Updated: 06 Jan 2013
Criticism of D. H. Lawrence's essay on Walt Whitman
David Herbert Lawrence, the English author and poet, believed in a 'life of the senses' and touted that natural instincts should be revitalized. He was critical of Western rationalists and very critical of Whitman. Lawrence, considered a genius by himself and his peers, falls short in his essay. This shortfall is due in part to his faulty logic. This article picks apart Lawrence's logic and uncover many misuses and poor excuses for argument, but will not counter-argue his positions. For the stances he takes are not what's troubling — it's the way he explains (or fails to explain) these stances that puzzle us.
The bewilderment begins at the opening paragraph. Claims are made that Whitman is "the greatest of the Americans" and "one of the greatest poets of the world." (842) Yet no evidence, inductive or otherwise, is presented to prove this point. This could be considered begging the question: the reader is assumed to take Lawrence at his word and believe with blind faith that the statement is correct. Another troubling fallacy, a self contradiction, occurs in paragraphs one and two; after heaping praise on Whitman, he contradicts himself: "…an element of falsity troubles us still. Something is wrong…" (842) In effect, Whitman is a great poet, but he's not really that great.
Lawrence begins paragraph three with a hasty generalization — "All the Americans… seem to have been conscious of making a breach in the established order." (842) Lawrence is forming a deductive argument, but leaves it up to the reader to complete the implied point — that what applies to this generalization of all Americans applies likewise to Whitman. The syntax of the argument suffices; but the major premise, that all Americans are conscious of bucking the status quo, needs evidence. Again, Lawrence provides none — he instead fills the page by reiterating the claim in different words.
In paragraphs eight and nine, Lawrence claims, in a nutshell, that American authors are sentimental and that most European authors are not. Again, he returns to faulty deductive reasoning to hook readers. Below is the syllogism of this deductive reasoning.
- Major Premise: [none] Lawrence leaves this up to the reader to infer.
- Minor Premise: All Americans use the mind to control the senses.
- Claim: Using the mind to control the senses ruins both life and art.
Lawrence is jumping to conclusions. This deductive reasoning is written off because 1). The major premise is not evident. And 2.) The minor premise is part of a larger hasty generalization. The conclusion cannot logically follow premises that are unsupported.
A deductive reasoning in the vein of the previous example occurs on page 843. Lawrence's claim is that all creative Americans have bad style. His minor premise, that all Americans have had a sense of guilt when bucking the status quo, is again a hasty generalization. His claim simply doesn't follow the premise. On top of this, Lawrence suppresses his major premise, leaving the reader and the critic to their own devices.
When Lawrence finally presents the reader with evidence, he misinterprets or even contradicts the evidence. The most glaring example of this is the first quote from Whitman on page 847:
"As I see myself reflected in nature,
As I see through a mist, One with inexpressible completeness, sanity, beauty,
see the bent head and the arms folded over the breast, the Female I see."
Lawrence contradicts this by claiming that Whitman didn't think very highly of women and reduced them to a 'functional being'. Nothing could be further from the truth. "One with inexpressible completeness, sanity [and] beauty" conveys a sense of equality, not subordination, as Lawrence proposes.
Lawrence's inductive reasoning in "Whitman" could be better as he often falls prey to using hasty generalizations. Take, for example, this excerpt from page 842: "All the Americans…seem to have been conscious of making a breach in the established order." The next four paragraphs follow the trend set by the latter quote: hasty generalizations about groups of people. Lawrence makes generalizations about Americans, Europeans, Greeks and Christians but leaves no room in his paragraphs for explanations or logic. I feel as if Lawrence is talking down to the reader; as if the reader doesn't need hard evidence and is willing to sop up whatever Lawrence throws at him.
Lawrence proves his logic somewhat at the bottom of page 843: "And this is what all the Americans do, beginning with Crêvecoeur, Hawthorne, Poe…" He backs up his hasty generalization of American poets with a list of American poets. No hard evidence, such as a quote, comment or text excerpt from an author on the list — just the list in itself suffices for Lawrence.
Lawrence ends the 'pseudo-deductive reasoning' of page 843 with a slippery slope fallacy: "Everything becomes self-conscious and spurious, to the pitch of madness." This could also be considered circular reasoning or a restatement, for he mentions the word 'spurious' twice within a three-sentence span. Lawrence seems to revel in circular reasoning, as page 845 suggests: "At last everything is conquered. At last the lower centers are conquered. At last the lowest plane is submitted to the highest. At last there is nothing more to conquer." There may be nothing more to conquer, but there is more to criticize; just one paragraph later, Lawrence says, "man's maximum state of consciousness, his highest state of spiritual being. Supreme spiritual consciousness, and the divine drunkenness of supreme consciousness." Circular reasoning and repetition are at the heart of many weak arguments. A final, but glaring, example of repetition occurs in the closing paragraph. Lawrence sounds like a child who has recently discovered a new word — the word 'spontaneous' or 'spontaneity' are mentioned four times in the first five sentences, and five times overall.
Self-contradiction seems to be Lawrence's weakest link. The opening paragraphs find him criticizing the Americans' style (and subsequently Whitman's style), as explained earlier. Yet the essay's closing paragraph lauds Whitman and the Americans. Lawrence also contradicts himself on page 844: "Europe and America are all alike, all the nations self-consciously provoking their own passional reaction from the mind and nothing spontaneous." This statement is a direct contradiction to the prior page, where Lawrence spends seven paragraphs outlining the differences between Europeans and Americans. There is still another contradiction, pulled from the same quote as the previous example: while explaining how Europeans and Americans are alike, Lawrence claims that there is "nothing spontaneous," but when we read his closing paragraph, we find him outlining and praising Whitman's spontaneity incessantly. These contradictions no doubt leave the reader confused, begging for an explanation.
Lawrence also runs into logical fallacies when he argues against Whitman's idea of merging. (846) After stating that Whitman's way to Allness is "..obviously wrong," he delves into a series of rhetorical questions, leaving none answered. Rhetorical questions aren't evidence, they're simply unanswered questions. Lawrence then goes for the jugular and engages in name calling — slang, if you will. This name calling spree, to me, reveals that either Lawrence didn't want to take the time to develop his arguments fully or that his arguments were weak and unfounded. Whitman's view of Allness is called a "hideous tyranny," a "prison of horrors," a "nasty degeneration", "mucous slime" and "imbecility." (846) These 'cuss words' unfortunately make up the meat of the paragraph; Lawrence fails to further develop his argument.
"Whitman", for better or for worse, is my first impression of D. H. Lawrence. This may be a blessing, for I will most likely read other Lawrence works with the same, careful manner that I gave this essay. Lawrence may have been an excellent fiction author in his day, but no one can earn the right to use such faulty logic in essays, critical or otherwise. Lawrence may (or may not) have been correct in some of his assertions, but his arguments for proving his assertions were crippled with inconsistent opinions, erroneous deductive reasoning, and a overall disregard for argumentative logic.
- Analysis of Walt Whitman's "Salut Au Monde!"
- English Romantics and Nature: Blake, Wordsworth, and Clare
- Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Eds.: Bradley, Sculley and Harold W. Blodgett. New York: W.W. Norton & C