Mornings in Mexico and Etruscan Places (D. H. Lawrence)

Posted: June 23, 2014 in nonfiction
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In the second patio, there is a tall tree of the flimsy acacia sort. Above itself it puts up whitish fingers of flowers, naked on the blue sky. And in the wind these fingers of flowers in the bare blue sky sway, sway with the reeling, roundward motion of tree-tips in a wind.

A restless morning, with clouds lower down, moving also with a larger roundward motion. Everything moving. Best to go out in motion too, the slow roundward motion like the hawks.

Everything seems slowly to circle and hover towards a central point, the clouds, the mountains round the valley, the dust that rises, the big, beautiful, white-barred hawks, gabilanes, and even the snow-white flakes of flowers upon the dim palo-blanco tree. Even the organ cactus, rising in stock-straight clumps, and the candelabrum cactus, seem to be slowly wheeling and pivoting upon a centre, close upon it.

Strange that we should think in straight lines, when there are none, and talk of straight courses, when every course, sooner or later, is seen to be making the sweep round, swooping upon the centre. When space is curved, and the cosmos is sphere within sphere, and the way from any point to any other point is round the bend of the inevitable, that turns as the tips of the broad wings of the hawk turn upwards, leaning upon the air like the invisible half of the ellipse. If I have a way to go, it will be round the swoop of a bend impinging centripetal towards the centre. The straight course is hacked out in wounds, against the will of the world.

[happy sigh] I do love me some D. H. Lawrence.

As is apparent from the novels, Lawrence describes nature wonderfully well, so I came to his travel books expecting to be amazed. I was, but not for the reasons I expected. I’ve read some of his novels and plays, so I know he was a bit misogynistic, but I chalked that up to personal sexual issues. Lawrence once said that he believed that all great men were at least bisexual, if not entirely homo, which is a way of saying that he is. His novel Women in Love is about two men who would have had a sexual relationship if they knew such a thing was possible. As it is, there’s an unnecessarily nude wrestling scene (watch it in the 1969 film with Alan Bates and Oliver Reed). Judging from my own experience, when a man is in a socially acceptable relationship with a woman but really wants to be with another man, it’s easy to reject/fear/distrust/hate women in the abstract. I’d like to think that I fight against misogyny a little more than Lawrence did, but since I don’t write novels it’s hard to know.

What I did not expect was racism. He phrases all cultural differences as race issues, and has a weird paternal condescension to Native Americans. Instead of helping us to feel familiar with them, he fixates on difference. He describes some of the rituals, like the Snake Dance, but while he is exact in describing what he sees, he seems to miss the emotional content completely. He does some comparison of the belief systems, but he compares the rituals to going to the theatre, and begins describing them in a chapter called Indians and Entertainment. His primary tendencies, in describing Mexicans, is to equate all of them with Native Americans, thus erasing their European and African roots, and to associate them with nature, thus separating them from civilization and humanity.

From the valley villages and from the mountains the peasants and the Indians are coming in with supplies, the road is like a pilgrimage, with the dust in greatest haste, dashing for town. Dark-eared asses and running men, running women, running girls, running lads, twinkling donkeys ambling on fine little feet, under twin baskets with tomatoes and gourds, twin great nets of bubble-shaped jars, twin bundles of neat-cut faggots of wood, neat as bunches of cigarettes, and twin net-sacks of charcoal. Donkeys, mules, on they come, pannier baskets making a rhythm under the perched woman, great bundles bounding against the sides of the slim-footed animals. A baby donkey trotting naked after its piled-up dam, a white, sandal-footed man following with the silent Indian haste, and a girl running again on light feet.

Donkeys, Mexicans, it’s all the same thing. Seriously, the Savage Reservation in Huxley’s Brave New World feels more respectful.

The white cotton clothes of the men so white that their faces are invisible places of darkness under their big hats. Clothed darkness, faces of night, quickly, silently, with inexhaustible energy advancing to the town.

This description seems apt for him—he looks at the clothes and can’t find the faces. The real identity of the Mexican people remains a mystery. I have often heard and read of British travelers being praised for their ability to retain their peculiarly British identity when confronted with other cultures, but reading Lawrence on Mexico, I think that they can remain unchanged because of a stubborn refusal to understand anything that isn’t British. Nowadays I see this more often in Americans traveling abroad; I guess the British are either more open to new cultures than they were or staying at home.

This book ends with a reminiscence of his ranch in New Mexico from his new home in Italy, and it reminds me of Etruscan Places, which I read a few months ago. EP feels less condescending, but that might be because I have had less involvement with Italians than I have with Native Americans. It focuses on a contrast between the Fascism of the 1920s and the freedom of pre-Roman civilization. He spends most of his time in tombs, and I had recently been to Père Lachaise, one of the highlights of my Paris vacation, so I was rather more involved in reading it than I was in the Mexico book.

Here’s a favorite passage from Etruscan Places:

It is all a question of sensitiveness. Brute force and overbearing may make a terrific effect. But in the end, that which lives lives by delicate sensitiveness. If it were a question of brute force, not a single human baby would survive for a fortnight. It is the grass of the field, most frail of all things, that supports all life all the time. But for the green grass, no empire would rise, no man would eat bread: for grain is grass; and Hercules or Napoleon or Henry Ford would alike be denied existence.

Brute force crushes many plants. Yet the plants rise again. The Pyramids will not last a moment compared with the daisy. And before Buddha or Jesus spoke the nightingale sang, and long after the words of Jesus and Buddha are gone into oblivion the nightingale still will sing. Because it is neither preaching nor teaching nor commanding nor urging. It is just singing. And in the beginning was not a Word, but a chirrup.

Because a fool kills a nightingale with a stone, is he therefore greater than the nightingale? Because the Roman took the life out of the Etruscan, was he therefore greater than the Etruscan? Not he! Rome fell, and the Roman phenomenon with it. Italy today is far more Etruscan in its pulse than Roman; and will always be so. The Etruscan element is like the grass of the field and the sprouting of corn, in Italy: it will always be so. Why try to revert to the Latin-Roman mechanism and suppression?

In sum, I love DHL and would gladly go back in time to be the Crich to his Birkin (though the wrestling scene would end a little differently). However, his ethnocentricity and misogyny can be a little hard to take. Perhaps indicative of the zeitgeist, but when reading in the twenty-first century, the contrasting cultural values are a little jarring.

  1. theoccasionalman says:

    Unnecessarily dramatic music about halfway through, but here’s the clip.

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