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The Test on the Self: Alienating Landscapes and Journeys in Lawrence’s Travel Writing


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  • 1 “That great historic process in the development of religions, the elimination of magic from the wor (...)

1While Lawrence was indebted to the 20th century’s technical advancements, especially those pertaining to modes of transportation, which made world travel broader, faster and safer, enabling him (and his characters) to break free from the restrictions of English society, he nonetheless railed against such values as convenience and materialism, writing from Australia: “Everything is ‘so convenient,’ they keep telling you. They can keep their convenience” (L iv. 250). Instead, he professed his preference for the harsh living conditions on the ranch in New Mexico: “I myself find a good deal of satisfaction living like this alone in this unbroken country, which still retains its aboriginal quality – and in doing for myself all I need” (L v. 75). He also believed that, in spite of all the convenience and safety a modern traveller could enjoy, a psychological and physical form of danger continued to be experienced in the encounter with cultural otherness, during which the traveller’s self was subjected to alienating forces, leading to its regeneration or to its simple annihilation. In an era in which Western minds had emptied the world of its magic and mystery through the rational explanations of modern science, as Max Weber pointed out,1 Lawrence sought to highlight the supernatural forces which, he believed, still inhabited some localities, and to demonstrate how they might contribute to the regeneration of the Western traveller.

2I will be questioning the notions of destructive excess and of creative, regenerative excess in relation to the wild natural forces to be found in dangerous landscapes, and I shall analyse their impact on the self: in Lawrence’s stories, the self either succumbs to the alien forces at work or emerges strengthened from the ordeal. It seems as though the characters’ selves are deliberately exposed to altering forces in order to examine their reactions in unfamiliar, extreme conditions, and thus stage the destruction of the old European self and the rebirth of a new self through the ordeal of travel, a rebirth which could not be contemplated in the purely destructive, mechanised madness of modern Western civilisation.

  • 2 “Civilizations are the most external and artificial states of which a species of developed humanity (...)

3In the wake of Darwin’s theory of evolution, writers such as Max Nordau and Oswald Spengler developed the theory of a possible decaying evolution, a “decline” or “degeneration” of Western civilisation,2 thus expressing widespread anxieties over what was perceived as the physical and moral decline of European individuals and collective social forms at the end of the 19th century. Possessed with a frightening vision of excessive urbanisation and mechanisation, of rampant capitalism and dangerous democracy, as portrayed most visibly in Twilight in Italy (223) or Kangaroo, Lawrence too felt that Europe, and more particularly England, were undergoing a type of degeneration, and that Western civilisation was doomed to disappear. His writings are founded on the premise of a diseased society, for which potential remedies, leading to regeneration, have to be sought; yet, unlike other degenerationists of his day, who foregrounded political, economic or scientific remedies, Lawrence believed that regenerative remedies for English individuals and society were to be sought outside Europe and the Western world view.

  • 3 “No Indian ever surprised him, because he had a theory about climactic zones. The theory ran: ‘All (...)

4In addition to its spiritual, sensory and communal barrenness, Europe did not offer Lawrence the unfamiliar, non-English, primitive setting he required in order to stage his quest for regenerative “blood-consciousness.” Only in locales far removed from English social and moral conventions could he hope the regenerative process to be complete, by confronting the British travellers to manifestations of near-absolute foreignness, that would shake the foundations of the existing self and trigger its progressive alteration. Lawrence therefore discarded traditional representations of the colonial abroad, such as can be found in Kipling, Forster or Orwell — since the presence of the British club or army would undermine the traveller’s first-hand experience of the cultural other — preferring localities where Western influences were scarce. Finding a location propitious to the regenerative project was, however, a strenuous task, as his letters and works of fiction reveal, for though the ideal land had to be thoroughly foreign, Lawrence made a distinction between places of destructive and of creative excess. He reversed the common orientalist vision of “exotic” regions such as Ceylon and Tahiti, for instance, which, in his eyes, embodied a purely destructive excess, as he wrote to Lady Cynthia Asquith: “The East is not for me — the sensuous spiritual voluptuousness […] makes me feel rather sick,” and to Mary Cannan: “There is a sort of sickliness about [Tahiti], smell of cocoa-nut oil and sort of palm-tree, reptile nausea” (L iv. 28). Such statements endorse theories of degenerative climates entertained by European thinkers at the time, which E. M. Forster mocked in his Passage to India3 and which Lawrence questioned in Kangaroo. Indeed, Richard Somers wonders whether the phenomenon of a “thinning of the blood,” which “Australians seemed to accept […] as a scientific fact” (K 145), truly is such and whether he is prepared to suffer what he perceives as a weakening of his rich, healthy English self: “Do I want my blood to thin down like theirs?—that peculiar emptiness that is in them, because of the thinning that’s gone out of them? Do I want this curious transparent blood of the antipodes, with its momentaneous feelings and its sort of absentness?” (K 148).

  • 4 “God how I hate new countries: They are older than the old, more sophisticated, much more conceited (...)

5Ultimately Lawrence described Australia as a country which remained too close to England culturally to be the site of a satisfying regeneration of the self4 - despite its extremely primitive and pristine landscapes - and he turned instead towards the promise of the American continent. The letters, essays and fiction he wrote during his American journey consistently call attention to the violent spirit of place he sensed in the American wilderness, in stark contrast to the sensual voluptuousness he associated with the tropics. Although the intrinsic violence of American landscapes manifests itself in destructive outbursts, such as those witnessed by Lou Witt, where “The horses ripped and cut themselves, or they were struck by lightning, the men had great hurts, or sickness. A curious disintegration working all the time, a sort of malevolent breath, like a stupefying, irritant gas, coming out of the unfathomed mountains” (SM 143), the “spirit of place” in America embodies the notion of a creative excess insofar as its disintegrating influence on human consciousness and action compels men to resist, and thereby strengthens the self, regenerating it through destruction. The encounter with such viciously powerful forces does however prove fatal to several Lawrencian travellers: the “woman who rode away,” the Princess and, to some extent, Kate Leslie, are all of them overpowered by the alienating influence of the places they travel to.

6The “woman who rode away” semi-consciously consents to being sacrificed to the Chilchui gods so that the tribe may be regenerated, allowing her white self to be defeated by the altering power of the Chilchuis. However, in doing so she is able to open her self to blood-consciousness and thus begin her own regeneration. Aided by a “sweetened herb drink” (WWRA 62), she reaches a state of “heightened, mystic acuteness” (WWRA 62) in which she feels a blood-conscious connection to the cosmos, akin to clairvoyance: “Then she could actually hear the great stars in heaven […] And she could hear the snow on a cold, cloudy day twittering and faintly whistling in the sky […] And she would smell the sweetness of the moon relaxing to the sun in the wintry heaven” (WWRA 62-63). In fact, a variety of elements present in the description of the woman’s captivity and sacrifice bear a resemblance to Greek or Christian accounts of the Apollonian oracle of Delphi: Aristotle claimed that the state of enthousiasmos of the oracle, that is to say her possession by a spiritual presence, resulted from the effect on her soul of the pneuma, a fluid present in the air and exhaled by the earth at Delphi (Amandry 196), an idea reminiscent of Lawrence’s depiction of the spirit of place as “some effluence, some vibration” (PS 47) affecting men’s bodies and consciousness. The Delphic oracle’s actual behaviour during her pronouncements is a matter of much debate, as some sources assert that her possession was a strictly internal state, while others insist that she entered a visible state of frenzy common in Dionysian rituals (Amandry 197). The extrasensory state of Lawrence’s character borrows from both conceptions of the mania, since the woman accesses peaceful spiritual lucidity after an episode of Dionysian frenzy induced by the drug. Moreover, the Delphic and Chilchui rituals involve a symbolic sexual dimension, whereby possession by the divine is enacted through allegorical penetration. A Christian source reports that the Delphic oracle was allegedly seized by convulsions, caused by a malevolent spirit which entered through the genitals (Amandry 195), and Lawrence makes extensive use of coital metaphors in the final sacrificial scene: “But what she felt was that fanged inverted pinnacle of ice, hanging from the lip of the dark precipice above. And behind the great rope of ice, she saw the leopard-like figures of priests climbing the hollow cliff face, to the cave that, like a dark socket, bored a cavity, an orifice, half way up the crag” (WWRA 69).

7While the success of the woman’s regenerative journey into the world of the Chilchuis is called into question by her death, her capacity to yield to the altering influence of foreignness and achieve blood-consciousness is a sign of potential regeneration. In contrast, the Princess’s encounter with the spirit of place of the mountains fails to generate a blood-conscious relation to the cosmos because she recoils from any possibility of alteration to her self, despite her initial desire to discover and partake of the vitality of the place. As a result of her resistance, she is partially destroyed by its power: “But her bobbed hair was grey at the temples, and her eyes were a little mad. She was slightly crazy” (SM 196). Her failed regenerative quest is heralded by her excessive mental consciousness and consequent inability to connect with others: “The Princess learned her lesson early—the first lesson, of absolute reticence, the impossibility of intimacy with any other than her father” (SM 161). This proves fatal, when she refuses to engage in an erotic relationship with her native guide, Domingo Romero, since he, the ultimate sexual, cultural and blood-conscious other, is the key to her alteration and regeneration. As in The Lost Girl, The Plumed Serpent and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the regeneration of the female protagonist depends on the combined altering power of the foreign male figure and of the foreign spirit of place, the one appearing to concentrate the power of the other, thanks to his instinctive understanding of the land: “Silent, aloof, almost imperceptible in the landscape, he was an admirable guide, with a startling quick intelligence that anticipated difficulties about to rise” (SM 168). By rejecting Romero for fear of being forced to forsake her proud mental self, the Princess fails to connect with the vitality of the place and faces only destruction, without the hope of a subsequent regeneration. Her “sterile impertinence” (SM 163) is a product of Western or Nordic hyper-civilisation, which a “sensual Roman cabman” (SM 163), and later Romero, would like to destroy. She feels that the spirit of place of the mountains is antagonistic to her civilised self and that its darkness, symbol of blood-consciousness, is intent upon crushing it: “She crouched in her dark cloak by the water, rinsing the saucepan, feeling the cold heavy above her, the shadow like a vast weight upon her, bowing her down. The sun was leaving the mountain-tops, departing, leaving her under profound shadow. Soon it would crush her down completely” (SM 185). A further allegorical disintegration of her civilised self occurs when Romero casts all her clothing into the dark pond, severing her last ties to civilisation in the hope of breaking her destructive mental consciousness.

8The travellers of The Lost Girl, Kangaroo, The Boy in the Bush, “The Woman Who Rode Away,” “The Princess” and The Plumed Serpent all willingly set off on journeys through wild, dangerous landscapes, demonstrating a wish to partially relinquish Western civilisation and come into contact with cultural otherness. Some of them flee urban centres and their modernity because they are too reminiscent of degenerate Western societies, preferring remote settlements surrounded by wilderness: Alvina thus follows Ciccio to “a tiny hamlet of tree houses, called Califano” (LG 314), Richard and Harriett Somers eventually choose to live in Mullumbimby, “a queer raw little place” (K 103), rather than in Sydney, and Kate Leslie moves away from Mexico City to “the village of Sayula” (PS 56). The deliberate quest for wild, uncivilised, dangerous places, where the self is exposed to the alienating power of foreign individuals and the spiritual forces of nature, is presented in all these works of fiction as a necessary condition for the regeneration of the self.

9Alvina Houghton is from the beginning portrayed as a dissatisfied, singular young woman, whose destiny lies beyond conventional English society: “There was no hope for Alvina in the ordinary. If help came, it would have to come from the extraordinary. Hence the extreme peril of her case” (LG 84). Danger defines Alvina’s nature, for her predominant wish is to leave the safety of her home for some distant destination, out of her family’s reach: first Australia, then Islington, and finally Italy, thereby subverting the traditional conception and expected behaviour of a young Englishwoman, who should find in her home a safe haven from the perils of the outside world. Her family are deeply puzzled by what they perceive as abnormal, nonsensical behaviour. To Alvina, however, travel holds out the possibility of a purifying freedom, while Manchester House and Woodhouse are seen as “the rotting port of home” (LG 81) from which she longs to sail away. Far from being daunted by the prospect of danger and the unknown, Alvina welcomes them and, in response to Miss Pinnegar’s anguished cry of “You’re a lost girl!” tartly retorts: “I like being lost.” (LG 217).

10While a liberating force for Alvina, excessive danger is a creative force for Richard Somers, who actively seeks to confront it in the Australian bush, in an attempt to experience a creative form of fear: “As a poet, he felt himself entitled to all kinds of emotions and sensations which an ordinary man would have repudiated. Therefore he let himself feel all sorts of things about the bush” (K 14). By nurturing his terror of the bush, Somers seeks to provoke and self-examine his reactions to the otherness emanating from the wild, unfamiliar place, deliberately exposing himself to its power of alteration, in the hope of eliciting the regenerative power of the bush, which he feels is inhabited by a spiritual presence, the spirit of place, a destructive force which annihilates civilisation, but awakens “blood-consciousness.” Although Somers is curious to discover the effect of the spirit of place on his own self, he eventually shrinks from its destructive and alienating power, afraid of losing his civilised, English self in the process, as he confides to his Australian friend Jaz: “I don’t want to give in to the place. It’s too strong. It would lure me quite away from myself” (K 348).

  • 5 The heroine of “The Woman Who Rode Away” and Kate Leslie in The Plumed Serpent are also first initi (...)
  • 6 “And then the bush began to frighten him, as if it would kill him, as it had killed so much man-lif (...)

11Unlike him, the hero of Lawrence’s other Australian novel, Jack Grant, embraces the possibility of alteration to his English self and is consequently able to hear “The call of the mysterious, vast, unoccupied land” (BB 227), which indicates that he has developed the necessary blood-conscious sensitivity to perceive the non-human voice of the spirit of place. As is often the case in Lawrencian fiction,5 the first step in the transformation of the self is brought about by a Dionysian ritual: “Everything seemed to be spinning to a darkness of death. Everybody seemed to be dancing a crazy dance of death. He could understand that the blacks painted themselves like white bone skeletons, and danced in the night like skeletons dancing, in their corroborees” (BB 216). The danse macabre, which Jack spontaneously associates with an aborigine religious ritual, arouses in him a blood-conscious understanding of life and death, and of the Aborigines’ worship of the creative power of death. Following this revelation, Jack journeys into the bush, obsessed with the idea of exceeding the boundaries of civilisation and the civilised self, “Beyond the settlements — beyond the ploughed land — beyond all fences. That was it, beyond all fences. Beyond all fences, where a man was alone with himself and the untouched earth.” (BB 227). The pre-civilised influence of the bush creates in him such a feeling of freedom and solitude that it entices him to cast away his clothing, a symbolical shedding of the values of Western civilisation: “He wanted to throw everything away, and go absolutely naked over the border” (BB 288). The expression “over the border” suggests both a cultural limit separating civilised behaviour from animal or pre-civilised behaviour, and a mental limit between sanity and insanity, which Jack is in danger of crossing. Absolute rejection of civilisation is thus equated with insanity, just as hyper-civilisation also is in a letter which Lawrence wrote from San Francisco: “Either it is all crazy or I am going” (L iv. 290). Jack, however, does not fall prey to the alienating power of the bush, as so many before him have done6: sensing the deadliness inherent in its excessive freedom and ensuing oblivion, he is sufficiently alarmed to resist its wild attraction and flee before it kills him. The encounter has changed him nonetheless, completing his awakening to “some unopened life consciousness” (BB 228).

  • 7 “For it was not her spirit alone which was changing, it was her body, and the constitution of her v (...)

12In the light of those three examples, it is clear that exposure to the foreign other, whether human or non-human, is conceived as a dangerous experience, because it entails an alteration of the self, an assault on its existing integrity, which the characters are loath to renounce, in spite of their quest for regeneration. The process of alteration of the self is consistently described as an ordeal, leading some characters to extremes of physical or psychological suffering: Jack almost loses his mind and his life in the Australian bush, the “woman who rode away” also sinks into a half-conscious state while her body suffers paroxysms of violent vomiting, followed by “a great soothing languor” (WWRA 56), and Kate Leslie is overcome by a “feeling of inner nausea, [which] was becoming too much to bear. She felt she could not stand it, unless she went away to relax for a time” (PS 381). Indeed, her physical and mental transformation is so intense and rapid that she fears she will die from the change,7 an assessment which seems partly true, since her old European self is said to be subsiding under the altering influence of Mexico. Lawrence’s travel writing establishes that the bloodying of the self is a necessary condition to regeneration, for the old self must be destroyed before it can be reborn. In a letter to Earl Brewster, Lawrence explains that “some sort of action and strenuousness and pain and frustration and struggling through” (L iv. 154) are, in his view, the only means to fulfilment. Consequently, the more alienating the experience of foreignness and the more suffering the traveller undergoes, the more efficient his or her ordeal of regeneration.

13Yet it is difficult to ascertain whether any of Lawrence’s travellers achieve full regeneration, since he believed that the self can only ultimately be regenerated by the foreign sexual other, while he struggled to come to terms with the implications of sexual relations between his white travellers and non-white foreigners, reflecting contemporary anxieties about miscegenation and the forfeiting of white supremacy. Jack’s rejection of the Aborigine Lily in The Boy in the Bush crystallises Lawrence’s misgivings about the regenerative value of such relationships: “He had no objection at all to Lily, until it came to actual physical contact. And then his blood recoiled with old haughtiness and pride of race” (BB 132). On the one hand, the non-European other, especially the non-European male, is thought to carry with him an alternative world-vision, a set of cultural values and a mode of consciousness which contradict those of the Western traveller and bear regenerative potential, if the traveller is willing to submit to this foreign altering power. On the other hand, the non-European other also represents a corrupting influence which threatens the European character’s racial purity and superiority, and Lawrence evidently laboured to overcome his own racial fears in “The Princess” and The Plumed Serpent, without however quite managing to fully embrace interracial relationships.

14To conclude, although Lawrence posits that an effective regeneration of the European self is determined by the traveller’s capacity to be altered by the foreign other, his characters’ exposure to the combined alienating forces of the spirit of place and the native inhabitants is described as a dangerous and harrowing ordeal: some characters die or go mad, while others fear they might die or go mad from the intensity of the alteration process, and are thus forced to leave or to contemplate leaving, because they struggle to withstand the destruction their selves are submitted to in order to be regenerated. Despite the excessive suffering involved in the encounter with foreignness, Lawrence’s travels and travel writing gave him an insight into the regenerative possibilities of alteration through the sexual and cultural other, and by the spirit of place, an insight which the rational and morally restrictive atmosphere of England could not have afforded him.

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Works by D. H. Lawrence:
…… The Boy in the Bush. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990 [1924].

…… Kangaroo. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994 [1923].

…… Lady Chatterley’s Lover and A Propos of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover?”
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002 [1928].

…… The Lost Girl. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981 [1920].

…… The Plumed Serpent Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987 [1926].

…… St Mawr and Other Stories. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988 [1925].

…… Twilight in Italy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002 [1916].

…… The Woman Who Rode Away and Other Stories. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995 [1928].

…… The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, Vol. IV June 1921-March 1924. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

…… The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, Vol. V March 1924-March 1927. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Works by other writers:
Amandry, Pierre. « Propos sur l'oracle de Delphes. » Journal des savants 2 (1997) : 14 December 2015, .

Forster E. M. A Passage to India. London: Guild Publishing, 1978 [1924].

Kipling Rudyard. Plain Tales From the Hills. London: Macmillan, 1965 [1888].

Nordau, Max. Degeneration (Entartung). London: Heinemann, 1898 [1892].

Orwell, George. Burmese Days, in The Penguin Complete Novels of George Orwell. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983 [1934].

Spengler Oswald. The Decline of the West (Der Untergang des Abendlandes),
Part One: Form and Actuality. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1927 [1918].

Weber Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. London and New York: Routledge, 2001 [1905].

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1 “That great historic process in the development of religions, the elimination of magic from the world which had begun with the old Hebrew prophets and, in conjunction with Hellenistic scientic thought, had repudiated all magical means to salvation as superstition and sin, came here to its logical conclusion.” Weber 61.

2 “Civilizations are the most external and artificial states of which a species of developed humanity is capable. They are a conclusion, the thing-become succeeding the thing-becoming, death following life, rigidity following expansion, intellectual age and the stone-built, petrifying world-city following mother-earth and the spiritual childhood of Doric and Gothic. […] Pure Civilization, as a historical process, consists in a progressive taking-down of forms that have become inorganic or dead.” Spengler 31-32.

3 “No Indian ever surprised him, because he had a theory about climactic zones. The theory ran: ‘All unfortunate natives are criminals at heart, for the simple reason that they live south of latitude 30. They are not to blame, they have not a dog’s chance – we should be like them if we settled here.’ Born at Karachi, he seemed to contradict his theory, and would sometimes admit as much with a sad, quiet smile.” Forster 167.

4 “God how I hate new countries: They are older than the old, more sophisticated, much more conceited, only young in a certain puerile vanity more like senility than anything.” (2528 To Anna Jenkins, 30 May 1922) ,L iv. 250.

5 The heroine of “The Woman Who Rode Away” and Kate Leslie in The Plumed Serpent are also first initiated to blood-consciousness by witnessing or taking part in ritual dancing. See WWRA 59 and PS 131-132.

6 “And then the bush began to frighten him, as if it would kill him, as it had killed so much man-life before, killed it before the life in man had had time to come to realisation” BB 228.

7 “For it was not her spirit alone which was changing, it was her body, and the constitution of her very blood. She could feel it, the terrible katabolism and metabolism in her blood, changing her even as a creature, changing her to another creature. And if it went too fast, she would die” PS 383.

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Fiona FLEMING, « The Test on the Self: Alienating Landscapes and Journeys in Lawrence’s Travel Writing », Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 50 | 2019, mis en ligne le 02 octobre 2019, consulté le 15 octobre 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/lawrence.1093

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Fiona FLEMING wrote her PhD under the supervision of Professor Cornelius Crowley. Her thesis is on foreigners and foreignness in D. H. Lawrence's novels, short stories and travel essays. She is currently teaching at Paris Nanterre University.


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