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D. H. Lawrence on Men & Women, Part 2

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Part 2 of 6. For the whole series, click here.

In a 1923 newspaper interview Lawrence is quoted as saying “If men were left to themselves, they would rush off . . . into destruction. But women keep life back at its own center. They pull the men back. Women have enormous passive strength, the strength of inertia.” Here Lawrence uses an image he was very fond of: women are at the center, the hub. This is because they are closer to “the source” than men are.

In Fantasia of the Unconscious, Lawrence tells us “The blood-consciousness and the blood-passion is the very source and origin of us. Not that we can stay at the source. Nor even make a goal of the source, as Freud does. The business of living is to travel away from the source. But you must start every single day fresh from the source. You must rise every day afresh out of the dark sea of the blood.” Lawrence believes that men yearn for purposive, creative activity, which involves moving away from the source. However, the energy and inspiration for purposive activity is drawn from the source, and so there is a complementary movement back towards it.

In The Rainbow, Lawrence describes how Tom Brangwen, besotted with his wife, seems to lose himself in a sensual obsession with her, and with knowing her sexually. But gradually,

Brangwen began to find himself free to attend to the outside life as well. His intimate life was so violently active, that it set another man in him free. And this new man turned with interest to public life, to see what part he could take in it. This would give him scope for new activity, activity of a kind for which he was now created and released. He wanted to be unanimous with the whole of purposive mankind.

Tannhauser and Venus

Sex is one means of contacting the source. Men contact the source through women. This does not mean, of course, that blood-consciousness is in women but not in men. Rather, it means that in most men the blood-consciousness in them is “activated” primarily through their relationship to women. Second, in women blood-consciousness is more dominant than it is in men. Women are more intuitive than men; they operate more on the basis of feeling than intellect. It should not be necessary to point out that whereas such an observation might, in another author, be taken as a denigration of women, in Lawrence it is actually high praise. Women are also much more in tune with their bodies and bodily cycles than men are. Men tend to see their bodies as adversaries that must be whipped into shape.

When Lawrence continually tells us that we must find a way to reawaken the blood-consciousness in us, he is writing primarily for men. Women are already there—or, at least, they can get there with less effort. There is an old adage: “Women are, but men must become.” To be feminine is a constant state that a woman has as her birthright. Masculinity, on the other hand, is something men must achieve and prove. Rousseau in Emile states “The male is male only at certain moments, the female is female all of her life, or at least all her youth.” We exhort boys to “be a man,” but never does one hear girls told to “be a woman.” One can compliment a man simply by saying “he’s a man,” whereas “she’s a woman” seems mere statement of fact. The psychological difference between masculinity and femininity mirrors the biological fact that all fetuses begin as female; something must happen to them in order to make them male. It also articulates what is behind the strange conviction many men have had, including many great poets and artists, that woman is somehow the keeper of life’s mysteries; the one closest to the well-spring of nature.

In “A Study of Thomas Hardy,” Lawrence states that “in a man’s life, the female is the swivel and centre on which he turns closely, producing his movement.” Goethe tells us “Das ewig Weiblich zieht uns hinan” (“The Eternal Feminine draws us onwards”). The female, the male’s source of the source, stands at the center of his life. The woman as personification of the life mystery entices him to come together with her, and through their coupling the life mystery perpetuates itself. But he is not, ultimately, satisfied by this coupling. He goes forth into the world, his body renewed by his contact with the woman, but full of desire to know this mystery more adequately, and to be its vehicle through creative expression.

Without a woman, a man feels unmoored and ungrounded, for without a woman he has no center in his life. A man—a heterosexual man—can never feel fulfilled and can never reach his full potential without a woman to whom he can turn. As to homosexual men, it is a well-known fact that many cultivate in themselves characteristics that have been traditionally usually associated with woman: refined taste in clothing and decoration, cooking, gardening, etc. What these characteristics have in common is connectedness to the pleasures of the moment, and to the rhythms and necessities of life. Men are normally purpose-driven and future-oriented. They tend to overlook those aspects of life that please, but lack any greater purpose other than pleasing. They tend, therefore, to be somewhat insensitive to their surroundings, to color, to texture, to odor, to taste. They tend, in short, to be so focused upon doing, that they miss out on being. Heterosexual men look to women to ground them, and to provide these ingredients to life—ingredients which, in truth, make life livable. Homosexual men must make a woman within themselves, in order to be grounded. (This does not mean, however, that they must become effeminate – see my review essay of Jack Donovan’s Androphilia for more details.)

Homosexual men are, of course, the exception not the rule. Lawrence writes, of the typical man, “Let a man walk alone on the face of the earth, and he feels himself like a loose speck blown at random. Let him have a woman to whom he belongs, and he will feel as though he had a wall to back up against; even though the woman be mentally a fool.” And what of the woman? What does she desire? Lawrence tells us that “the vital desire of every woman is that she shall be clasped as axle to the hub of the man, that his motion shall portray her motionlessness, convey her static being into movement, complete and radiating out into infinity, starting from her stable eternality, and reaching eternity again, after having covered the whole of time.” Man is the “doer,” the actor, whereas woman need do nothing. Just by being woman she becomes the center of a man’s universe.

The dark side of this, in Lawrence’s view, is a tendency in women towards possessiveness, and towards wanting to make themselves not just the center of a man’s life but his sole concern. In Women in Love, Lawrence’s describes at length Rupert Birkin’s process of wrestling with this aspect of femininity:

But it seemed to him, woman was always so horrible and clutching, she had such a lust for possession, a greed of self-importance in love. She wanted to have, to own, to control, to be dominant. Everything must be referred back to her, to Woman, the Great Mother of everything, out of whom proceeded everything and to whom everything must finally be rendered up.

Birkin sees these qualities in Ursula, with whom he is in love. “She too was the awful, arrogant queen of life, as if she were a queen bee on whom all the rest depended.” He feels she wants, in a way, to worship him, but “to worship him as a woman worships her own infant, with a worship of perfect possession.”

Woman’s possessiveness is understandable given that the man is necessary to her well-being: she is only happy if she is center to the orbit and activity of some man. Again, for Lawrence, such a claim does not denigrate women, for he has already as much as said that a man is nothing without a woman. Nevertheless, some will see in this view of men and woman a sexism that places the man above the woman. From Lawrence’s perspective, this is illusory. It is true that the man is “doer,” but his perpetual need to act and to do stands in stark contrast to the woman, who need do nothing in order be who she is. It is true, further, that men’s ambition has given them power in the world, but it is a power that is nothing compared to that of the woman, who exercises her power without having to do anything. She reigns, without ruling. The man does what he does, but must return to the woman, and is “like a loose speck blown at random without her” – and he knows this. Much of misogyny may have to do with this. From the man’s perspective, the woman is all-powerful, and the source of her power a mystery.

Many modern feminists, however, conceive of power in an entirely male way, as the active power of doing. Lawrence recognized that in trying to cultivate this male power within themselves, women do not rise in the estimation of most men. Instead they are diminished, for men’s respect for and fascination with women springs entirely from the fact that unlike themselves women do not have to chase after an ideal of who they ought to be; they do not have to get caught up in the rat race in order to respect themselves. They can simply be; they can live, and take joy just in living.

One can make a rough distinction between two types of feminism. The most familiar type is what one might call the “woman on the street feminism,” which one encounters from average, working women, and which they imbibe from television, films, and magazines. This feminism essentially has as its aim claiming for women all that which formerly had been the province of men—including not only traditionally male jobs, but even male ways of speaking, moving, dressing, bonding, exercising, and displaying sexual interest. Ironically, this form of feminism is at root a form of masculinism, which makes traditionally masculine traits the hallmarks of the “liberated” or self-actualized human being.

The other type of feminism is usually to be found only in academia, though not all academic feminists subscribe to it. It insists that women have their own ways of thinking, feeling, and relating to others. Feminist philosophers have written of woman’s “ways of knowing” as distinct from men’s, and have even put forward the idea that women approach ethical decision-making in a markedly different way. It is this form of feminism to which Lawrence is closest. Lawrence’s writings are concerned with liberating both men and women from the tyranny of a modern civilization which cuts them off from their true natures. Liberation for modern women cannot mean becoming like modern men, for modern men are living in a condition of spiritual (as well as wage) slavery. In an essay on feminism, Wendell Berry writes

It is easy enough to see why women came to object to the role of [the comic strip character] Blondie, a mostly decorative custodian of a degraded, consumptive modern household, preoccupied with clothes, shopping, gossip, and outwitting her husband. But are we to assume that one may fittingly cease to be Blondie by becoming Dagwood? Is the life of a corporate underling—even acknowledging that corporate underlings are well paid—an acceptable end to our quest for human dignity and worth? . . . How, I am asking, can women improve themselves by submitting to the same specialization, degradation, trivialization, and tyrannization of work that men have submitted to? [Wendell Berry, “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine,” in The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry, ed. Norman Wirzba (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2002), 69–70.]

I will return to this issue later.

Having now characterized, in broad strokes, Lawrence’s views on the differences between men and woman, I now turn to a more detailed discussion of each.

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