The Bad Side of Books. DH Lawrence.

Lawrence, D. H. The Bad Side of Books. New York Review Books (Geoff Dyer ed), New York, 2019. NF?12/20.

I’ve been a DH Lawrence fan since the 1960s when I was an English lit major. His novels (The Rainbow and Women in Love for example) shine in my mind as having changed my experience of reading fiction. I also feel like I practically memorized some of his poems (Tortoise Shout, Don’ts) as I read them again now. This newly-edited collection of literary criticism and tangential philosophizing with a foreword by a Lawrence scholar was quite an eye-opener for me. In his 1923 Studies in Classic American Literature (which I now see as exceptionally excellent among his non-fiction) Lawrence famously said “Never trust the artist. Trust the tale”. It looks like this wise advice applied to the man himself. He might, many Lawrence fans agree, better have stuck to fiction and poetry.

In many of these essays he is partly just a man of his time: racist, sexist, and unpleasantly critical of others, but there is petulance and inconsistency in some of it that could make even someone keen on his creative work cringe a bit.

After some generally positive criticism of Thomas Hardy (“(There) is a constant revelation in Hardy’s novels: that there exists a great background, vital and vivid, which matters more than the people who move upon it”), we get a harsh narrative of his relationship with American writer Maurice Magnus:

It is terrible to be agreed with, especially by a man like M—. All that one says, and means, turns to nothing.

…into (a Sicilian) lyricism suddenly crept the serpent. It was a lovely morning, still early. I heard a noise on the stairs from the lower terrace, and went to look. M— on the stairs, looking up at me with a frightened face.

Magnus wrote an expose and criticism of life in the French Foreign Legion, and was a model for one of Lawrence’s fictional characters. But here he is pitilessly deconstructed and exposed as a poser, deadbeat, and literary loser. Then Magnus commits suicide because of unpaid debts. Lawrence went to a lot of time and trouble to trash this minor and pathetic fellow writer, and became even better known for doing it.

A great traveller but consistent critic of American art and culture, Lawrence in discussing the United States says:

It is all rather like comic opera played with solemn intensity. All the wildness and woolliness and westernity and motor-cars and art and sage and savage are so mixed up, so incongruous, that it is a farce, and everybody knows it. But they refuse to play it as farce. The wild and woolly section insists on being heavily dramatic, bold and bad on purpose…

The intellectual world in the 1920s had been shaken by the real and imaginary significance of relativity and quantum mechanics, and Lawrence in another essay isn’t happy with all that math:

You’ve got to find a new impulse for new things in mankind, and it’s really fatal to find it through abstraction.No, no; philosophy and religion, they’ve both gone too far on the algebraical tack: Let X stand for sheep and Y for goats: then X minus Y equals Heaven, and X plus Y equals Earth, and Y minus X equals Hell. Thank you! But what coloured shirt does X have on?

Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine” is one of Lawrence’s most commented-on essays. His dog dies after attacking the prickly little beast, as Lawrence fails to get all the spines off the dog’s face. It’s this essay and similar material that feminists like Kate Millet (author of Sexual Politics) focused on in the 1970s in clarifying for the developing progressive academic culture what an offensive creep Lawrence (along with Norman Mailer and Henry Miller) was. There’s no question this essay flies off on some strange tangents, although Lawrence’s unpredictable changing of direction is for me one of the thrilling things about his fiction. But I feel like if you’re going to be convincing with your political-philosophical views, they probably shouldn’t come out of the blue like a Zeus lightning bolt:

Life moves in circles of power and of vividness, and each circle of life only maintains its orbit upon the subjection of some lower circle. If the lower cycles of life are not mastered, there can be no higher cycle.

But it is always conquest, conquered and conqueror, for ever. The Kingdom of heaven is the Kingdom of conquerors, who can serve the conquest for ever, after their own conquest is made.

and of course here and elsewhere Lawrence’s insistence on the difference between men and women often sounds hierarchical. I am sure there is a real and strong difference and I love that, but it’s qualitative not quantitative as we might say. Lawrence’s attitudes are taken gratuitously as grist for second-wave feminists’ mills.

Later on other essays are archaic-sounding about sex although occasionally making a certain kind of sense. Masturbation is “the dirty little secret”, a dangerous vice, promoted by puritans who fear extramarital sex. And their Victorian paralysis of fear and shutting-away of sex behind properly closed doors if it had to happen at all was the result of syphilis (!). All a bit strange to us who have cured syphilis and celebrate masturbation.

Lawrence’s ideas of encouraging art and an aesthetic sense, and focusing on your own vital instincts instead of mechanization, money, and secrecy would be okay with most left-leaning people today, and with many on the right too. But reading these essays I’m guessing DH Lawrence paid the price of falling on the wrong side of the late-20th-century wave of progressive politics by aggressively ignoring a polite discretion he considered effete.

I end up agreeing with “trust the tale not the teller”, very similar to what was driving Northrop Frye in much more discreetly polite and academic criticism in the mid-20th-century. Reading Frye’s appreciation of fiery against-the-grain William Blake may have helped focus the impact Lawrence’s fiction had on me in the 1960s. That recently done-with century may seem to some of us today like a dark disaster best forgotten. But focusing on the imagination encouraged by Lawrence and Frye seems to be like a bit of a mid-century illumination. Now of course it’s hard to see that light against the opposing chaotic political fireworks of our era.

Too bad Lawrence’s bad criticism was also politically incorrect, or we just might have been able to pretend it didn’t exist, and so keep his wonderful fiction and poetry from disappearing off high school and university reading lists.


About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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