Monday, January 03, 2005

Thinking about D.H. Lawrence

I'm not sure that conservatives have ever paid much attention to the English poet and novelist D.H.Lawrence. This is a pity because Lawrence had a deeply creative mind and, at times, was supportive of the conservative view.

Take for instance the following comments by Lawrence on freedom, marriage and the family:

It is marriage, perhaps, which had given man the best of his freedom, given him his little kingdom of his own within the big kingdom of the state ... It is a true freedom because it is a true fulfilment, for man, woman and children. Do we then want to break marriage? If we do break it, it means we all fall to a far greater extent under the direct sway of the State.

This statement goes directly against the grain of modern liberalism in two different ways. Firstly, when liberals talk about freedom what they mean is individual autonomy: the freedom of individuals to be unimpeded, so that they can define themselves and behave according to their own will.

Because liberals define freedom in this way, they react strongly against the restraints of marriage, as these are felt to impede the individual. That's why Michael Ignatieff can describe a father walking out on his children as an act of the "liberal imagination" as it upholds an individual's wishes against "the devouring claims of family life".

The problem for conservatives with this liberal understanding of freedom is that it is ultimately alienating and soul destroying. It is a kind of freedom which leaves the individual feeling witheringly unengaged rather than truly free.

You get a sense of this in the life experiences of Alice James, the spinster sister of the American novelist Henry James. Alice felt more lonely than free in her unmarried and unimpeded state. Her biographer introduces a family reunion with her brothers in 1889 with the following description:

As the three of them sat and talked, as they exchanged memories and opinions, the afternoon became for Alice a soul-quickening experience wherein the family itself seemed to come richly back into being, a revived and reintegrated presence. Her isolation was overcome for the moment by the sense of being once again a surrounded and nourished member of that family.

"What a strange experience it was," she wrote, "to have what had seemed so dead and gone all these years suddenly bloom before one, a flowing oasis in this alien desert, redolent with the exquisite family perfume of the days gone by, made of the allusions, the memories and the point of view in common, so that my floating-particle sense was lost for an hour or so ... "

Unfortunately her brothers had to depart some time later. Her biographer notes that,

Alice likened herself to a creature who, after a season of fresh air, was once more shut down, closed in, to the sound of 'a hopeless and all too familiar click.' She strove anew to adjust herself to the condition and, with the help of a quotation from Flaubert about the soul enlarging itself through suffering, tried to believe that she could do so.

But she confessed with bleak clarity that she could never allow it to be "anything else than a cruel and unnatural fate for a woman to live alone, to have no one to care and 'do for' daily is not only a sorrow but a sterilizing process."

Alice James had all the autonomy that anyone could ask for but was not free. She knew that her spinsterhood had left an important part of her nature unfulfilled. It is in this sense that D.H.Lawrence was right to withstand liberal orthodoxy and to define freedom in terms of fulfilment rather than the unimpeded will.

There is a second way in which Lawrence's statement on the family runs counter to much of modern liberalism. Lawrence perceived that a decline in the family would only mean that we would "all fall to a far greater extent under the sway of the state."

There are some liberals (usually left liberals) who would be happy for this to happen. Because they identify freedom with autonomy, they don't like the dependence that members of a family have on each other. Such liberals prefer an individual to rely more anonymously on the support of the central state, rather than on members of their own family.

Pope Pius XI identified this trend in liberal societies as long ago as 1931, declaring that:

On account of the evil of individualism, things have come to such a pass that the highly developed social life which once flourished in a variety of prosperous institutions organically linked with each other, has been damaged and all but ruined, leaving thus virtually only individuals and the state.

To give one recent example of this trend, there is the call in Australia for the state to pay the costs of maternity leave for mothers. This replaces the more traditional ideal in which men were paid a living wage to enable them to support their wives.

It is true that the traditional system leaves women dependent on their husbands and therefore not autonomous by the liberal definition. However, the family itself becomes proudly self-sufficient, and husbands develop a strong connection to their family through their role as providers.

What happens when the liberal system is allowed to take over is best seen in Sweden, where the family is most under the control of a bureaucratic state.

In Sweden women receive a generous maternity leave payment. However, because taxes are so high (with a 56.3% government share of expenditure) few women have the choice to stay home after the official maternity leave period is over. Effectively, they have lost the choice to determine their own motherhood role. Also the decline in the male role in the family has contributed to a massive 65% divorce rate.

It is possible, therefore, to claim that Swedish women are more "autonomous" than elsewhere, but I think that few of us would consider them more free. To go into a marriage knowing that it has a two thirds chance of failure, to work mostly to pay state taxes, and to lose the choice to care for your own children (beyond a point determined by the state) hardly seems to be a state of freedom.

Living homeland

There is another quote by Lawrence which sets him against liberal orthodoxy. Writing about the spirit of place he observes that,

Men are free when they are in a living homeland, not when they are straying and breaking away. Men are free when they are obeying some deep, inward voice of religious belief ... Men are free when they belong to a living, organic, believing community, active in fulfilling some unfulfilled, perhaps unrealized purpose ...

Men are not free when they are doing just what they like. The moment you can do just what you like, there is nothing you care about doing. Men are only free when they are doing what the deepest self likes.

Note that Lawrence associates freedom with the continuation of important human attachments, such as a connection to a "living homeland".

The whole trend of modern liberalism is to assert the opposite: such attachments are thought to impinge on individual freedom, because we do not choose them through our own will.

Lawrence's reply to liberalism is that in throwing off such attachments, we lose what is important in our lives. So, although we have an unimpeded will we don't feel free.

To put it another way, the freedom to choose anything, except the things which are most important to us, is not a true freedom.


What Lawrence said and did was not always in line with conservative principles.

In fact, Lawrence was mostly influenced by the philosophy of vitalism. Vitalists reacted against the sterilising effects of liberalism, by seeking out powerful and energising life experiences.

That's why Lawrence could write that "What the blood feels, and believes, and says, is always true."

There is, however, no sense in this principle that some things are inherently good and true, whilst others are wrong. Instead, anything which is a strong enough instinct or impulse becomes right.

One consequence of this is that Lawrence believed we would be better off if we acted openly on our deeper sex impulses, even if these were "Dionysian". Hence the desire for open descriptions of sexuality and raw sex language in books like Lady Chatterley's Lover.

Vitalism also helps to explain the inconsistency in Lawrence's ideas and behaviour. For instance, despite his professed concern not to "break marriage", Lawrence broke up his wife's first marriage (and her relationship with her children) in order run off with her. Perhaps Lawrence felt that if this was in his blood it ought to be acted on.

Lawrence is not, therefore, to be taken as a prophet of conservatism. His philosophy did allow him though to break from liberal orthodoxy and to uphold some forms of conservative connectedness (most especially, it might be said, to nature). For this he can be of particular interest to conservative readers.

(First published at Conservative Central 22/11/2003)

No comments:

Post a Comment