— Counter-Currents —

D. H. Lawrence on the Unconscious

DHLawrence [1]7,659 words

Lawrence and Psychoanalysis

Without question, the most unusual books D. H. Lawrence ever produced were his two “psychological” works: Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious [2] (1921) and, especially, Fantasia of the Unconscious [2] (1922). These texts are absolutely crucial for understanding Lawrence, for in them he sets forth an entire philosophy.

Despite its title, Lawrence described Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious in a letter as “not about psychoanalysis particularly—but a first attempt at establishing something definite in place of the vague Freudian Unconscious.”[1] Indeed, he uses a discussion of Freudianism merely as a pretext for expounding his own views about the unconscious—which are central to Lawrence’s philosophy. Before we can approach these, however, it is necessary to look briefly at the history of his involvement with psychoanalysis.

In the main, Lawrence got his knowledge of Freud indirectly.[2] In a 1913 letter he claimed never to have read Freud, and there is no evidence to suggest that he did so later. Some of Lawrence’s knowledge of psychoanalysis seems to have come to him by way of his wife, the former Frieda von Richtoffen. Both Frieda and her sister Else had had affairs with the Freudian analyst Otto Gross (1877–1920).[3] In her memoirs Frieda wrote, “I had just met a remarkable disciple of Freud and was full of undigested theories. This friend did a lot for me. I was living like a somnambulist in a conventional set life and he awakened the consciousness of my own proper self.” Though Lawrence never met Gross, he fictionalized Frieda’s affair with him in the novel Mr. Noon (1920–1921, unfinished).

A more significant brush with the Freudians came by way of Ivy Low, a British fan of Sons and Lovers. Low wrote Lawrence a letter praising the novel, and subsequently was invited to visit him and Frieda at Fiascherino in 1914. Later in the same year, in London, she introduced Lawrence to her aunt, Barbara Low, who was an early champion (and later, after 1918, practitioner) of psychoanalysis in England. Lawrence and Barbara Low subsequently became close friends and confidantes, and they discussed Freud’s theories at length. “You are one of the few people who listen to me,” Lawrence told her in a letter.[4]

Shortly thereafter, Low introduced Lawrence to her sister and brother-in-law Edith and David Eder. David Eder was himself a psychoanalyst, one of the first in London, and was also an early translator of Freud’s works. With Eder, Lawrence discussed psychoanalysis, and also theosophy. The Eders also provided Lawrence with information on medical science, which he likely made use of in elaborating his strange theory of the “bodily centres.”[5] It was also through the couple that Lawrence met Ernest Jones, the most eminent Freudian in England and later Freud’s biographer. However, Jones was skeptical about Lawrence’s views, and the two men did not become close. 

Sons and Lovers was certainly part of the reason why so many British Freudians were eager to meet Lawrence. In that novel, Lawrence had depicted at great length a mother-son relationship which many characterized, with some justice, as oedipal. Lawrence himself fiercely resisted this characterization. It would be difficult not to believe that this was at least partly due to the fact that the novel was semi-autobiographical, closely based on his own relationship to his mother.

In September 1916 Barbara Low mailed Lawrence the July issue of the Psychoanalytic Review, which contained Alfred Booth Kuttner’s article “Sons and Lovers: A Freudian Appreciation.” Kuttner argued, predictably, that the novel’s depiction of Paul Morel’s relationship to his mother illustrated Freud’s theory of the Oedipus complex. Lawrence was incensed, and wrote to Barbara Low, “I hated the Psychoanalysis Review of Sons and Lovers. . . . My poor book: it was, as art, a fairly complete truth: so they carve a half lie out of it, and say ‘Voilà.’ Swine!”

Lawrence had always been intrigued by Freud’s theories, but he was highly suspicious of them at the same time. Kuttner’s review of Sons and Lovers appears to have finally pushed Lawrence to a violent reaction against Freud. Not long after the above-quoted letter, he was writing to Low of her psychoanalytic work, “Depart from evil and do good—I think analysis is evil.” It would be gross oversimplification, however, to claim that Lawrence simply couldn’t swallow Freud’s bitter oedipal pill: in fact he had his own analysis of the mother-son relationship, which he would elaborate in the two books on the unconscious.

Lawrence’s Critique of Freudianism

The first chapter of Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious is entitled “Psychoanalysis and Morality,” and in it Lawrence echoes the criticisms of many in accusing the Freudians of a desire to undermine morality. He writes that “The psychoanalytical leaders know what they are about, and shrewdly keep quiet, going gently.”[6]Lawrence, to say the least, was certainly no guardian of public morals, and despised bourgeois convention. So what could he have meant by such a charge?

The answer lies in Lawrence’s perception that psychoanalysis is nihilistic; that it is moved by a desire to destroy not just the “old order,” but real psychological—and specifically sexual—health. In a brilliant image, he depicts Freud as “disappearing into the cavern of darkness, which is sleep and unconsciousness to us, darkness which issues in the foam of all our day’s consciousness.” He is on a search for “the origins,” and we wait “expecting the wonder of wonders.” But what does Freud bring back? “Nothing but a huge, slimy serpent of sex, and heaps of excrement, and a myriad repulsive little horrors spawned between sex and excrement.”[7] And Freud and his followers take this show on the road, continually revealing “the serpent of sex coiled around the root of all our actions.”[8]

But despite the Freudians’ insistence on the calamities wrought by sexual repression, Lawrence detects in them a true hatred of sex. In a 1928 essay (“Sex versus Loveliness”) Lawrence writes, “The great disaster of our civilization is the morbid hatred of sex. What, for example, could show a more poisoned hatred of sex than Freudian psycho-analysis?—which carries with it a morbid fear of beauty, ‘alive’ beauty, and which causes the atrophy of our intuitive faculty and our intuitive self.”[9] At the heart of Lawrence’s views on sex is his contention that there is something sacred in the sex act. However, in the modern, post-Christian world sex is continually and unforgivably profaned.

Lawrence’s criticism of the Freudians dovetails with his criticism of modern science in general. In the same essay, Lawrence ridicules scientific theories about sex in the animal kingdom: “These theories of sex are amazing. A peacock puts on his glory for the sake of a wall-eyed peahen who never looks at him. . . . And a nightingale sings to attract his female. Which is mighty curious, seeing he sings his best when courtship and honeymoon are over and the female is no longer concerned with him at all but with the young.”

There is a “hidden will” behind such theories, he contends. “And that is the will to deny, to wipe out the mystery of beauty. . . . Science has a mysterious hatred of beauty, because it doesn’t fit in the cause-and-effect chain. And society has a mysterious hatred of sex, because it perpetually interferes with the nice money-making schemes of social man. So the two hatreds made a combine, and sex and beauty are mere propagation appetite.”[10]

Further, Lawrence’s critique of psychoanalysis echoes another familiar cavil: that whether Freud’s views on sex are ultimately positive or negative, he simply places too great an emphasis on it. Lawrence writes that “when Freud makes sex accountable for everything he as good as makes it accountable for nothing.”[11] “Was the building of the cathedrals a working up towards the act of coition?” he asks, and answers that it was not. Instead, it was the product of an even greater “dynamic power”: “the desire of the human male to build a world: not ‘to build a world for you, dear’: but to build up out of his own self and his own belief and his own effort something wonderful.” Lawrence denies that creative activity is to be understand as suppressed or re-directed libido. Instead he attributes it to an “essentially religious or creative motive.”[12]

But what does Lawrence mean in characterizing this motive as “religious”? A good, brief, indication of Lawrence’s views on religion is provided by a passage in his long essay “The Education of the People”:

The true religious faculty is the most powerful and the highest faculty in man, once he exercises it. And by the religious faculty we mean the inward worship of the creative life-mystery: the implicit knowledge that life is unfathomable and unsearchable in its motives, not to be described, having no ascribable goal save the bringing forth of an ever-changing, ever-unfolding creation: that new creative being and impulse surges up all the time in the deep fountains of the soul, from some great source which the world has known as God; that the business of man is to become so spontaneous that he shall utter at last direct the act and the state which arises in him from his deep being: and finally, that the mind with all its great powers is only the servant of the inscrutable, unfathomable soul.[13]

Lawrence sees Freud—and modern scientists in general—as out to deny the religious impulse in humankind, and to deny mystery.[14] And for Lawrence, the mysteries of beauty, love, sex, and religion are intertwined. Though Lawrence’s criticisms of psychoanalysis are damning, in fact he appears to have been positively influenced by the breakaway movement of Jungian analytical psychology.

Jung, Burrow, and the Unconscious

The July 1916 issue of Psychoanalytic Review (in which the article on Sons and Lovers appeared) also included a highly positive review of Jung’s Wandlungen und Symbole der Libido—which had recently been translated into English by Beatrice M. Hinkle and published under the title Psychology of the Unconscious. Lawrence definitely read this book, and sent a copy of it to his friend Katherine Mansfield in 1918. David Eder greatly admired Jung, and had sided with Jung when he severed ties with Freud.

In 1919–1920 Lawrence discovered the work of the American Jungian Trigant Burrow and found it highly congenial. Subsequently, the two men corresponded and Burrow later said of Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious that it reflected an “uncommon insight” into his ideas.[15] It appears that what Lawrence responded to most enthusiastically in Burrow’s work was his critique of the Freudian unconscious.

In a paper which Lawrence saw in manuscript form, Burrow had written that, “The theory of psychoanalysis rests on the conception that nervous disorders are the substitutive manifestation of a repressed social life; its basic position is that this substitutive factor is responsible for neurotic processes and that it is the sexual impulse for which recourse is sought in the process of substitution . . .” Burrow countered, however, with the claim that, “Sexuality, as manifested to-day amid the sophistications of civilization, is itself a replacement for the organic unity of personality arising naturally from the harmony of function that pertains biologically to the primary infant psyche.”[16]

In other words, Burrow’s position was that modern sexuality is itself an attempt to compensate for the loss of connection with a primal, “preconscious” self that exists prior to the development of the personality. It is hard to overstate how important Burrow’s theory would become for Lawrence. In Lawrence’s view, the “true unconscious” (as opposed to the false unconscious of the Freudians) is precisely this primal depth within the person.

Nature equips us with this unconscious; we do not produce it ourselves. In Freud’s view, however, the unconscious is a kind of storehouse of repressions and complexes wrought by the mind. Unable to face its own horrors, the mind hides them away in the unconscious where, as Lawrence puts it, they act “as a secret agent, unconfessed, unadmitted, potent, and usually destructive. The whole body of our repressions makes up [the Freudian] unconscious.”[17] Perhaps his most succinct, and memorable statement on the matter is the following: “The Freudian unconscious is the cellar in which the mind keeps its own bastard spawn. The true unconscious is the well-head, the fountain of real motivity.”[18]

Lawrence believes that despite the claims of psychoanalysts that they are freeing people of repression, the Freudians are actually deeply antagonistic to the primal man who dwells beneath the ego and its “complexes.” As he puts it in a posthumously-published essay,

The psychoanalysts show the greatest fear of all, of the innermost primeval place in man, where God is, if he is anywhere. The old Jewish horror of the true Adam, the mysterious ‘natural man,’ rises to a shriek in psychoanalysis. . . . So great is the Freudian hatred of the oldest, old Adam, from whom God is not yet separated off, that the psychoanalyst sees this Adam as nothing but a monster of perversity, a bunch of engendering adders, horribly clotted.[19]

Lawrence’s way of finding the true, pristine unconscious denied by the Freudians is to, in effect, peel away everything in us which is the product of the workings of the conscious mind, experience, and education. What Lawrence means by the true unconscious is really the true, authentic self. He tells us that it is “where our life bubbles up in us, prior to any mentality.”[20] It is also an expression of a primal life force that Lawrence called by various names, but often “the life mystery.” It is a concept strongly influenced by Schopenhauer’s theory of the “will in nature” – and by Nietzsche’s revision of Schopenhauer will as “will to power.”

In the unconscious we are not aware of ourselves as selves, and it would not be a distortion to refer to Lawrence’s idea of the unconscious as being a primal, “animal self” within us. This is a conviction Lawrence expresses almost from the beginning of his writing career. In his novel The Rainbow (1915), Ursula Brangwen engages in the following internal monologue:

“They assume selves as they assume suits of clothing,” she said to herself, looking in mocking contempt at the stiffened, neutralized men. “They think it better to be clerks or professors than to be the dark, fertile beings that exist in the potential darkness. What do you think you are?” her soul asked of the professor as she sat opposite him in class. “What do you think you are, as you sit there in your gown and spectacles? You are a lurking, blood-sniffing creature with eyes peering out of the jungle darkness, snuffing for your desires. That is what you are, though nobody would believe it, and you would be the very last to allow it.”[21]

Lawrence’s discussion of the unconscious suffers from his somewhat inconsistent and confusing use of terminology. He frequently speaks, for example, as if he understands the unconscious to involve a more primal form of consciousness. In truth, what he means by the “unconscious” is that part of us that knows but in a pre-conceptual, intuitive fashion. It seems that for Lawrence, the unconscious is unconscious because the intellect is unconscious of it, or incapable of really fathoming it, not because it itself is literally not conscious. In fact, Lawrence believes that it is conscious of the world in very important ways. So long as this is kept in mind, his terminology makes sense. In what follows, my use of “unconscious” should be taken to be Lawrence’s, though sometimes I will instead refer to the “primal self.”

In the unconscious we may locate all that which the organism does automatically to sustain life—all that which requires no deliberate willing by the conscious, mental self. This includes respiration, digestion, growth, healing, etc. Lawrence asserts that the unconscious brings forth “tissue and organs” and that it is “the spontaneous life-motive in every organism.”[22] This part of Lawrence’s theory of the unconscious is relatively uncontroversial.

However he goes on to argue that this primal part of us has its own way of relating to the world and to other living beings; that it has its own fundamental ways of knowing. And he claims that over the course of human history we have become progressively detached from these natural, pre-reflective ways of being in the world. This has happened through an overemphasis upon intellect, as well as through the denigration and, indeed, fear of everything in us that has not come about through conscious choice; everything that is not under our direct, mental control.

What the Unconscious Knows 

That there are “ways of knowing” that are deeper, and truer than the mental was one of Lawrence’s lifelong preoccupations. In an oft-quoted letter to the artist Ernest Collings dated January 17, 1913, Lawrence writes, “My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh as being wiser than the intellect. We can go wrong in our minds. But what our blood feels and believes and says, is always true. The intellect is only a bit and a bridle. What do I care about knowledge. All I want is to answer to my blood, direct, without fribbling intervention of mind, or moral, or what-not.”[23]

And in a 1915 letter to Bertrand Russell, Lawrence reaffirms this belief, which he never abandoned: “Now I am convinced of what I believed when I was about twenty—that there is another seat of consciousness than the brain and the nerve system: there is a blood-consciousness which exists in us independently of the ordinary mental consciousness, which depends on the eye as its source or connector.”[24] Finally, in a 1919 essay Lawrence writes that “the blood has a perfect but untranslatable consciousness of its own, a consciousness of weight, of rich, down-pouring motion, of powerful self-positivity. In the blood we have our strongest self-knowledge, our most powerful dark conscience. The ancients said the heart was the seat of understanding. And so it is: it is the seat of the primal sensual understanding, the seat of the passional self-consciousness.”[25]

When Lawrence discusses the unconscious and what it “knows” he is talking precisely about the “blood consciousness” he had written so often of. As an example of what he means, he uses the fetus in its mother’s womb. Lawrence asks if there is any sense in which the fetus is conscious, and answers that there must be, “since it carries on an independent and progressive self-development.”[26] He is speaking, of course, of the automatic (in the sense of not being “self-willed”) processes of growth and nutrition. But this is surely an odd sense of “consciousness,” and it reveals the peculiar way in which Lawrence chooses to use this word.

The fetus has no “ideas” and no mental consciousness of the world outside its mother’s womb. And yet, in another sense, it knows. Its body knows how to take in nourishment from its mother and process it. It knows how to grow its organs. It knows the pattern of the creature it is growing into; it knows its telos. It knows these things not in its intellect, but in its bodily self. The blood and the tissues and organs all know.[27] The fetus possesses what some mystically-inclined authors have referred to as the “wisdom body”: a storehouse of knowledge more basic, more primal than anything the intellect will acquire, because it is the pre-mental “code” that makes life itself possible.

However, Lawrence does not believe that this “wisdom body” is equipped merely with the blueprint for the organism’s life. He also believes that it provides us with knowledge of the world—albeit, again, knowledge that is pre-conceptual, and never-to-be- conceptualized. “A child in the womb can have no idea of the mother,” Lawrence writes. “And yet the child in the womb must be dynamically conscious of the mother. Otherwise how could it maintain a definite and progressively developing relation to her?”[28]

It is utterly implausible, Lawrence maintains, to think that when a child is born and first put into the arms of its mother it is being handed over to a being hitherto unknown to it. Yet in our emphasis on knowing with the mind (and with the eyes) we almost assume that the child does not know the mother till it emerges from her. In fact, the child in the womb knows its mother much more intimately than it will ever know her by talking to her or having ideas about her.

But the child’s pre-conceptual consciousness of the mother does not end with its birth. When the child is born and held by its mother it immediately “begins to grope for the breast.”[29] In the womb, its body knows what to do to draw nourishment from the mother. Sent wailing into the outside world, it still knows—but, again, not with ideas. Its body knows, even in the shock of its first exposure to the world, what it must do to continue to draw food from its mother. Its mind does not know, but its lips know, the muscles of its esophagus know, and its stomach knows.

Further, there is evidence that this mysterious, pre-conscious connection between mother and child continues on, even after the child becomes an adult. We have all heard stories about mothers who “knew” intuitively (or, as we say today, “psychically”) that their children were in trouble, and vice versa. However, Lawrence asserts that the “dynamic [pre-conscious] relation between mother and child” begins to wane as soon as the child starts to develop its intellect and its mental relationship to its mother.[30]

For Lawrence unconscious subjectivity encompasses much more than the forms of knowing involved in the mother-child relation. He writes of how various sorts of contact can produces changes “in the vibration of my blood and nerves.” These new vibrations produce changes in the unconscious, often first manifesting themselves in the form of dream content. Later, this unconscious material may give rise to a new, conscious realization.[31] When he makes such claims, Lawrence is at least partly attempting to explain the origins of artistic inspiration.

Lawrence also speaks of the unconscious as having both positive and negative characters, which are equivalent to the processes of diastole and systole. In its positive character, unconscious subjectivity is a “great imbibing”; in its negative character, a “blind rejection.”[32] On the one hand, we come equipped with a desire to embrace, to take in, or to absorb the object; on the other, we possess a will to negate, push away, or deny. Lawrence is speaking of primal urges which manifest themselves most starkly early in life, but which we carry with us always.

The child sucking at its mother’s breast, or reaching out to embrace something beautiful and eye catching—these are examples of the positive mode. When we recoil from something dead or foul-smelling or unwholesome, or when we instinctively shield ourselves from something dangerous, we are operating from the negative impulse. These tendencies are present in us prior to the development of personality or ideas, and we carry them always.

It is possible, though, for the intellect to mute these responses and for us to act contrary to them. It is possible for us to talk ourselves into believing that certain of these responses are primitive or deceptive—but Lawrence believes that, in fact, they never lead us astray. Lawrence also believes that there are features of the body which exist in relation to the world and have their own ways of knowing it—but that these features have, in the case of most modern people, become numb and insensitive, due to our continued emphasis on the head and its conceptual form of knowing.

For instance, he writes of the mother’s breast as “one of the great gates of the body, hence of the living psyche.” And he claims “Even the nipples of the man are gateways to the great, dynamic flow; still gateways”—yet modern men regard their nipples as vestigial, and useless. Much of both Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious and (especially) Fantasia of the Unconscious is concerned with elaborating, in great detail, the nature of the specific bodily centers which make “blood knowledge” possible. Lawrence essentially believes that the unconscious is embodied knowledge, emanating from our bodily organs. 

The Unknowable Unconscious 

Since Lawrence distinguishes between the unconscious and the individual personality, it would be reasonable to conclude that the unconscious self is essentially the same in all of us. However, Lawrence places a great deal of emphasis on the individuality of the unconscious. “It begins,” he says, “where life begins.”[33] But Lawrence goes on to explain that life as such does not exist. It exists only in the form of individual lives, and each individual life is fundamentally unique, and an irreducible primary. The unconscious has its origin with the origin of the individual.[34] In Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious he writes

By the unconscious we wish to indicate that essential unique nature of every individual creature, which is, by its very nature, unanalysable, undefinable, inconceivable. It cannot be conceived, it can only be experienced, in every single instance. And being inconceivable, we will call it the unconscious. As a matter of fact, soul would be a better word.[35]

The individual cannot be understood as something compiled from various bits of the parents. It is fundamentally unique and unrepeatable, and in this its origins—what makes the individual individual—are mysterious. Lawrence writes, “This causeless created nature of the individual being is the same as the old mystery of the divine nature of the soul. Religion was right and science is wrong.”[36]

Lawrence insists on the individuality of the unconscious partly in order to underscore the fact that it can never really be known. In making this claim, he at least partly agrees with Jung’s understanding of the unconscious, insofar as Jung insisted that the unconscious, as unconscious can never be fathomed. Lawrence believes, in fact, that it the unfathomableness of the unconscious that explains why modern people are so hostile to it: they want to get everything under their conscious control, and that which cannot be fully understood or fully controlled they either turn from in fear, or dismiss as a superstitious fantasy.

In Studies in Classic American Literature, in opposition to Benjamin Franklin’s sunny (and naïve) Enlightenment creed, Lawrence sets out his own, which reads in part:

This is what I believe:

“That I am I.”

“That my soul is a dark forest.”

“That my known self will never be more than a little clearing in the forest.”

“That gods, strange gods, come forth from the forest into the clearing of my known self, and then go back.”[37]

As mentioned earlier, one can detect the influence of Schopenhauer in Lawrence’s views about the unconscious. Lawrence read Schopenhauer and was mightily impressed by him when he was twenty or twenty-one years old. When Lawrence claims that the unconscious “cannot be conceived, it can only be experienced,” and when he states later that “We know it by direct experience”[38] he is echoing Schopenhauer’s theory of the will.

In The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer argues that Kant’s thing-in-itself, which lies behind the appearances of things, must be identified with will. Schopenhauer claims that “we can never get at the inner nature of things from without.”[39] But the only being we can ever know from within is ourselves. Schopenhauer believes that if we delve deeply into ourselves we will find the will at work, and that “the whole body is nothing but the objectified will, i.e., will that has become representation.”[40] We will find, on introspecting, that in our actions we are really being carried along by will (most obviously in the case of our physical desires and passions), and that our reason is merely its servant.

The identity of the will and the body is not something we infer from facts we have accumulated but something we know immediately, intuitively. Further, Schopenhauer claims that “by its nature it can never be [objectively] demonstrated.”[41] This immediate knowledge of the body gives us a clue to the inner nature of all that exists. Schopenhauer infers that everything else is also, at root, an expression or objectification of will, and he comes to conceive will, in general, as an infinite “power” which exists solely in order to propagate itself in the myriad forms of creation.

There are at least three elements in this philosophy which were embraced by Lawrence, and which are reflected in his account of the unconscious. The first is Schopenhauer’s conviction that we will find in our own innermost being the clue to the nature of all creation. The second is the idea that the dark, primal, feeling-self is prior to intellect and reason. The third is the claim that the universe is an objectification of an irrational, self-perpetuating power.[42] Lawrence seems to have held some version of the latter conviction all of his life. In some late essays he refers to “the pan mystery,” and at one point says “God is the flame-life in all the universe; multifarious, multifarious flames, all colours and beauties and pains and somberness. Whichever flame flames in your manhood, that is you, for the time being.”[43]

Again and again, however, Lawrence emphasizes the point that this mystery—which we encounter directly in the body—can never be fully grasped by us. “The self that lives in my body I can never fully know. . . . My body is like a jungle in which dwells an unseen me, like a black panther in the night, whose two eyes glare green through my dreams, and, if a shadow falls, through my waking day.” Later, in the same essay: “Know thyself means knowing at last that you can’t know yourself.” [44]

And in an amusing simile in Fantasia of the Unconscious, he writes, “Don’t ask me to define the soul. You might as well ask a bicycle to define the young damsel who so whimsically and so god-like pedals her way along the high road. A young lady skeltering off on her bicycle to meet her young man—why, what could the bicycle make of such a mystery, if you explained it till doomsday? Yet the bicycle wouldn’t be spinning from Streatham to Croydon by itself.” This latter point is a Schopenhauerian one: we imagine that it is our ego, our “I” that is the causal agent behind our actions, but in fact we are merely being pedaled along by something we can only dimly fathom.

The Forgotten Unconscious

“What we are suffering from now is the restriction of the unconscious within certain ideal limits.” This, according to Lawrence, is the central modern problem. By “ideal limits” he means ideas or ideals hatched by the intellect—everything from the insistence that parents and children must love each other unconditionally, to the ideal of universal human brotherhood and equality. We rational animals have lost the awareness that we are still animal, and the intellect has disengaged itself from the unconscious, bodily wisdom which keeps us following the grain of nature. “The primal consciousness in man is pre-mental, and has nothing to do with cognition. It is the same as in the animals. And this pre-mental consciousness remains as long as we live the powerful root and body of our consciousness. The mind is but the last flower, the cul de sac.”[45]

Lawrence does not believe that intellect and the unconscious need necessarily be in conflict with each other. As noted earlier, he believes that contact with the world produces changes in the “vibration of my blood and nerves,” which alter the unconscious and, as it were, percolate within it issuing later in new, conscious realizations. He writes that “consciousness is like a web woven finally in the mind from the various silken strands spun forth from the primal centre of the unconscious.”[46] In a way there is no discontinuity between the unconscious, and conscious intellect. In a healthy human being, the “impressions” felt by the unconscious in many cases later come to be registered by the intellect, and even put into words.

In Fantasia of the Unconscious, Lawrence describes the process by which a child forms a mental idea of its mother. At first, as discussed earlier, the child’s awareness of the mother is a pure, non-mental, bodily awareness. This is the case in the womb, and sometime after birth. But once it is born, the child can use its eyes to gaze upon the mother as an independent object. Gradually, a conception of this object develops in the child’s mind. Lawrence writes that it “develops as a result of the positive and negative reaction from the primary centres of consciousness. From the first great centre of sympathy the child is drawn to a lovely oneing with the mother. From the first great centre of will comes the independent self-assertion which locates the mother as something outside, something objective.”[47]

In other words, in the interplay of positive and negative wills discussed earlier—the will to embrace, and the will to repel—a conception of the mother as independent entity is gradually formed. In general, all of our fundamental conceptions of the world—those that we form ourselves, rather than have dictated to us—are constructed in this way. “The development of the original mind in every child and every man always and only follows from the dual fulfillment in the dynamic consciousness.”

And so when, near the end of Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious, Lawrence attempts to offer a definitive description of the unconscious he is careful to note the role that the unconscious plays in giving birth to mentality:

At last we form some sort of notion what the unconscious actually is. It is that active spontaneity which rouses in each individual organism at the moment of fusion of the parent nuclei, and which, in polarized connection with the external universe, gradually evolves or elaborates its own individual psyche and corpus, bringing both mind and body forth from itself. Thus it would seem that the term unconscious is only another word for life.[48]

What too often happens, however, is that intellect reaches a point where it in effect declares its autonomy from the unconscious, from “blood knowledge.” Intellect comes to distrust the signals of the unconscious, and all that which it associates with bodily being. The result is a civilization of individuals who live exclusively from out of their heads. Even those among us who are “anti-intellectual” are still living in their heads, operating according to abstract goals, purposes, and ideals that may put them at odds with their deepest sentiments, and with their embodied being.

They come to distrust or to repress their real feelings toward others, if those feelings do not somehow accord with the ideal. They may feel compelled to deny their own most heartfelt preferences, if somehow these contradict abstract ideals. They may deny themselves what they want most deeply, if this is not what they “ought” to want. They are unable to accept and come to terms with the changes of the body that come with aging, for nature is “unfair.” They feel compelled to deny their own need for beauty, for beauty doesn’t keep factories running. They feel compelled to deny their natural religious sentiments—their feelings of wonder and mystery in contemplating the universe—for intellect has declared this to be mere “superstition.”

But it is the sexual side of their nature that fares the worst in modern individuals. They have to deny or repress, or even “fix” the natural sex impulses they experience. In most modern people, it is sex which provides the only link to raw, animal nature—and their only means to experience, for a time, an act which is purely physical, where intellect must drop out or it becomes a liability. But it is this very fact about sex which terrifies those who live in their heads. Sex must be tamed. Its mystery must be destroyed. And so science declares it to be “mere propagation appetite.” And the entertainment and pornography industries do their own part, making sex into a smutty joke.

This denial of the unconscious makes a truly fulfilling, flourishing life impossible. In his long essay “A Study of Thomas Hardy,” Lawrence writes that “The final aim of every living thing, creature, or being is the full achievement of itself.”[49] Lawrence’s ethics is essentially eudaimonistic: the ultimate end of all living creatures is a state of self-actualization, of living well. And this means that each thing must become what it is, must realize its nature. There is no higher or greater end beyond this. In a letter he writes, “The lily in blossom is a ne plus ultra: there is no evolving beyond. This is the greatest truth.”[50]

Lawrence’s words here call to mind the famous statement of the mystic Angelus Silesius,

The rose is without why; it blooms because it blooms;
It cares not for itself, asks not if it’s seen.

The greatest mystery in the universe is that the universe is at all, and the greatest wonder comes from realizing this. But this is not the sort of wonder that can be removed through explanation. We can describe in great detail how roses reproduce, or even perhaps how the species has evolved, but this does nothing to change our wonder at the fact that we live in a universe that could produce such things in the first place. And is there, finally a point to the rose, or to anything else? The rose lives in order to live, and so should we.

The difference between us and the rose, however, is that we seem to have reached a point where we require instruction in order to live. We literally do not seem to know how to live. So what must we do? In a nutshell, according to Lawrence, we must get back to the unconscious, or to the primal self, or wisdom body, or whatever one wants to call it. Nature, Lawrence believes, does not give rise to anything that has no clue as to how to get along in the world and flourish. But human beings seem to be the one animal that is lost.

In fact we are not: the answers to our questions about how to live are within us, but not within our intellect. Deep within us are the sentiments and instincts that can direct us toward a profound state of satisfaction, and a sense of belongingness in nature. No trick of the intellect will put us back in touch with these. Rather, a certain sort of surrender is required of intellect. In Studies in Classic American Literature, Lawrence writes

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.[51]

When Lawrence speaks of “IT” here he is speaking, of course, of the unconscious or “deepest self.” However, at the same time Lawrence believes, in true Schopenhauerean fashion, that this deepest self is an objectification of a universal, cosmic IT, which he gives different names. Sometimes, as mentioned earlier, he calls it “the creative life-mystery,” sometimes the “pan power.” Ultimately, surrender to the deepest self means surrender to this power, which pervades the entire universe.

Lawrence ends one of his final essays with these words: “It is a question of getting into contact again with the vital living centre of the cosmos. And how are we to do that?”[52] He leaves the question open, perhaps to encourage readers to work out an answer for themselves. Lawrence strove to answer this question throughout his entire career. His writings constitute a record of his own quest to find a way to put himself back in touch with the life mystery, as he believed human beings had been in prehistory. In following out Lawrence’s quest, we make our own. Lawrence’s aim is to get back into touch with the unconscious, the deepest self which is a manifestation of the inner essence of all things, and to live according to its promptings.

His first task, as we have seen, is to mark out what the unconscious is. Lawrence does this partly through an attempt to understand the nature of intellect and idealism, understanding the unconscious in contrast to these. Further, because Lawrence identifies the unconscious with a bodily wisdom, he goes so far as to attempt to literally map out the different centers of the unconscious within the body—centers which he explicitly identifies with the chakras of Kundalini yoga.

Lawrence writes that, “There is a whole science of the creative unconscious, the unconscious in its law-abiding activities. And of this science we do not even know the first term.” He sees himself as a modern pioneer in this science—but at the same time he makes it very clear that he believes that he is recovering, in piecemeal fashion, an ancient, secret science encoded in the world’s great myths and mystical teachings. This forgotten wisdom can only be recovered if “science abandons its intellectualistic position and embraces the old religious faculty.”[53]

Finally, in addition to coming to know the nature of the unconscious, Lawrence experiments with different paths for putting us back in touch with it. These include what could be called Lawrence’s “tantra”—the exploration of sexuality as a way of entering into contact with the life mystery. Lawrence also explores political, pedagogical and, finally and most significantly, religious paths as means to the same thing.

Near the end of Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious, Lawrence asks, “How can we escape neuroses? Psychoanalysis won’t tell us. But a mere shadow of understanding of the true unconscious will give us the hint.”[54] Lawrence’s effort in all of his writings, fiction and non-fiction is to give us (and himself) this hint so that we may once more “begin to live from the spontaneous initial prompting, instead of from the dead machine-principles of ideas and ideals.”[55]

Inevitably, what has been said thus far raises more questions than it answers. One might object, for instance, that Lawrence’s project of understanding the “laws and processes” of the unconscious contradicts his claim that the unconscious is unknowable. In fact it does not. When Lawrence claims that the unconscious is unknowable he means that it can never be fully plumbed, understood, and defined by the rational mind. This is not the same thing as saying that literally nothing definite can be said about it. “It is necessary for us to know the unconscious, or we cannot live,” he writes, “just as it is necessary for us to know the sun. But we need not explain the unconscious, any more than we need explain the sun. We can’t do either, anyway.”[56]

For Lawrence, the modern project of achieving total knowledge of and control over nature fails because we can never fully fathom or control ourselves as we truly are, in our unconscious, primal being. Sounding very much like Schopenhauer he says at one point, “We are not the marvelous choosers and deciders we think we are. IT chooses for us, and decides for us. . . . We are free only so long as we obey.”[57]


[1] Quoted in Bruce Steele, “Introduction” to D. H. Lawrence, Psychoanalysis of the Unconscious and Fantasia of the Unconscious (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), xxx.

[2] I am indebted to Bruce Steele’s excellent introduction to the Cambridge Edition of Psychoanalysis of the Unconscious and Fantasia of the Unconscious for much of the information presented in this essay about Lawrence’s sources and the history of his involvement with the Freudians.

[3] Frieda Lawrence, Not I but the Wind. . (New York: Viking Press, 1934), 3.

[4] Quoted in Steele, xxvi.

[5] Steele, xxvi.

[6] D. H. Lawrence, Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious in Fantasia of the Unconscious and Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious (New York: Penguin, 1971), 202. Henceforth: Psychoanalysis.

[7] Psychoanalysis, 203.

[8] Psychoanalysis, 201. The image seems to be an allusion to Kundalini yoga, and its image of the serpent coiled around the internal lingam at the base of the spine.

[9] D. H. Lawrence, Phoenix II, ed. Warren Roberts and Harry T. Moore (New York: Viking, 1971), 528.

[10] Phoenix II, 527–28.

[11] D. H. Lawrence, Fantasia of the Unconscious in Fantasia of the Unconscious and Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious (New York: Penguin, 1971), 19. Henceforth: Fantasia.

[12] Fantasia, 18.

[13] D. H. Lawrence, Phoenix, ed. Edward McDonald (New York: Viking, 1968), 608.

[14] “The scientist wants to discover a cause for everything. And there is no cause for the religious impulse.” Fantasia, 19.

[15] Quoted in Steele, xxxii.

[16] Trigant Burrow, “Psychoanalysis in Theory and in Life,” Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, lxiv no. 3, 209–24; 210. Quoted in Steele, xxxiii.

[17] Psychoanalysis, 209.

[18] Psychoanalysis, 207.

[19] Phoenix, 759.

[20] Psychoanalysis, 212.

[21] D. H. Lawrence, The Rainbow (New York: Viking, 1975), 448.

[22] Psychoanalysis, 242; 212.

[23] Selected Letters of D. H. Lawrence, ed. Diana Trilling (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Cudahy, 1958), 46.

[24] Quoted in Steele, xxiii.

[25] Phoenix II, 236 (“The Two Principles”).

[26] Psychoanalysis, 217.

[27] Psychoanalysis, 217.

[28] Fantasia, 70.

[29] Fantasia, 73.

[30] Fantasia, 71.

[31] Phoenix II, 618 (“On Being a Man”).

[32] Psychoanalysis, 228.

[33] Psychoanalysis, 212

[34] Psychoanalysis, 213.

[35] Psychoanalysis, 214-215.

[36] Psychoanalysis, 214.

[37]  D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (New York: Penguin, 1977), 22.

[38] Psychoanalysis, 215.

[39] Arthur Schopenhauer, The World As Will and Representation, vol. I, trans. E. F. Payne (New York: Dover Publications, 1969), 99.

[40] The World As Will and Representation, 100.

[41] The World As Will and Representation, 100.

[42] Daniel J. Schneider has some interesting things to say about Lawrence’s debts to Schopenhauer in his The Consciousness of D. H. Lawrence: An Intellectual Biography (Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 1986), 49-50.

[43] Phoenix II, 426.

[44] Phoenix II, 616, 620 (“On Being a Man”).

[45] Psychoanalysis, 34. First italics mine.

[46] Psychoanalysis, 242.

[47] Fantasia, 71.

[48] Psychoanalysis, 242.

[49] Quoted in Schneider, 78.

[50] Quoted in Schneider, 79.

[51] Studies in Classic American Literature, 13.

[52] Phoenix, 203 (“The Real Thing”).

[53] Psychoanalysis, 216.

[54] Psychoanalysis, 245.

[55] Psychoanalysis, 216.

[56] Psychoanalysis, 215

[57] Studies in Classical American Literature, 13.