I have to make apology.
To a dead man.
A couple of years ago I picked up a title by DH Lawrence called The Lost Girl. Given my affinity for lost things, somehow it was important to me to know that she survived her own story. So I picked up the book and pursued her through all her trials, certain that, bad as things might appear, surely redemption would come at last.
But it didn’t.
Just when I expected a glorious reconciliation, Lawrence stepped from behind the curtain and handed me a stillborn end to the story. He had failed that singular element—that one moment that makes every book, every story worth the effort. You know it; you look for it as do I. It’s the David and Goliath moment—the great “turning-around” moment, when all that has gone so terribly wrong is at last put to right. It is the desperately-loved-yet-ever-despaired-of-figure appearing just over the horizon of the blackest night, or the “aha” when the character finally understands the truth we have known all along. The Greeks called it anagonosis or, as the philosopher would have it, “catharsis.” It’s redemption.
But Lawrence hadn’t written a redemption for his lost girl and that, I felt, was unforgivable. Afterward, I held a grudge against him. That is, until I ran across his name in a history book. It was there, fairly set within his own context, I met the man and reconciled with the writing of DH Lawrence.
Born in the fading splendor of the 1800’s, DH Lawrence grew up in the days of high ideals and sky rocketing expectation. The whirring machines of the Industrial Revolutions whispered a salesmen’s promise of unlimited energy, materials, and/or chemicals to fix (or at least address) a multitude of sins. The sun never set on the English Empire, or, it seemed, human potential.
But the sun did set. And as its fast dying rays waned on the Second Industrial Revolution, the guns of World War I moved into position. Nation stood against nation, laying siege to castles in the air while men writhed in the battlefields below.
Those at home had no idea of the trauma of the fight. With no TV, little media, and with an editorial coup to preserve morale, those who set out for the front could not conceive the terror whose shadow crept across the landscape of their own bright futures.
But there is a time for war and a time for peace, and peace did come in its fashion; and with it, release. At least, a semblance of it anyway.
DH Lawrence and thousands like him, climbed from the trenches, slipped off their uniforms, and stepped into civilian life. But the landscape was different now, irrevocably altered. As were they. Battle lines, once drawn in far off fields, now marked the pavement just beyond the front door. Economic instability wrought chaos within the classes. Poverty too, was present, and the lurking plague of the Spanish flu, carried by homebound servicemen straight into the arms of those who welcomed them. Statistically sketchy, the virus killed as many as fifty million people, more than the war itself, weaving a black band of mourning around a population already decimated by war.
After the war, Lawrence went into voluntary exile, exchanging the “land of my heart” for a “savage pilgmmage” across Europe, ultimately taking his place alongside TS Eliot, Earnest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and others in what would later be styled as “the Lost Generation.”* Each man stood apart to consider the wreckage. Hope had run high and faith idyllic, but the dark night of war brought the shadow of doubt creeping across their souls until slowly, slowly, and with the dust of their former dreams rising all around, they surveyed the fallen remains of all they had once believed. The products of their pens, aptly called “the literature of disillusionment,” would capture the departed essence of a dead faith.
Consider the following words, gleaned from among his writings:
“Slowly, slowly, the wound to the soul begins to make itself felt, like a bruise which only slowly deepens its terrible ache, till it fills all the psyche. And when we think we have recovered and forgotten, it is then that the terrible after-effects have to be encountered at their worst,”Lady Chatterley’s Lover
“All the great words, it seemed to Connie, were cancelled for her generation: love, joy, happiness, home, mother, father, husband, all these great, dynamic words were half dead now, and dying from day to day.”
“Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.”
“I cannot be a materialist—but Oh, how is it possible that a God who speaks to all hearts can let Belgravia go laughing to a vicious luxury, and Whitechapel cursing to a filthy debauchery—such suffering, such dreadful suffering—and shall the short years of Christ’s mission atone for it all?”
DH Lawrence’s writings make sense when viewed against the dark backdrop of war; out of this element he appears puerile and grasping, vain and nihilistic. But fairly met within the context of a war he could not reconcile, Lawrence stands before us—an author whose heart sometimes bled across the page.
*Popularly attributed to Earnest Hemingway, the term originated when the owner of an auto repair shop, frustrated with one of his young mechanics, lamented, “You are all a generation perdue [or, “lost generation”]. That is what you are. That’s what you all are… All of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation.” (See “A Moveable Feast.” Ernest Hemingway, A Movable Feast, Touchstone, New York: 1996, p29)