January 23, 2009
A. Obama should have taken everyone by surprise and announced, during his inauguration speech, that he was foregoing his salary (and maybe his pension, too). What a positive impression that would have made! Great policy, great politics! This is something people can relate to. What a great example to set! And he really doesn’t need the money — what with book sales, and bright prospects for income after he leaves office.
B. My daughter, who’s in 6th grade, recently learned in science class that a ribosome is made of protein, and its function is to make protein. But she didn’t learn what protein is, and I couldn’t help her with that, even after looking up “protein” in Wikipedia. So “protein” and “ribosome” are just words, and science has become a spelling exercise. Perhaps this is the central challenge of education: how do we get past words to things? How do we keep science, geography, etc. from becoming spelling exercises? In the old days, when education meant learning Latin and Greek, teachers didn’t even try to get past words. No wonder that theorists like Rousseau said that education should break with words and books completely, put the student into the world, into nature, let him see things, touch things, and experience things, form his own questions, and only then go to books.
Bill Kristol’s recent column in the New York Times began,
This strikes me as an external kind of religion. As I conceive of religion, it’s about the inner life, not the outer life, not politics. In an earlier issue, I quoted the eight precepts of a Zen master, Soyen Shaku, none of which deal with politics, or with society.
One might say, “how would Soyen Shaku deal with the danger of Iranian nukes, Al Qaeda, etc.?” The most thorough, most long-term solution of these problems is a religion that looks inwards, not outwards, a religion that is psychological, not political, a religion that studies the unconscious, not a sacred book.
One of the leading Jewish intellectuals of the generation before Bill Kristol was Elie Kedourie. Kedourie (himself a “devoutly religious Orthodox Jew”1) criticized Israel (or perhaps I should say “the founders of Israel”) for mixing religion and politics — specifically, for putting a Biblical quotation in front of the Parliament building. Kedourie apparently believed, as I do, that religion should be an inner experience.
I recently read Wikipedia’s article on Jack Kerouac, and learned that
I recently read D. H. Lawrence’s novella, “The Fox.” I was extremely impressed. It quickly became apparent to me that Lawrence is one of the extraordinary talents in English literature, a writer I neglected for too long, a writer who deserves to be better known.2 If you’re interested in the occult, you’ll love “The Fox,” which presents more aspects of the occult in a short space than any work I’ve ever read.
Lawrence has an extraordinary grasp of human nature and human affairs, and his prose is lively and readable. His simple language and short sentences remind one of E. M. Forster, his contemporary. My only complaint about Lawrence’s style is that, while Forster is always clear, Lawrence occasionally uses odd, puzzling words. For example, he describes the fox’s tail as “frictional.”
Because Forster is clear and humorous, he’s more enjoyable for me than Lawrence, but Lawrence is more impressive, and has a deeper grasp of the occult. Both Forster and Lawrence are more traditional, less innovative, than Joyce. In my view, technical innovations are a vice, not a virtue; I admire Joyce despite his innovations, not because of them.
In earlier issues, we pointed out that “personality” comes from the Latin “persona”, meaning mask. We argued that a great writer doesn’t focus on character/personality, but rather on the passions that swirl beneath the mask. These passions, these obsessions, are Lawrence’s subject, and no one grasps this subject better than Lawrence. In a famous letter to Edward Garnett, Lawrence said that his fiction didn’t have “the old stable ego of the character.”
[Spoiler Warning: if you’re thinking of reading “The Fox,” you may want to skip the following paragraphs.]
Ibsen also deals with the occult, hence it isn’t surprising that Lawrence “admired Ibsen tremendously” (according to a friend of his youth, Jessie Chambers).3 In earlier issues, we discussed Ibsen’s Wild Duck, and argued that Hedvig’s death is caused, perhaps unconsciously caused, by Gregers, who earlier gave her a pistol. So Hedvig’s death can be described as a “willed death,” not an accident or a suicide. “Willed death” is also the subject of Lawrence’s “Fox.” But while Hedvig’s death is puzzling, and open to various interpretations, the death in Lawrence’s novella is clear and unmistakable; while Ibsen is obscure, Lawrence is the opposite.
What’s the difference between a “willed death” and a murder? In Wild Duck, Gregers probably doesn’t consciously intend to kill Hedvig; his homicidal will is unconscious. Lawrence’s protagonist (Henry) is less repressed, less moral, more conscious, more Nietzschean. He seems willing to admit to himself that he wants to kill Banford, and he isn’t ashamed of his homicidal intention. But his main goal is to live, to realize himself, to win the hand of March. He never consciously sets out to kill Banford, he never makes any plans to do so, and he doesn’t realize, when he picks up the ax, that chopping the tree will lead to Banford’s death. Only after he takes the ax does he realize what may happen: “As he looked into the sky, like a huntsman who is watching a flying bird, he thought to himself: ‘If the tree falls in just such a way, and spins just so much as it falls, then the branch there will strike her exactly as she stands on top of that bank.’” So Henry is more conscious than Gregers, but not as conscious as a murderer (such as Raskolnikov).
Lawrence probably deals with “willed death” in other works, besides “The Fox.” In Sons and Lovers, the autobiographical protagonist can only develop his personality when his mother dies. A critic named Kingsley Widmer suggests that the mother’s death is a “willed death” (like the death of Proust’s mother) though not as clearly so as Banford’s death:
“Willed death” is often unclear; “The Fox” is unusual insofar as it presents “willed death” clearly, unmistakably. In Hamlet, “willed death” is so unclear that few readers notice it; Knight was perhaps the first, and is still the only, critic who finds “willed death” in Hamlet (Knight argued that Hamlet’s negative attitude spreads death, like an infection).
Widmer says that Henry “intentionally cuts the tree down in such a way as to kill [Banford].” In my view, this is a misunderstanding: Henry isn’t acting consciously and intentionally, he’s swimming along on the stream of fate, or perhaps I should say, he’s semi-conscious. “Willed death” isn’t conscious like murder, it’s semi-conscious, or as Jungians would say, it’s arranged by the shadow.
Does Banford will her own murder? In Women in Love, Lawrence wrote, “No man cuts another man’s throat unless he wants to cut it, and unless the other man wants it cutting.... desires to be murdered.”
As I read “The Fox,” it seemed that the only aspect of the occult that Lawrence didn’t touch on was the aspect that Shakespeare frequently touches on: synchronicity, the agreement between the natural world and the human world. But just before the tree falls on Banford, there’s an example of synchronicity, showing that Lawrence understood this, too, and raising the question, “Is there any aspect of the occult that Lawrence didn’t understand?” Just before the tree falls on Banford,
Here we have an example of synchronicity, a kind of communication between nature and man. One is reminded of how, for thousands of years, people observed the flight of birds, and similar phenomena, for clues about human affairs. Lawrence’s ducks are in touch with the human world, and also in touch with the future — they sense what’s going to happen before it happens. Should we call this an example of prophecy as well as synchronicity?
In the following passage, Lawrence touches on one of the most ancient occult themes, The Evil Eye. He also drops a hint that Henry’s evil eye, and evil wishes, may eventually kill Banford:
“The Fox” contains the most remarkable passage on hunting that I’ve ever read. One suspects that Lawrence was a hunter himself. Lawrence views hunting not as a physical contest, but as a psychic contest, a contest of will; Lawrence’s hunting is occult hunting.
One is reminded of the Zen archer who doesn’t aim, he shoots from his soul. Since Lawrence’s hunter matches his will against the deer’s will, one thinks of the primordial theme of The Magical Competition: one magician against another, one psychic power against another. There’s also a competition, perhaps magical, between Henry and Banford: a competition to survive, to triumph over the foe, to win March. In one passage, Banford is described as witch-like:
When Henry is with the army and receives a letter from March, his psychic power, his unconscious power, enables him to obtain permission for a leave of absence. Henry’s performance reminds one of an athlete who is “carried away,” “charged up,” inspired to perform things that he couldn’t otherwise perform.
Henry’s “supernatural” powers carry him through all difficulties, he gets a leave of absence, and cycles back to March and Banford. Like the hunter who slays the deer with psychic power, Henry overcomes the captain’s objections, not with arguments, but with will.
In an earlier issue, we discussed transference, and described it as “latching on” to another person. Transference can be positive or negative — obsessive love or obsessive hate. In both forms, it’s often accompanied by telepathic communication. In Lawrence’s story, March has a transference-relationship with the fox, she’s obsessed with the fox, the fox is never far from her mind:
This is the best description of obsession, of transference, that I’ve ever seen. Lawrence is a master of passion, of the non-rational side of life. One wonders if he admired Melville’s depiction of Ahab’s obsession with the white whale. March is obsessed with the fox, then seems to transfer these feelings to Henry.5 Has hate metamorphosed into love? In Lawrence’s world, there seems to be little difference between hate and love, it’s obsession that matters. Henry is obsessed with March (positively), and with Banford (negatively). March writes to Henry, and says their relationship must end.
So it’s a fight to the finish between Banford and Henry; one of them must die. The relationship between Banford and March is also charged with deep feelings of hate and love. One night, March dreams of Banford’s death. After Henry marries March, he thinks that perhaps “he ought never to have killed Banford. He should have left Banford and March to kill one another.” Lawrence depicts the deep feelings, the semi-conscious feelings, the positive and negative feelings, of people who are close to one another.
Lawrence grasps the unconscious, and the dark side of human nature, but does he also grasp the light? He understands the Evil Eye, but does he also understand the Good Eye, the eye of positive influence and spiritual growth? He understands obsessive feelings, unhealthy attachments, but does he also understand the detachment that comes with maturity and wisdom?
Early in the story, Lawrence prepares us for the storms of passion to come. He describes March as a kind of conduit for dark passions, a person with the potential for transference/obsession, and perhaps the potential for evil. March is absent-minded, ironic, satirical, odd, unsatisfied, etc. Indeed, there seems to be more potential for evil in March than in Henry. The relationship between March and Banford is (as weathermen say) partly cloudy:
Lawrence’s language reflects his interest in the occult. He uses words like “mesmerism”, “witch”, “spellbound”, and “supernaturally.” Three times he uses the word “fascinated” — not with its modern meaning “interested,” but in its original meaning “to bewitch, to cast under a spell by a look.”
The critic R. E. Pritchard says that “The Fox” is about “the struggle against feminine inhibition,” and that the same theme runs through the other novellas of this period, “The Captain’s Doll” and “The Ladybird.”6 Pritchard says that “The Fox” resembles a Lawrence story called “You Touched Me,” in which a lower-class man ‘enforces the submission of one of two women.’ Widmer notes that several Lawrence works have “double heroines”: “You Touched Me,” “Daughters of the Vicar,” and Women in Love. In “The Fox,” as in these other stories, “The moralistic woman is the objective and rejecting side of the self and must be violently negated to allow vital completion.”
Like other critics, Widmer sees the fox as a symbol — hostile and malignant but also necessary to March’s development: “The red totemic image is likened to a devil, a serpent, a demon that seems malign at the conscious level but profoundly necessary to self-realization.” Perhaps a Jungian would say that the fox is an animus symbol in March’s psyche. “The Fox” deals with the personal growth of Henry and March, growth that is encouraged by the death of Banford.
The fox is a forerunner of Henry, and Henry acquires the fox’s power by killing him. But if the fox is a symbol, he’s also a real fox; Lawrence artfully fuses the symbolic and the realistic.
In an earlier issue, we quoted Philip Rahv’s remark that “The Fox” is “beautifully articulated and rendered in convincing detail,” but “spoiled in the last few pages when the young protagonist, having won the girl March after the willed death of her friend Jill, suddenly steps out of his role in order to assume as his own some of Lawrence’s dogmatic notions.” Modern critics seem to prefer Joyce, the craftsman, to Lawrence, the prophet, and modern feminists can’t abide Lawrence’s views on women, views that I earlier compared to Nietzsche’s. The omission of Lawrence from the Norton Critical Editions may reflect his declining popularity.
It’s true that Lawrence’s Ideal Wife is as submissive as a pet. (In fact, my beagle is less submissive, more defiant, than Lawrence’s Ideal Wife.) But I certainly don’t think that the last pages of “The Fox” spoil the story. Lawrence’s philosophizing is concise, forceful, and contains at least partial truths. When he talks about the futility of straining after happiness, his views are consistent with Proust’s view that happiness shouldn’t be pursued directly, it only comes as a by-product of pursuing other things. When he talks about the futility of straining after someone else’s happiness, surely there’s some truth in his argument. The futility of straining in general, and of aiming at a goal, at finality, is consistent with Zen. The value of submitting to the will of another person is questionable, but surely there’s some value in submitting to the will of God, or to the unconscious. So if Lawrence is partly wrong, he’s also partly right.
Speaking of Zen, I suspect that a deeper study of Lawrence would reveal interesting connections between his worldview and Zen, just as our earlier study of Forster (Lawrence’s contemporary) revealed connections between his worldview and Zen. Widmer described Lawrence’s worldview in Zennish terms; Widmer said that, in “The Fox,” Henry tries to achieve self-realization by following his feelings, his subjective feelings:
A study of Lawrence and Zen should perhaps take note of Lawrence’s response to Thoreau, one of the most Zennish writers in Western literature; Jessie Chambers said that Lawrence was “wildly enthusiastic” about Walden.
Lawrence tried to articulate a new worldview that had both pagan and Christian elements. He tried to transcend the pagan Absolute (the ego, the self), and the Christian Absolute (the sacrifice of the self, the merging of self with other): “What is really Absolute,” Lawrence wrote, “is the mystic Reason which connects both.”8
Lawrence emphasizes the body. When a Victorian novelist spoke of the heart, he meant feelings, usually loving feelings. But when Lawrence speaks of the heart, he uses the word in a literal, physical sense. Henry wants March to feel his heart, so he puts her hand on it: “she felt the deep, heavy, powerful stroke of his heart.” Lawrence breaks with the Victorian approach of disembodied feeling, just as he breaks with the ornate Victorian prose style.
It is said that “The Fox” was written during Lawrence’s “Leadership Phase,” when he subscribed to the notion that people should submit to a leader. In his final years, he moved away from leader-worship.
“The Fox” is often called one of Lawrence’s better works, though it isn’t as famous as his major novels (Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow, Women in Love and Lady Chatterley’s Lover). Lady Chatterley’s Lover became famous because it was banned, but critics don’t regard it as Lawrence’s best work. Harold Bloom says that Lawrence’s “two great novels” are The Rainbow and Women in Love, and he says that Women in Love is a sequel to The Rainbow (one overly-large novel was divided into two novels).
The Rainbow is optimistic — written before World War I shattered Lawrence’s faith in spiritual progress. The Rainbow was published in 1915, and the authorities prosecuted Lawrence for obscenity, and destroyed an entire edition of the book, exacerbating Lawrence’s wartime woes. After this debacle, no publisher would touch Women in Love for several years.
Bloom says that Lawrence’s short novel St. Mawr is one of his masterpieces; it’s set in New Mexico.9 Bloom says that Lawrence’s book The Escaped Cock is a “poignant story”; it’s about Christ’s resurrection, and it was later renamed The Man Who Died. Like other critics, Bloom has high regard for Lawrence’s travel books. He says Sea and Sardinia is “the most charming and by far the best introduction to [Lawrence’s] oeuvre.” And he says that Sketches of Etruscan Places is “crucial to a deep understanding of [Lawrence’s] complete opus.... In this work he looked to primitive societies to discover more elemental modes of living, using his findings to continue his attack on modern civilization.” Lawrence also deals with pagan religion in The Plumed Serpent, which some critics regard as one of his major works; it’s set in Mexico.
Bloom edited a book called Bloom’s Major Short Story Writers: D. H. Lawrence. This book has commentary on five highly-regarded short works: “The Prussian Officer,” “The Fox,” “The Captain’s Doll,” St. Mawr, and “The Rocking-Horse Winner.” It’s a good starting-point for a study of “The Fox,” or for a study of Lawrence in general. It’s part of a series of books called Bloom’s Major Short Story Writers (Bloom also edited a series on major novelists, a series on major poets, and a series on major dramatists).
Bloom says that when March dreams of Banford’s death, it’s a prophecy of Banford’s death. Before I read this, I was inclined to see March’s dream as a wish for Banford’s death. It’s often difficult to distinguish between wishes and prophecies; wishes have power (just as thoughts in general have power), and wishes often become realities. Perhaps March’s dream is both wish and prophecy. (In my book of aphorisms, I mention several people who anticipated when they would die. Is this kind of anticipation a wish or a prophecy or both?)
“The Fox” has many autobiographical elements — on the surface, and on a deeper level. Henry marries an older woman (as Lawrence did), he loathes England and wants to leave (as Lawrence did), he lives with his new bride in Cornwall, gazes out to sea with her, and dreams of far-off lands (as Lawrence did).
There are also deeper parallels between Henry and Lawrence, and between March and Frieda. These parallels seem to have been little discussed by critics. “The Fox” is about the struggle for spiritual growth, for a fulfilling life. Henry and March find growth and fulfillment in each other. In order for them to come together, Banford must die. Henry and March accomplish Banford’s death half-consciously, half-unconsciously (just as Lawrence’s hunter slays the deer half-consciously, half-unconsciously, just as Henry overcomes the captain’s objections half-consciously, half-unconsciously, just as human nature in general operates half-consciously, half-unconsciously).
If “The Fox” (and Lawrence’s oeuvre as a whole?) lacks humor, it does so for a good reason: it deals with a grave subject, the development of personality through the sacrifice of another person. How could such a subject be treated lightly? Lawrence knew this subject through his own life, partly because his mother’s death spurred his development, and partly because his elopement with Frieda involved the abandoning of Frieda’s husband and three young children.
Though we think of Lawrence as an erotic writer, he treats eros as part of a larger struggle for spiritual growth, for the satisfying of psychological needs. Henry doesn’t want March for a night, but for his whole life, and indeed Lawrence and Frieda did stay together until death. At the end of “The Fox,” Henry is disappointed that March doesn’t submerge herself in love, just as Lawrence was disappointed that Frieda didn’t ‘yield precedence’ to him.10 In writing “The Fox,” Lawrence was writing out of his personal experience. Doubtless other Lawrence stories also reflect Lawrence’s experience. Lawrence’s elopement with Frieda left its mark on his work, as Kierkegaard’s abandoning of Regina left its mark on his work, as Proust’s relationship with Agostinelli left its mark on his work, etc., etc. Both Lawrence and Kierkegaard give precedence to subjective feeling over moral law.
The famous English critic F. R. Leavis wrote a book called D. H. Lawrence: Novelist. He devotes several pages to “The Fox.” This was my first contact with Leavis, and I was impressed; his commentary on “The Fox” is the best I’ve seen. Bloom realizes how penetrating are Leavis’ remarks on Lawrence, and Bloom includes two excerpts from Leavis in his Major Short Story Writers; Bloom evidently doesn’t share the view of Podhoretz and others that Leavis is a Lawrence Maniac. Bloom seems to believe that Leavis is a fine critic, and Lawrence is a fine writer.
Leavis praises “The Fox,” calling it “one of the supreme things among [Lawrence’s] major tales,” and noting that it has “unambiguous clarity.”11 Though I wouldn’t call him a Freudian, Leavis is aware of the sexual undercurrents in “The Fox.” He says that March’s obsession with the fox indicates that she’s restless, and that her life with Banford is unsatisfactory; March is obsessed with the fox because “he is a male creature, of a fascinating strangeness and vitality.”
Though Leavis sees erotic elements in “The Fox,” he realizes that eros is part of something larger, part of the quest for a fulfilling life and a whole personality. Leavis calls “The Fox” “a study of human mating; of the attraction between a man and a woman that expresses the profound needs of each and has its meaning in a permanent union.” Though Henry wants “to have this place [i.e., Bailey Farm] for his own,” Leavis says that it’s essentially a spiritual quest, “there is nothing mercenary about his attitude.” “The Fox” is a love story, and it deals with love in the deepest sense of the word, love as a quest for wholeness.
After reading “The Fox,” I read a popular Lawrence story called “The Rocking-Horse Winner.” I enjoyed it, and I also enjoyed the essays on it in the Bloom volume. [Spoiler Warning: if you’re planning to read “Rocking-Horse,” you may want to skip the rest of this section.] Like “The Fox,” it’s a rather dark story, with many occult themes. But it isn’t as realistic as “The Fox” — it’s more like a fairy tale or a myth.12
One of the essays on it says that it has much in common with a Dickens novel, Dombey and Son, and must have been influenced by that novel. Like Dombey, it depicts a family that is preoccupied with money and respectability, and this preoccupation leads to the child’s death (in both cases, the child is named Paul). Another essay in the Bloom volume says that this story, like other Lawrence works, was influenced by Frazer’s Golden Bough. The author says that Paul may be “the scapegoat who takes on himself the sins of his loveless family.” Or we can see Paul as one of those primitive god-kings “who is allowed to exercise his magical powers for a time but must finally (in the Faustian tradition) pay for his powers with his life.”13 Unfortunately, Bloom’s volume gives us excerpts of critical essays, not complete essays, so we’re left wondering what we’re missing.
Another dark, serious story. Is it any wonder that Lawrence wasn’t as popular as Leavis thought he deserved to be? “England, My England” is a good story, in my opinion, though not as good as “The Fox” or “Rocking-Horse.” [Spoiler Warning: if you’re planning to read “England, My England,” you may want to skip the rest of this section.] According to Leavis, the protagonist, Egbert, “stands for the old cultured leisure days,” stands for pre-World War I England. According to Leavis, the story “has for theme a man who refuses responsibility.” Egbert is a poor breadwinner and his wife, Winifred, gradually ceases to love him.
Egbert’s daughter, Joyce, is crippled by a cut from a sickle, a sickle that Egbert left on the ground. Was it left accidentally, or is this another case of the shadow arranging disaster, is this another case of “willed accident”? Is anything truly accidental, or is accident an illusion? One is reminded of the pistol that Gregers gives Hedvig in Ibsen’s Wild Duck.
Like Lawrence himself, Egbert has no national feeling, and no war-enthusiasm. At the end of the story, however, Egbert joins the army (because he has nothing else to do) and dies in battle. Lawrence describes the feeling of dying: “Let the will of man break and give up.” Could this be another willed death? Would Egbert have survived if his will-to-live had been stronger? Perhaps Egbert actually wanted to die (on some level); just before Egbert is hit, he says “Whither thou goest I will go. Did he say it to the shell, or to whom? Whither thou goest I will go.” This suggests that Egbert, perhaps unconsciously, wanted to be where the shell was going to fall.
When he created Egbert, did Lawrence have a specific person in mind? I thought he had me in mind when he wrote
Like Egbert, I enlisted, or tried to enlist, since society seemed to have no niche for me.
I found an excellent essay on “England, My England” by Weldon Thornton, part of a book called D. H. Lawrence: A Study of the Short Fiction. (Thornton is a prominent Joyce scholar, and I mentioned one of his Joyce books in an earlier issue.) I’m pleased to report that Thornton takes a more positive view of Egbert than Leavis takes.
While Leavis says that Egbert “refuses responsibility,” Thornton says that Egbert represents a valuable approach to life, a Zennish approach, or (as Thornton puts it) an “aesthetic” approach. Thornton contrasts this with the “pragmatic,” business-like, goal-oriented approach of Winifred and her father. Thornton says that Lawrence respected both approaches: “Lawrence suggests here and elsewhere in his writings that these two modes will never be compatible but that both are necessary to the fullness of life and should exist in balanced polarity.” I’ve discussed this polarity, this tension, on several occasions; I’ve treated it as part of the larger issue of contradiction/paradox.
In “England, My England,” the balanced polarity is lost, and the aesthetic/Zennish Egbert perishes. According to Thornton, Egbert declines and dies because his society doesn’t respect him, his wife doesn’t respect him, and finally Egbert doesn’t respect himself. Thornton says that Egbert’s enlistment is virtually a suicide; one might call it a “willed death.”
Thornton refers us to a fuller discussion of the aesthetic/pragmatic dilemma in Lawrence’s essay “The Crown,” part of a volume called Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and other essays. Thornton also refers us to Lawrence’s Study of Thomas Hardy, in which Lawrence asks whether a plant exists for the fruit or the flower, for utility or beauty. Lawrence decides that a plant exists for the flower, hence we might suppose that, in the contest between Egbert and Winifred, between the aesthetic and the pragmatic, Lawrence would favor the aesthetic, favor Egbert. Lawrence describes Egbert as a flower: “He was like a flower in the garden, trembling in the wind of life, and then gone, leaving nothing to show.” But Thornton says that Lawrence favors neither side, he believes that both have a role to play.
I find Thornton’s argument convincing. Isn’t it odd, though, that Lawrence would conceal his meaning so that Leavis and most readers would fail to see it, so that few readers besides Thornton would grasp his meaning? In an earlier issue, I discussed a Chekhov story with a similar theme, and I criticized Chekhov for disparaging both sides — disparaging the aesthetic/contemplative side, and also the pragmatic/active side.
Thornton seems to regard Joyce’s knee injury as an accident. But consider how Lawrence describes it:
There’s no reason to say “it was an accident” unless there’s a possibility that it wasn’t an accident. Furthermore, why say “it was an accident” twice? Isn’t this a case of protesting too much? And if the story required Joyce to be injured, why must she be injured through Egbert’s agency? If we see this as a “willed accident,” we don’t have to assume that Egbert wanted, consciously or unconsciously, to injure Joyce. Perhaps he wanted (consciously or unconsciously) to cause trouble in a general way; he was discontent, and wanted to stir things up.
“The Captain’s Doll” is regarded as one of Lawrence’s best stories, but I felt that it dragged, especially in the second half — tedious descriptions of glaciers, mountains, wildflowers, etc. It reminded me of “The Fox” insofar as it ends with the man asking the woman for submission and obedience, and the woman resisting somewhat, but finally going with the man to start a life together. It also reminded me of “England, My England” insofar as it depicts the opposite of the woman-submitting marriage — namely, a marriage in which the man is reduced to his wife’s servant. Lawrence advocates the woman-submitting marriage because he thinks it’s preferable to the husband-as-servant marriage, and he doesn’t see any third alternative. Clearly, this is a subject that Lawrence felt strongly about, a subject that he returned to again and again.
Lawrence felt that if a man married out of love, and tried to make his wife happy, he would end up as his wife’s servant, his wife’s doll, and this wasn’t good for husband or wife. As the Captain says, “If a woman honors me — absolutely from the bottom of her nature honors me — and obeys me because of that,” then a good marriage might result. The phrase “honor and obey” comes from the marriage service. A good marriage stems from the wife honoring and obeying the husband, not from the husband loving the wife. When the Captain looks back on his life, he thinks that whenever he loved, it was a mistake:
Lest anyone doubt that the Captain is expressing Lawrence’s own views, I would quote the letter that I quoted in an earlier issue:
Lawrence seems to be presenting a new view of love and marriage, perhaps the most revolutionary view of love since the medieval troubadours developed the modern, Western, romantic concept of love. I don’t think his new view of love can be dismissed lightly, though it may clash with contemporary attitudes.
In “The Captain’s Doll,” Mrs. Hepburn’s death is a “willed death,” reminding us of “The Fox” and “England, My England.” Mrs. Hepburn’s death may be a result of her will, or the Captain’s will, or both, but it doesn’t seem to be a simple accident. “Willed death” is clearly a pervasive theme in Lawrence’s work. It even appears in a passing reference to the Herr Regierungsrat’s deceased wife: “His wife, whom he had married late, had died after seven years of marriage. Hannele could understand that too. One or the other must die.”15 It seems that death, in Lawrence’s work, never comes from outside, never results from sickness or accident; rather, it comes from inside, from the will — one’s own will, or another person’s will.16 Lawrence himself, however, died at an early age (45) from what appear to be physical causes (tuberculosis and other illnesses).
“The Captain’s Doll” contains several derogatory remarks about Jews; indeed, this might be called one of the themes of the story. Example:
I think it would be difficult to argue that “comments like these aren’t Lawrence, they’re the narrator.” In his discussion of “England, My England” Thornton showed that the narrator can’t be taken as a mouthpiece of Lawrence (he showed that the narrator expresses society’s criticism of Egbert, but Lawrence probably had a more positive view of Egbert). But I don’t think this reasoning can be applied to the comments about Jews in “The Captain’s Doll.” A stronger defense of Lawrence would be a quote from Goethe: “A man’s faults are those of his time, his virtues are his own.” There’s no hint of anti-Semitism in the other Lawrence stories I read, and no mention of anti-Semitism in the Lawrence literature that I’ve looked at. But the anti-Semitic element in “The Captain’s Doll” is difficult to deny. Could Lawrence’s anti-Semitism be linked to his humble origins (he was a miner’s son), or to his hostility to modern society/economy/industry?
Perhaps another anti-Semitic passage in “The Captain’s Doll” is a passage that doesn’t explicitly mention Jews. The Captain and Hannele are getting into the taxi to go down the mountain: “She had her foot on the step of the back seat. And then she was afraid.... ‘Are all the people going back who came?’ she asked, shrinking.... Hannele shrank away.”18 It seems that Hannele doesn’t want to sit in the backseat with Jews. How else can this passage be interpreted? In an earlier chapter, when the taxi was going up the mountain, there was a derogatory remark about the Jews in the backseat: “There were gates to open, and Hepburn jumped down to open them, as if he were the footboy. The heavy Jews of the wrong sort, seated behind, of course did not stir.”19
Assuming there’s an element of anti-Semitism in Lawrence’s work, is this one reason that his reputation has fallen — fallen far below that of Joyce, Kafka, Proust, etc.? Perhaps it’s one reason, but I doubt it’s the main reason. After all, T. S. Eliot made derogatory remarks about Jews, but he enjoys a high reputation. Perhaps the main reasons for the decline of Lawrence’s reputation are that he has an edge, he’s strong-willed, he injects his own ideas into his fiction (he seems to view fiction as a vehicle for philosophy), his views on women outrage feminists, he has a keen interest in the occult, and he admires the wisdom of the body (the voice of the blood, so to speak). In a variety of ways, Lawrence galls the kibe of academia, while Eliot has the cold, dry, pedantic style that appeals to academia.
Just as there’s an element of ethnic hostility in “The Captain’s Doll,” so too there’s an element of class hostility, which emerges when the driver (who’s taking the protagonists near the glacier) stops at his own house:
If you haven’t read the story, you may be wondering, Why is it called “The Captain’s Doll”? When the story begins, we meet two women who earn money by making cushion-covers, dolls, etc. One of them, Hannele, is having an affair with Captain Hepburn, and has made a doll that looks exactly like the Captain; this is “The Captain’s Doll”. I thought there was an occult significance to this doll, I thought it was a kind of voodoo doll, with a magical bond to the real Captain; I thought that the Captain’s fortunes would be affected by the doll’s fortunes. I knew that Lawrence was a student of Frazer’s Golden Bough, and I vaguely remembered Frazer saying that, in primitive times, such dolls were used all over the world.
I was surprised, therefore, when the doll disappeared from the story, and only a painting of the doll remained, and neither the doll nor the painting had any occult significance. At the end of the story, the only significance of the doll is that the Captain says it shows that Hannele didn’t honor and obey him — he was just a play-thing to her, just a doll. When Hannele says that love involves honor and obedience, the Captain objects: “A woman may love you, she may adore you, but she’ll never honor you nor obey you. The most loving and adoring woman today could any minute start and make a doll of her husband — as you made of me.” So Lawrence believes that modern love lacks respect, honor, and the modern husband is apt to become a servant, a doll. The only remedy is for marriage to be based not on love, but on the wife honoring and obeying the husband, and the husband cherishing and shielding the wife because she’s the wife.
Leavis devotes an entire chapter of D. H. Lawrence: Novelist to “The Captain’s Doll,” and Bloom says that Leavis is the most perceptive of the critics who have written about the story. The doll chiefly represents one of Lawrence’s favorite themes: a married man’s reduction to the level of a servant/doll. This theme is found in Captain Hepburn’s marriage to Mrs. Hepburn, and in Egbert’s marriage to Winifred. Another theme in Lawrence’s work is the woman (like March in “The Fox”) who is strained by playing the man’s role.21 As for “The Rocking-Horse Winner,” the second sentence tells us, “She married for love, and the love turned to dust.”
So Lawrence’s work seems to be littered with failed relationships. Does he ever depict a relationship that works? Not just a relationship that might work in the future (like Hannele and the Captain, or March and Henry), but one that actually does work? I don’t deny that Lawrence is a penetrating thinker on the subject of love and marriage, but wouldn’t we understand the failed relationship better if it was set against a successful relationship? Or should we praise Lawrence insofar as most relationships do fail over time, and he depicts this gloomy fact? Perhaps we should generalize, and say that writers tend to depict the negative rather than the positive — tend to depict evil, unhappiness and failure; writers rarely depict the ideal person, or the ideal relationship.
In “The Captain’s Doll,” Lawrence says that people aren’t meant to live alone “like telegraph-poles.” But this overlooks the fact that many mystics and intellectuals — from Jesus to Zarathustra, from Leonardo to Nietzsche, from Plato to Proust — have lived solo. In an earlier issue, we discussed the Jungian interpretation of the Grail Legend, and we noted that Perceval leaves his wife (Blancheflor) “in order to achieve a proper relationship to his own unconscious [his anima], which might be projected onto his wife if he remained with her.” Spiritual growth is compatible with a single life — may even require a single life. So the single life can’t be dismissed as suitable only for telegraph poles. Leavis says that the Captain’s astronomy research raises him above domestic matters, and is psychologically valuable.22 I can relate to this; my literary work does for me what astronomy does for the Captain. But astronomy doesn’t seem to save the Captain, any more than old English customs saved Egbert. Lawrence seems to be saying that a non-domestic pursuit/calling/hobby, valuable though it is, can’t save a husband whose marriage has gone wrong.
The Captain made the mistake of devoting himself to his wife’s happiness. “One cannot live to make another person happy,” Leavis writes, “and to propose to do so, to take that for a raison d’Ítre, is a denial of life that can only breed ill.... We cannot possess one another.”23 According to Leavis, Lawrence recommends “a marriage that shall not commit anyone to adoring or possessive ‘love’.”24 Adoring love is what the Captain’s rival, the Herr Regierungsrat, offers Hannele; he makes her feel like “a queen in exile.”25 She wisely chooses the Captain, though he isn’t adoring, and won’t even say that he loves her.
Leavis points out that the last word in “Captain’s Doll” is “darkness.”26 He argues that this is significant, this tells us something about Lawrence’s view of the world, and his view of love. To illustrate the importance of darkness in Lawrence’s work, Leavis quotes from Lawrence’s “Ladybird”: “This white love that we have [is] only the reverse, the whited sepulcher of the true love. True love is dark.”27 Leavis points out that “Hannele does not ‘exactly represent rosy love’ to [the Captain]; rather, ‘a hard destiny’.”28 And the Captain certainly doesn’t represent “rosy love” to Hannele. Hannele makes a “tacit agreement [Leavis writes] to base her marriage with [the Captain] on a relation so unlike romantic love as to do violence to accepted Western ideas.”
Lawrence’s emphasis on darkness, and darkness-in-true-love, is perhaps an implicit criticism of the typical novel, just as the doll may represent (among other things) the typical fictional character.29 Lawrence tries to create people who don’t have a fixed character, an easily-described personality; “the more real because indefinable,” as Leavis puts it.30 This may have made his work less popular. Who can identify with the Captain? Who can say, “The Captain reminds me of someone I know”?
The Captain’s wife is also difficult to pin down, also a “mysterious unknown”31; the Captain insists that she had various undeveloped facets. Hannele, too, is an “unknown,” not a clearly defined character.32 “The reality of a human being,” Leavis writes, “is not exhausted in his or her ‘personality’.”33
We get our ideas from novels, from education, Lawrence says, and our feelings follow the paths laid down by our ideas. But true feelings come from the body. Leavis quotes a long passage from Lawrence’s non-fiction work, Apropos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover: “The body feels real hunger, real thirst... real anger, real sorrow, real love.... All the emotions belong to the body, and are only recognized by the mind.... What we are today, creatures whose active emotional self has no real existence, but is all reflected downwards from the mind.”34 What Lawrence says of emotions and beliefs is even true of philosophical ideas: they belong to the body, and are only recognized by the mind. A thinker perceives the idea of his time, which is born with him, like a part of his body.
“Odour of Chrysanthemums” is one of Lawrence’s early stories, published when he was just 26. It describes the life that Lawrence knew first-hand — working-class life in a mining community. The protagonist is a woman who’s alienated from her husband, a miner who’s fond of the pub. Her husband dies in a mining accident. Lawrence doesn’t seem to view this as a “willed death.” The story has good descriptions of scenes and characters, but when Lawrence tries to describe the woman’s emotions at her husband’s death, he ventures into emotions so complicated that the reader loses his way.
Lawrence was a controversial writer, and he had a vigorous opponent in T. S. Eliot, a staunch defender in F. R. Leavis. If you want a taste of the controversy, read “Mr. Eliot and Lawrence,” an appendix to Leavis’ D. H. Lawrence: Novelist. Both Eliot and Leavis engage in petty sniping, with Eliot criticizing Lawrence’s mother for an inability to “scrutinize the conduct of her sons,” and Leavis reminding readers that Eliot wasn’t English (“I am a fellow countryman of D. H. Lawrence”). Eliot’s attack on Lawrence can be found in his book After Strange Gods.
Eliot and Lawrence were utterly dissimilar. Let’s imagine them on a baseball field. As Hemingway said, Eliot never hit the ball out of the infield in his life. On the other hand, Lawrence had the audacity to steal home (Eliot is appalled, and studies the rule-book to see if he should file a protest).
Eliot casts aspersions on Lawrence’s education and upbringing, but Leavis argues that Lawrence had an ideal upbringing: he knew working-class life firsthand, he was familiar with old, agricultural England, with new, industrial England, and with the clash between them. Leavis says that Lawrence was a great reader. Referring to Jessie Chambers’ memoirs of Lawrence, Leavis speaks of “the extraordinarily active intellectual life enjoyed by that group of young people of which Lawrence was the center.”
While Eliot emphasized tradition, and was fond of 17th-century poetry, Lawrence gravitated toward the boldest revolution in the humanities, Freudian psychology, and wrote Fantasia of the Unconscious and Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious. Even Eliot had good things to say about Fantasia. According to Leavis, Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious is more than an attempt to popularize Freud’s ideas, it tries to point the way to psychological health and spiritual growth. Though he recognizes the importance of the unconscious, Lawrence doesn’t overlook the important role of consciousness; Lawrence recommends “using the conscious mind for the attainment of ‘spontaneous-creative fullness of being.’”35
Looking at Lawrence’s work as a whole, Leavis says “he has an unfailingly sure sense of the difference between that which makes for life and that which makes against it; of the difference between health and that which tends away from health.” When I think of the four Lawrence stories that I’ve read (“The Fox,” “The Rocking-Horse Winner,” “England, My England,” and “The Captain’s Doll”), all four portray psychological illness, spiritual sickness, and two (“The Fox” and “The Captain’s Doll”) offer some hope for psychological health.
Perhaps we can summarize thus: Lawrence’s chief concern is with spiritual health. He’s a prophet of individualism, and counsels us to listen to our soul, our inner voice. Eliot, on the other hand, wants to stick with established religion, and avoid “strange gods.” Lawrence carries us beyond books, and brings us into contact with life itself. Eliot, on the other hand, gets stuck on books; he uses books to keep life at arm’s length.
When Lawrence died in 1930, Forster wrote an obituary, praising him as “the greatest imaginative novelist of our generation.” T. S. Eliot responded “unless we know exactly what Mr. Forster means by greatest, imaginative and novelist, I submit that this judgment is meaningless.” This is despicable hair-splitting — something Eliot was prone to. Forster responded to Eliot more mildly than I would have, saying that he’s not interested in definitions, and that Eliot has entangled him in a web.
During the dark days of World War I, Lawrence “toyed with the idea of beginning an idealistic colony and tried to persuade his friends to join him.”36 This idea is consistent with Lawrence’s view of himself as the prophet of a new way of being/living. After the war, Lawrence continued to entertain this idea; he tried to persuade his English friends to accompany him to Mexico, and form a community. The “prophet strain” in Lawrence dates back to his earliest works; Jessie Chambers reports that when he was just 21, he said “I feel I have something to say.... I think it will be didactic.”
The University of Nottingham has built a Lawrence website, which includes a full-length biography of Lawrence by John Worthen. Leavis recommends Catherine Carswell’s study of Lawrence (The Savage Pilgrimage: A Narrative of D. H. Lawrence), calling it “admirable and indispensable.”37 If you want a more modern biography, consider D. H. Lawrence: A Biography, by Jeffrey Meyers. (Meyers also wrote biographies of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Conrad, etc., etc. He often writes for The New Criterion, so his tastes are probably traditional/classical.)
With his deep interest in philosophy, spiritual growth, and the occult, Lawrence seems a good model for the novelist of today — a better model than Joyce, Kafka, Proust, etc.
I exchanged e-mail with Weldon Thornton, whose essay on “England, My England” I discussed above.
|1.|| See Martin Sieff’s essay, “Isaiah Berlin and Elie Kedourie: Recollections of Two Giants” (published in an Israeli magazine called Covenant, Volume 1, Issue 1, November, 2006). back|
|2.|| Actually, I didn’t neglect Lawrence completely: I discussed his remarks on Hamlet in an earlier issue. I was impressed with him then, as I am now. back|
|3.|| See Jessie’s memoir of Lawrence. back|
|4.|| See Bloom’s Major Short Story Writers: D. H. Lawrence back|
|5.|| “To March [Henry] was the fox. Whether it was the thrusting forward of his head, or the glisten of fine whitish hairs on the ruddy cheek-bones, or the bright, keen eyes, that can never be said: but the boy was to her the fox, and she could not see him otherwise.” back|
|6.|| See the essay by R. E. Pritchard in Bloom’s Major Short Story Writers: D. H. Lawrence back|
|7.|| See Bloom’s Major Short Story Writers: D. H. Lawrence back|
|8.|| Quoted in an earlier issue. back|
|9.|| See Bloom’s Major Short Story Writers: D. H. Lawrence, “Editor’s Note” back|
|10.|| In an earlier issue, I quoted Lawrence’s comment on this subject: “I do think a woman must yield some sort of precedence to a man, and he must take this precedence.... Women must follow as it were unquestioningly. I can’t help it, I believe this. Frieda doesn’t. Hence our fight.” back|
|11.|| Ch. 7 back|
|12.|| Leavis disliked “Rocking-Horse,” perhaps because of its unrealistic, fairy-tale nature. Leavis seems to have little interest in the occult, and he seems unimpressed by the occult aspects of “Rocking-Horse.” back|
|13.|| The author mentions Newman and Vickery. John B. Vickery wrote Literary Impact of the Golden Bough and Myths and Texts: Strategies of Incorporation and Displacement. Vickery also edited Myth and Literature: Contemporary Theory and Practice, and Scapegoat: Ritual and Literature. Paul B. Newman wrote D.H. Lawrence and The golden bough. back|
|14.|| Ch. 19 back|
|15.|| Ch. 12 back|
|16.|| One is reminded of Nietzsche, who also felt that death isn’t an external event: “So-called natural death [is,] after all, also only an ‘unnatural’ death, an act of suicide. One perishes by no one but oneself.”(Twilight of the Idols, “The Four Great Errors,” #36) So Nietzsche thinks that one dies by one’s own will, he doesn’t consider the role of someone else’s will, perhaps because he was generally unreceptive to the occult. back|
|17.|| Ch. 17 back|
|18.|| Ch. 19 back|
|19.|| Ch. 14. A Lawrence website speaks of “his negative portrayals of Jews”; as an example, it cites Loerke, a character in Women in Love, calling him “the sinister Loerke.” back|
|20.|| Ch. 14 back|
|21.|| As Leavis puts it, “Again and again Lawrence’s art deals with the woman, nerve-worn and strained or lethally sardonic, in whom life has gone wrong because she is committed to the man’s part, or to contempt for it, or to living in a mode that gives it no place.”(ch. 5, p. 275) back|
|22.|| Ch. 5, p. 263 back|
|23.|| Ch. 5, p. 263 back|
|24.|| D. H. Lawrence: Novelist, Ch. 5, p. 271 back|
|25.|| Ch. 5, p. 270 back|
|26.|| Ch. 5, p. 278 back|
|27.|| Ch. 5, p. 266 back|
|28.|| Ch. 5, p. 264 back|
|29.|| Leavis: “The doll might be taken as representing the kind of treatment of ‘character’ that the cultivated novel-reader expected, or hoped, to find — and still for the most part does.... It is because Lawrence’s art answers so little to this kind of expectation — because it is so essentially concerned with going below the level of ‘personality’ and ‘character’ and so far transcends the customary kind of interest in human life — that it still receives so little understanding.”(ch. 5, p. 251) back|
|30.|| Ch. 5, p. 252 back|
|31.|| Ch. 5, p. 261 back|
|32.|| Ch. 5, p. 250 back|
|33.|| Ch. 5, p. 262 back|
|34.|| Ch. 6, p. 287 back|
|35.|| Leavis quoting Lawrence back|
|36.|| Bloom’s Major Short Story Writers: D. H. Lawrence, “Biography of D. H. Lawrence” back|
|37.||D. H. Lawrence: Novelist, “Introduction,” footnote 3, p. ix back|