Modern novelists radically adapt the inheritance of nineteenth century realism, accentuating the sympathetic inward views and the detached irony essential to the novel form. About their intensified rendering of inwardness, there is modern novelists’ evocation of the inner stream of thought and feeling. About their radical irony, suffice it to say that these novelists observe their characters’ lives as part of a vision of collapse – of self, of society, of civilization itself.Now, in these terms, Lawrence certainly qualifies as a “modernist.” His final book of prose is titled Apocalypse, his portrait of modern society is in a word satiric, and his rendering of the inner flow of feeling is lyrically intense. However, Lawrence’s version of the modern differs from Conrad’s, Joyce’s, and Woolf’s. His image-filled, incantatory lyricism renders or, better, embraces his characters as a life-or-death matter; his storytelling is continually an act of celebration or excoriation, of affirmation or admonishment – in short, a sometimes manic, even desperate sort of persuasion. It is not simply that there are passages in his novels which read as passionate persuasive essays (remember Woolf’s pages attacking “Proportion” and its murderous sister “Conversion” at the center of Mrs. Dalloway, and of course her prose is also highly lyrical). Lawrence’s difference from her and the other moderns is that all features of his fiction – narrative voice, structure, the feelings and actions of his characters – implore us to embrace or object to what we read; the fiction performs an act of advocacy, aiming to impel us to act, to feel actively – not to sympathize but to love, not to detach but to censure. This characterization is itself not meant as censure; it’s an indication of the mixed feelings Lawrence’s works stirs not only in me.
Though his plots and men and women he creates may be Hardyesque, Lawrence’s novels are themselves like Dostoyevskian characters, insisting you listen to his upwelling narrative and intent on contacting your very soul. The intensity of the encounter can feel as vital as lived experience, as the “dialogic” contact we witness in scene after scene of a Dostoyevsky novel. But it can also fail to realize the potential power of such contact, of the living encounter, for Lawrence’s reader feels sometimes that she or he has been gripped by a needful imperious being, who requires acquiescence to his unitary vision and voice. Dostoyevsky’s primary allegiance is to pitting characters against each other in those scenes of contact that capture what is at risk in actual experience, and his genius is in the masterful polyphony which results. In these terms, Lawrence often falls short: he yearns to capture the very pith and essence of experience, yet what often emerges is another sort of power, a stream of lyric vision rather than the agon and process of experience in which characters are tested.An example occurs in the compelling early chapter “Breadalby” in Women in Love. Here we find acidly satiric portraits of British intellectuals partying at an estate belonging to Hermione, who is about to part ways dramatically with her lover. He is Rupert, one of the four major protagonists in the novel. As the dramatic moment approaches, the dialogue between them is abstract rather than revealing, monologue-like rather than “dialogic.” Rupert rather rants: “I, myself, who am myself, what have I to do with equality with any other man or woman? In the spirit, I am as separate as one star is from another, as different in quality and quantity.” In response to this – her lover’s self-isolating abstractions – Hermione rather goes mad: “Her whole mind was a chaos, darkness breaking in upon it, and herself struggling to gain control with her will, as a swimmer struggles with the swirling water.” Such states of feeling eddy through and around the two characters, and their agonized struggle is evoked with effusive lyricism, but often without a compelling sense of what is motivating these two toward the following intense confrontation: “swiftly, in a flame that drenched down her body like fluid lightning and gave her a perfect, unutterable consummation, unutterable satisfaction, she brought down the ball of jewel [lapis] stone with all her force, crash on his head.”
The hurt, dazed Rupert walks out of Hermione’s mansion into the countryside; in a flight of poetic imagination, Lawrence imagines him taking off his clothes and making a sort of love to the flowers and grass, apparently without sexual arousal lying on his belly in the primrose and hyacinths and wet grass – “he seemed to saturate himself with their contact…and then to sting one’s thigh against the living dark bristles of the fir-boughs. Naked and almost blanked out, Rupert seems to be starting out from the beginning to rebuild a self and a consciousness, from almost perversely rudimentary elements of nature and experience. Soon bits of his previous rant return, but they are subordinate now to the sacramental effusion of the prose poetry: “he was weary of the old ethic, of the human being, and of humanity. He loved now the soft, delicate vegetation, that was so cool and perfect.” In the most searching passages of Women in Love, the narrative struggles to perform with lyrical, incantatory urgency a sacramental evocation of its characters’ deeply intimate states of feeling: “nothing else would satisfy, except this coolness and subtlety of vegetation travelling into one’s blood. How fortunate he was, that there was this lovely, subtle, responsive vegetation, waiting for him, as he waited for it.”Throughout his literary career, Lawrence was a practicing poet, whose poetry was a constant accompaniment to his fiction writing. His pleasure in writing a poem is partly a matter of his faith that the poem itself becomes the heartbreaking music of the piano or the grandeur of the snake or the succulence of the fig: the poem’s voice becomes the font of beauty. It is meant to bring forth what he would call the god-like presence of realized beauty. In his poetic version of modern fiction, Lawrence aims to perform just this sacrament in his stories and novels; their repeated images become incantations – as if there, on the page, the miraculous birth of feeling is performed. His finest novels become an amalgam of that hallowing and of the characters who crave such sacrament, yet who struggle in confusion, searching and partial. It is Lawrence’s insight and insistence that even partial, modern human beings can yet begin to contact that miraculous font.
Sacramental transformation is the subject of the final pages of the prose work I mentioned earlier, Apocalypse (his last work, written in 1929). Since my previous post, I’ve been thinking about the similarities between the ideas in that late essay and the core ideas in Walter Benjamin’s first book, written in 1925, The Origin of German Tragic Drama. That will be the subject of my next post.Here are links for you to examine some of the texts I mentioned above: Apocalypse (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics), Women in Love (Penguin Popular Classics)