March 31, 2009 — drsubrotoroy
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)
March 21, 2009 — drsubrotoroy
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?
October 3, 2007 — drsubrotoroy
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.
July 15 2007
September 4, 2007 — drsubrotoroy
by Subroto Roy
In London’s Guardian (September 1 2007) and Kolkata’s Telegraph (September 2 2007), Amit Chaudhuri has recently published something about his views on DH Lawrence. Chaudhuri did a DPhil at Oxford on Lawrence and has published a book on Lawrence’s poetry, which prima facie is enough reason for his views to be studied. His recent writing is part of an attempted comparison of Lawrence with VS Naipaul, though there is enough in what he says to distil out only his views on Lawrence from the mixture.
Lawrence, Chaudhuri says, is to be credited with having “almost single-handed” invented the notion of the “novelist-traveller’. In the Guardian article he adds: “Travel, I heard Geoff Dyer say not long ago, had profound formal implications for Lawrence’s handling of the novel.”
Now to say Lawrence was a “novelist-traveller” is a very odd remark indeed, and may reflect unfamiliarity with Lawrence’s life. Quite to the contrary: Lawrence’s novels had profound formal implications for his travel!
Lawrence did travel a lot with his wife – to the Continent, through the Suez Canal, to Ceylon, to Australia, to New Mexico and Mexico, to New York, San Francisco etc. But he set about travelling not because he wanted to write novels in these places which is what comes to mind from the double-barrelled term “novelist-traveller”. Initially, he was offered a teaching job in Germany which he turned down; then he had pursued a German woman who was already married to an Englishman, and that necessitated travels to the Continent; then there arose his tremendous opposition towards and great melancholy during the First World War. The Rainbow had been suppressed by a vicious police-action in 1915 — throughout his time in Cornwall he was desperate to leave England for Florida, and fantasised in letters to Lady Ottoline Morrell of creating an ideal community there. It did not happen though the Lawrences had apparently bought tickets and even set a sailing date for New York.
None of his major novels has a theme that is of anything but England. Women in Love comes to a climax in the snows of the Tyrole but its main characters are all English. Aaron’s Rod was begun to be written in London, then happened to be continued in Florence, finished in Sicily and published in New York when the Lawrences were in Ceylon on their way to Australia. Lady Chatterley’s Lover was written in Italy but is entirely English. His only novel with a foreign/non-European theme was The Plumed Serpent, not his best. Lawrence was quintessentially an English novelist, and FR Leavis placed him in the “Great Tradition” of English Literature with Austen, George Eliot, Dickens, James, Conrad.
So yes, of course Lawrence was a traveller, and he was a novelist and writer of genius – but he was not a “novelist-traveller”. He was hardly even the first novelist who happened to travel either — Tolstoy, Twain, James, Conrad. (Of Hemingway it could be said he was a “novelist-traveller” but then Hemingway, or Naipaul, are not near the league of these others.)
Then Chaudhuri says: “The apogee of Lawrence’s visual sensibility is contained in Sons and Lovers, after which he promised himself and his friends to abandon the visual and the imagistic.” However one tries to understand this observation, it seems to be simply false. What did Lawrence actually say about Sons and Lovers after it was published? He said in a letter to Edward Garnett on 30 December 1913: “I shan’t write in the same manner as Sons and Lovers again, I think – in that hard, violent style full of sensations and presentation…” On 10 January 1914 he wrote the same to AD McLeod: “I shall not write quite so violently as Sons and Lovers any more”. There is nothing here promising “himself and his friends to abandon the visual and the imagistic”, whatever that might mean! Indeed no such view can be held by anyone who has read e.g. Women in Love. EM Forster noted, in his 1927 Clark Lectures published as Aspects of the Novel, the first official academic recognition of Lawrence’s literary genius and one during his lifetime:
“The prophet is irradiating nature from within, so that every colour has a glow and every form a distinctness which could not otherwise be obtained. Take a scene that always stays in the memory: that scene in Women in Love where one of the characters throws stones into the water at night to shatter the image of the moon. Why he throws, what the scene symbolizes is unimportant. But the writer could not get such a moon and water otherwise; he reaches them by his special path which stamps them as more wonderful than any we can imagine. It is the prophet back where he started from, back where the rest of us are waiting by the edge of the pool, but with a power of re-creation and evocation we shall never possess.”
Finally about Lawrence’s reaction to the Etruscans we are offered this: “history and antiquity occur most powerfully in a ‘now’, in a moment in the present that opens out suddenly on to the past, in a way that brings together all the knowledge the writer possesses as reader and student of history, as well as the dislocation he’s experiencing at that moment as traveller” (Chaudhuri). Poppycock! it has to be said. Lawrence was plainly and simply fascinated by the Etruscans — as many people of his time were, in view of the first definite archaeological studies about those first millennium BC people becoming published then.
On 5 October 1921, he wrote to Catherine Carswell: “Also, will you tell me what then was the secret of the Etruscans, which you saw written so plainly in the place you went to? Please don’t forget to tell me, as they really do rather puzzle me, the Etruscans….” By the end of his life in 1930, in “Making Love to Music” published posthumously in Phoenix, he has resolved his own puzzlement and found their secret at least to his own satisfaction: “The thought occurred to me suddenly when I was looking at the remains of paintings on the walls of Etruscan tombs at Tarquinia. There the painted women dance, in their transparent linen with heavier coloured borders, opposite the naked-limbed men, in a splendour and an abandon which is not all abandoned. There is a great beauty in them, as of life which has not finished. The dance is Greek, if you like, but not finished off like the Greek dancing. The beauty is not so pure, if you will, as the Greek beauty; but also it is more ample, not so narrowed. And there is not the slightest element of abstraction, of inhumanity, which underlies all Greek expression, the tragic will. The Etruscans, at least before the Romans smashed them, do not seem to have been tangled up with tragedy, as the Greeks were from the first. There seems to have been a peculiar large carelessness about them, very human and non-moral. As far as one can judge, they never said: certain acts are immoral because we say so! They seem to have had a strong feeling for taking life sincerely as a pleasant thing. Even death was a gay and lively affair…. They are just dancing a dance with the elixir of life….”
Dancing with the elixir of life, taking life sincerely as a pleasant thing, was what Lawrence himself was all about.
August 7, 2007 — drsubrotoroy
“For Art there is no Ugliness in Nature”
“I have arrived at this belief by the study of Nature. I can only grasp the beauty of the soul by the beauty of the body, but some day one will come who will explain what I only catch a glimpse of and will declare how the whole earth is beautiful. I have never been able to say this in sculpture so well as I wish and as I feel it affirmed within me. For poets Beauty has always been some particular landscape, some particular woman; but it should be all women, all landscapes. A negro or a Mongol has his beauty, however remote from ours, and it must be the same with their characters. There is no ugliness. When I was young I made that mistake, as others do; I could not undertake a woman’s bust unless I thought her pretty according to my particular idea of beauty; today I should do the bust of any woman, and it would be just as beautiful. And however ugly a woman may look, when she is with her lover she becomes beautiful; there is beauty in her character, in her passions, and beauty exists as soon as character or passion becomes visible, for the body is a casting on which passions are imprinted. And even without that, there is always the blood that flows in the veins and the air that fills the lungs.”
Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), viz., Judith Cladel, Auguste Rodin
Pris sur la Vie, 1903, pp. 103-104, translated by Havelock Ellis.
My father was a senior diplomat in India’s Embassy in Paris 1971-1973, and I (who had gained admission at Haileybury College, Hertford, in England to do Natural Science at Advanced and Special levels) loved my visits to Paris, crossing the Channel by boat or hovercraft. We lived at 14 Rue Eugene Manuel and I came to know Paris as well as a 17-18 year old could. In 1978 I returned from Cambridge to Paris for an interview, and that visit allowed me to come to know better the magnificent and moving art of Rodin. I later found his aesthetic philosophy captured in the statement above, which seems to me to be summarised by this equation:
Beauty = Ugliness + Love
Beauty – Love = Ugliness
E.g. a beautiful woman who is unloved becomes ugly just as a plain woman who is loved becomes beautiful.
If DH Lawrence had known of Rodin’s statement
“some day one will come who will explain what I only catch a glimpse of and will declare how the whole earth is beautiful”
he would have found it resonant. Perhaps his own magnificent descriptions as a naturalist made Lawrence the successor whom Rodin had wished for.
July 30, 2007 — drsubrotoroy
It seems incredible that DH Lawrence from about 1910 until his death in 1930 produced this immense body of creative work and perhaps more I am unaware of:
The White Peacock
Sons and Lovers
The Lost Girl
Women in Love
The Plumed Serpent
The Virgin and the Gypsy
(with ML Skinner) The Boy in the Bush
Lady Chatterley’s Lover
The Prussian Officer
England, my England
The Captain’s Doll
Twilight in Italy
The Woman Who Rode Away
Look! We have come through!
Birds, Beasts and Flowers
Love Poems and Others
Touch and Go
The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd
Belles Lettres etc
Studies in Classic American Literature
Movements in European History
Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious
Fantasia of the Unconscious
Sea and Sardinia
Mornings in Mexico
Translations of Giovanni Verga: Lttle Novels of Sicily
Phoenix: Posthumous Papers edited and with an introduction by Edward D. McDonald
The Letters of DH Lawrence, edited and with an introduction by Aldous Huxley
(Secondary Literature: DH Lawrence: Novelist by FR Leavis)
Of related interest here: “DH Lawrence’s ‘Phoenix'”; “On Lawrence”.
December 22, 2001 — drsubrotoroy
The Case For and Against *The Satanic Verses*: Evaluating Diatribe and Dialectic as Art
by Subroto Roy
June 2001, Kolkata, India. First published at www.chowk.com on December 23 2002. First appearance in print in The Statesman Festival Volume, October 2006. (Note, April 2007: this article is an example of how the Internet age has transformed meanings: before the Internet, to be published and to be printed referred to practically simultaneous events; but this article was published on the Internet almost four years before it came to be republished in print.)
Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses is a manifold document; in reading it more than a dozen years after publication, what is brought to mind is the relation between art and criticism described by Lawrence and advertised by Leavis: ”We judge a work of art by its effect on our sincere and vital emotion, and nothing else. All the critical twiddle-twaddle about style and form, all this pseudo-scientific classifying and analysing of books in an imitation-botanical fashion, is mere impertinence and mostly dull jargon. A critic must be able to feel the impact of a work of art in all its complexity and its force. To do so, he must be a man of force and complexity himself, which few critics are. A man with a paltry, impudent nature will never write anything but paltry, impudent criticism. And a man who is emotionally educated is rare as a phoenix…”
The sincere and vital emotions most obviously provoked by Rushdie’s book are nausea, anger and irritation.It appears at first sight an abusive, incoherent masquerade of a novel with little artistic value, a mere moneymaking vehicle for a preening, self-seeking author and his publisher.The decisions of the Republics of India and Pakistan to ban it for being gratuitously offensive to the religious sentiments of millions of people, or the finding against it of blasphemy by the Islamic authorities of Iran seem understandable.
Yet such an initial response may be followed by another very different set of sincere and vital emotions. Upon reflection and a second reading, it is possible to feel exhilaration, delight, even the calm of a Shia Muslim spiritual experience from the book. These may be accompanied by a conviction that Rushdie has produced a significant work of art even if he himself remains unaware of its nature. This kind of unusual and dichotomous critical experience needs to be explained. College professors around the world have been writing theoretical essays portraying Rushdie as a “magic realist” or some such oxymoron. The truth may be more prosaic: The Satanic Verses is nothing if it is not a second, perhaps definitive, autobiographical experiment in which Rushdie has attempted to reconcile himself with his own experiences, a task in which he has achieved at best partial success. It is as if he has tried to comprehend his own life as an English-speaking Indo-Pakistani Muslim in the Western world, and in that process the words of The Satanic Verses just came tumbling out.And there is little even a bitter enemy can say about one’s search for self-knowledge, especially on matters of religious belief.
The cover says The Satanic Verses is a novel; what may be called its superficial plot amounts to something a giggling adolescent might have written for an undergraduate essay. Here is its outline:
Once there were two young Muslim boys of Bombay, Najmuddin and Chamchawalla. N. is born poor and raised in the slums; from delivering tiffins he becomes a small-time and then a major screen idol of Hindi cinema, a kind of Muslim NTR/Bachan mixture. In his profligacy he has an affair with R. who later murders her young children and commits suicide because of her unrequited love for him; N. travels in an aeroplane to England which is blown up midair by Sikh hijackers at 30,000 ft; he falls unharmed to the ground, is found on the English coast by an old woman whose lover he becomes until her death; then he returns to a lovely Jewish girlfriend who seems to have no reason to want to be with him, he returns to India, murders the Jewish girlfriend and kills himself, all along being tormented by a notion he may have invited divine wrath for having wilfully eaten pork. In parallel, the other young Muslim boy, C. grows up in a privileged Bombay neighbourhood, is sexually molested by a dhoti-clad street-vendor, has peculiar and perverse parents and servants, is sent to a public school and University in England, ends up in London advertising, is on the same aeroplane which explodes in the sky, also falls unharmed to the ground and is found by the same old woman, but is taken in by British police and immigration authorities, and, most oddly, finds himself transmogrified gradually into a goat like being and then Satan himself, is forced by British police to eat his own goat-pellets, escapes to find refuge among a generous Bangladeshi family in London’s immigrant ghettos, is re-transformed into a human being again after his hatred becomes focussed on a single individual, his fellow Mumbaikari, Najmuddin. C attempts to avenge himself on N. for no particular reason except jealousy, yet N. saves his life and there is supposed to be a moral of good and evil there. C. also at some point acquires a splendid English wife who divorces him — again a woman whom we see no reason to want to be with a jerk like him (though we are not told he might have wanted her for the British passport). C. finally returns to Bombay, is reconciled with his dying father, meets up with an old girlfriend, and the book ends with these two being together.
This is not “magic realism”, it is palpably poor writing. If the superficial plot suffices to make The Satanic Verses a novel, then your or my singing in the shower suffices for us to be in grand opera.
Seen as an autobiographical experiment, however, the superficial plot begins, ever so slightly, to make sense as Rushdie appears himself as both Muslim boys whose lives are traced from Bombay to London and back. He is Najmuddin to the extent he torments himself throughout for having willfully violated Muslim practice
“his mouth full of unclean meat ”(p. 31);
in his relationship with at least one of Najmuddin’s three women, the Jewish girlfriend Allie; and perhaps more generally in his having
”managed to bury his greatest talent so deep that it might easily have been lost forever, his talent, that is, for loving genuinely, deeply and without holding back, the rare and delicate gift which he had never been able to employ” (p.26)
Rushdie is Chamchawalla more obviously in having grown up in a privileged Bombay neighbourhood, been sent to school and university in England, gotten married to and divorced from an English woman named Pamela. Both Najmuddin and Chamchawalla are left with their fathers after their mothers’ early deaths, and Rushdie is original and most authentic in describing these father-son relationships where he appears to draw deeply on his own emotional life. There is a short delightful scene of him teaching his own son to ride a bicycle. Then he makes rare records of the terrible conflicts possible between fathers and adult sons:
(N.) “would understand how much the older man had resented him, and how important it was for the father to defeat the son and regain, thereby, his usurped primacy in the affections of his dead wife”. (p. 19)
(C.) “wrote his father a letter full of cruelty and anger, whose violence was of the type that exists only between fathers and sons, and which differs from that between daughters and mothers in that there lurks behind it the possibility of actual, jaw-breaking fisticuffs. “(p.47)
The son returns to India to be tenderly reconciled with the emaciated dying old man from whom he has been estranged:
”Abba, I came back because I didn’t want there to be trouble between us anymore.
That doesn’t matter any more. It’s forgotten, whatever it was.”
Whatever it was. Death makes family feuds seem petty and inconsequential in retrospect. The old man is just happy to see the boy, his own life, once again. The son unexpectedly finds in himself love, devotion and respect for the old man whom he had long feared and despised:
”First one falls in love with one’s father all over again, and then one learns to look up to him, too…. He is teaching me how to die… He does not avert his eyes, but looks death right in the face…” (pp. 543 et. seq, italics original)
A child sees his parents initially as God-like beings said Sigmund Freud; an aspect of maturity arrives when the child begins to see them no longer as deities but as humans, warts and all. When Rushdie has applied himself to his own inner life and relationships with his father and his son, he delves into a vast pool of expressiveness, and, ever so briefly, discovers and establishes his artistry. His poignant reconciliation with a dying father is a small treasure.
Another episode worth notice in the superficial plot of The Satanic Verses has to do with the growth to maturity of the character of the young Bangladeshi-British adolescent, Mishal Sufyan, and her marriage to the white-fathered, Pakistani(?)-mothered Hanif Johnson. Their love signals fresh hope and new life in Britain’s grim immigrant neighbourhoods filled with fear and hatred. The race riots in England in 2001 could have been taken from a chapter of The Satanic Verses.Rushdie has been a self-conscious observer here as nice boys from RugbySchool don’t normally go slumming even if they are wogs themselves, yet even so the Indian preppie from Rugby or Harvard must still reconcile the continuous threads which bind him to the people cleaning the lavatories at Heathrow or pumping gas or running motels in America.
In parallel with this superficial plot, The Satanic Verses contains a theological dialectic mostly on the origins, beliefs and practices of Islam, the faith in which Rushdie was born and raised. This is practically independent of the superficial plot, or at best the two have been clumsily pasted together. The link is once more Rushdie himself. While he appears as the main protagonists Najmuddin and Chamchawalla in the superficial plot, he makes a triple appearance in the theological treatise, at three different levels of Muslim doubt or faith.
At the greatest level of scepticism, Rushdie appears as the infidel poet and satirist Baal who gives his life to the cause of an absolute artistic and intellectual freedom, mocking Prophet Muhammad and The Quran, saying he recognizes no authority except his artistic Muse:
”A poet’s work (is to) name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep. “(p. 100)
Under the sword of his Muslim captors, Baal ends with “I’ve finished. Do what you want”; he is beheaded but dies a spiritually free unbroken man. Rushdie may have relied on Islamic legend here though his fellow Anglo-Pakistani, the social anthropologist Akbar Ahmed, has apologetically said that as a matter of historical fact: “The conquest of Makkah cost less than 30 lives…. The charge of those critics who accuse the Prophet of the (death) of a poet who wrote satirical verse… will not hold. An over-zealous Muslim infuriated by his verses set out to silence the poet.”
At a lesser level of scepticism or a greater level of Muslim belief, Rushdie appears in the theological dialectic as a fictional Salman Farsi, supposed to be the “calmest” (p. 107), and “most highly educated” (p. 377) of the Prophet’s intimate disciples. This character becomes in course of time a drunken apostate after starting to doubt the authenticity of The Quran as Divine Revelation, as well as the transcription of the Hadith. As a safety measure perhaps, Rushdie put in
”Where there is no belief, there is no blasphemy” (p. 393).
But in real life the authorities of contemporary Iran were not amused or impressed by legal niceties as to whether young Salman sitting in England had renounced Islam or his Pakistani passport for a British one. In 1989 they roundly pronounced The Satanic Verses to be blasphemous to Islam and sentenced Rushdie to death in absentia, causing as we know a significant recent incident of international law.
Ironically, Rushdie`s experience since might have been scripted by himself:
”Your blasphemy, Salman, can’t be forgiven.”
In response, Salman Farsi is
”unable to muster the smallest scrap of dignity, he blubbers whimpers pleads beats his breast abases himself” (p. 387)
and escapes death only by promising to denounce Baal, the idolatrous satirist. In real life Rushdie blubbered, whimpered, pleaded and abased himself to win a reprieve without avail. If the Iranian authorities have since reduced their hatred of him, it seems because they became bored and found him less consequential as time went by, not because of anything he said or did in repentance. In June 2001, Ayatollah Khatami, then President of Iran, said the blasphemy case was “closed”, and that Iran had always seen Rushdie`s book as part of a modern Western assault on Islam.
Yet one must be grateful the Iranian death sentence did not get carried out because there is evidence to reasonably conclude that, all things considered, Rushdie may well be innocent of blasphemous intent. Though he may be guilty of several literary crimes and misdemeanours, he may have been wrongly placed on Iran’s death row for a dozen years. The evidence suggests that what The Satanic Verses has attempted to be is a genuine Muslim dialectic between faith and doubt — albeit one not expressed in Arabic, Farsi or Urdu to attract serious Islamic scholars, but one done in English in the manner of a Hollywood screenplay designed to attract as much hard currency as possible for Rushdie and his publisher. Commercial English comedy as hermeneutics you might say: Monty Python meets Prophet Muhammad.
That Rushdie has lacked blasphemous intent is evident from his third appearance in the theological treatise, this time as the secular Indian Muslim, Mirza Saeed Akhtar, who loves and lusts after both his sick wife, Mishal, and her new friend, the epileptic orphan woman Ayesha.The two women are dogmatic Shia Muslims, who insist on leading a vast, pious pilgrimage from central India into the Arabian Sea in the belief their faith will miraculously make the waters part and allow them to walk to Mecca.
Rushdie does not identify them as Shia Muslims but the story is based on actual events in 1981-1983 in the Naseem Fatima “HawkesBay” case in Pakistan.
According to the sociologist Akbar Ahmed,Naseem Fatima, “a shy, pleasant looking girl with an innocent expression on her face, who had a history of fits,” after a series of miraculous religious experiences which were scorned by Sunni Muslims but were not inconsistent with Shia doctrine, led 38 people into the Arabian Sea at Karachi believing the waters would part and they would be transported miraculously to Shia holy sites in Karbala in Iraq.
“(The women and children locked) in five of the six trunks died. One of the trunks was shattered by the waves and its passengers survived. Those on foot also survived; they were thrown back onto the beach by the waves… The survivors were in high spirits — there was neither regret nor remorse among them. Only a divine calm, a deep ecstasy. The Karachi police in a display of bureaucratic zeal arrested the survivors. They were charged with attempting to leave the country without visas…. Rich Shias, impressed by the devotion of the survivors, paid for their journey by air for a week to and from Karbala. In Iraq, influential Shias, equally impressed, presented them with gifts, including rare copies of the Holy Quran.”
In The Satanic Verses, Rushdie has altered and transformed these facts into a rich allegorical dialectic between rationalism and scepticism on the one hand, and dogmatic faith and ecstatic religious experience on the other. The husband Mirza Saeed, representing Rushdie himself, condemns what he says is the foolishness of the faith-filled women, begs them, pleads with them to change their minds, and finally when they cannot be stopped, follows behind them in his Mercedes, collecting stragglers, hypocrites and apostates on the way. The intellectual and spiritual tension between the rationalist and believer is built up excellently. The reader is finally certain that Ayesha and the other pilgrims walk to their earthly deaths in the Arabian Sea, but is left uncertain whether the miracle may have in fact occurred even so, whether they have in fact walked into Paradise itself on the strength of their faith. It is a splendid, exhilarating and unexpected spiritual experience emerging from the book. Moreover, the Rushdie-character, though he survives the pilgrimage, tempers his scepticism by the end of his life, and eventually dies in fusion with the ghost of his love, the believer Ayesha, and, we are led to think, is finally absorbed with her into the Paradise described in The Quran.
Thus in the attempted theological treatise that is contained within The Satanic Verses,
(i) as Baal the disbelieving, mocking, satirist who gives his life for artistic freedom;
(ii) as Salman Farsi the Muslim believer who turns to apostasy; and
(iii) as Mirza Saeed Akhtar, the rationalist and sceptic who turns eventually towards Muslim faith and belief.
In making this triple appearance, Rushdie has tried to construct a genuine Muslim dialectic between scepticism and dogmatism; if the sceptical parts have outraged Muslim believers, some of his descriptions of Muslim belief and practice might do no less than add new sympathisers or converts to Islam among the heathen and infidels. It is a creative achievement for a modern English-speaking Muslim, perhaps unintentionally, to try to turn the tide of hostile opinion that exists against Islam in the English-speaking world, through a sympathetic rendering of aspects of Islam. E.g., a practice like halal, which seems cruel or at least pointless to the non-Muslim, is given new meaning by Rushdie, and made into a point of existential philosophy:
”(The Prophet)… required animals to be killed slowly, by bleeding, so that by experiencing their deaths to the full they might arrive at an understanding of the meaning of their lives, for it is only at the moment of death that living creatures understand that life has been real, and not a sort of dream. “(p. 376).
It is only at the moment of death that life may make its fullest sense. Such would be to look back at life from the point of death; T. S. Eliot in Burnt Norton seemed to speak of looking forward at life all the way to the point of death:
“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
…Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”
Leavis drew attention to the religious meaning assigned to these lines by the criticD. W. Harding:
“For the man convinced of spiritual values, life is a coherent pattern in which the ending has its due place, and, because it is part of a pattern, itself leads into the beginning.”
The Satanic Verses is preoccupied with the possibility of such patterns of birth, death and rebirth, conflict and its resolution, tension and its relaxation. “To be born again … first you have to die” (p. 1) Rushdie was raised a Muslim exposed to the university of critical thought and dialogue; as such he owed himself a responsibility to examine Islam to determine whether he would render it his individual allegiance, not by fiat or blind faith but by the canons of reasonableness. In The Satanic Verses he has traversed a range of logical possibilities between disbelief, doubt and faith in Islam. On the strength of the Mirza Saeed Akhtar character in the book, he may have been truthful in declaring himself a genuine believing Muslim who was innocent of the charges of blasphemy against him. He needs to be absolved of the charges, and his conviction by the Iranians set aside, as in effect has been done by Iran’s President Ayatollah Khatami in June 2001. Here ends the case for The Satanic Verses.
The case against Rushdie however must continue.
He has produced a few ounces of artistic and philosophical gold but these are contained in mountains of muck, which remain to be disposed of.Rushdie shows himself emotionally alive and expressive as a son to his father and a father to his son, as well as a keen social observer of Britain and a thoughtful and philosophical Muslim believer;but at the same time he also reveals himself immature, dishonest and cowardly as a writer.These aspects are summarily revealed in Rushdie’s desire to be gratuitously abusive or offensive towards a wide range of chosen targets, from the memory of Prophet Muhammad to the innocuous Chinese.For example, for no discernible reason except to show that little Salman can say bad words and get away with it,a Mallory-like ghost on Mt.Everest is made to converse about“Goddamn Chinese” and “Little yellow buggers”.Then an implausible Sikh woman terrorist (named after the Delhi journalist Tavleen Singh though reminiscent more of Leila Khaled, the pioneer Palestinian hijacker) leads Khalistanis to hijack an Air India jumbo (numbered 420) and explode it mid-air.
In June 1985 an Air India jumbo did explode mid-air killing all 329 lives on board, and it took painstaking work by the Canadian police to arrest and prosecute (unsuccessfully) the major suspects who were Canadian Sikhs. The victims’ families whose tragedies are trivialised in The Satanic Verses join the list of people Rushdie has wished to pointlessly upset by his personal fantasy of two survivors falling unharmed from that aircraft. Then, Rushdie’s Khalistanis go about yelling
”those mother-f…..g Americans and sister-f…..g British”,
when in fact Khalistan seemed plausible mostly to North American and British Sikhs in Vancouver or California who (unlike perhaps Rushdie himself at the time he authored the book), tend not to be abusive of America or Britain in that kind of way. The cursing merely shows how our purportedly great British writer keeps despoiling the possibility of his own artistry.
Hindus and India come in for special abuse in Rushdie’s worldview. India is that rather amusing and grotesque country
”of hundreds of millions of believers…. in which, to this day, the human population outnumbers the divine by less than three to one,”
where a Muslim NTR/Bachan cinema star can become “the most acceptable, instantly recognisable, face of the Supreme” (p. 17). A Hindu character
”coming as she did from a polytheistic tradition”
”plainly… incapable” (p. 334)
of comprehending the scriptures of the Semitic faiths. Rushdie reveals himself incompetent here in his purported role of theologian, as he has failed to see that the secular outlook of Hinduism and its heterodox descendants like Buddhism does not imply belief in more than one god. Rushdie is not alone in this prejudice for the most venerable Oxford English Dictionary itself announces “Hinduism is the polytheistic religion of the Hindus”.
In fact, Indian traditions always have freely allowed questioning whether there is any God at all, let alone whether there is one God or many gods. I.e., there always has been space freely available within orthodox Hinduism and its heterodox offshoots for all manner of religious scepticism, including nihilism and pyrrhonism. This is highly problematic for a believing member of any of the Semitic faiths like Rushdie, or the author of the entry on Hinduism in the Oxford English Dictionary.Thus even Pope John Paul VI said Buddhism is not a religion in his sense of what a religion must be, namely, a doctrine entailing belief in God.
The Hindu, or at least the philosophical Hindu, is very troublesome to all others because he is somehow able to accommodate all of them within his own folds. “You want to worship the sun, the seas, the mountains, rivers, trees, snakes or stones as God Immanent?; that’s fine with me,” he says to the animist. “You think there is no God as such?; that’s cool”, he says to the Buddhist. “You’re telling me Jesus of Nazareth was God’s incarnated Son?; okay that’s great, I like that,” he says to the Christian. “You’re telling me the Holy Quran was revealed by Al-Lah to Prophet Muhammad near Makkah?; I’ll accept that,” he says to the Muslim. And so on. The Hindu’s all-inclusive catholicity can drive other believers up the wall, especially those closest to him like Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs who may most urgently want to differentiate themselves from Hindu practice.
Rushdie momentarily accepts the Hindu view when Najmuddin
”is often filled with resentment by the non-appearance, in his persecuting visions, of the One who is supposed to have the answers, He never turns up, the one who kept away when I was dying, when I needed needed (sic) him. The one it’s all about, Allah Ishvar God. Absent as ever while we writhe and suffer in his name” (p. 113)
Here Rushdie momentarily acknowledges his secular Indian childhood as well as his Christian schooling about Christ on the Cross.But mostly he has taken the easy path of branding the Hindu a rather silly polytheistic idolater or animist.There is a reminder of the destruction of religious idols by the new Muslims in pre-Islamic Mecca (Jahilia).Then there is a long development of the wickedness of the character of the chief idolater, the female Hind.The real Hind was a foe turned convert of Prophet Muhammad; Rushdie’s Hind converts, is forgiven by Prophet Muhammad, then secretly continues as an idolatrous witch who plots and causes the Prophet’s demise.Her name “Hind” is the Urdu/Persian name for India and the root of “Hindu”, so it is possible Rushdie’s years as a Pakistani have led him to absorb some of the views prevalent in that country about Hindus and Hindustan being implacable foes of Islam.
Then, Rushdie makes pornographic allusions to Ganesh and Hanuman, and a pointed reference to ”these Shiv Sena bastards in control” of contemporary Bombay. A Brahmin and an “Untouchable” (there can be no Harijans or Dalits in Rushdie’s British world) seem to convert to Islam only to retract, while pious Muslim pilgrims are attacked by the wicked VHP and RSS in scenes Rushdie might have lifted from Attenborough`s Gandhi. No mention here of East Pakistan, Yahya Khan, Tikka Khan or Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto — just “Bungleditch” for Bangladesh. In Rushdie`s view, the ominous forces of Hindu nationalism (the folks who gave him a visa to finally visit India in 2000) are to be kept at bay only by arm-in-arm socialism. It all amounts to a rather stale politically correct ideology fashionable in the 1970s, which crashed with the Berlin Wall one year after The Satanic Verses was published. Rushdie, a one-time child citizen of India, knows in his middle age next to nothing about modern Indian society or its political economy, yet apparently longs to prove his correct Limousine Socialism credentials to his Western publishers and clientele. He keeps putting his thumb in the pan.
He also has been cowardly. Living in Britain, he did not set out to write a modern diatribe against all religious traditions he had encountered which might have amounted to a nihilism or pyrrhonism worth examining. Jews and Christians are conspicuous by their absence from his target-list, allowing him to duck away from the savage criticism he would have received from within the Judeao-Christian countries where he has led his adult life. The Satanic Verses has been received with considerable applause there, and earned him a lot of money.The few characters identified as Jews in the book (Mimi, Cohen, his wife, and daughter) are all normal and sympathetically drawn (Cohen is even made a Holocaust survivor who survived Nazi “monsters” but now commits suicide).There is one identified Christian, who, consistent with Rushdie’s ideology of Limousine Socialism, is made a comical American creationist who bites off his own tongue in fear during the hijacking.
The Satanic Verses was banned in India and Pakistan after its publication; but had Rushdie attacked Jewish or mainstream Christian beliefs and characters with the same kind of parody he hurls at Muslim and Hindu beliefs and practices, he likely would not have been published at all in the West, drying up his dollar-income.
It was simply too risky for Salman Rushdie to be as offensive towards Jews and Christians in Britain or America as he has been to Muslims and Hindus in India or Pakistan. Much easier and more lucrative to write “Monty Python meets Prophet Muhammad” or some Peter-Sellers pidgin Indian English dialogue or dig up some dowry-deaths from reading the Indian newspapers. Goes down well with the people who matter. Fits in with their own post-Imperial pretensions about the state of the wogs today. Even better that the Chief Wog himself is saying so. That has been the principal point made by the Iranian authorities against Rushdie, as for example when Ayatollah Khattami said in June 2001 in “closing” the blasphemy case, that Iran always took The Satanic Verses to be a part of the Western assault on Islam.
Indeed Rushdie’s single worst and most pointless example of offensiveness has to do with his distortion of the memory of Prophet Muhammad himself.
Muhammad (572-632 AD) was without doubt one of the greatest men of history, as may be measured by his vast impact on human civilization. His greatness was marked by a magnificent humility; at his death, it was famously said: “If you are worshippers of Muhammad, know that he is dead. If you are worshippers of God, know that God is living and does not die”; indicating the total self-effacement of the man to his mission. Arabic is the language of Islam, but even in Rushdie’s chosen language of English there has been a vast literature over the centuries on Prophet Muhammad’s life and example. One of the best known is Carlyle’s fully sympathetic 1842 account , which made the message of the Prophet’s religious experience one of universal import well beyond Muslim ontological beliefs:
“The great Mystery of Existence… glared in upon (Muhammad), with its terrors, with its splendours; no hearsays could hide that unspeakable fact , “Here am I!”. Such sincerity… has in very truth something of divine. The word of such a man is a Voice direct from Nature’s own Heart. Men do and must listen to that as nothing else; all else is wind in comparison.”
Carlyle quoted Goethe: “If this be Islam, do we not all live in Islam?” And Carlyle told the stories of how Muhammad could not abide by his own severe faith when he wept over the dead body of an early disciple: “You see a friend weeping over his friend”; and of how the young beautiful Ayesha once tried to get Muhammad to compare her favourably to his deceased wife and first disciple the widow Khadija, and how Muhammad had denied her:
”She believed in me when none else would believe. In the whole world I had but one friend and she was that!”
In face of such an enormous wealth of rich legendary material to select from to write about Prophet Muhammad, what does Salman Rushdie, purportedly a major British-educated 20th Century Muslim novelist, choose to do? He invents a pointless sequence of pornographic allusions and events to do with how a Mecca whorehouse increases its business! It makes highly offensive reading, not just to Muslim believers but to decency and the truth of Muhammad’s life; rather like the person who associated Christ on the Cross with a urinal and claimed artistic freedom for himself, outraging Christian opinion in the United States of America a few years ago. Why do it, one may ask? Where is the art in it? Where could the art in it possibly be? Why should it not be seen as merely base and revolting?
In putting together then, the case for and against The Satanic Verses, it may be seen how Rushdie’s artistry might have made him a great writer and also how his vast incorrigible faults have kept him permanently from becoming one. To draw a contrast, in The Brothers Karamasov one hundred years ago, Dostoevsky wrote perhaps the definitive internal critique of Christianity, of how Jesus Christ had made true Christian practice impossibly difficult, of how Christianity demanded too much of mankind, more than man’s nature could possibly achieve. Lawrence said of it:
“As always in Dostoevsky, the amazing perspicacity is mixed with ugly perversity. Nothing is pure. His wild love for Jesus is mixed with perverse and poisonous hate of Jesus: his moral hostility to the devil is mixed with secret worship of the devil. Dostoevsky is always perverse, always impure, always an evil thinker and a marvellous seer.”
Rushdie would have liked a similar comparison in respect of Prophet Muhammad and Islam; but he does not deserve it because he lacks the honesty possessed by the great writers while he possesses a greed and cupidity they disowned. As a novel, The Satanic Verses is about as far from The Brothers Karamasov as the music of David Bowie or Boy George or Madonna is from the music of Tchaikovsky or Beethoven.Superficially, it paints nauseous grotesque absurd accounts of incoherent events, mostly with cartoons and caricatures where real people should have been, forcing the reader to take a most unpleasant journey largely because Rushdie`s deliberately cultivated notoriety pleads for his book to be read. The nausea comes to be suspended for a page here, a handful of pages there, when Rushdie demonstrates that a splendid artistry does exist within him even if he finds it impossibly difficult to muster enough discipline to maintain it.That other Indian writers have been imitating his style in the last few decades often without his substance may merely go to show how far critical editorial standards have collapsed in the book-publishing industry.
It is only when The Satanic Verses is seen as a tortured self-exploration by Rushdie to reconcile his Western life with his Islamic upbringing that it begins to become sensible and comprehensible.Madonna or Boy George’s music is not that of Beethoven and everyone has forgotten it already while no one forgets Beethoven, but it is still a kind of music. Similarly, no one forgets Anna Karenina or Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor and everyone will forget Salman Rushdie, but even so his work still needs to be tested for the presence of significant art.That there is some art in it,perhaps hitherto undiscovered, has been the purpose of this essay to reveal.
Akbar Ahmed, Discovering Islam; Pakistan Society
Thomas Carlysle, Heroes and Hero Worship
D. H. Lawrence, Phoenix
F. R. Leavis, The Living Principle; Valuation in Criticism (G. Singh ed.)
Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses
SUBROTO ROY’s works include Philosophy of Economics: On the Scope of Reason in Economic Inquiry (Routledge, London & New York, International Library of Philosophy, 1989, 1991).