14 Jun 2021

On the Art of Character Assassination cum Eternal Salute: Reflections on D. H. Lawrence's 'Memoir of Maurice Magnus'

Lawrence and Magnus photographed in Italy (c.1920)
Also - Maurice! Ich grüsse dich, in der Ewigkeit.

If I'm grateful to the author of Burning Man for anything, it's for sending me back with fresh interest to D. H. Lawrence's Memoir of Maurice Magnus, a queer text (about a queer figure) first published in 1924, which Frances Wilson regards - like Lawrence himself - as perhaps his greatest single piece of writing as writing [a].  
The sixty-odd page text - which Lawrence wrote as an introduction for Magnus's book telling of his (wretched) time in the French Foreign Legion - opens on a "dark, wet, wintry evening in November 1919" [b]. Lawrence has just arrived in Florence: poor as the proverbial church mouse and Friedaless (she having gone to visit her mother in Germany). 
Needing help finding his feet, Lawrence turned to exiled British writer and paedophile Norman Douglas [c], whom he had known for several years and regarded as someone he could trust; someone who had, as he put it, never left him "in the lurch" [11]. Douglas it is who introduces Lawrence to Magnus, a figure who will both fascinate and exasperate, attract and repulse, with his mincing walk and high-pitched voice.

As first impressions seem to matter a very good deal, here's how Lawrence initially sized Magnus up: "almost smart, all in grey, and looked at first sight like an actor-manager, common [...] a touch of down-on-his-luck about him" [11]. Lawrence continues: "He looked a man about forty, spruce and youngish in his deportment, very pink-faced, and very clean, very natty, very alert, like a sparrow painted to resemble a tom-tit" [12].  
It's difficult to know quite what Lawrence found so irresistable about Magnus; perhaps it was his light-blue but rather tired-looking eyes, or his "crisp, curly, dark-brown hair" [13] that was just beginning to grey at the temples [d]; or perhaps it was the nice 'n' sleazy element that captured Lawrence's interest every time ... Who knows? But there was something (much to Frieda's later disgust and irritation) [e].
Despite insisting on Magnus's essential commonness, Lawrence can't help admiring the man's sensitivity and appreciation of fine things. Entering Magnus's room the morning after a gay and noisy night before, Lawrence notes:
"He was like a little pontiff in a blue kimono-shaped dressing gown with a broad border of reddish- purple: the blue was a soft mid-blue, the material a dull silk. So he minced about, in demi-toilette. His room was very clean and neat, and slightly perfumed with essences. On his dressing-table stood many cut glass bottles and silver-topped bottles with essences and pomades and powders, and heaven knows what. A very elegant little prayer book lay by his bed - and a life of St. Benedict. For Magnus was a Roman Catholic convert. All he had was expensive and finicking: thick leather silver-studded suit-cases standing near the wall, trouser-stretcher all nice, hair-brushes and clothes-brush with old ivory backs. I wondered over him and his niceties and little pomposities. He was a new bird to me. For he wasn't at all just the common person he looked. He was queer and sensitive as a woman [...] and patient and fastidious." [15]
Rather sadly, Lawrence suspects that Magnus finds him a bit of a bore; someone fearful of spending the money he hasn't got; someone fearful of letting go and getting into the gay spirit of things whilst his wife was away. Without saying there was always something a bit pinched and provincial about Lawrence, it's true that he certainly wasn't a wild bohemian or louche libertine.  
When not running round on errands for Douglas and managing his affairs, no one quite knew what Magnus did. Though he liked to hang about with the monks at a monastery near Rome and dream of leading a spiritual life. One day, Lawrence goes to visit him at the monastery, which, according to Lawrence, makes Magnus very happy:
"He looked up to me with a tender, intimate look as I got down from the carriage. Then he took my hand. 
      'So very glad to see you,' he said. 'I'm so pleased you've come.'
      And he looked into my eyes with that wistful, watchful tenderness rather like a woman who isn't quite sure of her lover." [21-22]
This homoerotic tone is a constant feature of Lawrence's Memoir. He can't help finding Magnus a quaint creature full of a certain tenderness; the sort of man happy to lend you a beautiful warm coat when, like Lawrence, you are feeling the cold: 
"Magnus [...] made me wear a big coat of his own, a coat made of thick, smooth black cloth, and lined with black sealskin, and having a collar of silky black sealskin. I can still remember the feel of the silky fur. It was queer to have him helping me solicitously into this coat, and buttoning it at the throat for me." [24]  
Of course, Lawrence being Lawrence, he can't just appreciate this act of kindness and enjoy being wrapped in splendour for once: happy to be warm, he nevertheless secretly detests the expensively tailored coat. Nor can he bring himself to simply say something polite when shown a photograph of Magnus's mother:
"Magnus showed me [...] a wonderful photograph of a picture of a lovely lady - asked me what I thought of it, and seemed to expect me to be struck to bits by the beauty. His almost sanctimonious expectation made me tell the truth, that I thought it just a bit cheap, trivial." [26]
It's precisely this kind of remark that prompted Norman Douglas to issue a plea for better manners from Lawrence [f]. As a rule, dear reader, if someone shows or sends you a photo of their mother, newborn baby, much-loved child - or even their cat! - just smile and say something complimentary. 
Pretty soon, Lawrence finds life at the monastery unbearable: "'The past, the past. The beautiful, the wonderful past, it seems to prey on my heart, I can't bear it'" [33]. It wasn't the rich authenticity of the past that distubed him per se, but that he was reminded of just how much he remained a "child of the present" [27] who could never return to a time gone by, no matter how nostalgic it made him feel. 
This is important: too many Lawrentians mistakenly believe Lawrence wants to go back and worships the peasant and noble savage. He doesn't. 
Thus, for example, whilst he rather admires the mindless Italian peasants living their lives "as lizards among the rocks" [30], Lawrence is quick to add that this doesn't make them superior beings: "I don't give much for the wonderful mystic qualities in peasants. Money is their mystery of mysteries" [31] - just like the industrial workers living in the big cities and worshipping the machine. 
Ultimately, says Lawrence, one has to press on and accelerate the process of modernity and in this way hope to get beyond it.     
At some point, mention is made by Magnus of a manuscript on which he is rather pinning his hopes. Lawrence reads it, but thinks it poor: "And yet there was something in it that made me want it done properly" [29]. And that - in part - is how and why Lawrence ends up adding an introduction and overseeing publication of the work (then called, rather wonderfully, Dregs).
The book - eventually published under the title Memoirs of the Foreign Legion, in October 1924, was, sadly, not one that Magnus would ever hold in his hands; for he had committed suicide in November the year before, just three days shy of his 44th birthday (the age that Lawrence would die at in 1930) [g].    
Lawrence tells us that news of Magnus's death (briefly) caused the world to stand still for him: 
"I knew that in my own soul I had said, 'Yes, he must die if he cannot find his own way.' But for all that, now I realised what it must have meant to be the hunted, desperate man: everything seemed to stand still. I could, by giving half my money, have saved his life. I had chosen not to save his life. 
      Now, after a year has gone by, I keep to my choice. I still would not save his life. I respect him for dying when he was cornered. And for this reason I feel still connected with him: still have this to discharge, to get his book published, and to give him his place, to present him just as he was as far as I knew him myself." [62-63]
That's kind. And generous. But what follows in the introduction is rather less so; in fact, one might describe Lawrence's words as unkind and uncharitable - even cruel:
"The worst thing I have against him, is that he abused the confidence, the kindness, and the generosity of unsuspecting people [...] He did not want to, perhaps. But he did it. [...] What is one to feel towards one's strangers, after having known Magnus? It is the Judas treachery to ask for sympathy and for generosity, to take it when given - and then: 'Sorry, but anybody may make a mistake!' It is this betraying with a kiss which makes me still say: 'He should have died sooner.' No, I would not help to keep him alive, not if I had to choose again. I would let him go over into death. He shall and should die, and so should all his sort: and so they will. There are so many kiss-giving Judases. He was not a criminal: he was obviously well intentioned: but a Judas every time, selling the good feeling he had tried to arouse, and had aroused, for any handful of silver he could get. A little loving vampire!" [63]
Magnus's book, says Lawrence, is dreadful. But Magnus is worse than dreadful; he is a liar and hypocrite. Particularly when it comes to the question of sodomy. For like his friend Norman Douglas, Magnus had a taste for young boys and willingly paid for sexual favours. 
For Magnus, however, it's not what's done that matters - it's how its done (and who's doing it); a brutal legionaire raping a boy-child lacks the sophisticated spirituality and style of the educated man who looks to the ancient Greeks for his code of sexual conduct. Lawrence doesn't agree:
"To my mind he is worse than the poor devils of legionaires. They had their blood-passions and carried them defiantly, flagrantly, to depravity. But Magnus had whitish blood, and a conceited spiritual uplift, and he kept up appearances: and filched his sexual satisfactions, despising them all the time." [64]
Memoirs of the Foreign Legion is, says Lawrence, "in its way a real creation" [67]. But he would "hate it to be published and taken at its face value, with Magnus as a spiritual dove among vultures of lust" [67]. But again, on the other hand, Lawrence's introduction isn't merely an exercise in character assassination; he also passionately sticks up for the dead man, admitting his courage and saluting him in eternity:
"He had his points, the courage of his own terrors, quick-wittedness, sensitiveness to certain things in his surroundings. I prefer him, scamp as he is, to the ordinary respectable person. He ran his risks: he had to be running risks with the police, apparently. And he poisoned himself rather than fall into their clutches. I like him for that. And I like him for the sharp and quick way he made use of every one of his opportunities to get out of that beastly army. There I admire him: a courageous isolated little devil facing his risks, and like a good rat, determined not to be trapped. I won't forgive him for trading on the generosity of others, and so dropping poison into the heart of all warm-blooded faith. But I am glad after all that [a friend] has rescued his bones from the public grave. I wouldn't have done it myself, because I don't forgive him his 'fisacal' impudence and parasitism. But I am glad [someone] has done it. And, for my part, I will put his Legion book before the world if I can. Let him have his place in the world's consciousness. 
      Let him have his place, let his word be heard. He went through vile experiences: he looked them in the face, braved them through, and kept his manhood in spite of them. For manhood is a strange quality, to be found in human rats as well as in hot-blooded men. Magnus carried the human consciousness through circumstances which would have been too much for me. I would have died rather than be so humiliated, I could never have borne it."  [68-69]
This last idea is vital for Lawrence: man can only achieve his self-overcoming by daring to know himself and know everything at last, with "full, bitter, conscious realisation" [69]; this includes all the great horrors and agonies of life. Knowledge, concludes Lawrence, is a kind of vaccination: "It prevents the continuing of ghastly moral disease." [69] 
Magnus dared to enter the sewers and to know what lies beneath. But he also had the courage to fight to retain (or regain where lost) his integrity and spiritual liberty:

"And so, though Magnus poisoned himself, and I would not wish him not to have poisoned himself: though as far as warm life goes, I don't forgive him; yet, as far as the eternal and unconquerable spirit of man goes, I am with him through eternity. I am grateful to him, he beat out for me boundaries of human experience which I could not have beaten out for myself. The human traitor he was. But he was not a traitor to the spirit. In the great spirit of human consciousness he was a hero [...] a strange quaking little star." [70]  

Thus, whilst not trying to forgive Magnus, Lawrence beautifully attempts to do him justice and, in this way, allow his restless spirit to be appeased.
[a] See Frances Wilson, Burning Man: The Ascent of D. H. Lawrence, (Bloomsbury, 2021), p. 152.      
      Readers interested in the fascinating background and publication history of the Memoir can either read Wilson's book, or, of course, they can consult volume two of the Cambridge Lawrence biography - Triumph to Exile 1912-1922, by Mark Kinkead-Weekes, (Cambridge University Press, 1996). 
[b] D. H. Lawrence, Memoir of Maurice Magnus: Introduction to Memoirs of the Foreign Legion, by Maurice Magnus, in Introductions and Reviews, ed. N. H. Reeve and John Worthen, (Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 11. Future page references will be given directly in the text.   

[c] For a recent post in which I discuss child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome with reference to the case of Norman Douglas, click here

[d] Later, Magnus would admire the colour of Lawrence's hair - though was sure the red-brown tint had come from a bottle, much to Lawrence's amusement. See Memoir of Maurice Magnus, p. 18.  

[e] Frieda first meets Magnus when he turns up at a house she and Lawrence are renting in Taormina, Sicily. He's on the run from the law who wish to question him about unpaid debts. If at first she thinks he seems quite nice (having kissed her hand in the correct German fashion), she soon calls him a dreadful person and a nuisance and is annoyed at Lawrence getting involved with him. See Memoir of Maurice Magnus, p. 40.  
[f] In response to the introduction written by Lawrence to Magnus's book, Douglas published a small pamphlet entitled D. H. Lawrence and Maurice Magnus: A Plea for Better Manners (1925). The work attacked Lawrence on a number of fronts and voiced the author's unhappiness with the mean and unfair manner in which, he said, Lawrence had portrayed him and his friend Magnus. Lawrence was eventually obliged to reply and set the record straight in a letter published in the New Statesman (20 Feb 1926).      

[g] 44 is a dangerous age for men - particularly men of artistic temperament and/or a philosophical frame of mind - and there is a long list of figures who have died at this age, including: Spinoza, Henry David Thoreau, Robert Louis Stevenson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jackson Pollock, and Tony Hancock. Pop stars, of course, always keen to live faster and die younger, have their own fatal age of 27.   

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