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

Sunday, November 25, 2018

I’ll Have What She’s Having–The Sexual Ecstasy Of Lady Chatterley

Sexual ecstasy did not come easily to Connie Chatterley, the main character of D.H. Lawrence’s novel.  According to Lawrentian philosophy true sexual ecstasy could only come from a mutual partnership, one in which dominance and submission have been equalized, male and female character finally and independently expressed but never lost in sexual intercourse.  In Women in Love, Ursula and Gudrun both struggle with issues of will, dependence, and emotional freedom.  They constantly test their lovers, Birkin and Gerald, and never rest until they feel they have found, sexual equilibrium and the right sexual partner. 


Gerald and Birkin must prove themselves; but since neither Ursula nor her sister know what they are looking for – what the ideal man would look like – it is the struggle alone with which they become obsessed.  Birkin is intellectual, but windy; sure of himself but in a presumptuous way.  He claims he wants to know more about life and its meaning, but flounders and is caught in Lawrence’s eternal dilemma.  Intellectual pursuits, while characteristic and essential parts of human existence, are chimeras, for they divert men and woman from realizing their equally important non-rational, emotional potential.  Sensuality and the pursuit of physical expression is equally misleading.  African paganism, as tempting as it is as a pure expression of sexuality and sensual being, can only lead to delusion.

African mask

Gerald is diffident and distant; alone, confused, and unhappy; but later in life he rejects indifference and inaction, and takes over his father’s failing collieries and makes them profitable.  He rejects his father’s compassion and consideration for the miners and thinks only of reforming the company into a model of absolute willful, laissez-faire capitalism.  Through this expression of practical will, Gerald believes he can become a man and the man that Gudrun wants.

Birkin flounders in ideas, emotionally attached to them, but never completed by them.  He is the early model for Connie Chatterley’s crippled husband, Clifford, who because of his infirmity, believes that ideas and the words that express them are of a higher value, a more perfect ethic and the only means to redemption and salvation.

The women are no more convinced or certain than the men, and fluctuate between extremes – religion and promiscuity, love and hate, desire and rejection, dominance and submission.  In such a world of conflicted emotions, spirit, and physical desire, there can be no Lawrentian sexual epiphany.

And so it is for Connie Chatterley at the beginning of her story.  Shortly after her marriage to Clifford, a wealthy English aristocrat, he is brutally and severely maimed in the war and made impotent.  She is patient, tolerant, and caring, and willing to accept the responsibilities of marriage and the duties of her rank; but as Clifford descends into indifference, meanness, and cruelty, she realizes that she cannot waste her life on him.  Rejecting him is not abandoning responsibility, it is saving herself from his abandonment.

Connie meets Mellors, the gamekeeper, and eventually has an affair with him.  After a battle of wills, complicated by issues of class and origin, but tempered by honesty, sensuality, and intelligence, they finally come together in Lawrentian terms.  Their orgasms are simultaneous – for Lawrence an expression of sexual and psychic completion. 

The affair continues, and the more they make love, the more Connie comes to realize who she is – an independent, sexually demanding, but respectful woman, fundamentally different from a man, incomplete without him, but never yielding anything that would upset the perfect balance between them.  Lawrence is finally very sexually explicit when he describes Connie’s ecstasy.  She is in awe of Mellors the man, his physique, his strength, his maleness.  She admires him, worships him, and loves him unequivocally.

At the same time there is no abject submission.  The male is not the sexual potentate who initiates and controls.  He, according to Lawrence, can only be an equal partner, a co-facilitator, and a willing vehicle for sexual expression.

A woman who after reading the most sexually vivid passage of the book, the romantic language of which only Lawrence can write – the ebbing and flowing sexual tides, the thrusting, penetrating, fulfilling power, the waves of being and nothingness – said, “I’ll have what she’s having’.  The purple prose meant nothing.  If Lawrence had strayed from his new-found literary discipline; if he had shown his true colors as a mediocre writer unable to match interesting ideas with real characters, it meant nothing.  He was writing about a woman’s ecstasy, her absolute and unabashed delight in a man, her pure physical response to him, her abandonment of any stock sexual preconceptions, and her complete and final realization of femaleness and individual female identity (“I am a woman” is the final line of the passage) and the woman reader saw through the prolixity and overwriting to Lawrence’s central issue. Of course she wanted what Connie was having, and what woman wouldn’t?

Romantic Love

Especially in this gender-sensitive, feminized age, the Lawrentian vision is looked at with some criticism.  There is no such thing as sexual mutuality, say feminist critics.  Male misogyny is deeply-rooted, hardwired, and inescapable.  The Idea of mutuality and equilibrium can only be a fiction in a patriarchal age.  Lawrence, they go on to say, is only feeding his own immature male sexual fantasies.

Lawrence’s conviction that such sexual epiphany can only come from a heterosexual union is also against the progressive polemic.  There is no such thing as sexual bi-polarity, only sexuality on a gradually defined gender spectrum. Matching any two of the hundred possibilities of sexual identity has nothing whatsoever to do with Lawrence’s insistence on heterosexual orgasm.   Lawrence is irrelevant to today’s woman, so the polemic goes. 

The woman reader thought differently.  While she may have dismissed some of Lawrence’s more far fetched notions of Tantric union and spiritual epiphany, there was no doubting that he had struck a very resonant chord when he wrote about female ecstasy and Connie’s profound appreciation of manhood.  The reason why Lawrence is relevant is because he never doubted the Tantric and spiritual nature of sexual intercourse.  The sculptures and bas-reliefs on the temples of Khajuraho, explicit in their sexuality, and placed on the holiest sites of worship, not only refer to sexual union as generally important, but spiritually so.  The gender spectrum denies the essentiality of heterosexual union; and while in principle there may be many possible combinations and permutations of sexual gender, identity, and partnership, in fact the numbers of people so classified are very few and far between indeed.

The theme of sexual harmony is not new.  Every man and woman hopes for a mutually satisfying sexual relationship and at least some intellectual, physical, and emotional satisfaction if not all three; and if one can believe popular romantic fiction, not an insignificant number of women hope for the best of all possible worlds, a spiritual union, Lawrence’s epiphany.  Serious fiction and drama are no different.  The brutal bloodletting of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is all about finding sexual equilibrium, stripping pretense down to the marrow and starting over.  The Taming of the Shrew is perhaps Shakespeare’s only real love story.  Kate and Petruchio need each other, complement each other, and form a perfect equilibrium.  Kate’s long soliloquy about adoring and respecting her husband has often been misread as Shakespeare’s angry misogyny; but it is just the opposite.  Petruchio has liberated Kate from her patriarchal father and abusive sisters, and she has given him the  strong, determined, willful, sensual woman he has sought for years.  Ondaatje’s The English Patient is a subtle, complex, and very romantic love story, told within the context of history, war, class, fidelity, and simple passion.


We all want to have ‘what she’s having’, and why not? In a world of ever more, bewildering subdivisions and subcategories of sexuality, behavior, and personality, it is legitimizing to want a powerful, equal, mutually satisfying physical and emotional love. 

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