Lawrence Rainey, 1954-2020
I ONCE ASKED LAWRENCE if he had a favourite among the Cantos; without quite saying yes, he told me to read the fragment “From Canto CXV”: “The scientists are in terror / and the European mind stops…” Neither of us could have anticipated the terrible resonance of these lines today (as someone remarked, “‘Literature is news that STAYS news’”). But the line from this poem that stays with me, the line that emblematises something essential about what Lawrence taught me is this: “Their asperities diverted me in my green time” –the “they,” of course, being Eliot and Lewis and their sometimes-vituperative debates of the 1930s. Pound’s own asperities occupied Lawrence without diverting him: the years of his graduate research, trailing Pound across northern Italy on a Fulbright fellowship, were also the years during which he met his beloved Sonia. The fate of the scholar can too easily be a life in which “the dead [walk] / and the living [are] made of cardboard.” In spite of his fantastic capacity for work, for Lawrence, literature and scholarship justified themselves by deepening and enriching life as a whole.
In the wake of his death, I am moved to think of another poem that he commended to me: “Comment dire” or “what is the word,” Samuel Beckett’s final written work. I hadn’t thought of it alongside “From Canto CXV” before, but now I think of Pound’s lines:
A blown husk that is finished
but the light sings eternal
a pale flare over marshes
where the salt hay whispers to tide’s change
and I think of the magnificent, swelling music that emerges out of the sparsest ingredients at the climax of Beckett’s poem–“afaint afar away over there what— / folly for to need to seem to glimpse afaint afar away over there what—” and I realise that it wasn’t the elegiac mode as such that attracted Lawrence to them, but how they evidence the lyric impulse’s indomitability: in spite of Pound’s disfigured life, and Beckett’s final illness, they sing.
Lawrence would have looked askance at the length of that last sentence, especially if it had appeared in a submission for Modernism/modernity. “Well,” he would have begun (eyebrow still raised a little), “if the syntax supports it…” because while he favoured short sentences, he was undogmatic. Perhaps Lawrence’s most important lesson (not that I didn’t have an inkling of this already) was how to relish dwelling in language, as a reader, a writer, and an editor. In his own role as editor of M/m, and, I’m sure, as supervisor to many graduate students, he modelled a way of insisting on good writing without recourse to stale formulae. His own writing was and remains pellucid (but couldn’t I have just said “clear”?) In this he was quietly, and sometimes loudly, polemical: literary criticism is entitled to deal with difficult concepts; it is not entitled to become unreadable in doing so. One of his earliest pieces of advice to me as a writer was: “go to the library, read a volume of Glyph, and then do the opposite.”
This is not to say that Lawrence was a luddite within the discipline. His intellectual formation coincided with the ascendency of Theory, and in order to oppose its excesses, he first mastered its premises. In the introduction to his first monograph, Ezra Pound and the Monument of Culture: Text, History, and the Malatesta Cantos, he writes:
Desire, Language, Intertextuality, Representation, Mimetic Violence—the bloated abstractions that dominate contemporary literary studies—may all be found here. Yet with few exceptions they appear in their everyday garb: wearing bathrobes, jotting notes, glancing at train schedules, reading newspapers, going to libraries, indulging in tourism, strolling amid the ruins of antiquity. (3)
To bring the bloated abstractions down to earth through detailed historical investigation informed by an awareness that literature is generated in the material practice of writing: this was the method that allowed Lawrence to help spark the massive scholarly renewal we now call “the New Modernist Studies.” But notice that, bloated though they may be, the abstractions are still to be found here; in Lawrence’s work there is a consistent refusal to sublimate, to conceal, or falsely to reconcile conflict (for instance, the conflict between empirical and theoretical approaches that animates his first book). Lawrence was committed to materialism and historicism not because he was in search of weapons to turn on Theory, but rather because he saw the holding together of conflicting terms in productive tension as the only route to new knowledge.
Returning to Ezra Pound and the Monument of Culture now, what strikes me most is its insistent call for a literary scholarship that focusses on transmission, instead of just production and reception. By “transmission,” Lawrence means:
The sum of processes and forces that issue in the sociomaterial instance of every work… Transmission is constitution at the intersection of material, institional, and ideological mediation… [it] precedes every act of production or reception: writers do not engage with “intertextuality,” and readers encounter only works that are presented to them in specific material forms, each presaturated with its own history of transmission. (7)
As opposed to the all-too-readily idealised, static moments of production and reception, the moment of transmission is continuous, and demands not only precise historical investigation to unfold, but self-conscious recognition on the part of the scholar or critic they do not occupy a lofty position of mastery over this process, but are inevitably involved in it.
How bracing to find an account of literary scholarship for which what we do matters, because it is continuous with the other processes stretching through time that disseminate a text in the world. How refreshing to encounter–in a first monograph of all things–a scholar determined to intervene in the fundamental debates shaping the discipline, instead of engaging in the propaedeutic piling up of citation after unquestioned citation from the gnostic priests of Theory. If Lawrence joined, in his own cranky and heterodox way, a wave of historicism rising up to challenge Theory’s hegemony, that wave never quite washed away its opponent, and the discipline has for some time organised itself around what might be called charitably a methodological eclecticism–and uncharitably, a void. Into that void has sometimes stepped a kind of politics premised on the reification of identity categories, and concomitantly, the demand that works of literature adhere to certain transhistorical codes of morality. A scholar who began his career researching Pound was always destined to look askance at these tendencies, even more so when the study resulting from that research starts from not just a recognition of fascism as “the central tragedy of the twentieth century,” but a warning that the tragedy recurs daily in the occlusions of our writing and our pedagogy, in our failures to attend to history seriously enough (4). In his conclusion to Ezra Pound and the Monument of Culture, Lawrence writes that addressing the urgent questions that emerge from that history will require, among other things,
That we reject sincere but ingenuous moralisms, facile appeals to a contemporary consensus in the formation of which fascism itself has played a crucial part, or the allure of abstract coherencies beyond all reality—the concatenations of empty concepts assimilated to the play of “self” and “other” now so characteristic of literary studies. (225)
That these lines now seem uncannily prescient hardly needs to be said–or perhaps they testify to a discipline that has changed far less over the previous three decades than it tends to tell itself.
By the time that his call for a scholarship that centres the dynamics of transmission blossomed into the essays that make up Institutions of Modernism, that early sharpness had mellowed somewhat into a pervasive wryness and a love of paradox sometimes bordering on the perverse, as when, having set out in characteristic detail the story of The Dial’s and Horace Liveright’s acquisition of rights to publish “The Waste Land” without having yet read the poem, Lawrence concludes that under some conditions, non-reading might be preferable to the kinds of reading literary critics have typically done. (Not for nothing did he keep an open mind about distant reading.) Looking over Institutions now, I note that it begins with a scene from 1853, of Charles Dickens holding court at a banquet in Birmingham, praising literature’s emancipation from aristocratic patronage: “The people have set literature free.” The moment of Dickens’s triumphalism would, before the century’s end, give way to the crystallisation of the cultural field into (seemingly) mutually hostile domains of the “high” and the “low,” and a growing anxiety among authors about the domain of the market and new methods of textual dissemination; modernist writers’ positions within this new constellation would emerge, in Lawrence’s telling, as a far more nuanced set of negotiations than the polarised narratives of either postmodernism or the avant-garde could allow.
By the time I met him, Lawrence was a retiring man, not given to occupying centre stage (his days singing and playing guitar in a rock band called Los Mutilados seemingly well behind him), but there is in his work a consistent fascination with the figure of the performer and the impresario. The point of beginning Institutions with Dickens is to underscore with dramatic irony the new dimensions of the cultural field in which Marinetti, and then, on his model, Pound, would emerge as ringleaders of Futurism and Imagism respectively, before converging again in their disastrous identification with the terrible impresario of Fascism, their ideal patron, Mussolini. But counterposed with these baleful examples, there are others, like Marie Lloyd, the working-class musical hall performer who protested her exclusion from the 1912 gala, attended by George V and thus inaugurating the Royal Variety Performances, by staging her own show at the London Pavilion; the posters advertising the event announced: “Every performance by Marie Lloyd is a command performance!”–an image that Lawrence loved. For all the debunking and undermining in his work–and an inattentive reader might see his oeuvre precisely as an example of what Rita Felski has recently disparaged under the label of “critique”–Lawrence was always alive to the enchantments that art affords.
Perhaps Marie Lloyd’s most famous admirer was T. S. Eliot. Lawrence reproduced Eliot’s London Letters from 1922 in his edition of “The Waste Land,” with their several references to Lloyd. These and Eliot’s ensuing London Letter reflecting on Lloyd’s death in October, 1922, became central to my reading of Eliot, because they disclose one of “The Waste Land”’s most potent tensions, that is, between the antiquarian project announced by the notes and allusions, and the actual texture of the poem, in which so much of its verbal energy is derived from the vernacular. Lawrence always celebrated art that draws its energy from the vernacular: I think, in particular, of the course he offered on the films of the Italian Neo-Realists, and the passion he evinced in it for Fellini and Pasolini.
Although he lived in the United Kingdom for twenty-two years, Lawrence remained ineluctably an American, indeed, a Midwesterner, in a way that Eliot did not. He was determined, I think, not to surrender to the blandishments of the class system in the way that some Americans in Britain do. Perhaps this is why he felt at home at York, a university that tries to reflect the values of Britain’s post-war social democratic experiment, not the ancient prerogatives of its privileged classes. It seems to me that he never lost sight of what a privilege it is to make reading, thinking about, and writing about literature one’s profession. If you listen to his appearance on BBC Radio 4’s “In Our Time,” discussing “The Waste Land,” you will hear an almost boyish volubility in his contributions.
Lawrence loved to talk about literature, and those conversations I shared with him–in the office, over lunch, strolling across Walmgate Stray–were the site of my real education. Lawrence was a giant of modernist scholarship, and a tough-minded, but generous, teacher. I’ve tried to give an account here, from a personal point of view, of his intellectual contribution and his personal style, but any attempt to do that must inevitably fail to compass a truly singular man. My debt to him as a teacher and a mentor is too large to repay, and I know there are many others who would say the same.