Saturday, April 29, 2006

BOOK: "D. H. Lawrence and Italy"

D. H. Lawrence: D. H. Lawrence and Italy: Twilight in Italy, Sea and Sardinia, Etruscan Places. Penguin Books, 1997. 0141180307. xii + 168 + 205 + 115 pp.


Before reading this book, my only encounter with D. H. Lawrence was reading a translation of Lady Chatterley's Lover some years ago. I don't remember very much of it, except that I read it fairly quickly over the course of some three or so days (this probably explains why I remember almost nothing about it), and that one of the leading characters was a forester that usually spoke in some curious rustic dialect. If I remember correctly, the book had been considered somewhat prurient at the time when it was written; but when reading it, I didn't notice much that would really justify such accusations. The book must have been pleasant enough to read — otherwise I wouldn't have been able to read it so quickly.

Thus, when I later noticed this Penguin compilation of Lawrence's travel writing about Italy, I was keen to read it; partly because of this previous enjoyable experience with Lawrence's work, and partly because I wouldn't mind reading somewhat more about Italy. Since Italy is a neighbouring country to us, I think we often tend to see it in a less favourable light than observers from more distant countries; an Anglo-Saxon's first thought when seeing the word Italy might well be its culture or history, perhaps its landscape or food, rather than its indolent, vain population with a regrettable fondness for oppressing our minority there. Thus I wouldn't mind reading an English book about Italy every now and then, as a counterbalance to my otherwise needlessly negative opinion of that country. Another thing that encouraged me to read the book is the fact that it mentions the Etruscans, of whom I am fond for several reasons. Firstly, since they are less well known than e.g. the Romans or the Greeks, they are more exotic; secondly, I soundly hate the Romans and their imperialism, and therefore sympathize with the Etruscans as victims of Roman expansion.

Etruscan Places

Of the three collections of Lawrence's travel essays collected here, only Etruscan Places was enjoyable reading. Lawrence visits many Etruscan tombs and comments with great enthusiasm on their works of art, and indeed on their attitude towards life in general. “The things they did, in their easy centuries, are as natural and as easy as breathing. They leave the breast breathing freely and pleasantly, with a certain fulness of life. Even the tombs. And that is the true Etruscan quality: ease, naturalness, and an abundance of life, no need to force the mind or the soul in any direction. And death, to the Etruscan, was a pleasant continuance of life, with jewels and wine and flutes playing for the dance.” (EP p. 12. See also pp. 26, 49–50.)

I guess that not terribly much was known about the Etruscans at that time (after all, much remains unknown even now), so that Lawrence often has to resort to a bit of speculation, peppering the text with ‘perhaps’es and ‘seems’es (see e.g. pp. 19–20, where he speculates on the origins of the Etruscans; pp. 37–8 on their dialects; p. 111 on the urns of Volterra). But anyway, Etruscan Places was pleasant to read, and almost made me wish to buy some big coffee-table book about Etruscan art (I don't doubt that Thames & Hudson must have published something suitable at some point :-)).

In Etruscan Places, there are many excellent barbs against the ancient Romans; I enjoyed them greatly, as I dislike the Romans very much. “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! [. . .] The Etruscans were vicious! The only vicious people on the face of the Earth presumably.” (EP p. 2.) “Even in their palmy days the Romans were not exactly saints. But they thought they ought to be. [. . .] they wanted empire and dominion and, above all, riches: social gain. You cannot dance gaily to the double flute and at the same time conquer nations or rake in large sums of money.” (EP p. 14.) At some point, “the Etruscans [. . .] became ruthless pirates [. . .] This was part of their viciousness, a great annoyance to their loving and harmless neighbours, the law-abiding Romans—who believed in the supreme law of conquest.” (EP p. 21.)

“Most people despise everything B.C. that isn't Greek, for the good reason that it ought to be Greek if it isn't.” (EP p. 1.) “To the Puritan all things are impure, as somebody says.” (EP p. 2.)

At some point the ancient Romans developed a passion for collecting Etruscan antiques, and therefore all the tombs are devoid of objects; only the paintings on the walls remain (EP p. 15). And even the paintings have begun to fade after the tombs were opened in the 19th century (EP p. 43) Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon's brother, owned some land in Etruria in the 19th century, and started excavations, but chiefly with the intention of selling the vases; he had the less interesting ones destroyed to prevent the market prices from falling (EP p. 88).

“Brute force and overbearing may make a terrific effect. But in the end, that which lives lives by delicate sensitiveness.” (EP p. 29.) “It is useless to look in Etruscan things for ‘uplift’. If you want uplift, go to the Greek and the Gothic. If you want mass, go to the Roman. But if you love the odd spontaneous forms that are never to be standardised, go to the Etruscans.” (EP p. 32.)

I can't help wondering, of course, to what extent the Etruscans really were such as Lawrence here paints them; and to what extent he is merely projecting onto the Etruscan-vs-Roman dichotomy his own preoccupations with instinct-vs-reason, phallic-vs-rational, etc., etc. I often wonder if we aren't somewhat inclined to idealize the early Mediterranean cultures simply because we don't know them well enough. Minoan Crete is the most famous example, but as seen here in Lawrence's book, Etruscans can come in for a bit of lionizing too.

Apparently gentlemen preferred blondes since time pretermemorial: “The two end women are called hetaerae, courtesans; chiefly because they have yellow hair, which seems to have been a favourite feature in a woman of pleasure.” (EP p. 39.)

The cover of this Penguin edition shows a dancer from the painting in an Etruscan tomb; Lawrence also visited that tomb, and comments on that very dancer on p. 41.

Funnily, one of the tombs is called the ‘Tomb of the Dead Man’ (EP p. 44) — as if a dead man being in the tomb was somehow unusual...

Lawrence's ‘philosophy’

The other two parts of this book, however, were terribly boring. Twilight in Italy is mostly about northern Italy, particularly the area around Lago di Garda; Sea and Sardinia, as the title implies, is about a short trip to Sardinia, with the voyage to Sardinia and back also taking a fairly prominent role in the book. Not much ever happens in these books; Lawrence wanders about, often on foot, sometimes riding a bus or a train; this was the 1920s or thereabouts, and the remote parts of Italy that he travelled through were mostly quite poor and sordid. We are treated to long descriptions of everyday events of the sort that you could just as well experience at home, without having to travel abroad. Sure, there is an interesting anecdote or observation every now and then, but most of the time I was quite bored and reading these two parts of the book was a major effort.

And, worst of all, there are countless philosophising passages out of which I was mostly unable to make any sense whatosever. It's a curious feeling: the text still consists of sentences, and each sentence consists of words, and each word by itself is easy enough to understand; but when you have read a few sentences of that twaddle, you realise that the meaning of the individual words has not coagulated in your mind into any coherent meaning of the whole passage. You can try rereading it a few times, with no better results. (I guess my lack of sophistication shows itself once again; it is after all well known that any odd boor can read and reasonably enjoy most 19th-century works, while it takes a genuine sophisticate to understand the modernists.) And sometimes this goes on for pages and pages (see e.g. Twilight in Italy, pp. 35–41).

Nor do these philosophical ramblings of Lawrence's have got much to do with the ostensible subject of his writing, i.e. with Italy. In fact some people seem to consider this a feature rather than a bug. “This book should not be packed by intending tourists to the Mediterranean as a convenient guide to Italy [. . .] But it is an indispensable guide to the sensibility of one of the most astonishing writers of our century. It is for visitors to Lawrence, a pretty large country, not for rubberneckers in mere southern Europe.” (Anthony Burgess in his introduction, p. vii.) I can't help feeling that this attitude is somehow terribly arrogant; but never mind that; let those who are very keen on Lawrence enjoy this book; if, however, you are (like me) more interested in Italy than in Lawrence, you might end up being disappointed, just as I was.

Here is a valuable passage from Burgess' introduction (pp. viii–xi): “He has what he calls a philosophy, meaning a highly emotional conviction about the location of human values [. . .] Instinct is more important than reason; the loins, not the brain, are the center of life; a mechanized civilization is evil.” This agrees rather well with Bertrand Russell's comments in his autobiography: “He had a mystical philosophy of ‘blood’ which I disliked. [. . .] This seemed to me frankly rubbish, and I rejected it vehemently”.

My rant about Lawrence's ‘philosophy’: I am torn between sympathy, exasperation, and boredom

Of course, it is not difficult to sympathize with Lawrence's position; after all, having to follow one's reason rather than one's instincts is immensely boring and generally quite unsatisfying; a life guided by reason and set in the context of a mechanized civilization is fit for a cogwheel, not a human being. Reason will oblige you to look at both sides of a problem; to try to imagine what might go wrong in a certain situation; to seek compromises; to worry about the consequences of a course of action; to think and plan calmly and carefully; etc., etc.: in short, it won't let you forget even for a moment what a dull, sordid, miserable life we live, and in what a dull, sordid, miserable world. Surely the only way to be happy at least for a moment is to have a torrent of raging psychotropic substances coursing through your veins — whether your own hormones or artificial stimulants like drugs and alcohol is really just a minor technicality. Or, as Khayyam writes in one of my favourite rubaiyat (Whinfield's translation, #196):

To drain a gallon beaker I design,
Yea, two great beakers, brimmed with richest wine;
     Old faith and reason thrice will I divorce,
Then take to wife the daughter of the vine.

But surely, at the same time, one cannot avoid being aware what complete and utter rubbish all of this reason-vs-instinct dilemma really is. We have the choice of either following our reason, and being bored out of our minds for the rest of our (dull but reasonably comfortable) lives; or following our instincts, and having exciting Hobbesian lives — nasty, brutish and short — full of wonderfully vivid sensations, mostly, alas, of the painful kind, ending most likely in a premature and violent death. It's a sad fact of life that most of us prefer to be bored but alive and well rather than excited but crippled or dead, and so we follow our reason rather than our instincts. Thus, merely eulogizing instincts and rambling against reason isn't going to accomplish much. Somebody ought to investigate why we make the choices we make — why we prefer the comfort and safety, and the myriad other things that only reason can give us, to the happiness and excitement that only the instincts can provide us with — which is the reason that we invariably choose reason and end up comfortable but unhappy. If we could somehow wean ourselves off our desire for the fruits of reason, we could finally enjoy wild blind (and horrible) lives of pure instinct; but that's probably impossible without shutting reason down altogether.

Anyway, I guess that what I'm trying to say with all of this is that I am in many ways sympathetic to Lawrence's position; if he extols instincts above reason, why so do I; a person who hates and despises reason more than I do is not frequently encountered; I resent it, always present there in the background, ready to pull one back every time one has even the slightest prospect of doing something enjoyable. But all of this, all this broad agreement of mine with some of Lawrence's ideas, doesn't change the fact that they make for very dull writing — dull and pointless. It's clear to everyone that we don't really want to go back to a harsh and violent life led by instincts, and therefore we'll keep leaning on our reason, even though it will lead us to dull and pointless lives. And thus there's no use droning on and on about it, particularly not in a travel book. Lawrence's fondness for using the word ‘phallic’ and its relatives to refer to the instinct side of the instinct-vs-reason dichotomy is even sillier and exacerbates the dulness, especially when he goes on about it for a whole paragraph.

Phallic, shmallic

As a characteristic example, consider this (Twilight in Italy, p. 44): “This, then, is the secret of Italy's attraction for us, this phallic worship. To the Italian the phallus is the symbol of individual creative immortality, to each man his own Godhead. The child is but the evidence of the Godhead.” Whatever on earth is this supposed to mean? Supposing that some sort of meaningful observation is hidden within this tripe, couldn't he express it in terms that a reasonable person could actually understand? I guess he could, but didn't wish to bother with it. Typical artistic arrogance, no doubt.

“It is the natural beauty of proportion of the phallic consciousness, contrasted with the more studied or ecstatic proportion of the mental and spiritual Consciousness we are accustomed to.” (Etruscan Places, p. 10.) See also EP p. 13 on the phallic stones of Etruria and of ancient India.

Honi soit qui mal y pense: “Burdens on the face of the earth are man's ponderous erections.” (EP p. 25.)


Here are a few quotations that I found interesting.

“It is better to go forward into error than to stay fixed inextricably in the past.” (Twilight in Italy p. 53.)

“[T]hat triumph of the deaf and dumb, the cinematograph” (TiI p. 55.)

“[T]he cypress trees poise like flames of forgotten darkness, that should have been blown out at the end of the summer. For as we have candles to light the darkness of night, so the cypresses are candles to keep the darkness aflame in the full sunshine.” (TiI p. 81.)

“Death has no beauty in Italy, unless it be violent.” (TiI p. 113.)

“[T]he long, howling, hiccupping, melancholy bray of an ass. ‘All females are dead, all females-och! och! och!—hoooo! Ahaa!—there's one left.’ So he ends on a moaning grunt of consolation. This is what the Arabs tell us an ass is howling when he brays.” (Sea and Sardinia, p. 5.)

“It is much nicest, on the whole, to travel third-class on the railway. There is space, there is air, and it is like being in a lively inn, everybody in good spirits.” (SaS pp. 69–70.)

“[B]eefsteaks of pork” (SaS p. 78; I don't know what he means but I'm sure that genetic engineering will soon make it a possibility :-).)

“There is nothing to see in Nuoro: which, to tell the truth, is always a relief. Sights are an irritating bore.” (SaS p. 150.)

Some other interesting passages: a comparison of Hamlet and Orestes (TiI pp. 68–9); on the Infinite or Absolute (TiI pp. 72–3); the modernization of Italy (disappearance of the peasants, TiI p. 94; progress of roads, railroads, and the industry, not very much to Lawrence's liking, TiI pp. 164–5); its depressed post-war economy and atmosphere (SaS pp. 28–9); the tiny Sardinian donkeys (SaS pp. 62–3); a group of people sucking their soup (SaS pp. 78–9); Sardinian language (SaS p. 80); he hates limestone and marble, but is fond of granite (aren't you glad to know that? SaS p. 83); his hatred of modernity, with its tendency to blur individual differences, make people wear the same clothes, everywhere, etc. (thank goodness he isn't around to see the present-day globalization), SaS pp. 91–2 (on clothes see also pp. 61, 71); impressed by Italian roads (SaS p. 121); “how old the real Italy is, how man-gripped and how withered. England is far more wild and savage and lonely, in her country parts” (SaS pp. 122–3); a procession in Sardinia (SaS pp. 125–7); economics of bus routes (SaS p. 130); meeting D'Annunzio's soldiers returning from Rijeka (SaS p. 184); the Etruscan language (EP pp. 11, 20), origins (EP pp. 19–20), burial customs (EP p. 28), vases (EP p. 32), religion (EP pp. 49–50, 66), decline (EP pp. 74–5); museums are wrong (EP pp. 27, 114); the Etruscan ruling class, the Lucumones (EP pp. 31, 52); eyes painted on the prows of boats (EP p. 35); hippocampus, the mythical seahorse (EP p. 46); the symbolism of the sea (EP p. 53); the augurs (EP pp. 54–6); the prison in Volterra (EP pp. 115).

His thoughts on seeing two prisoners (he doesn't seem to know what they have done, and is motivated chiefly by their appearance): “It is a great mistake to abolish the death penalty. If I were dictator, I should order the old one [of the two convicts] to be hung at once. I should have judges with sensitive, living hearts: not abstract intellects. And because the instinctive heart recognised a man as evil, I would have that man destroyed. Quickly. Because good warm life is now in danger.” (SaS pp. 10–11.) Yuck. The filthy fascist bastard. My opinion on the death penalty is that everybody who favours it should certainly be given the opportunity to enjoy it to the full. And after all supporters of the death penalty have been executed, the rest of us can live decent, calm lives free of the fear that we may get murdered by the state at any moment.

On observing two babies making a mess at the table, while their parents look on calmly: “This inordinate Italian amiable patience with their young monkeys is astonishing. It makes the monkeys more monkey-like, and self-conscious incredibly [. . .] Till at last one sees the southern Holy Family as an unholy triad of imbecility.” (SaS p. 41.)

“I like Italian newspapers because they say what they mean, and not merely what is most convenient to say. We call it naïveté—I call it manliness. Italian newspapers read as if they were written by men, and not by calculating eunuchs.” (SaS p. 181.)

More of his anti-modern sentiments: “Give me the old, salty way of love. How I am nauseated with sentiment and nobility, the macaroni slithery-slobbery mess of modern adorations.” (SaS p. 67.) “Oh, the good old energy of the bygone days, before men became so self-conscious.” (SaS p. 144.)

Sea and Sardinia ends on a note of his familiar blood-philosophy: “I loved them all in the theatre: the generous, hot southern blood, so subtle and spontaneous, that asks for blood contact, not for mental communion or spirit sympathy. I was sorry to leave them.” (P. 205.)


A curious stylistic feature, occuring particularly often in Sea and Sardinia: Lawrence takes a sentence that would otherwise be perfectly ordinary and moves the verb to the beginning! He is particularly fond of doing this with verbs that express motion. I'm not quite sure what he means to achieve by this, but the more I read it, the more affected (and annoying) it sounds to me. “Enter more passengers.” (SaS p. 14.) “Arrives an individual at our side.” (SaS p. 24.) “Arrives the milk” (SaS p. 41); “Arrived the inevitable meat [. . .] Arrived the wash-leather pears [. . .] Arrived coffee” (SaS p. 44). “Comes a carriage [. . .] Arrived a primrose-brocade beau” (SaS p. 56); “Came two little children [. . .] Appeared Dante and Beatrice” (SaS p. 60; all this during a procession of masks in Cagliari). “Remained also the schoolmistress” (SaS p. 186).

He doesn't in the least mind using the word ‘nigger’ — I guess it wasn't thought of as offensive at that time (1920s). “A mountain of black-purple cauliflowers, like niggers' heads, and amountain of snow-white ones next to them.” (SaS p. 18.) “[N]igger-coloured silk stockings” (SaS p. 31, and similarly on p. 34); “nigger-stripped cork-trees’ (SaS p. 94).


Apparently the Italian economy was still recovering from the war and was in a generally poor condition. The exchange rate was not in Italy's favour either, and Lawrence often describes how the Italians, upon hearing that he is English, would complain about the Englishmen and Americans who are coming to Italy with their pounds and dollars and buying up everything for a pittance thanks to the exchange rate (SaS pp. 48–9, 169, 187–8, 192–3, 195, 198–9). He is rightfully annoyed by this, as he himself has done nothing to provoke it: he is not some wealthy, arrogant, ignorant tourist; he speaks Italian well enough, and travels on foot and by public transport. Besides, England wasn't doing all that well at the time, either (SaS p. 193). Interestingly, and in stark contrast to the structure of WW1 alliances, many Italians were complaining against England and America, but expressed sympathy with Germany, who seemed to the Italians as poor and downtrodden as Italy.

Some prices (in liras per kilogram; SaS p. 64): cheese, 18–25; ham, 30–35; butter, 30–32; chickens, 11–14; mortadella, 16; potatoes, 1.40–1.50. One egg, 0.60–0.65 in Sardinia, 1.50 in Sicily. Two train tickets, 60 miles, third class: 30 liras (SaS p. 69). The exchange rate: £1 = 103 lira (SaS p. 182). He says that many things were more expensive than in England: “I could live in England just as well, on the same money—perhaps better.” (SaS p. 187).

Apparently trade within Italy was not entirely free at the time; individual cities had customs-houses (‘Dazio’) where anyone bringing food or certain other articles into the city would have to pay a tax (SaS pp. 53, 139; EP pp. 24, 58)


I recommend Etruscan Places but not the other two collections included in this book, especially if you are more interested in Italy than in Lawrence. This recommendation, of course, only makes sense if you are a person like me. If, on the other hand, you are e.g. sophisticated and fond of modernist literature, it may well turn out that you'll enjoy Lawrence's meanderings greatly. But then, if you really were sophisticated, you probably wouldn't be reading this blog :-)


  • Lawrence's 1926 novel, The Plumed Serpent, inspired by his travels in Mexico, sounds potentially interesting.

  • Jacques Heurgon, Daily Life of the Etruscans, is great if you are looking for a more down-to-earth introduction to the Etruscans. It's a nice counterbalance to Lawrence's approach, which is inevitably focused mostly on their tombs and the paintings therein. Heurgon will tell you that the Etruscans were also masters of water engineering, constructing ditches and drainage canals, regulating rivers, drying out marshes, etc., and their city-founding rituals were admired even by the Romans. (Actually, Lawrence briefly mentions drainage as well, EP p. 83, including the fact that malaria returned to Etruria after the Romans occupied it and failed to maintain the network of canals used to drain the marshy areas.)


Blogger Nadezhda said...

"If I remember correctly, the book had been considered somewhat prurient at the time when it was written; but when reading it, I didn't notice much that would really justify such accusations."

You might want to check for details. :)

I read Lover at 14, when I picked it from a shelf in library honestly and earnestly thinking it was a simple, naive romantic novel. When phalluses and other such creatures started to appear, I knew, I could not be more wrong. :)

Sunday, April 30, 2006 2:41:00 PM  
Blogger ill-advised said...

Well, now that I read the Wikipedia page you mentioned, I see that the fuss was even greater than I imagined it to have been.

I suspect that partly it was not due to the sex as such, but due to the class aspects -- an upper-class woman geting involved with a mere forester, etc.

Perhaps I should re-read it some day. I'm still amazed at how completely I have forgotten almost everything about the novel. I'm not quite sure how old I was when I read it; I was in secondary school, probably 15 or 16 or something like that. I vaguely knew that the book had once been notorious (though I'm not sure where I picked up this bit of information); I suspect this was largely the reason why I borrowed it from the library at all, as otherwise I would probably be discouraged by the fact that it's by a 20th-century author.

Maybe I should try reading it in English this time. I wonder what the forester's dialect looks like in the original.

Sunday, April 30, 2006 9:39:00 PM  
Anonymous V said...

Stumbled upon this blog page while looking for related reading to Lawrence's 'Etruscan Places'. Lawrence has much more to offer than the general (mis)understood interpretations of reason Vs instincts. Anyway, you have articulated your stand well.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006 4:18:00 PM  
Blogger ill-advised said...

Thanks for your comment, V. I don't doubt that Lawrence is often misunderstood, e.g. by me. Maybe I'll like his fiction better -- I guess I'll try to read some of that some day, and maybe ignore his travel writing for the time being.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006 1:38:00 AM  

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