The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
All of Mexico that can be seen is here, evoked clearly with the fervor of things remembered out of impressions that filled the mind to bursting. There is no laborious building up of local color, but an immense and prodigal feeling for the background, for every minute detail seen with the eyes of a poet. He makes you a radiant gift of the place. It is no Rousseau-like jungle of patterned leaves and fruits half concealing impersonally savage beasts. The skies change, the lights and colors, the smells and feel of the air change with the time of day; the masses of the Indians move with purpose against this shifting landscape; the five chief characters live out a romantic drama of emotions, accompanied by all the commonplaces of every day, of dress, of food, of weather. A nationwide political and religious movement provides the framework for a picture that does not omit a leaf, a hanging fruit, an animal, a cloud, a mood, of the visible Mexico. Lawrence puts in besides all his own accumulated protest against the things he hates: his grudge against women as opposed to his concept of woman, his loathing of the machine. His contempt for revolution and the poor is arrogant, not aristocratic: but he is plainly proud of his attitude. It is a part of his curiously squeamish disgust of human contact.
The triumph of this book as a work of art lies in this: that out of his confusions, the divisions of his mind, he has gained by sheer poetic power to a fine order, a mystical truth above his obsessions and debased occult dogma.
Mexico pulls you down, the people pull you down like a great weight! But it may be they pull you down as the earth pull of gravitation does, that you can balance on your feet. Maybe they draw you down as the earth draws down the roots of the tree so that it may be clenched deep in the soil. . . . Loose leaves and aeroplanes blow away on the wind, in what they call freedom. . . . All that matters to me are the roots that reach down beyond all destruction.
Thus Ramon, the Spanish-Indian scholar who has taken upon himself the role of the living Quetzalcoatl. “God must come to the Mexicans in a blanket and huaraches, else he is no god of the Mexican. . . . We live by manifestations.” A full-blooded Indian joins him in the role of Huitzilopochtli, the god of war. Kate Leslie goes with them as Malintzi, wife of the war-god. They set about to restore the old phallic cult, based on an ancient religious tenet of the human race: that the male element is godhead, that man carries the unique secret of creation in his loins, that divinity originates in the potent germ. “I look. . . for my own manhood,” says the living Quetzalcoatl. “It comes from the middle from God. . . . I have nothing but my manhood. The God gives it to me, and leaves me to do further.” And again: “The universe is a nest of dragons, with a perfectly unfathomable life mystery at the center of it. . . . If I call the mystery the Morning Star, what does it matter?. . . And man is a creature who wins his own creation inch by inch from the nest of cosmic dragons.” “Man is a column of blood, woman is a valley of blood.” And man must be saved again by blood. Blood touches blood in the Morning Star, and thus the otherwise incommunicable secret will be shared.
And what, in fact, is the conclusion after all this grandiose preparation? The Indians must still be saved by a superior expert tribal Messiah and by means of the same worn-out devices. The living Quetzalcoatl works through the cumbrous machinery of drums, erotic-mystic ritual, ceremonial bloodshed. He is a marvelous study of the priestly pedagogue fired with a fanatic vision of a world saved and standing at his right hand praising his name forever. This is the answer we are given to a great quest for the meaning of life: man is not a god, and he must die. But he may hypnotize himself into momentary forgetfulness by means of ceremonial robes and a chorus of mystic mumblings, accompanied by synthesized gesture in praise of his own virility, that most variable and treacherous of all his powers.
The hymns of Quetzalcoatl form a broken cycle through the story, curious interruptions to the muscular power of the prose. There are many beautiful lines: “And say to thy sorrow, ‘Ax, thou art cutting me down. Yet did a spark fly out of thy edge and my wound.’” Mostly they are booming, hollow phrases, involved as the high-sounding nonsense of a sixteenth-century Spanish mystic; their ecstasy follows the pattern of artificial raptures, self-conscious as a group of Gurdjieff’s American disciples revolving in a dervish dance.
Altogether Lawrence cannot be freed from the charge of pretentiousness in having invaded a mystery that remained a mystery to him, and in having set down his own personal reactions to a whole race as if they were the inspired truth. His Indians are merely what the Indians might be if they were all D. H. Lawrences. The three characters who act as his mouthpieces are simply good Europeans at bottom—further variations of Lawrence’s arch-type, the flayed and suffering human being in full flight from the horrors of a realistic mechanical society, and from the frustrations of sex.
When you have read this book read Sons and Lovers again. You will realize the catastrophe that has overtaken Lawrence.
A WREATH FOR THE GAMEKEEPER
Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D. H. Lawrence,
with an introduction by Mark Schorer
and a preface by Archibald MacLeish.
New York: Grove Press, 1959.
The dubious Crusade is over, anybody can buy the book now in hardcover or paperback, expurgated or unexpurgated, in drugstores and railway stations as well as in the bookshops, and ’twas a famous victory for something or other, let’s wait and see. Let us remark as we enter the next phase that we may hope this episode in the history of our system of literary censorship will mark the end of one of our most curious native customs—calling upon the police and the post office officials to act as literary critics in addition to all their other heavy duties. It is not right nor humane and I hope this is the end of it; it is enough to drive good men out of those services altogether.
When I first read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, thirty years ago, I thought it a dreary, sad performance with some passages of unintentional hilarious low comedy, one scene at least simply beyond belief in a book written with such inflamed apostolic solemnity, which I shall return to later; and I wondered then at all the huzza and hullabaloo about suppressing it. I realize now there were at least two reasons for it—first, Lawrence himself, who possessed to the last degree the quality of high visibility; and second, the rise to power of a demagoguery of political and social censorship by unparalleled ignoramuses in all things, including the arts, which they regarded as the expression of peculiarly dangerous forms of immorality. These people founded organizations for the suppression of Vice, and to them nearly everything was Vice, and other societies for the promotion of Virtue, some of them very dubious, and their enthusiasms took some weird and dangerous directions. Prohibition was their major triumph, with its main result of helping organized crime to become big business; but the arts, and especially literature, became the object of a morbid purblind interest to those strange beings who knew nothing about any art, but knew well what they feared and hated.
It is time to take another look at this question of censorship and protest which has been debated intermittently ever since I can remember. Being a child of my time, naturally I was to be found protesting: I was all for freedom of speech, of action, of belief, of choice, in every department of human life; and for authors all this was to be comprehended in the single perfect right to express their thoughts without reserve, write anything they chose, with publishers to publish and booksellers to sell it, and the vast public gloriously at liberty to buy and read it by the tens of thousands.
It was a noble experiment, no doubt, an attempt to bring a root idea of liberty to flower; but in practice it soon showed serious defects and abuses, for the same reason that prohibition of alcohol could not be made to work: gangsters and crooks took over the business of supplying the human demand for intoxication and obscenity, which hitherto had been in the hand of respectable elements who regulated it and kept it more or less in its place; but it still is a market that never fails no matter who runs it. (I have often wondered what were the feelings of the old-line pious prohibition
Publishers were certainly as quick to take advantage of the golden moment as the gangsters, and it did not take many of them very long to discover that the one best way to sell a book with “daring” passages was to get it banned in Boston, or excluded from the United States mails. Certain authors, not far behind the publishers, discovered that if they could write books the publisher could advertise as in peril from the censor, all the better. Sure enough, the censor would rise to the bait, crack down in a way that would be front-page news, the alarm would go out to all fellow writers and assorted lovers of liberty that one of the guild was being abused in his basic human rights guaranteed by our Constitution, by those hyenas in Boston or the Post Office. The wave of publicity was on, and the sales went up. Like too many such precariously balanced schemes, it was wonderful while it lasted, but it carried the seeds of its own decay. Yet those were the days when people really turned out and paraded with flags and placards, provocative songs and slogans, openly inviting arrest and quite often succeeding in being hauled off to the police station in triumph, there to sit in a cell perfectly certain that somebody was going to show up and bail them out before night.
Writers—I was often one of them—did not always confine their aid to freedom of the word, though that was their main concern. They would sometimes find themselves in the oddest company, defending strange causes and weirdly biased viewpoints on the grounds that they most badly wanted defense. But we also championed recklessly the most awful wormy little books we none of us would have given shelf room, and more than once it came over us in mid-parade that this was no downtrodden citizen being deprived of his rights, but a low cynic cashing in on our high-minded application of democratic principles. I suppose for a good many of us, all this must just be chalked up to Experience. After some time, I found myself asking, “Why should I defend a worthless book just because it has a few dirty words in it? Let it disappear of itself and the sooner the better.”
No one comes to that state of mind quickly, and it is dangerous ground to come to at all, I suppose, but one comes at last. My change of view began with the first publication in 1928 of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. He has become, this lover of Lady Chatterley’s, as sinister in his effect on the minds of critics as that of Quint himself on the children and the governess in The Turn of the Screw. I do not know quite what role Lady Chatterley should play to Quint-Mellors. She is not wicked, as Miss Jessel is; she is merely a moral imbecile. She is not intense, imaginative, and dazzled like the governess, she is stupid; and it is useless to go on with the comparison, for she is not the center of the critics’ attention as the Gamekeeper is, she has not that baneful fascination for them that he has. But there is one quality both books have in common and they both succeed in casting the same spell on plain reader and critic alike: the air of evil which shrouds them both, the sense of a situation of foregone and destined failure, to which there can be no outcome except despair. Only, the Lawrence book is sadder, because Lawrence was a badly flawed, lesser artist than James. He did not really know what he was doing, or if he did, pretended to be doing something else; and his blood-chilling anatomy of the activities of the rutting season between two rather dull persons comes with all the more force because the relations are precisely not between the vengeful seeking dead and living beings, but between the living themselves who seem to me deader than any ghost.
Yet for the past several months there has been a steady flood of extremely well-managed publicity in defense of Lawrence’s motives and the purity of his novel, into which not only critics, but newspaper and magazine reporters, editorial writers, ministers of various religious beliefs, women’s clubs, the police, postal authorities, and educators have been drawn, clamorously. I do not object to censorship being so loudly defeated again for the present. I merely do not approve of the way it was done. Though there were at this time no parades, I believe, we have seen such unanimity and solidarity of opinion among American critics, and many of them of our first order, as I do not remember to have seen before. What are we to think of them, falling in like this with this fraudulent crusade of raising an old tired Cause out of its tomb? For this is no longer just a book, and it never was a work of literature worth all this attention. It is no longer a Cause, if it ever was, but a publicity device and a well-worn one by now, calculated to rouse a salacious itch of curiosity in the prospective customer. This is such standard procedure by now it seems unnecessary to mention it. Yet these hard-headed, experienced literary men were trapped into it once more, and lent a strong hand to it. There is something touching, if misguided, in this fine-spirited show of manly solidarity, this full-throated chorus in defense of Lawrence’s vocabulary and the nobility of his intentions. I have never questioned either; I wish only to say that I think that from start to finish he was about as wrong as can be on the whole subject of sex, and that he wrote a very laboriously bad book to prove it. The critics who have been carried away by a generous desire to promote freedom of speech, and give a black eye to prudes and nannies overlook sometimes—and in a work of literature this should not be overlooked, at least not by men whose profession it is to criticize literature—that purity, nobility of intention, and apostolic fervor are good in themselves at times, but at others they depend on context, and in this instance they are simply not enough. Whoever says they are, and tries to persuade the public to accept a book for what it is not, a work of good art, is making a grave mistake, if he means to go on writing criticism.
As for the original uproar, Lawrence began it himself, as he nearly always did, loudly and bitterly on the defensive, throwing out each book in turn as if he were an early Christian throwing himself to the lions. “Anybody who calls my novel a dirty, sexual novel is a liar.” Further: “It’ll infuriate mean people; but it will surely soothe decent ones.” The Readers’ Subscription (an American book club) in its brochure offering the book, carries on the tone boldly: “Now, at long last, a courageous American publisher is making available the unexpurgated version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover—exactly as the author meant it to be seen by the intelligent, sensitive reader.” No, this kind of left-handed flattery won’t quite do: it is the obverse of the form of blackmail used by publishers and critics to choke their ambiguous wares down our throats. They say in effect, “If you disapprove of this book, you are proved to be (1) illiterate, (2) insensitive, (3) unintelligent, (4) low-minded, (5) ‘mean,’ (6) a hypocrite, (7) a prude, and other unattractive things.” I happen to have known quite a number of decent persons, not too unintelligent or insensitive, with some love and understanding of the arts, who were revolted by the book; and I do not propose to sit down under this kind of bullying.
Archibald MacLeish regards it as “pure” and a work of high literary merit. He has a few reservations as to the whole with which I heartily agree so far as they go; yet even Mr. MacLeish begins trailing his coat, daring us at our own risk to deny that the book is “one of the most important works of the century, or to express an opinion about the literature of our own time or about the spiritual history that literature expresses without making his peace in one way or another with D. H. Lawrence and with this work.”
Without in the least making my peace with D. H. Lawrence or with this work, I wish to say why I disagree profoundly with the above judgments, and also with the following:
Harvey Breit: “The language and the incidents or scenes in question are deeply moving and very beautiful—Lawrence was concerned how love, how a relationship between a man and a woman can be most touching and beautiful, but only if it is uninhibited and total.” This is wildly romantic and does credit to Mr. Breit’s feelings but there can be no such thing as a total relationship between two human beings—to begin with, what is total in such a changing, uncertain, limited state? and if there could be, just how would the persons involved know when they had reached it? Judging from certain things he wrote and said on thi
Edmund Wilson: “The most inspiring book I have seen in a long time. . . one of his best written. . . one of his most vigorous and brilliant. . . .”
This reminds me that I helped parade with banners in California in defense of Mr. Wilson’s Memoirs of Hecate County—a misguided act of guild loyalty and personal admiration I cannot really regret, so far as friendship is concerned. But otherwise the whole episode was deplorably unnecessary. My preference has not changed for his magnificent To the Finland Station and for almost any of his criticisms and essays on literary and public affairs.
Jacques Barzun: “I have no hesitation in saying that I do not consider Lawrence’s novel pornographic.” I agree with this admirably prudent statement, and again when Mr. Barzun notes Lawrence’s ruling passion for reforming everything and everybody in sight. My quarrel with the book is that it really is not pornographic—the great wild, free-wheeling Spirit of Pornography has here been hitched to a rumbling little domestic cart and trundled off to chapel, its ears pinned back and its mouth washed out with soap.
Mr. Schorer, who contributes the preface, even brings in Yeats to defend this tiresome book. Yeats, bless his memory, when he talked bawdy, knew what he was saying and why. He enjoyed the flavor of gamey words on his tongue, and never deceived himself for one moment as to the nature of that enjoyment; he never got really interestingly dirty until age had somewhat cooled the ardors of his flesh, thus doubling his pleasure in the thoughts of it in the most profane sense. Mr. Schorer reprints part of a letter from Yeats, written years ago, to Mrs. Shakespear: “These two lovers the gamekeeper and his employer’s wife each separated from their class by their love and fate are poignant in their loneliness; the coarse language of the one accepted by both becomes a forlorn poetry, uniting their solitudes, something ancient and humble and terrible.”