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D. H. Lawrence on Men & Women, Part 3

[1]2,744 words

Part 3 of 6. For the whole series, click here [2].

2. The Nature of Man

As we have seen, Lawrence believes that men (most men) need to have a woman in their lives. Their relationship to a woman serves to ground their lives, and to provide the man not only with a respite from the woes of the world, but with energy and inspiration. However, this is not the same thing as saying that the man makes the woman, or his relationship to her, the purpose of his life. In Fantasia of the Unconscious Lawrence writes, “When he makes the sexual consummation the supreme consummation, even in his secret soul, he falls into the beginnings of despair. When he makes woman, or the woman and child, the great centre of life and of life-significance, he falls into the beginnings of despair.” This is because Lawrence believes that true satisfaction for men can come only from some form of creative, purposive activity outside the family.

Having a woman is therefore a necessary but not a sufficient condition for male happiness. In addition to a woman, he must have a purpose. Women, on the other hand, do not require a purpose beyond the home and the family in order to be happy. This is another of those claims that will rankle some, so let us consider two important points about what Lawrence has said. First, he is speaking of what he believes the typical woman is like, just as he is speaking of the typical man. There are at least a few exceptions to just about every generalization. Second, we must ask an absolutely crucial question of those who regard such claims as demeaning women: why is being occupied with home and family lesser than having a purpose (e.g., a career) outside the home? The argument could be made—and I think Lawrence would be sympathetic to this—that the traditional female role of making a home and raising children is just as important and possibly more important than the male activities pursued outside the home. Again, much of contemporary feminism sees things from a typically male point of view, and denigrates women who choose motherhood rather than one of the many meaningless, ulcer-producing careers that have long been the province of men.

Lawrence writes, “Primarily and supremely man is always the pioneer of life, adventuring onward into the unknown, alone with his own temerarious, dauntless soul. Woman for him exists only in the twilight, by the camp fire, when day has departed. Evening and the night are hers.” Lawrence’s male bias creeps in here a bit, as he romanticizes the “dauntless” male soul. Men and women always believe, in their heart of hearts, that their ways are superior. Nevertheless, Lawrence is not here relegating women to an inferior position. Half of life is spent in the evening and night. Day belongs to the man, night to the woman. It is a division of labor. Lawrence is drawing here, as he frequently does, on traditional mythological themes: the man is solar, the woman lunar.

Lawrence characterizes the man’s pioneering activity as follows: “It is the desire of the human male to build a world: not ‘to build a world for you, dear’; but to build up out of his own self and his own belief and his own effort something wonderful. Not merely something useful. Something wonderful.” In other words, the man’s primary purpose is not having or doing any of the “practical” things that a wife and a family require. And when he acts on a larger scale—Lawrence gives building the Panama Canal as an example—it is not with the end in mind of making a world in which wives and babes can be more comfortable and secure (“a world for you, dear”). He seeks to make his mark on the world; to bring something glorious into existence. And so men create culture: games, religions, rituals, dances, artworks, poetry, music, and philosophy. Wars are fought, ultimately, for the same reason. It is probably true, as is often asserted, that every war has some kind of economic motivation. However, it is probably also true to assert that in the case of just about every actual war there was another, more cost-effective alternative. Men make war for the same reason they climb mountains, jump out of airplanes, race cars, and run with the bulls: for the challenge, and the fame and glory and exhilaration that goes with meeting the challenge. It is an aspect of male psychology that most women find baffling, and even contemptible.

Now, curiously, Lawrence refers to this “impractical,” purposive motive of the male as an “essentially religious or creative motive.” What can he mean by this? Specifically, why does he characterize it as a religious motive?

It is religious because it involves the pursuit of something that is beyond the ordinary and the familiar. It is a leap into the unknown. The man has to follow what Lawrence frequently calls the “Holy Ghost” within himself and to try to make something within the world. He yearns always for the yet-to-be, the yet-to-be-realized, and always has his eye on the future, on what is in process of coming to be. Yet there seems to be, at least on the surface, a strange inconsistency in Lawrence’s characterization of the man’s motive as religious. After all, for Lawrence the life mystery, the source of being is religious object—and women are closer to this source. Man is entranced by woman, and with her he helps to propagate this power in the world through sex, but his sense of “purpose” causes him to move away from the source. So why isn’t it the woman whose “motives” are religious, and the man who is, in effect, irreligious?

The answer is that religion is not being at the source: it is directedness toward the source. Religion is possible only because of a lack or an absence in the human soul. Religion is ultimately a desire to put oneself at-one with the source. But this is possible only if one is not, originally or most of the time, at one with it. In a way, the woman is not fundamentally religious because she is the goddess, the source herself. The sexual longing of the man for the woman, and his utter inability ever to fully satisfy his desire and to resolve the mystery that is woman, are a kind of small-scale allegory for man’s large-scale, religious relationship to the source of being itself. He is, as I have said, renewed by his relations with women and, for a time, satisfied. But then he goes forth into the world with a desire for something, something. He creates, and when he does he is acting to exalt the life mystery (religion and art), to understand it (philosophy and science), or to further it (invention and production).

Lawrence speaks of how a man must put his wife “under the spell of his fulfilled decision.” Woman, who rules over the night, draws man to her and they become one through sex. Man, who rules the day, draws woman into his purpose, his aim in life, and through this they become one in another fashion. The man’s purpose does not become the woman’s purpose. He pursues this alone. But if the woman simply believes in him and what he aims to do, she becomes a tremendous source of support for the man, and she gives herself a reason for being. The man needs the woman as center, as hub of his life, and the woman needs to play this role for some man. Without a mate, though a man may set all sorts of purposes before him, ultimately they seem meaningless. He feels a sense of hollow emptiness, and drifts into despair. He lets his appearance go, and lives in squalor. He may become an alcoholic and a misogynist. He dies much sooner than his married friends, often by his own hand. As to the woman, without a man who has set himself some purpose that she can believe in, she assumes the male role and tries to find fulfillment through some kind of busy activity in the world. But as she pursues this, she feels increasingly bitter and hard, and a terrific rage begins to seethe beneath her placid surface. She becomes a troublemaker and a prude. Increasingly angry at men, she makes a virtue of necessity and declares herself emancipated from them. She collects pets.

In Studies in Classic American Literature Lawrence writes:

As a matter of fact, unless a woman is held, by man, safe within the bounds of belief, she becomes inevitably a destructive force. She can’t help herself. A woman is almost always vulnerable to pity. She can’t bear to see anything physically hurt. But let a woman loose from the bounds and restraints of man’s fierce belief, in his gods and in himself, and she becomes a gentle devil.

If a woman is to be the hub in the life a man, and derive satisfaction from that, everything depends on the spirit of the man. A few lines later in the same text Lawrence states, “Unless a man believes in himself and his gods, genuinely: unless he fiercely obeys his own Holy Ghost; his woman will destroy him. Woman is the nemesis of doubting man.” In order for the woman to believe in a man, the man must believe in himself and his purpose. If he is filled with self-doubt, the woman will doubt him. If he lacks the strength to command himself, he cannot command her respect and devotion. And the trouble with modern men is that they are filled with self-doubt and lack the courage of their convictions.

Lawrence, following Nietzsche, in part blames Christianity for weakening modern, Western men. Men are potent—sexually and otherwise—to the extent they are in tune with the life force. But Christianity has “spiritualized” men. It has filled their heads with hatred of the body, and of strength, instinct, and vitality. It has infected them with what Lawrence calls the “love ideal,” which demands, counter to every natural impulse, that men love everyone and regard everyone as their equal.

Frequently in his fiction Lawrence depicts relationships in which the woman has turned against the man because he is, in effect, spiritually emasculated. The most dramatic and symbolically obvious example of this is the relationship of Clifford and Connie  in Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Clifford returns from the First World War paralyzed from the waist down. But like the malady of the Grail King in Wolfram’s Parzival, this is only (literarily speaking) an outward, physical expression of an inward, psychic emasculation. Clifford is far too sensible a man to allow himself to be overcome by any great passion, so the loss of his sexual powers is not so dear. He has a keen, cynical wit and believes that he has seen through passion and found it not as great a thing as poets say that it is. It is his spiritual condition that drives Connie away from him, not so much his physical one. And so she wanders into the game preserve on their estate (representing the small space of “wildness” that still can rise up within civilization) and into the arms of Mellors, the gamekeeper. Their subsequent relationship becomes a hot, corporeal refutation of Clifford’s philosophy.

In Women in Love, Gerald Crich, the industrial magnate, is destroyed by Gudrun essentially because he does not believe in himself. Outwardly, he is “the God of the machine.” But his mastery of the material world is meaningless busywork, and he knows it. Gudrun is drawn to him because of this outward appearance of power, but when she finds that it is an illusion she hates him, and ultimately drives him to his death. For Lawrence, this is an allegory of the modern relationship between the sexes. Men today are masters of the material universe as they have never been before, but inside they are anxious and empty. The reason is that these “materialists” are profoundly afraid of and hostile to matter and nature, especially their own. Their intellect and “will to power” has cut them off from the life force and they are, in their deepest selves, impotent. The women know this, and scorn them.

In The Rainbow, Winifred Inger is Ursula’s teacher (with whom she has a brief affair), and an early feminist. She tells Ursula at one point,

The men will do no more,–they have lost the capacity for doing. . . .  They fuss and talk, but they are really inane. They make everything fit into an old, inert idea. Love is a dead idea to them. They don’t come to one and love one, they come to an idea, and they say “You are my idea,” so they embrace themselves. As if I were any man’s idea! As if I exist because a man has an idea of me! As if I will be betrayed by him, lend him my body as an instrument for his idea, to be a mere apparatus of his dead theory. But they are too fussy to be able to act; they are all impotent, they can’t take a woman. They come to their own idea every time, and take that. They are like serpents trying to swallow themselves because they are hungry.”

In Fantasia of the Unconscious Lawrence writes, “If man will never accept his own ultimate being, his final aloneness, and his last responsibility for life, then he must expect woman to dash from disaster to disaster, rootless and uncontrolled.”

It is important to understand here that the issue is not one of power. Lawrence’s point not that men must dominate or control their wives. In fact, in a late essay entitled “Matriarchy” (originally published as “If Women Were Supreme”) Lawrence actually advocates rule by women, at least in the home, because he believes it would liberate men. He assumes the truth of the claim—now in disrepute—that early man had lived in matriarchal societies and writes, “the men seem to have been lively sorts, hunting and dancing and fighting, while the woman did the drudgery and minded the brats. . . . A woman deserves to possess her own children and have them called by her name. As to the household furniture and the bit of money in the bank, it seems naturally hers.” The man, in such a situation, is not the slave of the woman because the man is “first and foremost an active, religious member of the tribe.” The man’s real life is not in the household, but in creative activity, and religious activity:

The real life of the man is not spent in his own little home, daddy in the bosom of the family, wheeling the perambulator on Sundays. His life is passed mainly in the khiva, the great underground religious meeting-house where only the males assemble, where the sacred practices of the tribe are carried on; then also he is away hunting, or performing the sacred rites on the mountains, or he works in the fields.

Men, Lawrence tells us, have social and religious needs which can only be satisfied apart from women. The disaster of modern marriage is that men not only think they have to rule the roost, but they accept the woman’s insistence that he have no needs or desires that cannot be satisfied through his relationship to her. He becomes master of his household, and slave to it at the same time:

Now [man’s] activity is all of the domestic order and all his thought goes to proving that nothing matters except that birth shall continue and woman shall rock in the nest of this globe like a bird who covers her eggs in some tall tree. Man is the fetcher, the carrier, the sacrifice, and the reborn of woman. . . . Instead of being assertive and rather insentient, he becomes wavering and sensitive. He begins to have as many feelings—nay, more than a woman. His heroism is all in altruistic endurance. He worships pity and tenderness and weakness, even in himself. In short, he takes on very largely the original role of woman.

Ironically, in accepting such a situation without a fight, he only earns the woman’s contempt: “Almost invariably a [modern] married woman, as she passes the age of thirty, conceives a dislike, or a contempt, of her husband, or a pity which is near to contempt. Particularly if he is a good husband, a true modern.”