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

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Sexual Dynamics–The Necessary And Important Conflictual Nature Of Sexual Relationships

D.H. Lawrence, perhaps more than any other writer of fiction was concerned with the idea of sexual will, the exercise of which is central to all relationships; and only if equilibrium is established through struggle for dominance or acceptance of submission can relationships be anything more than predictable and ordinary. In Women in Love, the novel which most completely explores the sexual dynamics among all four characters – Ursula, Gudrun, Gerald, and Birkin – both men and women struggle to fix their place and roles based on sexual conflict. 

There are no romances in the novel although all are looking for relationships which will be mutually satisfying while uncompromising.  All characters recognize sexual power as the essential expression of will and are attracted to it; but none are willing to give up their own sovereignty. As the relationships mature, simplistic notions of sexual dominance are replaced by more complex one of submission.  All the characters having struggled with their partners throughout the book reconsider their sexual purpose.

Lawrence and Edward Albee are the two modern writers who best understood the idea of will within the context of sexual relationships. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf  Albee tells of the brutal, savage, and unremitting expression of will and desire for dominance of George and Martha.  At the end, when they are both ‘flayed to the marrow’ with no energy left for fighting, with their wills spent and irrelevant, they come together.  Perhaps there is hope after all.  George and Martha might not love each other, but they realize that the both need each other to survive. Love, if it exists at all, is a by-product of sexual equilibrium.  There is at least some hope that they, with their individual wills at least for the time being neutralized, can restore whatever mutual feelings they might have had decades earlier. 

Lawrence’s hope has nothing to do with mutuality and the weakening of individual will but with the resolution of conflict between essentially male and female beings.  In all his novels, especially Lady Chatterley’s Lover, he expresses his almost mystical belief in the spiritual nature of sexual union through which perfect Tantric complementarity between maleness and femaleness is achieved.  Post-modern critics have dismissed Lawrence as a hopeless romantic surprisingly oblivious in matters of sexual intimacy to the psycho-social, cultural, and political forces of which he is very much aware in all of his novels. Men and women are fundamentally different, Lawrence writes, but their common traits – intelligence, will, and ambition – prevent the ambitionless, emotional, submission to each other which constitutes perfect sexual union. Sexual combat must necessarily result, for only when issues of dominance and submission have been resolved and each partner has accepted their sexual nature and personal identity within it can any possible satisfaction occur.

Ibsen writes compellingly about will and how it governs all relationships; but his characters are more one-dimensional.  The complex sexual nature of will expressed by Lawrence is absent, and Ibsen’s women are less concerned with the sexual nature of dominance and submission than with sovereignty alone.  Hedda Gabler has no reason for trying to dominate and destroy the men around her; nothing particular to gain.  The expression of will is the only validation of the individual, Nietzsche claimed; and Hedda’s actions were pure, uncomplicated, and mortally determined. Hilde Wangel (The Master Builder) was no different. She had nothing to gain by controlling the architect Solness and sending to him death from the church tower any more than Hedda had by encouraging her lover’s suicide.  For both women it was the exercise of will that mattered – a purely amoral expression of individual power; and neither had the rectitude and moral purpose of Nora (A Doll’s House) whose rejection of her husband was a refusal to live by the norms of an abusive husband and an oppressive society; or the conviction of Rebekka West whose domination and manipulation of Rosmer had a political purpose. 

Strindberg’s Miss Julie is more akin to the characters of Lawrence than any of Ibsen’s.  She is a strong, willful, determined woman who is conflicted by her sexual desire for Jean whom she sees as essentially male and dominant.  At first she dominates him, humiliates him, and tests him; but in the end she cannot resist him.  She ends badly, and Jean, despite his sexual and social pretensions, returns to form.

Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Elektra is a sexual melodrama – a theatrical soap opera of the Mannon family complete with incest, adultery, murder, and jealousy.  Christine Mannon is no different from an Ibsen hero – determined, willful, amoral, and ambitious – and she uses her marriage and her children to promote those she favors and to eliminate those she does not.  In his more mature plays like Long Day’s Journey Into Night, sexual dynamics of influence and authority are more subtle. Mary Tyrone is a tyrant who, although drug addicted and dying, manipulates her husband and her sons, relying on guilt, filial love and responsibility, and will. She is far less attractive than Hedda or Hilde because she is so self-serving and selfish.  Her control results less from willful dominance than the weakness of others. 

Shakespeare’s plays are all about sexual combat, and strong women feature in almost all of them. Tamora, Dionyza, Goneril, Regan, Volumnia, Margaret, and Cleopatra are just some of his tragic willful heroines.  Rosalind and Beatrice like most of the women in the Comedies are less amoral and destructive, but manipulative and purposeful as well. Romeo and Juliet was the only love story that Shakespeare ever wrote.  All the rest of his 37 plays were cynical about love, marriage, and intimate relationships.  He did not doubt the human folly behind sexual attraction, but knew that it must always be contained within the rigors of a practical, economic-based treaty between men and women.  Shakespeare understood that sexual competition, particularly in an unequal society, was unavoidable and predictable. Women would use every bit of their sexual advantage over men to achieve their ambitious ends.

Today’s marriages take the notion of contract and treaty as seriously as the Elizabethans; and are entered into only with ironclad prenuptial agreements. Choice of residence is governed by state tax laws and regulations concerning communal property.  Men and women, for all the blush and exuberance of weddings, are deeply suspicious of each other, certainly as much as in Shakespeare’s time.

So, what is to be made of the modern, loosely-defined marriage, concluded on practical grounds in which responsibility is measured by adherence  to prescribed rules, limitations, and regulations?  Are we not moving farther and farther from the truths suggested by Albee and Lawrence?  Albee, who hated bourgeois institutions and especially marriage, understood however how it is the crucible of maturity. Unless couples face their sexual roles and their ability either to exert their will or submit to that of the other, they have no chance of any real fundamental relationship.  Easy divorce means easy escape and little promise of anything but facile satisfaction.

Lawrence went ever further. In The Rainbow he explores the nature of sexual desire.  Sexual unions can only be finalized if the two partners know each other deeply – and to achieve this understanding they must compete, conflict, and emotionally battle. Tom Brangwen wants to have sex with the young Polish woman he meets, but fears her ‘unknown’.  Casual sex has no value for Lawrence.

The idea of dominance and submission in sexual affairs has acquired a negative connotation today, for it suggests outdated notions of patriarchy and male authority. Yet viewed through the more critical lens of Lawrence, it is no such thing.  Lawrence and Albee in particular understood that conflict is human, and sexual conflict absolute; but only out of such sexual struggles for dominance can a more perfect union be formed.

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