Building on his enormously successful series of Philosophers in 90 Minutes, Paul Strathern now applies his witty and incisive prose to brief biographical studies of the world's great writers. He brings their lives and ideas to life in entertaining and accessible fashion. Far from being a novelty, each book is a highly refined appraisal of the writer and his work, authoritative and clearly presented. Mr. Strathern lives in London. Applause for Paul Strathern's Philosophers in 90 Minutes series: Each of these little books is witty and dramatic and creates a sense of time, place, and character....I cannot think of a better way to introduce oneself and one's friends to Western civilization. —Katherine A. Powers, Boston Globe. Well-written, clear and informed, they have a breezy wit about them....I find them hard to stop reading. —Richard Bernstein, New York Times. Witty, illuminating, and blessedly concise. —Jim Holt, Wall Street Journal
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D. H. Lawrence IN 90 MINUTES
By Paul Strathern
IVAN R. DEECopyright © 2005 Paul Strathern
All right reserved.
IntroductionBy the end of his life, Lawrence had despaired of Western civilization, which he felt had corrupted and weakened the human spirit. He believed that we had somehow lost touch with our instinctual being and no longer responded to the "true voice" of our blood. We still possessed such truth deep within us, but it was smothered by a dead culture.
Three years before he died, Lawrence traveled in Italy and visited the Etruscan tombs. He became fascinated by this mysterious people which the Romans had "wiped out entirely in order to make room for Rome with a very big R." The Etruscans had vanished from their homeland, leaving little behind them. We could decipher their archaic Etruscan letters "that looked as if someone had just chalked them up yesterday without a thought.... But when we have read them we don't know what they mean ... we cannot read one single sentence." Lawrence pondered this mysterious people and the fact that we now know nothing of them apart from what is left in their tombs.
So he goes to the tombs to see for himself. Here he is immediately struck that "One can live one's life, and read all the books [about the Etruscans] and never read a single word about the thing that impresses one in the first five minutes ... that is, the phallic symbol." These symbols were all over the place, the entire site was littered with them. "Here it is, big and little, standing by the doors, or inserted, quite small, into the rock: the phallic stone!" Every man's tomb had one of these phallic stones. Lawrence speculated that their insistence upon these stones was the reason for the "annihilation of the Etruscan consciousness. ... The new world wanted to rid itself of these fatal, dominant symbols of the old world, the old physical world."
Later he visits the tombs of Tarquinia: "the guide opens the iron gate, and we descend the steep steps down into the tomb. It seems a dark little hole underground: a dark little hole, after the sun of the upper world! ... But the lamp flares bright, we get used to the change of light, and see.... It is very badly damaged, pieces of the wall have fallen away.... [Yet] as we take heart and look closer we see the little room is frescoed all round with hazy sky and sea, with birds flying and fishes leaping, and little men hunting, fishing, rowing in boats.... From the sea rises a tall rock, off which a naked man ... is beautifully and cleanly diving into the sea.... Meanwhile a dolphin leaps behind ... a flight of birds soars upwards to pass the rock, in the clear air.... It is all small and gay and quick with life, spontaneous as only young life can be. If only it were not so much damaged, one would be happy, because here is the real Etruscan liveliness and naturalness. It is not impressive or grand ... just a sense of the quick ripple of life."
It is as if Lawrence were an Etruscan and had devoted his entire life to the quixotic attempt to resurrect a damaged culture enlivened by "the quick ripple of life." His works were an attempt to revive a life we have lost, and in them it is possible to glimpse something vivid, something now damaged, that we nonetheless recognize in ourselves. At his best, Lawrence reminds us of what we are, what it is we have lost. But it is a very tenuous argument, for all the vividness with which it is evoked. In Lawrence, deep sense often coexists with empty nonsense. The ranter coexisted with the prophet, just as his often dubious message coexisted with some of the finest writing in the English language. Lawrence had a genius for evocation, both of a past that may never in fact have existed, and of a luminous present that exists as never before in his words. This is his undeniable legacy.
The passage of Western civilization has been so overwhelming that we sometimes need to be reminded of what it has replaced. This requires a voice that recalls us to our origins-not to some redundant restrictive fundamentalism but to the joyous instinctual freedom we feel we may once have possessed. Lawrence was just such a voice.
Excerpted from D. H. Lawrence IN 90 MINUTES by Paul Strathern Copyright © 2005 by Paul Strathern.
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