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Aphorisms in Women in Love: the Words of False Prophets

Brigitte Macadré-Nguyên


An aphorism is a pithy observation which contains a general truth. A cliché is a phrase or opinion which is overused, betraying a lack of original truth. The use of both terms reflects the distance and doubt felt by the user concerning the validity of the statements as expressions of absolute truth. The difference between absolute and relative truth thus emerges along with the idea that there are false prophets whose claim is that they are the only true prophets in possession of absolute truth.

False prophets are however seen as such by the followers of other, potentially false, prophets. The term “false” then only reveals the relative quality of any truth –which in turn can be seen as a fact or belief accepted to be true. The aim here is to address these notions in connection with Birkin’s and Loerke’s assertions, presented as expressions of absolute truths in their use of aphorisms, but which can be in turn discarded as mere clichés, the underlying purpose of which is the manipulation of their listeners. I will address the question with specific examples from the novel and the ensuing reactions.

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“If you’re doing a thing, do it properly, and if you’re not going to do it properly, leave it alone,” [said Gerald]
“Very nice aphorism,” said Birkin.
“Don’t you agree?” asked Gerald.
“Quite,” said Birkin. “Only it bores me rather, when you become aphoristic.” “
Damn you, Rupert, you want all the aphorisms your own way,” said Gerald.
“No. I want them out of the way, and you’re always shoving them in it.” (
Women in Love, “Shortlands,” 25)

1No matter how much can be said around texts, what they literally express reveals a lot. When Gerald says: “You want all the aphorisms your own way,” it is possible to see that as meaning “and in no other way.” This literally means that Birkin cannot even consider other opinions on the subject the aphorism refers to, as if he alone were in possession of truth. This leads me to the definition of the aphorism itself as the expression of a self-contained truth. If Birkin wants the aphorisms his own way, it is because he considers himself to be the true bearer of the torch of truth and sees others as bearers of non-truths –hence the notion of relative and absolute truth. Thus Birkin could see himself as a true prophet revealing the truth to others and ipso facto denouncing the others as false prophets. The fact that it is Gerald who utters this criticism about Birkin creates distance or dialogism. What if Birkin himself were a false prophet?

2Secondly, Birkin’s retort is also meaningful: “I want them out of the way. But you’re the one who is always shoving them in it.” We’ll see that in the course of the novel he will repeatedly resort to aphorisms in order to prove a point and bring the conversation to an end.

3This is where an analysis of aphorisms comes in, the question of what they are. Indeed, what is an aphorism and how can it be identified in the discourse?

1- What is an aphorism?

4Different features can define an aphorism, as the essay “The Aphorism and Other Short Forms” by Ben Grant shows.

  • 1 “This helps to explain the appeal of the aphorism: we are drawn to it because the smallness of the (...)
  • 2 The recurrent use of personae can be understood as a specific manifestation of the more general tr (...)

5First there is the criterion of economy, the brevity and concision of the form.1 Secondly, the speaker of the aphorism generally refers to a previously unknown author, thus giving it the appearance of absolute truth or at least of ancient wisdom.2 In aphoristic writing, the authority of the writer seems unquestionable, as if the source were divine, as in the case of prophets repeating the words of a God. Emerson defines an aphorist as an original writer who “spoke not his own, but the words of some god” (329).

6The aphorism is also usually isolated on the page, defined by spaces before and after it, either by dashes or by blanks. Or else it stands out as a conclusion to a conversation or a discussion and thus a closure and end in itself.

7However, despite its apparent singularity or unicity, an aphorism can also be part of a whole way of thinking, a form of thought –an expression belonging to a series. This series of aphorisms, far from being scattered and disconnected, constitutes a continuous form, as Derrida points it out: “Despite appearances, an aphorism never arrives by itself, it doesn’t come all alone. It is part of a serial logic” (128). (Kindle book location 2254). Unity of meaning can be found in this multiplicity. But such multiplicity of expression can also give rise to interpretation, as the order in which aphorisms appear in the series is not random but is deliberate.

8In his collection of aphorisms, Sand and Foam (1926), Kahlil Gibran says that truth can be discovered in the space created between speaker and listener: “It takes two of us to discover truth: one to utter it and one to understand it” (176) (Location 1111). This is another form of space, not the typographic space on the page, rather the symbolic space in which truth travels from one to the other, from the “I” to the “you,” from the utterer of the aphorism to the listener: “space travels between the separate parts” in Women in Love. This space creates a distance which allows for the emergence of truth, as Marc Schultz explains in his article “Distance and the Search for Truth in Eliot and Lawrence”: “[…] this idea of the distance between perception and reality, between optimistic past and brutal present, between belief and truth.”

2- Examples of aphorisms in Women in Love

9Once the definition of an aphorism has been given, we have to decide on a corpus of quotations to be explored. I decided to concentrate on Birkin’s utterances, as they seem to embody or to mimic those of wise men, philosophers or even oracles or prophets, some sort of elite that stands above the crowd, aristocrats of the mind endowed with vision and truth.

10The list of aphorisms is mine and I have isolated them according to my comprehension of aphoristic writing, thus introducing a certain bias or partiality. My aim is to understand the purposes they serve in the text, whether as mere expressions of wit or as true “nuggets of pure thought” –Woolf’s phrase in “A Room of One’s Own”– as instances of obscurity or enlightenment, of distance or sincerity. But the reaction of the listener in the intradiegetic world, like that of the reader of the book, can be of interest in deciphering the meaning of aphorisms in Women in Love, insofar as those reactions can point to the idea of a unity or multiplicity of meanings, and can even lead to the questioning of the validity of those statements, by way of the dialogic strategies that have been adopted. The reader can see the truth expressed in the aphorisms as either absolute or relative, as the reaction or response of the intradiegetic listener points to a different reality, one which can be opposed to the utterer’s vision or which can at least interact with it.

11As there is an “unfinalizability” in the self, to adopt Bakhtin’s words, there may be an “unfinalizability” or “undecidability” of the ultimate meaning of the aphorisms in Women in Love, or even a property of “reversibility,” or “cancrizzabile,” Umberto Eco’s term to qualify this capacity to mean something and its contrary.

12I collected Birkin’s aphorisms in his conversations with Ursula and Gerald in order to have some consistency. In these exchanges, I noticed that most aphorisms concern humanity and its future, that they form a series articulated around the notions of truth and lies, the end and rebirth of mankind. If we list them in a chronological order, something seems to appear, a kind of metaphysics of life, or a reflection on the human condition. I will briefly elaborate on Birkin’s aphorisms in order to highlight the serial logic of his scattered statements.

13To Birkin, humanity has ceased to be the most important thing in the world, man has ceased to be the centre of the universe, as it is in a humanist approach, which has become redundant: Humanity doesn't embody the utterance of the incomprehensible any more. Humanity is a dead letter.” It is now “something that has lost its force or authority without being formally abolished,” which in fact corresponds to the exact meaning of a dead letter (WL, In the train, 48). As a consequence, man cannot live properly a life which is healthy and balanced, and in consequence falls ill. The notion of illness or disease, as evidence of failure echoes Freud’s notion of a discontent in civilization, of disease in the macrocosm reflected in disease in the microcosm. Humiliation in disease, loss of bodily integrity lead to imminent death: One is ill because one doesn’t live properly can’t. It’s the failure to live that makes one ill, and humiliates one” (WL, An island, 106).

14The refusal to acknowledge the vital failure, the demise of Man, entails a desire to go on as if nothing had occurred, as if small trivial lives could still help people to fulfill themselves, so that they all contribute to a general lie, to a kind of neurosis afflicting everyone, a refusal to contemplate truth: Humanity is a huge aggregate lie, and a huge lie is less than a small truth” (107). Therefore mankind is dead, the only remnants of life being gall-people, bitter bile, a toxic fluid or parasitic growth covering the tree of life: But mankind is a dead tree, covered with fine brilliant galls of people (107). A possible explanation for the failure of mankind is its refusal to admit that dissolution is as necessary modality of the same process of production is a part, that destruction and creation co-exist in the universe as well as in the human body: “‘dissolution rolls on, just as production does,’ he said. ‘It is a progressive process –and it ends in universal nothing–’” (WL, Water party, 148). If humanity has failed, if it has become a huge lie where no glimmer of truth can be found, if this general neurosis following from the acknowledgement of this, while still keeping up the pretences to the contrary, leads to illness and death, then the world would be better off without it, hence the post-apocalyptic vision of a world devoid of any human life. “‘God cannot do without man.’ It was a saying of some great French religious teacher. But surely this is false. God can do without man.” (WL, Exeunt, 419) “God can do without man” would then be the ultimate aphorism in Birkin’s mouth, epitomizing the final truth. This is a good example of “cancrizzabile” –that is, in Eco’s words, “the opposite of what it says is equally true” (Eco 2004:68). It is also the exact contrary of Nietzsche’s stance in Human, All too human, concerning the death of God, the end of absolute truth and the need for creative, mobile, multiple truths, as an expression of Man’s creative power.

15Birkin’s aphorisms are omens of what is a bleak future for humanity, to say the least. They can of course be received as a part of the modernist reaction following WW1. And it is for that same reason that Birkin could be seen as a mouthpiece for Lawrence’s views. But they are also prophet-like utterances in their aloofness and distance. With the aphorism “God can do without man,” there emerges the possibility that the aphorist is God-like, a God-sent prophet. By discarding other truths as lies, by asserting that others are liers, the prophet shows that he is in possession of absolute truth, and that all other truths are therefore merely relative truths, the utterances of false prophets.

16But of course the notion of absolute and relative truths can be reversed, as the notion of true or false prophets can also be reversed, each claiming to be the sole “bearer of the torch of truth.”

3- Distance and Truth in the novel

17This reversibility leads me to the notion of “unfinalizability” or “undecidability” that we mentioned earlier and to the way in which it is given expression in the novel through a series of dialogical strategies, in evidence notably in other characters’ reactions to Birkin’s words. All the instances I have selected are found in a conversational, dialogical mode, where another protagonist reacts to Birkin’s words –thus in turn leading to the reader’s reaction.

18Gerald is the first to react to Birkin’s aphoristic speaking, thus instilling a degree of doubt in the reader, at the very beginning of the novel. The passage is worth quoting again:

“If you’re doing a thing, do it properly, and if you’re not going to do it properly, leave it alone,” [said Gerald]
“Very nice aphorism,” said Birkin.
“Don’t you agree?” asked Gerald.
“Quite,” said Birkin. “Only it bores me rather, when you become aphoristic.” “
Damn you, Rupert, you want all the aphorisms your own way,” said Gerald.
“No. I want them out of the way, and you’re always shoving them in it.” (
Women in Love, Shortlands, 25)

  • 3 Birkin resorts not only to word-twisting but also to a process of word-forging, as in the example: (...)

19Distance and irony are in evidence, in Birkin’s annoyance at Gerald being aphoristic and in Gerald’s remark that his friend is the only one who is entitled to this kind of terse statement, the only one able to stand aloof above the crowd and can thus enlighten it. Further distance is created when Birkin claims that he wants aphorisms out of the way, even as he is repeatedly resorting to the very form of aphoristic expression when seeking to cut short his listener and prevent any contradiction. In Birkin’s view, the others are only entitled to ask questions, not to give answers, in accordance with the rule applying to the true believers in a new cult –“‘And do you think it’s true? Do you think we really want a new Gospel?’ asked Gerald.” (WL, In the train, 43). And indeed it is nothing less than a new Gospel with a new prophet that Gerald should expect from Birkin. But of course the main source of dialogical response and retort is Ursula, who consistently opposes Birkin and is able to see what it is he is up to: “You don’t trust yourself. You don’t fully believe yourself what you are saying.” (WL, Mino, 130); “‘I am not taken in by your word-twisting.’” (WL, Excurse, 266).3 Or again: “‘YOU!’ she cried. ‘You! You truth-lover! You purity-monger! It STINKS, your truth and your purity. It stinks of the offal you feed on, you scavenger dog, you eater of corpses’” (267).

20“Word-twisting” is a revealing term, as Birkin uses language in order to manipulate others into a belief in what he asserts. This manipulation, and the fact that he may not even believe in what he is saying, could be the proof that Birkin is using words as a means through which to coerce and to keep people under his will, rather than as a way to convince them of the intrinsic truth of a new conception of the world. Ursula turns Birkin’s rhetoric back against him, when she equates truth and purity with rottenness and decay, exposing the hypocrisy and perversion of those who mislead others and aim at depriving them of their own freewill and their capacity to judge. This is precisely the process of alienating others through discourse that Ursula is condemning in Birkin.

21Further distance and irony are created in the chapter “Gudrun in the Pompadour.” The act of reading out loud Birkin’s letter here really becomes a dead letter, in both senses of the phrase. The letter sums up Birkin’s metaphysics of life. And its fragmentary, partial reading by Halliday –both because he reads discontinuous passages and because he has a hiccup– enhances the dialogical effect. The reaction of the young Russian is interesting, insofar as it represents what everyone could think of Birkin, listeners and readers alike: “He is a megalomaniac, of course, it is a form of religious mania. He thinks he is the Saviour of man –go on reading.” (WL, Gudrun in the Pompadour, 335). The term “mania,” with all its implied symptoms of delusion, euphoria and overactivity –not to mention “megalomaniac,” with the added symptoms of delusional omnipotence and grandeur– all contribute to the undecidability of the text and to the unreliability of Birkin as mouthpiece for the author or as the source and voice of a real metaphysics, to be taken seriously. Finally, some of Loerke’s statements at the end of the novel could be confused with Birkin’s own, which points to the fact that none can be trusted as true bearers of absolute truth. Consider for instance Loerke’s aphorism on the end of civilization, which if decontextualized could be one of Birkin’s: “But this will be the end of our civilization, when people will not work because work has become so intolerable to their senses, it nauseates them too much,” (WL, Continental, 370). The generally negative treatment of Loerke in the novel leads the readers to assume that Birkin’s words, here echoed by those of Loerke, should not be taken as a new Gospel but as the words of yet another false prophet contributing to the disease of civilization.

22Doubt persists till the closing words of the novel, with the often-quoted open-ending dialogue between Ursula and Birkin: “‘You can't have it, because it’s false, impossible,’ she said. ‘I don't believe that,’ he answered” (WL, Exeunt, 420). What is striking here is that Birkin’s last words are not aphoristic but are uncertain, as he uses the verb “believe” and seems shaken in his usual assertiveness.

23This uncertainty was foreseen in the scene of the stoning of the moon in “Moony,” where the moon in its clear roundness could represent the unity of truth, its repeated fragmentation into a series of trembling shattered shards on the surface of the pond, like a fragmented and aphoristic discourse, that does not make any sense. Despite Birkin’s efforts, the fragments of the moon “caught together, re-united, heaving, rocking, dancing, falling back as in panic, but working their way home again persistently.” Truth, whether absolute or relative, is not to be found in Birkin’s frantic efforts to make sense throughout the novel. It remains forever elusive and unreachable as it is only a reflection on the surface of a pond.

24To conclude, Gerald could well be the true bearer of truth in the novel, when he comments on Birkin’s statement: “[a]nybody who is anything can just be himself and do as he likes” –another instance of word-twisting. To this Gerald retorts: “But what do you mean by being himself? Is that an aphorism or a cliché?” (WL, Shortlands, 26). The use of the term “cliché” is at once ironical and intentional. It brings to mind the discussion of the cliché in “Introduction to These Paintings.” Even if this late essay concerns painting, focusing on the exemplary case of Cézanne, the recurrent use of the notions of truth versus cliché in representation can be relevant here. Lawrence defines the cliché thus: “A cliché is just a worn-out memory that has no more emotional or intuitional root, and has become a habit” (“Introduction to These Paintings,” 209), something like a memory, the trace of an original idea and “the mind is full of all sorts of memory, […] groups of memories, systems of memories.” This means that what appears as a new idea could simply be “a new arrangement of accustomed memories,” an idea that “exists already, ready-made, […] in a pigeon-hole of the consciousness.” Gerald’s question is thus a questioning of the idea of truth, original or ready-made truth, whereas Birkin’s struggle to attain it takes the form of a perpetual smashing of the cliché, of the ready-made truth which he cannot get rid of. The novel fittingly ends with Birkin’s avowal of his uncertainty and the reader’s final decision on how to interpret it, just as Cézanne’s lifelong struggle ended with a series of virtually blank canvases. After all, “the creator seeks companions, not corpses or herds of believers. The creator seeks fellow-creators who inscribe new values on new tables,” as Nietzsche puts it in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Gerald’s death leaves Birkin without a fellow-creator that might question or interpret his aphorisms, thus freeing them from the risk of being mere clichés.

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Primary Sources

Lawrence, D. H. Women in Love (1920). London: Penguin, 1995. Abbreviated as WL.

Lawrence, D. H. “Introduction to These Paintings,” in Late Essays and Articles. Ed. James T. Boulton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004 (1929).

Secondary Sources

Grant, Ben. The Aphorism and Other Short Forms. New York: Routledge, 2016. Kindle edition.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883). Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.

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1 “This helps to explain the appeal of the aphorism: we are drawn to it because the smallness of the form makes it a tactile object, something we can almost hold in our hand, which we can cherish, repeat, and make our own in learning it by heart. In this smallness, our short human life and eternity come together, for the timelessness of the truth which the aphorism encapsulates can only be measured against our own ephemerality, of which the brevity of the aphorism serves as an apt expression.” (Ben Grant, Kindle book location 169).

2 The recurrent use of personae can be understood as a specific manifestation of the more general truth that, if all original short expressions are, as Morson implies, original quotations, then the effect of writing “under a mask” is one of their essential characteristics. Indeed, short expressions are, by their very nature, mask-like.” (Kindle book location 1379).

3 Birkin resorts not only to word-twisting but also to a process of word-forging, as in the example: “This is a complete truth. It takes two people to make a murder: a murderer and a murderee. And a murderee is a man who is murderable” (26). He makes up words in order to be better able to convince his listener.

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Brigitte Macadré-Nguyên, « Aphorisms in Women in Love: the Words of False Prophets »Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 51 | 2020, mis en ligne le 10 juillet 2020, consulté le 21 octobre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Brigitte Macadré-Nguyên

Brigitte Macadré-Nguyên is a lecturer at the University of Technology in Reims, where she teaches Business English. Her PhD dissertation focused on D. H.Lawrence as an artist and art critic. She has been a regular participant in Lawrence conferences at Paris Nanterre for many years and published several articles in Etudes Lawrenciennes

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