Monday 18 December 2017

Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!

Conservatives, in my experience, are seldom admirers of D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930). They dismiss him for his sexual liberalism, while often failing to perceive the depth of his critique of technology and the modern dichotomy between mind and body, both contributory factors to the expansion of what Bruce Charlton has recently called the 'iron cage' of Western bureaucracy. There is also a fine mystical sensibility at work in his oeuvre, as evidenced in this poem, Song of a Man Who Has Come Through:

Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!
A fine wind is blowing the direction of Time.
If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it carry me!
If only I am sensitive, subtle, oh, delicate, a winged gift!
If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed
By the fine, fine wind that takes its course through the chaos of the world
Like a fine, an exquisite chisel, a wedge-blade inserted;
If only I am keen and hard like the sheer tip of a wedge
Driven by invisible blows,
The rock will split, we shall come at the wonder, we shall find the Hesperides.

Oh, for the wonder that bubbles into my soul,
I would be a good fountain, a good well-head,
Would blur no whisper, spoil no expression.

What is the knocking?
What is the knocking at the door in the night?
It is somebody wants to do us harm.

No, no, it is the three strange angels.
Admit them, admit them.

'The wind bloweth where it listeth', says St. John's Gospel, while the Holy Spirit is often compared in Christian literature to a wind. With good reason too, as it was the cleansing, life-affirming gale of the Evangelium that blew apart the iron cages of Jewish legalism, Greek logic and Roman bureaucracy in the early centuries of the Church's life. So while much has been made, over the years, of Lawrence's antipathy to Christianity, I find in this poem, and elsewhere in his work, a pronounced religious yearning. Who, after all, are the 'three strange angels'? Do they not call to mind the three mysterious visitors received by Abraham at the Oak of Mamre, so memorably depicted in Andrei Rublev's icon of the Holy Trinity?

D.H. Lawrence was a passionate, brooding, firebrand of a man, in open revolt against what he saw as the stifling, soulless, bourgeois Christianity of his day. It's a style of religion which remains with us ninety years on, unfortunately. As Timothy O'Malley of Notre Dame University has recently written in The Church Life Journal:

Our parishes are too safe. They gather together like-minded citizens whose children go to the same schools, whose parents root for the same football team and work in similar fields. We form insider communities that sing music praising not the triune God who comes to interrupt history through the power of the cross, but music reminding the Creator of the Universe how lucky God is to have people like us as his own. The Church's liturgy in these instances functions not as a counter-polis but as a replication of social structures that reduce the reign of God to a country club.

Lawrence raged hard all his life against such embedded mediocrity. He demanded more from himself, more from his fellow men and women, more from life, and more from God. A flesh and blood religion was what he longed for, imbued with imagination, beauty and depth - wild, fierce and compelling. Like Jacob, he wrestled with the Angel, and that, I'm convinced, is the deep and true meaning of the famous passage from Women in Love (in Chapter XX, Gladiatorial) quoted below. It is a quest for meaning - 'an unfinished meaning', as Lawrence notes at the end.

But let's be plain about one thing. Twenty-first century Christianity - in its witness, preaching and sacramental life - will have to match and go beyond the electricity and intensity of Lawrence's prose here if it is to have any chance of re-engaging with hearts and minds in the increasingly disenchanted, blandly secular milieu of the contemporary West. There has to be a bit of ferocity in what we do - an element of mystery, a certain strangeness - otherwise our faith is as flat and one-dimensional as the culture (if it can be called that) which surrounds us. As O'Malley concludes:

Advent, if we take it seriously, restores an apocalyptic posture among us. The Church is not meant to be a country club for the powerful and wealthy with pleasant music, nice art, and entertaining preaching that gets us through another week. The Church is the space where salvation is happening. Where light shines in darkness.

Here is the extract. See what you think. Please note as well the recurrence of the knocking motif and the restorative, almost salvific, note it sounds. The three strange angels can't be far away ...


... So the two men began to struggle together. They were very dissimilar. Birkin was tall and narrow, his bones were very thin and fine. Gerald was much heavier and more plastic. His bones were strong and round, his limbs were rounded, all his contours were beautifully and fully moulded. He seemed to stand with a proper, rich weight on the face of the earth, whilst Birkin seemed to have the centre of gravitation in his own middle. And Gerald had a rich, frictional kind of strength, rather mechanical, but sudden and invincible, whereas Birkin was was abstract as to be almost intangible. He impinged invisibly upon the other man, scarcely seeming to touch him, like a garment, and then suddenly piercing in a tense fine grip that seemed to penetrate into the very quick of Gerald's being.

They stopped, they discussed methods, they practiced grips and throws, they became accustomed to each other's rhythm, they got a kind of mutual physical understanding. And then again they had a real struggle. They seemed to drive their white flesh deeper and deeper against each other, as if they would break into a oneness. Birkin had a great subtle energy, that would press upon the other man with an uncanny force, weigh him like a spell put upon him. Then it would pass, and Gerald would heave free with white, heaving, dazzling movements.

So the two men entwined and wrestled with each other, working nearer and nearer. Both were white and clear, but Gerald flushed smart red when he was touched, and Birkin remained white and tense. He seemed to penetrate into Gerald's more solid, more diffuse bulk, to interfuse his body through the body of the other, as if to subtly bring it into subjection, always seizing with some rapid necromantic fore-knowledge every motion of the other flesh, converting and counteracting it, playing upon the limbs and trunk of Gerald like some hard wind. It was as if Birkin's whole physical intelligence interpenetrated into Gerald's body, as if his fine sublimated energy entered into the flesh of the fuller man, like some potency, casting a fine net, a prison, through the muscles into the very depths of Gerald's physical being.

So they wrestled swiftly, rapturously, intent and mindless at last, two essential white figures working into a tighter closer oneness of struggle, with a strange, octopus-like knotting and flashing of limbs in the subdued light of the room; a tense white knot of flesh gripped in silence between the walls of old brown books. Now and again came a sharp gasp of breath, or a sound like a sigh, then the rapid thudding of movement on the thickly-carpeted floor, then the strange sound of flesh escaping under flesh. Often, in the white interlaced knot of violent living being that swayed silently, there was no head to be seen, only the swift, tight limbs, the solid white backs, the physical junction of the two bodies clinched into oneness. Then would appear the gleaming, ruffled head of Gerald, as the struggle changed, then for a moment the dun-coloured, shadow-like head of the other man would lift up from the conflict, the eyes wide and dreadful and sightless.

At length Gerald lay back inert on the carpet, his breast rising in great slow panting, whilst Birkin kneeled over him, almost unconscious. Birkin was much more exhausted. He caught little, short breaks, he could scarcely breathe any more. The earth seemed to tilt and sway, and a complete darkness was coming over his mind. He did not know what happened. He slid forward quite unconscious, over Gerald, and Gerald did not notice. Then he was half-conscious again, aware only of he strange tilting and sliding of the world. The world was sliding, everything was sliding off into the darkness. And he was sliding, endlessly, endlessly, away.

He came to consciousness again, hearing an immense knocking outside. What could be happening, what was it, the great hammer-stroke resounding through the house? He did not know. And then it came to him that it was his own heart beating. But that seemed impossible, the noise was outside. No, it was outside himself, it was his own heart. And the beating was painful, so strained, surcharged. He wondered if Gerald heard it. He did not know whether he were standing or lying or falling.

When he realised that he had fallen prostrate upon Gerald's body he wondered, he was surprised. But he sat up, steadying himself with his hand and waiting for his heart to become stiller and less painful. It hurt very much, and took away his consciousness.

Gerald however was still less conscious than Birkin. They waited dimly, in a sort of not-being, for many uncounted, unknown minutes.

'Of course - ' panted Gerald, 'I didn't have to be rough - with you - I had to keep back - my force - .'

Birkin heard the sound as if his own spirit stood behind him, outside him, and listened to it. His body was in a trance of exhaustion, his spirit heard thinly. His body could not answer. Only he knew his heart was getting quieter. He was divided entirely between his spirit, which stood outside, and knew, and his body, that was a plunging, unconscious stroke of blood.

'I could have thrown you - using violence - ' panted Gerald. 'But you beat me right enough.'

'Yes,' said Birkin, hardening his throat and producing the words in the tension there, 'you're much stronger than I - you could beat me - easily.'

Then he relaxed again to the terrible plunging of his heart and his blood.

'It surprised me, ' panted Gerald, 'what strength you've got. Almost supernatural.'

'For a moment,' said Birkin.

He still heard as if it was his own disembodied spirit spirit hearing, standing at some distance behind him. It drew nearer however, his spirit. And the violent striking of blood in his chest was sinking quieter, allowing his mind to come back. He realised that he was leaning with all his weight on the soft body of the other man. It startled him, because he thought he had withdrawn. He recovered himself, and sat up. But he was still vague and unestablished. He put out his hand to steady himself. It touched the hand of Gerald, that was lying out on the floor. As Gerald's hand closed warm and sudden over Birkin's, they remained exhausted and breathless, the one hand clasped closely over the other. It was Birkin whose hand, in swift response, had closed in a strong, warm clasp over the hand of the other. Gerald's clasp had been sudden and momentous.

The normal consciousness however was returning, ebbing back. Birkin could breathe almost naturally again. Gerald's hand slowly withdrew. Birkin slowly, dazedly rose to his feet and went towards the table. He poured out a whisky and soda. Gerald also came for a drink.

'It was a real set-to, wasn't it?' said Birkin, looking at Gerald with darkened eyes. 

'God, yes,' said Gerald. He looked at the delicate body of the other man, and added: 'It wasn't too much for you, was it?'

'No. One ought to wrestle and strive and be physically close. It makes one sane.'

'You do think so?'

'I do. Don't you?'

'Yes,' said Gerald.

Their were long spaces of silence between their words. The wrestling had some deep meaning to them - an unfinished meaning.

Jacob and the Angel by Eugéne Delacroix


Bruce Charlton said...


Disclaimer - the concept of an 'iron cage' of bureaucracy comes from Max Weber.

I find Women in Love a book of extremely powerful memorable passages; although the ending seems so weak as to spoil the effect of the novel.

I wrote about Lawrence here:

He is an interesting and important character - a harbinger of Leftism, in terms of pushing the sexual revolution; but in such a way that is extremely Non politically correct. In a brief banal summary - he is one of those strong on diagnosis but weak in prescription.

" Twenty-first century Christianity - in its witness, preaching and sacramental life - will have to match and go beyond the electricity and intensity of Lawrence's prose here if it is to have any chance of re-engaging with hearts and minds in the increasingly disenchanted, blandly secular milieu of the contemporary West. There has to be a bit of ferocity in what we do - an element of mystery, a certain strangeness - otherwise our faith is as flat and one-dimensional as the culture"

Yes. But I can't see any way this can be 'provided' by any kind of institution; not by a church.

In any institution/ organisation, such things can happen only unpredictably, in-between the meshes of the system/ proedures/ rituals... It is important that the system retains such gaps, where such things may happen!

Bruce Charlton said...

BTW - Among the Inklings - I know of an essay and several references on DH Lawrence from Charles Williams; and Owen Barfield was interested enough by DHL to make the Lady Chatterly Trial (and its implications) integral to the 'plot' of one of his best books: Unancestral Voice.