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D. H. Lawrence on America, Part 2


Salvador Dalí, "Allegory of an American Christmas," 1934

2,403 words

Part 2 of 2

When a people loses a sense of blood-relatedness, what basis is there for community? American community is not based on blood ties, shared history, shared religion, or shared culture: it is based on ideology. He who professes the American creed is an American—he who does not is an outcast.

The American creed is based principally on a belief in freedom, equality, and Progress. For Lawrence, the first of these is (in its American form) empty, and the other two are a lie. American equality is a lie because in fact people are not equal, and virtually everyone realizes this in their heart of hearts.

American ethics requires, however, that everyone pay lip service to the idea that no one is, or can be, fundamentally better than anyone else. This is one of the country’s core beliefs. In fact, Lawrence points out that this is so fundamental to being an American that Americans are terrified lest they somehow let on to their fellow countryman that they really don’t believe that everyone is equal, or that all opinions are equally valid and valuable. They are afraid of seeming “judgmental,” and they parrot an absurd relativism in order to be seen by others as “tolerant.” Lawrence writes of America, “I have never been in a country where the individual has such an abject fear of his fellow countrymen. Because, as I say, they are free to lynch the moment he shows he is not one of them.”

Essentially the same point was made by Alexis de Tocqueville. In his Democracy in America, Tocqueville includes a section titled “The Power Exercised by the Majority in America over Thought,” and writes as follows:

I know no country in which, speaking generally, there is less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion than in America. . . . In America the majority has enclosed thought within a formidable fence. A writer is free inside that area, but woe to the man who goes beyond it. . . . Before he goes into print, he believes he has supporters; but he feels that he has them no more once he stands revealed to all, for those who condemn him express their views loudly, while those who think as he does, but without his courage, retreat into silence as if ashamed of having told the truth. . . . Hence the majority lives in a state of perpetual self-adoration; only strangers or experience may be able to bring certain truths to the Americans’ attention. (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. George Lawrence [New York: Doubleday, 1969], 254–55)

A creedal state such as America is as intolerant as a creedal religion. A Jew who does not believe in the Exodus story does not cease thereby to be a Jew, since being Jewish is an ethnic as well as a religious identification. Similarly, Hinduism (another ethnic religion) tolerates and subsumes a vast number of doctrines and differences of emphasis. (It is even possible, in a certain sense, to be an atheist Hindu.) Christianity and Islam, however, are creedal religions and therefore much less tolerant of doctrinal deviations. One can stop being a Christian or a Muslim—immediately—by believing or not believing certain things.

America early on divided itself into ethnic communities—the English, the Germans, the Irish, etc. A genuine spirit of community existed within these groups, in virtue of their blood ties and shared history, culture, and religion. But gradually these communities mixed and lost their unique identities. The creed of “Americanism” was the only thing that then arose as something that was supposed to bind people together. But since Americanism consists mostly of the recognition of negative liberties, how effective could it be at creating community? The result is that Americans became increasingly alienated from each other.

In his Preface to Edward Dahlberg’s Bottom Dogs (1929) Lawrence speaks of the breakdown in America of “blood-sympathy” and argues that it is responsible for a seldom-discussed facet of the American character, one which Europeans find particularly strange and amusing: the American pre-occupation with hygiene and super-cleanliness:

Once the blood-sympathy breaks . . . human beings become secretly intensely repulsive to one another, physically, and sympathetic only mentally and spiritually. The secret physical repulsion between people is responsible for the perfection of American “plumbing,” American sanitation, and American kitchens, utterly white-enamelled and antiseptic. It is revealed in the awful advertisements such as those about “halitosis,” or bad breath. It is responsible for the American nausea at coughing, spitting, or any of those things. The American townships don’t mind hideous litter of tin cans and broken rubbish. But they go crazy at the sight of human excrement.

With the blood-sympathy broken, Americans seek as much as possible to isolate themselves from their fellow citizens, who they fear and find repulsive. In his essay “Men Must Work and Women as Well,” Lawrence writes presciently of how technology serves to abstract us from human relationships: “The film, the radio, the gramophone were all invented because physical effort and physical contact have become repulsive to us.”

The radio and the gramophone brought individuals and families indoors and isolated them in their individual dwellings. No longer did they sit on their front porches and converse with their neighbors. The rise of the automobile contributed to this as well. Front porches were built for the cleaner, slower paced horse-and-buggy days. Sitting on the front porch was no longer so attractive when it meant being subjected to the noise and exhaust of automobiles whizzing by. Architecture began to reflect this change in the early part of the twentieth century, with designs for new houses sometimes eliminating the front porch altogether, and often with entrances concealed from view.

In the early days of the radio and the gramophone, only some families owned them, and they would often invite the neighbors in to listen to the gramophone or to the radio. This was also the case in the early days of television. But as these technologies became cheaper, just about every family acquired them and instead of facilitating social interaction they came to positively inhibit it. One can see this same phenomenon playing itself out in an even more radical way in the age of personal computers. It is now quite common for many Americans to live almost completely isolated lives, interacting with others via the Internet and carrying on “virtual relationships.”

Progressively, the lives of Americans became denuded of most of the features that have made life worth living throughout human history: community, extended family relations, participation in rituals, customs, traditions, remembrance of the past through shared stories, and the transmission of folk wisdom through myths, fables, and songs. The lives of most Americans became entirely dominated by the concerns of what Hegel called bürgerliche Gesellschaft, or “bourgeois society”: the realm of commerce.

“Getting ahead” becomes the primary concern in life, and all else—all the products of High Culture and most of the simple pleasures of life—become distractions, impracticalities. In his essay “Europe v. America,” Lawrence writes that “the American grips himself, at the very sources of his consciousness, in a grip of care: and then, to so much of the rest of life, is indifferent. Whereas the European hasn’t got so much care in him, so he cares much more for life and living.”

This is the secret to much of the inadequacy that Americans still feel when in Europe or in European company. Partly it is the (usually correct) sense that Europeans are better educated. But it is also the sense that these people have mastered the art of life. Life for most Americans is a problem to be solved, something we will eventually be able to do better than the Old World, thanks to the marriage of commerce and science.

Hence the tendency of Americans to believe anything that is asserted by scientists and medical men, no matter how ridiculous and ill-founded, and to distrust all that comes from tradition and “the past.” As witness the bizarre American reliance on “self-help books” and “how-to” manuals, even on such subjects as making friends or raising children. Americans are aware that these things were done in the past, without manuals, but believe that “experts” can teach us how to do them better than they have ever been done before.

While we wait for science to tell us how to live, life slips by. As Lawrence writes in a letter, “They can’t trust life until they can control it. So much for them—cowards! You can have the Land of the Free, as much as I know of it.”

Perhaps Lawrence’s most eloquent and succinct summation of the difference between the New World and the Old comes is the following line from “Europe v. America”: “The Europeans still have a vague idea that the universe is greater than they are, and isn’t going to change very radically, not for all the telling of all men put together.”

With life narrowed to the concerns of “getting ahead,” and natural human sympathies submerged or obliterated, Americans began to see each other more and more merely as objects: as consumers, or competitors, or employees, or bosses, but seldom as flesh and blood human beings. Thus we find the terrible American record of exploitation of the workers; frauds committed against the consumers, often at the expense of their health or even their lives; the devastation of communities wrought by the dumping of industrial waste; and the dumping of armies of workers in massive “layoffs.”

Heidegger was right: in its disregard for human life, American capitalism reveals itself as metaphysically identical to communism. And like communism, it tramples human life in the name of Progress. In its paper-thin idealism, its inhumanity, its self-destructiveness, and in its uncertainty of exactly what it is or should be, America is Women in Love’s Gerald Crich made real on a vast scale. Or, rather, Gerald Crich—coupled with the nihilism of Gudrun Brangwen—is the spirit of America. (Remember, those two are a couple: they complement one another. See my essay on Women in Love [2].)

The spirit of America—at once nihilism and “benevolent” idealism—can be seen very clearly in how it has treated other peoples both on its own soil and abroad. Earlier we saw in The Plumed Serpent Lawrence commenting on the white man’s attempt to “civilize” the “dark men.” Why do Americans feel that they must bend others to their way of life? American universalism leads to the belief that inside every foreigner is an American just screaming to get out.

Americans are like fresh converts to a religion, who feel that they have to convert all their friends—subconsciously in order to reassure themselves that they have made a sound choice. Americans have given up so much that was once thought to be essential to life and to community—so they simply must be right; others must find their way the most desirable way. If they do not, then they are ignorant and don’t know what’s good for them; or their governments have prevented them from seeing the truth.

Americans have been converting foreigners into Americans for a long time now, through exporting their consumer culture (irresistibly appealing to the baser elements in all peoples), and through less peaceable means.

On their own soil, white Americans have also tried to convert the “dark man” to Americanism. In his essay “Certain Americans and an Englishman,”  Lawrence speaks of Americans trying to turn the Red Man into a “wage earner.” This can be done, up to a point, but at the price of the Red Man sacrificing his soul. But ultimately Lawrence believes there can be no true harmony between different races, because they are so different, and that the attempts of white men to create “multicultural societies” will end in the destruction of the whites (an outcome he does not particularly lament).

Writing of Hector St. John de Crèvecouer in Studies, Lawrence states that he only wanted to know the Red Man in his head, abstractly because “he must have suspected that the moment he saw as the savages saw, all his fraternity and equality would go up in smoke, and his ideal world of pure sweet goodness along with it.” Later on in Studies, Lawrence writes that “The Red Man and the White Man are not blood-brothers: even when they are most friendly. When they are most friendly, it is as a rule the one betraying his race-spirit to the other.”

Lawrence’s views on America are apocalyptic. He sees no hope for the country, and seems to believe that it will drag the rest of the white world down with it. What, then, are we to make of these extreme views? Much of what Lawrence has to say about the emptiness of American ideals, and the emptiness of American lives, presages arguments that would be made by numerous social critics years later, especially in the 1950s and 1960s. I am thinking of such writers as Erich Fromm, Wilhelm Reich, Christopher Lasch, and Daniel Bell. Much of what he has to say would strike any Leftist as uncontroversial.

But once again Lawrence shows himself to be a kind of political hybrid, for his remarks on race, his opposition to the ideal of equality, and his opposition to multiculturalism seem to put him, by today’s standards, on the extreme right. Of course, contrary to what many Leftists might think, simply to point this out does not serve to refute Lawrence. Nor is it entirely convincing to accuse him of inconsistency: perhaps it is today’s Leftists and Rightists who are confused. And there is some plausibility to this suggestion.

For example, leftists today advocate both multiculturalism and “diversity,” which they tend to equate. But it is hard to see how the latter can be preserved if the former is achieved. In other words, inevitably a multicultural society would lead to the blending of peoples and the blending and watering-down of cultures, thus potentially destroying diversity rather than maintaining it. Lawrence challenges us to critique our own views, and to question their consistency—and their sanity.

There is no easy, ready-to-hand answer to Lawrence’s charges—about America in particular, or modernity in general. They strike at the heart of what is believed by most people in the West today. Whatever else one may say about his views, it is striking how their capacity to shock and to challenge us has only increased over the years.