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Arbitrary Linkages

Sambudha Sen

By Amit Chaudhuri
Clarendon Press, Oxford, 2004, pp. 226, price not stated.


Amit Chaudhuri’s D.H. Lawrence and ‘Difference’ is, as he tells us in the first page of the book, a “a largely unaltered version” of an Oxford thesis that he began just as critical theory was making its first and “ rather belated appearance in England.” This circumstance underlies what seems to me a decisive feature of Chaudhuri’s book—the eagerness with which he brings the work of Levi-Strauss, Foucault and Derrida to bear on his readings of Lawrence’s poetry. The result of this immersion in the critical theory is, at one level, extremely productive—indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that the first three chapters of Chaudhuri’s book will change forever the way we understand Lawrence’s poetry. It seems to me, however, that Chaudhuri overstretches the work that Derrida’s brilliantly developed idea of “difference” can do for him. Without engaging in any sustained or serious way with even Edward Said’s Orientalism and, far less, with the vast and very rich body of work that followed Said’s seminal book, Chaudhuri positions himself as a postcolonial reader intent on recovering from the unfinished quality of Lawrence’s poems—from their “difference”—a full blown criticism of the homogenizing , imperializing trajectory of “western culture”. The result at this level therefore, is an argument about Lawrence’s poetry that I find both unsustainable and—from the vantage point of the present—theoretically ill informed.   The interesting thing about Chaudhuri’s opening chapters is that they provoke us into thinking productively about precisely the so called “weak” features of Lawrence’s poetry : their overdependence on a certain set of words and images, their rough texture and above all the “unfinished” form in which they so often present themselves. More specifically, what Chaudhuri does is to deploy against New Criticism’s privileging of the highly wrought, “completed” poem , the Derridean notion of the “trace” where, (in Chaudhuri’s summary) “no image or signifier is absolutely and singly present [but contains] within it the ‘trace’ of its use elsewhere”. This enables Chaudhuri to shift the site of reading from the individual poem to what he calls the “Lawrentian poetic discourse in general”.   This initial move towards an intertexual reading of Lawrence’s poetry turns out to be enormously productive. By locating the individual poem within a larger poetic discourse sustained by the works of Lawrence and also of ...

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