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D. H. Lawrence on America, Part 1

José Clemente Orozco, "The Gods of the Modern World"

1,841 words

Part 1 of 2

I have contributed several essays to Counter-Currents dealing with D. H. Lawrence’s critique of modernity. Those essays might lead the reader to believe that Lawrence treats modernity as a universal ideology or worldview that could be found anywhere.

However, in many of his writings Lawrence treats modernity as, in effect, a spiritual disease that specifically afflicts white, northern Europeans. Everything I have said in other essays about the modern overemphasis on the “spiritual sympathetic centres” and how we starve the “lower centres” in favor of the upper, or how love and benevolence are our undoing, Lawrence usually frames in explicitly racial terms. Modernity, in other words, is the condition of white, Northern European peoples, the peoples who initiated modernity in the first place.

In a letter from October 8, 1924, when he was living in New Mexico, Lawrence writes: “I loathe winter. They gas about the Nordic races, over here, but I believe they’re dead, dead, dead. I hate all that comes from the north.” Like Nietzsche, Lawrence does not lament the “death” (or decline) of the Nordic races. He merely observes it. Nor, generally speaking, does he fall into the common error of romanticizing other races. (However, he does on occasion contrast “northern” to “southern” culture, usually to the detriment of the former.)

In Women in Love, Gerald Crich represents the white race in general; his life is an allegory of what Lawrence believes is wrong with the “northern people,” and his death symbolizes what Lawrence regarded as their degeneration. Early in the novel, Gudrun Brangwen reacts to him:

There was something northern about him that magnetised her. In his clear northern flesh and his fair hair was a glisten like sunshine refracted through crystals of ice. And he looked so new, unbroached, pure as an arctic thing. . . . “His totem is the wolf,” she repeated to herself.

Later in the novel, Birkin reflects on Gerald: “He was one of these strange white wonderful demons of the north, fulfilled in the destructive frost mystery. And was he fated to pass away in this knowledge, this one process of frost-knowledge, death by perfect cold?”

Like Gerald’s, the end of the white race shall be an ice death: a death brought about by cold ideals and abstractions; a cutting off from the source, from the life mystery. “The white races, having the Arctic north behind them, the vast abstraction of ice and snow, would fulfill a mystery of ice-destructive knowledge, snow-abstract annihilation.” It is a self-destruction, just as Gerald’s death is self-destruction.

The Great Death Continent

Though the process of snow-abstract annihilation began in Northern Europe, for Lawrence the “epicenter” of the process has shifted to North America. Lawrence’s most dramatic statement of this occurs in one of his last books, The Plumed Serpent, in a passage so important that I shall quote it at length:

Was that the clue to America, she sometimes wondered. Was it the great death-continent, the continent that destroyed again what the other continents had built up? The continent whose spirit of place fought purely to pick the eyes out of the face of God? Was that America? . . .

And did this account for the great drift to the New World, the drift of spent souls passing over to the side of godless democracy, energetic negation? The negation which is the life-breath of materialism.—And would the great negative pull of the Americas at last break the heart of the world? . . .

White men had had a soul, and lost it. The pivot of fire had been quenched in them, and their lives had started to spin in the reversed direction, widdershins [counterclockwise]. That reversed look which is in the eyes of so many white people, the look of nullity, and life wheeling in the reversed direction. Widdershins. . . .

And all the efforts of white men to bring the soul of the dark men of Mexico into final clenched being has resulted in nothing but the collapse of the white men. Against the soft, dark flow of the Indian the white man at last collapses, with his god and his energy he collapses. In attempting to convert the dark man to the white man’s way of life, the white man has fallen helplessly down the hole he wanted to fill up. Seeking to save another man’s soul, the white man lost his own, and collapsed upon himself.

There is much to digest in this passage. Lawrence is suggesting that America (by which he means North America, including Mexico and Canada) acts as a vast engine of negation, wiping away or adulterating all human characteristics and all human distinctions that are “natural,” and doing so in the name of the Ideals of democracy and materialism (i.e., commerce).

Second, Lawrence is suggesting that the soul of the “dark man” is fundamentally different from that of the white man (a point he makes again and again in the Mexican writings) and that the white man’s soul has not been shifted to the “upper centres,” or knocked widdershins and out of touch with the life mystery. Therefore, all the efforts by the white man to “civilize” the dark man are in vain and it is the latter that will in fact win the day, because in some primal sense he is “stronger.” America, in short, is the continent of nihilism; the lead actor in the final drama of white, western civilization, the Ragnarok.

One of Lawrence’s heresies is to believe in essential national and racial characters. Culture, for Lawrence, flows from natural differences between human beings—and this means that humans are not fundamentally malleable and interchangeable; certain cultures simply cannot be fitted to certain people. Nevertheless, Lawrence does not believe in any doctrine of racial superiority. (The references that Lawrence makes from time to time to an “Aryan race” and, more narrowly, to the “Nordic” type may raise eyebrows today, but such terminology was common for the time.)

The Studies in Classical American Literature

Much of Studies in Classical American Literature (1923) is devoted to developing these points. This book—one of Lawrence’s most entertaining—is misleadingly titled for it is really not so much about American literature as it is about America itself. Note that in the quote above from The Plumed Serpent Lawrence refers to America as the continent “whose spirit of place fought purely to pick the eyes out of the face of God.”

The first essay in Studies is entitled “The Spirit of Place,” Lawrence explains this term as follows:

Every continent has its own great spirit of place. Every people is polarized in some particular locality, which is home, the homeland. Different places on the face of the earth have different vital effluence, different vibration, different chemical exhalation, different polarity with different stars; call it what you like. But the spirit of place is a great reality.

America’s spirit of place, Lawrence tell us, is one which draws men who want to “get away” and to be masterless. It is the land of those drawn to a kind of negative freedom: not the freedom actually to be something, but, in essence, the freedom to not have to be anything at all, and especially not to be subject to another’s will. But as Hegel recognized this negative freedom—freedom to say no—does not translate into any positive sort of freedom at all. True freedom, Lawrence states, only comes about through finding something you “positively want to be.” Americans, on the other hand, “have always been shouting about the things they are not. Unless, of course, they are millionaires, made or in the making.”

The spirit of America, for Lawrence, thus begins to resemble very much the spirit of Gudrun Brangwen in Women in Love: negation; a fierce desire really to be nothing at all. This is American “freedom.” America is the land where the white race has gone to die, and to literally kill all its old forms: its traditions, customs, blood-ties, myths and folktales, morality, religion, high culture, even its memory of its past.

America is the land where men have come to free themselves of everything in life that is unchosen, especially when the unchosen is the natural. Again, there is a break from the primal self or true unconscious and a shift to life lived entirely from the Ideal “upper centres.” Lawrence writes, “The American has got to destroy. It is his destiny. It is his destiny to destroy the whole corpus of the white psyche, the white consciousness. And he’s got to do it secretly. As the growing of a dragon-fly inside a chrysalis or cocoon destroys the larva grub, secretly.”

The self-destruction of the white man takes place secretly, marching under the banner of the Ideal. America is the land where all the old forms are destroyed in the name of “Freedom,” “Democracy,” and, above all else, “Progress”:

Destroy! Destroy! Destroy! Hums the under-consciousness [of Americans]. Love and produce! Love and produce! cackles the upper-consciousness. And the world hears only the Love-and-produce cackle. Refuses to hear the hum of destruction underneath. Until such time as it will have to hear.

The cause of Liberty in Europe, Lawrence tells us, was something vital and life-giving. But he detects in American icons like Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson something strident, cold, and life-killing in their appeals to Democracy. American democracy, Lawrence claims, is at root a kind of “self-murder”; that is, when it is not “murdering somebody else.”

Lawrence’s analyses of American literature basically consist in showing how these American tendencies play themselves out in authors like Franklin, Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, Whitman, and others. Whitman—an author with whom Lawrence had a love-hate relationship—gets by far the roughest treatment:

ONE DIRECTION! toots Walt in the car, whizzing along [in] it. . . .

ONE DIRECTION! whoops America, and sets off also in an automobile.

ALLNESS! shrieks Walt at a cross-road, going whizz over an unwary Red Indian.

ONE IDENTITY! chants democratic En Masse, pelting behind in motor-cars, oblivious of the corpses under the wheels.

It is Lawrence’s analysis of Melville’s Moby Dick, however, that is perhaps his most incisive. He sees in this simple story an encapsulation of the American spirit, the American thanatos itself. Here is Lawrence summing up his interpretation:

What then is Moby Dick? He is the deepest blood-being of the white race; he is our deepest blood-nature.

And he is hunted, hunted, hunted by the maniacal fanaticism of our white mental consciousness. We want to hunt him down. To subject him to our will. And in this maniacal conscious hunt of ourselves we get dark races and pale to help us, red, yellow, and black, east and west, Quaker and fire-worshipper, we get them all to help us in this ghastly maniacal hunt which is our doom and our suicide.

The last phallic being of the white man. Hunted into the death of the upper consciousness and the ideal will. Our blood-self subjected to our will. Our blood-consciousness sapped by a parasitic mental or ideal consciousness.

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