Book Review

Mornings in Mexico by D. H. Lawrence

DHL happy in Mexico, then beautifully sad elsewhere.

Photo on 11-12-2016 at 21.33 #2.jpg

I felt a little ashamed of myself for returning to travel writing by D. H. Lawrence so soon after having read some. Then I thought about it and realised that it was actually mid-August that I read D. H. Lawrence and Italy, which is almost four months ago.

Four months is a very long time.

Wars have been shorter than that, love affairs have lasted less time, jobs, mortal illnesses, massive injuries and long-form recoveries have been over quicker, books and symphonies have been written, songs and paintings and sculptures and manifestos and poems, and even some sad, tragic, lives have covered less than a third of a year.

Four months is a long time, and though I’ve done so little in the last four months that it feels like no time has passed at all, that’s because I’m a bit of a loser, not because the time period is inconsequential. There I go, I’ve convinced myself that what I’m doing is fine.

If only I could do that for all the other things I’m wasting my life doing as well as my over-reading of non-London-centric British writers.

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Mornings in Mexico is short, only about 90 pages and containing only eight chapters, most of which are also short. Each one is on a different topic, usually centred on the description of a particular event that happened during Lawrence’s travels to Mexico and the USA in the mid-1920s.

The volume I read Mornings in Mexico in paired it with [Sketches of] Etruscan Places, and the reason is the two books’ tonal similarity. Like the Italian-set text, this is Lawrence nearing the end of his life, becoming aware of his mortality and his prose reflecting that by becoming increasingly concerned with death and eternity, alongside non-JudeoChristian spirituality. This was one of the last books Lawrence published before his death and before his marriage disintegrated as a result of his illness. Mornings in Mexico‘s heart-breaking final chapter, written in Sicily and reflecting on his life ex-Europe as a lost idyll, is one of the strongest Lawrentian pieces I’ve encountered. There’s a lot to enjoy here.

D. H. Lawrence’s travel writing here also has that touch of Geoff Dyer. Though there isn’t an anal sex scene, there is a real focus on the human body and physicality throughout. Lawrence wants to write about other cultures, and in Etruscan Places he writes gushingly of a civilisation he imagines he shares intrinsic, lost, values with. Here, in Mornings in Mexico, he seeks in the echoes of ancient worship the opportunity to engage with what he believed to be deeply human ideas that had been corrupted by the decadence of dogmatic religion.

Lawrence writes with real warmth about the religions of Native America, a genuine interest that feels like an envy, an envy that their cultural conception of the universe is so vastly different from the notions of a European. Islam, Judaism, Christianity, all of them preach that the Golden Age of existence was long past, that humanity sinned and the true wonder of divine ecstasy will never be encountered again by humans on earth: believers in those faiths see death as the only possible route to Heaven: the earth has been tarnished and will never be golden again. Whereas – according to Lawrence – all of the traditional religions of the Americas believe in the opposite: that one day the world as we know it will burst forth into peaceful beauty, crops and animals and children will be plentiful and there will be no more suffering. They believe (again, according to Lawrence) in no deity, merely the power of the universe that brought forth the created world as we experience it. There is no guide, no judge, no master, there is merely Life, there is merely Force, and it is contained equally within all that exists.

Lawrence’s time in Mexico and the United States was one of his happiest, and this shows in the book. He is happy to wake up, his mornings are joyful.

Lawrence wanders and walks and explores landscapes and cultures about as different as you can get from his native East Midlands, and he watches everything with enthusiasm and without fear. He attends traditional religious ceremonies, some of which involve animal sacrifice, and there is no sneering tone of superiority – he witnesses these acts as different from his culture’s concept of devotion and worship, but different only, not worse. It is not superior or inferior, merely actions rooted in a different place, geographic and psychological. At the second ceremony he writes about, he and his wife are two of many tourists, all of whom are reverential as they watch Native Americans pick up venomous snakes with their mouths. It’s arresting and involving writing, and he clearly tries to understand what is happening and write about it in an informative and inclusive way. Lawrence is not describing these sights anthropologically, but humanely. These are no subjects to be studied, but people to be met.

These essays were edited in Italy, when Lawrence’s health was failing and his wife had probably already become bored of him. These memories of North America, just a few years earlier, must’ve weighed heavy on his mind. The open landscapes, the ancient cultures still living, the honesty, the worship of the land and the lack of destructive shame…

The writer only completed two other works before he died, the sublime Lady Chatterley’s Lover and The Escaped Cock, a novella I know very little about. Mornings in Mexico, especially the final chapter, sad and alone, is as close to Lawrence as I’ve gotten from his non-posthumous texts. Parts of Etruscan Places and the letters/diaries of his that I haven’t read I’m sure could take me closer, but this book dramatises a man who always sought something bigger and brighter than dull, grey England, who found it but lost it, and then after this book, we know he lost his health and his wife and spent many of his dying hours believing his then-banned books would be destroyed and unread. Lawrence’s life was sad. Such highs, and such lows. Mornings in Mexico is a treat, especially for a fan.

Recommended.

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