Look! We Have Come Through: Living with D.H.Lawrence.
Bloomsbury. 2022. 336 pp.
ISBN 978 1 5266 4088 7756.
First, a confession. While I enjoy some of D.H. Lawrence's poetry, I have never warmed to his novels. I have a cherished memory of a university lecturer infuriating a lot of students by lecturing on Lawrence's fetish with women's stockings (this was two years before Angela Carter published her essay, "Lorenzo as Closet-Queen"), and although I appreciate that Lawrence challenged many of the social conventions of his time, I was put off by what seemed to me to be a pseudo-psychoanalytical way of viewing life, and by the unrealistic aspects of his work. There, in The Rainbow, for example, is Tom Brangwen, out on the farm at night in bitter February weather, dealing with the often bloody and traumatic business of lambing, when...
...the facts and material of his daily life fell away, leaving the kernel of his purpose clean. And then it came upon him that he would marry her...
This, to me, is not romantic but laughable. So, when Lara Feigel started quoting long passages from Lawrence's novels, I concluded her book was not for me and put it aside. However, I kept taking it up again because I was intrigued by her personal story, which she weaves into this book, and by the idea anyone would seriously consider "living with Lawrence," as she puts it.
At a time of major upheavals in her life—a divorce and legal struggles over custody of her young children, a new partner, a move to a rented cottage in the country, and coping with lockdowns due to Covid 19—she turns to Lawrence for support and guidance as if he were her personal life-style coach.
Feigel has a comprehensive knowledge of Lawrence's work and regularly teaches it. She has read and seriously considered the many critical responses to it, from those of his "academic champion" F.R. Leavis to the "coruscating critiques" of Simone de Beauvoir and Kate Millett, and she discusses these, taking issue with some and being ready to change her mind after considering others:
Reading Millett, I was overwhelmed by the fierce cogency of her critique. I had been uncertain about Lady Chatterley's Lover before I read her and now I was convinced by her argument that it was a book that reduced women to passive objects and reviled the female genitals.
Later in her own book, however, Feigel finds ways to discuss these criticisms with her students and to turn them into something positive.
There are many places in this book where Feigel writes about Lawrence's work and his life, perceptively and in detail, often taking themes and ideas from books he is known to have read, like that of the "German naturalist philosopher Ernst Haeckel," and from books she herself is reading during lockdown, such as "activist philosopher" Srecko Horvat's recent writings about the apocalypse. More than anything, however, she turns to Lawrence not just for comfort but for advice on how she can cope with her own situation.
Locked down in a strange place, with a new partner (P), her two-year-old daughter (G), and her eight-year-old autistic son (H), she turns to Lawrence, as she says, for "urgent literary companionship, hoping that he will help me make sense of the new world we have found ourselves in" and hoping to gain "a sense of what it means to accept our lived experience as one of perpetual change."
"People don't just read Lawrence, they have their lives changed by him," she writes, and she takes this seriously, even seeming to subscribe to his view of "illness as primarily a psychic event." She ponders what Lawrence would have made of the Covid pandemic and thinks...
...he might have said we has willed it into being, that by denying the existence of death we had made it necessary for death to reveal itself, that by excessively medicalising life we had created the conditions for a total takeover of life by medicine, and that these were the conditions in which we were more likely to get ill. "One is ill because one doesn't live properly—can't," Birkin says in Women in Love, a book Lawrence hoped would make us healthy, saving us from illness by teaching us to live.
So, Feigel wants to learn how to live. Yet, in the middle of her examination of Lawrence, her need to write a promised book about him, and her daily dealings with her family, she still has time to respond, beautifully, to the land and the creatures which surround her in her rented cottage:
Spring come suddenly here. There are snowdrops, unexpectedly, at the end of January, as the snow melts. There are sunny days in February, alternating with more days of snow. This is our new post-apocalyptic unseasonal weather, or perhaps it has always been like this. Snowdrops are, after all, called snowdrops. They are everywhere now, by the side of the road, in the woods, in gardens. G picks them—she is allowed to pick two each time—and holds them wonderingly.
Always, however, she returns to her wrangling with Lawrence. Most surprising, perhaps, one point she turns to him for child-rearing guidance. Lawrence had no children and only infrequent contact with Frieda's children, who lived with their father after she left him to be with Lawrence. Feigel is angry with him for failing to recognize the hurt Freida felt about separation from her children; nevertheless, he portrays children with what Feigel calls "violent tenderness" in his novels. He did, however, have strong views about "the cult of motherhood," describing it in The Rainbow as "a violent trance," "a helpless bond," and, elsewhere, suggesting "when there is too much maternal sympathy the child doesn't learn to resist enough."
Feigel acknowledges Lawrence's "polemic" exhortation to parents to "see that your children get their dinners and clean sheets, but don't love them... don't even hate them or dislike them," is among his "madder ideas," but then she argues Lawrence is reminding us "loss is built into parenting, that our role is to bring our children into the world and then allow them to leave us." "Lawrence," she concludes, "however ruthless, is helping me to see this." It helps her, too, when her children go to their father at weekends and she feels "fear and blankness" without them.
Feigel's chapter headings signal the aspects of Lawrence's life and work occupying her thoughts: Consciousness, Will, Sex, Parenthood, Community, Religion, Nature, and Apocalypse. She deals with each, arguing with Lawrence, angry with him, puzzling over him, applauding him, attacking and defending him, all the while seeking, as she believes Lawrence did, to use "literature and culture to open up a space," where "we can remain pliant and free." Finally, she writes:
Over the past year, Lawrence has shown me the way to such a space, making me hopeful that I can find a way to live with the contradictions while still finding truths that I can believe in enough to live by.
"Look!," she might say, "We have come through!"
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