Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928, D. H. Lawrence)

At times it seems like reading and writing a novel like this which exalts the immediate bodily and sensory experience of life over the insular and intellectualized is committing a great hypocrisy. The hands that cradle the spine and turn the pages for the isolated reader might at that moment instead be sliding slowly down the spine and stroking tactile the living-text-ile flesh of one’s own lover, a reading and writing (as the book itself suggests) far more visceral and intimate than talk and prose. Even less should one read Plato at the same time, whom the book roundly and repeatedly criticizes for emphasizing mind over matter.

Yet sustaining this interactive antagonism within the brain-and-body’s bedchambers after all fosters a similar ideosexual dynamic to the vigorous physical relationship between the lovers of the story, who must overcome mutual feelings of opposition and incompatibility whose heat and frustration only indicate the power of the inexorable reaction that produces their all-consuming love. A perfectly ordered and socially sensible affinity of action and thought is the prized but hollow possession of Lord Chatterley, who has plenty of hidden but glaring contradictions of his own and lacks altogether passionate affection for his wife, whereas working through strong conflicts and overcoming their friction with sedulous effort both refreshes the spirit and leads to little-explored or even uncharted territories of thinking and being. One must embrace, and take it upon oneself to resolve, the contradiction. (Plato himself argues against the written word in his writing.)

This is most difficult to accomplish in reading the explicit sexual passages – the difficulty is not in the explicitness of “forbidden” topics that give the book its renown and infamy, which is relatively tame by modern standards, but in the explicitness of Lawrence’s idealization of them. The former explicitness is what gets the book banned, but the latter is actually more troublesome, as it approaches the absurdity of the roughly contemporaneous sexual passages in the writings of Ayn Rand, in which every pleasure is explained away as a philosophical act of submission to power and the processes of domination with theoretical language that vaporizes its subject. Precisely in those moments of supreme transcendence or sublimation of the word that sex creates with tactile immediacy, Rand and Lawrence use the reverse process to give the experience more “meaning” via explanations of psychology and worldview. In this Lawrence is by far the more self-contradictory, since his explanations are exactly that sexual love is the apex itself, a way above the gruesome and fearsome industrialization of life and the landscape, whereas Rand takes the opposite view, that sex is basically an extension of man’s industrial conquest of other people and the natural world as a whole.

Yet for all of this sometime textual clunkiness, Lawrence does succeed greatly at ennobling what is so often cheapened through excess or indifference and scorned as trivial and distracting. He may jab at Plato here and there for emphasizing mental pursuits over ephemeral physical pleasures, but he himself takes care that sexual intimacy be not praised carte blanche: its purest embodiment requires a committed mental engagement that like Platonic thought dissociates from the ephemeral concerns of monetary wealth or popular esteem. His two lovers are isolated from the masses for this very reason, both finding in books and knowledge a preferable course to business or literary fripperies or idle gossip – the difference is that Lawrence proposes the possibility of intensely consummating between two living bodies an affinity of wisdom developed in their souls alone. In this sense he may be responding to Socrates’ challenge in Book X of Republic, showing that the poetical and romantical sensibility has a vital place if born out of deep spiritual compatibility. If, as the gamekeeper Mellors points out, the problem is not between the lovers themselves but with the world outside, the violent turbulence of their passion simply stems from the corruption of the society around them – which is why these “disruptive” feelings retain such an appeal for readers. Presumably in a utopia as enlightened as the ideal Republic, this strong love would flourish in its enhanced environment, and glorify that society rather than perturb its order.

Apart from, but not really apart from all of these concepts and perspectives, the book engages and possesses. Characters are all richly and roundly drawn in a great variety of personalities – none of which wholly heroic or villainous, all complicated – revealed through natural conversations (one-on-one and in groups), physical (certainly including sexual) behavior, detailed histories and even physique and physiognomy. Descriptive repetition of features in landscape and of (sometimes stridently or harpingly so) lengthy criticisms of people and the world (cultural and aesthetic) they’ve created for themselves ultimately only faintly hamper vivid observations of a natural wilderness of flowers and animals (including some plainly metaphorical caged ducks) and a rustic cabin that are Constance’s regular refuge and the deeply felt interactions and experiences she has that bring and resuscitate her there. Lawrence’s perspective even today, let alone among his 1920s contemporaries, refreshes a reader accustomed to the stilted, analytical, passionless and unfeeling, here attaining to the physical through the textual more effectively than the ordinary physical routines of everyday existence. He draws the reader in only to encourage that reader to push back out, to get back in more contact with life and the world.

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