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Atrabile, Vagrancy and Latency in the Post-War Novels of D. H. Lawrence

Noëlle CUNY

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1Is there such a thing as Prophetic melancholy? In its later, technical sense of atrabile, or black bile, the term carries pathological connotations which are at odds with the god-inspired posture of Biblical prophecy. Still, one does wonder, at times, why Jeremiah, who so lamented his coming into the world, or Ezekiel, broken by the loss of the “desire of his heart” (Ezekiel 24:16), or the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, did not simply commit suicide. Theirs was inspired melancholy, the melancholy of those who suffer under the weight of a superior, superhuman mission. It was the first instance of a motif which is to be found in literature of all ages. Many of D. H. Lawrence’s characters thus emulate the Great Prophets’ rhetoric, if only in the way they feel a perpetual inclination to curse the day they were born, to curse their “own interfering, nosy self” (Kangaroo 272) and their inability to keep silent in spite of the danger incurred. Count Dionys in “The Ladybird” (1923), Rawdon Lilly in Aaron’s Rod (1922), Somers in Kangaroo (1923), all seem rather sorry to be in the know, and sorry to be under the obligation to make known what they know.

  • 1  The phrase “insight into the structure of the real” is borrowed from Max Pensky’s Melancholy Diale (...)

2Moments of lucidity are often moments of intense physical suffering. Much more than pleasure, pain is a sign that something, at last, is known with certainty. Accordingly, what is known with certainty is of a negative, deathly nature.One of the early short stories provides an opportunity to measure the importance of melancholy truth in Lawrence’s fiction: a sick collier (the story’s eponymous character) suddenly moves from a state of pleasurable acquiescence to a state of sharp lucidity — an awareness of the meaninglessness of the phenomenal world and of language — under the effect of stomach ache. The corrections to the story’s typescript seek to emphasize the fact that the source of pain is invisible, difficult to locate or account for, and thus easily projected onto the surrounding world. The man in pain is seen to gain access to a mode of consciousness which grants him heightened insight into the deathly structure of the real1.

3I do not wish to ground a depiction of Lawrence as a melancholy genius on the sole fact that he, the wanderer in the southern hemisphere, like his “sick collier” at home, was prone to stomach ache. But the very recurrence of this motif in his fiction shows that it is a significant symptom — significant in the sense that it unfolds within a conjunction of metaphors, a web of meaning weaving itself around the trivial fact of bodily discomfort. Robert Burton, describing the signs of melancholy in the body, mentions a Hippocratic tradition of stomach trouble and constipation. They were seen as a sign that something in the patient’s physiology had gone dry and cold, that the “juices” had somehow stopped flowing, that the symbolic ties that united the subject with his surroundings had snapped.

4Constipation is a recurrent motif in Lawrence’s first explicitly post-war novel, as part of a web of meaning which is based, for the most part, on Burton’s categories. Aaron’s Rod, whose plot is typically psychosomatic, concerns itself, above everything else, with flow. A famous scene is when Aaron, who has caught influenza, loses all his will to live under the onslaught of pain caused by liver failure, bile clogging his insides, and the resulting constipation. To the narrator, it all makes sense: influenza, alcohol abuse, the frenzied quest for pleasure of all kinds, and, at the macro-political level, a nation’s unwholesome habit of meddling with other nations’ futures, all those “influences” combine in a single physiological correlative: an excess of yellow bile. An excess of yellow bile makes one suicidal, and indeed, one should die if one has too much love or too much appetite for destruction, which for the narrator of Aaron’s Rod are the two faces of the same yellow medal. But it gradually appears that Aaron’s fundamental disorder, in fact, is neither excessive desire nor bellicose madness. The sole fact that Aaron is capable of diagnosing his own ailments, which he considers to be the common lot of all Western men, shows that the disorder of which he suffers does not impair his lucidity. Quite the contrary: in Aaron’s case, pain is knowledge, and to know is to know pain and death. The worst attack of influenza is an opportunity for him to catch a glimpse of the deepest cause of Europe’s decline, whereas he had appeared unable to pinpoint the exact nature of his discomfort earlier in the novel, when it was still mild. His ability to receive revelations when in extreme pain, but also to feel distrust and anger while everything seems normal on the surface, is the raison d’être of his character, a character designed to embody the corrosive humour of superior, though negative wisdom in the flesh.

5There was a hard, opposing core in him, that neither the whiskey nor the woman could dissolve or soothe, tonight. It remained hard, nay, became harder and more deeply antagonistic to his surroundings, every moment. He recognised it as a secret malady he suffered from: this strained, unacknowledged opposition to his surroundings, a hard core of irrational, exhausting withholding of himself. [...] Even in the midst of his best music, it sat in the middle of him, this invisible black dog, and growled and waited, never to be cajoled. He knew of its presence—and was a little uneasy. For of course he wanted to let himself go, to feel rosy and loving and all that. But at the very thought, the black dog showed its teeth. (22)

6The first pages of the novel, just before the departure of Aaron from his home and the beginning of his existence as a vagrant, describe post-war England as a world where nothing has changed in spite of the catastrophe, thus revealing the meaninglessness of “home” and “homeland”, of war and patriotism. The black dog inside Aaron’s bowels growls at all things familiar, all past objects of desire, which were the centre of known space but now appear to be hollow. In this now centreless, open-ended world, all there is left permanent and certain is a “core of furious distrust” in the middle of Aaron’s body.

7Lawrence felt it too, as he too had felt the need to flee from wartime England. His friend Catherine Carswell, who was nearing the term of her pregnancy around the time when the war was coming to an end, must have found rather disturbing the way Lawrence, in response to hearing about her approaching delivery, described his own melancholy pregnancy:

Barbara said you were tired of the long wait. I am sure you are. I know exactly how it feels. I feel as if I had a child of black fury curled up inside my bowels. I’m sure I can feel exactly what it is to be pregnant, because of the weary bowel-burden of a kind of contained murder which I can’t bring forth. We will both pray to be safely delivered. (letter dated 1 April 1918)

8But no safe delivery is to be expected for this sort of phantom pregnancy: this “kind of contained murder that can’t be brought forth” is never to be brought forth - it is the fate of the true melancholic never to be delivered. On the contrary: the latent event which the “pregnant melancholic” is waiting to happen, the core of furious melancholy instead sucks all things unto itself like a cosmic singularity, and the movement of which it is the centre is strictly centripetal, hence the great danger it involves. True melancholy turns the world upside down. Accordingly, Lawrence’s novels of the post-war period describe the inversion of natural processes: upward movement when the movement should be downward, backward (as when the black dog shows its teeth) when it should be forward (the black dog never bites). Many of their metaphors reflect this notion that melancholy results in the “ebbing of vital energy”, but then in an almost cabbalistic sense of magic inversion of codes and of assumed meanings for occult insight into the real. Kangaroo is, in spite of the way it is most often described, not a political novel: it is a novel about the ebbing of energy and occult magic, a novel about impotence and the vanity of action.

9The starting point of Aaron’s Rod and Kangaroo is a disappointment: after the war, nothing has changed. Now Australia (where Kangaroo takes place) is permeated with frustration and a democratic, capitalistic, surfeited sort of phlegm. The average soldier, in Kangaroo, is explicitly described as one who had his one-time fling during the war and now “can’t get his pecker up” (104-5). Similarly, when Somers, the novel’s main character, is requested to take sides with one of the two competing ideologies of national renewal, he declines the offer in terms which reflect this general pathological inhibition of life’s processes: “I’d commit myself, if I could. It’s just something inside me that shakes its head and holds back” (158).

10Somers is too lukewarm to commit himself. Irony has entered his blood, which has congealed under the effect of this cold, dry humour. Paralysisthreatens to overcome him. He is becalmed, at a standstill, bogged down in a melancholy swamp. And still he is waiting, waiting for the upward thrust of a strange deity he often appeals to, a catabolic god he recurrently refers to as the “dark god entering us from below” (176). But the occult truth which Somers holds secret in the middle of him is never to be delivered. History is stuck in a phase of latency, in a phase of endless wait, a pause in time that seems to expand forever. Hence no doubt Lawrence’s own appreciation of the novel he was finishing, “a funny sort of novel where nothing happens and such a lot of things should happen” (letter to Catherine Carswell dated 22 June 1922): it is the story of an eventless pause in time, a non-story. Images of stagnant mud are frequent both in Lawrence’s letters and fiction of the period, and they are often associated with references to internal trouble. I have described the impulse to leave home as an effect of the black bile boiling coldly in the bowels of post-war man; in the case of Lawrence himself, who in 1919 left Britain where he knew he was no longer welcome, getting bogged down in an a-historical pause might have been either an effect or a result of leaving home — there is no telling which.

11Gradually, as Lawrence travelled the world, he became more ill. Ceylon, which he reached in 1922, represents a nadir in his physical wellbeing, as well as in his faith in mankind.

Ach!—altogether the tropics have something of the world before the flood—hot dark mud and the life inherent in it: makes me feel rather sick…

I can’t get back into history—The soft, moist, elephantine pre-historic has sort of swamped in over my own world—and on one drifts. (Letter to Cynthia Asquith dated 30 April 1922)

12How does one enjoy the beauty of a new country when its bacteria are turning one’s insides upside down? To the man in pain, nature itself has become melancholic; nature is this nauseating bog in which he is sinking — that, incidentally, being the punishment awaiting men who committed the sin of acedia in Dante’s Inferno.

13Towards the end of Kangaroo, in the hospital room where the charismatic leader of the right-wing revolutionary “Digger” movement lies assassinated, a bullet having perforated his bowels during a riot, Somers finds the same complex smell of tropical flowers and hot dark mud which Lawrence had found so sickening in Ceylon. One could call it the smell of Saturn, the smell of autumn fruit and faded flowers, the smell of stagnant mud and poisoned bowels. A brief description of the gorgeous flowers in the ill-smelling “mortuary” room calls to mind the phrase “fleurs du mal”, a phrase used by Birkin in Women in Love to refer to the creative flux of disintegration he saw at work in all sublunary beauty. But now no Baudelairian topos comes to Somers’s rescue as he is overwhelmed with a feeling of loss, a sense of utter waste devoid of all compensatory aestheticism.

14In Women in Love, corruption was seen as a release of energy, either in the form of light (“phosphorescence” 172, 193) or in the form of rays (“radioactive” 332). By contrast, in no way does the corruption at work in Kangaroo’s body suggest a release of energy, or some awe-inspiring cosmic process to be acknowledged and worshipped. The nationalist leader is dying in vain; no political change emerged out of the riot during which he was shot. Consequently, to emulate the retrospective train of thought which characterizes the narrator, Kangaroo’s “Diggers” were in fact doomed from the outset; therefore, as regards the necessary change in Australia’s politics for fear that — according to the narrator — a grey and shapeless consumerist democracy might keep spreading, the world war during which Australia’s well-trained soldiers became conscious of their revolutionary power as a group was a waste of time and energy. Australia has missed an opportunity to make its own history. The smell of mud and faded flowers, in Kangaroo, is not the smell of creative corruption, as it could have been in Women in Love: it is the melancholy smell of the a-historical swamp Somers had tried to escape by moving out of England.

15During his last conversations with Kangaroo, it appears to Somers that post-war Australia itself is under the sign of Saturn, the cold, dark, slow planet. Now, like Walter Benjamin’s melancholy baroque artist, Somers reads the world allegorically: the round belly of Kangaroo, the leader of the Australian right, looks to him like the punctured sphere of hope; his Jewishness stands for abstract knowledge, a suspicious knack for mathematical formulae and ideological constructs; his fatness represents capitalistic self-increase and surfeit. Commenting on Benjaminian allegory in his Melancholy Dialectics, Max Pensky wrote that “allegory, the antidote to myth, is the optic in which the mythic image of symbolic totality, of a lawlike and static order of transcendent, eternal meaning, is dried up, chopped to bits” (236).Actually, Kangaroo is aware that the way Somers reads him amounts to murdering him as surely as the bullet will. It is ruining the myth of renewal which he is supposed to stand for. Yet Somers feels it has to be so: in his view, no lucidity will ever come to the Australians if the idols are not proven to be hollow.

16Max Pensky said of the brooding allegorist, by contrast to the collector, that “he goes away empty-handed by betraying the things for the sake of knowledge” (244). I would say that Somers leaves Australia empty-handed by betraying the love of Kangaroo, a love which might have been the key to finding the “dark god entering us from below” (176), the driving forceof a magically rejuvenated civilisation, for the sake of knowledge. The mournful atmosphere which predominates in the last quarter of the novel is, at least in part, due to this betrayal: not only is Somers mourning the loss of love, he also needs to come to terms with his own feeling of guilt. On this occasion, the image of radium, which — arguably — had been central in Women in Love, crops up again. But whereas in the 1920 novel, radium had been the decadent emblem of creative disintegration, the fertile material from which Gudrun could harvest her thrills of sensation (451), in Kangaroo its role is reversed:it now represents a form of hygiene, an antidote against sensation in general and pain in particular. Whereas it had been a source of orgasmic pleasure to Gudrun, it is now instrumental in Somers’s ascetic quest for the melancholy ideal of lucid fragmentationand dryness. A few minutes after his leaving the side of Kangaroo’s deathbed for the last time, we see him posing as an avatar of Caspar Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea, seeking from the “radium” of the moon and the corrosive salt water of the Pacific to dissolve the softer parts of his soul:

The night was full of moonlight as a mother-of-pearl. He imagined it had a warmth in it towards the moon, a moon-heat. The light on the waves was like liquid radium swinging and slipping. Like radium, the mystic virtue of vivid decomposition, liquid-gushing lucidity.[...]

It was the huge rocking of this flat, hollow-foreflush, moon-dim in its hollow, that was the night to Richard. “This is the night and the moon,” he said to himself. Incredibly swift and far the flat rush flew at him, with foam like the hissing, open mouths of snakes. In the nearness a wave broke white and high. Then, ugh! across the intervening gulf the great lurch and swish, as the snakes rushed forward, in a hollow frost hissing at his boots. Then failed to bite, fell back hissing softly, leaving the belly of the sands granulated silver. (340)

17The serpents fail to bite and retreat, the way Aaron’s black dog failed to bite and merely growled. This detail encapsulates the essence of this “funny sort of novel where nothing happens and such a lot of things should happen”. Why does nothing happen when, surely, such events as a world war or a socialist revolution in Russia must have decisive consequences at home? The narrative itself seems to be resisting the possibility that none of those seemingly major events made history. Some parts of Kangaroo, most notably the central chapter entitled “The Nightmare”, can be seen as an attempt at re-inscribing a basic mythical structure in the chaos of Australian politics. At one point, together with his Machiavellian right-wing friends, Somers even rejoices about the first violent actions perpetrated by the communists: the first bites of the Red mob, the first inoculation of Red venom is to change the complexion of the community, and stir its blood until an eruption occurs. This seems to promise the end of a cycle and the corresponding start of a fresh historical cycle. These reflections are the sign that Somers can think mythically if he is in the right mood; and since his reflexive powers include a faculty to read history backwards, he then decides that the moment of inoculation in fact happened further back in history, without anyone being aware of it. This moment he describes in the “Nightmare” chapter, a famously autobiographical part of the novel: it is the moment of conscription, when the scandal of human flesh turned into cannon fodder began.

“Good God!” thought Somers. “Naked men in civilised jackets and nothing else make the most heaven-forsaken sight I have ever seen.”

The big stark-naked collier was being measured: a big, gaunt, naked figure, with a gruesome sort of nudity. “Oh God, oh God,” thought Somers, “why do the animals none of them look like this. It doesn’t look like life, like a living creature’s figure. It is gruesome, with no life-meaning.”

In another section a youth of about twenty-five, stark naked too, was throwing out his chest while a chit of a doctor-fellow felt him between the legs. This naked young fellow evidently thought himself an athlete, and that he must make a good impression, so he threw his head up in a would-be noble attitude, and coughed bravely when the doctor-buffoon said cough! Like a piece of furniture waiting to be sat on, the athletic young man looked.

Across the room the military buffers looked on at the operette;—occasionally a joke, incomprehensible, at the expense of the naked, was called across from the military papas to the fellows who may have been doctors. The place was full of an indescribable tone of jeering, gibing shamelessness. Somers stood in his street jacket and thin legs and beard—a sight enough for any gods—and waited his turn. Then he took off the jacket and was cleanly naked, and stood to be measured and weighed—being moved about like a block of meat, in the atmosphere of corrosive derision. (252-3)

18That, he decides in retrospect, was when the masses unwittingly received the first bite of corrosive poison. From that moment, he feels, the blood turned bilious not only in his body, but in the body of all Western men. And their bodies began to function backwards, the way he feels his own is doing in the southern hemisphere. That must have been the Event par excellence, the source of truly radical change.

And perhaps it was this inversion which had brought up all that corrosive and bitter fire from the bowels of his unconscious, up again into his full consciousness. If so, then let it be so.

One thing he realised, however: that if the fire had suddenly erupted in his own belly, it would erupt one day in the bellies of all men. Because there it had accumulated, like a great horrible lava pool, deep in the unconscious bowels of all men. All who were not dead. And even the dead were many of them raging in the invisible, with gnashing of teeth. But the living dead, these he could not reckon with: they with poisonous teeth like hyenas.

Rage! Rage! Rage! The awful accumulations that lie quiescent and pregnant in the bowels of men. He thought of the big gaunt collier with the blunt, seal-like face shorn of its intelligence, squatting naked and ghastly on his heels, with his big, ugly genitals, and his dehumanised stupefaction. It passes, it passes for the time being. But in those moments there is an inward disruption, and the death-hot lava pours loose into the deepest reservoirs of the soul. One day to erupt: or else to go hard and rocky, dead. (261)

19In the midst of this proclamation of holy rage, there remains an element of doubt, the same doubt which turns this novel “where such a lot of things should happen” into a novel “where nothing happens”. What is this corrosive humour which may or may not produce an eruption, which may be either the bitter fire of indignation or the black poison of treason, and which can solidify into dark despair? It may be choler, the fiery, dry, martial humour, but it may turn out to be atrabile. Somers’ heated hope of a red, or even a black — anarchist — revolution is a mere bout of what Albert the Great termed caliditas debilitis, a passing semblance of virile heat and vigour, which quickly evaporates without hope of full recovery of the patient’s will for action. Even the mob’s will for destructive action, in Australia, fails to bring about the expected end of the established world: the terrorists’ bombs, the riots are mostly self-destructive.

20No matter how hard he tries, Somers cannot get himself to believe in the mythic structure of history which he himself is trying to suggest, in history with an end. He is the prime carrier of this debilitating influence: doubt. He himself may be the hyena with poisonous teeth — he occasionally describes himself as a scorpion, a viper. He is the one who inoculates poison in the blood of whoever tries to build a new church on him, thus ruining any attempt for Australia to invent a history for itself. In fact, he resolutely remains out of history, caught in the atrabilious swamp of irony and disbelief. Even the war was no event: the war’s great scandal, in the end, is precisely its meaninglessness as a historical object. As read backwards by Richard Somers, it is only one temporal object among others, and it has no other meaning than antiheroic, ignominious waste. Max Pensky summed up the importance of the baroque Play of Mourning in Walter Benjamin’s thought in these words: “Ruin operates as a mode of enlightenment. The world, in the Trauerspiel, is brought into merciless focus, and in this way even fate loses its mythic appearance, stands naked before the viewer as universal death” (82). Kangaroo, this melancholy story of a man who mourns the failure of his hopes and the death of a friend due to his own inability to make a decision and take action, could be read as an example of modern, novelistic Trauerspiel.

21The melancholy man according to Lawrence is a wanderer like himself, a waverer, physically vulnerable, and actually, not quite physically real — or at least that is the impression one gets of Somers and his alter ego, the aptly named “Jaz”. They are spatially challenged, in the sense that the world has become centreless to them. They are the embodiment of loose movement. And they position themselves on the margin of history, in the sense that they hold back from history: they are always waiting for transcendence to resurge, and almost always waiting without hope. And yet Lawrence’s melancholy vagrants share an inordinate sense of their own genius. The ill stomach of Somers, the bodily inversion he seems to suffer in Australia, have taught him that time and space, as well as the objects of which they consist, mean only what meaning he is prepared to construct for them, and that only temporarily. But that accounts for the great superiority of the melancholy man, the man with μέλαν, the man with ink.

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Pensky, Max. Melancholy Dialectics: Walter Benjamin and the Play of Mourning. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993.

Lawrence, David Herbert. The Letters of D. H. Lawrence. Ed. James T. Boulton, George J. Zytaruk, Andrew Robertson, Lindeth Vasey and Margaret H. Boulton, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979, vol. 1-8.

——. Women in Love (1920). Ed. David R. Farmer, Lindeth Vasey and John Worthen, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

——. Aaron’s Rod (1922). Ed. Mara Kalnins, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

——. Kangaroo (1923). Ed. Bruce Steele, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

——. “The Ladybird” in The Fox, The Captain's Doll, The Ladybird (1923). Ed. Dieter Mehl, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

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1  The phrase “insight into the structure of the real” is borrowed from Max Pensky’s Melancholy Dialectics: Walter Benjamin and the Play of Mourning (33). Walter Benjamin, whose work is briefly alluded to in the course of this article, was Lawrence’s near contemporary. In the best melancholy tradition, even as he knew himself to be the possessor of a superior sort of wisdom, he deplored his birth under the sign of Saturn, the “planet of detours and delays” (Gershom Scholem 59).

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Noëlle CUNY, « Atrabile, Vagrancy and Latency in the Post-War Novels of D. H. Lawrence », E-rea [En ligne], 4.1 | 2006, document 4, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2006, consulté le 17 janvier 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.360

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Noëlle CUNY

Université de Haute-Alsace
Noëlle Cuny is a lecturer at the Université de Haute-Alsace and holds a doctorate from Paris 3 - Sorbonne Nouvelle. Her dissertation is entitled “Mutations of the Body in the Novels of D.H. Lawrence: History and Mysticism.” Her shorter works include discussions of the presence of the Great Prophets, of Paul of Tarsus, and of scientific discourses in the novels and essays of D.H. Lawrence. As a member of the Sorbonne Nouvelle's research group on small cultural magazines of the 1900s to the 1930s, she takes an interest in such early vehicles of modernism as Blast and Signature.

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