Wednesday, 18 July 2012

'Women in Love' by D.H. Lawrence

I decided to re-read 'Women in Love' by D.H.Lawrence. The book (and film) had a tremendous effect on me in my late teens. I thought it was all incredible.

How would I feel about it so many more years down the line, I wondered?

I was also intrigued by the Nietzschian influence/effect. What sense would I make of all that? Now, I know so much more about Nietzsche. When I was in my late teens I knew very little about him, other than the fact that his Philosophy influenced Fascism. At the time, it was something that I decided that I should keep well clear of.

Well, I very much enjoyed re-reading ‘Women in Love’. I could understand why it had the powerful effect that it had on me on my late teens. But I also had some reservations about it, which I did not see at all then. On one level, I was quite surprised about this.

Death and suicide, for example, plays quite an important part in it all, and the Nietzschian undertones are clearly apparent. Here is Ursula talking to herself about death and suicide.

"It was not a question of taking one's life - she would never kill herself, that was repulsive and violent. It was a question of knowing the next step. And the next step let into the space of death. Did it? - or was there - ?

Her thoughts drifted into unconsciousness, she sat as if asleep beside the fire. And then the thought came back. The space of death! Could she give herself to it? Ah yes - it was a sleep. She had had enough. So long she had held out and resisted. Now was the time to relinquish, not resist any more.

In a kind of spiritual trance, she yielded, she gave way, and all was dark. She could feel, within the darkness, the terrible assertion of her body, the unutterable anguish of dissolution, the only anguish that is too much, the far-off, awful nausea of dissolution set in within the body." (p. 200)

Her thoughts continued:

"Monday, the beginning of another school-week! Another shameful school-week, more routine and mechanical activity. Was not the adventure of death infinitely preferable? Was not death infinitely more lovely and novel than such a life? A life of barren routine, without inner meaning, without any real significance...One might come to fruit in death. She had had enough. For where was life to be found?" (p. 201)

This is all pretty heavy stuff, is it not? D. H. Lawrence did not like school teaching, of course, but even so – the death wish?, suicide?

Moving on to the romance in the novel in general; that is not at all simple either; it is beautiful but also very heavy and intense for quite a lot of the time. And this was something that I could well relate to in my late teens. I can remember very clearly just how much I identified with it on one level; how moved I was by it, but could not quite remember why. But that also, of course, reflects the intensity of my own upbringing.

Then, there is the topic of relationships, responsibility and freedom. We have Birkin who wanted to be with Ursula but also wanted to be free with her.

"...he wanted to be with Ursula as free as with himself, single and clear and cool, yet balanced, polarised with her. The merging, the clutching, the mingling of love was become madly abhorrent to him. But it seemed to him, woman was always so horrible and clutching, she had such a lust for possession, a greed of self-importance in love. She wanted to have, to own, to control, to be dominant...It was intolerable, this possession at the hands of woman." (p. 209)

This is all very Nietzschian, is it not? After all, Nietzsche had quite some attitude to women, he said many disparaging things about them and found it difficult to get over the all-female household that he was brought up in. Whilst at the same time, D. H. Lawrence also used his writing to help him get over/come to terms with various aspects of his upbringing, of course. He also had a rather domineering and possessive mother, who had high, middle-class ambitions for her son. And this gave Lawrence some difficulties when trying to form relationships with girls, which he wrote so eloquently about in ‘Sons and Lovers’. But of course, that was his view of the world and of women. But then novelists are almost bound to write that way.

Then, we have the whole thing about the working class struggle, with Gerald’s father owning the mine and Gerald’s thoughts about all of this.

“Gerald was satisfied. He knew the colliers said that they hated him. But he had long ceased to hate them. When they streamed past him at evening, their heavy boots slurring on the pavement wearily, their shoulders slightly distorted, they took no notice of him, they gave him no greetings whatsoever, they passed in a grey-black stream of unemotional acceptance. They were not important to him, save as instruments, nor he to them, save as a supreme instrument of control. As miners they had their being, he had his being as director. He admired their qualities. But as men, personalities, they were just accidents, sporadic little unimportant phenomena. And tacitly, the men agreed to this. For Gerald agreed to it himself.” (p. 242-3)

And Lawrence’s father was a miner; his work was heavy and demanding. We see the class struggle, and again, this was brought out just so eloquently in ‘Sons and Lovers’ with the father being a miner and the mother being middle-class. And I myself had a mother that came from a much more middle-class background than my father. Indeed, I was brought up with an acute awareness of the social class struggle.

Then, there is the beauty pervading so much of ‘Women in Love’. Lawrence’s writing can be just so powerful, beautiful, eloquent and enticing. He writes in such a unique and stylish way.

Gudrun thinking about Gerald:

“He looked aside, and did not answer. Save for the extreme beauty and mystic attractiveness of this distinct, strange face, she would have sent him away. But his face was too wonderful and undiscovered to her. It fascinated her with the fascination of pure beauty, cast a spell on her, like nostalgia, an ache.” (p. 362)

Then, the lovers, Gudrun and Gerald –

“She looked up, and in the darkness saw his face above her, his shapely, male face. There seemed a faint, white light emitted from him, a white aura, as if he were visible from the unseen. She reached up, like Eve reaching to the apples on the tree of knowledge, and she kissed him, though her passion was a transcendent fear of the thing he was, touching his face with her infinitely delicate, encroaching wondering fingers. Her fingers went over the mould of his face, over his features. How perfect and foreign he was – ah, how dangerous! Her soul thrilled with complete knowledge.” (p. 350)

Meanwhile, there is the fight between Birkin and Gerald:

“So they wrestled swiftly, rapturously, intent and mindless at last, two essential white figures working into a tighter closer oneness of struggle, with a strange, octopus-like, knotting and flashing of limbs in the subdued light of the room; a tense, white knot of flesh gripped in silence between the walls of old brown books. Now and again came a sharp gasp of breath, or a sound like a sigh, then the rapid thudding of movement on the thickly-carpeted floor, then the strange sound of flesh escaping under flesh.” (pp. 283-4)

And again, mixing up passion, sex and beauty with death. Gerald:

“…had come for vindication. She [Gudrun] let him hold her in his arms, clasp her close against him. He found in her an infinite relief. Into her he poured all his pent-up darkness and corrosive death, and he was whole again. It was wonderful, marvellous, it was a miracle. This was the ever-recurrent miracle of his life, at the knowledge of which he was lost in an ecstasy of relief and wonder. And she, subject, received him as a vessel filled with his bitter potion of death. She had no power at this crisis to resist. The terrible frictional violence of death filled her, and she received it in an ecstasy of subjection, in throes of acute, violent sensation.” (p. 363)

Then, the lovers Ursula and Birkin:

“In Ursula the sense of the unrealised world ahead triumphed over everything. In the mist of this profound darkness, there seemed to glow on her heart the effulgence of a paradise unknown and unrealised. Her heart was full of the most wonderful light, golden like honey of darkness, sweet like the warmth of day, a light which was not shed on the world, only on the unknown paradise towards which she was going, a sweetness of habitation, a delight of living quite unknown, but hers infallibly. In her transport she lifted her face suddenly to him, and he touched it with his lips. So cold, so fresh, so sea-clear her face was, it was like kissing a flower that grows hear the surf.” (p. 410)

Then, Gudrun:

“…was driven by a strange desire. She wanted to plunge on and on, till she came to the end of the valley of snow. Then she wanted to climb the wall of white finality, climb over, into the peaks that sprang up like sharp petals in the heart of the frozen, mysterious navel of the world. She felt that there, over the strange blind, terrible wall of rocky snow, there in the navel of the mystic world, among the final cluster of peaks, there, in the infolded navel of it all, was her consummation.” (p.432)

Returning to Gudrun and Gerald:

“Her heart beat fast, she flew away on wings of elation, imagining a future. He would be a Napoleon of peace, or a Bismarck – and she the woman behind him…But even as she lay in fictitious transport, bathed in the strange, false sunshine of hope in life, something seemed to snap in her, and a terrible cynicism began to gain upon her, blowing in like a wind.” (p. 440)

Lawrence says so much and he does it so well; he writes so eloquently; he encapsulates so much. On one level, there is little need for me to say much more. One can just get swept along with the tide; with the pure magic of it all; with the pure beauty of it all.

However, I think there is the point that the novelist does/should have some sense of responsibility sometimes. I went to university, for example, thinking I could have a world something like this Lawrencian-type world: a world full of interesting, alternative, intense, intellectual, original, passionate and beautiful people. A world that was rich; a world that was alive; a cultural world! I thought, for example, that perhaps it was possible to have relationships with and without responsibility all at the same time. I was of course, disappointed; I was disillusioned; I was young. I had to find a way through it all. And that, I think is also the danger of Nietzsche himself. Whilst I have not been enticed by Nietzsche’s work directly, I was certainly enticed and very influenced by him indirectly, through the work of D. H. Lawrence. And of course, Nietzsche has influenced just so many different people (writers, artists, musicians, politicians etc) in this and other ways. We need to be wary; we need to try to think more about what we are dealing with. Geoff Waite goes into all of this in great depth in ‘Nietzsche’s Corpse’ - a tremendous book. Leading on from all of this, Glenn wrote a long piece, trying to make sense of it all, and inserted this on our website – see

Perhaps, at some point, I will write something more myself – but will have to see. If I did, I would also want to marry it up with Freud and Marx.

One other point here that I want to note though, is the responsibility that teachers have, particularly when teaching A’ Levels to 16-18 year olds, I think. Victor and I were both swept along on the crest of a wave in this regard, whilst studying for our A’ Levels at 16-18 years of age; Victor by Nietzsche directly and me by D. H. Lawrence, and thus, indirectly by Nietzsche. Reading this text led us to think that the world was different to how it actually was; it gave us romantic illusions. We also thought that we could control and change our lives in ways that really we could not. Thank goodness I studied Sociology which was the opposite, and helped to ground me. Romance, beauty and wonder are also vitally important of course, but it can be dangerous if one is lead to believe that a certain way of living and being is possible when it is not – or at least it isn’t in capitalism. This is the great illusion and is one of the things that can make Nietzsche dangerous.

Marx and Nietzsche both offer ways in which ordinary people can try to take more control of their own lives, but Marx’s way is a much clearer and better one, it does not give people false illusions about capitalism and is something that everyone can strive towards, not just the ‘Uberman’.

At which point, I will stop and perhaps revisit this on another occasion. Or like Lawrence himself, I might just encapsulate it in novel-form instead!