Thursday, June 21, 2012
The Places of D.H. Lawrence by Paul Fussell
The final inconclusive chapter of Mornings in Mexico contemplates the primitive American experience from the northern Italian shore of the Mediterranean, where, on St. Catherine’s Day, Lawrence sips vermouth, back in the world of exact time and significant place. And clarity too: he imagines going to bed back at the ranch in New Mexico after “the dangerous light” has gone out. Where he is now, even “the night is very bright and still.” It virtually has “place.” The “dark” of the New World Mexicos is a function of their paradoxical antiquity, which the traveler can sense uniquely from the vantage place of the Mediterranean,
So eternally young, the very symbol of youth! And Italy, so reputedly old, yet for ever so child-like and naïve! Never, never for a moment able to contemplate the wonderful;, hoary Age of America, the continent of the afterwards.
Lawrence was now growing old himself. Even if he was only 42, his poor “bronchials” warned him that he hadn’t long to live. As his time grew short he thought much about his end, although he said nothing directly. In the “grotesque and monumental art of the Aztecs in Mexico,” he had seen, as David Cavitch says, “the Indian awe of death.” But he knew there were other attitudes and other styles, and in pursuit of them he turned to the tombs and funerary urns of ancient Etruria ( northwest of Rome), finding in “the Etruscan preparations for a continuing existence the images, the mood and the strength to express his own passage.” In contrast to “ the great pyramid places in Mexico,” he discovered in an Etruscan necropolis a “kind of homeliness and happiness.”
With his American friend Earl Brewster he visited the Etruscan sites for only about a week, in the cold early April of 1927. In June he began the essays that make up Etruscan Places (http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks09/0900381h.html), published in 1932 after he had been dead two years.
“Lawrence loved the Etruscans,” Huxley reports, “because they built temples which have not survived.” Only the painted underground tombs survive, and one reaches them across fields of asphodel, literal asphodel, real flowers. But entering the tombs, one feels none of the creepiness the modern West associates with “The Underworld”:
The tombs seem so easy and friendly, cut out of rock underground. One does not feel oppressed, descending into them. It must be partly owing to the peculiar charm of natural proportion which is in all Etruscan things of the unspoilt, un-romanized centuries. There is a simplicity, combined with a most peculiar, free-breasted naturalness and spontaneity, in the shapes and movements of the underworld walls and spaces, that at once reassures the spirit.
The effect of the Etruscan tombs is the opposite of the Western notion of the Inferno, whose imagery adheres to an Eliotic vision Lawrence once experienced in wartime London before he was able to flee. In 1915 he wrote Ottoline Morrell: “London seems to me like some hoary massive underworld, a hoary ponderous inferno. The traffic flows through the rigid grey streets like the rivers of hell through their banks of dry, rocky ash.”
The modern archeologist Emeline Richardson has warned against Lawrence’s interpretation of the Etruscans: “The reader will believe anything Lawrence says about ancient Etruria and the Etruscans only at his own risk.” But the point is that what he says about these remote people and their art which greets death with quiet joy is less about them than about his own need:
Death, to the Etruscan, was a pleasant continuance of life, with jewels and wine and flutes playing for the dance. It was neither and ecstasy of bliss, a heaven, nor a purgatory of torment. It was just a natural continuance of the fullness of life.
To Lawrence, educated by the Etruscans, death seems even “the wonder-journey of life,” the final travel of man conceived as by nature a traveler. The Etruscan instinct for the imagery of travel surfaces even on their alabaster funerary ash-chests, with their repeated motif of the dead setting off gaily in covered wagons. “This,” says Lawrence, “is surely the journey of the soul.” He can interpret so boldly because he is writing “a travel book,” that is, a book about himself in relation to unfamiliar stimuli. In the process he creates a lively meditation on death fit to be brought next to Sir Thomas Brown’s Urn Burial (http://penelope.uchicago.edu/hydrionoframes/hydrion.html), another work which baffles generic classification.
Lawrence’s travel books were ad hoc and, as we say, “occasional.” Yet, because he lived with such intensity of perception and such shrewdness of imagination, his four travel books seem to sketch the stages of his own life. And because the emanations of genius touch on all of human life, his travel books do more than that: they seem to designate and explore the four stages of everyone’s life – youth, whose happiness is inseparable from satisfied sensual love; young adulthood, where happiness derives from social awareness and social self-hood; older adulthood, when vacancy and disillusion trouble the spirit; and old age, the moment for elegy and the wish for peace. Twilight in Italy , with its fervors about “reconciliation” is about youth; Sea and Sardinia, devoted to social comedy, is about young adulthood; Morning in Mexico is about loneliness and disappointment in Etruscan Places, about dying happily. For Lawrence to produce in half a normal lifetime, and in a genre sometimes thought literal-minded and trivial, a virtual allegory of a full span of life is an attestation of his self-knowledge and his understanding of life in general. The achievement is no small part of a gift Frieda said “he gave in his writing to his fellow men,. . . the hope of more and more life.”
Abroad; British Literary Traveling Between the Wars by Paul Fussell; Oxford University Press, N.Y. 1980