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

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Isolation, Foreignness, And Belonging– Lessons From Lawrence, Albee, And Hawthorne

A principle theme in the works of D.H.Lawrence is belonging.  Whether by class, character, gender, or personality, relationships are defined by difference, independence, and need. 

Gertrude Morel married down to a collier in Nottingham and never could lose her sense of social unease.  She was the daughter of higher values, education, and breeding; and for reasons of Victorian necessity married a miner – a man unashamedly working class, simple, without airs, and yet with an attractive virility that attracted his young lover.

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Lydia Brangwen, a Polish foreigner, marries her husband out of similar necessity.  She, the widow of a successful intellectual doctor, can only make her way in Victorian England by marriage; and she is lucky to have attracted Tom Brangwen, a man beneath her social class but as virile and attractive as Walter Morel.  She has accommodated herself to adjustments in social class, is willing to adventure sexual risk as a compensation, and through force of will and character bests her husband and gains a psychic and emotional independence.

Lady Chatterley, despite her class-bound fidelity to her crippled and sexually impotent husband or because of it, has an affair with the gamekeeper of her estate and in so doing discovers the joys, liberation, and evolutionary power of sex which has nothing whatsoever to do with social class and position. 

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Lawrence understood that most people struggle with notions of personal integrity and emotional evolution – becoming one’s own person – and with the need to belong to a larger, communal group. The adolescent Ursula Brangwen is critical of the bourgeois, settled, and sexually predictable community into which she enters; instinctively remains apart, but cannot help singling out those among the community whom she desires.  She abjures the school in which she teaches, her students, and her colleagues for their intellectual insularity and ignorance, but realizes that choice is only possible within the population pool into which she has been thrown.

Tom Brangwen is suspicious of his Polish wife because he cannot know her and because he senses her reflexive return to the place of her birth.  At the same time he finds in her difference a place to hide, a place where social incompetence will be dismissed as a cultural misunderstanding and nothing more. Anna, especially in her religious phase, is dismissive of her husband who understands religion only as a matter of naves, arches and buttresses.  He can appreciate nothing more subtle than bricks and mortar.

Lady Chatterley on the other hand instinctively understands that class, profession, education, or faith have nothing to do with being. Her sexual relationship with the gamekeeper transcends any more temporal or pedestrian boundaries. It is the consummation of sexual desire and the perfect fitting of male and female regardless of externalities and trappings that counts.

It is sexual encounter which brings people together, says Lawrence, and two are enough.  Community, association, and belonging have only indifferent secular meaning compared to the existential power of sexual union.

Hawthorne in The House of the Seven Gables assumes differently and writes of the inescapable influence of family history.  No one born in the ancestral home could possibly avoid the events of the past nor the genes of one’s forefathers. There is an inevitability to family succession, and there is no point whatsoever in trying to escape it. He is surprisingly modern for sensing the environmental and social pressures of community, family, and place. The Scarlet Letter takes his assumption many steps further. 

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Ibsen in Rosmersholm and O’Neill in Mourning Becomes Electra write of the impossible weight of the past, but unlike Hawthorne add personal, psychological drama to the mix.  They are even more post-modern than he.  The libraries of both Rosmer’s and Christine Mannon’s homes are dominated by portraits of ancestors, reminders of their duty and responsibility to family honor and position.  Rosmer wants to free himself from his dutiful guilt, is beguiled by the young Rebekka West, and loses his way.  Christine Mannon will stop at nothing less than murder to rid herself of her family past and free her from its burdensome responsibility.

All these characters struggle with the conflict between personal identity and integrity and responsibility to the past. In an age of personal expression and individual validation, what is the purpose, we ask, of honoring, respecting, or perpetuating the past? Is not evolution much more than a biological imperative?  While creatures may evolve only through natural selection, is not personal evolution a matter of shedding historical snake skins?

In a world obsessed with the sanctity of national borders, the meaning of homogeneous cultural identity, and the new reality of multicultural diversity, one is likely to forget the lessons of Lawrence. The concept of community is a chimera, a diversion, and a distraction from personal evolution, he says; and this evolution can only come about through personal sexual consummation. In Lawrence’s view life without Tantric union is tepid at best and meaningless at worst.

There are many of course who dismiss Lawrence’s sexual obsession as typically male, antiquated, and irrelevant. We know know that there is no such thing as sexual polarity but only gender fluidity.  His ideas of sexual conflict, dominance and submission, and sexual epiphany are fanciful if not ignorant.

But even if one dismisses Lawrence’s notions of sexual climactic epiphany, one cannot discount his idea about the nature of sexual affairs. The reason why Ursula, a main character in The Rainbow is so obsessed with Christianity is because of her emotional uncertainty. Just like Paul Morel in Sons and Lovers, she is determined to square sexual desire, personal non-sexual intimacy, and social context.  Even if the be-all and end-all of personal relationships is not mutual orgasm, there is still something to be said for unique secular intimacy – a psychological and emotional belonging which trumps social partnership each and every time.

Nietzsche famously noted that the only validation of the individual in a meaningless world is the expression of personal will.  Lawrence’s characters, especially those in The Rainbow, Women in Love, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, all understand this principle.  They all rebel against traditional notions of family and marriage not because because of any socially progressive reasoning, but because they understand how confining and debilitating they can be.

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Edward Albee thought that marriage was an outdated, archaic institution which stifled individual expression.  Yet he also understood that marriage was the crucible of maturity. Without the inescapable confines of sanctified marriage, no one could ever evolve, always escaping into an ideal but ultimately disappointing world. It was essential that George and Martha (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) flay each other to the marrow in order to begin their marriage anew. If there was any hope for marriage or even for human intimacy, it was mortal sexual combat.

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Lawrence, Albee, and O’Neill all understood that everything depends on the heterosexual dyad – the male-female combative, defiant, and dependent relationship.  The outside world is peripheral and insignificant compared to the dynamic duo of man and woman locked within marriage.

Current post-modern progressive philosophy denies the nature of such sexual relationships. Intimacy and personal evolution is never a matter of sex or sexual dynamics but collaboration, cooperation, and empathy.  Yet to deny the essential sexual polarity of male and female and to ignore millennia of sexual conflict and resolution is idealistic at best. Lawrence was right, undeniable, and relevant.

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