COLUMN: Lawrence and his fondness of insouciance by Dave Brock

editorial image

Insouciance is a word which is scarcely used these days, more’s the pity.

It is a rather lovely word and one which Lawrence was fond of using on particular occasions.

The dictionary defines insouciance variously as ‘the state of being indifferent, unconcerned, heedless’, or ‘undisturbed...without care’.

However, to the rather exceptional mind of DH Lawrence, this intriguing word takes on an extra significance.

DH Lawrence successfully supplemented his somewhat meagre and unreliable earnings as a writer by engaging in freelance journalism and submitting articles to newspapers and magazines around the world.

One such piece is the delightful short essay called Insouciance, which was written in June 1928 and appeared with the then title Over-earnest Ladies in the Evening News of July 12 that year.

On a hot and thundery afternoon, Lawrence wakes from a nap and ventures onto his hotel balcony in bare feet.

There, he becomes acutely conscious of the presence of the feet of two little white-haired ladies who are his neighbours, to his left, as he dwells upon the tranquil view of the lake ‘shining rather glassy away below, the mountains rather sulky, the greenness very green’ and observes with fascination the contrasting appearance of two peasant men swinging scythes rhythmically, whose strokes make soft swishing sounds, like breaths.

This absorbing reverie is suddenly interrupted by one of the ladies peering round and commenting on the weather. A conversation ensues which ‘somehow leads to Italy and to Signor Mussolini’.

Lawrence feels swept away from his state of pleasant contemplation, or from his state of insouciance and ‘into the troubled ether of international politics’, complaining to us, his readers, that ‘I am not allowed to sit like a dandelion on my own stem. The little lady in a breath blows me abroad.’

This anecdote provides him with the opportunity to consider exactly why it is that people in modern times tend to overlook their surroundings, which is something we might equally wonder about these days, particularly in light of new and distracting technology.

In his fine book, The Art of DH Lawrence, the late great literary critic Keith Sagar writes: ‘As he nears death, Lawrence seems to live more fully, with an almost preternatural awareness of the quality of life in the instant moment, and with a joy, an insouciance which glows.’

And, in a recent blog, Stephen Alexander, points out astutely that, for Lawrence, insouciance is a refusal to care anxiously about the wrong things in life, and in a way which prevents the individual from living fully, freely and joyfully in the moment.

But this doesn’t mean egotistically killing off our deep sympathetic and compassionate feelings towards our fellow men, or towards our fellow creatures. Lawrence never advocates nihilism.