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AccueilNuméros44The “Thingness” of the Quick

The “Thingness” of the Quick

Elise Brault-Dreux
p. 23-43

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1The word “quick” lies at the heart, or even at the quick, of D.H. Lawrence’s writing. It immediately takes us back to the Bible where the “quick” and the “dead” are brought together: “… who shall give account to him that is ready to judge the quick and the dead” (1 Peter 4:35). And both the quick and the dead will eventually be judged by Jesus. Lawrence relies on and makes extensive use of this primordial meaning of “quick,” that is “alive,” but he brings it further, constantly infusing in it extra vitality. In other words, if D.H. Lawrence exploits the Biblical meaning of “quick,” he does not simply oppose “quick” to “dead.” Being “quick,” as will be developed in the first part of this article, is being more alive, and “quick” therefore becomes a gradual (or at least relative) notion and state of being. And the individual’s relation with the external world (human, animal, organic, cosmic) depends on the very intensity of his/her quickness. But Lawrence’s various uses of the word, and the various meanings he ascribes to it (still all related to “life,” under different aspects) make it hard for the reader to fully grasp its essential meaning and location. The second part of this essay will therefore examine how occurrences proliferate, with morphological variations, changes of syntactic nature and context, to define different notions and experiences. Its reference varies, from physical energy to an acute sense of sight or hearing, to man’s private essence, religious feelings, sexual experience, intellectual brightness, etc. And the absence of any static reference makes its meaning ungraspable, while simultaneously, its multiplied occurrences, its alliterative and nearly self-referential nature (the word “quick” is quickly uttered), make the sign almost poetically touchable. This “touchability” will, in the final part of our inquiry, eventually bring us to Heidegger’s concept of “thingness.” Lawrence creates a palpable “thing,” in and with language by weaving a network of words and phrases around the indefinable and ever-versatile idea of the “quick,” saturating the text both with the signifier “quick” and its varying signified which come close to (but never really touch) the fundamental nature of the “quick.”

2What I am proposing here is to show how D.H. Lawrence gives “thingness” or textual and poetic flesh to “something” essential to life but never to be deciphered with more terms than with this monosyllabic word; and how the reader eventually catches only a glimpse of the meaning of “quick,” which shimmers on the surface of the text.

I. Individuality and contact

1. All that lives is “quick”

3According to Lawrence, all that truly lives is “quick.” In his travel essay, “Tarquinia,” he asserts: “within each man is the quick of him, when he is a baby, and when he is old, the same quick; some spark of unborn and undying vivid life-electron” (EP 30). The continuity, throughout man’s life, of his quick (significantly located “within”), ensures man’s sparking energy as well as the integrity of his essence—Lawrence talks about “the quick of him” and not “his quick,” thus cancelling all notions of possession and rather enhancing man’s essential quickness. And as Lawrence explains in Fantasia of the Unconscious, the independent individual inherits his essential quick from “the mother-quick and the father-quick” which are “still within him, consummated but not consumed” (F 31). Man is here somehow conceived as the convergence of two inextinguishable “quicks.”

  • 1 In “The Novel,” he describes his immediate surroundings: “And there is a sleeping cat, very quick” (...)

4But for Lawrence, the quick is not just at the heart of man’s living being. The organic world is “quick” as well. For instance in The Plumed Serpent, one comes across “quick tropical flowers” (PS 227). In Fantasia, the quick is cosmic: Lawrence refers to “our earth’s quick” (F 161) and to “the quick of the sun” (153) and in “Tarquinia” again he writes that “there is a living quick of the sea and of all the waters” (EP 30). As for animal quick,1 it surfaces metonymically on several occasions, for example towards the end of The Rainbow, in chapter XV entitled “The Bitterness of Ecstasy,” when Ursula yet again declines Skrebensky’s proposal and both are enclosed, claustrophobically, in a taxi-cab. The heavy atmosphere is transferred to her perception of the driver’s face: “They saw the driver’s strange, full, dark face peering into the lamps under drawn brows. Ursula shuddered. It was the face almost of an animal, yet of a quick, strong, wary animal” (R 470), and as they get off, the driver “turn[ed] and look[ed] at her, with his quick, powerful, animal’s look” (470). A little later, in the Italian hotel, Ursula again shudders when she sees “the quick, sharp-sighted, intent animality” of the young Italian (473). Each time, Ursula feels threatened by that animal “quick” which both captivates her attention and suggests some mysterious underlying vital energy, related to an instinctive mode of knowledge. In Women in Love, Ursula once again perceives animal quickness, but worry gives way to fascination. In “A Chair,” the pregnant woman’s husband glances up at Ursula “with quick bright eyes, oddly suggestive, like a quick, live rat” (WL 360). In these examples, man is associated with animality, but with quick animality. The “quick” is therefore what enables Ursula’s mind to animalize (or de-anthropomorphize) the man she observes; it is the node around which the comparison is built. And this literary constructed convergence reads as the application, on the writing level, of what Lawrence declares in his essay “The Novel” where he insists on the importance of the “quick” in fictional creation:

And now we see the great, great merits of the novel. It can’t exist without being “quick.” The ordinary unquick novel, even if it be a best seller, disappears into absolute nothingness […].
The man in the novel must be “quick.” And this means one thing, among a host of unknown meaning: it means he must have a quick relatedness to all the other things in the novel: snow, bed-bugs, sunshine, the phallus, trains, […]. He must be in quick relation to all these things. (PII 420)

5Ursula’s associative mind somehow brings the relatedness beyond the level of the diegesis, as she perceives the relation between man and animal in their quickness. It is because this man is quick and because the animal is quick, that this man can be “related” to an animal by a comparison. Ursula thus thematises, brings to the surface of the text, the mechanism of Lawrence’s idea as he expresses it in “The Novel.”

6So on the living as well as on the literary level, if the quick is the essence of the individual (and of the text in “quick” novels), it is also what ensures man’s vital link to nature, to the cosmos and to animality.

2. Contact

a) Quickness of eye and ear

  • 2 This is actually the keeper’s daughter crying because of the death of a cat.

7In Lawrence’s novels, contact is recurrently expressed with images of quick perceptions of visual or aural senses. The intensity of the evanescent moment tends to appear as a sudden spark which brings the individual back in touch with the quick of life. In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Connie, at one point, is alone, walking in the woods, and it is her own quick sense of hearing that will, against her own conscience, force her back into contact with the outside human world: “The report of a gun not far off startled and angered her. Then she went, she heard voices and recoiled. People! she didn’t want people. But her quick ear caught another sound, and she roused; it was a child sobbing” (LCL 58).2 The contact imposed on her by her quick perception is significantly not with a machine nor with any other inanimate matter, but with a child, with inchoate, insipient quickness: Connie’s quick ear “relates” her with fresh quickness and not with gloomy “people,” and hence it forces her back into the living here and now. In The Plumed Serpent, comparable mysterious, tangible quick contacts are formed among native people—on this occasion, the contact is visual:

Men and women seemed always to be turning their back on one another, as if they didn’t want to see one another. No flirting, no courting. Only an occasional quick, dark look, the signal of a weapon-like desire, given and taken. (PS 161)

8“Signal” and “weapon-like” corroborate the idea that the quick is, in part, apprehended by Lawrence as a sudden spark. And, as with Connie, though the natives almost consciously refuse to face one another, the quick of their dark (and hence secretive) look instinctively forces them into momentary intense, and even sexual, contact. They are then quickly related—in both senses of “quickly.”

9But Lawrence all along subtly suggests that to be so related, or at least to be in quick contact, both beings in the relation must be animated with the same intensity of quick.

b) Equilibrium and separateness

10In Sons and Lovers, Paul is heard speaking in a pub—“The Punch Bowl”—about the war, the aristocracy and other issues. The narrative voice comments:

He was not a favourite debater in the public-house, being too quick and overbearing. He irritated the older men by his assertive manner and his cocksureness. They listened in silence and were not sorry when he finished. (SL 342)

11Paul’s excess of intelligent “quickness” cancels the contact with otherness and triggers irritation among his listeners. This is later repeated when he is with Miriam: “For Miriam he was too quick. She started violently and it hurt her with real pain” (SL 208). In both cases, excess yields to negative friction, intensified by its physical manifestation (“irritation” and “pain”). The opposite situation appears in The Rainbow, when Will Brangwen faces Baron Skrebensky’s new wife:

Meanwhile, the little baroness, with always a subtle light stirring in her full, lustrous, hazel eyes, was playing with Will Brangwen. He was not quick enough to see all her movements. Yet he watched her steadily, with unchanging, lit-up eyes. (R 199)

12If “not quick enough” does in part render Will’s lack of rapidity, it also reaches beyond, to his incapacity to be flexible and alert. His deficiency is also physically translated as it eventually fixes his gaze and ossifies his hence unbalanced and deadened contact with the lively baroness.

13These two examples, “too quick” and “not quick enough,” imply that Lawrence relies on a sort of scale of “quickness,” where “quick” therefore functions as a scalar notion: its meaning is not absolute but relative to a standard provided by the other being. And a positive contact is made possible only when the intensity of the “quick” of one being is somewhat equal to the intensity of the other’s “quick.”

14Ursula and Birkin, in Women in Love, provide an interesting example of an equilibrium that is in the process of being attained:

She looked at him as he sat crouched on the bank. There was a certain priggish Sunday-school stiffness over him, priggish and detestable. And yet, at the same time the moulding of him was so quick and attractive, it gave such a great sense of freedom: the moulding of his brows, his chin, his whole physique, something so alive, somewhere in spite of the look of sickness.
And it was this duality in feeling which he created in her, that made a fine hate of him quicken in her bowels. (WL 129)

15Birkin’s “quick” nature triggers Ursula’s ambiguous force of attraction for his underlying liveliness, concealed, on the surface, by his “look of sickness.” And his ambivalent quick triggers another ambivalent hate that “quicken[s]” Ursula’s own body. Birkin’s quick is somehow animated (shifting from adjective to verb) and transmitted to Ursula’s being. The transmission makes them both “quick,” in touch with one another (though not yet in equilibrium).

  • 3 A passage in The Plumed Serpent likewise brings quickness and individual integrity together: “The m (...)

16And yet, this transmission, being intimately and ultimately related to the idea of equilibrium, requires each being’s utmost integrity. Birkin himself (as a person or character) does not flow into Ursula’s bowels. It is his being and appearing quick which set Ursula’s in motion, electrifies her, but neither Birkin nor his quick actually permeates nor loses himself or itself into Ursula’s being. For one’s “quick” is independent, never trespassed upon by otherness. Mellors in Lady Chatterley’s Lover embodies very well this independence as, on several occasions, his quick is related to his “separateness.” Early in the novel, he appears as “a curious, quick, separate fellow, alone” (LCL 47), and later, as Connie sees him approaching: “She felt him recoil in his quick walk, when he saw her” (94)—his quickness acts as a sort of protective shelter.3 And when Connie, a little earlier, witnesses him “washing himself, totally unaware,” the reference to his quickness is repeated twice exactly when he believes he is completely alone, hidden from anyone’s view:

And his white slim back was curved over a big bowl of soapy water in which he ducked his head, shaking his head with a queer, quick little motion, lifting his slender white arms, and pressing the soapy water from his ears, quick, subtle as a weasel playing with water, and utterly alone. (LCL 66)

  • 4 This analysis of the independent Lawrencian “quick” significantly echoes Lawrence’s own conception (...)

17“Utterly alone,” located in the focal position of this long flowing sentence, stands out and its meaning is even more pregnant as—on the surface at least—it contrasts with the “relatedness” almost inherent to the “quick”—the latter is what makes contact with others possible. But what the narrative voice thematises here by the proximity of the two close occurrences of the adjective “quick,” with the sense of absolute solitude, is once more the idea that one’s quick is utterly separate from that of others. And Mellors’ quick “motion” and being are the physical translation of this ontological state of separateness. This individualisation of the quick is supported when, in his essay “Democracy,” Lawrence unexpectedly uses the plural form: “creation proceeds from the forever inscrutable quicks of living beings […]” (SE 88). The importance of the concept is highlighted by the awkwardness of the plural form. Quite characteristic of Lawrence, the meeting or gathering of various quicks is not apprehended as a mass, nor as a larger quick which would comprehend and fuse all the quicks, but as a group of individual quicks which do not merge.4 In the poem “Manifesto” the poetic I complains about his lover’s desire to merge with him. According to the male I, only his lover’s contact with his quick will bring her to the awareness of their separateness:

She touches me as if I were herself, her own.
She has not realized yet, that fearful thing, that I am the other,
she thinks we are all of one piece.
It is painfully untrue.

I want her to touch me at last, ah, on the root and quick of my darkness
and perish on me, as I have perished on her.
Then we shall be two and distinct, we shall have each our separate being. (CP 266, ll.115-121)

18The “quick” (here most likely located in the anus) is once again what makes the individual whole and separate. And even the quick itself, though essential to the self, does not fuse with the rest of the (mental and physical) being. It remains untouchable and unknowable, as though paradoxically distant from the body which houses it. And any attempt at transgressing the quick gives way to violence. In The Rainbow, for instance:

[Alfred] Brangwen himself […] calmly did as he liked, […] pricked too near the quick, frightened and broke her [his wife] by a deep, tense fury which seemed to fix on him and hold him for days, and which she would give anything to placate in him. They were two very separate beings, vitally connected, knowing nothing of each other, yet living in their separate ways from one root. (R 13)

19The evocation of the transgression, “too near the quick,” remains unclear as to whose quick it is. It is “the quick,” as though the attempt itself, no matter on whose quick it is, were enough to bring forth a negative chaos. The equilibrium collapses and can only be restored by the renewing awareness of each being’s separateness. But here Lawrence, as elsewhere, also subtly imparts the inevitable failure of the attempt to touch the (other’s) quick: Brangwen does not prick the quick, but merely manages to prick “too near” it. Likewise, Mellors comes “nearer and nearer to the very quick of” Connie (LCL 173), along an asymptotical axis which brings him closer but never lets him touch. In the passage quoted from the poem “Manifesto,” if the male I yearns for his lover’s “touching” his quick, the very act is still counterfactual, still a desire to be fulfilled. In the “Gladiatorial” chapter of Women in Love, Birkin’s grip “seemed to penetrate into the very quick of Gerald’s being” (WL 270), and such penetration remains an illusion. Likewise, Gerald himself, towards the end of the novel, in “Snowed-Up” feels something is happening to his quick: “It seemed to him he was degraded at the very quick” (WL 443); the degradation is only surmised for the quick cannot be analyzed nor dissected. Or to quote “Excurse”: “she seemed to touch the quick of the mystery of darkness that was bodily him” (WL 314). Ursula’s touch of Birkin’s quick is triply distanced: first by “seemed,” and then twice semantically by “mystery” and “darkness.” And “was” eventually identifies this double mystery not even with Birkin’s touchable body, but with his substance, the ungraspable “bodily him.”

20These scenes which feature the untouchability and ungraspability of one’s or the other’s quick, are actually reflected on the reading level. The insurmountable difficulties experienced by Ursula, Mellors, Birkin, and Gerald in their endeavour to touch the (other’s) quick read as the fictional reflections—or even demetaphorising “mises en scène”—of the reader’s own difficulties in fixing the word “quick” and grasping its extratextual references.

II. Versatile References

  • 5 Some characters are “quick to flush”: R 105, WL 162, PS 424.

21Located “within,” the quick may actually be closer either to the eyes, the ears, or the blood,5 to sex organs, the anus, or to the mind—and if so, it is a bright, unmethodological type of mind, one which is a great deal nourished by the senses. This, Connie evokes as she ponders: “It needs sheer sensuality even to purify and quicken the mind” (LCL 248). Thus apprehended, the quick then appears as a fluid energy that runs through man.

1. Sexual positive quick

22Not surprisingly this quick energy surfaces in moments of sexual intercourse. As quoted above, in “Excurse,” the moment the other’s quick seems to be touched, the orgasm is fully experienced. The same thing happens in the poem “Manifesto,” though still at the stage of desire: when she eventually touches his positive quick, they will go through a swooning orgasmic oblivion. Even the mere arousal of sexuality implies this quick energy, as for Paul, in Sons and Lovers:

He was now about twenty-three years old, and, though still virgin, the sex instinct that Miriam had over-refined for so long now grew particularly strong. Often, as he talked to Clara Dawes, came that thickening and quickening of his blood. (SL 252)

23The “ing” form denotes Paul’s gradual process of becoming quick. It carries intimations of the gradual arousal of Paul’s sexual quickness, leading to the moment when Clara is “conscious of his quick, vigorous body” (SL 322). The shift from substantivized verb to epithet marks the completed achievement, the temporary end of the process. But this positive construction by and of the quick, of quick sexuality between Ursula and Birkin (whose quick quickens Ursula’s bowels), and of Paul’s potency, may be reversed into a destructive type of quick, for Lawrence’s reference to the “positive quick” in Fantasia (158) implies that there must indeed exist a negative quick at the heart of some beings.

2. Mechanical negative quick

24At least twice, early in Women in Love, Gerald is quick in a peculiar fashion. Facing Birkin on the train, both men talk about the individual’s life centre. Gerald then gives a “manly, quick, soldierly laugh” (WL 59): the juxtaposition of the liveliness of “quick” with the rigidity and firmness of “soldierly,” invites the Lawrencian reader to apprehend the word “quick,” somewhat differently, this time more related to nerves than to blood. Soon after, when Gerald is with the Pussum who jabs a knife across the Russian man’s hand to show she can stand the sight of blood: “ ‘Stop that,’ said Gerald, in quick, instinctive command” (WL 71), and once again, the predetermination of “command” by both “quick” and “instinctive” tends to displace the location of the quick from blood to nerves. This tension around the quick is actually confirmed in the final part of “Death and Love” when Gerald visits Gudrun at night: he “went quickly to the house,” “went quickly and silently up the path,” “stepped into the hall […] went quickly and looked into the large pleasant room” (340). The repetition of “went quickly” is both semantically and poetically mechanical and therefore ascribes to the adverb a sense of metallic nervous hastiness. He keeps on as he “quickly opened the door” (342), “quickly, he pulled off his jacket” (344). After their corruptive sexual intercourse, “he dressed himself quickly” (347), “he kissed her quickly” (348), “walked quickly to the raw darkness,” “went quickly along towards Shortlands, in a grateful self-sufficiency” (349). His ultimate self-sufficiency attributes to the recurring adverb the meaning of proud efficiency: the industrial magnate carries out his task not quick with life, but in a soldierly and mechanically efficient (hence rapid) way. The quick is thus displaced from his essence to his actions—as it is conveyed by the adverb, which defines the action, and not by the noun. If right after the intercourse “he himself was quick and warm” (348), in Lawrentian terms one might suggest that his quick remains “in the head.” And such deadened quickness actually permeates into Gerald’s perception, for, as he enters Gudrun’s family house, “he was not quite up these stairs when he heard a quick running of feet below” (341): his perception extracts the movement from the body.

25Lawrence then plays with these “positive” and “negative” types of energy so much that the meaning of “quick” becomes ambiguous. In the tense exchange between Birkin and Hermione in the “Class-Room” chapter of Women in Love:

“Do you really think Rupert […] the children are better for being roused to consciousness?” A dark flash went over his face, a silent fury. He was hollow-cheeked and pale, almost unearthly. And the woman, with her serious conscience-harrowing question tortured him on the quick.
“They are not roused to consciousness,” he said. “Consciousness comes to them, willy-nilly.”
“But do you think they are better for having it quickened, stimulated? Isn’t it better that they should remain unconscious” […] (WL 39).

26While Birkin’s quick quickens his relation with Ursula, here, the use of the preposition “on” in “on the quick” suggests violent resistance, impenetrability and blunt impact. Hermione then borrows the noun used by the narrative voice and uses it as a verb—quite significantly in the passive form, thus evoking a final completion deprived of all sense of living process. But as she is trying to seduce Birkin she uses the very verb “quickened”—meanwhile challenging its value—and she ends up acting reversely as she triggers Birkin’s anger. And what she truly means by “quickened” remains unclear. Knowing her character, could one surmise that by “quickened” she means a quickening of the mind by the mind itself? Or is she merely mouthing the word? (for later Birkin actually blames her for “merely making words” (41)). This ambiguous use of “quickened,” somewhat challenged and unexpectedly uttered by Hermione, once more unsettles the reader’s apprehension of its fundamental meaning.

27Either positively or negatively connoted, the quick manifests itself as a chemical, or even an alchemical, process which takes place somewhere in the protagonists’ body and mind and varies in nature according to their personalities and interactions with the outside world. One may slightly perceive that the quick ensures the individual’s wholeness against his or her fragmentation. But the reader has no access to the secret making and workings of the quick. The only element almost paradoxically unveiled about the quick is that it is “within.” But the nature of the quick remains obscure, even to Lawrence himself who, in “The Novel,” imparts his own ignorance:

[…] if one tries to find out wherein the quickness of the quick lies, it is in a certain weird relationship between that which is quick and—I don’t know; perhaps all the rest of things. It seems to consist in an odd sort of fluid, changing, grotesque or beautiful relationship. (PII 420)

28He also talks about the “host of unknown meaning” related to the quick (PII 420). Lawrence here confesses his failure at grasping the quick. And the multiplicity of occurrences therefore sounds almost like a repetitive naming of a mysterious thing, like an incantation for the advent of the quick which, meanwhile, Lawrence almost paradoxically insists, must remain in the dark, separate. A passage in The Plumed Serpent resounds with this device:

Ramon […] had gnashed himself almost to pieces, before he had found the way to pass out in himself, in the quick of himself, to the Quick of all being and existence which he called the Morning Star, since men must give all things names. (PS 266)

29Besides elevating the quick from commonness to grandeur by capitalizing it, and giving it a new name through Ramon, isn’t Lawrence here, too, metatextually commenting on his own act of naming (which the word “must” subtly introduces as a constraint)? Lawrence himself is persistently giving a name to the weird thing which is the quick.

30And partly following the arbitrariness of the sign, partly relying on the ancient Biblical meaning of “quick,” Lawrence brings the “quick” from the immaterial to the materiality of language. The signifier is introduced almost as a material in Lawrence’s poetics. And if the “quick” is at no point described, nor represented, could we say, in Heideggerian terms, that its “thingness” is presented?

The “Thingness” of the quick

  • 6 As opposed to transcendental abstraction.

31For Heidegger, “the word ‘thing’ […] designates whatever is not simply nothing” (Heidegger 21). Lawrence’s “quick,” too, refers to whatever is not un-living. If the quick is the blurred inner substance of man, the word becomes the palpable substance of the Lawrentian text. Like Heidegger, for whom the “thingness” is related to the presencing of the thing,6 Lawrence uses the signifier to make us feel the reference in the text.

  • 7 For instance in The Rainbow (351), Ursula’s focalization of Winifred Inger; in Fantasia (61) and “T (...)
  • 8 While the suffixes sometimes appear to be added at random, the intention is fundamentally to add “t (...)

32Its “thingness” is felt in its polymorphic occurrences, in the additions of affixes which give substance to the word. Lawrence declines “quick,” in “quicker,” “quickly,” and “quicken,” “quickening,” “quickened,” or “quickness,” and “unquick”; he combines the affixes in “unquickened”,7 or he invents new compounds such as “mother-quick” and “father-quick.”8 Even the root “quick” shifts from noun to a quasi-mythical notion (“Quick”), and to adjective or adverb. These morphological and categorical instabilities thematise the flux to which the word “quick” refers.

33Oxymoronic juxtapositions of “quick,” with contradictory terms, lead furthermore to what are fruitful transgressing distortions of the expected semantic linearity. The association of “quick” and “death” stands out on a few occasions. In “Sunday Evening,” Ursula says to herself : “I shall die—I shall quickly die” (WL 192); and later, in “Threshold,” it is Gerald who ponders: “One should die quickly, like the Romans” (284). If the Bible does join “the quick and the dead,” they remain distinguished in nature. But Lawrence goes as far as to make the process of death “quick.” And its proximity with “death” partly reveals one of the Lawrentian meanings of “quick.” The unexpected juxtaposition thus partakes of a process of what Heidegger calls “deconcealing” (Heidegger 38). Likewise, in “Excurse,” Ursula wonders: “when would she so much go beyond herself as to accept him at the quick of death?” (304). With “quick,” Lawrence materializes what he apprehends as the positive energy lying at the heart of benevolent and reconstructive oblivion. And, to quote just another example taken from the first chapter of The Rainbow, when Brangwen’s wife asks him if he will love the child: “The quick concentration, like pain, went over him again” (R 46). The awkward predetermination of “concentration” (usually lengthy, and rarely spontaneous) by “quick,” makes the primal meaning of the adjective take precedence over the more common meaning, “fast.” In such cases of semantic distortion, Lawrence brings the “thingness” of the “quick,” its origin and its truth, to the surface of the text. Heidegger remarks that “language alone brings what is, as something that is, into the Open for the first time” (Heidegger 71). All along, the quick remains “within” man, and language alone brings it into the open (though never fully), either with the various types of distortions just quoted, or, as we will see eventually, through processes of saturation.

34Images of fullness are indeed not rare. As quoted above, “the moulding of [Birkin] is so quick” (WL 129) (where saturation is coupled with, and hence somewhat distorted by, the oxymoronic effect of a “moulding,” defined as “quick”); Paul’s “quick hands [are] so full of life” (SL 319): “full” here enhances the palpability of “quick.” And when Connie observes her reflection in the mirror she thinks how “her thighs […] used to look so quick and glimpsey in their female roundness” (LCL 70). In these examples, the quick appears as a matter which fills the body. Such fullness operates also at the textual level in redundant co-locations. In the short story “Tickets, Please,” Miss Annie “was a plump, quick, alive little creature” (ML 233): the list of adjectives and the coexistence of “quick” with “alive” mimic the woman’s “plumpness” as the words saturate language both structurally and semantically. In “Italians in Exile,” Twilight in Italy, a man is “quick, vivid and sharp” (TI 134): Lawrence insists in multiplying what sound like synonyms, as with the man at the jumble sale in Women in Love, who is “like a quick, live rat” (WL 360) and later “like a quick, vital rat” (361): at a first reading, “quick,” “vital” and “live” are understood in the same way. But not merely saturating language, these combinations might not be fundamentally redundant in Lawrence’s mind, for by proceeding thus he might well be endeavouring to bring into the open the uniqueness of the meaning of “quick”: if Lawrence brings together “quick” and “vital,” is he not imparting that “quick” does not exactly mean “vital,” nor “alive” nor “vivid,” that it is serves to qualify something else, which comes close to those adjectives, but cannot be expressed but by the signifier “quick”? Lawrence hence works asymptotically, bringing the reader close to what is known, but never completely touching the signified (just as when Mellors comes “nearer and nearer” to Connie’s quick without touching it). And this untouchability of the signified, once again, heightens the force of the signifier and intensifies its palpability.

35Saturation, lastly, also lies in the poetry of the word “quick.” Alliterations and assonances quicken the reading rhythm. Connie, for instance, is “quite quick-witted” (LCL 147) and “she quickly kissed the soft penis” (211), or when Birkin talks to Ursula, at the beginning of the novel, “her heart quickened at the flicker of his voice” (WL 36)—where “quicken” and “flicker” semantically contaminate one another by the assonance and alliteration. The quick hence acquires a tonal materiality in the succession of echoing sounds. A passage from The Plumed Serpent verifies this thickness or “thingness” of the word “quick”:

Kate noticed again how quick and subtle was his [Ramon’s] physical evasion of her, the soft, almost liquid, hot quickness of sliding out of contact with her. (PS 413; my emphasis)

36“Almost liquid” (that is in-between two states), “hot” and “soft,” Ramon’s “quickness” is made semantically palpable, and poetically present by the texture of the words, their succession, and the suffix “-ness” which gives flesh to the hence erotic “quick.” In addition, the alternating dentals, liquids, and sibilants, make language “soft” and “almost liquid,” and the “quickness,” as it is extracted from Ramon’s physical movement by “of,” is offered as a “thing” to touch to both Kate and the reader.


  • 9 “alive,” “live,” “living,” “vital”, etc.

37In his essay entitled “Life,” Lawrence asks: “But who can see the quick […] ?” (RDP 15). The answer is basically: no one, neither characters, nor narrators, nor the author. Only the reader is given a glimpse of it, in the “thingness” of its signifier. But though it is only really materially pregnant as a signifier, “quick” is never a merely self-referential textual element: it does not pivot upon itself. Its reference does exist, but is only asymptotically approachable. “Quick” is, therefore, not a signifier without signified, but one whose signified it remains impossible to unveil by way of certain other signifiers9 that only come close to what the quick is. Readers and characters can thus seem to “prick the quick,” but merely prick “near” it.

  • 10 Heidegger asserts “in the naming, the things named are called into their thinging” (Heidegger 197).

38Only in language then is the “thingness” of the quick palpable. It is called into being,10 but never is it dissected (and the very use of the mysterious notion of the “quick” actually also enables Lawrence not to dissect man’s being either). If “deconcealed” by the texture of the text, its nature is never explained. And one may wonder: by failing or by refusing to grasp the reference of the word “quick,” isn’t Lawrence subtly trying to reach beyond our cultural belief that all is mediated by a programmatic language? (“since men must give all things name”). He seems to be asserting that each signifier need not correspond to one (or a few) specific signified(s).

39But unlike elsewhere in his oeuvre, with “quick” Lawrence does not thematise the limitations of language. He rather seems to be suggesting the limitations of our knowledge about the self. For he actually stages the word’s malleability, and if its morphological, syntactic and poetic flexibility seems in no way limited, the mental dissection of its reference is. And yet, the physical feeling of its reference is rendered through and in the touchability of the sign: the gap between the sign and, not the reference itself but the experience of its reference, is hence somewhat reduced while, simultaneously, the reference is held at bay. There is, as a consequence, a sort of verbal shimmer around the meaning of “quick.” In the end, the reader does not fully grasp what the quick is. However the reader is brought to feel textually, through the “thingness” of the word, what it is to be positively or negatively quick.

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Works Cited

Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought [1971]. Trans. and Introd. by Albert Hofstader. New York: Perennial Classics, 2001.

Lawrence, D.H. Complete Poems [CP] Ed., with an Introduction by Vivian de Sola Pinto and Warren Roberts. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1993.

Lawrence, D.H. Etruscan Places [EP] in D.H. Lawrence and Italy. New York, London: Penguin Books, 1997.

Lawrence, D.H. Fantasia and the Unconscious [F]. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1975.

Lawrence, D.H. Lady Chatterley’s Lover [LCL]. New York, London: Penguin Books, 1994.

Lawrence, D.H. Phoenix II [PII]. New York: The Viking Press, 1968.

Lawrence, D.H. Selected Essays [SE]. Harmondsworth, Mddx: Penguin Books, 1966.

Lawrence, D.H. A Modern Lover and Other Stories [ML]. New York: Ballantine Books, 1969.

Lawrence, D.H. Sons and Lovers [SL]. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1982.

Lawrence, D.H. Reflection on the Death of a Porcupine [RDP]. Cambridge: CUP, 1988.

Lawrence, D.H. Studies in Classic American Literature [SCAL]. London: Penguin Books, 1971.

Lawrence, D.H. The Plumed Serpent [PS]. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1950.

Lawrence, D.H. The Rainbow [R]. New York, London: Penguin Books, 2000.

Lawrence, D.H. Twilight in Italy [TI]. in D.H. Lawrence and Italy. New York, London: Penguin Books, 1997.

Lawrence, D.H. Women in Love [WL]. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 2000.

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1 In “The Novel,” he describes his immediate surroundings: “And there is a sleeping cat, very quick” (PII 420).

2 This is actually the keeper’s daughter crying because of the death of a cat.

3 A passage in The Plumed Serpent likewise brings quickness and individual integrity together: “The men were the obvious figures. They assert themselves on the air […], always standing or sitting apart, rarely touching one another […]. Impassive, motionless, they would sit side by side on the benches of the plaza, not exchanging a word. Each one isolated in his own fate, eyes black and quick, as a snake’s, and as blank” (PS 162).

4 This analysis of the independent Lawrencian “quick” significantly echoes Lawrence’s own conception of the “self” which he explains in his essay “Whitman” in Studies in Classic American Literature. The self must not partake of the “great merge” (SCAL 178) but must be strictly and eternally individuated.

5 Some characters are “quick to flush”: R 105, WL 162, PS 424.

6 As opposed to transcendental abstraction.

7 For instance in The Rainbow (351), Ursula’s focalization of Winifred Inger; in Fantasia (61) and “The Novel” (PII 420).

8 While the suffixes sometimes appear to be added at random, the intention is fundamentally to add “thingness” to the word), as with “the incredible soft quickness” of a snake in The Plumed Serpent (PS 442), which could well have been “the quick softness.”

9 “alive,” “live,” “living,” “vital”, etc.

10 Heidegger asserts “in the naming, the things named are called into their thinging” (Heidegger 197).

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Elise Brault-Dreux, « The “Thingness” of the Quick »Études Lawrenciennes, 44 | 2013, 23-43.

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Elise Brault-Dreux, « The “Thingness” of the Quick »Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 44 | 2013, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2014, consulté le 19 juin 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Elise Brault-Dreux

Elise Brault-Dreux is a Lecturer at the Université of Valenciennes. Her research focusses on the poetry and prose of D.H. Lawrence and the poetry of T.S. Eliot and of Katherine Mansfield. She mainly explores the questions of voices, of the “I”, subjectivity and masks in the Modernist era.

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