The Gospel according to DH Lawrence
- August 29, 2023
- Zachary Hardman
If we could resurrect DH Lawrence, what would he make of spiritual belief today?
‘I have my own religion’, wrote DH Lawrence, in a letter ‘which to me is the truth.’ Remembered as a prophet of the sexual revolution, Lawrence was also, in his own words, a ‘passionately religious man’, whose novels were written ‘from the true depth of [his own] religious experience’. Bertrand Russell compared him to the prophet Ezekiel; Katherine Mansfield to Saint Paul; while gaunt and bearded, he was often likened to Christ. He died in 1930, but remained a writer of spiritual intrigue. WH Auden spoke of ‘cars of women pilgrims’ who descended upon his New Mexico memorial shrine, while a bishop spoke in his defence at the posthumous obscenity trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. But can he help us make sense of spiritual belief today?
DH Lawrence was born in Eastwood, near Nottingham, in 1885, the youngest son of a coal miner. Sickly and weak-lunged, winters would be near fatal experiences for the rest of his life. The local Methodist church was a sustaining force and the young Lawrence grew up, in his own words, ‘devoutly religious’. In a late essay, he writes that the simple chapel hymns of his childhood awakened his capacity for wonder: the essence of spiritual belief. But Lawrence also grew up in a time of religious doubt and confusion, in the aftermath of Charles Darwin and two decades after the poet Matthew Arnold lamented the ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’ of Britain’s ebbing sea of faith.
Like many of his generation, he began to doubt his boyhood conviction. At college, he immersed himself in science, the history of religion and materialist philosophy. His childhood friend Jessie Chambers reflected that he did so ‘at a time of spiritual fog, when the lights of orthodox religion… were proving wholly inadequate’. But it was, above all, his encounter with Friedrich Nietzsche, who he read while working as a schoolteacher in London, which left the deepest impression. The philosopher proclaimed that, since scientific rationalism had led to the ‘death of God’, God was no longer the ultimate arbiter of the universe, nor religion the source of morality. The individual was free to create his or her own values, which Lawrence now set about doing.
In a letter to his local reverend, he confessed he could no longer believe in ‘the divinity of Jesus’. Instead, he ‘gradually formulate[d]’ his own religion; one gathered together ‘slowly and painfully’, based, not on dogma, but what he instinctually believed to be true. The changing nature of the self would make this a lifelong task: ‘one’s religion’, he wrote, ‘is never complete and final… but must always be undergoing modification’. In 1911, in a letter to his sister Ada, then, he said he no longer believed in a ‘personal god’ but a ‘vast shimmering impulse which wavers on to some end’. In 1913, he was more specific: ‘my great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, being wiser than the intellect’. Living in Zennor in Cornwall during the First World War, he embroidered the image of a phoenix, a symbol of resurrection and personal transformation.
After publishing The Rainbow, his fifth novel, Lawrence’s spiritual search became a literal one. It tells the story of the coming into consciousness of three generations of a Nottingham farming family and Lawrence imagined it as his own version of the book of Genesis, or as a ‘kind of bible for the English people’. Its frank treatment of sex, however, led to an obscenity trial after which copies were burned by the hangman. Lawrence, now thirty years old, spent the remainder of his life as an artist in exile from England, travelling the world with his wife Frieda on a ‘savage pilgrimage’.
In every place he visited he ‘looked for something that would strike [him] as religious’. He found it in the ‘the semi-pagan mystery’ of Catholics in southern Italy and the ‘ecstasy of buddhists’ in Sri Lanka. Most of all, though, it was among the Hopi Indians of New Mexico that he experienced a ‘second revelation’ that ‘shattered the essential Christianity upon which [his] character was built’. His writing became increasingly pagan and animistic, with plants and animals invested with a God-like aliveness. Walking in Italy with his friend Earl Brewster, meanwhile, he became entranced by the tombs of the ancient Etruscans: a people with a ‘religion of life’, more vital and spontaneous than our own mechanical civilisation.
Less a study of the tombs he visited, however, Lawrence’s Etruscans better reflect the writer’s spiritual feelings. This shines through in a late novella. After a bout of malaria in Mexico City, which almost killed him, he began work on The Man Who Died, in which a Christ-like figure, having been crucified, rises from the tomb and returns to the world. Rather than ascend into heaven, however, he discovers the pleasures of being alive in the body, abandoning his disciples and mission as a prophet. The book ends with him wandering to Egypt, where he fathers a child with the priestess of the temple of Isis.
This was not – as it superficially appears – an atheistic satire of Christianity, but rather Lawrence’s attempt to rewrite the gospels in his own image. He believed the Christian emphasis on the afterlife, rather than the life lived in the present, a mistake. He believed, too, that the resurrection story was the fundamental truth in Christianity, something ‘men and women go through in their daily lives’. Rather than ascend into heaven, Lawrence’s Nietzschean Christ ‘rose as a man on earth to live on earth… without rhyme or reason, except the magnificence of coming forth into fullness’.
Lawrence called the book one of his ‘thin-skinned stories’, and it is little wonder. Like Christ, he knew what it was like to experience a kind of death: tuberculosis had almost killed him every winter since his childhood, and the coming of spring must have felt like a second birth. ‘Religious images’, he once wrote, are but ‘images of our own experience, or our own mind and soul’. The Man Who Died, then, in this radical retelling of the resurrection story, is none other than Lawrence himself.
A year after the book’s publication, Lawrence was dead. If we could resurrect him, what would he make of spiritual belief today? Britain has become a more godless country in the century since he was writing. More than half the population, according to a recent poll, identifies as irreligious. But Lawrence never equated belonging with personal belief. Organised religion in the modern world, he thought, was essentially dead. Instead, rather than appeal to ‘tradition and second-hand ideals’, he believed it more important to establish ‘one’s own religion in one’s own heart’. In other words, religious belief ought not to be a dogma blindly followed, but something forged in the flames of experience; a practice and a set of rituals by which we live our daily lives.
For TS Eliot, a recent convert to Anglicanism, this was heretical thinking. In 1933, the poet delivered a jeremiad at the University of Virginia in which he attacked Lawrence for abandoning Christian morality in his writing for an ‘extreme individualism’. Led by his own ‘inner light… a most untrustworthy guide’, rather than tradition, Lawrence was in the grip of a ‘spiritual sickness’. Eliot’s fear is that this sickness will spread to the public, desirous for any kind of spiritual experience, ‘good or bad’. Soon, they would not only follow Lawrence’s ‘doctrine’, but be ‘busy after their own inventions’. Today, however, spirituality is now more Lawrentian than Eliot could have imagined.
In his 2007 work The Secular Age, philosopher Charles Taylor challenges the idea that religious belief atrophied in the west as a consequence of rationalisation and modernisation. Instead, he argues the decline of Christianity – a single, ordered way to perceive reality – produced a ‘nova effect’: an explosion of a possibly infinite number of alternatives. Today, we have the freedom to choose whatever we want to believe. According to the recent census, shamanism and paganism are among the fastest growing spiritual beliefs in Britain. Millions of us practise yoga and meditation and read daily horoscopes. A range of activities, from raving to environmental activism, offer a sense of meaning, ritual and purpose once afforded by organised religions.
But it isn’t only that we are choosing alternative belief systems to Christianity. Taylor also writes that we are living in an ‘age of authenticity’, in which it is more important to ‘live out one’s humanity’ than to surrender to conformity, tradition and hand-me-down morality. This was once a phenomenon of creative artists, ‘paradigm achievers of self-definition’. Since the 1960s, however, it has become widespread. Now we are all kicking against convention. If the creation of one’s authentic identity is akin to a work of artistic imagination, then why not our spiritual beliefs as well?
After all, our beliefs are integral to our sense of identity, whether we are an evangelical Christian or a card-carrying New Atheist. In our effort to self-define, few of us are prepared to swallow whole the dogmas of organised religions. But we may be willing to pick off bits and pieces, trussing them together to create our own personal systems of belief. Spiritual belief in Britain, then, may be more complex than appearances suggest. According to recent research by the Theos think tank, among the more than half the population that do not belong to an organised religion – the so-called ‘religious nones’ – half believe in a higher power, a third in life after death, and sixteen per cent in reincarnation.
The irony, as Taylor writes, is that ‘new modes of conformity… new forms of dependence’ can arise among people striving to be themselves. Religions offer their followers ways to live buttressed by historical traditions. Few of us, it is safe to say, are prophets in the making. A personal search for the truth can instead, as Taylor puts it, leave us exposed ‘to all sorts of self-appointed experts and guides shrouded with the prestige of science or some exotic spirituality’. In the 1960s, these duplicitous guides founded religious cults; today they are more likely to be podcast hosts.
But whatever the flaws of the current age, the sea of faith has long since retreated and the individual cast away. This ought not to be a cause for existential despair, as the work of DH Lawrence shows us. It is, in fact, a kind of freedom. We are free to create our meaning in the world; a meaning that is created in the intensity of its very pursuit. In an essay, written at the end of his life, with his body failing him, Lawrence asks the reader: ‘How can one save one’s soul’. The answer comes, not from on high, but from the writer himself: ‘one can only live one’s soul…the business is to live really alive’.