3 Jun 2021

Reflections on Frances Wilson's 'Burning Man'

(Bloomsbury, 2021)
Anyone setting out to write a new biography of D. H. Lawrence has two initial problems:
Firstly, they have to find something to say that wasn't said in the three-volumed Cambridge Biography (1991-1998), written by professors Worthen, Kinkead-Weekes, and Ellis. These three wise men managed to stretch Lawrence's short life out over two thousand pages, which doesn't leave much room, one would have thought, to manoeuvre.
Secondly - and perhaps even more problematically - Lawrence himself provided an account of his own life in his essays, articles, travel writings, poems, and - not least of all - in his thousands of letters. What's more, he also gives us an autofictional version of events in his novels, plays, and short stories. 
In an attempt to try and get round these inconvenient facts, Frances Wilson does two things:
Firstly, she follows Lawrence's footsteps through the pages of his lesser known work and gives greater roles to those who usually are considered of minor import in his life. Thus, we get to hear a lot about Maurice Magnus, for example, and an in-depth analysis of Lawrence's Memoir of the latter. As someone who likes shadowy figures and random events and is obsessed with marginalia, footnotes, early drafts, unpublished or obscure texts, this is fine by me.
Secondly, Wilson reads Lawrence's astonishingly productive mid-period in relation to (or in terms of) Dante's Divine Comedy, dividing her study into three main sections: Inferno (England, 1915-1919); Purgatory (Italy, 1919-1922); and Paradise (America, 1922-1925), with each section divided into three parts. 
Wilson's book thus has a nice neat structure, provided by a novel literary device - or, what might better be described as a cloaking device; i.e., one designed to disguise the fact that, actually, there's really very little new to say about the life of D. H. Lawrence: those who know the facts, faces, places, dates, and key events know these things already and those who don't probably aren't all that interested. 
The real problem I have, however, is that, ultimately, it's the work - not the life - that matters (although Wilson claims she is unable to distinguish between life and art). And we still await the readers that Lawrence deserves; i.e., readers who will do for him what a number of great French thinkers (such as Foucault and Deleuze) did for Nietzsche; violating his texts from behind and below, in order to produce monstrous new ideas and unleash strange new forces and flows.
Wilson, sadly, is not such a reader. Like Geoff Dyer, she seems to think Lawrence needs rehabilitating rather than sodomising and, in order to achieve this, she is prepared to concede all his faults and failings and dismiss some of his major works as mad and bad, including The Lost Girl, Aaron's Rod, and even Women in Love, which, in my view, is the greatest novel of the 20th-century (but then I have the mentality of a teenager: click here). 
Having said that, her book is well written and (for the most part) fun to read; she clearly still cares for Lawrence a great deal, even if a little embarrassed about her youthful devotion and too readily apologetic when confronted with those issues, such as racism, that drive modern readers into a moral frenzy.
Again, for me, it's preferable that Lawence remain a countercultural hate-figure regarded with hostility and contempt, than become a ludicrous figure of fun or remade to suit the prejudices of a contemporary readership. As Malcolm McLaren repeatedly said: It is better to be hated than loved - and better to be a malevolent failure than any kind of benign success. 
The greatness of Lawrence resides in the fact that, like Nietzsche, he would rather be a satyr than a saint and that his writing expresses an acute form of evil, with the latter understood as a sovereign value that demands a kind of Übermorality (i.e., beyond conventional understandings of good and evil). 
Wilson doesn't seem remotely interested in any of this; she's far more concerned with the minutiae of Lawrence's everyday life than metaphysics; with telling tales and passing the word along, rather than critically evaluating ideas. 
Of course, to be fair, she doesn't claim to be writing an intellectual biography and I rather suspect that, like Ottoline Morell, Wilson regards Lawrence's philosophical writings as deplorable tosh - the ravings of whom she calls Self Two; i.e., the Hulk-like Lawrence she finds tiresome and whose reactionary hysteria often "smashed the genius of Self One to smithereens". 
The thing is - if we must indulge the untenable fantasy of a dual nature - it's the green-skinned alter-ego rampaging around the world out of sheer rage that often produces the most astonishing work, rather than the pale-faced Priest of Love indulging in Romantic soul-twaddle. As even Wilson acknowledges towards the end of her book: "Good haters are better company than [...] lovers [...]". 
See: Frances Wilson, Burning Man: The Ascent of D. H. Lawrence, (Bloomsbury, 2021). Lines quoted are on pp. 302 and 386. 
For further reflections on the above book, please click here

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