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“The subtle sense of the Great Absolute”1:
D. H. Lawrence and the Nomadic Godhead

Mélanie Lebreton

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  • 1 D. H. Lawrence, The Rainbow. Ed. Mark Kinkead-Weekes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), (...)

1Apocalypse and the Writings on Revelation is first and foremost Lawrence’s revelation of his ambivalent feelings towards The Bible:

  • 2 D. H. Lawrence, Apocalypse and the Writings on Revelation. Ed. by Mara Kalnins (Cambridge: Cambridg (...)

From earliest years right into manhood, like any other nonconformist child I had the Bible poured every day into my helpless consciousness, till there came almost a saturation point. […] So that today, although I have “forgotten” my Bible, I need only begin to read a chapter to realise that I “know” it with an almost nauseating fixity. And I must confess, my first reaction is one of dislike, repulsion, and even resentment. My very instincts resent the Bible.2

2Yet however much Lawrence “resented” the Bible and its “nauseating fixity,” that is to say the irrevocable permanent crystallization of its images and meanings, he nonetheless recognized that this religious corpus defined his background: “I was brought up on the Bible, and seem to have it in my bones. From early childhood I have been familiar with Apocalyptic language and Apocalyptic image and Christian Endeavour, and was always having the Bible read at me or to me” (Phoenix 301-302). The Grandson of a Wesleyan preacher, whose religious education was from a Congregationalist Church, the defiant adult that D. H. Lawrence had become, would, by December 1907, question the scope of religion in a letter to Reverend Robert Reid: “A man has no religion who has not slowly and painfully gathered one together, adding to it, shaping it; and one’s religion is never complete and final, it seems, but must always be undergoing modifications” (Letters I, 40).

3In other words, what Lawrence denounced was the “nauseating fixity” of a religion based on a conception of God as the great Absolute, as an all-encompassing substance. And perhaps we should consider his broad textual corpus as his own struggle to define what religion was to him, “always […] undergoing modifications” and denying any ontological “fixity.” His essay “The Crown” raises the challenging question as to whether the singularity of the Absolute can be deconstructed, revealing instead a certain ontological instability:

There is one God, one Creator, one Almighty; there is one infinite and one eternity, it is the infinite and the eternity of the Source. There is One Way: it is the Way of the Law. […] Those who deny this are to be stamped out, tortured, tortured forever. It is possible then to deny it? (RDP 379)

4By concluding his reflections with a question mark, Lawrence is already proclaiming his defiance of religion and of any single way leading to the Great Absolute. Far from denying the existence of God, Lawrence in fact asserted it, even when he underscored the difficulty of grasping God or when he rejected institutionalized paths that supposedly guarantee access to the Great Absolute:

  • 3 D. H. Lawrence, “One Being Religious,” in Phoenix. The Posthumous Papers, 1936, op. cit., 726-727.

Ask any philosopher or theologian, and he’ll tell you that the real problem for humanity isn’t whether God exists or not. God always is, we all know it. But the problem is, how to get at Him. That is the greatest problem ever set to our habit-making humanity. […] How shall Man find God? That’s the real problem.3

5God, the epitome of the Absolute, the Being of all being, is not questioned per se. What is called into question is the itinerary chosen to reach it. Aaron, Somers and Kate Leslie all seek a connection with the Absolute and travel in order to fulfil their spiritual quest which frequently ends in failure. Thus, Lawrence’s characters embody the author’s interminable effort to stabilize a Godhead that reveals its ontological nomadism. The Rainbow, Women in Love, Aaron’s Rod, Kangaroo, The Plumed Serpent, all these novels focus on the endeavours of a protagonist to track down the Absolute, a quest that is taken to the four corners of the earth –England, Italy, Australia and Mexico. But it is all to no avail. God is but He won’t give himself away. In The Rainbow, Lydia Brangwen worships the undecipherability of the Great Absolute:

It was as if she worshipped God as a mystery, never seeking in the least to define what He was. And inside her, the subtle sense of the Great Absolute wherein she had her being was very strong. The English dogma never reached her: the language was too foreign. Through it all she felt the great Separator who held life in His hands, gleaming, imminent, terrible, the Great Mystery, immediate beyond all telling. She shone and gleamed to the Mystery, Whom she knew through all her senses, she glanced with strange, mystic superstitions that never found expression in the English language. (102)

6The use of the word mystery points etymologically to the hidden meaning of religion and thus reinforces the weight of Lawrence’s negations: indeed the fixity of the English dogma “never reached” Lydia Brangwen and the mystery of the Godhead could “never” be grasped through “the English language.” According to Lawrence, it thus remains an experience of the “senses.” In The First Version of Women in Love, Birkin makes the pistil of the daisy the symbol of an ever-tantalizing Most High, the divine Absolute that is to remain unknown:

“I always think a daisy is like the choirs of angels that circle round the Most High, in the old system of heaven. […] What more do you want, for heaven?”
“Yes, but,” Ursula laughed, “what is it the Most High, in the circle?”
“The invisible. But it is there, how would they have their wonderful centrality, otherwise? But it is purely unknowable. Only, you know it is.” (First WL 117)

7Therefore, the presence of the Most High (the Great Absolute) remains a mere intuition, a knowledge based on feelings rather than on facts, any visual representation of it being in fact spurious. In The Plumed Serpent, Kate Leslie confesses to Don Ramón, the prophet of the new religious order of Quetzalcoatl, her “hate [for] this search-for-God business, and religiosity” (PS 73) the emptiness and bathos it involves. As for Don Ramón, he claims having “suffered from would-be-cocksure religion [him]self.” (Ibid.)

8Lawrence’s doubts perhaps reverberate in these characters’ skepticism. In the seeker’s endeavour to find God, the religious Absolute might be the promise of an aporetic experience insofar as the quest is but a mere repetition of old, hackneyed beliefs that are deprived of any substance (“creeping back into old, hollow shells”), thus undermining Don Ramón’s attempt to resurrect the Aztec religious rites and symbols. Can it therefore be argued that all of Lawrence’s characters are chasing fake gods, fake absolutes? And are the religious symbols indeed the physical Presence of the Godhead or are they merely a range of hollowed out metaphors, vacuous representations that are devoid of any tangible referent? At the heart of the Lawrencian writings, the hermeneutic path towards the absolute Godhead remains perhaps an aporetic horizon, one that is always shifting, always beyond reach:

So it is with the Great God. He slowly and silently and invisibly shifts His throne, inch by inch, across the Cosmos. […] Where is He now? Where is the Great God now? Where has He put His throne? We have lost Him! We have lost the Great God! Jesus, Jesus, Thou art the Way! Jesus, Jesus, Thou art the Way to the Father, the Lord Everlasting. But Jesus shakes His head. In the great wandering of the heavens, the foot of the Cross has shifted. […] the Gods and the Great God go their way; stepping slowly, invisibly, across the heavens of time and space, going somewhere, we know not where. They do not stand still. They go and go, till they pass below the horizon of Man. (Phoenix 727)

9Therefore, trying to grasp God is to experience the constant and nomadic shifting of God’s way. His subtly ungraspable Presence remains beyond any possible symbolization and verbal translation.

The ever-shifting way to God

10In his essay entitled “Morality and the Novel,” D. H. Lawrence denounced the narrow uniformity of “Religion, with,” what he called, “its nailed-down One God” (Phoenix 528). Indeed, for Lawrence, the path leading to God’s Presence was plural, revealing the plurality of gods:

The great disaster of religion is that each religion tends to assert one exclusive savior. One hates Christianity because it declares there is only one Way to God. A true Church would know there are a few roads to God, and many, many, small tracks. (Ibid.)

11Thus, the plurality of paths that may lead to God is what invalidates the claim that there is only one way to reach his essence. It is the bankruptcy of any such claim that is revealed to Ursula, through her relation with Winifred Inger, a lesbian. Indeed, this relationship entails a metaphysical and spiritual tabula rasa of the religion she had been inculcated with:

They took religion and rid it of its dogmas, its falsehoods. Winifred humanised it all. Gradually it dawned upon Ursula that all the religion she knew was but a particular clothing to a human aspiration. The aspiration was the real thing –the clothing was a matter almost of national taste or need. The Greeks had a naked Apollo, the Christians a white-robed Christ, the Buddhists a royal prince, the Egyptians their Osiris. Religions were local and religion was universal. (R 317)

12Note how a plural form (-s) and a limited geographical influence are attributed to the different cultural interpretations of religion (“Religions were local”), while absolute singularity is attributed to the all-encompassing but unreachable Godhead that hides behind these cultural variations (“religion was universal”). Lawrence’s question turns out to be an uncanny anticipation of Derrida’s own struggle, in Acts of Religion:

  • 4 Jacques Derrida, Acts of Religion. Edited and with an introduction by Gil Anidjar (New York and Lon (...)

How to talk religion? Of religion? Singularly of religion today? How dare we speak of it in the singular without fear and trembling, this very day? And so briefly and so quickly? Who would be so impudent as to claim that the issue here is both identifiable and new?4

13During his Italian exodus, Aaron Sisson encounters and befriends Rawdon Lilly, who points out the plurality of the ways to God:

“Well then, what next? Is it a God you’re after? Do you want a God you can strive to and attain, through love, and live happily ever after, countless millions of eternities, immortality and all that? Is this your little dodge? […] All right then. You’ve got a love-urge that urges you to God, have you? Then go and join the Buddhists in Burmah, or the newest fangled Christians in Europe. Go and stick to your head in a bush of Nirvana or spiritual perfection. Trot off.” (AR 293-294)

14The use of the verb “trot off” implies that Aaron will have to wander in his search for a Godhead, while Somers’ Australian journey reveals the existence of a dark God, “unknowable” (K 328) and “unutterable”, whose manifestation can only be plural: “there was not only one God. There was not only the God of love. To insist that there is only one God, and that God the great source of love, is perhaps as fatal as the complete denial of God, and of all mystery” (K 379). Through the anaphoric repetition of the negative structure “there was not only,” Lawrence denies the singular extraction of “one” and oneness, along with any definite identification of God, such as “the God of love.” In Quetzalcoatl Kate Leslie’s anthropo-theological observations point to the nomadic and polymorphous essence of religion and also to the Absolute Godhead:

What did these people believe, what didn’t they? So queer to talk of Jesus and Mary as if they were the two most important people in the village, living in the biggest house, the church. Was it religion, or wasn’t it? There was no definite pull in one direction. (Q 154)

15Was it religion, or wasn’t it? The answer to the question remains suspended and the absence of any answer demonstrates how arbitrary the singular term “religion” is. In his poem entitled “My Way is not Thy Way,” Lawrence invites his reader to recognize the plurality of the ways to the absolute Godhead:

My way is not thy way, and thine is not mine.
But come, before we part.
Let us separately go to the Morning Star,
And meet there!
I do not point you to my road, nor yet
Call: “Oh come!”
But the star is the same for both of us
Winsome. (CP 812)

16The phonetic and graphic echoes between “my way” and “thy way” and “thine” and “mine” emphasize the plurality of paths leading to the Absolute –here called the Morning Star– while the negation “is not” forecloses their potential unification. Indeed the adverb “separately” further widens the distance and this is also the case with the name “Morning Star,” in its attempt to label the Absolute Godhead. While the roads and labels might be different, Lawrence does admit that what they encapsulate is for everyone the same mysterious entity: “But the Star is the same for both of us / Winsome.” In Quetzalcoatl, the Catholic Church is ruled out as a medium through which one could connect with God:

“Nay, as you say, the Church is universal. I want something particular. –If we are to talk theology, Señor, then by your leave I will admit that I believe with you in the One Great God. But the mediator is not one and exclusive. He is many. There is One Great God with an Unutterable Name. But that is not altogether the point. The point for us men, is how are we going to come to connection with the invisible God.”
“Through the Church of Christ Jesus, Señor.”
“No, it doesn’t help anymore.” (Q 175)

17In his second version of Quetzalcoatl, entitled The Plumed Serpent, Lawrence rewrote this dialogue between Don Ramón and the Bishop in order to underscore that implementing an all-encompassing universal Church would be a better way to apprehend religion. Indeed, Don Ramón points out to the Bishop that “ultimately God is one God, but the peoples speak varying languages, and each needs its own prophet to speak with its own tongues. The Universal Church of Christ, and Mohammed, and Buddha, and Quetzalcoatl, and all the others –that would be a Catholic Church, Father.” (PS 264)

  • 5 D. H. Lawrence, “On Being Religious,” op. cit.

18By asserting that the Catholic Church is the Universal Church of Christ, the Bishop embodies the “nauseating fixity” which Lawrence denounced. Instead of this, he postulated a nomadic Godhead, a religious Absolute that is to remain ungraspable because it is constantly fleeting. It follows from this that no ontological or topographic permanency can be ascribed to Church. Or, as Lawrence claimed, God keeps “slowly and silently and invisibly shift[ing] His throne.”5 The Rainbow does depict God’s topographic restlessness, doing so by way of the gradual dissociation of any religious edifice from the divine Absolute. The novel’s incipit opens on the firm establishment of the church in the Ilkeston landscape. The church, and therefore God’s divine presence, dominates the land, that is to say the site of men’s existence, through the conjunction between the vertical and the horizontal axes:

Whenever one of the Brangwens in the fields lifted his head from his work, he saw the church-tower at Ilkeston in the empty sky. So that as he turned again to the horizontal land, he was aware of something above him and beyond him in the distance. (R 1)

  • 6 “Where, at the end of all the darkness, was God the Almighty still darkly, seated, thrusting him on (...)

19God’s overwhelming topographic domination is defined here as supreme: not only are all the Brangwens spellbound (“Whenever one of the Brangwens”) but God’s mystic power is itself something that is temporally permanent (“whenever”) and it visually pervades the inhabited space, as both the vertical and horizontal axes mark his divine presence (“lifted,” “he turned again to the horizontal land.”) And yet God’s essence remains veiled and ungraspable, as is suggested by the indefinite proform “something,” by the prepositions “above” and “beyond” and the adverbial phrase of place “in the distance.” On the very threshold of the novel, Lawrence thus announces that his textual space will work as a “vast mystic church” (R 106) where God’s “unknown presence” (R 106) will be invoked. Right after their marriage, Anna and Will Brangwen’s house will be filled with God’s spirit: “When at last they had joined hands, the house was finished, and the Lord took up his abode. And they were glad” (R 91). Yet, gradually, God’s mystic presence and throne will be dislocated: Will Brangwen’s religious carvings lead him to question his spiritual direction6 and the altar will become “barren” (R 204) for Anna, who will deconstruct and question the spiritual communion between the Cathedral and the Absolute, thus wrecking Will’s belief and passion:

So he caught sight of the wicked, odd little faces carved in stone, and she stood before them arrested. These shy little faces peeped out of the grand tide of the cathedral like something that knew better. They knew quite well, these little imps that retorted on man’s own illusion, that the cathedral was not absolute. (R 189)

20Free indirect speech helps the reader to chart the distance that now separates God from the cathedral, or indeed from Anna and Will:

She had got free from the cathedral, she had even destroyed the passion he had. […] Strive as he would, he could not keep the cathedral wonderful to him. He was disillusioned. That which had been his absolute, containing all heaven and earth, was become to him as to her, a shapely heap of dead matter –but dead, dead. (R 190)

21The world is now a chaos, with no spiritual landmark: “he felt that his cathedrals would never again be to him as they had been. Before he had thought them absolute. But now he saw them crouching under the sky, with still the dark mysterious world of reality inside […] (R 190). Lawrence reveals how the absolute can no longer be revealed by cathedrals, remaining instead a mere intuition (“dark, mysterious”), at best an ontological and verbal approximation, as suggested through the repetition of the indefinite pronoun “a” and vague expressions such as “a sort of.” The Godhead remains a mystery within the realm of subtlety and a “meaningless confusion.”

The unpresent presence of the living God

22Lawrence’s novels present certain characters who are struggling with their life and spiritual equilibrium and who therefore embark on a personal and mystical odyssey, as Kate Leslie does. The widow of an Irish patriot, she will move to Mexico with her American cousin Owen, prompted to do so out of a sort of psychological, ontological and spiritual restlessness. In one of his letters of June 1924 Lawrence reckoned a certain restlessness, a desire to keep moving, to leave his Del Monte Ranch in New Mexico in order to settle in Old Mexico: “As for myself, I am a wandering soul. I want to go down to Old Mexico at the end of September, and my wife will go with me. It means abandoning this place, which is a pity. We should probably come back next April” (Letters V, 50).

  • 7 D. H. Lawrence, “On Being Religious,” op. cit., 727-728.

23Lawrence’s spiritual roaming is encapsulated in the phrase “a wandering soul,”its gerundive form (“wandering”) in association with the word “soul” illustrating his constant geographical and mystical restlessness. Indeed, as he asserts his desire to move to Old Mexico, his decision to settle there is already questioned, as he already anticipates his coming back to the Del Monte Ranch. Perhaps Lawrence’s lack of stability and geographic permanence is merely the reflection of God’s tantalizing nature: “It is the mysterious and sublime fashion of the Almighty, who travels too. At least, as far as we are concerned, He travels. […] Gradually, gradually God travels away from us, on His mysterious journey.”7

24In fact, the title of his essay “On Being Religious” discloses the constant ontological shift that is exacted by religion and by the Absolute demand, written into the gerundive form of the verb “be.” Being religious or worshipping the Almighty is but an ongoing process (“Being”) as one constantly remains on the way to God. Lawrence denies the possibility of grasping “His” ontology while asserting a male determination (“He travels,” “His mysterious journey”) which is perhaps Lawrence’s hint at the many artistic depictions that represented God as a male figure. Instead, Lawrence underscores God’s fleeting presence:

  • 8 Ibid., 729-730.

We go in search of God, following the Holy Ghost, and depending on the Holy Ghost. There is no way. There is no Word. There is no Light. The Holy Ghost is ghostly and invisible. The Holy Ghost is nothing, if you like.8

25In The Plumed Serpent, the presence of the Absolute is described as “a mysterious presence […] unseen from the underworld” (PS 196), remaining a mere intuition, as shown in the following description of the church that hosts a ritual in the name of Quetzalcoatl: “The men in front of the crowd kneeled down suddenly, seeing the church dark like a cavern, but a trembling blaze of many candles, away, seemingly far down the mysterious darkness, shuddering with dark, rippling flame, like the Presence of the burning bush” (PS 281). God’s divine presence, symbolized by the burning bush, is defined at best as an unreliable vision (“seeing”, “dark,” “seemingly”), a mere comparison (“like”), it remains subtle. And this is also shown through Kate’s struggle to connect with the “god of the two ways,” Quetzalcoatl: “Above all things, she must preserve herself from worldly contacts. Only she wanted the silence of other unfolded souls around her, like perfume. The presence of that which is forever unsaid” (PS 59). Once again, Derrida’s question chimes in: “How to talk religion? Of religion?” Lawrence’s response to the challenge was to sweep away any preconceived idea or knowledge of the Godhead, sketching out in lieu of this the paradox of an omnipresent Absolute whose essence remains remote.

26The description of Will Brangwen’s favorite churches in The Rainbow exposes the Godhead’s ontological absence, which no religious architecture could conceal. Will’s wife, Lydia, is here the voice through which Lawrence chose to express this non-present presence:

But listening to him, as he spoke of church after church, of nave and chancel and transept, of roodscreen and front, of hatchet-carving and moulding and tracery […], there gathered in her heart a pregnant hush of churches, a mystery, a ponderous significance of bowed stone, a dim-coloured light through which something took place obscurely, passing into darkness: a high, delighted framework of the mystic screen, and beyond, in the furthest beyond, the altar. It was a very real experience. She was carried away. And the land seemed to be covered with a vast, mystic church, reserved in gloom, thrilled with an unknown Presence. (R 106)

27Will’s passion for religious architecture charts the mysterious and shifting presence of the Godhead through the use of the adjectives “mysterious” and “unknown,” through the adverb “obscurely” as well as the nouns “darkness,” “screen,” “gloom” and the preposition “beyond.” Thus, Lawrence makes tangible the ever-shifting substance of the Absolute. He makes it pass (“passing”) over the surface of his text, without allowing us to grasp it. In The Plumed Serpent, Kate Leslie’s Mexican odyssey ends with the confrontation with the undecipherability of the Absolute:

The name Quetzalcoatl too fascinated her. She had read bits about the god. […] Who knows what he meant to the dead Aztecs, to the older Indians, who knew him before the Aztecs raised their deities to heights of horror and vindictiveness. All a confusion of contradictory gleams of meaning, Quetzalcoatl. But why not? Her Irish spirit was weary to death of definite meanings, and a god of one fixed purport. (PS 53)

  • 9 Jacques Derrida, Acts of Religion, op. cit., 44.

28Kate Leslie points out the unpresentability of the divine presence and the elusive assurance of one’s own capacity to fix it, “a lack of assurance” as Derrida put it: “We act as though we had some common sense of what “religion” means through the languages that we believe […] and the entire question of religion comes down, perhaps, to this lack of assurance.”9 Despite their separation in time and in place, D. H. Lawrence and Jacques Derrida have in common the claim that no logocentric approach could ever fix God’s presence or make it intelligible. Instead of this, the Great Absolute professes His desire to remain in the realm of subtlety, in an intangible and untouchable present. And the voice of the Absolute both warns and wards off the seekers, in the poem “Noli me Tangere”:

Noli me tangere, touch me not!
O you creatures of mind, don’t touch me!
O you with mental fingers, O never put your hand on me!
O you with mental bodies, stay a little distance from me! (CP 468)

The Absolute as unsymbolizable and untranslatable

  • 10 John Worthen, “Introduction,” in The Rainbow (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981), 21.

29In his introduction to the Penguin edition of The Rainbow, John Worthen underlined Lawrence’s ambition to make of his novel “a kind of ‘Bible of the English people’.”10 Indeed Lawrence painted a succession of biblical images, disseminating them throughout his work, weaving together religion, the Bible and the art of fiction, or, as phrased by Shirley Bricout, the biblical hypotext and the Lawrencian hypertext. In her book entitled L’Itinéraire d’un Prophète en Fuite ou Le texte biblique et la réflexion politique dans Aaron’s Rod, Kangaroo et The Plumed Serpent de D. H. Lawrence, Shirley Bricout examines how Lawrence grafted biblical elements into his writings, in order to better deconstruct religion itself while weaving his own fictional and religious fabric:

L’écriture revêt ici les caractéristiques de l’herméneutique, c’est-à-dire de l’art d’interpréter un texte sacré. Cependant, la démarche herméneutique lawrencienne dénonce avant tout les exégèses précédentes. […] Ainsi en déconstruisant ces exégèses séculaires qui soudent une communauté, et dont la plupart sont devenues à leur tour des textes sacrés, Lawrence déconstruit cette communauté au profit de celle qui adoptera son interprétation nouvelle. (Bricout 88)

30Such a deconstruction of the biblical and religious exegeses is performed by Lawrence through a deconstruction of codes conventionally called upon for the symbolization and translation of the Godhead.

  • 11 “She liked the story of David who danced before the Lord, and uncovered himself exultingly. Why sho (...)

31The symbol of the rainbow –the covenant between God and man sealing God’s promise never to flood the earth again (Genesis 9:15)– constitutes both a front and a back door for the novel, as it inserts the first religious image within the title and then closes it with Ursula’s beatific vision of a divine rainbow, the symbol of God’s presence unveiling “the real naked essence” of life: “She saw in the rainbow the earth’s new architecture, the old, brittle corruption of houses and factories swept away, the world built up un a living fabric of Truth, fitting to the over-arching heaven” (R 459). And despite this, Tom Brangwen will in his old age end up dying in the flood of the Marsh, an ironic questioning of the biblical promise and covenant which the rainbow represents. Through this literary subversion of Christian symbols, Lawrence reveals the failure of religious symbolism to evoke or to summon up God’s presence. He undertakes a rewriting of certain biblical episodes: the Flood and Noah’s ark become the narrative of the drowning of a drunk and disoriented Tom Brangwen in his own yard on his way back from a night at the pub, a drama which his mare will alone survive. The story of David dancing for the Lord despite his wife’s disapproval has its inverted equivalent in the episode where a pregnant Anna Brangwen –the embodiment of Mary, through the word “Magnificat” (R 166)– indulges, naked, in a sensual dance in front of her ashamed husband.11 As the dance takes on a carnal turn with her bearing of her “big” belly and her “fine limbs,” she provokes Will’s pious attitude: “He felt his presence a violation” (R 171). Moreover, Anna’s rosary, a traditional symbol for praying, is turned into a meaningless object that is devoid of any theological truth: “She had a mother-of-pearl rosary that had been her own father’s. What it meant to her she could never say” (R 97); “She avoided her rosary, because it meant only these not very significant things. She put it away” (R 98). In the chapter entitled “Anna Victrix,” Anna victoriously rejects the central Christian symbol of the Lamb. The narrative reveals that “she had always been uneasy about it” (R 148) insofar as she mistrusts its elusive appearance: “she was never quite sure that this Lamb with a flag did not want to be more than it appeared” (R 148). Her doubts culminate in a climactic scene in which Anna questions the ontological meaning of the symbol of the Lamb, thus challenging therefore, her dumbfounded husband, Will:

“You see, it means the Sacraments, the Bread,” he said, slowly.
“Does it!” she cried. […] “It’s Christ” […]
“You’ve to take it for what it means.” […]
“And I think that Lamb in Church”, she said “is the biggest joke in the parish–” […]
“It might be, to those that see nothing in it,” he said. “You know it’s the symbol of Christ, of His innocence and sacrifice.”
“Whatever it means, it’s a lamb,” she said. “And I like lambs too much to treat them as if they had to mean something. As for the Christmas-tree flag –no –no.” And again, she poufed with mockery.
“It’s because you don’t know anything,” he said violently, harshly.
“Laugh at what you know, not at what you don’t know.”
“What don’t I know?”
“What things mean.”
“And what does it mean?”
He was reluctant to answer her. He found it difficult. (R 149/150)

32What Lawrence stages here is the friction between a literal and a figurative reading of the Lamb. On the one hand, Will wants to impose a theological meaning and the presence of the Absolute upon the symbol of the lamb (“it means the Sacraments, the Bread”; “it’s Christ”). He points out Anna’s blindness as she, for her part, sees “nothing in it.” On the other hand, Anna questions its having any religious meaning and the possibility of any symbolical interpretation (“Does it!,” “Whatever it means, it’s a lamb”). The Bible, the hypotext, feeds Lawrence’s hypertext, as he uses his own questioning of religious symbols in order to turn it into a fictional narrative. Will’s metaphorical reading reaches an aporetic peak as he fails to define the true meaning of the sacred text: (“He found it difficult”). The very core of the symbol remains ungraspable, the Great Absolute unsymbolizable and untranslatable, either visually or verbally. In Essays critical and clinical, Gilles Deleuze pointed out such an instability in his chapter dealing with D. H. Lawrence’s symbolism:

  • 12 Gilles Deleuze, “Nietzsche and St Paul, Lawrence and John of Patmos,” in Essays critical and clinic (...)

the symbol means nothing, and has neither to be explained nor interpreted, as opposed to the intellectual consciousness of allegory. It is a rotative thought, in which a group of images turn ever more quickly around a mysterious point, as opposed to the linear allegorical chain.12

33Through Lawrence’s “rotative” writing, religious symbolism is deprived of any relevance, the Godhead’s presence remaining therefore untranslatable. In his work The Power of Myth, the mythologist Joseph Campbell expounded on the metaphoric dimension of symbols and religion, underscoring therefore the risk of taking them at face value:

  • 13 J. Campbell, The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers (New York: Doubleday edition, 1988), [56/57].

Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck to its own metaphor, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble. […] That would be a mistake in the reading of the symbol. That is reading the words in terms of prose instead of in terms of poetry, reading the metaphor in terms of its denotation instead of the connotation.13

34Such is Will’s mistake: he confuses the connotation of the Lamb with its denotation, whereas Anna tries to remind him that the crucial purpose of the symbol is to be metaphoric, to belong to fiction rather than facts:

The religion which had been a world for her, a glorious sort of play-word became […] a tale, a myth, an illusion, which, however much one might assert it to be true in historical fact, one knew was not true. […] And the girl had come to the point where she held that that which one cannot experience in daily life is not true for oneself. (R 263)

  • 14 D. H. Lawrence, Study of Thomas Hardy. Ed. Bruce Steele (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 198 (...)
  • 15 D. H. Lawrence, “The Crown,” op. cit., 306.

35Anna defines religion and sacred texts as being mere fiction (“tale,” “myth,” “illusion”) and not as History. The ternary rhythm introduced through the three words intensifies the apocryphal or fictitious dimension of religious symbols. This is reminiscent of Lawrence’s denunciation of the Bible as “a great confused novel” (STH 195).14 He claimed that a symbol is the expression of a “subtle sense,” that is to say, the projection of one’s emotions onto the undecipherable Absolute: “They [symbols] don’t ‘mean something.’ They stand for units of human feeling, human experience. A complex of emotional experience is a symbol. And the power of the symbol is to arouse the deep emotional self, and the dynamic self, beyond comprehension” (A 49). Religious symbols defy interpretation since they generate a plurality of fake meanings, leaving behind a trail of fake divine absolutes and aporetic readings: “the true symbol defies all explanation, so does the true myth. You can give meanings to either –you will never explain them away” (A 142). Religions and their symbols won’t reveal what Lawrence following Kant, called the “Ding an Sich,” the thing, the Absolute as such. They convey instead transient, elusive images: “the thing in itself! Why I never met a man who was anything but what he had been told to be. Let a man be a man-in-himself, and then he can begin to talk about the Ding an Sich.”15 The circular representation of the “Quetzalcoatl symbol” (PS 222), a palind romic Eye, draws a tautological circularity, illustrating the entrapment that one experiences when attempting to discover the meaning of such symbols. See for instance, Don Ramón’s and Don Cipriano’s tautological, opaque definition:

“I am I” (PS 227);
“What I am to Ramón, I am. What he is to me, he is.” (PS 410)

36The subordinate “what” encapsulates the essence of the nexus between the two men, without ever giving it away; and Don Ramón’s Aztec religious symbols are fake absolutes, in the estimation of his wife Doña Carlota:

“You know what Ramón is doing?” she said, looking at Kate almost furtively, suspiciously.
“Does he want to bring back the old gods?” said Kate vaguely. […]
“As if it were possible. As if it were possible! – The old gods! Imagine it, Señora! The old gods! Why what are they? Nothing but dead illusions. And ugly, repulsive illusions! –[…]– This is such nonsense.” (PS 164)

37Not only are symbols elusive images of the absolute, but also meaningless words. Thus, Quetzalcoatl is called the “unuttered name” (PS 124) or “the Nameless“ (PS 125) and in Quetzalcoatl, ceremonies are held “In the name of unspeakable gods!” (Q 126). The Absolute is untouchable, withdrawn into an ontological beyond, beyond language or visual perception, locked in a circular tautology:

God is one God.
No man can see Him.
No man can speak to Him.
No man knows His Name.
He remains beyond. (PS 230-231)

38Anna Brangwen experiences the very limits that are involved in any translation of sacred texts as they betray their fake projection of the ever-mysterious divine Absolute:

She learned at school a little Latin, she learned an Ave Maria and a Pater Noster, she learned how to say her rosary. […] It was not right, somehow. What these words meant when translated was not the same as the pale rosary meant. There was a discrepancy, a falsehood. (R 98)

39Translating the sacred prayer is here the equivalent of a fraudulent act (“a discrepancy, a falsehood”), just as the German texts about the “Bamberg Cathedral” are for Will Brangwen the “unintelligible text of the German” (R1 53). This is the “undiscoverable,” the “untouchable” or the “untranslatable translatable,”which Jacques Derrida evokes in Acts of Religion:

  • 16 Jacques Derrida, Acts of Religion, op. cit., 100.

Here we touch –at a point no doubt definitely small– the limit of translation. The pure untranslatable and the pure transferable here pass on one into the other –and it is the truth, itself materially. […] sacred writing as the model and the limit of all writing, in any case of all Dichtung in its being-to-be-translated. The sacred and the being-to-be-translated do not lend themselves to thought one without the other. They produce each other at the edge of the same limits.16

On the way out

40“The Bible,” Lawrence claimed, “is a book that has been temporarily killed for us, or for some of us, by having its meaning temporarily fixed” (A 59-60). The author questioned the possibility of defining the biblical Absolute. And he did so by taking up the Bible and religious hypotexts in order to better build his own cosmological and nomadic absolute. Through the geographical explorations of some of his characters, Lawrence exposes the spiritual wandering that God’s ever shifting ontological throne imposes on those who seek it out. As Jack tests his own limits during his exploration of the outback in The Boy in the Bush, he ends up testing his religious beliefs and vision of God. God, “a dark, almost fearful mystery” (BB 83) is now ontologically questioned by the protagonist:

“What is God, anyhow?” asked Jack. […]
“I want to know what God is.” […]
“I’ll tell y’,” said Len briskly. “God is a Higher Law than the Constitution.”
Jack thought about it. A higher law than the law of the land. Maybe! (BB 85)

41Maybe –such is Lawrence’s answer to the mysterious essence of the Great Absolute. Beyond the plurality of ways, beyond visual representations, beyond symbolisms and texts, religion and the Absolute Godhead remain veiled, in waiting, located at the edge of any possibility (“maybe”) even that of the failure of any hermeneutic and ontological grasp. At bottom, the purpose of Lawrence’s deconstruction of religion and its “nauseating fixity” was to disclose the nomadism of the Absolute Godhead, propounding therefore that the question of religion should be regarded as an inexhaustible source of lively discussions. According to him, the instability of hermeneutics is what confers depth to any book:

Now a book lives as long as it is unfathomed. Once it is fathomed, it dies at once. […] The real joy of a book lies in reading it over and over again, and always finding it different, coming upon other meaning, another level of meaning.” (A 60)

42So it is with God. For Lawrence, setting free from baseless assertions and exploring new ways to God are essential to anyone who wants to reach him. Besides, going off the beaten track may also entail a sort of enjoyment: “The Holy Ghost is ghostly and invisible. The Holy Ghost is nothing, if you like. Yet we hear His strange calling, the strange calling like a hound on the scent, away in the unmapped wilderness. And it seems great fun to follow. Oh, great fun, God’s own good fun.” (Phoenix 729/730)

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Bibliographie

Bricout, Shirley. L’Itinéraire d’un Prophète en Fuite ou Le texte biblique et la réflexion politique dans Aaron’s Rod, Kangaroo et The Plumed Serpent de D. H. Lawrence. Montpellier: Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2008.

Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers. New York: Doubleday edition, 1988.

Deleuze, Gilles. “Nietzsche and St Paul, Lawrence and John of Patmos,” in Essays critical and clinical. Translated by Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco. Minneapolis: the University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Derrida, Jacques. Acts of Religion. Edited and with an introduction by Gil Anidjar. New York and London: Routledge, 2002.

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

. Apocalypse and the Writings on Revelation. Ed. Mara Kalnins. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

. Kangaroo. Ed. Bruce Steele. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

“Prefaces and Introduction to Books, [The Dragon of the Apocalypse, by Frederick Carter]” in Phoenix. The Posthumous Papers, 1936. Edited and with an introduction by Edward D. McDonald. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964.

Lawrence, D. H. The Boy in the Bush. Ed. Paul Eggert. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

. The Complete Poems. Collected and edited with an introduction and notes by Vivian de Sola Pinto and F. Warren Roberts. Harmondsworth: Penguin books, 1964.

. “The Crown, Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine,” in Phoenix. The Posthumous Papers, 1936.

. The First Women in Love. Ed. John Worthen and Lindeth Vasey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, volume I, 1901-1903. Ed. James T. Boulton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, volume V, 1924-1927. Ed. James T. Boulton and Lindeth Vasey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

. The Plumed Serpent. Ed. L. D. Clark. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

. Quetzalcoatl. Ed. N. H. Reeve. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

. The Rainbow. Ed. Mark Kinkead-Weekes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

. Study of Thomas Hardy. Ed. Bruce Steele. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Worthen, John. “Introduction,” in The Rainbow. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981.

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Notes

1 D. H. Lawrence, The Rainbow. Ed. Mark Kinkead-Weekes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 100. Abbreviated as follow (R).

2 D. H. Lawrence, Apocalypse and the Writings on Revelation. Ed. by Mara Kalnins (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 59. Abbreviated as follow (Ap).

3 D. H. Lawrence, “One Being Religious,” in Phoenix. The Posthumous Papers, 1936, op. cit., 726-727.

4 Jacques Derrida, Acts of Religion. Edited and with an introduction by Gil Anidjar (New York and London: Routledge, 2002), 44.

5 D. H. Lawrence, “On Being Religious,” op. cit.

6 “Where, at the end of all the darkness, was God the Almighty still darkly, seated, thrusting him on?” (R 112).

7 D. H. Lawrence, “On Being Religious,” op. cit., 727-728.

8 Ibid., 729-730.

9 Jacques Derrida, Acts of Religion, op. cit., 44.

10 John Worthen, “Introduction,” in The Rainbow (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981), 21.

11 “She liked the story of David who danced before the Lord, and uncovered himself exultingly. Why should he uncover himself to Michal, a common woman? He uncovered himself to the Lord. […] And with slow, heavy movements she swayed backwards and forwards, like a full ear of corn, pale in the dusky afternoon, threading before the firelight, dancing his non-existence, dancing herself to the Lord, to limbs lifted and lifted, her hair was sticking out all fierce, and her belly, big, strange, terrifying, uplifted to the Lord. […] It hurt him as he watched as if he were at the stake.” (171)

12 Gilles Deleuze, “Nietzsche and St Paul, Lawrence and John of Patmos,” in Essays critical and clinical. Translated by Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco (Minneapolis: the University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 48.

13 J. Campbell, The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers (New York: Doubleday edition, 1988), [56/57].

14 D. H. Lawrence, Study of Thomas Hardy. Ed. Bruce Steele (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), [195].

15 D. H. Lawrence, “The Crown,” op. cit., 306.

16 Jacques Derrida, Acts of Religion, op. cit., 100.

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Référence électronique

Mélanie Lebreton, « “The subtle sense of the Great Absolute”:
D. H. Lawrence and the Nomadic Godhead »
Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 51 | 2020, mis en ligne le 20 juillet 2020, consulté le 31 octobre 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lawrence/1497; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/lawrence.1497

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Auteur

Mélanie Lebreton

Mélanie Lebreton, a dual citizen of France and Canada, teaches currently British and American Literature at Université Rennes 2 (Brittany). Her PhD thesis entitled: “Aporia in the work of D. H. Lawrence” focuses on the limits of hermeneutics, language, religion or anthropocentrism within Lawrence’s work. 

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