Monday, January 18, 2010

Lawrence on Italy

DAMN IT ALL, Richard, you’ve finally got me to read through D.H. Lawrence’s Twilight in Italy, and finally I see what you see in him — though I must say I see it only through the haze of my own close-held prejudices. Let’s begin with the easiest to overcome, the inadequacy of the book qua book. It’s a gathering of three travel books:

Twilight in Italy, 1916, recording a trip made a few years earlier, mostly on foot, from somewhere south of Munich to Lake Garda, and impressions of the villages on that lake;

Sea and Sardinia, 1921, recalling a trip that January from Taormina to Palermo, thence by boat to Cagliari, by train to Sorgono, bus to Terranova, boat to Civitavecchia, train to Naples, and boat back to Sicily; and

Etruscan Places, 1932, a collection of musings on visits, in 1927, to the remains of Etruscan life found in Tarquinia, Volci, and Volterra.

In the course of those sixteen years Lawrence matured a bit, from the brash, often contemptuous, always opinionated young man curling his lip at the lack of intelligence he finds everywhere, to the informed, still opinionated, occasionally generous fellow who contemplates Etruscan antiquity. It is his judgmentalism, constant in the first book, frequent in the second, that gets under my skin: he’s so quick to insist on his own comfort — good English bacon and tea, for example, even in the mountains of Sardinia — that he only slowly, over the course of those sixteen years, comes to acknowledge the possible appropriateness of the beefsteak and red wine he’s offered in its place.

You’re a Joyce man or a Lawrence man, I decided fifty years ago (and then some), as you choose either Picasso or Matisse, Fitzgerald or Hemingway, Mozart or Beethoven: and I fall on the side of the first in each of those pairings. I can’t disagree with Lawrence’s fundamental points, that freedom and energy and instinct are superb qualities and that they’re in danger of utter destruction at the hand of the 20th century. But I can’t overlook the anger this arouses in the poor Englishman, caught in the misery of being a son of the society responsible for much of that destruction. Don’t take it personally, David Herbert!

I picked the book up to begin a four-month project of reading on Italy, wanting to read English for relaxation; but also in the spirit of New Year’s do-it-it’s-good-for-you resolution; and I’m glad I did. Even the first book, irritating as it mostly is, has its surprising flashes:
It is better to go forward in error than to stay fixed inextricably in the past. (p. 53)

…the cypress trees poise like flames of forgotten darkness, that should have been blown out at the end of the summer. For as we have candles to light the darkness of night, so the cypresses are candles to keep the darkness aflame in the full sunshine. (p. 81)

…the whole organism of life, the social organism, is slowly crumbling and caving in … is seems as though we should be left at last with a great system of roads and railways and industries, and a world of utter chaos seething upon these fabrications: as if we had created a steel framework, and the whole body of society were crumbling and rotting in between. (p. 165)
References to the paperback edition of 1972: New York: The Viking Press

Sea and Sardinia was the only book of the three I’d read earlier, a little after our own travels through Sardinia, in November 1988. I’m thinking of this trip again, transcribing my own journal, partly to get into the mood of journal-keeping, partly to satisfy an acquaintance who’s contemplating her own tour of the island in May.
Some of you may know of my own travel musings, “dispatches” I call them; I used to e-mail them out from the road to a number of friends, and have published three collections of them — you can look them up here.

Alas in the last few years I’ve got out of the habit of journal-keeping, as various pocket computers have replaced the notebook and pen. I can re-read journals from the 1970s and ’80s with great pleasure, once again vividly seeing the places and people they describe: but more recent long walks — on the Pieterpad, the Lingepad, across the Alps — are much more sketchily recorded. We’re thinking of a walk in Sicily in a few months, and I’m dreaming of a long walk in Tuscany and Umbria: it’s time to get back to journaling!

Yet Anthony Burgess writes, in his Introduction to this Viking paperback, that
A single week’s visit was enough for him to extract the very essence of the island and its people, and six weeks were enough to set it all down in words—without a single note as an aide-mémoire.
This may explain the feeling I get that Lawrence saw, on his miserable ride across Sardinia, only what his prejudices put in front of him: that is, he continually looks to the people he meets — for he rarely mentions the landscape, only the people, the hotels, the dining-tables — for confirmation of opinions he’s already formed, attitudes he’s already struck.
Sardinian seems open and manly and downright. Sicilian is gluey and evasive, as if the Sicilian didn’t want to speak straight to you. As a matter of fact, he doesn’t. He is an over-cultured, sensitive ancient soul, and he has so many sides to his mind that he hasn’t got any definite one mind at all. He’s got a dozen minds, and uneasily he’s aware of it… The Sardinian, on the other hand, still seems to have one downright mind. (pp. 80-81)

In this book Lawrence is at his best when he does describe the landscape:
The hillsides tilt sharper and sharper… The oxen lift their noses to heaven, with a strange and beseeching snake-like movement, and taking tiny little step with their frail feet, move slantingly across the slope-face, between the rocks and tree-roots…
There is a stream: actually a long tress of a waterfall pouring into a little gorge, and a stream-bed hat opens a little, and shows a marvelous cluster of naked poplars away below. They are like ghosts. They have a ghostly, almost phosphorescent luminousness in the shadow of the valley… a grey, goldish-pale incandescence of naked limbs and myriad cold-glowing twigs, gleaming strangely.
(p. 88)

Such is our antipathy, Lawrence and I, that he on his travels saw only that part of Sardinia that I on ours did not, and vice versa; and yet between us we saw nearly every corner of the island. Perhaps that explains Lawrence’s otherwise astonishing total lack of reference to the nuraghi, those timeless, enigmatic, powerful stone towers, some sixty feet high and more, that are scattered almost throughout the island. Many of them were perhaps not yet known at the time of Lawrence’s tour: a magnificent example, Su Nuraxi di Barumini, was only discovered in the 1940s, even though its three-storey nuraghe is attended by an entire village of circular foundations, whether of residences or merely storerooms is apparently not yet fully understood.

What would Lawrence have written about Barumini? He gives us an idea:
This is what is so attractive about the remote places, the Abruzzi, for example. Life is so primitive, so pagan, so strangely heathen and half-savage. And yet it is human life. And the wildest country is half humanised, half brought under. It is all conscious… Wherever one is, the place has its conscious genus. Man has lived there and brought forth his consciousness there and in some way brought that place to consciousness, given it its expression, and, really, finished it. The expression may be Proserpine, or Pan, or even the strange “shrouded gods” of the Etruscans or the Sikels, none the less it is an expression… Strange and wonderful chords awake in us, and vibrate again after many hundreds of years of complete forgetfulness. (p. 123)

Etruscan Places is much the shortest of these three books, much the best. Lawrence’s anger, in the face of the destruction of humanity by the industrious society humanity has created, has given way to something more like bitter resignation. Contemplation of the evidence of the utterly vanished Etruscan culture, not to mention the stupidity of the greedy expropriation of the Etruscan remains by those Lawrence considers the chief villains — the British Museum, the Vatican — such contemplation can hardly avoid replacing anger with resignation. It’s there; there’s nothing to be done.
If only we would realise it, and not tear things from their settings. Museums anyhow are wrong. But if one must have museums, let them be small, and above all, let the be local. (p.27)

But there’s something engagingly lyrical about his bitterness, something graceful about the philosophy he's developed to replace, or at least succeed, the incessantly masculine body-worship that (to my mind) disfigures much of his earlier writing. The dialectic between the Etruscans and the Romans who defeated them — and the imperialist 20th-century powers that so readily bring Roman imperialism down to our own period — is the dialectic between a graceful living-in-the-moment, in a society evolved toward an essentially Epicurean adjustment of human life to natural needs and events, and a constant straining-for-the-ideal, in a society geared toward constant growth, development, control, and profit.

In a remarkable passage, Lawrence concedes that we moderns are no longer, like the Etruscans, capable of Etruscan innocence — rather, uniquely Etruscan expression of innocent awareness:
But one radical thing the Etruscan people never forgot, because it was in their blood as well as in the blood of their masters: and that was the mystery of the journey out of life… Man moves naked and glowing through the universe. Then comes death: he dives into the sea, he departs into the underworld. (pp.52-53)
In a striking figure Lawrence considers the dolphin, “a creature that suddenly exists, out of nowhere. He was not: and lo! there he is!” We, however, are merely ducks, warm-blooded, but with no “subaqueous nature”; we dive in, but return to preen. The Etruscans, the reader feels, lived at the moment of awareness of the difference.

Etruscan Places is elegiac, because Lawrence contemplates the lost, and thinks it superior to the present. Throughout these three books he vacillates between admiring intelligence (or at least condemning stupidity) and lamenting consciousness. He attempts a resolution of this difficulty in his admiration for divination.
An act of pure attention, if you are capable of it, will bring its own answer. And you choose that object to concentrate upon which will best focus your consciousness. Every real discovery made, every serious and significant decision ever reached, was reached and mae by divination. The soul stirs, and makes an act of pure attention, and that is a discovery.

The science of the augur and the haruspex was not so foolish as our modern science of political economy.

Lawrence has made me more curious than ever about the Etruscans: too bad, as I’ll never know much more than I do now. Further acquaintance with their towns and tombs will only increase this curiosity, not satisfy it. The day will perhaps come when my hunches are proved (or disproved): a fortunate race, they remembered in their cultural subconscious the journey out of Africa, through Asia Minor, to their home in one of the most fortunate climes ever settled, early enough to have escaped the disadvantages of conscious thought, late enough to have music and language and comfort and beauty. One could think of this as a true Golden Age, and a sustainable one too until the invaders came.

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