This article is taken from the August/September 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
Look! We Have Come Through! was a collection of poems D.H. Lawrence published in 1917 to celebrate the early years of his relationship with Frieda Weekley. In borrowing the title, Lara Feigel marks her survival of lockdown, isolated in the Oxfordshire countryside with her partner and children, an experience which allowed her to immerse herself in Lawrence, on whom she had already agreed to write a book.
Early fears that this will be another example of misappropriating literature for purposes of self-help prove to be thankfully short-lived. The autobiographical sections are outweighed by some of the sharpest, shrewdest discussions of Lawrence I have seen for a long time. Each of Feigel’s eight chapters hones in on a major topic, and she has fresh things to say in every case, drawing examples from the whole range of Lawrence’s writing.
Lawrence himself hated being locked down, whether to a person, a place or (most of all) an idea. Single-issue commentary will never do him justice — too much of his work will be overlooked — but the history of Lawrence criticism, from F.R. Leavis to Kate Millett to Angela Carter (who recruited Lawrence as “a sister”) is adversarial. Feigel’s strength is that she sees that “Lawrence’s powers of affirmation came out of his contradictions”.
Thus, he saw consciousness as both destructive (the imposition of coercive willpower) and illuminating (liberating the self for full expression). Lawrence the anti-democrat and admirer of strong leadership, preferably exercised by himself, was also the Lawrence who dreamed of Rananim, the Utopian community of fellow idealists. Lawrence the nomad was also Bert of Eastwood, who never psychologically left home.
Similarly with his symbols. The rainbow, bridging earth and sky, roots the transcendent in the everyday; while the phoenix, his personal mascot, fuses death and rebirth. His was a dialectical mind, and he requires, Feigel believes, “a new way of reading”, which will hold oppositions in tension.
He insists on the mystery of the non-human, its indifference to us
Even Lawrence’s detractors admit that he wrote brilliantly about the natural world, landscape and the seasons, and encounters between people and animals. He insists on the mystery of the non-human, its indifference to us. Feigel suspects he would have hated Extinction Rebellion and ecology, simplistic moral systems which, in her view, exclude “the turbulence, the vortex of intellectual action that comes from reading Lawrence”. He hankered after the primitive, yet his vision of human potential, with its disregard of the conventional, the outworn and the restrictive, is radically modern.
Nowhere are there more traps for the unwary than in Lawrence’s treatment of sex. For many, this is his claim to fame — or notoriety. Yet, Feigel warns, “all his reputations are false”. Once again, his ideas oscillate. In his essays he indulges in crude patriarchal swaggering which his fiction belies. Sex is a struggle for dominance, yet also a supreme mutual gift, the annihilation yet the renewal of the self, the ultimate assertion of will — “sex in the head” as he called it — yet the defeat of will by blind instinct.
Feigel analyses the movement of his prose in love scenes, the surge and relapse of feeling animating the sentence rhythms, powered by “something much stranger and more diffuse” than erotic arousal. Male-male relationships, too, are rendered with such lyricism that many have discerned homosexual overtones, but Lawrence is modern, again, in his resistance to labels.
His idealising of his mother was a psychological obstacle to independence from which Frieda liberated him, and his portrayals of marriage are remarkable for their insight into the checks and balances, the struggle for equilibrium involved. Feigel sees how Frieda was necessary to Lawrence for her “capacity to enrage and disturb him”, to keep him “unsure of himself”, to mock his absurdities, preventing him from becoming a soapbox demagogue.
Feigel’s chapter “Parenthood” wrestles with serious difficulties. Lawrence wrote about parenting and childhood with piercing clarity, above all in The Rainbow, yet his own upbringing was conflicted, and he and Frieda had no children (he may have suffered from impotence). Lawrence’s attitude to Frieda’s longing to see her children, estranged from her by divorce, amounted to cruelty. He refused to understand or sympathise with her distress, and his conviction that the children of bad marriages were themselves corrupt in some way — a view he never applied to himself — is hateful.
His miraculous touch when creating fictional children comes from a separate part of his mind. Feigel is understandably angered by Lawrence’s hostility and callousness (but also by Ernest Weekley’s manipulative use of the children to punish Frieda). Her verdict that he was “a feminist himself when it came to motherhood” seems like special pleading.
Like Blake, Lawrence invented his own religion
Lawrence was brought up as a Congregationalist. He rejected creeds and doctrines but his writing slips effortlessly, chameleon-like, into biblical diction and cadence. This can produce dazzling prose (as in The Rainbow) or unreadable nonsense (as in The Plumed Serpent). As an adult he still maintained that the hymns he sang in chapel “mean to me almost more than the finest poetry”. Like Blake, whom he most resembles in this, he invented his own religion. Feigel’s diagnosis that Jesus was “too disembodied in his spirituality” to satisfy Lawrence is surely correct. We have only to read the late story “The Man Who Died”, in which Jesus is resurrected to sexual as well as physical life, to see that.
The fundamental religious conviction is that of Tom Brangwen under the stars: “he knew that he did not belong to himself”. Neither the human race nor the universe is self-explanatory; the cycle of the seasons is religious in its rhythms. Lawrence had no patience with Buddhism, hilariously exclaiming when shown images of the Buddha, “I wish he would stand up,” but responded to Hinduism with its principle of creative destruction.
In the ancient Etruscans, in Mexican culture, in Ceylon, he had sensed a primitive power which made European pseudo-sophistication look tawdry and hollow. In “On Being Religious” (1923), he imagined God constantly on the move, laughing to see worshippers looking for him in the wrong places.
Post-pandemic rhetoric has had its apocalyptic side. Lawrence would have warmed to that; he loved to imagine that the end was nigh. Yet, as Feigel says, although his last book was Apocalypse, a typically innovative take on the Book of Revelation, his last novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, was cataclysmic, pointing beyond upheaval to renewal. “Ours is a tragic age”, it opens, and tragedy can be cathartic, not purely destructive.
Feigel sees the novel’s ending as nearer to the pattern of comedy, “its characters released out into the world alive and ready for it”, like her and her family as they emerge from isolation. To be able to meet the world unillusioned but undismayed is what Lawrence did for Lara Feigel, and it is what she hopes he can do for us as a result of her bracing and honest book.
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