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“Postponing Destiny”: The Wheels of Time in D. H. Lawrence’s Apocalypse.

Shirley Bricout

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1Since the dawn of Christianity, most readings of the biblical book of the Apocalypse have shaped new approaches to time, if only in the sense that they take it as a blueprint for a coming crisis during “The Last Days,” leading up to “The End of Time.” By way of consequence, as Frank Kermode puts it in his Sense of an Ending, the book of “the Apocalypse gives meaning to the past and to the present” (2000, 56-57) and assists man in his quest to make sense of his own life in relation to eternity. Lending itself to topical interpretations, the Apocalypse has therefore become emblematic of the shift away from an ancient cyclical interpretation of history to teleological and eschatological alternatives – a turn D. H. Lawrence inveighs against in his essay Apocalypse where he associates apocalyptic literature with “postponed destiny.”

2In fact, apocalypse was first identified as a discrete literary genre by Karl Nitzsch in 1822 against the backdrop of increasingly elaborate biblical exegesis; the genre’s paradigms were to be highlighted by another German scholar Friedrich Lücke in 1832 (Böcher 3857; Barr 74). The definition was to be amended right up to the 1970s when consensus was reached among Bible researchers acknowledging that “apocalypse” can refer to the literary genre, to apocalyptic as worldview and to apocalypticism as a belief shared by an “interpretive community” (Barr 84; Fish 171).

3Bearing this in mind, my paper aims at examining how Lawrence’s own response to the book of the Apocalypse maps out his appreciation of time and history. Besides the fact that the ailing writer felt the need to consider his own life in relation to eternity, he also addressed the sense of urgency which had become the stamp of Western civilization. A consideration of Lawrence’s insistence on John of Patmos’ original sources, to be found in Ezekiel, his references to Babylonian time reckonings embedded in the Apocalypse, along with his partiality for the wheels of Anaximander will enable us in this study to appraise his response with regard to the very definite contextual setting which historicizes the biblical Apocalypse on the one hand and Lawrence’s essay on the other.

“Postponed destiny”

4The term “apocalypse” comes from the Greek apo-kalypso meaning to reveal, to unveil. Unlike prophecies which warn, chastise or reward an individual or a group on given conditions – following from acts of obedience or disobedience – and sometimes within a clearly stated appointed time, an apocalypse is an unconditional prediction of coming events which will unfold at an undisclosed moment, no matter what mankind does or doesn’t do. Prophecies still allow for a cyclical interpretation of history and so did Babylonian eschatological myths in which combat between gods restores an original order – Urzeit becomes Endzeit (see Collins 2006, 4-8) – whereas apocalypses in the Judeo-Christian tradition introduce a linear concept of time together with a teleological view of history, thus implying that events and even nature inherently tend towards definite ends.

5Lawrence historicizes this substantial paradigmatic shift, writing in his essay Apocalypse that after the Jews failed to establish a great empire “the prophets became silent forever. The Jews became a people of postponed destiny. And then the seers began to write Apocalypses” (Lawrence 1980, 80, italics in the original). He explains that

After the second destruction of the Temple the Jews despaired of the earthly triumph of the Chosen People. Therefore, doggedly, they prepared for an unearthly triumph. [...] To do this, they needed an all-round view: they needed to know the end as well as the beginning. Never before had men wanted to know the end of creation: sufficient that it was created, and would go on for ever and ever. But now, the apocalyptists had to have a vision of the end. (Lawrence 1980, 80)

6His comments herald the conclusions of most Bible scholars who agree today that apocalyptic literature appears within a favorable Sitz im Leben or “setting in life,” that Stanley Frost related to “an utter lack of faith and hope in the present” (Frost 4). On these grounds, Jewish apocalypses qualify as a form of “protest literature” (Frost 4). Similarly, some current readings of the Johannine apocalypse point to the discrepancy between the early Christians’ expectations and Christ’s belated return as being the actual crisis that triggered a cathartic reinterpretation of history articulated as a vision (Collins 1984, 165). Therefore, the phrase “postponed destiny” that Lawrence coined epitomizes the instrumental projection of present onto future that operates within the genre, with its worldview and its attendant belief.

7As it has turned out over the centuries, the issue is continually postponed: “the historical allegory is always having to be revised; time discredits it,” writes Kermode in Sense of an Ending, specifying that “Apocalypse can be disconfirmed without being discredited. This is part of its extraordinary resilience” (2000, 8). He adds “disconfirmation [of literal predictions is] quickly followed by the invention of new end-fictions and new calculations” aimed at establishing so many “new concords” with time (2000, 17). Lawrence similarly highlights the vision’s topical flexibility when he quotes Archdeacon Robert H. Charles whose work he draws from extensively: “But, if it is the expression of great moral and spiritual truth, it will of a surety be fulfilled at sundry times and in divers manners and in varying degrees of completeness” (Lawrence 1980, 89).

8In an ironic twist, Lawrence comments on the Sitz im Leben in which Charles wrote his extensive Commentary on the Revelation of St. John published in 1920, specifying that “he is writing in time of war – at the end of the war – so we must allow for the fever” (Lawrence 1980, 88). He jeeringly points out that although Charles suggests the Kaiser “is a present-day representative of the Antichrist,” most Bible scholars he refers to are in fact German (Lawrence 1980, 89). As a contemporary of Archdeacon Charles, Lawrence had himself prolifically responded to the mutations of his time by embracing the Modernist trends concerned with finding new narrative forms through which to articulate a wider range of experiences. Moreover, while the title of his collection of poems Look! We Have Come Through! encapsulates a definitely more personal crisis, his essays Fantasia of the Unconscious and “The Crown” are indicative of his quest for a more satisfactory philosophy of life, including the question of man’s relation to eternity. In his introduction to Apocalypse, Richard Aldington also historicizes Lawrence’s response, stressing that “before Lawrence the primacy of the intellect had been doubted by Bergson, the psychology of the unconscious had been formulated by Freud and the whole system of values of European civilisation had been rejected in their different ways by Tolstoy and Nietzsche, and even Dostoievsky” (Lawrence 1932, xvii).

9Therefore, Lawrence’s endeavour to unveil older pagan symbols peppered throughout the Johannine text is triggered by his firm belief in the resilience of an original “book of pagan Mystery,” written over by “Jewish apocalyptists” then “pruned down by Christian editors” (Lawrence 1980, 81). His stance suggests that a cosmic content of the original Apocalypse is necessarily a-historical since it articulates the mystery of Being, a position he endeavours to convey in his novels when he turns to new narrative forms to stage the “instant self.” Frank Kermode shows, for instance, how Women in Love is “deliberately stripped of contemporary reference,” how Lawrence “‘detemporalised’ his book, avoided mentioning that its events belong to the war years. The war was to be any war” (1968, 36). Similarly, at the beginning of The Plumed Serpent, the political backdrop is overtly mentioned only to better thematise the issue of time when the church clock stops or when the main character, Kate, removes her watch. It appears then that Lawrence’s narrative experiments as well as his iconoclastic essays paradoxically bear witness both to a definite Sitz im Leben and to an a-historical vision of the primeval Being, the paradox contributing to the transformation of Lawrence, the Modernist, into an apocalyptist.

10As such, Lawrence warmly welcomed novel contemporary readings of the Bible, writing of “the value of these studies. [...] They wake the imagination and give us at moments a new universe to live in. [...] Modern research has been able to put the Bible back into its living connexions, and it is splendid” (Lawrence 1980, 54, 55). Also voicing the author’s keen interest, the first Fragment of his essay Apocalypse reads as a review of James Moffatt’s translation of the New Testament published in 1913 – a single Bible edition including his later translation of the Old Testament was to be issued in 1926. Moffatt departed from traditional renderings by switching chapter orders according to his judgments about the chronology, authorship, and historicity of the texts. He also used different typefaces depending on which author he believed had written each particular section. Verses from the Apocalypse in the James Moffatt Version can therefore look like this, the italics signalling borrowings from Ezekiel:

And in front of the throne seven torches of fire burn (they are the seven Spirits of God); also in front of the throne there is like a sea of glass, resembling crystal. And on each side of the throne, all round it, four living Creatures full of eyes inside and outside; the first living Creature resembling a lion, the second living Creature resembling an ox, the third living Creature with a face like a man’s, the fourth living Creature like a flying eagle. (Revelation IV, 6-7)

11In his 1913 preface Moffatt specified his aims, writing, “I hope also that the translation may fall into the hands of some who know how to freshen their religious interest in the meaning of the New Testament by reading it occasionally in some unauthorized English or foreign version.” This is exactly why Lawrence praised the initiative: “Myself I am very grateful to the new translations of the Bible. A translation like Moffatt’s frees the book from the pompous snoring of the old Elizabethan language and the parson’s voice combined,” he states, alluding to how as a child “‘portions’ of the Bible [had been] douched over [his] mind and consciousness” (Lawrence 1980, 153, 59). He claims, “now having really read the Bible as a book, not as a one-sided pronouncement, I realise the very truth of the Bible” (1980, 156).

12Lawrence read extensively alternative interpretations of the Apocalypse, dissociated from the “End of times.” James Pryse’s and Fredrick Carter’s works, both holding the dragon as prominent in the fulfilment of man, came to Lawrence as a personal revelation, and compelled him to pen his own struggle with the Apocalypse as he alienated himself from dogmatic understandings of the book. “We ought to be grateful for a book like this of the Dragon. [...] It suddenly opens doors and lets out the spirit into a new world, even if it is a very old world,” he writes (Lawrence 1980, 54). Alienation is embedded in his essay when, deeply concerned with unveiling the Time Spirit of a pagan past, Lawrence never refers specifically to any scholarly source prior to those of his time. The lack of any diachronic survey may have led Richard Aldington to mention that “If people try to read Apocalypse either as a work of scholarship or of scientific analysis, they make a mistake, for it is nothing of the kind” (Lawrence 1932, xxviii). With considerable ease, Lawrence deliberately puts into a nutshell centuries of Bible exegesis, stating, “The system of suppression of all pagan evidence has been instinctive, a fear-instinct, and has been thorough, and has been, really, criminal in the Christian world, from the first century until today” (Lawrence 1980, 87). Though Lawrence knew of them, his essay is free of any reference to the founding Christian exegetic texts, for instance by St Augustine or Pope Gregory the Great. As a consequence, when he writes that “Ezekiel’s great vision [...] is so largely repeated in the Apocalypse” (1980, 82), his statement seems to stand alone, isolated from the church’s full acknowledgment of such intertextual ties. Though triggered by dogmatic needs, early intertextual awareness is pictured, for instance, in Christian iconography, as in the stained-glass windows in Chartres Cathedral, France, dating back to 1221, which represent each evangelist striding the shoulders of a prophet from the Old Testament:

  • 1 Photograph reproduced by courtesy of Notre Dame de Chartres Cathedral.

John striding Ezekiel’s shoulders1

13Lawrence must have known about the windows, since he went sight-seeing in Chartres in April 1924. By giving this example I wish to stress Lawrence’s attempt to locate in his own times the scholarly work carried out on the Johannine borrowings. This is all the more plausible insofar as he knew of a work attributed to Fra Angelico called “The wheel within a wheel,” a symbol I shall turn to later and which highlights the links between the two Testaments. In fact, the panel representing “The wheel within a wheel” is part of a delicately ornate cabinet called "The “Armadio degli Argenti” (“The Silver Chest,” circa 1453) that Lawrence must have seen during his visit to the San Marco Museum in Florence where he saw Fra Angelico’s “Judgment Day” painting, according to Jeffrey Meyers’ study Painting and the Novel.

14Alienation, articulated through a synchronic approach, turns Lawrence into a prophet of his own times, a tutelary figure writing his own protest literature. Bracketing the history of Bible exegesis, he resolutely focuses on the “hints of the magnificent cosmos,” on the “great pagan concept of the Time Spirit and the Kosmokrator and the Kosmosdynamos” in an a-historical mode (Lawrence 1980, 79, 82). So by setting the Christian Apocalypse against an older uncorrupted text, Lawrence endeavours to unveil the mythological consciousness of the pre-Socratics which enabled immediacy to be experienced, just as he sets himself the task of aestheticizing the experience of timelessness in his novels. Moreover, the dynamics resulting from setting “meaning against meaning” (Lawrence 1980, 48) find a parallel in the tension between the two concepts of time which Lawrence encapsulated earlier in “The Crown,” describing “[t]he Pagan, aristocratic, lordly, sensuous [who] has declared the Eternity of the Origin [and] the Christian, humble, spiritual, unselfish, democratic, [who] has declared the Eternity of the Issue, the End” (Lawrence 1988, 300). Thus addressing the paradigmatic shift, Lawrence imposes his own vision, stressing that “the two eternities are not one eternity. They are only one in their mutual relation, which relation is timeless and absolute” (Lawrence 1988, 300).

The Wheels of Time

15Lawrence rejects the linear concept of time, opting instead for a cyclical conception, arguing that “our idea of time as a continuity in an eternal straight line has crippled our consciousness cruelly” (1980, 97). Resorting to cyclical motifs, exemplified through the zodiac and the revolving wheels to be found in the original Apocalypse and the book of Ezekiel, he elaborates on “the living incarnate cosmos” and on “the magnificent here and now of life” (1980, 149), echoing the concept of “timelessness” he advocated in “The Crown” for the “consummate being” to be fulfilled (Lawrence 1988, 300). The zodiac offers more than a cyclical view of time rehearsed by the cycles of nature and providing time-bearings dating back to the Babylonians. Instead what it actually does is to articulate “the great world of the pagan cosmos” where man can achieve fulfilment. Naming the planets hinted at in the Apocalypse, Lawrence dwells more specifically on the zodiac sign of Pisces, the Fish being the symbol of Christ. His remark on the “powerful hold [...of] star-lore, originally Chaldean, over the mind of man” (Lawrence 1980, 98) can remind us of Zeno’s Sermon on Baptism. Zeno, who founded a church in Verona around the year 350 CE, organized a mass baptism of newly converted Christians. Wondering about their second birth, the former pagans who were staunch believers in the zodiac asked under which sign they would be reborn. Zeno then delivered his “Sermon on Baptism,” also known as “The Sermon of the Zodiac to the Neophytes” in which he appropriated each sign for Christian needs. For instance, he said of Aries:

First, it was not Aries but the Lamb who received you; he refuses no one who believes in him. He has clothed your nakedness with the white splendour of his wool and tenderly poured his own blessed milk into your lips which were wide open with crying. (Hegedus 355)

16The entire speech develops along those lines, so much so that the zodiac came to be read as follows: Aries stands for the sacrificial Lamb (Christ); Taurus is the sacrificial Calf (Christ) inviting sinners to repent; Gemini represents the two Covenants; Cancer Evil (namely idolatry, indecency and greed); Leo is Christ King, and so on. The interpretation also links the end of the cycle to its beginning since “the two people of God” pictured by Pisces, the last sign of the zodiac in the year, are one, thanks to “the sacrificial Lamb” (Aries).

17This is a far cry from Lawrence’s belief in the cycles of the planets to set into motion, and thereby to epitomize, the dynamics that “release the imagination,” since the Apocalypse is said to be “still, in its movement, one of the works of the old pagan civilisation, and in it we have, not the modern process of progressive thought, but the old pagan process of the rotary image-thought. Every image fulfills its own little cycle of action and meaning, then is superseded by another image” (Lawrence 1980, 95).

18Consistent with these dynamics, Lawrence’s apocalyptic writings unfold thanks to a cyclical motif staging his thought process, as the author returns constantly to the corruption of the original pagan text and to the power of the planets, each argumentative cycle revealing more about the pagan symbols. The sentences move forward, evolving however as in a spiral rather than in a circle, as if pressed forward by “the dynamic value of the [very] symbols,” the author unveils (Lawrence 1980, 93). Writing on this distinction, Barthes explains that the dynamics of

the symbolism of the spiral is the opposite of that of the circle; the circle is religious, theological; the spiral, a kind of circle distended to infinity, is dialectical; on the spiral, things recur, but at another level: there is a return in difference, not a repetition in identity. (217)

19Contrary to Zeno’s circular appropriation of the zodiac, Lawrence credits the planets’ cycle with creative powers that man has to yield to. This is why he understood the “prophetic method of the past” as “a set of images or symbols of the real dynamic value, which should set the emotional consciousness of the enquirer as he pondered them, revolving more rapidly, till out of a state of intense absorption the resolve at last formed” (Lawrence 1980, 93).

20His quest for creative cosmic forces leads Lawrence to rejoice over the presence of the “wheels within wheels” in the book of Ezekiel (I, 4) while lamenting their absence in the Apocalypse, though Bible scholars think otherwise, identifying them with the four living creatures bearing God’s throne or chariot. Lawrence is relieved because the wheels indicate that Ezekiel’s vision was not divinely inspired, rather the prophet fed into it the cosmic knowledge he gained while in exile. Attributing the “wheels within wheels” to Anaximander, whom he had read about in Burnet’s Early Greek Philosophy, Lawrence praises how the Greek scholar released his imagination from the increasingly superstitious interpretations of the zodiac and launched speculative astronomy, including the ideas that celestial bodies make full circles and pass also beneath the earth, that the earth floats free and unsupported in space, and that the celestial bodies lie behind one another. Anaximander had studied Babylonian astrological observations which had been circulating in writing for some time, and his contemporary, the scholar and prophet Ezekiel, who was among the Jewish captives deported to Babylonia towards 593 B.C.E., is said to have had knowledge of these findings (see Halpern 443-480).

21Praising this precursor’s creativity and independence of thought, Lawrence frees himself from dogmatic readings of the Apocalypse, and therefore from the boundaries of an impending “End of Time.” However, he takes full advantage of the multivalence of the image of the “wheels within wheels,” which suggests both the ideas of released imagination and of well-ordered cycles. For instance, in his poem “The Wandering Cosmos,” contemporary to the essay, Lawrence challenges cosmic ordinance by releasing the heavenly bodies from their set course:

Oh, do not tell me the heavens as well are a wheel.
For every revolution of the earth around the sun
is a footstep onwards, onwards, we know not whither
and we do not care,
but a step onwards in untravelled space
for the earth, like the sun, is a wanderer (1964, 713).

22As Bethan Jones points out in her arresting study of Last Poems, “Anaximander’s ‘wheel theory’ and the concept of ‘wandering,’ liberated heavenly bodies are seen as irreconcilable” (98). I would add that the tension fuelled by the paradox conveys Lawrence’s celebration of creativity and spontaneity, which can only occur when planets are no longer time-markers appropriated by superstitious lore but are instead understood as creative cosmic forces. Lawrence, as the poet and apocalyptist, is also taking a spontaneous “footstep forward,” thus renouncing set cycles in favour of the infinite dialectics of the spiral. The work of art then becomes a means to transcend the boundaries of time.

23I have argued that Lawrence’s response to the book of the Apocalypse is definitely inscribed in his time, while developing along a spiral process of thought which “returns to the original text with a difference,” to advocate timelessness. The process enables Lawrence to cope with the Judeo-Christian shift away from a cyclical view of time, which he encapsulates in the phrase “the two eternities.” The balance he endeavours to achieve between the two can be read in the paradoxes and tensions he foregrounds between the original Apocalypse and the Johannine text, and also between the definite Sizt im Leben and the a-historical resolution he promoted in order to achieve the “instant self.” Lawrence’s closing chapter, clearly based on John Pryse’s idea of chakras, is free of time-reckonings. It can thus be read as a celebration of an a-historic understanding of cycles, the uncoiling dragon epitomizing the spiral distending to infinity.

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Bibliographie

Barr, David, ed. The Reality of Apocalypse: Rhetoric and Politics in the Book of Revelation. Houston: Society of Biblical Literature, 2006.

Barthes, Roland, The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays in Music, Art, and Representation. Trans. Richard Howard. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986.

Böcher, Otto. “Die Johannes-Apokalypse in der neueren Forschung.” Aufstieg Und Niedergang Der Römischen Welt / The Rise and Decline of the Roman World. Ed. Wolfgang Haase. Vol. 2.25.5. Berlin: Gruyter, 1988: 3850-3893.

Burnet, John. Early Greek Philosophy. Edinburg: Black, 1892.

Charles, Robert H. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Revelation of St. John. 2 vols. London: Heinemann, 1964.

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Fish, Stanley. Is There a Text in This Class ? Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1980.

Frost, Stanley. Old Testament Apocalyptic, its Origins and Growth. London: Epworth, 1952.

Halpern, Baruck. From Gods to God: The Dynamics of Iron Age Cosmologies. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009.

Hegedus, Tim. Early Christianity and Ancient Astrology. New York: Lang, 2007.

Jones, Bethan. The Last Poems of D. H. Lawrence: Shaping a Late Style. Farnham: Ashgate, 2010.

Kermode, Frank. “Lawrence and the Apocalyptic Types.” Critical Quarterly. 10.1-2 (June 1968): 14-38.

Kermode, Frank. Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000.

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Lawrence, D. H. Apocalypse and the Writings on Revelation. Ed. Mara Kalnins. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980.

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Lawrence, D. H. The Plumed Serpent. Ed. L. D. Clark, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987.

Lawrence, D. H. Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays. Ed. Michael Herbert. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988.

Meyers, Jeffrey, Painting and the Novel. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1975.

Moffatt James. The Bible: James Moffatt translation, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1994.

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Pryse, James. The Apocalypse Unsealed. London: Watkins, 1910.

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Notes

1 Photograph reproduced by courtesy of Notre Dame de Chartres Cathedral.

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Légende John striding Ezekiel’s shoulders1
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Shirley Bricout, « “Postponing Destiny”: The Wheels of Time in D. H. Lawrence’s Apocalypse. », Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 48 | 2017, mis en ligne le 20 décembre 2017, consulté le 10 décembre 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lawrence/279 ; DOI : 10.4000/lawrence.279

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Shirley Bricout

Université Montpellier 3 Paul Valéry / EMMA 

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