Wednesday, 20 May 2009

83. The Escaped Cock by DH Lawrence

In early 1925, in Mexico, DH Lawrence contracted malaria. In his weakened state, tuberculosis took a hold, and for a few weeks he hovered between life and death. But in the spring of that year, on his ranch in New Mexico, he began to recover. Frieda wrote:
How he loved every minute of life at the ranch. The morning, the squirrels, every flower that came in its turn, the big trees, chopping wood, the chickens, making bread, all our hard work, and the people all assumed the radiance of new life.
This personal resurrection was reflected in his writing. The period from 1925 to his death in 1930 was the period of Lady Chatterley's Lover, and the period too of The Escaped Cock, his last major work of fiction. One might say that in this last phase of his writing he was preoccupied by cocks. During these five years he also wrote the essays 'Women are so Cocksure', 'Cocksure Women and Hensure Men' and 'Aristocracy', the latter immediately after his illness in July 1925, in which he described his white cock Moses:
And as the white cock calls in the doorway, who calls? Merely a barnyard rooster, worth a dollar-and-a-half. But listen! Under the old dawns of creation the Holy Ghost, the Mediator, shouts aloud in the twilight. And every time I hear him, a fountain of vitality gushes up in my body. It is life.
The cock is, with perfect Lawrentian seriousness, nature's phallus. And the bird is not some symbol from Frazer but the living embodiment of thrusting male energy, ready to fight and copulate at a moment's notice.

The novella The Escaped Cock was published in two parts, the first in 1928 and the second in 1929. It tells the story of Jesus’ life immediately following his resurrection. In later years it was published as The Man Who Died, chiefly for reasons of prudery, but this was not the title preferred by Lawrence.

The plot, as Lawrence described it in a letter to a friend, is as follows:
Jesus gets up and feels very sick about everything, and can't stand the old crowd any more — so cuts out — and as he heals up, he begins to find what an astonishing place the phenomenal world is, far more marvellous than any salvation or heaven — and thanks his stars he needn't have a 'mission' any more.
Jesus’ first intimation that the phenomenal world is a marvellous place comes in the form of a barnyard cock escaping from a Galilean peasant:
Advancing in a kind of half-consciousness under the drystone wall of the olive orchard, he was roused by the shrill, wild crowing of a cock just near him, a sound which made him shiver as if a snake had touched him [...] leaping out of the greenness, came the black-and-orange cock with the red comb, his tail-feathers streaming lustrous.
Jesus buys the cock from the peasant and goes on his way carrying it under his arm.

In the second part of the story we are introduced to a priestess of Isis. This woman has known both Caesar and Anthony, but has given herself to neither. She is a virgin, and waits for the man who can awaken her body. (‘Rare women wait for the re-born man,’ Lawrence comments — a good advertising slogan, if only one could think of the right product.) One morning she comes across Jesus lying asleep. ‘For the first time, she was touched on the quick at the sight of a man [...] Men had aroused all sorts of feelings in her, but never had touched her on the yearning quick of her womb, with the flame tip of life.’ The priestess and Jesus initiate one another into the life of the senses, a life which, until that moment, neither has known. Jesus sees the essential wrongness of his past ministry: he sees, suddenly, that saving souls has been, at bottom, a dry exercise:
A vivid shame went through him. — After all, he thought, — I wanted them to love with dead bodies. If I had kissed Judas with live love, perhaps he would never have kissed me with death...There dawned on him the reality of the soft warm love which is in touch, and which is full of delight.
In the throes of this revelation, Jesus echoes the Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? of the biblical Christ on the cross:
He untied the string of the linen tunic, and slipped the garment down, till he saw the white glow of her white-gold breasts. And he touched them, and he felt his life go molten. — Father! He said — Why did you hide this from me? [...] Lo! He said. — This is beyond prayer.
At the odd, evocative end of The Escaped Cock, a story that Lawrence might have continued had he lived, Jesus escapes by water, with the Romans in pursuit, presumably to re-crucify him. Now, suddenly and differently fulfilled, he carries the priestess's perfume in his flesh 'like essence of roses'. The novella ends with the words: 'Tomorrow is another day.'

The title The Escaped Cock was suggested by something Lawrence noticed in Italy in 1927. At around this time he had developed a love of the culture of ancient Etruria (an interest that was later to have a flowering in the posthumous book Etruscan Places). After visiting the Etruscan tombs with his friend Earl Brewster, examining the frescoes with a battery torch, he wrote:
The tombs seem so easy and friendly, cut out of rock underground. One does not feel oppressed, descending into them. It must be partly owing to the peculiar charm of natural proportion which is in all Etruscan things of the unspoilt, unromanticised centuries. There is a simplicity, combined with a most peculiar, free-breasted naturalness and spontaneity, in the shapes and movements of the underworld walls and spaces, that at once reassures the spirit. [...] And that is the true Etruscan quality: ease, naturalness, and an abundance of life, no need to force the mind or the soul in any direction.
After inspecting the tombs, Lawrence and Brewster were passing through the town of Volterra, and stopped for provisions. Brewster recalled what they saw:
We passed a little shop, in the window of which was a toy rooster escaping from an egg. I remarked that it suggested the title — ‘The Escaped Cock — a story of the Resurrection.’ Lawrence replied that he had been thinking about writing a story of the Resurrection.
Lawrence said in a letter to Harry Crosby that the model was of ‘a cock escaping from a man’, but he may have been confusing the model with the use he made of it in his story, in which the bird, tied by a string to a post, breaks free and runs off with the man pursuing it. But in both cases the cock was escaping. As Lawrence later wrote to Brewster about the title: ‘It’s called The Escaped Cock, from that toy in Volterra.’

It is all rather astonishing. If Lawrence and Brewster had not seen the toy, they would have had to have invented it. It brought together all of Lawrence’s thinking: his fascination with the phallic cock-bird as representative of Christ and the Holy Ghost, his own sense of escape into a new life after his illness, and the story ‘of the Resurrection’ he had been considering, very probably one in which Jesus was imagined as a free-and-easy Etruscan, at home in his body, ‘free-breasted’ and spontaneous. At the centre of it all was a cosmic pun — Jesus as phallus, as the escaped cock himself. In this last fiction, here is the solemn, impressive, puritanically-erotic Lawrence, with a double entendre that defies parody:
The deep-folded, penetrable rock of the living woman! The woman, hiding her face. Himself bending over, powerful and new like dawn. He crouched to her, and he felt the blaze of his manhood and his power rise up in his loins, magnificent.
‘I am risen!’

Consulted:
Sagar, Keith: D.H. Lawrence: Life into Art (Viking, 1985)
Sagar, Keith: The Art of D.H. Lawrence (Cambridge University Press, 1966)
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