Review of the International D. H. Lawrence Conference at the University of Nanterre April 2019
I was commissioned to write the following review of the 2019 D. H. Lawrence conference at the University of Nanterre, Paris, for publication in the 2019 newsletters of the UK and USA D. H. Lawrence Societies, where it has appeared in edited form. The below is the pre-edited version, of which the views are my own, not those of the societies concerned or of the conference organisers.
33rd International D.H. Lawrence Conference:
D.H. Lawrence and the Anticipation of the Ecological Turn
4-6 April 2019
Université de Nanterre, Paris
Bell, Michael, University of Warwick, UK
Booth, Howard, University of Manchester, UK
Bouche, Benjamin, Université Paris Nanterre, France
Bouttier, Sarah, Ecole polytechnique, Université Paris-Saclay, France
Brault-Dreux, Elise, Université de Valenciennes, France
Bricout, Shirley, Université de Montpellier III, France
Brown, Catherine, New College of the Humanities, London, UK
Costin, Jane, Independent scholar, UK
El-Samad, Soha, The Lebanese University, Lebanon
Fjågesund, Peter, University of South Eastern Norway
Fleming, Fiona, Université Paris Nanterre, France
Gifford, Terry, Bath Spa University,UK / Universidad de Alicante, Spain
Jones, Joanna, University of Manchester, UK
Katrib, Sarah, Formatrice à l’ESPE, Université de Strasbourg, France
Laird, Holly, University of Tulsa, USA
Long, Jonathan, Independent Scholar, UK
Michelucci, Stefania, University of Genoa, Italy
Poplawski, Paul, Independent Scholar, Austria
Rademacher, Marie Geraldine, Université de Tokyo, Japan
Ragachewskaya, Marina, Minsk State Linguistic University, Belarus
Reid, Susan, University of Northampton, UK
Rohman, Carrie, Lafayette College, USA
Rosenhan, Claudia, University of Edinburgh, UK
Ryan, Laura, University of Manchester, UK
Thompson, Theresa Mae, Valdosta State University, USA
Trejling, Maria, Stockholm University, Sweden
Wallace, Jeff, Cardiff Metropolitan University, UK
‘The Pyramids will not last a moment compared with the daisy …
In the beginning was not a Word, but a chirrup’ Sketches of Etruscan Places
By the high standards set by Ginette Roy’s international DH Lawrence conferences at the University of Nanterre over the past thirty-three years, this one was well-attended and of a high quality. This success, I am sure, was connected to the urgency of its theme.
At this conference, Lawrence was finally recognised as one of the foremost ecological writers that Britain has produced. Carrie Rohman, who is writing the chapter on modernism in the forthcoming Palgrave Companion to Animals and Literature, said that it was obvious to her that she should concentrate on Lawrence, since he was the modernist writer who was ‘by far the most concerned with the species question’. Yet Lawrence’s reputation has yet to be carried as high as it might be by the ecocritical wave. Thomas Hardy, as was noted, remains more beloved than him by ecocritics. This conference did much to render acknowledgment where it was due.
The wide range of works discussed in the twenty-eight papers delivered over three days proved that it is to the whole spectrum of Lawrence’s oeuvre that this acknowledgment is due. Novels from The White Peacock (Fleming, Rosenhal) to Lady Chatterley’s Lover (Long, Bouche, Rademacher) were discussed, with a particular concentration on Women in Love (Ryan, Bell, Jones, Trejling). Bell described this novel as one of the first to significantly transcend the human viewpoint, which is the domain of the novel as such. The animal-orientated novellas received much attention (for example Ryan and Ragachevskaya on ‘St Mawr’), as did the poems, especially but not only Birds, Beasts and Flowers (Ghosh); Laird concentrated on the early poems. Of the non-fiction there was particular interest in ‘Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine’ (Rohman, Brown), Sketches of Etruscan Places (Long), and ‘Education of the People’ (Wallace). Least discussed were the paintings (although Costin discussed in detail Lawrence’s response to Cézanne’s apples), and plays (although Jones mentioned A Collier’s Friday Night). Compared to previous conferences, there was relatively little discussion of other authors, although Whitman, Thoreau, Edward Thomas and Tolstoy were all mentioned, and Fleming’s paper was a systematic and revealing comparison of Lawrence with Hardy. The theorists most frequently adduced were Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (A Thousand Plateaus, 1980, from which Trejling took a tripartite classification with which to read the animals of The Rainbow); Peter Wohleben (The Hidden Life of Trees, 2015, which Bell reminded us argues that trees feel pain); Richard Powers (The Overstory, 2018); Timothy Morton (Ecology without Nature, 2007); and exosexual theorists and activists Annie Sprinkle and Elizabeth Stephens. Earlier theorists included Jonathan Bate, Emmanuel Levinas, and Jacques Derrida (El-Samad presented Lawrence as the voice of eco-jouissance). Reference was also made to Theodor Adorno (especially by Booth), Ernst Haeckel (who, as Poplawski reminded us, coined the term ‘Ökologie’), and the latter’s main influencer, and major proponent of the thesis that humans are animals, Charles Darwin.
A recurrent reference point was Romanticism. As Poplawski pointed out, Lawrence is often considered a late Romantic, sometimes in a manner that leads to him being condemned as right-wing. Both perceptions were strongly contested. Booth argued for the harmonies between Lawrence and Adorno. Reid argued that Lawrence developed an anti-romantic un-aesthetics, finding the Romantics (English and American alike) idealising in their response to ‘nature’. The latter concept, as Bouche pointed out, is limiting – assuming as it does a contrast with the human, whereas the ‘environment’ is demoted to the background. Lawrence’s own term, ‘cosmos’, avoids both terms’ problems. Bell pointed out that Lawrence refused the Romantic idea that the specialness of poetry was philosophical, not just rhetorical (Pope’s ‘What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed’), because of his refusal of aesthetic stasis – a concept incompatible with a constantly-changing cosmos.
Of everything denoted by the term ‘nature’, most attention was paid to animals – perhaps in part because, as Ghosh pointed out, they all have a face and a gaze. Fjågesund argued that Lawrence turned to animals in the 1920s by way of a last resort, since they constituted an otherwise-missing link to a lost dimension. Gifford pointed out that collapsing the human-animal distinction was impossible for human beings to achieve, but Bell observed that the attempted dissolution of this distinction had been an ongoing project of the twentieth century, to which Lawrence (whose occasional ostentatious anthropomorphizing only ever operated at the surface level) gave much impetus. Bouttier reminded us that Derrida had defined animals as naked without knowing it, and that Lawrence perceived non-human nakedness as the only real nakedness, since humans always wear a moral clothing. Another common distinction made between humans and animals concerns the aesthetic sense as an attribute of only the former. Rohmann countered that Lawrence understood that aesthetics, excess, and display, were primarily animal, affective, embodied, and sexual, rather than cognitive. Reid exemplified this in her ecomusicological reading of birdsong, arguing that for Lawrence such song bridged the gap between nature and culture. As Rohmann noted, however, the ‘humanities’ (as their name implies) have been slow to recognize all of this.
Bell pointed to the paradox that the growing dissolution of the human-animal distinction has taken place over the same period as the development of factory farming. With reference to the latter development, I argued that those aspects of Lawrence’s responses to animals which anticipated the vegan turn might have been intensified had he lived into the take-off decade for battery chicken farming (the 1930s). I accompanied my talk by footage of a contemporary, RSPCA- and organic-approved chick de-beaking machine, and failed to play footage of a male chick macerator (which was tellingly blocked by YouTube because of age restrictions; the modern farm is no sight for children). Trejling, however, argued that the pre-modern treatment of animals was not to be sentimentalized. She pointed out that the Brangwen farm in The Rainbow contains a slaughterhouse, and that even the well-loved scene of Tom comforting Anna during his wife’s childbirth is accompanied by the clanking of the cows’ chains – enforcer and symbol of their slavery to humans. At the end of the novel, Ursula achieves liberation through a communion with horses in which she becomes animal, but after which the horses remain incarcerated as before. What is needed, she argued, is not a regression to the pre-modern, but a progression to the post-human. Reid noted that ‘Snake’ inverted the story of Genesis, since the snake brought innocence to man, whilst the persecution of an animal brought about another kind of fall.
Christian inversion was also adduced in relation to flora. Cornelius observed that the Vatican chose, of all leaves, fig leaves to cover genitals, and that Lawrence presented this fruit as the most sexual. Several presenters described Lawrence’s relationship with trees, for example Michaelucci, who showed that for Lawrence trees linked humans to the cosmos. Jones traced the role of flowers in Lawrence’s sense of degeneration as inspired by Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal. She also placed this influence in the wider context of the importance of French literature to Lawrence’s early career.
Rosenhal concentrated on life at the molecular, even quantum, level, using the case study of Nethermere in The White Peacock. She did not merely marginalise the novel’s human story in her discussion, but ignored it completely. To the accompaniment of footage that she had taken of nature near her Edinburgh home, she identified a series of ‘trespasses’ that take place in the novel, which Annable (supposed guard against trespassers) is powerless to prevent: that of the sun into matter, the mingling of photon and chlorophyll; that of microbes into the soil, which is an electro-chemical powerhouse; that of water into the sky, through trees which raise it against gravity. She described how Lawrence’s prose moved forwards and backwards across recessive plains as it reached for the impersonal and molecular. Her presentation supported Katrib’s thesis of ‘The Powerful Fragility of Nature’ – nature which, as Long pointed out that Lawrence believed the Etruscans to have sensed, would outlive humanity. Nature, indeed, exerts its power over humanity; Gifford argued that in Lawrence’s writing weather is not the objective correlative of emotions, but that it causes them. The rainbow in The Rainbow is not just symbolic, but has agency.
Given the conference’s emphasis on humanity as embodied, and on aesthesis as animal, there was not surprisingly much investigation of the senses. Reid emphasised the importance of soundscape to our interactions with nature, a point that was practically demonstrated by the birdsong-filled soundtrack of Rosenhan’s video. Brault-Dreux investigated the sense of smell, but found that Lawrence is relatively little invested in this sense, even in a sexual context. The sense of touch, however, was much discussed. Long reminded us of Lawrence’s emphasis on the importance of this sense to the Etruscans. Ryan related examples of Lawrence’s ecosexuality to the contemporary ecosexual movement (with its over 100,000 adherents). She pointed out that ecosexuals consider the earth as a lover, not a mother – a more equal and mutual relationship, which gives the Wordsworthian concept of ‘nature lover’ a new and deeper meaning; ecosexual weddings are said to last until death ‘unite us for ever’. Rohman’s study of animal aesthetics emphasised sexual display, such as that of the dandy cock in Lawrence’s late novella.
It was often stated that Lawrence tells us to become more sensitised to, and in contact with, the world around us. Gifford pointed out that such sensitivity and affinity can be cultivated and trained – as, for example, Ursula learns from Will to likens herself to a flower, and then learns from this analogy in making life decisions. Bell reminded us that ‘nowadays, touch is very bad news’ (with reference to recent allegations concerning Joe Biden), but suggested that what was needed – and what Lawrence implied that we needed – was not touch per se, but a sense of touch.
What, however, followed this conference, apart from our cultivation of a sense of touch? What had been, or might be, achieved by it for the ‘cosmos’? Bell recounted an anecdote concerning a scientific colleague who was asked by a government minister whether he ‘believed’ in climate change. He said that he didn’t; rather, that he ‘knew’ it. Yet, Bell added, we need something akin to religious conversion in order to change our lives, and poets and novelists – including Lawrence – can help us with this.
Nonetheless, some discomfort was evinced about the very air miles that the conference had caused to be travelled – an apprehension that we recognised to be in tension with our strong sense of the value of being embodied and together in one room. Certain organisational details might have harmonised better with the conference’s concern; for example, the use of washable cups for the refreshments, or the exclusion of carcases from the catering.
Yet the climate crisis was relatively little discussed in the papers – perhaps because Lawrence’s concern was with the industrialisation of Britain, whereas more recent anxiety (in France as in Britain) has been caused by deindustrialisation. Cornelius pointed out that a major part of Western populations are so concerned with getting to the end of the financial month or week that they have little thought for the end of human life on earth; and that those with the financial comfort to think of the latter are disinclined to alleviate the former condition. This split, he argued, was manifest in the phenomenon of the Gilets jeunes (active in Paris on the Saturday of the conference, as on many Saturdays before and since), and of the Brexit vote. Lawrence, he argued, is unusual and helpful in being concerned with both ‘the people’ (the topic of next year’s conference) and the environment; the great risk is that we will fail with both.
Wallace argued that ‘we need to opt for a model of de-growth before it’s too late’; Laird said that it made sense to promote various forms of asceticism; and Trejling argued that capitalism was incompatible with any future of life on our planet. It was agreed that we must think forwards, not back. We cannot uninvent the machine; indeed, machines will help us towards sustainability (and Laird noted Lawrence’s apprehension of the natural in the machine, as in his naturalised description of a train; in Amores, machines become capable of laughter and song).
I suggested that one way in which humanity might address climate change was to go vegan. Fjågesund thought that animals were clearly the subject of the next wave of emancipation, following that of various categories of human being. How a vegan world would function, however, has yet to be learned. Thompson and Laird pointed out that in certain parts of the United States, wild animals (including bears, feral cats and dogs, mountain lions, coyotes and deer) are now appearing in cities, and that this needs to be dealt with (Trejling drew a robust line between necessary and unnecessary infliction of pain, and between self-defence and self-indulgence; this addressed Thompson’s adduction of the mosquito as a threatening animal). On the other hand, it was noted that insofar as humans do not persecute animals, animals become friendly towards humans. Bricout reminded us that Lawrence found animals in Australia relatively unafraid, for this reason. I pointed out that wolves have become the aggressors of fairy tales only since their near-extermination by humans has made them wary and hostile, and that the domestic dog was created out of the less mistrustful, more domesticatable wolves of millennia ago. Cornelius made the same point with regard to whales, as did Ragachevskaya with regard to the animals of the Chernobyl zone, which has been left as a human-free reserve since the nuclear disaster of 1986.
Of course, the one thing other than climate disaster which might end human life on earth is nuclear war. That possibility – and the political developments which currently make it more rather than less likely – was not discussed, but Lawence’s sense of war as an ecological catastrophe was; Laird described war as ‘a drastically anti-environmental event’. Reid and Cornelius observed that English soldiers in World War One – perhaps influenced by English Romanticism – were notable for writing home observations on the nature that they encountered in France. Peace studies as a branch of international relations has not traditionally been ecologically-orientated, but, now that the nuclear age has extended into that of the ecological turn, that must surely change fast.
On the Saturday evening after the conference finished, Sue Reid, Howard Booth and I attended a performance of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at the Opéra Bastille. Katerina Izmailova’s farm was presented as a pig farm, and its farmyard as a meat processing factory. Whole pig carcasses appeared on stage hanging upside down from hooks on a moving belt. The farm hands were butchers in varying states of bloodiness. One of Katerina’s serving women was raped on one of the chopping surfaces. Some audience members may have taken all this as a feminist metaphor – as implying that that the women in Katerina Izmailova’s world are treated as though they are meat. But nobody who had attended this conference could read it so simply. This was a vegetarian-feminist interpretation of Shostakovich’s opera and Leskov’s story. The pigs, just as much as the women, were embodied. They, unlike the heroine, could not fight back.