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“Must take the imaginative line”: Lawrence the Creative Historian

Fiona Fleming

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  • 1 “But the main thing [in the sex relation], as in the thunder-storm, is the absolute renewal of the (...)

1Time, for Lawrence, is conceived not as a linear but as a cyclical progression, moving forward in loops of destruction and rebirth, for destruction is a necessary step in creation and advancement. In The Rainbow, the destruction of the old farming generation, in the person of Tom Brangwen, drowned in the flood in chapter nine – the very middle of the novel – finds an echo in the very last chapter, with Ursula’s new-found hope in the future of the world, symbolised by the rainbow – the creation of light after a disruptive storm. The climatic metaphor is a recurrent expression of purification, of desirable apocalypse and renewal, as in the pseudo-scientific explanation of the benefits of intercourse in Fantasia of the Unconscious.1 Every occurrence of this cyclical movement is described as a healthy change and, therefore, as a countering of a decaying situation. The Plumed Serpent depicts Christianity in Mexico as a sterile, declining cult and the destruction of the vulgar Christian images, accompanied by the initiation to the cult of Quetzalcoatl, is joyfully celebrated by the people of Sayula.

  • 2 “The stupendous historical exigency of the unsatisfied modern culture, the gathering around one of (...)

2Lawrence and Nietzsche both focus on the civilisation of their time, which they perceive as being diseased, with the result that they turn to the past as a means of comparison with the present, in order to pinpoint the symptoms of corruption and a possible remedy. Nietzsche asserts that his contemporaries’ anxious search for historical facts, causing them to delve far into their own past as well as into that of other cultures, is a sign of their dispersion and rootlessness, betraying the lack of founding myths capable of uniting a civilisation.2 My intention here is thus to show that Lawrence, while registering history’s shortcomings in the creation of the enduring identity of a culture, takes it upon himself to create cultural origins and founding myths, which can be casually mingled with historical knowledge, in order to shed light on the decline of Western civilisation. I shall first describe how a series of typical Lawrencian myths are created, before analysing three different uses of those myths.

3Lawrence’s writing is always an exploration of ideas, an experiment in which his beliefs are put to the test, whether through the medium of argumentation, as in an essay such as Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious, or thanks to a plot and characters designed to endorse a hypothesis while upholding the novel’s coherence. Regardless, however, of the success or failure of Lawrence’s writings in their claim to being coherent and convincing works, they are always to be regarded as fruitful explorations into man’s consciousness and, as such, they conform to the definition laid down by the narrator in Kangaroo “that a novel is, or should be, also a thought-adventure” (K 279), aimed at establishing certain truths.

4Myths enable Lawrence’s imagination to roam free of the conventions of verisimilitude or scientific exactitude. They provide him with symbols and poetical connections through which to illustrate his theories. For example, the essay “The Two Principles” expounds as follows on the creation of northern and southern races: “some races, men and women alike, derive from the sun and have the fiery principle predominant in their constitution, whilst some, blonde, blue-eyed, northern, are evidently water-born, born along with the ice-crystals and blue, cold deeps, and yellow, ice-refracted sunshine.” (TSM 185). This analysis, along with a similar one to be found in “Herman Melville’s Typee and Omoo,” has a distinctly Darwinian feel about it. Yet rather than suggesting the work of a scientist, it betrays the vision of an artist, unrestricted by the protocols of scientific validation, who can thus associate blue eyes with cold water, blonde hair with the luminous surface of water and brown eyes with the brown earth and warm sun.

5Although such a theory appears to be no more than pure fantasy, the symbolism it rests on is an attempt at explaining the origins of sensual consciousness and mental consciousness in terms of climatic conditions – a polarity which science does not acknowledge but which may nonetheless, in Lawrence’s view, serve the same purpose of furthering man’s knowledge of the cosmos and his self-knowledge. Lawrence starts out from scientifically authentic historical facts or from well-known myths, which he then develops into idiomatic myths, underpinned by typical Lawrencian beliefs. This happens on a small as well as a large scale, the implication of which is that the writing may locally develop a particular mythical element, in order to suit the needs of a point which he is making, either in passing or recurrently, in accordance with a thread which runs through his work and which is thus part of the mythical construction supporting an aspect of his metaphysics.

6For instance, the figure of Pan is often resorted to in the essays, as an allegory of the spirit of place. In Twilight in Italy the traveller declares: “It is strange how different the sun-dried, ancient, southern slopes of the world are, from the northern slopes. It is as if the god Pan really had his home among these sun-bleached stones and tough, sun-dark trees” (TI 141), and were thus the symbolic intimation of something superhuman in the landscape, to be figured as a deity. Similarly, in Sea and Sardinia, Pan is said to be an “expression” of the “conscious genius” (SS 117) of a place, in other words a personification of the land. In both these examples Lawrence takes up an existing mythological figure, local and specific to the part of the world whose fields and mountains it inhabits, and which thus makes it an obvious symbol of the Lawrencian concept of spirit of place. Later in Lawrence’s career, however, the Pan figure reappears “in America, among the Indians” to embody “[t]he old connexion, the old Allness,” the “relationship, which the world of man once had with all the world" (P 29-31). The use of the Greek mythical figure in an Indian context is striking. However, since it combines the pastoral quality of the deity with the meaning of the adverb παν (“all”), it aptly expresses the Lawrencian notion of harmony between man and the cosmos, which is also a founding principle of Indian beliefs.

7More interesting still, Lawrence mingles imaginative figures and historical events in a brief passage of “Sketches of Etruscan Places,” in which the figure of the faun is used to describe a type of Italian man decimated in the war:

It was an old, old type, and rather common in the south. But now you will hardly see one of these men left, with the unconscious, ungrimacing faun-face. They were all, apparently, killed in the war: they would be sure not to survive such a war. Anyway the last one I know, a handsome fellow of my own age – forty and a bit – is going queer and morose, crushed between war-memories that have revived, and remorseless go-ahead women-folk. Probably, when I go south again, he will have disappeared. They can’t survive, the faun-faced men, with their pure outlines and their strange non-moral calm. (SEP 12)

8The wariness, mysteriousness and naturalness of this type of Italian evidently suggest his identification with the faun figure. Furthermore, insofar as fauns are legendary creatures of Roman mythology, habitually associated with nature, liveliness and with an indifference to morals, they are apt symbols for a type of humanity which has been lost, and for its possible regeneration. What is remarkable here nonetheless, is that Lawrence manages to accommodate the mythical and symbolical figure within a realistic, modern landscape, by inserting its depiction in a context referring to the devastating effects of the war, underpinned by the familiar Lawrencian resentment towards brazen modern women. The mythical faun is thus employed as a poetical image through which to designate a human type which might become history in the present and the future.

9Such insights are unquestionably unscientific and are beyond all possibility of actual demonstration or validation, since they rely merely on impressions, on what the poet feels to be true. In accordance with the Romantic preference for emotion over intellect, Lawrence’s reconstruction of the past gives precedence to feeling over fact, as is evident in his musings on the Romans in the Hercynian forest in “Fantasia of the Unconscious.” The whole passage, recounting the encounter with the forest, is saturated with feeling, that of the narrator himself as well as that of his recreated or resurrected Romans. Lawrence has no interest in the latter’s actions or in their historical work of conquest. What interests him is the quality defining their states of mind, and the description he gives of the forest, supposedly seen through Roman eyes, is in fact a recollection of his own sensations, transposed onto the consciousness of the legionaries:

But when the legions crossed the Rhine, they found a vast impenetrable life which had no voice. They met the faceless silence of the Black Forest. This huge, huge wood did not answer when they called. Its silence was too crude and massive. And the soldiers shrank: shrank before the trees that had no faces, and no answer. A vast array of non-human life, darkly self-sufficient, and bristling with indomitable energy. The Hercynian wood, not to be fathomed. The enormous power of these collective trees, stronger in their sombre life even than Rome.” (FU 87)

10The abundance of adjectives, together with the repetitions and the nominal clauses, accentuates the overpowering awe and brings the historic encounter to life, in a manner reminiscent of the style of Movements in European History. Lawrence’s approach to history in that volume arises firstly from the need to appeal to a young readership, but can also be traced back to his conviction that the past is to be felt rather than to be learnt. “When shall we learn that it is no use approaching the still-vital creations of dead men as if they were so many machine-parts which, fitted together, would make a ‘civilisation’! Oh, the weary, asinine stupidity of man’s desire to ‘see the thing as a whole’” (SEP 34). Such irritated exclamations in “Sketches of Etruscan Places” make it quite clear that Lawrence does not believe in dry, accumulative knowledge. What he is searching after is rather the recreation and the reliving of the past.

  • 3 (3732 To Millicent Beveridge, 8 June 1926) Letters v., 473.

11In the case of the Etruscans, early twentieth century historians had no other choice than to conjecture their lifestyles and values, or else to rely on Roman testimonies, owing to the fact that the Etruscan language was decipherable but incomprehensible. Far from deterring Lawrence, the fact that “There really is next to nothing to be said, scientifically, about the Etruscans” gives him the much more attractive opportunity: to “take the imaginative line."3 He thus sets out to understand them through his senses rather than his mind, building his knowledge of them through his perception of and reaction to their relics, rather than by reasoning from the evidence available. Though the resulting report of Etruscan culture is fraught with expressions of uncertainty, such as the concession “It seems as if the Etruscans may once have cut this low rock-face,” or “Perhaps the refugee Vestals were housed on this rock. And perhaps not" (SEP 13) (my italics), Lawrence considers his own impressions to be more trustworthy than the works of reference on the Etruscans. His description of the atmosphere surrounding Etruscan places consists in a string of subjective terms, through which they are contrasted with other historical sites: “There is a queer stillness, and a curious peaceful repose about the Etruscan places I have been to, quite different from the weirdness of Celtic places, the slightly repellent feeling of Rome and the old campagna, and the rather horrible feeling of the great pyramid places in Mexico, Teotihuacan and Cholula, and Mitla in the south; or the amiably idolatrous Buddha places in Ceylon” (SEP 16), which leads him to conclude to the Etruscans’ “homeliness and happiness” – a truly unscientific deduction, impossible either to prove or quantify. Yet Lawrence presents a string of arguments to support his hypothesis: the adjective “gay” is repeatedly applied to Etruscan things, the tombs are lent human characteristics such as “easy and friendly,” making his response to them entirely emotional, while the impact the rooms and paintings have on the visitor is emphasised and is again compared to the effect of the art of other cultures. Since “[t]hey leave the breast breathing freely and pleasantly, with a certain fullness of life” (SEP 19), it is inferred that the people who created such art must have been free, pleasant and full of life.

  • 4 (539 To Ernest Collings, 17 January 1913) Letters i., 503.

12Admittedly, the reconstruction of the past by way of the interpretation of its vestiges in terms of one’s emotional response to them is an entirely subjective procedure and is beyond scientific substantiation. However, in Lawrence’s eyes these interpretations may be just as accurate as any hard evidence, for the senses predominate over the mind and are more trustworthy: “My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect. We can go wrong in our minds. But what our blood feels and believes and says, is always true."4 Besides, his enquiry into the Etruscan culture is clearly not motivated by a mere historical curiosity: as always when he approaches a new bygone people – Indians, Celts, South Sea islanders or Aztecs – he is driven by a not-so-hidden agenda whose aim is to comfort his vision of modern society’s need to “pick up the life-thread” (P 90) of the old civilisations in order to avoid collapsing into deadly automatism.

13As mentioned earlier, no understandable written trace of Etruscan life remains, apart from Roman testimonies, which Lawrence implicitly criticises in the following ironical observation: “Besides, the Etruscans were vicious. We know it, because their enemies and exterminators said so. Just as we knew the unspeakable depths of our enemies in the late war. Who isn’t vicious, to his enemy?” (SEP 9). By suggesting that the voice of the victor is not to be trusted, because it offers a biased and unilateral vision of the past, Lawrence adopts a view of history which anticipates one we have come to associate with a postcolonial stance. His reconstruction of Etruscan times thus attempts to reclaim a vantage point from which history is no longer exclusively narrated from the side of the victors.

  • 5 See British colonial secretary Joseph Chamberlain’s speech at the Annual Royal Colonial Institute D (...)

14Likewise, the myth of the sun and moon narrated by the young Chilchui Indian in “The Woman Who Rode Away” resounds as the voice of otherness and dissent, as the voice of the conquered. Insofar as the Indian tribes pass on their knowledge orally rather than in written form, such knowledge is silenced by the widespread written accounts of other cultures. In Lawrence’s story, however, the conquered culture gives voice to its own account of the white man’s conquest, with its disastrous effects: “the Indian got weak, and lost his power with the sun, so the white men stole the sun. But they can’t keep him – they don’t know how. […] White men don’t know what they are doing with the sun, and white women don’t know what they do with the moon” (WWRA 61-2). Obviously, the idea of a harmonious balance of cosmic elements and of a healthy and creative experience of sexual encounter are typical Lawrencian beliefs – though they may also actually echo Indian beliefs. The idea that white domination may have destroyed the universe’s balance, because of the ignorance of white men and women of the vital relationship with the cosmos, is a remarkable reversal of colonial discourse, which had usually invoked the progressive, “civilizational” movement towards the greater good and the overcoming of the ignorance of the conquered peoples to justify its “mission.5” Thus, this myth presents an alternative vision of history and its symbols offer an insight into the Weltanschauung of another culture.

  • 6 “Nature, on which as yet no knowledge has been at work, which maintains unbroken barriers to cultur (...)

15The myths in Lawrence’s work often express primitivist nostalgia, as they carry the suggestion that a previous, desirable state of humanity has been irretrievably lost, while also pointing to the availability of a new path through which to cure the ailing modern world and improve man’s condition. Lawrence’s use of history and myth underlines the stark contrasts between what he calls the old world and the modern world, usually to the latter’s disadvantage. For instance, the damaged painting of an Etruscan man dancing is said to have more life in it than real modern men do: “On the broken wall are the dancing legs of a man and there is more life in these Etruscan legs, fragment as they are, than in the whole bodies of men today” (SEP 53). Such an observation suggests that modern man has lost the gift of life and indeed Lawrence seems to see the evolution of the world in terms of loss rather than gain. Economic, technical and scientific gain do not compensate for spiritual loss and for the loss of life-knowledge: “We are really far, far more life-stupid than the dead Greeks or the lost Etruscans,” (FU 118) he claims accusingly. Similarly, the loss of the “faun-faced men” implicitly betokens the disappearance of true men – uncivilised, alive, and in harmony with nature – insofar as fauns, or satyrs, embody the archetype of man in the eyes of the Greeks, according to Nietzsche.6

  • 7 “But if in the most backward state of human society now known to us we find magic thus conspicuousl (...)
  • 8 “So that the etruscan cities vanished as completely as flowers.” Sketches of Etruscan Places, 13. “ (...)

16The old world which Lawrence opposes to the modern world is in fact a mythical, ancient world order, where the now “primitive” populations used to be the most civilised in the field of blood knowledge, of which the modern civilised cultures are ignorant: “The savages, we may say all savages, are remnants of the once civilised world-people, who had their splendour and their being for countless centuries in the way of sensual knowledge” (TSM 223). This Lawrencian myth finds its roots in ethnological theories of the time, mainly those of Lucien Lévy-Bruhl and James George Frazer, propounding the idea of a primitive mind which precedes and differs from the civilised mind.7 But Lawrence takes this theory a step further by adding his cherished notions of sensual consciousness and mental consciousness, and arguing that modern, northern societies have too much of the latter and none of the former. One form of this ancient world order was “the pre-historic Mediterranean world” (SEP 27) which belongs to another history than ours, and to which the sensual Etruscans belonged, according to “Sketches of Etruscan Places,” a world of which there remains no written trace – thus making it easier to fantasise about it. Lawrence’s wistful depiction of the vanished Etruscans celebrates a sensual way of life which allowed for man’s well-being, happiness and fulfilment, unlike the modern, mental way of life. The carelessness and evanescence of Etruscan life, suggested by the murals and the evidence of how they built their cities, seem extremely desirable to him, when compared with the importance and weight of later civilisations, including his own. He repeatedly assimilates Etruscan wooden temples and houses to flowers8 – natural, temporary, unimposing elements, unlike the ponderous continuity typical of the works of art of other civilisations, of arts that are synonymous with death: “Why this lust after imposing creeds, imposing deeds, imposing buildings, imposing language, imposing works of art? The thing becomes an imposition and a weariness at last. […] Even Michelangelo becomes at last a lump and a burden and a bore” (SEP 33).

17The style of the Etruscan paintings is described as “alive and flexible” (SEP 33), natural and “spontaneous” (SEP 39), in contrast to the imposing aspect of Roman works of art, to the “uplift[ing]” Greek or gothic works of art (SEP 39). But despite their naturalness, lightness and apparent innocence, they also convey a deeper meaning, for the beasts or objects seem to Lawrence to act as symbols for hidden truths and lost wisdom. Although their exact meaning is not clear to the twentieth century beholder, Lawrence senses that each scene and item within the scene holds a message, a clue to “a vision, and even a science of life, a conception of the universe and man’s place in the universe which made men live to the depth of their capacity” (SEP 56). It is quite revealing of the modern world’s obtuseness to symbolical meaning that the young German who accompanies him in the tombs should see in these creatures or signs nothing more than fanciful absurdities or decorations. As both Lawrence and Nietzsche assert, a form of knowledge was lost when symbolic thought was replaced by rationalism. Yet the knowledge and the ancient wisdom which these symbols convey are equal to those provided by history. They can even unveil deeper existential truths than factual history. The decisive importance of sensual knowledge, of liveliness and naturalness, is, he considers, wanting in historical works. Lawrence therefore creates myths where those notions are central, in order to raise awareness and urge a return to sensual knowledge and the “religion of life” (SEP 56).

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Chamberlain, Joseph. Foreign and Colonial Speeches, London, Routledge, 1897.

Frazer, James George. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, Oxford University Press, 1998.

Lévy-Bruhl, Lucien. La Mentalité Primitive, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1960.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy (Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik), New York, Macmillan, 1923 [1872],

Works by D. H. Lawrence:

Kangaroo, ed. Bruce Steele, The Cambridge Edition of the Letters and Works of D.H. Lawrence, , 1994 [1923].

Movements in European History, ed. Philip Crumpton, The Cambridge Edition of the Letters and Works of D.H. Lawrence , Cambridge University Press, 1972 [1921].

Phoenix: the Posthumous Papers of D. H. Lawrence, ed. Edward D. McDonald, London, Heinemann, 1936.

Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious and Fantasia of the Unconscious, ed. Bruce Steele, The Cambridge Edition of the Letters and Works of D.H. Lawrence, Cambridge University Press 2004, [1921, 1922].

Sea and Sardinia, ed. Mara Kalnins, The Cambridge Edition of the Letters and Works of D.H. Lawrence, Cambridge University Press, 1997 [1921].

Sketches of Etruscan Places and Other Italian Essays, ed. Simonetta De Filippis, The Cambridge Edition of the Letters and Works of D.H. Lawrence, Cambridge University Press, 2002 [1932].

Studies in Classic American Literature, ed. Ezra Greenspan, Lindeth Vasey and John Worthen The Cambridge Edition of the Letters and Works of D.H. Lawrence, Cambridge University Press, 2003 [1923].

The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, Vol. I September 1901-May 1913, ed. James T. Boulton, D. R. Farmer, G. M. Lacy, W. Roberts, The Cambridge Edition of the Letters and Works of D.H. Lawrence, Cambridge University Press, 1979.

The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, Vol. V March 1924-March 1927, ed. James T. Boulton, Lindeth Vasey, The Cambridge Edition of the Letters and Works of D.H. Lawrence, Cambridge University Press, 1989.

The Plumed Serpent, ed. L. D. Clark, The Cambridge Edition of the Letters and Works of D. H. Lawrence, Cambridge University Press, 1987 [1926].

The Rainbow, ed. Mark Kinkead-Weekes, The Cambridge Edition of the Letters and Works of D. H. Lawrence, Cambridge University Press, 1989 [1915].

The Symbolic Meaning: The Uncollected Versions of "Studies in Classic American Literature," ed. Armin Arnold, Centaur Press, 1962

The Woman Who Rode Away and Other Stories, ed. Dieter Mehl, Christa Jansohn, The Cambridge Edition of the Letters and Works of D. H. Lawrence, Cambridge University Press, 1995 [1928].

Twilight in Italy, Kessinger Publishing, 2004 [1916].

Women in Love, David Farmer, ed. John Worthen and Lindeth Vasey, The Cambridge Edition of the Letters and Works of D. H. Lawrence, Cambridge University Press, 1987 [1920].

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1 “But the main thing [in the sex relation], as in the thunder-storm, is the absolute renewal of the atmosphere: in this case, the blood. It would no doubt be found that the electro-dynamic condition of the white and red corpuscles of the blood was quite different after a successful coition, and that the chemical composition of the fluid of the blood was quite changed” Fantasia of the Unconscious, 195.

2 “The stupendous historical exigency of the unsatisfied modern culture, the gathering around one of countless other cultures, the consuming desire for knowledge – what does all this point to, if not to the loss of myth, the loss of the mythical home, the mythical source?” Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, 175.

3 (3732 To Millicent Beveridge, 8 June 1926) Letters v., 473.

4 (539 To Ernest Collings, 17 January 1913) Letters i., 503.

5 See British colonial secretary Joseph Chamberlain’s speech at the Annual Royal Colonial Institute Dinner, Hotel Metropole, March 31, 1897: “We feel now that our rule over these territories can only be justified if we can show that it adds to the happiness and prosperity of the people, and I maintain that our rule does, and has, brought security and peace and comparative prosperity to countries that never knew these blessings before. In carrying out this work of civilization we are fulfilling what I believe to be our national mission, and we are finding scope for the exercise of these faculties and qualities which have made of us a great governing race.” Joseph Chamberlain, “The True Conception of Empire," 244.

6 “Nature, on which as yet no knowledge has been at work, which maintains unbroken barriers to culture this is what the Greek saw in his satyr, which still was not on this account supposed to coincide with the ape. On the contrary: it was the archetype of man, the embodiment of his highest and strongest emotions, as the enthusiastic reveller enraptured by the proximity of his god, as the fellow-suffering companion in whom the suffering of the god repeats itself, as the herald of wisdom speaking from the very depths of nature, as the emblem of the sexual omnipotence of nature, which the Greek was wont to contemplate with reverential awe.” Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, 63.

7 “But if in the most backward state of human society now known to us we find magic thus conspicuously present and religion conspicuously absent, may we not reasonably conjecture that the civilised races of the world have also at some period of their history passed through a similar intellectual phase, that they attempted to force the great powers of nature to do their pleasure before they thought of courting their favour by offerings and prayer – in short that, just as on the material side of human culture there has everywhere been an Age of Stone, so on the intellectual side there has everywhere been an Age of Magic?” James George Frazer, The Golden Bough, 53.

8 “So that the etruscan cities vanished as completely as flowers.” Sketches of Etruscan Places, 13. “Myself, I like to think of the little wooden temples of the early Greeks and of the Etruscans: small, dainty, fragile, and evanescent as flowers.” Ibid., 32.

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Fiona Fleming

Université Paris Nanterre

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