DH Lawrence and Embodiment
I discovered DH Lawrence back in 2019 and have been reading him off and on ever since, mostly from his essays, occasionally from his short stories, never, except once, from his novels. My experience is always the same. At first, Lawrence is refreshing, not only for his ideas but for his unique style. He writes in a circuitous way in a conscious attempt to retvrn to the prophetic or oracular mode, which was supposed to “deliver a set of symbols or images of the real dynamic value, which should set the emotional consciousness of the inquirer, as he pondered them, revolving more and more rapidly, till out of a state of intense emotional absorption the resolve at last formed; or, as we say, a decision was arrived at.” He admires this mode as an antidote to modern thinking, characterized by linearity and goal-directedness, by contrast with the ancient or natural man, for whom “a thought was a completed state of feeling-awareness.”

This is part of Lawrence’s larger project of “re-naturalizing” man, a concern he shares, in part, with Nietzsche. Of the two, he sometimes seems the more explicitly “vitalistic.” He has none of Nietzsche’s admiration for the scientific and cosmopolitan Enlightenment, nor is he much interested in the vision of a Europe united beneath a new aristocracy. He does believe in aristocracy, but an aristocracy composed, not of “superior specimens” or “the well turned out,” but of men and women with a strong mystical connection to the elan vital . For Lawrence, hierarchy flows from greater or lesser degrees of closeness to God, conceived as energy, Source, or living fire. The attempt to make an aristocracy by education or breeding would have struck him as counter-productive. His short story “Sun” made the rounds on Twitter a month or two ago and is probably the best encapsulation of his ideas, along with his essays on aristocracy and on Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor. The story has all the essential Lawrentian elements: a woman made nervous and anemic by modernity, in which the logical and social faculties dominate the others; contempt for the pale, watery impotence of modern man; worship of the phallus, of Natural Woman, of “the dark gods in the blood”; redemption through a renewed connection to Life — in this case, through sunbathing. (Lawrence is the first proponent I know of sunning your balls.)

I find all of this sympathetic — at first. But Lawrence becomes increasingly grating as you read him in large quantities. The circularity starts to sound nagging and insistent. Here’s a passage from The Plumed Serpent:


When I read that, I hear someone neurotic, someone insecure. The circling style of expression resembles, not a Psalm or an ode or a saga, but the thought of an anxious person ruminating on a fixed idea. I got about 150 pages into The Plumed Serpent and had to give it up. The same thing happens when I read more than one or two of his essays at a time. There’s something in Lawrence that’s neurotic bordering on hysterical. Gore Vidal called him “self-lacerating.” Lawrence is not connected to the Vital Source, but he wants to be, and he wants to convince himself (and you) that he is. He has a non-embodied man’s idea of embodiment. 

When reading Nietzsche, I never suffer the claustrophobic weariness that inevitably comes from spending too much time with Lawrence. Sometimes his malice or his asceticism makes me long for a kindlier or more cheerful author, but for the most part Nietzsche is and remains exhilarating. I think this is because he balances his Romantic love of the Will with a cool intellect and a healthy, unpretentious sensuality. You can see the latter spelled out explicitly in his remarks on Hafiz and Goethe, but it’s contained in all of his value judgments, which are always formed in terms of the body and the senses. Nietzsche had a genuine appreciation for the limited, the definite. Spengler identified him as the embodiment of Faustian will-to-power, but I think he underestimated how much of Classical man there is in Nietzsche. 

That appreciation seems necessary to any genuine attempt at “re-embodiment.” Without it, the project degenerates into boozy mysticism, anxious self loathing, or platitudes a la Sol Brah at his worst. BAP is a good counter example and has maintained the balance between the body as vessel for Faustian mastery and the body as discreet object which obeys laws of proper form. And Charles Olson may be a good example of a more truly embodied approach to literature:


I may have more to say later, but this is long enough for now. I’d love to hear anyone’s thoughts on Lawrence, embodiment, and the arts.
I'm also fond of Lawrence's essays, and also only read him in small pieces. I've posted excerpts of his around here before, and can strongly recommend his essays as something to keep around and maybe read one or two of at a time as you feel like it. As you say, he reads like a man struggling, rather than a man who has achieved a new and comfortable balance.

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