By Joyce Carol Oates
Originally published in Critical Inquiry, Spring 1978. Reprinted in Contraries: Essays.
And was he fated to pass away in this knowledge, this one process of frost-knowledge, death by perfect cold? Was he a messenger, an omen of the universal dissolution into whiteness and snow?
Birkin thinking of Gerald, Women in Love
In a little-known story of Lawrence’s called “The Christening” an elderly wreck of a man contemplates his illegitimate grandchild and attempts to lead his embarrassed and impatient household in a prayer in “the special language of fatherhood.” No one listens, no one wishes to hear. He is rambling, incoherent, bullying even in his confession and self-abnegation, yet his prayer is an extraordinary one: he implores God to shield the newborn child from the conceit of family life, from the burden of being a son with a specific father. It was his own interference with his children, his imposition of his personal will, that damaged them as human beings; and he prays that his grandson will be spared this violation of the spirit. Half-senile he insists upon his prayer though his grownup children are present and resentful:
“Lord, what father has a man but Thee? Lord, when a man says he is a father, he is wrong from the first word. For Thou art the Father, Lord. Lord, take away from us the conceit that our children are ours …. For I have stood between Thee and my children; I’ve had my way with them, Lord; I’ve stood between Thee and my children; I’ve cut ’em off from Thee because they were mine. And they’ve grown twisted, because of me …. Lord, if it hadn’t been for me, they might ha’ been trees in the sunshine. Let me own it, Lord, I’ve done ’em mischief. It would ha’ been better if they’d never known no father.”
Between the individual and the cosmos there falls the deathly shadow of the ego: the disheveled old man utters a truth central to Lawrence’s work. Where the human will is active there is always injury to the spirit, always a perversion, a “twisting”; that human beings are compelled not only to assert their greedy claims upon others but to manipulate their own lives in accord with an absolute that has little to do with their deeper yearnings constitutes our tragedy. Is it a tragedy of the modern era; is it inevitably bound up with the rise of industry and mechanization? Lawrence would say that it is, for the “material interests” of which Conrad spoke so ironically are all that remain of spiritual hopes; God being dead, God being unmasked as a fraud, nothing so suits man’s ambition as a transvaluing of values, the reinterpretation of religious experience in gross, obscene terms. Here is Gerald Crich, one of Lawrence’s most deeply realized and sympathetic characters, surely an alter ego of his—
In his travels, and in his accompanying readings, he had come to the conclusion that the essential secret of life was harmony …. And he proceeded to put his philosophy into practice by forcing order into the established world, translating the mystic word harmony into the practical word organisation.1
Harmony becomes organization. And Gerald dedicates himself to work, to feverish, totally absorbing work, inspired with an almost religious exaltation in his fight with matter. The world is split in two: on one side matter (the mines, the miners), on the other side his own isolated will. He wants to create on earth a perfect machine, “an activity of pure order, pure mechanical repetition”; a man of the twentieth century with no nostalgia for the superannuated ideals of Christianity or democracy, he wishes to found his eternity, his infinity, in the machine. So inchoate and mysterious is the imaginative world Lawrence creates for Women in Love that we find no difficulty in reading Gerald Crich as an allegorical figure in certain chapters and as a quite human, even fluid personality in others. As Gudrun’s frenzied lover, as Birkin’s elusive beloved, he seems a substantially different person from the Gerald Crich who is a ruthless god of the machine; yet as his cultural role demands extinction (for Lawrence had little doubt that civilization was breaking down rapidly, and Gerald is the very personification of a “civilized” man), so does his private emotional life, his confusion of the individual will with that of the cosmos, demand death—death by perfect cold. He is Lawrence’s only tragic figure, a remarkable creation in a remarkable novel, and though it is a commonplace to say that Birkin represents Lawrence, it seems equally likely that Gerald Crich represents Lawrence—in his deepest, most aggrieved, most nihilistic soul.
Women in Love is an inadequate title. The novel concerns itself with far more than simply women in love; far more than simply women in love. Two violent love affairs are the plot’s focus, but the drama of the novel has clearly to do with every sort of emotion, and with every sort of spiritual inanition. Gerald and Birkin and Ursula and Gudrun are immense figures, monstrous creations out of legend, out of mythology; they are unable to alter their fates, like tragic heroes and heroines of old. The mark of Cain has been on Gerald since early childhood, when he accidentally killed his brother; and Gudrun is named for a heroine out of Germanic legend who slew her first husband. The pace of the novel is often frenetic. Time is running out, history is coming to an end, the Apocalypse is at hand. Dies Irae and The Latter Days (as well as The Sisters and The Wedding Ring) were titles Lawrence considered for the novel, and though both are too explicit, too shrill, they are more suggestive of the chiliastic mood of the work (which even surprised Lawrence when he read it through after completion in November of 1916: it struck him as “end-of-the-world” and as “purely destructive, not like The Rainbow, destructive-consummating”).2
Women in Love is a strangely ceremonial, even ritualistic work. In very simple terms it celebrates love and marriage as the only possible salvation for twentieth-century man and dramatizes the fate of those who resist the abandonment of the ego demanded by love: a sacrificial rite, an ancient necessity. Yet those who “come through”—Birkin and Ursula—are hardly harmonious; the novel ends with their arguing about Birkin’s thwarted desire for an “eternal union with a man,” and one is given to feel that the shadow of the dead man will fall across their marriage. And though the structure of the novel is ceremonial, its texture is rich, lush, fanciful, and, since each chapter is organized around a dominant image, rather self-consciously symbolic or imagistic; action is subordinate to theme. The perversity of the novel is such that its great subject of mankind’s tragically split nature is demonstrated in the artwork itself, which is sometimes a fairly conventional novel with a forward-moving plot, sometimes a gorgeous, even outrageous prose poem on the order of the work Aloysius Bertrand and Charles Baudelaire were doing in the previous century. Birkin is sometimes a prophetic figure, and sometimes merely garrulous and silly; Ursula is sometimes a mesmerizing archetypal female, at other times shrill and possessive and dismayingly obtuse. In one of Lawrence’s most powerful love scenes Gerald Crich comes by night to Gudrun’s bedroom after his father’s death and is profoundly revitalized by her physical love, but Gudrun cannot help looking upon him with a devastating cynicism, noting his ridiculous trousers and braces and boots, and she is filled with nausea of him despite her fascination. Gudrun herself takes on in Gerald’s obsessive imagination certain of the more destructive qualities of the Magna Mater or the devouring female, and she attains an almost mythic power over him; but when we last see her she has become shallow and cheaply ironic, merely a vulgar young woman. It is a measure of Lawrence’s genius that every part of his immensely ambitious novel works (with the possible exception of the strained chapter “In The Pompadour”) and that the proliferating images coalesce into fairly stable leitmotifs: water, moon, darkness, light, the organic and the sterile.
Our own era is one in which prophetic eschatological art has as great a significance as it did in 1916; Lawrence’s despairing conviction that civilization was in the latter days is one shared by a number of our most serious writers, even if there is little belief in the Apocalypse in its classical sense. The notion of antichrist is an archaic one, a sentiment that posits unqualified belief in Christ; and the ushering in of a violent new era, a millennium, necessitates faith in the transcendental properties of the world, or the universe, which contrast sharply with scientific speculations about the fate we are likely to share. Even in his most despairing moments Lawrence remained curiously “religious.” It is a tragedy that Western civilization may be doomed, that a man like Gerald Crich must be destroyed, and yet—does it really matter? Lawrence through Birkin debates the paradox endlessly. He cannot come to any conclusion. Gerald is beloved, yet Gerald is deathly. Gerald is a brilliant young man, yet he is a murderer, he is suicidal, he is rotten at the core. It is a possibility that Birkin’s passionate love for him is as foully motivated as Gudrun’s and would do no good for either of them. Can human beings alter their fates? Though his pessimism would seem to undercut and even negate his art, Lawrence is explicit in this novel about his feelings for mankind; the vituperation expressed is perhaps unequaled in serious literature. Surely it is at the very heart of the work, in Birkin’s strident ranting voice:
“I detest what I am, outwardly. I loathe myself as a human being. Humanity is a huge aggregate he, and a huge lie is less than a small truth. Humanity is less, far less than the individual, because the individual may sometimes be capable of truth, and humanity is a tree of lies….
“… 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.”
But Ursula also perceives in her lover a contradictory desire to “save” this doomed world, and characteristically judges this desire a weakness, and insidious form of prostitution. Birkin’s perverse attachment to the world he hates is not admirable in Ursula’s eyes, for Ursula is no ordinary woman but a fiercely intolerant creature who detests all forms of insincerity. She is Birkin’s conscience, in a sense; his foil, his gadfly; a taunting form of himself. Yet later, immediately after Birkin declares that he loves her, she is rather disturbed by the starkly nihilistic vision he sets before her; and indeed it strikes us as more tragic than that of Shakespeare:
“We always consider the silver river of life, rolling on and quickening all the world to a brightness, on and on to heaven, flowing into a bright eternal sea, a heaven of angels thronging. But the other is our real reality that dark river of dissolution. You see it rolls in us just as the other rolls—the black river of corruption. And our flowers are of this—our sea-born Aphrodite, all our white phosphorescent flowers of sensuous perfection, all our reality, nowadays.”
Aphrodite herself is symptomatic of the death-process, born in what Lawrence calls the “first spasm of universal dissolution.” The process cannot be halted. It is beyond the individual, beyond choice. It ends in a universal nothing, a new cycle in which humanity will play no role. The prospect is a chilling one and yet—does it really matter? Humanity in the aggregate is contemptible, and many people (like Diana Crich) are better off dead since their living has somehow gone wrong. No, Birkin thinks, it can’t really matter. His mood shifts, he is no longer frustrated and despairing, he is stoical, almost mystical, like one who has given up all hope. For he has said earlier to Gerald, after their talk of the death of God and the possible necessity of the salvation through love, that reality lies outside the human sphere:
“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…. 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.”
Lawrence’s shifts in mood and conviction are passionate, even unsettling. One feels that he writes to discover what he thinks, what is thinking in him, on an unconscious level. Love is an ecstatic experience. Or is it, perhaps, a delusion? Erotic love is a way of salvation—or is it a distraction, a burden? Is it something to be gone through in order that one’s deepest self may be stirred to life? Or is it a very simple, utterly natural emotion … ? (In Sons and Lovers Paul Morel is impatient with Miriam’s near-hysterical exaggeration of ordinary emotions; he resents her intensity, her penchant for mythologizing, and finds solace in Clara’s far less complex attitude toward sexual love.) Lawrence does not really know, regardless of his dogmatic remarks about “mind-consciousness” and “blood-consciousness.” He cannot know; he must continually strive to know, and accept continual frustration.3
Tragedy for Lawrence arises out of the fatal split between the demands of the ego and those of the larger, less personal consciousness: we are crippled by the shadow of the finite personality as it falls across our souls, as the children of the old man in “The Christening” are crippled by his particular fatherliness. If at one point in history—during the great civilization of the Etruscans, for instance—there was a unity of being, a mythic harmony between man and his community and nature, it is lost to us now; the blighted landscapes in Beldover through which Lawrence’s people walk give evidence that humanity is no longer evolving but devolving, degenerating. (“It is like a country in an underworld,” says Gudrun, repulsed but fascinated. “The people are all ghouls, and everything is ghostly. Everything is a ghoulish replica of the real world … all soiled, everything sordid. It’s like being mad, Ursula.”) One England blots out another England, as Lawrence observes in Lady Chatterley’s Lover some years later.
In Lawrence’s work one is struck repeatedly by the total absence of concern for community. In the novels after Sons and Lovers his most fully developed and self-contained characters express an indifference toward their neighbors that is almost aristocratic. Both Anna and Will Brangwen of The Rainbow are oblivious to the world outside their household: the nation does not exist to them; there is no war in South Africa; they are in a “private retreat” that has no nationality. Even as a child Ursula is proudly contemptuous of her classmates, knowing herself set apart from them and, as a Brangwen, superior. She is fated to reject her unimaginative lover Skrebensky who has subordinated his individuality to the nation and who would gladly give up his life to it. (“I belong to the nation,” he says solemnly, “and must do my duty by the nation.”) Some years later she and Gudrun express a loathing for their parents’ home that is astonishing, and even the less passionate Alvina Houghton of The Lost Girl surrenders to outbursts of mad, hilarious jeering, so frustrated is she by the limitations of her father’s household and of the mining town of Woodhouse in general. (She is a “lost” girl only in terms of England. Though her life in a primitive mountain village in Italy is not a very comfortable one, it is nevertheless superior to her former, virginal life back in provincial England.)
Lawrence might have dramatized the tragedy of his people’s rootlessness, especially as it compels them to attempt desperate and often quixotic relationships as a surrogate for social and political involvement (as in The Plumed Serpent and Kangaroo); but of course he could not give life to convictions he did not feel. The human instinct for something larger than an intense, intimate bond, the instinct for community, is entirely absent in Lawrence, and this absence helps to account for the wildness of his characters’ emotions. (Their passionate narrowness is especially evident when contrasted with the tolerance of a character like Leopold Bloom of Ulysses. Leopold thinks wistfully of his wife, but he thinks also of innumerable other people, men and women both, the living and the dead; he is a man of the city who is stirred by the myriad trivial excitements of Dublin—an adventurer writ small, but not contemptible in Joyce’s eyes. His obsessions are comically perverse, his stratagems pathetic. Acceptance by Simon Dedalus and his friends would mean a great deal to poor Bloom, but of course this acceptance will be withheld; he yearns for community but is denied it.)
For the sake of argument Gudrun challenges Ursula’s conviction that one can achieve a new space to be in, apart from the old: “But don’t you think you’ll want the old connection with the world—father and the rest of us, and all that it means, England and the world of thought—don’t you think you’ll need that, really to make a world?” But Ursula speaks for Lawrence in denying all inevitable social and familial connections. “One has a sort of other self, that belongs to a new planet, not to this,” she says. The disagreement marks the sisters’ break with each other; after this heated discussion they are no longer friends. Gudrun mocks the lovers with her false enthusiasm and deeply insults Ursula. “Go and find your new world, dear. After all, the happiest voyage is the quest of Rupert’s Blessed Isles.”
Lawrence’s utopian plans for Rananim aside, it seems obvious that he could not have been truly interested in establishing a community of any permanence, for such a community would have necessitated a connection between one generation and the next. It would have demanded that faith in a reality beyond the individual and the individual’s impulses which is absent in Lawrence—not undeveloped so much as simply absent, undiscovered. For this reason alone he seems to us distinctly un-English in any traditional sense. Fielding and Thackeray and Trollope and Dickens and Eliot and Hardy and Bennett belong to another world, another consciousness entirely. (Lawrence’s kinship with Pater and Wilde, his predilection for the intensity of the moment, may have stimulated him to a vigorous glorification of Nietzschean instinct and will to power as a means of resisting aestheticism: for there is a languid cynicism about Birkin not unlike that of Wilde’s prematurely weary heroes.)
Halfway around the world, in Australia, Richard Somers discovers that he misses England, for it isn’t freedom but mere vacancy he finds in this new, disturbingly beautiful world: the absence of civilization, of culture, of inner meaning; the absence of spirit.4 But so long as Lawrence is in England he evokes the idea of his nation only to do battle with it, to refute it, to be nauseated by it. The upper classes are sterile and worthless, the working classes are stunted aborigines who stare after the Brangwen sisters in the street. Halliday and his London friends are self-consciously decadent—”the most pettifogging calculating Bohemia that ever reckoned its pennies.” Only in the mythical structure of a fabulist work like The Escaped Cock can Lawrence imagine a harmonious relationship between male and female, yet even here in this Mediterranean setting the individual cannot tolerate other people, nor they him: “the little life of jealousy and property” resumes its sway and forces the man who died to flee. There is, however, no possibility of a tragic awareness in these terms; it is not tragic that the individual is compelled to break with his nation and his community because any unit larger than the individual is tainted and suspect, caught in the downward process of corruption.5 The community almost by definition is degraded. About this everyone is in agreement—Clifford Chatterley as well as Mellors, Hermione as well as Ursula and Gudrun. Community in the old sense is based on property and possessions and must be rejected, and all human relationships not founded upon an immediate emotional rapport must be broken. “The old ideals are dead as nails—nothing there,” Birkin says early in Women in Love. “It seems to me there remains only this perfect union with a woman—sort of ultimate marriage—and there isn’t anything else.” Gerald, however, finds it difficult to agree. Making one’s life up out of a woman, one woman only, woman only seems to him impossible, just as the forging of an intense love-connection with another man—which in Lawrence’s cosmology would have saved his life—is impossible.
“I only feel what I feel,” Gerald says.
The core of our human tragedy has very little to do with society, then, and everything to do with the individual: with the curious self-destructive condition of the human spirit. Having rejected the theological dogma of original sin, Lawrence develops a rather similar psychological dogma to account for the diabolic split within the individual between the dictates of “mind-consciousness” and the impulses of “blood-consciousness.” In his essay on Nathaniel Hawthorne in Studies in Classic American Literature, he interprets The Scarlet Letter as an allegory, a typically American allegory, of the consequences of the violent antagonism between the two ways of being. His explicitness is helpful in terms of Women in Love, where a rich verbal texture masks a tragically simple paradox. The cross itself is the symbol of mankind’s self-division, as it is the symbol, the final haunting image, in Gerald Crich’s life. (Fleeing into the snow, exhausted and broken after his ignoble attempt to strangle Gudrun, Gerald comes upon a half-buried crucifix at the top of a pole. He fears that someone is going to murder him. In terror he realizes “This was the moment when the death was uplifted, and there was no escape. Lord Jesus, was it then bound to be—Lord Jesus! He could feel the blow descending, he knew he was murdered.”)
Christ’s agony on the cross symbolizes our human agony at having acquired, or having been poisoned by, the “sin” of knowledge and self-consciousness. In the Hawthorne essay Lawrence says:
Nowadays men do hate the idea of dualism. It’s no good, dual we are. The cross. If we accept the symbol, then, virtually we accept the fact. We are divided against ourselves.
For instance, the blood hates being KNOWN by the mind. It feels itself destroyed when it is KNOWN. Hence the profound instinct of privacy.
And on the other hand, the mind and the spiritual consciousness of man simply hates the dark potency of blood-acts: hates the genuine dark sensual orgasms, which do, for the time being, actually obliterate the mind and the spiritual consciousness, plunge them in a suffocating flood of darkness.
You can’t get away from this.
Blood-consciousness overwhelms, obliterates, and annuls mind-consciousness.
Mind-consciousness extinguishes blood-consciousness, and consumes the blood.
We are all of us conscious in both ways. And the two ways are antagonistic in us.
They will always remain so.
That is our cross.
It is obvious that Lawrence identifies with the instinct toward formal allegory and subterfuge in American literature. He understands Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe from the inside; it is himself he speaks of when he says of Poe that he adventured into the vaults and cellars and horrible underground passages of the human soul, desperate to experience the “prismatic ecstasy” of heightened consciousness and of love. And Poe knew himself to be doomed, necessarily—as Lawrence so frequently thought himself (and his race). Indeed, Poe is far closer to Lawrence than Hawthorne or Melville:
He died wanting more love, and love killed him. A ghastly disease, love. Poe telling us of his disease: trying even to make his disease fair and attractive. Even succeeding. Which is the inevitable falseness, duplicity of art, American art in particular.
The inevitable duplicity of art: an eccentric statement from the man who says, elsewhere (in an essay on Walt Whitman), and the essential function of art is moral. “Not aesthetic, not decorative, not pasttime and recreation. But moral.” Yet it is possible to see that the artist too suffers from a tragic self-division, that he is forced to dramatize the radically new shifting over of consciousness primarily in covert, even occult and deathly terms: wanting to write a novel of consummate health and triumph whose controlling symbol is the rainbow, writing in fact a despairing, floridly tragic and rather mad work that resembles poetry and music (Wagnerian music) far more than it resembles the clearly “moral” bright book of life that is the novel, Lawrence finds himself surprised and disturbed by the apocalyptic nature of this greatest effort, as if he had imagined he had written something quite different. The rhythm of Lawrence’s writing is that of the American works he analyzes so irreverently and so brilliantly, a “disintegrating and sloughing of the old consciousness” and “the forming of a new consciousness underneath.” Such apocalyptic books must be written because old things need to die, because the “old white psyche has to be gradually broken down before anything else can come to pass” (in the essay on Poe). Such art must be violent, it must be outlandish and diabolic at its core because it is revolutionary in the truest sense of the word. It is subversive, even traitorous; but though it seeks to overturn empires, its primary concerns are prophetic, even religious. As Lawrence says in the poem “Nemesis” (from Pansies), “If we do not rapidly open all the doors of consciousness/and freshen the putrid little space in which we are cribbed/the sky-blue walls of our unventilated heaven/will be bright red with blood.” In any case the true artist does not determine the direction of his art; he surrenders his ego so that his deeper self may be heard. There is no freedom except in compliance with the spirit within, what Lawrence calls the Holy Ghost.
The suppressed Prologue to Women in Love sets forth the terms of Birkin’s torment with dramatic economy.6 “Mind-consciousness” and “blood-consciousness” are not mere abstractions, pseudo-philosophical notions, but bitterly existential ways of perceiving and of being. When Birkin and Gerald Crich first meet they experience a subtle bond between each other, a “sudden connection” that is intensified during a mountain-climbing trip in the Tyrol. In the isolation of the rocks and snow they and their companion attain a rare sort of intimacy that is to be denied and consciously rejected when they descend again into their unusual lives. (The parallel with Gerald’s death in the snow is obvious; by suppressing the Prologue and beginning with the chapter we have, “Sisters,” in which Ursula and Gudrun discuss marriage and the home and the mining town and venture out to watch the wedding, Lawrence sacrificed a great deal. “Sisters” is an entirely satisfactory opening, brilliant in its own lavish way; but the Prologue with its shrill, tender, almost crazed language is far more moving.)
Preliminary to the action of Women in Love, and unaccountable in terms of The Rainbow, which centers so exclusively upon Ursula, is the passionate and undeclared relationship between Birkin and Gerald, and the tortured split between Birkin’s spiritual and “sisterly” love for Hermione and his “passion of desire” for Gerald. Birkin is sickened by his obsession with Gerald; he is repulsed by his overwrought, exclusively mental relationship with Hermione (which is, incidentally, very close to the relationship of sheer nerves Lawrence discusses in his essay on Poe: the obscene love that is the “intensest nervous vibration of unison” without any erotic consummation). That Birkin’s dilemma is emblematic of society’s confusion in general is made clear, and convincing, by his immersion in educational theory. What is education except the gradual and deliberate building up of consciousness, unit by unit? Each unit of consciousness is the “living unit of that great social, religious, philosophic idea towards which mankind, like an organism seeking its final form, in laboriously growing,” but the tragic paradox is that there is no great unifying idea at the present time; there is simply aimless, futile activity. For we are in the autumn of civilization, and decay, as such, cannot be acknowledged. As Birkin suffers in his awareness of his own deceitful, frustrated life, he tries to forget himself in work; but he cannot escape a sense of the futility to all attempts at “social constructiveness.” The tone of the Prologue is dark indeed, and one hears Lawrence’s undisguised despair in every line:
How to get away from this process of reduction, how escape this phosphorescent passage into the tomb, which was universal though unacknowledged, this was the unconscious problem which tortured Birkin day and night. He came to Hermione, and found with her the pure, translucent regions of death itself, of ecstasy. In the world the autumn itself was setting in. What should a man add himself on to?—to science, to social reform, to aestheticism, to sensationalism? The whole world’s constructive activity was a fiction, a lie, to hide the great process of decomposition, which had set in. What then to adhere to?
He attempts a physical relationship with Hermione which is a cruel failure, humiliating to them both. He goes in desperation to prostitutes. Like Paul Morel he suffers a familiar split between the “spiritual” woman and the “physical” woman, but his deeper anxiety lies in his unacknowledged passion for Gerald Crich. Surely homoerotic yearning has never been so vividly and so sympathetically presented as it is in Lawrence’s Prologue, where Birkin’s intelligent complexity, his half-serious desire to rid himself of his soul in order to escape his predicament, and his fear of madness and dissolution as a consequence of his lovelessness give him a tragic depth comparable to Hamlet’s. He wants to love women, just as he wants to believe in the world’s constructive activity; but how can a man create his own feelings? Birkin knows that he cannot: he can only suppress them by an act of sheer will. In danger of going mad or of dying—of possibly killing himself—Birkin continues his deathly relationship with Hermione, keeping his homoerotic feelings to himself and even, in a sense, secret from himself. With keen insight Lawrence analyzes Birkin’s own analysis of the situation. “He knew what he felt, but he always kept the knowledge at bay. His a priori were: ‘I should not feel like this,’ and ‘It is the ultimate mark of my own deficiency, that I feel like this.’ Therefore, though he admitted everything, he never really faced the question. He never accepted the desire, and received it as part of himself. He always tried to keep it expelled from him.” Not only does Birkin attempt to dissociate himself from an impulse that is himself, he attempts to deny the femaleness in his own nature by objectifying (and degrading) it in his treatment of Hermione and of the “slightly bestial” prostitutes. It maddens him that he should feel sexual attraction for the male physique while for the female he is capable of feeling only a kind of fondness, a sacred love, as if for a sister. “The women he seemed to be kin to, he looked for the soul in them.” By the age of thirty he is sickly and dissolute, attached to Hermione in a loveless, sadistic relationship, terrified of breaking with her for fear of falling into the abyss. Yet the break is imminent, inevitable—so the action of Women in Love begins.
A tragedy, then, of an informal nature, experimental in its gropings toward a resolution of the central crisis: how to integrate the male and female principles, how to integrate the organic and the “civilized,” the relentlessly progressive condition of the modern world. It is not enough to be a child of nature, to cling to one’s ignorance as if it were a form of blessedness; one cannot deny the reality of the external world, its gradual transformation from the Old England into the New, into an enthusiastic acceptance of the individual as an instrument in the great machine of society. When Hermione goes into her rhapsody about spontaneity and the instincts, echoing Birkin in saying that the mind is death, he contradicts her brutally by claiming that the problem is not that people have too much mind, but too little. As for Hermione herself, she is merely making words because knowledge means everything to her: “Even your animalism, you want it in your head. You don’t want to be an animal, you want to observe your own animal functions, to get a mental thrill out of them …. What is it but the worst and last form of intellectualism, this love of yours for passion and the animal instincts?” But it is really himself he is attacking: Hermione is a ghastly form of himself he would like to destroy, a parody of a woman, a sister of his soul.
Women in Love must have originally been imagined as Birkin’s tragedy rather than Gerald’s, for though Gerald feels an attraction for Birkin, he is not so obsessed with it as Birkin is; in the Prologue he is characterized as rather less intelligent, less shrewd, than he turns out to be in subsequent chapters. Ursula’s role in saving Birkin from dissolution is, then, far greater than she can know. Not only must she arouse and satisfy his spiritual yearnings, she must answer to his physical desire as well: she must, in a sense, take on the active, masculine role in their relationship. (Significantly, it is Ursula who presses them into an erotic relationship after the death of Diana Crich and her young man. It is she who embraces Birkin tightly, wanting to show him that she is no shallow prude, and though he whimpers to himself, “Not this, not this,” he nevertheless succumbs to desire for her and they become lovers. Had Ursula not sensed the need to force Birkin into a physical relationship, it is possible their love would have become as spiritualized, and consequently as poisoned, as Birkin’s and Hermione’s.) Ursula’s role in saving Birkin from destruction is comparable to Sonia’s fairly magical redemption of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, just as Gerald’s suicide is comparable to Svidrigaylov’s when both men are denied salvation through women by whom they are obsessed. Though the feminine principle is not sufficient to guarantee eternal happiness, it is nevertheless the way through which salvation is attained: sex is an initiation in Lawrence, a necessary and even ritualistic event in the process of psychic wholeness. Where in more traditional tragedy—Shakespeare’s King Lear comes immediately to mind—it is the feminine, irrational, “dark and vicious” elements that must be resisted, since they disturb the status quo, the patriarchal cosmos, in Lawrence it is precisely the darkness, the passion, the mind-obliterating, terrible, and even vicious experience of erotic love that is necessary for salvation. The individual is split and wars futilely against himself, civilization is split and must fall into chaos if male and female principles are opposed. Lawrence’s is the sounder psychology, but it does not follow that his world view is more optimistic, for to recognize a truth does not inevitably bring with it the moral strength to realize that truth in one’s life.
Birkin’s desire for an eternal union with another man is thwarted in Women in Love, and his failure leads indirectly to Gerald’s death. At least this is Birkin’s conviction. “He should have loved me,” he says to Ursula and she, frightened, replies without sympathy, “What difference would it have made!” It is only in a symbolic dimension that the men are lovers; consciously, in the daylight world, they are never anything more than friends. In the chapter “Gladiatorial” the men wrestle together in order to stir Gerald from his boredom, and they seem to “drive their white flesh deeper and deeper against each other, as if they would break into a oneness.” The effort is such that both men lose consciousness and Birkin falls over Gerald, involuntarily. When their minds are gone their opposition to each other is gone and they can become united—but only temporarily, only until Birkin regains his consciousness and moves away. At the novel’s conclusion Birkin is “happily” married, yet incomplete. He will be a reasonably content and normal man, a husband to the passionate Ursula, yet unfulfilled; and one cannot quite believe that his frustrated love for Gerald will not surface in another form. His failure is not merely his own but civilization’s as well: male and female are inexorably opposed, the integration of the two halves of the human soul is an impossibility in our time.7
Hence the cruel frost-knowledge of Women in Love, the death by perfect cold Lawrence has delineated. Long before Gerald’s actual death in the mountains Birkin speculates on him as a strange white wonderful demon from the north, fated like his civilization to pass away into universal dissolution, the day of “creative life” being finished. In Apocalypse Lawrence speaks of the long slow death of the human being in our time, the victory of repressive and mechanical forces over the organic, the pagan. The mystery religions of antiquity have been destroyed by the systematic, dissecting principle; the artist is driven as a consequence to think in deliberately mythical, archaic, chiliastic terms. How to express the inexpressible? Those poems in Pansies that address themselves to the problem—poems like “Wellsian Futures,” “Dead People,” “Ego-Bound,” “Climb Down, O Lordly Mind,” “Peace and War”—are rhetorical and strident and rather flat; it is in images that Lawrence thinks most clearly. He is too brilliant an artist not to breathe life even into those characters who are in opposition to his own principles. In a statement that resembles Yeats’s (that the occult spirits of A Vision came to bring him images for his poetry) Lawrence indicates a surprising indifference to the very concept of the Apocalypse itself: “We do not care, vitally, about theories of the Apocalypse …. What we care about is the release of the imagination …. What does the Apocalypse matter, unless in so far as it gives us imaginative release into another vital world?”8
This jaunty attitude is qualified by the images that are called forth by the imagination, however: the wolfishness of Gerald and his mother; the ghoulishness of the Beldover miners; the African totems (one has a face that is void and terrible in its mindlessness; the other has a long, elegant body with a tiny head, a face crushed small like a beetle’s); Hermione striking her lover with a paperweight of lapis lazuli and fairly swooning with ecstasy; Gerald digging his spurs into his mare’s sides, into wounds that are already bleeding; the drowned Diana Crich with her arms still wrapped tightly about the neck of her young man; the demonic energy of Winifred’s rabbit, and Gudrun’s slashed, bleeding arm which seems to tear across Gerald’s brain; the uncanny, terrifying soullessness of Innsbruck; the stunted figure of the artist Loerke; the final vision of Gerald as the frozen carcass of a dead male. These are fearful images, and what has Lawrence to set against them but the embrace of a man and a woman, a visionary transfiguration of the individual by love?—and even the experience of love, of passion and unity, is seen as ephemeral.
Birkin sees Gerald and Gudrun as flowers of dissolution, locked in the death-process; he cannot help but see Gerald as Cain, who killed his brother. Though in one way Women in Love is a naturalistic work populated with realistic characters and set in altogether probable environments, in another way it is inflexible and even rather austerely classical: Gerald is Cain from the very first and his fate is settled. Birkin considers his friend’s accidental killing of his brother and wonders if it is proper to think in terms of accident at all. Has everything that happens a universal significance? Ultimately he does not believe that there is anything accidental in life: “it all hung together, in the deepest sense.” (And it follows that no one is murdered accidentally: “… a man who is murderable is a man who in a profound if hidden lust desires to be murdered.”) Gerald plainly chooses his murderer in Gudrun, and it is in the curious, misshapen form of Loerke that certain of Gerald’s inclinations are given their ultimate realization. Gerald’s glorification of the machine and of himself as a god of the machine is parodied by Loerke’s inhuman willfulness: Gudrun sees him as the rock-bottom of all life. Unfeeling, stoic, he cares about nothing except his work, he makes not the slightest attempt to be at at one with anything, he exists a “pure, unconnected will” in a stunted body. His very being excites Gerald to disgusted fury because he is finally all that Gerald has imagined for himself—the subordination of all spontaneity, the triumph of “harmony” in industrial organization.
Of the bizarre nightmare images stirred in Lawrence’s imagination by the idea of the Apocalypse, Loerke is perhaps the most powerful. He is at once very human, and quite inhuman. He is reasonable, even rather charming, and at the same time deathly—a “mud-child,” a creature of the underworld. His name suggests that of Loki, the Norse god of discord and mischief, the very principle of dissolution. A repulsive and fascinating character, he is described by Lawrence as a gnome, a bat, a rabbit, a troll, a chatterer, a magpie, a maker of disturbing jokes, with the blank look of inorganic misery behind his buffoonery. That he is an artist, and a homosexual as well, cannot be an accident. He is in Lawrence’s imagination the diabolic alter ego who rises up to mock all that Lawrence takes to be sacred. Hence his uncanny power, his parodistic talent: he accepts the hypothesis that industry has replaced religion and he accepts his role as artist in terms of industry, without sentimental qualms. Art should interpret industry; the artist fulfills himself in acquiescence to the machine. Is there nothing apart from work, mechanical work?—Gudrun asks. And he says without hesitation, “Nothing but work!”
Loerke disgusts Birkin and Gerald precisely because he embodies certain of their own traits. He is marvelously self-sufficient; he wishes to ingratiate himself with no one; he is an artist who completely understands and controls his art; he excites the admiration of the beautiful Gudrun, and even Ursula is interested in him for a while. Most painful, perhaps, is his homosexuality. He is not divided against himself, not at all tortured by remorse or conscience. In the Prologue to the novel Birkin half-wishes he might rid himself of his soul, and Loerke is presented as a creature without a soul, one of the “little people” who finds his mate in a human being. It is interesting to note that the rat-like qualities in Loerke are those that have attracted Birkin in other men: Birkin has felt an extraordinary desire to come close to and to know and “as it were to eat” a certain type of Cornish man with dark, fine, stiff hair and dark eyes like holes in his head or like the eyes of a rat (see the Prologue); and he has felt the queer, subterranean, repulsive beauty of a young man with an indomitable manner “like a quick, vital rat” (see the chapter “A Chair”). The Nietzschean quality of Loerke’s haughtiness and his loathing of other people, particularly women, remind us of the aristocratic contempt expressed by the middle-aged foreigner whom Tom Brangwen admires so much in the first chapter of The Rainbow: the man has a queer monkeyish face that is in its way almost beautiful, he is sardonic, dry-skinned, coldly intelligent, mockingly courteous to the women in his company (one of whom has made love with Tom previously), a creature who strangely rouses Tom’s blood and who, in the form of Anna Lensky, will be his mate. There is no doubt but that Lawrence, a very different physical type, and temperamentally quite opposed to the cold, life-denying principle these men embody, was nevertheless powerfully attracted by them. There is an irresistible life to Loerke that makes us feel the strength of his nihilistic charm.
Surely not accidental is the fact that Loerke is an artist. He expresses a view of art that all artists share, to some extent, despite their protestations to the contrary. It is Flaubert speaking in Loerke, declaring art supreme and the artist’s life of little consequence; when Loerke claims that his statuette of a girl on a horse is no more than an artistic composition, a certain form without relation to anything outside itself, he is echoing Flaubert’s contention that there is no such thing as a subject, there is only style. (“What seems beautiful to me, what I should like to write,” Flaubert said, in a remark now famous, “is a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external . ) Loerke angers Ursula by declaring that his art pictures nothing, “absolutely nothing,” there is no connection between his art and the everyday world, they are two different and distinct planes of existence, and she must not confuse them. In his disdainful proclamation of an art that refers only to itself, he speaks for the aesthetes of the nineteenth century against whom Lawrence had to define himself as a creator of vital, moral, life-enhancing art. Though Lawrence shared certain of their beliefs—that bourgeois civilization was bankrupt, that the mass of human beings was hopelessly ignorant and contemptible—he did not want to align himself with their extreme rejection of “ordinary” life and of nature itself. (Too unbridled a revulsion against the world would lead one to the sinister self-indulgent fantasies of certain of the decadent poets and artists—the bizarre creations of Oscar Wilde and Huysmans and Baudelaire, and of Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon and Jan Toorop among others.) Loerke’s almost supernatural presence drives Ursula and Birkin away, and brings to the surface the destructive elements in the love of Gudrun and Gerald. He is an artist of decay: his effect upon Gudrun is like that of a subtle poison.
“Life doesn’t really matter,” Gudrun says. “It is one’s art which is central.”9
Symbolically, then, Gerald witnesses the destruction of his love, or of a part of his own soul, by those beliefs that had been a kind of religion to him in his operating of the mines. Lawrence himself plays with certain of his worst fears by giving them over to Loerke and Gudrun, who toy with them, inventing for their amusement a mocking dream of the destruction of the world: humanity invents a perfect explosive that blows up the world, perhaps; or the climate shifts and the world goes cold and snow falls everywhere and “only white creatures, polar-bears, white foxes, and men like awful white snow-birds, persisted in ice cruelty.” It is Lawrence’s nightmare, the Apocalypse without resurrection, without meaning; a vision as bleak and as tragically unsentimental as Shakespeare’s.
Only in parable, in myth, can tragedy be transcended. In that beautiful novella The Escaped Cock, written while Lawrence was dying, the Christian and the pagan mate, the male and the female come together in a perfect union, and the process of dissolution is halted. The man who had died awakes in his tomb, sickened and despairing, knowing himself moral, not the Son of God but no more than a son of man—and in this realization is his hope, his true salvation. He is resurrected to the flesh of his own body; through the warm, healing flesh of the priestess of Isis he is healed of his fraudulent divinity. “Father!” he cries in his rapture, “Why did you hide this from me?”
Poetic, Biblical in its rhythms, The Escaped Cock is an extraordinary work in that it dramatizes Lawrence’s own sense of resurrection from near death (he had come close to dying several times) and that it repudiates his passion for changing the world. The man who had died realizes that his teaching is finished and that it had been a mistake to interfere in the souls of others; he knows now that his reach ends in his fingertips. His love for mankind had been no more than a form of egotism, a madness that would devour multitudes while leaving his own being untouched and virginal. What is crucified in him is his passion for “saving” others. Lawrence has explored the near dissolution of the personality in earlier works—in Ursula’s illness near the end of The Rainbow, and in her reaction to Birkin’s lovemaking in Women in Love; and in Connie Chatterley’s deepening sense of nothingness before her meeting with Mellors—but never with such powerful economy as in The Escaped Cock. The man who had died wakes slowly and reluctantly to life, overcome with a sense of nausea, dreading consciousness but compelled to return to it and to his fulfillment as a human being. The passage back to life is a terrible one; his injured body is repulsive to him, as is the memory of his suffering. The analogy between the colorful cock and the gradually healing flesh of the man who had died is unabashedly direct and even rather witty. In this idyllic Mediterranean world a cock and a man are kin, all of nature is related, the dead Osiris is resurrected in the dead Christ, and the phenomenal world is revealed as the transcendental world, the world of eternity. Simply to live in a body, to live as a mortal human being—this is enough, and this is everything. Only a man who had come close to dying himself and who had despaired of his efforts to transform the human world could have written a passage like this, in awed celebration of the wonders of the existential world:
The man who had died looked nakedly onto life, and saw a vast resoluteness everywhere flinging itself up in stormy or subtle wave-crests, foam-tips emerging out of the blue invisible, a black-and-orange cock, or the green flame tongues out of the extremes of the fig-tree. They came forth, these things and creatures of spring, glowing with desire and with assertion …. The man who had died looked on the great swing into existence of things that had not died, but he saw no longer their tremulous desire to exist and to be. He heard instead their ringing, defiant challenge to all other things existing …. And always, the man who had died saw not the bird alone, but the short, sharp wave of life of which the bird was the crest. He watched the queer, beaky motion of the creature….
And the destiny of life seemed more fierce and compulsive to him even than the destiny of death.
The man who had died asks himself this final question: From what, and to what, could this infinite whirl be saved?
The mystic certitude of The Escaped Cock, like the serenity of “The Ship of Death” and “Bavarian Gentians,” belongs to a consciousness that has transcended the dualism of tragedy. The split has not been healed, it has simply been transcended; nearing death, Lawrence turns instinctively to the allegorical mode, the most primitive and the most sophisticated of all visionary expressions. Women in Love is, by contrast, irresolute and contradictory; it offers only the finite, tentative “resurrection” of marriage between two very incomplete people. Like Connie Chatterley and her lover Mellors, the surviving couple of Women in Love must fashion their lives in a distinctly unmythic, unidyllic landscape, their fates to be bound up closely with that of their civilization. How are we to escape history?—defy the death-process of our culture? With difficulty. In sorrow. So long as we live, even strengthened as we are by the “mystic conjunction,” the “ultimate unison” between men and women, our lives are tempered by the ungovernable contingencies of the world that is no metaphor, but our only home.
- All quotations from Women in Love are taken from the Modern Library edition.
- Collected Letters, ed. Harry T. Moore (New York, 1962), pp. 482 and 519.
- As Lawrence says in an essay about the writer’s relationship to his own work: “Morality in the novel is the trembling instability of the balance. When the novelist puts his thumb on the scale, to pull down the balance to his own predilection, that is immorality …. And of all the art forms, the novel most of all demands the trembling and oscillating of the balance,” Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D. H. Lawrence (London, 1936), p. 529.
- Richard Somers is fascinated and disturbed by Australia, into which he has projected the struggle of his own soul. The bush has frightened him with its emptiness and stillness; he cannot penetrate its secret. At one point it seems to him that a presence of some sort lurks in the wilderness, an actual spirit of the place that terrifies him. As for the social and political conditions of Australia—what is more hopelessly uninteresting than accomplished liberty? (See Kangaroo, London, 1968, p. 33.)
- That Lawrence might have dealt with the tragic implications of the individual’s failure to find a home for himself in his own nation is indicated by remarks he makes elsewhere, for instance in the introductory essay, “The Spirit of Place,” to Studies in Classic American Literature: “Men are free when they are in a living homeland, not when they are straying and breaking away. Men are free when they are obeying some deep, inward voice of religious belief. Obeying from within. Men are free when they belong to a living, organic, believing community, active in fulfilling some unfulfilled, perhaps unrealized purpose.” The Studies were written between 1917 and 1923.
- The Prologue is available in Phoenix II (New York, 1968) and in a recently published anthology, The Other Persuasion, ed. Seymour Kleinberg (New York, 1977).
- It is interesting to note Lawrence’s intense dislike of the very idea of homosexuality in women, Miss Inger of The Rainbow is revealed as a poisonous, corrupt woman who makes an ideal mate for Ursula’s cynical uncle Tom Brangwen. Ursula had loved them both but when she realizes that they are in the “service of the machine,” she is repulsed by them. “Their marshy, bittersweet corruption came sick and unwholesome in her nostrils . She would leave them both forever, leave forever their strange, soft, half-corrupt element” (The Rainbow, London, 1971, p. 351). In Lady Chatterley’s Lover Mellors begins to rant about women he has known who have disappointed him sexually, and the quality of his rage—which must be, in part, Lawrence’s—is rather alarming. He goes through a brief catalogue of unacceptable women, then says, “It’s astonishing how Lesbian women are, consciously or unconsciously. Seems to me they’re nearly all Lesbian,” In the presence of such a woman, Mellors tells Connie, he fairly howls in his soul, “wanting to kill her” (Lady Chatterley’s Lover, New York, 1962,. 190).
- Phoenix, pp. 293-94.
- Gudrun is an artist of considerable talent herself, one who works in miniatures, as if wishing to see the world “through the wrong end of the opera glasses.” It is significant that she expresses a passionate wish to have been born a man, and that she feels an unaccountable lust for deep brutality against Gerald, whom in another sense she loves. Far more interesting a character than her sister Ursula, Gudrun is fatally locked into her own willful instinct for making herself the measure of all things: her vision is anthropomorphic and solipsistic, finally inhuman. We know from certain of Lawrence’s poems, particularly “New Heaven and Earth,” that the “maniacal horror” of such solipsism was his own. He seems to have been driven nearly to suicide, or to a nervous breakdown, by the terrifying conviction that nothing existed beyond his own consciousness. Unlike Lawrence, who sickened of being the measure of all things, Gudrun rejoices in her cruel talent for reducing everyone and everything—robins as well as people—to size. Her love affair with Gerald is really a contest of wills; in her soul she is a man, a rival. Like one of the seductive chimeras or vampires in decadent art—in the paintings of Munch and in the writings of Strindberg—Gudrun sees her lover as an “unutterable enemy,” whom she wishes to kiss and stroke and embrace until she has him “all in her hands, till she [has] strained him into her knowledge. Ah, if she could have precious knowledge of him, she would be filled …” (379). At the novel’s end she has become so dissociated from her own feelings and so nauseated by life that she seems to be on the brink of insanity. It strikes her that she has never really lived, only worked, she is in fact a kind of clock, her face is like a clock’s face, a twelve-hour clock dial—an image that fills her with terror, yet pleases her strangely.