Aldous Huxley’s Essay “DH Lawrence”

Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) was a friend and admirer of DH Lawrence. Three years after Lawrence’s death in 1930, he edited and published The Letters of DH Lawrence.

“D. H. Lawrence”  by Aldous Huxley

“It is impossible to write about Lawrence except as an artist. He was an artist first of all, and the fact of his being an artist explains a life which seems, if you forget it, inexplicably strange. In Son of Woman, Mr. Middleton Murry has written at great length about Lawrence — but about a Lawrence whom you would never suspect, from reading that curious essay in destructive hagiography, of being an artist. For Mr. Murry almost completely ignores the fact that his subject — his victim, I had almost said — was one whom “the fates had stigmatized ‘writer’.” His book is Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark — for all its metaphysical subtleties and its Freudian ingenuities, very largely irrelevant. The absurdity of his critical method becomes the more manifest when we reflect that nobody would ever have heard of a Lawrence who was not an artist.

An artist is the sort of artist he is, because he happens to possess certain gifts. And he leads the sort of life he does in fact lead, because he is an artist, and an artist with a particular kind of mental endowment. Now there are general abilities and there are special talents. A man who is born with a great share of some special talent is probably less deeply affected by nurture than one whose ability is generalized. His gift is his fate, and he follows a predestined course, from which no ordinary power can deflect him. In spite of Helvetius and Dr. Watson, it seems pretty obvious that no amount of education — including under that term everything from the Oedipus complex to the English Public School system — could have prevented Mozart from being a musician, or musicianship from being the central fact in Mozart’s life. And how would a different education have modified the expression of, say, Blake’s gift? It is, of course, impossible to answer. One can only express the unverifiable conviction that an art so profoundly individual and original, so manifestly “inspired,” would have remained fundamentally the same whatever (within reasonable limits) had been the circumstances of Blake’s upbringing. Lawrence, as Mr. F. R. Leavis insists, has many affinities with Blake. “He had the same gift of knowing what he was interested in, the same power of distinguishing his own feelings and emotions from conventional sentiment, the same ‘terrifying honesty.’ ” Like Blake, like any man possessed of great special talents, he was predestined by his gifts. Explanations of him in terms of a Freudian hypothesis of nurture may be interesting, but they do not explain. That Lawrence was profoundly affected by his love for his mother and by her excessive love for him, is obvious to anyone who has read Sons and Lovers. None the less it is, to me at any rate, almost equally obvious that even if his mother had died when he was a child, Lawrence would still have been, essentially and fundamentally, Lawrence. Lawrence’s biography does not account for Lawrence’s achievement. On the contrary, his achievement, or rather the gift that made the achievement possible, accounts for a great deal of his biography. He lived as he lived, because he was, intrinsically and from birth, what he was. If we would write intelligibly of Lawrence, we must answer, with all their implications, two questions: first, what sort of gifts did he have? and secondly, how did the possession of these gifts affect the way he responded to experience?

Lawrence’s special and characteristic gift was an extraordinary sensitiveness to what Wordsworth called “unknown modes of being.” He was always intensely aware of the mystery of the world, and the mystery was always for him a numen, divine. Lawrence could never forget, as most of us almost continuously forget, the dark presence of the otherness that lies beyond the boundaries of man’s conscious mind. This special sensibility was accompanied by a prodigious power of rendering the immediately experienced otherness in terms of literary art.

Such was Lawrence’s peculiar gift. His possession of it accounts for many things. It accounts, to begin with, for his attitude toward sex. His particular experiences as a son and as a lover may have intensified his preoccupation with the subject; but they certainly did not make it. Whatever his experiences, Lawrence must have been preoccupied with sex; his gift made it inevitable. For Lawrence, the significance of the sexual experience was this: that, in it, the immediate, non-mental knowledge of divine otherness is brought, so to speak, to a focus — a focus of darkness. Parodying Matthew Arnold’s famous formula, we may say that sex is something not ourselves that makes for — not righteousness, for the essence of religion is not righteousness; there is a spiritual world, as Kierkegaard insists, beyond the ethical — rather, that makes for life, for divineness, for union with the mystery. Paradoxically, this something not ourselves is yet a something lodged within us; this quintessence of otherness is yet the quintessence of our proper being. “And God the Father, the Inscrutable, the Unknowable, we know in the flesh, in Woman. She is the door for our in-going and our out-coming. In her we go back to the Father; but like the witnesses of the transfiguration, blind and unconscious.” Yes, blind and unconscious; otherwise it is a revelation, not of divine otherness, but of very human evil. “The embrace of love, which should bring darkness and oblivion, would with these lovers (the hero and heroine of one of Poe’s tales) be a daytime thing, bringing more heightened consciousness, visions, spectrum-visions, prismatic. The evil thing that daytime love-making is, and all sex-palaver!” How Lawrence hated Eleonora and Ligeia and Roderick Usher and all such soulful Mrs. Shandies, male as well as female! What a horror, too, he had of all Don Juans, all knowing sensualists and conscious libertines! (About the time he was writing Lady Chatterley’s Lover he read the memoirs of Casanova, and was profoundly shocked.) And how bitterly he loathed the Wilhelm-Meisterish view of love as an education, as a means to culture, a Sandow-exerciser for the soul! To use love in this way, consciously and deliberately, seemed to Lawrence wrong, almost a blasphemy. “It seems to me queer,” he says to a fellow-writer, “that you prefer to present men chiefly — as if you cared for women not so much for what they were in themselves as for what the men saw in them. So that after all in your work women seem not to have an existence, save they are the projections of the men. . . It’s the positivity of women you seem to deny — make them sort of instrumental.” The instrumentality of Wilhelm Meister’s women shocked Lawrence profoundly. . .

For someone with a gift for sensing the mystery of otherness, true love must necessarily be, in Lawrence’s vocabulary, nocturnal. So must true knowledge. Nocturnal and tactual — a touching in the night. Man inhabits, for his own convenience, a home-made universe within the greater alien world of external matter and his own irrationality. Out of the illimitable blackness of that world the light of his customary thinking scoops, as it were, a little illuminated cave — a tunnel of brightness, in which, from the birth of consciousness to its death, he lives, moves and has his being. For most of us this bright tunnel is the whole world. We ignore the outer darkness; or if we cannot ignore it, if it presses too insistently upon us, we disapprove, being afraid. Not so Lawrence. He had eyes that could see, beyond the walls of light, far into the darkness, sensitive fingers that kept him continually aware of the environing mystery. He could not be content with the homemade, human tunnel, could not conceive that anyone else should be content with it. Moreover — and in this he was unlike those others, to whom the world’s mystery is continuously present, the great philosophers and men of science — he did not want to increase the illuminated area; he approved of the outer darkness, he felt at home in it. Most men live in a little puddle of light thrown by the gig-lamps of habit and their immediate interest; but there is also the pure and powerful illumination of the disinterested scientific intellect. To Lawrence, both lights were suspect, both seemed to falsify what was, for him, the immediately apprehended reality — the darkness of mystery. “My great religion,” he was already saying in 1912, “is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect. We can go wrong in our minds. But what the blood feels, and believes, and says, is always true.” Like Blake, who had prayed to be delivered from “single vision and Newton’s sleep”: like Keats, who had drunk destruction to Newton for having explained the rainbow, Lawrence disapproved of too much knowledge, on the score that it diminished men’s sense of wonder and blunted their sensitiveness to the great mystery. His dislike of science was passionate and expressed itself in the most fantastically unreasonable terms. “All scientists are liars,” he would say, when I brought up some experimentally established fact, which he happened to dislike. “Liars, liars!” It was a most convenient theory. I remember in particular one long and violent argument on evolution, in the reality of which Lawrence always passionately disbelieved. “But look at the evidence, Lawrence,” I insisted, “look at all the evidence.” His answer was characteristic. “But I don’t care about evidence. Evidence doesn’t mean anything to me. I don’t feel it here.” And he pressed his two hands on his solar plexus. I abandoned the argument and thereafter never, if I could avoid it, mentioned the hated name of science in his presence. Lawrence could give so much, and what he gave was so valuable, that it was absurd and profitless to spend one’s time with him disputing about a matter in which he absolutely refused to take a rational interest. Whatever the intellectual consequences, he remained through thick and thin unshakably loyal to his own genius. The daimon which possessed him was, he felt, a divine thing, which he would never deny or explain away, never even ask to accept a compromise. This loyalty to his own self, or rather to his gift, to the strange and powerful numen which, he felt, used him as its tabernacle, is fundamental in Lawrence and accounts, as nothing else can do, for all that the world found strange in his beliefs and his behavior. It was not an incapacity to understand that made him reject those generalizations and abstractions by means of which the philosophers and the men of science try to open a path for the human spirit through the chaos of phenomena. Not incapacity, I repeat; for Lawrence had, over and above his peculiar gift, an extremely acute intelligence. He was a clever man as well as a man of genius. (In his boyhood and adolescence he had been a great passer of examinations.) He could have understood the aim and methods of science perfectly well if he had wanted to. Indeed, he did understand them perfectly well; and it was for that very reason that he rejected them. For the methods of science and critical philosophy were incompatible with the exercise of his gift — the immediate perception and artistic rendering of divine otherness. And their aim, which is to push back the frontier of the unknown, was not to be reconciled with his aim, which was to remain as intimately as possible in contact with the surrounding darkness. And so, in spite of their enormous prestige, he rejected science and critical philosophy; he remained loyal to his gift. Exclusively loyal. He would not attempt to qualify or explain his immediate knowledge of the mystery, would not even attempt to supplement it by other, abstract knowledge. “These terrible, conscious birds, like Poe and his Ligeia, deny the very life that is in them; they want to turn it all into talk, into knowing. And so life, which will not be known, leaves them.” Lawrence refused to know abstractly. He preferred to live; and he wanted other people to live.

No man is by nature complete and universal; he cannot have first-hand knowledge of every kind of possible human experience. Universality, therefore, can only be achieved by those who mentally stimulate living experience — by the knowers, in a word, by people like Goethe (an artist for whom Lawrence always felt the most intense repugnance).

Again, no man is by nature perfect, and none can spontaneously achieve perfection. The greatest gift is a limited gift. Perfection, whether ethical or aesthetic, must be the result of knowing and of the laborious application of knowledge. Formal aesthetics are an affair of rules and the best classical models; formal morality, of the ten commandments and the imitation of Christ.

Lawrence would have nothing to do with proceedings so “unnatural,” so disloyal to the gift, to the resident or visiting numen. Hence his aesthetic principle, that art must be wholly spontaneous, and, like the artist, imperfect, limited and transient. Hence, too, his ethical principle, that a man’s first moral duty is not to attempt to live above his human station, or beyond his inherited psychological income.

The great work of art and the monument more perennial than brass are, in their very perfection and everlastingness, inhuman — too much of a good thing. Lawrence did not approve of them. Art, he thought, should flower from an immediate impulse toward self-expression or communication, and should wither with the passing of the impulse. Of all building materials Lawrence liked adobe the best; its extreme plasticity and extreme impermanence endeared it to him. There could be no everlasting pyramids in adobe, no mathematically accurate Parthenons. Nor, thank heaven, in wood. Lawrence loved the Etruscans, among other reasons, because they built wooden temples, which have not survived. Stone oppressed him with its indestructible solidity, its capacity to take and indefinitely keep the hard uncompromising forms of pure geometry. Great buildings made him feel uncomfortable, even when they were beautiful. He felt something of the same discomfort in the presence of any highly finished work of art. In music, for example, he liked the folk-song, because it was a slight thing, born of immediate impulse. The symphony oppressed him; it was too big, too elaborate, too carefully and consciously worked out, too “would-be” — to use a characteristic Lawrencian expression. He was quite determined that none of his writings should be “would-be.” He allowed them to flower as they liked from the depths of his being and would never use his conscious intellect to force them into a semblance of more than human perfection, or more than human universality. It was characteristic of him that he hardly ever corrected or patched what he had written. I have often heard him say, indeed, that he was incapable of correcting. If he was dissatisfied with what he had written, he did not, as most authors do, file, clip, insert, transpose; he rewrote. In other words, he gave the daimon another chance to say what it wanted to say. There are, I believe, three complete and totally distinct manuscripts of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Nor was this by any means the only novel that he wrote more than once. He was determined that all he produced should spring direct from the mysterious, irrational source of power within him. The conscious intellect should never be allowed to come and impose, after the event, its abstract pattern of perfection.

It was the same in the sphere of ethics as in that of art. “They want me to have form: that means, they want me to have their pernicious, ossiferous skin-and-grief form, and I won’t.” This was written about his novels; but it is just as applicable to his life. Every man, Lawrence insisted, must be an artist in life, must create his own moral form. The art of living is harder than the art of writing. “It is a much more delicate thing to make love, and win love, than to declare love.” All the more reason, therefore, for practicing this art with the most refined and subtle sensibility; all the more reason for not accepting that “pernicious skin-and-grief form” of morality, which they are always trying to impose on one. It is the business of the sensitive artist in life to accept his own nature as it is, not to try to force it into another shape. He must take the material given him — the weaknesses and irrationalities, as well as the sense and the virtues; the mysterious darkness and otherness no less than the light of reason and the conscious ego — must take them all and weave them together into a satisfactory pattern; his pattern, not somebody else’s pattern. “Once I said to myself: ‘How can I blame — why be angry?’. . . Now I say: ‘When anger comes with bright eyes, he may do his will. In me he will hardly shake off the hand of God. He is one of the archangels, with a fiery sword. God sent him — it is beyond my knowing.’ ” This was written in 1910. Even at the very beginning of his career Lawrence was envisaging man as simply the locus of a polytheism. Given his particular gifts of sensitiveness and of expression it was inevitable. Just as it was inevitable that a man of Blake’s peculiar genius should formulate the very similar doctrine of the independence of states of being. All the generally accepted systems of philosophy and of ethics aim at policing man’s polytheism in the name of some Jehovah of intellectual and moral consistency. For Lawrence this was an indefensible proceeding. One god had as much right to exist as another, and the dark ones were as genuinely divine as the bright. Perhaps (since Lawrence was so specially sensitive to the quality of dark godhead and so specially gifted to express it in art), perhaps even more divine. Anyhow, the polytheism was a democracy. This conception of human nature resulted in the formulation of two rather surprising doctrines, one ontological and the other ethical. The first is what I may call the Doctrine of Cosmic Pointlessness. “There is no point. Life and Love are life and love, a bunch of violets is a bunch of violets, and to drag in the idea of a point is to ruin everything. Live and let live, love and let love, flower and fade, and follow the natural curve, which flows on, pointless.”

Ontological pointlessness has its ethical counterpart in the doctrine of insouciance. “They simply are eaten up with caring. They are so busy caring about Fascism or Leagues of Nations or whether France is right or whether Marriage is threatened, that they never know where they are. They certainly never live on the spot where they are. They inhabit abstract space, the desert void of politics principles right and wrong, and so forth. They are doomed to be abstract. Talking to them is like trying to have a human relationship with the letter x in algebra.” As early as 1911 his advice to his sister was: “Don’t meddle with religion. I would leave all that alone, if I were you, and try to occupy myself fully in the present.”

Lawrence’s dislike of abstract knowledge and pure spirituality made him a kind of mystical materialist. Thus, the moon affects him strongly; therefore it cannot be a “stony cold world, like a world of our own gone cold. Nonsense. It is a globe of dynamic substance, like radium or phosphorus, coagulated upon a vivid pole of energy.” Matter must be intrinsically as lively as the mind which perceives it and is moved by the perception. Vivid and violent spiritual effects must have correspondingly vivid and violent material causes. And, conversely, any violent feeling or desire in the mind must be capable of producing violent effects upon external matter. Lawrence could not bring himself to believe that the spirit can be moved, moved even to madness, without imparting the smallest corresponding movement to the external world. He was a subjectivist as well as a materialist; in other words, he believed in the possibility, in some form or another, of magic. Lawrence’s mystical materialism found characteristic expression the curious cosmology and physiology of his speculative essays, and in his restatement of the strange Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body. To his mind, the survival of the spirit was not enough; for the spirit is a man’s conscious identity, and Lawrence did not want to be always identical to himself; he wanted to know otherness — to know it by being it, know it in the living flesh, which is always essentially other. Therefore there must be a resurrection of the body.

Loyalty to his genius left him no choice; Lawrence had to insist on those mysterious forces of otherness which are scattered without, and darkly concentrated within, the body and mind of man. He had to, even though, by doing so, he imposed upon himself, as a writer of novels, a very serious handicap. For according to his view of things most of men’s activities were more or less criminal distractions from the proper business of human living. He refused to write of such distractions; that is to say, he refused to write of the main activities of the contemporary world. But as though this drastic limitation of his subject were not sufficient, he went still further and, in some of his novels, refused even to write of human personalities in the accepted sense of the term. The Rainbow and Women in Love (and indeed to a lesser extent all his novels) are the practical applications of a theory, which is set forth in a very interesting and important letter to Edward Garnett, dated June 5th, 1914. “Somehow, that which is physic — non-human in humanity, is more interesting to me than the old-fashioned human element, which causes one to conceive a character in a certain moral scheme and make him consistent. The certain moral scheme is what I object to. In Turgenev, and in Tolstoi, and in Dostoievsky, the moral scheme into which all the characters fit — and it is nearly the same scheme — is, whatever the extraordinariness of the characters themselves, dull, old, dead. When Marinetti writes: ‘It is the solidity of a blade of steel that is interesting in itself, that is, the incomprehending and inhuman alliance of its molecules in resistance to, let us say, a bullet. The heat of a piece of wood or iron is in fact more passionate, for us, than the laughter or tears of a woman’ — then I know what he means. He is stupid, as an artist, for contrasting the heat of the iron and the laugh of the woman. Because what is interesting in the laugh of the woman is the same as the binding of the molecules of steel or their action in heat: it is the inhuman will, call it physiology, or like Marinetti, physiology of matter, that fascinates me. I don’t so much care about what the woman feels — in the ordinary usage of the word. That presumes an ego to feel with. I only care about what the woman is — what she Is — inhumanly, physiologically, materially — according to the use of the word. . . You mustn’t look in my novel for the old stable ego of the character. There is another ego, according to whose action the individual is unrecognizable, and passes through, as it were, allotropic states which it needs a deeper sense than any we’ve been used to exercise, to discover are states of the same single radically unchanged element. (Like as diamond and coal are the same pure single element of carbon. The ordinary novel would trace the history of the diamond — but I say, ‘Diamond, what! This is carbon.’ And my diamond might be coal or soot, and my theme is carbon.)”. . .

Lawrence, then, possessed, or, if you care to put it the other way round, was possessed by, a gift — a gift to which he was unshakably loyal. I have tried to show how the possession and the loyalty influenced his thinking and writing. How did they affect his life? The answer shall be, as far as possible, in Lawrence’s own words. To Catherine Carswell Lawrence once wrote: “I think you are the only woman I have met who is so intrinsically detached, so essentially separate and isolated, as to be a real writer or artist or recorder. Your relations with other people are only excursions from yourself. And to want children, and common human fulfillments, is rather a falsity for you, I think. You were never made to ‘meet and mingle,’ but to remain intact, essentially, whatever your experiences may be.”

Lawrence’s knowledge of “the artist” was manifestly personal knowledge. He knew by actual experience that the “real writer” is an essentially separate being, who must not desire to meet and mingle and who betrays himself when he hankers too yearningly after common human fulfillments. All artists know these facts about their species, and many of them have recorded their knowledge. Recorded it, very often, with distress; being intrinsically detached is no joke. Lawrence certainly suffered his whole life from the essential solitude to which his gift condemned him. “What ails me,” he wrote to the psychologist, Dr. Trigant Burrow, “is the absolute frustration of my primeval societal instinct. . . I think societal instinct much deeper than sex instinct — and societal repression much more devastating. There is no repression of the sexual individual comparable to the repression of the societal man in me, by the individual ego, my own and everybody else’s. . . Myself, I suffer badly from being so cut off. . . At times one is forced to be essentially a hermit. I don’t want to be. But anything else is either a personal tussle, or a money tussle; sickening: except, of course, just for ordinary acquaintance, which remains acquaintance. One has no real human relations — that is so devastating.” One has no real human relations: it is the complaint of every artist. The artist’s first duty is to his genius, his daimon; he cannot serve two masters. Lawrence, as it happened, had an extraordinary gift for establishing an intimate relationship with almost anyone he met. “Here” (in the Bournemouth boarding-house where he was staying after his illness, in 1912), “I get mixed up in people’s lives so — it’s very interesting, sometimes a bit painful, often jolly. But I run to such close intimacy with folk, it is complicating. But I love to have myself in a bit of a tangle.” His love for his art was greater, however, than his love for a tangle; and whenever the tangle threatened to compromise his activities as an artist, it was the tangle that was sacrificed: he retired. Lawrence’s only deep and abiding human relationship was with his wife. (“It is hopeless for me,” he wrote to a fellow-artist, “to try to do anything without I have a woman at the back of me. . . Böcklin — or somebody like him — daren’t sit in a café except with his back to the wall. I daren’t sit in the world without a woman behind me. . . A woman that I love sort of keeps me in direct communication with the unknown, in which otherwise I am a bit lost.”) For the rest, he was condemned by his gift to an essential separateness. Often, it is true, he blamed the world for his exile. “And it comes to this, that the oneness of mankind is destroyed in me (by the war). I am I, and you are you, and all heaven and hell lie in the chasm between. Believe me, I am infinitely hurt by being thus torn off from the body of mankind, but so it is and it is right.” It was right because, in reality, it was not the war that had torn him from the body of mankind; it was his own talent, the strange divinity to which he owed his primary allegiance. “I will not live any more in this time,” he wrote on another occasion. “I know what it is. I reject it. As far as I possibly can, I will stand outside this time. I will live my life and, if possible, be happy. Though the whole world slides in horror down into the bottomless pit. . . I believe that the highest virtue is to be happy, living in the greatest truth, not submitting to the falsehood of these personal times.” The adjective is profoundly significant. Of all the possible words of disparagement which might be applied to our uneasy age “personal” is surely about the last that would occur to most of us. To Lawrence it was the first. His gift was a gift of feeling and rendering the unknown, the mysteriously other. To one possessed by such a gift, almost any age would have seemed unduly and dangerously personal. He had to reject and escape. But when he had escaped, he could not help deploring the absence of “real human relationships.” Spasmodically, he tried to establish contact with the body of mankind. There were the recurrent projects for colonies in remote corners of the earth; they all fell through. . .

It was, I think, the sense of being cut off that sent Lawrence on his restless wanderings round the earth. His travels were at once a flight and a search: a search for some society with which he could establish contact, for a world where the times were not personal and conscious knowing had not yet perverted living; a search and at the same time a flight from the miseries and evils of the society into which he had been born, and for which, in spite of his artist’s detachment, he could not help feeling profoundly responsible. He felt himself “English in the teeth of all the world, even in the teeth of England”: that was why he had to go to Ceylon and Australia and Mexico. He could not have felt so intensely English in England without involving himself in corporative political action, without belonging and being attached; but to attach himself was something he could not bring himself to do, something that the artist in him felt as a violation. He was at once too English and too intensely an artist to stay at home. “Perhaps it is necessary for me to try these places, perhaps it is my destiny to know the world. It only excites the outside of me. The inside it leaves more isolated and stoic than ever. That’s how it is. It is all a form of running away from oneself and the great problems, all this wild west and the strange Australia. But I try to keep quite clear. One forms not the faintest inward attachment, especially here in America.”

His search was as fruitless as his flight was ineffective. He could not escape either from his homesickness or his sense of responsibility; and he never found a society to which he could belong. In a kind of despair, he plunged yet deeper into the surrounding mystery, into the dark night of that otherness whose essence and symbol is the sexual experience. In Lady Chatterley’s Lover Lawrence wrote the epilogue to his travels and, from his long and fruitless experience of flight and search, drew what was, for him, the inevitable moral. It is a strange and beautiful book; but inexpressibly sad. But then so, at bottom, was its author’s life.

Lawrence’s psychological isolation resulted, as we have seen, in his seeking physical isolation from the body of mankind. This physical isolation reacted upon his thoughts. “Don’t mind if I am impertinent,” he wrote to one of his correspondents at the end of a rather dogmatic letter. “Living here alone one gets so different — sort of ex-cathedra.” To live in isolation, above the medley, has its advantages; but it also imposes certain penalties. Those who take a bird’s-eye view of the world often see clearly and comprehensively; but they tend to ignore all tiresome details, all the difficulties of social life and, ignoring, to judge too sweepingly and to condemn too lightly. . .

Enough of explanation and interpretation. To those who knew Lawrence, not why, but that he was what he happened to be, is the important fact. I remember very clearly my first meeting with him. The place was London, the time 1915. But Lawrence’s passionate talk was of the geographically remote and of the personally very near. Of the horrors in the middle distance — war, winter, the town — he would not speak. For he was on the point, so he imagined, of setting off to Florida — to Florida, where he was going to plant that colony of escape, of which up to the last he never ceased to dream. Sometimes the name and site of this seed of a happier and different world were purely fanciful. It was called Rananim, for example, and was an island like Prospero’s. Sometimes it had its place on the map and its name was Florida, Cornwall, Sicily, Mexico and again, for a time, the English countryside. That wintry afternoon in 1915 it was Florida. Before tea was over he asked me if I would join the colony, and though I was an intellectually cautious young man, not at all inclined to enthusiasms, though Lawrence had startled and embarrassed me with sincerities of a kind to which my upbringing had not accustomed me, I answered yes.

Fortunately, no doubt, the Florida scheme fell through. Cities of God have always crumbled; and Lawrence’s city — his village, rather, for he hated cities — his Village of the Dark God would doubtless have disintegrated like all the rest. It was better that it should have remained, as it was always to remain, a project and a hope. And I knew this even as I said I would join the colony. But there was something about Lawrence which made such knowledge, when one was in his presence, curiously irrelevant. He might propose impracticable schemes, he might say or write things that were demonstrably incorrect or even, on occasion (as when he talked about science), absurd. But to a very considerable extent it didn’t matter. What mattered was always Lawrence himself, was the fire that burned within him, that glowed with so strange and marvelous a radiance in almost all he wrote.

My second meeting with Lawrence took place some years later, during one of his brief revisitings of that after-war England, which he had come so much to dread and to dislike. Then in 1925, while in India, I received a letter from Spotorno. He had read some essays I had written on Italian travel; said he liked them; suggested a meeting. The next year we were in Florence and so was he. From that time, till his death, we were often together — at Florence, at Forte dei Marmi, for a whole winter at Diablerets, at Bandol, in Paris, at Chexbres, at Forte again, and finally at Vence where he died.

In a spasmodically kept diary I find this entry under the date of December 27th, 1927: “Lunched and spent the p.m. with the Lawrences. D. H. L. in admirable form, talking wonderfully. He is one of the few people I feel real respect and admiration for. Of most other eminent people I have met I feel that at any rate I belong to the same species as they do. But this man has something different and superior in kind, not degree.”

“Different and superior in kind.” I think almost everyone who knew him well must have felt that Lawrence was this. A being, somehow, of another order, more sensitive, more highly conscious, more capable of feeling than even the most gifted of common men. He had, of course, his weaknesses and defects; he had his intellectual limitations — limitations which he seemed to have deliberately imposed upon himself. But these weaknesses and defects and limitations did not affect the fact of his superior otherness. They diminished him quantitively, so to speak; whereas the otherness was qualitative. Spill half your glass of wine and what remains is still wine. Water, however full the glass may be, is always tasteless and without color.

To be with Lawrence was a kind of adventure, a voyage of discovery into newness and otherness. For, being himself of a different order, he inhabited a different universe from that of common men — a brighter and intenser world, of which, while he spoke, he would make you free. He looked at things with the eyes, so it seemed, of a man who had been at the brink of death and to whom, as he emerges from the darkness, the world reveals itself as unfathomably beautiful and mysterious. For Lawrence, existence was one continuous convalescence; it was as though he were newly reborn from a mortal illness every day of his life. What these convalescent eyes saw, his most casual speech would reveal. A walk with him in the country was a walk through that marvelously rich and significant landscape which is at once the background and the principal personage of all his novels. He seemed to know, by personal experience, what it was like to be a tree or a daisy or a breaking wave or even the mysterious moon itself. He could get inside the skin of an animal and tell you in the most convincing detail how it felt and how, dimly, inhumanly, it thought. Of Black-Eyed Susan, for example, the cow at his New Mexican ranch, he was never tired of speaking, nor was I ever tired of listening to his account of her character and her bovine philosophy.

“He sees,” Vernon Lee once said to me, “more than a human being ought to see. Perhaps,” she added, “that’s why he hates humanity so much.” Why also he loved it so much. And not only humanity: nature too, and even the supernatural. For wherever he looked, he saw more than a human being ought to see; saw more and therefore loved and hated more. To be with him was to find oneself transported to one of the frontiers of human consciousness. For an inhabitant of the safe metropolis of thought and feeling it was a most exciting experience.”

(From “D. H. Lawrence,” The Olive Tree)


Is “Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona” referring to an emasculation of (elite) American society?

In Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona the three American men, and especially the seemingly insufferable Doug, are drawn in stark contrast to the two or three Spaniards. Woody Allen often writes his movies too and has apparently written this one, so the lengthy monologues that might be emerging from a character and seem to be spoken by a Johannson or Hall here might just as easily have been spoken by Allen himself in an appearance in one of his previous movies.

But not in case of the WASP-men.  What  is Doug  made to talk about throughout?  Domestic nesting behaviour, shopping, how to please parents and society: all conventionally, stereotypically, feminine,  not masculine, subjects of conversation.  His fellow male WASPs are no better.  The most that comes out by way of masculinity is talk of a little sports or a little gadgetry.  That’s it.  On balance, the WASP-men in Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona are made to come across as effete hedonistic characters – though ones holding elite expensive jobs.

Contrast that with Juan Antonio and his father who can talk about or enact nothing but creative deeds whether painting in case of the son or poetry in case of the father or making love to women in case of both.

Of course this is fantasy and there is dramatic license being taken here because creative artists possessing the kind of masculine integrity these two men portray tend in reality to be hungry and impecunious and angry and unkempt, not living in marvelous clean mansions that attract the Marie-Elenas of the world to their beds.  If they had inherited wealth they might have tended to squander it rather than find artistic genius and good taste, not merely in one generation but over two.

Furthermore, the integrity is all a bit far-fetched – Antonio is uncouth enough to propose to Vicky she jeopardize her engagement by making love in a threesome as a last fling in a bachelor-party before getting married, yet the same character later proclaims he is not someone to come between husband and wife (having already been with the wife).  The threesome he instantly proposes to Vicky and Cristina, who are strangers to him, is entirely vacuous in comparison to the threesome he ends up being in with Cristina and Marie-Elena; in the former, he is almost a cheap tour-guide who wants to get paid in kind for an interesting day of tourism, something Vicky naturally resists.  Besides, his paintings do look unexceptional, which allows an alternative interpretation that perhaps father and son are merely two rich lonely wasteful men imagining themselves to be leading the artistic life.

The four American women also come off as pallid in comparison to the central dominating character of Marie-Elena – a point made most bluntly when Cristina fetches the aspirin for Antonio only to find Marie-Elena administering him a neck-massage instead.  Cristina has at most a talent at photography, Marie-Elena is a genius at whatever she touches.

Even the silent Spaniard kissing Judy is portrayed doing more by way of masculinity than any of the WASP-men.  Doug with his laptop and his well-gymed body in shorts epitomizes Ivy League undergraduate success while remaining clueless about  human nature or the outside  world.  He is a modern American Karenin, and the theme we are left with of Vicky being besotted with her dashing Spaniard even while starting the dullest and most tedious married life with Doug, would, as it were, become Anna Karenina except she has yet to dutifully bear Doug and his family a child.

In fact it is the absence of such a child that makes the movie possible – if Vicky had instead visited Barcelona after she and Doug were married and had a child or two with them, would she have spared a second glance at the dashing Spaniard, no matter how boring and tedious Doug turned out to be? The great lacuna in Woody Allen’s great oeuvre thus far may be his inability to depict anything but adult conversations – has he ever managed to describe families with children seriously?

FR Leavis once suggested that DH Lawrence may have failed to grasp Anna Karenina, perhaps the greatest novel ever written,  for supposing Anna and Vronsky could survive on love alone.  Woody Allen may have failed similarly in his much smaller-scale characterization of the Antonio-Vicky-Doug triangle.  Does he have the patience to read Leavis’s masterly essay,  I wonder, besides the novel itself?  A Woody Allen production of Anna Karenina – now wouldn’t that be something else?

Subroto Roy,

Kolkata, India

Kasab, the young misguided Pakistani mass-murdering terrorist, needs to be given political asylum in India! (Matt Damon, Will Smith: here’s a real-life case!)

Life imitates art or rather Hollywood again as young Kasab, the misguided primary-school dropout Pakistani mass-murdering terrorist caught by Indian police after the Mumbai massacres,  becomes a kind of Jason-Bourne/Enemy-of-the-State character who is said to be being targeted now by Pakistan’s terrorist masterminds for not being dead already! There have been all kinds of weird assassinations by and of government agents using poisoned umbrellas and radioactive pills etc in real life, and who is to say that young Kasab is not going to be given a small cyanide capsule along with a letter of farewell from his parents when His Excellency the High Commissioner’s consular agents receive access to him?

Shortly after Kasab’s remorseful confessions (which flowed from his natural gratitude at having survived and having been treated humanely by Mumbai’s police), I said here that if I was the judge trying him, I would send him to an Indian prison for 20 or 30 years (given his 20 or 30 murder victims), but I would add that he should be occasionally, say once a year, permitted to offer namaz at India’s grandest mosques. He could become a model prisoner,  possibly a potent weapon against Pakistan’s terrorist masterminds who have ruined his life and now wish him dead.

(Message to Matt Damon, Will Smith and assorted Hollywood cinematic personalities:  there is a confessed, remorseful mass-murdering 20-year old Pakistani terrorist in an Indian prison who is being targeted by the very people who sent him on his vile mission.)

In present circumstances, young Kasab needs to seek political asylum in the Indian Republic as his life in his own Pakistan Republic is as good as over for political reasons. He would become the first person ever in history to receive political asylum in a country that he attacked despite being a confessed terrorist mass-murderer.   But Mahatma Gandhi would have approved and smiled at the irony of it all!  Ahimsa paramo dharmaha in practice.


How sad that “Slumdog millionaire” is SO disappointing!

Slumdog millionaire seemed an excellent idea for this holiday season given all the favourable foreign reviews and awards as well as a jazzy joyous energetic trailer.

Sad to say it turns out a pathetic disappointment, just another moralizing caricature of India — at least Katherine Mayo seemed authentic, this has no authenticity anywhere besides a final Hindi song-and-dance routine which at least looks like a Hindi song-and-dance routine.

The young Brit Dev Patel in the lead role might turn out to be a good actor when he grows up but seems here to have been plucked out of a school-play and asked to do his best impersonation of Ben Kingsley impersonating an Indian person. The lines given to all the actors from India are completely and consistently hopeless – imagine a Mumbai-mafia boss coming home and asking his moll to make him a sandwich! Real men in India don’t eat sandwiches at home by choice, and a real Indian gangster’s moll would have had hot pakoras or kebabs and rotis waiting for him.  Somebody needed to tell this Director a million little things like that, though you realize within minutes of the start that this is not supposed to be at all the real Dickensian tale from modern Mumbai that the trailer makes it out to be.

Rather it seems to be something intended to pander to silly Western stereotypes about India that come most easily to mind — poverty and bad sewage systems in the slums, Hindus assaulting Muslims, men assaulting women and children, gangsters plucking out eyes of beggar-children, tourists being robbed at the Taj Mahal, incompetent call-centre staff mishandling calls, gangsters, gangsters and more gangsters and every one of them cheap and worthless, not a Bill Sykes or Nancy or Fagin among them. Even the throwaway lines peddle Western trivia mentioning Benjamin Franklin and even the Edinburgh Festival.

We can only imagine how wonderful a real movie might have been with this same story-line. It should have been done in Hindi or Mahratti throughout with subtitles, and aimed at Indian critics not Western ones. Shekhar Kapur would have done splendidly though even the average Bollywood song-and-dance man might have done well enough.

Slumdog millionaire has practically no art in it because the presence of any art requires an honesty of purpose, and that means, first of all, no pandering to the audience.  The slight art that exists in it comes from the street-children who at least run like the wind.

Subroto Roy, Kolkata

Postscript February 2 2009: It is amusing to hear it said in the American and British press that there has been a “smear campaign” against this movie, and one moreover that allegedly started in India.    I think my  December 31 review here at this site was the very first from India, and  it had  absolutely nothing to do with anything other than disappointment that a nice New Year’s Eve was rather spoilt by  watching a badly made movie.  Far from there being some kind of  mysterious “smear campaign”, there  appears to  have been an obvious, calculated and paid-for promotional campaign in the guise of “Entertainment News” conducted on India’s influential English-language TV channels — without a single serious contrary opinion being allowed to be expressed.   If the movie receives awards, it may speak more about the quality of the awards than about the movie itself.   But of course  there has been a  general hyperinflation in awards all over in recent decades, from Nobel Prizes downwards.  SR

Post-Oscar Postscript: Is Slumdog Millionaire the single worst “Best Picture” ever?

Tolstoy on Science and Art

Tolstoy has been admired by many millions, and I shall plan to upload when I can some rare photos of him with his family and contemporaries from a Russian book in our Library which my father had given my sister in 1962.  Here is an interesting excerpt from his On the Significance of Science and Art translated by Isabel F. Hapgood and published in the Project Gutenberg edition.

“The thinker or the artist will never sit calmly on Olympian heights, as we have become accustomed to represent them to ourselves.  The thinker or the artist should suffer in company with the people, in order that he may find salvation or consolation.  Besides this, he will suffer because he is always and eternally in turmoil and agitation: he might decide and say that which would confer welfare on men, would free them from suffering, would afford them consolation; but he has not said so, and has not presented it as he should have done; he has not decided, and he has not spoken; and tomorrow, possibly, it will be too late, — he will die.  And therefore suffering and self-sacrifice will always be the lot of the thinker and the artist.  Not of this description will be the thinker and artist who is reared in an establishment where, apparently, they manufacture the learned man or the artist (but in point of fact, they manufacture destroyers of science and of art), who receives a diploma and a certificate, who would be glad not to think and not to express that which is imposed on his soul, but who cannot avoid doing that to which two irresistible forces draw him,—an inward prompting, and the demand of men…. It is possible to study out how many beetles there are in the world, to view the spots on the sun, to write romances and operas, without suffering; but it is impossible, without self-sacrifice, to instruct people in their true happiness, which consists solely in renunciation of self and the service of others, and to give strong expression to this doctrine, without self-sacrifice. Christ did not die on the cross in vain; not in vain does the sacrifice of suffering conquer all things.  But our art and science are provided with certificates and diplomas; and the only anxiety of all men is, how to still better guarantee them, i.e., how to render the service of the people impracticable for them.

True art and true science possess two unmistakable marks: the first, an inward mark, which is this, that the servitor of art and science will fulfill his vocation, not for profit but with self-sacrifice; and the second, an external sign,—his productions will be intelligible to all the people whose welfare he has in view. No matter what people have fixed upon as their vocation and their welfare, science will be the doctrine of this vocation and welfare, and art will be the expression of that doctrine.  That which is called science and art, among us, is the product of idle minds and feelings, which have for their object to tickle similar idle minds and feelings.  Our arts and sciences are incomprehensible, and say nothing to the people, for they have not the welfare of the common people in view.  Ever since the life of men has been known to us, we find, always and everywhere, the reigning doctrine falsely designating itself as science, not manifesting itself to the common people, but obscuring for them the meaning of life. Thus it was among the Greeks the sophists, then among the Christians the mystics, gnostics, scholastics, among the Hebrews the Talmudists and Cabalists, and so on everywhere, down to our own times….”

John Wisdom, Renford Bambrough: Main Philosophical Works

John Wisdom (1904-1993), Main Philosophical Works:


Interpretation and Analysis, 1931

Problems of Mind and Matter 1934

Other Minds, 1952

Philosophy & Psychoanalysis, 1953

Paradox & Discovery, 1965

Logical Constructions (1931-1933),1969

Proof and Explanation (The Virginia Lectures 1957), 1991

Secondary literature:

Wisdom: Twelve Essays, R. Bambrough (ed) 1974

Philosophy and Life: Essays on John Wisdom, I. Dilman (ed) 1984.

Renford Bambrough (1926-1999), Main Philosophical Works:

“Socratic Paradox”, Philosophical Quarterly, 1960

“Universals and Family Resemblances”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 1960-61

“Plato’s Modern Friends and Enemies”, Philosophy 1962

The Philosophy of Aristotle, 1963

“Principia Metaphysica”, Philosophy 1964

New Essays on Plato and Aristotle (edited by R. Bambrough), 1965

“Unanswerable Questions”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society Supplement 1966

Plato, Popper and Politics (edited by R. Bambrough), 1967

Reason, Truth and God 1969

“Foundations”, Analysis, 1970

“Objectivity and Objects”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 1971-72

“How to Read Wittgenstein”, in Understanding Wittgenstein, Royal Institute of Philosophy 1972-3

“The Shape of Ignorance”, in Lewis (ed) Contemporary British Philosophy, 1976

Introduction & Notes to Plato’s Republic (Lindsay trans.), 1976

Conflict and the Scope of Reason, 1974; also in Ratio 1978

“Intuition and the Inexpressible” in Katz (ed) Mysticism & Philosophical Analysis, 1978

Moral Scepticism and Moral Knowledge, 1979

“Thought, Word and Deed”, Proceedings of Aristotelian Society Supplement 1980

“Peirce, Wittgenstein and Systematic Philosophy”, MidWest Studies in Philosophy, 1981

“The Scope of Reason: An Epistle to the Persians”, in Objectivity and Cultural Divergence, Royal Institute of Philosophy, 1984

“Principia Metaphysica: The Scope of Reason” also known as “The Roots of Reason”; a work and manuscript mentioned several times but now unknown.

A personal note by Subroto Roy for a public lecture delivered at the University of Buckingham, August 24 2004:

“Renford Bambrough and I met once on January 31 1982, when I had returned to Cambridge from the USA for my PhD viva voce examination. He signed and gave me his last personal copy of Reason, Truth and God. Three years earlier, in 1979, I, as a 24 year old PhD student under F.H. Hahn in economics, had written to him expressing my delight at finding his works and saying these were immensely important to economics; he invited me to his weekly discussion groups at St John’s College but I could not attend. Between 1979 and 1989 we corresponded while I worked in America on my application of his and Wisdom’s work to problems in economics, which emerged in Philosophy of Economics: On the Scope of Reason in Economic Inquiry (Routledge, International Library of Philosophy 1989, 1991), a work which got me into a lot of trouble with American economists (though Milton Friedman and Theodore W. Schultz defended it). Bambrough said of it “The work is altogether well-written and admirably clear”. On another occasion he said he was “extremely pleased” at the interest I had taken in his work. The preface of my book said he was not responsible for the use I had made of his writings, which I reiterate now. Returning to Britain in 2004, I find the work of Wisdom and Bambrough unknown or forgotten, even at the great University North East of Buckingham where they had lived and worked. In my view, they played a kind of modern-day Plato and Aristotle to Wittgenstein’s Socrates; in terms of Eastern philosophy, the wisdom they achieved in their lives and have left behind for us in their work to use and apply to our own problems, make them like modern-day “Boddhisatvas” of Mahayana Buddhism. My lecture “Science, Religion, Art, and the Necessity of Freedom” purports to apply their work to current international problems of grave significance, namely the cultural conflicts made apparent since the September 11 2001 attacks on America. As I am as likely to fail as to succeed in making this application, the brief bibliography given above is intended to direct interested persons to their work first hand for themselves.”




April 2007: See also Preface 2007 to the republication here at of Philosophy of Economics: On the Scope of Reason in Economic Inquiry, and also the 2004 public lecture “Science, Religion, Art & the Necessity of Freedom”.

D.H. Lawrence’s “Phoenix”

Phoenix was a volume published in 1936 edited and with an introduction by Edward D. McDonald containing the posthumous papers of D. H. Lawrence, including the bulk (possibly all) of his known non-fictional writings. Lawrence was born on 11 September 1885 in Victoria Street, Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, and died on 2 March 1930 in Villa Robermund, Vence, Alpes Maritimes. He was perhaps the greatest novelist, writer and literary critic of the 20th Century, and his genius is manifest in Phoenix.

I bought my copy of the book, a first American edition, in Washington DC, in the summer of 1992. It has been a source of depthless pleasure and wisdom ever since. It does not appear to be available in print nor is it even known by those who pretend to be authors, novelists, writers and literary critics today.

How I came to Lawrence’s work is briefly as follows. When I was about 23 or 24, in 1978 or 1979, I was in a conversation at a restaurant opposite Kings College, Cambridge (the Copper Kettle?) with a friend at the time, John Lyon, later of the University of Bristol. I was a Research Student in Economics under Frank Hahn, John was a Research Student in English under Q D Leavis. Both of us were members of Corpus Christi College, and lived at Lekhampton. There would have been others present at the conversation, probably Robert D. Fluharty, lawyer of West Virginia, but I cannot recall who they may have been. John was arguing or perhaps mentioned that he had come from the Leavis home where it was mentioned that Anna Karenina was the greatest novel that had been written. I recall thinking this to be an inane point of conversation, and it would be years before I realised that I had thought this because I had been still at the time someone who thought excessively highly of modern economics.

John may have been referring to FR Leavis’s masterly essay on Anna Karenina, which too I came to read decades later. The name of FR Leavis was faintly familiar, and I think I once saw him at Heffer’s bookstore shortly before his death. Leavis’s name and work then appeared again in the work of the philosopher Renford Bambrough, whose influence on my own work has been described elsewhere here.

A decade later, in 1988-89 in Honolulu, I read War and Peace for the first time, and some years later read Anna Karenina too. In Washington and New York City in 1992-1996, and also in Pasadena and Honolulu in 1989-1991, I collected the work of the Leavises and also Lawrence, all of which has been a source of much pleasure since. In all that, Phoenix has been paramount.

Subroto Roy

July 15 2007