Paganism & Vitalism in
Knut Hamsun & D. H. Lawrence, Part 1
Part 1 of 2
Translated by Greg Johnson
The Hungarian philologist Akos Doma, educated in Germany and the United States, has published a work of literary interpretation comparing the works of Knut Hamsun and D. H. Lawrence: Die andere Moderne: Knut Hamsun, D. H. Lawrence und die lebensphilosophische Strömung des literarischen Modernismus [The Other Modernity: Knut Hamsun, D. H. Lawrence, and the Life-Philosophical Current of Literary Modernism] (Bonn: Bouvier, 1995). What they share is a “critique of civilization,” a concept that one must put in context.
Civilization is a positive process in the eyes of the “progressivists” who see history as a vector, for the adherents of the philosophy of Aufklärung [Enlightenment], and for the unconditional followers of a certain modernity aiming at simplification, geometrization, and cerebralization.
But civilization appears as a negative process for all those who intend to preserve the incommensurable fruitfulness of cultural matrices, for all those who observe, without being scandalized, that time is “plurimorphic,” i.e., the time of one culture is not that of another (whereas the believers of Aufklärung affirm that one monomorphic time applies to all peoples and cultures of the Earth). Thus to each people its own time. If modernity refuses to see this plurality of forms of time, it is illusion.
To a certain extent, Akos Doma explains, Hamsun and Lawrence were heirs of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But which Rousseau? The one stigmatized by Maurras, Lasserre, and Muret, or the one who radically criticized the Enlightenment but without also thereby defending the Old Regime? For this Rousseau who was critical of the Aufklärung, this modern ideology is in reality that exact opposite of the ideal slogan that it intends to universalize though political activism: it is inegalitarian and hostile to freedom, even as it proclaims equality and freedom.
For Rousseau and his proto-Romantic followers, before the modernity of the 18th century, there was a “good community,” conviviality reigned among men, people were “good,” because nature was “good.” Later, in the Romantics, who were conservatives on the political plane, this concept of “goodness” was quite prominent, whereas today one attributes it only to activists or revolutionary thinkers. Thus the idea of “goodness” was present on “Right” as well as on “Left” of the political chessboard.
But for the English Romantic poet Wordsworth, nature is “the theater of all real experience” because man is really and immediately confronted by the elements, which implicitly leads us beyond good and evil. Wordsworth is certainly “perfectibilist”: man in his poetic vision reaches for excellence, perfection. But man, contrary to what was thought and imposed by the proponents of the Enlightenment, is not perfected solely by developing the faculties of his intellect. The perfection of man happens mainly through the ordeal of elemental nature.
For Novalis, nature is “the space of mystical experience, which allows us to see beyond contingencies of urban and artificial life.” For Joseph von Eichendorff, nature is freedom, and in this sense it is a transcendence, as it allows us to escape from the narrowness of conventions, of institutions.
With Wordsworth, Novalis, and Eichendorff, the themes of immediacy, of vital experience, the refusal of contingencies arising from the artificial conventions are in place. From Romanticism in Europe, especially in Northern Europe, developed a well thought out hostility to all forms of modern social life and economics. Thomas Carlyle, for example, praised heroism and disdained the “cash flow society.” This is the first critique of the rule of money. John Ruskin, with his plans for a more organic architecture and garden cities, aimed to beautify the cities and to repair the social and urban damage of the rationalism that had unfortunately arisen from Manchesterism. Tolstoy propagated an optimistic naturalism that owed nothing to Dostoevsky, the brilliant analyst and dramatist of the worst blacknesses of the human soul. Gauguin transplanted his ideal of human goodness in the islands of Polynesia, to Tahiti, among flowers and exotic beauties.
Hamsun and Lawrence, unlike Tolstoy or Gauguin, develop a vision of nature without teleology, without a “good end,” without marginal paradisal spaces: they have assimilated the double lesson of pessimism from Dostoevsky and Nietzsche. Nature, for them, is no longer an idyllic excursion, as in the English Lake District poets. It is not necessarily a space of adventure or violence, or posed a priori as such. Nature, for Hamsun and Lawrence, is above all the inwardness of man; it is his inner springs, his dispositions, his mind (brain and guts are inextricably linked together). Therefore, a priori, in Hamsun and Lawrence, the nature of man is neither demonic nor pure intellectuality. It is rather the real, as real as the Earth, as real as Gaia, the real source of life.
Before this source, modern alienation leaves us with two opposing human attitudes: (1) to put down roots, a source of vitality, (2) to fall into alienation, a source of disease and paralysis. It is between the two terms of this polarity that we can fit the two great works of Hamsun and Lawrence: Growth of the Soil for the Norwegian, The Rainbow for the Englishman.
In Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil, nature is the realm of existential work, where Man works in complete independence to feed and perpetuate himself. Nature is not idyllic, as in some pastoralist utopia. Work in not abolished. It is an unavoidable condition, a destiny, an essential element of humanity, whose loss would mean de-humanization. The main hero, the farmer Isak, is ugly in face and body. He is crude, simple, rustic, but unwavering. He is completely human in his finitude but also in his determination.
The natural space, the Wildnis, this space that sooner or later will receive the stamp of man, is not the realm of human time, that of clocks, but of the rhythm of the seasons, of periodic rotations. In that space, in that time, we do not ask questions, we work to survive, to participate in a rhythm that surpasses us. This destiny is hard. Sometimes very hard. But it gives us independence, autonomy; it allows a direct relationship with our work. Hence it gives meaning. So there is meaning. In Lawrence’s The Rainbow, a family lives on the land in complete independence on the fruits of its own crops.
Hamsun and Lawrence, in these two novels, leave us with the vision of a man rooted in a homeland (ein beheimateter Mensch), a man with a limited territorial base. The beheimateter Mensch needs no book learning, needs no preaching from the media; his practical knowledge is sufficient; thanks to it, he gives meaning to his actions, while allowing imagination and feeling. This immediate knowledge gives him unity with other beings participating in life.
In this perspective, alienation, a major theme of the 19th century, takes on another dimension. Generally, the problem of alienation is addressed from three different bodies of doctrine: (1) The Marxists and historicists locate alienation in the social sphere, whereas for Hamsun and Lawrence, it lies in the inner nature of man, regardless of social position or material wealth. (2) Alienation is addressed by theology and anthropology. (3) Alienation is seen as a social anomie.
For Hegel and Marx, the alienation of the people or the masses is a necessary step in the gradual process of narrowing the gap between reality and the absolute. In Hamsun and Lawrence, alienation is more fundamental; its causes are not socio-economic or political; they lie in our distance from the roots of nature (which to that extent is not “good”). One does not overcome alienation by creating a new socioeconomic order.
According to Doma, in Hamsun and Lawrence, the problem of the cut, of the caesura is essential. Social life has become uniform, tends toward uniformity, automation, excessive functionalization, while nature and work in the cycle of life are not uniform and constantly mobilize vital energies. There is immediacy, while everything in urban, industrial, modern life is mediated, filtered. Hamsun and Lawrence rebelled against this filter.
In “nature” the forces of interiority count, particularly for Hamsun, and to a lesser extent for Lawrence. With the advent of modernity, men are determined by factors external to them, such as conventions, political agitation, public opinion that gives them the illusion of freedom while it is in fact the realm of manipulation. In this context, communities are breaking up: each individual is content with his sphere of autonomous activity in competition with others. Then we arrive at anomie, isolation, the hostility of each against all.
The symptoms of this anomie are crazes for superficial things, for sophisticated garb (Hamsun), signs of a detestable fascination for what is external, for a form of dependence, itself a sign of inner emptiness. Man is torn by the effects of external stresses. These are all indications of loss of vitality in alienated man.
In the alienation of urban life, man finds no stability because life in the metropolis resists any form of stability. Such an alienated man cannot return to his community, his family of origin. For Lawrence, whose writing is more facile but more striking: “He was the eternal audience, the chorus, the spectator at the drama; in his own life he would have no drama.” “He scarcely existed except through other people.” “He had come to a stability of nullification.”
In Hamsun and Lawrence, Entwurzelung, Unbehaustheit, rootlessness and homelessness, this way of being without hearth or home, is the great tragedy of humanity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. To Hamsun, place is vital for humans. Every man should have his place. The location of his existence. One can not be cut off from one’s place without profound mutilation. This mutilation is primarily mental; it is hysteria, neurosis, imbalance. Hamsun is a psychologist. He tells us: self-consciousness from the start is a symptom of alienation.
Already Schiller, in his essay Über naive und sentimentalische Dichtung [On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry], noted that agreement between thought and feeling was tangible, real, interior for natural man, but it is now ideal and exterior in cultivated humans (“the concord between his feelings and his thoughts existed at the origin, but no longer exists except at the level of the ideal. This concord is no longer in man, but hovers somewhere outside of him; it is no more than an idea that has yet to be realized; it is no longer a fact of life”).
Schiller hoped for an Überwindung (overcoming) of this caesura, for a total mobilization of the individual to fill this caesura. Romanticism, for him, aimed at the reconciliation of Being (Sein) and consciousness (Bewußtsein), fighting the reduction of consciousness solely to rational understanding. Romanticism values, and even overvalues what is “other” to reason (das Andere der Vernunft): sensual perception, instinct, intuition, mystical experience, childhood, dreams, pastoral life.
The English Romantic Wordsworth deemed this desire for reconciliation between Being and consciousness “rose,” calling for the emergence of “a heart that watches and receives.” Dostoevsky abandoned this “rose” vision, developing in response a quite “black” vision, in which the intellect is always a source of evil that led the “possessed” to kill or commit suicide. In the same vein, in philosophical terms, G. E. Lessing and Ludwig Klages emulated this “black” vision of the intellect, while considerably refining naturalist Romanticism: to Klages, the mind is the enemy of the soul; to Lessing, the mind is the counterpart of life, born of necessity (“Geist ist das notgeborene Gegenspiel des Lebens”).
Lawrence, in some sense faithful to the English Romantic tradition of Wordsworth, believes in a new adequation of Being and consciousness. Hamsun, more pessimistic, more Dostoyevskian (hence his success in Russia and its impact on such ruralists writers as Belov and Rasputin), persisted in the belief that as soon as there is consciousness there is alienation. Once man begins to reflect on himself, he detaches himself from the natural continuum, in which he should normally be rooted.
In Hamsun’s theoretical writings, there is a reflection on literary modernism. Modern life, influences, processes, refine man to rescue him from his destiny, his destined place, his instincts which lie beyond good and evil. The literary development of the 19th century betrays a feverishness, an imbalance, a nervousness, an extreme complexity of human psychology. “The general (ambient) nervousness has gripped our fundamental being and has rubbed off on our feelings.” Hence the writer now defines himself on the model of Zola, as a “social doctor” who describes social evils to eliminate disease. The writer, the intellectual, and develops a missionary spirit aiming at a “political correctness.”
Against this intellectual vision of the writer, Hamsun replies that it is impossible to objectively define the reality of man, for an “objective man” would be a monstrosity (ein Unding), constructed in a mechanical manner. We cannot reduce man to a catalog of characteristics, for man is changing, ambiguous. Lawrence had the same attitude: “Now I absolutely flatly deny that I am a soul, or a body, or a mind, or an intelligence, or a brain, or a nervous system, or a bunch of glands, or any of the rest of these bits of me. The whole is greater than the part.” Hamsun and Lawrence illustrate in their works that it is impossible to theorize or absolutize a clear and distinct view of man. Thus man is not the vehicle of preconceived ideas.
Hamsun and Lawrence note that progress in self-awareness is not the process of spiritual emancipation, but rather a loss, a draining of vitality, of vital energy. In their novels, it is the characters who are still intact because they are unconscious (that is to say, embedded in their soil or site) who persevere, triumphing over the blows of fate and unfortunate circumstances.
There is no question, we repeat, of pastoralism or idyllism. The characters of Hamsun’s and Lawrence’s novels are traversed or solicited by modernity, hence their irreducible complexity: they may succumb, they suffer, they undergo a process of alienation but can also overcome it. This is where the Hamsun’s irony and Lawrence’s notion of the phoenix come in. Hamsun’s irony ridicules the abstract ideals of modern ideologies. In Lawrence, the recurrent theme of the phoenix indicates a certain degree of hope: there will be resurrection. Like the phoenix rising from the ashes.
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