Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for November 7th, 2018

The dark suspense

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“The world is a great dodger, and the Americans the greatest,” D.H. Lawrence writes in Studies in Classic American Literature. “Because they dodge their own very selves.” He wrote these lines exactly one hundred years ago, in 1918, when he was living in a tiny village in England, and the resulting essay, “The Sense of Place,” falls in the long tradition of European authors writing from overseas about the New World, which can seem too large to see clearly up close. Lawrence argues that the notion that America was founded “in search of freedom of worship” is little more than a lie, and he makes his case in terms that ring uncomfortably true today:

Freedom anyhow? The land of the free! This the land of the free! Why, if I say anything that displeases them, the free mob will lynch me, and that’s my freedom. Free? Why, I have never been in any 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.

America’s founding myth, Lawrence implies, emerged from its inability to recognize the true reasons for the vast movement away from Europe that drove its existence from the beginning. As he observes dryly: “Those Pilgrim Fathers and their successors never came here for freedom of worship. What did they set up when they got here? Freedom, would you call it? They didn’t come for freedom. Or if they did, they sadly went back on themselves.”

And I’ve been thinking about this essay a lot recently. The Democrats may have won back the House, but the deeper fissures exposed by the midterms can no longer be dismissed as an aberration. These divisions are an inherent part of America, and they always have been, which suggests that much of the American experience has consisted of its constant self-deception, or dodging, about what kind of country this has been from the beginning. And I suspect that this has something to do with the nature of the impulse that led to its formation in the first place, which Lawrence defines as a “revulsion” from Europe and everything it represented. It was a negative force, not a positive one, and it left a void at this country’s heart:

They came largely to get away—that most simple of motives. To get away. Away from what? In the long run, away from themselves. Away from everything. That’s why most people have come to America, and still do come. To get away from everything they are and have been…Which is all very well, but it isn’t freedom. Rather the reverse. A hopeless sort of constraint. It is never freedom till you kind something you really positively want to be. And people in America have always been shouting about the things they are not. Unless, of course, they are millionaires, made or in the making.

Of course, many Americans have always seen themselves as millionaires “in the making,” and they continue to act, speak, and vote as if they were already there, no matter what the consequences are in the meantime.

At this point, it’s worth remembering that Lawrence was hardly a defender of popular democracy, which he regarded with suspicion. In a notorious letter to Bertrand Russell, Lawrence wrote in 1915 of his ideal form of government: “The electors for the highest places should be the governors of the bigger districts—the whole thing should work upwards, every man voting for that which he more or less understands though contact—no canvassing of mass votes. And women shall vote equally with the men, but for different things…And if a system works up to a Dictator who controls the greater industrial side of the national life, it must work up to a Dictatrix who controls the things relating to private life.” But the same line of thought also leads Lawrence to put his finger on some of the paradoxes of American life—a desire for “freedom” combined with an embrace of systems of oppression, and a contempt toward the immigrants without whom the entire machine would collapse:

Liberty is all very well, but men cannot live without masters. There is always a master. And men either live in glad obedience to the master they believe in, or they live in a frictional opposition to the master they wish to undermine. In America this frictional opposition has been the vital factor. It has given the Yankee his kick. Only the continual influx of more servile Europeans has provided America with an obedient laboring class. The true obedience never outlasting the first generation.

And another line seems especially prescient now: “At the bottom of the American soul was always a dark suspense…And this dark suspense hated and hates the old European spontaneity, watches it collapse with satisfaction.”

As I read this essay over again today, it seems to me that Lawrence’s central point—that American freedom has always defined itself by what it isn’t, rather than what it is—remains as true as ever. And our inability to articulate what we collectively believe reflects the toxic nature of many of those unspoken assumptions. This country was built on the rejection of one set of masters, but it reserves its right to impose unilateral mastery on others, and much of what we’ve been taught to believe about ourselves amounts to an evasion of this fact. We’re still dodging the truth, which leaves us with nothing but words, as beautiful as some of them may be. As Lawrence writes:

Men are freest when they are most unconscious of freedom. The shout is a rattling of chains, always was…The real American day hasn’t begun yet. Or at least, not yet sunrise. So far it has been the false dawn. That is, in the progressive American consciousness there has been the one dominant desire, to do away with the old thing. Do away with masters, exalt the will of the people. The will of the people being nothing but a figment, the exalting doesn’t count for much. So, in the name of the will of the people, get rid of masters. When you have got rid of masters, you are left with this mere phrase of the will of the people. Then you pause and bethink yourself, and try to recover your own wholeness.

Lawrence concludes: “Democracy in America is just the tool with which the old master of Europe, the European spirit, is undermined. Europe destroyed, potentially, American democracy will evaporate. America will begin.” He wrote those words a century ago. And we’re still waiting.

Written by nevalalee

November 7, 2018 at 8:43 am

Quote of the Day

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All that he does seems to him, it is true, extraordinarily new, but also, because of the incredible spate of new things, extraordinarily amateurish, indeed scarcely tolerable, incapable of becoming history, breaking short the chain of the generations, cutting off for the first time at its most profound source the music of the world, which before him could at least be divined. Sometimes in his arrogance he has more anxiety for the world than for himself.

Franz Kafka, Aphorisms

Written by nevalalee

November 7, 2018 at 7:30 am

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