Saturday, August 1, 2009

D.H. Lawrence (and a bit of Cicero)

August 20, 2009: From D.H. Lawrence’s The Lost Girl (1920), which I bought in Fremantle. Having read so much good sense in D.H.’s letters, I was curious to read more of his novels. I was especially curious to know what a novel written in one sweep, with little revision, would be like to read. Would his method be somehow apparent? The answer is yes: The Lost Girl does read very smoothly, but the downside is that, in a way, the book is not about the characters, except the main one, Alvina, who is a mouthpiece for D.H.:

Now so far, the story of Alvina is commonplace enough. It is more or less the story of thousands of girls. They all find work. It is the ordinary solution of everything. And if we were dealing with an ordinary girl, we should have to carry on mildly and dully down the long years of employment; or, at the best, marriage with some dull schoolteacher or office-clerk.

But we protest that Alvina is not ordinary. Ordinary people, ordinary fates. But extraordinary people, extraordinary fates. Or else no fate at all. The all-to-one pattern modern system is too much for most extraordinary individuals. It just kills them off or throws them disused aside.

There have been enough stories about ordinary people…Every individual should, by nature, have his extraordinary points. But nowadays you may look for them with a microscope, they are so worn-down by the regular machine-friction of our average and mechanical days.

See previous entry for D.H.’s view on ‘work’.

Also from The Lost Girl:

Why was James more guilty than Clariss? Is the only aim and end of a man’s life, to make some woman, or parcel of women, happy? Why? Why should anyone expect to be made happy, and develop heart-disease if she isn’t? Surely Clariss’ heart-disease was a more emphatic sign of obstinate self-importance than ever James’ shop-windows were. She expected to be made happy. Every woman in Europe and America expects it. On her own head then if she is made unhappy: for her expectation is arrogant and impertinent. The be-all and end-all of life doesn’t lie in feminine happiness – or in any happiness. Happiness is a sort of soap-tablet – he won’t be happy till he gets it, and when he’s got it, the precious baby, it’ll cost him his eyes and his stomach. Could anything be more puerile than a mankind howling because it isn’t happy: like a baby in the bath!

…Wretched man, what is he to do with these exigeant and never-to-be-satisfied women? Our mothers pined because our fathers drank and were rakes. Our wives pine because we are virtuous but inadequate. Who is this Sphinx, this woman?

I love the way D.H. writes about women, or rather, people. He is never exclusive. In the first quote, I started to feel uncomfortable about his ‘ordinary versus extraordinary’ argument. There can only be one Cinderella, yet who identifies with the step-sisters? No one. But D.H. saves his point from being elitist with the sentence, “Every individual should, by nature, have his extraordinary points.” And he saves his attack on women from being a ‘stupid women’ attack with, “The be-all and end-all of life doesn’t lie in feminine happiness – or in any happiness,” and the generalising that follows. D.H. can be angry and exasperated, but it comes out of a great love of life and the world.

August 15, 2009: Selected Letters, D.H. Lawrence (1950), selected by Richard Aldington, with a really good introduction by Aldous Huxley. My mother was reading it when we were in Broome, and it sounded good, so when I finished Colm Toibin’sBrooklyn in Port Hedland, I started on D.H. There are so many noteworthy things D.H. says in his letters.

From Huxley’s intro:

For him [D.H.], there were two great and criminal distractions. First, work, which he regarded as a mere stupefacient, like opium. (‘Don’t exhaust yourself too much,’ he writes to an industrious friend; ‘It is immoral’. Immoral, because, among other reasons, it is a shirking of man’s first duty, which is to live. ‘Think of the rest and peace, the positive sloth and luxury of idleness, that work is.’ Lawrence had a true Puritan’s disapproval of the vice of working…) The other inexcusable distraction, in Lawrence’s eyes, was ‘spirituality’, that lofty musing on the ultimate nature of things…


I always say, my motto is ‘Art for my sake’. If I want to write, I write – and if I don’t want to, I won’t.

In 1912:

My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser then the intellect. We can go wrong in our minds. But what the blood feels, and believes, and says, is always true.

To A.W. McLeod:

I got the blues thinking about the future, so I left off and made some marmalade. It’s amazing how it cheers one up to shred oranges or scrub the floor.

To a man, called T.D.D.:

I was glad to get your still sad letter, and sorry you are so down yet. I can’t help thinking that you wouldn’t be quite so down if you and Mrs D. didn’t let yourselves be separated rather by this trouble. Why do you do that? I think the trouble ought to draw you together, and you seem to let it put you apart. Of course I may be wrong. But it seems a shame that her one cry, when she is in distress, should be for her mother. You ought to be the mother and father to her. Perhaps if you go away to your unhealthy post, it may be good for you. But perhaps you may be separating your inner life from hers – I don’t mean anything actual and external – but you may be taking yourself inwardly apart from her, and leaving her inwardly separate from you: which is no true marriage, and is a form of failure. I am awfully sorry; because I think that no amount of outward trouble and stress of circumstance could really touch you both, if you were together. But if you are not together, of course, the strain becomes too great, and you want to be alone, and she wants her mother. And it seems to me an awful pity if, after you have tried, you have to fail and go separate ways. I am not speaking of vulgar outward separation: I know you would always be a good reliable husband: but there is more than that: there is the real sharing of one life.

I can’t help thinking your love for Mrs D. hasn’t been quite vital enough to give you yourself peace. One must learn to love, and go through a good deal of suffering to get to it, like any knight of the grail, and the journey is always towards the other soul, not away from it. Do you think love is an accomplished thing, the day it is recognised? It isn’t. To love, you have to learn to understand the other, more than she understands herself, and to submit to her understanding of you. It is damnably difficult and painful, but it is the only thing which endures. You mustn’t think that your desire or your fundamental need is to make a good career, or to fill your life with activity, or even to provide for your family materially. It isn’t. Your most vital necessity in this life is that you shall love your wife completely and implicitly and in entire nakedness of body and spirit. Then you will have peace and inner security, no matter how many things go wrong. And this peace and security will leave you free to act and to produce your own work, a real independent workman.

You once asked me what my message was. I haven’t got any general message, because I believe a general message is a general means of side-tracking one’s own personal difficulties…But this that I tell you is my message as far as I’ve got any.

To Catherine Carswell:

I think you are the only woman I’ve ever met who is so intrinsically detached, so essentially separate and isolated, as to be a real writer or artist or recorder. Your relations with other people are only excursions from yourself. And to want children, and common human fulfillments, is rather a falsity for you, I think. You were never made to ‘meet and mingle’, but to remain intact, essentially, whatever your experience may be.

The high quality of friendship evident in D.H.’s letters contrasts greatly to that of Cicero (a 1937 Harvard Classics collection of his letters and treatises, which I’ve been reading sporadically), whose self-importance always comes first. 57 B.C., letter to his best boy-friend, Atticus: “Directly I arrived in Rome…I thought the very first thing I ought to do was to congratulate you in your absence on my return. For I knew, to speak candidly, that though in giving me advice, you had not been more courageous or far-seeing than myself, nor – considering my devotion to you in the past – too careful in protecting me from disaster, yet that you…had nevertheless been deeply grieved at our separation, and had bestowed immense pains, zeal, care, and labour in securing my return.” Cicero seems to think he is the centre of the world; perhaps he was, or close to, in which case, he was in a very conspicuous position, and it’s hardly surprising that someone assassinated him.