Coronavirus and Literature: What we can learn from D.H. Lawrence

In this final blog in the series, we turn to D.H. Lawrence to find out how we can build a better world with words during these testing times. Expect a few tantrums on the way…   

Although he would have enjoyed the solitude, D.H. Lawrence wouldn’t have coped very well with lockdown. Not because he was rubbish at following rules, but because he was a proper fidget. After leaving Britain in 1919 he travelled the globe, never settling in one place for more than two years. He refused to own property, making home in disused cabins at the top of mountains or being put up by friends. There were numerous reasons for his peripatetic lifestyle, but here we’ll focus on one: Rananim.

It’s believed that Lawrence first came across the concept of Ranamim when his friend S.S. Koteliansky sung the Hebrew chant Ranani Zadikim l’Adonoi to him. The two met in 1914 and were together in Barrow-in-Furness when WWI was declared. This was a significant time to bond as it marked a very difficult period for Lawrence as he suffered from poverty, political persecution – his wife was German, and frustrations with the censor that would plague his entire career. This is best captured in a letter to Edward Garnett in June 1912, when Lawrence really let rip:

“Curse the blasted, jelly-boned swines, the slimy, the belly-wriggling invertebrates, the miserable sodding rotters, the flaming sods, the snivelling, dribbling, dithering palsied pulse-less lot that make up England today. They’ve got white of egg in their veins, and their spunk is that watery it’s a marvel they can breed. They can but frog-spawn — the gibberers! God, how I hate them! God curse them, funkers. God blast them, wish-wash. Exterminate them, slime.”

This letter was in response to publisher William Heinemann who had rejected the first draft of his third novel, Sons and Lovers. This was eventually published in 1913 but it didn’t take long for it to be banned from libraries. His next novel, The Rainbow (1915) was seized under the Obscene Publications Act and burned. Although it didn’t contain any naughty words, it was deemed anti-British for daring to question everyday fundamentals such as work, religion, and relationships.

Lawrence was as frustrated with the publishing industry as he was with modernity. Industry dehumanized community and destroyed the natural landscape, whereas war demanded blind conformity to the flag and a further loss of individuality. He felt like he was the only one who could see this ‘Ugliness. Ugliness. Ugliness’ and so began to develop a philosophy for life through his novels. To do this he had to get away from Britain sharpish, and so embarked on a ‘savage pilgrimage’ of self-imposed exile.

“I shall say goodbye to England, forever, and set off in quest of our Rananim” he wrote to Koteliansky, on 12 January 1917. Rananim was the concept of a utopian community, a place where humanity could rise from the ashes of the past and old values, and purged of evil, be reborn in peace and love. Away from modernity and consumerism, it would be possible to find “a good peace and a good silence, and a freedom to love and to create new life.” The phoenix became his personal emblem, as he too was rising out of the flames and being reborn.

It would be a mistake to interpret this as the desire to create some kind of hippy commune or scribal gathering. This is evident from Lawrence’s time in Taos, New Mexico. Mabel Dodge Luhan, a wealthy patron of the arts, invited the Lawrence’s to stay with her in 1921. She wanted him to capture the spirit of Taos in the same way that he had done with Sea and Sardinia (1921). She too was trying to escape modernity and believed that bringing the greatest thinkers and artists together in one place would help build a better world than the one currently being destroyed by war and industry.

Lawrence was apprehensive at first, asking whether he’d encounter “a colony of rather dreadful sub-arty people”. He wasn’t a fan of literary crowds who he described as “smoking, steaming shits”. He was also cautious of “meeting the awful ‘cultured’ Americans with their limited self-righteous ideals and their mechanical love-motion and their bullying, detestable negative creed of liberty and democracy.” But he eventually turned up a year later after taking a detour via Australia and Ceylon.

There was an immediate clash of personalities and they quickly fell out. He hadn’t travelled halfway across the world to further her status. So, he headed off to the hills to live in a cabin. It was here, away from the crowds, that he was truly happy, embarking on a series of DIY projects – carpentry, glazing and putting up shelves, living simply and writing under a tree.

We are being asked to self-distance at the moment and many of us our finding it difficult. But Lawrence chose to get as far away from people as he could, writing, “I only want one thing of men and that is that they should leave me alone”. What he really meant was anybody who banned his books or didn’t share his world view.

His search for kindred spirits took him to many countries, but it never quite worked out. At his most desperate he considered ploughing his savings into a boat, “I would like to buy a sailing ship and sail among the Greek islands and be free…free! Just to be free for a little while of it all…with a captain and a couple of sailors, we could do the rest.”

Lawrence teaches us to seek out Rananim in our lives. We may not have the freedom to replicate his nomadic lifestyle, but we are starting to think about what community means, or, at the very least, have introduced ourselves to the neighbours for the first time.

Rananim doesn’t exist in a single place or location, location, location – so don’t expect Kirstie Allsop to source it out for you. Rather it’s a state of mind shared with likeminded people. So, don’t expect to find it too soon. In a letter to Catherine Carswell he explains, “I think people ought to fulfil sacredly their desires. And this means fulfilling the deepest desire, which is a desire to live unhampered by things which are extraneous, a desire for pure relationships and living truth”.

Lawrence lived through the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918 which killed 50 million people – more than died in WWI. He had terrible health throughout his life and eventually succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 44. He was not happy with the world he was born into, or perhaps more accurately, unhappy with the way that world was being destroyed by industry, pollution and greed. Sound familiar?

It seems fitting, then, that during lockdown, where everything “extraneous” has been removed, the rainbow, the title of Lawrence’s 1915 novel, has become the symbol of hope during these difficult times. This once banned book which dared to demand a different way of being holds a message in the final paragraph that we can all relate to.

“She saw in the rainbow the earth’s new architecture, the old, brittle corruption of houses and factories swept away, the world built up in a living fabric of Truth, fitting to the over-arching heaven.”

This article was originally published on the Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature website

James is currently working on D.H. Lawrence: A Digital Pilgrimage, a memory theatre exploring Lawrence through artefacts. You can submit artefacts to it here, or join in the conversation on Instagram.     

Coronavirus and Literature: What we can learn from Michel de Montaigne

Being banged up in the house for 3 weeks has been tough for many of us, but French philosopher and essayist Michel de Montaigne would have pissed his way through lockdown as he chose to self-isolate for 10 years… 

Michel de Montaigne (28 February 1533 – 13 September 1592) was a Renaissance philosopher, statesman and writer best known for making the essay a literary genre. Blending anecdotes about the mundane (he wrote a lot about his aging body) alongside intellectual expositions, he was deemed self-indulgent by his contemporaries. Montaigne is of interest today because he chose to self-isolate for 10 years, which isn’t that surprising when you consider his formative years.

Despite being born into wealth, Montaigne’s father injected a bit of realism into his life early on when he was ushered off to a peasant family for three years to “draw the boy close to the people, and to the life conditions of the people, who need our help”. After this, he was brought back to the family château to learn Latin, spiritual meditation, and be awoken each morning by a servant playing a new instrument. His father was a stickler for rules, putting in place a comprehensive programme for education that would ensure his son craved intellectual liberty as an adult rather than becoming a wealthy layabout. It worked. He became a courtier between 1561 – 1563 and was awarded the collar of the Order of Saint Michael.

Montaigne got married in 1565 and had six daughters, all of whom died, except one. When his father followed suite a few years later, he inherited the family fortune and retired from public life in 1571. Whereas we are obliged to social distance to stop the spread of coronavirus, Montaigne decided to self-isolate to pursue his favourite hobby – himself. To do this, he locked himself away in his library with 1,500 works for company. His isolation would last for nearly ten years, culminating in the publication of three volumes of Essays. To remain motivated, he had inspirational quotes from classical philosophy carved into the wooden beams of the library, as well as his own motivational ponderings:

“In the year of Christ 1571, at the age of thirty-eight, on the last day of February, his birthday, Michael de Montaigne, long weary of the servitude of the court and of public employments, while still entire, retired to the bosom of the learned virgins, where in calm and freedom from all cares he will spend what little remains of his life, now more than half run out. If the fates permit, he will complete this abode, this sweet ancestral retreat; and he has consecrated it to his freedom, tranquility, and leisure.”

Although a vociferous reader, Montaigne was quite happy to give up on a book if it didn’t spark his interest, advising, “I am not prepared to bash my brains for anything…if one book wearies me I take up another.” I guess this isn’t a problem when you’ve got 1,500 to choose from.

Montaigne was not one for reverence. He railed against stuffy academics and pompous intellectuals for whom abstract dogma acted as an intellectual cage that led to hubris, fanaticism and other social nasties. Life, he wrote, “consists partly in madness, partly in wisdom”. Liberty comes from striking a balance between knowledge and pleasure. In modern parlance, he kept it real. Or as he put it, “Kings and philosophers’ shit, and so do ladies.”

Montaigne’s determination to focus on his art is a reminder to all writers that discipline and dedication are equally as important as talent and creativity. It doesn’t matter how great your ideas are if you don’t get them down on paper. It’s in this spirit we should view Lockdown as an opportunity to finish that incomplete novel, now that public distractions are a distant memory.

Of course, it’s easier to write when you’re overlooking the Dordogne from your inherited tower. But writing is magical wherever it happens. It allows temporary escape from our lives as we inhabit other characters and worlds. For Montaigne, writing acted as a form of therapy, an opportunity to escape dark thoughts by getting them down on paper. Writing during Lockdown could be good for our mental health too.

His Essays explore the human condition from various perspectives – fear, happiness, childhood, possessions, fame, with wonderful confessions on the failings of the body – he was as happy writing about poo and impotence as he was a philosophical treatise. Underpinning all of this was gnôti seauton – know thyself.

Coronavirus is forcing us to think about the human condition in terms of poverty, globalisation, pollution, community, health – and how we might live differently when this epidemic passes. Let’s hope our splendid isolation is not for 10 years.

This blog was originally published on the Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature website on 20 April.

I am currently working on Whatever People Say I Am, a graphic novel serial challenging stereotypes, and D.H. Lawrence: A Digital Pilgrimage, a memory theatre exploring Lawrence through artefacts.