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D. H. Lawrence’s Critique of Modernity,
Part 1

2,583 words

Part 1 of 2

1. The Genealogy of Modernity

The entire corpus of D. H. Lawrence’s writing is devoted to addressing the problem of life in the modern world, and his view of modernity was extraordinarily negative. Consider the following striking image Lawrence provides us with in his essay “The Novel and the Feelings”:

Supposing all horses were suddenly rendered masterless, what would they do? They would run wild. But supposing they were left still shut in their fields, paddocks, corrals, stables, what would they do? They would go insane. And that is precisely man’s predicament. He is tamed. There are no untamed to give the commands and the direction. Yet he is shut up within all his barbed wire fences. He can only go insane, degenerate.

According to Lawrence, we have created a human world for ourselves: a world of concrete and ideals, and have excluded nature. What does it mean to say that we have become “tamed”? It means that we have lost our wildness; our connection to the natural self, or the true unconscious. We have “corralled” ourselves; imprisoned ourselves in this tame, human, “ideal” world voluntarily. When Lawrence remarks that there are no “untamed to give the commands and the direction” he means that we have lost touch with the true unconscious, the untamed source within us, from which “natural man” draws his guidance. We can only go insane – in the sense that we lose our grip on reality, our orientation to the greater universe. We become degenerate through losing everything great in life, all aspiration, all spirit, and become instead Nietzsche’s “Last Man”: a creature whose concerns never rise above the level of comfort and security, and who lives from distraction to distraction, trying never to reflect upon the emptiness within him.

Though it all we reassure ourselves with the thought that “Progress” is being made. Lawrence offers the following amusing description of Modern Progress in Fantasia of the Unconscious:

“Onward, Christian soldiers, towards the great terminus where bottles of sterilized milk for the babies are delivered at the bedroom windows by noiseless aeroplanes each morn, where the science of dentistry is so perfect that teeth are implanted in a man’s mouth without his knowing it, where twilight sleep is so delicious that every woman longs for her next confinement, and where nobody ever has to do anything except turn a handle now and then in a spirit of universal love–” That is the forward direction of the English-speaking race.

Much of Lawrence’s critique of modernity is simply devoted to pointing out the folly of our devotion to abstract ideals. But Lawrence was not merely a gadfly – he was a (literary) revolutionary. He believed that the existing social order was not salvageable and that it would have to be utterly and completely destroyed:

It is no use trying merely to modify present forms. The whole great form of our era will have to go. And nothing will really send it down but the new shoots of life springing up and slowly bursting the foundations. And one can do nothing but fight tooth and nail to defend the new shoots of life from being crushed out, and let them grow. We can’t make life. We can but fight for the life that grows in us.

In order to fully understand Lawrence’s critique of modernity one must understand how he believes that modernity has come about. In a number of his works, Lawrence tries to work out a philosophy of history that would shed light on the mechanisms of historical change. In Movements in European History (1919) and elsewhere Lawrence develops a theory of history founded on a metaphysics derived from Empedocles. The twin principles that govern all of human life, and all human history are, according to Empedocles and Lawrence, Love and Strife. The forces are, respectively, attractive and repulsive. The first tends toward unity, the second toward disintegration or apartness. In the language Lawrence employs, the lives of human beings are governed by “sympathetic” and “voluntary” impulses, on both individual and global levels. In the modern West, due primarily to the influence of Christianity, there has been an overemphasis on the sympathetic, unitive, and “feminine” element. When an imbalance in the two forces occurs, whether in an individual psyche or in history, a swing to the other pole will occur. Thus, modern individuals have swung to the voluntary pole. Ironically, however, they have vented their aggressive willfulness through fanatical devotion to a secularized version of the ideals implicit in “sympathetic” Christianity: liberty, equality, fraternity, and, most pernicious of all, universal love.

In Apocalypse, much of which is devoted to a critique of Christian values, Lawrence refers to Lenin, Abraham Lincoln, and Woodrow Wilson as “evil saints.” These are men who aimed to advance the “noble” ideals of modernity regardless of the cost in human lives. He tells us elsewhere that “What has ruined Europe, but especially northern Europe, is this very ‘pure idea.’ Would to God the ‘Ideal’ had never been invented. But now it’s got its claws in us, and we must struggle free. The beast we have to fight and to kill is the Ideal. It is the worm, the foul serpent of our epoch, in whose coils we are strangled.”

The secularization of Christian ideals, and their transformation into “isms” such as socialism, communism, liberalism, and multiculturalism is a manifestation of a deeper process, however. It is the process by which the intellect comes to usurp all else in the soul. The complex and often beautiful mythology of Judaism and Christianity, which operates on a visceral level, is replaced by the abstract ideologies of men like Hegel and Marx. This simply reflects the modern shift away from “mythopoetic thought” to a form of rationalism which seeks to do away with myth and to make everything explicit and transparent by means of “the concept.” Lawrence understands this cultural shift in actual physiological terms, as a shift from a life lived in contact with the “lower centers” of the body to one which operates exclusively from the “upper centers.” (He also understands the aforementioned “sympathetic” and “voluntary” forces as grounded in human physiology.)

Lawrence states in Fantasia, “We have almost poisoned the mass of humanity to death with understanding. The period of actual death and race-extermination is not far off.” Yet, underneath our intellectualism and devotion to ideals, in the deeper recesses of the body, nothing has changed. Lawrence writes, “What really torments civilized people is that they are full of feelings they know nothing about; they can’t realize them, they can’t fulfill them, they can’t live them.” These feelings may be sexual. They may be moral sentiments, such as archaic stirrings of the sense of honor. Or they may be religious: an inchoate yearning for the lost gods. Modern society gives us no one way to make sense out of many of these feelings, especially the religious ones. And others it positively condemns. Yet the feelings remain, and the feelings are very often—indeed, almost always—against the ideals. In our society, these feelings stir most strongly in children. But children are soon “put right” by an educational system that forces them, as Lawrence puts it, into “mental consciousness.” They are forced to suppress their heretical feelings, and are fed full of the Ideal.

We imagine that we live in a golden age of Progress, but Lawrence dismisses it as wholly false:

Everything is counterfeit: counterfeit complexion, counterfeit jewels, counterfeit elegance, counterfeit charm, counterfeit endearment, counterfeit passion, counterfeit culture, counterfeit love of Blake, or of The Bridge of San Luis Rey, or Picasso, or the latest film-star. Counterfeit sorrows and counterfeit delights, counterfeit woes and moans, counterfeit ecstasies, and, under all, a hard, hard realization that we live by money, and money alone: and a terrible luring fear of nervous collapse, collapse.

In the eyes of modern people, however, it is very often nature itself that seems counterfeit or, at least unreal. Lawrence believes that in modernity nature is essentially seen as raw material to be made over into the products of human design. This point was famously made by Heidegger in his essay “The Question Concerning Technology.” Heidegger argues that in the modern period, as a result of the advancement and proliferation of technology, the being of the natural world has revealed itself to humankind in a manner that is vastly different from how it revealed itself to our ancestors. It has become for us the “standing reserve” (Bestand). Heidegger writes:

The earth now reveals itself as a coal mining district, the soil as a mineral deposit. The field that the peasant formerly cultivated and set in order appears differently than it did when to set in order meant to take care of and to maintain. The work of the peasant does not challenge the soil of the field. In the sowing of the grain it places the seed in the keeping of the forces of growth and watches over its increase. But meanwhile [in the modern period] even the cultivation of the field has come under the grip of another kind of setting-in-order, which sets upon nature. It sets upon it in the sense of challenging it. Agriculture is now the mechanized food industry. Air is now set upon to yield nitrogen, the earth to yield ore, ore to yield uranium, for example; uranium is set upon to yield atomic energy, which can be released either for destruction or for peaceful use. (Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt [New York: Harper and Row], 14–15.)

In a similar vein Lawrence writes, “To the vast public, the autumn morning is only a sort of stage background against which they can display their own mechanical importance.” In his essay “Aristocracy,” Lawrence speaks in general of how modern man has lost the connection to nature, and of how we have lost the connection to “Amon, the great ram” in particular. “To you, he is mutton. Your wonderful perspicacity relates you to him just that far. But any farther, he is—well, wool.” (This promethean perspective on nature—the perspective that sees nature as “standing reserve”—is perfectly exemplified in the character of Gerald Crich in Lawrence’s greatest novel, Women in Love.)

Nature seems unreal to moderns because to them it is unfinished: it waits upon us to put our stamp upon it; to “make it into something.” Natural objects always therefore have the status of mere potentials: potentials for being made over, improved upon, or re-used or re-arranged in some fashion. At root, this is because the modern consciousness is radically future oriented. The past, for moderns, is something that has been gotten beyond, and is well lost. Only the future matters, and the future promises to carry on the march of progress; to be cleaner, faster, and smarter. Everything has its true being, therefore in the future. Everything—including ourselves—is always what it is going to be. The being of things is always promissory.

Modern people live in reaction against the past, and in anticipation of the future. What drops out is the present. Hence, the notorious inability of modern people to appreciate what is present at hand, or to recognize when enough is enough. Lawrence writes in an essay, “Why do modern people almost invariably ignore the things that are actually present to them?” He goes on to speak of an elderly tourist he encountered who left England “to find mountains, lakes, scythe-mowers, and cherry trees,” and asks “Why isn’t she content to be where she is?”

Lawrence’s answer to all of this will be unsurprising at this point. He wants us to somehow re-connect with those primal feelings and impulses that modernity requires us to suppress. The Fall of Man had nothing to do with sex; on the contrary God was on the side of sex. When Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit they became creatures of the “upper centres”; self-aware and self-conscious. “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized that they were naked” (Genesis 3:6). In Lawrence’s words, the Fall did not arise “till man felt himself apart, as an apart, fragmentary, unfinished thing.” Somewhere along the way, we reached a point where we came to see ourselves as on the earth, but not of it. At one point, Lawrence refers to modern people as “parasites on the body of earth.”

He writes in “A propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover,”

Oh, what a catastrophe for man when he cut himself off from the rhythm of the year, from his unison with the sun and the earth. . . . This is what is the matter with us. We are bleeding at the roots, because we are cut off from the earth and sun and stars, and love is a grinning mockery, because, poor blossom, we plucked it from its stem on the Tree of Life, and expected it to keep on blooming in our civilized vase on the table.

But how exactly are we to go about connecting with our primal instincts, and to the earth? This is the central problem for Lawrence, and his writings explore different ideas about how to accomplish it. Of course, one approach might be purely negative or critical. It might consist in a ruthless critique of everything that is, and everything that we are, until we get to that within us which is “natural.” This is indeed one of Lawrence’s approaches, and I am exploring it in this essay. It consists, in essence, of a kind of emptying or burning away. It is the alchemical nigredo, in which some lowly stuff (in this case, us) is burned and purified; made ready for transformation into something of a higher or better sort. Lawrence’s approach to modernity is certainly destructive, but it is not purely destructive.

Lawrence reminds us of Nietzsche, going around philosophizing with a hammer. His attitude in Women in Love seems, at least on the surface, particularly Nietzschean (a point to which I shall return later). But Lawrence’s position seems to evolve over time into a version of the nostalgia Nietzsche rejected. It is a nostalgia for something like the consciousness of the “Master” type Nietzsche discussed in On The Genealogy of Morals. At times Lawrence seems clearly to yearn for a return to something like a pre-modern pagan mentality. This element in his makeup becomes more pronounced over time, culminating in his “Mexican” works, The Plumed Serpent (1926) and Mornings in Mexico (1927).

There is a major problem with such a position, however. Doesn’t our ability to understand and to critique our own history mean that we have advanced beyond the position of our ancestors? We might yearn to return to paganism, but we have lost pagan innocence. And the more we believe we have understood paganism, the further we are removed from the life of an actual pagan. In other words, Nietzsche was right. Yet the Nietzschean alternative, the literal creation of “new values” by an Overman is unnatural: it is yet another manifestation of the modern dislocation from the earth and from the body. The current values are dead all right, but Lawrence believes they were laid over top of our suppressed natural values, which must now be unearthed. But how? And how can we “go back” while preserving what we have gained in going forward, even if the going forward was into degeneration? I believe these questions get to the heart of Lawrence’s concerns about modernity, and finding an answer to it.

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One Comment

  1. Vlad Katonic
    Posted January 6, 2011 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    There won’t be a new Culture, a new destiny-idea, a new, natural and innocent ‘paganism’ until the present Culture has fulfilled itself or dies prematurely. Still, it’s good to keep it on the wishlist and be at the ready if/when it does come.

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