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Par-dessus le marché or What Price an Art of Excess?

Michael Bell

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1It is not surprising that in his Study of Thomas Hardy, which is an early statement of what were to be some of his central themes, Lawrence dwelt at length on the notion of excess. For this was the focus of a cardinal recognition. Lawrence was deeply affected by Hardy’s sense of the inhuman scale of life in which humanity ultimately has its being. As a late-Victorian agnostic, Hardy had come to see humanity itself as an excess, as an unnecessary life form thrown up by the evolutionary process, and he found a philosophical statement of such a view in Arthur Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of the Will. But Lawrence, of course, gave his essay on Hardy the Nietzschean title Le gai savaire and, just as Nietzsche retained much of Schopenhauer’s metaphysic while reversing its meaning, so Lawrence reversed the implication of Hardy’s. For Lawrence, human life was indeed an excess but now in a joyous rather than a melancholy or tragic sense.

  • 1 « Une vie ne vaut rien, mais rien ne vaut la vie. » André Malraux, Les Conquérants (1928).
  • 2 Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays, ed. Bruce Steele (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 19 (...)

2Of course, for a human being to see human life as an excess, whether tragically or affirmatively, is conceptually paradoxical. For excess is a differential term depending on an assumed norm of moderation or sufficiency yet where life is concerned it is hard to say what that would be. Who wants to be only moderately alive? Hence although we all know in the abstract that life exceeds calculation and price — as André Malraux put it: “a life is worth nothing, but nothing is worth life” — we tend to draw on this knowledge in extremis, when a life is lost or under threat.1 By contrast, Lawrence’s way of being and writing is characterised by his vivid awareness of this truth at all times. Every new day, every passing moment, is a bonus. This indicates that, although logically if all life is excess then there is no excess, somehow the sense, or the category, of excess remains vital; perhaps quite literally so. Excess, in other words, is not so much a logical or quantitative conception as a psychological and cultural one. So for example, when Lawrence criticises Tolstoy’s craving for excess, it is because the craving, and the very sense of excess as such, is generated by Tolstoy’s puritanism.2

3Accordingly I think it is illuminating to place Lawrence’s conception within a longer cultural history of post-religious modernity. With the advent of modernity, the terms “excess” and “luxury” took on a new ambivalence and it is highly suggestive that the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment should have grappled with them in both the psycho-affective and the economic domains for the parallelism between these two spheres has a continued bearing on the value and understanding of art. The modern notion of the aesthetic was born out of excess and in this context Lawrence’s example illuminates a particular understanding of art, and especially the linguistic art of literature.

4The movement of moral sentiment in the eighteenth century attempted to base the moral life on feeling and thereby accorded a high value to feeling as such, both as an ethical motivation and as a sheer expression of humanity. By the latter half of the century the resultant excesses of sensibility had become notorious and gave rise to an anti-sentimental reaction but the most important response was by critically assimilating, rather than rejecting, the role of feeling. The cult of feeling, as modified by romantic and Victorian writers, became foundational to modern sensibility. Modern persons, even formally religious believers, tend in practice to be moral sentimentalists in this historical sense, even if they have other rationalisations for the ethical life.

5A crucial moment in the evolution of sentiment was its aesthetic transposition. Whereas the earlier eighteenth century’s literalistic notion of sentiment had been that the arousal of benevolent feeling was a direct manifestation of moral character and a motivation to virtuous action, it became clear that this belief opened an abyss of emotional indulgence and self-deception. But instead of throwing out the baby of benevolence with the bathwater of false feeling, thoughtful observers began to understand that moral feelings were properly to be exercised, in the first instance, in the imaginative domain of art or fiction. Being moved by a tale of good deeds is not the same as performing them but it may provide insight into their motivation. Two major theoretical documents of this shift were Wordsworth’s Preface to the Lyrical Ballads (1798) and Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Mankind (1795). In both cases intensity of emotion, whether joyful, painful or excessive, undergoes not so much a moderation in degree as a transformation in kind. Indeed, intensity can properly be prized in the aesthetic context as the emotion is now contained within the art object rather than expressing the personal moral quality of the observer.

6But if the aesthetic state transforms the excesses of sensibility, it does so homeopathically since it is itself a form of excess. For Schiller, expanding the implication of Kant’s “purposiveness without purpose,” the aesthetic denotes the general human capacity to adopt a reflective and speculative remove from immediate utilitarian needs and purposes and is not therefore confined to the context of art although art is the most significant arena for exercising this capacity, and is supremely important in providing humanity with a form of emotional knowledge that is subjectively intense as well as objective and impersonal. Its necessary condition, however, is detachment from practical ends and only as an excess can it perform its humanising function. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that the late eighteenth-century legacy of the aesthetic as a special psycho-affective state has reproduced the radical ambivalence and conceptual elusiveness of excess as such.

7The aestheticizing of sentiment, therefore, may itself be seen in the context of a larger modern debate about excess or luxury applying most evidently in the economic sphere. King Lear’s “O reason not the need” was an impassioned recognition of the instability in the notions of need and excess, how these evade purely rational calculation while Ben Jonson, with an eye to contemporary London, anatomised in his dramatic language how economic scams play on the imaginations of their prey. When the fat and ageing Epicure Mammon anticipates the benefits of the philosopher’s stone he projects desire as fantasy. Sexually he looks to encounter an unlikely “fifty a night” while his culinary appetite is aroused by an essentially verbal feast. He will have:

  • 3 Ben Jonson, The Alchemist, ed F. H. Mayes, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1979), II, ii, (...)

The tongues of carps, dormice and camels’ heels,
Boil’d i’ the spirit of Sol, and dissolv’d pearl,
(Apicius’ diet, ‘gainst the epilepsy)
And I will eat these broths with spoons of amber,
Headed with diamond, and carbuncle.
My foot-boy shall eat pheasants, calver’d salmons,
Knots, godwits, lampreys: I myself will have
The beards of barbels, serv’d instead of salads;
Oil’d mushrooms; and the swelling unctuous paps
Of a fat pregnant sow, newly cut off,
And dressed in an exquisite and poignant sauce;3

8In the medieval world the vice of luxury had been to a significant degree formally contained by social hierarchy. Rank was a necessary aspect of the social order and legitimately expressed itself in display. But Jonson, while drawing on moral tradition both Christian and classical, is already noting the newly problematic status of luxury in the modern commercial economy. By the end of the eighteenth century, sumptuary laws governing the expression of social rank had fallen into disuse while the capitalist economy depended on consumerism; on people buying items they did not need but could be induced to desire.

9Meanwhile, in the same century, beginning with Addison’s essays on the “Pleasures of the Imagination,” there was, especially in Britain, an upward evaluation of the imagination along with recognition of its inescapability. And so luxury too, the enjoyment of excess, was recognised as essentially imaginative and with that it began to lose its objective definition. As Bernard de Mandeville observed in his Fable of the Bees disturbingly sub-titled Private Vices: Public Benefits (1714):

  • 4 Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees or Private Vices, Public Benefits (Indianapolis: Liberty (...)

[…] if once we depart from calling every thing Luxury that is not absolutely necessary to keep a Man alive, [ …] then there is no luxury at all; for if the wants of Men are innumerable, then what ought to supply them has no bounds; what is call’d superfluous to some degree of People, will be thought requisite to those of higher Quality; […]4

10In so far as the consumerism of the modern economy is based on imagined luxury, its moral sign also becomes uncertain and Adam Smith, in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), based a case for general economic well-being on a benign interpretation of Mandeville’s recognition.

  • 5 Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed. D. D. Raphael and A. L. McFie, (Indianapolis: Liber (...)

11[…] It is to no purpose that the proud and unfeeling landlord views his extensive fields, and without a thought for the wants of his brethren, in imagination consumes himself the whole harvest that grows upon them. The homely and vulgar proverb that the eye is bigger than the belly, never was more fully verified than with regard to him. The capacity of his stomach bears no proportion to the immensity of his desires, and will receive no more than that of the meanest peasant. The rest he is obliged to distribute among those who prepare, in the nicest manner, that little which he himself makes use of, among those who fit up the palace in which this little is to be consumed, among those who provide and keep in order all the different baubles and trinkets which are employed in the economy of greatness; all of whom thus derive from his luxury and caprice, that share in the necessities of life, which they would in vain have expected from his humanity or justice.5

12This early version of the trickledown theory espoused by Margaret Thatcher reflects Smith’s optimistic view of the human sociability generated by economic relations and he sees the selfishness of the rich man, the contemporary Epicure Mammon, with ironic ambivalence. Nor is imagined luxury a proclivity only of the very rich:

How many people ruin themselves by laying out money on trinkets of frivolous utility? What pleases these lovers of toys is not so much the utility, as the aptness of the machines which are fitted to promote it. Their pockets are stuffed with little conveniences. They contrive new pockets, unknown in the clothes of other people, in order to carry a greater number. They walk about loaded with a multitude of baubles, in weight and sometimes in value not inferior to an ordinary Jew’s-box, some of which may sometimes be of some little use, but all of which might well be spared, and of which the whole is certainly not worth the fatigue of bearing the burden. (TMS, 180)

13As a personally moderate man, Smith, like Ben Jonson, ironically exposes imaginary desire yet in his case with an appreciation of how the ingenuity of the gadget becomes in itself a source of satisfaction. As happens so often in the eighteenth century, Smith, without having the category consciously available, is on the edge of saying that the gadgets give aesthetic pleasure although in this case the disinterestedness of the aesthetic may be hard to unpick from the pride of possession. His description of the rich man recalls those contemporary paintings of wealthy landowners on their estates and in so far as the aesthetic is born of excess it retains the moral ambivalence of its genesis.

14While Smith saw an economic value in excess, the opposite view was most notably put by Jean-Jacques Rousseau who, as a protestant prophet of emotional authenticity, was in many ways the Lawrence of his time and is another figure in which the economic and artistic realms are linked. For Rousseau, the very fact of human society produces competitive desires experienced as imaginary needs and the constant emphasis of his educational treatise Emile is to recognise the limits of true needs. At the same time, like Lawrence, he came to be associated with excess in the domain of feeling but this proclivity in his writing was acutely identified by Schiller not as excess per se so much as failure of aesthetic transposition.

  • 6 Friedrich Schiller, On the Naïve and Sentimental in Literature, trans. Helen Watanabe O’Kelly (Manc (...)

His serious character never allows him to sink to frivolity, but nor does it allow him to rise to poetic play. Pulled between passion and abstraction, he rarely or never achieves that aesthetic freedom which the poet must have towards his material and share with the reader.6

  • 7 Rousseau describes how the genesis of his novel Julie or the New Eloisa lay in frustrated fantasy d (...)

15Although endowed with rich poetic gifts, Rousseau was for Schiller the victim rather than the beneficiary of his own passionate intensities and he had, indeed, an abiding distrust of the imagination evident in the Letter to d’Alembert on the Theatre or his accounts in The Confessions of the composition of The New Eloisa.7 He seemed to feel a metaphysical horror at make believe as such. For him an actor is one who trains himself in deception and what is suggestive for the present theme is the parallel between fictional representation and imaginary desires in the economic sphere. For Rousseau, both of these were corrupt and luxurious excesses with respect to the standards of Nature and reason which he believed himself to exemplify. He expressed that suspicion of the aesthetic which has remained a constant strain in modern thought.

  • 8 Letter to Percy Bysshe Shelley, 16 August, 1820.
  • 9 John Middleton Murry, Keats and Shakespeare: a Study of Keats’ Poetic Life from 1816 to 1820 (Oxfor (...)

16In short, then, ever since the category of the aesthetic entered the mainstream of European thought, it has retained the ambivalence of its origins. If it is at once a proper location of emotional intensities and yet an excess in itself, its ambivalence can perhaps be seen most intimately at the level of language. Lawrence’s sense of life as an excess or bonus was no doubt intensified by his knowledge that it was for him a swiftly vanishing resource and in that respect he recalls an earlier consumptive poet, John Keats. Keats’s reaction was to create a verbal wealth by which life was both celebrated and mourned. In following his own advice to “load every rift [… ] with ore” Keats creates a verbal richness to be enjoyed more in the imagination than in reality.8 Ore, after all, is usually extracted from the earth rather than loaded into it. In that respect, the comparison with Shakespeare, later promoted by Lawrence’s friend John Middleton Murry, focuses a key difference as well as similarity.9 Shakespeare’s language, even at its most dazzlingly pyrotechnic, always seems fully absorbed in the immediate expressive purpose, whereas Keats helps to inaugurate an incipiently aestheticist sense of the poem as an autonomous verbal object in which sensory life is transmuted into a symbol of itself. He can create the beautifully measured appreciation of life’s excess in the following well-known lines:

  • 10 “Ode to Autumn,” The Poetical Works of John Keats, ed. H. W. Garrod (London: Oxford University Pres (...)

To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimmed their clammy cells.10

  • 11 “Ego Dominus Tuus”,W. B. Yeats, The Poems, ed. Richard J. Finneran (London: Macmillan, 1983), 161.

17In isolation these lines are truly Shakespearean in their sensory concreteness as they lead the tongue to linger over the experience. Yet the larger context of his oeuvre, with its recurrent poeticisms such as “cluster’d around by all her starry Fays,” (Poetical Works 208) reveals the incipient aestheticism within the ambition to “load every rift with ore.” Keats’s language is magnificent, moving and poignant precisely because it transmutes everything into poetic excess. Yeats’s brilliantly characterised this when he imagined Keats as a schoolboy with “face and nose pressed to a sweet-shop window.”11

  • 12 Introduction to the American Edition of New Poems, Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D. H. Lawrence(...)
  • 13 “When I read Shakespeare,” The Poems, I, ed. Christopher Pollnitz, (Cambridge: Cambridge University (...)

18When Lawrence distinguished his own “poetry of the present” from the “gem-like lyrics” of Shelley and Keats, the implicit denigration of these poets is largely tactical yet the comparison with Keats remains telling.12 Lawrence distrusts verbal richness and regarded even Shakespeare’s language with suspicion.13 He himself avoided developing a literary “style” and used language with a minimal sense of self-appreciative thickening of texture. It seems worth making this point as he has so often, and understandably, been seen as excessive in his writing. As every reader knows, he can be extreme, repetitive and verbose but even at these times his language is characterised by its devotion to the expressive job in hand. Precisely because his subject is so often extremity of feeling or sheer abundance of life, it is particularly important that any sense of excess should not be merely verbal. For him, there can be no excess in the language per se if it truly honours the excess of life itself.

  • 14 Women in Love, ed. David Farmer, Lindeth Vasey and John Worthen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Pr (...)

19Lawrence is in a line of descent from Rousseau although modified by the subsequent tradition as is briefly hinted in the charade games of Gudrun and Loerke in Women in Love recalling “Jean-Jacques in his quakings.”14 But Lawrence, while rejecting aestheticism, fully embraces the expressive function of art as a manifestation of life. The key figure who intervenes here is Nietzsche whose radical critique of Rousseau arose from his being the Rousseau of a later phase of modernity. His double difference from Rousseau was that he celebrated excess under the sign of Dionysus while transposing it into a thoroughly aesthetic understanding. Moreover, in so far as Nietzsche found a place for intense psychological affect in the aesthetic realm, and placed the whole of life under its sign, he loathed the conventionally possessive reification of culture whether on the individual or the national scale. It is not just physical works of art in question here but cultural icons such as Goethe had become by Nietzsche’s time. Nietzsche opened up most sharply the doubleness of the aesthetic in this whole tradition going back to Schiller and Rousseau. The value proposed by Schiller lay in the aesthetic state itself, not in possessing the object. You can buy an art object but you can only truly “own” it, that is to make it your own in this sense, by a properly aesthetic response. Nietzsche memorably excoriated the corrupt reification of art and, since his time, we have come to see even more startling commercialisation of art works as items of financial investment.

  • 15 Sketches of Etruscan Places and Other Italian Essays, ed. Simonetta de Filippis (Cambridge: Cambrid (...)

20This is where Lawrence remains a remarkable example. The value of art for him lay overwhelmingly in the expressive process of its creation. He did not hoard even his own writings and a comment in Etruscan Places aptly encapsulates his relation to his own art. He notes with approval a spot where the ancient Etruscan painter has rubbed out and painted over a horse’s leg while leaving the trace of the correction.15 Lawrence rejoices in recovering the momentary process of creation enshrined for ever in the product and the same spirit underlies his espousal of a “poetry of the present.”

21In conclusion, the aesthetic realm is a multiply ambivalent excess. For Schiller, the capacity to stand outside of utilitarian necessity was deeply humanising: its standpoint of excess was the inaugural act of human civilisation which great works of art supremely exemplify. At the same time, the artwork may be an excess in a pernicious sense: it can be an object of luxury to be possessed; a falsification of culture that Nietzsche memorably attacked. There is, however, a further possibility in its excessive character. Whereas Schiller saw the speculative and philosophical value of the aesthetic, Nietzsche and Lawrence emphasised its significance as a manifestation of the exuberance of life. Life itself is dumb and as a value it is elusive to philosophical logic. It can perhaps be affirmed only in the priceless excess of art. On this model, whatever its overt ideological tendency, art is an overflow and celebration of life such that tragedy is essentially affirmative, even in Hardy, as the excess of life is redoubled in the excess of art.

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Notes

1 « Une vie ne vaut rien, mais rien ne vaut la vie. » André Malraux, Les Conquérants (1928).

2 Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays, ed. Bruce Steele (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 92.

3 Ben Jonson, The Alchemist, ed F. H. Mayes, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1979), II, ii, ll. 75-85, 56-7.

4 Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees or Private Vices, Public Benefits (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1988), vol. 1, 108.

5 Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed. D. D. Raphael and A. L. McFie, (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1977), 183-4. Hereafter TMS.

6 Friedrich Schiller, On the Naïve and Sentimental in Literature, trans. Helen Watanabe O’Kelly (Manchester: Carcanet, 1981), 49-50.

7 Rousseau describes how the genesis of his novel Julie or the New Eloisa lay in frustrated fantasy desire for Mme d’Houdetot, the lover of his friend, Saint-Lambert. (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Confessions, trans. J. M. Cohen. London: Penguin, 1954, 396-417.)

8 Letter to Percy Bysshe Shelley, 16 August, 1820.

9 John Middleton Murry, Keats and Shakespeare: a Study of Keats’ Poetic Life from 1816 to 1820 (Oxford University Press, 1925).

10 “Ode to Autumn,” The Poetical Works of John Keats, ed. H. W. Garrod (London: Oxford University Press, 1966), 219. Hereafter Poetical Works.

11 “Ego Dominus Tuus”,W. B. Yeats, The Poems, ed. Richard J. Finneran (London: Macmillan, 1983), 161.

12 Introduction to the American Edition of New Poems, Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D. H. Lawrence, ed. Edward D. McDonald (London: Heinemann,1961), 218.

13 “When I read Shakespeare,” The Poems, I, ed. Christopher Pollnitz, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 428-9.

14 Women in Love, ed. David Farmer, Lindeth Vasey and John Worthen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 453.

15 Sketches of Etruscan Places and Other Italian Essays, ed. Simonetta de Filippis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 192), 123.

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Michael Bell, « Par-dessus le marché or What Price an Art of Excess? », Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 50 | 2019, mis en ligne le 02 octobre 2019, consulté le 15 octobre 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lawrence/861 ; DOI : 10.4000/lawrence.861

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Auteur

Michael Bell

Michael BELL is a Fellow of the British Academy and Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick where he is also an Associate Fellow and Former Director of the Centre for Research in Philosophy Literature and the Arts. He is author of D. H. Lawrence: Language and Being (1992) as well as numerous articles and chapters on Lawrence. His last monograph book, Literature, Education and Authority from J-J Rousseau to J. M. Coetzee (2007), includes a chapter on Lawrence, and his last edited volume was The Cambridge Companion to European Novelists (2012).

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