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The Ritualization of Emotions in Quetzalcoatl and The Plumed Serpent

Shirley Bricout
p. 239-254

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1As D. H. Lawrence’s writings show, the much romanticized prospect of travelling to America derived from the love/hate relationship between the author and his homeland. However, his urge to leave his native country and take the eastern route to America was also fuelled by a nagging preconception of a primeval world that foreign lands were thought to harbour. His letters and poems give ample evidence of this pursuit, and so does a novel such as Aaron’s Rod (1922), in which Lilly, Aaron’s mentor, voices Lawrence’s attraction to pre-Christian communities, claiming: “I would have loved the Aztecs and the Red Indians. I know they hold the element in life which I am looking for—They have living pride”(AR 97).

  • 1 Boulton 129.
  • 2 Lawrence wrote in Chapala, Mexico, to Baroness Anna von Richthofen on May 31st 1923: “Only I always (...)

2America also aroused polarized passions in Lawrence who was convinced that it was “a bad, soulless, mechanical country,” as his letters reveal as early as 1916.1 To define “passion” or “passionate response,” we can turn to Paul Foulquié and André Lalande who state, in their respective dictionaries, that today passion refers to a dominating and overbearing inclination which can become exclusive, can subjugate conscience and upset judgement and behaviour. This definition suits what Lawrence termed “higher emotions” in which he included belief since for him “belief is a profound emotion that has the mind’s connivance” (A propos 312). But, even if Lawrence passionately believed in an encounter with the primeval on the new continent to the point of heading there for exile, it can be argued that the novel he promised himself to write about America highlights the emotional response to a foreign country expressed through the character, Kate, rather than the author’s passion for it.2 Indeed, if passion can be nurtured and developed, emotion on the other hand stems from discrepancy, surprise and tension, or, in Foulquié’s words, from an upset in balance. The distinction between emotion and passion begs the following questions: To what extent is Lawrence’s passion for primeval Mexico conveyed in Quetzalcoatl and The Plumed Serpent? How do the emotions attributed to the characters induce a passionate involvement in the revived cult ? And, as a consequence, what is the reader’s emotional response to the narratives ?

  • 3 Boulton 261.

3In this article, I shall attempt to answer these questions by looking at several scenes staging rituals which channel Kate’s emotions. By comparing the subtle differences between Quetzalcoatl and The Plumed Serpent, I will show how the rites found in the scenes of the bullfight and of the executions, among others, not only act as catalysers of emotions but also travesty these emotions as a submissive but passionate response. The two novels are not on an equal footing however, since Quetzalcoatl, which Lawrence clearly considered as “a sketch,” according to letters written between April and October 1923, was not meant to be published.3 Its status as a draft can however help pinpoint the forces set to work in the final version, and can show how the ritualization of emotions functions as a logical principle in the appropriation and rewriting of Aztec mythology. First, an analysis of the appropriation of rituals, designed to revive the cosmic whole, will reveal how passion is deconstructed.

Desconstructing passion

4The first ritual to be found in both novels is staged at a bullfight. In these opening scenes, each novel offers the same chain of events: before the fight, eagerness to go on Owen’s and Villiers’s part, curiosity mingled with unease on Kate’s; the awkward promiscuity with the bullying crowd; then the surprise and shock which turn into horror at the gory spectacle which they witness helplessly. Both scenes end with Kate leaving hastily, being caught in the access tunnel by a downpour of rain and being once more surrounded by a hostile crowd until General Viedma comes to her rescue.

5However, a substantial shift in the rendering of emotions from one version to the other prompted me to approach the scene from the angle of responses. Two examples illustrate how the shift amplifies emotional responses in the final version, The Plumed Serpent. For instance, when the party are searched for weapons, Kate’s reaction is mild in Quetzalcoatl: “‘Oh-’ said Kate doubtfully, wondering if she was to be pawed too” (2). But she is dumbfounded in The Plumed Serpent: “She had not yet got over the shock of horror, fearing the lout might paw her” (8). Also additional indications stress the party’s emotional state when the crowd settles round them: “It was like a sudden rush of black water, humanity confusedly rushing around,” reads Quetzalcoatl (4), to which corresponds “It was a crash like a burst reservoir, and the populace in black Sunday suits poured down round and about our astonished, frightened trio,” in The Plumed Serpent (11).

  • 4 Bynner 48, 55. See also Burwell 96-97.

6These examples, chosen among others, also highlight the fact that point of view, or internal focalisation, is more developed in the final version. Indeed in Quetzalcoatl, the presentation of the geographic, social and political landscapes of Mexico is more factual, whereas in The Plumed Serpent, these elements are expressed in the course of a conversation or through Kate’s eyes, giving a partial and often emotional response to the surroundings through dialogical means. The same occurs in the scene of the bullfight, the very location of which becomes in The Plumed Serpent “a trap—a big concrete beetle-trap,” following up on Lawrence’s propensity to resort to animal imagery to describe humanity (PS 8). The amplification of emotion also hints at Lawrence’s own response to bullfights. Indeed, according to Witter Bynner in his Journey with Genius, although Lawrence’s repugnance for the fights came from his experience as a “curious but apprehensive” spectator, around Easter 1923, he had read, among other books on Mexico, a treatise on the history of bullfighting.4 He later wrote a short story revolving around a bullfight, entitled None of That.

  • 5 Bynner 49.
  • 6 Wolff 136, my translations.
  • 7 Wolff 136.
  • 8 Wolff 10.
  • 9 Bynner 53-54.

7In this light, it can be argued that the choice of a bullfight as an opening scene comes as an invitation to question rituals and the passion they arouse. A major feature in Lawrence’s writing, the parody of the sacrifice of a Mithraic beast is to be found in both versions, as each actor of the ritual is turned into ridicule, the toreros “with their fat posteriors,” looking “like eunuchs or women in tight pants,” the bull giving a “playful little prance, neat and pretty” (Q 5, PS 14-15). Continually appropriating symbols, Lawrence is said to have muttered on seeing the procession at the beginning of the bullfight: “The right symbol! They’re all jackasses.”5 However in order to study the response to the ritual, the focus will now bear on the crowd and the bull, since in Lawrence’s novels their behaviour is in complete opposition to what is expected at a fight. According to a study entitled The Philosophy of Corridas by Francis Wolff, the crowd’s behaviour is in fact as ritualized as the toreros’ since the members of the public are not mere spectators but aficionados from the word aficion, in this context the passion for the bull which they share with the men in the arena.6 As they are given to participate in what is termed the “mystery of this passion,” they experience communion with the torero who faces the wild beast.7 Therefore the fight should arouse those emotions that their passion can respond to, because, Wolff claims, a well managed fight “offers those who love and understand it, emotions and joys, as deeply felt and refined as the most aesthetically founded arts.”8 Bynner, in his account of bullfights, uses the term aficionados conceding that “the crowd’s enjoyment was not altogether blood lust, and wish[ing] that the Lawrences might have seen the artistry and considered it as something apart. [...] Experienced Mexican eyes could of course see far better than [them] the exact gaugings, manipulatings, side-steppings, balancings, and piercings.”9 Therefore even the spectators are expected to react according to a set of rules.

8Aficionados consider that the fight is a success only if both the bull and the torero are showing courage at the same time and not when the torero is in a safe position to flourish the cape. In fact, the courage of the bull is at the centre of everybody’s attention. Furthermore, the species of bulls raised for bullfights is said to have a distinct propensity to charge at the unknown, and according to scientific tests this natural trait induces a hormone that kills pain. So a bull is said to be bravo, the Spanish language giving a particular meaning to this word in this context, if and only if it charges with force and courage, but not out of revenge for pain or out of irritation. It should only charge once, then let horse and rider or torero go. If a bull has acutely displayed this quality, it is allowed to live and becomes a sire. Death remains however a crucial part of the ritual which has established that man wins over beast. Such rituals channel the spectators’ immediate emotional response in order to nurture their passion, i.e. the love of the well-managed confrontation between cunning man and wild energy coupled with respect for both parties. This channelling process, initiated for the sake of communion in the mystery of the corrida, is what I have called the ritualization of emotions.

9Therefore we can appreciate the magnitude of Lawrence’s parody which also bears eschatological overtones in the final version, when the picadors are compared to “four Spanish horsemen of the Apocalypse” (PS 15). Moreover, in both versions, the author built the reader’s own expectations on a first brief introduction of the bulls, choosing to write in each incipit: “Four special bulls had been brought over from Spain for the occasion, since Spanish bulls are more fiery than Mexican” (Q 1, PS 7). The adjective “fiery” meaning, according to The Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, “full of or exuding emotion or spirit” misleads the reader into believing that the bulls will display the qualities of a bravo torro. However, eventually the reader’s expectations are also disappointed as the behaviour of the bulls does not match this semantic programme, rather the word “fiery” shifts from this first meaning to a second one: “easily provoked, irritable.”

10As a consequence, the Lawrentian arena is no longer a place where passion is fulfilled, and where communion can take place, but rather a vortex of unleashed emotions that the parody of a ritual can no longer channel. Instead of being nourished by an emotion such as joy, passion is deconstructed as Kate feels raw surprise, shock and anger. From a phenomenological point of view, this deconstructing process subjects Kate to a discrepancy between herself and this other shocked self, her conscience being overwhelmed by her affect. The unbalance results in hysteria when she flees. The tunnel comes momentarily as a sort of protection and symbolizes the path to rebirth, but leaving is delayed by unwelcome rain. In both novels, the rain symbolizes purification, but in the opening scene Kate isn’t ready for rebirth just yet as she will be when she marries Don Cipriano under “the living rain” (PS 329). The rain shouldn’t be recognized as a blessing but is later reminiscent of Somers’ indifference to the rainbow at the beginning of Kangaroo, a symbol he adopts further in the novel to express the connection between himself and the primeval (K 155-156). First, both characters, Kate in The Plumed Serpent and Somers in Kangaroo, shall experience the birth of desire.

The birth of desire

  • 10 Lawrence associates the bull and the lamb in his essay Apocalypse: “A Lamb it has to be: or with Mi (...)
  • 11 Ricœur 247-248.

11The deconstruction of the passion for the mystery of the corrida through emotional responses inevitably gives way to a void in belief, a void that the characters seek to fill. This quest is already implied when Kate, paraphrasing Christ’s last words (John xix, 30), reflects that “over in England, in Ireland, in Europe, she had heard the consummatum est of her own spirit” (PS 50). The Mexican bullfight staging the parody of a ritual and of Christ’s sacrifice, also known as Christ’s passion, reveals the vertiginous depth of the void where emotions play havoc.10 The emotions generated by the double parody shock the character into awareness of the irreversible moribund state of the European world, even as seen from abroad. Indeed, in The Plumed Serpent, comparing Europe and Mexico, Kate states: “Once, Mexico had had an elaborate ritual of death. Now it has death ragged, squalid, vulgar, without even the passion of its own mystery” (PS 50). So these responses to Europe and to Mexico introduce the need for a renewal ; they trigger a new form of emotion, called desire, that Paul Ricœur defines as the conquering, driving emotion par excellence.11 The birth of the desire to encounter a new belief is to be found in both versions, but I would contend that it is enhanced in the final one specifically through intertextual play.

12The eschatological overtones and Kate’s appropriation of Christ’s last words in the final version pertain to the deconstruction phase, but I would also argue that a comparison between the opening scene of Quetzalcoatl and The Plumed Serpent, when Kate and Owen, both desiring a more meaningful life, prepare to see the fight, reveals that the wording of the latter version has a biblical ring. Indeed, in the final version, the largely disseminated semantic field of sight nudges the reader towards the recognition of the biblical episode about the disciple named Thomas whose desire to believe in the new Christian faith was impeded by scepticism. Owen and Kate justifying their desire to go to the fight say alternately: “We have never seen one,” “I think we must see it,” “Never having seen one meant having to go,” “He too had never seen one” (PS 7). This accumulation comes to a climax when Owen associates sight and belief, claiming: “I don’t believe in them on principle, but we’ve never seen one” (PS 7). This association links the Lawrentian text with the Gospel which reads: “Except I [Thomas] shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe” (John xx, 24-29). Then, on the Sunday after Easter, Jesus appeared to his disciple.

13The hints at intertextual relations with the Bible are compelling, all the more so as Lawrence entices the reader to take into account the time sequence : “It was the Sunday after Easter,” reads the first line of the novels. As a consequence, in The Plumed Serpent, the accumulation of the verbs of sight in the wake of the allusion to the Sunday after the resurrection announces a major theme, i.e the denunciation of sacrifice as an end in itself. Indeed, as early as the incipit of the final version, this reworking of the Bible episode attracts the reader’s attention to post-sacrificial events, to the return of a god among men and to the building of a new belief, a new passion. Further evidence can be found in the contrast between Owen’s and Kate’s response to the fight. Owen’s desire to fill a void is so strong that he deludes himself into believing that he will find the meaning of “Life” in the parody of a sacrifice: “If anything was on show, he had to see it. That was ‘Life’” (PS 8), whereas Kate turns to Don Ramón who as Quetzalcoatl takes Jesus’ place. Before becoming a goddess herself in the final version, she will frequently express the desire to see him and to touch him. By doing so she positions herself in a post-sacrificial perspective.

  • 12 Burwell 74.

14That intertextual references should be woven into the final version more efficiently directs the reader’s attention to the characters’ emotional responses. The dialogical relations between the Lawrentian and source texts magnify the paradigms of renewal and more specifically of the desire for renewal. Indeed, the biblical fragments or allusions are redeployed, and language to express belief and what leads to belief is renewed in the process. In the final version, Kate’s desire to believe (in) Don Ramón is allegorically conveyed, for instance, through the reference to the figure of Salome who, in Oscar Wilde’s rendering of the Bible story, yearned so much for John the Baptist that she asked King Herod to reward her with the disciple’s head if she danced for him. The Plumed Serpent reads: “Kate’s heart suddenly shrank in her breast. This was how Salome had looked at John” (PS 182). It is relevant to note that the allusion is primarily to Wilde’s play rather than to the biblical account (cf Mark vi, 14-29). Indeed, Lawrence, who was familiar with the play by 1911, appropriates the paradigms of desire which Wilde introduced to develop Salome‘s unwavering craving (PS 466).12

15Kate’s yearning for a new passion is also a driving force that leads her to move across the lake to Sayula (Chapala in Quetzalcoatl). But, in the final version, it also inspires a prayer she sends to this new unknown god as she is travelling. It comes as no surprise that the prayer echoes what is known as the Lord’s prayer (Matthew vi, 11-13). Indeed, Kate cries to her soul: “Give me the mystery and let the world live again for me! And deliver me from man’s automatism” (PS 105). The renewal of language comes here in the form of pastiche which deconstructs the original text and releases a new message conveying desire. It remains for us to turn now to how emotions function in the creation of the new belief founded on Aztec mythology.

The ritualization of emotions at work

16As the two versions unfold, they draw more and more apart in terms of responses and events. Kate watches the new religious movement take shape, but in the draft she remains much more sceptical: she does not agree to marry Don Cipriano, nor does she become the manifestation of the rain-goddess Malintzi, nor does she stay in Mexico. Also in the draft, the hymns seem to be part of the Indian tradition which consists in singing about the Aztec gods in the evening after a day’s work. The Indians are in this context the source of religious knowledge and the keepers of ancestral oral traditions. Whereas in the final version, the hymns are most often spread through the written medium, they are read out, sometimes sung out to the beat of drums, to the gathered villagers who become the recipients of the message. In terms of response, this change in direction is crucial. The written word imposes on the crowd the authority of the author, Don Ramón, who asserts in this way his divine mission. The reader or singer becomes the spokesman of a returned God who, because of the very act of transmission, is unquestioned and unquestionable. Even the beat of the drums gathered on the plaza seems to set the people’s heart in unison with the new belief. Therefore the shift in the origin of the songs, stressed through the written medium, points more to appropriation and renewal than to authenticity and continuity.

  • 13 Girard 115.
  • 14 Girard 95.

17The discrepancy between draft and final version increases dramatically with the scene of the execution of Don Ramón’s attackers. In both versions, hymns are sung, only one man survives the executions after drawing lots and the culprits are violently put to death. However, in The Plumed Serpent, the crowd’s and Kate’s responses are dwelt upon which is not the case in Quetzalcoatl. In fact, the collective murders contribute to founding a new ritual which celebrates the god’s first public deed on his return. Indeed, according to research on violence and the sacred carried out by René Girard, a “rite selects a certain form of violence as ‘good,’ as necessary to the unity of the community, and sets up in opposition to it another sort of violence that is deemed ‘bad.’”13 Girard also shows that to be justified a sacrificial rite can be “a repetition of the original, spontaneous ‘lynching’ that restored order in the community.”14 So as the movement expands, Don Ramón and Don Cipriano seek total submission ; they need belief to be absolute, passion to be unwavering. To achieve their aim, I would argue that they ritualize the emotions of the crowd gathered to watch the executions and that this ritualization is more acute in The Plumed Serpent.

18In both scenes of the executions, the opening song, entitled “The First Song of Huitzilopochtli,” gives authority to Don Cipriano as supreme divine judge, affirming his power over life and death. Moreover, Don Cipriano does not sing himself ; the hymn is sung by an acolyte, a process that creates the same distance as the written hymns. Such distancing stresses the fact that Don Cipriano is not acquiring this power over life and death there and then ; the song is a reminder for the people of the legitimacy of his divine authority. What is new in the final version is that the very orality of the song serves a purpose in the ritualization of emotions. Indeed, the god’s followers chant the same hymn, replacing the pronoun “I,” as in “I am Huitzilopochtli,” by “he,” acknowledging in unison the legitimacy of their god. This chanted acquiescence which is true to the original Aztec hymn, sung as a dialogue (PS 476), channels emotions such as surprise, disgust, fear and maybe anger and builds belief, a new form of passion the worshippers can submit to.

19In the draft, the crowd is completely passive, submissive to all the rites which they silently acknowledge as righteous. Kate’s response is never mentioned just as she will never talk about what happened. This absence signals, I would suggest, that Kate’s emotional response to the executions can match the reader’s, so it remains implicit. However in The Plumed Serpent, her emotions are fully disclosed and soon her shock and revulsion are associated with fascination, the whole ceremony casting a spell on her will: “She was spell-bound, but not utterly acquiescent” (PS 387). Indeed, attracted to the ideology of a charismatic leader, she is about to satisfy her desire to fill the void left by the deconstruction of passion. Contributing to charisma, the magnanimity displayed by the god who spares the man who has drawn a green leaf subdues anger and disgust and channels these emotions into belief and awe, in the religious sense of the word. Such magnanimity is justified, in Quetzalcoatl, with the aphorism “sometimes men are deceived into playing the coward” (Q 261). But in The Plumed Serpent, the blade of grass or leaf is insistently described as an attribute of the goddess Malintzi “who pardons once and no more” (PS 380), Malintzi being the very goddess Kate has been chosen to incarnate. Therefore, her revulsion is dimmed as she ponders on her role as a woman in the Aztec pantheon and identifies with a forgiving divinity. With undertones of feminism, she is led to reflect on submitting to the will of man, which displaces the issue from murder to the fulfillment of woman, and announces the issue of womanhood at stake in Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928).

20The reader’s own response to Kate’s can be surprise or perplexity, the discrepancy between the two needing to be bridged by further explicit disclosure of Kate’s gradual submission or passionate conversion. As the void has been more acutely felt by the readers in the final version, thanks to the greater focus on emotional responses, they are prepared for the final stage of the plot which turns into utopia.

21As a conclusion, these diverging responses to the Mexican experience illustrate the progression of Lawrence’s quest for the primeval. In the draft, Kate’s emotions remain unchannelled, granting her only the knowledge of the sort of belief she does not want to commit to. When, in the course of an initiation rite led by Don Ramón, she is forced to drink a glass of wine after swirling it round, she comes very close to discovering the mysteries of the new cult. The liquid vortex she has created in the cup is said to contain “the serpent of her desire” (Q 309), but in fact her own desire does not match the forceful passion which “seem[s] to coil round her throat and her heart,” stifling rather than channelling emotions and leading her to believe that “in another moment she would cease to care, and she would never care anymore, not through all eternity” (Q 310). Rather, the liquid vortex only echoes her inner vortex of unleashed emotions, i.e. fear and anger, which the rite fails to channel. Therefore, her hesitations and her eventual return to Europe mirror Lawrence’s own ambivalence towards Mexico.

22On the other hand, in The Plumed Serpent, a different course is taken when the author elaborates on the answers he did not find in Mexico. In the final version, the only belief able to fill the void lies in utopia, a frame in which Lawrence tried to explore total conversion and in which emotions could be modelled at will to suit the demands of passionate submission.

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The Authorized King James Version of the Bible. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997.

Boulton, James T., ed. The Selected Letters of D.H. Lawrence. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997.

Burwell, Rose Marie. “A Checklist of D.H. Lawrence’s Reading.” A D. H. Lawrence Handbook. Ed. Keith Sagar. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1982: 62-125.

Bynner, Witter. Journey with Genius. New York: John Day, 1951.

Foulquié, Paul, and Raymond Saint-Jean. Dictionnaire de la langue philosophique, 6th ed. Paris: PUF, 1992.

Girard, René. Violence and the Sacred. Trans. Patrick Gregory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1977.

Lalande, André. Vocabulaire technique et critique de la philosophie, 12th ed. Paris: PUF, 1976.

Lawrence, D.H. Aaron’s Rod. Ed. Mara Kalnins. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988.

—. Apocalypse. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1995.

–—. Kangaroo. Ed. Bruce Steele. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover and A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002.

—. The Plumed Serpent. Ed. L. D. Clark. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987.

—. Quetzalcoatl. Ed. Louis L. Martz. New York: New Directions, 1995.

Ricœur, Paul. Philosophie de la volonté, vol. 1. Lonrai: Aubier, 1980.

The Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. Springfield: Merriam-Webster, 1984.

Wolff, Francis. Philosophie de la corrida. Paris: Fayard, 2007.

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1 Boulton 129.

2 Lawrence wrote in Chapala, Mexico, to Baroness Anna von Richthofen on May 31st 1923: “Only I always had the idea I should like to write a novel here in America. In the United States I couldn’t begin anything. But here it will probably go well” (Boulton 253).

3 Boulton 261.

4 Bynner 48, 55. See also Burwell 96-97.

5 Bynner 49.

6 Wolff 136, my translations.

7 Wolff 136.

8 Wolff 10.

9 Bynner 53-54.

10 Lawrence associates the bull and the lamb in his essay Apocalypse: “A Lamb it has to be: or with Mithras, a bull: and the blood drenches over the initiate from the cut throat of the bull […] and makes him a new man” (99).

11 Ricœur 247-248.

12 Burwell 74.

13 Girard 115.

14 Girard 95.

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Shirley Bricout

Université Montpellier iii

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