To Grip the Knife and Smite the Soul

I have an apology to make.

To a dead man.

A couple of years ago I picked up a title by DH Lawrence called The Lost Girl. Given my affinity for lost things, somehow it was important to me to know that she survived her own story. I took up the book and pursued her through all her trials, certain that, bad as things might appear, surely redemption would come at last.

But it didn’t.

Just as I thought the culmination would unveil, Lawrence stepped from behind the curtain, a defeated wizard, and handed me a stillborn end to the story. He had failed that singular element—that one moment that makes every book, every story worth the effort. You know it; you look for it as I do — the David and Goliath moment—the great "turning-around" moment, when all that has gone so terribly wrong is at last put to right. It is the desperately-loved-yet-ever-despaired-of-figure appearing just over the horizon of the blackest night, or the “aha” when the character finally understands the truth we have known all along. The Greeks called it anagonosis or, as the philosopher would have it, “catharsis.” I need redemption.

Of course, for an author to bore is one thing; but to push the reader to the brink of perseverance and offer nothing for the labor? That, I felt, was unforgivable. I have held a literary grudge against him ever since.

That is, until I ran across his name in a history book.

Ah. Homo ecce. There, fairly set within his own context, I met the man and reconciled with the writing of DH Lawrence.

Born in the fading splendor of the 1800’s, Lawrence grew up in the Anne Blythe days of high ideals and sky rocketing expectation. The whirring machines of the Industrial Revolutions whispered the salesmen’s promise of energry, materials, and/or chemicals to fix — or at least address — a multitude of sins. The sun never set on the English Empire, or, it seemed, human potential, for that matter.

But the sun did set. And as its fast dying rays waned on the Second Industrial Revolution, the guns of World War I moved into position. Nation stood against nation, laying siege to collective castles in the air while men writhed in the battlefieds below.

Those at home had no idea of the trauma of the fight. With no tv, little media, and an editorial coup to preserve morale, those who set out for the front could not conceive the terror whose shadow crept across the landscape of their own bright futures.

But there is a time for war and a time for peace, and peace did come — in its fashion; and with it, release. At least, a semblance of it anyway.

Lawrence and thousands like him, climbed from the trenches, left off their uniforms, and stepped bravely into civilian life. But the landscape was different now, irrecovably altered — as they were. Battle lines, once drawn in far off fields, now marked the pavement just beyond the front door. Economic instability wrought chaos within the classes. Poverty too, was present, and the lurking plague of the Spanish flu, carried by homebound servicemen straight into the arms of those who welcomed them. Statistically sketchy, the virus killed as many as fifty million people — more than the war itself — weaving a black band of mourning around a population already decimated by stress and famine.

After the war, Lawrence went into voluntary exile, exchanging the “land of my heart” for a “savage pilgimmage” across Europe, ultimately taking his place alongside TS Eliot, Earnest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and others in what would later be styled as “the Lost Generation.”* Each man stood apart to consider the wreckage. Hope had run high and faith idyllic, but the dark night of war brought the shadow of doubt creaping across the collective soul until slowly — slowly, and with the dust of their former dreams rising all around, they surveyed the fallen remains of all they had once believed. The products of their pens, aptly called “the literature of disillusionment,” would capture the departed essence of a dead faith.

Consider the following words, gleaned from among his writings:

“Slowly, slowly, the wound to the soul begins to make itself felt, like a bruise which only slowly deepens its terrible ache, till it fills all the psyche. And when we think we have recovered and forgotten, it is then that the terrible after-effects have to be encountered at their worst,” Lady Chatterley’s Lover

“All the great words, it seemed to Connie, were cancelled for her generation: love, joy, happiness, home, mother, father, husband, all these great, dynamic words were half dead now, and dying from day to day.”

“Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.”

“I cannot be a materialist—but Oh, how is it possible that a God who speaks to all hearts can let Belgravia go laughing to a vicious luxury, and Whitechapel cursing to a filthy debauchery—such suffering, such dreadful suffering—and shall the short years of Christ’s mission atone for it all?”

I stand doubly convicted. First for my dull-minded dismissal of Lawrence the author. I brought a superficial gaze to his pages, forgetting that behind every story there is a deeper one still. Each of us must grapple with a grace whose breadth and height extend far above ourselves and our individual lives; a grace whose story continues long after our parts in the play have done. But let us tread lightly, reverently, before the hearts of our fellow men; understanding as we do, at least the possibility of inward agony — the possibility that dry eyes might shed unseen tears; that laughing lips disguise trembling tones, and that the life that seems so outwardly whole might actually be falling apart inside.

Next I am convicted in my disregard of Lawrence the man. For it is only against the backdrop of war that his writings make sense; out of this element he appears puerile and grasping. But fairly met within the context of a war he could not reconcile, Lawrence stands before us—a broken man, an author whose heart sometimes bled across the page.

I wonder, how often do we scorn the lot of those sad, embittered individuals, broken by time and circumstance, little realizing the untold debt we owe. Pity the poor soul. Pray for the embittered. Pity, I say, but do not presume to know his pain. A man’s heart is an inscrutable cavern and who knows but that some one or other of his griefs might have been your own? That you are in fact the inheritor of a joy born of the agony of another?

After all, who can really understand the debt we owe our fellow man? We might rather fall down in tearful gratitude, could we but see how his path has intersected our own in the night. How many desperate decisions in the pre-dawn gloom have saved us. What parts they have played in the shadows; the ways in which they have shaped or influenced the off-stage pageant of our own progress.

“Stand still therefore, before Moriah. Cease your speaking and consider the cost. One man. One child. And all the balance of redemption between. But staring into the eyes of this trustful son of promise, Abraham gripped the knife and smote his soul.” (Kierkegaard)

*Popularly attributed to Earnest Hemingway, the term originated when the owner of an auto repair shop, frustrated with one of his young mechanics, lamented, “You are all a generation perdue [or, “lost generation”]. That is what you are. That’s what you all are… All of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation.” (See “A Moveable Feast.” Ernest Hemingway, A Movable Feast, Touchstone, New York: 1996, p29)

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