Organicism and the Use of Primitivism in Lawrence’s
Republished by permission of D.H. Lawrence Review 30:3, 2002.
ritics often regard The Plumed Serpent (1926) as the height of Lawrence’s interest in authoritarian politics. However, if this novel represents the most notorious instance of Lawrence’s proto-fascist leanings, it also ushers in a much-noted moment of vacillation in his political thought. Within a year after its publication, Lawrence wrote letters that appear to repudiate his leadership vision. One written to Trigant Burrow on 13 July 1927 refers to the “hero illusion” (6L 99), while another to Witter Bynner dated 13 March 1928 flatly asserts that “The hero is obsolete, and the leader of men is a back number. After all, at the back of the hero is the militant ideal: and the militant ideal, or the ideal militant, seems to me also a cold egg. [. . .] I agree with you, the leader-cum-follower relationship is a bore” (6L 321). It is the contention of this essay that these letters do not inaugurate a new stage in Lawrence’s thought but rather continue an earlier one. Indeed, his ambivalence regarding leadership politics emerges prior to the drafting of these letters and even to the publication of The Plumed Serpent. It arises during the writing of the novel itself.
This argument will follow from two main premises. First, using a proto-fascist ideology as subject matter for a novel or depicting an authoritarian leadership cult, even sympathetically at moments, does not necessarily or ultimately indicate an endorsement of fascist politics. Lawrence certainly draws upon ideologies associated with völkisch organicism, a tradition commonly thought both to precede and to foster the rise of fascism in Europe. However, neither the conspicuous presence of these proto-fascist ideologies nor the vivid portrayal of a leadership regime in The Plumed Serpent warrants labeling it a fascist novel. As Reed Way Dasenbrock contends, if one approaches a seemingly fascist text principally through its “intellectual content,” one runs the risk of neglecting “how it works” and of ignoring the overall effects it produces (83). In approaching Lawrence’s novel, one must consider how the author employs aspects of völkisch organicism, how this tradition functions within the novel’s broader context, paying special attention to the question of whether or not Lawrence posits it in an uncritical or totalizing manner—that is, as an ideology in the narrowest sense of the term. Since some central elements of proto-fascist völkisch ideologies do appear in The Plumed Serpent, this essay, in accordance with Dasenbrock’s methodology, will ask to what purpose these ideologies circulate rather than presuming that they serve merely as political propaganda.
The second key premise of this essay relates to racial ideology. In focusing upon distinct and even competing ideologies of racism, the essay will follow the work of contemporary postcolonial critics, most notably Étienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein’s Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities. Versions of at least two distinct forms of racism appear in The Plumed Serpent, an ethnocentric primitivism associated with Western colonialism and a proto-fascist politics of “the people.” Historically, the first of these racisms tends to contrast outlying “primitive” cultures with “civilized” nations and to imbue Otherness with an exoticism that both attracts and repels. The second tends to celebrate “the people” as a national culture tied organically to the landscape and to call for the violent purging of a “degenerate” or “decadent” element supposedly corrupting the body of the nation from the inside. In other words, the first values the ideal of civilization, the second the ideal of organic culture. Whereas proto-fascists and fascists tended to reconcile these reactionary ideologies by way of a simplistic irrationalism, Lawrence pits them against each other, fleshes out the levels of contradiction between them, and renounces fascist violence, but not racism, in the end. Lawrence uses primitivism or, to borrow a phrase from Gikandi, the “figure of the primitive” (183) to divide völkisch organicism against itself in his so-called “American” novel.
This rupture occurs largely through Lawrence’s development of the novel’s central character, Kate Leslie. Lawrence creates sympathy for her by revealing her character “through her own continuous thoughts” (Dix 47). Kate’s critical consciousness helps the reader digest the novelistic world around her and to achieve a relatively objective distance from it. In particular, she consistently exhibits a suspicious attitude toward the Quetzalcoatl movement, a rising Mexican leadership regime in which she at first enthusiastically and later reluctantly participates. Kate herself, however, fails to achieve the objectivity made available to the reader by her perspective. In her mind, she repudiates the irrationalist blood philosophy advanced by the leaders of the movement because it requires her to give up her individual will, but she also ignores the best advice of her own conscience, which tells her to leave Mexico immediately lest she become victim to the very violence attendant on such irrationalism. Thus, a distance opens up between the implications of Kate’s narration and her final, irreconcilable decision to stay in Mexico. Lawrence leaves the reader with the impression that Kate, having assessed the situation carefully, makes an extremely reckless and unwise choice. She rightly fears the irrationalism associated with protofascist organic culturalism but nonetheless refuses to return to the ostensible safety of “civilization.” Lawrence shows her standing at the threshold of fascism, feebly and selfishly rationalizing the unmistakable menace facing her.
Although one could make a case for The Plumed Serpent as a Mexican novel, citing the anti-Catholic agraristas of Michoacán or other Mexican popular movements of the early twentieth century as Lawrence’s historical material, Peter Fjågesund quite rightly insists that Lawrence places “almost exclusively European, or at least Western” concerns at the center of his narrative (137). Readers see and understand Mexico largely through the eyes and the thoughts of Kate, an Irishwoman who, much like Lawrence, wants to leave behind her European heritage but ultimately will not or, perhaps, cannot. The analytical framework of the novel grows out of her engagement with the cultural difference of Mexico, as well as with the leadership ideas embodied in the Quetzalcoatl movement. On the one hand, Kate brings Western primitivism to bear on Mexico. No doubt, in this respect, her experience of Mexico resembles Lawrence’s own. On the other hand, she narrativizes the conflict of her rational, “civilized” self—of her individual will—with the irrational organic culture promoted by the leadership regime. In this second respect, the novel dramatizes a contemporary European and particularly German philosophical debate concerning civilization and culture.
Lawrence’s familiarity with German thought and culture is well documented. After giving up school teaching in 1912, Lawrence visited his former teacher, Ernest Weekley, to enquire about the possibility of finding a job at a German university. He met Weekley’s German wife Frieda with whom he traveled in Germany in May 1912. It was through Frieda that he began to move in German intellectual circles (Fjågesund 95). Moreover, by 1912, he already had a commanding knowledge of Nietzsche’s philosophy (Fernihough 21). During the following ten years, he spent altogether about a year in Germany and became interested in two related concepts of male homosociality: Männerbund and Blutbrüdershaft (Fjågesund 93, 118). During this period, Germany became a hotbed of leadership ideas and proto-fascist thought, and Fjågesund argues convincingly for the influence of this charged atmosphere and of German intellectuals such as Hans Blüher and Ernst Bertram upon Lawrence. Blüher and Bertram stood in the direct line of earlier intellectuals, including Houston S. Chamberlain, Julius Langbehn, and Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, who contributed to the rise of fascist politics and promoted völkisch ideologies (96-7).
The debate regarding civilization and culture, of which Lawrence was certainly aware, lies at the heart of proto-fascist völkisch ideologies. For example, Moeller van den Bruck, whom Hitler greatly admired, links civilization to utilitarianism, a political philosophy he considers the foundation of false democracy, and to the “critical and cynical” disposition of reason. For him, civilization represents a state of decline from culture because it values “formal development” above slow, “plantlike” (i.e. organic) growth. It simply “cannibalizes” true art and culture, treating them as mere “amusement,” and allows reason to stifle the cultural spirit, alienating the people from it (Silfen 13-4). Culture, in contrast, produces original art out of the very fabric of national life. It fosters the spirit of the people, leading them toward their “destiny” through a few strong leaders who free themselves of enervating reason—the natural aristocracy (Silfen 16-8).
George Mosse gives a detailed account of völkisch or cultural organicism in The Crisis of German Ideology. It emerges from the thought of Herder, Arndt, Jahn, and Savigny (Silfen 18) and, more generally, from German romanticism. Its popularity in Germany grows throughout the early twentieth century, and it ultimately makes up the ideological core of Nazism. Much like its nineteenth-century predecessor, völkisch organicism tends to privilege irrationalism above reason, the countryside above the city, “rootedness” within the landscape above “urban dislocation,” and the wholeness of organic culture above the fragmentation of mechanistic civilization (Mosse 13-17). In völkisch ideologies, the soil constitutes a source of “primitive energy” (Mosse 17). The Volk, who “come down to the present from a far and distant past,” have remained tied to the soil of their native land, refusing to abandon traditional culture in the name of “progress” (Mosse 16). They alone have maintained an organic connection with the mysterious energies of the natural world, and this symbiotic relationship with nature and, more specifically, with the German landscape has produced a desirable and “genuine” character in the simple, decent, and earnest Volk, who for völkisch ideologues embody the true spirit of Germanness (Mosse 19). völkisch organicism not only positions the Volk as the “intermediary” between humankind and the transcendental reality of the universe (Mosse 15), it also underwrites a myth of national and racial purity that is later used to authorize and valorize fascist violence.
Lawrence’s interest in the civilization and culture distinction, and in völkisch organicism, appears in his novels as early as The Rainbow but emerges more prominently in Women in Love, written for the most part between April and October of 1916 and published in 1920. This later novel offers a trenchant critique of modern civilization—portraying industrialism as a primary source of social fragmentation and of cultural decay—and expresses a nostalgia for more organic ways of life. These concerns persist, albeit with a militant edge, in the first two leadership novels. Aaron’s Rod (1922) draws upon Lawrence’s firsthand experience of nascent fascism in Italy, while Kangaroo (1923) explores the possibility of Australia as a new ground for the rise of leadership politics. It is not surprising, then, that these preoccupations turn up yet again in Lawrence’s final leadership novel, The Plumed Serpent, drafted during a visit to Chapala, Mexico, in 1923 and finished during a stay in Oaxaca from 1924 to 1925. This important novel, although often cited as a failure, most fully develops Lawrence’s earlier interest in völkisch themes and, in fact, remains the culminating point of the second major period of his career (Fjågesund 129-30), precisely in its unfolding of the gaps and contradictions within proto-fascist leadership ideologies.
One völkisch theme that crops up in The Plumed Serpent is anti-capitalism. This theme, in part, relates to the idea of Americanism presented in the novel. Kate, an Irish traveler in Mexico and the protagonist of the novel, loathes “Americanism” (PS 16). This appellation, as used by Kate and a few other characters, refers broadly to the evidently unhealthy influence of the United States both on culture and on international economic practices. On the one hand, Americanism designates a corrupting liberty. For example, Owen, Kate’s fellow traveler and an American, must attend a bullfight, simply because for him, “Life” means seeing “anything [. . .] on show” (PS 8). Kate, who feels repelled by the brutality of the bullfight and leaves before its end, later diagnoses Owen as having “the insidious modern disease of tolerance” (PS 26). In her view, his attraction to the spectacle of the bullfight amounts to little more than cheap sensationalism and indicates a peculiarly American form of liberal degeneracy. On the other hand, Americanism denotes “mechanical dominance” (PS 93) and the “cult of the dollar,” each of which “smashes your soul” (PS 44). Kate conceives of this power to unravel the human soul as another manifestation of American degeneracy. As opposed to the “creative continents,” including Europe, Asia, and Africa, America plucks “at the created soul in man, till at last it [has] plucked out the growing germ, and left him a creature of mechanism and automatic reaction” (PS 77).
Anti-capitalist sentiment also surfaces alongside a disavowal of bolshevism. When Kate visits Sayula, a town near Guadalajara, the narrator takes an opportunity, by way of mentioning Sayula’s small railway station, to suggest that: “Wherever the iron rails run, and passengers are hauled back and forth in railway coaches, there the spirit of rootlessness, of transitoriness, of first and second class in separate compartments, of envy and malice, and of iron and demonish panting engines, seems to bring forth the logical children of materialism, the bolshevists” (PS 112). In congruence with the tenets of völkisch thought, this passage explicitly voices concerns about the disintegrating effects of capitalism on culture. The contrivances of a materialistic and mechanistic civilization uproot the people, severing their organic connection with the landscape, as well as disrupting or, at worst, destroying the “genuine” cultural traditions that grew from it. Here, the railways, obviously linked with industrial capitalism through the imagery of “iron and demonish panting engines,” become a symbol of the process of dislocation ostensibly producing “degenerates” such as the bolshevists. Furthermore, the passage implies that capitalism plays a primary role in dividing the social whole into a class hierarchy, thus exacerbating the already expansive problem of social fragmentation.
Völkisch thought also underwrites the narrator’s subtle denigration of the small Sayula elegancia, of whom the young male elegants, referred to as “Fifis,” end up being the chief object of ridicule. On Saturday evenings the Fifis, flappers, and “motor-car people from town” gather in the plaza for dancing, more often than not against the “silent, cold, dark-faced opposition” of the peons and the Indians, who, combined, form the Mexican equivalent of the Volk. In the face of this antagonism, the Fifis—despite their attempts at gallantry—seem “nervous, wincing” and “far more ladylike than the reckless flappers” (PS 115). The effeminate Fifis stand in direct contrast to the hearty men of the Mexican peasantry, who embody “something very beautiful and truly male, and very hard to find in a civilised white man” (PS 107). Wearing their fashionable clothes and trying hard to speak proper Castilian, the Fifis point toward the decadence and enervation of modern civilization. As a result, they are construed as proper objects of violence. Indeed, the Fifis stand around the plaza “looking as if they were going to be sacrificed to some Mexican god within a twelvemonth,” their “sensuous smiles, suggestive of a victim’s luxuriousness” (PS 115).
Of prime importance in The Plumed Serpent is Lawrence’s linkage of völkisch thought to the Quetzalcoatl movement, a quasi-religious leadership cult started by two Mexicans of Kate’s acquaintance, Don Ramón Carrasco, a historian and archaeologist, and Don Cipriano Viedma, a general. The theme of blood and soil holds a central position in the ideology of the movement. Throughout the novel, a primitive energy pulsates through the landscape. When Kate crosses the frothy, “sperm-like” waters of Sayula lake on her way to the Orilla Hotel, she senses “a powerful heart [. . .] secretly beating, the heart of the earth” (PS 93, 109). Ramón and Cipriano want to draw on this primal energy in order to awaken the old gods of the Aztec pantheon, including Quetzalcoatl, Huitzilopochtli, and Malintzi. Ramón, the movement’s charismatic leader who eventually becomes the Living Quetzalcoatl, sees his followers, in large part the peasants of the countryside, as being directly linked to the mysterious powers of the cosmos. Their ancient knowledge and character arise not from the faculty of reason—they have been implanted in their very blood by the cycles of nature. Ramón, who himself “has no belief in abnegation of the blood desires” (PS 273), writes hymns and organizes rituals intended to appeal to the blood-consciousness of his followers through imitation of the heavy, insistent rhythms of the natural world. More importantly, perhaps, he thinks that fostering the primitive energies of blood and soil is the key to fulfilling Mexico’s national destiny. As Ramón tells Kate, for him, “the men in Mexico are like trees, forests that the white men felled in their coming. But the roots of the trees are deep and alive and forever sending up new shoots. And each new shoot that comes up overthrows a Spanish church or an American factory. And soon the dark forest will rise again” (PS 80). Ramón’s comment, obviously foreshadowing his followers’ take-over of the Sayula church, suggests that under the right conditions, a native culture could grow organically from the soil and displace the European and American influences tainting Mexican society. The Quetzalcoatl movement aims to facilitate this organic process in two ways: first, by nurturing the Mexican national character and, second, by helping to remove obstacles in the way of its development, including repressive foreign institutions such as the Catholic church and American capitalism. As in völkisch thought, this myth of national purity serves as a rationalization of fascist violence. The propaganda leaflet containing the hymn “Quetzalcoatl Looks Down on Mexico,” for instance, calls for the elimination of apparently degenerate elements of society. It strongly denounces “money vermin”—who are “dirtyish” regardless of their race—and asks for “a spring cleaning of the world. / For men upon the body of the earth are like lice, / Devouring the earth into sores” (PS 242).
The peon and Indian followers of Quetzalcoatl also, like the Volk in völkisch ideologies, occupy an intermediate position between humanity and the transcendental reality of the natural world. Their consciousness, which is aligned with the “true” reality, represents the way back to a higher spiritual plane for other human beings. At a Quetzalcoatl gathering in Sayula, Kate sits on the “fringe” of the plaza, preferring to remain “out of contact” with the mesmerizing spiritual forces generated by the ongoing ceremonies. However, being so near this “nucleus of life,” she cannot help but feel the urgent summons of the drums “acting straight on the blood,” nor can she ignore “the strange nuclear power of the men in the circle” (PS 120-2). Later, after Kate decides to dance with one of the Quetzalcoatl men, she slips into a trance-like “second consciousness” and finds herself “caught up and identified in the slowly revolving ocean of nascent life” around her (PS 129-31). This identification takes her outside the sphere of mere Western individualism. “How strange,” thinks Kate, “to be merged in desire beyond desire, to be gone in the body beyond the individualism of the body” (PS 131). The rhythms of the drums and the dance move her into the transcendental domain of the natural world. Kate, who partly attributes this insight into “the mystery” of nature to her Irish heritage (PS 148), experiences the monumental Mexican landscape, where humans seem “like specks [. . .] just specks” (PS 159), as a timeless realm—as a wholly separate ritual temporality. After the dance, she rushes home with her “new secret,” promising herself that she will turn the face of her watch down in order to eschew conventional time (PS 132). Soon thereafter, she entertains the notion that humans need to “take up the old, broken impulse that will connect [them] with the mystery of the cosmos, again” (PS 138). Surely, in Kate’s mind, the peons and the Indians—who still maintain an organic connection with nature—are the true bearers of this ancient impulse and thus the link between humanity and the “higher” reality of the cosmos.
In the Quetzalcoatl movement, Lawrence undoubtedly renders a proto-fascist
leadership regime. Walter Benjamin’s well-known observation that
“[t]he logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics
into political life” (241) certainly applies to the movement. At
his hacienda Ramón employs blacksmiths, sculptors, weavers, and
other artists, who manufacture the symbolic trappings of the Quetzalcoatl
movement, including iron emblems, wooden busts, white serapes, and ceremonial
costumes (PS 170-5). Moreover, the movement carries the logic
of völkisch organicism to its deadliest extremes. As Leo
Lowenthal suggests, authoritarian leadership politics require individuals
to “surrender to a sphere of power existing before and beyond all
individual existence” (343). The Quetzalcoatl movement encourages
its followers to submit to the awesome, eternal forces of the nature world—to
the purifying, revitalizing influences of their own native soil. This
surrender prepares the people not only to accept other forms of monumental
power, but also to defer to the will of their cultural hero, which seems
authorized by nature itself. Nature, in its apparent transcendence of
historical space and time, becomes more than a source of mystical unity.
It is also a wellspring of primitive energy that will cure Mexico’s
social ills, if the people will only trust in and cultivate its (re)generative
power. In this respect, as Lowenthal notes, the “submission to nature
functions as an escape from the burden of social responsibility”
(321). The unfathomable and incontrovertible forces of nature, not the
human will to power, propel Mexico toward its national destiny and serve
as justification of any means—including fascist violence—of
attaining that destiny.
As Simon Gikandi points out in Maps of Englishness, many English modernists used the figure of the primitive as a way of working through the failure of imperialism —through the decline both of “traditional authority” and of the “European subject” (161). Lawrence, who thought that white European civilization had entered an advanced stage of cultural decay, looked to so-called “primitive” cultures, and in particular to the indigenous cultures of the Americas with their rich mythical past, as a potential source of cultural reinvigoration for the West. In his view, Native Americans had, much like the Volk, conveyed a primal vitality and knowledge to the present from the distant past. Through their long-standing, organic connection with the landscape, they had remained aware of the mysteries of nature, of the “higher” reality. In his correspondence with Mabel Dodge, who in 1921 invited him to stay at her Taos ranch, Lawrence hopefully expounded upon the possibility of what Charles Rossman describes as “a cyclical return to the past that could liberate the future” (4L 110-1; 183). However, when he finally arrived in New Mexico in 1922 and came into direct contact with Native Americans, he experienced their radical alterity as profoundly “hostile” (Rossman 185). Not surprisingly, this trend continued during Lawrence’s travels through Mexico, where his encounters unremittingly disrupted and complicated his romanticized conception of the primitive (Rossman 187).
Lawrence had already employed primitivism in Women in Love. As Carola Kaplan points out, Gerald and Birkin’s discussion of an African fetish at Halliday’s flat reveals an ambivalent attitude toward the figure of the primitive (114). On one level, Gerald finds the fetish repugnant, while Birkin defends its artistic value. On another, Birkin regards the unrestrained physicality of the female fetish with an admixture of admiration and disgust (WL 78-9). He sees something both desirable and excessive in the sensuality of the statue. For him, its radically different sensuality points toward “a lost awareness of the body” in the West that needs to be remedied (Torgovnick 160), but also toward a lack in the other, toward an underdevelopment of “other important human characteristics” in “primitive” cultures (Kaplan 119). Thus, the fetish at once provides a “blueprint” and a “warning” for European civilization (Kaplan 114). Despite the presence of this underlying ambivalence, the small statue hardly seems that important, much less that threatening, as the two men rather disinterestedly tower above it, confidently assigning it meaning. However, in The Plumed Serpent, a product of Lawrence’s Mexican encounter, the ambivalence surrounding the figure of the primitive greatly intensifies, taking on a new dimension, namely that of fear. Lawrence continues to connect the primitive with a more vital, other knowledge that could help regenerate European civilization, but it no longer appears merely as an artistic curiosity set against the safe, reassuring backdrop of the “civilized” world. Instead, Lawrence places Kate, a white European, against the massive backdrop of the “savage” Mexican landscape, where even the sun seems menacing, “dark and sinister” (PS 97). Kate, much like the African fetish in Women in Love, also becomes the object of the gaze—but because of her whiteness. Cipriano, a pureblooded Indian, watches her “with a kind of fascination,” knowing that he looks upon a “goddess, white-handed, mysterious, gleaming with a moon-like power” (PS 71). This goddess has cast “the same spell that the absurd little figures of the doll Madonna had cast over him as a boy” (PS 81-2), but the “mob” at the bullfight in Mexico City and Kate’s servants, including Juana, glare at her with “insolent” contempt (PS 147-8). And more importantly, in The Plumed Serpent, Lawrence associates the primitive with a vast, frightening excess—with those “forces that reason and civility cannot contain” (Gikandi 163; my emphasis). Kate, for instance, acutely experiences the threat of violence during her travels. In her mind, murderous bandits and rebels lurk everywhere in the “horrible, horrible” Mexican night (PS 137), helping establish a “perpetual sense of danger” that transforms Mexico into a “sort of demon-world” (PS 85).
Of course, on the surface, Lawrence’s use of primitivism hardly deviates from the norm—similarly ambivalent constructions of the primitive pervade Western literature, in the motif of the noble savage, for instance. But in The Plumed Serpent, the figure of the primitive plays out with a crucial difference. Lawrence’s portrayal of the Quetzalcoatl movement draws heavily on völkisch thought and, like it, unconditionally celebrates the primitive past as a source of future cultural achievement. His use of primitivism, however, complicates this völkisch privileging of primeval origins. In the novel, an ambivalent discourse emerges in regard to the primitive, fracturing and problematizing völkisch organicism by bringing an unfamiliar contingency into its purview: that of the return of “primitive” violence from the soil. By and large, the novel suggests that the roots of Mexican culture, “those Aztec horrors” as Kate refers to them (PS 61), are steeped in blood, and that the only future this past will engender is one fraught with violence and death. The introduction of this rupture into völkisch thought takes place in large part through the character of Kate, who feels “at once attracted and repelled” by the Quetzalcoatl movement, which she examines and reexamines, always through the mediating lens of primitivism (PS 122). Her perspective, underlain by intense ambivalence, not only dominates Lawrence’s narrative, it also carves out a space for working through the possibly violent consequences of authoritarian leadership politics.
As her dancing at the Quetzalcoatl gathering in Sayula plaza illustrates, Kate looks to the primitive as a source of spiritual renewal, but in much the same fashion as Lawrence himself, she also experiences “primitive” otherness as inherently flawed and hostile at the same moment that she attempts to idealize it. In Kate’s clearly racist and essentialistic view, the tropical climate of Central America has a baneful influence on the character of the Mexican people. It spoils them—keeps them from rising above the “primitive” state and thus from achieving true subjecthood, a soul. The “potent elements of the American continent”—the too-hot sun, the overly electric air, and the volcanic activity—“give men powerful bodies, but [. . .] weigh the soul down and prevent its rising into birth” (PS 135). The people remain “half-created” or at worst “uncreated” because they “have never been able to win a soul for themselves, never been able to win themselves a nucleus, an individual integrity out of the chaos of passions and potencies and death” (PS 135). Their organic connection to the landscape actually hinders their development as humans, rather than making them the true locus of cultural value, as in völkisch organicism. For Kate, the people’s closeness to the harsh Mexican landscape provides an explanation for their “residual primitivism” (Gikandi 179), allowing her to see them as naturally inferior to whites, as lesser products of nature:
Kate considers the racial other as always already subordinate to the European subject. According to her view, the “dark races” remain trapped in a “primitive” temporality, which they can never transcend. They can only continue on in their naturally abject state, or if anything, either subvert or destroy the European subject through the only power ascribed to them: that of pure, leaden negation.
In accordance with the conventional uses of primitivism, Kate views the Mexican people both as “children” and as “demons.” She perceives the “half-created” peons and Indians, including Cipriano, as “helpless” and tractable children, but equates their evidently child-like or “primitive” state with a dangerous, infantile, and even sinister irrationality that inexorably leads to senseless violence and death (PS 108). Few scenes in the novel set up this chain of equivalences between the primitive, childhood, irrationality, and violence as explicitly as the one in which Kate tries to stop two Indian boys from torturing and killing a bird. Kate’s account of the boys, who look like “tiny, chubby little infant men” (PS 215), calls to mind her earlier descriptions of peon and Indian men. The boys, “with sober steadfastness and a quiet, dark lust,” tether a black mud-chick to a small stone, set the bird precariously afloat in the lake, and proceed to hurl stones at its floundering body with “fierce Indian aim” (PS 215). Horrified by this spectacle of pointless brutality, Kate chases away the boys and rushes to the aid of the bird, executing a temporary rescue. However, the stunned bird will not swim away, and one of the boys soon returns with a husky, older boy, “a rather loutish youth of eighteen or so,” who helps him recapture the bird. Angry but somewhat intimidated, Kate decides against a second rescue, concluding: “This country would have its victim. America would have its victim. As long as time lasts, it will be the continent divided between Victims and Victimizers” (PS 217-8). Once more, she associates the American landscape and the Mexican people with the heavy power of negation. Around her she senses, almost maddeningly, “the horrible uncreate elementality,” the “monstrous” heat of the sun and the “crushing” coldness of the rain, the forces of disintegration. And in the eyes of the boy, she finds only a “black vision,” a “curious void,” the nullifying weight of unreason (PS 218). According to Kate, the boy cannot “see that the bird [is] a living creature with a life of its own. This, his race has never seen” (PS 218). Kate fears the proximity of the primitive to violence, and as a gringita, an other, and an object of deep resentment in Mexico, she dreads the possibility that she herself might represent a proper mark for such violence. But eventually, she assuages her fear by promising herself, “‘the day will come when I shall go away’” (PS 218).
Ramón and Cipriano’s execution of three peons suspected of betrayal stands as a paramount grievance against Lawrence because of its obvious brutality. Critics commonly cite the famous passage in which Kate says of Cipriano “Why should I judge him? [. . .] What do I care if he kills people?” (PS 394) as strong evidence of Kate’s indifference toward violence and of Lawrence’s fascism. However, this thought of Kate’s comes in a moment of exuberance after she marries the god Huitzilopochtli (Cipriano) and first tastes the power of becoming the goddess Malintzi. Moreover, it comes while her mind is intensely clouded by sexual desire and by fantasies of regained youth: “And when he comes to me he lays his pure, quick flame to mine, and every time I am a young girl again, and every time he takes the flower of my virginity, and I his” (PS 394). Here, as elsewhere, Kate is an unreliable narrator whose reflections Lawrence invites the reader to scrutinize. And importantly, Kate’s initial attitude to the ritual killings differs markedly from the one usually cited: “The executions shocked and depressed her” (PS 387). She fears that Ramón and Cipriano have elevated homosociality or “male significance” to a kind of “demonism,” to an “exertion of pure, awful will” (PS 387). Here again, Kate’s deliberations follow the wavering line of primitivism—she holds a precarious fascination for these dark, noble men, but it remains tinged with fear and even “revulsion” (PS 387). As when the boy brutalizes the helpless bird, Kate’s conscience warns her to flee the violent landscape of Mexico for safer ground: “Ramón and Cipriano no doubt were right for themselves, for their people and country. But for herself, ultimately, ultimately she belonged elsewhere. Not to this terrible, natural will which seemed to beat its wings in the very air of the American continent” (PS 387). In light of these and other earlier doubts,  Kate’s later “submission” (PS 390) to Cipriano’s way of thinking comes across as hypocritical, self-serving, and even delusional. Likewise, the unreliability of her narration, her continual waffling until she reluctantly decides to stay in Mexico, charges the killing of the peons with moral ambivalence. The existence of this pervasive ambivalence does not so much glorify violence as draw attention to its problematic nature for any authoritarian politics. The rich drama of Kate’s mind makes her much more than the mere mouthpiece of an ideologue.
Kate’s attitude toward the primitive in The Plumed Serpent plainly reveals an increasing ambivalence on Lawrence’s part in regard to a völkisch position that he seems to have held quite strongly after his trip to Germany in 1912. In a letter from 1913, Lawrence declares: “My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect,” which he aligns with Western reason (1L 503); but here, Kate connects the irrationality of “primitive” blood-consciousness to the “black influences,” to “the old grisly passions of death, blood-lust, incarnate hate” (PS 135). The narrative similarly inverts Lawrence’s earlier völkisch stance by way of describing how the “passive negation of the Indian” tends to drag down the “modern Spirit.” The Indian “understands Soul, which is of the blood. But Spirit, which is superior, and is the quality of our civilization, this, in the mass, he darkly and barbarically repudiates” (PS 116; my emphasis). Of course, these viewpoints do not necessarily rehabilitate reason or the “modern Spirit,” both of which continue to be identified with the insidious effects of instrumental rationality, but neither do they assuredly or unreservedly endorse a surrender to “primitive” blood desires. Quite to the contrary, blood-consciousness is portrayed as an inferior and a dangerously irrational mode of awareness. Kate, much like Lawrence himself, expresses a desire to transcend a constraining Western individualism, but the possible price of this attempted transcendence, lethal violence, seems too high. The blood of the people, laden with resentment of the inclement natural landscape that they cannot master, lends itself only to the production of abortive, negative energy that, in turn, feeds into the great forces of undoing: destruction and death. Indeed, Kate imagines the peons and the Indians as “men unable to overcome the elements, men held down by the serpent tangle of sun and electricity and volcanic emission, [who] are subject to an ever-recurring, fathomless lust of resentment, a demonish hatred of life itself” (PS 135). She points toward an ostensibly abject “primitive” temporality, where rancorous violence always ultimately predominates—where “the instriking thud of a heavy knife, stabbing into a living body, this is the best” (PS 135).
Kate’s perspective, albeit a racist fantasy based on Western conceptions of the primitive and of a superior civilization, clearly undercuts the völkisch organicism that constitutes the ideological core of the Quetzalcoatl movement. Whereas the optimistic Ramón regards unleashing the primeval energies of blood, soil, and culture as the key to fulfilling Mexico’s national destiny, Kate hesitates at this idea. At the same moment that she looks to the primitive past as a source of spiritual renewal, she also construes it as a bygone temporality—as a prodigious, regressive void remarkable only for its purely annulling force, for its ability to wreak uncreation upon the present. Her vacillations between idealism and anxious paranoia charge the theme of blood and soil with a profound ambivalence that functions as a denial of the very possibility of a genuinely Mexican culture or national destiny. When Kate thinks over the political situation in Mexico, the “heavy, evil-smelling weight of an unconquered past” comes immediately to mind (PS 135). This reference to the past not only alludes to the lingering “primitive” characteristics of the Mexican people themselves, it also contrasts their history of subjection with the West’s history of imperialistic domination. From Kate’s perspective, Mexico cannot achieve authentic nationhood—no more than its people can achieve true subjecthood. The factors of blood and soil necessarily lead Mexico toward an inferior destiny, that is, away from the Western ideal of national or “cultural” unity. Kate’s thoughts plainly reveal her doubts about Mexico’s future: “The Mexican shout is always a shout of hate.—The famous revolutions [. . .] began with Viva! but always ended with Muera! Death to this, Death to the other, it was all death! death! death! as insistent as the Aztec sacrifices. Something forever gruesome and macabre. Why had she come to this high plateau of death?” (PS 50). Kate implies that Mexico, impeded by a national propensity for enmity, infighting, and violence, will always remain in a state of abject nationhood. Her standpoint scarcely differs from that of another character, Major Law, the American military attaché who maintains that Mexicans “are really only monkeys, when it comes to nationalism” (PS 37).
In addition to inflecting völkisch thought, the discourse of Mexican residual primitivism in The Plumed Serpent also problematizes the authoritarian leadership politics of the Quetzalcoatl movement. The inevitability of the return of “primitive” violence in Mexico ensures that Ramón will become a victim of the very forces he tries to harness. Carlota, Ramón’s wife, feels certain that the Mexican people will “betray” her husband, and Ramón’s friend Toussaint, in a comment that alludes to a reawakening of “primitive” violence, insists that “Ramón Carrasco’s future is just the past of mankind” (PS 210). Near the end of the novel, Kate expresses similar doubts about the likelihood of Ramón’s success as leader of the Quetzalcoatl movement:
From Kate’s standpoint, Ramón’s destruction inexorably moves toward him as he gains power, since the Mexican people relish only uncreation, negation—their own continued cultural abjectness. Kate perceives only the potential for repetitive cycles of disorganized violence in Mexico: “It was the same, whoever was in power: the Mexicans seemed to steam with invisible grudging hate, the hate of demons foiled in their own souls, whose only motive is to foil everything, everybody, in the everlasting hell of cramped frustration” (PS 404). Once again, Kate points to the “foiled” souls of the Mexican people, who cannot overcome the brutal energies of their native landscape, as a reliable source of resentment and “primitive” violence.
This discourse of Mexican residual primitivism results in a characteristically Lawrentian critical splitting. Kate’s attitudes toward Ramón and Cipriano divide the authoritarian politics of the Quetzalcoatl movement down the middle. Kate considers Ramón a “European” because of his Spanish lineage (PS 237), and she greatly admires him, regarding him as “wonderful,” a true spiritual leader (PS 235). However, she associates Cipriano and his “dark, blackish [. . .] blood” with the heavy, negating force of the people (PS 317). As a result, she regards him with suspicion, fearing that he will betray Ramón: “Kate looked at him [Cipriano], and mistrusted him. In the long run, he was nobody’s man. He was that old, masterless Pan-male, that could not even conceive of service: particularly the service of mankind. He saw only glory: the black mystery of glory consummated” (PS 313). The novel, as a whole, deeply underscores Kate’s mistrust of Cipriano rather than working toward its containment. For instance, both Ramón and Cipriano discuss Mexico by comparing it to an egg. Ramón envisions social change not just as “washing the outside of the egg, to make it look clean. But [. . .] to get inside the egg, right to the middle, to start it growing into a new bird” (PS 191). He wants to help the people win a soul, an authentic subjecthood out of chaos. But Cipriano, like the children whom Kate watches ruthlessly kill a mud-chick and the bandits who lurk in the night, has something of an “aboriginal fiendishness” about him (PS 100). In stark contrast with Ramón, he only aspires to senseless violence and destruction—to unleash the “demon howling” deep inside him:
At this moment, Ramón not only realizes that resentment lies at the core of Cipriano’s being but also that “His people would betray him, he knew that. Cipriano would betray him. Given one little vulnerable chink, they would pierce him” (PS 192). Whereas Ramón sincerely hopes to avoid violence, Cipriano desires power at any price (Mensch 250, 231). And regardless of his apparent loyalty to Ramón, Cipriano poses a constant threat to him, primarily because of his tendency always to revert “back into the inevitable Mexican General, fascinated by the opportunity for furthering his own personal ambition and imposing his own personal will” (PS 253).
The Plumed Serpent also highlights the possibility that Kate will become a victim of fascist violence. Early in the novel, Kate hopes “not to get caught up into the world’s cog-wheels any more, and not to lose my hold on the hidden greater thing” (PS 109). Kate wants to escape from the “horrible machine of the world” (PS 104), but she also wishes to keep her newfound spirituality, her awareness of the greater life. However, the novel implies that the Quetzalcoatl movement, the source of Kate’s insight into the mysteries of the cosmos, cannot wholly separate itself from the machinery of the world. Ramón needs Cipriano’s military power, but “without Ramón,” Cipriano would be no more than “an instrument” and an unduly dangerous one at that (PS 408). Through her involvement with the Quetzalcoatl movement as the goddess Malintzi and her marriage to Cipriano, Kate has surely become entangled in the “cog-wheels” of the world again. There is no “culture of the people” untainted by the machinery of civilization. Moreover, because of the male-homosocial orientation of the movement, Kate is subject to instrumental reason. She makes her doubts about her role in the movement clear: “where was woman, in this terrible interchange of will? Truly only a subservient, instrumental thing: the soft stone on which the man sharpened the knife of his relentless volition” (PS 387-8). After all, Cipriano wants her only for sex, for “the moments, no more. She was to give him his moments, and then he was off again, to his army, to his men. It was what he wanted” (PS 399). Kate even entertains the thought that she will serve the purposes of the movement as a human “sacrifice” (PS 336).
Near the beginning of The Plumed Serpent, Kate senses that Mexico lies “in her destiny almost as a doom” (PS 24), and at its end, she goes against her better judgment and breaks her promise to herself to leave Mexico. Foreshadowed by the scene where she experiences “the real heart-wrench of blood fear” and metaphorically entombs herself in her house by closing all of the shutters (PS 136-7), Kate’s decision to stay is not at all seductive. In fact, it seems like an ominous mistake. According to the logic of her own racist discourse, she encloses herself “in the tomb with [. . .] the conquered race” and falls “helplessly down the hole” of primitivism (PS 136, 78). Furthermore, when she makes her decision, Kate has not yet resolved the question of whether or not “’the old Pan can wrench us back into the old, evil forms of consciousness’” (PS 137). She has very little faith in the Quetzalcoatl movement, and she refuses to surrender herself completely to it, thinking “What a fraud I am! I know all the time it is I who don’t altogether want them. I want myself to myself. But I can fool them so they shan’t find out” (PS 443). Gikandi points out that “other” cultures often provided spaces in which Western women could shake off the burden of conventional femininity (119-20). And significantly, Kate chooses to stay precisely because she does not want to return to England, where as a forty-year-old woman, she will probably do no more than “sit in a London drawing-room, and add another to all the grimalkins” (PS 439). For Kate, a ruthless opportunist, her “ego,” her “individuality,” and even her life “are not worth that ghastly price” (PS 439).
Eliseo Vivas claims that Lawrence conceived of The Plumed Serpent not “dramatically but conceptually” and that the author “failed to achieve proper aesthetic distance” from his subject matter (67, 69). However, Kate’s unreliable narration and irresolute musings do create a dramatic structure, one reaching its climax when she must decide whether or not to leave Mexico; and further, the ample implications of the narrative that cast doubt upon and perhaps even discredit Kate’s decision to stay—the ominous, brutal force of the Mexican landscape; the probable failure of the Quetzalcoatl movement; Cipriano’s capacity to betray Ramón; and the likelihood of Kate herself becoming a victim of senseless violence, to name a few—lend a degree of objectivity to the novel. Lawrence does not simply play ventriloquist for an ideology. By forcing primitivism and völkisch organicism into a fretful dialogue, he brings problems associated with authoritarian leadership politics, particularly irrationalism and violence, to the foreground rather than quietly brushing them aside. He works through these problems by way of Kate’s critical perspective and ends the novel on an intensely pessimistic note, with death in the air—hardly an advertisement for fascism. Of course, this essay does not mean to suggest that racism, found both in Kate’s primitivism and in Lawrence’s analytical framing of the novel as a conflict between two racial ideologies, is not an authoritarian gesture. However, the racist discourse of residual primitivism in the novel has more to do with a nostalgia for “civilization” and with the failure of the Western subject than with endorsing an up-and-coming fascist ideology. Furthermore, Lawrence’s use of this racist discourse does more to short-circuit proto-fascist völkisch ideologies than promote them. Indeed, Lawrence does little to seduce the reader but rather makes her at very least, in contrast to Kate, face up to the dangers immanent within authoritarian leadership politics.
Sincere thanks to Jon Klancher, Michelle Wright, and Carol Hamilton for their very helpful responses.
1. Eliseo Vivas contends that Lawrence, something of a proto-fascist ideologue, offered the novel as a guide to worldwide political transformation (73, 78). According to his view, the novel fails in many respects because it privileges politics or “ideology” above aesthetics (66-7). Anne Fernihough describes the novel as one of Lawrence’s “worst excesses” in the direction of authoritarian politics, maintaining that it produces a totalizing “metaphysic” that stifles the play of difference and thereby “threatens to destroy the work” (191). Peter Fjågesund claims that in the novel Lawrence, more so than ever before, “glorifies” violence, suffering from the “same blindness” to reality as “Sorel and the progenitors of German fascism” (140-1).
2. Philip Sicker maintains that Lawrence’s backpedaling from leadership politics lasted only until 1929, at which time his Grand Inquisitor essay reasserted the importance of the hero. For the purposes of this essay, the question of whether or not Lawrence eventually reaffirmed his interest in leadership politics matters less than the hesitation that clearly surfaces in these letters.
6. For a fuller account of Lawrence’s reading and experience after 1912, see Fjågesund, chapters four and five. See also Lawrence’s letters to Rolf Gardiner on 4 July and 9 August 1924, which demonstrate his knowledge of the Kibbo Kift, the Woodcraft Kindred, a völkischstyle movement begun by John Gordon Hargrave (5L 66-8, 93-4).
9. Some other key moments of doubt include these comments by Kate: 1) “’For heaven’s sake let me get out of this, and back to simple human people. I loathe the very sound of Quetzalcoatl and Huitzilopochtli. I would die rather than be mixed up in it any more. Horrible, really, both Ramón and Cipriano. And they want to put it over me, with their high-flown bunk, and their Malintzi. Malintzi! I am Kate Forrester, really. I am neither Kate Leslie nor Kate Tylor. I am sick of these men putting names over me’” (PS 371); 2) “She thought again of Cipriano and the executions, and she covered her hands over her face. Was this the knife to which she must sheath?” (PS 390).
10. See Lawrence’s letter to Edward Garnett, 5 June 1914, for one enunciation of this desire (2L 182-4).
11. An important change takes place in Lawrence’s attitude from Kangaroo, where the “dark races” understand the “mystery of lordship” (107), to here, where senseless violence threatens to engulf Mexico. Lawrence, who had already given up his political hopes for Europe, also appears to have given up his enthusiasm for successful leadership politics in what he once thought were more culturally potent lands, i.e., Australia and Mexico.
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