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

Monday, October 15, 2018

D.H. Lawrence’s Sexual Epiphany Played Out Today– Predictable, Boring Episodes Of A Daytime TV Series

D.H. Lawrence had a very particular if not unique way at looking at sex.  Far from prescribed procreative union of man and wife, nor the expression of love and belonging, nor passionate adulterous, hopeful affairs, nor the refuge from an unconcerned, dispassionate world; sexual union had epiphanic possibilities.  If a man and a woman could come to sexual consummation in a state of perfect sexual balance – male and female impulses and desires for submission or domination, love or hate in perfect equilibrium after a struggle of wills – it would not only be personally satisfying fulfilling, but would represent existential hope.  Both the corrosive and demeaning effects of modern industrialization and the equally disabling influences of sexual primitivism would be dismissed or superseded.  The centrality of sexual expression was not only the core of male-female relationships but a model for post-antagonistic, equal and balanced human relations.

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Of course no one who reads Lawrence can take him entirely at his word. At worst he is prolix, repetitive, and boringly insistent.  ‘Enough already’, cry even the most sympathetic critics.

Yet Lawrence was on to something. No matter how much one can see a more balanced, tolerant, and permissive approach to sex and sexuality, the war between the sexes continues unabated with nary a sign of Lawrence’s hoped-for epiphany. No matter where one figures on the sexual spectrum, the struggle is one of wills rather than gender.  Lawrence, despite his insistent focus on the essentiality of heterosexual relationships – no different from the Tao, the concept of ying and yang, Tantrism and Shaktism – was tolerant of alternative versions of sexuality.  Ursula and Ingrid in The Rainbow had a lesbian relationship; and the friendship between Gerald and Birkin in Women in Love while never explicitly sexual, was far more than simple male friendship.

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His point was that gender specificity – or lack thereof – made no difference to the essential nature, common to all, of sexual dynamics.  Sex will always determine winners and loser in struggles  of will, regardless of roles.  Gay men will fight their way to sexual equilibrium with just as much investment and just as much pain as their straight colleagues.

Lawrence is intriguing and compelling because of his insistent focus on the expression of sexual will – not as a boring replay of marital discord, but as essential and necessary for emotional, psychological, and spiritual evolution.  Paul Morel, the main character in Sons and Lovers battles his dependency on his mother, hatred for his father, and sexual ambivalence with women because he is sexually naïve, and immature.  He thinks only in traditional terms.  He wants a saint-whore as a partner, the perfect amalgamation of artistic sensitivity, rectitude, and sexual desire.  He cannot appreciate sexual nuance nor the inevitable struggle of sexual will.  He is dismissed by both Miriam who grows impatient with his dithering and Clara, profoundly sexual, who sees him as far less of a man than her abusive husband.

Tom Brangwen is as befuddled by women, sexual enterprise, and the meaning of coupling.  He has no clue about women, wants them to love him and support him, but hates them because of their power.  Will Brangwen is equally perplexed and finds meaning in his relationship with Anna only in the bedroom.  He sense the need for something more, but shares Paul Morel’s and Tom Brangwen’s immaturity and naivete.  Skrebensky cannot abide Ursula’s demanding independence and sexual will, finds his traditional patrician sense of dominance disturbed and waning when he is with her, and ends up more disappointed and alone than ever.

Edward Albee understood sexual dynamics as well if not better than Lawrence.  His Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is the seminal piece on sexual battle, resolution, and epiphany.  At the end of three acts of brutality, meanness, and cruelty George and Martha find themselves flayed not to the bone but to the marrow.  All illusions, all ideals, all preconceptions about dominance and submission, union and independence have been stripped.  They are Lear’s bare, forked animals.  They can only promise each other a better, more informed, more resolute future; but few playgoers agree.  They have done all the right things – as Lawrence’s characters do – but still have not faced who they are and what they must become.

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Ibsen, Strindberg, and O’Neill, let alone Shakespeare, understood the fundamental, innate nature of sexual will.  Nothing other than the struggle for sexual supremacy was relevant or meaningful.  Hedda Gabler is a pure Nietzschean figure, but she learned nothing, advanced not at all, and was happy only in her exercise of will.  The women of The Master Builder and Rosmersholm were equally determined and defiant.  Laura (The Father) was a manipulative, dominant, amoral character who knew how to humiliate and destroy her husband to attain her own ends.

There seems today to be nothing of the sort.  There are no existential battles of male and female sexual wills, but victory by attrition.  A pound of flesh here, a minor adultery there, a string of allegations, suspicions, and denials; but nothing epiphanic.  The only result of a bad marriage today is divorce, a period of adjustment, and a re-engagement in rounds of sexual mating.

There is nothing tested, nothing lost, nothing gained, nothing even ventured.  Lawrence wrote:
So with man and woman.  They must stand clear again. Or rather, they must fight their way out of their self-consciousness; there is nothing else.  Or rather each must fight the other out of self-consciousness.  Instead of this leprous forbearance which we are taught to practice in our intimate relationships, there should be the most intense, open antagonism.
We are far from and afraid of such contention for fear of what it will uncover – weakness, timidity, submission or worse.  We would rather accommodate, compromise, and settle rather than confront.  Confrontation is antagonistic, against the rules of progressive evolution.  Nothing can be gained, many claim, from sexual conflict.  All is to be decided within a civil, progressive context – one where women ultimately have the final say, where gender rights are finally established, and where peaceful resolution rules.

Worst of all, men have ceded their rightful equal place in the ring  They, according to Lawrence, have become too feminine, too complaisant, too willing to abandon maleness.  Women for their part have filled the sexual void, but their ambition, their insistence on a new, dominant sexual role must come with a price.  No advances either by men or women in the sexual arena should go unchallenged.  Only through challenge, conflict, and resolution can sexual parity ever be achieved.

So one must put up with bickering, bitching, and whining about up-down toilet seats, hair in the sink, and too many days ‘working late at the office’; too much slavish responsibility to children, hearth, home, kitchen refinishing, and  budgets; too much boring,  repetitive sex; and nothing at the end of the day but dry aspirations. 

It would be far better to have the all-out, winner-take-all battles of George and Martha, Anna and Will, Tom and Lydia, and Ursula and Skrebensky than the stale, unpleasant arguments of ‘modern’ Americans. 

Better to have at it, no holds barred.

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