11 Sept 2021

In Defence of Owen Rhys and the American Way of Life (The D. H. Lawrence Birthday Post 2021)

Portrait of Witter Bynner (1919) upon whom D. H. Lawrence 
based the character of Owen Rhys in The Plumed Serpent (1926)
Whilst there may be some aspects of the American way of life I feel uncomfortable with, I would, nevertheless, prefer to live in the United States than in the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan; or, indeed, in any country where political power is exercised by religious leaders who act in the name of a deity with whom supreme authority is said to rest.  
And that's because, when all is said and done, theocracy is just about the worst of all forms of government. And that remains the case even when the theocracy is neopagan in character, full of dark gods waiting in the outer darkness, as imagined by D. H. Lawrence in The Plumed Serpent (1926).
Hopefully, I have made my thoughts on this novel and some of its central characters clear in a number of earlier posts: click here, for example, or here. So, in order not to simply repeat old material, I'd like in this post to offer a few thoughts on one of the minor characters; Kate Leslie's American cousin, Owen Rhys ... [1]
Rhys is a 40-something homosexual [2] with a Chinese jade collection and a very definite bald spot; a poet, keen to experience all that life might have to offer, no matter how sordid or how upsetting he may find it. He is, writes Lawrence, possessed of an almost maniacal will-to-happiness and a determination to treat everything as a game
It's fairly obvious that the narrator of the novel does not approve of him. And whilst Kate is really fond of her cousin, how could she respect him, when he was so empty and "waiting for circumstance to fill him up" [3]
Ultimately, Owen tried her patience and she was relieved when he had to return to the United States [4] - or the great death-continent, as Kate likes to imagine it [5].
Be that as it may, Rhys and his young lover, Bud Villiers, are surely preferable to Ramón and Cipriano, the spiritual and military leaders of the revolutionary fascist movement that aims to reintroduce Aztec gods back into history via an awakening of racial mysteries and the establishment of a theocracy on national socialist lines [6].      
And whilst Rhys may display many of the characteristics that Lawrence associates with sensational white America - such as the insidious modern disease of tolerance and the fear of missing out - we might ask ourselves if these traits are really so bad when compared to the atrocities committed by armed militants using terror to impose their religious beliefs? 
Better the cult of the dollar, than the cult of Quetzalcoatl; better the World Trade Center, than any sacred site or holy place; and better Owen's desire to play with his own emptiness, than Ramón's portentous prognosticating ... [7]   

[1] The character of Owen Rhys was based on the poet and translator Witter Bynner (1881-1968), who associated with many of the leading literary figures of his day, including Lawrence, to whom he and his lover Spud Johnson were introduced by Mabel Dodge Luhan.   
      Bynner had moved permanently to Santa Fe in the summer of 1922. The following year, he and Johnson joined the Lawrences on a trip to Mexico. Whilst Lawrence fictionalised elements of this in The Plumed Serpent, Bynner published a memoir based on recollections of his time with Lawrence entitled Journey with Genius (1951). 
      For full details of the Lawrence-Bynner relationship, see the third volume of the Cambridge biography, D. H. Lawrence: Dying Game, 1922-1930, by David Ellis, (Cambridge University Press, 1998). See also the essay by D. A. N. Jones, 'Whacks', in the London Review of Books, Vol. 4, No. 4, (4 March, 1982): click here to read online. 
[2] Although in The Plumed Serpent the question of Rhys's sexual orientation is left vague, in the first version of the novel - Quetzalcoatl - Lawrence tells us that he was a "confirmed bachelor [...] by conviction and practice", a common euphemism for a male homosexual. It is also revealed that Rhys has a pederastic penchant for young Mexican boys: 
      "He lay for hours on the sands cooking like a beefsteak and surrounded by a swarm of little boys [...] spanking their little posteriors and being spanked back by them, letting them climb over him and dive from his shoulders when he was in the water, letting one of them sit on his naked chest as he lay on the sand."
      Owen also took nude photographs of those boys who would let him, "in all imaginable poses".
      See D. H. Lawrence, Quetzalcoatl, ed. N. H. Reeve, (Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 35 and 128. 
[3] D. H. Lawrence, The Plumed Serpent, ed. L. D. Clark, (Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 28.
      In a passage cut from the published novel, Lawrence expands upon the above at length and in detail, leaving the reader in no doubt as to how Kate sees her cousin Owen (and the USA):
       "Owen, what was he doing? With his poetry, and his very secure income, and his socialism, what did he amount to? A parlour socialist, of which there are so many in America. Why? What did he want? 
      She felt it very vividly. He wanted to destroy the soul out of life, by preserving the shells of living human beings. He hated the old divinity of man, the old divine authority which is in the soul of every living man, and which the soul of every living man gratefully recognises. Every living woman too. [...] Her woman's soul was weary, aching, vacant. She wanted again to be given to the living god. 
      And Owen, she knew, hated her for this desire. He hated her because she felt a natural ridicule of his unheroic attitude. A parlour socialist! A playboy of the western world. Play-boying, and nothing else. What was there here for a woman? 
      What was more, his soft, heavy, play-boying hatred of the divine inspiration which carries with it a divine authority. He hated religion in any form, even the simple instinct of religion. He liked aestheticism because it was a toy to play with.
      The hollow, grinding gap of negation that was the middle of him! Yet in this way he was a good fellow, superficially kind and good-natured. But at the middle of him, the grinding void of negation, grinding against any sort of positivity.
      Grinding to destroy the old god-power in man, the old god-authority. Grinding, grinding to reduce the living, creative quick to dust. Then grinding on and on, with mechanical benevolent insistence, to keep all the shells of human beings alive. The great American benevolence! Preserve life, preserve all life, but only when the soul has been killed out of it [...] 
      The great, hideous American activity! Democracy!"
      Kate even resents Owen for sunbathing, collecting things on his travels to take back home, and for snapping endless pictures with his Kodak camera!
      See The Plumed Serpent, textual apparatus [78:13], pp. 498-99 and cf. with what Lawrence writes in chapter III of Quetzalcoatl, p. 46.
[4] The character of Owen Rhys departs from the pages of The Plumed Serpent at the opening of chapter V. He has a rather more significant role to play in the first version of the novel, although he also drops out of Quetzalcoatl almost completely at the half-way point.  
[5] D. H. Lawrence, The Plumed Serpent, pp. 77-78.
[6] The description of Ramón's plumed serpent movement as form of national socialism is provided by a German hotel manager speaking to Kate in chapter VI of The Plumed Serpent, see pp. 101-03. 
      It's interesting to note that although the above character appears in the earlier version of the novel, he doesn't use that phrase, describing the movement instead as a type of bolshevism masquerading as a religion. I suspect that's probably because Lawrence only heard of Hitler and the Nazis following the Beer Hall Putsch in November 1923, i.e., several months after completing Quetzalcoatl, but a year before he began rewriting the book.
      It's interesting also that Kate refused to accept the hotel manager's judgement: "She had seen Ramón Carrasco, and Cipriano. And they were men. They wanted something beyond. She would believe in them. Anything, anything rather than this sterility of nothingness which was the world, and into which her life was drifting." [103] 
      And that, of course, is precisely the appeal and false promise of political fascism and/or religious fundamentalism. People would rather believe in anything and anyone - no matter how specious -  than face up to the challenge of nihilism: "She felt she could cry aloud, for the unknown gods to put the magic back into her life, and to save her from the dry-rot of the world's sterility." [103]           
[7] See D. H. Lawrence, Quetzalcoatl ... The phrase 'portentous prognosticating' is on p. 52. As for Owen Rhys having a vacuum at the middle of him, see the deleted MS passage from chapter III in Appendix I. Lawrence makes it clear that Rhys treasured his own emptiness and found in it his greatest strength, freedom, and joy. 

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