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D. H. Lawrence’s Critique of Idealism

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D.H.-Lawrence-21 [1]The Nature of Mind

“We are now in the last stages of idealism,” Lawrence writes in Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious, and he goes on to claim that psychoanalysis is conducting us through those last stages.[1] Furthermore, he also tells us that idealism is “the one besetting sin of the human race.”[2] What does Lawrence mean by idealism, and why is he so opposed to it?

Lawrence has often been accused of anti-intellectualism, and at first glance his opposition to idealism might seem to support the accusation. However, there is a difference between ideas and ideals, and to be against idealism is not the same thing as being against all thought.[3] Before discussing Lawrence’s critique of idealism, we shall first look at his views on the positive and necessary role of the intellect in human life.

In Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious, Lawrence tells us that “we must all develop mental consciousness.”[4] And by mental consciousness he means just what one might expect: a self-conscious, self-directed capacity to take in information, sift through it, analyzing or synthesizing, and form conclusions or ideas. The mind, Lawrence tells us, provides us “with endless appliances which we can use for the all-too-difficult business of coming to our spontaneous-creative fullness of being.” Since coming to our spontaneous-creative fullness of being is, in Lawrence’s view, the ultimate goal of human life, the mind and reason are vital. He continues, writing that the mind

provides us with means to adjust ourselves to the external universe. It gives us further means for subduing the external, materio-mechanical universe to our great end of creative life. And it gives us plain indications of how to avoid falling into automatism, hints for the applying of the will, the loosening of false, automatic fixations, the brave adherence to a profound soul-impulse. This is the use of the mind—a great indicator and instrument.[5]

In Fantasia of the Unconscious Lawrence writes even more positively of the role of the mind in human life: “The business of mind is first and foremost the pure joy of knowing and comprehending, the pure joy of consciousness. The second business is to act as medium, as interpreter, as agent, between the individual and his object.”[6] However, in both of his books on the unconscious, Lawrence insists continually that the mind must not act as director or controller of life. He insists that it is disastrous for us to seek meaning or purpose in life from the mind: “Thought, let us say what we will about its magic powers, is instrumental only, the soul’s finest instrument for the business of living. Thought is just a means to action and living.”[7]

As I have discussed in an earlier essay, Lawrence’s position shows the influence of Schopenhauer, who regarded reason as merely the instrument of will, which always sets the agenda from behind the scenes whether we realize it or not. But what exactly does Lawrence think should direct us, if not the intellect? (For he does not follow Schopenhauer in asserting that it is will.) In Fantasia of the Unconscious, he says that it must be “the soul.” Lawrence claims that a better word for the unconscious would be “soul,” though he recognizes that this is a problematic choice of words: “By the unconscious we do mean the soul. But the word soul has been vitiated by the idealistic use, until nowadays it means only that which a man conceives himself to be. And that which a man conceives himself to be is something far different from his true unconscious.”[8] What must control and direct life is the unconscious. This is the primal, pre-rational self that exists prior to the formation of the conscious mind and ego. Lawrence believes that it contains wisdom that can never fully be brought to conscious, conceptual grasp.

A useful way to approach what Lawrence is talking about is through the concept of moral sentiment. Philosophers who have advocated a “theory of moral sentiments,” such as Hume and Smith, reject the idea that in morality we can be guided exclusively by abstract principles or rules. They believe, instead, that human beings are born with certain basic or rudimentary moral sentiments, and that moral education involves the cultivation and training of these sentiments. Smith writes

How selfish soever man be disposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. . . . The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.[9]

Moral action cannot rely entirely upon rules, for how are we to know how to apply the rules? By reference to still other rules? And where do the rules come from in the first place, and what do we appeal to in order to legitimate them? Philosophers like Kant, who have made rules central to ethics, usually wind up generating rules that entirely accord with the sentiments of mature, civilized, but non-philosophical persons—leading one to think that the generation of the rules is really a kind of sleight of hand, and that sentiment is actually at the back of it. Famously, Kant only gives one good demonstration of how a principle that would enjoin immoral action involves a logical contradiction.[10] For most of his other examples, Kant relies on us to recognize that universalizing certain maxims would involve consequences too horrifying to contemplate. In short, he relies on our sentiments (and his own).

It is cultivated sentiment that can, and must, guide our actions, not principles devised by pure reason. Now, it is precisely this sort of claim that Lawrence is making when he insists that we must be guided by our pre-conceptual wisdom, rather than intellect. And it is certainly the case that part of what Lawrence locates in the unconscious is sentiment. Further, it is important to note that Lawrence sees this wisdom as situated in the organs and tissues of the body.

This will certainly seem like a strange claim, but when we speak of emotions and sentiments we very commonly treat these as something that happens below the neck. Human beings have always spoken of feeling things in the heart or in the pit of the stomach. The tendency in the modern world is to take this language as purely figurative. But Lawrence believes the literal meaning of the ancients is closer to the truth. As we will see, he believes that there are centers within the body which have their own forms of cognition, and ways of relating us to the world. Modern people have insisted, to their detriment, that knowing takes place exclusively in the head, and insofar as they even acknowledge such things as sentiments, instincts, and intuitions, they insist that these are “irrational” and should be shunned.

Lawrence writes that

To make the mind the absolute ruler is as good as making a Cook’s tourist-interpreter a king and a god, because he can speak several languages and make an Arab understand that an Englishman wants fish for supper. And to make an ideal a ruling principle is about as stupid as if a bunch of travelers should never cease giving each other and their dragoman sixpence, because the dragoman’s main idea of virtue is the virtue of sixpence-giving.[11]

Reason is, and ought to be, the slave of the unconscious.

Lawrence never tires of reminding us that coming to its own “fullness of being” is the ultimate end of every living thing. The unconscious wisdom of the body exists in us precisely in order to bring us to our eudaimonia. We are, as it were, programmed with the knowledge necessary for survival and flourishing right from the very beginning, like every other creature. In our case, however, our actions are not programmed—not fully, at least.

The necessary promptings and messages are there, sounding out from deep within us. But our minds must discover the proper means to carry these out. The curse of our species, it seems, is that built into the mind there is a seed of hubris. At a certain point, the chatter of mind drowns out the voice of the unconscious bodily wisdom, and proclaims its autonomy. (I shall have more to say later on about why this happens.) “Man is made up of a dual consciousness,” Lawrence writes, “of which the two halves are most of the time in opposition to one another—and will be so as long as time lasts.”[12]

Ideas and Idealism

Though Lawrence concedes that reason and ideas are necessary to human life, in a way they are always a necessary evil. In Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious, he writes that, “Ideas are the dry, unliving, insentient plumage which intervenes between us and the circumambient universe, forming at once an insulator and an instrument for the subduing of the universe.”[13] Lawrence speaks here as if ideas are dead things. Elsewhere, he speaks even more strongly, telling us that ideas are not only dead, but death-dealing: “To know a living thing is to kill it. You have to kill a thing to know it satisfactorily. For this reason, the desirous consciousness, the SPIRIT, is a vampire.”[14] And: “To know is to lose. When I have a finished mental concept of a beloved, or a friend, then the love and the friendship is dead. . . . As soon as I have a finished mental conception, a full idea even of myself, then dynamically I am dead. To know is to die.”[15] But why should this be the case?

To begin with, Lawrence is speaking primarily of knowing something that is alive. If I were truly able to form a complete idea of a living thing, of whatever species, that would mean that it no longer had anything new to show to me, that all its aspects had already been glimpsed, that it could not enter into any new and unknown relationships with other things. In other words, in order to form a complete idea of a living thing, that thing has got to be finished. The same thing applies to myself. In order to fully know myself, I would have to be finished. The day will certainly come when I will be finished, but I will never know it for on that day my knowing will be finished as well. Therefore I can never fully know myself.

The situation is similar with non-living things. To fully know, for example, a book by D. H. Lawrence I would have to know it so well that there are no aspects, no interpretations, no ways of relating it to this or that left unknown to me. At which point, the book would be finished for me, and I would probably never pick it up again. Of course, in order to know all the aspects of a book there would have to be no new ways in which the book can be brought into relationship with our lives, due to changing circumstances.

So, again, we ourselves would actually have to be finished and dead ourselves in order to achieve total knowledge of a book, or of anything for that matter. This leads to the uncomfortable realization that the telos of knowing is the death of objects, and of ourselves. Human beings by nature desire to know, and to know in full, without limit. A supposed limit is, we feel, merely a challenge to be overcome. But the realization of ultimate and final knowledge would mean the death of both subject and object.

And so the human quest for complete knowledge is ultimately nihilistic. In the modern world, we suffer from the delusion that we live in a cosmos that has been explained. If any mysteries remain, we believe we are well on our way to annulling them. Is it any wonder that nature is, in a way, dead for most modern, Western people, including the nature inside themselves? Lawrence writes that, “Our ‘understanding,’ our science and idealism have produced in people the same strange frenzy of self-repulsion as if they saw their own skulls each time they looked in the mirror.”[16]

But ideals, for Lawrence, are far more dangerous than mere ideas. Lawrence offers the following definition of idealism: “By idealism we understand the motivizing of the great affective sources by means of ideas mentally derived.”[17] In other words, idealism involves forcing the emotions and sentiments to work on behalf of ideas devised by the intellect.

To take a simple example, suppose a boy honestly does not love his mother. He is told, however, that he ought to love her; that all children ought to love their parents, and he feels terribly guilty as result. He resolves that he must love his mother, indeed that he does actually love her. All negative feelings towards her will thereupon be ruthlessly suppressed, and he will literally compel himself to feel fondness and attachment for his mother. At least, he will convince himself that he has such feelings, and will certainly be careful to give every outward indication that he has them. The result is not only that his true feelings are denied, but that those true feelings are intensified. His resentment towards his mother grows worse, for subconsciously he knows that he is emotionally repressed, and suffering because of her and because of what he “must” feel for her.

In fact, Lawrence sees the insistence on love and on the idea of “fulfillment through love” as being one of the most pernicious of our ideals: whether the demand is that we must love our family, or that we must love all of humanity. In a late essay, he writes

The way to kill any feeling is to insist on it, harp on it, exaggerate it. Insist on loving humanity, and sure as fate you’ll come to hate everybody. Because, of course, if you insist on loving humanity, then you insist that it shall be lovable: which half the time it isn’t. In the same way, insist on loving your husband, and you won’t be able to help hating him secretly.[18]

With the affective center harnessed and led about by the ideal, it becomes difficult if not impossible to get in touch with one’s true passions, true needs, and responses. Lawrence tells us that “This motivizing of the passional sphere from the ideal is the final peril of human consciousness. It is the death of all spontaneous, creative life, and the substituting of the mechanical principle.”[19] And so, as Lawrence frequently asserts, we become like machines acting according to a program, unable to express themselves spontaneously and honestly.

Many people, finding themselves in this condition, know that something is wrong and seek to rekindle this spontaneity in themselves, but they go the disastrous route of trying to do so by means of the intellect. Lawrence often depicts people like this in his fiction. Perhaps the best example of this is the character of Hermione Roddice in Women in Love. When the novel opens, Hermione (loosely based on Lady Ottoline Morrell) is carrying on an affair with Rupert Birkin, a character who obviously represents Lawrence. But Birkin feels smothered by Hermione and wants to break off the affair.

Hermione wants very much to be spontaneous and sensual, but the more she tries the worse she fares. Spontaneity and sensuality are ideals to her, and she wants to know them, to reach them through her mind. At one point Birkin tries to explain to her where she has gone wrong:

“You are merely making words,” he said; “knowledge means everything to you. Even your animalism, you want it in your head. You don’t want to be an animal, you want to observe your own animal functions, to get a mental thrill out of them. It is all purely secondary—and more decadent than the most hide-bound intellectualism. What is it but the worst and last form of intellectualism, this love of yours for passion and the animal instincts? Passion and the instincts—you want them hard enough, but through your head, in your consciousness. It all takes place in your head, under that skull of yours. Only you won’t be conscious of what actually is: you want the lie that will match the rest of your furniture.”[20]

Later in the novel, Birkin and his friend Gerald Crich encounter a group of pretentious Bohemians in London, who, like Hermione, extol passion and “naturalness” but possess neither. One of them lectures Gerald on the virtues of going about naked, because it would enable one to “feel things,” as the savages in the Amazon do. But in a corner of the room sits a reproach to his falseness, in the form of a stylized, primitive wood carving of a woman in labor. Gerald stares at it. “He saw vividly with his spirit the grey, forward-stretching face of the savage woman, dark and tense, abstracted in utter physical stress. It was a terrible face, void, peaked, abstracted almost into meaninglessness by the weight of sensation beneath.”[21] This is feeling.

Strangely, Lawrence claims that “pure idealism is identical with pure materialism, and the most ideal peoples are the most completely material.”[22] As we have said, when human beings live under the hegemony of ideals they become disconnected from their true feelings, from the true, spontaneous promptings of the unconscious. They may fear their true feelings, having the inkling that these may conflict with the ideal, and so they become numb, as it were, from the neck down. Their feelings, urges, and passions, and even the body itself, become alien things to them.

Paradoxically, however, this produces a curious fixation upon material objects. Cut off from their feelings, they come to conceive happiness not as getting into a state of profound, emotional satisfaction, but rather as getting lots of material objects. The internal having been numbed, they become exclusively focused upon the external. In Jung’s language they become extraverted. The body itself comes to be treated as yet another external object. Instead of seeking the satisfaction of the body’s own, true desires, modern “idealists” treat the body as a project: something to be “worked out” and “made over.”

Even today’s so-called hedonists are caught up with ideas about what “ought” to give them pleasure, and very often their pleasures are attempts to pacify the mind at the expense of the body. In an essay (“Introduction to Pictures”), Lawrence writes:

When did the body of a man ever like getting drunk? Never! Think how it reacts, how it vomits, how it tries to repudiate the excess of drink, how utterly wretched it feels when its sane balance is overthrown. But the mind or spirit of a man finds in intoxication some relief, some escape, some sense of license, so the drunkenness is forced upon the unhappy stomach and bowels, which gradually get used to it. But which are slowly destroyed.[23]

And, notoriously, our hedonists often seem to derive more satisfaction from thinking about or talking about their exploits than from actually experiencing them.

There is another side to idealism’s materialism though, and that is the profound lack of respect of the modern idealist for the material world. Our materialists, in fact, do not love matter but have a complete disregard for it. Like Heidegger, Lawrence believes that modern people essentially regard nature as raw material to be used and exploited. It should not surprise us that they do so, for this is how they regard their own bodies. Lawrence believes that the nadir of idealism-materialism has been reached in the United States. America is a country founded by individuals imbued with the sense that they could make a clean break with the old world, with tradition, and create a new world founded upon new and “rational” ideals. And America also happens to be the most crassly materialistic nation in the world, and the most destructive of nature.

Perhaps the most curious thing about idealism is the strange hold it exercises over most people, even when they are being destroyed by it. Lawrence writes that “once he has built himself in the shape of any ideal, man will go to any logical length rather than abandon his ideal corpus.”[24] Why is it that human beings are so peculiarly attached to idealism? That is the topic of my next essay [2].


[1] D. H. Lawrence, Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious in Fantasia of the Unconscious and Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious (New York: Penguin, 1971), 211. Henceforth: Psychoanalysis.

[2] D. H. Lawrence, Fantasia of the Unconscious in Fantasia of the Unconscious and Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious (New York: Penguin, 1971), 130. Henceforth: Fantasia.

[3] However, Lawrence confuses matters by often using “ideas” where he means “ideals.” This is especially the case in his two books on the unconscious. The context generally makes his meaning clear, however.

[4] Psychoanalysis, 249

[5] Psychoanalysis, 249.

[6] Fantasia, 133.

[7] Fantasia, 34. See also Lawrence’s lengthy essay “The Education of the People,” in Phoenix, 608.

[8] Psychoanalysis, 215.

[9] Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1982), 9.

[10] I refer, of course, to Kant’s argument in the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals that making a false promise involves acting on a maxim that “destroys itself.”

[11] Fantasia, 134.

[12] SCAL, 112.

[13] Psychoanalysis, 247.

[14] Studies in Classic American Literature, 75.

[15] Fantasia, 72.

[16] Fantasia, 115.

[17] Psychoanalysis, 210.

[18] Phoenix, 206. (“Nobody Loves Me”).

[19] Psychoanalysis, 210-211.

[20] Women in Love, 35.

[21] Women in Love, 71.

[22] Psychoanalysis, 211.

[23] Phoenix, 765 (“Introduction to Pictures”).

[24] Psychoanalysis, 211.