"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, April 14, 2017

Lady Chatterley’s Lover–Few Writers Confront Sex, Gender And Sexuality As Honestly As D.H.Lawrence

D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, his last and most mature book, discussed sex, sexuality, and sexual relationships in a far more direct and nuanced way than either The Rainbow or Women in Love.  In those previous books, Lawrence was more concerned with sexual battles of will, dominance, and submission; but by the time he wrote Lady Chatterley he was more settled in his approach. 

Lady Chatterley and her invalid, impotent husband have dealt with his condition and her lack of sexual satisfaction maturely and rather routinely.  She is quite right to have lovers, says her husband, and while an heir to the peerage and family fortune would certainly be welcome even in the most unusual circumstances, care should be taken in the selection of fathers.

Sexual dynamics are difficult in the best of cases, let alone in the unique case of Lady Chatterley and Sir Clifford; and it is not surprising that she reflects not only on her sexuality but on more existential questions.
All the great words, it seemed to Connie, were cancelled for her generation: love, joy, happiness, home, mother, father, husband, all these great, dynamic words were half dead now, and dying from day to day. Home was a place you lived in, love was a thing you didn't fool yourself about, joy was a word you applied to a good Charleston, happiness was a term of hypocrisy used to bluff other people, a father was an individual who enjoyed his own existence, a husband was a man you lived with and kept going in spirits.
As for sex, the last of the great words, it was just a cocktail term for an excitement that bucked you up for a while, then left you more raggy than ever. Frayed! It was as if the very material you were made of was cheap stuff, and was fraying out to nothing.
Eventually such intellectual distancing and philosophical settling are not enough for her.  She is angry and resentful – angry at herself for having so willingly enslaved herself to her invalid husband and so cowardly ignored her own desires.  Her sexual frustration has eroded her basic goodness, her moral judgment, and her sense of worth and goodness.
Her body was going meaningless, going dull and opaque, so much insignificant substance. It made her feel immensely depressed and hopeless. What hope was there? She was old, old at twenty-seven, with no gleam and sparkle in the flesh. Old through neglect and denial, yes, denial. Fashionable women kept their bodies bright like delicate porcelain, by external attention. There was nothing inside the porcelain; but she was not even as bright as that. The mental life! Suddenly she hated it with a rushing fury, the swindle…!
And yet, deep inside herself, a sense of injustice, of being defrauded, had begun to burn in Connie. The physical sense of injustice is a dangerous feeling, once it is awakened. It must have outlet, or it eats away the one in whom it is aroused. Poor Clifford, he was not to blame. His was the greater misfortune. It was all part of the general catastrophe.
Clifford’s friends dismiss sex and sexuality – distractions and diversions from more important pursuits.  What are sexual relations anyway, they argue, other than sporadic, pandering episodes.  Although one friend insists that true intelligence combines intellect and sensuality.  Knowing is not in end end abstract.  Kant was right in his Critique of Pure Reason. Eventually the senses had to be let in to complete the equation.

Clifford, who is included in the discussions, can only surmise solutions to the problems of meaningfulness.  “I can’t rightly comment”, he said, “being hors du combat”; but he does uneasily and self-consciously.  He adds another dimension – emotion.
It's what endures through one's life that matters; my own life matters to me, in its long continuance and development. But what do the occasional connections matter? And the occasional sexual connections especially! If people don't exaggerate them ridiculously, they pass like the mating of birds. And so they should. What does it matter? It's the life-long companionship that matters. It's the living together from day to day, not the sleeping together once or twice. You and I are married, no matter what happens to us. We have the habit of each other.
And habit, to my thinking, is more vital than any occasional excitement. The long, slow, enduring thing. . .that's what we live by. . .not the occasional spasm of any sort. Little by little, living together, two people fall into a sort of unison, they vibrate so intricately to one another.
That's the real secret of marriage, not sex; at least not the simple function of sex. You and I are interwoven in a marriage. If we stick to that we ought to be able to arrange this sex thing, as we arrange going to the dentist; since fate has given us a checkmate physically there.
There is nothing that can slow Lady Chatterley’s descent into self-indulgence, and she cannot be blamed.  Not only has she married a man who is now an impotent invalid, but his upper class manners, dismissiveness, and disdain for everyone but those of his class are repugnant.  Because of his aristocratic diffidence and coldness, he is an emotionally distant and totally unwilling partner regardless of his physical abilities.
And yet, deep inside herself, a sense of injustice, of being defrauded, had begun to burn in Connie. The physical sense of injustice is a dangerous feeling, once it is awakened. It must have outlet, or it eats away the one in whom it is aroused. Poor Clifford, he was not to blame. His was the greater misfortune. It was all part of the general catastrophe.
And yet was he not in a way to blame? This lack of warmth, this lack of the simple, warm, physical contact, was he not to blame for that? He was never really warm, nor even kind, only thoughtful, considerate, in a well-bred, cold sort of way!
Worst of all Connie feels betrayed by and hostile to men.
Connie felt again the tightness, niggardliness of the men of her generation.  They were so tight, so scared of life!
Yet she cannot abandon Clifford, despite the insistence of her sister.  She refuses, and decides to continue to live with her husband, have an heir by another man, and thus preserve her sense of moral responsibility, family duty.  She does not expect any sexual satisfaction from men who are self-centered, immature, and unconcerned about anyone but themselves. 

With Mellors, the gamekeeper on the Chatterley estate, Connie finally realizes a perfect sexual union uncomplicated by upper class obsessions with intellect, meaning, and purpose.  They are man and woman, and their simultaneous orgasm is epiphanic.  Her feelings about men, relationships, society, moral judgment and purpose can no longer be as they were.

The women in Women in Love – Ursula and Gudrun – are determined and willful.  Their relationships with Birkin and Gerald always take place within a struggle for dominance and subjugation.  Lawrence was right about the impossibility of sexual resolution.  At best an equilibrium can be established – a stand-off, an accommodation which allows for co-habitation – but at worst, men and women will constantly battle for supremacy, right, and superiority.

In Lady Chatterley’s Lover Lawrence has put aside gender wars. The story of  Connie, Clifford, and Mellors is not one of victory and defeat but a more natural and even romantic denouement.  Connie was indeed romantic to imbue simultaneous orgasm with so much existential meaning; and should not have been surprised that the fundamental social and intellectual differences between her and the gamekeeper would eventually determine their fate.

Most women are quite happy with a man who is so attentive, so thrilled by a woman’s sexual pleasure that he wants to delay his ‘crisis’.  Coming together in one moment of climax is far less sexually and emotionally fulfilling to both man and woman than  a woman’s multiple orgasms.   Connie invested far too much in an ideal idea of mutuality.

For Lawrence sex, whatever its configuration within a relationship, can never be ignored.  It is never insignificant, never meaningless.  Too much desire or too little; too little patience or indifference; too little caring or too little passion; too much sex or too little.  Every sexual innuendo is parsed, worried, or buried.  Sexual slights are rarely forgotten.  Sexual attention always given more value than it is worth.
Lawrence was not the first author to write frankly about sex, nor the only one to raise issues of will, dominance, and sexual authority.  Shakespeare’s plays were all about strong women and their dominance in a patriarchal society.  The will of Goneril, Regan, Tamora, Dionyza, Volumnia, and Lady Macbeth was indomitable and profoundly sexual.  Othello was as much about Iago’s sexual jealousy of Othello as it was Othello’s mistrust of Desdemona.   The Comedies are all about sexual foreplay within a demanding social context.

Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was all about sexual dominance and subjugation.  Tennessee Williams was the most mature and sophisticated about women’s sexual longings, disappointments, and courage.

Yet Lawrence writes with an honesty and a forthrightness that the others often lack.  He may be a less accomplished writer, but he never shies from sexual truth.  His choice of pitting a sexually impotent invalid with a strong, determined woman shows his own emotional courage.

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