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D. H. Lawrence on Idealism & Evil

B.J.O. Nordfeldt, "D. H. Lawrence and the Three Fates" [1]

B. J. O. Nordfeldt, “D. H. Lawrence and the Three Fates”

4,086 words

The Origin of Evil

D. H. Lawrence believed in the reality of evil, but he believed that its source lay in the human soul. “Abstraction is the only evil,” he wrote.[1] By abstraction he does not refer to the process of making generalizations or forming concepts. Instead, he means the tendency of human beings to abstract themselves from feeling, from intuition, from nature, and from the present. Abstraction is fundamentally evil, for Lawrence, because it makes most of humanity’s crimes possible. 

How is it possible for human beings to perpetrate unspeakable cruelties upon each other, and to feel no remorse? How is it possible for us to live lives of self-destruction and irresponsibility? How is it possible for us to destroy nature, in the name of our quarterly profits? According to Lawrence, the answer lies in the human intellectual ability to abstract from sentiment and from the intuitive wisdom of the unconscious. Our crimes and perversities are only possible because we have put ourselves in the service of ideals, and lost our souls in the process.

But what is it that moves us to embrace idealism, and to go to such horrible extremes? Lawrence posits a fundamental conflict in human nature between “blood-consciousness,” or, as he sometimes calls it, the unconscious, and “mind-consciousness.” “We are all of us conscious in both ways,” he writes, “and the two ways are antagonistic in us.” He tells us that “the mind and the spiritual consciousness of man simply hates the dark potency of blood acts: hates the genuine sensual orgasms, which do, for the time being, actually obliterate the mind and the spiritual consciousness, plunge them in a suffocating flood of darkness.”[2]

Why should mind be so antagonistic to “blood-consciousness”? For the simple reason that blood-consciousness is unchosen. The ego is the author of its ideas, but not of the instincts, urges, and intuitions of its body, and it finds that it has little control over these. So the blood-consciousness stands as an affront to ego and its reason.

In a posthumously published essay entitled “Democracy,” Lawrence writes

Nothing in the world is more pernicious than the ego or spurious self, the conscious entity with which every individual is saddled. He receives it almost en bloc from the preceding generation, and spends the rest of his life trying to drag his spontaneous self from beneath the horrible incubus. And the most fatal part of the incubus, by far, is the dead, leaden weight of handed-on ideals.[3]

In this essay, Lawrence uses “person” and “ego” interchangeably, and his treatment of the person bears a strong resemblance to Jung’s “persona.” In fact, Lawrence even discusses the Latin meaning of “persona” as an actor’s mask. He writes that the person is a human being “as he appears to others.”[4] It is the “objective” self that appears to others, but also to the individual that bears it. My ego or “person” is who I think I am. And a great deal is invested in who I think I am, especially my ideas about what I control, and what I am capable of accomplishing.

The stronger the hold of the conscious ego over the person, the more he will rebel against every aspect of himself that has not been deliberately and consciously chosen by the mind. This applies, as I have said, to the promptings of the body, but also to such things as family ties and cultural identity. In fact, it is one of the cardinal features of the modern, ego-dominated world that individuals not only become more and more alienated from their bodies, but also from their blood ties, their nation, their race, and their past. In fact Lawrence refers to the conflict between blood-consciousness and mind-consciousness as “our cross.”[5] He seems to believe that ultimately there is no explaining why this conflict must exist. But it does.

The ego, the seat of mind-consciousness, demands autonomy. It wishes, ultimately, to be free of everything that it has not chosen or devised. Lawrence describes the freedom it desires as “spasmodic, idea-driven control.”[6] Meaning that its freedom is not spontaneity, but control through intellect, through rational plans and ideals. Indeed, Lawrence tells us that herein lies the fascination of idealism, the reason why we cling onto idealism even when it is destroying us. He writes, “there is a great fascination in a completely effected idealism. Man is then undisputed master of his own fate, and captain of his own soul.”[7]

There is another component in Lawrence’s psychology that has not been mentioned thus far, however, and that is will. So far we have seen Lawrence distinguish between blood-consciousness and mind-consciousness, meaning, in effect, instinct versus mentality. The ego is the conscious, mental agent operating, as it were, the mind and reason. Through these it devises ideas and ideals, and then it puts (or tries to put) the whole individual to work achieving its ideal ends. Those ends seem inevitably to conflict with the ends of blood-consciousness. In order to do this, however, in order to bend the emotions and the body itself to the ends of idealism, ego must employ will.

Lawrence writes

We don’t know what the human will is. But we do know that it is a certain faculty belonging to every living organism, the faculty for self-determination. It is a strange faculty of the soul itself, for its own direction. The will is indeed the faculty which every individual possesses from the very moment of conception, for exerting a certain control over the vital and automatic processes of his own evolution. It does not depend originally on mind. Originally it is a purely spontaneous control-factor of the living unconscious.[8]

Lawrence’s conception of will is almost certainly influenced by that of Schopenhauer. For Lawrence, the will is the impetus within the organism; the conatus of Spinoza and Leibniz. Originally, it acts unconsciously, independent of mind, literally building the human body, and causing it to act in ways that further its development and survival.

With maturation and the development of mind, however, comes the danger that will may “identify itself with the mind and become an instrument of the mind.” The mind, in short, becomes the director of will. No longer does the will act from the unconscious centers to bring about the flourishing of the organism, according to the blood knowledge of flourishing. Now mind decides what that flourishing must consist in. “The mind,” Lawrence writes, “proceeds to assume control over every organic-psychic circuit.”[9]

The mind seeks mastery over the body and its responses, over all aspects of the organism’s life. The mind of course, cannot fully accomplish this. But it tries to, and the result is terrific harm to the individual. The organic processes of the body may be damaged through stress and repression, to the point where organs rebel, becoming dysfunctional or dis-eased. The individual becomes insensitive to pleasure (or pain), alienated from emotions, unable to create or, in general, to be capable of any real spontaneity.

In a real sense, the mind’s will to control all exhibits a hatred for life—for life is spontaneity itself, and cannot be made predictable and regimented. Schneider writes, “There is a desire to destroy life, even one’s own life, because reduction is ‘progressive’: the final satisfaction of the egoistic will is the omnipotence of death itself, the total repudiation of all organic synthesis and complex relatedness.”[10]

Further, ego does not just exhibit a hate for the life of its own body, but for the life of the universe as well. It tries to master and control external nature as much as it tries to master the nature within it. Lawrence writes that “the supreme little ego in man hates an unconquered universe. We shall never rest till we have heaped tin cans on the North Pole and the South Pole, and put up barb-wire fences on the moon. Barb-wire fences are our sign of conquest. We have wreathed the world with them. The back of creation is broken. We have killed the mysteries and devoured the secrets.”[11]

The egoistic will seeks the destruction of independent, non-ideal existence. It is affronted by anything that has sprung up through mindless spontaneity, and seeks to remake nature in its image, according to its own ideal plans. It is this point which forms the core of Lawrence’s critique of modernity. Modernity [2] is the age of the egoistic will run rampant.

No Mind

There is a long tradition in Western philosophy, and in Western culture as a whole, of believing that idealism ennobles us, indeed that it makes us human. In the Republic, Plato argues that the spirited type of man is superior to the desiring, for his concerns rise above the mere satisfaction of appetites. The spirited man believes in things, and is willing to die for them. However, what makes the philosopher superior to the spirited man is that he does not accept ideals uncritically, but can reason about them; he can actually discover and justify the correct ideals.

Today in modern, Western societies the lives of educated and thoughtful people are animated by a faith in certain ideals: the achievement of human equality and brotherhood, an end to war, the elimination of ignorance and superstition, the universal recognition of human rights, the spread of democracy, etc. Is Lawrence seriously suggesting that we should give up all of our ideals? Indeed he is.

Lawrence must be taken literally when he says that he opposes idealism. He opposes it in all its forms, no matter how “noble” the ideals may appear. He is adamantly opposed to the specific ideals just listed, among others. And he completely repudiates the attempt to give life meaning through idealism of any sort. “The Ideal is always evil,” Lawrence tells us, “no matter what ideal it be.”[12]

In his essay “Democracy” Lawrence writes, “There can be no ideal goal for human life. Any ideal goal means mechanization, materialism, and nullity.”[13] But why must this necessarily be the case? In the same essay he tells us, “The living self has one purpose only: to come into its own fullness of being, as a tree comes into full blossom, or a bird into spring beauty, or a tiger into lustre.”[14] Which presents us with the problem of how we know what our “fullness of being” consists in. Yet this isn’t a problem for the tree, the bird, or the tiger. They live without asking what they should live for, without looking for “meaning” (and, blessedly, they would be unable to do so even if they tried).

Non-human life simply allows itself to develop and to unfold of itself, carried along by the “life mystery.” We humans, however, insist on tearing open the bud in order to try and see what the blossom is going to be, or even to try to improve upon the blossom. But, Lawrence writes, “There is no pulling open the buds to see what the blossom will be. Leaves must unroll, buds swell and open, and then the blossom. And even after that, when the flower dies and the leaves fall, still we do not know. There will be more leaves, more buds, more blossoms: and again, a blossom is an unfolding of the creative unknown. Impossible, utterly impossible to preconceive the unrevealed blossom.”[15]

When we set up ideals as the be all and end all of life, we prevent the creative unknown from unfolding. We insist that it is only the known that may guide us, and that our conscious egos are well-equipped to do the guiding. And in this way, having cut ourselves off from our creative, spontaneous center, we become stunted and deformed things, like flowers growing over a toxic waste dump. Outwardly, in terms of our physique, we may look healthy and robust enough. (Indeed, modern Western people are, if anything, a little too robust.) And this is one of the facile arguments used to prove that we have made “progress.” But inwardly, in terms of how we relate to our physical being, and to the physical being of all else, we are stunted.

However, even if we accept all of the above there remains a serious problem, and it is a problem that at least seems to require an intellectual solution. If it is true that our intellect and our idealism have cut us off from our true self, exactly how do we get back in touch with it?

We find the same problem in Zen Buddhism, and there is more than a passing resemblance between some of Lawrence’s fundamental views and Zen. In traditional Zen training, a master presents a student with a question, called a koan. It is a question that involves paradox, and seems unanswerable in any conventional way. The most famous koan is “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” Over the course of many meetings, the student attempts to answer the question, and all of his answers are rejected by the master. In each case, the student has attempted to arrive at some sort of intellectual solution to the riddle.

In effect, D. H. Lawrence has presented us with a koan, and one might formulate it as follows: ““How can we come to know how not to know?” Or: “How can we know our true self (in the sense of come to our true self) without knowing?” (A cynic might say that Lawrence has really said “How do we achieve the ideal of not having any ideals?”) What the student of Zen learns is that no intellectual answer will do the trick. And so what he learns is to, in a sense, drop intellect. When that happens, he experiences enlightenment, or satori.

There is a traditional Zen story about satori that goes as follows. A man came to study with a Zen master, seeking the meaning of life. “I will keep nothing back from you,” said the master. But many days and weeks went by without, so the student thought, the master revealing anything. One day, however, they were out walking on a path and both the student and the master stopped in their tracks to gaze at some particularly lovely chrysanthemums growing along the way. As the student stared, transfixed by their beauty, the master cried, “You see, I promised I would keep nothing back from you!” At that moment, the student achieved satori.

Now, just what this realization is, is rather hard to put into words. It is the sudden intuition that this here now is what is real: lived experience, the given, the immediate present. But human beings are so preoccupied with ideas, ideals, plans, projections, worries, and regrets that they live in a state of abstraction from the world around them.

Here is another Zen story: A student once went to a Zen master and asked him what enlightenment was. The master replied, “eating your breakfast, washing your bowl, emptying your bowels,” or some such. The student was aghast and said, “Yes, but ordinary, unenlightened people do those things every day.” The master, unusually forthcoming, replied, “Yes, but when they do these things they are thinking of a thousand others.” In short, they are not there; they are not in the experience. They are not even, in a sense, in their bodies. And they wonder why they experience so little enjoyment in the world, and why life seems to slip away from them without ever having been lived.

If the Zen student can hold onto this state of “no mind” then he can begin to live, as Lawrence would put it, spontaneously, from out of the “natural self.” And Lawrence is asking of us that we accomplish something exactly along the lines of the Zen awakening. What is called for is not an annihilation of thinking. The Zen master on walking out of the temple and seeing threatening clouds above him would, after all, have the foresight to take an umbrella. What is called for, rather, is putting intellect in its place. Or, put more precisely, what is called for is the ego, as it were, contracting itself in order to make a place in where the wisdom of the body can well up to the surface.

Lawrence writes that, “The moment the human being becomes conscious of himself, he ceases to be himself.” The reason is that as soon as an individual creature becomes aware of itself “in its own individual isolation,” it makes a sharp distinction between itself and everything else. But in so doing, it actually winds up denying the deepest part of its own being. Every living thing is, at bottom, not separate but “part of a living continuum of all the rest of living things.”

If the construction of an ego involves seeing ourselves in opposition to all else, it follows that in order for ego to maintain itself it must deny this part of itself that feels a connection with all of life. For ego is all about boundaries, about me versus it, me versus you. If ego succeeds in destroying or suppressing our sense of being a part of the living continuum then, Lawrence says, “we get the I which is staring out of the window at the reality which is not itself. And this is the condition of the modern consciousness, from early childhood.”[16]

Those who have had the Zen experience of satori describe it as having several aspects. (Though it is inherently impossible to adequately describe a completely non-verbal experience; these “aspects” happen all at once and intellect must artificially break them up in order to describe them.) First, there is a sense that everything, in the very moment of the experience, is fundamentally right and necessary. The second aspect is a seeming cancellation of the distinction between self and other, or subject and object, and a concomitant sense of a connection to all things.

Finally, there is the intuitive (i.e., non-verbal) conviction that this ecstatic experience conveys a more profound “knowledge” than could ever be had by the intellect, and that nothing could shake this conviction, that it is indubitable. One feels that one has glimpsed the most profound of truths, and that “life is about this.” Now, Lawrence would say (and I do not think a Zen master would disagree with this) that what is going on here is that one is getting into touch simultaneously with the being of the world, and one’s own being, and that ultimately these are one: part of the “living continuum.”

He writes

Paradoxical as it may sound, the individual is only truly himself when he is unconscious of his own individuality, when he is unaware of his own isolation, when he is not split into subjective and objective, when there is no me or you, no me or it in his consciousness, but the me and you, the me and it is a living continuum, as if all were connected by a living membrane.[17]

The ego learns to isolate itself from the living continuum through a preoccupation with ideas and ideals, which become more real to us than things. It then proceeds even to build monuments to itself in the form of philosophies which declare the primacy of Ideas over things (Plato), or credit Ego with the literal creation of the world (Fichte).

In Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious Lawrence attacks the “prologue” to the Gospel of John, which states that “In the beginning was the Logos.” Logos is usually translated as “word” but can also be translated as “reason” Lawrence calls this “the presumptuous masquerading of the mind. The Word cannot be the beginning of life. It is the end of life, that which falls shed.” Here he refers back to an earlier-quoted passage in which he referred to ideas as “the dry, unloving, insentient plumage which intervenes between us and the circumambient universe.”

The beginning of life is wordless, unconscious. It is only later that we come to consciousness and to mentality and formulate ideas about life and the universe. But these ideas are always attempts to pin down something that can’t ever be pinned down; to finish something that can’t ever be finished. Lawrence continues his harangue against John: “The mind is the dead end of life. But it has all the mechanical force of the non-vital universe. It is a great dynamo of super-mechanical force. Given the will as accomplice, it can even arrogate its machine-motions and automatizations over the whole of life, till every tree becomes a clipped teapot and every man a useful mechanism.”[18]

Lawrence’s most penetrating comment on the Word, however, comes in a posthumously-published essay, “Why the Novel Matters.” The passage is worth quoting in full, for it is an example of Lawrence at his best, as both prose stylist and philosopher:

I don’t believe in any dazzling revelation, or in any supreme Word. “The grass withereth, the flower fadeth, but the Word of the Lord shall stand for ever.” That’s the kind of stuff we’ve drugged ourselves with. As a matter of fact, the grass withereth, but comes up all the greener for that reason, after the rains. The flower fadeth, and therefore the bud opens. But the word of the Lord, being man-uttered and a mere vibration on the ether, becomes staler and staler, more and more boring, till at last we turn a deaf ear and it ceases to exist, far more finally than any withered grass. It is grass that renews its youth like the eagle, not the Word.[19]

Lawrence emphasizes over and over again that idealism is the catastrophic neurosis of the human race, and that we must somehow get beyond our ideas to things themselves. “Real consciousness is touch,” he writes in Apocalypse, his last major work. “Thought is getting out of touch.”[20] Yet we have almost reached a point where we are more concerned more with having ideas of things than having things, and Lawrence again contrasts our state of abstraction with the innocent involvement with things exhibited by animals:

What the ass wants is carrots; not the idea of carrots, nor thought-forms of carrots, but carrots. The Spanish ass doesn’t even know that he is eating sanahorias. He just eats and feels blissfully full of carrot. Now does he have more of the carrot, who eats it, or do I, who know that in Spanish it is called sanahorias (I hope I am correct) and in botany it belongs to the umbelliferæ? We are full of the wind of thought-forms, and starved for a good carrot.[21]

Lawrence characterizes this immediate, thoughtless acquaintance with things as a truer form of knowledge, saying at one point that “knowledge is an experience, not a formula.”[22] Elsewhere, however, he makes a distinction between “knowing” and “being.” Knowing means the activity of the intellect (idea-building), and being means living in direct acquaintance with things, from out of one’s own natural self. It is possible for someone to be fundamentally unselfconscious and free of ideas and book-learning, while having a great deal of “being.” Because of this, and because they live in connection with, and act from the life mystery within them, they are more vitally alive than those who have stuffed themselves with ideas.

Lawrence writes, “Knowing, then, is the slow death of being. Man has his epochs of being, his epochs of knowing.” At present, we are living in an epoch of knowing. The problem with most modern people is that they are great in knowledge (of a certain sort), but poor in being. “It will always be a great oscillation,” Lawrence states. “The goal is to know how not-to-know.”[23]

This, then, is Lawrence’s paradoxical, Zen-like solution to the human neurosis of idealism, and the route he believes will take us to our “fullness of being.” In my next essay I shall turn to the topic for which Lawrence is most notorious: sex, and its place in the quest for the true, unconscious self.


[1] Quoted in Schneider, 156.

[2] Studies in Classic American Literature, 91.

[3] Phoenix, 710-11 (“Democracy”).

[4] Phoenix, 710. Italics in original.

[5] SCAL, 91.

[6] Fantasia, 133.

[7] Psychoanalysis, 211.

[8] Psychoanalysis, 248.

[9] Psychoanalysis, 248.

[10] Schneider, 103.

[11] Phoenix II, 391-92 (“The Crown”).

[12] Fantasia, 83.

[13] Phoenix, 715 (“Democracy”).

[14] Phoenix, 714 (“Democracy”).

[15] Phoenix, 715 (“Democracy”).

[16] Phoenix, 761 (“[The Individual Consciousness vs. The Social Consciousness],” title devised by the editors).

[17] Phoenix, 761.

[18] Psychoanalysis, 247.

[19] Phoenix, 536 (“Why the Novel Matters”).

[20] Apocalypse, 199.

[21] Apocalypse, 50.

[22] Sketches of Etruscan Places, 59.

[23] Studies in Classic American Literature, 121.