Sunday, October 21, 2007


"The trouble began at evening. Then a yearning for something unknown came over her, a passion for something she knew not what. She would walk the foreshore alone after dusk, expecting, expecting something, as if she had gone to a rendez-vous. The salt, bitter passion of the sea, its indifference to the earth, its swinging, definite motion, its strength, its attack, and its salt burning, seemed to provoke her to a pitch of madness, tantalising her with vast suggestions of fulfillment."--D. H. Lawrence, The Rainbow (1915)

No one does this better than Lawrence. Does anyone even try? But what is "this"? Lawrence has that rarest of capacities: the capacity to express the inexpressible. It does make for some rather turgid reading at times. At times -- but only rarely -- it becomes almost laughable as sheer mannerism (show me someone who's not a mannerist and I'll go out and say a prayer for him), but mostly it's a very brave, alert attention to everything that is precisely inarticulate in our natures. Lawrence is forever, nose aquiver with the scent of blood scent, tracking a wounded ego to its lair, exposing its animal fear, its animal tensions. Lawrence's characters live in a world of physical suffering simply because passion and emotion is overtly physical. And he's quick to show that there is no satisfaction, ultimately, for our most legitimate passions. He knows that it's not a question of attaining a love object, or a desired status, or a child, or a completed work: those things are only markers, milestones, a way of saying that we have made an impression on a world that will ultimately subdue us, destroy us. Such things can't satisfy the hunger for life itself. And that hunger is so much more essential in Lawrence than all that talk of drives and repressions and sublimations is in Freud. Freud speaks for a world keen to clothe its chaos. Lawrence exults in a chaos that is part of the order, the part that provokes to the pitch of madness, and that madness isn't a neurotic condition to be exorcized with mythic platitudes. Which is one reason I tend to distrust Lawrence's own vexed attempts to create mythologies to explain his fictional world. No matter how much he wanted to be priest and prophet -- and as an intellect perhaps he might've been an acceptable layman Freud, a working-class Brit Nietzsche -- Lawrence as novelist is far too much of the devil's party. His prose is a thrust at sheer becoming -- leave it to someone else to decide "becoming what."

For me, The Rainbow will always be the best Lawrence and it's easy for me to say why. It's because there is in it no character who "speaks" for Lawrence. Sons and Lovers, necessary as it is, is so caught up with the agon of Paul Morel that it wallows in crisis -- an Oedipal one at that -- to an almost unbearable degree. And Women in Love, which begins almost satiric and fast, grows more tiresome the more we have to experience the mind of Birkin. Lawrence, unlike Joyce, never learned how to ironize his alter-ego, was never able to create a full-fledged male character because his own imago was ever too intrinsically with him. But The Rainbow, in giving us Anna Brangwen, and Ursula Brangwen, and even Will Brangwen, gives us characters who best represent Lawrence's ideas without having to give direct expression to them. What's more, the generational movement of the novel gives it a certainty about how persons live in the world it describes that is closer to Nordic sagas than to anything else. And that, to me, is the vindication of what Lawrence wants to do with rural life on the cusp of industrialization: give us the tensions of what happens when humans cease to be animals.

Could be -- in the era before such widespread literacy, before such ubiquitous communication about every trivial matter imaginable -- people had depths in a way they don't so much these days. If so, it's important to read Lawrence: to be immersed in the blood-realities, the meaning of being as a lived reality -- apart from every merely social or occupational reality. In the passage I quoted, Ursula's dissatisfaction isn't simply a dissatisfaction with her social class, or with the kind of job she might get, or with the kinds of men she might meet, or even with her own personality as a kind of given potential -- it's a yearning. Some might say "a yearning for meaning," but that would make her her author's creature: looking for a meaning that some act or thought or cultural achievement might provide. But Ursula is more than equal to such a reading: her yearning is for something that not even Lawrence can conceive or possibly provide. And that's what makes The Rainbow great.

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