Why No Matter Matters: D. H. Lawrence, My Mind, and the Radio

Here I am, sorting and sifting through my English Literature anthologies, skipping from one century to another, slipping out of one channel of thought and slithering into the next as if sliding on dried ink liquefied in the muddy corridors of my mind. It is a mind receptive to—and indeed responsible for—all this skipping and slipping. It fancies the catch of whatever catches its fancy without letting such influences harden to the point that they might become a stranglehold. It resists arrest, flinches, and withdraws before any one imported thought can take root so as to seem an extension of some other self.

It is like a stray cat playing with a mouse of whose capture it tires once the flesh stops to quiver under the claws that did it in. That is, my mind seems capable of making anything flitting by seem inviting; but it insists on being in charge, on determining the lifespan of any one idea, and is only too eager to wriggle itself out of the body of thought that might have engaged or enraged it further, that might have irritated or intimidated had it not been done away with, however prematurely.

My mind plays tricks with the matter it takes on; and the tricks, I concede, may be far less bold or grand than the matter it picks on and puts down at will. Just now, I came across these lines from D. H. Lawrence’s essay “Why the Novel Matters.” The word “matters” matters here, as Lawrence talks about thought and flesh, and thought coming to life through flesh alone, that is, when being received or conceived by anyone living. He likens thought to the ether, to radio waves, at which point, of course, I am keenly alive to the matter at hand, the matter it becomes in my own mind, the matter it now becomes as my hands get to play on the keyboard. Here are the words:

These damned philosophers, they talk as if they suddenly went off in a steam, and were then much more important than they are when they’re in their shirts. It is nonsense. Every man, philosopher included, ends in his own finger-tips. That’s the end of his man alive. As for the words and thoughts and sighs and aspirations that fly from him, they are so many tremulations in the ether, and not alive at all. But if the tremulations reach another man alive, he may receive them into his life, and his life may take on a new colour, like a chameleon creeping from a brown rock on to a green leaf. All very well and good. It still doesn’t alter the fact that the so-called spirit, the message or teaching of the philosopher or the saint, isn’t alive at all, but just a tremulation upon the ether, like a radio message. All this spirit stuff is just tremulations upon the ether. If you, as man alive, quiver from the tremulation of the ether into new life, that is because you are man alive, and you take sustenance and stimulation into your alive man in a myriad ways. But to say that the message, or the spirit which is communicated to you, is more important than your living body is nonsense. You might as well say that the potato at dinner was more important.

It sounds liberating all right; but any such liberties imply responsibility, an obligation toward the message not readily met by the mind. Is it our nervous system alone that makes such tremulations matter? Are not such tremulations alive whether or not we mind them? After all, do not great ideas shrink in small minds; does not the broad spectrum of thought dwindle in narrow ones?

Does radio culture matter less today because our receivers are broken? Is it because we are so concerned with matter—with the concrete we believe to be what we see because seeing, we believe, is believing—that we have quite forgotten how to swim in the ether and to enjoy letting ourselves be tossed in the waves? What use are our finger-tips (or our antennae) if we neglect to touch upon the worlds around us? If we truly ended in our extremities, these worlds would all come to an end. So, instead of admiring our nails, we ought to be peeling potatoes without our awareness of whose potentialities we’d keep eating the same meal.

Unlike dinner forks, the radio signals of old are rarely being picked up these days; and it seems to matter little that they are there to be caught by anyone receptive to them. A culture of listening, which struggled to come alive anew in the 1920s and ’30s, to resurge after having been all but blotted out by dried ink, is once again fading out of earshot. The airwaves matter to me precisely because, for all the commerce it once carried—the commerce that carried it—radio is immaterial; not so much because it does not matter to the many but because it defies matter.

Like the fleeting signals on the air, my mind is flighty; it flits, it flirts with ideas and flings them back into the waves in search of new playthings. Ever since it became alive to those tremulations, it has been continually twisting the dial of that enormous radio. It thrills to the thought that each vibration tells of lives waiting to be revived. It excites in the hunt for the stray signal, even if at times it is too quick to run off and go scratch itself. It is just so tickled by the old cat’s whiskers.

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