T.S. Eliot wrote of Henry James: “He had a mind so fine no idea could violate it.” That was a compliment. Eliot thought ideas were mostly out of place in art, or at least notoriously hard to keep in their proper place. Surprisingly, Eliot also commended James for keeping ideas out of his critical writings. Eliot’s critical writings teemed with ideas, indeed staggered under them.
Of course James had plenty of ideas, and so did his characters, but not the sort that Eliot deplored—not general ideas or, as we might say, ideologies. Those who do have ideologies—the feminists in The Bostonians or the revolutionaries in The Princess Casamassima, for example—are slightly ridiculous or slightly sinister. But their ideas don’t detract from those novels; they’re just materials, like the enigmatic adventurism of the Princess and the chivalrous absurdity of Basil Ransom. They are not the author’s ideas, and the novels are not written to propagate them. That would have been a violation, in Eliot’s sense.
Eliot thought D. H. Lawrence’s mind was continually and ruinously violated by ideas. He called Lawrence an “arch-heretic” (this was not a compliment) and a “very sick man”; and he devoted a good deal of After Strange Gods to deploring Lawrence’s regrettable effects on contemporary sensibilities. It was not a matter of individual depravity. Lawrence simply had the misfortune to be born without the indispensable mental resources of a traditional culture and the stabilizing moral bulwarks of a traditional religion. It was therefore perfectly natural that he could not think and that his characters had no conscience.
It has been an influential judgment—like all of Eliot’s—and it finds a faint echo in Geoff Dyer’s introduction to The Bad Side of Books, though he invokes not Eliot’s authority but Kate Millett’s in Sexual Politics, a book which could hardly be more different from After Strange Gods. “If Lawrence remains a great writer today,” Dyer opines,
that is due in no small part because his enduring freshness and force is found in the travel books, in poems that were scarcely even poems, and in the scatter of his essays. For Lawrence the novel, “the one bright book of life,” was the supreme test; that’s what he staked his life on. But many of his gifts were best displayed elsewhere.
“Freshness and force” falls well short of wisdom and genius; travel books, poems (that are “scarcely even poems”), and a scatter of essays—do these modest achievements add up to a major writer? In Out of Sheer Rage, his witty and exasperating book about not writing a book about Lawrence, Dyer acknowledged that he no longer cares for Lawrence’s novels. In his introduction to The Bad Side of Books, explaining why the collection is made up almost entirely of occasional writing, Dyer muses that “although Lawrence undoubtedly had a philosophy which he was keen to share with the world (to put it mildly), the effort involved him writing against his strengths.... Lawrence was often carried away by stuff about a metaphorical ‘river of dissolution’ but he noticed, with stunning clarity of vision, all the flora and fauna on the literal riverbank.” In Dyer’s British English “stuff” sounds more disparaging than in American English—for example, the expression “Stuff and nonsense!” There is comparatively little, then, of Lawrence’s philosophical (or “philosophical-ish,” as he put it self-deprecatingly) prose here. Of course, even in writing on ordinary subjects, Lawrence is always setting off little philosophical fireworks. But the grand fireworks displays—“Education of the People,” most of the “Study of Thomas Hardy,” Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine (except for the title essay), Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious, and Fantasia of the Unconscious—are unrepresented. For better and worse—mostly better, since nearly all the philosophical writing is collected in the two volumes of Phoenix, the more complete edition of Lawrence’s nonfiction, and in Psychoanalysis and Fantasia, which are available in a single paperback volume—The Bad Side of Books is a medley of Lawrence at his most observant, sensuous, and immediate.