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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

'Women In Love’–Will, Despair, And Not Much Love At All

D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love is a pessimistic book about the lives of four selfish people – Birkin, Gerald, Ursula, and Gudrun.  Each of them struggles with a native individualism, one which celebrates will, domination, and superiority; and a desire for love, emotional accommodation, and security.  None of them find a resolution to the conflict, and all ends unhappily.

Gerald had penetrated all the outer places of Gudrun's soul. He was to her the most crucial instance of the existing world, the ne plus ultra of the world of man as it existed for her. In him she knew the world, and had done with it. Knowing him finally she was the Alexander seeking new worlds. But there were no new worlds there were no more men, there were only creatures, little, ultimate creatures like Loerke.  The world was finished now, for her. There was only the inner, individual darkness, sensation within the ego, the obscene religious mystery of ultimate reduction, the mystic frictional activities of diabolic reducing down, disintegrating the vital organic body of life.
The outer world for Gudrun was exploration and conquest but little of substantive value.  Finally one must accept the ironic reality that not only does life and its creatures have no meaning, but that understanding and philosophical resolution – the result of the vanity of knowledge as Lawrence describes it – mean nothing as well.  All that is left at the end of one’s life is ‘ultimate reduction’.
Gudrun, like Gerald and Ursula, have been Nietzschean determinists. The expression of pure individual will, they all believed, is the only validation of human life.  While both Supermen and those of the herd over which they ride end up in the same unceremonious way and in the same, hard, unsanctified ground, the Übermensch has at least given his life temporal meaning.

Yet Gudrun realizes that even this philosophical indifference has no salience nor solace.  The disassembling – the ‘disintegration’ of the ‘vital organic body of life’ – begins at birth.  There is nothing one can do to stop it.

Konstantin Levin remarked about God’s cruel irony in Anna Karenina. God created man with intelligence, wit, creativity, insight, and passion; gave him life for a few, scant decades, and then consigned him for all eternity in the cold, hard ground of the steppes.

It is this sense of divine mockery that leads all of Lawrence’s characters to despair.  Birkin dismisses this total pessimism by claiming that self-knowledge is worth something – perhaps the only thing – but he cannot get over his disillusionment with life and humanity.
'I?—I'm not right,' he cried back. 'At least my only rightness lies in the fact that I know it. I detest what I am, outwardly. I loathe myself as a human being. Humanity is a huge aggregate lie, and a huge lie is less than a small truth. Humanity is less, far less than the individual, because the individual may sometimes be capable of truth, and humanity is a tree of lies.
And they say that love is the greatest thing; they persist in saying this, the foul liars, and just look at what they do! Look at all the millions of people who repeat every minute that love is the greatest, and charity is the greatest—and see what they are doing all the time. By their works ye shall know them, for dirty liars and cowards, who daren't stand by their own actions, much less by their own words.'
Yet Birkin gives in to love – not for Ursula but for Gerald. 
'Did you need Gerald?' Ursula asked one evening [after Gerald’s death].
'Yes,' he said.
'Aren't I enough for you?' she asked.
'No,' he said. 'You are enough for me, as far as a woman is concerned. You are all women to me. But I wanted a man friend, as eternal as you and I are eternal.'
'Why aren't I enough?' she said. 'You are enough for me. I don't want anybody else but you. Why isn't it the same with you?'
'Having you, I can live all my life without anybody else, any other sheer intimacy. But to make it complete, really happy, I wanted eternal union with a man too: another kind of love,' he said.
'I don't believe it,' she said. 'It's an obstinacy, a theory, a perversity.'
'Well—' he said.
'You can't have two kinds of love. Why should you!'
'It seems as if I can't,' he said. 'Yet I wanted it.'
'You can't have it, because it's false, impossible,' she said.
'I don't believe that,' he answered.
Ursula is no different, and reflects Gudrun’s sense of final dissolution; but she says that death, far from the ignominious end to a ‘mechanized life’, is the only true spiritually meaningful part of it.  In what is perhaps Lawrence’s central theme of the book, Ursula says:
But better die than live mechanically a life that is a repetition of repetitions. To die is to move on with the invisible. To die is also a joy, a joy of submitting to that which is greater than the known, namely, the pure unknown. That is a joy.
But to live mechanized and cut off within the motion of the will, to live as an entity absolved from the unknown, that is shameful and ignominious. There is no ignominy in death. There is complete ignominy in an replenished, mechanized life. Life indeed may be ignominious, shameful to the soul. But death is never a shame. Death itself, like the illimitable space, is beyond our sullying…
But the great, dark, illimitable kingdom of death, there humanity was put to scorn. So much they could do upon earth, the multifarious little gods that they were. But the kingdom of death put them all to scorn, they dwindled into their true vulgar silliness in face of it.
How beautiful, how grand and perfect death was, how good to look forward to. There one would wash off all the lies and ignominy and dirt that had been put upon one here, a perfect bath of cleanness and glad refreshment, and go unknown, unquestioned, unabased. After all, one was rich, if only in the promise of perfect death. It was a gladness above all, that this remained to look forward to, the pure inhuman otherness of death.
Whatever life might be, it could not take away death, the inhuman transcendent death. Oh, let us ask no question of it, what it is or is not. To know is human, and in death we do not know, we are not human. And the joy of this compensates for all the bitterness of knowledge and the sordidness of our humanity. In death we shall not be human, and we shall not know. The promise of this is our heritage, we look forward like heirs to their majority.
Yet at moments Ursula “yielded and softened, she wanted pure love, only pure love.  This other, this state of constant unfailing repudiation was a strain, a suffering also.  A terrible desire for pure love overcame her again”.

Gerald is the most interesting character in the book because throughout he maintains a willful individualism and acts on it.  He revolutionizes the coal industry, turns his own family collieries into highly productive and profitable enterprises; uses his own physical beauty and charm to attract both men and women; and is of the four, the most seemingly secure. 

Like Singleton (The Nigger of the Narcissus) who expresses Conrad’s view that knowledge is tantamount to misery and failure and that work, duty, and non-thinking self-servitude is the only key to happiness in a brutal world, Gerald speaks for the enterprise which satisfies individual will and intelligence but also produces something of value.

Image result for conrad nigger of the narcissus

Konstantin Levin shares Gerald’s view.  When congratulated by his wife for having made the lot of the peasants better through innovative agricultural reform, he replies, “Nonsense”.  He did it for himself and the revenues that it produced.  Worker benefits were a by-product.
There was plenty of coal…here it lay, inert matter, as it had always lain, since the beginning of time, subject to the will of man. The will of man was the determining factor. Man was the archgod of earth. His mind was obedient to serve his will. Man's will was the absolute, the only absolute.
And it was his will to subjugate Matter to his own ends. The subjugation itself was the point, the fight was the be-all, the fruits of victory were mere results. It was not for the sake of money that Gerald took over the mines…What he wanted was the pure fulfillment of his own will in the struggle with the natural conditions.
His will was now, to take the coal out of the earth, profitably. The profit was merely the condition of victory, but the victory itself lay in the feat achieved…
Yet Gerald is the one whose philosophical construct fails him most.  He commits suicide in despair.  As he stumbles through the snowy mountain woods, he is afraid, resentful, and disgusted at his hatred for Gudrun.  The vanity of his sense of superiority and Übermensch will have been found out.  He is no more than a pathetic creature posturing as a dominant male while acting like a pitiful member of the herd.
There was something standing out of the snow. He approached, with dimmest curiosity.
It was a half-buried Crucifix, a little Christ under a little sloping hood, at the top of a pole. He sheered away. Somebody was going to murder him. He had a great dread of being murdered. But it was a dread which stood outside him, like his own ghost...
Lord Jesus, was it then bound to be—Lord Jesus! He could feel the blow descending, he knew he was murdered. Vaguely wandering forward, his hands lifted as if to feel what would happen, he was waiting for the moment when he would stop, when it would cease. It was not over yet.
He had come to the hollow basin of snow, surrounded by sheer slopes and precipices, out of which rose a track that brought one to the top of the mountain. But he wandered unconsciously, till he slipped and fell down, and as he fell something broke in his soul, and immediately he went to sleep.
Women in Love has few redeeming values and fewer new insights.  The issue of will was far better expressed in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler published only a few years before Women. Hedda is a woman of indomitable will and ambition, the model of Rebekka West (Rosmersholm) and Hilde Wangel (The Master Builder).  Strindberg’s The Father, published 30 years before Women is similarly a depiction of an amoral woman with unstoppable ambition.  All these characters have no doubts nor are given to the often preachy moralizing of Lawrence. 

Image result for images ibsen rosmersholm

Questions of meaning, meaninglessness, being, and nothingness were far more articulately discussed by Nietzsche (Thus Spake Zarathustra) and Tolstoy (A Confession).

Perhaps most importantly Lawrence’s characters for all their conflicts, intelligent reasoning, and fearless exploration of sexuality, are uninteresting if not antipathetic.  It is hard to relate to, sympathize with, or have any compassion for any of them, especially the women.  At least Birkin resolves his dilemmas, marries Ursula, and admits his love for Gerald; and at least Gerald comes to brave if fearful accommodation with his weakness and unfulfilled life; but Ursula and Gudrun are either idealistically romantic or pitilessly indifferent.  They both try to justify their desire for love in philosophical terms which makes their emotions so much the more untenable and unbelievable.

There are some interesting points raised by Lawrence.  The idea of dissolution is interesting - “Dissolution just rolls on, just as production does…It is a progressive process, and it ends in universal nothing, the end of the world…If it is the end, then we are the end, fleurs du mal…If we are fleurs du mal, we are not roses of happiness…”.  His ideas about the corrupting nature of knowledge reflects Conrad but is more harsh and uncompromising.   His passages about death and dying are uniquely positioned within a philosophical context.
Darkly without thinking at all, Ursula knew she was near to death. She had traveled all her life along the line of fulfillment, and it was nearly concluded…She had experienced all there was to experience…and there remained only to fall from the tree into death; and one must fulfill one’s development to the end….and the next step was over the border into death.  So it was then!
The passages describing the dying of Thomas Crich are similar to those of Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich and almost as powerful.

The book is ultimately unsatisfying because it presents conflict without resolution.  The characters are neither here nor there and seem very adolescent in their search for meaning.  They are too changeable for one to develop sympathy or empathy; and their struggles are too predictable to interest the reader.

Women in Love is a bit of a slog, very preachy, sexually revolutionary for its time (1920) but long passé; without any real intellectual innovation and especially for a novel, passion.

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