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The Marginalian

D.H. Lawrence on the Hypocrisies of Social Change and What It Actually Takes to Shift the Status Quo

D.H. Lawrence on the Hypocrisies of Social Change and What It Actually Takes to Shift the Status Quo

“Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive,” Zadie Smith wrote in her superb meditation on optimism and despair. But the paradox of progress is that because there is no universal utopia — every utopia is built on someone’s back — there can be no universal progress, no absolute measure of it. Its relativism conceals a euphemism for moving the world in the direction of the one’s own desires, relativism laced with myriad hypocrisies that keep us from building the kind of world Gabriel García Márquez envisioned in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech — a world “where no one will be able to decide for others how they die, where love will prove true and happiness be possible.”

Those hypocrisies, and how to transcend them, are what D.H. Lawrence (September 11, 1885–March 2, 1930) addresses with his characteristic passionate conviction in a letter to one of his literary friends, Lady Cynthia Asquith, found in The Letters of D.H. Lawrence (public library).

D.H. Lawrence

Writing a year into the First World War and a week before his thirtieth birthday, Lawrence reports of a failed collaboration with Bertrand Russell — a series of joint lectures that came disjointed from the start over ideological differences regarding the fundaments of human nature and moral progress. Lawrence fumes at the hypocrisy beneath many of the archetypal attitudes toward social change:

I am sick of people: they preserve an evil, bad, separating spirit under the warm cloak of good words. This is intolerable in them. The Conservative talks about the old and glorious national ideal, the Liberal talks about this great struggle for right in which the nation is engaged, the peaceful women talk about disarmament and international peace… and all this, all this goodness, is just a warm and cosy cloak for a bad spirit. They all want the same thing: a continuing in the state of disintegration wherein each separate little ego is an independent little principality by itself… To keep [one’s] own established ego, [one’s] finite and ready-defined self intact, free from contact and connection… to be ultimately a free agent. That is what they all want, ultimately — that is what is at the back of all international peace-for-ever and democratic control talks they want an outward system of nullity, which they call peace and goodwill, so that in their own souls they can be independent little gods, referred nowhere and to nothing, little moral Absolutes, secure from question.

Lamenting that “the Conservative either wants to bully or to be bullied” and “the young authoritarian” turns to religion “in order to enjoy the aesthetic quality of obedience” — hypocrisies that leave him so exasperated that he dreams of learning to ride a horse and living entirely alone away from civilization — he adds:

It is too bad, it is too mean, that they are all so pettily selfish, these good people who sacrifice themselves. I want them… — anybody — to say: “This is wrong, we are acting in a wrong spirit. We have created a great, almost overwhelming incubus of falsity and ugliness on top of us, so that we are almost crushed to death. Now let us move it.”

The monolith of ugliness and wrong spirit, Lawrence argues, is moved by the will of the people and the right spirit with which they choose their leaders. Nearly a century before Octavia Butler penned her superb parable of how (not) to choose our leaders, he writes:

It is a question of the spirit. Why are we a nation? We are a nation which must be built up according to a living idea, a great architecture of living people, which shall express the greatest truth of which we are capable… A bad spirit in a nation chooses a bad spirit in a governor. We must begin to choose all afresh, for the pure, great truth… If we have a right spirit, then our [leaders] will appear, as the flowers come forth from nowhere in spring.

Tulips from The Temple of Flora, 1812. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

What poisons the right spirit, Lawrence argues, is the cultural imbroglio that worships at the altar of wealth, mistaking the rich for the right. Reasserting his admonition against the malady of materialism as a taproot of war and divisiveness, he considers the way out:

We must rid ourselves of this ponderous incubus of falsehood, this massive London, with its streets and streets of nullity: we must, with one accord in purity of spirit, pull it down and build up a beautiful thing. We must rid ourselves of the idea of money. A rich man with a beautiful house is like a jewel on a leper’s body…. Our business is not in jewellery, but in the body politic…. What good is it to a sick, unclean man, if he wears jewels.


Russell says I cherish illusions, that there is no such spirit as I like to imagine, the spirit of unanimity in truth, among mankind… Frieda [Lawrence’s wife] says things are not so bad as I pretend, that people are good, that life is also good, that London is also good, and that this civilisation is great and wonderful. She thinks if the war were over, things would be pretty well all right.

But they are all wrong.

Against such passive optimism, Lawrence weighs what it actually takes to move the world in the direction of its betterment. With an eye to the vital role of kindred spirits and community in effecting change, he writes:

I don’t know how to begin to lecture or write, publicly, these things of the real truth and the living spirit. Everything is so awful and static, so large and ponderous… And one must shift that mass; it is the mountain that faith must move. I do believe there are people who wait for the spirit of truth. But I think one can’t find them personally. I had hoped and tried to get a little nucleus of living people together. But I think it is no good. One must start direct with the open public, with out associates… I don’t want any friends, except the friends who are going to act, put everything — or at any rate, put something into the effort by bringing about a new unanimity among us, a new movement for the pure truth, and immediate destruction — and reconstructive revolution in actual life.

Complement with Thoreau on the long cycles of social change and Rebecca Solnit on the art of actionable hope for a better world, then revisit Lawrence on the strength of sensitivity and the key to fully living.

Published August 29, 2023




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