Monday, April 22, 2024

Lawrence's Etruscans


I re-read Women in Love a couple of years ago and thought, I’m out of patience with Lawrence.


Then, visiting my in-law in Montpellier, I took a book from their shelf: Lawrence’s Sketches of Etruscan Places. April had not brought its accustomed heat to Southern France – instead, the days were an assortment of weathers, cold to hot, sunny to gray. This was one of the sunny days so I decided, having finished an editing job, to go into the “jardin”, which I would call, as a suburban-suckled American, a big back yard, and read a bit.

I’m all patience, at the moment, for Lawrence.

One forgets what Lawrence knew about the English language. About language. Which is that besides sense and sound, language is movement. It is urges and reticences, it is tidal or exhausted. It turns out that visiting Etruscan sites in Italy in the late twenties, when Lawrence had seen the Other from Ceylon to Mexico and back, was an excellent plan. These were the years of tuberculosis and Lady Chatterley. Years of being away from the British pack of literati and their patrons that had driven Lawrence mad.

Etruscia was, in Lawrence’s telling, versus in every instinct Rome – the Rome of our classical education and the Rome of Mussolini. Lawrence’s politics are a form of oppositional nostalgia that can veer towards the racist and the sexist, but they are far from the muscular militarism that was and is the essence of fascism.

Lawrence makes this clear on the very first page of his book:

However, those pure, clean-living, sweet-souled Romans, who smashed nation after nation and crushed the free soul in people after people, and were ruled by Messalina and Heliogabalus and such-like snowdrops, they said the Etruscans were vicious. So basta! Quand le mâitre parle, tout le monde se tait. The Etruscans were vicious! The only vicious people on the face of the earth presumably. You and I, dear reader, we are two unsullied snowflakes, aren’t we? We have every right to judge.

Myself, however, if the Etruscans were vicious, I’m glad they were. To the Puritan all things are impure, as somebody says. And those naughty neighbours of the Romans at least escaped being Puritans.

There I was, in the sun and cloud of Montpellier, reading Lawrence write about a wiped out people, thinking that Italy is run again by a fascist and Gaza is being wiped out bomb by bomb, and maybe it was Lawrence’s search for the Other that saved him. A search that is called “romanticism” or “irrationalism” by the bombers.


But this is just the politics of a book that is constructed as a rather astonishing dialogue with the dead. The construction of the book is simple: Lawrence goes to five Etruscan sites with his friend Brewster. The sites are small towns in Italy away from the main, and Lawrence’s travels there and stays in various small hotels is the above ground part of the book. Lawrence’s visits to the Etruscan tombs is the below ground part of the book. It is another Tuscan book about visits to the other world. And it “pulses”, to use a word Lawrence loved to caress, with a vision that climbs out of those old tombs and incarnates in oddly sublime commonplaces.

There is, for instance, the initiatory encounter with a goatherder in whom Lawrence sees a faun. It is a this-world vision that prefigures the numerous descents in the tombs, and the extended ekphrasis and commentary of the murals there. Lawrence and his friend go to a cavern-like tavern for mule-drivers in Cerveteri, the first Etruscan site.

Into the cavern swaggers a spurred shepherd wearing goatskin trousers with the long, rusty brown goat’s hair hanging shaggy from his legs. He grins and drinks wine, and immediately one sees again the shaggy-legged faun. His face is a faun-face, not deadened by morals. He grins quietly, and talks very subduedly, shyly, to the fellow who draws the wine from the barrels. It is obvious fauns are shy, very shy, especially of moderns like ourselves. He glances at us from a corner of his eye, ducks, wipes his mouth on the back of his hand, and is gone, clambering with his hairy legs on to his lean pony, swirling, and rattling away with a neat little clatter of hoofs, under the ramparts and away to the open. He is the faun escaping again out of the city precincts, far more shy and evanescent than any Christian virgin. You cannot hard-boil him.

It occurs to me how rarely one sees the faun-face now, in Italy, that one used to see so often before the war: the brown, rather still, straight-nosed face with a little black moustache and often a little tuft of black beard; yellow eyes, rather shy, under long lashes, but able to glare with a queer glare, on occasion; and mobile lips that had a queer way of showing the teeth when talking, bright white teeth. It was an old, old type, and rather common in the South. But now you will hardly see one of these men left, with the unconscious, ungrimacing faun-face. They were all, apparently, killed in the war”…

A passage that, I hope, Pasolini read. Those faun-faced boys, how Pasolini adored them, and feared them! Lawrence, as we know too well from Women in Love and other fictions, found modernity, with its great symbolic scar, the war, to be a compact and conspiracy of misery, of the exhaustion of our human resources, ruled over by whatever iteration of Romans were in power. Minos, Etruscia, the Druids, all the early people. Lawrence’s longing for the archaic was a common feature among the generation of modernists to which Lawrence reluctantly belonged. But for Lawrence it had utopian features that were part of everything he wrote, and that redeemed his too facile disgusts.


Yet this is mindwork, and what I read in the Etruscan book, from the faun man to the wonderful mix of description and Lawrentian preaching – the one intermingled with the other – had a nicely levitating effect on me. Which is, perhaps, the Lawrence effect, to which male intellectuals in the 1960s were prone. Angela Carter testified to this in her numerous, mocking references to Lawrence in her essays. He was the writer she targeted most often, never doubting he was a worthy target, something much greater than being simply a target. Our greatest enemies, at least as writers, we want them to be great, too.

I might have more to say about the tomb to surface structure of Lawrence’s book later on. I’m dreaming of bulls and red painted men. 

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