In this guest blog Fiona Fleming reports back on the International D. H. Lawrence Conference: The Relative and the Absolute in D. H. Lawrence’s Work which was held at Paris Nanterre University, 30 March-1 April 2017
Now in its thirty-first year of existence, the Paris conference has become a beloved annual rendez-vous for Lawrence scholars around the world, not only, as Ginette Roy reminded us, for what Lawrence called the “splendours” of the “monumental and handsome” city, but also for the friendly, “informal” atmosphere which characterises the three-day event. This year’s edition was somewhat marked by novelty however, the university having once more changed its name, to Paris Nanterre, and the conference taking place in the brand-new research building, named after German sociologist and philosopher Max Weber, which was rather fitting for this year’s distinctly philosophical topic of “The Relative and the Absolute”. Despite many participants’ slight apprehension of the subject, the twenty-one scholars from Belarus, the UK, Australia, Sweden, the USA, Norway, Lebanon, Italy and France, skilfully rose to the challenge and, to quote Ginette again: “it wasn’t so difficult”.
The papers presented and the enlightening discussions which invariably followed repeatedly highlighted Lawrence’s struggle with the notions of individualism and connectedness, and the ways in which his novels, short stories, poems and essays establish the dual necessity for an isolated absolute self and vital relationships with others.
Marina Ragachewskaya’s opening study of “The Ladybird” linked the relativity of absolute love to Hegelian philosophy and Christian dogmas, to foreground Lawrence’s idea that the absolute is to be felt through human contact. Fiona Fleming focused on the theme of regenerative interconnectedness between the human and the non-human in “The Princess”, Sun and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Joe Shafer’s comparative approach of Lawrence’s devastating attack on Whitman’s universalising discourse emphasised Lawrence’s struggle with the American poet’s views on sexual difference and the absolute self. Howard Booth’s paper on the 1941 radio adaptation of “The Rocking-Horse Winner” showed how W. H. Auden accentuated the child’s disturbing relationships with the world through the use of voice and subject-object relationships with the furniture.
Women in Love was thoroughly examined in four papers which considered the chiasmus of the relationship and conflict between Birkin and Gerald in the light of the relative and the absolute. Jacqueline Gouirand discussed Lawrence’s exploration of the possibilities of relationships between men and women through the character of Birkin, the prophet-like proclaimer of absolute truths who fails to establish his new ethic of human relationships. Following this analysis, Brigitte Macadré’s close reading of Birkin’s countless aphorisms and the ironical distance created by the other characters’ response to them, suggested that Birkin may be a false prophet, despite his efforts to smash clichés and established truths. Tony Voss argued that while Gerald embodies the absolute as the god of the machine, absolutely committed to his system, and Birkin achieves a kind of relativity by defending the relativism of living, the relativism of the latter is not opposite to the absolutism of the former, but completely other. Taking a more linguistic approach to the matter, Maria Trejling pinpointed Women in Love’s exposition of the limitations of human concepts and the slipperiness of language, revealed by the unstable meaning of the word “inhuman” and Derrida’s neologism “l’animot”.
Élise Brault-Dreux and Theresa Mae Thompson once again delighted us with their meticulous study of Lawrence’s poems: Élise engaged with several poems from Look! We Have Come Through to outline the poetic incarnation of human relativity and the virtues of communion in separateness which they extol. Theresa then demonstrated how the poem “Fish” constructs the (possibly sexual) connection between the fish and the water, while celebrating the elusive oneness of the fish.
Lawrence’s views on fiction and the novel also received significant attention, from both Jonathan Long, who presented a beautiful photocopy of the Kangaroo dust jacket from Seltzer’s 1923 edition, as well as a useful survey of all the essays which, when put together, give a theory of the novel according to Lawrence; and from Michael Bell, who argued that the novel provides an arena in which the relative and the absolute can find a modus vivendi, and demonstrated how Cervantes and Lawrence parodied or thematised the relativity of life and the absolutism of the human mind.
Many scholars alluded to Lawrence’s stance towards the religious absolute and highlighted the gradual change in his opinions towards religion. Mélanie Lebreton spoke of the “nauseating fixity” of religion which impelled Lawrence to track down the absolute all over the world in a quest to shape his own religious views and rewrite biblical symbolism. Peter Fjågesund explained that Lawrence sought alternatives to religion in art, where man and woman are reconciled in a dialectical relationship. Paul Poplawski retraced Lawrence’s move from the absolute crucified Christ in the Tyrol essays of Twilight in Italy, through the philosophised Christ opposed to God the Father in “The Crown”, to the resurrected Christ in The Man Who Died, who reawakens to the world and becomes relative, dependent on relationships. This late work by Lawrence also underwent close scrutiny by Jane Costin, who illustrated the importance of touch as a way for the soul to live on after death by referring to Sketches of Etruscan Places and the beautiful engravings by John Farleigh in the 1935 edition of The Man Who Died.
Shifting the focus to the question of “absolute music”, Sue Reid considered the contrasting views of Wagner, Haweis, Hanslick, Beethoven and Lawrence on how music relates to life, nature and man. Papers and discussions recurrently revolved around Lawrence’s theory of polarity in duality, which Nick Ceramella described in his comparative study of Lawrence and Blake. Benjamin Bouche explored the meanings of “absolute”, “existence” and “being” to demonstrate that Lawrence understood the absolute to mean completion, the realisation of each individual’s own nature, through vital relationships, not separateness. Soha El Samad linked Einstein’s principle of light with Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome to show that Lawrentian characters, like the rhizome, grow amidst relationships and follow the light to blossom and reach completion. Stefania Michelucci concluded the three-day programme with a reflection on the relationships between the human and non-human characters in The Fox and the complexity which surrounds Banford’s death.
Besides the large variety of topics and the stimulating complexity of the philosophical considerations they entailed, which once again treated us to Cornelius Crowley’s extraordinary gift for association (including a much appreciated connection between Aeolian harps and G-strings), this year’s conference will remain memorable for the exceptionally warm weather which Ginette must have divined as she arranged for our delicious meal in the appropriately named, Provençal-themed restaurant Le Sud. Interdependence and vital relationships are indeed the sure paths to the absolute of fulfilment for thankful Lawrentian friends who were delighted with Ginette’s announcement of next year’s topic: “Resisting tragedy” – for further details please contact Ginette Roy (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Cornelius Crowley (email@example.com).