has been a revolutionist.” William Troy on D.H. Lawrence.
Between 1974-1976 I was a student of the critic Terry Eagleton. When I got to Oxford I began looking through the lecture lists to find the leftish lectures and lecturers. I wrote to Terry, described myself as an Hegelian Marxist, and asked if I could attend his weekly Friday afternoon seminar at Wadham College. He must have laughed to get my note, but he wrote back to me very kindly, and thus began my somewhat vague romance with Trotskyism. I discovered soon enough that Frankfurt School Marxism, which I had studied with friends at Reed College, was no match for vanguard parties of the ‘Oxford Left,’ the IMG, the IS (as it was then), the Sparts, etc. I was in over my head before I even understood what “Permanent Revolution” meant….but I loved the arguments, the big mugs of tea in the Balliol JCR — a kind of club for the Left — and leafletting with comrades outside the Cowley motor works early in morning. I grew to love the IMG uniform of a duffle coat and a plastic shopping bag filled with leaflets.
But as entry into reading Vol. IV, No. 2, Partisan Review, Eagleton’s 1976 taxonomy of the politics of major British writers, as they developed out of 19th century ‘organicism’ and into the paradoxes of Modernism suggests something of the distance between Terry’s Criticism and Ideology and the opening essay of PR Issue No.2, January, 1938 William Troy’s”The Lawrence Myth,” for Terry had taken a hard line on D.H. Lawrence: Lawrence was right wing, almost to the point of being a fascist, and he belonged to the great conundrum of the Modernist Right. Terry’s style then was a bit scientistic, but always full of interesting ideas, and I had walked into the seminar as the participants thrashed about, debating Lukacs versus Althusser, and the discourse of analysis tended towards the terse.
William Troy’s, “The Lawrence Myth,” is noted in the contributors to Issue 2, as the ‘second in our series on modern literary figures.’ I assume that Lionel Abel’s piece on Silone was the first. And as you will know if you have also read Edmund Wilson’s piece on Flaubert, there were rudiments of a developing position in the journal that the politico-literary strength of a writer was not to be reduced to that writer’s political choices, but rather to the ways in which the writer works up and through the political texture of their imagined world.
William Troy was not a editor of PR, but he was an admired writer of literary criticism for The Nation and other periodicals, and after his death, he was praised by his colleagues from Bennington College for his talents as a writer and teacher. “The Lawrence Myth” starts out by scolding Lawrence for the egoism of his own step on beyond the “suffering hero” stance of many romantic writers — Blake and Melville for example — into the heresy of becoming a primordial demiurge himself. Troy finds the absolute character of Lawrence’s egotism chilling, Lawrence’s attachment to personal identity overwhelmingly Dionysian, and his sense of the indissoluble link between sexuality and transcendence as a misunderstanding of religious mystery. Troy offers two vivid and dangerous examples of Lawrence’s need to become a god of darkness, mystery, and the natural subjective state of personhood.
The first is the story of Lawrence arranging a dinner party for various friends at the Cafe Royal, sometime between the 21-24 December, 1923 which he called the ‘Last Supper.’ It was at this dinner that Lawrence proposed to his guests, according to Catherine Carswell, one of his intellectual friends, that the assembled group move with him to Taos, New Mexico and start a New Life. But she wondered “Did the search, the adventure, the pilgrimage for which he stood,mean enough to us for us to give up our own way of life, and our own separate struggle with the world?” That same night, Lawrence believed, the affair that his wife, Frieda, had been having with John Middleton Murray was ‘symbolised’ in Murray’s enactment of Judas to Lawrence’s Jesus. Lots of drinking and smashing of glasses, concluding with Murray’s Judas kiss to Lawrence, after which according to Lawrence, Murray had asked, ‘You remember saying: “I love you Lorenzo, but I won’t promise not to betray you”’? Troy finds this a ‘disgusting performance,’ and the shift from Lawrence’s interest in the Freudian mythology ‘to another and much older one’ — Christian and medieval — as regressive. We see Lawrence backtrack from The Last Supper to the Wasteland.
The Second is Troy’s discussion of Lawrence’s late paintings: “Because these belong so clearly to biography rather than to art, because they represent self-expression at its most naive and irresponsible, they leave no doubt as to the image of himself that Lawrence came to realise at the end. He had become, as he put it in a deathbed fragment, “like a Lord!”
In both cases Troy is as censorious as were the officials who declared these paintings ‘obscene’ when they raided the Warren Gallery in 1929. And in both cases the criticism is attached to the over-weening egotism of Lawrence as mystery god of power and sexuality. Troy’s distaste is certainly political as well, but its language is that of the ‘bourgeois regime’ that all ‘revolutionists,’ bohemian artists rebel against. Troy goes on to argue that Lawrence’s view is based on ‘an inaccurate analogy with the medieval doctrine of grace.’ “Through sex the separate individuals in any relationship are restored to an organic union with the processes of nature; and through this process they are strengthened, in the best religious sense, both in themselves and in their relations with others….Politically, of course, such a doctrine leads straight into the very dark burrow of fascism.” Ah, Terry, here you meet up with Troy.
And Troy is equally determined to place Lawrence in a more seriously Marxist context. That is, Troy wants to show a dialectic at work in Lawrence’s positions that will achieve a resolution which can raise Lawrence to a place of greater importance (and maybe to the PR readership) in the revolutionary struggle. He gives a short history of Lawrence’s politics that opens the sympathetic part of Troy’s account: “As a coal-miner’s son, as a suffering artist, and as an intelligent observer of contemporary life, he could never have been very sympathetic to the ideal of modern bourgeois society. All of his work is an implicit , and much of it, an explicit, criticism of mass-production in ideas, emotions, and men. He was a revolutionist, therefore, in the sense that every Bohemian artist under the bourgeois regime has been a revolutionist.”
Troy outlines the dialectic of reason and drives, humanity and nature, individual and collective that thrived in Lawrence and his works, and the Hegelian Marxist in me was waiting for the moment of synthesis, the marvellous “Aufhebung” that never arrives entirely. But in Troy’s rescue of the contradictions within Lawrence is an apologia pro vita sua available to both men.