Moments of Lucidity

If our basic needs of food and shelter, hopefully of ongoing and meaningful employment and sustained and pleasurable relationships, are fulfilled; if we are relatively safe, withdrawn from others inside our homes, what more do we need in this time of cholera?

Moments of lucidity and frankness, of clarity and depth, moments in which we can breathe deeply and think calmly. These we need.

And such an extended moment I enjoyed weeks ago reading Emily Wilson’s introduction and translator’s note to her translation of The Odyssey by Homer. Having just this afternoon reached the end of Book 24, I cannot tell you how relieved I am at Odysseus’ gladness to obey owl-eyed Athena and to – at last – lay down his weapons and stop killing.

… Now goddess, child of Zeus,

tell the old story for our modern times.

Find the beginning…

The Religious Experience Through Art

While Lawrence’s works reflect both his Biblical fluency and his rejection of orthodox interpretations, they also bear witness to his distinctively intimate engagement with Biblical aesthetics… Such Biblical metaphors drawn from natural forces, in particular from the strength of the ocean, subtly combine with ‘elements of North American Indian animistic religion concerning the life of Fire, Water, Thunder, Light, Dark, etc.’ (Plays 658), with which Lawrence became fascinated after he attended Native American ceremonies. The pastiche incorporates the cyclical quality of Hebrew imagery at which Lawrence also marvels in the Book of Revelation… A feature that also echoed over and over in Lawrence’s mind is the stately rhythm of the King James Version, built on a deliberately repeated use of the conjunction ‘and’ in addition to the characteristic repetitions with variations… Such cadences are also a distinct feature of Lawrence’s novel writing. The Rainbow, for instance, which critics concur in considering as Lawrence’s most Biblical novel, accommodates aesthetic features of Old Testament books such as Genesis and Exodus to depict the subtle shift from a unified agricultural society to individual modern experience… In Apocalypse, Lawrence insists on the absence of abstract thought, on the concreteness of everything which enables the artist to find God in plants, in beasts and also in objects. Thus, as a poet, Lawrence aspires to depict a religious experience… So creation is first and foremost an aesthetic act that the poet can achieve thanks to a cosmic vision… Lawrence aestheticized his own understanding of Biblical thought to advocate a turn from religion as creed to religion as epiphanic experience. His engagement with Biblical aesthetics assuredly conveys his personal sense of the religious experience through art. – Shirley Bricout, ‘Biblical Aesthetics’, Catherine Brown and Susan Reid (Editors), The Edinburgh Companion to D.H. Lawrence and the Arts, Edinburgh University Press, 2020

The Creative Fervour of Radical Experimentation

“In modernist writings, foreign words are often part of literary quotations, in line with the modernists’ intense use of intertextuality. By contrast, in Lawrence’s works foreign languages often reflect his need for a closer contact with and a deeper understanding of the peoples and cultures he encountered during his wanderings. His quotations in French, German and Italian, which became more and more frequent after he left England for the first time in 1912, are far from signalling a snobbish or elitist showing-off of learning: they are vitally connected to a yearning for fuller and deeper communication, with the aim of suggesting other differences – cultural, ethnic, psychological – which make him feel separated from, and attracted to, the foreign people he came into contact with… The restless search for new models and sources of inspiration at the border and beyond Europe is a leitmotif of European modernism. It is also connected with the popularity of literary works coming from other cultures, which, especially in the creative fervour of radical experimentation in the early years of the twentieth century, would quickly turn into a cultural fashion… The 1920s were the years when, following the collapse of Europe and of Western civilisation after the First World War, Lawrence was experimenting with a new artistic language rooted in the body, which, in the last years of his life, he would partly realise in Lady Chatterley’s Lover and in his paintings… Lawrence’s translations unfold the creativity of an artist who was constantly open to new literary experiments which were rooted in a deep knowledge of other cultures, the transmission and sharing of which he always perceived as a never-ending enrichment of his own.” – Stefania Michelucci, ‘Translation’, Catherine Brown and Susan Reid (Editors), The Edinburgh Companion to D.H. Lawrence and the Arts, Edinburgh University Press, 2020

A Cipher of Cultural Meaning

“Traditional aesthetic objects or performative outputs attracted Lawrence’s interest so powerfully because, for him, they mediated between past and future, and they changed him as an actor in what he knew was a global, relational network. His textual accounts reveal this change, however fraught and uncomfortable it was… In Women in Love an interest in the capacity of an aesthetic object or an artwork to be a cipher of cultural meaning can also be seen, yet, in this case, these objects are removed from their traditional or original context (the sweepingly continental ascription ‘Africa’) and can be viewed, held or touched outside of their local site of creation… But context seems important: mediation within an original context of creation – when the actant is not decontextualised – affords actors increased capacity to be changed. Whether an actor is open to being changed is another matter, and for Lawrence the traditional aesthetic objects attract his attention because they evoke both a cultural gap and a desire to bridge it, which may, in effect, be impossible… Lawrence’s Italian essays reflect this flux and lack of completeness by revealing how the aesthetic acts of the body can serve as mediators and change-makers. This suggests how humans might retain connections to tradition even in a world rushing headlong into modernity… As with his experiences in Italy, he came to the aesthetic experience; it did not come to him. The experience among the Hopi required of Lawrence greater ‘travel distance’, both geographically and psychologically. His discomfort correlates with this larger remove. The Hopi dance strikes Lawrence as a mediative truth, one that he feels himself to be physically ‘inescapably and unavoidably in the middle’ of (to borrow from Grusin, ‘Radical Mediation’, Critical Inquiry, 42, 2015: 148).” – Julianne Newmark, ‘Traditional Aesthetics’, Catherine Brown and Susan Reid (Editors), The Edinburgh Companion to D.H. Lawrence and the Arts, Edinburgh University Press, 2020

Dark and Potent Savage Pilgrimage

‘The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.’

“This quotation from Lawrence’s 1923 Studies in Classic American Literature distills a nation into a few austere characteristics perceived to shape its mythology… Lawrence wanted in particular to discover a pre-civilisational alternative to what he perceived as a repression of the senses, and to find the quiddity of others ‘before the mentality of Greece appeared in the world’ (Sea and Sardinia 67). This led him on his ‘savage pilgrimage’ (Letters Volume 4 375), searching ever further from his East Midlands roots… In terms of art, Lawrence sought a vitality he felt was missing in European aesthetics: a way to connect with art forms that were rooted in their ancient cultures and regional identities to an extent that could only be glimpsed in artefacts of the pre-industrialised West…

‘before the soul became self-conscious: before the mentality of Greece appeared in the world . . . There is a creature, dark and potent’

Sea and Sardinia 67–8

“… Lawrence wished to connect with an ideal cultural aesthetic, but came to see it as beyond the grasp of the corrosive civilisation into which he was born… Lawrence’s ‘savage pilgrimage’ (Letters Volume 4 375) was an attempt to free himself from the influence of Christian morality and find a different social and cultural life in older, pre-monotheistic societies, access to which might still be possible through some contemporary peoples.” – Peter Childs, ‘National and Racial Aesthetics’, Catherine Brown and Susan Reid (Editors), The Edinburgh Companion to D.H. Lawrence and the Arts, Edinburgh University Press, 2020

Our Brain Is Also a Mind

“Our brain is also a mind: an internal space in which we reorganise the visible contents of the world… The study of visual production should give us some insight into how mind alters… Minds have contents. When those contents alter, mental products such as drawings will alter accordingly… Form constitutes the visually construable effects that mind has on not-mind… Ever since translators equated forma, the Latin for ‘shape’, with Plato’s idea, ‘form’ has been the concept binding visual production to abstract thought and philosophy, detaching it from the minutiae of historical circumstance. At the same time, a history of formal changes is arguably the most purposeful of art histories. It asserts that in making things to look at, we reveal aspects of the nature of mind and of our human condition that are revealed no other way: it sets mental activity centre stage and allows for the possibility that art itself could be a protagonist in history…”

“For in man there is a form-making nature that becomes active as soon as his existence is assured.”

(Goethe, ‘On German Architecture’, 1772)

– Julian Bell, ‘Shaggy Horse Story’, London Review of Books, Volume 42 Number 24, 17 December 2020

Mythic Futurity and Foregone Possibility

Most important: in turning his one novel into two (The Rainbow and Women in Love), Lawrence was telling a double historical time; he was setting off a foretime of mythic futurity and an aftermath of foregone possibility. And if the history is unspecified in the final product, it is nonetheless the historical experience of the Great War that provides the decisive event, the reorienting force, in this development. – Vincent Sherry, ‘Romanticism, Decadence, History’, Catherine Brown and Susan Reid (Editors), The Edinburgh Companion to D.H. Lawrence and the Arts, Edinburgh University Press, 2020

Gesamtkunstwerk

One is not only a little individual, living a little life. One is in oneself the whole of mankind, and one’s fate is the fate of the whole of mankind (Letters, Volume 2, 302).

Such are the paradoxes of scale that Lawrence never ceased to explore in an artistic practice that fluctuated between the totalising and non-totalising poles inherent in the Gesamtkunstwerk. – Susan Reid, ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’, Catherine Brown and Susan Reid (Editors), The Edinburgh Companion to D.H. Lawrence and the Arts, Edinburgh University Press, 2020

The Felt Dynamism of Life Itself

“Lawrence’s  fiction offers not so much a secure affirmation of authentic feeling as a constant attunement to the problems of it:

If we can’t hear the cries far down in our own forests of dark veins, we can look in the real novels, and there listen in. Not listen to the didactic statements of the author, but to the low, calling cries of the characters, as they wander in the dark woods of their destiny. (Study of Thomas Hardy 205)

“Lawrence’s sense of the need for constant attunement to the unknown, and the existential courage this requires, is reflected in the notable absence of resolution at the end of his fictions, long and short… his attempts to catch the felt dynamism of life itself… Lawrence’s trenchant affirmation of life not so much over as in art remains a vivid witness to the potential of literature as rounded, three-dimensional examination of human values.” – Michael Bell, ‘The Idea of the Aesthetic’, Catherine Brown and Susan Reid (Editors), The Edinburgh Companion to D.H. Lawrence and the Arts, Edinburgh University Press, 2020

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams; Them us were we you?

“She had grown up, she realised too late, in the autumn of things, an extraordinary world – its ancient rainforests, its wild rivers, its beaches and oceans, its birds and animals and fish, all were to her a path to freedom and transcendence, and none – she only now saw – were but a transitory wonder so soon to vanish until all that remained for a short time longer were human beings. But just for a short time. They could not survive alone, outside of the wonder – what could? – and so that time too would end.”

Richard Flanagan’s extinction novel, The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, digs deeply into the history of his own writing, reaching back through the briefly retold story of the abducted Tasmanian Aboriginal girl Mathinna in Wanting (2008) to his first novel from 1994, Death of a River Guide. Whilst that first novel revolves around one death and a multitude of life, for this most recent piece of incendiary storytelling Flanagan has flipped the coin to focus our attention on the story of one life, Francie’s, and a multitude of death: vanishing, extinction, the depletion, exhaustion and destruction of life on planet Earth. The long, sad, final story of Francie’s life is that of her children’s refusal to let her die, their lives and stories told only in relation to their weakness and selfishness as they refuse to respect her wishes or autonomy in preference for their own.

“The more she thought about it the more she wondered if maybe that’s what humans can’t do. Live with beauty. That it’s beauty they can’t bear. That what was really vanishing wasn’t all the birds and fish and animals and plants, but love. Perhaps that’s what she was trying to stop vanishing before it was too late. Sometimes she felt love had dried up like a riverbed in drought.”

Meanwhile the threat of catastrophic species depletion is all around them and everyone they interact with but invisible in terms of their engagement or concern, despite the massive blanket of bushfire smoke from the burning continent that is suffocating every state and capital city on the east coast of Australia. And in their torpor human beings begin to disappear themselves, not yet burning, starving, drowning, swept away as a species but piece by piece, digit by digit, limb by limb, sense by sense, as they exchange their consciousness and consciences for perpetual immersion in the online world, nature and reality for artifice and delusion. Bleak is the vision. Profound the loss. Uncomprehending the anger.

“She had learnt that people were remarkably unobservant, thinking they were seeing the same person when that person was vanishing before them. Bit by bit they dissolved and yet no one seemed to notice. The more things changed the harder people stared into their screens, living elsewhere, the real world now no more than the simulacrum of the screen world, their real lives the shadow of their online lives. The more people vanished the more they asserted themselves online as if in some grotesque equation or transfer. Meme artist, influencer, blogger, online memoirist. She wondered if the more they were there the less they were here? Did she know?”

Flanagan takes the modernist-post-modernist tropes of the inadequacy and impossibility of language, strips them of their theoretical baggage and redeploys them to question why it is that we have failed utterly to communicate with each other about that which is most obvious, most pressing and most important: our relationship with the planet, our unsustainable depletion of the resources we consume to maintain the unrewarding lifestyles to which we aspire and the climatic and environmental catastrophe in which we are apparently now inextricably embedded. Again, stripped of its literary conceits, the failure of language is writ small at the quotidian human scale in the refusal of Francie’s children to let her go, to let her escape the hideous death-in-life to which they have condemned her. And. Alongside this, of course, are the major failures, our inability and unwillingness to see, to speak, to demand or initiate the changes in priorities, policy and behaviour that we know are essential to secure the viability of humanity and the planet.

“Were words? As Francie pointed.

“Well: were they what?

“As if they too were already then falling apart, so much ash and soot soon to fall, so much smoke to suck down. As if all that can be said is we say you or if that then. Them us were we you?”