D.H. Lawrence, Disability and Two Fires in the Mind

When I entered college in 1973 I found no one was teaching Lawrence. He was considered a kook. At best he was a polemicist for psychoanalysis and at worst a pornographer but in any case professors assured me he was nothing more. If you wanted an English moralist you were instructed to read Hardy.

Cover of Planet of the Blind....man and dog....

I fell in love with D. H. Lawrence as a high school student. His poems reached me first; then the essays. I don’t know if it matters what kind of reader I was back then. We spend so much time pre-fronting our subjectivities nowadays but yes I was legally blind. I read what I could get via long playing records and tapes from the Library of Congress. I listened slowly and in more than ordinary solitude. (It wasn’t possible in those days to hear a record while sitting under a tree.) I received my Lawrence in dark rooms.

When I entered college in 1973 I found no one was teaching Lawrence. He was considered a kook. At best he was a polemicist for psychoanalysis and at worst a pornographer but in any case professors assured me he was nothing more. If you wanted an English moralist you were instructed to read Hardy.

The photo on my freshman I.D. shows a boy-child who was 5′ 6″ tall and weighed 102 pounds. I’d barely survived a bout of adolescent anorexia. I started reading poetry in the hospital. I read this:

“The Uprooted”

People who complain of loneliness must have lost something,
lost some living connection with the cosmos, out of themselves,
lost their life-flow
like a plant whose roots are cut.
And they are crying like plants whose roots are cut.
But the presence of other people will not give them new, rooted connection
it will only make them forget.
The thing to do is in solitude slowly and painfully put forth new roots
into the unknown, and take root by oneself.

Of course I read all the poems of Lawrence I could find in recorded formats. “The Ship of Death” with its Egyptian incense, “The Snake” and the lesser known “Almond Blossom”:

“Trees suffer, like races, down the long ages.
They wander and are exiled, they live in exile through
long ages
Like drawn blades never sheathed, hacked and gone black,
The alien trees in alien lands: and yet
The heart of blossom,
The unquenchable heart of blossom!”

If you’re lonely by circumstance and you’re in “alien lands” then you’ve got to make something of it. You must believe the “unquenchable heart of blossom” is the signature of all things.

Lawrence was disabled. Like so many people born in the latter part of the 19th century he had tuberculosis. He was born on September 11, 1885. He was ten years younger than Thomas Mann who’s canonical novel “The Magic Mountain” offers the best description of the social psychology of TB.

No one has written with greater lyric urgency and intelligence than Lawrence about the side by side flames of soul and death. And yes eventually they become one flame but our work is different for now. We must adore them both:

“Medlars and Sorb-Apples”

I love you, rotten,
Delicious rottenness.

I love to suck you out from your skins
So brown and soft and coming suave,
So morbid, as the Italians say.

What a rare, powerful, reminiscent flavour
Comes out of your falling through the stages of decay:
Stream within stream.”

Jeffrey Meyers writes in his excellent biography of Lawrence:

“Lawrence’s life and character were strongly influenced by the progress of his disease. He had (at various times) all the symptoms of consumption, which intensified toward the end of his life. He suffered from irregular appetite, loss of weight, emaciation, facial pallor, flushed cheeks, unstable pulse rates, fever, night sweats, shortness of breath, wheezing, chest pains, frequent colds, severe coughing, spitting of blood, extreme irritability and sexual impotence. The toxemia of Lawrence’s lungs influenced the state of his mind and provoked febrile rages. As John Keats had told Fanny Brawne, emphasizing the gulf between the sick and the well: “A person in health as you are can have no conception of the horrors that nerves and a temper like mine go through.” Witter Bynner wrote of Lawrence’s stoic attitude but uncontrollable anger: “He had never given me any evidence of his illness by complaint in words or faltering in spirit but only by bursts and acts of temper.”

One supposes Bynner wasn’t much of a reader when it came to Lawrence’s poetry since poem after poem stills us, stands us on the by turns dark, then evanescent unseeable line between living and dying; between apprehension and the vatic. Here’s the end of
“Medlars and Sorb-Apples”:

“Sorb-apples, medlars with dead crowns.
I say, wonderful are the hellish experiences,
Orphic, delicate
Dionysos of the Underworld.
A kiss, and a spasm of farewell, a moment’s orgasm of rupture,
Then along the damp road alone, till the next turning.
And there, a new partner, a new parting, a new unfusing into twain,
A new gasp of further isolation,
A new intoxication of loneliness, among decaying,
frost-cold leaves.”

“Parting, partner, infusing, twain,” “a new gasp of further isolation.”

This is conceivably the greatest description of disability as lived experience at the hot core of soul and body as they engage in tug of war.

Author: skuusisto

Poet, Essayist, Blogger, Journalist, Memoirist, Disability Rights Advocate, Public Speaker, Professor, Syracuse University

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