September 29, 2020
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Beneath the Mucous-Paper: On D. H. Lawrence’s “The Bad Side of Books”

EARLY IN 1915, the philosopher Bertrand Russell and the novelist D. H. Lawrence briefly formed an unlikely, ill-fated alliance.
Jonathan Rée describes their encounter in his book Witcraft. Russell was on leave from Cambridge, agitating against England’s participation in World War I. His friend Lady Ottoline Morrell took him to meet Lawrence. The two men talked about Russell’s antiwar efforts, and Lawrence tried to convince him that the public could not be persuaded to abandon the war by rational appeals, but only through a revolution of feeling. As Rée puts it: “Russell was converted.” They swore blood brotherhood and began to make plans to carry out their revolution.
Their first idea was to bring Lawrence down to Cambridge. There he would combust the worldview of the dons, as he had Russell’s. It went badly. Cambridge didn’t like Lawrence, and Lawrence didn’t like Cambridge. He was particularly appalled to encounter John Maynard Keynes in a bathrobe, about which, reports Rée, he wrote to Lady Ottoline: “There is a principle of evil. […] I saw it so plainly in Keynes at Cambridge, it made me sick.”
Their second idea was that Lawrence should write a book “tracing human misery to the repression of unconscious desire.” He did so, then mailed a draft to Russell. Unfortunately, it was terrible. Russell told Lady Ottoline that he couldn’t “make head or tail of Lawrence’s philosophy.” But another weekend of in-person conversation rekindled the philosopher’s guttering enthusiasm for the alliance.
Their third and final idea was to present a set of joint lectures. Now it was the novelist’s turn to make demands the philospher couldn’t meet. The lectures, Lawrence felt, should be “more profound, more philosophical” than Russell’s usual offerings, and, specifically, they needed to focus on the “blood knowledge that comes either through the mother or through sex.” That wasn’t Russell’s line at all. Then Lawrence really put his foot in it. “You must drop all your democracy,” he wrote, “there must be an aristocracy of people who have wisdom, and there must be a ruler.”
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You might call Bertrand Russell’s encounter the full Lawrence experience: Lawrence kindles you to enthusiasm with his energy, originality, and insight and then extinguishes you with the awfulness, emptiness, and stridency of his opinions.
You don’t quite get the full Lawrence experience in his most famous books, his novels; fiction’s contact-paper of authorial distance keeps the man at arm’s length from the artistry. You do get the full Lawrence experience in his essays, the best compilation of which has for a long time been Phoenix and Phoenix II, chunky out-of-print books of astonishing unevenness, by turns transcendent and tedious, inspiring and appalling. They are now superceded by The Bad Side of Books, a selection edited by Geoff Dyer and published by NYRB Classics. Dyer successfully captures and condenses the unevenness so voluminously displayed in Phoenix and Phoenix II, which is a good thing, because the best reason to read an assortment of Lawrence’s essays instead of his novels or stories or poetry is to get the full Lawrence experience.
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Lawrence wrote essays throughout his life. From the time his friend Jessie Chambers secretly submitted his work to Ford Madox Ford, who plucked him from the obscurity of a background as a coal miner’s son and a career as a schoolteacher and brought him onto the main stage of English literature, Lawrence made his living as a writer. That included the journalistic hackwork virtually every full-time writer resorts to at some point, as well as the occasional foray into book-length nonfiction.
Most of Lawrence’s essays respond to something he witnessed or read. A few merely propound his opinions from a standing start, but most are responsive. They are, in other words, criticism. The basic unit of criticism is observation-reflection: noticing something, describing it, and having thoughts about it. The Bad Side of Books contains essays about Thomas Mann and Ernest Hemingway, about Italian flowers and roadside crucifixes, about Cézanne and Van Gogh, about arriving in New Mexico and returning to England. Just about every time, Lawrence has interesting and original observations to make about his subject. He is one of the great observers in English literature, and if you were to read just the beginnings of his essays you would wonder why he’s not famous in the pantheon of essayists, up there beside Virginia Woolf and George Orwell and E. B. White and so on. Here he is, for example, describing a porcupine he saw in New Mexico:
Everyone says porcupines should be killed; the Indians, Mexicans, Americans all say the same.
At full moon a month ago, when I went down the long clearing in the brilliant moonlight, through the poor dry herbage a big porcupine began to waddle away from me, towards the trees and the darkness. The animal had raised all its hairs and bristles, so that by the light of the moon it seemed to have a tall, swaying, moonlit aureole arching its back as it went. That seemed curiously fearsome, as if the animal were emitting itself demon-like on the air.
It waddled very slowly, with its white spiky spoon-tail steering flat, behind the round bear-like mound of its back. It had a lumbering, beetle’s, squalid motion, unpleasant. I followed it into the darkness of the timber, and there, squat like a great tick, it began scrapily to creep up a pine-trunk. It was very like a great aureoled tick, a bug, struggling up.
I stood near and watched, disliking the presence of the creature. It is a duty to kill the things. But the dislike of killing him was greater than the dislike of him. So I watched him climb.
This is Lawrence the observer, the Lawrence I love, the Lawrence who writes like nobody else and observes things closely. This is the Lawrence who hated cliché. “To a true artist and to the living imagination,” he wrote, “the cliché is the deadly enemy.” Why? Because,
poor creatures that we are, we crave for experience, yet we are like flies that crawl on the pure and transparent mucous-paper in which the world like a bon-bon is wrapped so carefully that we can never get at it, though we see it there all the time as we move about it, apparently in contact, yet actually as far removed as if it were the moon.
To read Lawrence observing something is to witness one of literature’s stunning wonders: a fly successfully getting beneath the mucous-paper. What did he find there?
In “Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine,” a dog wanders onto Lawrence’s property a few days after he first glimpses the porcupine. Its muzzle is pin-cushioned with quills. Lawrence spends half the day trying to help the dog by pulling out the quills, because he knows it will die otherwise. He can’t finish the job. The dog wants help, but it whimpers and squirms and fights the pain of pulling out the quills. Finally, feeling horrible, Lawrence gives up, and the dog wanders off to die. A few days later, Lawrence sights the porcupine again. He decides that he has to kill it after all, and he does, though it’s a deeply unpleasant experience for him. This much was the observation part of his essay: now comes the reflection.
“Things like the porcupine,” he writes, “one must be able to shoot them, if they get in one’s way.” He reflects that in nature, things kill each other all the time. “It is not something to lament over, nor something to try to reform.” People who object to the domination of life by life are “really ridiculous.” And “the only thing to do is to realize what is higher, and what is lower, in the cycles of existence.” He warms to his subject:
Life is more vivid in a snake than in a butterfly.
Life is more vivid in a wren than in an alligator.
Life is more vivid in a cat than in an ostrich.
Life is more vivid in the Mexican who drives the wagon than in the two horses in the wagon.
Life is more vivid in me than in the Mexican who drives the wagon for me.
We are speaking in terms of existence: that is, in terms of species, race, or type.
There it is: the letdown that marks the full Lawrence experience. Characteristically, what Lawrence finds beneath the mucous-paper of experience is a justification for his racism, or his sexism, or his authoritarian and eugenicist fantasies. I began the essay, on first reading, thinking how strikingly it was written, and wondering if I had stumbled across a rival to Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” and I finished it wincing and muttering, “No, no, pull up, pull up!” as Lawrence crash landed us into a quasi-fascistic vision of violence and of the racial inferiority of Mexicans.
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I think the same confidence in sensation and gut feeling that makes Lawrence a transcendent observer accounts for his wretchedness as a reflector. The move from observation to reflection, which all criticism must navigate, requires an exchange not just of object but of faculty: reason takes over for sensation. For some critics the step from observation to reflection has no real relation to what they observed, they simply jump up off the earth and fly away in the jetstream of their recurring ideas. Lawrence can be a bit like this.
In his introduction to The Bad Side of Books, Geoff Dyer admires Lawrence’s “tendency to stray from stated intentions.” He certainly does that, though not in the self-conscious way that Dyer, for example, likes to stray in his own work. For Dyer it’s a technique, whereas for Lawrence it’s an ill-aimed gesture — knocking a lamp off the table when he was trying to grab his water cup. One gets the sense that Lawrence tended to get distracted from his plans by his obsessions. And one of his chief obsessions was the cosmic significance he attached to heterosexual relationships.
Lawrence’s book Study of Thomas Hardy, for example, sets out to go through Thomas Hardy’s novels chronologically to show how they develop Hardy’s main theme. But Lawrence only gets six books in before he distracts himself with the idea that “[i]n life, then, no new thing has ever arisen, or can arise, save out of the impulse of the male upon the female, the female upon the male.”
This is his pet idea, the unmistakable Lawrentian note: creativity comes from the impulse of heterosexual desire. He breaks it out into its own chapter in this book supposedly about Thomas Hardy. If this “impulse” doesn’t find a satisfactory “particular woman,” Lawrence muses, then a man “must seek another woman, or he must make conscious his desire to find a symbol, to create and define in his consciousness the object of his desire,” and since “everything that is, is either male or female or both,” he might replace a particular woman with “clouds or sunshine or hills or trees or a fallen feather from a bird.” So Lawrence reduces creativity to sexual desire; but then he spiritualizes sexual desire as desire in the abstract. He preaches gender essentialism as the heart of human history and civilization; but then he explodes gender to be a quality of all kinds of things and not just persons. In this way, he manages to say approximately nothing, offensively. He starts sorting through the history of culture and comes out with absurd dictums like: “In the degree of pure maleness below Shelley are Plato and Raphael and Wordsworth, then Goethe and Milton.” And he’s not done. Eventually, he works up his ideas about everything being male or female into the abstraction that the “One Will,” of which “life” and “everything we see and know” is the result, is expressed as “Will-to-Motion” (maleness) or “Will-to-Inertia” (femaleness), and with this new formulation he moves from sexual mysticism into racial mysticism. He says: “[A]ccording as the Will-to-Motion predominates in a race, or the Will-to-Inertia, so must that race’s conception of the One Will enlarge the attributes which are lacking or deficient in the race,” or, in other words, he proposes sorting races by a metaphysical accounting of the proportion of maleness or femaleness in them. It’s rank nonsense, and it goes on for pages and pages.
Lawrence has strayed far from the novels of Thomas Hardy. But after a while you recognize this territory. Reading Lawrence, you end up here over and over.
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Repetition characterizes his writing at every level. It’s not always a bad thing. True, his critical reflections usually revert to a repetition of his lousy social and ethical ideas, but he also uses repetition in more interesting ways.
Sometimes in a single paragraph Lawrence’s repetition can create an atmosphere like the clanging of a bell that gradually fills up a whole space with reverberations, with sounds that meet each other coming and going. This repetition makes for a text more musical than discursive, a composition of leitmotifs repeated and remixed, a refrain subtly altered like the melody of some minimalist prelude by Philip Glass. Consider the interesting effect of the repeated words in this paragraph about returning to England after a long time abroad:
You trail past the benevolent policeman and the inoffensive passport officials, through the fussy and somehow foolish customs — we don’t really think it matters if somebody smuggles in two pairs of false-silk stockings — and we get into the poky but inoffensive train, with poky but utterly inoffensive people, and we have a cup of inoffensive tea from a nice inoffensive boy, and we run through small, poky but nice and inoffensive country, till we are landed in the big but unexciting station of Victoria, when an inoffensive porter puts us into an inoffensive taxi and we are driven through the crowded yet strangely dull streets of London to the cosy yet strangely poky and dull place where we are going to stay.
At other times, Lawrence’s repetitions have more to do with dramatizing the process of thinking. He seems to be groping toward an idea, but doing it on the page rather than in his head. If you allow yourself to get swept up in the tide of it — reading fast — it feels like the motion of a mind in the flow of speech.
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The last essay in The Bad Side of Books is not by D. H. Lawrence. It’s Rebecca West’s “Elegy” for Lawrence. Among her praises and recollections, she felt she had to explain a misunderstanding about him. “Lawrence used to go straight from the railway station to his hotel,” she reports, “and immediately sit down and hammer out articles about the place, vehemently and exhaustively describing the temperament of the people.” She saw him do this herself once, in Florence. West held against him this tendency toward baseless editorializing — at first. By the time she comes to write “Elegy,” she thinks otherwise:
Then I was naive. I know now that he was writing about the state of his own soul at that moment, which, since our self-consciousness is incomplete, and since in consequence our vocabulary also is incomplete, he could only render in symbolic terms …
Dyer makes the same argument in his preface. Lawrence’s essays are “as much mirror as window,” giving us “the first glimpse of a more labile relationship between criticism and fiction.” To me this seems awfully convenient. Maybe Dyer and West are right, but I have a feeling that if someone had told Lawrence that his writing was about himself and not the world, that his eyes were mirrors not windows, he would have been pretty upset.
Twice in The Bad Side of Books, Lawrence discusses Cézanne in a way that bears upon Dyer’s and West’s supposed defense of him. To my mind, these passages are among his best — rare occasions when he flawlessly negotiates the leap from observation to reflection. People object to Cézanne’s apples because they don’t look like apples, but, writes Lawrence,
The apples are just like that, to me! cries Cezanne. They are like that, no matter what they look like. […] Sometimes they’re a sin, sometimes they’re a knock on the head, sometimes they’re a bellyache, sometimes they’re part of a pie, sometimes they’re sauce for the goose.
And you can’t see a bellyache, neither can you see a sin, neither can you see a knock on the head. So paint the apple in these aspects, and you get — probably, or approximately — a Cézanne still-life.
Then, later, he adds, “[w]hat art has got to do, and will go on doing, is to reveal things in their different relationships.” In other words, Cézanne wasn’t, as Dyer might say, painting what he saw in a mirror rather than what he saw out a window, he was painting while looking through a different window than most prior painters. Perhaps this amounts to painting his own insides rather than the apple, just as Lawrence’s wilder reflections feel like an imposition of predetermined ideas or pure make-believe, but if you buy Lawrence’s account of Cézanne and apply it to the writer, he was at least trying to look outside himself.
It’s more respectful to let a writer be wrong than to pull over their faults the veil of an artistic solipsism.
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When Bertrand Russell received Lawrence’s letter criticizing his proposed lectures as too democratic and insufficiently concerned with “blood knowledge,” he finally decided their alliance wasn’t working. Jonathan Rée tells us that “Russell was not prepared to become ‘Blakeish’ and ‘mystical’ to please his young friend.”
Lawrence didn’t like that. He backed out of their plans to effect a revolution of feeling that would end the war. “You are really the super-war-spirit,” wrote Lawrence to Russell, “[y]ou are simply full of repressed desires.”
The two men were opposites in terms of observation and reflection. Russell was a brilliant logician so out of touch with his own feelings and sensations that he was constantly being thunderstruck by the realization that he felt this or that thing which he had actually been feeling for a long time. Lawrence was a brilliant observer who was so bad at drawing reasonable conclusions from what he observed, and so reliant on his gut instincts, that every anecdote about a porcupine or attempt to summarize the novels of Thomas Hardy seemed to turn into an outrageous manifesto for metaphysical bigotry or a bogus philosophy of history. They saw in each other a complement and then, on further acquaintance, an opposite.
To read The Bad Side of Books is to follow that arc for yourself in almost every chapter, to fall in and out of love with D. H. Lawrence a dozen times in the course of a single book, to get high on originality and anti-cliché and language as vivid as any that has ever been written, and then to plunge all the way into the abyss where the oldest and stupidest lies about human life are stultifyingly rehearsed with the same reckless energy.
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Robert Minto is a writer and philosopher. He lives in Boston.
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