largely bungled his career, completed only a tenth of what was in him and habitually overwrote—economy, for an artist with a faculty of registration as fertile as his, didn’t mean weeding the garden so much as chopping the orchids down with a machete. Only the kind of sensitivity which develops can come up with a novel like The Great Gatsby—to produce a book like that in its maturity, it has to be capable of writing This Side of Paradise in its youth. A saving obtuseness was simply never part of Agee’s equipment. With his entire creative life stretching ahead of him, he had almost nothing left to learn.

  “Death in the Desert,” from the October 1930 issue of the Harvard Advocate, is the story of a young man hitch-hiking through the slump. At first glance it’s anybody’s story of a college boy going on the bum to discover America, and turns on the seemingly elementary moral point that the kind couple who pick him up won’t stop for a Negro in serious trouble. But the control of the narrative, the modulations of the tone, the registration of speech patterns and the presentation of character combine to turn the story away from neatness and towards complexity, judgement permanently suspended. The narrator (Agee in thin disguise) has a boil in his ear. At the beginning of the story, where he waits an eternity to be picked up while crippled hobos get lifts with ease, the boil looks like a comic device.

 
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