D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love:
Anti-Modernism in Literature, Part 3
Part 3 of 4. Click here for all four parts.
Interestingly, perhaps the clearest parallels to Gerald Crich’s philosophy of life, and Lawrence’s treatment of it, are two thinkers Lawrence knew nothing about when he wrote Women in Love: Oswald Spengler and Ernst Jünger, both of whom were strongly influenced by Nietzsche.
Spengler: Faustian Man and Technology
Spengler’s major work Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the West) was published in 1918, two years after Lawrence first began working on Women in Love. According to Spengler, “Faustian man” creates a human world of artifacts and schemes not out of any economic motivation but rather out of a sheer desire for mastery.
However, Spengler believed that in the modern world, at the very height of his technological prowess, Faustian man has begun to decline. In Der Mensch und die Technik (Man and Technics, 1932) Spengler argued that technology had, in effect, taken on a life of its own. In building a technological world, humanity has been caught in the logic and the inevitable course of technology itself.
Technology rapidly becomes indispensable and human beings find themselves unable to do without it. Technological problems inevitably require technological solutions, and the sheer amount of gadgetry that the average human has to be conversant with grows exponentially. Technology comes to dominate the economy, so that most people find themselves not just being served by technology but working most of their lives for its advancement. In short, Faustian man, who had originally created the machines, now comes to be ruled by them.
Gerald certainly presents us with a vivid portrait of Spengler’s Faustian man. Lawrence does not explicitly make anything like Spengler’s argument concerning technology, but something like it lies beneath the surface of Women in Love and some of his other writings. Certainly Lawrence conveys the idea that Gerald foolishly believes himself to be master of the machines. Lawrence writes, “It was this inhuman principle in the mechanism he wanted to construct that inspired Gerald with an almost religious exaltation. He, the man, could interpose a perfect, changeless, godlike medium between himself and the Matter he had to subjugate.”
The medium Lawrence refers to is technology. “And Gerald was the God of the machine, Deus ex Machina.” In Man and Technics, Spengler writes: “To construct a world for himself, himself to be God—that was the Faustian inventor’s dream, from which henceforth arose all projects of the machines, which approached as closely as possible to the unachievable goal of perpetual motion.” Of course, what Gerald doesn’t realize is that he is Spengler’s Faustian man caught in the trap: servant of that which he had created.
Ernst Jünger and the Gestalt of the Worker
Ernst Jünger’s promethean, Nietzschean philosophy of technology comes uncannily close to Gerald’s own ideas. Jünger’s views were forged on the battlefields of World War I, at the very same time Lawrence was writing Women in Love. The war affected both men profoundly, but in profoundly different ways. As I have already mentioned, much of the misanthropy and apocalyptic quality of Women in Love is to be attributed to Lawrence’s horror of the war and what it had reduced men to. Jünger himself regarded the war as horrifying, and his memoir of his days as a soldier, In Stahlgewittern (The Storm of Steel, 1920), is as frightening and chastening an account of war as has ever been written. For Jünger, as for Lawrence (and, later, Heidegger) the war was essentially a technological phenomenon.
However, Jünger came to believe that technology—including the technology of war—was, in effect, a natural phenomenon: the product of some kind of primal, expressive force not unlike Schopenhauer’s Will or Nietzsche’s Will to Power. The very title In Stahlgewittern suggests this understanding of things. Michael E. Zimmerman writes in Heidegger’s Confrontation with Modernity:
On the field of battle, [Jünger] experienced himself at times as a cog in a gigantic technological movement. Yet, unexpectedly, by surrendering himself to this enormous process, he experienced an unparalleled personal elevation and intensity which he regarded as authentic individuation. Generalizing from this experience, he concluded that the best way for humanity to cope with the onslaught of technology was to embrace it wholeheartedly. (Zimmerman, 49)
In Der Arbeiter (The Worker, 1932) Jünger heralded the coming of what Zimmerman calls his “technological Overman.” The productive power underlying all of reality shall body itself forth in the “Gestalt of the worker,” who is essentially a steely-jawed soldier on perpetual march to the technological transformation and mastery of nature. Zimmerman writes how
Jünger asserted that in the nihilistic technological era, the ordinary worker either would learn to participate willingly as a mere cog in the technological order—or would perish. Only the higher types, the heroic worker-soldiers, would be capable of appreciating fully the world-creating, world-destroying technological-industrial firestorm. (Zimmerman, 54–55)
This passage rather uncannily brings to mind Lawrence’s description of the effect that Gerald’s managerial style has on his workers. This is a crucially important passage and I shall quote it at length:
But they submitted to it all. The joy went out of their lives, the hope seemed to perish as they became more and more mechanized. And yet they accepted the new conditions. They even got a further satisfaction out of them. At first they hated Gerald Crich, they swore to do something to him, to murder him. But as time went on, they accepted everything with some fatal satisfaction. Gerald was their high priest, he represented the religion they really felt. His father was forgotten already. There was a new world, a new order, strict, terrible, inhuman, but satisfying in its very destructiveness. The men were satisfied to belong to the great and wonderful machine, even whilst it destroyed them. It was what they wanted. It was the highest that man had produced, the most wonderful and superhuman. They were exalted by belonging to this great and superhuman system which was beyond feeling or reason, something really godlike. Their hearts died within them, but their souls were satisfied.
One can see here that Lawrence seems to accept the Spengler-Jünger thesis that there is an inexorable logic to the modern, technological society and that a fundamental change has come over humanity which makes it possible for men to become servants of the machine. The passage above continues, “It was what they wanted, Otherwise Gerald could never have done what he did.” Lawrence clearly believes that there is something inevitable about what human beings are becoming—but unlike Jünger he cannot embrace it. The Nietzschean-Jüngerian answer to modernity—to ride the tiger—is perhaps the best that one can do to harmonize oneself with the technological world and its apparent dehumanization. But Lawrence absolutely rejects it, and paints Gerald as a tragic, deluded figure. Why? In answering this question, we confront Lawrence’s central objection to modernity.
History: Progressive or Cyclical?
In the deleted “Prologue” to Women In Love (which is interesting for a good many other reasons), Lawrence describes Birkin in the early days of his affair with Hermione as “a youth of twenty-one, holding forth against Nietzsche.” Yet when Lawrence introduces us to Birkin’s own views they seem strikingly Nietzschean. First, however, Lawrence describes how Birkin had studied education (and become a school inspector) under the influence of what seems unmistakably like a warmed-over Hegelianism:
He had made a passionate study of education, only to come, gradually, to the knowledge that education is nothing but the process of building up, gradually, a complete unit of consciousness. And each unit of consciousness is the living unit of that great social, religious, philosophic idea towards which mankind, like an organism seeking its final form, is laboriously growing.
But Birkin quickly becomes disillusioned with this vision, and responds to it in true Nietzschean fashion:
But if there be no great philosophic idea, if, for the time being, mankind, instead of going through a period of growth, is going through a corresponding process of decay and decomposition from some old, fulfilled, obsolete idea, then what is the good of educating? Decay and decomposition will take their own way. It is impossible to educate for this end, impossible to teach the world how to die away from its achieved, nullified form. The autumn must take place in every individual soul, as well as in all the people, all must die, individually and socially. But education is a process of striving to a new, unanimous being, a whole organic form. But when winter has set in, when the frosts are strangling the leaves off the trees and the birds are silent knots of darkness, how can there be a unanimous movement towards a whole summer of fluorescence? There can be none of this, only submission to the death of this nature, in the winter that has come upon mankind, and a cherishing of the unknown that is unknown for many a day yet, buds that may not open till a far off season comes, when the season of death has passed away.
What is Nietzschean here is Birkin’s conviction that he is living at the end of history—but, contra Hegel, it is a time of disintegration and decay. However, unlike Nietzsche and his followers (including Gerald), Lawrence and Birkin do not see any way to transmute this situation into something that becomes life-advancing. What Gerald cannot see, but Birkin and Lawrence clearly can, is that the submission of the miners to “the Gestalt of the worker” represents the first stage in the complete breakdown of the Western world. The same passage quoted earlier from “The Industrial Magnate” chapter continues:
[Gerald] was just ahead of [his workers] in giving them what they wanted, this participation in a great and perfect system that subjected life to pure mathematical principles. This was a sort of freedom, the sort they really wanted. It was the first great step in undoing, the first great phase of chaos, the substitution of the mechanical principle for the organic, the destruction of the organic purpose, the organic unity, and the subordination of every organic unit to the great mechanical purpose. It was pure organic disintegration and pure mechanical organisation. This is the first and finest state of chaos.
Submission to or mastery of the modern, technological world—whether that world represents an advance or a degeneration—is not the answer for Lawrence because he believes that true human fulfillment lies in submission to something higher, or perhaps deeper: the true unconscious. Gerald offers his miners a kind of “freedom,” but it is the illusory freedom of the mind and ego from the call of the natural self.
Essentially, for Lawrence, the modern world is characterized by the subordination of the organic to the mechanical; of the natural to the planned, automated, and “rational.” But in severing the tie to the organic and placing themselves in the service of the machine and the idea, human beings lose their fundamental being, and their sense of having a place in the cosmos.
The real problem with Nietzsche is that although he talks a great deal about the body and about “instincts,” everything for him is still, to borrow Lawrence’s language, “in the head.” In his Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche presents us with an attractive discussion of the healthy, “natural” morality of the master type, which values such things as health, strength, and beauty.
But Nietzsche’s own approach to morals amounts to a conscious and willful desire to relativize all values—to declare that there is no natural source, and no natural values. The Overman, in fact, gets to simply posit new values. This appears to be a purely intellectual, and largely arbitrary affair. The idea of “creating” values is psychologically implausible: how can anyone believe in, let alone fight for, values and ideals that they have consciously dreamed up?
The Impotent Übermensch
In his characterization of Gerald Crich, Lawrence gives us a realistic portrait of what would become of an “Overman” in real life. Keep in mind that it is Lawrence’s belief that when we abstract ourselves from the natural world, and from the promptings of the nature within us, we suffer and even, in a way, go mad. This is, in effect, what becomes of Gerald. In the concluding passages of the “Industrial Magnate” chapter Lawrence describes the psychological toll that mastery of Matter has taken on Gerald:
And once or twice lately, when he was alone in the evening and had nothing to do, he had suddenly stood up in terror, not knowing what he was. And he went to the mirror and looked long and closely at his own face, at his own eyes, seeking for something. He was afraid, in mortal dry fear, but he knew not what of. He looked at his own face. . . . He dared not touch it, for fear it should prove to be only a composition mask.
Inevitably, Gerald’s sense of dissociation displays itself in a sexual manner:
He had found his most satisfactory relief in women. . . . The devil of it was, it was so hard to keep up his interest in women nowadays. He didn’t care about them anymore. . . . No, women, in that sense, were useless to him any more. He felt that his mind needed acute stimulation, before he could be physically roused.
The clear suggestion is that Gerald is practically impotent. Like Clifford in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, whose impotence has a purely physical cause, Gerald is physically numb; he lives from the mind alone. Disconnected from his natural being, he no longer feels spontaneous, animal arousal for the opposite sex. He has become “re-wired,” so to speak, so that the route to the sexual center, in his case, is by way of the intellect; he can only become sexually aroused through his mind.
The irony here is that Gerald is portrayed throughout the novel as handsome, strong, and virile in both a physical and spiritual sense: he is a master of matter, and of women. In fact, however, both his physical and spiritual virility is mere appearance. He is master neither of himself nor of his world. Nor is he even master of his erection. On the other hand, Birkin, who is portrayed as physically weaker, is at least truly virile in a spiritual sense. This is the reason he manages to avoid becoming “absorbed” by Ursula.
Lawrence is famous for characterizing relations between the sexes as a battle, or, more accurately, a struggle unto death. In Women in Love, the two couples battle each other continuously, but most of the fighting is done by the women against the men. (The famous nude wrestling match between Gerald and Birkin is a purely honest, physical contest, whose only psychological undertones are homoerotic.)
Birkin compromises with Ursula in settling for love rather than something “higher.” But despite this he maintains his integrity and individuality. It is a difficult feat, and even at the novel’s end we see Ursula working to try and undermine his desire for another kind of love in his life: “Aren’t I enough for you?” she asks him.
Gerald, however, cannot pull it off. He lacks Birkin’s spiritual virility: his ability to maintain himself, inviolate, even in giving himself to a woman. Gurdrun’s onslaughts are much more destructive and insidious than Ursula’s, and in the end the “manly” Gerald is broken by them.
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White Fragility & Joseph Conrad’s The Nigger of the “Narcissus”