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Saturday, January 29, 2011

Number 53: D.H. Lawrence "Mystic"


They call all experience of the senses mystic, when the experience is
So an apple becomes mystic when I taste in it
the summer and the snows, the wild welter of earth
and the insistence of the sun.

All of which things I can surely taste in a good apple.
Though some apples taste preponderantly of water, wet and sour
and some of too much sun, brackish sweet
like lagoon water, that has been too much sunned.

If I say I taste these things in an apple, I am called mystic, which
means a liar.
The only way to eat an apple is to hog it down like a pig
and taste nothing
that is real.

But if I eat an apple, I like to eat it with all my senses awake.
Hogging it down I call the feeding of corpses.

--D. H. Lawrence

Hap Notes: There are so many things in contemporary culture for which David Herbert Lawrence (1885-1930) is responsible it's hard to know where to start pointing. I suppose his greatest impact is how we view sex and love, although Lawrence would blanch at the casualness with which we regard these subjects when he felt they were supremely holy. Those looking for prurient titillation by reading his banned book, Lady Chatterly's Lover, are usually astonished to find out that so mild a book was ever considered pornographic, especially when every cheap pulp romance novel one can now buy at the grocery store contains more sexually explicit details.

Lawrence also had great interest in Pagan rituals, Buddhist philosophies and mysticism. He was interested in anything that evoked the sacred sensual passions. He was brought up in a mining town in Nottinghamshire in a working class family, though, and he always considered himself a Christian and was not a hedonist. The mores of the 60s were precipitated by Lawrence, hence all the literature that came from it, but he was a fairly constrained man who was trying to balance, theoretically, the sensual with the intellectual.

If nothing else, Lawrence's life and his novel Sons and Lovers is the template for the (now cliched) scenario of the intelligent working class son who doesn't want to work in the mines with his brutal blunt father. The theme has been done to death, now, but Sons and Lovers was a revelation when it was published in 1913. Lawrence is one of the first writers, also, who felt that industrial society was draining the souls of men and he rails against this often. Much of "Chatterly" is about this, as well.

Lawrence's critical work, Studies in Classic American Literature, almost single-handedly revived the reputation of Herman Melville which is why you were probably asked to read Moby Dick for some class in either high school or college. (I have rarely met anyone who has read Melville's classic, although they were certainly assigned to the task. I do wish more people would read it all the way through- it's a wonderful book.)

I actually think Lawrence's poetry comes in a poor third with his novels and critical works coming first and his poetry and travel books neck-and-neck in the third spot. One thing about Lawrence that runs through each these things, though, is his extraordinary talent for description. He understands plants, animals, histories, colors, clothing, art and architecture and describes them with loving detailed strokes.

In the poem "Mystic" Lawrence is not just showing us that his tastebuds are refined enough to tell the differences in the flavor of apples. He's using the apple (an iconic symbol of the "fall" of man) to stand for all experiences. The one great thing that comes from Eve's tasting of that apple (regardless of the arguably questionable intent of the story), is our ability to appreciate the earth we have been consigned to live upon. Lawrence's era was not so different from own our in that any sort of deviation from the status quo was looked on with suspicion. Mysticism was a flaky lie, a fake thing. No matter how open-minded we say we are currently, there is no doubt that the "mystic" experience is still regarded with some contempt. Lawrence isn't giving "foodies" more criteria for tasting things. He is telling us to taste everything with the same awareness and that awareness will bring revelations to you. He wants you to experience all of life's flavors. The experience may be transcendent for you.

My personal experience with Lawrence's books are intensely mystic in nature. I was pretty sure that he wrote Women in Love expressly for me when I first read it at 15. All of his writing speaks to me from a spiritual place that hits to my core, as if I know him somehow. While his work often has the tang of adolescent ardor and passions, he never outgrew their depths and it's hard to fault him for this when one considers what passes for passion now. Lawrence is always wrestling with the concepts of love, our animal nature and the spiritual life. He confusedly blends them into one unified theory, sort of like science trying to find a theory that will unite Einstein and particle physics. I've always been impressed with Lawrence's efforts even if I don't always appreciate his conclusions.

What is beyond all his theories is his descriptive powers which are almost incomparable. He manages to describe flowers and clothing so perfectly that you see the colors and know that they mean something- they aren't just hues, they're statements. Like the apple he's tasting in the poem. Those who say his work and experiences are a lie, just have never been to the place in the soul he is describing.

Lawrence was prone to pneumonia and eventually succumbed to tuberculosis when he was only 45. He, at that point, had been well-traveled, widely condemned and incredibly prolific. This isn't his best poem, but it certainly hints at all the troubles he'd been through in one neat little round red package.

Heres a good Lawrence quote: "Be still when you have nothing to say; when genuine passion moves you, say what you've got to say, and say it hot.”

and another: “I can never decide whether my dreams are the result of my thoughts, or my thoughts the result of my dreams."

Okay, one more:
“This is what I believe: That I am I. That my soul is a dark forest. That my known self will never be more than a little clearing in the forest. That gods, strange gods, come forth from the forest into the clearing of my known self, and then go back. That I must have the courage to let them come and go. That I will never let mankind put anything over me, but that I will try always to recognize and submit to the gods in me and the gods in other men and women. There is my creed.”

( The graphic at the top today (1/30/11) is part of a painting done by Lawrence, who also loved to paint.)

You can find more of Lawrence's poetry here:
("Snake" is too long for us to do here but I highly recommend it.)

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