November 2014

Nicholas Vajifdar

The Forgotten Twentieth Century

Corpses on Vacation: On "Introduction to These Paintings" by DH Lawrence

For anyone who loves poetry or other kinds of artistic writing, Plato's famous decision to ban it from his ideal city must seem like ironic provocation at best, not even worth refuting. It's not simply that the costs of censorship outweigh the benefits; it's that, to a contemporary mind, it's hard to think of any benefits at all. But I recently read a short work by D.H. Lawrence that made me appreciate for the first time why anyone would even consider supporting the ban. According to the notion that one should always try to grasp even the most alien worldview on its own terms, I want to discuss this ultra-weird, ultra-charismatic piece of writing, "Introduction to These Paintings," collected in D.H. Lawrence: Late Essays and Articles.

"Introduction" represents a form of argument, a form of thinking and feeling, that's totally vanished from respected writing today -- it's a flawed way of thinking, whose disappearance is in many ways absolutely correct, but which, I can't help feeling, also offered certain advantages that are now completely unavailable to us.

I would call this method of argument "fictitious history," and the best examples of it are probably Freud in his book "Moses and Monotheism," as well as Nietzsche's speculations about the "blonde beasts" in his works. Both of those writers offered speculative, dreamy stories of the past, supported by only the flimsiest base of facts. They were reckless theories, but self-consciously reckless theories, and offered in a wry spirit. Freud's assertion that Moses was Egyptian and not Hebrew is supported by a laughably puny exercise in etymology; but from this he constructs a vast story about the origins of guilt in the Abrahamic religions.

This genre of writing has more in common with science fiction than with an article written by a professor. And it is, to state the obvious, much more fun to read than, say a survey of hygiene habits in Lower Saxony 1840-1870. It lingers in the mind like myth. And this genre of writing may hold a clue to the origins of myth -- myth is memorable and moving, and has a beginning and end, whereas history is "just one damn thing after another." The Times Literary Supplement reported in 2013 in great detail that the supposed encounter between Dickens and Dostoevsky was a clear forgery. But I suspect that their fictional conversation will live on because it put the two men's characters in a nutshell, just like the story of George Washington and the cherry tree.

The argument of "Introduction to These Paintings" is easy to grasp. The English, begins Lawrence, are generally much worse at painting than other nations, especially in the last few centuries. (He excludes Blake from this judgment.) And this failure stems from their horror of the human body; they depict flesh as something shameful, and you would hardly guess that we are sexual creatures underneath these petticoats and smoking jackets. But why do the English fear the body? After all, he says, Chaucer is so bawdy and uninhibited. Something must have gone wrong to make the Anglo-Saxons so fearful. And Lawrence has a very tidy answer: syphilis. Think of Queen Elizabeth with her bald eyebrows and rotting teeth and infertility, he says; think of Hamlet with his obsession with female sexuality ("in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed"); after the Columbian exchange, we're a long way from the sexual ease of "The Miller's Tale." Lawrence says that syphilis has poisoned the most fundamental urge in the world with a fear and a horror so unspeakable that the English collective psyche never recovered and, through some mental mechanism, fled into a world of over-intellectual abstraction where our intuitive selves could never thrive. And, as a result, the English couldn't paint people correctly; their attempts were dead on arrival.

Whatever you think of this argument on its face, it's hard to avoid the obvious counterargument. He singles out the English, and later all the "northern races." The next question almost asks itself. Namely, did the English suffer more from syphilis than other nations, more than the French did, or the Italians? Lawrence briefly alludes to this huge potential error and then indicates that he has basically no interest in it. He knows in his marrow that the English are a race of prudes; he likes his syphilis idea; and that's all there is to it. No statistical comparisons of infection rates, please.

This kind of logical error, on the order of oops-forgot-to-carry-the-one, would seem to completely destroy Lawrence's argument. Unfortunately for the forces of logic, I find "Introduction to These Paintings" to be just as attractive as ever, and the reason why I do is the reason I now understand dimly Plato's argument for banning poetry. Put simply, Lawrence's talent as a prose stylist and rhetorician is so demonic and huge that he can have you believe almost anything.

A beautiful ranter and a nasty chanteur, Lawrence outdoes almost anybody in his ability to wield prose rhythm as an instrument of persuasion. The idea of prose as Orwell's clear pane of glass holds no appeal for the man. He repeats himself, introduces a theme by instinct, then turns it around, twists it, insists it upon you. Sound and imagery compel you to see his view of life without entirely understanding it. As with Beethoven at his most tumultuous, Lawrence's music seems to surge forward of its own accord.

But description will always fall short of quotation. Here is just a small passage:

The history of our era is the nauseating and repulsive history of the crucifixion of the procreative body for the glorification of the spirit, the mental consciousness. Plato was an arch-priest of this crucifixion. Art, that handmaid, humbly and honestly served the vile deed, through three thousand years at least. The Renaissance put the spear through the side of the already crucified body, and syphilis put poison into the wound made by the imaginative spear. It took still three hundred years for the body to finish: but in the eighteenth century it became a corpse, a corpse with an abnormally active mind: and today it stinketh.

As you can see, there isn't even an attempt at rational substantiation here. (Maybe an understandable approach from a writer who hates the rational mind.) This is rhythmic assertion decorated with unforgettable images, like the "corpse with an abnormally active mind."

Maybe this is Lawrence's appeal. No one seriously thinks that his syphilis thesis holds water. But maybe that thesis is only a pretext for offering up these wonderful and horrifying images and phrases. "Corpse with an abnormally active mind" -- how many thousands of people does this phrase describe perfectly, people who go through the motions of life and are depressingly competent as rational hygienic beings, but who don't, in the last analysis, really live at all? A character in a Limonov novel describes the human condition as "corpses on vacation"; I think Lawrence would agree.

And so, because a poet on the level of Lawrence can transport us to conclusions we would never have considered absent their magical ranting, it no longer seems surprising that supporter of rational government would want to expel the poets from the city. The censor, in a perverse way, pays greater tribute to the arts than its defenders and patrons because the censor pays it the compliment of fear; the censor knows the demonic and sexual power of verbal music.

The Chatterley ban was still in full effect when Lawrence died. Would Lawrence have conceded that English painting improved since then? Lucian Freud, with his hulking flesh mounds on the rumpled bedsheets, would seem to be the prophet foretold by Lawrence, except that I could also see Lawrence pointing out that there's still a tinge of horror hanging over his grim portraiture. Small, reduced, but there, unmistakably there. And so even Lucian Freud might not have escaped Lawrence's Satanic auto-da-fé. As a libertine, he was as exacting as Torquemada.