D.H. Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent (1922) – Sage-Writing in Mexico
by Mark Wallace
One of the writers who maintained something of the spirit of Carlyle into the 1920s, when the Sage of Chelsea was slipping out of fashion in the anglophone world, was D.H. Lawrence. Lawrence’s novels of the time were moving outward in scope, and taking for their subject the degeneracy of modern civilization in toto. I’ve just been reading The Plumed Serpent (1922), a novel whose project for regeneration of society involves a primitivistic fascism and the deification of the leader. This novel has never gotten a good press; in Katherine Anne Porter’s famous review, she wrote: “After you have read this, read Sons and Lovers again, and you will realize the catastrophe that has overtaken Lawrence.” (D.H. Lawrence: The Critical Heritage, Routledge 1970).
Lawrence had read a lot of Carlyle, as Jessie Chambers notes in her Personal Record, and he had undoubtedly been formative of Lawrence’s worldview. Between the social teachings of Carlyle in works like Past and Present (1843) and The Plumed Serpent there is much in common. Both writers start from a position of deep unhappiness with the direction of modern civilization. There are 2 main strands to this unhappiness:
1 MATERIALISM AND GREED: Carlyle calls it the Gospel of Mammonism; Lawrence the Cult of the Dollar (The Plumed Serpent, Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 2009, p. 37)
2 ABSENCE OF REAL EXPERIENCE: The opening bull-fight in Serpent is a “show”, and it’s only the show that Owen, as an exemplar of modernity, wants to experience: “If anything was on show, he had to see it.” (4) This was, of course, Carlyle’s main concern, and one of the sources of his greatest influence: “Man has forgotten the eternal nature of things, and taken up with the show of things”. Modern society, for both writers, is where man can no longer tell the difference between reality and sham. (It is on this issue that I think Carlyle is at his strongest, and still hits some good points. Our own society is, if anything, even more addicted to what Carlyle would have called sham than his own. Advertising industry? Cosmetic industry? Public relations industry? All explicitly devoted to sham. Much postmodern thought deals with this too, “society of the spectacle” (Debord) and so on, but from a different standpoint – that of the impossibility of pure and true experience, in any circumstances )
How, then, is a person to regain touch with reality? In Serpent, Lawrence refers to “a Natural Aristocracy of the World”, which is certainly close to Carlyle’s idea of the “Aristocracy of Talent” in Past and Present. These individuals would operate on the “souls” (Carlyle) or “blood” (Lawrence) of the masses by, firstly, their own innate forcefulness, which is what gets them to leadership in the first place; and secondly by the use of symbols – Carlyle had deep understanding of the operation of symbols on the hearts and minds of the community and individuals (see especially Sartor Resartus, Bk. 3, Ch. III). He felt, especially in his early writings, a need for a new symbology to replace the worn-out clothes of Christianity. Lawrence is more definite in his advocations – Christianity is dead, symbolized by the burning of the icons in Chapter 18, and Quetzalcoatl, The Plumed Serpent, god of the Aztecs, is back, providing a symbol under which the “dark, momentous will at the center” (351) of human life can be expressed. Expressed in sex, violence and death of the ego.
Lawrence is somewhat like a Carlyle with added sex. Violence Carlyle, like Lawrence, considered sometimes necessary (and in practice he rarely condemned officially sanctioned violence, though mob violence was another matter), death of the ego very much corresponds to his notion of “Annihilation of Self” in Sartor (Bk. 2, Ch. IX), but sex has no place in the Carlylean society – one assumes it’s permitted as necessary for perpetuation of the species, but even that can only be assumed. On this subject, if none other, Carlyle is almost wholly true to his “Gospel of Silence”.
Lawrence’s novel is not, I felt, as committed as its noteriety would lead one to believe. Certainly there’s a rhapsodical quality to the ritual scenes that can seem self-indulgent, and that lends itself to mockery, but through the protagonist Kate, a 40-year-old Irish widow, Lawrence reflects with reasonable balance and an understanding of the difficulties of the “regeneration of society”. (It is for this reason that I found the end rather puzzling, changing direction in the closing sentences in a way that seems improvised and not entirely supported by what’s preceded it.) It appears Lawrence couldn’t quite make up his mind and had trouble fully committing to the myth of Quetzalcoatl. There’s also a good deal of casual racism, it must be said, though its reputation probably precedes it here, anyway. Nor are the views of gender relations such as are considered enlightened. However, I did find the novel compelling, contrary to my expectations, and its speculations frequently provocative. Perhaps late Lawrence isn’t so bad after all. I am, however, biased towards this book as it deals with themes I am very interested in, and because it falls in with a tradition I’m studying, being ideologically influenced by the Sage tradition, notably Carlyle. Its program to cure the ills of society is, alas, one-sided and insufficient, but it does have that thing Lawrence valued most of all, “the dark, momentous will at the center”.