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Knowledge and salvation in Schopenhauer and D.H. Lawrence

Jacqueline Gouirand

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  • 1 Emile Bréhier, Histoire de la philosophie , vol.3. Ed.Grisebach (Paris:Presses Universitaires de Fr (...)
  • 2 Martin Seymour-Smith, Hardy (London : Bloomsbury, 1994), 330 ;

1“I am not the man of my time […] if this century does not understand me, many others will follow. Tempo è gallant nomo!” wrote Schopenhauer.1 He belonged to the tradition of those who were both philosophers and writers (Rousseau, Nietzsche). In fact it was the writers, more than philosophers, who were impressed by him and by the beauty of his language, since he managed to achieve his philosophical work as an artist. Thomas Mann read Schopenhauer “as one reads only once in a lifetime." Borges learnt German in order to be able to read him in the original text. From the middle of the 19th century and subsequently, writers were concerned with the status of the subject, in other terms, with the whole of man and not only with his reason, with the result that those writers who explored all aspects of man’s situation and his relation to the world by means of experiences different in their nature ─ metaphysical, poetical or mystical ─ were particularly impressed by Schopenhauer’s first version of The World as Will and Representation, his chief work published in 1819. Its English translation under the title The World as Will and Idea appeared between 1883 and 1886. But some of Schopenhauer’s essays began to be discussed in intellectual circles as early as 1851, though he only became famous a few years before his death in 1860. Thomas Hardy became familiar with the pessimism of these essays, as is suggested by the narrator’s comment on old Clare in Tess: “His creed of determinism was such that it amounted almost to a vice and quite amounted on its negative side to a renunciative philosophy which had cousinship with that of Schopenhauer and Léopardi.”2

2In Schopenhauer’s philosophy, reason, freedom and the soul disappear from the foreground of the human, to be replaced by the irrational, the body and force of necessity. Though unaware of it, he inaugurated the great night of disillusion into which the twentieth century was to be immersed, a century without God. At the same time he proposes an art of living which enables man to experience salvation, his reconciliation with the absolute.

  • 3 Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, translated by E.F. Payne (New York : Dov (...)

3Preceding Nietzsche and Freud, he paves the way for the psychology of the depths, with his assertion that the essence of man is not to be placed in consciousness but in the will, since the objective world has its origin in an unknowable reality, in an inexhaustible and eternal force: the will. Man’s essence, which cannot be altered or changed, precedes existence, but man is a prisoner of this will that inspires all his feelings motives and actions and is manifested in instinct or impulse, lying beyond or beneath temporal appearances in the phenomenal world. Breaking with idealism and speculative thought, Schopenhauer opposes two worlds, that of the will, an obscure realm where unity prevails (Lawrence’s unknown), and that of representation, where division prevails: “[…] the will as thing in itself lies outside the province of the principle of sufficient reason in all its forms and is consequently completely groundless […] Further it is free from all plurality.”3

4I shall go into more details when discussing knowledge, sin and salvation in Schopenhauer and Lawrence. There is however an important point which must be stressed from the start:

  • 4 Philippe Perrot, Schopenhauer (Paris: Quintette : 1977), 42.

Schopenhauer’s philosophy oscillates between two poles: it depicts the implications and consequences of the expression of that metaphysical reality, the will and it develops the conditions of the negation of that will, therefore of a possible redemption.4

  • 5 Emile Delavenay, D.H. Lawrence et la Genèse de son œuvre (Paris : Klincksieck, 1969), 694.
  • 6 Arthur Schopenhauer, “La métaphysique de l'amour" dans "Le monde comme volonté et représentation" ( (...)

5Lawrence was 20 years old when he read fragments of Schopenhauer’s essays, particularly “The metaphysics of love” and “On Women," writing marginal notes on the book that Jessie Chambers borrowed from the local library. She declared that, at the time, “Lawrence was profoundly influenced by Schopenhauer, an influence obvious in The White Peacock,5 in which lovers are victims of the Life Force and it is the suffering of their young souls which prevails. It is a novel revealing female domination, how men can be destroyed or at least defeated by the Magna Mater, taking us back to Schopenhauer ’s declaration that “the genius of the species is everywhere at war with the protective geniuses of the individuals.”6

6The Schopenhauerian idea that feeling or desire is prior to reason was one which proved quite convincing to Lawrence, whose reading of William James, Herbert Spencer and Nietzsche consolidated his sense that one must consult instinct or intuition in order to find the reality, but certainly not the mind.

  • 7 D.H. Lawrence, Letters vol.1 (CUP, 1979), 99.

Somehow I think we come into knowledge (unconscious) of the most vital part of the cosmos, through touching things (…) The world says you feel the press of these impulses, you recognize them in the knowledge-science but I, joining hands with the artists, declare that also and supremely, the sympathy with and submission to the great impulses comes through feeling indescribable and, I think, unknowable.7

7While Lawrence was a voracious reader, he was lacking in any homogeneous or coherent philosophical culture. His discoveries in this field often came as shocks for his own thinking, helping him define it. His thought was fed on factual experience. After all, great novels reveal more about man than philosophical treatises. Yet, convergences of fundamental intuitions which he shares with Schopenhauer can be detected in his fiction and essays, from the moment he builds up his work, creating a universe in which two worlds are opposed, the world of darkness, subterranean, invisible, which is the world of the will, and the other, visible, external world, which exists for knowledge and which represents the discontinuity of appearances.


8The notion is one which proves difficult to cope with, insofar as it is a motley label, including the intellectual perception of fact or truth, the fact of being instructed, learning information, erudition etc… If we turn to Lawrence

  • 8 D.H. Lawrence, Fantasia of the Unconscious (London : Heinemann, 1923), 72.

Knowledge is not even in direct proportion to being [… Yet we MUST know if only in order to learn not to know. The supreme lesson of human consciousness is to learn NOT TO KNOW.8

9Schopenhauer does not lend us any more help in this respect, insofar as his master word is in French, the word “entendement” whose English equivalent is understanding, a function of the mind consisting in linking sensations into coherent systems, an option opposed to reasoning in Kant’s philosophy. Schopenhauer stresses that the world we perceive cannot be discovered by means of our intellect but by way of our sensibility and apprehension. Lawrence comes very close to him when he declares in Apocalypse

  • 9 D.H.Lawrence, Apocalypse and the Writings of Revelation (CUP, 1980), 91.

We have lost almost entirely the great and intrinsically developed sensual awareness or sense –awareness or sense- knowledge of the ancients. It was a great depth of knowledge, arrived at direct, by instinct and by intuition as we say, not by reason. 9

10The key to the riddle of the world is in man, “a metaphysical animal” who depends on his inner experience in order to know himself as an individual who has tendencies, needs, aspirations in the broad sense of the term, a will that is closely linked with the body. His apprehension of reality is immediate and is based on intuition, for the will is independent of consciousness, independent of the intellect, of space and time. And it does not strive to explain the world.

11Schopenhauer was always obsessed by the idea of causality: scientific explanations are, he deemed, lost in the sands insofar as the primal cause is never to be found.

  • 10 D.H. Lawrence, Twilight in Italy (Cape Traveler’s Company, 1926), 11-12.

12We find an echo of this in D.H. Lawrence when he declares: “Everything is of the blood, of the senses. There is no mind […] There is no flux, nor hope, nor becoming, all IS, once and for all.”10

13For Schopenhauer, perception must be understood as vision. Lawrence restores a pagan vision in his fiction, a time when men were close to the forces of the earth, when continuity between man’s consciousness and animal consciousness existed. Primitive life remains in him as a nostalgic dream, the return to primordial reality being an attempt to escape from the chaos which characterizes the modern world. The primitive does not know the divorce between a debased reality and a world of values exiled in the mind. A subterranean realm where unity prevails shows through the visible world that is the world of appearances. A striking example is to be found in The Ladybird in the character Count Dyonis, described as being “ages old in his race,” whose “ fine black hair grew uncut over his small animal ears”). The Count affirms

  • 11 D.H.Lawrence, The Fox, The Captain’s Doll, The Ladybird (CUP, 1992), 180.

And the true fire is invisible […] The sun is dark, the sunshine flowing to us is dark. And the light is only the inside out of it all, the lining […] The true living world of fire is dark […]. Our luminous world that we go by is only the white lining of this. 11

14Daphne is totally transfigured by the call she feels when she hears Count Dyonis singing to himself at night: “To be gone from this herself, from this Daphne, […] To be gone from the call from the beyond: the call. It was the Count calling. He was calling her (213).

15The mysterious echo from the underworld, from the darkness, is what enables the complex conversion of the self through the voice of the King of Hades. In the fiery sunset of August, March had heard the call coming from the darkness. The encounter with the fox accounts for more than actual revelation (“She was possessed by him” (111). The revelation of instinctive life has aroused her emotional response and re-established the true link with the vital world, with the all-pervading flow of life behind the world of appearances. In another fiction, the revelation of the vital world is a real epiphany for the man who had died, when he observed the cock and his favourite hen copulating.

  • 12 D.H. Lawrence, The Man Who Died, in The Short Novels, vol II, (London: Heinemann, 1956), 11.

And the man who had died watched the unsteady, rocking vibration of the bent bird and it was not the bird he saw, but one wave-tip of life overlapping for a minute another, in the tide of the swaying ocean of life.”12

  • 13 D.H. Lawrence, Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious, (London : Heinemann, 1923), 208.

16The man perceives the deep obscure life underlying the world, he perceives the unique desire which constitutes its essence. This is translated into the swelling of the world, into those beings that are only the terminal crest of the wave that carries them. In fact what the man apprehends is “the spontaneous life-motive in every organism.”13

17So the world of man, which is both luminous and dark, has two levels and is endowed with a metaphysical meaning. To the unity of darkness is opposed the illusory light of the world of representation, the diurnal world where the individual’s isolation is total and where the importance of the ego is manifested and is paramount.

  • 14 D.H. Lawrence, Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays (CUP, 1988), 272.

18Individualism is but an illusion when it is apprehended from the perspective of the will, of which it is an unconscious cell. That is the Schopenhauerian understanding of what is real and of what is illusory. Lawrence comes quite close to them when he declares:“Our readymade individuality, our identity is no more than an accidental cohesion in the flux of time.”14

19And at the end of his life, in a celebrated passage of Apocalypse, his conviction in this regard remains stronger than ever:

  • 15 Apocalypse, ibid, 149. See note 9.

There is nothing of me that is alone and absolute except my mind, and we shall find that the world has no existence by itself, it is only the glitter of the sun on the surface of the waters.
So that my individualism is really an illusion. I am part of the great whole.

  • 16 Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and other Essays, ibid, 283.

20It is in the world of the mind, within the negative world of illusion, that Lawrence pursues evil: “And it is this utter evil, this secret, this silent worship of the null envelope that preserves us intact for our gratification with the flux of corruption”16.

21The followers of the world of the mind pay too much attention to appearances, qualified as “the white sepulcher.” Basil in The Ladybird, whose scar on the face seems to reach his inner self and his brain, Clifford Chatterley’s dislocated body, both symbolize a white world that is deprived of fire. They stick to the intellect and have lost contact with the organic flux. This to Lawrence is a sin.

22Many characters in his fiction bear witness to his disgust for any purely cerebral power. Hermione, riveted to her ego to such an extent that she attempts to murder Birkin, is a striking example. Knowledge alienates individuals: “ to know is to lose […] to know is to die” (4).


23As we have shown above, Schopenhauer’s philosophy develops the condition of the negation of the will, therefore of a possible redemption

  • 17 The World as Will and Representation, vol.1, 404. See note 3.

that self-suppression of the will comes from knowledge but all knowledge and insight as such are independent of free choice, that denial of willing, that entrance into freedom is not to be forcibly arrived at by intention or design but comes from the innermost relation of knowing and willing in man: hence it comes suddenly as if flying in from without […] The church calls it the effect of grace…”17

24Freedom is therefore the consequence of a conversion, the process of which does not depend on the individuals. All conversion implies a radical change in the individual’s being, for the spiritual itinerary rests on a progressive wrenching from one’s individuality, which is the source of all suffering. The suffering generated by the absurd will to live groundless and endless is the root of evil, the only reality. Schopenhauer proposes three recipes for a possible salvation:

– esthetic contemplation: through contemplation, art frees man from the sufferings attributed to action.

– an ethics of compassion: to practice the morality of pity which leads to the negation of the will to live would be a means of redemption, and thus the end of suffering. But that is in the hands of God.

– the metaphysical stage: asceticism assuring the access to Nirvana., the sovereign remedy, insofar as it achieves the abdication of the will to live.

25D.H. Lawrence senses the redemptive dimension of knowledge and, as Schopenhauer does, he directs man’s move towards the ways of salvation, since a conversion proves absolutely vital. They do however follow different paths, Lawrence proposing to man salvation in a world where sin is not established. In his vision, salvation is only achieved on the plane of sexual love. Though Schopenhauer claimed

  • 18 David Cartwright, Schopenhauer: a Biography (CUP : 2010) 30.

One ought rather to be surprised that a thing (sex) which plays throughout so important a part in human life has hitherto practically been disregarded by philosophers altogether, and lies therefore before us as raw and untreated material. 18

26and while he added that the ultimate aim of all love affairs is more important than all the other aims in man’s life, he did not find in them the sovereign remedy. His diatribes against women, whose so-called beauty is the hook presented to men by the genius of the species, are famous. Ultimately his preference was for Buddhism and Brahmanism, which proved a vindication or illustration of his philosophy.

27The keystone of Lawrence’s work is the relation between men and women, which often implies a merciless struggle. His gaze is always fixed on the primordial couple confirming that man and woman have their place in the universe, and have a role to play. It is in the capacity and willingness to follow the commanding instincts ─ the instinct of life, the sexual instinct─ and to recapture the mythic consciousness which grants man his reintegration into the universe, enabling him to merge with the original force and to recover vital energy, to acquire sense-knowledge, that Lawrence’s promise of salvation, the royal path, is to be found.

  • 19 Letters II ( CUP 1981) 468.

This which we are must cease to be that we may come to pass in another being… I tell this to you, I tell it to myself – to let go, to release from my will everything that my will would hold, to lapse back into darkness and unknowing. 19

  • 20 Ibid, 149 (To E. Collings).

28Such a sense-knowledge, envisaged in terms of communion, is dynamic, religious and poetic. It is the flesh that we should regard as sacred: “My great religion is the belief in the blood, the flesh as being wiser than the intellect.”20

29Desire is a supreme value, since it is the revelation of the truth of being, a truth that is constantly open to discovery. Once the conflicting forces in man cease to confront each other, so that the limits of his ego can thus be broken, “the floods of ineffable darkness and ineffable riches” are released, to be made ready to invade him, with the result that he then flowers into a new being, into a creature.

30Only a new birth grants salvation. This is what Kate learns after following Cipriano in the night, after the dispossession of her self has been achieved, in what is a terrible trial for these characters. Lady Daphne and Count Dyonis have come within an ace of death, Birkin and Ursula have overcome destructive experiences before the interstellar polarity is achieved for both of them.

  • 21 D.H.Lawrence, Women in Love (CUP, 1997), 388.

They seemed to fall away into the profound darkness into which with a soft sleeping motion they seemed to fall like one closed seed of life falling through dark fathomless space.21

  • 22 D.H.Lawrence, Fantasia and the Unconscious, (London: Heinemann, 1929), 110.

31But there are two levels of sexuality, just as there are two forms of knowledge. The sexuality of sin implies the assertion of the self, the hardening of the will and the ego, the capture of the other, or, if needs be, the paralysis of deadly adoration. In any case, it is always a condition that is destructive, as we see with Hermione and Birkin, or Gudrun and Gerald. Whereas “sex should come upon us a terrible thing of suffering and privilege and mystery: a mysterious metamorphosis come upon us, and a terrible power given us and a new responsibility.”22

32The fulfillment of desire is transcended in this sexuality of communion, where there is an opening to the fusion of the spirit, the soul and the body. The being, having come to its complete flowering, is purified in this act which borders on mystical experience. Kate and Cypriano herald a mode of redemptive sexuality, the most accomplished instance of which will be the union of Constance Chatterley and her gamekeeper. The infinite quest for rebirth through the experience of love and sex is thus consummated.

33Both Schopenhauer and Lawrence are persuaded that only the intuitive knowledge of the world can generate a conversion which supposes a radical change of the individual’s being. This requires the prior admission of the failure of the individual being. They help us to discover the abysses of instinctive and emotional life. However by focusing on the restoration in man of the integrity of the primitive, by placing the emphasis on the regeneration of the “inner man,” Lawrence’s message of salvation remains valid, whereas that of Schopenhauer has no sense for us. The state of Nirvana is nothing but a kind of a drowning. There is no after in Schopenhauer’s vision, whereas there is one for Lawrence, who simply asks man to start with the sun and to live, thus taking up what is one’s his essential duty or fate.

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1 Emile Bréhier, Histoire de la philosophie , vol.3. Ed.Grisebach (Paris:Presses Universitaires de France, 1940), 284

2 Martin Seymour-Smith, Hardy (London : Bloomsbury, 1994), 330 ;

3 Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, translated by E.F. Payne (New York : Dover publications , 1969), 113.

4 Philippe Perrot, Schopenhauer (Paris: Quintette : 1977), 42.

5 Emile Delavenay, D.H. Lawrence et la Genèse de son œuvre (Paris : Klincksieck, 1969), 694.

6 Arthur Schopenhauer, “La métaphysique de l'amour" dans "Le monde comme volonté et représentation" (Paris, La Pléiade), 1315.

7 D.H. Lawrence, Letters vol.1 (CUP, 1979), 99.

8 D.H. Lawrence, Fantasia of the Unconscious (London : Heinemann, 1923), 72.

9 D.H.Lawrence, Apocalypse and the Writings of Revelation (CUP, 1980), 91.

10 D.H. Lawrence, Twilight in Italy (Cape Traveler’s Company, 1926), 11-12.

11 D.H.Lawrence, The Fox, The Captain’s Doll, The Ladybird (CUP, 1992), 180.

12 D.H. Lawrence, The Man Who Died, in The Short Novels, vol II, (London: Heinemann, 1956), 11.

13 D.H. Lawrence, Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious, (London : Heinemann, 1923), 208.

14 D.H. Lawrence, Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays (CUP, 1988), 272.

15 Apocalypse, ibid, 149. See note 9.

16 Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and other Essays, ibid, 283.

17 The World as Will and Representation, vol.1, 404. See note 3.

18 David Cartwright, Schopenhauer: a Biography (CUP : 2010) 30.

19 Letters II ( CUP 1981) 468.

20 Ibid, 149 (To E. Collings).

21 D.H.Lawrence, Women in Love (CUP, 1997), 388.

22 D.H.Lawrence, Fantasia and the Unconscious, (London: Heinemann, 1929), 110.

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Jacqueline Gouirand, « Knowledge and salvation in Schopenhauer and D.H. Lawrence »Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 47 | 2016, mis en ligne le 07 décembre 2016, consulté le 27 novembre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Jacqueline Gouirand

Université Lyon 2

Jacqueline Gouirand is the author of a French biography of Frieda Lawrence (Frieda von Richthofen, muse de D.H.Lawrence, Paris: Autrement, 1998). She is the author of “ A Checklist of D.H. Lawrence Translations, Criticism and Scholarship published in France,” D.H.Lawrence Review, 1988 and 2000. She has published many articles in Etudes lawrenciennes and is co-author (with Pierre Vitoux and Ginette Katz-Roy) of Lady Chatterley,Collection Figures Mythiques (Paris : Autrement, 1998

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