The Vital Imagination

“Our true awareness of one another is intuitional, not mental. Attraction between people is really instinctive and intuitional, not an affair of judgement. And in mutual attraction lies perhaps the deepest pleasure in life, mutual attraction which may make us “like” our traveling companion for the two or three hours we are together, then no more, or mutual attraction that may deepen to powerful love, and last a lifetime.” 
D.H. Lawrence, Pornography & So On (69)

Canova, Cupid and Psyche from The Louvre

Canova, Cupid and Psyche from The Louvre

A friend who knows of my love for D.H. Lawrence recently bought me two books: a first edition, fifth impression of the 1929 pamphlet Pornography and Obscenity and the 1934 book Pornography & So On which includes the former essay and then expands upon the thesis ending with several poems on the subject. The subject, of course, can not be in doubt in either case. Having been censured and accused of writing pornography frequently in his career, Lawrence takes an understandable interest in the subject.

“We take it, I assume, that pornography is something base, something unpleasant. In short, we don’t like it. And why don’t we like it? Because it arouses sexual feelings?
I think not. No matter how hard we may pretend otherwise, most of us rather like a moderate rousing of our sex” (10, P and O).

Lawrence  proceeds to try to uncover the root of the perversion of sexual feeling in English and American society. How such words as ‘pornography’ and ‘obscenity’ are used given that the meanings are so nebulous. He tracks it back to the 15th century, at the time when syphilis, or ‘pox’ began to ravage England and the royal families in particular. The recoiling in horror that ensued caused a fear and sense of ‘dirtiness’ which implanted itself deeply into the psyche of the affected societies.

“And pox entered the blood of the nation, particularly of the upper classes, who had more chance of infection. And after it had entered the blood, it entered the consciousness, and it hit the vital imagination” (63, P & So On).

The morbidity of fear, Lawrence argues, shuts us away from our own bodies. And once a feeling of shame or dirtiness sets in, all natural desire and comfort in one’s body becomes, as Lawrence puts it, “a dirty little secret.” The problem is not the words, the problem is the loss of individual instinctual relation to ourselves and eachother.

“The reaction to any word may be, in any individual, either a mob-reaction or an individual reaction. It is up to the individual to ask himself: Is my reaction individual, or am I merely reacting from my mob-self? […] Now if the use of a few so-called obscene words will startle man or woman out of a mob-habit into an individual state, well and good. And word prudery is so universal a mob-habit that it is time we were startled out of it”(9, P and O).

“Word prudery,” I love that. Now that swearing isn’t so universally shocking the politically correct mob has moved in, but that’s another subject. In Pornography & So On the second essay explores the consequences of our profound fear of consequences (I would add in here that women have several thousand years a head start on fear of consequences that, one could argue, may credibly account for the perceived, but proven false, difference between men’s and women’s capacity for arousal). Lawrence takes up those consequences as they pertain to the sad state of the visual arts.

“We have become ideal beings, creatures that exist in idea, to one another, rather than flesh-and-blood kin. And with the collapse of the physical, flesh-and-blood oneness, and the substitution of an ideal, social or political oneness, came a failing of our intuitive awareness, and a great unease, the nervousness of mankind. We are afraid of instincts. We are afraid of the intuition within us. […] Intuitively we are dead to one another, we have all gone cold” (70). 

Without naming him, Lawrence takes Clive Bell and his “Significant Form” to task, as well as other theorists of art, for a shallowness and blindness that misses the sorry truth of the state of art in modern times. Dripping with indignant sarcasm he writes:

“So the prophets of the new era in art cry aloud to the multitude, in exactly the jargon of the revivalists, for revivalists they are. They will revive the Primitive-Method brethren, the Byzantines, the Ravennese, the early Italian and French primitives (which ones, in particular, we aren’t told): these were Right, these were Pure, these were Spiritual, these were Real! and the builders of early Romanesque churches, Oh, my brethren! these were holy men, before the world went a-whoring after Gothic. Oh, return, my brethren, to the Primitive Method, lift up your eyes to Significant Form and be saved— “(93).

I don’t think Lawrence intends to be funny, but sometimes he does make me laugh with his passionate exhortations and implorings. They are over-the-top to most people’s sensibilities, but then, that may be his very point, and I really cannot help loving his consistency, good sense, and absolute commitment to his philosophy which makes healthy sense to me. In “Introduction to Painting,” Lawrence writes of the masses as “grey” people. Cold and grey. He points to Cézanne’s apples as the only instance he can find in which an artist truly paints the thing, is not afraid of the physical thing, and paints the whole thing in all its “appleyness.” I have written of Lawrence’s essay on Cézanne’s apples here, but I will end here with one last quote because I think it captures what he is on about. Lawrence doesn’t want cheapened, shallow, fleeting feelings. He argues for a true connection, without fear, between real bodies, the whole body, all the way around.

“Oh, be an apple, and leave out all your thoughts, all your feelings, all your mind and all your soul, which we know all about and find boring beyond endurance. Leave it out—and be an apple!—It is the appleness of the portrait of Cézanne’s wife that makes it so permanently interesting: the appleyness, which carries with it also the feeling of knowing the other side as well, the side you don’t see, the hidden side of the moon. For intuitive apperception of the apple is so tangibly aware of the apple that it is aware of it all round, not only just of the front. The eyes see all fronts, and the mind, on the whole, satisfied with fronts. But intuition needs all-aroundness, and instinct needs insideness. The true imagination is forever curving round to the other side” (123).

Plaster of Canova's Cupid and Psyche from The Met. The detail, which to me holds the appleyness is in that missing shoe...for some inexplicable reason Canova eliminated that powerful expression of the instinctive imagination in the finished sculpture at the Louvre.

Plaster of Canova’s Cupid and Psyche from The Met. This unfinished detail I photographed looks to me as a sandal, I can’t tell if Canova never intended to have a sandal, but to me, that (mis?)perceived detail of only one sandal left on her feet holds the appleyness. I was so excited when I saw it. Nevertheless, what seemed to me a powerful expression of the instinctive imagination, is absent from both finished sculptures at the Louvre and The Hermitage, St. Petersburg.

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9 responses to “The Vital Imagination

  1. Intriguing. Have been reading about J S Mill who claimed the highest form of relationship was one without intimacy – a meeting of minds between a couple. Am finding wuite a few marriages that seem to have been incredibly close but celibate. What amazingly varied creatures we humans are.

    • Ah yes, but he might say that having been in love with a married, and therefore unattainable, woman for many years. Eventually they did marry, so I’m guessing he saw the benefit of physical intimacy enhancing the whole. At least I would hope. But yes, the beauty of our differences is not to be mocked. It is lovely.

  2. Fabulous perception of the sandal. Great opening quotation. And thank you for the great read. Yes word prudery is a fantastic term. I recently was being voir-dired for a jury and the question posed was whether we felt people were less intelligent if they swore. The overwhelming majority of potential jurors said yes. Being around people who are open to talking about everything, I was struck that maybe that is unusual. I had to take stock of my own vernacular, laden with swear words along with other flourishes and topics maybe uncomfortable for others. We, the other Victorians. Thanks again.

    • Gosh, what an odd question. I would think it would entirely depend on so many variables that it hardly makes a revealing question…Lawrence really believed that the Victorians were the real pornographers because of the repression and secrecy which then creates the titillation…the more I think about it, the more true it seems to me. Anyway, thanks for your comment!

  3. It’s been a while since I read it, but Foucault writes something similarly: That there was never really a Victorian repression since variant sexualities and openness were emerging during that period. That actually, we created a Victorian construct because we need a supposedly repressive past to create titillation for ourselves. At least that’s what I took from part of his writing on sexuality! Thanks for making me think!

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