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Psychoanalysis of the unconscious and the vitality of Italian landscape in D.H. Lawrence's "The Birth of Consciousness"
Lina Unali

Paper read at the 2004 American Italian Association Conference (AIHA) at Annapolis, Md

The study of the psychoanalytic works of D.H. Lawrence and more generally of that part of  his literary production which was either set or written in Italy may throw light on aspects of Italian American literature and even explain some of its characteristics. One reason is that the English writer at the same time revealed the greatest possible interest both in North America and in  Italy, in American and Italian literatures. His writings make a fertile ground for many different literary experiences. It can be said that his literary genius thrived on the frontier between cultures and thus may be welcome by writers who experience the same condition.

In the Introduction to Edward Dahlberg’s volume of 1922 entitled Bottom Dogs, D.H. Lawrence wrote that the Americans had been working too much, too assiduously, and that an excess of labour and fatigue had destroyed the sap of life. Dahlberg illustrated the drudgery, wearisome toil and ugliness of immigrants’ America, of proletarian America, together with the extreme lack of happiness and leisue that characterized it. During his Italian travels Lawrence sought precisely the opposite: the unexhausted sap, the exuberant vitality, the energy, the fire. 

Speaking about other presences of of D.H. Lawrence in American literature we may remember, among others, several passages from Mountallegro in which Jerre Mangione, in contemplation of Mount Etna and the plain of  Girgenti, seems to be quoting from Lawrence’s Sea and Sardinia, precisely from the first pages where the writer describes his impressions of his trip from Messina to Trapani.1 Mangione’s way of poetically considering that part of Sicily seems to follow more on the footsteps of the English writer than of the diaries of returning immigrants.

Following a British tradition, which went back at least two centuries, D.H. Lawrence created an international standard of appraisal of the Italian landscape which could convince of its value also people born of Italian parents and resident in the United States. Both his enthusiasm and his not belonging were equally effective.

D.H Lawrence (1885-1930) spent about one third of his not very long life in Italy. The reasons for this prolonged sojourn in the country are many, some of which of a mere practical order. After his mother’s death he felt the need to leave his native Derbyshire and to reside elsewhere. Although his great literary talent was soon recognized, he always seems to have experienced what might be defined as a feeling of embarrassment towards English society and social classes. In D.H. Lawrence Dying Game 1922-1930, David Ellis wrote: “His unhappy experiences during World War I, had left him rootless, bitterly alienated from English life”2. Other reasons for his leaving England were the war, his marriage with the German Baroness Frieda von Richthofen, a relative of the so-called Red Baron, a German pilot of great distinction; his poor health conditions. Surely Italy carried out an important role in the development of his                                                              personality and thought. In the spring of 1914, D.H. Lawrence for the first time arrived in the country with Frieda and visited the region of Lake Garda. He admired the natural sceneries and the people impressed him deeply, making him feel that the Italians had an entire different way of life and perhaps even a different religion. These impressions took artistic shape in Twilight in Italy (1916), written during his forced stay in England during the war. As soon as he succeeded in re-obtaining his passport, he left England again. He would return only for short periods. Between November 1919 and February 1922, he stayed for a short time in the tiny village of Picinisco, which is now in the Region named Abruzzi but at the time still under the jurisdiction of Campania. Afterwards he sojourned in Capri, where he wrote Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious3. Finally in Fontana Vecchia, near Taormina, he rented a beautiful villa that was later to belong to the American writer Truman Capote. Both pleasant and unpleasant English men and women lived in the surroundings.

From Fontanavecchia Lawrence and Frieda traveled to well-known places such as Montecassino, Fiesole and in January 1921 to the island of Sardinia where he was preceded by the painter Jan Juta who had made beautiful paintings of Sardinian landscapes.

From an artistic point of view the Italian years were very productive: Lawrence’s works include novels such as Aaron’s Rod and The Lost Girl, non-fictional writings such as Sea and Sardinia and Etruscan Places and quite outstanding, surprisingly less known texts such as the already mentioned Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious and Fantasia of the Unconscious, besides translations from Giovanni Verga’s novels Mastro Don Gesualdo, Cavalleria Rusticana – that he also prefaced – as well as the collection of poems entitled Birds, Animals and Flowers.    

He was not certainly the first Englishman to appreciate certain areas of the Italian peninsula. Several outstanding compatriots had preceded him. The poet-painter Edward Lear (1812-1888) had sojourned and produced several sketches of the countryside and of celebrated monuments such as The Abbey of Fossanova, a reproduction of which is now shown in the local museum. Since 1837, before going to India, Lear had resided in Italy and had earned his living as a drawing master in Rome. Nor Lawrence had been the first guest in Etruscan Tuscany, an area that the English travelers had been acquainted with especially after the purchase on the part of the British Museum of valuable  pieces coming from the Etruscan tombs such as that identified as that of the Signora, where the guides still nowadays mention that acquisition. In Lawrence’s imagination, Sardinia was probably first approached by reading Deledda’s novels4 – it is my own conjecture after reading Sea and Sardinia – and before his voyage to the island re-imagined as a golden age little world where all modern evils were absent. It is perhaps worth-remembering that he mentions Deledda at least twice in Sea and Sardinia, several rimes in his Correspondence and that he wrote an introduction to Deledda’s La Madre (The Mother) in 1928, on the same year of the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

The emotions raised by the mountainous landscapes around Picnisco were recorded in the final chapters of The Lost Girl, written in 1920 and set in the villages of Ossian and Pescocalascio (false toponyms attributed by the author to the villages of Picinisco and Atina). It is now possible to visit the restored two-stories house where the English writer stayed and imagine his reaction to the the people, so different from himself and certainly also from other English travelers overseas.

Although Lawrence’s narrative abounds with stereotypes of human characters and regional customs and situations, it is difficult to construct fixed interpretative rules of them. The whole Italian experience only might be synthesized by saying that it suggests two opposite categories. What pertains to England is represented as grey (about Bromley we read that “It was grey with shivers of grey sunshine”, 354), while Italy is fundamentally represented as sunny. Being far from England often corresponds to inhabit a Fairyland. In The Lost Girl, we read: “The train seemed tripping at the edge of the Mediterranean, round bays and between dark rocks and under castles, a night time Fairyland for hours” (381). D.H. Lawrence frequently expresses himself negatively about England in his personal correspondence. In a letter to Lady Cynthia Asquith of of June 11, 1921, from Baden Baden, Germany, he writes: “ Should like to see you. But the thought of England is so sterilizing” (33) 5.

For the reader probably the most disappointing part of his literary production based on his travel experiences is his description of cultural differences. One soon realizes there is a deep lack of friendship and sympathy in what he writes. His attitude is never one of equality or affinity with the various individuals he observes. As it has been observed, he did not like people. His art mattered more to him than the sensibilities of those who got caught up in the process, or his liking or disliking for them. Frieda once remarked that “I like people more than he does...” (Bynner 1951, 62) while in 1920 Lawrence himself made the following comment: “I don’t like people - truly I don’t” (Letters III, 491)6. But the English writer was a nature-lover. In the evocation of the Italian natural landscapes his prose is at his best, he expresses his liking in a vivid language, all the elements of fixation, alienation and stress which characterize his cultural analyses are absent.

At this point I wish to point out that one of the reasons of Lawrence’s exceptional interest in Italy and in certain sites in particular was that they could offer him the opportunity of an analysis that was particularly congenial to him. The Italian countryside easily afforded an enquiry into origins, into beginnings, into the genesis of processes that was fundamental to determine the quality and the validity of the present, or it should perhaps be better to say its lack of quality and validity. He might be rightly defined a philosopher, according to the general meaning of the word. His interest in sexual relations, the scandal raised by novels such as The Rainbow and successively by Lady Chatterley’s Lover often blurs and carries out of sight this fundamental outlook, his search for early developments, his disposition to the scrutiny and investigation of the past, of what could be considered as native, still undeveloped, primordial, the earliest stages of civilization and human cultures. Scattered here and there in his works we find the result of what might be termed as his archeological research and Italy was really a mine of relics of the distant past.

The Italian landscape was also seen as capable of expressing a special energy and vitality that could be easily connected to an ancestral condition and circumstance. It could encourage research about the nature of the universe and the spirit that had informed the first human societies; it helped establish, for example, the moment in which a certain deviation had occurred from a point of harmony and perfection. The writer saw England as fundamentally unhappy, altered by dire industrial conditions, while in contemporary Italy the antiquity of things had been maintained. The past and the present were both there, at hand.

Lawrence is looking for a lost spontaneity and naturalness. He idealized those ancient times in which the process of civilization had started. He follows Rousseau and the romantics in their belief that some human potentiality had been lost and man had been with time transformed into a corrupt, inhibited, sick vulgar creature. Nature, instead, specifically the natural landscape maintained intact its original perfection.

The line of investigation that the writer follows in Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious, in particular in the Chapter entitled “The Birth of Consciousness” reminds the reader of another search for origins. He wishes to retrace the process of the psyche’s development in order to ascertain its nature. In so doing he draws an ideal line that goes from the navel to the brain along which the fetus and the brain develop.

If we consider Lawrence’s concept of psyche, the simile that comes more easily to the mind is that of a physical entity, the first presence of which is detected from its smallest appearance, a cell, an embryo that slowly enlarges and extends, biologically, physiologically, as does the corporeal substance itself, moving in its progress from a spot in the lower part of the body (rephrased in the Indian terms familiar to Lawrence it would be the equivalent of a chakra), from the navel to the solar plexus, from the solar plexus to the brain.

The navel, the solar plexus and the brain are the cornerstones of the psyche’s development.

Curiously enough we find in “The Birth of Conscience” expressions that remind us of Thoreau’s Walden when the Concord hermit says, in the second chapter of Walden entitled “Higher laws”, something that would have repelled the Puritan divines of Massachusetts of the previous centuries.

We are conscious of an animal in us, which awakens in proportion as our higher nature slumbers. It is reptile and sensual, and perhaps cannot be wholly expelled; like the worms which, even in life and health, occupy our bodies. (…)  I fear that it may enjoy a certain health of its own; that we may be well, yet not pure (…).

It should also be remarked that most of the times Lawrence seems to have deepened and added new meaning to Asian basic theories relative to the various power centres within the human body. One of the extraordinary characteristics of his analysis lies precisely in his establishing a logic connection between the various chakras. Perusing the list of Lawrence’s readings compiled by Keith Sagar we realize that he appears to have read quite extensively from Eastern philosophy and of having been acquainted with anthroposofic writings. In order to explain the function of the psyche that he wishes to revitalize reminding man of his own inner force, what in the Asian tradition of yoga and other similar practices is often presented as scattered, unrelated, he ingeniously conjoins in a most fascinating way. Lawrence may even appear, though obviously belonging to the Western culture as one of the most interesting interpreters of the Asian heritage. His interests go from West to East as his journey to the American Continent that proceeded in the same direction.

The constitution of the psyche he presents is comparable to that of a body and has nothing to do with the soul and also very little with the Freudian unconscious. Only later on, in Fantasia of the Unconscious he will align his studies of the psyche with those of the Freudian school of psychoanalysis.

In “The Birth of Consciousness” the psyche’s birth is seen as coeval with human birth. Especially at the very beginning of its existence all spiritual and intellectual qualities are simply not there: “The vast bulk of the body is non-cerebral” (45). It is the sap of our life, of all life. Lawrence’s psyche is more congenial with the body than with the soul. It is coexistent with the former’s development, it is vital material stuff. From the foetus to the brain through an extreme effort of survival that D.H. Lawrence calls Calvary, it develops by means of attraction towards the mother’s body and repulsion from it. It is at first connected to the mother’s body, then repelled at the moment of birth, then attached to the breast again for nutriture, then repelled again. The final phase of this development is mostly mental. The brain represents only a fraction of the whole process, the final segment of that peculiar kind of spinning, it is Lawrence phrasing, that starts in the navel and ends in the brain.

In the essay entitled “The Birth of Consciousness” Lawrence wonders about the nature of the foetus and provides his own answer: “Is the foetus conscious? It must be. Since it carries on an independent and progressive self-development. This consciousness obviously cannot be ideal, cannot be cerebral, because it precedes any vestige of cerebration”. Later on the writer wonders about the localization of consciousness “of this creative, productive quick” (47-48) and  replies with the following words: “Surely our own subjective wisdom tells us, what science can verify, that it lies beneath the navel of the folded foetus”.

Going back now to what we have anticipated as a comparison between the way the writer deals with the Italian landscape and with the progress of consciousness, we may say that to the appreciation of both the realization can be added that their respective powers as hidden at the core, inner, latent, that their discovery and appraisal might possibly save humanity offering renewal and regeneration.

The past of the earth he describes in some beautiful passages of Etruscan Places can be associated to the past of the psyche (“Over and over and over has the soil been turned, twice a year, sometimes twice a year, sometimes three times a year for several thousand years, yet the flowers have never been driven out”, 226-227). The human condition associated with nature’s antiquity is similarly idealized. At that time “the men would come in naked”, they would sing because the Etruscans were fond of music, “had a passion for music and an inner carelessness the modern Italians have lost” (115).

In The Lost Girl D.H. Lawrence mentions beautiful mountains, woods, trees, he is enchanted by them. He enjoys the changes produced by the hours of the day, the phases of the moon, the dawns and sunsets. Similarly, when he speaks about the birth of conscience he shows all his enthusiasm in the description of that other natural marvel that harbours and grows within the human body, that unfortunately people either despise or ignore. Both the psyche and nature, instead, should be preserved and recognized in their integrity.

In the consideration of both nature and the psyche Lawrence appears as belonging to a tradition of rebellion against accepted values. He shares with American modernist writers a drive towards the new and newness. In the first case he follows the tradition of the Romantic admiration for nature made more dramatic by the subsequent developments of England’s industrialization and urbanization, in the latter the new consideration of the human the psyche raised by Freud has certainly to be accounted for, but radically transformed by a feeling of momentary antagonism, by an appeal to Eastern conceptions of the world and anthroposophical lore and insights.


1. Cp. L. Unali, “Mount Allegro and the Euro-American Common Denominators” in The Future of American Modernism, Ethnic Writing Between the Wars (ed. by William Boelhower, Amsterdam, VU, Amsterdam Press 1999). Cp. also L. Unali, “Immigrants in Mainstream American literature” in “Ethnic Literature and Culture in the U.S.A. and Culture (ed. by Igor Maver, Peter Lang, Frankfurt an Main, 1996, p. 137) from which I quote: “Here Mangione is seen as an American writer of Italian origin who adopts mainstream European and American Culture in order to formulate a valid alternative to the too isolated condition of ethnic writer”.

2. Cp. David Ellis, Dying Game 1922-1930 (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998), p. 6.

3. Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious has been recently republished by Cambridge University Press. The quotations in this article are taken from the first American edition (Thomas Seltzer, New York, 1921), of which “The Birth of Consciousness” is Chapter n. 3, starting at p. 45. The volume has also been translated into Italian under the title Psicanalisi e inconscio (Ripostes, Salerno, 1995). 

4. Cp. Lina Unali, “Lorenzo Lawrence and Grazia Cosiama Deledda”, Atti del Convegno Deleddiano di Nuoro, 1985, Published by Biblioteca Sebastiano Satta, Nuoro.

5. Cp. The Letters of D.H. Lawrence, vol. IV 1921/24, Cambridge, 1987, 2002, n. 2253.

6. Many instances may be given of Lawrence’s interest in the body. His paintings may be considered as the main sign of it. In an article by S. Michelucci entitled “Representation of the Body and the Visual Arts” (Writing the body in D.H.Lawrence, Essays in Language, Representation and Sexuality, ed. by Paul Poblawski, Greenwood Press, 2000, p. 19) we read: “According to Lawrence in his 1929 essay ‘Introduction to these paintings’ a ‘crucial phase’ in this gradual detachment from the body is represented by the Renaissance and the rise of Protestantism”. Lawrence’s paintings and also the scandal raised by them is a sign of the writer’s passionate appeal, so to say, to resuscitate the body, to propose its naturalness against the misconception of it as offensive and immoral.