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D. H. Lawrence on Men & Women, Part 4


Astarte Syriaca by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1877

2,757 words

Part 4 of 6. For the whole series, click here [2].

3. The Nature of Woman

In Fantasia of the Unconscious Lawrence writes, “Women will never understand the depth of the spirit of purpose in man, his deeper spirit. And man will never understand the sacredness of feeling to woman. Each will play at the other’s game, but they will remain apart.” But what is meant by “feeling” here? Lawrence is referring again to his belief that women live, to a greater extent than men, from the primal self. In the case of most men today, “mind-consciousness” and reason are dominant—to the point where they are frequently detached from “blood-consciousness” and feeling.

In describing the nature of woman Lawrence once again draws on perennial symbols: “Woman is really polarized downwards, towards the centre of the earth. Her deep positivity is in the downward flow, the moon-pull.” The sun represents man, and the moon woman. Day belongs to him, and night to her. However, another set of mythic images associates the earth with woman and the sky with man. The “pull” in women is towards the earth, and this means several things. First, the earth is the source of chthonic powers, and so, as poetic metaphor, it represents the primal, pre-mental, animal aspect in human beings. In a literal sense, however, Lawrence believes that women are more in tune than men with chthonic powers: with the rhythms of nature and the cycle of seasons. Further, the “downward flow” refers to Lawrence’s belief that the lower “centres” of the body are, in a sense, more primitive, more instinctual than the upper, and that women tend to live and act from these centers more than men do. Lawrence writes, “Her deepest consciousness is in the loins and belly. . . . The great flow of female consciousness is downwards, down to the weight of the loins and round the circuit of the feet.”

Finally, to be “polarized downwards, towards the centre of the earth” means to have one’s life, one’s vital being fixed in reference to a central point. If Lawrence intends us to assume that man is polarized upwards then we may ask, toward what? If woman is oriented towards the center of the earth, then–following the logic of the mythic categories–is man oriented toward the center of the sky? But the sky has no center. Man is less fixed than woman; he is a wanderer. He is a hunter, a seeker, a pioneer, an adventurer. Woman, on the other hand, lives from the axis of the world. Mircea Eliade writes that “the religious man sought to live as near as possible to the Center of the World.” Woman is at the center. Man begins there, then goes off. He returns again and again, the phallic power in him rising in response to the chthonic power of the woman. And his religious response is an ongoing effort to bring his daytime self into line with the life force he experiences when in the arms of the woman.

Woman, Lawrence tells us, “is a flow, a river of life,” and this flow is fundamentally different from the man’s river. However, “The woman is like an idol, or a marionette, always forced to play one role or another: sweetheart, mistress, wife, mother.” The mind of the male is built to analyze and categorize. But the nature of woman, like the nature of nature itself, defies categorization. Even before Bacon, man’s response to nature was to force it to yield up its secrets, to bend it to the human will, or to see it only within the narrow parameters of whatever theory was fashionable at the moment. The male mind attempts to do this to woman as well–and the woman, to a great extent, cooperates. She fits herself into the roles expected of her by authority figures, whether it is dutiful daughter-sister-wife-mother, or dutiful feminist and career-woman.

Lawrence writes, “The real trouble about women is that they must always go on trying to adapt themselves to men’s theories of women, as they always have done.” Two opposing wills exist in women, Lawrence believes: a will to conform or to submit, and a will to reject all boundaries and be free. In Women in Love, Birkin compares women to horses:

“And of course,” he said to Gerald, “horses haven’t got a complete will, like human beings. A horse has no one will. Every horse, strictly, has two wills. With one will, it wants to put itself in the human power completely—and with the other, it wants to be free, wild. The two wills sometimes lock—you know that, if ever you’ve felt a horse bolt, while you’ve been driving it. . . . And woman is the same as horses: two wills act in opposition inside her. With one will, she wants to subject herself utterly. With the other she wants to bolt, and pitch her rider to perdition.”

Ursula, who is present at this exchange, laughs and responds “Then I’m a bolter.” The trouble is that she is not.

Lawrence’s fiction is filled with vivid portrayals of women (arguably much more vivid and well-drawn than his portrayals of men). The central characters in several of his novels are women (The Rainbow, The Lost Girl, The Plumed Serpent, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover). All of Lawrence’s major female characters exhibit these two wills, but frequently he presents pairs of women each of whom represents one of the wills. This is the case in Women in Love. Ultimately, in Ursula’s character the will to surrender emerges as dominant. In her sister Gudrun the will to be free and wild dominates, with tragic results. In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Connie Chatterley exhibits the will to surrender, and her sister Hilda the will to be free. The two lesbians in Lawrence’s novella The Fox are cut from the same cloth. Similar pairs of women also crop up in Lawrence’s short stories. In each case, one woman learns the joys of submitting, not to a man but to the earth, to nature, to the life mystery within her. The man is a means to this, however. The best example of this in Lawrence’s fiction is probably Connie Chatterley’s journey to awakening. In John Thomas and Lady Jane, an earlier version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Lawrence has Connie speak of the significance of her lover and of his penis: “I know it was the penis which really put the evening stars into my inside self. I used to look at the evening star, and think how lovely and wonderful it was. But now it’s in me as well as outside me, and I need hardly look at it. I am it. I don’t care what you say, it was penis gave it me.” As to the other woman in Lawrence’s fiction, she tends to be horrified by the primal self in her, and its call to surrender. She lives from the ego. She rages against anything in her nature that is unchosen, and against anything else that would hem her in, especially any man. She views herself as “realistic” and hardheaded, but the general impression she gives is of being hardhearted and sterile.

In his portrayals of the latter type of woman, Lawrence is partly depicting what he believes to be a perennial aspect of the female character, and partly depicting what he regards as the quintessential “modern” woman. It is in the nature of woman to counterbalance the will to submit with an opposing will that “bolts,” and kicks against all that which limits her, including her own nature. Lawrence believes that modern womanhood and all the problems of women today arise from the over-development of that will to freedom.

A “will to freedom” sounds like a good thing, so it is important to realize that essentially what Lawrence means by this is a negative will which tries either to control, or to destroy all that which it cannot control. Lawrence’s critique of modernity is a major topic in itself, but suffice it say that he believes that in the modern period a disavowal of the primal self takes place on a mass, cultural scale. The seeds of this disavowal were sown by Christianity, and reaped by modern scientism, which becomes the avowed enemy of the religion that helped foster it. Individuals live their lives from the standpoint of ego and mental-consciousness, and distrust the blood-consciousness. The negative will in women seizes upon reason and ego-dominance as a means to free herself from the influence of her dark, chthonic self, and from the influence of the men that this dark, chthonic self draws her to. The will to negate, using the mind as its tool, thus becomes the path to “liberation.”

Lawrence writes in Apocalypse:

Today, the best part of womanhood is wrapped tight and tense in the folds of the Logos, she is bodiless, abstract, and driven by a self-determination terrible to behold. A strange ‘spiritual’ creature is woman today, driven on and on by the evil demon of the old Logos, never for a moment allowed to escape and be herself.

And in an essay he writes, “Woman is truly less free today than ever she has been since time began, in the womanly sense of freedom.” This is, of course, exactly the opposite of what is asserted by most pundits today, when they speak of the progress made by woman in the modern era. Why does Lawrence believe that woman is now so unfree? The answer is implied in the quotation from Apocalypse: she is not allowed to be herself.

In Studies in Classic American Literature Lawrence tells us

Men are not free when they are doing just what they like. The moment you can do just what you like, there is nothing you care about doing. Men are only free when they are doing what the deepest self likes.

And there is getting down to the deepest self! It takes some diving.

Because the deepest self is way down, and the conscious self is an obstinate monkey. But of one thing we may be sure. If one wants to be free, one has to give up the illusion of doing what one likes, and seek what IT wishes done.

What Lawrence says here is applicable to both men and women. “To be oneself” in the true sense means to answer to the call of the deepest self. We can only achieve our “fullness of being” if we do so. The mind invents all manner of goals and projects and ideals to be pursued, but ultimately all that we do produces only frustration and emptiness if we act in a way that does not fundamentally satisfy the needs of our deepest, pre-mental, bodily nature.

Lawrence writes further in Apocalypse: “The evil Logos says she must be ‘significant,’ she must ‘make something worth while’ of her life. So on and on she goes, making something worth while, piling up the evil forms of our civilization higher and higher, and never for a second escaping to be wrapped in the brilliant fluid folds of the new green dragon.” Earlier in the same text, Lawrence tells us that “The long green dragon with which we are so familiar on Chinese things is the dragon in his good aspect of life-bringer, life-giver, life-maker, vivifier.” In short, the “green dragon” represents the life force, the source of all, the Pan power. Lawrence is saying that modern woman, in search of something “significant” to do with her life, falls in with all the corrupt (largely, money-driven) pursuits that have brought men nothing but ulcers, emptiness, and early death. “All our present life-forms are evil,” he writes. “But with a persistence that would be angelic if it were not devilish woman insists on the best in life, by which she means the best of our evil life-forms, unable to realize that the best of evil life-forms are the most evil.” Like men, she loses touch with the natural both within herself and in the world surrounding her. Lawrence’s dragon symbolizes both of these: primal nature as such, and the primal nature within me. It is this dragon which Lawrence seeks to awake in himself, and in his readers. The tragedy of modern woman is that she has renounced the dragon, whereas she would be better off being devoured by it.

In John Thomas and Lady Jane Lawrence also links the ideal of fulfilled womanhood to the dragon. Following Connie Chatterley’s musings on the meaning of the phallus (which I quoted earlier), Lawrence writes:

The only thing which had taken her quite away from fear, if only for a night, was the strange gallant phallus looking round in its odd bright godhead, and now the arm of flesh around her, the socket of the hand against her breast, the slow, sleeping thud of the man’s heart against her body. It was all one thing—the mysterious phallic godhead. Now she knew that the worst had happened. This dragon had enfolded her, and its folds were pure gentleness and safety.

Make no mistake, Lawrence believes that women can adopt the ways of men; he believes that they can succeed at traditionally male work. But he believes that they do this at great cost to themselves. “Of all things, the most fatal to a woman is to have an aim,” Lawrence tells us. In general, he believes that the ultimate aim of life is simply living, and that we set a trap for ourselves when we declare that some goal or some ideal shall be the end of life, and believe that this will make life “meaningful.” This applies to men, but even more so to women. Why? Because, again, women are so much closer to the source that men tend to regard women as the life force embodied (“Mother Nature”). For a woman to live for something other than living is to pervert her nature, and her gift. Again, Lawrence’s position is not that a woman is incapable of doing the work of a man, but ultimately she will find it deadening: “The moment woman has got man’s ideals and tricks drilled into her, the moment she is competent in the manly world—there’s an end of it. She’s had enough. She’s had more than enough. She hates the thing she has embraced.”

In our age, many women who have forgone marriage and children in order to pursue a career are discovering this. The body has its own needs and ends, and the organism as a whole cannot flourish and achieve satisfaction unless these needs and ends are satisfied. With some exceptions, women who have chosen not to have children regret it, and suffer in other ways as well (for example, they are at higher risk for developing ovarian cancer than women who have given birth). The same goes for men, many of whom spend a great many “productive” years without feeling a need to reproduce–then are suddenly hit by that need and launch themselves on a frantic, sometimes worldwide search for a suitable mate able to father them a child. Lawrence wrote the following, prophetic words in one of his final essays:

It is all an attitude, and one day the attitude will become a weird cramp, a pain, and then it will collapse. And when it has collapsed, and she looks at the eggs she has laid, votes, or miles of typewriting, years of business efficiency—suddenly, because she is a hen and not a cock, all she has done will turn into pure nothingness to her. Suddenly it all falls out of relation to her basic henny self, and she realizes she has lost her life. The lovely henny surety, the hensureness which is the real bliss of every female, has been denied her: she had never had it. Having lived her life with such utmost strenuousness and cocksureness, she has missed her life altogether. Nothingness!

This quote suggests that Lawrence believes that the woman, the hen, ruins herself by taking up the ways appropriate and natural for the cock – but this is not exactly what he means. In Lawrence’s view, the modern ways of the cock are destroying the cock as well, but they are doubly bad for the hen. What’s bad for the gander is worse for the goose. Lawrence believes that in order to achieve satisfaction in life, we must get in touch with that primal self that the woman is fortunate enough always to be closer to.