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Literature Versus Philosophy

Juliette Feyel
p. 97-111

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1Lawrence’s recurrent attacks on Socrates and Plato bear witness to his intention to return to the ancient quarrel between writers and philosophers. When Plato designs his Utopia, he banishes the poets outside its walls. For him the purpose of life is to seek the ideal essence of things, and all concrete objects are imperfect imitations of this essence. Given the imperfection of the concrete, literature can be condemned for diverting us even further from the ideal truth, proffering, as it does, mere imitations of imitations. Moreover, it stirs up emotions and confines man to his bodily functions instead of elevating him towards abstraction and logic. From Plato onwards, Western culture advocated the absolute superiority of the logos over anything attributed to the body such as the senses, passions, and emotions.

2We all know that Lawrence deplored the split between body and mind, and the subsequent hierarchy of logic over emotions. All of his oeuvre can be regarded as an attempt to invert the structure of this hierarchy. When he wrote: “Never trust the artist. Trust the tale” (SCAL 14), he suggested that literature can say more than what the artist is conscious of, that fiction can come closer to the truth than pure theory. He then went even further, adding that : “When the novelist puts his thumb in the scale, to pull down the balance to his own predilection, that is immorality” (PhI 528), suggesting here that making plain one’s opinion is a way of looking away from the truth, because choosing one option over others amounts to missing the essential polysemy and ambivalence of life. To Lawrence, literature is superior to philosophy because, by stirring up emotions, it can access something that logic is unable to reach.

3However, Lawrence also claimed that his own writings constituted a “philosophy” (Lett. 2:307). Lawrence attacks philosophy while producing his own “philosophy.” In order to resolve this apparent paradox, the following fundamental question must be answered: what is the difference between the philosophy Lawrence vehemently opposed, and the “philosophy” he claims is represented in his writings? Since Lawrence considered that logic was detrimental to the richness of emotional life, an emotional life he placed above all else, what is the nature of this “philosophy” which does not exclude the body and the emotions from its realm? This paper will underline the fact that, even if Lawrence criticized philosophy, he did not dismiss intellect per se. Lawrence was not an irrationalist, and never encouraged the abandonment of reason. He merely dreamt of a philosophy which could embrace emotions, something that would be more than philosophy in the narrow sense of the term, more than mechanical logic.

4In Women in Love, Hermione and Birkin discuss the topic of educating children, which allows Lawrence to distinguish between two ways of thinking:

But do you think [children] are better for having [their consciousness] quickened, stimulated? Isn’t it better that they should remain unconscious of the hazel, isn’t it better that they should see as a whole, without all this pulling to pieces, all this knowledge? (WL 40)

5He contrasts two kinds of understanding: one is conscious, the other unconscious; the latter preserves the wholeness of things whilst the former fragments them. The analytical nature of intellectual understanding is again mentioned later in the novel:

“I really do not want to be forced into all this criticism and analysis of life. I really do want to see things in their entirety, with their beauty left to them, and their wholeness, their natural holiness. – Don’t you feel it, don’t you feel you can’t be tortured into any more knowledge?” said Hermione […]. It seems to destroy everything. All the beauty and the,–and the true holiness is destroyed,–and I feel I can’t live without them.”
“And it would be simply wrong to live without them,” cried Ursula. “No, it is so IRREVERENT to think that everything must be realised in the head. Really, something must be left to the Lord.” (WL 141-42)

6Here Lawrence deliberately plays on the similitude between “wholeness” and “holiness,” as if he wanted to emphasise that in order to understand organic phenomena one needs to adopt a holistic approach. For him, the truth must be sought in the living, organic core of things, a core which must remain integral to be vital. By pulling things to pieces, logical thinking brings death. For Lawrence, science can only study cold and inert objects, so he resorts to mechanical metaphors in order to evoke the petrifying effect of the mind.

7“The Blind Man” displays another feature of the opposition between two kinds of understanding. Two attitudes are contrasted, one is embodied by Bertram Reid, “a Scotsman of the intellectual type, quick, ironical, sentimental,” the other by Maurice Pervin “passionate, sensitive, perhaps over-sensitive, wincing.” To Maurice, the blind man, the world is “[whole], rich and real and invisible.” (CSS 2:347) Although he is generally slow-minded, his feelings are “quick and acute.” Bertram is the exact opposite, quick-minded but with an unreasonable fear of direct contact with other human beings. The dichotomy here sets in opposition feeling and speaking, touching and looking. The blind man thinks with his body. The writer uses phrases like: “clever, careful, strong contact of his feet with the earth,” “powerful legs that seemed to know the earth,” (354) and finally, he puts “blood prescience” and “visual consciousness” into opposition (355). Intellectual intelligence is related to vision, which implies distance, while emotional intelligence is about feeling, touching, sensing: it is dark, intuitive and, above all, it is about breaking down the distance which normally separates individuals. When Maurice touches Bertram’s face, the man cannot repress his revulsion towards the “naked” hands, he senses a danger in their contact. Whereas Maurice feels overwhelmed with love and joy having created a new bond of intimacy with a fellow man, Bertie is described as “a mollusc whose shell is broken” (365). The story seems to show how intellectual knowledge isolates egos within themselves, traps them inside a shell of apparent solidity, whereas emotional understanding generates communication and a sort of strength based on organic connection.

8Intellectual knowledge, associated with the visual, implies distance, but distance tends to alter things and make them look smaller. When Ursula describes Gudrun’s sculptures, she notes:

Isn’t it queer that she always likes little things?–she must always work small things, that one can put between one’s hands, birds and tiny animals. She likes to look through the wrong end of the opera glasses, and see the world that way. (WL 39)

9The fact that Gudrun refuses to sculpt human beings suggests that she considers the latter to be funny animals. Moreover, she turns individuals into petty versions of themselves. She keeps her distance and, with her clever, witty, and sarcastic temperament, captures in a flash the feature representing an individual. Ursula instinctively perceives there is something evil in the way Gudrun reduces individuals. She identifies a will-to-control, to keep living creatures “between one’s hands” to the point of suffocating them like little birds when held too tight. Intellectual knowledge amounts to adopting a distant, haughty, and somehow derisive attitude to life. Here, Lawrence shares the same view as Descartes when he says that the philosophical stance consists in adopting a distant angle, a high vantage point, “un point de vue dominant,” using the term dominer which means both “to look from above” and “to master.” On the contrary, as the blind man’s example shows, emotional knowledge is about participating, it commits the subject to a contact with the object and provokes a dynamic change in both. Whereas intellectual understanding is about distance and control, emotional understanding is about connection, interaction, and exchange. One nails down while the other is open to change: one is imprisoning, the other liberating.

10Ursula says to Birkin: “Let it be a dark horse for once,” (WL 131) she promotes an ethic of renouncing one’s will-to-control. She offers a view that does not impose a preconceived idea on the world, a clear definition of things which ultimately kills them. She advocates an attitude of respectful awe towards the dark and wholly other, of passive acceptance, and self-abandonment. The same ethic is championned by Lawrence in “On Being a Man,” where he designates as “thought-adventure” a leap into the unknown. Challenging Socrates’ motto, he writes:

Know thyself means knowing at last that you can’t know yourself. I can’t know the Adam of red-earth which is me. It will always do things to me, beyond my knowledge. Neither can I know the serpent-listening Eve which is the woman […] we have to meet as I meet a jaguar between the trees in the mountains, and advance, and touch, and risk it. […] Take the risk […] All the time, to risk your known self, and become once more a self you could never have known or expected. (PhII 620)

11Lawrence denounces philosophy for promoting an attitude of suffocating control which leads to the isolation of individuals inside the hard shell of preconceived and ideal forms. He urges us to admit the limits of conscious understanding and risk the contact with the otherness of each single individual, this irreducible nucleus of darkness which logic cannot penetrate.

12However, it would be wrong to infer from all of this that Lawrence condemned all forms of intellectual approach. When he attacks Socrates in Lady Chatterley’s Lover through the cronies’ discussion, Lawrence condemns mental life, which is distinct from rationality:

Real knowledge comes out of the whole corpus of the consciousness; out of your belly and your penis as much as out of your brain and mind. The mind can only analyse and rationalize. Set the mind and the reason to cock it over the rest, and all they can do is to criticize, and make a deadness. (LCL 37)

13Mental life is a disease. It happens when the mind decides to be the exclusive end of all thinking. This passage can be compared with The Birth of Tragedy where Nietzsche criticizes Socrates for having started the age of despotic logic.

14Whereas in all productive men instinct is the truly creative and affirming power, and consciousness acts as a critical and cautioning reaction, in Socrates instinct becomes the critic, consciousness becomes the creator—truly a monstrosity per defectum [from some defect]! (Nietzsche § 13)

15Lawrence agrees with Nietzsche on the fact that monstrosity is a disorganized hierarchy of higher and lower body faculties:

By idealism we understand the motivizing of the great affective sources by means of ideas mentally derived. As for example the incest motive, which is first and foremost a logical deduction made by the human reason, even if unconsciously made, and secondly is introduced into the affective, passional sphere, where it now proceeds to serve as a principle for action. (PU 210)

16All thinking comes from the body, the lower part of the body is unconscious and creative, the higher part is mental, conscious, and critical. The healthy man lets his lower part endorse an affirmative role, whereas his mind endorses a reactive one. Lawrence calls this balance of affirmative and reactive powers “the reality of peace” (PhI 669-94). In Nietzsche’s work, it is referred to as the conjunction of Dionysos and Apollo. Apollo is the god of forms, but forms which bring measure and harmony to the fiery outbursts of spontaneous dionysiac passions. It is the creative conjunction of movement and form, violence and measure. In contrast, the despotism of logic is the conjunction of Dionysos and Socrates, which in the last instance kills the spirit of tragedy, that is, of creation. Thus, Lawrence does not so much criticize the use of one’s mind but rather the substitution of the mental principle with the creative, spontaneous one. First must come the soul, the unconscious creative will-to-live, whilst the conscious part of man must play a subordinate role:

The process of idealization, mental consciousness, is a subsidiary process […] Mental activity, final cognition, ideation, is only set up secondarily from the perfect interaction and inter-communication of the primary affective centres, which remain all the time our dynamic first-minds. (PhI 620)

17Lawrence uses an image comparing the mind to a god in the machine. It is taken from Descartes’s Metaphysical Meditations and refers to the supremacy of logical thought over emotions in the Western philosophical tradition. Descartes believed that the engine was the mind and the body nothing but an obedient machine. As a post-nietzchean thinker, Lawrence asserts the contrary, that the vital motive comes out of the body while the mechanical principle is generated by the mind. As if to respond to Descartes, he creates the character of Hermione Roddice. The depiction of her figure displays a disproportion between the higher and lower parts of her body: an “enormous flat hat” stands above a “peculiar fixity of the hips,” (WL 15). In contrast, the blind man has strong “muscular legs” and “sloping shoulders” (CSS 2:354). As Hermione has inverted lower and higher functions, she can only rely on her mind to excite her will-to-live. As a result:

She always felt vulnerable, vulnerable, there was always a secret chink in her armour. She did not know herself what it was. It was a lack of robust self, she had no natural sufficiency, there was a terrible void, a lack, a deficiency of being within her. (WL 16)

18The sap of life cannot come out of the brain, its sources are located in the lower parts of the body, which Lawrence designates also as the “emotional centres.”

19In order to put his beliefs into practice, Lawrence proposes a new method of education, with the goal of developing emotional intelligence. Firstly, he prescribes that children should be kept away from any sort of mental education because he assumes that children are made self-conscious too early. Apart from the three Rs, education should put an emphasis on physical training and craft. Stimulating the emotional centres in children through physical activity and direct non-verbal communication will help to bring them up strong and healthy. He even recommends spanking children if they need to be punished, because to him spanking stimulates, through direct contact, the volitional centres located at the bottom of the back. Indeed, in his theory, the back of the body has energetic centres which produce impulsions that induce each person to assert his or her individuality. He believes his method will help to strengthen the children’s instinctive energies instead of smothering them with mentally orientated injunctions. Present education, he argues, develops logical thought to the detriment of other faculties and therefore gives birth to perversion: real emotions are replaced by counterfeit ones, emotions without any spontaneity, purely prompted by an effort of the will. He names this perversion “sentimentality.” Intellectual education should only be provided in a second stage, only when children are emotionally strong and the bases of their creativity are firmly established. As he says: “Personality and mind, like moustaches, belong to a certain age.” (PhI 620)

20This said, Lawrence does not imply that one should abandon oneself entirely to instinct and emotions. It would amount to a sort of barbaric regression to the state of an animal. Annable, the gamekeeper of The White Peacock lets his children live in a repulsive state of savagery. They grow in number as fast and anarchically as the rabbits which devastate the fields, expelling farmers one by one, bringing chaos and misery into the countryside. Because he experienced a disappointing relationship in the past with Lady Christabel, an overly cerebral woman, the man responded by falling into the opposite excess, that of sub-humanity. Annable’s death seems to say that returning to the state of an animal, the state which preceded the split of the human psyche into consciousness and unconsciousness, can only lead to destruction. It is impossible to become unconscious again, once awakened to consciousness. Birkin criticizes Hermione for claiming the opposite:

“You are merely making words,” he said; “knowledge means everything to you. Even your animalism, you want it in your head. You don’t want to BE an animal, you want to observe your own animal functions, to get a mental thrill out of them. It is all purely secondary–and more decadent than the most hide-bound intellectualism.” (WL 41)

21Lawrence admires animals and “primitive” peoples, and seeks the secret of emotional life in them because he thought they had something which civilized men had lost. However, instead of promoting simple regression, he actually wanted humanity to raise itself beyond its current state, beyond its culture and intellectualism. Note Birkin’s answer to Hermione:

“[…] Isn’t the mind–“she said, with the convulsed movement of her body, “isn’t it our death? Doesn’t it destroy all our spontaneity, all our instincts? Are not the young people growing up today, really dead before they have a chance to live?”
“Not because they have too much mind, but too little,” he said brutally. (WL 41)

22Like many of his contemporaries who read Nietzsche, Lawrence was impressed by the notion of the superman. The superman, the man who is intellectually skilled but also emotionally developed, the one who can reconcile the spirit of Dionysos with that of Apollo. The Birth of Tragedy states that Socrates, close to death, had finally intuited that his deamon, his attraction to music, taught him something wiser than logical understanding, as if the philosopher had eventually admitted that philosophy needed to be surpassed by art. Lawrence’s supermen, who couple emotional and intellectual understanding, are decribed as the “great utterers.” They embody the grand achievement of society, they represent energy become conscious of itself through the long process of the spiritualization of instincts.

23In its living periods mankind accumulates upwards, through the zones of life-expression and passionate consciousness, upwards to the supreme utterer, or utterers. (PhI 609)

24This creative process only happens if the basis of mankind provides the “massive subterranean fires of creation” for these “utterers,” the poets. Consciousness must be built up on top of powerful emotions, intelligence must come out of life-wisdom, because the highest quality is living understanding, the first thing a man should be educated in.

25Yet, how to utter truth without falling into the traps of logical knowledge which fragments and then encapsulates things in the shell of Ideas and thus petrifies them? An exchange between Ursula and Hermione can enlighten us:

“[Birkin] really IS like a boy who must pull everything to pieces to see how it is made. And I can’t think it is right–it does seem so irreverent, as you say.”
“Like tearing open a bud to see what the flower will be like,” said Ursula. (WL 142)

26If you pull the petals off a flower, you will eventually meet nothingness. The essence of living creatures lies within the multiple folds of illusion. Lawrence opposes a conception in which truth stands behind appearances. He doesn’t think that if you remove the veils of illusion you will then reach the naked truth. Truth is appearance with its folds and its thickness. The skin of things is their reality. Truth is organic, whole, and also sensual. There is no truth beyond what can be perceived by the senses. This is why only an artist can approach living reality, he won’t violate it because he is the master of illusion and proffers beautiful lies.

27When Ursula and Loerke argue about a horse sculpture, Lawrence contrasts the two approaches:

“Wissen Sie,” [Loerke] said, […] “that horse is a certain FORM, part of a whole form. It is part of a work of art, a piece of form. It is not a picture of a friendly horse to which you give a lump of sugar, do you see–it is part of a work of art, it has no relation to anything outside that work of art.” […]
“What do you mean by ‘it is a picture of a horse?’” [Ursula cried].

“What do you mean by a horse? You mean an idea you have in YOUR head, and which you want to see represented. […] it is a falsity of your own make-up. […] I know it is his idea. I know it is a picture of himself, really” Loerke snorted with rage.
“A picture of myself!” he repeated, in derision. “Wissen sie, gnadige Frau, that is a Kunstwerk, a work of art. It is a work of art, it is a picture of nothing […]. It has nothing to do with anything but itself, it has no relation with the everyday world of this and other […] they are two different and distinct planes of existence […]” (WL 430)

28According to Loerke, art has to represent the Idea, the eidolon, the “form” in Greek. He refers to Plato’s philosophy according to which the form of beings is their hidden essence, the mould which gives individuals their true value. In the sensual plane of existence, individuals are degraded copies, so the philosopher’s task is to discern their perfect Ideas. Loerke assumes this role of Platonic philosopher. Ursula denounces it as non-sense. Pre-existing forms and ideal transcendent planes do not exist. There is only one world, the sensual world, that of the many singular and iridescent individuals. Loerke himself has to use models in order to sculpt the horse and the young girl sitting on it, and the models are individuals. Art can only represent singular beings, perceived through the senses and emotions. In reality, Lawrence does not appear to be criticizing so much Plato but rather those who misunderstand him. He denounces intellectual dishonesty here. Art subjugated to abstract ideas does not give a philosophy, it only gives art which pretends to be philosophy – which is both bad philosophy and bad art.

29In another text, the writer adds:

When Van Gogh paints a sunflower, he reveals, or achieves, the vivid relation between himself, as man, and the sunflower, as sunflower, at that quick moment of time. His painting does not represent the sunflower itself. We shall never know what the sunflower itself is. […] It is a revelation of the perfected relation, at a certain moment, between a man and a sunflower. (PhI 527)

30This interrelatedness which occurs within an instant is the only way of knowing a concrete being. Both participants are committed and changed through this interrelatedness, and because it is unique, it cannot be theorized. Language can analyse it, but only captures what it has in common with other interrelations, it will always miss the uniqueness of that very instant. The artist must commit himself as the blind man did with Bertram, he must give up distance, take a risk and plunge into the unknown. What will come out of it is unpredictable. Later, when someone looks at the picture or reads the novel, one single individual will in turn build up a new relationship, risking his own soul.

31Only art can express individuality, and this is why it can provide a kind of knowledge which is not imprisoning. Lawrence offers to replace traditional - meaning logical - conceptual philosophy, with his own. He brings the focus of thinking back to the question of morality, and states that the goal of life is to assert one’s uniqueness, and in this way, to come into tender and delicate contact with another individual. This sort of emotional contact, he argues, is a philosophy because it is knowledge, and it can serve as a basis for a new ethics. Literature is the philosophy of the unique, of the particular. However, by asserting this, he relies on a form of sensitivity which is inherently more difficult to teach than rationality as it requires each student to risk his own soul, to go naked, without any possibility of cheating.

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Works by D.H. Lawrence

Complete Short Stories. 3 vol. Harmondsworth: Penguin books, 1976.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Ed. M. Squires, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

The Letters. 12 vol. Ed. G. Zytaruk and J.T. Boulton, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979-2000.

Phoenix, The Posthumous Papers of D. H. Lawrence. London: Heinemann, 1967.

Phoenix II, Uncollected, Unpublished and Other Prose Works by D. H. Lawrence. Ed. W. Roberts and H. T. Moore. New York: Viking Press, 1976.

Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious, Fantasia of the Unconscious. Ed. B. Steele. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Studies in Classic American Literature. Ed. E. Greenspan, L. Vasey, and J. Worthen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

The White Peacock. Ed. A. Robertson, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Women in Love. Ed. D. Farmer, L. Vasey, and J. Worthen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.


Descartes, René. Meditations on First Philosophies. Ed. and trans. S. Tweyman. London: Routledge, 1993.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy and the Genealogy of Morals. Trans. F. Golffing. New York: Doubleday, 1956.

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Juliette Feyel

Université Paris Ouest Nanterre

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