Sun-Struck: On the Question of Solar Sexuality and Speculative Realism in D. H. Lawrence

dhl hope

In this guest blog, Stephen Alexander, author of Torpedo the Ark, attempts to relate Lawrence’s work to recent trends in philosophy; speculative realism and object-oriented ontology.                                                                                                                                

“How strange it would be if some women came

forward and said:

We are sun-women!

We belong neither to men nor our children nor

even to ourselves

but to the sun.”

– D. H. Lawrence, Sun-Women [1]

Indeed! This would be queer, wouldn’t it? And yet this is precisely the phenomenon that I wish to discuss: what might be termed solar sexuality or sun-fucking. Like many forms of edgeplay, if such a practice promises bliss and fulfilment, so too does it risk death. Indeed, one of the arguments that I wish to put forward is that in learning how to love and be loved by the sun in a cosmic-carnal sense, one is left dehumanised and stripped naked before an uncaring universe wherein integral being ceases and life is soon extinguished. Thus what I’m offering here is a not simply a mixture of Lawrentian fantasy and pagan astro-porn, but a counter-vitalism that can be thought of either as a perverse form of speculative realism, or an aggressive material nihilism. What I’m not interested in is the sun understood mythologically, or as an object of religious veneration. For me, the sun is neither alive, nor is it a god.

For Lawrence, however, as for many other people who share his predilection for vitalism and divinity, the sun is more than a material object that can be adequately described and understood by physicists and astronomers. And if, primarily, Lawrence is concerned with the relationships between men and women, he nevertheless insists on the importance of the relation between humanity and the sun. Thus the first question that arises is how might we best define or determine this relationship? Is it, as the story ‘Sun’ suggests, potentially erotic in character? Might we really talk of ‘sex’ between a woman and the sun? Certainly we might, if we choose to subscribe to Lawrentian metaphysics. For Lawrence explicitly states that sex is solar in origin, describing it as a “majestic reserve in the sun”.[2] This is an interesting and novel definition and one that obliges us to think of sex in a far wider sense than usual; as something “so much more than phallic, and so much deeper than functional desire”.[3]

Because Lawrence thinks of sex as a type of solar activity within the living tissue of men and women, perhaps the term that best describes our relation to the sun is correlation. For there is clearly a notion of mutual interdependence between the sun and humankind in Lawrence’s work: we can’t think one without thinking the other. And yet, correlation – something which, as a philosophical concept, we’ll be returning to in the closing remarks – doesn’t sound a very Lawrentian term and I think Lawrence would be happier speaking about correspondence.

For correspondence, implies a far closer level of intimate proximity between terms: they become not merely interdependent, but analogous at a certain level. There is also a vital implication: abstract figures or ideas correlate; living things correspond and communicate. And so it’s not surprising to find this term, correspondence, being used frequently within Lawrence’s work when he wishes to discuss human relationships with non-human bodies and forces. To give but one example of many, in the first version of his essay ‘The Two Principles’, he writes:

“There certainly does exist a subtle and complex sympathy, correspondence, between the plasm of the human body … and the material elements outside. The primary human psyche is a complex plasm, which quivers, sense-conscious, in contact with the circumambient cosmos.”[4]

Correspondence, we can therefore agree, is a privileged term in the Lawrentian vocabulary. And doubtless its appeal lies in the fact that it is the more religious term: for correspondence is an essentially theological doctrine, associated with Emanuel Swedenborg, who believed in a correspondence between spiritual and natural forces extending to all objects in the physical world. If, for Swedenborg, ultimately everything corresponded to God, then, for Lawrence, all things seem to refer back to the sun, understood as a religious symbol, rather than a real object.

Not only does Lawrence wish to reject modern cosmology, he hopes to reverse it. In particular, he wants to reverse the idea that life evolves from matter. On the contrary, he argues, the material universe results from the breakdown of primary organic tissue. This is the central claim of his anti-scientific vitalism and Lawrence insists on this point in full knowledge that it is, as a matter of fact, not the case.[5]

Unfortunately, Lawrence is not alone in this opposition. Rather shamefully, many philosophers have also often been antagonistic and condescending towards science, accusing it, for example, of dogmatism or naïve realism. But, unlike Lawrence, I do not believe a so-called ‘life-mystery’ has ultimate control over the mechanistic and material universe, nor: “If it be the supreme will of the living that the sun should stand still in heaven, then the sun will stand still.”[6] This is simply an occult conceit: the frankly preposterous belief that there can be a magical suspension of the laws of physics at the behest of human will power.[7]

That said, I understand Lawrence’s objection to positivism and his response to the inhuman scale of the universe as given to us within astronomy. When you first encounter the facts and figures of the universe you can indeed become “dizzy with the sense of illimitable space”.[8] But I think we should accept the challenge of this and affirm our ‘imprisonment’ – Lawrence’s word – within an indifferent, uncaring, essentially godless universe. Nihilism is not something to fear, or seek to overcome, but, as a form of intellectual integrity, something to affirm.[9]

Lawrence, I know, wants imaginative wonder and release and would rather have religious myth than scientific description, as the former guarantees him this. Essentially, he’s a theo-humanist and a fantasist, who dismisses empirical evidence in favour of subjective ‘truth’ as he feels it. And so he prefers astrology to astronomy. And why not, when the former is so much more flattering to our sense of self-importance? For astrology gives us man translated in onto-cosmic terms. Lawrence writes:

“In astronomical space, one can only move, one cannot be. In the astrological heavens … the whole man is set free, once the imagination crosses the border. The whole man, bodily and spiritual, walks in the magnificent field of the stars … and the feet tread splendidly upon … the heavens, instead of untreadable space.”[10]

The first sentence is doubtless true: our being is mortal and terrestrial and we do cease to exist in human terms once we venture into the “horrible hollow void”[11] of outer space. But I don’t like Lawrence’s desire to place his feet upon the heavens – it seems an impertinence and embarrassingly allzumenschliches. Small and insignificant, Lawrence wants to project himself into “the great sky with its meaningful stars and its profoundly meaningful motions”.[12] He wants to declare his unity with the cosmos. But this is surely the same kind of transcendental egoism that Lawrence ridicules Whitman and others for. He boasts that he is not afraid to feel his own nothingness “in front of the vast void of astronomical space”,[13] but, actually, he does seem afraid when confronted with reality and ontological hollowness.

However, scared or not, Lawrence at least knows what it is he wants: a release of the imagination in order that it might make him “feel stronger and happier”.[14] Science doesn’t provide this, he asserts. At best, it satisfies the intellect, even as it gives us a sun and a moon that are “only thought-forms … things we know but never feel by experience”.[15] This, I have to say, is a bit rich. For so too are the sun and moon given us by astrology only thought-forms – and, arguably, nothing but colourful thought-forms, whereas the sun spoken of within astronomy has some actual basis in material reality.

So if, in a sense, I agree with Lawrence that we have ‘lost the sun’ in the same manner and for the same reason we have lost all things as things in themselves,[16] still I might question what the best way to recover the sun is: poetry, astrology, eroticized sunbathing? Or perhaps a speculative and material form of philosophy that will liberate us from the personal entanglement of correlationism.

sun dhl

D.H. Lawrence’s Sun

Originally written in 1925, ‘Sun’ was significantly revised three years later and it is this ‘unexpurgated’ text to which I’ll be referring here. The central protagonist, Juliet, is an embryonic Lady Chatterley: rich, bored, and sexually frustrated. However, instead of taking a human lover, she establishes an erotic relationship with the sun, that strangest of strange attractors. Such a relationship is both pleasurable and dangerous: the sun kisses us into life, but it cares nothing for the personal, the egoic, or the human. In fact, as we shall see, it incinerates these things and, as one commentator rightly notes, whilst the sun helps Juliet overcome her depression, it also challenges her pale-faced American idealism and her status as a modern independent woman. For whilst the Italian sun is rather less fierce and demanding than the Aztec sun that thrives upon blood, nevertheless it is just as relentless and Juliet’s body “is made to acknowledge its subjection to the inexorable processes of fertility and procreation, in spite of her will’s resistance”.[17] Clearly, there’s a sexual politics being promoted in this biological fatalism, though whether it’s solar or simply sexist in origin is debatable.

The story opens with Juliet’s husband and mother being instructed by her doctors to take her away into the sun. Despite her initial scepticism, she allows herself to be carried away from the New World to the Old: from a land of steel, to a land of olive trees and lemon groves. It sounds lovely – and it is lovely. But initially, Juliet is unimpressed:

“She saw it all, and in a measure it was soothing. But it was all external. She didn’t really care about it. She was herself just the same, with all her anger and frustration inside her, and her incapacity to feel anything real.” [20]

We have already noted this loss of world and the feeling of being somehow out of touch with things in the phenomenal universe; certain only of our own subjective thoughts and feelings; our own rage, rather than the physical reality of objects. Again, the question is what can we do about it. For Lawrence, it invariably seems to involve taking your clothes off:  “‘You know, Juliet, the doctor told you to lie in the sun, without your clothes. Why don’t you?’ said her mother.” [20] Juliet responds aggressively to this suggestion: “‘When I am fit to do so, I will. Do you want to kill me?’” [20], she demands.

It seems a slightly hysterical overreaction, but, actually, she’s quite right to fear for her mortal well-being. For the sun will destroy her, even when she feels strong enough to go naked before it. In becoming sun-woman, Juliet sets off on an “adventure into the material universe”[18] and hers is not a story of a being among beings, nor a tale of human self-discovery, but, rather, a flirtation with death. As we will see, her soul “is in a sense dehumanised”[19] in its encounter with the sun in its stark reality and her story offers us a “vision of life hovering tiny and isolated”[20] against a solar system where individuality is spent and meaningless.

sun gazing

Sun-Gazing

Juliet’s solar affair begins one morning “when the sun lifted himself molten and sparkling, naked over the sea’s rim” [20] and she finds herself transfixed whilst lying in her bed:

“It was as if she had never seen the sun rise before. She had never seen the naked sun stand up pure upon the sea-line, shaking the night off himself, like wetness. And he was full and naked. And she wanted to come to him.

So the desire sprang up secretly in her, to be naked to the sun. She cherished her desire like a secret. She wanted to come together with the sun.” [20]

There are a couple of points I’d like to comment on here. Firstly, note the typical engendering of the sun. In most cultures and languages the sun is invariably male. This lazy sexual dualism, that divides everything into polarised male and female forces, is not only untenable, but it fosters and perpetuates a deeply reactionary sexual politics. Happily, even within loyalist Lawrence circles such binary thinking is today met with suspicion and deserved hostility.

Secondly, I’d like to say something about the odd practice of sun-gazing. Throughout the story Juliet continually looks at the sun and there is an esoteric practice that advocates precisely this: staring at the rising or setting sun for unusually prolonged periods, in order to gain physical and spiritual well-being. The fact that looking directly at the sun, even for a short time, can cause solar retinopathy and lead to permanent damage or blindness, is not something that seems to cause proponents of sun-gazing any real concern. They don’t deny such risks, but they do play them down and many assert that, if done with due diligence, sun-gazing can actually improve eyesight.[21] Indeed, some sun-gazers claim that not only does the practice make you feel happier and healthier, but it can directly increase your energy levels and thus radically reduce the need for food: that one can, as it were, meet one’s nutritional requirements directly from sunlight, a bit like a plant. The fact that people don’t possess chlorophyll and so cannot photosynthesise is discreetly overlooked and, as with other forms of inedia, there is no credible scientific evidence to support this claim.

sun fuck

Sun-Fucking

Having decided to give herself to the sun in order to fulfil her desire, Juliet attempts to find a suitable spot where she may consummate her solar-sexual relationship. She realises that it will have to be away from the house – and away from people. But it is not easy finding a place in the modern world in which one may go hidden and alone in order to have “intercourse with the sun” [21].

However, find such a place she does and here, in a series of explicitly eroticised passages, Lawrence describes how Juliet strips naked and gives herself to the sun, exulting in the fact that ‘he’ was no human lover: “She could feel the sun penetrating into her bones: nay, further, even into emotions and thoughts.” [21] She is left feeling not only sun-kissed, but sun-dazed, and sun-fucked. If Lawrence’s language, with its incantatory rhythm and its porno-poetic quality encourages us to think more fully the nature of solar-coition, so too does it have something troubling about it: something voyeuristic and, indeed, sexually violent. For Juliet is stripped and subject not just to the gaze of the sun, but also to the gaze of the reader, who is invited and encouraged to stare at her nakedness just as the sun looks down upon her body laid bare and described in detail. As Juliet is penetrated by the sun, “she lay stunned with the strangeness of the thing that was happening to her” [21]. Can a woman, we might ask, ever give consent to sexual intercourse with the sun? It’s debatable. Indeed, we might also enquire, as in the case of Leda or the Virgin Mary, is this not ultimately a form of rape to which we bear witness?

Less disturbing, but perhaps more surprising, is Lawrence’s sometimes rather crude use of sexual punning and double entendre. When he tells us that Juliet wanted to have intercourse with the sun and come with the sun, I think he fully intends for the sexual connotation to be heard and understood. The verb, to come, for example, meaning to orgasm, would certainly have been familiar in the 1920s, although probably not used in polite society. I’m surely not the first reader to find this peculiar mix of mytho-religious language and sea-side postcard eroticism (taken to its climax in the Chatterley writings) less than successful.

woman-sun-goddess

Becoming Sun-Woman

Despite being ravished by the sun during this first encounter and left feeling dazed and violated by the sun’s power, Juliet’s only vital concern is now for the sun: “She was thinking inside herself, of the sun in his splendour, and his entering into her. Her life was now a secret ritual.” [23] And so, every day, she went at some point to her secret spot among the cactus, wearing only a light wrap and sandals, so that “in an instant … she was naked to the sun” [23]. Soon, she feels as if she knows the sun “in every thread of her body” [23] and she becomes increasingly confident and carefree: “Her heart of anxiety … had disappeared altogether … And her tense womb, though still closed, was slowly unfolding, slowly, slowly, like a lily bud under water, as the sun mysteriously touched it.”[23]

This is followed by a passage crucial to the anti-humanism of the story:

“With her knowledge of the sun, and her conviction that the sun was gradually penetrating her to know her, in the cosmic carnal sense of the word, came over her a feeling of detachment from people, and a certain contemptuous tolerance for human beings altogether. They were so un-elemental, so un-sunned. They were so like graveyard worms.” [23-4]

This seems a bit harsh – and Juliet isn’t only thinking of sophisticated urbanites, or middle-class persons such as herself and her husband, for even the local peasants “with their donkeys, sun-blackened as they were, were not sunned right through. There was a little soft core of fear … where the soul of man cowered in fear of death, and still more in fear of the natural blaze of life. … All men were like that. – Why admit men!” [24]

Why indeed? And yet, fairly soon after reaching this conclusion, this is exactly what Juliet decides to do: to disappointingly admit a man; a sun-darkened peasant with a donkey and a wife and a hard-on.[22] We’ll meet this peasant and his erect penis shortly. But what I want to stress here is how her new contempt for sun-fearing mankind results in Juliet being far less cautious about being seen naked by the local people and increasingly insouciant: all she cared about was being thought beautiful by the sun and not the judgement of society. This might be thought liberating, but we must remember, of course, that the sun doesn’t care about her in the least: this is just her fantasy and conceit.[23]

As her misanthropy and insouciance continue to develop side-by-side, so too does her skin begin to change colour: “all her body was rosy, rosy and turning to gold. She was like another person. She was another person.” [24] This makes her sun-proud and sun-happy: to lose that white, un-sunned body that the Greeks thought fishy and unhealthy and to become at last a transhuman sun-woman:

“It was not just taking sun-baths. It was much more than that. Something deep inside her unfolded and relaxed, and she was given to a cosmic influence. By some mysterious will inside her, deeper than her known consciousness and her known will, she was put into connection with the sun, and the stream of the sun flowed through her, round her womb. She herself, her conscious self, was secondary, a secondary person, almost an onlooker. The true Juliet lived in the dark flow of the sun within her deep body, like a river of dark rays circling, circling dark and violet round the sweet, shut bud of her womb.” [26]

It’s interesting how Lawrence is at pains to stress that what Juliet is doing is something entirely different to and so much more than the sunbathing indulged in by millions of other women around the world: interesting, but not entirely convincing. Clearly, for Lawrence, becoming sun-woman isn’t just a matter of removing your clothes and lying naked in the sun.[24] Indeed, for Lawrence, most modern women have no nakedness and if they strip it is merely to flaunt their bodies in a peculiarly non-physical, optical aspect. Today, says Lawrence, in or out of her knickers makes very little difference to her desirability: “She’s a finished off ego, an assertive conscious entity, cut off like a doll from any mystery. And her nudity is about as interesting as a doll’s.”[25]

Leaving aside this slight towards modern women – and indeed towards dolls – the key point is that, for Lawrence, if you want to have sex with the sun then you have to do more that seek out yourself in the sky: you have to discover solar otherness and accept the cost and the consequence of so doing. If you only seek out yourself in your relationships – be it with human or non-human lovers – then it is just a form of narcissism and you may as well just masturbate.

As Juliet becomes increasingly subject to the sun, or, perhaps, we should say sexually objectified by the sun, she spends more and more time naked, admiring her own red-gold breasts and thighs, and aware that, in spite of herself, her womb was beginning to open “wide with rosy ecstasy, like a lotus flower” [28]. It’s at this point she encounters the peasant and her desire switches from sun to man: a man who is in her eyes the sun made flesh. As he looks at her, transfixed by her nakedness, she experiences the same “blue fire running through her limbs to her womb … spreading in helpless ecstasy” [29] as she feels before the sun. This fire flows between them: “like the blue, streaming fire from the heart of the sun. And she saw the phallus rise under his clothing” [29].

phallus
Haesindang Park (해신당 공원), also called Penis Park, is a park in South Korea. 

Phallic Philosophy

Strangely, it always becomes necessary to speak about the phallus when thinking about the sun: for what is an erection other than the body of man declaring: I am the Sun. As Bataille writes, the verb to be and the integral erection tied to it, is ultimately nothing other than an articulation of amorous solar frenzy.[26] For the erection, like the sun, is something that rises and falls and scandalizes, being equally obscene, equally demanding; a quasi-miraculous phenomenon resulting from a complex interaction of factors, often triggered by some form of sexual stimulation, though this need not always be the case. Indeed, Lawrence explicitly challenges the idea that love calls potency into being. On the contrary, he suggests, it is power that gives rise to love: and it’s not love, but power – which is essentially solar power – that is the first and greatest of the ‘life mysteries’. Arguably, this is what Juliet is after: a taste of power that comes to us from outside; not something self-generated, or which can be bought with American dollars: “However smart we be,” writes Lawrence, “however rich and clever … it doesn’t help us at all. The real power comes in to us from beyond. Life enters us from behind, where we are sightless, and from below, where we do not understand.”[27] And so, to be sun-fucked is, also, to be sodomised and some of us might once more think of Bataille and his notion of the solar anus at this point.

Juliet wants to live, and to live she must have life and life is power. Or, perhaps more precisely, it is the feeling of power [Machtgefühl] – which comes, ironically, through the expenditure and exercise of power, not from its possession. When one is powerful, like the sun, one gives oneself away: the solar economy is supremely wasteful: it shines and shines to no end on one and all. Lawrence writes:

“We must live. And to live, life must be in us. It must come to us, the power of life, and we must not try to get a strangle-hold upon it. …

But the life will not come unless we live. That is the whole point. ‘To him that hath shall be given’. To [her] that hath life shall be given life: on condition, of course, that [she] lives.

And again, life does not mean length of days. Poor old Queen Victoria had length of days. But Emily Brontë had life. She died of it.”[28]

This is a profoundly provocative thought: Life kills! Energy eventually escapes its entrapment within form and is liberated back into the solar flux and that’s all life is; a temporary arrest of sunlight. And that’s all death is; a release of sunlight. And those who live with the greatest intensity and imitate the sun often die young, burning out like tiny stars. Those who go on and on into old age either lack vitality, or they are monsters of stamina like Picasso. As a rule, it is better to live fast and die young than live like one who has never known the power of the sun, or the love of another in whom the sun can be glimpsed.

So, Juliet wants life and to feel the power of life in herself. She achieves this primarily via a direct relationship with the sun, but she also toys with the possibility of fucking a man in whom the sun is embodied: in whom she sees the sun rise – or at least the penis stir into tumescence. First, we might say, she opens her womb to the sun; then she thinks about opening her legs to the man. For the phallus, according to Lawrence, is the bridge not just between man and woman, or the present and the future, but also between humanity and the cosmos: it is the phallus which connects us sensually to the stars and which is the symbol of our unison with all things as things.[29] And it’s this that Juliet wants – not the man per se.

Initially, however, Juliet retreats from this first encounter and attempts to collect herself – which is not so easy when your womb is “wide open like a lotus flower … in a radiant sort of eagerness” [29] and sexual desire for the sun, the man, and the sun-in-man, dominates your consciousness. Not, as I have said, that she is personally interested in the peasant. As a human being, he doesn’t exist for her and is far too much of “a crude beast” [30] to take seriously. However, “the strange challenge of his eyes had held her, blue and overwhelming like the blue sun’s heart. And she had seen the fierce stirring of the phallus under his thin trousers” [30]. Thus, for Juliet, he is the sun on earth and she feels him so powerfully, that she can’t ignore him: “And her womb was open to him.” [30]

However, despite their mutual attraction, “she had not the courage to go down to him” [30] and he lacked the courage to approach her. As in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, there are three things standing in the way of love: class, culture and convention. But, before we get too carried away, we might like to stop and ask, as one critic asks, just what precisely would be demonstrated “by a middle-class woman’s odd half-hour of anonymous sex with a peasant”?[30]

Would it really have shown ‘courage’ to have let herself be fucked by the latter? Wouldn’t it have just been exploitative: a form of sex tourism and sexual objectification? We might argue that just as Juliet is objectified by the sun into an impersonal sun-woman and open womb, then so too is the peasant objectified by her into a walking dildo and sperm bank. I’d like to say a little more on this idea of sexual objectification, as it is central to any discussion of the wider sexual politics of this story.

 

object
Objectification 4 by Lee Tonks

Objectification

 

Whilst within philosophy objectification refers to the process by which abstract concepts are treated as if they were concrete objects, it is more commonly understood to refer to the manner in which people – human subjects – are treated as things: things to be exploited, for example, in the labour market; things to be fucked in the bedroom; or things to be disposed of in the death camps: tools to be used, toys to be played with, corpses to be burnt.

Thus, usually, and with good reason, objectification is seen as a bad thing and people don’t like to be treated as objects. That is to say, they don’t want to be stripped of their humanity by which they mean, amongst other things, their autonomy, their agency, their individuality, etc. These things are what most people pride themselves on and upon which they assemble a whole series of human rights. Thus to be seen or treated as an object or thing is, in a word, degrading.

Often, it is within the amorous realm that this question of objectification continually comes to the fore. Indeed, for many feminists objectification is always sexual objectification  and is a form of violence in itself, closely tied to fetishism, in which the body, parts of the body, or qualities such as shape, size, and colour are invested with greater erotic fascination than the person as a whole.

But if we are to rethink the object and rethink relations in terms of seduction, then this issue is no longer so straightforward. We might then ask for example: What’s wrong with being appreciated physically and impersonally? Why is it any better to be valued for one’s ideas, rather than one’s breasts? What’s wrong with judging by appearance? These are questions rarely raised, however, and objectification remains one of those issues that seems to unite critics across the political spectrum, although there are maverick commentators, like Camille Paglia, who contend that the ability to see other people as objects is a species speciality closely tied to our ability to conceptualise and think aesthetically (i.e. it’s a good thing and is that which, ironically, makes us distinctly human).

Paglia, however, belongs to a small minority of thinkers. Most who discuss objectification continue to regard it as a morally and politically problematic issue, often tied to discussions around pornography, but which has its philosophical roots in the work of Immanuel Kant, who believed that all forms of extramarital sex invariably resulted in objectification. Obviously, therefore, Kant would almost certainly not have approved of Juliet’s projected dalliance with an Italian peasant. For Kant, all human beings have an absolute ‘inner worth’ or dignity and it’s morally imperative that each person respects not only their own humanity, but the personhood of others. And this means never merely treating them as a means, but always as an end in themselves. Like Lawrence, he strongly objects to instrumental sex in which one of the partners is treated as a mere toy or tool for the other’s own pleasure and purposes.

Personally, I find it difficult to share this concern about diminished personhood and loss of integrity etc. I don’t see what’s so great about being a subject, or what’s so objectionable about being an object. In fact, I’m almost tempted to agree with Alan Soble who argues that human subjectivity is simply an anthropocentric conceit and that no one can therefore be ‘objectified’, as no one actually possesses any higher ontological status. Thus, for Soble, there can be no moral objection to Juliet’s proposed sexual exploitation of the Italian peasant.   Indeed, it might be argued that very often people like feeling useful; to feel that they have no instrumental part to play in society is what makes many men and women feel unhappy. Clearly the peasant is sexually interested in Juliet and one doubts very much whether he – unlike Mellors – would have any objection to becoming ‘her ladyship’s fucker’. Probably he would be more than happy to serve as a willing stud-animal and solar substitute to the rich, beautiful foreigner. With that thought, let us now return to the tale and to its conclusion.

sun womb
Sun Womb by Mara Friedman

Fate

Juliet now has a problem: “The sun had opened her womb, and she was no longer free” [30]. And then, unexpectedly, her husband, Maurice, arrives on the scene. At first she has to struggle to remember him and the fact that she was married. But with her troublesome womb-flower in full bloom she thinks to herself ‘at least he’s a man’ – even if, in his dark-grey business suit, he looks “pathetically out of place” [32] on the Italian hillside: “like a blot of ink on the pale, sun-glowing slope” [32].

Understandably, Maurice is rather taken aback by the sight of his sun-ravished wife. She looked like an obscene goddess: “standing erect and nude … glistening with the sun and with warm life” [32]. And yet, somehow, “she did not seem so terribly naked” [32]. It was as if she were clothed in the fire of the sun, like the Scarlet Woman of Revelation. Nevertheless, she makes him nervous: for it was a new woman he saw before him, with her “sun-tanned, wind-stroked thighs” [33] – not the white-skinned woman he had waved off months earlier from New York harbour. Nervous or not, he felt a strange desire “stirring in him for the limbs and sun-wrapped flesh of the woman … It was a new desire in his life, and it hurt him” [33] as all new feelings do:

“He was dazed with admiration, but also, at a deadly loss. He was used to her as a person. And this was no longer a person, but a fleet, sun-strong body, soulless and alluring as a nymph …” [33]

To Juliet, however, her husband is now revealed as “utterly, utterly sunless!” [34] and he casts a cold, grey shadow over the flower of her womb. She tells him that she can never go back to New York and her old life: that she cannot abandon the sun. He, to be fair, agrees that it would be best for her to stay. But, really, how can she stay? Stay and do what? Sunbathe for the rest of her days until she is old and wrinkled? Stay and be pleasured by a sun-vital peasant who exists for her only as a kind of “inarticulate animal” [37] whom she might fuck? Admittedly, the latter idea still tempts her. For sex with the peasant: “would be like bathing in another kind of sunshine, … and afterwards one would forget … It would be just a bath of warm, powerful life … the procreative bath, like sun” [37].

And for Juliet, this would be most welcome. For she was “so tired of personal contacts, and having to talk with the man afterwards” [37]. With the peasant, she could take her satisfaction and have done. And, should she conceive a child with him, well, so what? Why shouldn’t she? It would, she tells herself, “be like bearing a child to the unconscious sun” [37]. This thought again arouses her desire: “And the flower of her womb radiated. It did not care about sentiment or possession. It wanted man-dew only …” [37]

But, despite the promptings of her sperm-thirsty womb, Juliet refuses this solar-biological destiny and chooses instead to submit to a more conventional fate: to remain married to Maurice and to bear his children: “She was bound to the vast, fixed wheel of circumstance, and there was no Perseus in the universe, to cut the bonds” [38], writes Lawrence.

And that is how the tale ends: with circumstance and society more powerful even than the sun, or the desire for impersonal sex. This suggests, surprisingly perhaps, that solar-erotic forces are pretty feeble after all. Or, alternatively, that Juliet was not the sun-woman that Lawrence dreamed of, but just another bored, rather selfish and narcissistic middle-class woman flirting with the possibility of a foreign affair, before settling back into a bourgeois life that promised to always pop an olive into her vodka martini.

dhl hope

Coda: On Correlationism (Towards a Speculative Realism)

I’d like to close this paper on a contemporary philosophical note and return to an idea that I briefly mentioned in the opening remarks, namely, the idea of correlation:

“By ‘correlation’ we mean the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other. We will henceforth call correlationism any current of thought which maintains the unsurpassable character of the correlation so defined. Consequently, it becomes possible to say that every philosophy which disavows naive realism has become a variant on correlationism.”[31]

I think Lawrence often falls into this correlationist trap. Indeed, he often willingly jumps into it. For he’s not really interested in the stars, animals, trees, or other objects, but only in their relation to man, who, in turn, cannot be considered outside of his relation to the world. That’s the contradiction or paradox at the heart of his writing. For whilst he repeatedly insists that he wants to know the great outside – that inhuman space of the savage exterior etc. – like all critical thinkers after Kant, Lawrence too is fundamentally interested in consciousness and language and these concerns keep him tied to a form of correlationism.

Quentin Meillassoux writes that if so many recent thinkers have insisted so adamantly that their thought is entirely oriented towards the outside, “this could be because of their failure to come to terms with a bereavement … For it could be that contemporary [thinkers] have lost the … absolute outside of pre-critical thinkers: that outside which was not relative to us … existing in itself regardless of whether we are thinking of it or not …”[32]

Lawrence has lost the sun as a thing-in-itself and he knows it. And like a lot of recent theorists, whilst he might rage against ideas of representation, this in no way means he is prepared to abandon the more originary correlation between thought and being, or Dasein and world. Perhaps this is why he ‘instinctively’ hates the statements made by science such as ‘the universe is 13.5 billion years old’, or ‘the sun is 4.6 billion years old’, because these statements obviously posit a pre-human and non-human cosmos and Lawrence, for all his professed anti-humanism, simply doesn’t want (or know how) to think such ideas.[33]

But whilst we may not like what empirical science tells us about the universe and those events that are “anterior to the advent of life as well as consciousness”,[34] the fact is that these statements exist and present a very real and very serious challenge to those philosophies that are reliant upon some form of correlationism. For they tell us something about an independent reality that has been met with scepticism and contempt for over two hundred years. Further, they oblige us to ask how we are to grapple with scientific statements “bearing explicitly upon a manifestation of the world that is posited as anterior to the emergence of thought and even of life – posited, that is, as anterior to every form of human relation to the world?[35]

Put simply, the sun pre-dates us: it has ancestral reality, i.e. a reality that comes before “the emergence of the human species – or even anterior to every recognized form of life on earth”.[36] Lawrence, as I have said, seems not to want to admit this, or is careless of its significance. For if life is in fact “inscribed in a temporality”[37] within which it is just one rare event among others, then it is far from being the crucial and determining factor that vitalists believe; it is simply a stage, rather than an origin. Lawrence flatly denies this: but then, as I have said, he’s not interested in that which is factually correct, but only in that which is imaginatively true for him as a human being. He wants a meaningful universe and the universe is meaningful “only as a given-to-a-living (or thinking)-being”.[38] He wants to know the sun; but he wants to know the woman naked beneath the sun to whom the latter is made manifest still more. He hates idealism, but he is himself a subjective idealist par excellence. For ultimately, argues Meillassoux, “every variety of correlationism is exposed as an extreme idealism, one that is incapable of admitting … what science tells us about … occurrences of matter independent of humanity”.[39] [18].

Of course, it might be asked what harm does it do for our philosophers and poets to remain idealists at heart? The answer is that it does the very greatest possible harm; for it lends credibility and support to the forces of stupidity and fundamentalism: “And our correlationist then finds herself dangerously close to contemporary creationists: those quaint believers who assert today, in accordance with a ‘literal’ reading of the Bible, that the earth is no more than 6,000 years old”.[40]

Surely no one wants this? At any rate, I don’t want it. And that’s why I have become increasingly frustrated with much of Lawrence’s thinking and, indeed, uncomfortable with a good deal of modern European philosophy – including works by authors who are still often uncritically cited as intellectual authorities in academic circles.[41] What then do I want? Well, like Meillassoux, whilst obviously wishing to “remain as distant from naive realism as from correlationist subtlety”,[42] I ultimately want the very thing  that Lawrence claims he wants: i.e., to achieve what modern philosophy has been telling us for the past two centuries is impossible to achieve: “to get out of ourselves, to grasp the in-itself, to know what is whether we are or not”.[43] I want, in other words, to think a world without thought and to think things as things.

Further, like Ray Brassier, I wish to push nihilism – understood not as something to be overcome, but as a vector of intellectual discovery – as far as possible. For rather than trying, like Lawrence, to safeguard the experience of human meaning and value from the incursions of scientific discovery, I think philosophy today should deploy its full intellectual resources to facilitate the disenchantment of the world. So, yes, I want to know the sun, but not a mythological sun, or a metaphorical sun, or the ideal sun of Plato. I want to know the real sun: the sun that will never know humanity, even as it burns the earth to a cinder and fucks us all. For we would do well to remember in closing Nietzsche’s fable:

“Once upon a time, in some remote corner of that universe which is dispersed into innumerable twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowledge. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of ‘world history’, but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever animals had to die.”[44]

– And when the human adventure into thought is all over, nothing will have changed.

dhl-trunkIn the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts to try to understand this complex writer. Stephen is one of our featured writers and has submitted something. You’ll have to wait to find out what it is. In 2019 we will be building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact get involved and submit ideas here

Notes   

[1] D. H. Lawrence, ‘Sun-Women’, in The Complete Poems, ed. Vivian de Sola Pinto and F. Warren Roberts, (Penguin Books, 1977), p. 525.

[2] D. H. Lawrence, ‘The Novel’, Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays, ed. Bruce Steele, (Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 190.  

[3] Ibid., p. 189. Despite this remark, Lawrence cannot resist offering us a phallocentric model of sex in ‘Sun’ as we will see.

[4] D. H. Lawrence, ‘The Two Principles’, First Version, 1918-19, Studies in Classic American Literature, ed. Ezra Greenspan, Lindeth Vasey, and John Worthen, (Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 260.

[5] Lawrence is not alone in developing a metaphysics that rests upon some organic, sentient, or vital term: Hegel gives us Geist; Schopenhauer, Will; Nietzsche, Will to Power; and Deleuze, Life. The thing that unites these thinkers is that they simply cannot accept or take seriously “the possibility that there is nothing living or willing in the inorganic realm”. In other words, there is an underlying agreement (rooted in Kant’s transcendental idealism) that “anything that is totally asubjective cannot be”. And this is so even in writers like Lawrence who are otherwise highly critical of traditional metaphysics and notions of the subject. See Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude, trans. Ray Brassier, (Continuum, 2009), p. 38.

[6] D. H. Lawrence, ‘Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance’ (1920-1), Appendix IV: Studies in Classic American Literature, p. 395.

[7] Ultimately, we might suggest that Lawrence is not simply concerned with questions of correlation or correspondence between mankind and the cosmos, but in exercising the direct control of mind over the material universe, the independence of which he describes as illusory. Thus, whilst he is not interested in the scientist’s attempt to understand the laws that govern the latter, he remains fascinated by the magician’s attempt to exert  ‘life-power’ over mechanistic forces and matter.

[8] D. H. Lawrence, ‘Introduction to The Dragon of the Apocalypse, by Frederick Carter, in Apocalypse and the Writings on Revelation, ed. Mara Kalnins, (Cambridge University Press, 1980), p. 46.

[9] I find myself in agreement here with Ray Brassier, who argues that nihilism is an important “speculative opportunity” and an “unavoidable corollary of the realist conviction that there is a mind-independent reality”. See the Preface to his Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. xi.

[10] D. H. Lawrence, ‘Introduction to The Dragon of the Apocalypse, by Frederick Carter, in Apocalypse and the Writings on Revelation, p. 46.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., p. 47.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., p. 51.

[16] Actually, I’m not sure that even here I agree with Lawrence. For he suggests that we have lost the sun by coming out of ‘responsive connection’ with it, but how could that be? For if we are connected, as he says, via an “eternal vital correspondence between our blood and the sun”, then we surely couldn’t break such a relationship, any more than, for example, we could choose to ignore the laws of gravity. Lawrence, however, insists that once we exchange our religious-mythical understanding of the sun for a scientific conception, then it no longer revitalises us, but, on the contrary, subtly disintegrates the very blood within our veins. See Apocalypse, p. 77. See also Fantasia of the Unconscious, where he pushes his correlationism to the extreme and insists that: “The sun sets and has his perfect polarity in the life-circuit established between him and all living individuals. Break that circuit, and the sun breaks. Without man, beasts, butterflies, trees, toads, the sun would gutter and go out like a spent lamp.” Psychoanalysis of the Unconscious and Fantasia of the Unconscious, ed. Bruce Steele, (Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 188.

[17] Neil Reeve, ‘Introduction’ to D. H. Lawrence’s The Woman Who Rode Away and Other Stories, ed. Dieter Mehl and Christa Jansohn, (Penguin Books, 1996), p. xxxi. Note that page references to the story ‘Sun’ as it appears here (based on the Cambridge edition of 1995), will be given directly in the text.

[18] D. H. Lawrence, ‘Dana’ (intermediate version, 1919), Studies in Classic American Literature, p. 320.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., p. 321.

[21] I’m thinking here of the so-called Bates Method, a form of alternative eye-care developed by William Bates (1860-1931), who counted the visually-impaired Aldous Huxley amongst his famous followers.

[22] This turning to the man is, I think, rather disappointing, but predictable to anyone who knows anything about Lawrence’s sexual politics. I’m fairly relaxed about Juliet losing her ‘independence’ and indeed her humanity in order to become a sun-woman. But I’m a little more troubled by the idea that even sun-women ultimately need to find men for validation and need, in particular, for men to gaze upon them with desire. Lawrence falls back into a conventionally phallocentric way of thinking the moment he tells us that whilst sun-women might not belong to their husbands, they remain subordinate nevertheless to sun-men: “walking each in his own sun-glory / with bright legs and un-cringing buttocks.” See ‘Sun-Men’, The Complete Poems, p. 525.

[23] To be fair to Juliet, many women within our society are encouraged to develop a high degree of narcissism, due to the fact that they are endlessly judged on their physical appearance, rather than on their ideas and achievements. This preoccupation with always looking young, slim, sexy and attractive, leads to a form of self-objectification: women adopt a male attitude towards their bodies and find erotic satisfaction in displaying their own flesh and being gazed at. Of course, men are also increasingly subject to powerful regimes that determine their masculinity and appearance: in fact, it might be argued that within consumer culture we are all objectified and narcissistic as a consequence.

[24] As Lawrence makes clear in Apocalypse, the only way modern men and women can get back the sun is via a form of religious worship: “We can’t get the sun in us by lying naked like pigs on a beach.” Indeed, according to Lawrence, the sun hates sunbathers who have failed to strip themselves of “the trash of personal feelings and ideas” and get down to their genuinely “naked sun-self” and it destroys them even as it bronzes their skin. See pp. 76-8.

[25] D. H. Lawrence, ‘…… Love Was Once a Little Boy’, Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays, ed. Michael Herbert, (Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 346.

[26] See Georges Bataille, ‘The Solar Anus’, in Visions of Excess, ed. Alan Stoekl, (University of Minnesota Press, 1985), pp. 5-9.

[27] D. H. Lawrence, ‘Blessed are the Powerful’, in Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays, p. 325.

[28] Ibid., p. 322.   

[29] See, for example, what Lawrence writes in Lady Chatterley’s Lover Version I, in The First and Second Lady Chatterley Novels, ed. Dieter Mehl and Christa Jansohn, (Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 132-33.

[30] Neil Reeve, ‘Introduction’ to D. H. Lawrence’s The Woman Who Rode Away and Other Stories, p. xxxi.

[31] Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude, p. 5.

[32] Ibid., p. 7.

[33] Just to be clear on this important point: it doesn’t matter whether Lawrence chooses to think such statements true or false, but the fact that he is completely unconcerned with the status of a discourse – namely, the modern scientific discourse – which “renders the verification or falsification of such statements meaningful”, does bring shame upon him. As Meillassoux argues, what’s at stake here is empirical science in general and the remarkable fact that only the latter allows us to have a rational and meaningful debate “about what did or did not exist prior to the emergence of humankind, as well as what might eventually succeed humanity”. It is science and only science – not myth, religion, or poetry – that posits dia-chronic statements and makes dia-chronic knowledge possible (i.e. knowledge of a world without witness). Whether Lawrence likes it or not, no man, god, or sentient being need be on the scene for the world of objects to exist and to carry on just as it has always carried on; solar activity, for example, occurs irrespective of life. See After Finitude, pp. 113, 114.

[34] Ibid., p. 9.

[35] Ibid., pp. 9-10. Again, note that there are of course not just ancestral statements concerning events that occur in a pre-human time, but also ulterior statements which refer to possible events in a post-human era. As indicated above, Meillassoux uses the term dia-chronicity to refer to all such statements that describe events that are either anterior or ulterior to our own relation to the world.

[36] Ibid., p. 10.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid., p. 15.

[39] Ibid., p. 18.

[40] Ibid.

[41] These philosophers – and I prefer not to name names – are ones who have, if you like, hastily surrendered the right to refute religious belief on the ground of logic. Meillassoux writes: “It is important to understand what underlies this attitude: religious belief is considered to be beyond the reach of rational refutation by many contemporary philosophers not only because such belief is deemed by definition indifferent to this kind of critique, but because it seems to these philosophers to be conceptually illegitimate to undertake such a refutation.” In other words, subscribing to a strong model of correlationism results in lending support to the notion that “reason has no right to deploy its own resources to debate the truth or falsity of dogma”. It thus – often inadvertently – collaborates with irrationalism and allows for a return of a return of fundamental religious faith. This has been an ironic consequence of postmodernism. See After Finitude, p. 44.

[42] Ibid., p. 27.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘On Truth and Lies in a Non-moral Sense’, in Philosophy and Truth, ed. and trans. Daniel Breazeale, (Humanities Press International, 1979), p. 79. Note that I have modified the translation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Outside the Gate: Sulphurous Politico-Theological Speculations on Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent

Torpedo the ArkIn this guest blog, Stephen Alexander, author of Torpedo the Ark, offers some sulphurous-theological speculations on Lawrence’s Plumed Serpent. Stephen weaves many philosophical ideas into his writing, prodding, poking and interrogating the “unexplored realm of dangerous knowledge” – but always with a toothy smile. Stephen is one of the commissioned writers for the Memory Theatre

Just as there is a hardening of attitude towards the political question in Nietzsche’s work post-Zarathustra, so too in Lawrence’s fiction and essays during the period 1915-1926 is there a decisive move away from the liberal-humanist and Christian-moral tradition of the West. This move comes to a climax in The Plumed Serpent.

Richard Aldington writes in an introduction to the above that it is a “curious and original novel with no affinities”,[1] but this is not so. For in fact, the novel has many affinities and does not appear to be half so curious if one has knowledge of the cultural, philosophical, and political context in which the book was written and first published (1926). As Frank Kermode indicates in his study of Lawrence, even the novel’s occult preoccupations were surprisingly widespread within modernist circles: “A blend of theosophy, socialism, sexual reformism, evolutionism, religious primitivism, was common enough in the avantgarde thinking of the time”.[2]

It is precisely this blend of anti-democratic politics, pagan religion, and experimental language which makes The Plumed Serpent a highly controversial and disturbing work; as irritating in style as it is disquieting in content.

Throughout the text, Lawrence betrays an increasing frustration with the limitations of language when it comes to expressing those powers and forces (or ‘dark gods’) that move outside of human consciousness. Just as the book’s central character, Don Ramón, has difficulty articulating his new ‘life-urge’, so too does Lawrence struggle to articulate the novel, believing as he does that most readers do not want to hear a new conception uttered in an alien tongue: “For the machine of the human psyche, once wound up to a certain ideal, doesn’t want to stop” and thus treats every new word as “Evil and anti-civilization”.[3]

But Lawrence courageously pushes thought onto new territory regardless, refusing to dwell safely within doxa and revealing how “thought is impoverished when it fails to think relentlessly”.[4] Lawrence also obliges us to adopt an alien viewpoint, for it is only by becoming-Aztec, for example, that we are able to gain a wholly other (and not merely different) perspective upon our own condition and critically examine those presuppositions and prejudices that characterize modernity.

In other words, The Plumed Serpent allows us to interrogate and to loosen “the aura of necessity and sanctity surrounding categories of the present”.[5] And to do this from a position that is paradoxically both in real time and space (the novel is set in the historical Mexico of the 1920s) and yet also unfolds in the fictional and neo-mythical universe that Lawrence creates. The ‘problem’ – and for some commentators it’s a serious concern – is that Lawrence fails to divide these worlds cleanly and clearly enough so that, as Michael Bell points out, he constantly seems to stray beyond accepted aesthetic limits in order to explore new possibilities of action and new realms of knowledge.

Via use of idiosyncratic narrative techniques and radical literary devices which transgress the usual conventions of the novel, Lawrence manages to make plausible that which is improbable and transform the quest for the impossible into an apparently reasonable demand. We are all left as readers asking of the novel “how speculative or literal a spirit its Utopian project is to be understood?”[6]

Untitled
Artwork: Dawn of the Unread

Again, for some critics this is deeply problematic. For others, however, “much of Lawrence’s significance lies in his attempts to relate his ontological vision to the everyday and communal realms”.[7] Like Nietzsche, Lawrence endeavours to show how philosophy and art might both have a more profound and congenial relation to life by mixing together elements of prophecy and politics in an attempted substantiation of mystery.

Jürgen Habermas suggests that Nietzsche and his successors become so transfixed by the radiance of the extraordinary that they “contemptuously glide over the practice of everyday life as something derivative or inauthentic”.[8] But this is profoundly mistaken. As we will see, the notion of immanence is of vital importance to Nietzsche and those, like Lawrence, who write after him. For thinking overcomes metaphysics not by transcendence, but by grounding itself in the body and in the phenomenal realm of everyday things.

It is true, however, to say that what such authors understand by the term ‘world’ is much wider than simply the limited and known space in which man acts and his daily existence. This space is simply a little clearing of morality and reason fenced off from the wider, darker, inhuman environment outside the gate. Unfortunately, writes Lawrence, “the wondrous Victorian Age managed to fasten the door so tight, and light up the compound so brilliantly with electric light, that really, there was no outside, it was all in. The Unknown became a joke”[9] and it is still a joke (or a zone of horror) for humanists such as Habermas.

It is because of this – because the outside and the extraordinary remain ludicrous notions to the guardians of the interior who dominate ‘serious’ discourse today – that we still find it difficult to take what Lawrence says seriously. We find his fictional and theoretical analysis of modernity stimulating, stylish, disturbing and so on, but without ever really considering the possibility that he was right: right to invoke the forces of the outside in order to shatter conventional models of political thinking; right to seek out ways in which to enter what Foucault memorably termed the space d’une extériorité sauvage and which Nietzsche had already identified as that “unexplored realm of dangerous knowledge”[10] full of “tigers and palm trees and rattle-snakes”[11] and all the other marvels that the hot sun hatches.

This is the realm where King Kong still bristles in the darkness and human sacrifice remains the most sacred ritual. In The Plumed Serpent, Lawrence challenges us to do our thinking here; thinking which may have tragic results for man, but which might also help to restore to the world an aura of primordial wonder. And that’s why it remains an important – if little loved – novel within Lawrence’s body of work.

This is a revised extract from Outside the Gate (Blind Cupid Press, 2010). You can read more of Stephen’s thoughts at torpedotheark.blogspot.co.uk

dhl-trunkIn the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts to try to understand this complex writer.  How do we capture the “unexplored realm of dangerous knowledge”? Or the anti-democratic politics, pagan religion, and experimental language of novels such as The Plumed Serpent? In 2019 we will be building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact, get involved and submit ideas here.

REFERENCES 

[1] Richard Aldington, Introduction to D. H. Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent, (Penguin Books, 1982), p. 7.

[2] Frank Kermode, Lawrence, (Fontana Press, 1985), pp. 60-1.

[3] D. H. Lawrence, Kangaroo, ed. Bruce Steele, (Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 297.

[4] William E. Connolly, Political Theory and Modernity, (Basil Blackwell, 1988), p. ix.

[5] Ibid., p. 6.

[6] Michael Bell, D. H. Lawrence: Language and Being, (Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 196.

[7] Ibid., p. 205.

[8] Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, trans. Frederick Lawrence, (Polity Press, 1994), p. 339.

[9] D. H. Lawrence, Kangaroo, p. 285.

[10] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. R. J. Hollingdale, (Penguin Books, 1990), I. 23, p. 53.

[11] Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. R. J. Hollingdale, (Penguin Books, 1969), ‘Of Manly Prudence’, p. 165.

#MondayBlogs Poet Becky Cullen on Miriam Leivers

Becky_Cullen DHL

Sons and Lovers has been a massive influence on poet Becky Cullen ever since she came across it at college in 1983-5. But she’s never been happy with the way that Lawrence drew Miriam Leivers. In this guest blog Becky explains how a Creative Writing exercise gave her the chance to tell Miriam’s side of the story

 

Miriam

For Stephen

 

My brothers whooped like savages when they saw you coming up the hill:

romping round the farm with sticks and snares, you boys had a grand time.

I set the tea and waited; later, in our almost private minutes,

you went too far, pushing the swing too high, leaving too late for the train.

 

Which you knew would drive your mother to distraction, bristling,

what’s that Leivers girl got that’s so fascinating? Well, for a start,

I had you, my own exotic mushroom, watching you paint, stopping

myself from smoothing the loose lock of hair behind your pretty ear.

 

I know your mother quaintly warned you not to spoon and do,

but it wasn’t me you took bare-faced, bare-shouldered to the theatre.

In the end, the red carnations you spat out did me a favour.

Now you’re galavanting somewhere hot with someone’s wife called Frieda.

 

This poem was written during my MA in Creative Writing at NTU – our task was to write something using quatrains, a stanza or 4 lines. So it is interesting to me that in trying to produce something with a shape I fell back on Sons and Lovers, a book that shaped my experience of reading so much that it has filtered into my writing.

I read Sons and Lovers for ‘A’ level at Bilborough College in 1983-5, taught by the formidable English and Drama specialist Gilly Archer. It’s no surprise then that my recollections of Sons and Lovers are of the drama of the novel, the tensions between the characters, and Lawrence’s attempts to let the reader know exactly what is simmering under the surface.

This poem deals with the figure of Miriam Leivers, and her relationship with Paul Morel, the novel’s protagonist. Paul visits the family farm I draw into the poem, playing with Miriam’s sturdy brothers. Alone, Paul instigates intense conversations about their relationship, in which Paul criticises Miriam for being too spiritual in her approach. They have an on-off relationship for 7 years, in which time Paul becomes friends with Clara Dawes, taking her out to the theatre, and eventually having a physical relationship with her. Neither of these women please Mrs Morel, Paul’s greatest love, who is disgusted that Paul might ‘spoon and do’ with anyone. So there are details from the novel I’ve drawn on in this poem.

Sons and Lovers is a semi-autobiographical novel, which is another way of saying it’s based on Lawrence’s relationship with Jessie Chambers, a girl from a local farming family who first submitted his work for publication. Fiction is fiction, but tensions still run so high about the representation of Miriam/Jessie, that the Chambers family have allowed no access to their land for Lawrence-related filming and so on. This poem finishes with a similar blend of fictional and factual detail in the final line, a reference to Lawrence’s elopement with Frieda von Richthofen, the wife of his university lecturer.

I always felt that the character of Miriam was drawn rather unfairly. She comes across as being a bit drippy, and Paul is quite cruel to her on occasions – I suppose this poem is an attempt to allow her to voice her side of the story. I recently re-read the novel, which was fascinating, developing a new empathy, as mother of a son myself now, for Mrs. Morel.

baby dhl
Image from http://www.dawnoftheunread.com

Sons and Lovers is so enmeshed in my literary influences that I cannot smell flowers in moonlight without thinking ‘the beauty of the night made her want to shout’, or look down on the lights of Goose Fair without thinking of Paul Morel doing exactly the same thing in the final paragraphs of Sons and Lovers. The novel feels like part of my writing heritage.

Finally, this poem is dedicated to Stephen Lowe, the Nottingham playwright whose play Empty Bed Blues draws on Lawrence’s life and work. Stephen encouraged me to do a Creative Writing MA, and to write every day. His encouragement has been a great gift, so it was appropriate to send him this poem as a birthday present one year. I like the idea that the poem brings together three Nottingham writers in this way, so there is a continuing dialogue in the present, between writers both on and off the page.

Further Reading 

#MondayBlogs Viola Meynell and a Presentation copy of The Rainbow

In this guest blog Derek Aram attempts to uncover the origins of his presentation copy of The Rainbow, a literary adventure that leads him to Greatham and Viola Meynell’s Rackham Cottage…  

The Rainbow presentation copyI read with interest Jonathan Long’s piece on the known presentation copies of The Rainbow and the possibility of there being others unaccounted for; (‘The Rainbow: A Miscellany’: Jonathan Long: Journal of D.H.Lawrence Studies: Vol 4, No 4). His article caused me to take a closer look at my first edition copy, which I added to my D.H.L. collection a few years ago, since my copy purports to have once belonged to Viola Meynell and indeed is stamped ‘Presentation Copy’ over the Methuen Publisher Address at the bottom of the Title Page.

Regrettably there is no inscription by Lawrence or indeed by Meynell herself – unless they were obliterated by the pasted insertion of a contemporary (1915) newspaper article about the book’s banning, which covers the whole of both sides of the first front endpaper. See illustration 2 and Appendix 2

Of additional relevance to the history of this copy are an inscription in pencil on the inside of the front pastedown by a J A Gatehouse (see illustration 2 and Appendix 1) stating the volume to be a ‘Review Copy’, given to him by Viola Meynell possibly in 1945; and two loose inserts (see illustration 3), one being a contemporary (c 1910) photograph of ‘Miss Viola Meynell’ cut out from a magazine or newspaper and the other a photograph without inscription of a family group in what looks like 1950s dress around a central figure potentially resembling Viola Meynell herself.

The Rainbow presentation copy 2

Illustration 2: New Statesman Article of November 20 1915 and inscription by J A Gatehouse.

The Rainbow presentation copy 3 Viola Meynell

Illustration 3: Loose inserts in volume: Contemporary photograph of Viola Meynell and later unascribed family photograph with strong resemblance to Viola Meynell 2 from R back row.

Like many an enthusiast I love my Lawrence acquisitions to have a ‘story’, be it quirky or historic or whatever; just something that gives that special cachet, that links me in to the man and his time. I have Lawrence works or works about him, which once belonged to E M Forster, Stephen Spender, Moira Shearer, Louie Burrows and even Exhibit No 4 at a certain Central Crown Court trial Regina v Penguin Books; and a couple of summers ago I made a short journey which was to bring some of that cachet, plus a degree of corroboration to the volume under current consideration.

Returning from a visit with grandchildren to the Amberley Chalk Pits Museum near Arundel and realising we were quite near to Greatham I took a short detour to try to locate the cottage loaned to Lawrence and Frieda by Viola Meynell during the first half of 1915, where ‘The Rainbow’ was completed. With the help of the West Sussex A to Z and the photograph of ‘Shed Hall’ in Volume 1 of Edward Nehls’ ‘D H Lawrence- A Composite Biography’ (I knew it would come in handy one day!), my grandson Byron soon spotted the house in question by the configuration of its chimneys. I pulled in to the verge and approached the gate of ‘Rackham Cottage’.

A family group was sitting at a garden bench table enjoying the fine weather; I came to them with some trepidation and apologising for the intrusion asked if they knew anything about the writer D H Lawrence having stayed there in 1915. A lady introduced herself as ‘Hannah’ and confirmed that Lawrence and Frieda had indeed stayed there in the long low building end on to the road, which they called ‘the Shed’.

Delighted to have this confirmation and feeling I owed them some explanation for my invasion I told them of my acquisition of the book and the details including its ownership by Viola Meynell, who had also lived there. ‘Yes’ said Hannah, ‘we knew Viola Meynell’ – she corrected my pronunciation, saying it was ‘Mennell’ not ‘Maynell’ – she was our grandmother!’ I heard these words with not a little frisson of delight accompanied by a favourite saying of my mam passing silently through my head: ‘Well, I’ll gu ta Trent!’

Hannah called her brother Oliver over and recounted my interest, especially in J A Gatehouse’s assertion that Viola Meynell had given him the book in 1945. Oliver thereupon went into his study and brought out his grandmother’s Visits Book from which he was able to demonstrate that Mr Gatehouse had indeed visited in 1945.

So; Meynells (or Dallyns) still occupied Rackham Cottage; the link with that critical time in Lawrence’s career was forged and the mysterious Mr Gatehouse was real and had visited Viola. But my sense of delighted discovery was now being assailed by pressures from two sides; I was acutely aware that my family were still in the car, chafing to go and it was likely I had long overstayed my welcome, so I left with profuse thanks, a couple of photographs, Hannah’s e-mail address and a promise to send her the images of the book, included in this piece.

This I duly did and offered to send the hard copy of the family photograph if they indeed confirmed it to include Viola. Sadly I received no reply, although the message was delivered and a retry a month later similarly elicited no response, so I have had to conclude that the family’s privacy has to be respected (and I didn’t even mention ‘England My England’!). So many further questions will have to wait…

The jury must be out on whether Lawrence physically gave this book to Viola; it is presumably still a possibility it was a Review Copy, although I have never read of a review by Viola; certainly according to Methuen it is a presentation copy and I guess it is possible it escaped the judicial flames by being sent to Viola directly on Lawrence’s instruction.

Whether my volume fills one of the two unaccounted holes referred to in Jonathan’s piece or not I leave up to you but this account may at least provide an interesting slant and a tiny addition to the Lawrence record. Whatever it be, it holds a place of delight in my long appreciation of D H L’s work and life.

Rackham Cottage Greatham

                               illustration 4 ‘The Shed’ Rackham Cottage Greatham

REVIEW: The Trespasser (1912)

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“For my life is burning an invisible flame. The glare of the light of myself, as I burn on the fuel of death, is not enough to hide from me the source and the issue. For what is a life but a flame that bursts off the surface of darkness, and tapers into the darkness again? But the death that issues differs from the death that was the source. At least, I shall enrich death with a potent shadow, if I do not enrich life.” The Trespasser.

The Trespasser was published in 1912, one year after Lawrence’s very weighty debut The White Peacock. Originally titled The Saga of Siegmund, The Trespasser is a romantic story without a happy resolution. A married man sets off for a short break with another woman and on his return he commits suicide: Presumably because he can’t return back to family life, or possibly because he knows there is no longevity in the adulterous affair. Unrequited love is a recurring theme in The White Peacock, which more or less explores three unfulfilling mismatched relationships.

The Trespasser mirrors the real life experiences of Lawrence’s close friend Helen Corke, whom he knew from his school teaching days in Croydon. In August 1909, Corke spent five days on the Isle of Wight with her music teacher, who committed suicide on his return. But there were other parallels for Lawrence that may have affected his writing of the novel, namely that Corke had spurned his advances during an uncharacteristically randy period in his life. In 1912 Lawrence would convince Frieda Weekley, a married woman and mother of three children, to leave her family and elope with him to Europe.

Lawrence persistently drew from real life throughout his career. Sometimes this got him into trouble, other times he had to be bailed out by his agent when libel was threatened. But in this instance he sought permission from Corke, working directly from her 14 page memoir The Freshwater Diary. Lawrence described the memoir as a ‘prose poem’ and urged Corke to publish it for herself. She did this in 1933 as Neutral Ground. She would go on to write several biographical works on Lawrence, including one about his early relationship with Jessie Chambers, entitled D.H. Lawrence’s Princess. In her 90s, Corke would publish In our Infancy which would go on to win the Whitbread Award in 1975.

Of Lawrence’s interest in her tragic love affair, Corke wrote: “Of our five days’ experience in the Island enough has been written. Perhaps it was not unique – perhaps it only anticipated that of many lovers who, during the World War that was coming, were fated to compress the happiness of a lifetime into a few glowing days, and to part under the shadow of death. But something of its intensity and detachment, together with the memory of his own actual proximity to the scene, fired the imagination of D.H Lawrence.”

Jane Heath has suggested that Lawrence’s interest in Corke’s diary and his desire to turn the experience into a novel “had to do with the unparalleled importance literature assumed in their lives. Both writers idealized literature as means of negotiating the difficulties that beset them in their lives.”

Writing can act as a form of therapy, in that it enables us to make sense of the world and exert a level of control on the page that is not always possible in reality. But writing was more than just cathartic for Lawrence. It was at the very essence of his being. He was notoriously restless and would go on to cross continents during his ‘savage pilgrimage’, but he was largely unable to ‘move forwards’ until he had embedded his experiences of place on the page. As Anthony Burgess writes:

“A single week’s visit was enough for him to extract the very essence of the island (Sardinia) and its people, and six weeks were enough to set it all down in words without a single note as an aide-mémoire. This feat anticipates a greater one, which still makes Australian writers gloomy – the recreation of a whole continent, along with a wholly accurate prophecy of its political future, out of a few weeks stay in a suburb of Sydney.”

The same ethos could be applied to the writing of The Tresspasser. Prior to completion, Lawrence broke off his engagement with Louie Burrows, and immediately attempted to lure Helen Corke down to Limpsfield Common for a walk and a sleepover. But she turned him down. A letter to Corke dated 12 July 1911 sees Lawrence dramatically apologising for trying it on once too often, confessing “I’ll never ask you again, nor anybody. It is a weakness of mine.”

Helen Corke allowed Lawrence to fictionalise her relationship because she knew he would do justice to the memory of her dead lover. Although they initially agreed to wait five years before doing this, the date was rushed forward – after much pleading from Lawrence – due to financial difficulties he was experiencing. To this extent, writing served a more basic function: It put food on his plate. It paid his rent.

In the novel Siegmund married Beatrice at seventeen before he’d had time to know himself and now twenty years later, the two are strangers. He can’t return to “fake the old life up” any longer. As things can’t work with Helena, he commits suicide. But even this creates awkwardness, as depicted by the attempted removal of his body: “The man went into the room, trembling, hesitating. He approached the body as if fascinated. Shivering, he took it round the loins and tried to lift it down. It was too heavy.”

There are suggestions that Siegmund has sunstroke, that he’s feeling depressed, but it seemed to me the real problem was that he was unable to maintain his affair and had to return back to his humdrum married life. Helena – whom he has the affair with – has ‘inhibitions’. It’s been suggested that this is because Corke herself was ambiguous about her sexuality. Like her novel, she represented ‘neutral ground.’

Although Helena and Siegmund are lovers, they never quite connect throughout their holiday together. What appears to excite Siegmund the most is the journey, the anticipation of arriving somewhere new. Take this description from the boat: “Standing on the deck, he gave himself to the breeze and to the sea, feeling like one of the ruddy sails—as if he were part of it all. All his body radiated amid the large, magnificent sea-moon like a piece of colour.” Lawrence always seems happiest when homing in on something, when setting off. It’s the finality of arrival that’s the problem. As in all of his novels, nature is the one consistent that never fails to please: “The way home lay across country, through deep little lanes where the late foxgloves sat seriously, like sad hounds; over open downlands, rough with gorse and ling, and through pocketed hollows of bracken and trees.”

For Helena and Siegmund, something is always amiss. They never quite connect. At one point Helena remarks that Sigemund fails to reply to her so often she feels it best to leave him alone with his “sense of tragedy”. Elsewhere they discuss losing each other. Not what you’d expect on a dirty week away which should be full of connections and finding each other. On the rare occasions they do connect it’s an opportunity for Lawrence to develop his manifesto for male – female relationships which would become so integral to his later work: “It was the long, supreme kiss, in which man and woman have one being, Two-in-one, the only Hermaphrodite.”

Language is a problem for these doomed lovers as well. Siegmund is always probing Helena with questions such as “won’t you tell me what is the matter?” so that he can help her resolve them. But for Helena “speech was often difficult to render into plain terms” and so she is unable to articulate exactly what is eating away at her. Helena is, as Jane Heath has argued, “outside language” and therefore she is unobtainable. This is beautifully captured in a sea metaphor.

“The sea played by itself, intent on its own game. Its aloofness, its self-sufficiency, are its great charm. The sea does not give and take, like the land and the sky. It has no traffic with the world. It spends its passion upon itself. Helena was something like the sea, self-sufficient and careless of the rest.”

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THE RAINBOW, Amanda Donohoe, Sammi Davis, 1989, ©Vestron

Lawrence is fascinated by individuals who are ‘outside language’ and who dare to live life by and on their own terms. As an author who faced censorship throughout his life and chose to live his life in exile, he was consistently outside of language. It is this that would drive him to “express the unspeakable and to hint at the unutterable”, as critic James Douglas wrote in his review of The Rainbow. Lawrence’s fourth novel features a brief lesbian fling between Ursula Bragwen and her school tutor Miss Winifred Inger. Was the casting of this taboo relationship influenced by his friendship with Helen Corke and the awareness that ‘neutral grounds’ exist within sexual identity?

RELATED READING

  • Jane Heath Helen Corke and D.H. Lawrence: Sexual Identity and Literary Relations Feminist Studies Vol. 11, No. 2 (Summer, 1985), pp. 317-342
  • Jane Heath Helen Corke and D.H. Lawrence: The Croydon Years (University of Texas Press, 1965)
  • D.H. Lawrence The Trespasser  (1912)
  • Helen Corke  Neutral Ground: A Chronicle (1933)
  • Helen Corke In Our Infancy Part 1: 1882-1912 (Cambridge University Press, 1975)
  • Lawrence and Apocalypse (William Heinemann, 1933)

Review: A Novel Trial – Chatterley’s Lover

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The audience take on roles during the reenactment of the trial

On the 2 November 1960 Penguin books was acquitted of obscenity at the Old Bailey. Finally, after a 32 year wait, D.H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was declared a legitimate read. The novel was deemed controversial due to its explicit language and the openness with which it portrayed sexual acts. But what really rattled the establishment was the suggestion that a toff might wish to commit adultery with someone at the bottom of the pecking order. The fact that Penguin were selling the book for 3/6 – then the equivalent of a packet of ten fags – meant the working classes might get silly ideas in their head. The entire social order was under threat.

The trial lasted six days and so I was curious as to how the Galleries of Justice were going to pull this off given that they had programmed in one hour for their ‘show’, the third Lawrence related performance of the NEAT16 festival: the others being Stephen Lowe’s Altitude Sickness and The Fight for Barbara.

Thirty members of the public were ushered through into the Victorian styled courtroom and we took our seats at the back of the courtroom. I then sat excitedly waiting for a cast of actors to walk through to be given some kind of contextual account of the trial. Instead three members of the Galleries of Justice, dressed in suitable attire, explained that volunteers were required to take on key roles. These roles included: Judge, Court Usher and Clerk; the defendant Penguin Books; two witnesses for the Prosecution – American critic Miss Esther Forbes and Lawrence’s friend/foe, editor and author John Middleton Murray. The Witnesses for the Defence were – Vivian Pinto, a Professor of English at the University of Nottingham, The Sunday Times Literary Editor Jack Walter Lambert, Roy Jenkins MP, Reverend Donald Tytler and the courageous publisher, Sir Allen Lane.

Surprisingly, the audience were very forthcoming and eager to participate and so the roles were quickly taken up. This was largely due to the stern and entertaining direction of the Galleries of Justice staff member playing the part of the Prosecution Barrister. She had a lovely demeanour about her and put all of our nerves at ease. But another reason the audience were so keen to get involved is most of them were members of the D.H Lawrence Society. Consequently, the role of judge was quickly snapped up by David Brock, a keen animal rights activist, who wasted no time in questioning what material his outfit was made from. Oh dear. There’s only one thing more passionate than D.H Lawrence and that’s a fan of D.H Lawrence. But Mr Brock also hammed up his role and was very entertaining.

The participants were issued with a script and on occasion, some chose to deviate in the name of humour and Laurentian education. For example, when it was announced that Penguin had sold over 250 million books and therefore Allen Lane was a very wealthy man, Mr. Brock interjected that money was a corrupting influence and no guarantee of happiness, echoing the sentiments of DH Lawrence.

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Artwork from www.dawnoftheunread.com

The script skimmed over key parts of the trial and gave a broad picture of what went on. Although one member of the D.H Lawrence Society was completely aghast that cultural critic Richard (‘we’re not all the same, us working class lads’) Hoggart wasn’t one of the five witnesses for the defence. This is a fair point as Hoggart’s testimony was deemed a key turning point of the trial. But these criticisms were politely rebuffed by the Prosecuting Barrister.

I thoroughly enjoyed myself and I think this is largely because it went against all of my expectations. Instead of a dry recital of facts and quotes, the audience were completely immersed in the trial through role play; active participation is always the best way to learn. This was signified by the jury being sent out to deliberate and decide for themselves if Penguin were guilty or not. Their verdict was ‘not guilty’, thus history remained on course and the future would still have a place for Malcom Tucker, the 4 minute fuck scene in The Wire and Fifty Shades of Grey.

A Novel Trial: Lady Chatterley’s Lover was performed at the Galleries of Justice on 2 June, 6.30-7.30pm £7.50

For more information on other performances, please see the NEAT16 festival guide