Paganism & Vitalism in
Knut Hamsun & D. H. Lawrence, Part 2
Part 2 of 2
Translated by Greg Johnson
The Paganism of Hamsun and Lawrence
If Hamsun and Lawrence carry out their desire to return to a natural ontology by rejecting rationalist intellectualism, this also implies an in-depth contestation of the Christian message.
In Hamsun, we find the rejection of his family’s Puritanism (that of his uncle Hans Olsen), the rejection of the Protestant worship of the book and the text, i.e., an explicit rejection of a system of religious thought resting on the primacy of pure scripture against existential experience (in particular that of the autarkical peasant, whose model is that of Odalsbond of the Norwegian countryside).
The anti-Christianity of Hamsun is rather non-Christianity: it does not give rise to religious questioning in the mode of Kierkegaard. For him, the moralism of the Protestantism of the Victorian era (in Scandinavia, they called it the Oscarian era) is quite simply an expression of devitalisation. Hamsun does not recommend any mystical experience.
Above all, Lawrence is concerned with the caesura between man and the cosmic mystery. Christianity reinforces this wound, prevents it from clotting, prevents it from healing. However, European religiosity preserves a residue of this worship of the cosmic mystery: it is the liturgical year, the liturgical cycle (Easter, Pentecost, Midsummer, Halloween, Christmas, Epipany).
But these had been hit hard by the processes of disenchantment and desacralization, starting with the advent of the primitive Christian church, reinforced by Puritanism and Jansensim after the Reformation. The first Christians clearly wanted to tear man away from these cosmic cycles. The medieval church, however, sought adequation between man and cosmos, but the Reformation and Counter-Reformation both clearly expressed a return to the anti-cosmism of primitive Christianity. Lawrence writes:
But now, after almost three thousand years, now that we are almost abstracted entirely from the rhythmic life of the seasons, birth and death and fruition, now we realize that such abstraction is neither bliss nor liberation, but nullity. It brings null inertia.
This caesura is a property of the Christianity of urban civilizations, where there is longer an opening to the cosmos. Thus Christ is no longer a cosmic Christ, but a Christ reduced to the role of a social worker. Mircea Eliade spoke of a “cosmic Man,” open to the vastness of cosmos, the pillar of all the great religions. From Eliade’s perspective, the sacred is reality, power, the source of life and fertility. Eliade: “The desire of the religious man to live a life in the sacred is the desire to live in objective reality.”
The Ideological and Political Lessons of Hamsun and Lawrence
On the ideological and political plane, on the plane of Weltanschauungen, Hamsun and Lawrence had a rather considerable impact. Hamsun was read by everyone, beyond the polarity of Communism/Fascism. Lawrence was labeled “fascistic” on a purely posthumous basis, in particular by Bertrand Russell who spoke about his “madness” (“Lawrence was a suitable exponent of the Nazi cult of insanity”). This phrase is at the very least simple and concise.
According to Akos Doma, the works of Hamsun and Lawrence fall under four categories: the philosophy of life, the avatars of individualism, the vitalistic philosophical tradition, and anti-utopianism and irrationalism.
1. Life-philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) is a polemical term, opposing the “vivacity of real life” to the rigidity of conventions, the artificial games invented by urban civilization to try to give meaning to a totally disenchanted world. Life-philosophy appears under many guises in European thought and takes shape beginning with Nietzsche’s reflections on Leiblichkeit (corporeity).
2. Individualism. Hamsun’s anthropology postulates the absolute unicity of each individual, of each person, but refuses to isolate this individual or this person from any communal context, carnal or familiar: he always places the individual or the person in interaction, in a particular place. The absence of speculative introspection, consciousness, and abstract intellectualism make Hamsun’s individualism unlike the anthropology of the Enlightenment.
But, for Hamsun, one does not fight the individualism of the Enlightenment by preaching an ideologically contrived collectivism. The rebirth of the authentic man happens by a reactivation of the deepest wellsprings of his soul and body. Mechanical regimentation is a calamitous failure. Therefore, the charge of “fascism” does not hold for either Lawrence or Hamsun.
3. Vitalism takes account of all the facts of life and excludes any hierarchisation on the basis race, class, etc. The characteristic oppositions of the vitalist movement are: assertion of life/negation of life; healthy/unhealthy; mechanical/organic. Thus one cannot reduce them to social categories, parties, etc. Life is a fundamentally apolitical category, because it subsumes all men without distinction.
4. For Hamsun and Lawrence, the reproach of “irrationalism,” like their anti-utopianism, comes from their revolt against “feasibility” (Machbarkeit), against the idea of infinite perfectibility (which one finds in an “organic” form in the first generation of English Romantics). The idea of feasibility goes against the biological essence of nature. Thus the idea of feasibility is the essence of nihilism, according to the contemporary Italian philosopher Emanuele Severino.
For Severino, feasibility derives from a will to complete a world posited as being in becoming (but not an uncontrollable organic becoming). Once this process of completion is achieved, becoming inevitably ceases. Overall stability is necessary to the Earth, and this stability is described as a frozen “absolute good.”
In a literary manner, Hamsun and Lawrence have foreshadowed such contemporary philosophers as Emanuele Severino, Robert Spaemann (with his critique of functionalism), Ernst Behler (with his critique of “infinite perfectibility”), and Peter Koslowski. Outside of Germany or Italy, these philosophers are necessarily almost unknown to the public, especially when they criticize thoroughly the foundations of the dominant ideologies, which is rather frowned upon since the deployment of an underhanded inquisition against the politically incorrect. The cells of the “logocentrist conspiracy” are in place at all the publishers in order to reject translations, keep France in a state of philosophical “minority,” and prevent any effective challenge to the ideology of power.
Vitalistic or “anti-feasibilist” philosophers like Nietzsche, Hamsun, and Lawrence, insist on the ontological nature of human biology and are radically opposed to the nihilistic Western idea of the absolute feasibility of everything, which implies the ontological inexistence of all things, of all realities.
Many of them — certainly Hamsun and Lawrence — bring us back to the eternal present of our bodies, our corporeality (Leiblichkeit). But we can not fabricate a body, despite the wishes reflected in some science fiction (and certain projects from the crazy early years of the Soviet system).
Feasibilism is hubris carried to its height. It leads to restlessness, emptiness, silliness, solipsism, and isolation. From Heidegger to Severino, European philosophy has focused on the disaster of the desacralization of Being and the disenchantment of the world. If the deep and mysterious wellsprings of Earth and man are considered imperfections unworthy of the interest of the theologian or philosopher, if all that is thought abstractly or contrived beyond these (ontological) wellsprings is overvalued, then, indeed, the world loses its sacredness, all value.
Hamsun and Lawrence are writers who make us live with more intensity than those sometimes dry philosophers who deplore the wrong route taken centuries ago by Western philosophy. Heidegger and Severino in philosophy, Hamsun and Lawrence in creative writing aim to restore the sacredness of the natural world and to revalorize the forces that lurk inside man: in this sense, they are ecological thinkers in the deeper meaning of the term.
The oikos and he who works the oikos bear within them the sacred, the mysterious and uncontrollable forces, which are accepted as such, without fatalism and false humility. Hamsun and Lawrence have therefore heralded a “geophilosophical” dimension of thought, which has concerned us throughout this summer school. A succinct summary of their works, therefore, has a place in today’s curriculum.
Lecture at the Fourth Summer School of F.A.C.E., Lombardy, in July 1996.
Source: Vouloir, August 1997; online: http://www.centrostudilaruna.it/paganisme-et-philosophie-de-la-vie-chez-knut-hamsun-et-david-herbert-lawrence.html
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