One hundred years ago, with a bleak and bitter wind blowing as his ship entered the bay, an itinerant writer from the coal mining heartland of England landed on the island of Sardinia. Impoverished, maladied, and depleted by war and pandemic, the island was still decades from becoming a jet set destination. Food and fuel were scarce. There was little industry. Malaria, tuberculosis, and influenza had devastated the population, and the people—shepherds, farmers, miners, and fishers mostly—were deemed “backward” in the eyes of Europe, their traditions scorned as anachronistic in an age of progress.
Together with his wife, Frieda, D.H. Lawrence traveled from the southern bay of Cagliari to the northeastern port of Olbia, a journey through the mountains lasting just over a week. It was January and the Lawrences had little money. They were cold and often hungry; finding meat at an inn was rare, the lodging was threadbare. D.H. was not always fond of the people he encountered, complaining so churlishly that Frieda eventually shredded him for his intolerances. But for D.H. the island was also love at first sight, though love isn’t exactly the word. Stepping onto the island, he was flooded mysteriously by nostalgia. “It is all so familiar to my feet,” he wrote. “I seem to have known it before…to have dreamed it…It belongs in some way to something in me—to my past, perhaps. I don’t know…”
The centenary of Sea & Sardinia, once regarded as a gem of travel writing, passed unnoticed in the English speaking world, where the book is almost forgotten and, today, represents a kind of hasty, impressionistic writing that makes publishers and readers wary of paternalism or, worse, predation. Yet, curiously, the place where the book remains most beloved and celebrated, a place with an ancient history of resisting hegemons and colonizers, is Sardinia.
By any measure—attendance, revenue, awareness—literary centenaries are eternally modest affairs. But Sardinia’s interest in D.H. courses deep enough to sustain an annual Lawrence festival. In addition to this usual summer gathering, disrupted by the first global pandemic since Sea & Sardinia, a group of island writers has published a new collection, One Hundred Years Ago Lawrence Arrived (Maestrale), following their other recent volume, Back To Sardinia (2017, Condaghes), that retraced the Lawrences’ interior passage through the mountains.
From Grazia Deledda to Antonio Gramsci, there is no deficit of homegrown Sardinian writers to guide islanders through early 20th century history. Its vibrant tradition of letters, mostly untranslated and unknown off the island, also has no void in need of a hero. Instead something intimate, a special sadness, bonds the island and the author, like the call and response between flute and lyre, a high-sweet song that I was fortunate to experience a few years back. Traveling in Florence, I met a Sardinian woman standing in front of a bridal shop on Via della Pergola, a block from the National Theater. We were both waiting for friends after a concert in the bar next door. She was direct, blunt, and breathtaking, using our first ninety seconds together to extract my age, origins, marital status, sincerity and, most of all, curiosity. Was I a traveler or only a tourist? Whether it was a test or a contest, I still don’t know.
Coincidentally, I was traveling with an uncracked copy of Sea & Sardinia. Returning to my inn later that night, I read to the end of the second chapter, where D.H. jubilantly sees Cagliari from the boat. I copied and forwarded the penultimate paragraph, without attribution, to the wedding gown woman. “And it seems like Spain—or Malta: not Italy. It is a steep and lonely city, treeless, as in some old illumination. Yet withal rather jewel-like: like a sudden rose-cut amber jewel naked at the depth of the vast indenture.” Less than a minute passed. Then came her terse reply: “DH Lawrence. Sea & Sardinia. Favorite book.” In June we celebrate our fifth year of marriage.
But this odd little book, composed more of streaming images than ideas blocked in concrete, and written with one eye looking back at war, the other gazing into Fascism, also tells us something about resisting the impulse to retreat, building higher walls to hide out from one another, whenever those dark forces decide that it’s time to divide and to conquer. As walls of reaction are resurrected, and calls for purity grow stronger, one wonders, What needle did D.H. thread to craft images so vivid and authentic that, three generations on, people see themselves reflected rather than caricatured, typecast, diminished, or deleted?
One possible answer was offered by the writer Aldous Huxley. A dear friend from England, Huxley liked to refer to D.H. as a “dowser,” not of the material plane the way you dowse for gold or water, but the spiritual plane—the domain of the “inner why.” D.H.’s lightning intuition was, for Huxley, a rare genius. Except, the explanation leaves room only for study and admiration. Is there nothing to learn? Doesn’t dowsing, too, have techniques?
At the time, almost any European travel writer would have been indoctrinated with the social-evolutionary pseudo-science that colonialism was a way of bringing education, development and, over time, cultural maturity and self-rule to certain subject peoples. Lawrence did not share the view that all cultures exist on one ladder of progress, climbing the rungs, as the author Wade Davis puts it, from savagery to barbarism to civilization and “the Strand of London.” “To each sort of man his own achievement, his own victory, his own conquest,” D.H. wrote, echoing a kind of cultural relativism, overtly radical for the decade, that was also taking shape around the anthropology of Franz Boas at Columbia University.
Sea & Sardinia was Lawrence’s second travel book. The first, Twilight In Italy (1916), had already established two central motives that would impel subsequent journeys. First, a quest for sparks and embers of the “previous pre-white era,” places where the dominance of Rome and Christendom had been, at least partly, resisted. Second, a bitter preoccupation with homogenizing forces of every kind, from the rise of nation-states and war profiteering, to the expansion of mines, urban sprawl, and mechanization. He was, in part, looking for “uncaptured” places where the soul still had a fighting chance. “Room—give me room—give me room for my spirit,” he wrote, after arriving in Sardinia, “and you can have all the toppling crags of romance.”
But by 1921 the writer, like the island, was poor, bronchial, and battle scarred. Still just 36, D.H. had written more than a dozen novels, plays, poetry collections, and books of short stories, a prolific output in spite of abject conditions. He had weak lungs from pneumonia, consumption, and coal dust inhaled in his youth, and when he contracted influenza, in 1918, he nearly died. Meanwhile, public censorship for obscenity, stormy literary relations, and harassment by intelligence agents alleging that he and the German-born Frieda were spying for the enemy off the coast of Cornwall, drove the Lawrences, spiritually as much as physically, into exile from postwar England.
There was, also, one more similarity between author and island which, if not a dowsing technique precisely, might simply have made him more empathic. He was a literary figure from the mine-laboring class, and a pacifist in a time of war. And before vaccines, to be tubercular, whose symptoms could be hard to conceal, carried the kind of stigma that led people to hide, deny, and suffer their illnesses privately. D.H. knew the wounds of being suspected, derogated, and marked for your otherness.
Sardinia, likewise, sits smack in the midst of the Mediterranean, yet most people don’t know where it is. Its language is Semitic in a sea of Latinates. Its clothes, music, rituals, saints, and food are indigenous—the pasta neither Tunisian nor Tuscan, the martyrs more Jewish than Catholic, the music as much Celtic as Tyrrhenian. And like all minorities resisting assimilation, every Sardinian knows the negation of being told by Tuscans, Latins, or Campanians, “You are Italian,” then dismissed, even derided.
Traveling north, Lawrence quickly observed the pride and un-approachability of the men, dressed in luminous black and white garb, and the assertiveness of dark eyed women descended from Stone Age matriarchies. He welcomed the clothing for going against the continent’s tide of militaristic khaki, a “hateful material” symbolic of the “universal grey mist” settling grimly over humanity. And, much as certain customs confused him along the way, he embraced the cultural distinctiveness for remaining uncaptured by Hellenism, the Renaissance and, now, Modernity.
For his Sardinian readers, D.H. Lawrence had recognized something unseen about their solitude. He praised the wide open, very un-Italic, granite landscape—“It is like liberty itself, after the peaky confinement of Sicily”—and grasped, how, despite their central geography, their language, culture, and rebelliousness had turned them into perpetual outsiders. It took another outsider, an exile obsessed with belonging, to see them, floating, “lost between Europe and Africa and belonging to nowhere. Belonging to nowhere, never having belonged to anywhere. To Spain and the Arabs and the Phœnicians most. But as if it had never really had a fate. No fate. Left outside of time and history.”
Along the way, D.H. also continued having supersensory experiences, a familiar feeling of contact which, writing later about the Etruscans, he would dub the “vital touch.” “And my nostalgia for something, I know not what, was not an illusion,” he wrote. “I feel it again, at once, at the sight of men in frieze and linen, a heart yearning for something I have known, and which I want back again.”
If Lawrence’s spirituality sometimes reads like cringe or whimsy, it’s worth recalling the 1920’s “pyretic fascination” with the occult, as Benjamin Moser writes. New and old wisdoms were the rage, from theosophy to kabbalah and all the comparative mysticisms that Huxley styled the perennial philosophies. Still, in more downtrodden and perhaps consumptive moments, D.H. was convinced (and convincing) that his fight for the vital touch was a lost cause, and the “canals of connexion” between the pre- and post-industrial worlds, permanently severed. “Between the two visions,” he lamented, “lies the gulf of mutual negations.”
But Sardinia, like Oaxaca and the Tuscan Maremma, satisfied some of D.H.’s jealous desire for spots on the earth where the “spirit of place”—reciprocities between culture and geography, people and the land—was still alive. The author Jan Morris described travel writing as the outer expression of an inner journey; but D.H. had the opposite intention: he wanted places to envelope and mould his experience into internal feelings of external vitalities.
Not content merely to observe, he wanted to be affected, and the technique was flawed. He was quick to judge and over-zealous about first impressions; intuitive leaps, springing from incandescent reactions to a new place, or the expression on a bus driver’s face, could strain credulity. “He carried too much intellectual baggage about him on his travels,” the writer Lawrence Durrell said, “the mirror he holds up…is often a bit out of focus.”
If the vital touch, to be sure, could be awkward or tragic, it also produced gems, Durrell duly noted. In the case of Sardinia, 75,000 words based on the short trip of an author, who never again visited the island, somehow generated a century of tender dialogue and reflection. Call it dowsing, prospecting, or just plain stubborn concentration but there are evidently ways of seeing that bridge the gulfs of mutual negation. Not all gazes are predatory. And sometimes it takes a stranger with few ties or preconceptions, a traveler who is definitively not part of the family, to sense the suffering no one else can truly know, and read your inner expressions with crossed sticks, bent twigs, and divining rods.
A centenary marks more than the passage of a hundred years, it’s the roads that have crumbled, theories collapsed, and the way our walls grow higher as the cultures contract. D.H. Lawrence viewed the world through what are for us familiar apertures of decadence, war, and disease. “The roads, the railways are built, the mines and quarries are excavated,” he said sadly, but “chaos seethes upon these fabrications.” At the end of this dizzying path, he feared, lay an earth mined of vital spirit, and dehumanization, and these threats were what animated the very urgency of travel: To break through, make contact, canalize and connect—a partisan act of resistance against the khaki mists of avarice and decay.
Shefa Siegel is the author of The Origin of Avarice (forthcoming, Little, Brown), and a fellow in environmental ethics at the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Applied Ethics.