Thursday, August 26, 2010

D. H. Lawrence and New Mexico

That D. H. Lawrence line in my last post is from a 1928 essay of his, written after his two half-year stays near Taos (on a ranch he purchased in exchange for the manuscript of Sons and Lovers -- make of that what you will, real estate agents!). Maybe the most interesting passage from the essay, entitled "New Mexico," is this:

"Those that have spent morning after morning alone there pitched among the pines above the great proud world of desert will know, almost unbearably, how beautiful it is, how clear and unquestioned is the might of the day. Just day itself is tremendous there. It is so easy to understand that the Aztecs gave hearts of men to the sun. For the sun is not merely hot or scorching, not at all. It is of a brilliant and unchallengeable purity and haughty serenity which would make one sacrifice the heart to it. Ah, yes, in New Mexico the heart is sacrificed to the sun and the human being is left stark, heartless, but undauntedly religious.

And that was the second revelation out there. I had looked over all the world for something that would strike me as religious. The simple piety of some English people, the semi-pagan mystery of some Catholics in southern Italy, the intensity of some Bavarian peasants, the semi-ecstasy of Buddhists or Brahmins: all this had seemed religious all right, as far as the parties concerned were involved, but it didn't involve me. I looked on at the religiousness from the outside. For it is still harder to feel religion at will than to love at will."

Well, that is quite a goulash of romanticism, mysticism, cosmopolitanism, and paganism--which is not a bad four-word description of D. H. Lawrence's literary style. He was obviously a very confused man--more confused than ever on account of the broad experience of life that his 40-odd years of living had brought him.  And yet there is something true in those paragraphs.

The quality in nature that leads one to religious insight is not the beauty of nature, or the orderliness of nature, or the goodness of nature. It is the wildness of nature, the bigness of nature, the feeling that nature produces in us of something immensely larger and more powerful than ourselves. Perhaps no one is better situated to be open to such insights than an Englishman, for whom his own local nature is essentially something domesticated and cozy. It is the transcendent feeling that English Romantic poets referred to as a sense of the "sublime." And, tellingly, they pretty much had to travel outside England and its human-scaled natural terrain in order to feel it. The Alps would do it for them. And, if they could have gotten as far as New Mexico, the Rocky Mountains would have done it for them as well.

I believe that I understand, more or less, what D. H. Lawrence felt and wrote about in his description of New Mexico. The immensity of nature that one confronts in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains is, of course, not the only source of religious experience that a person can have. (And I certainly am not willing to let D. H. Lawrence define that religious experience for me. I am in touch with a defining religious authority that Lawrence would not, did not, acknowledge--the Roman Catholic Church. It's the authority that enables me to distinguish between what is metaphysically true--and what is not--in the religious impulse of the Aztec, and the Brahmin, and the Buddhist, and D. H. Lawrence.) But nature, as Lawrence clearly perceived, is a source of one particular religious truth that is hard to come by from any other earthly source. Nature affords us a kind of proof -- or at least a kind of reassurance -- that faith is not simply a form of wishful thinking, not something that we fashion in our minds to meet emotional needs of our own. Religion, experienced even at only the natural level, is an encounter with something beyond our ability to use, beyond our ability to fashion into something comforting, something that will reassure us that the world makes sense (on our own terms). Religion -- any religion worth man's attention--must be something overwhelming, something frightening, something beyond our ability to turn to our own purposes. That is what nature in its "sublimity" (to use the old-fashioned but expressive term) can still communicate to us. That, I think, is what D. H. Lawrence felt in New Mexico. It sure is what I feel when I go there.

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