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D. H. Lawrence on Men & Women, Part 5


Icarus by Lord Frederick Leighton

1,970 words

Part 5 of 6. For the whole series, click here [2].

4. A New Relation Between Man and Woman

So what is to be done? How are we to repair the damage that has been done in the modern world to the relation between the sexes? How are we to make men into men again, and women into women?

Lawrence has a great deal to say on this subject, but one of his oft-repeated recommendations essentially amounts to saying that relations between the sexes should be severed. By this he means that in order for men and women to come to each other as authentic men and women, they must stop trying to be “pals” with each other. In a 1925 letter he writes, “Friendship between a man and a woman, as a thing of first importance to either, is impossible: and I know it. We are creatures of two halves, spiritual and sensual—and each half is as important as the other. Any relation based on the one half—say the delicate spiritual half alone—inevitably brings revulsion and betrayal.”

In order for men and women to be friends, they must deliberately put aside or suppress their sexual identities and their very different natures. They must actively ignore the fact that they are men and women. They relate to each other, in effect, as neutered, sexless beings. They can never truly relax around each other, for they must continually monitor the way that they look at each other or (more problematic) touch each other. Sitting in too close proximity could awaken feelings that neither wants awakened. If, with respect to their “daytime selves,” men and women are forced to relate to each other in this way regularly, it has the potential of wrecking the ability of the “nighttime self” to relate to the opposite sex in a natural, sensual manner. Once accustomed to the daily routine of suppressing thoughts and feelings, and taking great care never to show a sexual side to their nature, these habits carry over into the realm of the romantic and sexual. Dating and courtship become fraught with tension, each party unsure of the “appropriateness” of this or that display of sexual interest or simple affection. The man, in short, becomes afraid to be a man, and the woman to be a woman. “On mixing with one another, in becoming familiar, in being ‘pals,’ they lose their own male and female integrity.” Writing of the modern marriage, Wendell Berry states

Marriage, in what is evidently its most popular version, is now on the one hand an intimate “relationship” involving (ideally) two successful careerists in the same bed, and on the other hand a sort of private political system in which rights and interests must be constantly asserted and defended. Marriage, in other words, has now taken the form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided. During their understandably temporary association, the “married” couple will typically consume a large quantity of merchandise and a large portion of each other.

If we must suppress our masculine and feminine natures in order to be friends with the opposite sex, in what way then do we actually relate to each other? We relate almost entirely through the intellect. Lawrence writes, “Nowadays, alas, we start off self-conscious, with sex in the head. We find a woman who is the same. We marry because we are ‘pals.’” And: “We have made the mistake of idealism again. We have thought that the woman who thinks and talks as we do will be the blood-answer.” Modern men and women begin their relationships as sexless things who relate through ideas and speech. The man looks for a woman, or the woman for a man who thinks and talks as they do; who “knows where they are coming from,” and has “similar values.” They might as well not have bodies at all, or conduct the initial stages of their relationships by telephone or email. Indeed, that is exactly the way many modern relationships are now beginning. But the primary way men and women are built to relate to each other is through the body and the signals of the body; through the subtle, sexual “vibrations” that each gives off, through the sexual gaze (different in the male and in the female), and through touch. No real, romantic relationship can be forged without these, and without feeling through these non-mental means that the two are “right” for each other. We cannot start with “mental agreement” and then construct a sexual relationship around it.

Lawrence, like Rousseau, had a good deal to say about education, and in fact much of what he says is Rousseauian. His ideas on the subject are expressed chiefly in Fantasia of the Unconscious and in a long essay, “The Education of the People.”

In Fantasia of the Unconscious, in a chapter entitled “First Steps in Education,” Lawrence lays out a new program for educating girls and boys: “All girls over ten years of age must attend at one domestic workshop. All girls over ten years of age may, in addition, attend at one workshop of skilled labour or of technical industry, or of art. . . . All boys over ten years of age must attend at one workshop of domestic crafts, and at one workshop of skilled labour, or of technical industry, or of art.” The difference between how boys and girls are to be educated (at least initially) is that whereas both are required to attend a “domestic workshop,” only boys are required to attend a “workshop of skilled labour or of technical industry, or of art.” Keep in mind that Lawrence is laying down the rules for education in his ideal society. He anticipates that whereas all males will work outside the home (in some fashion or other), not all females will. His system is not designed to force women into the role of homemakers, for he leaves it open that girls may, if they choose, learn the same skills as boys. As to higher education, Lawrence leaves this open: “Schools of mental culture are free to all individuals over fourteen years of age. Universities are free to all who obtain the first culture degree.” The system is designed in such a way that individuals are drawn to pursue certain avenues based on their personalities and natural temperaments. Unlike our present society, in Lawrence’s world there would be no universal pressure to attend university: only individuals with certain natural gifts and inclinations would go in that direction. Similarly, the system leaves open the possibility that some women will pursue the same path as men, but only if that is their natural inclination. The intent of Lawrence’s program is not to force individuals into certain roles, but to cultivate their natural, innate characteristics. And as we have seen, Lawrence believes that males and females are innately different.

Lawrence makes it clear elsewhere that in the early years education will be sex-segregated. This is intended to facilitate the development of each student’s character and talents. Males, especially early in life, relate more easily to other males and are better able to devote themselves to their studies in the absence of females. The same thing applies to females. Sex-segregated education in the early years also has the advantage, Lawrence believes, of promoting a healthier interaction between males and females later on. In Fantasia of the Unconscious he states, “boys and girls should be kept apart as much as possible, that they may have some sort of respect and fear for the gulf that lies between them in nature, and for the great strangeness which each has to offer the other, finally.” After all, “You don’t find the sun and moon playing at pals in the sky.”

But this is, of course, all in the realm of fantasy. Lawrence’s system would be practical, if modern society could be entirely restructured, and he is aware that this is not likely to occur anytime soon. So what are we to do in the meantime? Here we encounter some of Lawrence’s most controversial ideas, and most inflammatory prose. He writes, “men, drive your wives, beat them out of their self-consciousness and their soft smarminess and good, lovely idea of themselves. Absolutely tear their lovely opinion of themselves to tatters, and make them look a holy ridiculous sight in their own eyes.” It is this sort of thing that has made Lawrence a bête noire of feminists. Yet, in the next sentence, he adds “Wives, do the same to your husbands.” Lawrence’s intention, as always, is to destroy the ego-centredness in both husband and wife; to destroy the modern tendency for men and women to relate to each other, and to themselves, through ideas and ideals.

As a man and a husband, however, he writes primarily from that standpoint: “Fight your wife out of her own self-conscious preoccupation with herself. Batter her out of it till she’s stunned. Drive her back into her own true mode. Rip all her nice superimposed modern-woman and wonderful-creature garb off her, Reduce her once more to a naked Eve, and send the apple flying.” Does he mean any of this literally? Is he advocating that husbands beat their wives? Perhaps. Lawrence and Frieda were famous for their quarrels, which often came to blows, though the blows were struck by both. Lawrence states the purpose of such “beatings” (whether literal or figurative) as follows: “Make her yield to her own real unconscious self, and absolutely stamp on the self that she’s got in her head. Drive her forcibly back, back into her own true unconscious.”

As we have already seen, Lawrence believes that healthy relations between a man and a woman depend largely on the man’s ability to make the woman believe in him, and the purpose he has set for himself in life. Sex unites the “nighttime self” of men and women, but the daytime self can only be united, for Lawrence, through the man’s devotion to something outside the marriage, and the woman’s belief in the man. This is just the same thing as saying that what unites the lives of men and women (as opposed to their sexual natures) is the woman’s belief in the man and his purpose. And so Lawrence writes:

You’ve got to fight to make a woman believe in you as a real man, a pioneer. No man is a man unless to his woman he is a pioneer. You’ll have to fight still harder to make her yield her goal to yours: her night goal to your day goal. . . . She’ll never believe until you have your soul filled with a profound and absolutely inalterable purpose, that will yield to nothing, least of all to her. She’ll never believe until, in your soul, you are cut off and gone ahead, into the dark. . . . Ah, how good it is to come home to your wife when she believes in you and submits to your purpose that is beyond her. . . . And you feel an unfathomable gratitude to the woman who loves you and believes in your purpose and receives you into the magnificent dark gratification of her embrace. That’s what it is to have a wife.

Friends of Lawrence must have smiled when they read these words, for he was hardly giving an accurate description of his own marriage. As I have mentioned, Lawrence and Frieda frequently fell into violent quarrels, and she would often demean and humiliate him, and he her. Yet, ultimately, Frieda believed in Lawrence’s abilities and his mission in life; he knew it and derived strength from it. Those who may think that Lawrence’s prescriptions for marriage require an extraordinarily submissive and even unintelligent wife should take note of the sort of woman Lawrence himself chose.