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D. H. Lawrence on Men & Women, Part 6


The Painter's Honeymoon by Lord Frederick Leighton, 1864

2,355 words

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

Now, some might respond to Lawrence’s description of marriage by asking, understandably, “Where is love in all of this? What has become of love between man and wife?” Yet Lawrence speaks again and again, especially in Women in Love, of love between man and wife as a means to wholeness, as a way to transcend the false, ego-centered self. In a 1914 letter he tells a male correspondent:

You mustn’t think that your desire or your fundamental need is to make a good career, or to fill your life with activity, or even to provide for your family materially. It isn’t. Your most vital necessity in this life is that you shall love your wife completely and implicitly and in entire nakedness of body and spirit. Then you will have peace and inner security, no matter how many things go wrong. And this peace and security will leave you free to act and to produce your own work, a real independent workman.

Initially in these remarks Lawrence seems to be taking a position different from the one he expressed in the later Fantasia of the Unconscious, where he asserts that the man derives his chief fulfillment from purpose, not from the home and family. But Lawrence’s position is complex. He believes that the man requires a relationship to a woman in order to be strengthened in the pursuit of his purpose. Recall the lines I quoted earlier, “Let a man walk alone on the face of the earth, and he feels himself like a loose speck blown at random. Let him have a woman to whom he belongs, and he will feel as though he had a wall to back up against; even though the woman be mentally a fool.” Man fulfills himself through having a purpose beyond the home, but he must have a home and a wife to support him. Through romantic love (which always involves a strong sexual component) the man comes to his primal self, and emerges from the encounter with the strength to carry on in the world. Lawrence is telling his correspondent—and this becomes clear in the last lines of the passage quoted—that in order to accomplish anything meaningful he must first submerge himself, body and soul, into love for his wife.

Of course, this makes it sound as if Lawrence regards married love merely as a means to an end: merely as a means to pursuing a male “purpose.” Elsewhere, however, he speaks of it as if it were an end in itself. This is particularly the case in Women in Love. Early in the novel Birkin tells Gerald, “I find . . . that one needs some one really pure single activity—I should call love a single pure activity. . . . The old ideals are dead as nails—nothing there. It seems to me there remains only this perfect union with a woman—sort of ultimate marriage—and there isn’t anything else.” Again, Lawrence is seeking a way to get beyond idealism, and all the corrupt apparatus of modern, ego-driven life. To get beyond this, to what? To the true self, and to relationships based upon blood-consciousness and honest, uncorrupted sentiment. In Women in Love, Lawrence’s plan for achieving this involves a “perfect union” with a woman (and, as he states in the same novel, “the additional perfect relationship between man and man—additional to marriage”).

Birkin wants to achieve this with Ursula, but he keeps insisting over and over (much to her bewilderment and anger) that he means something more than mere “love.” The reason for this is that Birkin and Lawrence associate “love” with an ideal that is drummed into the heads of people in the modern, post-Christian world. We are issued with the baffling injunction to “love thy neighbor,” where thy neighbor means all of humanity. Any intelligent person can see that to love everyone means to love no one in particular. And any psychologically healthy person would find valueless the “love” of someone who claimed also to love all the rest of humanity. Lawrence is reacting also against the lovey-dovey, white lace, sanitized, billing and cooing sort of “love” that society encourages in married couples. Lawrence’s disgust for this sort of thing is expressed in his short story “In Love.” The main character, Hester, is repulsed by the “love” her fiancé, Joe, shows for her. They had been friends prior to their engagement and got on well

But now, alas, since she had promised to marry him, he had made the wretched mistake of falling “in love” with her. He had never been that way before. And if she had known he would get this way now, she would have said decidedly: Let us remain friends, Joe, for this sort of thing is a come-down. Once he started cuddling and petting, she couldn’t stand him. Yet she felt she ought to. She imagined she even ought to like it. Though where the ought came from, she could not see.

Birkin (like Lawrence) wants to avoid at all costs falling into this sort of scripted, stereotyped love relationship, but Ursula has a great deal of difficulty understanding what it is that he does want. He tries his best to explain it to her:

“There is,” he said, in a voice of pure abstraction, “a final me which is stark and impersonal and beyond responsibility. So there is a final you. And it is there I would want to meet you—not in the emotional, loving plane—but there beyond, where there is no speech and no terms of agreement. There we are two stark, unknown beings, two utterly strange creatures, I would want to approach you, and you me. And there could be no obligation, because there is no standard for action there, because no understanding has been reaped from that plane. It is quite inhuman—so there can be no calling to book, in any form whatsoever—because one is outside the pale of all that is accepted, and nothing known applies. One can only follow the impulse, taking that which lies in front, and responsible for nothing, giving nothing, only each taking according to the primal desire.”

The “final me and you” refers to the primal self. “The old ideals are dead as nails” and so is modern civilization. Birkin does not want his relationship to Ursula to “fit” into the modern social scheme, to become conventional or “safe.” He also fears and abhors the impress of society on his conscious, mental self. He does not want to come together with Ursula “though the ego,” as it were. He wants them to come together through their primal selves and to forge a relationship that is based on something deeper and far stronger than what the overly socialized creatures around him call “love.” Yet, at the same time, one could simply say that what he wants is a truer, deeper love, and that what passes for love with other people is usually not the genuine article. They are doing what one “ought” to do, even when in bed together.

In The Rainbow (to which Women in Love forms the “sequel”), Tom Brangwen offers his views on love and marriage in a famous passage:

“There’s very little else, on earth, but marriage. You can talk about making money, or saving souls. You can save your own soul seven times over, and you may have a mint of money, but your soul goes gnawin’, gnawin’, gnawin’, and it says there’s something it must have. In heaven there is no marriage. But on earth there is marriage, else heaven drops out, and there’s no bottom to it. . . . If we’ve got to be Angels . . . and if there is no such thing as a man or a woman among them, then it seems to me as a married couple makes one Angel. . . . [An] Angel can’t be less than a human being. And if it was only the soul of a man minus the man, then it would be less than a human being. . . . An Angel’s got to be more than a human being. . . . So I say, an Angel is the soul of a man and a woman in one: they rise united at the Judgment Day, as one angel. . . . If I am to become an Angel, it’ll be my married soul, and not my single soul.”

À la Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium, men and women form two halves of a complete human being. Human nature divides itself into two, complementary aspects: masculinity and femininity. A complete human being is made when a man and a woman are joined together. But they cannot be joined—not really—through the mental, social self, but only through the unconscious, primal self.

In Women in Love, this view returns but in a modified form. Now Birkin tells us, “One must commit oneself to a conjunction with the other—for ever. But it is not selfless—it is a maintaining of the self in mystic balance and integrity—like a star balanced with another star.” And Lawrence tells us of Birkin, “he wanted a further conjunction, where man had being and woman had being, two pure beings, each constituting the freedom of the other, balancing each other like two poles of one force, like two angels, or two demons.” Tom Brangwen’s view implies that men and women, considered separately, do not have complete souls, and that a complete soul is made only when they join together in marriage. There is a suggestion in what he says that the “individuality” of single men and women is false, and that only a married couple constitutes a true individual. Birkin’s ideal, on the other hand, involves the man and the woman each preserving their selfhood and individuality and “balancing” each other.

Despite the fact that Birkin frequently, and transparently, speaks for Lawrence we cannot take him as speaking for Lawrence here. I believe that it is Brangwen’s position that is closest to Lawrence’s own. When Women in Love opens, Birkin is in a relationship with Hermione, who Lawrence portrays as a woman living entirely from out of her head, without any naturalness or spontaneity. Yet there is a bit of this in Birkin as well, which is perhaps why he reacts against it so violently when he sees it in Hermione. After the passage just quoted from Women in Love, Lawrence writes of Birkin, “He wanted so much to be free, not under the compulsion of any need for unification, or tortured by unsatisfied desire. . . . And he wanted to be with Ursula as free as with himself, single and clear and cool, yet balanced, polarised with her. The merging, the clutching, the mingling of love was become madly abhorrent to him.” Lawrence then goes on to describe Birkin’s fear and loathing of women’s “clutching.” Birkin is a conflicted character. He wants to lose himself in a relationship with a woman, but fears it at the same time. He wants Ursula, and talks on and on about spontaneity and the evil of ideals, yet he is continually preaching to Ursula about his ideal relationship which, conveniently, is one in which he can unite with her yet preserve his ego intact. This at first bewilders then infuriates Ursula, who never understands what it is that he wants. In the end, the problem resolves itself, probably just as it would in real life. Drawn to Ursula by a power stronger than his conscious ego, Birkin eventually drops all of his talk, surrenders his will, and settles into a married bliss that is marred only by his continued desire for the love of a man.

Ultimately, Lawrence believes that the “establishment of a new relation” between men and women depends upon a return to the oldest of relationships, and that this is possible only through a recovery of the oldest part of the self. We must, he believes, drop our ideal of the unisex society and be alive again to the fundamental, natural differences between men and women. Men and woman do not naturally desire to enjoy each other’s society at all times. We must not only educate men and women apart, but re-establish “spaces” within civilized society where men can be with men, and women with women. We must not force men and women together and command them to forget that they are men and women. Education and, indeed, much else in society must work to cultivate and to affirm the natural, masculine qualities and virtues in men, and the feminine qualities and virtues in women. Having become true men and women and having awakened, through their apartness, to the mystery and the allure that is the opposite sex, they will then come together and forge romantic alliances that are not based upon talk and “common values” but upon the “pull” between man and woman. Lawrence is not referring here simply to lust. A sexual element is, of course, involved, but what he means is the mysterious, ineffable attraction between an individual man and a woman, what we often call “chemistry,” which has nothing to do with the words they utter or the ideals they pay lip service to. And once this attraction is established, if the two desire to become bound to each other, then they must surrender themselves to the relationship. They must overcome their fear of the loss of ego boundaries. They must drop all talk of “rights” and not fall into the trap of treating the marriage as if it were a business partnership. For both, it is a leap into the unknown but in this case the unknown is the natural. When we plant a seed we must close the earth over it and go off and wait in anticipation. But we know that nature, being what it is, will produce as it has before. If all goes well, in that spot will grow the plant we were expecting. Similarly, marriage is not a human invention but something that grows naturally between a man and woman if its seed is planted in the fertile soil of the primal selves of each.