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Monday, 6 May 2013

D. H. Lawrence: Self-Pity


Cat sun: photo by Alex Holden, 29 July 2012

I never saw a wild thing 
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.

D. H. Lawrence: Self-Pity, from Pansies (1929)


TC said...

I know there are people who attend this blog by night because they can't afford the tuition at real graduate school. So, a bit of insider knowledge, for the two-cents cognoscenti...

Lawrence learnt this poem when he was masquerading as a girl in the military, from his/her drill instructor, Master Chief Aragorn.

Delia Psyche said...

What's wrong about self-pity, anyway? --Elizabeth Bishop

TC said...

So now the pieces are beginning to come together. Elizabeth Bishop was played in the movie by Viggo Mortenson in drag.

I often gave way to self-pity.
“Do I deserve this? I suppose I must.
I wouldn’t be here otherwise. Was there
a moment when I actually chose this?
I don’t remember, but there could have been.”
What’s wrong about self-pity, anyway?
With my legs dangling down familiarly
over a crater’s edge, I told myself
“Pity should begin at home.” So the more
pity I felt, the more I felt at home.

(In the first draft, I believe "crater" reads "fjord".)

Nora said...

Meanwhile, in Reykjavik a shark feels sorry for Viggo.

Dalriada said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marie W said...

Stephen Fry once said (I can't remember where and when)that he wanted to write a book entitled "How to be happy". It would be a very thick book with only one sentence written on the very first page: Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Well, that is easier said than done. Maybe self-pity cannot be helped? It is a bit like building an invisible fence around oneself. Others won't understand what I am going through anyway so I better keep any possible intrusion as far away as possible so that I can stay cozy in my home of self pity. And maybe there is nothing wrong with that? Hmmm... I haven't made up my mind about it yet.

Simon Howard said...

What worries me about these lines of Lawrence is they can very easily slip into an argument against empathy or consideration or compassion for others. Prefacing pity with self loads both words, so to speak. The result is the kind of reductive Nietzschean / Darwinian attitude which can have terrible consequences (Nietzsche who is meant to have gone 'mad' & mute after seeing a carter whip an old, exhausted horse). is a wonderful film.

TC said...

Oh, Viggo, I had no idea, you big sensitive hunk! And you even remembered my teeth! If only I could remember them!!

Well, if I were Stephen Fry -- or Viggo for that matter -- I'd make a point of stopping feeling sorry for myself immediately (if not sooner).

On a more serious note... Simon, your point is well taken. "Pity" does a lot better without "self" thrown in on the bargain. I like "mercy" even better, though. In fact, sometimes, if one is being honest, one is tempted to advise oneself to "have mercy", and even mean it. That is, mercy on oneself, on others, on everything and everyone, while there's still time.

The Horse of Turin, an unbelievably gut-wrenching experience. Compassion for the horse... that opening sequence in particular, one could not but wish it were "staged", while at the same time admitting to oneself it was not.

And then too, the compassion for the human characters, though of course one does not have the sense they were, "in reality", quite so hard done-by.

But that one-potato diet... and not even a fork for heavens sake!

Thinking about it now, the only film I've ever seen that would fit in a category with that one would be The Tree of the Wooden Clogs (Olmi) -- another difficult, unrelenting viewing-experience, painfully slow, largely undramatic, restrained in its presentation of suffering but quietly and magnificently compassionate, a magisterial reference-point of its art form and an unforgettable document of the brutal reality of this material and spiritual world of pathos, woe, and necessary keeping-on.

TC said...


Here's the Olmi film, in its entirety (with English subtitling):

L'Albero degli Zoccoli (The Tree of the Wooden Clogs)

Curtis Faville said...

I disagree with DHL here.

He liked to posit a natural animal kingdom opposed to man's over-rational approach to behavior, as if our higher intelligence were a hindrance to our feeling of pleasure--a kind of rote, unconscious action.

The gamekeeper Lady Chatterley is described as perceiving physical activity, including sex, as a kind of primitive ritual. He goes into a kind of trance during sex. It's also a way of excusing Constance's infidelity, as if she needed one (with her impotent husband).

But the "dumb animal" argument doesn't hold water. I'm convinced that animals feel joy, and sadness, and misery, and can anticipate, and regret, and learn, and make conscious plans. People possess higher mental capabilities, but still retain many of the instinctual (chemical and neurological) processes that are common to our various mammalian ancestors and relatives.

DHL is such a propagandist, even in his poetry. I find him brilliant, but often unctuously pious. Many memoirists describe him as a real pain in the ass in person.

TC said...


I think Lawrence writes with considerable sensitivity about animals, in his poems and in such prose tales as this one (posted here the day before this poem, by the way), which could not have been made without a good deal of writerly attention and observation:

D. H. Lawrence: Rabbit in the House

To suggest that animals are stoic in the presence of pain is not the same thing as suggesting they do not feel. There's a difference between feeling pain and working up a self-drama about it. Animals do the former; only people do the latter.

I'm aware that there are memoirists who looked unkindly upon Lawrence. I'm also aware of memoirists who made him out to be a great person.

Myself, I consider memoirists and memoirs a pain in the ass, generally speaking. Few things are more tiresome than woolgathering about the Old Days, and the Famous People We Knew Way Back When..

(By the by, if either you are I were to credit those who talk about us with absolute accuracy and truthfulness and impartiality, I suspect we might have to spend the remainder of our days hanging our heads.)

Curtis Faville said...

Well, okay, I'm not really going to disagree, here, but only offer a slight amplification.

I think Lawrence "needed" the dumb animal idea to make his cosmology work. He was anti-technology and anti-modern consciousness. For him, people needed to get back to their "pre-rational" natures. But that's an enormous irony. Certainly our ancestors were anything but peaceful or civilized or kind. Tribal or nomadic life was probably terrifying. For Lawrence, the best justification for adultery was that one was responding to a higher calling than mere good taste or respectability.

It's best to be skeptical of someone like Witter Bynner, but given what we do know of Lawrence, I suspect he'd have been an impatient conversationalist, given to pronouncements and ultimatums. At heart, I surmise that he was probably as uptight and reserved as any class-bound Englishman--dreaming of emancipation, though utterly incapable of it.

We shall never know. On the internet, meanwhile, everyone is both terrible and wonderful. It's a circus of misapprehension. It can be difficult to decide what people actually mean, a lot of the time.