MATTER OVER MIND: the mystery of where Lawrence got his inspiration from

by Robert Darroch



DH Lawrence and colleague...snapped in Italy while he (or was it he?) was writing Lady Chatterley’s Lover



ON OUR WAY up to the Mountains before Xmas I heard on radio an interview with a British scientist called David Peat


I had never heard of him before, but he is apparently quite well-known, particularly as the author of books explaining complex scientific matters – such as Quantum Theory and Relativity – to the general public


What, however, caught my attention was what he said, almost as an aside, about a subject that has long puzzled and fascinated me…


…the extent to which the mind might not be the only instrument or source of human creativity…


…and that - particularly in some rare, highly-creative individuals - other physiological factors might be at work


Now, at the start of this exploration into a little-understood area of human behaviour


let me make it clear that I abhor and reject the mystical, the transcendental, the world of faith and ideology, of astrology, numerology, phrenology, iridology, of fairies, pixies, hobgoblins, gurus, and all so-called “psychic” phenomena


I am an innately sceptical person, whose attitude to the world around me is as factual and rooted in traditional, orthodox, verifiable, scientific reality as I can possibly make it


Nevertheless, I am also a curious soul – as all journalists should be…


(for their professional scepticism has to be tempered by a tincture of credulity - else they may miss things of possible interest or newsworthiness)


…so I try to keep a small chink in my factual defences open, in case I come across something that is not immediately explained via established precepts


And some time ago I did come across something that was not explicable in terms of any received wisdom that I was then aware of


As many of you know, I have a strong and abiding interest in the works of DH Lawrence in general, and in his Australian novel Kangaroo in particular


I think I can say, accurately, that I know as much as anyone else in Australia about the former, and more than anyone else in the world about the latter


In the course of my study into Lawrence and Kangaroo – now dating back to 1972 – I have come across something that is peculiar, to say the least


It turns on the question of where Lawrence gained the inspiration for his major works, and how he wrote them


I don’t know when it was, precisely, that I began to consider there was something odd about Lawrence’s creative processes


But I can give an example of the sort of disturbing incident that illustrates what I am talking about


Almost everyone of significance who met Lawrence felt compelled to write something about the experience of being in his company


(the term “genius” was often used about him, and the word is in the title of several books about him - Richard Aldington’s A Portrait of a Genius, But… and Witter Bynner’s Journey with Genius, for example)


One such memoir was written by the English artist Dorothy Brett, who lived with Lawrence and his wife Frieda in New Mexico for a period in the 1920s


In her book Lawrence and Brett she describes observing Lawrence go off each morning into the forest outside Taos (where they were staying in a log cabin) with his notebook, and coming back before lunch with it filled with writing


One day, after one of these excursions, she asked him where he got his inspiration from


He told her that he did not know where it came from…“but it comes”, he said


Lawrence himself was interested in this question, and in fact wrote a book about it


The book was Fantasia of the Unconscious, and in it Lawrence said some rather whacky things about his creative processes


One of the whackiest was that he was convinced that his creative centre resided, not in his head, but in the vicinity of his stomach


…or, as he called it, his solar plexus - as he wrote in Fantasia:


Now, your solar where you are...It is your first and greatest and deepest centre of consciousness.


Lawrence believed that there was inside him another entity that he called his “daemon”, and that it was this entity – not him - who composed his literary works


(he writes in Kangaroo of “the Dark God that enters from below”)


Moreover, this daemon, or whatever it might have been, was by no means at his beck-and-call


Sometimes it was in, sometimes it was out


(Lawrence almost had to make an appointment to see it)


Indeed, throughout his working life, a number of his friends and acquaintances remarked that, when he was writing, he seemed to be taking down dictation


One observer saw him composing a short story in a rooming house in Croydon in London in 1908


he was writing in a room full of people, with babies crying and loud conversation going on all around him


while he, oblivious to the noise and distraction, filled page after page of smoothly-written, continuous text, without any sign of pause or compositional difficulty


…as if it were just “flowing out of him”


And it gets odder


For, whatever “it” was, it had an especial empathy with trees


– yes, trees


“It” was at its happiest and most productive when Lawrence was sitting under, and with his back to, a large tree (see above), again, he explained in Fantasia:


I come out solemnly with a pencil and an exercise book, and take my seat in all gravity at the foot of a large fir tree, and wait for thoughts to come...


However, putting aside the arboreal factor, it was the position in Lawrence’s body of his daemon, or whatever, that rekindled my interest when I heard the interview with Dr Peat


For Lawrence was not, it turns out, the only creative person to experience what I suppose we might call bodily (or non-mental) “thought”


Dr Peat cited several other great minds who also shared Lawrence’s belief that parts of their bodies, other than their head, were helping their creative process


He had an older colleague called David Bohm (who was a far-more-renowned physicist than he was) who also experienced these “bodily insights”


“Bohm once told me how he felt a muscular sensation in his body that he could relate to the mathematics he was doing,” recalled Dr Peat


(in Bohm’s case this creative activity was, apparently, in his right leg)


Bohm had spoken to Einstein, with whom he worked at Princeton, about this phenomenon of physical mathematical “sensation”


...and the discoverer of Relativity confessed to something similar – that sometimes he “felt” his scientific insights


in fact, Einstein told him that he carried a rubber ball with him which he squeezed when working on his field equations of relativity, to stimulate his bodily thoughts


Curiously, I myself have come across this strange phenomenon


In 1976, following the dismissal of the Whitlam Government, I interviewed the Australian physicist Sir Mark Oliphant, who was then the Governor of South Australia


He told me that when his mentor, the great New Zealand physicist Ernest Rutherford, was working out the structure of the atom, he strode down the corridors of McGill University in Canada saying that he perceived the answer to his problem “in my water”


Dr Peat’s colleague David Bohm had a theory about the bodily-thought phenomenon, for he believed that the mind was primarily the voice through which the “thinking” body spoke


Bohm (who died some years ago) recalled what the French post-impressionist artist Paul Cezanne had once said on the subject


Sometimes Cezanne, when he was painting, experienced what he called his “little sensations”

and he found that if he moved his head to the right or the left, the “sensations” would get stronger, adding to his creative inspiration


Cezanne once said:  “I think I could occupy myself for months without changing my place by turning now more to the right, now more to the left.”


This phenomenon, interestingly, has something of an echo in other visual artists


The British painter David Hockney finds that listening to music stimulates his creative insight, so that he can “sense” colour coming out of things he is painting


This phenomenon may also be analogous or connected to a condition known as “synaesthesia”...


... in which a small percentage of the population - in Australia it’s about one in 20,000 - “think” or experience various stimuli in colour


(also see below re savantism)


My wife Sandra happens to be one of these rare but fortunate “synaesthetes”, to whom the world around them is imbued with an extra personal and particular sensation of colour, which they “feel” rather than “see”


...for example, for her, every word, number, and even sound generates its own distinctive, and unchanging, colour


(Sandra is currently part of a program at Macquarie University which is investigating this “condition”)


In some more extreme cases of synaesthesia, it can extend to taste and other senses (smell, touch) and faculties


...Sandra, for example, dreams in vivid colour


(Mozart was a synaesthete, as I think Lawrence was, and perhaps Cezanne and Einstein were too)


It may well be, speculates Dr Peat, that such phenomena as synaesthesia demonstrate the body as a single, undivided entity interacting - in an organic or holistic way - with an environment of which it is an integral part, and which it has, in some human beings, a special connection, or empathy with  


Dr Peat writes:  “In this sense mind and matter cannot be separated, for they are aspects of a greater whole…there is no longer a fixed division between matter and mind.”


(to illustrate his argument, he cites Gerard Manly Hopkins’ concept of “inscape” – of individual objects containing some more general “life force”...

…and he may well have cited Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s concept of the “noosphere” in this context, too)


There is a theory in psychology – first advanced by Freud – that consciousness is not the usual or normal state of existence


...but rather a specialised state of something more fundamental, which is generally referred to, perhaps inadequately, as “the unconscious”


A former Professor of Literature at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Professor B.O. States, has written a book on this, called Seeing in the Dark, in which he proposes that much of what we call creative literature stems from a level beneath conscious thought


Of course, the most famous example of this phenomenon is Coleridge’s story of how, in a dream, his unconscious mind composed his poem, “Kubla Khan”


...and I quote his own words on this: 


“On awakening he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved.”




In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.


Alas, these are only the first five lines of the 54 he was able to reconstruct from his dream before he was interrupted, notoriously, by “a person from Porlock”


...and when he returned to his desk, the memory of the dream-poem had faded away, and he was unable to remember the rest


(thus he entitled the poem “Kulba Khan - a fragment”)


Professor States believes that a great deal of what is taken as “creative insight” (such as poetry) can occur at the level of the body beneath “normal” mental consciousness


Indeed, it may well be that in some rare people the connection with the unconscious level is more synaesthetic than in others


...and can indeed be militated by various physical phenomena – which might explain Lawrence’s “inspirational” solar plexus


(though where the trees fit in is an even greater puzzle)




PS -  Synaesthesia is associated with a far-rarer condition known, medically, as the “savant syndrome”.  This phenomenon, first observed in the late 19th century by Dr John Down (of Down’s Syndrome), is today used to describe a very small number of people who have highly unusual “mental” abilities.  Probably the most famous form of savantism involves prodigious mathematical skills (though a more common form involves visual memory feats, such as being able to draw an entire city – such as Rome – after just one helicopter flight over it).  For example, one living savant, Daniel Tammat, currently holds the world record for the number of decimal places of the mathematical term “pi” he can recite from memory – 22,514 of them (it took him five hours and nine minutes to reel the numbers off).  To Daniel, each number has its own individual “colour” – up to and over 10,000 – and this helps him remember, for example, the decimal-places of pi.  (This, I think, is the most extreme case of synaesthesia ever recorded.)  The extreme rarity of savantism is its most interesting aspect, for it is detected in only a handful of individuals.  Currently, in the world today, there are less than 100 people out of seven billion who have been identified as having this syndrome.  About 50 percent of these are also autistic, for savantism has a strong correlation with behavioural abnormalities such as autism and Asperger’s Syndrome.  One of avantism’s distinctive characteristics is that possessors of it, similar to synaesthetes, “see” or “feel” (rather than “think”) their rare insights.


PPS – since writing this I have received from several people responses pointing out that in eastern metaphysics, the solar plexus is the third chakra and regarded as the source of a person’s power and creativity.