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D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love:
Anti-Modernism in Literature, Part 2

2,248 words

Part 2 of 4. Click here for all four parts.

Gerald Crich and the Mastery of Nature

In Women in Love the coupling of industrial materialism with idealism is personified by Birkin’s friend Gerald Crich, son of the local colliery owner. On the train together, the two men speak of the modern world: “So you really think things are very bad?” Gerald asks. “Completely bad,” Birkin responds. Throughout the novel, Gerald is drawn to Birkin, fascinated by the man and his notions—yet he is repelled by him at the same time, and frightened. He encourages Birkin to explain what he means, and Birkin obliges him:

“We are such dreary liars. Our idea is to lie to ourselves. We have an ideal of a perfect world, clean and straight and sufficient. So we cover the earth with foulness; life is a blotch of labour, like insects scurrying in filth, so that your collier can have a pianoforte in his parlour, and you can have a butler and a motor-car in your up-to-date house, and as a nation we can sport the Ritz, or the Empire, Gaby Deslys and the Sunday newspapers. It is very dreary.”

But Gerald responds that he thinks the pianoforte represents “a real desire for something higher” in the collier’s life.

“Higher!” cried Birkin. “Yes. Amazing heights of upright grandeur. It makes him so much higher in his neighboring collier’s eyes. He sees himself reflected in the neighboring opinion, like in a Brocken mist, several feet taller on the strength of the pianoforte, and he is satisfied. He lives for the sake of that Brocken spectre, the reflection of himself in the human opinion.”

Material things and the zeal for material things do not lift up the average man. They merely produce what Christopher Lasch aptly called “the culture of narcissism,” and what Wendell Berry has called a “consumptive culture.” One of the absurdities of modern life is the pretence that human beings who have been reduced to the level of mere consumers are somehow more “advanced” than their ancestors.

But aside from man the consumer, what of man the producer? After all, someone has to produce all those pianofortes. This is where men like Gerald come in. Birkin asks Gerald what he lives for. Gerald answers: “I suppose I live to work, to produce something, in so far as I am a purposive being. Apart from that, I live because I am living.” Ursula remarks to Gudrun that Gerald has “got go, anyhow” and Gudrun replies, “The unfortunate thing is, where does his go go to, what becomes of it?” Ursula suggests, jokingly, that it “goes in applying the latest appliances!” This remark, however, is truer than she supposes.

The most brilliantly-written chapter of Women in Love is “The Industrial Magnate,” in which Lawrence depicts Gerald’s mastery of the mine. Gerald spends the first few years of his adult life wandering aimlessly, but always in hearty, masculine fashion: living the wild life of a student, becoming a soldier, then an adventurer. Always with Gerald there was an overweening curiosity and a desire truly to master something—a desire which masks a real, inner feeling of helplessness and lostness. He finds his true calling in running the mine, for there he believes he has found the meaning of life:

Immediately he saw the firm, he realized what he could do. He had to fight with Matter, with the earth and the coal it enclosed. This was the sole idea, to turn upon the inanimate matter of the underground, and reduce it to his will. . . . There were two opposites, his will and the resistant Matter of the earth. . . . He had his life-work now, to extend over the earth a great and perfect system in which the will of man ran smooth and unthwarted timeless, a Godhead in process.

By writing “Matter” with a capital M, Lawrence underscores the fact that for Gerald the mine is important not in itself but for what it represents. Gerald sees himself not merely as a colliery owner, but as a titanic being: a participant in the long, historical process of man’s divinization through the conquest of nature, now coming to full consummation in the industrial age.

But where has he gotten such ideas? Lawrence tells us that Gerald “refused to go to Oxford, choosing a German university,” and that he “took hold of all kinds of sociological ideas, and ideas of reform.” It is plain that Gerald has been exposed to a great deal of German philosophy. In depicting Gerald’s outlook on life, Lawrence seems to be blending ideas and terminology from three German philosophers: Fichte, Hegel, and Nietzsche.

Fichte and the Mastery of Nature

Johann Gottlieb Fichte, 1762–1814

Lawrence writes that through Gerald’s domination of his will (or his ideals) over Matter “there was perfection attained, the will of mankind was perfectly enacted; for was not mankind mystically contradistinguished against inanimate Matter, was not the history of mankind just the history of the conquest of the one by the other?” The philosophy this is closest to is that of Fichte, though Lawrence is probably thinking of Hegel.

Fichte believed, essentially, that an objective world—an other standing opposed to ego—existed merely as an instrument for the expression of human will. Nature, or what Lawrence here calls “Matter,” exists as something that must be overcome and transformed by human beings according to human ideals. In doing so, human beings realize themselves. All of human history for Fichte, indeed all of reality, is the unending imposition of the ideal on the real, or the transformation of material otherness into an image of human will.

Even though Fichte’s philosophy, at first glance, appears to be something novel, in fact in a sense it is (and was) nothing new at all: it is the underlying metaphysics of modernity laid bare. In the modern world, again, human beings essentially relate to nature as raw material that must be forced to fit human designs or interests—or at best as a mere background for human action. Further, time is conceived in linear fashion and history as a movement from darkness to light, from primitivism to progressivism.

The humanism of the Renaissance becomes, in the modern period, anthropocentrism. Man is a titanic being without any natural superior, whose vocation is to better the world and other men. It is pointless to ask when, exactly, these modern attitudes took hold. In part, they are an outgrowth of Christian monotheism, which taught the idea that the earth and all its contents has been given to man by God for his exclusive use.

Renaissance humanism, which was in many ways a kind of neo-pagan revolt against Christianity, celebrated the ideal of man as Magus, and as a kind of mini-God here on earth. In part, though these Renaissance ideas were bound up with the revival of Hermetic occultism, they paved the way for the scientific revolution represented by men such as Francis Bacon.

By that point in history, belief—real belief—in the God of monotheism was dying, at least among the intelligentsia, who veered more and more toward abstract conceptions of divinity which had little to do with human life. God, in other words, had become irrelevant and human beings found themselves alone in this world that had been given to them for their mastery, with nothing watching from above. It was only a matter of time before man would declare himself God, as Fichte virtually does.

Hegel’s Idealism

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, 1770–1831

Hegel took over Fichte’s ideas and, among other things, amplified them with a theological interpretation. God, for Hegel, is pure self-related Idea which becomes real and concrete in the world through human self-awareness—a self-awareness achieved primarily through the analysis and mastery of nature, as well as through art, religion, and philosophy.

Although Hegel insisted that he had not meant to make man God, a great many of his followers and detractors saw that this is precisely what his philosophy had done. The “young Hegelian” Ludwig Feuerbach saw this and in his influential work The Essence of Christianity (1841) declared that God was, in fact, nothing but an ideal projection of human consciousness, a stand-in, in fact, for humanity itself.

The Hegelian (or, perhaps, young Hegelian) element in Gerald’s metaphysics comes in when Lawrence tells us that Gerald found his “eternal and his infinite” in the endless cycle of machine production. God, as Hegel learned from Aristotle, is an eternal act. The never-ending cycles of modern, industrial production—the apex of man’s mastery of nature—becomes, for Gerald, God incarnate: “the whole productive will of man was the Godhead.”

Nietzsche, Hegel, and the End of History

What seems Nietzschean here is simply the insistence on Will. In allowing himself to be used as an instrument of the “productive will of man” Gerald believes that he is aggrandizing his own personal power. However, as I noted earlier, in believing so Gerald is deceiving himself, and in the end “the God-motion, this productive repetition ad infinitum” simply burns him away in a cold fire. However, there is more to Gerald’s Nietzscheanism than this.

The relation of Nietzsche to Hegel is a complex one, but it can be boiled down in the following way. Hegel believed that in the modern period history had, in effect, ended. This assertion seems nonsensical if we make the mistake of confusing history with time. Of course, Hegel did not think time had stopped. He merely believed that the story of mankind had come to an end in the modern age, because it was in the modern, post-Christian age that mankind came to realize its true nature as radically self-determining (and other-determining, as well). With this realization of radical human freedom, and the realization that man actualizes God in the world, Hegel believed that essentially all the important questions and controversies of human history had been answered. The destiny of man was to live in more or less liberal societies, under more or less democratic states, and to practice more or less humanistic versions of Christianity. And in this condition mankind would continue to exist and prosper.

For Nietzsche, on the other hand, the end of history meant the death of everything that ennobles the human race. Without anything to struggle over or to believe in so strongly that one would be willing to fight and die for it, humanity would sink to the level of what Nietzsche called the Last Man, Homo economicus: the man whose aspirations do not rise above material comfort, safety, and security. The only hope was the arrival of the Overman, who would create new values, new systems of belief, and initiate new conflicts among human beings. In short, the Overman would re-start history. Nietzsche’s writings, in their trenchant critique of all Western beliefs and values, can be seen as an attempt to actually hasten the collapse of the modern world and usher in the Overman.

Nietzsche’s Will to Power

Nietzsche by Max Klinger

Essentially, Gerald Crich represents the Nietzschean Overman—or at least someone who believes himself to be a Nietzschean Overman. Gerald, himself a “great blonde beast,” is riding the tiger by riding his employees, expressing his “will to power” through mastering the mines.  What Gerald doesn’t realize is that, in Nietzschean terms, he is merely, the instrument of will to power, expressing itself in the modern age as industrialism and mechanization. As Colin Milton has discussed at some length, this may actually indicate a confusion, or at least an inconsistency, in Lawrence’s understanding of Nietzsche.

Nietzsche is explicitly invoked in the novel when Ursula identifies Gerald with “Wille zur Macht.” The episode which prompts this comment from her is one of the most famous in the novel. In the chapter “Coal Dust,” Ursula and Gudrun go for a walk, but when they come to the railway crossing have to stop to wait for the colliery train to pass. As they stand there, Gerald Crich trots up riding a “red Arab mare.” The mare is frightened by the locomotive and moves away from it, but Gerald forces her back again and again, cutting into her flesh with his spurs. Ursula is horrified and cries “No—! No—! Let her go! Let her go, you fool, you fool—!” Gudrun, on the other hand, is fascinated by Gerald’s show of brute force over the mare and cries out only as he rides away, “I should think you’re proud.” As we shall see, Gudrun is Gerald’s counterpart, a portrait of the other, purely destructive side of modern will.

The episode with the mare is a good example of Lawrence’s sometimes obvious, but very effective symbolism. The mare represents nature—any and all natural beings—forced into submission before the designs and mechanisms of modernity. There is no other way to bring nature into accord with modern unnaturalism, other than by force and sheer bullying. And so later on Ursula refers to “Gerald Crich with his horse—a lust for bullying—a real Wille zur Macht—so base, so petty.”

In his essay “Blessed are the Powerful” Lawrence remarks, “A will-to-power seems to work out as bullying. And bullying is something despicable and detestable.” In short, in Women in Love Lawrence seems to understand Wille zur Macht as a kind a kind of egoistic self-aggrandizement. In fact, however, what Nietzsche teaches is the surrender to Wille zur Macht, as an impersonal force that expresses itself through us.

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One Comment

  1. JJ
    Posted January 11, 2011 at 5:35 am | Permalink

    Lawrence may have confused Nietzsche because Nietzsche was confused. He was never able to define the Overman and the concept may have been nothing more than wishful thinking on his part.
    The Renaissance placed man outside of nature and by doing so man was able to conquer nature. The epiphany of our modern state is the realization that part of nature and it is we who are conquered. We are but slaves to the natural world we set out to conquer.

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