D. H. Lawrence on Lake Chapala, Mexico in 1923.

Just finished reading D.H. Lawrence’s novel ‘Quetzalcoatl’, which first appeared in 1926 under the title ‘The Plumed Serpent’, because the publishers thought Lawrence’s original title would not appeal to readers. He wrote it during and after an excursion to Mexico, a trip which seems to have by turns irked him mightily and increased his at times wavering interest in the country. 

Kate, widow of an Irish revolutionary, has left her children to be raised by her mother in England and has travelled to Mexico with her cousin and his friend, these last two loosely modeled on Lawrence’s New Mexico acquaintances, the poet Witter Bynner and his partner Willard (Spud) Johnson. Kate soon tires of Mexico City and moves to a dilapidated rented villa on the shores of Lake Sayula (the real-life Lake Chapala), where she is alternately charmed and disgusted with the local residents and their way of life. She also becomes involved in a rather fantastic plot led by a minor landowner (Ramon) and his pal, the powerful General Cipriano, to proclaim themselves the returned Aztec gods Quetzalcoatl and Huitzilopochtli, overthrow the European based civilization brought to Mexico by the Spaniards, and establish a new kind of society which they believe will be much better suited to the indigenous Indian population. After a certain amount of violence, intimidation and rather improbable joyous cooperation on the part of civil authorities, clergy and people alike, they do manage to effect major changes at Lake Sayula and in surrounding regions, even in nearby Guadalajara, before the at first fascinated and ultimately terrified Kate manages to escape the country. It is a very odd book indeed.

I find several things about this book to be quite engaging. The basic premise is an interesting one, though quite improbable, even almost ridiculous as it plays itself out. The characters are particularly well drawn: Kate, the disillusioned and somewhat confused European with a bad case of Wanderlust; Felipa, her earthy and inscrutable Mexican housekeeper; Ramon, the ruthless, politically savvy guru who is convinced he is a god; Cipriano, the steely-eyed, handsome and diminutive Indian general one could easily imagine ruling all of Mexico from the Emperor Maximillian’s castle of Chapultepec. But there are some very disconcerting elements that plague the writing: the constant repetition of words, such as ‘dun’ or ‘buff’ to describe the lake; the rigid stereotyping of groups (lower class Mexicans as lazy semi-animals; ‘the priests’ as fascistic fiends); European culture as so much dead refuse to be swept away; ‘the blood’, a term Lawrence uses constantly to refer to some kind of pre-determinative quality in all of us, a kind of fatal DNA. Some scenes are memorable but, despite their tragic nature, so improbable as to make one laugh–such as when the peace-loving Kate suddenly takes a revolver into her hands and brutally kills a peasant who is attacking Ramon, or when villagers and clergy joyfully carry sacred statues from the church in procession, place them on rafts and, to music and gleeful chants, send them off across the lake to be destroyed, in favor of their newly-embraced Aztec gods. It is exactly these types of things which convinced me long ago that D.H. Lawrence should have stuck to travel writing, of which, in my view, he is a much under-appreciated master.

One of the more disappointing aspects to this novel is the abruptness of its ending. The story seems hugely unfinished. But then, Lawrence himself was desperate to get away from Mexico at that point, so it’s all quite understandable. And the greatest irony of all is this: Lawrence, the great foe of a European culture he considered dead and long-since overdue for burial, was so horrified by the Aztec gods and culture he had attempted to resurrect that he was sent scurrying back to Europe just as quickly as he could go. Moral: read his ‘Sea and Sardinia’, ‘Twilight in Italy’ and ‘Etruscan Places’. You’ll be so glad you did.




2 comments on “Quetzalcoatl

  1. I find it interesting that you recommend Lawrence’s travel writing above all and that you find that one of his downfalls is his at least occasional unintended silliness. I haven’t read a great deal of Lawrence, besides studying some short stories in university, and reading some of his poetry, but I’d pretty much agree about the silliness thing. It’s not great when you’re in the flow of what seems to be a fine work of literature and suddenly run into the brick of wall of “um…this is just ridiculous” or “how corny”. Which most certainly has happened to me with Lawrence. At the same time, I’ve certainly found some transcendent moments in his poetry. And as travel writing is one of my favourite genres anyway I’d like to try some of those books, now.

  2. leifhendrik says:

    ‘Mornings in Mexico’ is the first piece of travel writing by Lawrence I read. It’s really first rate and I recommend it heartily. It is a very sunny and cheerful work, for the most part, and finely composed. But I like all his travel sketches. I may return to them soon. One thing I dislike about Lawrence is something I find distasteful in a few other very famous writers: he seems to become obsessed with coming up with a great overarching plan for humanity, some utopian world view of his own, which I find quite tiresome and pointless. Dostoevsky does this, and I find his work not so much literature as ideology–although I dislike it intensely for a few other reasons too. You may very much disagree with me on some of this–most readers probably would have good cause for doing so–but there you have it. Meanwhile, I’m enjoying some fine memoirs of the period that reflect on Lawrence as writer and man, so I’m having fun.

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