"The Laughter of Genius":D. H. Lawrence’s EssaysGarrett Moritz
"When Lawrence got going, he almost always went too far, but hitting a nerve of truth on the way." --Brenda Maddox, p.215From the time we write our first five-paragraph essay, we learn that an essay must conform to specific rules--how stringently it follows those rules determines the essay’s quality. D. H. Lawrence’s essays, however, don’t conform to those same standards. Though we might imagine him following some higher, essay-writer’s code, in actuality he takes a pragmatic approach, namely, if it looks good, do it. Lawrence’s essays succeed not because they conform to a set of rules especially well, but because they do what works, creating a specific character, imitating spontaneous conversation, and stepping on the occasional exposed "nerve of truth" on the way through the conceptual wilderness.
Consider Lawrence’s conversational style--using metaphor, anaphora, and sentence fragments--in the opening gambit of "Indians and Entertainment":
We go to the theatre to be entertained. It may be The Potters, it may be Max Reinhardt, King Lear, or Electra. All entertainment.This is a very typical beginning for Lawrence. He does little in the way of introduction--he h as no need of such commonplace, even boring niceties--and begins his discussion of entertainment 'straight away. He describes us, saying "We want to be taken out of ourselves." He gives no evidence for this, or the statements that follow. He cites no experts. He stands on the shoulders of none. He doesn’t care a whit about passive voice. But there is a difference between not following convention and being wrong. Though Lawrence’s points do not appear as a standard, rhetorical fortress, few would disagree with, or be able to effectively argue against them. Maybe they are too general, too universal, or too vague for the average critic to talk at length about. Maybe they are just true. Needless to say, he is often convincing without being explicitly logical—ethos and pathos can be just as effective as logos (Aristotle 1:25). And when we "lean down from the plush seats like little gods," we see another characteristic of Lawrence’s essay: the surprise metaphor. Lawrence, likely drawing from his experience in fiction as a hyper-descriptive writer, is able to consistently reach into his magic sack of metaphors and pull out a shiny new one--or at least a particularly apt one--almost every time. Though this "little gods" metaphor is perhaps not his best or most vivid, it does well enough to illustrate Lawrence’s quickness in this difficult type of descriptive visualization. Furthermore, one rarely speaks of "little gods," for both words seem to contradict the other. It is unusual, eye-catching, thought-provoking, and possibly even a little condescending. And then, in the last paragraph, Lawrence describes what these "little gods" do, using an anaphora in a chain of colons which is certainly very rare and probably not even grammatically standard. It is unusual, and is of questionable "correctness." But the use of periods might weaken the sentence flow Lawrence sought, in effect counteracting a "breathless" sort of pseudo stream-of-consciousness effect. Lawrence seems to be trying to create a sense that all of these things are part of the process of theater--a single, indivisible experience--over the course of an evening. To divide the process, using periods and capital letters, would be a less truthful description. Lawrence then rounds off this passage with a trademark sentence fragment: "Which is very entertaining." He could have written, more correctly, "This is very entertaining," but chose not to. For Lawrence, it was far more important to write what an effective speaker would say rather than base his decisions on grammatical rules.
We want to be taken out of ourselves. Or not entirely that. We want to become spectators at our own show. We lean down from the plush seats like little gods in a democratic heaven, and see ourselves away below there, on the world of the stage, in a brilliant artificial sunlight, behaving comically absurdly, like Pa Potter, yet getting away with it, or behaving tragically absurdly, like King Lear, and not getting away with it: rather proud of not getting away with it.
We see ourselves: we survey ourselves: we laugh at ourselves: we weep over ourselves: we are the gods above of our own destinies. Which is very entertaining. (Lawrence 52)
This effective speaker that makes such decisions is the character in Lawrence’s essays, the kind of character who we sometimes agree with and sometimes laugh at, but who is always absorbing. The character is talking to us, even sneaking in his opinion of a few plays--he’s the kind of character who always has an opinion on such things--and focuses, more than anything else, in speaking in the most engaging way he can. For this reason, Lawrence doesn’t always write essays in the standard style with an introduction, thesis, evidence, and conclusion. Instead Lawrence approaches argument as a series of cycles. We can see one such "cycle" in the passage above. The first paragraph ends with "All entertainment" and the final paragraph ends with "Which is very entertaining," bringing us through the cycle. Though it admittedly isn’t always as apparent as in this example, as a general rule, Lawrence continues to return to major ideas again and again in his essays, developing new questions in each cycle. While a traditional essay does something similar in relying on "key terms" to tie various parts together, this cyclical nature is more than just a repetition of key ideas--it provides the structure of the essay. Essays generally can be viewed, say, as a series of stacked blocks, all hierarchically ordered. Lawrence’s essays, though, are much more like a spiral which, though drawn around a fixed point, when traced drift continuously farther from the center, covering more ground. Such essays are almost bound to hit "a nerve of truth" eventually. Interestingly, this cyclical, spiral essay structure is very much like a prolonged conversation--as people talk about a complicated issue, they find themselves returning to the same basic concepts again and again, making corollary points which they missed the first time. Lawrence’s use of this conversational structure, though disorganized by essay standards, is rather convincing and pleasant relative to the average essay, since we are used to such a conversational structure, while ordinary essay structure, though efficient, is something which is unnatural enough that schools must teach it. But as long he makes his point effectively, why worry about rules or propriety? For instance, his repetition of "we" throughout the passage creates a smaller cyclical effect of the type discussed above, binding the paragraph together. Also, it is more conversational and maybe even more pleasant than a stodgier pronoun. Lawrence’s essays are highly conversational in tone--it seems that parts of them could easily be stuck into a story as dialogue. Lawrence even works essay material into character’s dialogue or thoughts in his fiction, though this matter is beyond the scope of this paper.
While it similarly employs a conversational tone and the Lawrencian character, "Pornography and Obscenity" is additionally useful for it perhaps contains a "nerve of truth" of the kind Maddox spoke of. While it declares little that a logician would affirm as true, it says many things that a person might agree with. That is, quite possibly, the essence of what Maddox was getting at. The essay begins with that trademark quick start, not even repeating the topic from the title but beginning, "What they are depends, as usual, entirely on the individual," and then continuing with a sort of surprise description: "What is pornography to one man is the laughter of genius to another" (Portable 648). The metonymy, "the laughter of genius," is a good example of Lawrence’s formative descriptive skill: the average essayist would likely not have put it quite so aptly or poetically. Instead of speaking in abstraction, Lawrence uses a physical description as a symbol for abstraction, and is much more memorable and effective for that. But just as notable as the Lawrencian beginning is the "stuff" in the middle of "Pornography and Obscenity"--where Lawrence condemns both those who shiver at the thought of publishing sexual materials and Bohemians who freely accept sex: they’re either a bunch of furtive masturbating perverts or intellectual, nonphysical ghosts. It seems Lawrence wants to single-handedly be right, for he refuses to accept that anyone could be on his side. And he at times uses little evidence, asking the reader to make leaps of faith with him. Besides, whether we are persuaded by his unorthodox conversational methods or not, it’s a pretty wild ride:
Without secrecy there would be no pornography. But if pornography is the result of sneaking secrecy, what is the result of pornography? What is the effect on the individual?So this is how Lawrence fills the middle of his essays. He starts "Without secrecy their would be no pornography"--a valid claim, though he takes no pains to prove it. And from this axiom he derives a whole set of equally unsupported corollaries: pornography’s effect on people is "always pernicious." Lawrence has no need of muddling, qualifying phrases here, despite that earlier what was pornography to one could easily be the "laughter of genius" to another. And this pornography, before so indeterminate, now has a definite effect: pornography equals masturbation. And it gets better: the "grey ones"--another metonymy, symbolizing puritanical social leaders--far from condemning masturbation, advocate it. This ignores that the "grey ones" would condemn masturbation--stolid logician Bertrand Russell’s speaks of masturbation as amoral (Russell 70). But Lawrence, it seems, does not want anyone on his side. He is right, others wrong, and proof is unnecessary. It seems unfortunate that Lawrence would write less objectively in hopes of being more entertaining. But then again, maybe it is the abrupt epiphany in the midst of philosophical sleepwalking which makes him so fulfilling. He might not always be right, but he’s always an interesting read.
The effect on the individual is manifold, and always pernicious. But one effect is perhaps inevitable. The pornography of today, whether it be the pornography of the rubber-goods shop or the pornography of the popular novel, film and play, is an invariable stimulant to the vice of self-abuse, onanism, masturbation, call it what you will. In young or old, man or woman, boy or girl, modern pornography is a direct provocative of masturbation. It cannot be otherwise. When the grey ones wail that the young man and the young women went and had sexual intercourse, they are bewailing the fact that the young man and the young women didn’t go separately and masturbate. (Portable 657-658)
"Nottingham and the Mining Countryside" is another good example of a Lawrencian essay. It makes appeals based on a subtle, almost subterranean aesthetic vision which surfaces mostly in the imperious though conversational style at the end of the essay. In many instances though, it employs the same techniques as the earlier excerpts--such as informality, repetition and metaphor:
Do away with it all, then. At no matter what cost, start to alter it. Never mind about wages and industrial squabbling. Turn the attention elsewhere. Pull down my native village to the last brick. Plan a nucleus. Fix the focus. And then put up big buildings, handsome, that sweep to a civic centre. And furnish them with beauty. And make an absolute clean start. Do it place by place. Make a new England. Away with little homes! Away with scrabbling pettiness and paltriness. Look at the contours of the land, and build up from these, with a sufficient nobility. The English may be mentally or spiritually developed. But as citizens of splendid cities they are more ignominious than rabbits. And they nag, nag, nag all the time about politics and wages and all that, like mean, narrow housewives. (Portable 623)Again, there is not a huge amount of evidence, but this is a conclusion, and conjecture is rather more conventionally permissible here than otherwise. And Lawrence’s utopian scheme shows a blatant disregard for matters of political economy--but the essay character is hardly a penny-pinching accountant. Ignoring all of that, the passage is largely a success. Using short, almost oratorical-sounding sentences, exclamations, and grandiose commands, Lawrence creates an inspirational tone as he calls for aesthetic reform. So we see that the character is, unsurprisingly, a true idealist--he’s excited enough to "shout" using the exclamation point. Furthermore, we see repetition, though it is concentrated rather than distributed as in the cyclical use of "we" and "entertainment" in "Indians and Entertainment." Describing the citizens as those who "nag, nag, nag" does much to emphasize the continual nature of the nagging, as well as reinforce the idea through repetition. Though occasionally such repetition seems a bit forced, here it seems to fit nicely into the cadence of the sentence. And Lawrence couldn’t end an essay without surprise metaphors: he describes the citizens as both "rabbits" and "mean, narrow housewives." Lawrence has called for action in his own terms, and there might even be a "nerve of truth" buried in his language romp. Some might find him splendid and some might find ridiculous, but few indeed would claim him meek.
Throughout his essays, Lawrence is consistently unorthodox. Rather than kowtowing to convention, Lawrence is more concerned with conversational effectiveness and his own brand of truth. It is a cliché that truth sometimes lies along a "path less traveled." If that’s so, Lawrence is something of a trailblazer. And though his trails might not always go anywhere in particular, the view along the way can be spectacular. Which is very entertaining.
Lawrence, David Herbert. "Indians and Entertaiment." Mornings in Mexico and Etruscan Plays. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960.
Lawrence, David Herbert. The Portable D.H Lawrence. Diana Trilling et al. New York: Penguin Books, 1977.
Aristotle. The Rhetoric and Poetics of Aristotle, trans. W.R. Roberts, ed. Frederick Solmsen. New York: Random House, 1954.
Russell, Bertrand. "The Taboo on Sex Knowledge." Marriage and Morals. London: Unwin, 1929.
Maddox, Brenda. DHL: The Story of a Marriage. New York: Simon and Shuster, 1994.
© 1997 Garrett Moritz. All rights reserved.
Selected Essays (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics) [Paperback]D.H. Lawrence (Author), John Lyon (Editor)
Part 1 Love and life: sex versus loveliness; give her a pattern; love; cocksure women and hensure men; nobody loves me; books; climbing down Pisgah; reflections on the death of a porcupine; democracy; the state of Funk; insouciance.
Part 2 The spirit of place: England - whistling of birds, Nottingham and the mining country, dull London; Italy - the spinner and the monks, flowery Tuscany, man is a hunter; Germany - the crucifix across the mountains, Mercury, a letter from Germany; Mexico and New Mexico - New Mexico, Indians and an Englishman, just back from the snake dance - tired out, Corasmin and the parrots, a little moonshine with lemon.
Part 3 Writing and painting: John Galsworthy; Benjamin Franklin; Moby Dick; Whitman; Giovanni Verga; preface to the American edition of new poems; accumulated mail; making pictures; introduction to these paintings. Part 4 Lawrence and Magnus: the later Mr Maurice Magnus - a letter.