Burning Man is rich in scope and complex in structure, but it isn’t a dry intellectual text. Wilson has a feel for the everyday tragedies, the “kitchen sink dramas” that constitute the bulk of our lives. There is a moment near the beginning of the book when she’s writing of Lawrence’s childhood and his ambitious middle-class mother, perpetually disappointed by her working-class miner husband. Setting up the reader to side with Lawrence’s mother, Wilson then abruptly pulls the rug out from under us: “Lawrence described the control his mother had wielded over the home, suggesting that it was Lydia rather than Arthur who had inflicted the worst damage. The nights when her husband was in the pub, Lydia Lawrence ‘would gather the children in a row’ where they sat ‘quaking’ in anticipation of his return. While they waited, she ‘would picture his shortcomings blacker and blacker to their childish horror.’” When Arthur returns home, he pleads with his children not to fear him in his colloquially rendered accent, “‘Never mind, my duckies, you needna be afraid of me. I’ll do ye no harm.’” As a reader, your heart trembles and breaks. You feel that you better understand not only Lawrence the man but also the predominantly working-class men at the center of his novels.
Gaining a deeper appreciation for Lawrence doesn’t mean agreeing with his neopagan philosophy or condoning his lust and violence (after luring Frieda away from her husband and children, he regularly beat her). And perhaps we gain a more profound understanding of both if we are able to maintain a critical distance while simultaneously accepting Lawrence’s profound contradictions with an open mind and heart. Wilson writes that Lawrence “was a modernist with an aching nostalgia for the past, a sexually repressed Priest of Love, a passionately religious non-believer, a critic of genius who invested in his own worst writing. Of all the Lawrentian paradoxes, however, the most arresting is that he was an intellectual who devalued the intellect, placing his faith in the wisdom of the very body that throughout his life was failing him. Dismantle his contradictions, however, and you take away the structure of his being.”
In Burning Man, Wilson does us the service of not trying to untangle or iron out those contradictions but instead uses them as models for the book. Burning Man isn’t a substitute for Lawrence, but it accomplished what most biographies can’t. It moves with the rhythm of his pulse.
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor