The Traveller’s Mirror: Indigenous Tribes and the Modernising West in D.H. Lawrence’s Mornings in Mexico (1927)

31 January 2022

Manon Hakem-Lemaire, CUNY, Graduate Center

This article approaches D.H. Lawrence’s travel essays Mornings in Mexico (1927) from the perspective of the travel writing genre. Travel writing provides a fresh outlook on modernism, but also on the level of ethos, because it always implies a mirroring relationship between the traveller and the place that is being travelled to. That relationship, in the case of Lawrence’s Mornings in Mexico, has been widely understood in the context of postcolonialism.

Two tendencies stand out in the few pieces of criticism that address Lawrence’s essays about Mexico: a majority of critics find a colonialist attitude in Lawrence’s observation of indigenous tribes, and a minority of them defend Lawrence, recognising his critique of Western modernity alongside his admiration for indigenous tribes – whether or not tainted with idealism. In this article, after engaging with both tendencies of criticism, I express the possibility that there be a third way of approaching Lawrence’s Mornings in Mexico, namely, transcending the postcolonialism binary from the point of view of genre.

With modernism and modernity came increased possibilities of travel, but also, questions of identity, and, in the post-War context, identity crises. As Helen Carr  describes in her essay ‘Modernism and Travel’:

Travel writing in this period [modernism] becomes increasingly aware of globalisation – not a word used but a condition that was widely recognised – and the resulting mixtures of cultures and people it brought with it. At the same time, many writers became increasingly anxious about the condition and value of modern Western civilisation: was it and the white race degenerating? Might there be an alternative elsewhere?[1]

In ‘The Mozo,’ which has none of today’s political correctness, Lawrence makes a fiery comparison between ‘the black-eyed Mexican’ and ‘the great white monkey’.[2] Starting in almost documentary terms, he described his servant (the mozo), and then, indigenous Mexicans at large, constantly dancing on the border of racism, but never quite crossing it. The text goes:

[…] the great white monkey has got hold of the keys of the world, and the black-eyed Mexican has to serve the great white monkey, in order to live. He has to learn the tricks of the white monkey-show: time of the day, coin of money, machines that start at a second, work that is meaningless and yet is paid for with exactitude, in exact coin.[3]

Then  later, talking for indigenous Mexicans:

so long as the devil does not rouse in us, seeing the white monkey forever mechanically bossing, with their incessant tick-tack of work. Seeing them [white colonisers] get the work out of us [indigenous Mexicans], the sweat, the money, and then taking the very land from us, the very oil and metal out of our soil.[4]

Jeraldine Kraver denounces Lawrence’s description of his mozo as a colonialist dehumanisation of indigenous Mexicans. She associates it with Frantz Fanon’s argument that the coloniser addresses the colonised in animal, even, zoological terms.[5] The beginning of Lawrence’s essays certainly provokes uneasiness, with its documentary description of the indigenous servant. However, the emergence, a few paragraphs later, of the same zoological terms to refer to white people seem to place Lawrence outside of the coloniser-colonised binary. The reader suddenly perceives the writer’s desire to appear objective and impartial, renouncing his loyalty to his own race, so as to better denounce the absurdity of its new mechanised, modern world. In this essay, it seems, politically incorrect language makes a statement not about Lawrence’s view of the indigenous, but about his cynicism of mechanical ‘progress’ and his disillusion with home.

The essay ‘Indians and Entertainment’ furthers Lawrence’s critique of Western modernity, though without giving in to any absolute opinions of indigenousness. It is a complex and lengthy analysis of European consciousness in the context of theatregoing, and it lingers on cultural consciousness in the relationship between performance and audience. Lawrence argues that such consciousness is impossible to ignore, and that indigenous people ‘are not representing something, not even playing,’ that ‘it is a soft, subtle being something’ (original emphasis).[6] Still, Lawrence has been associated, notably by Jeraldine Kraver and Phillis Deery Stanton, with ‘aesthetic imperialism’ [7] and ‘self-interest in indigenous peoples [to render] an “Imaginary Indian” whose representation does not accurately portray the reality of the Native peoples of this hemisphere,’ respectively.[8] These associations have been made based on accounts of Lawrence’s opinions, notably through his letters. In the text of Mornings in Mexico, however, Lawrence expressly avoids idealising the indigenous people he describes. It is precisely through his ambivalent relationship with them that he avoids a romantic outlook that would portray indigenous people as a lost ideal of humankind in comparison with the modern West. Peter Balbert acknowledged that subtlety in his 2011 review of the collection. He applauds Virginia Crosswhite Hyde, the editor of The Cambridge Edition of D.H. Lawrence’s Works, for understanding

[…] the essential notion that many critics have failed to perceive about Mornings in Mexico: that the essays achieve a delicate balance between Lawrence’s reaction against a sentimental attitude toward the primitivism of the Indians and his admiration for the power and iconoclasm of their primitive beliefs within a dominant Western culture that increasingly privileges the mechanised and materialistic rhythms of modern life. (emphases in the original)[9]

‘Indians and Entertainment’ demonstrates an awareness that the way one sees indigenous tribes, or any foreign other, can only be a reflection of their own culture. The cultural lens cannot be done away with, and Lawrence expressed awareness of this several times in ‘Indians and Entertainment.’
He argues:

You’ve got to de-bunk the Indians, as you’ve got to de-bunk the Cowboy. When you’ve de-bunked the Cowboy, there’s not much of it left. But the Indian bunk is not the Indian’s invention. It is ours.[10]

Ultimately, when Lawrence asserts that ‘it is almost impossible for the white people to approach the Indian without either sentimentality or dislike,’[11] he clearly invites us to transcend the coloniser-colonised binary and read beyond both sentimentality and dislike. This, perhaps, is the essence of travel literature: neither to unconditionally admire, nor to disdain the foreign other, but to accept the inevitability of cultural bias and take an honest look at both home and the place travelled to. To create the possibility of debate about the travel writer’s position, doing justice to its rendering of a time and movement, is part of the ethics of the genre.


Image Credit: Georgia O’Keeffe, The Lawrence Tree (1929)


Sources

[1] The Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing, ed. by Peter Hulme and Tim Youngs, Cambridge Companions to Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002) <https://doi.org/10.1017/CCOL052178140X>. p.73.

[2] D. H. Lawrence, Mornings in Mexico and Etruscan Places (London: Penguin, 1977). p.35.

[3] Ibid. p.35.

[4] Ibid. p.36.

[5] Jeraldine R. Kraver, ‘No Refuge for My Dreams: Aesthetic Imperialism in the Mexican Writings of D. H. Lawrence’, CEA Critic, 64.1 (2001), 70–84 <https://www.jstor.org/stable/44378332>. p.79

[6] D. H. Lawrence, Mornings in Mexico,  p.60.

[7] Jeraldine R. Kraver, ‘No Refuge for My Dreams: Aesthetic Imperialism in the Mexican Writings of D. H. Lawrence’, CEA Critic, 64.1 (2001), 70–84. p.72.

[8] Phyllis Deery Stanton, ‘Processing the Native American Through Western Consciousness: D. H. Lawrence and the Red Indians of the Americas’, Wicazo Sa Review, 12.2 (1997), 59–84 <https://doi.org/10.2307/1409207>. p.78.

[9] Peter Balbert, ‘Lawrence’s Mornings in Mexico’, English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, 54 (2011), 551–56 <https://doi.org/10.1353/elt.2011.0031>. p.553.

[10] D. H. Lawrence, Mornings in Mexico,  p.54.

[11] . Ibid, p.4.

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