What could be more irrelevant?
What’s Souls got to do with anything?
You’re not going to go all Archbishop of Canterbury on us, are you?
I do a Summer Lecture every year. When deciding what its subject is to be, I think about two things:
What will be useful for you to hear,
what will be useful for me to learn to say.
I try to choose the thing that has been bugging me the most, because it’s been on the point of expressing itself.
And I try to speak very directly to you about questions beyond the conventionally technical – point of view, dialogue, etc. However, this year, in a very immediate way, it seems to me that Souls – and the attitude you as a writer take towards them – are a matter of what might be called deep technique. Not style – Souls don’t seem to have a lot to do with that. Not style, but the matter of what you are doing in your writing, and what it is within that writing that will make it matter to another person. I think this addresses the ways most readers judge writing: Do I believe in this character? Do I care about what’s going on? Is this piece of writing alive – alive enough for me to forget that it’s a piece of writing? And, if I’m not wrong, what I will give you today is a deeply practical way of addressing the technical problems of unconvincing characters, inert situations, and dead or deathly writing.
A couple of years ago, my Summer Lecture was about Sensibility; last year, it was Sentences. Sensibility is the what – the what of your writing; Sentences are the where. Souls, the easy answer says, are the who. But I think that’s not exact. Souls are also what (or who) you write with, what (or who) you write about and what (or who) you write for.
I’m going to call this set of relationships the triangle: on one point is you, on the next is your human or human-like subject, on the last is the reader. Existing between all three points are the English language in its current state, fiction in its current state, and the world in its current state. When I say the triangle, this is what I mean.
But immediately I am going to complicate the triangle by drawing in a line to show there is a difference between, a distance between, you, the author, and him or her or it, the narrator.
This is already a philosophical question – whether, in writing, one can speak through or out of another person. It may be that one of the deep technical solutions we end up with is that, beyond the issues of who authors the words, the reader may be allowed to feel that their soul is in communication or even communion with another soul – not direct, but as close to direct as such communication can ever be. The narrator, if this is true, becomes irrelevant – and the reading becomes intensely, embarrassingly Romantic.
I am going too far too fast. But I hope I’ve now dealt with the opening questions-in-the-room, Why souls? What could be more irrelevant? What’s Souls got to do with anything?
These challenges, though, are likely to be reinforced by an even tougher set: Why Lawrence? Who could be more irrelevant? What’s Women in Love got to do with anything?
Lawrence is, in a very deliberate way, a catastrophic writer; after him, the deluge – with him, the deluge. But the deluge never really came – or what flood waters did come have now receded completely.
Some of you, I am sure, don’t particularly like Lawrence. In fact, you hate him – hate him most of all for his irrelevance. One person here came up to me and said, ‘You’re making us read D.H.Lawrence. I had to read him at school and now, twenty years later, you’re making me read him again.’ Then, even without my saying anything, he said, ‘I suppose once every twenty years isn’t too bad.’ And I back this up. Lawrence is someone you should read at least once every twenty years. But I know these are still questions-in-the-room, Why should I have read this? I didn’t get anything from it.
And that’s my first answer to Why Lawrence? Exactly because he is so hateful, so irrelevant; because, partly, he seems so gloriously ignorant of our technologies of self – the technologies with which we have replaced not Souls but (and I will come back to this soon) the very question of Souls.
A culture reveals itself nowhere more clearly than in those specific things it regards as useless. And, like it or not, you exist within this culture at this moment – and your writing will have to deal with it somehow, even if only by choosing in which direction and how fast you’re going to run away.
At the start I said I chose to lecture on the thing that’s been bugging me the most: so, Sensibility, Sentences, Souls.
In order to go forwards, I need to give you an idea of why Souls have been bugging me, and why I’ve ended up forcing you to read Women in Love. I am going to travel quite a long way, partly into autobiography, partly into literary history – this is necessary, not just as background but as an exploration of that stuff that is going on all around the triangle: the states of the English language, fiction, the world.
The beginning, for me, was a poem I wrote in 2005. It’s an imaginary dialogue between me and another person, a sceptic. This is it:
Grant me the soul – what then?
Speak as essence, badly; speak,
predictably, as putrescence. No.
So you refuse? Then grant me anything
essential at all. I’ll take, I’ll take
beauty, and an improvement towards
it, line by line. Even philosophy
might admit the seventh draft to be
better than the first. No, you say, not
better – and certainly not more
beautiful. Then at least leave me perception;
each eye to have its hole, seeing
outwardly. Or less even than that,
direction, not place, point or origin.
Grant me the length of the line,
Then no again.
No repeatedly and without anger.
I understand – I hold your
refusal to be absolute. And that
I will take; there I will start; this I will say.
At the time, I wasn’t sure why I was writing the poem; I’m still not sure. Maybe just as a way of getting the word soul onto the page for the first time, in a reasonably unironic form.
Jump to another inexplicable act, much more recent. At the end of last year I was going down the stairs into SKOOB books (in the Brunswick Centre), and I saw a water-damaged blue Pelican edition of F.R.Leavis’s The Great Tradition. It wasn’t on sale. It was being given away for free. No-one wants F.R.Leavis these days, water-damaged or pristine. But I picked the copy up, and later began reading it – and I found The Great Tradition, surprisingly, quite sympathetic; not repulsive; a bit simple minded; very averse to any kind of paradox; ideological in an apparently non-ideological way; ultimately, and sympathetically, vitalist – on the side of vivid life. F.R. Leavis was the buried credo of my English teachers. And it’s impossible to read The Great Tradition without observing Leavis constructing his lineage of greats – his generating-forming canon of what we should read, because it is what most reads us. ‘What I think and judge,’ he writes, ‘I have stated as responsibly and clearly as I can. Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, Conrad, and D.H. Lawrence: the great tradition of the English novel is there.’
But Leavis leaves Lawrence out of the book itself, devoting a whole separate volume to him in D.H. Lawrence/ Novelist.
I found a copy of this in a charity shop in Bedford; and immediately switched my reading from the bits on George Eliot and Henry James to the volume on Lawrence. What was it about Lawrence that Leavis and, following him, so many writers of the fifties and sixties – principally Philip Larkin – found so exciting, so necessary? And why has Lawrence become so completely occluded, so shameful a light?
In my reading, I like to confront myself with oppositions – things I don’t get. What’s wrong with them? What’s wrong with me?
As I began D.H.Lawrence/Novelist, and read alongside it the short stories Leavis focuses on – ‘The Daughters of the Vicar’, ‘The Captain’s Doll’ and ‘St Mawr’ – I found a wonderful, flexible writer – very much to my changing taste. But I also found difficulties.
These difficulties connected with another piece of confrontational reading I had recently done: Saul Bellow’s Herzog.
(If you are annoyed at me for forcing you to read Women in Love, be thankful I didn’t add Herzog in, too. Although, if you want any follow-up reading to this lecture, that’s where you should head.)
Why did the difficulties I found in Lawrence connect with those I found in Bellow? What were my objections? This takes us back to what I said about the matter of your writing, and why your writing might matter to another person. I found that both Lawrence and Bellow did matter to me – in a way that Raymond Carver or Amy Hempel or J.G.Ballard or Jennifer Egan do not.
Both Lawrence and Bellow seem, to many critics, to have got the human subject completely wrong; to have engaged with a nostalgic or wishful version of what we essentially are. We are not Souls, we are the current technologies of the self. Both Lawrence and Bellow have, in their fiction and in their critical writings, made Souls more material than they can possibly be.
That’s certainly what I would have thought, back at the time my first book was published. I am, in speaking about this, partly speaking against my earlier self; that’s what I think is necessary, at this point; that’s the thing I am learning how to say.
And so I chose Souls to talk about because it is a subject that has been profoundly bugging me – less spiritually than aesthetically; though the aesthetic is often where the spiritual manifests, when it’s embarrassed.
There will be some embarrassment in this lecture, and some in this room; I hope so – unless the cheeks are glowing, the blood is making some display of itself, you’re not really reading Lawrence; unless the gorge rises, and you force yourself not to swallow, you’re not taking your Bellow neat.
This is the question of Souls, the one I’ve now arrived back at. (The autobiographical excursion is over; the literary historical one is just ahead.) Why do I now find that Lawrence and Bellow matter to me more than the other writers I named, and many others I didn’t? More pressingly, why do I think they should matter equally to other people – to you?
The answer to this isn’t an argument, it’s a niggle – a niggling feeling – a niggling feeling to do with the triangle.
This is what Saul Bellow said in a talk he gave in 1975 called ‘A Matter of the Soul’.
‘What novelists, composers, singers have in common is the soul to which their appeal is made, whether it is barren or fertile, empty or full, whether the soul knows something, feels something, loves something.’
Here and elsewhere Bellow’s assumption is of Souls at all points of the triangle: Souls as artists, Souls as subjects, and Souls as audience.
That niggling feeling, arriving in me gradually, over the course of years, is this – that certain writers (chiefly Lawrence and Bellow) have something that other writers I admire (say Ballard and Egan) ostentatiously lack; something that I myself have lacked.
The something Lawrence and Bellow have is something at all three points of the triangle: in believing they might be possessed of Souls, in believing their human subjects might appear to be Soul-possessing, and in believing their readers might be Soul-encumbered beings.
This is the niggle, put as clearly as I can put it:
What if – looking back over the art of the twentieth century – I have started to suspect that the most enduring of it (so far, and not much time has passed) – alright, try again: the most vivid art is art produced on the basis of the question of Souls. Not, I’d say, on the definite assumption of Souls; but around a negotiation with the question of what it means not to have a soul, and to work towards a Soul, and to do so amid the doubt that anyone could ever attain such a thing.
I am going to have to define Souls, aren’t I? I’m not going to be able to escape this room without doing so.
By Souls, I do not mean immortal Christian Souls, that – depending on the level of misbehaviour of their owners – can be dropkicked to heaven or doubled-parked in purgatory or trapdoored down to hell.
By Souls, I do not mean positive singular entities but indistinguishable excesses to the merely physical, merely social.
By Souls, I mean what creates the possibility of seamless transition between different and otherwise incommensurate modes of being.
By Souls, I mean the assumption that what I write has access to meaning beyond the merely social.
In other words, that what I or you write is about something – and not about nothing.
I hope these definitions advance us a bit. They should become clearer, as we go along. For now, they are probably too wordy and therefore unsatisfactory.
As far as writing goes, let’s leave it that Souls are characters who move in the direction of trying to create a soul, even if they would explicitly disbelieve in such a thing. Characters are shown acting in the hope that their acts will be meaningful.
If I haven’t satisfied you with a decent definition, at least grant that I have attempted – perhaps embarrassingly – to say what I mean. I’m going on niggles here, not notions. Professor Catherine Brown in the first of her Oxford lectures on Lawrence, which you can find on iTunes University said that, “Lawrence himself says that he can’t define soul, ‘but nor could a bike define its rider. Our mistake is to pretend that there’s no-one in the saddle.’”
It’s time for the historical excursion – back beyond the birth of the European novel, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, 1605.
This that follows is Jack Goody, surveying the change from religious to secular storytelling, in his essay ‘From Oral to Written: An Anthropological Breakthrough in Storytelling’, part of a two volume world-spanning book The Novel, edited by Franco Moretti.
‘The early narratives of Christian Europe were legitimized as being accounts of heavenly miracles (the New Testament) or of the lives of saints, in the same way that painting and drawing became possible in the early Middle Ages if the subjects were drawn from religious sources. Even in the eighteenth century, it was this aspect of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress that rendered it acceptable to many Nonconformist Puritans.
‘The modern novel, after Daniel Defoe, was essentially a secular tale, a feature that is comprised within the meaning of “realistic”…’
But Defoe (born around 1660 – died 1731) isn’t as crucial a break as Cervantes (born 1547, died 1616).
Don Quixote, the Man of La Mancha – wisely or profligately – spends his life in a delusory quest after the kind of glory gained by the knights-errant of his favourite reading matter. Don Quixote mistakes the banal objects of the world surrounding him for the enchanted objects of romance.
The American critic Harold Bloom writes this about Don Quixote, in his introduction to a new translation, ‘Cervantes, like Shakespeare, gives us a secular transcendence… However good a Catholic he may (or may not) have been, Cervantes is interested in heroism and not sainthood… It is the transcendent element in Don Quixote that ultimately persuades us of his greatness, partly because it is set against the deliberately coarse, frequently sordid context of the panoramic book. And again it is important to note that this transcendence is secular and literary, and not Catholic.’
Going back again to the Why Souls? question, from the beginning: you, in your writing, are likely to be dealing with exactly this, ‘transcendence [that] is secular and literary, not Catholic’. Harold Bloom, here, provides a pretty good definition of the epiphany story.
You may have gone along with asking, What could be more irrelevant? What’s Souls got to do with anything? But if ever you decide to write an epiphany, I think you should at least be asking yourself, Who or what is this experience happening to? Who or what is gaining knowledge in this chiming moment? Am I, in what I write, suggesting there is a meaning beyond the merely social?
In your writing, I would suggest, you are all interested in ‘heroism and not sainthood’.
Don Quixote is not principally a story about salvation, the only question for a good Catholic. Don Quixote is about asking the question of the soul. What is this thing, this questing person, who may or may not be possessed of a soul and whose actions may or may not affect or express the state of that soul? What does or doesn’t this person’s quest mean?
To make a grand statement: the novel is not a form that orthodox Catholicism could ever have invented.
The Catholic establishment would have seen both the writing and reading of novels as, at best, a waste of time and, at worst, an encouragement to sin.
There are, belatedly, Catholic novelists – Graham Greene tries to be principally interested in salvation and damnation but he is, in fact, principally interested in theological quirks. To take the example of The Power and the Glory, we are presented with a damned soul (the whiskey priest) who is, even despite this, the vessel of salvation (the mass); or Brighton Rock, the soul who seems inevitably damned, because evil (Pinkie) yet who achieves salvation through last-minute split-second but genuine repentence. But we as readers are not seeing every soul at stake, within the novel; minor characters must take their own chances. Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye – the gaddings about of a maybe/maybe not devil in a so banal as to hardly seem worth redeeming world.
But the subject of Western art since the Renaissance has been the person – the mainly social being – the person who may or may not have a soul that may or may not be immortal.
At the very cultural moment that the soul became questionable, the novel came into being.
Here, the Soul is what’s in doubt; and without something in doubt, there is no subject.
Without the question of the Soul, the human subject of fiction is (by definition) less meaningful. Because it was the Soul that was previously the element within a human being that gave their life meaning; because, now that element of certainty had been taken away, we were and are left with the entirely rationally reduced physiological body, sociological presence, economic participant, mediated subject.
We are interested in all of these things, but to what extent?
One of my definitions of Souls was this:
By Souls, I mean what creates the possibility of seamless transition between different and otherwise incommensurate modes of being.
At the time, this was probably the most opaque definition. But what I mean is this, when writing about a character you can, within the same sentence, say what they think or remember, how they feel physically, how they are (in actual fact) physically despite them not even knowing it, or what they look like to another person. And, between these modes of being, there exist no transitions. You pass from one to the other quite without bump or friction. Because the thing experiencing them is the same being, even if – intellectually – you’d argue they aren’t a unified whole of any sort. Fictional characters are unified subjects, existing under a name.
It seems to me that in this, in the fictional subject, there is – unless you spend a lot of time deliberately undoing it – an assumption of a soul. Perhaps that soul is merely the unity granted by referring to a character by a name. But I think it is also that the character is constantly being pushed (in action, in description) to expand beyond their name, and not being undermined by being referred to as a completely physiological being.
Put very basically, people do not read Mills & Boon novels to read the chemical equations that might explain why she is attracted to him.
This brings me to Saul Bellow’s Nobel Lecture, which I asked you to read. After his social arguments, Bellow comes to a metaphysical climax:
‘The essence of our real condition, the complexity, the confusion, the pain of it, is shown to us in glimpses, in what Proust and Tolstoy thought of as “true impressions.” This essence reveals and then conceals itself. When it goes away it leaves us again in doubt. But we never seem to lose our connection with the depths from which these glimpses come. The sense of our real powers, powers we seem to derive from the universe itself, also comes and goes. We are reluctant to talk about this because there is nothing we can prove, because our language is inadequate and because few people are willing to risk talking about it. They would have to say, “There is a spirit” and that is taboo. So almost everyone keeps quiet about it, although almost everyone is aware of it. ’
This comes just after Bellow has said, ‘At the center, humankind struggles with collective powers for its freedom, the individual struggles with dehumanization for the possession of his soul.’
What Bellow is saying here is very similar, I would say, to what Lawrence says in an essay, ‘Why the Novel Matters’. I don’t want to quote that yet, but I do want to emphasize the matters – and start looking into it.
Let’s turn to Women in Love. Lawrence’s novels are about human encounters in all variations – male-male, female-female but mostly female-male/male-female – that mean something.
Even if you don’t follow my argument far enough to reach the question of Souls, you would admit that for Lawrence the interrelation between, say, Birkin and Ursula means a lot more than the interrelation between any two characters in any J.G. Ballard or Jennifer Egan novel; in fact, means a lot more than between any two characters in any contemporary English-language novel.
(It is this striving to exist only in meaningfulness that is one of the things that makes people hate Lawrence.)
What goes on between the characters in Women in Love, moment by obsessed-observed moment, has an effect on what you might call the average level of cosmic rightness.
If there is disharmony, the entire universe is – overall – less harmonious; and less harmonious in a way that is greater than it would be, statistically, if Birkin and Ursula made up two billionths of the extant human material (in the universe).
Whether or not these two humans work something out between them means something, metaphysically, because upon it depends the question of whether any two humans can work it out.
This is what is at stake between Birkin and Ursula.
‘I do think,’ he said, ‘that the world is held together by the mystical conjunction, the ultimate unison between people – a bond. And the ultimate bond is between man and woman.’
Your object is already there on the page. Ursula says it, ‘But it’s such old hat…’
But I don’t think this is old hat at all.
J.G.Ballard wrote a famous essay ‘Which way to inner space?’ in which he said that science fiction should abandon journeys into outer space, and look into the human – well, he was J.G.Ballard, so he didn’t call it a soul. And also, as he was J.G.Ballard, he didn’t look to Lawrence for an example of where an astonishing voyage into inner space might have already taken place.
‘There is,’ [Birkin] said, in a voice of pure abstraction, ‘a final me which is stark and impersonal and beyond responsibility. So there is a final you. And it is there I would want to meet you – not in the emotional, loving plane – but there beyond, where there is no speech and no terms of agreement. There we are two stark, unknown beings, two utterly strange creatures, I would want to approach you, and you me. And there could be no obligation, because there is no standard for action there, because no understanding has been reaped from that plane. It is quite inhuman – so there can be no calling to book, in any form whatsoever – because one is outside the pale of all that is accepted, and nothing known applies…’ [p162-163]
Ballard also said, in the same essay, ‘The only truly alien planet is earth.’ And that seems to be what Lawrence is getting at, not just in this passage but with the entire thrust of the novel. Birkin’s speech describes creatures more alien than human.
This is what George Steiner meant when he called Women in Love one of the ‘classics of imagined life’. The cowardly question does come up, But would a person ever really say those words to another person? But this is irrelevant, and is much better asked backwards. Isn’t the person who says those words to another person far more worthy of our attention than the person who doesn’t?
We are at a societal high-point here, in these meetings between Birkin and Ursula, Gerald and Gudrun, Birkin and Gerald – Lawrence is (to the infuriation of his critics) a believer in an aristocracy of the Soul.
(Does this mean that he himself is an aristocrat of the Soul? Well, yes, he would have to be – or else these questions would not be occurring to him.)
This is what Lawrence, objectionably, says about the non-aristocrats of the Soul in his essay ‘Education of the People’:
‘The slave, the serf, the vast populace, had no soul. It has been left to our era to put the populace in possession of its own soul. Left to itself, it will never do more than demand a pound a day, and so on. The populace finds its living soul-expression cumulatively through the rising up of the classes above it, towards pure utterance or expression or being. And the populace has its supreme satisfaction in the up-flowing of the sap of life, with its vast roots and trunk, up to the perfect blossom.’
No, no, no, you say. This is appalling. But, without being facile, this sentence ‘The populace finds its living soul-expression cumulatively through the rising up of the classes above it, towards pure utterance or expression or being’ seems to me an extremely good explanation of celebrity culture.
And whether it’s appalling or not, this is what Lawrence believed, and what we see being played out in Women in Love – particularly in the chapter ‘The Industrial Magnate’ where Gerald’s reforms in his father’s mines are described.
‘..the miners were reduced to mere mechanical instruments. They had to work hard, much harder than before, the work was terrible and heart-breaking in its mechanicalness.
‘But they submitted to it all… Gerald was their high priest, he represented the religion they really felt. His father was forgotten already. There was a new world, a new order, strict, terrible, inhuman, but satisfying in its very destructiveness. The men were satisfied to belong to the great and wonderful machine, even whilst it destroyed them. It was what they wanted. It was the highest that man had produced, the most wonderful and superhuman. They were exalted by belonging to this great and superhuman system which was beyond feeling or reason, something really godlike. Their hearts died within them, but their souls were satisfied.’
Their souls are satisfied exactly because they are not aristocratic souls. And Women in Love is about Gerald (and Birkin, Ursula and Gudrun) because it is about dissatisfied, aristocratic souls.
In this Lawrence is very close to Nietzsche, another believer in an aristocracy of the Soul; you see how anti-Christian (strictly) this is: Christianity being, above all, based on the equality (in the eyes of God) of all created souls.
This belief in an aristocracy of Souls is a given of Lawrence’s universe, on a metaphysical level, that takes it far beyond the merely anti-communist, anti-democratic.
Unless some Souls are more developed, or more capable of development, than others, then there is no possibility for anything (any human action) to amount to anything.
Lenin, too, believed something similar – he had the idea of the party as the vanguard of the proletariat.
‘By educating the workers’ party, Marxism educates the vanguard of the proletariat, capable of assuming power and leading the whole people to socialism, of directing and organizing the new system, of being the teacher, the guide, the leader of all the working and exploited people in organizing their social life without the bourgeoisie and against the bourgeoisie…’
(As an aside, here is one of Lawrence’s best jokes – one of the best jokes of the twentieth century. In the preface to ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ by Dostoievsky, Lawrence says, ‘Lenin, surely a pure soul…’)
Again, What’s Souls got to do with anything?
Well, most of you – I am pretty sure – are writing about one-off Geralds rather than about masses of miners. You are not writing about characters who are engaged in repetitive mechanistic labour. You are writing about subjects who have enough liberty of movement and thought to count among the traditional subjects of novels. You are writing about people who have enough agency within their lives to be able to change them, even to a very small degree. If behind this there isn’t on your part a belief in an artistocracy of the soul, there is instead a calculated hierarchy of interest. You are not writing to emphasize the meaninglessness of your characters lives, nor of human life in general.
Do events need the participation of Souls to become meaningful?
At this point, the argument risks becoming circular:
The novels which mean the most to us are those that – in the deepest of their techniques – allow themselves the opportunity to create the most meaning.
More is at stake for persons with Souls or the possibility of Souls than for persons without Souls or the possibility of Souls.
Although you might not believe your characters or you are possessed of anything like a soul, you would not take it as a statement of mere fact were your work to be described as either ‘soulless’ or ‘lacking soul’ or ‘without soul’.
It is possible to see all this as an attempt – rather adolescent, no? – an attempt by Lawrence and Bellow and other writers to invest the world with more meaning than it in fact possesses. (No meaning should be permitted, that is, beyond the physical, social, economic, mediated.)
Lawrence is ridiculous – he knows he is ridiculous; he believes, I am sure, that a lack of or a fearful avoidance of ridiculous is inimical to ‘vivid life’. (This pleonasm (use of more words than necessary) is deliberate – and deliberately ridiculous: ‘vivid life’ is life within life, life upon life, life to the power of life.
But Lawrence is an essential countervoice to the assumptions of now.
Dismiss him completely, he still leaves behind a distinctive unease, the trace of burnt hair smell that suggests both unburnt hair and hair burning.
Lawrence is so not of our technological now, and yet he was very much of another, post-industrial technological world – to which he speaks:
‘Is it true that mankind demands, and will always demand, miracle, mystery, and authority? Surely it is true. Today, man gets his sense of the miraculous from science and machinery, radio, aeroplane, vast ships, zeppelins, poison gas, artificial silk: these things nourish man’s sense of the miraculous as magic did in the past. But, now man is master of mystery, there are no occult powers.’
Lawrence, ‘The Grand Inquisitor’, Phoenix, p285
All you need to do with this sentence is replace the nouns: ‘internet’ for ‘radio’, ‘biological weapons’ for ‘poison gas’.
Again, why is this of importance to you? Why is this a technical question?
Because you need to address, in your fiction, what is happening and to whom it is happening. The distinctiveness and originality of what you write will issue from the freshness of your whats and your whos. You will have to decide what counts, for you, as an event. Generic events (murders, glances) or ungeneric events (of which, clearly, I can’t give easy examples – you’ll have to make them for yourselves.)
I’m now going to quote from the Lawrence essay, ‘Why the Novel Matters’ (Phoenix, p535-536):
‘Let us learn from the novel,’ Lawrence says. ‘In the novel, the characters can do nothing but live. If they keep on being good, according to pattern, or bad, according to pattern, or even volatile, according to pattern, they cease to live, and the novel falls dead. A character in a novel has got to live, or it is nothing.
‘We, likewise, in life have got to live, or we are nothing.
‘What we mean by living is, of course, just as indescribable as what we mean by being. Men get ideas into their heads, of what they mean by Life, and they proceed to cut life out to pattern…
‘Turn truly, honourably to the novel, and see wherein you are truly alive, and you may be making love to a woman as sheer dead man in life. You may eat your dinner as man alive, or as a mere masticating corpse…
‘To be alive, to be man alive, to be whole man alive: that is the point. And at its best, the novel, and the novel supremely, can help you. It can help you not to be a dead man in life. So much of a man walks about dead and a carcass in the street and house, today: so much of woman is merely dead. Like a pianoforte with half the notes mute.
‘But in the novel you can see, plainly, when the man goes dead, the woman goes inert. You can develop an instinct for life, if you will, instead of a theory of right and wrong, good and bad.’
And here’s where I’d like to return at last to the triangle.
What Lawrence is doing, and I think also what Bellow (self-consciously following on from Lawrence) also does, is try to grant every element here – you, subject, reader – as much vivid life as possible. And by this, I mean allowing each element to exist in a flux of becoming.
Lawrence assumes an alive-to-the-moment writer writing (in the moment) about imaginary but imagined as alive-to-the-moment human subjects for an alive-to-the-moment reader.
This, at the writer’s point, is what F.R.Leavis describes as ‘the free flow of his sympathetic consciousness’.
Here is where I think there may be a lesson of deep technique. It’s not that I am asking you to start believing in the Soul. What I’m suggesting is that – in writing any sort of fiction – you are working within a form that was created out of the wreck of the Soul, and emerged in order address the question of the Soul.
It may be that when your character are unconvincing, it’s because you aren’t allowing them to fight with this question – as Lawrence does – in their actions, through their relations.
It may be that when your situations are inert, it’s because this question has been put entirely to one said – and your characters are existing in an world that is entirely and unproblematically physical, social, economic, mediated.
Finally, it may be that when your writing is dead or deathly, it’s because it hasn’t – out of embarrassment, or for some other very good reason – it hasn’t made the attempt to be alive.
‘Show, don’t tell’ is the great clanging cliché of creative writing courses. But here’s Ursula, travelling towards Birkin, and is this showing or telling? And how else could a writer ever do this?
‘She found herself sitting on the tram-car, mounting up the hill going out of the town, to the place where he had his lodging. She seemed to have passed into a kind of dream world, absolved from the conditions of actuality. She watched the sordid streets of the town go by beneath her, as if she were a spirit disconnected from the material universe. What had it all to do with her? She was palpitating and formless within the flux of the ghost life. She could not consider any more what anybody would say of her or think about her. People had passed out of her range, she was absolved. She had fallen strange and dim, out of the sheath of the material life, as a berry falls from the only world it has ever known, down out of the sheath on to the real unknown.’ [p160]