BURNING MAN: THE ASCENT OF D.H. LAWRENCE

Not to be confused with Burning Man, the once “underground gathering for bohemians and free spirits of all stripes” that’s now a “networking opportunity” for “social media influencers”, Hollywood parasites and Silicon Valley snake-oil salesmen, this book could have been cynically dismissed as yet another biography about a man whose cultural importance has diminished in recent times. Were Lawrence alive in the 21st century, and still as ravingly mad as ever, he would be considered highly “problematic” and even subject to “cancellation.” All of which he would have welcomed, of course, and seen as an indication of total artistic success. If Lawrence was appalled by England in 1922 (which he described as”this banquet of vomit”), imagine what he would have made of England in 2022. And that’s the reason for this book – we don’t have characters like Lawrence any more. I freely admit that at his worst he would have been a nightmare to be in the same room with, but he was not always the vituperative hunchback of reputation. He could also be incredibly sensitive to the world around him, and was able to convey those impressions on his senses in prose that few today can even begin to match. He was a mass of contradictions, something that he was completely aware of and actually revelled in. He saw that from the clash of those contradictions within himself came sparks of apocalyptic revelation which illuminated the encroaching darkness around him.

Frances Wilson has not written a full biography of the man, from birth to death. There’s already plenty of books to serve that purpose. What’s she’s done is to focus on the peak period in Lawrence’s short life, from 1915-1925, during which time he travelled from England, to Italy, to the USA. Along the way he made friends and enemies (mainly the latter), saw his books banned, his manuscripts rejected, and his exile from his homeland on suspicion of being a spy for the Germans. For a man already incandescent with fury at, well, everything he found even mildly disagreeable, these slings and arrows that came his way (often bringing them down on himself, it has to be admitted) only stoked those flames higher until he was probably visible from the moon, glowing like a Ready Brek kid with the furnace in his loins. It was tubercolosis that eventually did for him, but to burn so fiercely for as long as he did guaranteed that he would never make old bones. Lawrence’s personal motif was the phoenix, rising from the ashes as a symbol of eternal rebirth and the unquenchable spirit of the human imagination. Reading the best of Lawrence’s work (it wasn’t all gold, of course, but I’d have been suspicious if it was) today, that sense of a rage to live suffuses every page, and makes me wonder who these days even comes close to his example of how to be an artist. Lawrence waged a personal war against the world, rising daily from his pit of fretful slumber to once again take on his adversaries, real and imagined. It must have been exhausting and probably contributed to his early demise at the age of 44, but it’s as good an example as any that I can find. Every day now I hoist myself out of bed and inventory the list of things that stoke my ire, and set about raging against them as best I can. “What would Lawrence have done?” I ask, and the answer is always the same: make art. A howl into the indifferent void of the universe it all may be, but that’s what we are here for, otherwise we might as well be stones in a field.

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