Sunday, March 9, 2008

Review: St. Mawr and The Man Who Died

St. Mawr and The Man Who Died. By D. H. Lawrence. New York: Random House/Vintage Books, 1959. 212 pages.

Not truly novels, St. Mawr and The Man Who Died seem to be experimental works in which D. H. Lawrence continues to explore the themes found throughout his longer fiction—the emasculation and dehumanization of men, the power and inscrutability of nature, the cynicism of post-war England, the difficulties in relationships and sex, and the potential of reinvention and resurrection.

Young Lou Witt, married, dispirited, weary, and bored, finds in the stallion St. Mawr the vitality the men around her lack. Although "some inscrutable bond held them together . . . a strange vibration of the nerves rather than of the blood," Lou's marriage to Rico enervates her. The relationship soon becomes Platonic, "a marriage, but without sex." The vital animal element of marriage "was shattering and exhausting, they shrank from it."

When Lou touches St. Mawr, she finds him "[s]o slippery with vivid, hot life!" His "alive, alert intensity" fires her emotions, which she realizes had died in the post-war era of facile friendships and fun. St. Mawr "seemed to look at her out of another world."

With her purchase of the stallion, Lou's perspective alters; "she could not believe the world she lived in." Although unreachable and unknowable, St. Mawr is more real to her than her husband, his friends, and even his apparent new love interest. For Lou, "all the people she knew, seemed so entirely contained within their cardboard, let's-be-happy world." Rico becomes almost a caricature of a man, imitating his father's officiousness and righteous indignation without feeling them. Lawrence describes Rico's meticulous attention to his appearance in detail: ". . . he dressed himself most carefully in white riding-breeches and a shirt of purple silk crepe, with a flowing black tie spotted red like a ladybird, and black riding-boots." While Rico is decorative and transparent, St. Mawr is vital and mysterious.

Lawrence uses long swathes of St. Mawr to philosophize, often directly or through the Welsh groom, Lewis, who says, "But a man's mind is always full of things." St. Mawr has no plot, and the stallion himself disappears from the narrative before Lou decides to "escape achievement" in the desert of New Mexico.

In New Mexico, Lawrence finds the "wild tussle" of life, which is missing from the long-civilized England, where everything is fenced in and where "the labourers could no longer afford even a glass of beer in the evenings, since the Glorious War." The displaced New England housewife who precedes Lou, seeing beauty in the desert first, then struggle, may represent Lawrence's own perspective and evolution during his stay there.

The Man Who Died begins with a peasant's acquisition of a cock—perhaps the one that crows three times before Peter realizes his three denials of Christ. Like the cock, the man who died (or, more accurately, didn't die and therefore didn't rise again) is tied "body, soul, and spirit" by "that string," his commitment to mankind to die and to be resurrected. "The doom of death was a shadow compared to the raging destiny of life, the determined surge of life."

Having survived his promised destiny, the man who died again renounces his godhood to become a man, this time permanently and with no agenda. His near death drives him to seek life, but not the "greed of giving" or the "little, greedy life of the body . . . he knew that virginity is a form of greed . . . he had risen for the woman, or women, who knew the greater life of the body, not greedy to give, not greedy to take . . ."

In his new situation, "the presence of people made him lonely." He believes he has fulfilled his mission and is beyond it: "My way is my own alone . . . I am alone within my own skin, which is the walls of all my domain."

Also alone is the virgin priestess of the temple of Isis, patiently awaiting the return of Osiris. Like Lou and many other female characters in Lawrence, she senses the superficial sexual appeal of men, but even to the great Anthony, "the very flower of her womb was cool, was almost cold, like a bud in the shadow of frost, for all the flooding of his sunshine." An old philosopher tells her, "Rare women wait for the re-born man" and that the lotus responds to "one of these rare, invisible suns that have been killed and shine no more," dismissing Anthony as one of the "golden brief day-suns of show."

The consummation of the relationship between the virgin god and the virgin priestess, in a temple surrounded outside by suspicious, vindictive slaves, is beautiful and moving. "It was the deep, interfolded warmth, warmth living and penetrable, the woman, the heart of the rose!" Instead of being a mere part of the "little life of the body," sex (and procreation) becomes a deeply spiritual experience, "the marvellous piercing transcendence of desire."

In both St. Mawr and The Man Who Died, Lawrence is rarely subtle or restrained, covering pages with repetitious expositions of his favorite themes, sometimes reveling too much in the variety of expression. In spite of their flaws, both works are inventive, imaginative, and stirring. For anyone who is familiar with Lawrence primarily though his more well-known novels and stories, these two works are worth a read.

Sunday, 9 March 2008.
© 2008 by Diane L. Schirf.

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