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

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Sexual Promise, Disappointment, And Epiphany–D.H. Lawrence And The Essential Nature Of Sex

D.H. Lawrence more than any modern writer understood sexual dynamics. His was a an unalterably heterosexual world one in which there were fundamental differences between between male and female, and knew that a perfect sexual union of the two could be existential.  How else to describe the perfect consummation of a man and a woman, one victor and one conquered, in a primal battle between the two?

Sexual dynamics for Lawrence is nothing less than a contest of sexual far from concerns of social establishment, social order, or patriarchy; but a struggle between two essential and undeniable human natures.  Lawrence, although he never defined his terms in this way, asserted that there was such a thing as gender-defined sexuality.  Women would always be the attracting, receiving partner; but their ‘submissiveness’ had nothing to do with capitulation or defeat, but a position derived from nature.

A chapter in Lawrence’s book The Rainbow is entitled ‘Anna Victrix’ for it relates the conclusion of a battle of sexual wills between Anna and her husband.  There are no compromises in Lawrence’s fiction nor any guarantee that men will prevail.  Women, like those in Shakespeare or his contemporaries Ibsen and Strindberg, were often stronger than men, more intelligent, more canny, and more able.  There is no guarantee that Walter Morel in Sons and Lovers, Tom and Will Brangwen in The Rainbow, the men in Women in Love, or the gamekeeper in Lady Chatterley’s Lover will prevail and that male Victorian supremacy will rule the day.   On the contrary, Lawrence’s men doubt their masculinity, fight their misogyny, are sexually helpless with desire, and never able to rid themselves of their mothers, fathers, class, and ambitions.

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Women and men in Lawrence want and need to be sexually fulfilled; but both struggle to understand what that may mean.  While the complete, sexual unison that Lawrence portrays as the existential moment between a man and a woman - a catharsis of indecision and personal doubt and  a final remission of externalities and non-essentials – they must deal with an ‘after’far more complex than post-coital sadness, but a questioning of purpose and direction.  The couples in all of Lawrence’s work who have achieved this momentary sexual mutuality quickly lose its feeling of centrality.

Ursula as a young late adolescent in The Rainbow perceives the illogic significance of Jesus Christ Lord and Son of Man.  How magnificently spiritual and elegant is the risen Christ, transfigured, redeeming, and holy; but how triflingly insignificant is he, the son of man and woman, wounded, bleeding, and dying.  What is the message, she asks? Religious triumphalism or a singularly unattractive human living being? 

She comes to understand the fundamentally spiritual nature of sex – the end-all of human congress, the event of singular spiritual importance, and the most important, only event which is physical, emotional, and spiritual – and relates it to the Resurrection. God who becomes Man who becomes God in the Christian myth is a metaphorical allusion to ordinary Man becoming renewed and resurrected through sexual intercourse.

‘Nonsense’, say most post-modern critics.  There is no such thing as existential sex let alone sexual bi-polarity.  Gender exists along a fungible spectrum, they insist; and concepts of maleness and femaleness must give way to sexual gradation.  There is no such thing as man or woman, but every possible shade in between.  Lawrence’s conflicts of dominance and submission ending in sexual balance – maleness and femaleness perfectly balanced outside of considerations of gender, social class, or priority – are fictions. Women have always been chattels, complaisant in the interests of a good marriage; and the only struggle between men and women is a socio-political one.  The rest – sexual epiphany, sexual resolution, and sexual conclusion – is fantasy.

Much is made of sexuality these days, but only of the benign categorical type.  Where one fits on the gender spectrum is far more important than what does, and it seems that sex, the most fundamental, defining aspect of human relations has been forgotten.

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Of course sex is still as diverse as the billions of people on earth, and no combination or permutation should surprise; but the current trend of classification if anything devalues the principal purpose and nature of sex.

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Procreation, a one-off, deliberate practical outcome of sex, has little if anything to do with the more important dynamics of sexual behavior – dominance and submission, fantasy, infantilism, anger, frustration, and resentment; and whether one is M, F, Bi, Trans, gay, lesbian, or anything in between.

Gender classification is very American.  Social equality, justice, community, identity, and other procedural issues have always been more important than behavior.  It is far more important to create well-defined sexual spaces rather than to focus on the primal energies that are common to all.

Sex –the act itself – is as uninteresting as a cheap pornographic movie if it is divorced from need.  A rape is not sex but anger, hostility, resentment, misogyny, and sexual insufficiency.  Weekly sexual intercourse between married couples is duty, obligation, and a clausal fulfillment of contract.  Affairs are cheap anodynes, incest is sick, and transsexual adventures meaningless . Sex is an expression of will; bad sex – workmanlike, obligatory, and socially sanctioned a sign of complaisance, dissatisfaction, and anomie.

In what French intellectuals have called America’s ‘puerile sexuality’, most sexual partners look no further than the orgasm.  If it was good for both of them, then their emotional bond has been annealed.  Yet as time goes on they will inevitably have to deal with sexual frustration, an expression not only of their physical disappointment but psycho-social one.  Lack of sexual satisfaction, women know, is less a matter of male performance than male attitude.

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In Lady Chatterley’s Lover Clifford tries to put the best spin possible on his impotence.  It is not so much the sex itself but the bonding it represents.
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.
Of course Lady Chatterley disagrees.  Sex is not simply a part of marriage, it is the part; for only out of the complexity of sexual arrangements can one understand the other.
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!
When polarity is challenged and when classic sexual dynamics give way to a gentler, more accommodating ease of sexual expression, all historical and Biblical notions become irrelevant.  The story of Adam and Even in the Garden of Eden is nothing less than the first tale of sexual dynamics – an ambitious, curious, and restive female, and a complaisant, respectful, and dutiful male who differ.  The result is eternal damnation with no hope of redemption.  Forever after male and female will assert, compromise, submit, and conquer in no particular pattern or order.  Although Shakespeare’s historical plays are about men – King John, Richard II, Richard III; Henry IV, V, VI, and VIII – they are also about the women who ruled them.  Despite Elizabethan patriarch and elite social order, women always found ways to best men. 

The sexual wars were even more evident in Hamlet, Macbeth, Coriolanus, Titus Andronicus, and Pericles.  There was no question of gender indecision in Shakespeare’s mind when he envisaged the struggles between Hamlet and his mother; between the ‘un-manned’ Macbeth and his ambitious wife; and between the insatiably ambitious Tamora willing to sacrifice her children in her vengeance against Titus.

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.

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It is hard to ignore almost 3000 years of dramatic history, the chronicles of male-female relations from Oedipus to Blanche Dubois.  Tennessee Williams wrote a play worthy of Sophocles. Streetcar Named Desire is the quintessential play about human sexuality.  Sexual dominance, submission, history, calculation, and desire are indistinguishable from more secular human events.  Williams, like Lawrence schooled us in the essentiality of sexual dynamics.

Those men who have missed out on demanding lovers, ambitious wives, fawning daughters and a life of sexual adventure fall outside the margins.  They may have been content within them – stable, secure, and untroubled – but they have never known what Lawrence called ‘happy liberal excesses’,

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