D.H. LAWRENCE AND DADA
SANDRA JOBSON discovers a new way of making sense of Kangaroo
SANDRA JOBSON (DARROCH) is the author of Ottoline: the Life of Lady Ottoline Morrell (Chatto & Windus, Cassell and Coward McCann) and a number of other books. She is the Publisher of Rananim, the journal of the DH Lawrence Society of Australia.
A lot of people, myself included, have found Lawrence's Australian novel, Kangaroo, difficult to understand. Even Lawrence thought it a "queer novel".
It's a novel that goes this way and that, starting in a fairly straight-forward fashion describing how an English writer, Richard Lovatt Somers, and his wife Harriet arrive in Sydney and settle down in a cottage called "Cooee" at Mullumbimby on the coast south of Sydney - a thinly-disguised piece of autobiographical writing, reflecting Lawrence and Frieda's arrival in Sydney in 1922 and their move to "Wyewurk" in Thirroul on the coast south of Sydney.
But gradually the novel seems to veer off its track. There's a chapter called "Volcanic Evidence", containing a lengthy word-for-word transcription of an article Lawrence found in the Sydney Daily Telegraph, and which seems to have little relevance to the plot (such as it is). There's an odd chapter titled "Harriet and Lovatt at Sea in Marriage"; a chapter called "Bits", taken from short items published in the Bulletin; a strange nightmare flashback to the First World War; all interspersed with the daily comings and goings of Somers/Lawrence, plus some political talk of destroying the Old World and its politics, starting afresh, and seeking manly mateship, and ending up embracing a "dark god" that "enters from below".
Certainly such seemingly disparate content and plotline make the novel seem to have been hastily thrown together in an attempt to get sufficient words down on paper in six brief weeks in order to satisfy Lawrence's publisher. It seems that Lawrence was suffering, not so much from writer's block (he could always write something), but rather an inability to move the plot of Kangaroo forward - possibly because it was close to being a faithful diary of each day's events, and often nothing very much actually happened in sleepy seaside Thirroul.
Maybe so. However, I now believe the key to understanding Kangaroo lies in Lawrence's ever-deepening involvement with German intellectuals and their ideas after he first met Frieda in 1912 - and in particular, one striking manifestation of that intellectual movement - Dada.
After she married Professor Ernest Weekley, who was later Lawrence's French tutor in Nottingham, Frieda (nee von Richthofen) had made a trip back to her homeland, Germany, in 1907, primarily to visit her family, and particularly her sister Else. During her stay Frieda had an affair with Otto Gross, a controversial psychologist and psychiatrist who had been an early disciple of Freud, but who later repudiated Freud's methods, especially psychoanalysis. To complicate matters, Gross also had an affair with Frieda's sister Else, with whom he had a son, Peter. He also had another son called Peter, by his wife, Frieda Schloffer. To complicate matters even further, Frieda Weekley also had an affair with the Swiss artist, archaeologist, linguist and anarchist, Ernst Frick, who in turn had a long relationship with Otto Gross's wife, Frieda Schloffer, by whom he had three children. (It is hard to keep track of all the Peters, Friedas, Ernests and Ernsts!)
A diciple of Nietzsche, Otto Gross was a drug addict. He was in-and-out of mental asylums during his relatively short life, and was eventually repudiated by the German psychology and psychiatry community because of his of anarchistic beliefs and his advocacy of drugs and sexual freedom (it was he who coined the phrase "sexual revolution").
After Frieda left Ernest Weekley to live with Lawrence in 1912, she continued to correspond with Otto Gross.
Gross's influence on Lawrence, via Frieda and her sister, proved to be a powerful one. Biographer John Worthen believes Lawrence read many of Gross's letters to Frieda. "They would have offered him a major insight into the politics and language of fin-de-siecle liberation and self-fulfilment; Nietzschean, Freudian, vitalised," Worthen said.
In fact, Lawrence had begun reading and discussing the ideas of Nietzsche as early as 1907 after he went to teach at Croydon in London - long before he met Frieda (but when she was meeting Gross). Among the works by Nietzsche in the library at the school in Croydon at the time was Thus Spake Zarathustra. We also know that he was re-reading Thus Spake Zarathustra in 1916. And he mentions Nietzsche in Kangaroo.
Marylyn Valentine,demonstrates the influence of Nietzsche on Kangaroo.
But there is another, more immediate influence on Kangaroo, albeit also influenced by Nietzsche - and that, as I shall show, was Dada, the avant-gard artistic and literary movement taken up by Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Schwitters, Hans Arp, Max Ernst, Man Ray, Francis Picabia and George Grosz.
Frieda Weekley-Lawrence's former lover Otto Gross was, it turns out, one of the most influential catalysts in the development of Dada.
When he moved to Berlin in 1913 he began to influence the writers Raoul Hausmann and Hannah Hoch, who were to be two of the key figures in the Berlin Club Dada, which grew out of the original Dada movement in Switzerland in 1916. Hausmann was the originator of photomontage and the art of collage: a major element in the tenets of Dada.
Dada had evolved out of a series of small theatrical events in the Café Voltaire in Zurich in February 1916, staged by a German avant-garde theatre director, Hugo Ball, and his nightclub singer mistress, Emmy Hennings.
Initially their new movement didn't have a name, and its activities - readings of modern poetry, recital of songs and music - changed and transformed almost daily as new artists and intellectuals arrived. The early performances included recitals of music by such established composers as Liszt, Scriabin and Debussy.
But the performances changed rapidly as four of the newcomers - the Alsatian artist Hans Arp, the poet Richard Huelsenbeck, the Romanian poet Tristan Tzara, and his friend, the painter Marcel Janco - started to shape the movement.
All these proto-Dadaists had one significant thing in common: they were nihilists and opposed to the First World War, believing that art and politics needed a revolution. They wanted to start anew. Otto Gross said: "The realisation of the anarchist alternative to the patriarchal order of society has to begin with the destruction of the latter."
He believed that those who wanted to change the world must first rid themselves of the old authority that ruled their "inner self".
The Zurich cabarets featured macabre African-masked dancers who performed accompanied by music played on drums, pots and pans. They were creating a theatre of the absurd in the seedy intellectual quarter of Zurich where Lenin also lived and where James Joyce wrote Ulysses. It was a fecund place to start a new movement.
To this day, nobody knows for sure what the word "Dada" means. The most likely explanation of its origins is that Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings, in the true spirit of the objet trouve, simply picked the word at random from a French-German dictionary. Dada translated as "hobby-horse". (The word also sounds like "yes-yes" in Slavonic languages.) Another explanation of the derivation is that it was the name of a popular hair-straightening gel.
The movement spread after 1916 to Berlin, Hanover, Cologne and Paris - and even to New York. Max Ernst, the leader of the Cologne Dadaists, developed the art of collage, inspired by its inventor, Hausmann. (Picasso also took it up.) One of the most brilliant exponents of Dada, Kurt Schwitters, raised collage to its highest level, creating his works out of anything that came to hand: newspapers, labels, leaflets, bits of wood, and other trash. Although Dada was best-known as a visual movement, there were many writers and poets who adhered to, or at least flirted with, the movement. Dada persisted until around 1924, although many participants dropped out earlier, while others moved on to join new avant-guard movements.
The Dadaists aimed to produce works of art, both visual and literary, that were totally new. They strove to eradicate all forms of imitation (as the Italian Futurists had already) and instead emphasise complete originality. The idea was, as Charles Simic says in his excellent review (published in The New York Review of Books August 10, 2006) of an exhibition of Dada at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (June 18-September 11, 2006) "To make something no one had ever seen or experienced before."
The Dadaists wanted to end the separation of art from real life, and they stressed the importance of chance events.
The Dadaists favoured the objet trouve (Marcel Duchamp later being its most illustrious exponent) and used collage and photomontage as a tool.
In his Dada Manifesto, Tristan Tzara wrote to the poets in the group:
"Take a newspaper.
Take a pair of scissors.
Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag.
Shake it gently.
Then take out the scarps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will be like you.
And here you are a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar."
First and foremost, Kangaroo exemplifies the Dada creed that any work of art or literature must be completely new, and a departure from the past.
It would be difficult to think of another novel by any writer that resembles Kangaroo. And certainly Kangaroo is unlike any of Lawrence's other works.
Although Lawrence was to be influenced by Dada when he wrote Kangaroo, his painting shows no such influence (nor do his later novels and poems). In this regard, Kangaroo was a "one-off".
Kangaroo is essentially a novel based on almost random real-life events. It's a close approximation to a diary of Lawrence's time in Australia, written during a brief six-week period and based on events as they unfolded daily.
By 1922 he had more or less run out of the rich vein of material based on his early life in Eastwood. Kangaroo is still based on Lawrence's life - but now life as it was happening, day-by-day, not in the past.
Kangaroo in fact is constructed like a collage, made up of events and material assembled together into a new order. Lawrence took newspaper and magazine items, extracts from letters he received and advertisements he saw in the local streets and put them into his novel, just as the Dada artists did with their collages.
Consider, for example, the "Bits" chapter in Kangaroo, and also the chapter "Volcanic Evidence". For "Bits" he picked out items from the Sydney Bulletin where jottings were bundled together in a ragbag of brief news items. For "Volcanic Evidence" he used a complete article which he found in an old newspaper, writing "That morning as luck would have it Somers read an article by A. Meston in an old Sydney Daily Telegraph, headed:
Is Australia SAFE?
Note the words "as luck would have it" - a perfect example of the use of chance.
Lawrence made use of everything that came his way, including the letters he received while he was living at Thirroul. He documents them in "Volcanic Evidence": "There came dreary and fatuous letters from friends in England, refined young men of the upper middle-class writing with a guarded kind of friendliness, gentle and sweet, of course, but as dozy as ripe pears in their laisser aller heaviness ..A sardonic letter from a Jewish friend in London, amusing but a bit dreadful. Letters from women in London, friendly but irritable. "I have decided I am a comfort-loving conventional person, with just a dash of the other thing to keep me fidgety"-then accounts of buying old furniture, and gossip about everybody: "Verden Grenfel in a restaurant with TWO bottles of champagne, so he must be affluent just now." A girl taking her honeymoon trip to Naples by one of the Orient boats, third class: "There are 800 people on board, but room for another 400, so that on account of the missing 400 we have a six-berth cabin to ourselves. A cheque for fifteen pounds seventeen shillings and fourpence, from a publisher: "Kindly acknowledge." A letter from a farming friend who had changed places "
Lawrence also found a fertile source in the Sydney Bulletin, describing how Somers "looked at the big pink spread of his Sydney Bulletin viciously. The Bulletin was the only periodical in the world that really amused him...So he rushed to read the "bits". They would make Bishop Latimer forget himself and his martyrdom at the stake." These are some of the "Bits" Lawrence transcribed, word-for-word, from the Bulletin into Kangaroo
"1805: The casual Digger of war-days has carried it into civvies. Sighted one of the original Tenth at the Outer Harbour (Adelaide) wharf last week fishing. His sinker was his 1914 Star."
"Wilfrido: A recent advertisement for the Wellington (New Zealand) Art Gallery attracted 72 applicants. Among them were two solicitors (One an Oxford M.A.); five sheepfarmers, on whose lands the mortgagee had foreclosed; and a multitude of clerks. The post is not exactly a sinecure, either; it demands attendance on seven days a week at 150 pounds per annum."
Lawrence commented: "Then a little cartoon of Ivan, the Russian workman, going for a tram-drive, and taking huge bundles of money with him, sackfuls of roubles, to pay the fare. The 'Bully' was sardonic about Bolshevism...Bits about bullock drivers and the biggest loads on record, about the biggest piece of land ploughed by a man in a day, recipes for mange in horses, twins, turnips, accidents to reverend clergymen, and so on...Somers liked the concise, laconic style. It seemed to him manly and without trimmings. Put ship-shape in the office, no doubt. Sometimes the drawings were good, and sometimes they weren't."
"Lady (who has just opened door to country girl carrying suitcase): "I am suited. A country girl has been engaged, and I'm getting her to-morrow."
"Girl: "I'm her; and you're not. The 'ouse is too big."
"There, thought Somers, you have the whole spirit of Australian labour...Bits, bits, bits. Yet Richard Lovatt read on. It was not mere anecdotage. It was the sheer momentaneous life of the continent. There was no consecutive thread. Only the laconic courage of experience....All the better. He could have kicked himself for wanting to help mankind, join in revolutions or reforms or any of that stuff. And he kicked himself still harder thinking of his frantic struggles with the "soul" and the "dark god" and the "listener" and the "answerer". Blarney-blarney-blarney! He was a preacher and a blatherer, and he hated himself for it. Damn the "soul", damn the "dark god", damn the "listener" and the "answerer", and above all, damn his own interfering, nosy self."
This echoes the Dadaists' ranting and raving. Tristan Tzara's Dada Manifesto stresses the need for the author to turn in on himself, to cleanse himself of the ways of the Old World: "There is a literature that does not reach the voracious mass. It is the work of creators, issued from a real necessity in the author, produced for himself. It expresses the knowledge of a supreme egoism, in which laws wither away. Every page must explode, either by profound heavy seriousness, the whirlwind, poetic frenzy, the new, the eternal, the crushing joke, enthusiasm for principles, or by the way in which it is printed. On the one hand a tottering world in flight, betrothed to the glockenspiel of hell, on the other hand: new men. Rough, bouncing, riding on hiccups. Behind them a crippled world and literary quacks with a mania for improvement."
You will see many passages in Kangaroo that preach the same message.
"Ideal, ideal, ideal
· Knowledge, knowledge, knowledge,
· Boomboom, boomboom, boomboom"
(Shades of Baldrick's poem about the First World War trench warfare in an episode of the TV series "Blackadder Goes Forth".)
Zara also talks of the "Trajectory of a word tossed by a screeching phonograph record " Lawrence refers to Kangaroo as a "gramophone of a novel."
The Dadaists were anti-war. They were conscientious objectors, as was Lawrence.
This is particularly manifested in the "Nightmare" chapter which is powerfully anti the First World War although his fictional doppleganger, Somers, was not a conscientious objector as most of the Dadaist were.
"Somers tiresomely belonged to no group. He would not enter the army, because his profoundest instinct was against it. Yet he had no conscientious objection to war. It was the whole spirit of the war, the vast mob-spirit, which he could never acquiesce in. The terrible, terrible war, made so fearful because in every country practically every man lost his head, and lost his own centrality, his own manly isolation in his own integrity, which alone keeps life real. Practically every man being caught away from himself, as in some horrible flood, and swept away with the ghastly masses of other men, utterly unable to speak, or feel for himself, or to stand on his own feet, delivered over and swirling in the current, suffocated for the time being. Some of them to die for ever."
The Dadaists were nihilists and anarchists. They wanted to start a revolution in politics and ideas.
Kangaroo is essentially a novel about a movement that wanted to create a revolution in Australia to wipe out the old world and its ways, to create a New Jerusalem, and a new man - precisely what the Dadaists were calling for. Many of the political discussions Somers holds with Jack Callcott and also the character Kangaroo, are perfect examples of the theories espoused by Otto Gross and the Dadaists about creating a new world . Tzara called for "new men" "behind them a crippled world". In "Volcanic Evidence" Somers and Jaz discuss the possibility of a revolution in Australia led by Kangaroo:
"Do you yourself see Kangaroo pulling it off?" There was a subtle mockery in the question.
"Why-you know. This revolution, and this new Australia. Do you see him figuring on the Australian postage stamps-and running the country like a new Jerusalem?" .
"I'm afraid, Jaz," said Somers, "that, like Nietzsche, I no longer believe in great events. The war was a great event-and it made everything more pretty. I doubt if I care about the mass of mankind, Jaz. You make them more than ever distasteful to me.'
In the same chapter Lawrence also says: "So again came back to him the ever-recurring warning that SOME men must of their own choice and will listen only to the living life that is a rising tide in their own being, and listen, listen, listen for the injunctions, and give heed and know and speak and obey all they can. Some men must live by this unremitting inwardness, no matter what the rest of the world does. They must not let the rush of the world's "outwardness" sweep them away: or if they are swept away, they must struggle back. Somers realised that he had had a fright against being swept away, because he half wanted to be swept away: but that now, thank God, he was flowing back. Not like the poor, weird "ink-bubbles", left high and dry on the sands."
Now read what Otto Gross said: years before Lawrence wrote Kangaroo : "Whoever wants to change the structures of power (and production) in a repressive society, has to start by changing these structures in himself and to eradicate the "authority that has infiltrated one's own inner being".
To sum up, if Kangaroo is read in the context of Dada and the Dada philosophy, a great deal of its seeming inconsistencies and apparent untidiness of construction fit into an over-all scheme. Kangaroo is a perfect example of a collage created from objets trouves.
Copyright Sandra Jobson 2006