Enter the Kangaroo

Enter the Kangaroo

Mr. Cooley came at once: and he was a kangaroo. His face was long and lean and pendulous, with eyes set close together behind his pince-nez: and his body was stout but firm … An extra-ordinary man. This pure kindliness had something Jehovah-like in it.1

– D.H. Lawrence, Kangaroo

Origin and reception

In the awful abyss opened up by the devastation of the Great War, many writers were sucked into the vortex of this romanticism of anti-modern transcendence. W.B. Yeats sought to establish a fascist movement in Ireland.2 Ezra Pound openly supported Mussolini.3 One might also mention Spengler, Jünger, Heidegger or Freyer. Lawrence is generally thought to number among them. As a romantic child of the apocalypse, Lawrence at times craved just such a humbling purification – a second Flood that would wash the world clean. So perhaps in this regard it is not Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (1914) which was the true harbinger of modernism but rather his Firebird Suite (1910; rescored for orchestra 1919). Like the mythical phoenix, the question for the twentieth century was not so much the birth of the new but rather what could possibly endure the infernal fire which had so conclusively reduced the old to cinders. Indeed, the Phoenix was a symbol of annihilation and renewal that Lawrence claimed as his very own.4 As Leo Strauss put it, the crisis of modernity was marked by ‘the nihilism of the young and the positivism of the old’.5 This nihilism, this loss of the idea of principles as such, was central to Lawrence’s traumatic reaction.

The firebird was, for Lawrence at least, a quintessentially romantic and anti-modern symbol both in its mystical embrace of the Dionysian, the anti-Apollonian it represents; and in its promise of an ultimate rebirth and reconciliation between feeling and reason, law and love. The Phoenix is a symbol of both a clean slate purified by fire, and of a new unity forged out of the ashes of conflict. It represented, for Lawrence, the promise of transcendence.

Kangaroo, however, while perfectly comprehending the attraction of these ideas, develops a provisional response far more rooted in the distinguishing features of

early post-war modernism. Aesthetic and political questions are integrated in a vision which attempts to respond to the crisis of modernity without reverting either to nineteenth-century realism or positivism, or to nineteenth-century transcendence or romanticism.

Against Kangaroo

Many people would be deeply sceptical of such a reading. Although undoubtedly one of the canonical writers of twentieth-century English literature, Lawrence has attracted a fierce barrage of criticism. As Jane Davis puts it, unlike many modern novelists, Lawrence is not difficult to understand; he is difficult to take.7 He is also difficult to define. Although he was defended as a realist by F.R. Leavis and a romantic by Frank Kermode, he has also been assailed from both perspectives and from many others; as a poor student of character, a poor student of history and a poor student of women. He has been accused of narrative incompetence, structural incoherence and hopeless didacticism.8 Much of the hostility to Lawrence has dwelt on the startling reactionary political ideology which appears to contaminate so much of his later work9 and that forms the spine of the three so-called ‘leadership novels’, Aaron’s Rod before and The Plumed Serpent10 after Kangaroo. Lawrence was by no means the only writer to flirt with extremism. But especially caustic treatment has been meted out to Lawrence’s ‘authority-longing’, his nihilistic, incoherent ‘rantings’, his ‘Nietzschean ideologising’ and ‘spiteful demands for authoritarianism’.11 Mark Spilka calls him a ‘sex-mad homosexual fascist’.12 He probably didn’t mean it as a compliment. For Bertrand Russell – not the most unbiased of observers given the bitter split between the two in 1915 – Lawrence suffered from ‘a megalomaniac’s baulked will, a small-minded egotism’ which, if that were not enough, ‘led directly to Auschwitz’.13 T.S. Eliot was scarcely less dismissive.

Lawrence died in 1930, and even the obituary-writers found themselves torn between the artist – ‘a magnificently equipped craftsman … a man possessed’ – and the preacher – ‘without commonsense, humour, tenderness or understanding of human character’.15 For all his poetic strengths when it came to birds, beasts and flowers,16 one might well conclude that D.H. Lawrence is not the man to lecture us about justice or the rule of law.

Few of his books have been treated as scathingly as Kangaroo. One contemporary reviewer’s praise is so faint as to be barely discernible:

One wishes that one might close here and cancel forever from one’s mind the memory of Mr Lawrence’s latest novel, Kangaroo … He has not the kind of background or information that could justify even so fragmentary a venture into the fields of sociology, economics, or psychology … But though the construction of Kangaroo is bad, the characters unreal, the dialogue and reflections vulgar and wearying beyond belief, we are every now and then reminded by a passing phrase that Mr Lawrence is still living and still potential.17

Kangaroo is typically characterised as slapdash and rambling. Its structure is ragged. Whole chapters appear cobbled together from the pages of The Bulletin, Australia’s leading weekly magazine, whose mixture of scurrilous wit and hysterical opinion – strongly nationalistic and overtly racist – Lawrence found weird and compelling.18 Much of the rest involves nothing but the Lawrence-character’s own musings. As Lawrence himself concedes:

Chapter follows chapter, and nothing doing. But man is a thought-adventurer, and his falls into the Charybdis of ointment, and his shipwrecks on the rock of ages, and his kisses across chasms, and his silhouette on a minaret: surely these are as thrilling as most things … If you don’t like the novel, don’t read it. If the pudding doesn’t please you, leave it, leave it.19

What is Kangaroo? Is it a story, or a diary or journalism? What can something so rambling and eclectic possibly say to us?

The novel’s reception in Australia was, if anything, less sympathetic than elsewhere. ‘Even from genius’, wrote Raymond Mortimer, ‘certain things are inadmissible’.20 The story, which imagines a right-wing political conspiracy amongst disaffected war veterans, was quickly dismissed as ‘preposterous’, ‘far-fetched’, ‘fantastic’ – contrived right-wing frippery grafted improbably onto a scenic Australian backdrop,21 like one of those hoary old Australian Christmas carols that substitute sun for snow and replace reindeers with brolgas or kangaroos. Lawrence’s treatment of Australia itself, the land and the people alike, was promptly dismissed as the trite impressions of a tourist.22 Even Frank Kermode, a generous and perceptive critic, was exasperated by Kangaroo’s undigested politico-philosophical meandering: ‘His eye did not fail him, and there are fine records of the weird Australian landscape; but at times he seems to write on and on without any real notion of what he wants to do’.23

In defence of Kangaroo

These criticisms have not, of course, been unanimous. Lawrence has always attracted a devoted following.24 In recent years, a more nuanced analysis of his writing and his politics has emerged. I have made use of much of this scholarship in this book. But Kangaroo itself remains stubbornly immune from recuperation. It is, of all his novels, the least fashionable and the one which has garnered the least critical attention. To those who condemn its politics, I want to show how Lawrence embodies in it a theory of justice against that same politics. To those who condemn its style, I want to show how Lawrence embodies in it a theory of literature.

Almost 100 years after its first publication, some of the attacks on Kangaroo now seem implausible.25 Sour criticism; perhaps even sour grapes. No doubt, particularly at the time, Australian critics did not take kindly to the idea that the ‘great Australian novel’ – that colonial chimera – could be written in six weeks by an Englishman on a busman’s holiday. But the notion that Lawrence did not know what he was talking about seems unconvincing. As if his remarkable ability to conjure a distinct Australian voice and place and light were not enough, Lawrence’s plot was hardly the ludicrous concoction that Australians at the time asseverated. Some writers have suggested that in fact Lawrence had stumbled upon a real-life conspiracy during his time in Australia.26 That is probably going too far but at the very least Lawrence’s description of extremist politics was closely connected to existing currents and strangely prophetic of future events. The vehemence with which early reviewers responded to Kangaroo might suggest that he had intuited and exposed a raw nerve in the emphatically innocent body politic of the young Australian nation.

That which most surprises me is the charge that Lawrence did not understand Australia or Australians. While Lawrence was highly critical of the cultural aridity of 1920s Australia (a criticism which hardly seems outrageous) and of the belligerent egalitarianism of Australians (ditto), from this distance the book seems to me astonishingly perceptive in its descriptions of the land, the ocean, the people, the language and the ways of life. Reading Kangaroo now, the most striking aspect of Lawrence’s evocation of Australia is its acumen. His ability to have absorbed so much in such a short time, writing like a madman all the while, seems uncanny to me. I think Lawrence must have been in some ways a sort of idiot savant. He intuitively tuned in to the frequencies that were vibrating in the ether all around him, and channelled them right onto the page.

The other charges against Lawrence and Kangaroo are more complex. It has taken people a long time to appreciate that irresolution, contradiction and disorder are not weaknesses in the book but essential to its style and vision. Kangaroo is an unusual book, perhaps even an experimental one. It is the exploration of his modernism and his response to the disorientation of war. Lawrence’s experimental approach to form was in turn essential to what he wanted to say about literature and ultimately about politics and justice.

As for the politics of leadership, which is certainly central to Kangaroo, Lawrence is said to betray a fascination with charismatic figures of power, and with the erotic charge of absolutism and obedience. Maybe so, but Lawrence’s quest in Kangaroo seems to have been to understand this fascination and not simply to defend it. It is surprising how many otherwise good readers miss the fundamental distinction between therapy and advocacy. Furthermore, it is a mistake – the great mistake in Lawrence criticism – to read Lawrence’s position on these questions as static and uniform. While Lawrence portrays the seductions of authority honestly, his opinion changes significantly by the end of the book. This should not surprise anyone. Lawrence did not think of a story as the handing over of some truth or other from writer to reader, but rather as a process by which the writer learns something through writing just as the reader learns through reading. ‘Lawrence concentrated on the pursuit of an experience with all the slow, intricate, laborious, elements of his own nature. He grew within the novel in a devious way which is the despair of the formalists.’27 Lawrence’s conception that writing is a way of learning through imaginative experience and not a mere report on what one knows, is central to his vision of literature, of ethical relationships, and, I shall argue, of justice. Kangaroo provides a forum for Lawrence to seriously work through ideas.

At the same time, Kangaroo stands at a critical moment in the history of this fascination with romantic anti-modernism. The coup d’état that brought Mussolini to power took place while Lawrence was completing Kangaroo (though after he had left Australia). Lawrence had just spent over two years in Italy where he had experienced the rise of fascism first hand – and with, it should be noted, great alarm. Yet, like many a romantic seeking a way out Weber’s ‘iron cage’ of modernity, he felt strongly the lure of authoritarian solutions to the institutional crises which grew out of the Great War. For these reasons, his response holds a particular interest for us. As Michael Bell writes:

It is not apparent, however, that such a massive phenomenon is most completely understood through the eyes of its opponents, particularly judging with hindsight. By finding it so completely distasteful, progressive thought may misappreciate (sic) the appeal of fascism and has indeed proved vulnerable to complementary forms of collective and totalitarian idealism. Part of the interest of Lawrence was to have engaged this question so inwardly and to have recognized the kind of spiritual and emotional vacuum which political demagogues offer to fill.28

The lure of these ‘complementary forms of collective and totalitarian idealism’ has not dissipated in relation to contemporary legal problems. On the contrary, they are resurgent. As Leo Strauss said, ‘one cannot refute what one has not thoroughly understood. And many opponents did not even try to understand the ardent passion underlying the negation of the present world and its potentialities’.29 Lawrence therefore gives us a remarkable perspective on this idealism – the inside dope, as it were.

If the political backdrop to Kangaroo is singular, the literary context is equally so. The Great War produced a revolution in aesthetic no less than political and intellectual discourses: The Wasteland and Ulysses mark great breaks with literary tradition. But Kangaroo, written in the same year, is unique because it sits in the midst of – and exemplifies – a quite prodigious body of writing which Lawrence produced addressing the nature and value of literature. These essays were eventually gathered together in the posthumous volume Phoenix, which ‘probably more than any single other modern book, impressed itself upon a generation of readers as the way to think about literature’.30 Studies in Classic American Literature, also rewritten in 1922, pursued similar themes, particularly in his essay on Moby Dick.31 As if that were not enough, Lawrence was at the same time engaging with the work of Freud and developing a theory of psychology and the unconscious in response to it, publishing Psychology of the Unconscious in 1921 and Fantasy of the Unconscious, again in 1922. Quirky as these essays are, Lawrence could rightly claim to be ‘the first writer to embody in artistic form the intimations of psychoanalysis with his own singular and authentic vision’.32 As a novelist, he is a psychoanalyst. I will return in a later chapter to the implications of these reflections on psychology for his understanding of the novel and of politics. Suffice it to say that, since Defoe and Fielding, literature has always set psychology against philosophy or history and this opposition forms part of the distinct register of truth it has claimed.33

Kangaroo is the most jurisprudential of D.H. Lawrence’s novels. I want to shed light on it by exploring the dialogue that emerges between it and the non-fiction essays that he was producing at the same time, particularly those on the theory of the novel.34 While there can be no doubt as to the connections between the thinking that emerges in Nietzsche, in Heidegger and in Lawrence,35 these connections have led too many critics to miss the ambiguities and irresolution of Lawrence’s work. In the 1920s and 1930s, Lawrence’s characteristically Nietzschean hostility to conventional morality led to his violent rejection by humanist critics such as Eliot, Russell and Tindall. Those who then attempted to resuscitate his work, such as F.R. Leavis and Huxley, did so largely by attempting to re-position him within the orthodox humanist tradition. What we have in Lawrence is something more ambiguous and complicated than that, not a morality in the conventional sense of rules or codes but an ethics36 sensitive to relational complexity. Lawrence insisted that the novel ‘is incapable of the absolute’.37 In Kangaroo

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