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Lawrence’s Concept of Time: A Deleuzian Reading

Sanatan Bhowal

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1D. H. Lawrence’s destabilization of the Western concept of time and his celebration of its periodic disruption in his non-fictional writings reveal striking similarities with the Deleuzian concept of "untimely" time. For both Lawrence and Deleuze, time is the power of life to evolve, mutate and become — the power that frustrates all attempts at attaining any stability or fixity. Against the tendency in Western thought to suppress and reduce difference to some grounding identity, Deleuze and Guattari posit that “[…] it is being which is difference.” (1986: 48). Deleuze has argued that the Western concept of linear time is based on an error: such a concept erroneously derives time from its movements. In The Logic of Sense, Deleuze writes: “There are two times, one of which is always definite, active or passive; the other is eternally Infinitive and eternally neutral” (73). In fact, it is this “eternally Infinitive and eternally neutral” time that produces movements or temporalities and divergent becomings. Lawrence’s concept of time deeply resonates with that of Deleuze, as he calls into question this tendency within Western thought:

We start the wrong way round: thinking, by learning what we are not, to know what we as individuals are: whereas the whole of human consciousness contains not a tithe of what is, and therefore it is hopeless to proceed by a method of elimination, and thinking by discovering the motion life has made, to be able therefore to produce the motion it will make: whereas we know that, in life the new motion is not the resultant of the old, but something quite new, quite other, according to our perception. (“Study of Thomas Hardy,” Phoenix 434)

2Western thought has produced ordered wholes from the complex flow of time. Deleuze cites the "self" as one such example: instead of viewing it as an effect of time—what it actually is—the "self" is viewed as the ground of the flow of time. In the above quoted passage, Lawrence points out the faulty tendency in Western thought to look upon "human consciousness" as a powerful agent to overcome difference. Lawrence denounces such a tendency in his polemical prose: “This is evil, when that which is temporal and relative asserts itself eternal and absolute” (“The Crown,” Phoenix II 383). Throughout the entire corpus of Lawrence's non-fictional writings there are recurrent comments against fixity and absolutism, against the imposition of "form" over "flux."

3For both Lawrence and Deleuze, time is not linear but "Open." As such it defies any attempt to specify its movement. Deleuze says “If the whole [of time] is not givable it is because it is the Open, and because its nature is to change constantly, or to give rise to something new, in short, to endure” (1986: 9). Lawrence’s proposition in “Why the Novel Matters” is very close to this, it thus corroborates the Deleuzian perspective: “All things flow and change, and even change is not absolute. The whole is a strange assembly of apparently incongruous parts, slipping past one another” (Phoenix 536). Deleuze’s proposition that each branching out of difference creates the expansion of possibility, so the end of life is not given, is shared by Lawrence, for whom “Life, the ever-present, knows no finality, no finished crystallization.” (“Prefaces and Introductions to Books,” Phoenix 219)

4For Deleuze, time is "a virtual flow of divergent durations" (Colebrook 42) and one can be freed from the illusion of a homogeneous linear time only by thinking time as an intensive flow. In his view, a situation presupposes “a swarm of differences, a pluralism of free, wild and untamed differences” (Deleuze 1994: 61) and it is therefore wrong to begin with the presupposition of extensive time. In Deleuze’s schema, time is not "extensive"—that is, not the connection of separate units—but is "intensive," as it takes the form of different and divergent "durations": “ […] beneath species and parts, we find only these times, these rates of growth, these spaces of development, these decelerations and accelerations, these durations of gestation” (Deleuze 1994: 269). Lawrence of course has not theorized time as such, yet his awareness of time as intensive flow, taking the form of different and divergent durations, is simply fascinating. In “Nobody Loves Me,” for example, he says: “The whole tide of all life and all time suddenly heaves and appears before us as an apparition, a revelation. We look at the very white quick of nascent creation. A water lily heaves himself from the flood, looks around and is gone” (Phoenix 209).

5This passage brings out the profound correspondence between Lawrence and Deleuze’s concept of time as an intensive flow: "the whole tide of all life and all time" takes the form of the "duration" of a lily, a flower.

6The conception of time, in Lawrence as well as in Deleuze, is closely associated with their concept of life. They agree that "difference" is the essential condition of life and time. The process of creation starts for Deleuze when certain organisms are differentiated from chaos or the flows of difference which constitute life. This happens prior to any organized matter or system of relations. These organisms are not closed forms. They are rather to be regarded as "strata" which create a distinction between "inside" and "outside." The phenomenon of stratification is behind the origin of organisms on the body of the earth: strata produce “molecules large and small organizing them into molar aggregates” (D. and G. 1986: 45). All beings thus amount to what are just relatively stable moments in a flow of becoming life. Each organism opens out in two directions: towards chaos and towards its own limited forms. In his “Study of Thomas Hardy,” Lawrence emphasizes these two directions:

Facing both ways, like Janus, face forward in the quivering glimmering image of the unresolved, facing the unknown, and looking backward over the vast rolling tract which follows and represents the initial movement, man is given up to his dual business of being, in blindness and wonder and pure godliness, the living stuff of life itself, unresolved: and knowing with unwearying labour and unceasing success, the manner of that which has been, which is unrevealed. (Phoenix 430)

7This passage shows Lawrence’s close affinity with Deleuze: "the vast tract of life which follows and represents the initial movement" is in resonance with Deleuze’s concept of chaos, while Deleuze’s concept of "molar aggregates" is reflected in Lawrence’s sense of a "quivering, glimmering image of the unresolved." These are the two directions in which, for both Lawrence and Deleuze, each organism opens out.

8Lawrence’s emphasis on "difference" is again close to that of Deleuze:

It seems as though one of the conditions of life is, that life shall continuously and progressively differentiate itself, almost as though the differentiation were a purpose. Life starts crude and unspecified, a great Mass. And it proceeds to evolve out of that mass ever more distinct and definite particular forms, an ever multiplying number of separate species and orders. (“Study of Thomas Hardy,” Phoenix 431)

9This process of continuous and progressive differentiation is the cardinal condition of life as Deleuze views it. For him, life proceeds by way of the creative maximization of its potential: “Only the extreme forms return—those which, large or small, are deployed within the limit and extend to the limit of their power, transforming themselves and changing one into another” (Deleuze 1994: 51). For Lawrence, as for Deleuze, perpetual flux is a necessary condition for existence, for all life is a continuous process of becoming. Lawrence says, “The final aim of everything is the achievement of itself” (“Study of Thomas Hardy,” Phoenix 403). Again, in “Why the Novel Matters,” Lawrence attaches the utmost importance to life: “Nothing is important but life. And for myself, I can absolutely see life nowhere but in the living” (Phoenix, 534). The creative maximization of life is a dominant concern for Lawrence: “The excess is the thing itself at its maximum of being” (“Study of Thomas Hardy,” Phoenix 402).

10Life is governed by multiplicity and time by lines of flight, which are all suppressed by the "One-and-Allness" of Western metaphysics. Lawrence seeks to disrupt this by subjecting knowledge and the knowing subject to the unknown, "a well-head built over a strong, perennial spring" (“Study of Thomas Hardy,” Phoenix 422). The spring here is the spring of the vitality of life, Deleuze's "chaos" or virtual time: “[…] the chaos which contains all, the divergent series which lead out and back in, and the differentiator which relates them to one another. Each series explicates or develops itself, but in its difference from the other series which it implicates and which implicate it, which it envelops and which envelop it” (Deleuze 1994: 151). Both Lawrence and Deleuze propose a life in harmony with the chaotic flux from which organisms are formed through the relative reduction of difference. They are also in agreement regarding the condition of becoming or the maximizing of the potential of life: the imperative of being at-one with the "circumambient universe" in Lawrence’s case and with the "chaos" of life for Deleuze. In his “Art and Morality,” Lawrence insists on an all-pervading sense of multiplicity and flux in life:

Each thing, living or unliving, streams in its own odd, intertwining flux, and nothing, not even man nor the god of man, nor anything that man has thought or felt or known, is fixed or abiding. All moves. And nothing is true, or good or right, except in its own living relatedness to its own circumambient universe to the things that are in stream with it. (Phoenix 525)

11Deleuze’s version of flux is very close to that: “A flux is something intensive, instantaneous and mutant—between a creation and destruction.” (Deleuze 2007: 37)

12Against the dominant Western thought, which he names a "philosophy of communication," Deleuze espouses a Nietzschean conception of the world in terms of "pre-personal singularities’ (Deleuze, 1990: 102), that is, in terms of chaotic and free-roaming fluxes. For Deleuze, “The task of philosophy when it creates concepts, entities, is always to extract an event from things and beings, always to give them a new event: space, time, matter, thought, the possible as events” (D. and G. 1994: 167). Thus for Deleuze “a concept is a heterogenesis […] an ordering of its components by zones of neighbourhood” (What is Philosophy 21).

13Lawrence’s awareness of such free-roaming fluxes is not very far from the perspective espoused by Deleuze: “There must be the rapid momentous association of things which meet and pass on the forever incalculable journey of creation: everything is left in its own rapid, fluid relationship with the rest of things” (“Prefaces and Introductions to Books” Phoenix 220). Like Deleuze who insists on the idea of the destabilization and disruption of space, time, matter and thought, Lawrence posits that the pursuit of knowledge is to be pushed to its furthest limit in order to take a leap into the unknown. In The Symbolic Meaning, Lawrence says, “We shall at last learn the pure lesson of knowing not to know” (49). In the same book, he further says, “The goal is to know how not to know” (196). Lawrence’s apparently paradoxical dictum of knowing not to know, like Deleuze’s "heterogenesis," emphasizes the idea of becoming other (other than the stable ego) in response to the other (the unknown, the creative mystery of life). Lawrence’s creative thinking is reflected in the naming of his own philosophy as "pollyanalytics" (Fantasia 15), a term which can remind us of Deleuze’s "heterogenesis."

14In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari refer to "lines of flight," which produce not just a progression of history but disruptions, breaks, new beginnings and monstrous births (Deleuze 1994: 36). Lawrence is aware of the existence of such "lines of flight." In Apocalypse, he says, “Our idea of time as a continuity, as an eternal straight line has crippled our consciousness cruelly” (97). Like Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of history, that of Lawrence is marked by difference and becoming. In Movements in European History, Lawrence focuses on this aspect, albeit in a different idiom:

Inside the hearts, or souls, of men in Europe there has happened at times some strange surging, some welling-up of unknown powers. These powers that well up inside the hearts of men, these are the fountains and origins of human history. And the welling-up has no ascribable cause. It is the naked cause itself. (XXVII)

15The "strange surging" suggests a chaotic time, devoid of any ascribable cause. In The Symbolic Meaning, Lawrence evokes again a similar hypothesis: “We cannot see that great motions carry us and bring us to our place before we can even begin to know. We cannot see that great invisible winds carry us unwilling, as they carry the locust swarms, and direct us before our knowledge, as they direct the migratory birds”(20). This state of being borne on the wind of time’s new direction is the state of insouciance, which finds poetic expression in his poem “Song of the Man Who Has Come Through”:

Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!
A fine wind is blowing the new direction of time.
If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it carry me!
If only I am sensitive, subtle, oh, delicate, a winged gift!
Collected Poems Vol. I 250)

16For Deleuze, art and philosophy are "untimely’ by virtue of the power to create whole new lines of time or "lines of flight." In Dialogues II, Deleuze writes: “To leave, to escape, is to trace a line. The highest aim of literature, according to Lawrence, is 'to leave, to leave, to escape […] to cross the horizon, enter into another life’[….] The line of flight is a deterritorialization.” (27) Art creates "affects" and "percepts." Pure "affect" creates "deterritorialization." It is the affect of impersonal becoming as it is not grounded in any agent. Deleuze states:,

The affect is independent of all determinate space-time; but it is nonetheless created in a history which produces it as the expressed and expression of a space or a time or a milieu. (Deleuze 1986: 98-99)

17Affects open a line of time to disruption, thus introducing an untimely time.

18Lawrence’s use of "affect" qualifies his literature as "minor literature"—the literature that, in Deleuze’s view, disrupts and dislocates tradition and creates "lines of flight." In Dialogues II, Deleuze exalts Anglo-American literature over that of France in virtue of its creation of such lines of flight (27). Though Lawrence’s awareness of his production of "affect," in the Deleuzian sense, is uncertain, it is not difficult for us to recognize such an awareness in an oft-quoted letter, written on June 5 1914 to Edward Garnett, in which Lawrence offers an explanatory note for his novel The Rainbow:

You must not look in my novel for the old stable ego of the character. There is another ego, according to whose action the individual is unrecognizable, and passes through, as it were, allotropic states which it needs a deeper sense than any we have been used to exercise, to discover, are states of the same pure single element of carbon. The ordinary novel would trace the history of the diamond—but I say, ‘Diamond, what! This is carbon’. And my diamond may be coal or soot, and my theme is carbon. (quoted in Gamini Salgado’s A Preface to Lawrence: 114)

19The "unrecognisable individual characters," passing through "allotropic states," are "affects" which disrupt and dislocate our territorialized world, opening onto a "virtual" world and, in the process, facilitating our becoming other than what we are. The ordinary novel is "major" literature, in the Deleuzian sense, to the extent that it becomes expressive and not "creative" of identity. In the same letter Lawrence says, “Somehow that which is physic—the non-human, in humanity, is more interesting to me than the old fashioned human element.” (Salgado 114) The "non-human" here is the "impersonal," in terms of Deleuze’s concept of "affect" (Deleuze 1986: 98-99). In The Symbolic Meaning, Lawrence evokes his interest in the "inhuman forces": “We must wake and sharpen in ourselves the subtle faculty for perceiving the greater inhuman forces that control us.” (19) This further confirms the resonance between Lawrence’s concept of time and that of Deleuze.

20For Deleuze, the power of difference in literature is the power of life. The function of literature is to facilitate becoming: “To write has no other function: to be a flux which combines with other fluxes—all the minority becomings of the world” (Deleuze 2007: 37). In Lawrence’s view, the function of art is moral and his "morality" is “that delicate, forever trembling and changing balance between me and my circumambient universe which produces and accompanies a true relatedness” (“Morality and the Novel” Phoenix 528). In the same essay, he defines the novel as “a perfect medium for revealing to us the changing rainbow of our living relationships” (532), emphasizing "becoming" and "flux." Art opens the door to becoming. It achieves this opening by taking a flight from perceptions to "percept" and from affections to "affect," from which we have our rebirth or our access to new lines of flight. As Deleuze and Guattari formulate it, “By means of the material, the aim of art is to wrest the percept from perceptions of objects and that states of perceiving subject, to wrest the affect from affections as the transition from one state to another: to extract the block of sensations, a pure being of sensations” (D. and G. 1996: 167). In the letter quoted above, Lawrence shows a similar awareness.

21Deleuze’s concept of the "eternal return," which he derived from Nietzsche, posits that time is eternal only in its power to always produce novelty, over and over again—with no origin and no end: “[…] repetition is the power of difference and differentiation: because it condenses the singularities, or because it accelerates or decelerates time, or because it alters spaces” (Deleuze, 1994: 273). Lawrence’s concept of the "eternal return" is dominant in his non-fictional writings. His favourite symbol, that of the mythical bird, the phoenix, illustrates his concept of the "eternal return’ of difference and newness:

The phoenix grows up to maturity and fullness of wisdom, it attains to fatness and wealth—and all things desirable, only to burst into flame and expire in ash and the flame and the ash are the be-all and the end-all, and the fatness and wisdom and wealth are but the fuel spent. (“Study of Thomas Hardy” Phoenix 401)

22This bursting into flame and expiring in ash are the characteristics of life, as Lawrence and Deleuze both see it. It suggests the beginning of new lines of time. The idea of eternal return is suggested by the "leap" that, Lawrence insists, the individual must periodically take in order to facilitate his rebirth, like the mythical birth: “Life is a travelling to the edge of knowledge, then a leap taken” (“The Crown” Phoenix II 374). This insistence on becoming is evident in his conscious subordination of individuality to the "flux’ of life": “Our ready-made individuality, our identity, is no more than an accidental cohesion in the flux of time” (“The Crown” Phoenix II 384).

23Deleuze’s concept of minor literature serves as an instance of his concept of eternal return: in such literature the only thing that is repeated is difference. Lawrence’s dictum that “The business of art is to reveal the relation between man and his circumambient universe, at the living moment” (“Morality and the Novel,” Phoenix 527) has a deep resonance with Deleuze’s concept: the “circumambient” or living universe is in endless flux. It follows from this that art, in revealing the relation between man and his ever-changing surroundings, is always different and new. For Deleuze, art and philosophy are “untimely” because they have the power to create “whole new lines of flight” and, for Lawrence, “The novel is a perfect medium for revealing to us the changing rainbow of our living relationships.”

24Deleuze emphasizes the importance of the role of literature in facilitating becoming—becoming other by opening up new lines of time. Such "others" include becoming woman, becoming animal etc. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari argue that “becoming-woman” is a privileged status, because it disrupts the closed image of man. Lawrence similarly views woman as a source of the “unknown” that opens up new lines of time: “A Woman is a living fountain whose spray falls delicately around her [...]. A woman is a strange soft vibration in the air, going forth unknown and unconscious and seeking vibration of response” (“We Need One Another” Phoenix 191). Lawrence’s view that a woman is “the gate to the creator’s power” emphasizes her power to open up new lines of time.

25The resonance of Deleuze’s concept of "becoming-animal" in Lawrence is even more pronounced. In his encounter with an animal, especially the "anomalous" one, as insisted upon by Deleuze, man immerses himself in the flow of life’s perceptions and becomes at one with the differential flows of life. This creates lines of flight, new lines of time. When Lawrence says “We are tigers, we are lambs. Yet are we also neither tigers or lambs, nor immune sluggish sheep. We are beyond all this, this relative life of uneasy becoming” (“The Reality of Peace” Phoenix 690); he is suggesting a process that Deleuze will later on call "becoming animal." Lawrence’s "relative life of uneasy becoming" is postulated theoretically by Deleuze:

Becoming produces nothing other than itself […]. What is the real is the becoming itself, the block of becoming, not the supposedly fixed terms that which becomes passes. Becoming can and should be qualified as becoming animal even in the absence of a term that would be the animal become. The becoming-animal of the human being is real, even if the animal the human being becomes is not [….] This is the point to clarify; that a becoming lacks a subject distinct from itself; but also that it has no term, since its term in turn exists only as taken up in another becoming of which it is the subject and which co-exists, forms a block, with the first. (D. and G. 1986: 262-3)

26The adjective "relative," used by Lawrence in the passage quoted just before that of Deleuze, confirms the profound affinity between Lawrence’s idea of becoming-animal and that of Deleuze. For Lawrence, “[…] man cannot live in chaos. The animals can. To the animals all is chaos, only there are a few recurring motions and aspects within the surge.” (“Prefaces and Introductions to Books” Phoenix 255). "Chaos" here is life itself with its free-flowing fluxes and because of their inhabitation in it, the animals can generate becoming through encounters which put the human being in dynamic relation to the "circumambient universe." In Deleuze’s view, this "relatedness" of man with the living universe generates "contagion," a becoming. He writes: “All we are saying is that animals are packs, and the packs form, develop and are transformed by contagion” (D. and G. 1986: 267). For Lawrence too, animals represent a differential flow of life: “For the grand chaos is all alive and everlasting. From it we have our breadth of life […]. The animals live with it, as they live in grace.” (“Prefaces and Introductions to Books,” Phoenix 258)

27Becoming-animal does not mean being animal. Deleuze elaborates: “A becoming is not a correspondence between relations. But neither is it a resemblance, an imitation, or, at the limit, an identification” (D. and G. 1986: 262). Lawrence expresses the same idea in his short piece of writing entitled “Rex”: “He (Rex, the pet dog) should have stayed outside human limits, we should have stayed canine limits. Nothing is more fatal than the disaster of too much love” (Phoenix 21). Deleuze explains how becoming animal creates new lines of flight or deterritorialization:

A fiber stretches from a human to an animal, from a human or an animal to molecules, from molecules to the particles and so on to the imperceptible. Every fiber is a universe fiber. A fiber strung across borderlines constitutes a line of flight or of deterritorialization. (D. and G. 1986: 275)

28Such a detailed account of how "animal becoming" creates lines of flight is not of course to be found in Lawrence in any explicitly comparable explanatory form. An attempt to trace out its resonance in Lawrence’s writing ─ through the mode of fiction or through poetry, it goes without saying, would indeed be a fascinating "thought adventure" (“Books,” Phoenix 731).

29To conclude, the preponderance of untimely time in Deleuze’s concept of time reveals the French philosopher's affinities with Lawrence. Yet Lawrence’s unsystematic speculations on untimely time do not constitute any philosophical proposition, but pollyanalytics, as he says. His emphasis on time’s power to disrupt linear time by creating lines of flight provides an important clue to the nature of his thought: all his adventures in thought are aimed at the objective of learning how not to know. This is the point I have sought to foreground here. All his speculations on time serve only to attain a state of relatedness to "intensive" time. Beyond all thought or concept, Lawrence envisages a state of insouciance, a state of receptivity, an awakening of the non-mental centers of consciousness. In this state of carelessness, mental consciousness and all its activity are suspended, as the individual human being experiences a direct sensuous contact with its surroundings. His concept of time, in so far as there is one, belongs to the sphere of knowledge through which he knows only to learn how not to know.

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———. Phoenix II: Uncollected, Unpublished and Other Prose Works of D. H. Lawrence. Eds. Warren Roberts and H. T. Moore. London: Heinemann, 1968.

———. The Symbolic Meaning: The Uncollected Versions of Studies in Classic American Literature. First published in 1962 by the Centaur Press Ltd. of Fontwell, Arundel, and printed in Great Britain by T. J. Winterson, London.

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Salgado, Gamini. A Preface to Lawrence. London and New York: Longman, 1982. Third Impression 1986.

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Sanatan Bhowal, « Lawrence’s Concept of Time: A Deleuzian Reading »Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 48 | 2017, mis en ligne le 20 décembre 2017, consulté le 13 août 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Sanatan Bhowal

P. D. Women’s College, West Bengal, India

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