The Taboo: On D.H. Lawrence


Julia Prewitt Brown

The progressive effacement of human relationships is not without certain problems for the novel…

Michel Houellebecq, Whatever (1994)

   In the sixties and seventies, when I was a college and graduate student, D.H. Lawrence’s novels were frequently taught at universities alongside the work of other well-established modernists, like T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Joseph Conrad, and Virginia Woolf. Today one rarely sees his name on the syllabi of literature departments. Nor is Lawrence being read outside of universities very much these days, if the shelves at the big retail bookstores may be taken as an indicator. (At the Barnes and Noble in my area, I counted fourteen volumes of Conrad on sale, and only two of Lawrence: Women in Love and Lady Chatterley’s Lover). Readers who attended college in the last thirty years will likely not remember and revisit Lawrence later in life because they never encountered him in the first place.    When literary critics speculate as to why this is the case, they point to Lawrence’s well-known prejudices. Racist, anti-Semitic, and misogynist sentiments occasionally make their appearance in the novels, poems, letters, and in anecdotes about his life. But since similar evidence may be found in Eliot, Pound, and, to a lesser degree, other writers who have retained their place on the modernist syllabus, this cannot explain the diminishing importance of Lawrence who, despite the complaints against him, is universally regarded as a writer of undeniable gifts. To make only a few comparisons: Lawrence’s racist and anti-Semitic comments are neither as invidious as those of Eliot nor as virulent as those of Pound. His moments of reductive misogyny pale beside the fullness of his portraits of women characters like Elizabeth Bates in “Odour of Chrysanthemums,” whose tragic depth, I daresay, exceeds that of almost any female character found in the writings of his contemporaries.    It happens that an excellent book on the subject of Lawrence’s declining reputation appeared in 2002: Gary Adelman’s Reclaiming D.H. Lawrence: Contemporary Writers Speak Out. Adelman consulted over a hundred well known poets and novelists, many of whom judge Lawrence to be of great importance to their own work. (John Updike wrote that “as a writer, a magical writer in the way that a fierce wind blows through his work and picks up a scene, a face, an exchange, he cannot be erased from the English literature of this century.”) The students in Adelman’s undergraduate seminar on Lawrence, however, roundly dismiss Lawrence, delivering in their evaluations of the course an annihilating verdict on his gender politics and fascist sympathies. Yet since students are willing to look past the same faults in other modernists, admiring their writing for other qualities, the question remains as to why Lawrence’s imaginative power does not generally appear to be reaching today’s students.    The last time I taught D.H.Lawrence was in an introductory course in literature at Boston University about a decade ago. The students were in their first or second year of college and, as a way of exposing them to the complexities of fiction, I assigned Lawrence’s short story, “The Horse-Dealer’s Daughter.”    Set in rural England in the early twentieth century, the story tells of a young woman, Mabel Pervin, who lost her mother at the age of fourteen and is now left destitute by the loss of the family’s horse farm. She devotes herself to tending her mother’s grave, feeling that “the world of death she inherited from her mother” is far more real than the life she is living. One afternoon the local doctor, Jack Fergusson, sees Mabel walking “slowly and deliberately” toward the center of a muddy pond. When she disappears into its depths, he runs after her, drags her out of the muck, and carries her home. He removes her clothing, rubs her dry with a towel, and wraps her naked in blankets. When she awakens, she is in a daze and, realizing her nakedness, asks who undressed her. When he replies, “‘I did … to bring you round,’” she gazes at him for a few minutes and asks, “Do you love me, then?” Before the dialogue ends, Mabel and Jack have decided to marry.    Mabel’s question always comes as a shock to the reader. She had barely spoken to the doctor before their encounter takes place and, later in the dialogue, she asks the same question again, this time putting it in more declarative form—“You love me?”—laying claim to the doctor as a possible lover. Earlier that day, when visiting her brothers at the farm, Jack had been shaken out of his “superficial ease” by Mabel’s brooding presence; now, his confidence in his identity as a “professional” is totally destroyed: “That he should love her? That this was love! That he should be ripped open in this way! Him, a doctor!”    Until I taught the story in this particular class, I always assumed the shock every reader feels at Mabel’s question is one of intuitive recognition that intimacy can arise unexpectedly between two people—that is to say, spontaneously. But there was no recognition of this sort among the students in the class. When I read the scene aloud, the students were flummoxed by it, completely unable to understand why Mabel would speak in this way to a man she barely knew, a man she had ignored in the earlier scene. One young woman in the class commented, with an air of condescension, “None of the dialogue between them makes sense.”    Here is how the story ends:

   And she broke into bitter, heart-broken sobbing. ‘You can’t want to love me, I’m horrible.’    ‘Don’t be silly, don’t be silly,’ he said, trying to comfort her, kissing her, holding her in his arms. ‘I want you. I want to marry you, we’re going to be married, quickly, quickly—tomorrow, if we can.’    But she only sobbed terribly, and cried: ‘I feel awful. I feel awful. I feel I’m horrible to you.’    ‘No, I want you, I want you,’ was all he answered, blindly, with that terrible intonation which frightened her almost more than her horror lest he should not want her.

The whole drift of the story was foreign to these students. Its desperate, inexplicable emotions and paradoxes of word and action, the horror and fear framing the entry into marriage, evidently made it impossible for them to believe such characters could ever exist. After the class ended the thought occurred to me that what had made me believe in the characters when I first read the story in college over forty years ago—their spontaneity—was a big part of what made the story preposterous to students today. Why, I wondered? Are relations between men and women so instrumentalized by the rituals of social media that a date is now as premeditated as a job interview? Are dating apps and previews of online images draining romantic encounters of their power and immediacy? The idea seemed absurd. Yet the students’ distaste for Lawrence’s characters was undeniable. These characters were too excitable for them. Their menacing, contradictory emotions were not believable because they seemed to well up from some place deep in their psyche over which they appeared to have no control.    Human spontaneity in Lawrence’s work—and indeed in his life as well—is not the simple, cheerful business that popular culture has often made it out to be. Think of those TV commercials in which an office worker suddenly does something unexpected, like dancing down the corridor of his office, to the comical dismay of his fellow workers. In Lawrence, spontaneity is dangerous and sometimes destructive, but it is necessary to being truly alive. The force of spontaneous love prompted Lawrence to run off with a married woman, Frieda Richthofen Weekley, and Frieda would regret leaving her three children for the rest of her life. Throughout their relationship, Lawrence and Frieda suffered continual eruptions of hostility that left them in pieces, but the marriage endured. It’s not uncommon to read in Lawrence’s biographies sentences like this: “The tension between Frieda and Lawrence abated after she struck him with an earthenware plate…” Lawrence would make creative use of this fight in Women and Love, when Hermione strikes Birkin with a paperweight, “almost breaking his neck, and shattering his heart.”    Birkin staggers away and Hermione lies down on a couch and falls asleep. When she awakens she remembers what she has done and considers that she “was perfectly right…she had done what must be done.” Meanwhile, Birkin leaves the house, wanders into the open country, “aware that he could not regain his consciousness, that he was moving in a sort of darkness.” Yet he is “happy in the wet hill-side.” He removes his clothes and sits down naked among the primroses, rolling in the “sticky cool young hyacinths” and covering his back with “handfuls of fine wet grass, soft as a breath,” until he attains an ecstasy of happiness and thinks to himself: “It was quite right of Hermione to want to kill him. What had he to do with her? Why should he pretend to have anything to do with human beings at all? Here was his world, he wanted nobody and nothing but the lovely, subtle, responsive vegetation, and himself, his own living self.” In many scenes in Lawrence’s fiction, characters receive the gifts of the natural world with open hands and are replenished in their solitude, an experience that is probably as unfamiliar to many students today as his belief that unconscious impulses can drive human behavior.    In a thoughtful review of John Worthen’s D. H. Lawrence: The Life of an Outsider published in The New Yorker in 2005, the novelist and critic Benjamin Kunkel makes an important point about the difference between the way Lawrence was received by an earlier generation and the way he is viewed in the present. Whereas today he is judged for violating certain taboos, “for a generation or two it was common for the sense of accusation to run the other way: to feel that Lawrence, by example of his passion and courage, stood in judgment over us.”    This latter attitude toward literature was not confined to Lawrence. It characterized the way many earlier literary critics and teachers tended to think of any serious writer. I remember my teacher Lionel Trilling saying one day, in a graduate class at Columbia, something to this effect, ‘You don’t critique the classics. You let them critique you.’ He was articulating an approach to literature that has long been out of fashion. Of course, benefits have come from this shift in critical perspective. We no longer take an overly pious view of the author or the work of art. We do not allow ourselves to forget the limitations placed on an artist’s vision by his or her historical epoch. We take the politics of a work of art very seriously. This is all to the good. But there is at least one liability to be considered, a loss that would presumably overshadow much of the utility of the new approach: What will happen if students and readers today are no longer encouraged to take a work of literature to heart, to allow it to seriously impact their way of thinking, or to test the limits of their most private feelings and values?    Take the example of Jane Austen, a writer whose popularity with students and readers has risen in the same decades that Lawrence’s reputation has declined. Instructors teaching Austen at universities today are likely to place emphasis on the limitations of her vision, on the fact that the destiny of the heroine is always marriage. They may draw attention to the way the heroine challenges the status quo and may implicitly criticize Austen for rewarding her character with such an undistinguished fate. They are less likely to focus on the trenchant moral critique at work in Austen—to give one example, the gradual unveiling of the heroine’s self-deception in Pride and Prejudice. These approaches are, of course, not mutually exclusive, but once a teacher dismisses Austen’s marriage plot as “retro,” the student is encouraged to feel a certain superiority to Austen, and so to feel comfortably shielded from her corrosive educative irony, which spares no character, male or female, and no institution, including marriage.    Lawrence both disliked and respected Austen. With characteristic lack of inhibition, he said insulting things about her, calling her an “old maid” and a snob, but he included in Women and Love one of the most profound statements ever made about the world she imagined for us. Birkin and Ursula (the woman he loves) go to a flea market, where they discover a beautiful wooden chair, hand-carved during Austen’s period. They study and admire its beauty, and Birkin says, “When I see that clear, beautiful chair, and I think of England, even Jane Austen’s England—it had living thoughts to unfold even then…” When Ursula reacts contemptuously, saying that she doesn’t think so much of Jane Austen’s England, “It was materialistic enough, if you like—,” Birkin replies, “It could afford to be materialistic…because it had the power to be something other—which we haven’t…”    Birkin functions as Lawrence’s mouthpiece in the scene when he expresses his alarm and sadness over the direction in which human energies had begun to flow in the face of the rampant greed of the Industrial Revolution; he complains that there is “no production in us now, only sordid and foul mechanicalness.” Instead of remaining finite, as it had been for countless centuries of agrarian society, the desire for wealth became infinite. The champions of capitalism came to the extraordinary conclusion that the pursuit of material interest and love of gain were basically benign and innocent and would lead through “invisible hands” and the free play of market forces to the “greatest good for the greatest number.” In the words of Keynes, it was possible for the nastiest of men, moved by the nastiest of motives, to somehow work for the benefit of us all. Such shallow optimism continues unabated, of course, at a time when global capitalism is repeatedly touted as a good, despite its catastrophic impact on the environment and its increasingly anti-democratic social consequences.    Lawrence recognized in Austen’s novels a preeminent witness to the beginnings of his culture’s shift away from the agrarian worldview. Her overall investigative concern with money as an independent force that was threatening to take complete control of the lives of human beings who still had “the power to be something other” anticipates his own concerns. Many of her characters fail to draw on that power, but the best of them succeed in some measure.    Despite his pessimisim about the deleterious effects of western rationalism, Lawrence’s novels affirm the power of human beings to go beyond themselves, to burst out of the sack of social and historical circumstances that encloses their lives. In both his fiction and his dazzling, eccentric literary criticism, he stands in judgment over us for the waste we have permitted—the waste of our own natures and the defilement of the natural world. His work is easily linked to that of the romantics, particularly to Wordsworth, who famously observed that “we lay waste our powers: / Little we see in Nature that is ours…” Of course, as a reader of Nietzsche and one who lived through the first world war, Lawrence views the future through a darker lens than did Wordsworth, and the emotions conveyed in his work are more extreme. Many would rather not contemplate, let alone experience, these extremes, as Lawrence well knew.    The singularly uninhibited quality of Lawrence’s voice likewise sounds extreme to us. To today’s readers, who are accustomed to writers with more measured tones, this quality may be more off-putting than any other. Were I to quote from his essay, “Cocksure Women and Hensure Men,” which takes on what he calls “the vast human farmyard,” many of the people reading these pages would toss them aside, convinced that Lawrence is too dated in his views of the relations between men and women, and too cocksure as a critic, to be taken seriously. Readers today, I suspect, have been conditioned by the cagey personal voice of the contemporary memoir or personal essay in which the author habitually casts himself or herself in a flattering light. It’s not often that we encounter a personal essay in which the writer goes out on a limb and challenges the presuppositions or pieties of his audience.    Even in the heyday of Lawrence’s popularity, some of his formulations about the instinctive relations between men and women made me cringe. But the pleasure I took in the distinctively personal voice of his fiction and criticism was not greatly diminished by the raw expression of his beliefs. Conscious beliefs make up only a fraction of a novelist’s greater imagination of life. The question is: what did Lawrence’s scrutiny of human life give us? What did he shed light on that may be essential for us to understand? Many would answer that what Lawrence uncovered, as no other novelist had before him, was the decisive force of sexuality in human relations. The controversy surrounding the novels, especially the historic obscenity trial against the publisher of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960 in which Judge F.V. Bryson declared the book not obscene, has made this way of characterizing Lawrence’s work inevitable.    Putting aside the fact that it’s not so much sex but human relationships that forms the strongest theme in Lawrence’s oeuvre (and putting aside, too, that in Joyce’s Ulyssess, a work that was banned in the USA until 1933 and in the United Kingdom until 1936, there is far more and far more varied sexual content than in any of Lawrence’s novels), let’s briefly consider the treatment of sex in Lawrence’s most controversial novel.    Lady Chatterley’s Lover is set in the industrialized Midlands and is about a young woman married to a baronet, Clifford Chatterley, who is lame and impotent because of an injury sustained in the First World War. Connie Chatterley has an affair with Sir Clifford’s gamekeeper, Mellors, and eventually leaves her husband to be with him, but the process by which she comes to this momentous decision is long and intricate because Lawrence is not only interested in Connie. He focuses on her entire milieu, which includes the ravaged landscape, polluted air, and workers of Tevershall, the mining village based on Eastwood, which Lawrence had known in childhood.    Although Clifford’s disability makes him a rather heavy-handed symbol of the paralysis of the English upper class, Lawrence’s portrait of Clifford as a landowner, successful writer, and industrialist is more complex than critics have generally recognized. Nowhere is Clifford more ostensibly kind and gentle than when he proposes to Connie that she get pregnant by another man and have a son, so that his ancestral estate, Wragby, will be passed on to a male heir. He urges her that by these means she will achieve “an integrated life, that makes a long harmonious thing.” Demure, passive Connie requires some time to register the depth of the insult. At first she is sympathetic and consents to his request, but not long after this scene, when she is in her room alone, she takes off all of her clothes and looks at herself naked in the mirror, as if to contemplate the guarantor of Wragby’s future. Sadly, she observes “what a frail, easily hurt, rather pathetic thing a human body is, naked…” But after she and Mellors become lovers, and her body, mind, and spirit achieve the harmonious integration that Clifford reserves for property relations, her confidence in herself finally emerges.    Lawrence came under renewed attack in 1970 with Kate Millett’s bestselling feminist manifesto, Sexual Politics, a portion of which is devoted to taking apart the view of women in novels by Lawrence, Henry Miller, and Norman Mailer. Millett views Lady Chatterley’s Lover as a “quasi-religious tract, recounting the salvation of one modern woman” through her exposure to “the mystery of the phallus.” She points to the love scene in which Mellors displays his erect phallus to Connie in the morning light and Connie praises its ‘lordliness.’ But Mellors is as much in thrall to his phallus as Connie, just as both are in thrall to her sexuality. Nature envelops and directs them both. To Lawrence, the mechanization of life by industry had, at every level of society, severed human beings from their natural intuition and even destroyed sensuality, especially the sensuality of working people, who had been “daunted out of existence.” He views Connie and Mellors as the only genuinely sane people in their world; all the others, from the miners to the artists, are caught in the industrial machine and driven by money, whether they are aware of it or not.    In scrutinizing Miller, Mailer, and Lawrence, Millett identifies different strains of sexism, from Miller’s puerile cockcrowing to Lawrence’s theory of “phallic marriage,” foregrounding these strains rather than other more complex, ambiguous, or contradictory energies at work. In the case of Lawrence, she does not fully credit Lawrence’s strong identification with his female characters, his revolutionary portrait of their sexuality, or his sense of the importance of the mutual self-realization and subjective interdependence of lovers. But she is right to point to Lawrence’s quasi-religious understanding of sexuality, as other critics had before her. He was not conventionally religious; he repudiated the traditions of both Buddha and Jesus because of their teachings that “the only happiness lay in abstracting oneself from life, the daily, yearly seasonal life of birth and death and fruition.” What he wanted to see take place was an embodied reawakening to the natural rhythms of daily life, “the ritual of dawn and noon and sunset.” To Lawrence, humanity in general no longer possessed a sense of its cosmic significance, of life as it might be lived in consonance with nature, of sex as an energy that is not “personal” but part of the great natural rhythm of the sun in its relation to the earth. “Oh, what a catastrophe for man when he cut himself off from the rhythm of the year, from his unison with the sun and the earth,” he laments, “Oh, what a catastrophe, what a maiming of love when it was made a personal, merely personal feeling, taken away from the rising and setting of the sun, and cut off from the magic connection of the solstice and equinox!” In the spontaneity of mutual arousal and orgasm, human beings have the capacity to achieve the “deepest of all communions,” if they can give of themselves. But the ego-driven “cult of personality” often intervenes and proves “fatal” to this “mystic marriage.”    A far cry from the clinical present, Lawrence’s idea of transcendent sexual passion—transcending mere sensuality, mere “cold, nervous, ‘poetic’ personal sex”—spoke to the sixties generation. Today it just seems old-fashioned, something in the way Hollywood romance films do. Yet whereas Lawrence’s fiction is in decline, these films remain popular, in part because of the sentimentality that allows audiences to take pleasure in them and to satisfy their need to believe in love, even while dismissing the plots as kitsch. Lawrence’s novels are never sentimental; they evoke transcendent passion in the context of a somber, prophetic critique of western rationalism—of the mechanization or instrumentalization of thinking and feeling, the money values that have invaded every area of life. Given Lawrence’s sacralization of bodily existence, which forms the basis of this wide-ranging critique, it’s not surprising that something like a taboo encircles his work in so-called “secular” societies, societies like our own, in which a rationalizing view of life reigns supreme. In so far as human life processes are increasingly understood in terms of the different mechanisms of authority that manage them—the medical, therapeutic, technological, and governmental powers that we allow to penetrate our lives—Lawrence’s novels will offend. Nothing challenges contemporary politics, from left to right, more than the idea of the inviolability of human desire, or the suggestion that the human body is something more than a machine to be directed, treated, managed or fed.    All of the passages from Lawrence’s fiction cited here center on a naked body. The experience of nakedness and the sight of the naked body demand a fearful attention in Lawrence because they expose one’s inmost, private self. Lawrence would have felt nothing but contempt for the casual, superficial view of the body encouraged on instagram today. It’s hardly surprising, then, that many students take a rather narrow view of his work.    Nevertheless, however archaic and however questionable in terms of contemporary notions of gender his sense of the sanctity and cosmic significance of the human body may seem, it forms the basis of some of Lawrence’s deepest meditations on human relations. In “The Horse-Dealer’s Daughter,” it is the doctor’s spontaneous rescue of Mabel’s body from death by drowning—they go into the water separately and come out together, as in a baptism—that transforms him from a professional who looks at the world with self-satisfied objectivity to a man with an awakened spirit and sense of connection to another person. And, despite her self-destructiveness, Mabel is seen as already more advanced than the doctor in a spiritual sense because, in her grief, she is connected to the body—the dead body of her mother—by means of her daily visits to her mother’s grave. Because of this mortal knowledge Mabel “would always hold the keys to her own situation” and would prove herself capable of igniting the romance that ultimately gives her a much better life than the one she has. She is after all a horse dealer’s daughter, and not the least among the achievements of the story is its evocation of socio-economic reality.    In “Odour of Chrysanthemums,” when Elizabeth Bates’ husband dies in a mining accident, she views his naked, dead body and has an epiphany:

   her soul died in her for fear: she knew she had never seen him, he    had never seen her. They had met in the dark and had fought in    the dark, not knowing whom they met nor whom they fought. And    now she saw and turned silent in seeing. For she had been wrong.    ….In fear and shame she looked at his naked body….She had denied him what he was—she saw it now. She had refused him as himself. And this had been her life, and his life. She was grateful to death, which restored the truth.

Perhaps Lawrence’s great subject is not so much the importance of sexual passion, but the presence of death in life: the many ways we eclipse one another daily, denying our nature and that of others.    In a recent conversation with a student about the impact of smart phones on the daily lives of people of this generation, I remarked that many students seemed to be almost physically attached to their phones. When the student confessed his fascination with the idea of an apparatus body, a computer with agency and free will, I was reminded of Lawrence’s description of the “advanced young” of his generation to whom the body had become a mere “tool of the mind,” like a “trained dog.” Whereas to me, the possibility of an apparatus body sounded deadly, to the student it represented freedom from death: the body as an eternally updatable unit. Until that day comes, can we really do without what Lawrence is telling us? No one can replace D.H. Lawrence because no other novelist of his generation showed more courage in exploring the threat that the post-industrial environment poses to what is most alive in human beings and in the natural world.