Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence
Rick and Morty on Adult Swim, Cartoon Network
D.H. Lawrence is known today as some kind of a racy writer whose book Lady Chatterley’s Lover was the subject of an obscenity trial which opened the door to today’s multi-billion dollar a year porn industry. Lawrence inspires extremes of positive and negative emotions in his readers. He has been praised as a philosopher of modernism, a brilliant student of human psychology and character, and a great story teller. Others consider him a misogynist and proto-fascist. In fairness, his works provide ammunition to each of these views and then some: he pointedly refused to be pigeon-holed. But that doesn’t mean his ideas can’t be understood or are not coherent. Was he all the bad things people said he was? Lets consider that as we explore the amazing world of Women in Love.
The content of Lawrence’s work is a reflection of his time. He’s as good as any writer or thinker ever, meaning he had his finger on the pulse of his world. To use just a few examples, Women in Love rails against the reduction of men to machines as factories grow increasingly sophisticated; illustrates and dissects with amazing clarity the “generation gap” we are to hear so much about later; offers a fully developed theory of human mind, motivation, and desire before Western society was familiar with Freud. This all in a book written in 1916 and published in 1920. Reading Women in Love, I had the strange feeling that western society stopped making any progress towards understanding itself in the early 20th century.
Lawrence is hard to pin down because as soon as he commits to a position, he seems to renege on it in one way or another. In his fiction, he clearly enjoyed putting bits of his own thoughts into the mouths of his characters, knowing he can maintain deniability if need be. Even Birkin, the character in Women in Love most modeled on his own person, is held up to ridicule by his supposed friends at one point, and by the author himself at many others. Birkin is self-absorbed and suffers delusions of grandeur. The description of his and Ursula’s sexy time is insane and hilarious, so much it’s very hard to read it as anything but slapstick. What’s not clear is who is being lampooned.
Unconsciously, with her sensitive fingertips, she was tracing the back of his thighs, following some mysterious life-flow there. She had discovered something, something more than wonderful, more wonderful than life itself. It was the strange mystery of his life-motion, there, at the back of the thighs, down the flanks. It was a strange reality of his being, the very stuff of being, there in the straight downflow of the thighs. It was here she discovered him one of the sons of God such as were in the beginning of the world, not a man, something other, something more.
This was release at last. She had had lovers, she had known passion. But this was neither love nor passion. It was the daughters of men coming back to the sons of God, the strange inhuman sons of God who are in the beginning.
Her face was now one dazzle of released, golden light, as she looked up at him, and laid her hands full on his thighs, behind, as he stood before her. He looked down at her with a rich bright brow like a diadem above his eyes. She was beautiful as a new marvellous flower opened at his knees, a paradisal flower she was, beyond womanhood, such a flower of luminousness. Yet something was tight and unfree in him. He did not like this crouching, this radiance—not altogether.
It was all achieved, for her. She had found one of the sons of God from the Beginning, and he had found one of the first most luminous daughters of men.
She traced with her hands the line of his loins and thighs, at the back, and a living fire ran through her, from him, darkly. It was a dark flood of electric passion she released from him, drew into herself. She had established a rich new circuit, a new current of passional electric energy, between the two of them, released from the darkest poles of the body and established in perfect circuit. It was a dark fire of electricity that rushed from him to her, and flooded them both with rich peace, satisfaction.
‘My love,’ she cried, lifting her face to him, her eyes, her mouth open in transport.
‘My love,’ he answered, bending and kissing her, always kissing her.
She closed her hands over the full, rounded body of his loins, as he stooped over her, she seemed to touch the quick of the mystery of darkness that was bodily him. She seemed to faint beneath, and he seemed to faint, stooping over her. It was a perfect passing away for both of them, and at the same time the most intolerable accession into being, the marvellous fullness of immediate gratification, overwhelming, out-flooding from the source of the deepest life-force, the darkest, deepest, strangest life-source of the human body, at the back and base of the loins…
…Soon they had run on again into the darkness. She did not ask where they were going, she did not care. She sat in a fullness and a pure potency that was like apathy, mindless and immobile. She was next to him, and hung in a pure rest, as a star is hung, balanced unthinkably. Still there remained a dark lambency of anticipation. She would touch him. With perfect fine finger-tips of reality she would touch the reality in him, the suave, pure, untranslatable reality of his loins of darkness. To touch, mindlessly in darkness to come in pure touching upon the living reality of him, his suave perfect loins and thighs of darkness, this was her sustaining anticipation.
I don’t know. Maybe he’s serious. There is the idea floated in Women in Love that sex and sensuousness, equated with “primitive” cultures, is a pathway to knowledge unavailable by any other means, a deeper, separate kind of knowledge. Seen in this light, trying to gussy up a fellatio scene with all manner of spiritual-philosophical mumbo jumbo may be serious, or at least deliberate. More likely, it’s half-serious, like everything else here. Lawrence jokes around so much elsewhere, and this “loins of darkness” business is so insane it’s hard to not laugh…
Lawrence was, if anything, his own man. It’s no wonder he rubbed so many the wrong way. In the immediate aftermath of WWI, which sickened literally everyone with previously unseen levels of carnage and misery for no reason anyone could understand, he was making light of Victorian sexual taboos, high philosophy, and anything anyone took too seriously. I can’t tell whether he was equally silly about art, but he clearly thought everything humanity has worked so hard to create was a ridiculous joke at best. Eventually, others would come to the same conclusion. The period between the world wars saw the rise of Dada and Surrealism, and eventually pure abstraction—movements that, while not at all equal in merit, are all joined together by a common renunciation of the project of humanism in favor of various types of decadence or nihilism, which are in the final analysis the same thing.
Lawrence was far ahead of almost everyone in seeing the dead end western society had come to, the impasse in the ideology and myths by which we live as well as the physical barriers preventing us from working together. Consider the inter-generational conflict between the young protagonists of Women in Love and their village-bred parents. Ursula’s incomprehension of what motivates her parents in the scene where Birkin comes to ask for her hand in marriage is among the most genuine, and genuinely bewildering narrative passages in literature. The incomprehension is, of course, mutual. Though written a century ago, it’s something as true today as then, and if it ceases to be true it will only be because the old world, the world of the village, may no longer exist at all.
‘No, I won’t,’ she cried. ‘I won’t hold my tongue and be bullied. What does it matter which day I get married—what does it MATTER! It doesn’t affect anybody but myself.’
Her father was tense and gathered together like a cat about to spring.
‘Doesn’t it?’ he cried, coming nearer to her. She shrank away.
‘No, how can it?’ she replied, shrinking but stubborn.
‘It doesn’t matter to ME then, what you do—what becomes of you?’ he cried, in a strange voice like a cry.
Ursula is a brat, and her father, while perfectly together, is destined to be left behind by history. This passage seems very significant to me because of how vividly and starkly Lawrence describes the two parties’ inability to understand what motivates each other. Elsewhere, he seems to suggest that individual freedom is the highest aim, but here it is impossible to picture such characters achieving any kind of self-realization: the younger generation is too confused and self-absorbed, and their parents are not individuated by definition—they belong to the old, communal world. Perhaps Lawrence meant to reserve individual freedom for the Übermensch. Perhaps he believed himself one. But on the evidence of Women in Love alone, it would seem Lawrence has no answers for the confusion: he understands where each side is coming from, but can’t see a resolution so long as the world of the village continues to be swallowed by the world of the urban, the mechanical, and the trendy. The only thing for certain is that the old world is on its way out, and the new world has its head up its ass so deep it is useless to anyone, including itself.
I don’t think Lawrence would have championed the individual as artist as the solution, or even as a solution, had he lived much longer into the 20th century. He was too smart, too open-eyed, and too honest with himself for that. The truth is, being an artist, in the modern sense, only works when one is tethered to the old world, and breaks down when everyone crosses the threshold into the brave new world of yuppie individualism. The reason why should be obvious: a world full of individualists is a recipe for disaster, it is the prisoner’s dilemma rendered in flesh. Such a world is uniquely unsatisfying. To the extent that it is possible at all, it is doomed to self-destruction, as our world currently is. But the main thing is that it is unsatisfying, no world fit for human beings or other life.
What, then, are we to make of it all? What’s the answer? D.H. Lawrence was already clear at the start of the last century that it’s not in amassing wealth and power, nor in living a life of austerity or suffering and renunciation. Elsewhere, he seemed to lean towards the answer being individualism, individualism and art, but I think a little more time would have revealed to him the trap that individualism is as well, at least when it is channeled through capitalism. What’s that leave?
Pretty much everything, so long as it’s down to earth. The lesson seems to be that our lives are about what they always were, which is friends and family, little pleasures, fucking, fighting, being male and being female, eating food and smoking DMT, feeling better than others, and feeling together with them. Whatever we make our lives about, from now until the end, however long that may take, will center around the way we relate to our loved ones and our environment. There is nothing else. Really, there never was anything else, even though the story of progress made this hard to see.
It seems fitting that, these days, the most prescient commentary on these hefty issues comes from group projects, TV shows and movies. We are out of the age of bigger than life geniuses. Shows like Community, Parks and Recreation, Walking Dead, the Office and many others are about the way meaning in life comes from the way our lives are intertwined and mutually interdependent. You won’t find a heroic protagonist in the lot, someone to emulate as a role model: every cast member is a faulty individual whose very identity is the product of their relationships with their group. As are all the rest of us. It’s done no one any favors to live through a century of heroic protagonists in fiction because we are only capable of individual heroism to the extent that we are grounded in a communal reality. When we forget that we are defined by our communities, when we neglect to maintain them, everything goes to shit because we are, in essence, going against our very natures.
It’s interesting to test D.H. Lawrence’s ideas through the animated show Rick and Morty. Rick is a super- genius scientist, which is close enough to artist to make comparisons fruitful (though naturally, it’s more appropriate that he be a scientist—what with the complex and worshipful relationship our society maintains with science and technology). What does the strategy of individualism and creativity achieve in the 21st century? The adventures of Rick and his grandson Morty seem to indicate it’s nothing to write home about.
Rick creates a little sentient robot that he lets loose on the dinner table. “What is my purpose?” the robot asks. Rick says “You pass butter.” The robot looks at his arms, slumps, and says, “Oh my god,” to which Rick replies, “Yeah, welcome to the club pal.”
The show is only at the start of season three, so there’s plenty of time for conclusions to change dramatically. But so far, the only thing Rick seems to truly value is hanging out with his grandkids. It doesn’t matter what they do—they seem to mostly watch and guffaw at inter-dimensional cable. But everything else is a distraction, at best. Even, or especially, the fact that there is a galactic government which considers Rick a terrorist, as well as a city of Ricks from different dimensions who also hold little favor for c-137 Rick, the “main” Rick whom the show has mostly followed since its beginning, aka “the Rickest Rick.” Science and art hold no promise of redemption here. But family, friends, and simple pleasures do.
I don’t know if this qualifies as anti-intellectualism. Obviously, I’m not a huge fan of stupid smart-ness, seeing where it’s gotten us. But that doesn’t mean anti-intellectualism can offer any solutions either. Both suffer from a focus on the wrong thing, and both fall short of providing any respite from the mess we’ve dragged ourselves into. Now, everything points to the fact that there is no answer, no respite for us collectively seeing as we’ve uncorked forces we don’t understand and can’t control. But individually, we can still have a good time, and collectively, we can (and should) still do the right things, even if they be ineffectual.
Anyway, I’m sorry, it looks like this essay suffers from the same conceit as when I tried to write about other things I saw on the telly: the part about the popular things is obviously extremely thin. I had the thought that this Rick and Morty show is in some way a good update to D.H. Lawrence’s thought, but on closer inspection, I think the two have more in common aesthetically. Philosophically, Rick and Morty is a pretty existentialist project, which is hardly very modern. Though this does lend further support to my feeling that our society stopped coming up with anything creative or new in the early 20th century—machines and fads notwithstanding.
I do really like this show. There’s nothing like it on television, but just barely: I think the combination that’s unique to it so far is the extreme cynicism towards modern society coupled with an unapologetic earnest affection towards family and friends, faulty as they may be. I think this is the direction all popular entertainment is heading, as indicated by a number of TV shows emphasizing the inter-relatedness of their characters’ lives, but for now the combination is still new. New to Americans, at least—it strikes me as interesting that this is probably the attitude embattled and oppressed people have maintained against (mostly) western hegemony for ages. Now Americans, too, are becoming third-world-ified disposable people. Better late than never—an overfed, over-stimulated populace is a terrible, useless thing, and this one looked like it was gonna masticate and eliminate the world for a minute, at least if you believe its own propagandists.
Enough wanking for now, huh? Just one question remains to be considered here.
What is D.H. Lawrence’s philosophical position, exactly? What is it that has proved to be so confusing/ inflammatory for his readers, and to lend itself to the various uncomplimentary labels he has been saddled with? Was Lawrence a misogynist? A budding fascist?
To be fair, there’s evidence for every one of those views. But none of them are true, and it is disingenuous or stupid to insist that to be the case. You can pull all kinds of statements from the oeuvre of a prolific writer, statements such as that below, from a 1908 letter to a friend.
If I had my way, I would build a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace, with a military band playing softly, and a Cinematograph working brightly; then I’d go out in the back streets and main streets and bring them in, all the sick, the halt, and the maimed; I would lead them gently, and they would smile me a weary thanks; and the band would softly bubble out the “Hallelujah Chorus”.
This one is on Lawrence’s Wikipedia page. The “military band playing softly,” among other things, should tip you off that he is being facetious here. More characteristic of his true thoughts are passages like the following:
“Now we see the trend of our civilization, in terms of human feeling and human relation. It is, and there is no denying it, towards a greater and greater abstraction from the physical, towards a further and further physical separateness between men and women, and between individual and individual… It only remains for some men and women, individuals, to try to get back their bodies and preserve the flow of warmth, affection and physical unison.” Phoenix II: Uncollected Writings, Ed. Warren Roberts and Harry T. Moore (New York) 1970
It has to be remembered that D.H. Lawrence and his friends were essentially hippies. And not even the first. Eveything good and bad about the hippy hippies of the 60s, the proto-yuppies we’ve come to know so well, can be said about Lawrence’s friends too. They dabbled in identity politics and worked hard to undermine what they perceived as the conformity surrounding them, not realizing they were digging their own graves.
I won’t comment on whether Lawrence was a misogynist here because it’s a can of worms. For his time and place, he was surely a progressive guy! Women received the right to vote in the U.K. in 1918 if they were over 30, and only in 1928 on the same terms as men–at age 21. In the final analysis, D.H Lawrence was a smart, creative, and funny guy who took some joy out of fucking with people’s expectations of him. He was also a faulty human being, just like the rest of us. He despised the rich, but he also despised the poor. He seemed to equate capitalism with democracy and view them both as dehumanizing forces, somewhat presciently if we consider the Freudian (specifically Erich Fromm’s) thoughts on the effect of freedom on the average person. But he had at least as much derision for socialism. Here is a passage from Women in Love on the subject:
The two couples went asunder, Ursula clinging to Birkin’s arm. When they had gone some distance, she glanced back and saw the young man going beside the full, easy young woman. His trousers sank over his heels, he moved with a sort of slinking evasion, more crushed with odd self-consciousness now he had the slim old arm-chair to carry, his arm over the back, the four fine, square tapering legs swaying perilously near the granite setts of the pavement. And yet he was somewhere indomitable and separate, like a quick, vital rat. He had a queer, subterranean beauty, repulsive too.
‘How strange they are!’ said Ursula.
‘Children of men,’ he said. ‘They remind me of Jesus: “The meek shall inherit the earth.”‘
‘But they aren’t the meek,’ said Ursula.
‘Yes, I don’t know why, but they are,’ he replied.
They waited for the tramcar. Ursula sat on top and looked out on the town. The dusk was just dimming the hollows of crowded houses.
‘And are they going to inherit the earth?’ she said.
‘Then what are we going to do?’ she asked. ‘We’re not like them—are we? We’re not the meek?’
‘No. We’ve got to live in the chinks they leave us.’
‘How horrible!’ cried Ursula. ‘I don’t want to live in chinks.’
‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘They are the children of men, they like market-places and street-corners best. That leaves plenty of chinks.’
‘All the world,’ she said.
‘Ah no—but some room.’
The tramcar mounted slowly up the hill, where the ugly winter-grey masses of houses looked like a vision of hell that is cold and angular. They sat and looked. Away in the distance was an angry redness of sunset. It was all cold, somehow small, crowded, and like the end of the world.
Pretty hilarious. Lawrence seems to have nothing but derision for the working classes, even though he was himself brought up in a working class home. Even the sight of a working-class neighborhood evokes nothing so much as the end of the world. But this isn’t fascism at all, it’s kind of a softer, more humane version of Nietzsche, insofar as the greatest sin Lawrence and many other artists of the time could imagine was conformity. And I get it: I imagine at the turn of the 20th century, anyone with an ounce of integrity could see that either the society mankind created was a terrible sham, or human life was not the sacred thing our society maintained it was, or both.
Lawrence, an observant and intelligent man, could see that society was not treating man or the planet fairly, or even in line with its own ideology. This conflict is the subject of his writing, as it was the subject of the works of almost every worthwhile artist and writer from that period. But when it comes to offering explanations and solutions, things were a lot less clear. The best that D.H. Lawrence could do was the idea that mankind was turning into robots, and needed to (re)connect with their primitive, submerged, passionate selves, their Dionysian side. This is obviously no solution at all, but then again none of his contemporaries had any better ideas either. Imagine, for example, Gregor Samsa connecting with his Dionysian side! Answers were hard to come by, in part because virtually no one was prepared to suggest that our society as a whole is built on a terrible foundation and needs to be torn down and re-built. Few are calling for such measures today, even as we prepare to collectively stumble down the most tragic chapter of our terrible history to date, but it was almost unthinkable in Kafka’s and Lawrence’s time.
Birkin looked at the land, at the evening, and was thinking: ‘Well, if mankind is destroyed, if our race is destroyed like Sodom, and there is this beautiful evening with the luminous land and trees, I am satisfied. That which informs it all is there, and can never be lost. After all, what is mankind but just one expression of the incomprehensible. And if mankind passes away, it will only mean that this particular expression is completed and done. That which is expressed, and that which is to be expressed, cannot be diminished. There it is, in the shining evening. Let mankind pass away—time it did. The creative utterances will not cease, they will only be there. Humanity doesn’t embody the utterance of the incomprehensible any more. Humanity is a dead letter. There will be a new embodiment, in a new way. Let humanity disappear as quick as possible.’
And a few chapters later:
“But I abhor humanity, I wish it was swept away. It could go, and there would be no ABSOLUTE loss, if every human being perished tomorrow. The reality would be untouched. Nay, it would be better. The real tree of life would then be rid of the most ghastly, heavy crop of Dead Sea Fruit, the intolerable burden of myriad simulacra of people, an infinite weight of mortal lies…’
‘…I would die like a shot, to know that the earth would really be cleaned of all the people. It is the most beautiful and freeing thought. Then there would NEVER be another foul humanity created, for a universal defilement.’
‘No,’ said Ursula, ‘there would be nothing.’
‘What! Nothing? Just because humanity was wiped out? You flatter yourself. There’d be everything.’
‘But how, if there were no people?’
‘Do you think that creation depends on MAN! It merely doesn’t. There are the trees and the grass and birds. I much prefer to think of the lark rising up in the morning upon a human-less world. Man is a mistake, he must go. There is the grass, and hares and adders, and the unseen hosts, actual angels that go about freely when a dirty humanity doesn’t interrupt them—and good pure-tissued demons: very nice.’
It pleased Ursula, what he said, pleased her very much, as a phantasy. Of course it was only a pleasant fancy. She herself knew too well the actuality of humanity, its hideous actuality. She knew it could not disappear so cleanly and conveniently. It had a long way to go yet, a long and hideous way. Her subtle, feminine, demoniacal soul knew it well.
‘If only man was swept off the face of the earth, creation would go on so marvellously, with a new start, non-human. Man is one of the mistakes of creation—like the ichthyosauri. If only he were gone again, think what lovely things would come out of the liberated days;—things straight out of the fire.’
‘But man will never be gone,’ she said, with insidious, diabolical knowledge of the horrors of persistence. ‘The world will go with him.”