Wednesday, September 30, 2015

D.H. Lawrence looks for love in the broken world of Lady Chatterley's Lover

photo credit: Mighty Reader

What it's not is a book about sex, not really. There is sex, there is explicit writing about sex and sexual anatomy, but not a great deal of it because Lady Chatterley's Lover is not a book about sex; it's a book about people, a book about striving toward love and truth and beauty and meaning in a world that seems to contain none of those things, a world in which love and truth and beauty and meaning have been trampled into mud and had factories built over them. Lady Chatterley's Lover is a book that searches for life among the ruins of culture. Where it finds life is in a strange and idiosyncratic sensuality that Lawrence attempts to describe, which is where the sex comes into the novel. A strange and idiosyncratic sex.

A lot of the writing about sex is awkward, it's true. Lawrence had no model, and so he was making it up as he went along, writing explicitly and seriously about sex and genitalia and trying not to embarrass himself. Some of it is painful but much of it seems honest and compassionate, as Lawrence has great compassion for humanity even while he runs amok scourging humanity for it's vanity and selfishness. Lawrence writes about sex the same way he writes about motor cars, the same fascinated way he writes about flowers or the moon, taking it all earnestly and layering it with emotion. The second act, the long midsection of the novel that tells the story of Lady Chatterley's affair with her husband's gamekeeper Mellors, has an internal structure of increasingly intensified writing about sex (interpolated with a great deal of social commentary), of gradual coarsening of language, of Lawrence's battle to strip shame away from sex and sensuality. He's not successful in the battle, but he fights it bravely. For the characters, at least, the battle is won, and that's good enough. Idiosyncratic phallocentric sexuality carries the day and Connie--Lady Chatterley--is delivered into freedom. After that, the novel sort of unravels and becomes far less interesting.

The third act of the novel is, regrettably, pretty conventional stuff. It ties up plot threads and solves the logistical problems of the action and contains a good number of commonplace and talky scenes, sometimes swerving drunkenly into Jane Austen denouement territory. The groundskeeper, the man with whom Lady Chatterley has her affair, turns out to be less of an outsider than a misunderstood solid chap who is really a straight shooter with management potential. Even Lawrence could not bring his socialite heroine to lower herself to the level of the working class, a powerful irony the author was no doubt unaware of:
"...his name is Oliver Mellors."

"And how would you like to be Mrs Oliver Mellors, instead of Lady Chatterley?"

"I'd love it."

There was nothing to be done with Connie. And anyhow, if the man had been a lieutenant in the army in India for four or five years, he must be more or less presentable. Apparently he had character. Hilda began to relent a little.

"But you'll be through with him in awhile," she said, "and then you'll be ashamed of having been connected with him. One CAN'T mix up with the working people."

"But you are such a socialist! you're always on the side of the working classes."

"I may be on their side in a political crisis, but being on their side makes me know how impossible it is to mix one's life with theirs. Not out of snobbery, but just because the whole rhythm is different."

Hilda had lived among the real political intellectuals, so she was disastrously unanswerable.
Lawrence, too, is on their side in a political crisis, but he has no wish to be a collier like his father, or to accept that a collier has the same ultimate worth as an artist. That's an argument for another day, though. In Lady Chatterley, Lawrence is singing the praises of common humanity:
The nondescript evening in the hotel dragged out, and at last they had a nondescript dinner. Then Connie slipped a few things into a little silk bag, and combed her hair once more.

"After all, Hilda," she said, "love can be wonderful: when you feel you LIVE, and are in the very middle of creation." It was almost like bragging on her part.

"I suppose every mosquito feels the same," said Hilda.

"Do you think it does? How nice for it!"
In praise of mosquitoes, then. Maybe tomorrow I'll get around to talking about the mosquitoes, the machines, the mine-owning dukes and the bolshevists.

photo: Mighty Reader

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

"jigging English sisters" DH Lawrence in Paris with Lady Chatterley

In Paris at any rate she felt a bit of sensuality still. But what a weary, tired, worn-out sensuality. Worn-out for lack of tenderness. Oh! Paris was sad. One of the saddest towns: weary of its now-mechanical sensuality, weary of the tension of money, money, money, weary even of resentment and conceit, just weary to death, and still not sufficiently Americanized or Londonized to hide the weariness under a mechanical jig-jig-jig! Ah, these manly he-men, these FLANEURS, the oglers, these eaters of good dinners! How weary they were! weary, worn-out for lack of a little tenderness, given and taken. The efficient, sometimes charming women knew a thing or two about the sensual realities: they had that pull over their jigging English sisters. But they knew even less of tenderness. Dry, with the endless dry tension of will, they too were wearing out. The human world was just getting worn out. Perhaps it would turn fiercely destructive. A sort of anarchy! Clifford and his conservative anarchy! Perhaps it wouldn't be conservative much longer. Perhaps it would develop into a very radical anarchy.

Connie found herself shrinking and afraid of the world. Sometimes she was happy for a little while in the Boulevards or in the Bois or the Luxembourg Gardens. But already Paris was full of Americans and English, strange Americans in the oddest uniforms, and the usual dreary English that are so hopeless abroad.

She was glad to drive on.
I, on the other hand, was quite happy to find myself in Paris. But I'm not making the argument that Lawrence is making in Lady Chatterley's Lover, the argument based upon false nostalgia, that mankind should return to some primitive, pre-industrial state, that the straining after money has emasculated men which has in turn unsexed women and there is nothing left of real humanity except walking corpses modeled psychically upon machines, machines that have no purpose and will eventually--even hopefully (says one of Lawrence's characters in a nod to Nietzsche)--destroy themselves and leave nothing left except a space for the next species to come along and inhabit the earth as masters. Lady Chatterley's Lover is a political novel, a social novel, a big Dickensian argument against the status quo and the grinding down of the working classes. Dickens' solutions were always social, a diverting of money and an awareness of the dignity of the poor. Lawrence's solutions are quite different, and alien, and it might surprise Lawrence to see how they are also patronizing and don't actually solve the problems of real life. Yet he makes them, because he has conflated the economic problems of England with the psychological problem of true love. To solve the one, Lawrence argues, is to solve the other.

It also occurred to me on the walk from the bus to my front door this evening that Jonathan Franzen's Freedom is a weak version of Lady Chatterley's Lover, a version that takes the phallos (as DHL would say) seriously but has none of the bravery, humanity, or originality of Lawrence's narrative. Chatterley is a risky novel, in a number of ways.

photo credits: Mighty Reader

Monday, September 28, 2015

especially popular novels

Connie heard long conversations going on between the two. Or rather, it was mostly Mrs Bolton talking. She had unloosed to him the stream of gossip about Tevershall village. It was more than gossip. It was Mrs Gaskell and George Eliot and Miss Mitford all rolled in one, with a great deal more, that these women left out.' Once started, Mrs Bolton was better than any book, about the lives of the people. She knew them all so intimately, and had such a peculiar, flamey zest in all their affairs, it was wonderful, if just a trifle humiliating to listen to her. At first she had not ventured to 'talk Tevershall', as she called it, to Clifford. But once started, it went on. Clifford was listening for 'material', and he found it in plenty. Connie realized that his so-called genius was just this: a perspicuous talent for personal gossip, clever and apparently detached. Mrs Bolton, of course, was very warm when she 'talked Tevershall'. Carried away, in fact. And it was marvellous, the things that happened and that she knew about. She would have run to dozens of volumes.

Connie was fascinated, listening to her. But afterwards always a little ashamed. She ought not to listen with this queer rabid curiosity. After all, one may hear the most private affairs of other people, but only in a spirit of respect for the struggling, battered thing which any human soul is, and in a spirit of fine, discriminative sympathy. For even satire is a form of sympathy. It is the way our sympathy flows and recoils that really determines our lives. And here lies the vast importance of the novel, properly handled. It can inform and lead into new places the flow of our sympathetic consciousness, and it can lead our sympathy away in recoil from things gone dead. Therefore, the novel, properly handled, can reveal the most secret places of life: for it is in the passional secret places of life, above all, that the tide of sensitive awareness needs to ebb and flow, cleansing and freshening.

But the novel, like gossip, can also excite spurious sympathies and recoils, mechanical and deadening to the psyche. The novel can glorify the most corrupt feelings, so long as they are conventionally 'pure'. Then the novel, like gossip, becomes at last vicious, and, like gossip, all the more vicious because it is always ostensibly on the side of the angels. Mrs Bolton's gossip was always on the side of the angels. 'And he was such a bad fellow, and she was such a nice woman.' Whereas, as Connie could see even from Mrs Bolton's gossip, the woman had been merely a mealy-mouthed sort, and the man angrily honest. But angry honesty made a 'bad man' of him, and mealy-mouthedness made a 'nice woman' of her, in the vicious, conventional channelling of sympathy by Mrs Bolton.

For this reason, the gossip was humiliating. And for the same reason, most novels, especially popular ones, are humiliating too. The public responds now only to an appeal to its vices.
from Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence I will have stuff to say about this novel in the coming days, I think. Meanwhile, I remain jet lagged from our flight back from Paris.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

first world problems

I have not been here, as is clear to my hypothetical dedicated readers, nor have I been elsewhere on the interwebs. I've been hard at work in an office and in a house, preparing for a vacation. I will continue to not be here once the vacation actually begins, because I am leaving the interwebs behind. At odd moments I think about the stack of revisions to my novel Mona in the Desert that will be waiting for me at the close of our vacation; I feel a neutral sort of headache about all the work I'll need to do in the way of typing up changes, but at least all of the revisions are made to the MS and all the new material is written. I feel decidedly not neutral regarding all the work that will be waiting for me at the office, but that's the price we pay for taking time for ourselves, I suppose. "First world problems," as meine Frau would say.

I also, in odd corners of free time, torture myself with the question of what book I'll take on the plane. Possibly The New York Stories of Henry James. Possibly The New York Stories of Edith Wharton. Possibly a Chekhov collection, for comfort. I don't know. I will know when I pack the book.