“Burning Man”: The Ascent of DH Lawrence – Flawed genius?

Burning Man: The Ascent of DH Lawrence by [Frances Wilson]

Perhaps to achieve an original take on D H Lawrence, Frances Wilson’s biography “of imagination”, links the author’s middle years, “the decade of superhuman energy and productivity” from 1915-25, with the events of Dante’s “Divine Comedy”. So the war years of 1915-19 which Lawrence spent in England, being too sick to enlist, are “Inferno; “Purgatory” applies to 1919-1922, spent in Italy with his wife Frieda, who had abandoned her husband, his former tutor, and her three children for Lawrence, while the years spent in America and Mexico, 1922-25 are “Paradise”.

This approach made me realise the influence of Dante on the education of men of Lawrence’s generation, as well as on earlier writers like Shelley whom he admired, at least in his youth. Having only a sketchy knowledge of Dante myself, I probably missed the cleverness of many allusions, but the device seemed to me too contrived, and ultimately rather tedious.

Just as streams of consciousness can add power to fiction, the author’s continual roller coasters of digressions from digressions often bring Lawrence and his associates to life. However, the style creates a hectic quality, at times overloaded with detail or repetition. The stated intention to focus on some of the more “minor” characters in Lawrence’s life leads to what seem disproportionately long sections on for instance, Maurice Magnus, the conman lover of flamboyant writer Norman Douglas. Towards the end, with the restless Lawrence ricocheting round the world, from Australia to Ceylon to New Mexico in the company of characters portrayed as larger than life, amoral, highly eccentric, even mentally disturbed, like American patron of the arts and Indian rights, Mabel Dodge Luhan, the book verges on black farce. The author’s interpretation of the latter’s neuroses seems open to question, and a distraction from the business of trying to understand DH Lawrence.

Wilson’s tendency to provide potted summaries of some of Lawrence’s later plots, presenting them as increasingly bizarre, is counterproductive in deterring one from wanting to read them. Yet it is worth ploughing through the verbiage to glean the occasional insight. For instance, Rebecca West “compared his wanderings to those of the mystic or Russian saint ‘who says goodbye and takes his stick and walks out with no objective but the truth’ ”. She noted his “vision of mankind that he registered again and again…always rising to a pitch of ecstatic agony”. She also saw how “his shoulder-blades stood out through his clothing “in a pair of almost wing-like projections” – a sign of tuberculosis spotted long before in Roman times. His strong “sense of place” often led to disappointment: he detested Ceylon, probably because it aggravated the consumption which he refused to acknowledge, but loved the high desert regions of New Mexico which suited his declining health.

Influenced by Carl Jung, Lawrence told his first love Jessie Chambers, “I’m not one man, but two”: “the second me, a hard, cruel if need be, me that is the writer which troubles the pleasanter me, the human who belongs…… to nobody, not even to myself”. Combining intense introspection with acute observation of others, Lawrence caused many people distress through portraying them so unmistakably in his novels, often incorporating real events. As shown in his striking poetry, he had an affinity with animals, which being dumb did not arouse his wrath.

The author seems to gloss over the more positive aspects of his personality, to focus on the flaws. He is mainly portrayed as an arrogant, opinionated monster, given to bigoted, offensive outbursts, but did he really mean them? The man who dreamed of founding a utopian “little colony”, with “no money but a sort of communism as far as the necessities of life” seems at odds with the one who rails against democracy. He beats his wife in front of horrified friends, although this may be a kind of theatrical act, triggered by Frieda’s provocative actions – the fag hanging from the corner of her mouth – almost a writerly experiment in experiencing anger in order to describe it. Towards the end, the rants become more extreme, the prose style grows intentionally cruder (to be more “American”) as Lawrence seems to disintegrate into a kind of madness. According to Frances Wilson, he “had once more changed his shape: no longer a marauding fox or a red wolf or a plumed serpent, he now saw himself as Pan, sex-god of the mountain wilds”. Is this artistic licence on her part? At worst, he might nowadays simply be diagnosed as having manic tendencies.

I would have liked a more thematic approach, analysing more objectively his dual personality perhaps better described as complex. To what extent was he damaged by his mother’s possessiveness, and her contempt for his father? In a class-ridden society, as a miner’s son he must have felt keenly the snobbery he encountered. The blinkered British censorship of some of his work, with even “The Rainbow”, condemned by the prosecution as “disgusting, detestable and pernicious….in fact a mass of obscenity of thought, idea and action” must have stimulated his tendency to murderous thoughts, and his desire to quit a land with its “dead muffled sense” of everything being “sand-bagged”. The debilitating respiratory illness he suffered most winters, and in some climates, must have fed his negativity.

Finding this book by turns intensely gripping and tediously overblown, impressed by the author’s remarkably deep research, I am left with a sense of vital missing pieces in the jigsaw, distorting her portrayal of Lawrence. This motivates me to read the record of Jessie Chambers, the calm, intelligent girl on whom the youthful Lawrence “hammered himself out”, and to seek out another biographer to enable me the better to to judge to what extent his intense introspection ultimately blighted his genius.

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