Thursday, October 1, 2015

"if the men wore scarlet trousers" a last gasp from Lady Chatterley's Lover

Lady Chatterley's Lover is a wish-fulfillment novel, a social and sexual fantasy that attempts to put the world--damaged irreparably by the competing forces of capitalism and Marxism--back to rights. It is a failure, both as a social program and as a novel, but at least as a novel the book is a spectacular failure, a failure worth having been done. A good half of it is an artistic success, a wild and reckless thing shining with aesthetic joys and madness. Lawrence thought--as I believe he thought of all his novels--that he was making something important and useful and beautiful. Chatterley is nowhere as successful as Sons and Lovers or Women in Love, and I've found myself rather mocking the novel when I think I should be praising it.

Some of it, admittedly, is easy to mock. Lawrence's conviction that uninhibited sex between men and women (Lawrence dismisses gays and lesbians as less than genuine humans), combined with a return to a pre-industrial economy where luxury is eliminated and humans seek the simple animal pleasures of life, is naive and Lawrence's attempts at uninhibited writing about sex are very often as clumsy as his writing about neoprimitive society. I pause to admit that my own prudishness might be a force behind my giggles over these sex passages, but a lot of it's merely inelegant prose, unworthy of Lawrence. Some of it's pretty good, though. All of it, even when it fails, demonstrates that Lawrence was writing with furious courage and I admire that a great deal. He doesn't pause when saying things that might embarrass him or his reader; he just pushes on, his eyes aflame, a bit like William Blake's loonier moments.

Though perhaps I'm trying too hard: "Come, ladies and gents, join me in applauding the erotic dance of Lawrence's limping spawn!" Why am I so concerned about defending this malformed novel? I am of course less interested in the late David Lawrence's reception than I am about my own writing, yes? Am I so intent on holding up Lawrence's book--which was banned and never published in complete form until well after the author's death--because as a writer I sympathize with his difficulty in getting a very personal and wacky and weirdly moral(istic) book published? Yes, yes, I think that's so. Every critical stance is an implicit claim about reality, you know. So maybe I'm done with Lady Chatterley's Lover. I will leave you with a bit of the book's ending:
The pits are working badly; this is a colliery district like Tevershall, only prettier. I sometimes sit in the Wellington and talk to the men. They grumble a lot, but they're not going to alter anything. As everybody says, the Notts-Derby miners have got their hearts in the right place. But the rest of their anatomy must be in the wrong place, in a world that has no use for them. I like them, but they don't cheer me much: not enough of the old fighting-cock in them. They talk a lot about nationalization, nationalization of royalties, nationalization of the whole industry. But you can't nationalize coal and leave all the other industries as they are. They talk about putting coal to new uses, like Sir Clifford is trying to do. It may work here and there, but not as a general thing, I doubt. Whatever you make you've got to sell it. The men are very apathetic. They feel the whole damned thing is doomed, and I believe it is. And they are doomed along with it. Some of the young ones spout about a Soviet, but there's not much conviction in them. There's no sort of conviction about anything, except that it's all a muddle and a hole. Even under a Soviet you've still got to sell coal: and that's the difficulty.

We've got this great industrial population, and they've got to be fed, so the damn show has to be kept going somehow. The women talk a lot more than the men, nowadays, and they are a sight more cock-sure. The men are limp, they feel a doom somewhere, and they go about as if there was nothing to be done. Anyhow, nobody knows what should be done in spite of all the talk, the young ones get mad because they've no money to spend. Their whole life depends on spending money, and now they've got none to spend. That's our civilization and our education: bring up the masses to depend entirely on spending money, and then the money gives out. The pits are working two days, two and a half days a week, and there's no sign of betterment even for the winter. It means a man bringing up a family on twenty-five and thirty shillings. The women are the maddest of all. But then they're the maddest for spending, nowadays.

If you could only tell them that living and spending isn't the same thing! But it's no good. If only they were educated to LIVE instead of earn and spend, they could manage very happily on twenty-five shillings. If the men wore scarlet trousers as I said, they wouldn't think so much of money: if they could dance and hop and skip, and sing and swagger and be handsome, they could do with very little cash. And amuse the women themselves, and be amused by the women. They ought to learn to be naked and handsome, and to sing in a mass and dance the old group dances, and carve the stools they sit on, and embroider their own emblems. Then they wouldn't need money. And that's the only way to solve the industrial problem: train the people to be able to live and live in handsomeness, without needing to spend. But you can't do it. They're all one-track minds nowadays. Whereas the mass of people oughtn't even to try to think, because they can't. They should be alive and frisky, and acknowledge the great god Pan. He's the only god for the masses, forever. The few can go in for higher cults if they like. But let the mass be forever pagan.

But the colliers aren't pagan, far from it. They're a sad lot, a deadened lot of men: dead to their women, dead to life. The young ones scoot about on motor-bikes with girls, and jazz when they get a chance, But they're very dead. And it needs money. Money poisons you when you've got it, and starves you when you haven't.
These pages, the end of the final act, are the real Lady Chatterley's Lover, not the fucking and the flowers woven into pubic hair and the phallos. Lawrence wants an antidote for the poisons of the modern age. Lawrence was a romantic. I almost called this post What is to be Done?

photos: Mighty Reader


  1. interesting. lawrence;s writing compared with blake's is provocative. blake seems to me like there's a universe in back of him of that he's telling you about. on the other hand, lawrence seems to be his own universe and it's a limited one. just from your excerpt, i don't think he understands the world or humans very well, mainly because he's so wrapped up in himself. courageous of you to put out the effort to read him; but i don't envy you the experience.

  2. This is the first thing I've read from Lawrence that wasn't a masterpiece, and I guess I'm not doing a good job of hiding my disappointment. You can see him trying the role of prophet here, but it's a naive prophecy. I think Lawrence understands humans very well at the individual level, and even in many ways at the cultural level, but LCL is so personal and weirdly isolated. When Lawrence talks about any of the characters except Connie and her beau, they all seem quite real and Lawrence pokes a great deal of fun at them in a Dickensian manner (think the omniscient narrator in Bleak House). It's just the central relationship that seems strange and unreal, and I think that's because they exist on a separate narrative level, almost on the level of myth; a lot of their scenes remind me of HC Anderson fairy tales, at least in terms of tone and setting. So it's an odd mishmash of a book, but still I find that I'm quite glad I read it because a good half of it is great stuff.

    I never found Blake to have much substance beyond his imaginary mythical universe. He always leaves me shaking my head and wondering what the fuss is about. He also has a lot to answer for in spreading the misunderstanding of Paradise Lost that Satan is Milton's hero, just because Satan is so vividly much like mankind. Which is, you know, a good part of the point. Blake's sin was pride, just like Satan's. I'm rambling now. Lady Chatterley's Lover was well worth reading. It's a sad book in the end, a tragedy with flowers in the hair and naked dancing in the rain.

  3. What an intriguing series of posts—a lovely souvenir from your trip.

    1. I really had no idea what Lady Chatterley would be like, but it was worth reading. I had supposed plenty of other people had read it and would chime in, but I was wrong.

      All the photos of Paris are just padding here; I find I have nothing meaningful to say about our two weeks there, but we have 2,000 photos and by gum I'm going to do something with them. Wait, I will say something: I am certain that Paris is the most beautiful city I've ever seen.

    2. I'll chime in. I haven't read everything by Lawrence (not Aaron's Rod, not Kangaroo) but my impression is that the trajectory of his literature's maturity ran against the chronological maturity of its author, that is, the earlier books are slower, more holistic, more nuanced, more wonderful, where the later ones are sharp, brisk, angry, impatient, polemical, sarcastic, silly, and in love with disruptive adventures.

    3. That sounds right, and useful too. The more I think about it, the happier I am to have read this novel, the happier I am that Lawrence felt the compulsion to write it, that it was possible to write this book. It's one of the great works of eccentric English literature. I'm a fan of eccentric literature. If I'd read...oh, I donno...Cities of the Red NIght or something like that just before Lady Chatterley, I would have just thought of it as eccentric fiction while I was reading it, and I'd have been saying, "Yeah, you go, Dave," the whole time instead of "Eh, what is this?"

    4. Ruskin followed a similar trajectory. I don't know if it's worth making anything of that.

      If you like eccentric fiction, did you see that article about Angus M'Diarmid in the New Yorker? “His knowledge of English not being extensive, whenever he was in want of a word he looked into his dictionary, and adopted generally the most important-looking word connected with the one he was looking for, whether it might be noun, verb, adverb or otherwise.”

    5. "The foresaid high Grampian mountains abounded with spasmodiac opening, or excavated parts, that if a loud cry made at accomodious distant, they would sounded the same in such miraculous manner, that one apt to conceive that each parts of those spasmodic rocks imbibed the vociferation which is depressing gradually the sonorific sound to the expiry thereof."

      That is terrific! I have to find a copy. I hadn't seen the New Yorker article; thanks so much for this.

      Ruskin was another brilliant English eccentric, I guess. Though maybe we're all brilliant eccentrics, and only some of us make it into immortal print.