The Man Who Died, by D.H. Lawrence
I’ve posted before on the need for writers to gain a measure of life’s seasoning in order to have something relevant to say. This is not to claim that younger writers don’t have a perspective on life worth sharing – but it does imply that life experiences of the young tend to pander to the superficial level of understanding, rarely allowing readers to experience anything of life beyond said young writer’s ego.
Literature is at its basis an educational device – one in which a story is told in a way allowing readers to identify with life at multiple levels. Such experience in literature is almost always an isolated, discrete one – a specific person or incident. This is for good reason: limiting literary experience keeps the reader from being overwhelmed by life’s panorama.
But…and here my point leaves most younger writers in the dust…a story told skillfully enough to be considered literature will lead the reader to experience the deeper significance of the story, and this almost always leads to something we might call a word-driven mystical experience.
I don’t think I’m being too high-flown here – literature at its best should be a meme for something religious folks call spiritual experience. And this experience is essentially a unifying one – an experience that makes all discrete experiences seem part of some (tangible or intangible) whole.
D.H. Lawrence wrote The Man Who Died late in his altogether-too-short life. Writers, particularly those with the poetic bent Lawrence displays in his work, seem to be able somehow to divine the future, and perhaps this book was his way of peering into his own after-life.
His story is one of Jesus of Nazareth, the central icon of Christianity, and I should digress for a moment: Lawrence seems to have two writerly urges here.
First, he takes a rather incomplete story – Biblical depictions are vague on details regarding Jesus’ death, his burial and his rising after three days (How, exactly, was he buried? Where was the cave? How was the large stone rolled into the cave’s entrance? What transpired, other than what Biblical scripture depicts, inside and outside the cave, during the three days? How did Jesus feel upon rising: was he physically tired, psychologically wan?). Such gaps, whether you consider them of history or myth, are irresistible to writers, and Lawrence surely felt drawn to fill these gaps in his own way. His strategy was to treat Jesus as more of a human than a sainted personality. He depicts Jesus in this story as a man living within a plausibly human context – something that clearly went (and goes) against the grain of the prevailing Christian mythos.
And second, he surely wondered: if I’m to portray Jesus as a human here, how must I treat his divine side? Lawrence's plan was to have Jesus travel to Egypt and to meet a priestess of Isis – the goddess of Egypt’s Old Kingdom.
Why Isis? There are parallels with the treatment of Jesus at the end of his life with the story of Osiris:
This Egyptian god was, according to prevailing myth, stuffed into a box by his brother Set, the box thrown into the Nile. Osiris’ wife, Isis, recovered the box and brought Osiris back to life via a certain spell. Thus, Osiris became the Egyptian god of the afterlife, or of resurrection (coincidentally, the Egyptian religious cults were resurrectionist, not reincarnationist, as is Christianity).
Lawrence’s writing, beyond the scandalous histrionics gathered about his stories, was essentially about resolving sexual polarities in human culture, i.e., how do – or can – we humans resolve our need for and emotional attachments to those of the opposite sex? In keeping with this bent, Lawrence brings Jesus – who remains in something of an emotional funk following his crucifixion and is still physically ailing – into a liaison with this priestess of Isis.
Something about the priestess’ physicality seems to salve Jesus’ wounds, and he goes on as a man – a wanderer – ever in search of peace as a human.
This story, then, has to do with treating Jesus as a single, human entity, then implying mythic connections with an Egyptian god of similar traits, and leading the reader to some deeper sense of meaning regarding this fictionalized portrayal. In so doing, Lawrence hoped, I think, to have the reader understand something of the divine in human experience, no matter how tragic.
Commentaries on this story depict Jesus’ human afterlife as viewing humanity’s collective state of mind as one in deep need of psychological and emotional healing, as ego-driven, as desperate to reconcile individual needs with collective needs.
Part of the genius Lawrence displays here is in treating these dichotomy-driven emotional states, not through didactics, but purely through a sweetly told story.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars