How Kangaroo Rewrote Lawrence

How Kangaroo Rewrote Lawrence

The artist usually sets out – or used to – to point a moral and to adorn a tale. The tale, however, points the other way, as a rule. Two blankly opposing morals, the artist’s and the tale’s. Never trust the artist. Trust the tale.1

– D.H. Lawrence, ‘The Spirit of Place’

D.H. Lawrence was thoroughly saturated by New Romanticism’s critique of modernity. We hear powerful strains of it in novels like The Rainbow and Women in Love, in non-fiction writing including ‘The Crown’ and ‘Democracy’ from the war years,2 and most particularly in Aaron’s Rod, Kangaroo and The Plumed Serpent, the three so-called leadership novels of the post-war years. The essential feature of this romanticism lay, as it did in William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge 100 years before, in its renewed focus on the inner self, on emotion, nature and spirit. This vision drew heavily on metaphors of organic as opposed to mechanical design in which the parts of a system do not function singly or discretely but are recomposed and re-configured spontaneously into a new and generative whole.3 The rejection of all that was seen as being mechanical, institutional, segmented and abstract extended to a critique of these elements within philosophy and legal philosophy too. Ultimately, as Abrams shows, romanticism was an ideology of synthesis and unity: faced with human conflict between values or ideals, between individual and community, general and singular, abstract and specific, reason and emotion, and in this case between positive law and natural justice, the romantics sought a rebalancing which would allow us to transcend all these differences and emerge into a renewed world of perfect harmony. Combined with Christian notions of messianic transfiguration and Enlightenment notions of human progress, the central geometric trope of romanticism was not the line or the circle but the spiral, in which ‘the system of knowledge can be regarded as completed only when it returns to its [first] principle’ purified, improved and unified into an organic and mutual whole.4

The political and legal implications of this would have us leave behind the sterility of mere rules and procedures, and realise justice by the exercise of the natural virtues of individual judgment, wisdom and insight. So in Lawrence there is a visceral hostility to industrialism, mechanism, liberalism and democracy, and a repertoire of images of the natural world, of abjection and rebirth, fusion and synthesis – the crown, the phoenix and the serpent. Yet despite the connections drawn by writers such as Fernihough and Bell,5 it seems to me that Lawrence ultimately rejects the ontology of Nature and of Being that we find in the New Romantics and ultimately in Martin Heidegger.6 Kangaroo is Lawrence’s most careful exploration of the social and political implications of New Romanticism, but we see, by its end, a remarkable turn away from it.7 Lawrence was part of the history that Berkowitz rehearses and deeply sympathetic to the romantic backlash that seemed its alternative. But in Kangaroo he rejects both ‘modern conceptions of social justice’ built on rules, procedures and systems and the ‘beautiful dreams’ of ‘transcendence’ and unity.8 Later in the book I will begin to articulate the features of a ‘third way’ which will bring us back to the insights of modernism and to the relationship of law and literature. But in this chapter and the next I must first demonstrate the logic that led Lawrence to turn away from the romantic response to the crisis of modernity. I want to show how that logic is absolutely implicated by the idea and the practice of literature.

In the opening pages of Kangaroo, Lawrence makes many remarks on the necessity for authority and rule and for the incapacity of the masses to understand themselves.9 But in the person of Kangaroo, Somers confronts the embodiment of this authority; his philosophical idealism does not survive the encounter. Now it is not just others who will suffer ‘the mystery of lordship’, but he himself. And faced with that possibility, the ‘man by himself’ becomes real, undeniable – and rebellious.10 Lawrence is too sensitive to the contradictions and conflicts in our humanness to fall for the romance of irenic transcendence. Lawrence may feel drawn to it, but ‘only [to] trip and recover [his] balance for a moment’.11 This is, in part, simply the resistance of Lawrence’s own fierce individuality. He yearned for an ultimate freedom from all belonging at least as often as he yearned to lose himself in some great sublimation of self to all. Indeed, much of Kangaroo records the agonised and honest oscillation within Lawrence’s own mental state, like a fly, as he said, caught in the ointment, slipping free and falling back.12 Lawrence is no fonder than others of his generation of ‘treacly’ democracy13 and the unthinking masses, of equality and efficiency, of rules that attempt to forestall judgment by procedure. Yet, despite all that Lawrence and the German New Romantics have in common, the singularity of the self is the final sticking point in his refusal to lose himself in ethical oneness with the Diggers. ‘That is the beginning and end, the alpha and the omega, the one absolute: the man alone by himself, alone with his own soul, alone with his eyes on the darkness which is the dark god of life.’14

Why did Lawrence turn his back on the romantics in this way? To me, this is the crucial question: what did he see and how did he respond to it? I believe that the answer lies in the novel itself – generally, in his thinking about it, and specifically, in his writing of it. Explaining this argument will take me the next two chapters. In this chapter I look at internal evidence from the novel. I first go back to Lawrence’s contemporary, Mikhail Bakhtin, to introduce a general argument for the way in which the literature of modernism destabilises the assumptions about meaning, authority, perfection and closure which, albeit in different ways, lie at the heart of both the Enlightenment project and the romantic one. The novel’s ‘dialogic imagination’ terminally deflates their ambitions. In the second half of this chapter, I further explore the implications for meaning and perspective to be drawn from the very language and style of the novel. In ‘Text’, I discuss textual evidence both from the history of the composition of Kangaroo, and from the metaphors he uses in it, to demonstrate that the writing of the novel was the active agent that led to a shift in Lawrence’s thinking. And in keeping with my argument that law and literature must look not to the content but to the style of the literary tradition, I argue in ‘Texture’ that the experimental modernism of Lawrence’s approach to language in Kangaroo also pits him against the romantic and reactionary tendencies of his thinking and sets him on a different path.

Bakhtin and Lawrence on the ethics of the novel

Lawrence’s book is fiction, and that, as it happens, makes all the difference. It has nothing to say about political or social forces, or about the actual conditions that bring about social change. As a political thriller, Kangaroo is undeniably a failure. The book is a ‘thought-adventure’;15 ‘a queer show’16 in which nothing much happens. Instead, with the distinctive specificity that the novel allows, Lawrence investigates the psychology of individuals.17 Yet this is ultimately its strength, for Lawrence explores here not politics as such but the allure of politics, the dreams which are the undertow of our beliefs. The novel explores the impulse to politics, what motivates our ambitions and draws us to the seductions of particular totalising ideologies, and the origin of these desires in our relations with others both as those relationships draw us towards and drive us away from one another.18 As Michael Wilding rightly observes, the whole drama of Kangaroo involves the effort of society to recruit the author to a cause – not the other way around.19 In this sense, the novel is neither political nor apolitical but anti-political. Its ultimate refusal to reduce individuals to statistics or probabilities or to unify their aspirations behind a collective ‘we’ shows a commitment to the singular and irreducible in human relations that stands against the game of politics that both Kangaroo and Struthers play, albeit in different ways. This literary opposition to ideology itself justifies our understanding Kangaroo in terms of a theory of justice, irreducible and opposed to politics.

Lawrence saw in the form and experience of the novel a powerful counterpoise to politics, to ideology, and to their shared tendency to generalise. Over and over again, in the non-fiction essays contemporaneous with Kangaroo, he insisted on the novel as an exploration of human relations and experiences which could not be reduced to principles, rule, or generalisations.

For Lawrence then, the novel attends to the singularity of human relations. ‘The novel is the highest example of subtle inter-relatedness that man has discovered. Everything is true in its own time, place, circumstance, and untrue outside of its own place, time, circumstance’.21 Lawrence is not alone in this view: read Sartre22 or Kundera23 or any of the other twentieth-century writers on literature and you will find the same understanding born of the same aesthetic experience: that the amorality of the novel, its refusal to finally judge but only to understand the uniqueness of human relations, is its morality.

Just when Lawrence was turning his mind to the meaning and nature of the novel, Mikhail Bakhtin was beginning to formulate his own monumental work on the question. Bakhtin’s theory of the novel was written in the 1920s and 1930s under breathtakingly difficult circumstances.24 In 1929, the year his pivotal work on Dostoevsky was published, Bakhtin was arrested in Soviet Russia and sent into internal exile in Kazakhstan. Apart from a tract on communal farming techniques, he published nothing under his own name for the rest of the Stalinist era. The authorship of much of his other work is ambiguous and contested and some texts were lost or destroyed in the hardship of famine and war. Bakhtin’s reputation in the West only began to develop with the second edition of Dostoevsky in 1963, the belated publication of Rabelais in 1965, and the English translation of The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays in 1981.25 Composed under brutal conditions and working in almost complete intellectual isolation, Bakhtin’s work nonetheless confirms and mirrors Lawrence’s pre-occupations. Via a rich theoretical vocabulary, Bakhtin outlines the ways in which the novel structurally privileges multiple layers of meaning and points of view and is inherently committed to a formal and linguistic indeterminacy.

I will return at several points throughout the rest of this book to Bakhtin’s recognition of what is both distinct and distinctly ethical in the novel. Bakhtin sharply distinguished the novel from other literary forms, such as the epic, or indeed, poetry. Although the argument is no doubt overstated and shows in particular a rather limited appreciation of poetry’s potential, it nonetheless clarifies what Bakhtin saw as the unique genius of the novel. In terms of their temporal orientation, the genres are strongly contrasted. The epic is never set in a continuous present, but in a distanced and mythic past in which meaning and event have already and forever been determined. Some of D.H. Lawrence’s early novels, such as The Rainbow, seem to evoke such a world, and it is as well to understand that Bakhtin’s arguments refer to ideal-types and tendencies – elsewhere he refers to the novel’s two differing ‘stylistic lines’ of development – and not to unfailing characteristics.26 But from the classic examples of Rabelais and Cervantes on, the history of the novel engages a real world of uncertainty, becoming and flux. The novel, whether set in the past, present or future of its author or reader, seems still to be unfolding as we read it, in a context in which its significance and evaluation have not yet been settled. The novel appears in a zone ‘of proximity and contact’,27 fragmented and incomplete. Indeed, at the very birth of the novel, Don Quixote depicts precisely the collision between epic forms and social reality and shows with comic force the incurable impoverishment of the former.28 This engagement with the world becomes even more recursively layered in Part II, where the fictional character Don Quixote keeps meeting, for example, other fictional characters who have read about him after the (non-fictional) publication of Part I. The world of the text and the text of the world thus intersect and confront one another. This is what Bakhtin means by emphasising, by way of contrast, the epic’s utter isolation from ‘personal experience, from any new insights, from any personal initiative in understanding and interpreting, from new points of view’.29

The distinction between epic and novel is even more marked in its approach to language. The ideal-type of the epic, and even the ideal-type of the poem, speaks in a coherent and ‘normatively shared’ language, a voice of authority and instruction. The characters within it do not have voices of their own but are mediums through which authority is ventriloquised. On the contrary, the novel gives distinctive voices to each of its participants (including simultaneously its characters, narrator and author) and sets these voices against each other. The novel is inherently fragmentary and double-voiced.30 The most powerfully developed feature which Bakhtin recognises in the novel is its heteroglossia or polyphony, its inherent multiplication of voices and perspectives.

For Bakhtin, the hybridity of utterances and registers is a feature of communication itself. Because what we say is always directed towards another, language always attempts to accommodate, appropriate or transform ‘the alien conceptual system of the understanding receiver’. So in speech – the parallels with Levinas are striking – ‘one always anticipates an answer, one always speaks in another’s language’.31 The novel accentuates the layered and multiplied ‘heteroglossia’ of dialogue and turns this hybridity into the grounds of its own style and structure. Irony, metaphor, dialogue, indirect speech, quotation, citation and repetition all position ‘the speaking person and his discourse’ at the very heart of the novel.

The novelistic hybrid is an artistically organized system for bringing different languages in contact with one another … The more broadly and deeply the device of hybridization is employed in a novel … the more reified becomes the representing and illuminating language itself, until it finally is transformed into one or more of the images of languages the novel contains.32

As Bakhtin shows, the novel’s capacity for polyglossia is to be found not just because it preserves the distinct voices of different characters, nor even in the dialogue the novel establishes between them. The play of multiple discursive (and social and philosophical) levels is intrinsic to the genre in a unique way. In addition to the unique voice of a character in, say, a novel by Dickens or Dostoevsky, there is the voice of the narrator behind all such voices, and behind the narrator the voice of the author, and innumerable ways of speaking behind and interlaced with each of these: the voices and languages of the society of the time, the discourses of memory, of social context, of conventional wisdom, of proper and improper speech, and even the voice of the literary tradition itself. One might say, in legal terms, that the novel is always hearsay. In each and every sentence of the novel we hear not one but multiple voices already playing off each other, being appropriated, quoted and reflected back by the character, the narrator, the author, and so forth. Thus the novel is always and inevitably ‘double-voiced’: at every single moment different registers within it cite and play and battle one another, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not.33 Bakhtin provides many examples, such as this one from Dickens, that bring home the subtlety of this dialogic tension.

Mr Merdle came home from his daily occupation of causing the British name to be more and more respected in all parts of the civilised globe capable of the appreciation of world-wide commercial enterprise and gigantic combinations of skill and capital. For, though nobody knew with the least precision what Mr Merdle’s business was, except that it was to coin money, these were the terms in which everybody defined it on all ceremonious occasions, and which it was the last new polite reading of the parable of the camel and the needle’s eye to accept without inquiry.34

As Bakhtin rightly notes, such a characterisation layers a character’s self-image directly atop the narrator’s parodic mixture of the discourse of conventional wisdom with a ‘ceremonial epic tone’ all of which take place ‘in concealed form, that is, without any of the formal markers usually accompanying such speech, whether direct or indirect’.35 Bakhtin draws our attention to a singularly thick form of dialogism. He emphasises not only how the voices of characters or participants in a novel (or a world) differ one from another, but how they evince an internal instability, transformed and acted upon by the contexts in which speech takes place and the audience and perspective to which speech is always already addressed. ‘The dialogic imagination’ presents not just a mosaic of voices, multiple but authentically distinct. Without denying this distinctiveness, Bakhtin insists at the same time upon their transformation under the communicative pressure of their contexts of utterance.

Bakhtin thus emphasises the generic imperatives of the novel. The whole trajectory of its historical development leans towards problematising not only traditional sources of authority – as for example when Bakhtin emphasises the role of the carnivalesque and of the figures of the rogue, the clown and the fool in the novelistic tradition after Rabelais – but the novelist’s own authority and own limits of understanding.36 The novel’s specific gravity comes from its internal dialogism and necessarily double-voiced register, its attention to the limits and effects of language and its orientation towards an external reality which it strives and always fails to capture. One can almost imagine that he has Joyce’s Ulysses in mind,37 although he does not mention it. And Lawrence’s work, as we will see later on, is replete with just such Bakhtinian instability.


In his well-known work around the time of Kangaroo, D.H. Lawrence argues that there is a tension between the morality and the relativity of the novel. Famously, he pits the moral purpose of the artist against the amoral force unleashed by the ‘tale’ itself.38 He might have been thinking of Bakhtin’s focus on temporal reality and heteroglossia, and of the power of style to resist a normative or ideological closure. Certainly, Lawrence no less than Bakhtin takes Anna Karenina as a prime example of a novel in which the tension between the morality and the tale is sharply etched. Tolstoy, the pious old moralist, is no match for the life force and sympathy of his own creation.39 If Tolstoy kills Anna off, Anna ultimately survives him. In reading the novel, we are witnessing the transformation of the author’s own preconceptions under the assault of the experience of writing it.

But perhaps Lawrence had in mind his own transformative experience in writing Kangaroo. The shift away from reactionary modernism in the course of the novel is not just an intellectual or political decision: it is recorded by – constituted by – even caused by – Lawrence’s creative experience itself. The Bakhtinian heteroglossia and anti-authoritarianism, the Lawrentian amorality, the psychological specificity and fragmentary disunity of the novel, are not merely features of the novel as a finished product but forces that create it. Lawrence didn’t rewrite Kangaroo; Kangaroo rewrote Lawrence. He does not master literature but is mastered by it.

We have striking textual evidence for the claim that Lawrence’s creative experience accounts for the intellectual metamorphosis that occurs in the second half of Kangaroo. This change takes place after Chapter X and corresponds to a pause in Lawrence’s writing. In the original manuscript, in the pages leading up to this chapter, Somers is offered the leadership of the Diggers by Jaz, and there follows a further meeting with Cooley. But in the published version, no such offer is made and Somers’ meeting with Kangaroo concludes with the realisation that he is ‘a thing, not a whole man. A great Thing, a horror’.40

‘I am sorry if I have been foolish,’ he said, backing away from the Thing. And as he went out of the door he made a quick movement, and his heart melted in horror lest the Thing Kangaroo should suddenly lurch forward and clutch him. If that happened, Kangaroo would have blood on his hands … Kangaroo had followed slowly, awfully, behind, like a madman. If he came near enough to touch! Somers had the door opened, and looked round. The huge figure, the white face with the two eyes close together, like a spider, approaching with awful stillness. If the stillness suddenly broke, and he struck out!

‘Good-night!’ said Somers, at the blind, horrible-looking face. And he moved quickly down the stairs, though still not apparently in flight but going in that quick, controlled way that acts as a check on an onlooker.41

In the original version as recorded in Lawrence’s notebooks, Somers’ wife, Harriett, expresses her incredulity at Jaz’s suggestion, saying of her husband, ‘him a leader, this pathetic little man?’ So we begin to see how the heteroglossia of the novel, the internal dialogue between views it enacts, was already working not just on the characters in Lawrence’s novel but on Lawrence himself. Bruce Steele’s careful introduction to the Cambridge edition of Kangaroo illustrates the interpellative power of this dialogue. He explains the book’s change of direction with the remark that, in the original version, ‘Harriett scotched the idea … Harriett had already given all this the lie’.42 Even such a steely textualist thus appears to conclude that Harriett the character convinces Lawrence the author not only to refuse Jaz’s offer but to prevent it ever being made at all. And so, in the final version, Harriett’s argument with Somers seems embedded in the chapters themselves, not least in the revised Chapter IX, which inserts before the crucial meeting with Kangaroo, now completely re-oriented, an ironic reflection on the parallels between marital and political leadership entitled ‘Harriett and Lovatt at Sea in Marriage’. Lovatt Somer’s projections of absolute unity and absolute mastery are displaced, with equal futility, onto his personal relations. The delusion of power is revealed as a folly which Harriett is quite capable of ‘scotching’ wherever it manifests itself.

The critical moment is Chapter X itself. In the original draft, it was to build on Lawrence’s fantasy of political leadership. Instead, Chapter X begins the whole process of Somers’ renunciation of politics. In the following chapter, he is offered positions of influence by both Struthers’ Socialists and Kangaroo’s Diggers, and rejects both, leading to the cataclysmic break with Kangaroo. That Lawrence had planned for his alter ego to lead the revolution is confirmed not only by the original versions of the previous chapters, so radically changed after Lawrence’s break, but by Frieda, who read the draft every night. But how Chapter X first unfolded cannot now be known. Lawrence not only rewrote it after a break – a crisis perhaps – but tore the original version out of his notebooks and destroyed it.43 A more dramatic statement of Lawrence’s change of heart and the struggle which the novel itself imposed on his vision can scarce be imagined. Lawrence tried to write a novel of transcendental triumph, a novel which would reflect the ideals of the New Romantics and would fully realise his own desire for authoritarian completeness, unity and rebirth. But he couldn’t do it – the tale defeated the moral. The particularity of the novel’s imagination and the diversity of its points of view rebelled against a romantic purity of inclusion as much as a positivist purity of exclusion.

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