D.H. Lawrence Taught Me a Lot about America Today

Tweet Reddit Share

“What,” I wondered, “does that British pornographer have to say about American literature?”

In his Student’s Guide to U.S. History, Wilfred M. McClay assembled a list of 26 books and called them “An American Canon.” I was acquainted with most of them (Democracy in AmericaThe FederalistMoby Dick, etc.), but four were new to me, including D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature.

“What,” I wondered, does that British pornographer have to say about American literature?”

For decades I’ve subscribed to the doctrine of connaturality: distorted living creates distorted thinking. If a person’s life is ruled by passion, his of her thinking will be distorted by passion. For the sexually illicit, for instance, sex is king . . . or at least a queen (and maybe bishop, if you’re Episcopalian). The sexually-illicit don’t think clearly about sex because they’re ruled by sex.

So I didn’t think the Chatterley dude would have a whole lot to say about the United States, especially since he was from Britain.

I was wrong. His book is strong, filled with wise and novel (and funny . . . bonus) observations, like this: But to try to know any living being is to try to suck the life out of that being. . . It is the temptation of a vampire fiend.”

He says some stupid things, too, but he makes many observations about American life that rank with de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Chesterton’s What I Saw in America, and Santayana’s Character and Opinion in the United States.

Sample:

When America set out to destroy Kings and Lords and Masters, and the whole paraphernalia of European superiority, it pushed a pin right through its own body, and on that pin it still flaps and buzzes and twists in misery. The pin of democratic equality. Freedom.

There’ll never be any life in America till you pull the pin out and admit natural inequality. Natural superiority, natural inferiority. Till such time, Americans just buzz around like various sorts of propellers, pinned down by their freedom and equality.

Political equality, yes. Divine equality, yes.

Social, intellectual, physical equality, no.

Yet in America, all things — pursuits and interests, opinions, and choices — are deemed equal and deserving of respect. The results are often grotesque.

Lawrence’s metaphysical bent

Lawrence isn’t beyond the metaphysical, even when he expresses it in the biological:

The central law of all organic life is that each organism is intrinsically isolate and single in itself.

The moment is isolation breaks down . . . death sets in.

This is true of every individual organism, from man to amoeba.

But the secondary law of all organic life is that each organism only lives through contact with other matter, assimilation, and contact with other life, which means assimilation of new vibrations, non-material. Each individual organism is vivified by intimate contact with fellow organisms: up to a certain point.

In order to have contact with another, we must break down a little, we must lessen our isolation. But if we break down too much, I think Lawrence is saying, we die.

Death results from termination of isolation, yes, but the termination of isolation is necessary for ultimate communion, which, it seems to me, is the logical extension of what Lawrence is saying: A breakdown of isolation is necessary for important communion with others to take place. Likewise, a complete breakdown of isolation is necessary for final communion with The Other to take place.

Lawrence and the spirit

Lawrence believes in spirit. He even understands it, albeit in a warped way:

The root of all evil is that we want this spiritual gratification, this flow, this apparent heightening of life, this knowledge, this valley of many-coloured grass, even grass and light prismatically decomposed, giving ecstasy. We want all this without resistance. We want it continually. And this is the root of all evil in us.

Well, yes, but that yearning is also the root of all good. That desire for spiritual gratification is nothing less than the summum bonum, the final call, our ultimate destiny.

When that divine signal gets distorted, troubles arise. Men seek that spiritual gratification in warped ways, from drugs to love of the malevolent. The desire to seek itself, though, is not the root of all evil. It’s the desire when distorted by Original — and subsequent Actual — Sin that brings about the evil.

Rushing without souls

[P]eople may go on, keep on, and rush on, without souls. They have their ego and their will; that is enough to keep them going.

Spiritual darkness doesn’t kill a person’s ability to think and act. A person can move forward and regress at the same time. But as he improves his faculties for thought and action, but doesn’t elevate his spiritual nature as well, his capacity — and potential — for doing horrible things increases.

Because Society is Man writ large (Plato), the same truth applies to civilization. Eric Voegelin liked to point out that a civilization can progress and regress at the same time.

Art is moral

The essential function of art is moral. Not aesthetic, not decorative, not pastime and recreation. But moral. . . . But a passionate, implicit morality, not didactic. A morality which changes the blood, rather than the mind. Changes the blood first. The mind follows later, in the wake.

“Art,” Jacques Maritain said, “is a virtue of the practical intellect.” The artist must possess the virtue proper to his activity. In this, it is aesthetic. Art is concerned with morality, but I think morality is secondary. The artist paints — writes, sculpts . . . conveys — what is true/real. Morality is nothing less than living in accordance with truth.

If an artist sets out to be moral, it’s hard to imagine how her art won’t be didactic.

You sculpt the piece first. The meaning comes later.

Unfair to St. Hawthorne

Hawthorne, Poe, Longfellow, Emerson, Melville: it is the moral issue which engages them. They all feel uneasy about the old morality. Sensuously, passionately, they all attack the old morality. But they know nothing better, mentally. Therefore they give tight mental allegiance to a morality which all their passion goes to destroy. Hence the duplicity which is the fatal flaw in them, most fatal in the most perfect American work of art, The Scarlet Letter.”

Really? I’m no Hawthorne expert, but the witness of his daughter Rose implies that he had a mental and emotional allegiance to traditional morality (whether that’s the same morality Lawrence is referring to, I don’t know). From Flannery O’Connor’s The Habit of Being:

You know [St. Rose’s Free Home for Incurable Cancer] was founded by Hawthorne’s daughter? My evil imagination tells me that this was God’s way of rewarding Hawthorne for hating the Transcendentalists. One of my Nashville friends was telling me that Hawthorne couldn’t stand Emerson or any of that crowd. When one of them came in the front door, Hawthorne went out the back. He met one of them one morning and snarled, “Good morning Mr. G., how is your oversoul this morning?”

Miscellaneous Lawrencisms

“There is such a thing as evil belief: a belief that one cannot do wrong.”

Which is, of course, the ailment of most politicians. They acknowledge verbally that they can do wrong, then plow ahead like they can’t.


“The harder a man works, at brute labour, the thinner becomes his idealism, the darker his mind. And the harder a man works, at mental labour, at idealism, at transcendental occupations, the thinner becomes his blood, and the more brittle his nerves.”

Good observation, that, but a bit troubling. If true, all work is bad, and we know that’s not the case. Man is called to sanctify his work, and he can hardly do so if work leads him to darkness or brittleness. Work, leavened with grace (which implies balance and right outlook), gives peace.


“[Melville] was a modern Viking. There is something curious about real blue-eyed people. They are never quite human, in the good classic sense, human as brown-eyed people are human: the human of the living humus. About a real blue-eyed person there is usually something abstract . . .”.

Startling observation. I’m not sure what to make of it, except to note that I have blue eyes . . . and that I think I should move on quickly.


“It seems absurd to class people according to their implements. And yet there is something in it. The heart of the Pacific is still the Stone Age; in spite of the steamers.”

Marshall McLuhan wouldn’t think it absurd. Implements (media) shape our pursuits, our ideas, our attitudes. To the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. That cliché has a lot of truth in it.


“I am a moral animal. And I’m going to remain such. I’m not going to be turned into a virtuous little automaton as Benjamin would have me. . . I am a moral animal. But I am not a moral machine.”

Right on. Lawrence wrote these words about Ben Franklin’s Autobiography. Franklin, of course, would’ve done better to be an animal than a machine, since his moral machine was broken (check out his Wikipedia entry for his ample moral shortcomings).


“[T]he most idealist nations invent most machines. America simply teems with mechanical inventions, because nobody in America ever wants to do anything. They are idealists. Let a machine do the doing.”

De Tocqueville, I think, would’ve concurred.


“The desire to extirpate the Indian. And the contradictory desire to glorify him. Both are rampant still, today. . . The minority of whites intellectualize the Red Man and laud him to the skies. But this minority of whites is mostly a high-brow minority with a big grouch against its own whiteness. “

Quite prescient, beating James Burnham and his observations about “white guilt” by about forty years.


“I should think the American admiration of five-minute [tours] has done more to kill the sacredness of old European beauty and aspiration than multitudes of bombs would have done.”

I’ve been to Europe twice. I loved both trips. I hope I didn’t ruin the place for the Muslims.


“[E]very American citizen is free to force his presence upon you, no matter how unwilling you may be.”

It reminds me of an incident in my early twenties. I took my car to the shop and had to wait 45 minutes for the repair. I sat down in the waiting room with a book of Plato dialogues. Another customer walked in and grabbed a cup of coffee, sat down a few feet from me and said, “Might as well get a cup if it’s free!” I put my book down and listened to him for the next 45 minutes.

Even so, those were halcyon days compared to today, when blaring TVs occupy every corner of American space where a person might have to sit for more than ten minutes. Those old days of talkative Americans gave a person a choice: be saintly and lend your ear or tell the person to shut the hell up. Today, there is no choice. If you turn off the TV in, say, a hospital waiting room, someone is going to react like you just urinated on his leg and then fink you out to the hospital police.