by Mark English
In his autobiography, Bertrand Russell wrote of the “devastating effect” certain criticisms which D.H. Lawrence once made of his social and political views had on him. These events occurred in 1915.
“I was inclined to believe that he had some insight denied to me,” Russell wrote, “and when he said that my pacifism was rooted in blood-lust I supposed he must be right. For twenty-four hours I thought that I was not fit to live and contemplated suicide.”
In his account of his relations with Lawrence, Russell mentions more than once that he felt that Lawrence was possessed of a kind of insight into human nature deeper than his own logical mind would allow. There may be something in this. Lawrence had some very weird ideas, but his writing displays a deep understanding of human relationships and the emotional side of life.
Though unquestionably a very influential and successful thinker, Russell had nagging doubts about the nature of his general outlook and particularly about the limitations of his fundamentally intellectual perspective. He aspired to do significant work in science, but he also had literary ambitions. As things turned out, he made his mark in logic and philosophy rather than science, and though he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, it was awarded for his historical and discursive writing rather than for imaginative work. All too aware of his intellectualism, Russell looked to Lawrence to articulate “a vivifying dose of unreason.” And Lawrence duly obliged.
The specific trigger for Lawrence’s criticisms was Russell’s ostensibly sane and reasonable essay, “The danger to civilization”. Lawrence reacted against Russell’s moralizing tone. He saw something sinister lurking beneath the surface.
Your basic desire is the maximum of war, you are really the super-war-spirit […] It isn’t in the least true that you, in your basic self, want ultimate peace. You are satisfying in an indirect, false way your lust to jab and strike […]. You are simply full of repressed desires, which have become savage and anti-social […]. It is not the hatred of falsehood which inspires you. It is the hatred of people, of flesh and blood. It is a perverted, mental blood-lust. (1)
It’s hard to know what to make of this. According to Ray Monk, Lawrence’s response, in part, can be understood in light of the fact that in the essay “Russell seems to argue precisely for the repression [of bodily life in favor of mental life] that Lawrence takes to be the cause of the trouble.” Luke Ferretter sees this as an overly charitable explanation, claiming that the conclusions Lawrence draws cannot be read out of Russell’s essay and need to be understood in the context of Lawrence’s increasingly angry expressions of disagreement with Russell in the weeks leading up to their break.
“Russell’s practical proposals to reform democratic institutions,” Ferretter writes, “were, for Lawrence, an ultimately unforgivable refusal in Russell to move beyond democracy, and the Christian world-view which underlies it, which brought about the war in the first place.”
In order to understand this idea you need to be acquainted with Lawrence’s peculiar form of historicism. He believed (rightly) that all but the most abstract ideas are inextricably linked to and only work (or work properly) within particular social and cultural contexts. But he took this approach to what I see as being relativistic extremes.
In the novel, Kangaroo, the main character, reflecting on the Great War, thinks: “When the idea is really dead, and still man persists in following it, then he is the unwilling man whom the Fates destroy… ” The war was fought, he reflects, for the ultimately Christian idea, or ideal, “of Love, Self-Sacrifice, Humanity united in love, in brotherhood, in peace”; but this idea is dead in the sense that it no longer expresses most people’s thoughts or emotions or instincts.
“Lawrence,” writes Ferretter, “sees Russell … to be a man who persists in arguing for dead ideals, in Russell’s case […] the ultimately Christian ideals on which contemporary democratic institutions are based. His thought, therefore, can only continue to harm, rather than to help, as he claims, a society which those very ideals have led to war.”
Lawrence’s perceptions of Russell are also elucidated via the character of an “elderly” (50 years old!) sociologist, Sir Joshua Malleson, in Women in Love. He is presented as the epitome of a certain kind brittle, shallow thinking. The wider circle of which he is a part, who meet at a large country house (the model for which was Philip and Ottoline Morrell’s Garsington Manor), is also satirized. The character Rupert Birkin is based on Lawrence, Hermione on Ottoline Morrell, and Ursula on Lawrence’s wife, Frieda. Here are a few extracts from Lawrence’s fictionalized account of his relations with the Garsington circle:
… [A] learned, dry Baronet of fifty … was always making witticisms and laughing at them heartily in a harsh, horse-laugh… The attitude was mental and very wearying. Only the elderly sociologist, whose mental fibre was so tough as to be insentient, seemed to be thoroughly happy. Birkin was down in the mouth. Hermione appeared, with amazing persistence, to wish to ridicule him and make him look ignominious in the eyes of everybody… (2)
Lawrence is at once critical and respectful of this world. The conversations are characterized as excessively critical and general. There is a forced flippancy, a sententiousness and artificiality about them. Lawrence uses a striking image: “a canal of a conversation rather than a stream.”
But when the conversation turns to political and social questions it sometimes comes alive in surprising ways:
The talk was very often political or sociological, and interesting, curiously anarchistic. There was an accumulation of powerful force in the room, powerful and destructive. Everything seemed to be thrown into the melting-pot, and it seemed to Ursula they were all witches, helping the pot to bubble. There was an elation and a satisfaction in it all, but it was cruelly exhausting for the new-comers, this ruthless mental pressure, this powerful, consuming, destructive mentality that emanated from Joshua and Hermione and Birkin and dominated the rest.
Ferretter notes that Birkin’s first criticism of Sir Joshua is an explicit version of Lawrence’s criticism of Russell, that Russell was interested only in attempting to reform existing institutions. Sir Joshua, as seen through Birkin’s consciousness, always has “a strong mentality working,” is “always interesting,” but everything he says is always “known beforehand, however novel it was, and clever.”
This seems to me very 18th century. It brings to mind Alexander Pope’s line: “What oft was thought but ne’er so well express’d.” The Romantic movement, of which Lawrence is a product and archetypal 20th-century exemplar, was first and foremost an attempt to realign culture with our deep and genuine thoughts and feelings and, as such, represented a clean break with 18th-century ways of thinking. The clash between Russell and Lawrence reflects these broader historical trends.
“The conversation,” Ferretter’s summary continues, “is as familiar as a game of chess, with the same figures, “the same now as they were hundreds of years ago,” “moving round in one of the innumerable permutations that make up the game.” To Birkin, the continuation of this game is “like a madness, it is so exhausted.””
Certainly these criticisms echo the critiques of Russell which Lawrence made in 1915, and which I have already discussed (i.e. that he persists in thinking in terms of “dead” ideas, ultimately Christian and democratic). And, significantly, the discussions in Women in Love lead up to the topic around which the 1915 discussions were largely based: namely a vision of “a new state, a new world of man.”
Russell came to reject Lawrence’s views unequivocally. Some of Lawrence’s views were indeed beyond the pale, but Russell’s ultimate assessment of Lawrence, is (in my opinion) just a little too neat and facile. It is revealing nonetheless.
“We both imagined,” Russell wrote, “that there was something important to be said about the reform of human relations, and we did not at first realise that we took diametrically opposite views as to the kind of reform that was needed. My acquaintance with Lawrence was brief and hectic, lasting altogether about a year. We were brought together by Ottoline, who admired us both and made us think that we ought to admire each other. Pacifism had produced in me a mood of bitter rebellion, and I found Lawrence equally full of rebellion. This made us think, at first, that there was a considerable measure of agreement between us…”
This proved, however, not to be the case. Russell alludes (apparently disapprovingly) to Lawrence’s lack of patriotism, and claims that he had such “a hatred of mankind that he tended to think both sides [in the War] must be right in so far as they hated each other.” There is more than a suggestion here of the forced flippancy of Sir Joshua Malleson.
“Awareness of our differences, however, was gradual on both sides,” Russell continues, “at first all went merry as a marriage bell. I invited him to visit me at Cambridge and introduced him to Keynes and a number of other people. He hated them all with a passionate hatred and said they were ‘dead, dead, dead’. For a time I thought he might be right. I liked Lawrence’s fire, I liked the energy and passion of his feelings, I liked his belief that something very fundamental was needed to put the world right. I agreed with him that politics could not be divorced from individual psychology. I felt him to be a man with a certain imaginative genius, and, at first, when I felt disinclined to disagree with him, I thought that perhaps his insight into human nature was deeper than mine. It was only gradually that I came to feel him a positive force for evil and that he came to have the same feeling about me.”
At the time of their meetings Russell was preparing the course of lectures which would be published as Principles of Social Reconstruction. There was talk of a real collaboration on the lecture project. Many letters were written, but only Lawrence’s survive.
“In his letters,” writes Russell, “the gradual awareness of the consciousness of our fundamental disagreements can be traced. I was a firm believer in democracy, whereas he had developed the whole philosophy of Fascism before the politicians had thought of it. “I don’t believe”, he wrote, “in democratic control. I think the working man is fit to elect governors or overseers for his immediate circumstances, but for no more. You must utterly revise the electorate. The working man shall elect superiors for the things that concern him immediately, no more. From the other classes, as they rise, shall be elected the higher governors. The thing must culminate in one real head, as every organic thing must – no foolish republic with foolish presidents, but an elected King, something like Julius Caesar …”
Lawrence’s letters gradually became more hostile: “What’s the good of living as you do anyway? I don’t believe your lectures are good. They are nearly over, aren’t they? What’s the good of sticking in the damned ship and haranguing the merchant pilgrims in their own language? Why don’t you drop overboard? Why don’t you clear out of the whole show? One must be an outlaw these days, not a teacher or a preacher.”
Russell comments: “This seemed to me mere rhetoric. I was becoming more of an outlaw than he ever was and I could not quite see his ground of complaint against me… He phrased his complaint in different ways at different times. On another occasion he wrote: “do stop working and writing altogether and become a creature instead of a mechanical instrument. Do clear out of the whole social ship. Do for your very pride’s sake become a mere nothing, a mole, a creature that feels its way and doesn’t think. Do for heaven’s sake be a baby, and not a savant any more… [S]tart at the very beginning and be a perfect baby: in the name of courage.””
Russell sums up what he sees as the heart of their disagreement:
“He had a mystical philosophy of “blood” which I disliked. “There is”, he said, “another seat of consciousness than the brain and nerves. There is a blood-consciousness which exists in us independently of the ordinary mental consciousness. One lives, knows and has one’s being in the blood, without any reference to nerves and brain. This is one half of life belonging to the darkness. When I take a woman, then the blood-precept is supreme. My blood-knowing is overwhelming. We should realise that we have a blood-being, a blood consciousness, a blood-soul complete and apart from a mental and nerve consciousness.” This seemed to me frankly rubbish, and I rejected it vehemently, though I did not then know that it led straight to Auschwitz…”
Lawrence was always in delicate health, but he travelled widely and worked continuously. Right up to his death, in fact. After spending time in a sanatorium, Lawrence died in France in 1930 from complications arising from tuberculosis. He was only 44.
Generally at the time of his death he was not highly regarded. But he had some significant defenders, including E.M. Forster, Aldous Huxley and, later, F.R. Leavis.
- I am drawing here on a paper by Luke Ferretter published in Etudes Lawrenciennes (46, 2015).
- See this article by Tony Simpson (which is full of long quotations from primary sources and mercifully free of literary jargon): https://thedigitalpilgrimage.wordpress.com/2017/09/18/mondayblogs-ottoline-lawrence-and-russell/