Why I mistrust D.H. Lawrence
It being Bloomsday, I have set aside the novel that had been occupying my idle hours—D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love—and taken up Ulysses. Fortunate timing, for reading Women in Love was becoming more and more a task and not a pleasure. I do not know if I will return to the book when I complete Ulysses. Since, however, I have found in Ulysses passages that help clarify the grounds of my mistrust of Lawrence, I will take time out of my Bloomsday to excavate publicly these grounds.
A brief biography, to begin. I read and loved Sons and Lovers, and so became eager to read Women in Love. It seemed at first that that novel would equally become a favorite. But somewhere around 200-250 pages into it (about halfway), I began to become skeptical. Continued reading confirmed and deepened that skepticism, and now I have reached the point where I am not sure I was right to have enjoyed Sons and Lovers.
The basic source of the mistrust is Lawrence’s extremism—the value that he places in extreme emotions. There is no bare existence, in a Lawrence novel. Every moment is life or death, hatred or love, suffocation or intoxication. There is no ambivalence, only absolutes. But, someone will say, doesn’t Lawrence capture beautifully those moments in which, say, Gudrun Brangwen is torn, having heard Gerald Crich say just what she wanted to hear, yet nonetheless unable to go fully along with it? Yes, but this is a false ambivalence—it is two absolutes, two extremes, coexisting unstably.
This, it seems to me, is a myth. The mythical quality of Lawrence’s world may be expressed in a dilemma. Imagine for a moment that there is a perfectly real place the events of which Lawrence is attempting to describe accurately. Assume, that is, that Women in Love is a history rather than a novel. This history may be accurate, or it may be inaccurate. If accurate, it is a myth, because it leaves out the everyday, that general blankness in which the vast majority of human life is spent. The characters rocket from extreme to extreme, without passing through the middle: natura facit saltus. There is no everyday in this world. If inaccurate, it is still a myth, because it falsifies the everyday. Every slight animosity is not a hatred; every attraction not a love. Every blankness is not a death, nor every displeasure.
In either case, then, Lawrence is perpetuating a myth. The fundamental tenet of the myth states that what is valuable in life is a certain intensity of feeling—even irrespective of the valence of this feeling. I find a poverty in this tenet, and so I mistrust Lawrence. Ulysses offers a valuable alternative.
Both Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom begin their day under the spell of death—Dedalus, the death of his mother, long enough ago that his grief is controlled but still present, yet recent enough that he still dresses in mourning clothes, Bloom, the death of Dignam, a casual acquaintance. Of these two, Stephen comes closer to Lawrencian extremes, whereas Bloom is more even-keeled.
As the novel begins, Buck Mulligan, usurper, is jovially tormenting Stephen Dedalus, who is showing signs of frustration. When Mulligan asks him what it is, Stephen recounts an episode shortly after his mother’s death, in which Buck Mulligan said, “O, its only Dedalus whose mother is beastly dead.” (8) [Page references are to the Modern Library hardcover.] Shortly thereafter, as we glimpse into Stephen’s consciousness, we are treated to the sight of “the gaping wounds which the words had left in his heart.” Yet what causes these wounds is not “the offence to my mother,” but rather, “the offence to me.” (8-9) Stephen’s melodrama here is narcissistic at its base. This recasts his earlier rejection of Mulligan’s offer of a pair of grey trousers on the grounds that they were not mourning colors. The stately seriousness with which Stephen upholds the etiquette of death now seems less a tribute to his mother than a vapid sort of self-love. It is not contemptible, but it bespeaks an emptiness in Stephen’s grief. There is something disingenuous about it.
Bloom, by contrast, is neither extreme nor narcissistic. There is one moment of extremity, when a cloud covers the sun: “Desolation.” (61) Yet this is quickly dispelled by the thought of his wife’s “ample bedwarmed flesh. Yes, yes.” So too in his relation to Dignam. While walking in the street, he runs into Mr. O’Rourke. “Stop and say a word: about the funeral perhaps…” (58) Yet when he speaks, he says nothing about the funeral. Why not? I suspect because it affects him more than he lets on. Even still, Bloom, at the end of the funeral service for Dignam, thinks: “Were those two buttons of my waistcoat open all the time. Women enjoy it.” (83) This sort of vulgarity is characteristic of Bloom: at once sincere and bestial. He treats Dignam’s death with no special gravity, but with honesty. And throughout it all there is a mildness, an averageness, an unremarkableness.
Stephen’s extremes are something of a put on, disguising a lack of substance. They convey a real lack of richness, a proper emptiness. Bloom’s mildness, by contrast, is lacking nothing, for all its constraint within narrow limits of intensity. Of course, it would be wrong to identify Stephen’s extremes with those of Lawrence’s characters. The point is rather that I think the picture Joyce provides, through Stephen, is more reliable than that of Lawrence. I do not believe one can feel perpetually such strong emotions as Lawrence suggests; nor do I think one should want to.
When I first began reading Emerson and Nietzsche, I did not read them well. In particular, I read them as offering me just the sort of extremity that I find in Lawrence. At the time, I had a sense that I was dead, inside, that I could not feel much of anything. I thought Emerson and Nietzsche held the promise of a sort of perpetual ecstasy. This was a myth, my own—the myth of intensified feelings, I called it, for myself. It took me some time to disabuse myself of it.
I mistrust Women in Love because its attractions seem to want to suck me back into this myth I spent such effort overcoming. I even mistrust Sons and Lovers retroactively—I worry that what it appealed to in me was nothing more than the latent remains of this myth.
Addendum: This is not really a proper Bloomsday post; I will have another up sometime later.