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Why I mistrust D.H. Lawrence

2014/06/16 1 comment

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.

Happy Bloomsday.

Addendum: This is not really a proper Bloomsday post; I will have another up sometime later.

Self and circumstance

2014/04/26 5 comments

My jumping off point today is a passage from D.H. Lawrence’s novel Sons and Lovers. Mrs Morel, early in the novel (ch. 3), is tending to her sick husband (Morel), a man she once, but not longer, loved. Because of the completion of the “ebbing” of her love, she is tolerant of him—more tolerant than if she had still loved him. Why should this be? Lawrence’s narrator offers the following explanation:

Now, with the birth of this third baby, her self no longer set towards him, helplessly, but was like a tide that scarcely rose, standing off from him. After this she scarcely desired him. And, standing more aloof from him, not feeling him so much part of herself, but merely part of her circumstances, she did not mind so much what he did, could leave him alone.

Love is here characterized as the assimilation of another to oneself. There is a fundamental division between self and circumstance: in love, the lover moves the loved from the side of circumstance to the side of self. This provides, perhaps, a way of understanding the Christian conception of husband and wife as “one flesh”—a conception that likely serves as the backdrop for the passage.

What is more interesting to me, however, is the quasi-Stoic psychology the passage invokes. Again, the passage offers an explanation of Mrs Morel’s tolerance for her husband in terms of her loss of love for him. There is a more distant relationship between a self and its circumstance than between a self and itself. Circumstances matter to us only insofar as they impinge upon our selves in some way, whereas we feel directly what happens to our selves. There is thus made possible our taking an indifferent, tolerant attitude toward our circumstances: it becomes easier to take them as they are. Applied to the case of Mrs Morel: with the loss of her love, her husband becomes part of the circumstance, hence more distant, hence more tolerable.

I called this psychology quasi-Stoic: Stoic because it mirrors the Stoics’ sharp distinction between the ruling center (the seat of reason, one’s self) and everything else, but only quasi-Stoic because, unlike the Stoics, Lawrence’s narrator accepts that the boundary is malleable, that it may change over the course of our lives.

Natura non facit saltus, as Linnaeus would say, but my artifice allows me to start anew, from a distant point, and weave my way back to the themes of the forgoing discussion. Since taking a seminar on the human/animal boundary last year, I have found my mind constantly returning to the theme, though never settling on a particular way of drawing (or refusing to draw) the divide—as, perhaps, it should be. This passage from Sons and Lovers returned me again to those winding paths. The scenario in the novel is intriguing precisely because, in love, something (someone) that is in some sense external to Mrs Morel becomes a part of herself, only to lose this status later. But “external” is a notoriously nebulous term, as is its opposite. Its sense must be fixed clearly before it becomes sensible. In this case, I see two relevant senses in which Morel is external to Mrs Morel. Biologically, they are two separate individuals, two distinct members of Homo sapiens. So also psychologically, Morel is another mind: Mrs Morel cannot share his consciousness, nor he hers. Yet they become, for a time, one.

This suggests to me a way of drawing the human/animal boundary, if perhaps in a merely transient, locally useful way: humans are the animals that can draw boundaries around themselves that do not coincide with their biological and psychological boundaries—or, better, since Mrs Morel did not so much draw a boundary around herself as find that it had changed without her efforts: humans are the animals the boundaries of whose selves need not coincide with their biological and psychological boundaries. I shall call this sense of self the “drawn self”. I do not like the phrase, but have none better.

Lawrence explores one way these selves may fail to coincide: the boundaries around one’s drawn self may include something biologically or psychologically external. I am here interested, however, in the opposite case, the case in which part of one’s biological and psychological self is left out of one’s drawn self. I am interested in self-mistrust, in skepticism of the body.

I must be clear what is not my concern. Our psychological and biological selves are not identical, and many traditions (including both the Stoic and the Christian traditions) have promoted a form of self-mistrust: they allied themselves with the mind (psychological) against the body (biological). Indeed, this was supposed to give us the human/animal boundary: the struggle of the mind/reason against the body/passions was the struggle of our humanity against our animality. This is not what interests me. That sharp split between the mind (the Stoic ruling center, the Christian seat of free will) is no longer believable. The mind is just a “region” of the body, just as evolved and animal as every other part, and it is not a special domain of “control” over the other parts, mysteriously exempt from ineluctable causality. So my interest is not in that asceticism in which the mind attempts to dominate the body—this is just one way in which the body may struggle against itself, and a way that seems to me based on mistaken premises.

My interest is rather in a self-mistrust that reflects the unity of mind and body, that sees aspects even of one’s own mind as not oneself, but as part of one’s circumstance. I see Nietzsche as a precursor of this thought, exemplified by his injunction against trusting one’s feelings: feelings are simply the residue of our ancestor’s judgments, inherited without our inheriting also the judgments. To trust one’s feelings would then be a form of conformity to circumstance.

So we are to reject parts of our biological selves, on the grounds that they are not part of our drawn selves. What attitude does this entail? If they are not part of our drawn self, they are part of our circumstance—often a harmful part. I suspect, for this reason, that we cannot maintain Stoic indifference toward these parts of our circumstance. They compete for control of our action and thought and so must be struggled against, perpetually—they cannot be accepted as the will of divine reason.

What am I to do with this, I who find myself so drawn to philosophies of self-reliance (including Nietzsche’s own)? What does self-reliance amount to, when the boundaries of my self are so shifting, when much of what is internal to my biological or psychological selves is not truly mine, when self-reliance entails a constant struggle against myself? How am I to identify what is my own, and what not?—but this question is poorly phrased: who is this “I” who is choosing? What can be trusted? Who trusts?

I have done all this work just to reach this point. Again and again I run up against it, but I cannot see my way past it, never before, and not now. I have done this work to reach the point of having more work to do. I suppose that is well.

On the value of poetic philosophy

2014/01/02 3 comments

A philosophical friend of mine and I have been engaged in a long, slow conversation about the value of philosophy written in the poetic style. He, skeptical, attempts to characterize the reasons for this skepticism. I, sympathetic, grope equally for reasons in its defense. This conversation began anew today, and upon reading Emerson’s “The Over-Soul”, I found he wished to chime in. At the risk of ignoring Emerson’s own advice, which says that conversation can only be between two, I shall allow him here his voice. This leniency has proven ill-guided, for my intended three quickly became a crowd: Friedrich Nietzsche and D. H. Lawrence too, I discovered, lurked, awaiting their chance to speak.

Emerson, as so often, faces doubt about what he is saying. “Our faith comes in moments; our vice is habitual” (385), he tells us: those holy moments of inspiration are, by the measure of arithmetic, only a small portion of our life, and when they have passed, we cannot do them justice in words. “Yet I desire, even by profane words, if I may not use sacred, to indicate the heaven of this deity, and to report what hints I have collected of the transcendent simplicity and energy of the Highest Law.” (386) So Emerson talks to us, puts words before us, and they are more sacred than he thinks. They glow with that poetry that characterizes his best essays.

What Emerson is trying to do is to capture in writing something of these moments of inspiration, of the expansion of the soul out to the impersonal. What characterizes these moments? Life poses riddles, questions, problems—chief among them, the question of how to live. It is just this question, in all its forms, that is answered in these moments, and Emerson insists that there is something ineffable about the answers. “An answer in words is delusive; it is really no answer to the questions you ask.” (393)

Why should that be? In defending unpoetic philosophy, my friend stressed its emphasis on clarity and especially unambiguity, on being as little open to interpretation as possible. That allows the more direct transfer of knowledge. Language becomes thin, inessential except as a vehicle for a truth lurking behind it. In poetry, by contrast, there is an open-endedness of interpretation—or, as I prefer, experimentation. I would go so far as to say that poetry is only half accomplished when unread—only when a reader makes some use of it does it fully take form, for a moment. But that is my ontological commitment, not his. This open-endedness is, as he puts it, an anathema to philosophical unambiguity.

So it is. But my suggestion, which I find in Emerson as well, is that this clarity is good only for certain sorts of questions, and not for these riddles of life, as Carnap called them, somewhere. The solution to these riddles does not come via an intellectual exercise, but by living. As D. H. Lawrence puts it, “As for the words and thoughts and sighs and aspirations that fly from him, they are so many tremulations in the ether, and not alive at all.” What is wanted here is not philosophical clarity. It is, of course, possible that we are wrong here, that life’s questions may be sorted into two sorts: those answerable in words, and, the remainder, those answerable by the idiosyncrasies of personal taste. I do not think so, but I have no argument.

But what can Emerson say in defense of his essay, which seems to attempt to answer such a question, and in words? “The nature of these revelations is the same; they are perceptions of the absolute law. They are solutions of the soul’s own questions. They do not answer the questions which the understanding asks. The soul answers never by words, but by the thing itself that is inquired after.” (393) Emerson’s essay does not give us this thing itself, and he is under no illusions about this. “The only mode of obtaining an answer to these questions of the senses is to forego all low curiosity, and, accepting the tide of being which floats us into the secret of nature, work and live, work and live, and all unawares the advancing soul has built and forged for itself a new condition, and the question and the answer are one.” (394)

What value there is in his essay must come from elsewhere than from its being a vehicle for some truth that we can acquire by reading it. And it is the open-endedness of his poetic style that makes this possible. I want to revive here in modified form the old philosophical distinction between knowledge by description and knowledge by acquaintance. I derive it from D. H. Lawrence: “If you are a philosopher, you talk about infinity, and the pure spirit which knows all things. But if you pick up a novel, you realize immediately that infinity is just a handle to this self-same jug of a body of mine; while as for knowing, if I find my finger in the fire, I know that fire burns, with a knowledge so emphatic and vital, it leaves Nirvana merely a conjecture. Oh, yes, my body, me alive, knows, and knows intensely. And as for the sum of all knowledge, it can’t be anything more than an accumulation of all the things I know in the body, and you, dear reader, know in the body.”

There is, on the one hand, a knowledge that is impersonal, built up from the patient labors of philosophers and scientists and innumerable others, an edifice that can be constructed so patiently precisely because it can be conveyed in words, the less ambiguous, the better. On the other hand, there is “the accumulation of all the things I know in my body.” In the old distinction, this latter served as the building blocks for the former, the incorrigible foundation on which the latter was based. In the new, they are distinct: what is accumulated in the body cannot be transmitted.

Emerson distinguishes two sorts of writers, those who write from within, as actors, as those with experience, “as parties and possessors of the fact” (395), and those who write “from without, as spectators merely, or perhaps as acquainted with the fact on the evidence of third persons.” He is tracking the same distinction. But again the problem arises: what is the value of his writing, even if it comes from experience. For those who read it, it seems, will be left only with the evidence of third persons, and will be spectators.

If the writing is to have value, then, it must be because it in some fashion provokes the one who reads it to some new experience, some new knowledge by acquaintance, and not new knowledge by description. Here, unambiguity is not the ultimate virtue, because there is nothing to be transmitted. The thickness of the language, which makes it open-ended, is necessary precisely so that a thousand readers may take it in a thousand directions, on the basis of their own experience, their own accumulations in the body. Lawrence puts it thus: “Books are not life. They are only tremulations on the ether. But the novel as a tremulation can make the whole man alive tremble.”

Lawrence is being polemical: he thinks philosophy, poetry, and science all lack this power—it is solely the province of the novel. Disagreed. But more interesting is the explicit awareness he has of the novel as something secondary. “Books are not life. They are only tremulations on the ether.” What is primary is life; books are just in the service of this. This I take to be a characteristic trope of poetic philosophy: that it finds itself and must find itself something secondary.

Emerson, for instance: “The great poet makes us feel our own wealth, and then we think less of his compositions. His best communication to our mind is to teach us to despise all he has done.” (396) The great poet, and the great philosopher-poet, urges us to forget him, that we might seek ourselves. The use of books is to turn us toward life, but once so turned, we do not need them, and even find them oppressive. “Though in our lonely hours we draw a new strength out of their memory, yet, pressed on our attention, as they are by the thoughtless and customary, they fatigue and invade.” (400)

Nietzsche has been patient, but now he insists on having his turn. At the end of part one of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in the section titled “On the Bestowing Virtue”, Zarathustra takes leave of his disciples, and offers the following advice: “Now I bid you lose me and find yourselves; and only when you have denied me will I return to you.” Zarathustra is first a teacher, but “One repays a teacher badly if one always remains a pupil only”—so Zarathustra is second a friend, but only after the pupils have left, have rejected him in favor of their own lives.

Now other voices, claiming the principle of fairness, say I ought to let them speak as well. Whitman and Plato I hear, and others I do not recognize. But my fingers are weary, and my thread in danger of being lost. The experience that originated this post is fading, and it risks falling further into description than it has. So I end it here.