Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

D.H. Lawrence and Thinking Too Much

Here's a poem by D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930):

Conceit

It is conceit that kills us
and makes us cowards instead of gods.

Under the great Command: Know thy self, and that
thou art mortal! we have become fatally self-conscious, fatally self-
important, fatally entangled in the cocoon coils of
our conceit.

Now we have to admit we
can't know ourselves, we can only know about ourselves.
And I am not interested to know about myself any
more, I only entangle myself in the knowing.

Now let me be myself,
now let me be myself, and flicker forth,
now let me be myself, in the being, one of the gods.

D. H. Lawrence

Lawrence was an extraordinary writer, truly as accomplished in poetry as he was in novels and short fiction. His most famous poem might well be "Snake," and his novels include Sons and Lovers and Lady Chatterly's Lover and Women in Love. "The Horse Dealer's Daughter" is an oft-anthologized story. He was "counter-Modernist" insofar as he believed that 20th century humans thought themselves to death and that they should be more spontaneous, earthy, and instinctive. He found middle-class British bourgeois, "Victorian" values especially stifling. A professor of mine once pointed out the irony that Lawrence, who celebrated the body and earthly life and opposed "over-thinking" things, wrote poems and novels that were actually full of ideas--even if they were anti-idea ideas.

Obviously, "Conceit" is written in opposition, so to speak, to psychology and to the classical adage, "know thyself." The poem implicitly advises, "Be thyself" or, even more simply, "Be. Live." Nowadays, of course, our culture seems obsessed with our knowing ourselves; this is the age of self-help books and programs, of thinking about oneself almost constantly. I guess Lawrence saw it coming, back there in the teens and the 1920s; he died in 1930.

I love Lawrence's poetry. His free-verse has a hint of Whitman's about it, though much less oratorical, and with regard to style, he and Robinson Jeffers are certainly first cousins. His novels, once scandalous (Lady Chatterly's Lover was banned for a time in the U.S., partly because of the f-word), now seem a bit old-fashioned, mannered--partly, I think, because we look at them from the other side of the sexual revolution and the influence of feminist criticism. To me, his poetry remains fresh, but even with "Conceit," I will certainly acknowledge that Lawrence may seem naive. Is it possible now simply to be oneself in the manner he desires? And what if "oneself" is a self-absorbed self? Good for him or her, I suppose, bad for the ones who have to deal with that person. Nonetheless, the poem does seem refreshingly to suggest "get on with it": you may not be perfect, but you're all you've got!

(Incidentally, there's an interesting "bio-pic" about Lawrence, a film made some 20 years ago called Priest of Love. It is not well known and may not have made it to DVD. I believe it may be Ava Gardner's last film. There is a better known film that dramatizes Women in Love, with Glenda Jackson, Oliver Reed, and Alan Bates. The nude wrestling in front of the fireplace is an especially famous scene from the novel/film. I think there was also a film made of the short story, "The Fox.")

I'm not sure whether Lawrence would have liked the following poem. I'm going to go with the odds and guess "No." To some extent, the poem may concern "just" being oneself, although there is a bit of a paradox in being oneself because if you change yourself, are you still yourself? Naturally (pun intended), Lawrence would accuse me of over-thinking, but then I like to read books and write poetry, and these activities can call for (but need not necessarily include) thinking. Put more broadly, maybe some people are being themselves when they think, even if they're over-thinking or not thinking very well. The poem:

You and You

You must be you for you to be.
I know to be the only you
is difficult. You must repeat
the same old strengths and flaws, ensure
quirks and habits stay organized,
a regiment of personhood.
You cannot disappear from you.
When you’re asleep, you’re sleeping you;
you’re altered consciousness is al-
tered you, but you-never-the-less.
It could be worse. I know you can
supply examples of just how.
But still—how strange to have just one
attempt at consciousness in all
of Time, to have to spend it on
one incarnationality—
the only I you’ll ever be.

from The Coast Starlight: Collected Poems 1976-2006, by Hans Ostrom.
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