D.H. Lawrence, the proto-Pagan (part 2)

D.H. Lawrence, the proto-Pagan (part 2) February 11, 2012

I’ve previously posted about D. H. Lawrence before.  I am fascinated by his ideas, especially by his shorter writings.  (I am still trying to trudge through Sons and Lovers, which is supposed to be his best novel.)  Professor Hutton identified Lawrence as a proto-Pagan in his Triumph of the Moon.  But an entire book could be written on Lawrence’s pagan-ness.  Let me offer a few examples, starting with his pantheism and animism.  I apologize for the long quotes, but they are so wonderful, I can’t break them up.

In Apocalypse, Lawrence’s retelling of the book of Revelation, he describes how the John’s revelation describes a Christ that is more like a pagan god than the Christ figure of modern Christianity:

Suddenly we see some of the old pagan splendour, that delighted in the might and the magnificence of the Cosmos, and man who was a star in the cosmos.  Suddenly we feel again the nostalgia for the old pagan world, long before John’s day, we feel an immense yearning to be freed from this petty personal entanglement of weak life, to be back in the far-off world before men became “afraid”.  We want to be freed from our tight little automatic “universe”, to go back to the great living cosmos of the “unenlightened” pagans!

Perhaps the greatest difference between us and the pagans lies in our different relation to the cosmos. With us, all is personal. Landscape and the sky, they are to us the delicious background of our personal life, and no more. Even the universe of the scientists is little more than an extension of our personality, to us. To the pagan, landscape and personal background were on the whole indifferent. But the cosmos was a very real thing. A man lived with the cosmos, and knew it greater than himself.

Don’t let us imagine we see the sun as the old civilisations saw it. All we see is a scientific little luminary, dwindled to a ball of blazing gas. In the centuries before Ezekiel and John, the sun was still a magnificent reality, men drew forth from him strength and splendor, and gave him back homage and lustre and thanks. But in us, the connection is broken, the responsive centers are dead. Our sun is quite a different thing from the cosmic sun of the ancients, so much more trivial. We may see what we call the sun, but we have lost Helios forever. We have lost the cosmos, by coming out of responsive connection with it, and this is our chief tragedy. What is our petty little love of nature – Nature!! – compared to the ancient magnificent living with the cosmos, and being honored by the cosmos!

[…] An escape from the tight little cage of our universe: tight, in spite of all the astronomist’s vast and unthinkable stretches of space: tight, because it is only a continuous extension, a dreary on and on, without any meaning: an escape from this into the vital cosmos, to a sun who has a great wild life, and who looks back at us for strength or withering, marvellous, as he goes his way. Who says the sun cannot speak to me! The sun has a great blazing consciousness, and I have a little blazing consciousness. When I can strip myself of the trash of personal feelings and ideas, and get down to my naked sun-self, then the sun and I can commune by the hour, the blazing interchange, and he gives me life, sun-life, and I send him a little new brightness from the world of the bright blood. The great sun, like an angry dragon, hater of the nervous and personal consciousness in us. All these modern sunbathers must realize, for they become disintegrated by the very sun that bronzes them. But the sun, like a lion, loves the bright red blood of life, and can give it an infinite enrichment if we know how to receive it. But we don’t. We have lost the sun. And he only falls on us and destroys us, decomposing something in us: the dragon of destruction instead of the life-bringer.

And we have lost the moon, the cool, bright, ever-varying moon. It is she who would caress our nerves, smooth them with the silky hand of her glowing, soothe them into serentiy again with her cool presence. For the moon is the mistress and mother of our watery bodies, the pale body of our nervous consciousness and our moist flesh. Oh, the moon could soothe us and heal us like a cool great Artemis between her arms. But we have lost her, in our stupidity we ignore her, and angry she stares down on us and whips us with nervous whips. Oh, beware of the angry Artemis of the night heavens, beware of the spite of Cybele, beware of the vindictiveness of horned Astarte. […]

Now this may sound nonsense, but that is merely because we are fools. There is an eternal vital correspondence between our blood and the sun: there is an eternal vital correspondence between our nerves and the moon. If we get out of contact and harmony with the sun and the moon, then both turn into great dragons of destruction against us. The sun is a great source of blood-vitality, it streams strength to us. But once we resist the sun, and say: It is a mere ball of gas! – then the very streaming vitality of sunshine turns into subtle disintegrative force in us, and undoes us. The same with the moon, the planets, the great stars. They are either our makers or our unmakers. There is no escape.

We and the cosmos are one. The cosmos is a vast living body, of which we are still parts. The sun is a great heart whose tremors run through our smallest veins. The moon is a great gleaming nerve-centre from which we quiver forever. Who knows the power that Saturn has over us, or Venus? But it is a vital power, rippling exquisitely through us all the time. […]

Now all this is literally true, as men knew in the great past, and as they will know again.

By the time of John of Patmos, men, especially educated men, had already almost lost the cosmos. The sun, the moon, the planets, instead of being the communers, the comminglers, the life-givers, the splendid ones, the awful ones, had already fallen into a sort of deadness; they were the arbitrary, almost mechanical engineers of fate and destiny. By the time of Jesus, men had turned the heavens into a mechanism of fate and destiny, a prison.

The Christians escaped this prison by denying the body altogether. But alas, these little escapes! especially the escapes by denial! – they are the most fatal of evasions. Christianity and our ideal civilisation have been one long evasion. It has caused endless lying and misery, misery such as people know today, not of physical want but of a far more deadly vital want. Better lack bread than lack life. The long evasion, whose only fruit is the machine!

We have lost the cosmos. The sun strengthens us no more, neither does the moon. In mystic language, the moon is black to us, and the sun is as sackcloth.

Now we have to get back the cosmos, and it can’t be done by a trick. The great range of responses that have fallen dead in us have to come to life again. It has taken two thousand years to kill them. Who knows how long it will take to bring them to life?
When I hear modern people complain of being lonely then I know what has happened. They have lost the cosmos. – It is nothing human and personal that we are short of. What we lack is cosmic life, the sun in us and the moon in us. We can’t get the sun in us by lying naked like pigs on a beach. The very sun that is bronzing us is inwardly disintegrating us – as we know later. Process of katabolism. We can only get the sun by a sort of worship; and the same with the moon. By going forth to worship the sun, worship that is felt in the blood. […]

Wow!  At first glance, Lawrence might seem to be talking about some kind of astrology.  But he actually condemns what we would call astrology as turning the sun, moon, and planets into “arbitrary, almost mechanical engineers of fate and destiny.”  As I will discuss in a future post, Lawrence condemns the mechanization of human life and repeatedly draws on organic metaphors to describe our ideal relation to life.  Nor do I think Lawrence is indulging in anthropomorphism here.  He is, rather, trying to describe an organic, rather than a mechanistic, relationship to the cosmos.  This becomes more clear as he writes at the end of the book:

What man most passionately wants is his living wholeness and his living unison, not his own isolate salvation of his ‘soul’. Man wants his physical fulfillment first and foremost, since now, once and once only, he is in the flesh and potent. For man, the vast marvel is to be alive. For man, as for flower and beast and bird, the supreme triumph is to be most vividly, most perfectly alive. Whatever the unborn and the dead may know, they cannot know the beauty, the marvel of being alive in the flesh. The dead may look after the afterwards. But the magnificent here and now of life in the flesh is ours, and ours alone, and ours only for a time. We ought to dance with rapture that we should be alive and in the flesh, and part of the living, incarnate cosmos. I am part of the sun as my eye is part of me. That I am part of the earth my feet know perfectly, and my blood is part of the sea. My soul knows that I am part of the human race, my soul is an organic part of the great human soul, as my spirit is part of my nation. In my own very self, I am part of my family. There is nothing of me that is alone and absolute except my mind, and we shall find that the mind has no existence by itself, it is only the glitter of the sun on the surface of the waters.

So that my individualism is really an illusion.  I am part of the great whole, and I can never escape.  But I can deny my connections, break them, and become a fragment.  Then I am wretched.

What we want is to destroy our false, inorganic connections, especially those related to money, and re-establish the living organic connections with the cosmos, the sun and earth, with mankind and nation and family.  Start with the sun, and the rest will slowly, slowly happen.

Elsewhere, in his essay on New Mexico, Lawrence describes his encounter with the religion of the Native Americans where he has one of his first experiences that he calls “religious”.  He describes the Native American religion as an example of this organic connection to the cosmos:

It was a vast old religion, greater than anything we know: more starkly and nakedly religious.  There is no God, no conception of a god.  All is god.  But it is not the pantheism we are accustomed to, which expresses itself as “God is everywhere, God is in everything.”  In the oldest religion, everything was alive, not supernaturally but naturally alove.  There were only deeper and deeper streams of life, vibrations of life more and more vast.  So rocks were alive, but a mountain had a deeper, vaster life than a rock, and it was much harder for a man to bring his spirit, or his energy, into contact with the life of a mountain, and so he drew strength from the mountain, as from a great standing well of life, than it was to come into contact with the rock.  And he had to put forth a grear religious effort.  For the whole life-effort of man was to get his life into contact with the elemental life of the cosmos. mountain-life, cloud-life, thunder-life, air-life, earth-life, sun-life.  To come into the immediate felt contact, and so derive energy, power, and a dark sort of joy.  This effort into sheer naked contact, without an intermediary or mediator, is the root meaning of religion, and at the sacred races the runners hurled themselves into a terrible cumulative effort, through the air, to come at last into naked contact with the very life of air, which is the life of the clouds, and so of the rain.

It was a vast and pure religion, without idols or images, even mental ones.  It is the oldest religion, a cosmic religion the same for all peoples, not broken up into specific gods or saviours or systems.  It is the religion which precedes the god-concept, and is therefore greater and deeper than any god religion. 

While he might be described as a pantheist or an animist, Lawrence is first and foremost a vitalist.  It is “Life” that he divinizes, as is clear from the excerpt of Etruscan Places that I quoted in my previous post.  Is it any wonder that he is so focused on the sun?  The sun is the ultimate source of all organic life.  Lawrence tells us to “Start with the sun, and the rest will slowly, slowly happen.”  How do we start with the sun?  Through worship: “We can only get the sun by a sort of worship; and the same with the moon. By going forth to worship the sun, worship that is felt in the blood.”

In his essay, “A propos of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover'”, Lawrence decries the loss of our ritualistic connection to rhythm of our cosmos:

 Oh what a catastrophe for man when he cut himself off from the rhythm of the year, from his unison with the sun and the earth. Oh what a catastrophe, what a maiming of love when it was made a personal, merely personal feeling, taken away from the rising and the setting of the sun, and cut off from the magic connection of the solstice and the equinox! That is what is the matter with us. We are bleeding at the roots, because we are cut off from the earth and sun and stars, and love is a grinning mockery, because, poor blossom, we plucked it from its stem on the tree of Life, and expected it to keep on blooming in our civilised vase on the table. […]

The rhythm of the cosmos is something we cannot get away from, without bitterly impoverishing our lives. The early Christians tried to kill the old pagan rhythm of cosmic ritual, and to some extent succeeded. They killed the planets and the zodiac, perhaps because astrology had already become debased to fortune-telling. They wanted to kill the festivals of the year. But the church which knows that man does not live by man alone, but by the sun and moon and earth in their revolutions, restored the sacred days and feasts almost as the pagans had them, and the Christian peasants went on very much as the pagan peasants had gone, with the sunrise pause for worship, and the sunset, and noon, the three great daily moments of the sun: then the new holy day, one in the ancient seven-cycle: then Easter and the dying and rising God, Pentecost, Midsummer fire, the November dead and the spirits of the grave, then Christmas, then Three Kings. For centuries the mass of people lived in this rhythm, under the Church. And it is down in the mass that the roots of religion are eternal. When the mass of a people loses the religious rhythm, that people is dead, without hope.–But Protestantism came and gave a great blow to the religious and ritualistic rhythm of the year, in human life. Nonconformity almost finished the deed. Now you have a poor, blind, disconnected people with nothing but politics and bank-holidays to satisfy the eternal human need of living in ritual adjustment to the cosmos in its revolutions, in eternal submission to the greater laws. And marriage, being one of the greater necessities, has suffered the same from the loss of the sway of the greater laws, the cosmic rhythms which should sway life always. Mankind has got to get back to the rhythm of the cosmos, and the permanence of marriage.

We must get back into relation, vivid and nourishing relation to the cosmos and the universe. The way is through daily ritual, and the re-awakening. We must once more practice the ritual of dawn and noon and sunset, the ritual of the kindling fire and pouring water, the ritual of the first breath, and the last. This is an affair of the individual and the household, a ritual of day. The ritual of the moon in her phases, of the morning star and the evening star is for men and women separate. Then the ritual of the seasons, with the Drama and the Passion of the soul embodied in procession and dance, this is for the community, an act of men and women, a whole community, in togetherness. And the ritual of the great events in the year of stars is for nations and whole peoples. To these rituals we must return: or we must evolve them to suit our needs. For the truth is, we are perishing for lack of fulfillment of our greater needs, we are cut off from the great sources of our inward nourishment and renewal, sources which flow eternally in the universe. Vitally, the human race is dying. It is like a great uprooted tree, with its roots in the air. We must plant ourselves again in the Universe.

So here we have a valorization of ancient and contemporary pagans (non-Christians), a view of the universe as alive, a call to reconnect organically to the universe, and to do so through worship and ritual.  What could be more pagan?

Later, I am going to write about other aspects of Lawrence’s proto-Paganism, including his archetypal dualistic (some would say “stereotypical”) attitude toward the genders, his anti-gnosticism, his anti-mechanistic organicism and corpo-spirituality, and perhaps most interestingly for me, his Jungian understanding of the soul/psyche.

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