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Law and the Novel: D.H. Lawrence and Robert Musil

Michael Bell
p. 43-62

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1How strange that despite the thousands of times I must have read or written the name “Lawrence” I had never till now noticed that it contains, and indeed commences, with the capitalised word Law. The presence of law, at once asserted and unnoticed, has an ironically iconic value within a name which is itself iconic of a view of life, and of literature. For Lawrence, along with Blake and Nietzsche, is above all one of the great antinomians. But the invoking of all these names immediately suggests a fundamental point: there is a radical distinction to be made within the notion of the antinomian. It may denote a merely wilful hostility to customary form, such as is familiar in a too-prolonged adolescence, or the profound commitment to another principle, an alternative order of lawfulness. The difference might be expressed in the formula “she is a law unto herself” as opposed to “she is able to give law to herself.” Between these nearly similar wordings lies an abyssal difference and yet, of course, the former will most likely see itself as the latter, and the difference that constitutes the rare second case will always be a matter of judgement.

2The troubling relation between these two orders of meaning is reflected in the multiple usages of the word itself. In common parlance the word “law” has two different senses: the humanly devised legal system which we constantly modify, sometimes quite radically, and the “laws” of nature that science seeks to discover but over which there is no human jurisdiction. The latter usage we think of as metaphorical and we rarely confuse the levels of reference. Yet they are never quite separable. A legal system is only in the long run workable to the extent that it reflects with tolerable closeness the sense of natural justice in the given community. Adapting Dr Johnson, we may say that there is always an appeal open from law to justice. In this respect, the law itself ultimately depends on the rarer kind of antinomian spirit, just as that spirit will always be seeking its ultimate fulfilment in the order of law.

  • 1 Stanley Bates, “The Mind’s Horizon,” in Beyond Representation, ed. Richard Eldridge (Cambridge: Cam (...)

3The notion of giving law to oneself lies at the heart of post-Rousseauan modernity and yet the clichéd familiarity of the term “autonomy” as an assumed honorific constantly disguises the oxymoronic abyss which it properly contains. For if we take seriously what has been said, there can never be any truly positive law. Stanley Bates quotes Emerson in “Self-Reliance”: “I have my own stern claims and perfect circle. It denies the name of duty to many offices that are called duties. But if I can discharge its debts it enables me to dispense with the popular code. If any one imagines that this law is lax, let him keep its commandment one day.” Bates continues, “But of course this “law” is essentially unstateable. What Emerson is indicating is the unendingness of the dialectic of the ‘double consciousness’ which incorporates both our particular finitude now, and the always present possibility of transcending that particular finitude now.”1 If that is so, then moral autonomy is not only difficult to assess from outside, it cannot even be known from inside. It is an always ongoing project requiring at once absolute faith and absolute scepticism.

  • 2 For Rousseau see especially Jean Starobinsky, Transparency and Obstruction and Michael Bell Open Se (...)
  • 3 Critique of Practical Reason. Trans. Lewis Beck White, 3rd ed. (New York and Toronto: Macmillan, 19 (...)
  • 4 The Genealogy of Morals. Trans Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1989), 58-9.

4While Rousseau was able to disguise from himself the difficulty and paradox of this endeavour by identifying his own will with reason and nature, these were to be more radically explored by his major successor, Nietzsche, in whom the Lutheran spirit acquired a modern transformation challenging not just the church but these central tenets of Enlightenment reason itself.2 Kant opposed to both religious and customary authority that of the autonomous individual acting in the name of universal reason. He expressed the sublime mystery of moral law as imaged in the “starry heavens” and, for him, the moral imperative was to act in such a way as to instantiate a universally applicable principle.3 Hence, to give law to oneself is either a denial of Kant’s conception of moral reason or a radicalisation of its autonomy, or perhaps both at once. In proposing a self-instituted law with a weight sufficient to challenge Kant’s definition Nietzsche is, of course, incorporating, and we may say quite literally incorporating, the reality of the unconscious, or the impersonal will, that, for him, accompanies the modern dissolution of the subject. That is to say, when the Nietzschean subject says “Thus I willed it” this is not a statement of personal volition so much as the acknowledgement of a constitutive condition. It is a statement of amor fati, an acceptance of the whole embodiment in a material existence of which the conscious personal will is an inextricable, but perhaps minor, part. Understood in this way, the creation of a responsible modern subjectivity is a project of a comparably stupendous order as the earliest creation of ethical consciousness. In The Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche reflects on the great evolutionary labour it must have cost to produce an animal with the right to make promises.4

5In view of this embeddedness of the personal will in larger material contingencies, it is not surprising that the legacy of Nietzsche required more than simply discursive and philosophical modes for its working out, as indeed the generic variety of his own oeuvre already indicates. In this respect, the modernist generation in literature, and especially in the novel, were his important heirs. One of the most sustained coming to terms with Nietzsche is the long agon of Thomas Mann from Buddenbrooks to Doktor Faustus. But Mann is ultimately too decorous, recuperative and artistically willed to convey the full impact of Nietzsche and I believe that two other novelists come closer to the Nietzschean nerve: D.H. Lawrence and Robert Musil. Musil has a more directly philosophical, analytic preoccupation with the daunting paradox of moral autonomy which is rather just assumed in Lawrence. For that reason, Musil throws an analytic light on a dimension of the problem of lawfulness which we are otherwise likely to miss in Lawrence. And in both their cases it is surely significant that the novel form itself seems to crack under the strain. Musil’s The Man without Qualities is at once a remarkable achievement of modern fiction and the record of a predicament in moral sensibility. Yet despite its composition over several decades, the work was left unfinished and, along with the adventitious and extrinsic reasons for this, it continues to tease the reader with the intimation of some more intrinsic logic, either of method or of the material, that resists closure. Although Lawrence went on producing novels, I believe there is a significant analogy here with Lawrence’s relation to the novel form after the war-time composition of Women in Love.

6The Great War was a central event in the novelistic careers of both writers. Writing after the war, Musil described the unwittingly doomed pre-war world of the Austro-Hungarian empire in Vienna and used as his ironic narrative focus the state preparations for a major anniversary celebration of the emperor’s reign due to be held in 1918. He sustains a remarkable balance between the satiric comedy of the foreground and the poignant backdrop of the impending catastrophe unknowable to his characters. Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain does something similar with the pre-war European world but in Musil’s case the empire itself was to disappear and it is as if the seismic significance of the catastrophe, and its ongoing historical consequences, were such that Musil could never bring his narrative to a final perspective. Lawrence’s novels after the wartime experience reflected in Women in Love show a comparable absence of overall social perspective except that he made this part of his theme and addressed himself constantly to the shifting present of the post-war world in a peculiarly personalised sub-genre of the novel; what we might call the novel of representatively personal quest.

  • 5 Letters of D. H. Lawrence, vol ii, 182.

7Musil’s predicament was both suffered and self-imposed. The narrative is based on the decision of the central character, Ulrich, while in his early thirties, to take what he calls a “sabbatical” from life. Ulrich, like Birkin, is not a simple mouthpiece of the author, but he is the exploratory centre of consciousness and the sabbatical is an internal image of Musil’s own ambiguous position as both observer and victim of the general condition. It also echoes the standpoint of both social science and the post-Schillerian aesthetic: in both cases a detached posture is chosen for the pursuit of a specific mode of understanding, although for Ulrich it is also a desperate measure which is impossible to sustain. The title phrase, the man without qualities, used as a description of Ulrich, echoes Lawrence’s exploration of character beneath the level of the “old stable ego.”5 What we call the ego is in some unknown measure a set of emotional habits and it is only when fundamental structures of feeling dissolve, or become empty, as they do for Ulrich, that their true significance in the micro-management of the moral life becomes fully evident. For as long as emotional habits are in place, it is possible to survive moral scepticism at the level of intellectual principle or metaphysical grounding. Ulrich stresses the importance of feeling in this respect. The human way of coping with an impossibly complex and alien world is to concentrate on the immediate human scale and

  • 6 Der Mann hne Eigenschaften, (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1978), 527; The Man without Qualities. Trans. Sophie (...)

that alone proves what a large part our feelings play in out intelligence. Our most important psychological machinery is, in fact, kept in motion to maintain us in a certain equilibrium, and all the emotions, all the passions in the world are nothing compared with the immense but wholly unconscious effort human beings make just to preserve their peace of mind.6

  • 7 Lawrence’s emphasis. Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays, ed. Bruce Steele (Cambridge: Cambridge (...)

8Ulrich speaks for the author when he remarks that in his time the “rubble of ‘ineffectual feelings,’ which every period bequeaths to the next, has grown into mountains […]” (MOE,1127; MWQ, 1038) and earlier he had commented on the neglect of emotional education in a way that recalls Lawrence’s remark that a man who is “emotionally educated is as rare as a phoenix” except that Musil’s more social conception hardly allows for the Lawrencean sense of exemplary exception7:

For centuries now […] the world has known truth in thinking and accordingly, to a certain degree, rational freedom of thought. But during this same time the emotional life has had neither the strict discipline (school) of truth nor any freedom of movement. For every moral system has, in its time, regulated the feelings, and rigidly too, but only insofar as certain basic principles and feelings were needed for whatever action it favoured; the rest was left to individual whim, to the private play of emotions, to the random efforts of art, and to academic debate. So morality has adapted our feelings to the needs of moral systems and meanwhile neglected to develop them, even though it depends on feelings: morality is, after all, the order and integrity of the emotional life. (MOE,1116; MWQ 1127-8)

9The Nietzschean, or Lawrencean, tendency of Ulrich’s analysis is suggested in the last sentence quoted in which morality is said not merely to depend upon the “order and integrity of the emotional life” but is defined as this. The quality of the emotional life is a primary value of which the social or ethical effect is a by-product. But for Ulrich’s generation, the emotional habits are themselves now lost or empty, even if only a few are aware of this condition as such. Rather than seeking to be the Lawrencean exception in living against the grain of the culture, it is as if Musil, through Ulrich, seeks not just to observe this collective condition, but to submit himself fully to the experience of it, to bring it fully into consciousness. And this attempt might well be falsified, or short-circuited, by moral or aesthetic closure on his part. He therefore seems in a double sense unable to effect a resolution: unable because it would not, as it were, come to him, but also through an active moral refusal to impose a merely narrative or aesthetic resolution on the condition he was analysing.

  • 8 I discuss this theme in The Sentiment of Reality: Truth of Feeling in the European Novel (London: U (...)

10If MWQ investigates the moral crisis that occurs when the habitual structure of the affective life decays, so that thought and feeling become separated, it is not surprising that, in the third and fourth parts especially, this separation returns us, analytically if not culturally, to the eighteenth-century origins of moral sentimentalism. Ulrich seeks what he calls the “other condition”: one in which “thought and moral sense went hand in hand” (MOE, 765, MWQ, 830). Moral sentimentalism was precisely an attempt to merge the authority of moral law with the spontaneity of human feeling. In the mid eighteenth-century the word “sentiment” combined the contrary meanings of “principle” and “feeling” and thereby focused the instability of this optimistic Enlightenment myth whereby moral “principle” has the apodictic spontaneity of “feeling” while feeling has the objective value of principle. Kant, as moral philosopher, took a strong line against the damaging admixture of sentiment with duty. In his view, you can only truly know you are acting morally when duty conflicts with inclination. But novelists generally took a more inclusive view and the instability at the heart of moral sentimentalism was significantly worked out over several literary generations as the dramatic discrimination between authentic and inauthentic feeling was a major preoccupation of the European novel.8 This secular achievement of negotiating the ungroundable nature of the moral life was part of what Nietzsche called the death of God. For he meant by this not just conscious disbelief in a personal deity but the gradual and largely unconscious hollowing out of the infrastructure of beliefs and habits for which God has been the summative mythic signature. In that sense it may take a long time for God to die, or for his death to be noticed. But finally, as Musil puts it in an image that has just become newly resonant: “God withdrew His credit” (MOE, 528, MWQ, 575).

11Ulrich finds thought and feeling destructively disconnected and, as a modern, he envisages wholeness through the integrity of feeling itself. He echoes Rupert Birkin in seeking, as the hardest human achievement, “the pleasure of a pure, deep, spontaneous mode of action” (MOE, 823, MWQ, 894). This possibility is explored in an ambiguously incestuous relationship with his newly rediscovered, younger sister, Agathe; a relationship which places ethical principle in direct opposition to a weight of emotional affection sharpened by desire. Meanwhile, Ulrich has already been speculating that the experience of spontaneous moral behaviour can only be known as such when it occurs in defiance of law or custom. Morality cannot be, as the siblings put it, “bottled,” or ready-made eingemachtes (MOE, 755, MWQ, 829). In direct opposition to Kant, it is precisely every morality that follows a given code of duty, or a merely habitual feeling, that is threatened with inauthenticity. Despite the abundance of actual transgression in modern literature and thought, there is something peculiarly striking in the philosophical spirit of this speculative reflection which sharply focuses the paradox of autonomy. Lawrence, by contrast, is not concerned with such logical conundrums. When Birkin, for example, approves the bridegroom’s behaviour at the church in the “Sisters” chapter he focuses on the positive quality of the act rather than the epistemological question of its authenticity for the bridegroom himself who is not, of course, a particularly reflective young man.

12The relevant section of Musil’s novel is entitled “The Criminals,” and it is important that the whole relationship with Agathe occurs under the sign of illegitimacy. The sibling attraction crackles with erotic power and, although the published version of the novel leaves it unconsummated, that does not reduce its erotic force, rather the reverse. It leaves Ulrich torn between the rival imperatives of desire and taboo. In some respects, Agathe is reminiscent of Gudrun, named after the husband-slayer, Gutrune. She cruelly despises her dull but blameless husband, Hagauer, and has a perversely wilful, yet courageous, curiosity about emotional possibilities. At the same time, her very name is an ironic challenge to traditional conceptions of the good and in this regard she acts out, like a Dostoevsky character, the intellectual speculations of her brother.

  • 9 J-J Rousseau, Les Confessions, ed. Jacques Voisine (Paris: Garnier, 1964), 221-31.

13As Ulrich’s alter ego, Agathe gives, at least to him, a seductive reality to his thoughts. Brother and sister are brought together by the death of their father who represents the old order of authority which neither of them can accept. When they are suddenly left alone in the house with his body, the situation allows Agathe to flout moral principle very directly. Having decided to separate from Hagauer, she excludes him from the inheritance by falsifying their father’s will. Ulrich is appalled by this act, and by the legal danger it involves. But he never in the end challenges her and this is perhaps because he, and the reader too, have already been softened up by her earlier act, against explicit paternal instruction, of removing the father’s medals from his body while it is lying in state. Since the medals have counterfeits ready for the final closing of the coffin, the premature substitution cannot be known to anyone else, and the paternal instruction has no legal status, so that the incident focuses the purely ideal nature of the dead man’s will, and of her action. Her act can do no practical harm even as it shockingly flouts a fundamental moral imperative. Despite Ulrich’s disapproval, she has for him something of the integrity Rousseau saw in Mme de Warens in the Confessions whose nature was so whole and pure that she remained uncorrupted not just by the casuistry of her Jesuit confessor but by her own behaviour. The purity of her motives enabled her to take both Rousseau and Claude Anet to her bed.9 Ulrich’s intellectual lucidity is helpless before the seductive spontaneity of his sister’s actions:

But on that whole key ring of contemporary notions, such as neurotic inferiority, mental deficiency, arrested development, and the like, none fit, and in the lovely picture she made while committing her crime there was no trace of greed or vengefulness or any other inner ugliness. And although with the aid of such concepts Ulrich could have seen even the actions of a criminal or a near psychotic as relatively controlled and civilized, because the distorted and displaced motives of ordinary life shimmer in their depths, his sister’s gently fierce determination, an inextricable blend of purity and criminality, left him momentarily speechless. He could not accept the idea that this person quite openly engaged in committing a bad act, could be a bad person, while at the same time he had to watch how Agathe took one paper after another out of the desk, read it, and laid it aside, seriously searching for a specific document. Her determination gave the impression of having descended from some other planet to the plane of everyday decision. (MOE, 797, MWQ, 867)

  • 10 Cf. book 6 of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship and Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Mind trans (...)

14There is an ironic echo here of the eighteenth-century “beautiful soul” on the basis of which Ulrich distinguishes between what he calls the good bad person, such as he is partly persuaded to see in Agathe, and the bad good person which they both see in Hagauer. If the quality of the personality determines the quality of the act then Agathe is a modern, which is to say an inverted, version of the “beautiful soul.” The original “beautiful soul,” as defined by Schiller, lived up spontaneously to an objective moral decorum although the self-consciousness of the figure was almost immediately put under ironic scrutiny by Goethe and terminally destructive analysis by Hegel.10 In contrast to Schiller’s ideal, this modern version of the beautiful soul finds her justification in her feeling; irrespective, it would seem, of any objective decorum. In Agathe’s case, the falsifying of the father’s will raises this challenge to a higher power. As the multiple meanings of the word bring home, a will represents the passage from a living and personally enforceable intention to a purely ideal, and therefore legal, status. A will is always treated with legal absolutism, becomes the categorical imperative par excellence, precisely because it now has no other reality. It therefore represents, in the present case, the most extreme clash between emotional inclination and abstract moral principle as embodied in law. And it remains significant in this respect that the “beautiful soul” is still feminine. For it is precisely not her virtue, but the charm of her feminine self-conviction, that compels Ulrich to go along with her.

15The difference between Lawrence and Musil, which perhaps allowed Lawrence to keep writing novels and Musil not, also lies in their understandings of what is at stake in the notion of “spontaneity.” Lawrence, like Nietzsche, believed that instinct becomes something fearful only because of its repression, and they therefore opposed what we might call the “Freudian” conception of instinct as an intrinsically dangerous energy which must be sublimated. Thomas Mann is overtly “Freudian” in this sense, which is why his Apollinian fictions do not fully engage the Nietzschean Dionysos so much as gaze at it through a domestic window, but Musil seems also largely to subscribe to this view; as is suggested by the dark leitmotiv of the criminally insane murderer, Moosbrugger. That is perhaps why Musil’s analysis of modernity is left in a philosophical and narrative impasse. Agathe’s attraction as a latter-day “beautiful soul” is siren-like, and the figure of Moosbrugger, the “innocent” murderer, constantly shadows the action, while Musil refuses the Nietzschean/Lawrencean confidence in the instinctual life. To be sure, Lawrence also feels an impasse in the “barren tragedy” of Women in Love but this is more a matter of cultural and historical circumstance rather than intrinsic to human life itself. For him, tragedy is ultimately affirmative even when the particular life has been thwarted.

16Meanwhile, Agathe herself proves to be no reliable ideal. She suffers a suicidal collapse of confidence and is perhaps saved only through a chance encounter with a new character, Lindner. There is a compelling sense here that Agathe has focused a possibility that can be neither fully accepted nor rejected. The text offers no final judgement even as it represents both sides of a possible judgement through the viewpoints of Ulrich and Lindner. The sibling relationship combines speculation, the province of philosophy, and a testing within an imagined reality, the province of fiction. One need only mention Dostoevsky to see that there is no reason in principle why this kind of complexity should not be contained in a novel, but Musil is perhaps less interested in honing a tragic vision than in exploring the irresolvability of a philosophically posed predicament. Of course, artistic resolution or form is not identical with a moral or judgemental resolution. As Schiller made clear long ago, aesthetic form is a way of holding moral values in suspension as many great novels do. But to hold them in a significant suspension requires some consensual contract with the reader, a contract which has to be implicitly embodied in the novel form. Part of the difference, then, between the two writers is that Musil engages the problem in a philosophical, analytic spirit as if looking for an answer that could subsume his distrust of the emotional domain as such whereas Lawrence always seeks an emotional clue. He does not seek to justify moral autonomy philosophically but to act authentically on an emotional imperative and that is reflected in his different relation to the novel form. To appreciate this point it is helpful to step back historically. The problematic interrelations of feeling and moral law were given their modern forms in eighteenth-century moral sentimentalism and the whole subsequent tradition of moral sentiment is closely intertwined with the cultural work of fiction which these two authors drew upon in quite different ways.

17In seeking to define appropriate moral emotions within a larger social order, European novelists have frequently drawn upon the idea or the spirit of law. The legal entities of marriage and adultery have been central concerns of the novel because they are the areas in which personal fulfilment and social order either combine or come into conflict. A founding father of European fiction, Henry Fielding, was a man of the law, and its spirit structures and permeates his novels as when the emotional energies of Tom Jones are brought to a prudent containment within the general social order. Likewise, Walter Scott, another man of the law, and an inaugural figure for the historical consciousness of nineteenth-century fiction, could indulge the anarchy of romance by containing it within the historical achievement of the British Constitution. But ideological commitment to the social order is not in itself the point here so much as the capacity to represent it as an order. So Dickens’s Bleak House, for example, uses the law as a comprehensive critical image of contemporary society. Yet as George Gissing indicated in his writings on Dickens, and in his own fiction, such a comprehensive vision of the social whole was becoming increasingly incredible by the turn of the century. Gissing is one of those writers in whom the totalising ambition of the mid nineteenth-century novel consciously breaks up, becomes untenable, and it is not surprising that his major book, New Grub Street, concerns the predicament of a writer. For the modernists, a poetic and consciously personal vision won from the break-up would be the means of achieving new kinds of wholeness but, of course, their individual means were very varied. Joyce, Mann and Proust all produced impressive new formations; albeit with the nagging suspicion that this was achieved through a monolithic artistic will. Lawrence did it within the more traditional forms of The Rainbow and Women in Love, and then seemed to experience the impossibility of the form thereafter.

  • 11 The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music. Trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 19 (...)

18Both Lawrence and Musil saw that in the circumstances of modernity, in which traditional systems of authority are no longer compelling, morality will depend on an internal emotional power into which the very notion of the moral as a separate category is largely dissolved. And both saw that the medium for representing this is the novel. But here they diverge strongly. Lawrence had absorbed English, European and American traditions of fiction in a critical but creative spirit. He trusted the novel as a mode of thinking even for purposes of radical critique. In Musil, by contrast, one senses that rather than any individual novelist, or even novelistic tradition, his immediate forebear is actually Nietzsche whose comments on the novel in Birth of Tragedy suggest it is an unredeemably superficial modern form able to deal only with the moralising surfaces of life.11

19Likewise, various remarks of Ulrich suggest that the novel is an illusory source of understanding. When flirting with the possibility of an affair with his cousin, Diotima, he proposes: “to begin with, that we try to love each other as if we were characters in a novel who have met in the pages of a book. Let us in any case leave off all the fatty tissue that pumps up reality” (MOE, 573, MWQ, 625). The last sentence is interestingly ambivalent as it could suggest that the novel is a significant concentration of reality, leaving out the inessential. But the proposal actually concludes an analytic argument that human beings make their lives tolerable by “leaving things out,” and that the novel is only an extension of this principle of avoidance. And Ulrich later muses at length on the seduction of narrative:

And in one of those apparently random and abstract thoughts that so often assumed importance in his life, it struck him that when one is overburdened and dreams of simplifying one’s life, the basic law of this life, the law one longs for, is nothing other than that of narrative order, the simple order that enables one to say: “First this happened and then that happened…”

20This is the trick the novel artfully turns to account…

It now came to Ulrich that he had lost this elementary, narrative mode of thought to which private life still clings, even though everything in public life has already ceased to be narrative and no longer follows a thread, but instead spreads out as an infinitely interwoven surface. (MOE, 650, MWQ, 708-9)

  • 12 Aspects of the Novel (London: Penguin, 1962), 33-4.

21Again, there are some teasing potentialities here. His comment on narrative order is close to E. M. Forster’s comment on story as the primitive, merely successive, sequence out of which the complex, causal form of the novel was to be created.12 And the image of the “infinitely interwoven surface” could suggest the complex spatialisation of narrative form seen in other modernists, most obviously Joyce. Once again, then, there is a potential case for the importance of the novel, but in context this is clearly not what Ulrich means. He sees the narrative impulse tout court as a seductive illusion.

22Moreover, Ulrich’s reflection separates out the private and the public lives, with the sense that when the collective life has lost its narrative coherence, the private narrative is little more than a saving illusion. All this is highly suggestive for Lawrence’s subsequent use of the novel form. While continuing to use the novel as a primary way of dramatically thinking through his own intuitions, he never again achieved, and much of the time did not attempt, the summative shaping of The Rainbow and Women in Love as encompassing a whole social vision.

  • 13 I discuss this in D.H. Lawrence: Language and Being (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), (...)

23Not surprisingly, it is also in these two novels that a traditional conception of marriage becomes increasingly hollow, and the foundational moment for Lawrence’s subsequent fiction throughout the nineteen-twenties is Aaron Sisson’s sudden and arbitrary departure from his marriage. The opening of the novel is quietly seismic. The decision is given no narrative introduction or conventional justification and yet it is precisely because of this that we intuit, or have to accept, its radical necessity and seriousness. We are forced to decide whether to go along with it or not. Like the bullfight at the beginning of The Plumed Serpent, the opening episode challenges the reader to accept its terms in order to enter the novel’s world of values.13 After Women in Love Lawrence used the novel for exploratory purposes which involved an effective dissolution of the form itself. His longer fictions, apart from the overtly didactic Lady Chatterley’s Lover, became dramatised processes of open-ended experiment and self-correction, effectively the invention of a new genre carried by the double force of the author’s rejections and affirmation. He leaves us in no doubt about his values while typically leaving their real world instantiation, or the outcome of the narrative conflicts, unresolved. As fictional equivalents of his “poetry of the present,” these novels enact an ongoing process of shifting convictions often held at any single moment, as they must be, with apparently dogmatic absolutism.

24In the later volumes of MWQ, Musil also sought to define a positive form of love, and one that may encompass a religious or mystical dimension. This questing aspect might well have lent itself, perhaps, to Lawrencean form but he is ultimately more questioning than questing. Whereas Lawrence both suffered and embraced a prophetic isolation, Musil always gave a Jamesian weight to social reality which both Nietzsche and the later Lawrence were perhaps too ready to downplay. In that respect, what we see in Lawrence’s open-ended, questing novels of the nineteen-twenties is not so much the attempt to create of a social whole, as a subjectivity seeking the law of its own nature.

  • 14 Language and Being, op cit., 186-9.
  • 15 Cf. Open Secrets? op. cit., 192.

25More problematically and controversially, of course, we also see in these works a subjectivity seeking to provide a law for others and the critical positions around that question are only too familiar. The notion of “leadership” has put an authoritarian stamp on these works although this is rather an interpretative emphasis drawn from the novels’ thematic concerns by critics, rather than Lawrence’s own term for the genre. I have suggested elsewhere that it is more fruitful to see Lawrence’s investment in figures like Ramón as a way of reflecting critically on his own mode of authority as a novelist; an authority whose vulnerability was the more evident because so highly valued.14 For it is precisely as the consensual contract with the reader, which is the only possible authority of the novel form, consciously diminishes, that the essential problematic of authority itself becomes the primary focus of these narratives. In fact, the self-confidence of the novel form in Europe was to haemorrhage away quite severely after the modernist decades and Walter Benjamin’s essay on “The Story-teller” (1934) is the first great expression of this anxiety. In Lawrence’s case, there was no lack of confidence in the form itself, and indeed his great essays on the novel date from the mid twenties, the same years as his personal quest narratives, but in these late fictions he engaged the real nub of the question in relation to his own authority. In the light of the present argument, therefore, we may suggest a broader definition of what is at stake in these late novels: they enact the struggle not just of novelistic authority but of the antinomian spirit as such. For in so far as we image this as the attempt to give law to oneself, then our very language points up the inescapable thrust towards universality which it involves. What distinguishes the true antinomian is that he is not merely a law unto himself and yet his law cannot readily be generalised. I have recently suggested elsewhere that Lawrence’s “example remains permanently elusive: at once familiar, transparent and inaccessible.”15 His long questing fictions of the nineteen-twenties enact the internal agon of this double truth.

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1 Stanley Bates, “The Mind’s Horizon,” in Beyond Representation, ed. Richard Eldridge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 151-174 (170-1)

2 For Rousseau see especially Jean Starobinsky, Transparency and Obstruction and Michael Bell Open Secrets: Literature, Education and Authority (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 17-51.

3 Critique of Practical Reason. Trans. Lewis Beck White, 3rd ed. (New York and Toronto: Macmillan, 1993), 30.

4 The Genealogy of Morals. Trans Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1989), 58-9.

5 Letters of D. H. Lawrence, vol ii, 182.

6 Der Mann hne Eigenschaften, (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1978), 527; The Man without Qualities. Trans. Sophie Wilkins, (London: Macmillan, 1995), 574.

7 Lawrence’s emphasis. Study of Thomas Hardy and Other Essays, ed. Bruce Steele (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 209.

8 I discuss this theme in The Sentiment of Reality: Truth of Feeling in the European Novel (London: Unwin, 1983) and Sentimentalism, Ethics and the Culture of Feeling (London: Palgrave, 2000).

9 J-J Rousseau, Les Confessions, ed. Jacques Voisine (Paris: Garnier, 1964), 221-31.

10 Cf. book 6 of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship and Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Mind trans. J. B. Baillie (London: Allen and Unwin, 1966), 642-79.

11 The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music. Trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1967), 91.

12 Aspects of the Novel (London: Penguin, 1962), 33-4.

13 I discuss this in D.H. Lawrence: Language and Being (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 190-202.

14 Language and Being, op cit., 186-9.

15 Cf. Open Secrets? op. cit., 192.

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Michael Bell, « Law and the Novel: D.H. Lawrence and Robert Musil », Études Lawrenciennes, 41 | 2010, 43-62.

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Michael Bell, « Law and the Novel: D.H. Lawrence and Robert Musil », Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 41 | 2010, mis en ligne le 24 janvier 2014, consulté le 18 janvier 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/lawrence.144

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Michael Bell

Michael Bell is Professor Emeritus at the University of Warwick and Associate Fellow of the Centre for Research in Philosophy and Literature. His principal publication on Lawrence is D. H. Lawrence: Language and Being (CUP, 1992). He has published much else on Lawrence including a chapter in his latest book Open Secrets;Literature, Education and Authority from J-J Rousseau to J. M. Coetzee (OUP, 2007).

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Études lawrenciennes est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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