An empty pot at the rainbow's end BLIND SPOTS

D H Lawrence has had countless passionate admirers - from F R Leavis and Lionel Trilling to hordes of angry, thwarted adolescents. But none has loved him half as much, says Thomas Sutcliffe, as Lawrence himself Imagine being trapped in a railway carriage
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The first thing to be said about disliking Lawrence is that you will not be short of distinguished company. "Complete mediocrity artistically," wrote Nabokov to Edmund Wilson, without feeling the need for elaboration. "Your praise of Lawrence sickens me," snapped Evelyn Waugh in a letter to Graham Greene. Graham Greene made sure that he cleared his name by return of post. "I am puzzled by your reference to my praise of Lawrence as I don't like the man much... It always seems to me Lawrence was ruined as an artist by his genius." That Greene writes of "the man" rather than "the work" or "the novels" is telling; intellectual criticism of Lawrence is unusually charged with personal distaste. Even T S Eliot, whose odium is usually phrased with theological nicety, is reduced to a sort of gabble of disgust: "Had Lawrence been sent to a public school and taken honours at a university he would not have been a jot the less ignorant; had he become a don at Cambridge his ignorance might have had frightful consequences for himself and for the world, `rotten and rotting others' ". In my own case, certainly, the distaste for Lawrence has an irrational shudder to it. Imagine being trapped in a railway carriage with the man. Imagine him striking up a monologue with you. Imagine that awful russet beard wagging like a docked tail as he bullies and preaches and issues commandments. You'd pull the communication cord without hesitation and think the fine well spent.

The second thing to be said about disliking Lawrence - perhaps we should say "hating" and get things into the open - is that it is unavoidably a tribute to his powers. (After all, who would bother to marshal an argument against a Jeffrey Archer novel? Reason wouldn't even get out of bed.) Every one of the hostile quotations above contains a kind of concession; Nabokov knows that he has to qualify his charge of mediocrity, Greene concedes his genius, Eliot assumes a global scope to his baleful charisma. William Empson is, characteristically, more generous and more undecided; he notes that Lawrence "is an irritating and self-indulgent writer but keeps seeming larger than the attacks on him", a useful admonition.

It's also important to remember that hating Lawrence is actually an engagement in a larger and more important battle, a fact acknowledged by Lawrence's greatest English champion, F R Leavis. In the preface to his book on the novelist he recalls his own youthful enlistment; Lawrence and Joyce, he had realised, "were pre-eminently the testing, the crucial authors: if you took Joyce for a major creative writer, then like Mr Eliot, you had no use for Lawrence, and if you judged Lawrence a great writer then you could hardly take a sustained interest in Joyce." Actually Eliot did have some uses for Lawrence, though they weren't those Leavis had in mind - as an antibiotic for a culture. But even though Leavis was a critic who made being embattled into a private art form, his sketch map of the frontline isn't simply a belligerent fantasy. He draws a line in the sand, and it's part of my problem with Lawrence that I know almost instantly on which side I stand.

I might have said that I know instinctively on which side I stand, except that it wouldn't have been true. My blindness about Lawrence is partly willed. To continue the military analogy, you could say that the defenses have been erected on a natural feature, but one that has been so heavily fortified since that the original ground is virtually invisible. I don't see his greatness, but I don't want to, either, and while it's theoretically possible that a critic could pull off a literary cataract operation I would never sign the consent forms. My dislike of Lawrence is too intimately involved with my liking for other writers, too intimately involved with what I think I am. Our psychology may help shape our tastes, but the process isn't one-off or one-way - our tastes also help shape our psychology. A statement of taste is always both a confession about the past and a declaration about the future.

You can see the principle at work in Leavis himself, though in a mirror- image form. Apart from anything else, his book on Lawrence is a fascinating psychological document - a fascinating account of how need directs our judgements. It also highlights one of the features of Lawrence that I particularly dislike, which is the singular narcissism of the novels. I may be wrong about this. Lionel Trilling, a great critic, wrote about Lawrence's "excited, angry, loving interest in humanness".

This is another generous response and it captures what so arouses adolescent readers of Lawrence, that reflection of the impatient urgency of youth. But the more I read Lawrence (the less I read him, if we're telling the truth) the more it seems to me that Trilling's line should be rewritten - what the novelist displays above all is an "excited, angry, loving interest in Lawrenceness". The novels' solipsism speaks to the solipsism of clever, serious young people, most of whom will happily read their own features into this essentially flattering mirror. Leavis could see his own rage here too, but transfigured from fine discriminations (the lot of the academic critic) into a wild flare of coal gas, a flamboyant release from the geological pressures of the English class system.

In fact he uses Eliot's attack (the speculation about Lawrence becoming a don at Cambridge) as an epigraph to his book about Lawrence, pinned up there prominently, as people will pin portraits of a hate figure to a dart-board. I think it's clear that he takes Eliot's remarks personally, that he sees them aimed at himself - the clever, working-class boy who did become a don at Cambridge. And there's something unhealthy about everything that follows, about the book's protective violence in service of its master. Leavis finds it virtually impossible to praise Lawrence without attacking others: "It strikes one as what Arnold Bennett would have wished to have done," he writes at one point, "though, being the work of a great creative genius, it is utterly beyond Bennett's achievements." There is a nagging insistence on that word "genius" too, as if repetition alone might wear away the obdurate resistance to his hero's merits.

His rhetoric is so deformed by love (the word really isn't too much) that many of his contentions about Lawrence are simply couched as statements of the obvious. "The plain fact," he writes, "is that Lawrence is one of the great masters of comedy." "Banzai!" screams Dr Leavis, as he pilots his blazing argument into a received opinion the size of an aircraft carrier.

All this may look as if it is a case against the critic rather than the novelist, to which I would answer that it is exactly what is Lawrentian about Leavis that I dislike most: the vituperation; the reliance on fierce assertion; the absence of that imaginative capacity to see yourself in a comic light; the vague, cultish religiosity of his value system (it is Leavis himself, not one of his parodists, who writes solemnly of "the livingness of life"). Most damning of all, I can't read Lawrence without suspecting that his vaunted honesty, which is often offered as a saving grace, even by those who don't really like him, is actually nothing of the sort.

In the early Sixties a minor academic controversy blew up over Lady Chatterley's Lover, which provides a good example of what I mean. I admit that it's a prejudicial example, Lawrence at his worst. I admit too that there is a cold clarity of sight in Lawrence at his best. But the vices of self- interest, solemnity and dishonesty which seem peculiarly distilled here may explain why I don't worry about ignoring his virtues. The dispute was initially between John Sparrow and John Peter, and it centred on whether Lawrence had included a panegyric to sodomy in his controversial novel. Distinguished men of letters exchanged solemn correspondence about copulation a tergo, and Essays in Criticism published scholarly digressions on sexual technique.

Some 30 years on it seems indisputable that Lawrence was talking about anal sex, and talking about it in fairly ludicrous terms too. "How she had really wanted it!" Lawrence writes of Connie, "She knew now. At the bottom of her soul, fundamentally, she had needed the phallic hunting out, and she had believed she would never get it." I find it difficult to believe that Lawrence intends those seaside double entendres as a joke, but even more difficult to believe that he wasn't aware of them. Isn't it more likely that the high priest of sexual honesty simply couldn't bring himself to ask for what he really wanted? Lawrence is, not to mince words as he does, begging for it. I would hazard a guess that he got a pretty dusty answer from Frieda, if he ever tried the same arguments in bed.

There is a rich comedy here - that of bashful lust masquerading as fearless nobility of intellect - but it isn't one that Lawrence recognises. Stella Gibbons did; the wonderful Mr Mybug in Cold Comfort Farm captures this aspect of Lawrence perfectly - the conviction that the best way into a girl's pants is by way of her brain. He wouldn't be the first young man to think that, it's true, but he'd probably be the last to own up.