D. H. Lawrence & Grazia Deledda
It is always fascinating to see an author trough the eyes of another great artist. Often the entire construction of the review is incomplete, lacking the depth and breadth of analysis—it is rare that a good author is at the same time a refined art critic. However, the flashes of lights that we can catch, the lamps of genius or the openings of a special hyper-sensibility always add value and, sometimes, provide extraordinary keys of understanding.
Since I’m rereading Grazia Deledda in English, D. H. Lawrence’s introduction to her novel The Mother is an evaluative pillar that must be considered. It is an outside, foreign reference, the point of view of an impressively good writer; and, besides, of an artist who loved Italy, who in 1921 went to Sardinia and wrote Sea and Sardinia; all that constitutes an unavoidable passage I was eager to approach.
D. H. Lawrence (1885 – 1930) is one of the great English artists, a novelist, critic, poet and painter. Of humble origins, he pursued a teaching career before he married Frieda Von Richthofen. Accused of spying for Germany, they were expelled from the UK and travelled around Europe. His best-known novel is Lady Chatterley’s Lover, published in Florence in 1928.
I like D. H. Lawrence and I understand that the power and beauty of his English is a rare feature. Some pages of Sea and Sardinia, just to stay on our topic, are inimitable examples of artistic sensibility and literary style.
Now, his introduction to The Mother is imposing for the quality of his considerations about the past-which-is-only-just-gone-by: “It is curious that fifteen or twenty years ago should seem so much more remote than fifty or eighty years ago. But perhaps it is organically necessary to us that our feelings should die, temporarily, toward that strange intermediate period which lies between present actually and the revived past. We can hardly bear to recall the emotions of Jane Austen or Dickens, nearer a hundred years ago. There, the past is safely and finally past. The past of fifteen years ago is still yeastily working in us.”
The first phrases about Grazia Deledda are significant too: “We can still read Grazia Deledda, with genuine interest. The reason is that, though she is not a first-class genius, she belongs to more than just her own day. She does more than reproduce the temporary psychological condition of her period. She has a background, and she deals with something more fundamental than sophisticated feeling. She does not penetrate, as a great genius does, the very sources of human passion and motive. She stays far short of that. But what she does do is to create the passionate complex of a primitive populace.”
Here, then, is the synthesis of all the best and the worst of his thinking. The best is the recognition that Grazia Deledda is not a banal writer but arouses legitimate attention; her work has a structural background and goes beyond the simple expression of feelings; she is able to recreate a complex world. The worst is his judgement about “the temporary psychological condition of her period” and “a primitive populace,” which denotes a lack of knowledge of Sardinian history and culture.
I don’t want to argue now about his sentences about Grazia Deledda as a writer (“she is not a first-class genius… She does not penetrate, as a great genius does, the very sources of human passion and motive. She stays far short of that”). I’ll come later to these considerations, which in any case are strictly personal and in these terms justifiable.
The condition of her period, that time between two centuries, the nineteenth one and the twentieth century, is the result of two hundred years of cruel and severe colonialism. As such, Grazia Deledda does not deal with a temporary emotional status. In all her work, there is only a very small trace of something temporary, existing only if there are certain circumstances or constraints. On the contrary, the ineluctability of fate and an unhappy ending, together with the downfall not only of the main characters, but also of the entire circumscribed life, are the definitive, dramatic message of her reconstruction.
As to the primitive populace, this is only a matter of ignorance. In D. H. Lawrence’s defence, the legacy of a great empire can be invoked, which includes a superiority complex. Thus, there is a form of widespread arrogance and racism as if all the countries and cultures not blessed by belonging to the British world couldn’t be but undeveloped. Reading D. H. Lawrence’s entire introduction you feel the eye of a well-known, typical English traveller who has seen African or exotic landscapes, tribes and customs, from on high. In this sense, while Grazia Deledda belongs to more than just her own day, it is true that D. H. Lawrence is a son of his time, strictly connected with the rules and the common understanding of those years.
It has to be added that at the beginning of the twentieth century, the effort to cancel Sardinian history and greatness (a scientific venture by the Piedmontese, the winners) had already achieved his aim. So, it was hard for a foreigner to deal with a hidden past: the Italian books, accounts and articles gave credence to the idea of a primitive land and an inferior race, it is true.
So, it is not surprising to read D. H. Lawrence’s description of Sardinia: “An island of rigid conventions, the rigid conventions of barbarians, and at the same time, the fierce violence of the instinctive passions. A savage tradition of chastity, with a savage lust of the flesh. A barbaric overlordship of the gentry, with a fierce indomitableness of the servile classes. A lack of public opinion, a lack of belonging to any other part of the word, a lack of mental understanding, which makes inland Sardinia almost as savage as Benin, and makes Sardinian singing as wonderful and almost as wild as any on earth. It is the human instinct still uncontaminated.”
Yes, as savage as Benin (by the way, Benin was a country of French West Africa, so condemned by its origin and belonging too). Moreover, D. H. Lawrence undervalues insularity and confuses the correct position of Barbagia: “…To do this, one must have an isolated populace: just as Thomas Hardy isolated Wessex. Grazia Deledda has an island to herself, her own island of Sardinia, that she loves so deeply: especially the more northerly, mountainous part of Sardinia.”
Now, the fact that he feels the need to relate a distant world to a close example (Thomas Hardy and especially Wessex!) is a sign of a superficial approach to the problem.
Barbagia is not in the north but in the middle of Sardinia. As to the qualification of barbarians, since I cannot retrace Sardinia’s entire history here, its four thousand years of civilisation, I will instead quote some passages from my book in the pipeline, Francesca. It might help to take a quick look at a great past, which has nothing to do with the barbarian hordes, the Vandals, Huns, Goths, Visigoths and Ostrogoths who, not by chance, came from the bare lands of North Europe.
“Nugoro, the modern Nuoro, Grazia Deledda’s place of birth, was the chief town of Barbagia, the light and the source of authority for dozens of neighbouring villages, the leader of a tacit coalition of outlaw populations, and the centre of resistance against external aggressions. Barbagia never surrendered to the historical invaders, be they Arabs, Africans, Byzantines, French, or Spanish.
The Romans too, during their one thousand years of wars, kept away from these disdainful people able to disappear into the abysses of their territory. The Roman legions were powerless against the unconventional tactics of the guerrillas.
Tacitus and Titus Livy also wrote about the campaigns in Sardinia led by various consuls. One of the most disastrous military operations took place in 19 BC when a threatening army, including four thousand Jewish deportees, was slaughtered…
You are proud of the Battles of Thermopylae and of Salamis, Demos. The cultural identity of a country is also founded on the spirit of such glorious events.
The Roman presence can be found in the UK, in Libya, in Turkey, in Spain, everywhere. Three years ago, I was in the Alps, and also at the top of the Great St. Bernard Pass I tripped over Roman ruins.
Unlike all the other regions of the Mediterranean, there are no Roman roads, temples, aqueducts or amphitheatres in Barbagia. However, of those harsh battles against the Roman army, not even the names remain. And looking at the usual sources, Sardinian history seems without foundation, or rather doesn’t exist. Barbagia pays homage to its past greatness with solitude and invisibility….
Because of its impenetrability, Barbagia’s civilization lasted for several centuries, throughout the whole era of feudalism. Approaching the fourteenth century, ‘Italy’ was a land of poverty, with endless fighting among the various states, and corruption according to the examples of the perverted and simoniac Popes. In the western part of Sardinia, in contrast, the Kingdom of Arborea was one of the most enlightened kingdoms: rational, modern and just, guided by Eleonora d’Arborea, a great queen able to defend her country for many decades against the invading Aragon armies, and famous for her Carta de Logu, or ‘Code of Public Laws.’
Eleonora d’Arborea was an extraordinary historical figure, but not well-studied because Sardinian culture had to be erased and denied, not just marginalized or hidden. Eleonora’s decision to abolish slavery in 1390 and set up the first land army entirely constituted of Sardinian men and not mercenaries was well ahead of its times.
Intelligently, she left Barbagia alone. And Barbagia, in the meantime, developed its own code, mostly based on the Carta de Logu’s principles of equality.”
So, in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, a few hours from Rome, there was a fierce and severe population able to resist the Roman technology and the Roman legions for one thousand years of strife, a civilization so strong that it spanned feudalism and the Counter-Reformation. The “Carta de Logu”, 1382, was the first example of a constitution in the world, so effective and modern that it lasted until the nineteenth century. Slavery was abolished first in Sardinia’s, in 1390, since there was a common belief was that only God existed above a Sardinian man, even if he belonged to the lower classes of society—and this fact explains the fierce indomitableness of the servile classes. Again, the Barbagia Code, even though transmitted orally and never written, was known, accepted and respected by the population. According to the fundamental concept of honour, the main norm was clear and precise: “Every offence must be avenged.” Everyone belonging to the Barbagian community was obliged to respect the law of vengeance, which followed the phases of a true criminal trial, as codified in the Carta de Logu: complaint, survey, judgement, sentence, execution (delegated not to a single person but a group of people), and exemplariness.
There is nothing primitive or barbarian in such a people, and only a superficial observer could confuse this country with an African or an old German one. Sardinian had its own, well-structured system of rules, even a constitution. Barbagia, especially, was one of the less class-ridden societies in the world, with strong principles and a participatory democracy.
If you know this background you can appreciate D. H. Lawrence’s flashes of sensibility: “Still Sardinia is one of the wildest, remotest parts of Europe, with a strange people and a mysterious past in its own. There is still an old mystery in the air, over the forest slopes of Mount Gennargentu, as there is over some old Druid places, the mystery of an unevolved people. …The island is still a good deal off the map, on the face of the earth. …A rule of ancient instinct, instinct with the definite but indescribable tang of the people of the inland, not absorbed into the world.” D. H. Lawrence gives the best insights here, letting his great sensibility speak.
However, as soon as he tries to make a historical diagnosis, he fails since his knowledge is limited. So, it is superficial to write, “There is a savage kind of aristocracy and feudalism,” since feudalism never governed Sardinian society. Or “a determined savage individualism often breaking with the law, or driven into brigandage,” but he doesn’t clarify which law (Sardinian or Piedmontese?) he is talking of. Again he writes: “The money sway still did not govern central Sardinia, in the days of Grazia Deledda’s books”, but D. H. Lawrence ignores that (always from my book) “Umberto I had the brilliant idea of contending with France, which was the main importer of Sardinian produce (oil, wine, wheat, fruit, etc.). Thus France banned all imports. This decision was devastating for the Sardinian economy, so much so that the local banks went bankrupt, and the population suffered decades of famine. The economy reverted to basic bartering.”
What I mean is that it is difficult to study the work of a foreign author, such as Grazia Deledda, an author from a world so distant, different and secluded, unless you dig out the fundamentals and so the basis, the particular reasons why, of her art. You cannot compare Lady Chatterley’s Lover (a book with a fine psychological depth but without historical profundity) with the story of love between a Sardinian woman and a priest. You should not think that Grazia Deledda has a definite universal theme: the consecrated priest and the woman—D. H. Lawrence was totally wrong, I’m sorry. Consequentially, since the betrayal of this theme was the main point of D. H. Lawrence’s criticism, his whole perspective is incorrect.
D. H. Lawrence just a few words before, rightly explains: “It is this old Sardinia, at least being brought to heel, which is the real theme of Grazia Deledda’s books.” It is true: analysing the book from this perspective, everything changes and you can understand because Grazia Deledda seems “more interested in the death of the old hunter, in the doings of the boy Antiochus, in the exorcising of the spirit from the little girl possessed.”
There is another relevant point that D. H. Lawrence ignores, the strange and complicated relationship between Sardinia and religion. The Sardinian population accepted the Catholic religion—accepted is the best word—but religion was always interconnected with the supernatural, and populated by magical power, figures and voices that formed a parallel, but real world (and Grazia Deledda wrote about this in many pages of her books). Moreover, Catholicism was the Piedmonteses’ religion, or at least it was the “institutional” one, the voice of the external institution. As such, it had to be discussed anyhow, and reshaped and adapted.
When D. H. Lawrence writes: “All the priest’s education and Christianity are really mere snuff of the candle,” his feeling and sensibility are right, but not his criticism. Grazia Deledda and her characters are not rigid Protestants. They are first Sardinian, then, maybe, Catholic, or anyway Sardinian-like Christian.
The final important point of D. H. Lawrence’s review is only a consequence of his general mindset. He insists in using the words instinct and instinctive with disapproval and condemnation. In the second part of his introduction, he uses these words so many times, like his obsession is connected with the strong idea he had of a primitive populace and a barbarian land. So, in this context, everything seems dictated by instinct, which is, of course, the opposite of rationality, and Grazia Deledda doesn’t but reports on these animal responses.
I cannot say I’m disappointed by D. H. Lawrence’s introduction. There are images and sensations that are striking and remain with me. But what a pity, what a pity indeed that he confined himself to judge another Benin from on high, instead of entering Grazia Deledda’s complex world—humbly but with the power of his acute empathy and responsiveness!