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Lawrence and Feminism

Sanatan Bhowal

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1A Lawrencian emphasis on the man-woman relationship and his “priest of love” image, built on the primacy of this relationship as argued by Mark Spilka (1955), caused Lawrence to come under the critical scrutiny of second-wave feminists in the late sixties and the early seventies of the last century. With the onset of the third-wave feminism, Lawrence’s assumptions were put to fresh scrutiny in terms of the now foregrounded issues of sexual difference, gender, the body, “écriture féminine” and sexuality. Our intention here is to examine briefly the political reading of Lawrence formulated by second-wave feminists, before proceeding to an assessment of the implications of Lawrence’s key ideas for the major concerns of a third-wave feminism. Since a comprehensive study of all aspects of feminism is beyond the scope of a single paper, the issue of gender is deliberately excluded. Our main focus, following our review of the Lawrence-Beauvoir-Millett interaction, is on the leading issues of third-wave feminism: sexual difference, sexuality, “écriture féminine,” performativity, the body.

2“Some of the most developed and influential political critiques of Lawrence are the product of feminist literary criticism,” says Fiona Beckett (143). Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics is the most influential of the “political critiques of Lawrence” that Fiona Becket has in mind. Millett’s blanket condemnation of Lawrence partly derives its sting from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Beauvoir had pointed out the tendency in Lawrence, along with other writers, to afford woman an acknowledgement predicated on their being defined as the “Other”—a categorization unacceptable to Beauvoir, but which was to provide a firm ground to the third-wave French feminists like Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous. “Lawrence,” says Beauvoir, “believes passionately in the supremacy of the male” (1972, 248). Millett’s attack on Lawrence was to be more stringent, as she goes further in the exposure of his phallocentric and misogynistic tendencies. In her highly influential book, she calls Lawrence “the most talented and fervid of sexual politicians” and comments that Lawrence “is the most subtle as well, for it is through a feminine consciousness that his masculine message is conveyed” (Millett 71). The question of gender implicit in the comment quoted here has escaped the critical gaze of Millett herself. Millett is aware of the “feminine consciousness” in Lawrence. However instead of trying sincerely to understand the question of gender contained in it, she views it as the subtle tool of a sexual politician. A possible correspondence between this “feminine consciousness” and “écriture féminine” of the French feminists will be explored later on in this paper.

3In Millett’s attack, the focus is on those aspects of his thought that serve her intention of exposing the oppressive operations of patriarchy in Lawrence. Her approach is typically that of a second wave feminist: she excludes the question of gender, along with radical indeterminacy and provisionality characteristic of the Lawrencian project. She is not however totally unaware of them. Millett’s offhand comment is: “One is always struck by the sexual ambiguity in Lawrence” (Millett 82). But this issue of “ambiguity” is sidetracked in the interest of her attainment of a predetermined objective. So preoccupied is Millett with sexual politics that she goes so far as to evade or ignore Lawrence’s attack on egocentrism. In the same book, she argues:

Critics are often misled to fancy that he recommends both sexes cease to be hard struggling little wills and egoists. Such is not the case. Mellors and other Lawrencian heroes incessantly exert their wills over women and the lesser men in their mission to rule (Millett 76).

4Her accusatory argument draws on her identification of Lawrence with Mellors and other heroes. However Lawrence could equally be identified with heroines such as Connie, Alvina, Ursula and others. While Lawrence’s critical corpus does indeed convey intimations of “sexual ambiguity,” there is never any ambiguity regarding the denunciation of the ego-ideal. Throughout his non-fiction, Lawrence’s denunciation of the ideal ego is unequivocal. In “Democracy,” he states: “Nothing in the world is more pernicious than the ego or spurious self, the conscious entity with which every individual is saddled” (Phoenix 710).

5Lawrence’s non-fiction focuses on his quarrel with the Cartesian ego. The firm stance taken by Lawrence as the critic of culture in respect of the “ego” and the projection of an anti-feminist ego through Mellors the gamekeeper in Lady Chatterley’s Lover are antithetical. However Millett sidetracks the issue of this incompatibility. Otherwise, she would have found evidence in Lawrence of a radical uncertainty and provisionality regarding any putative male superiority over the female in man-woman relationship. As regards the question of the identification of Lawrence with Mellors, Millett’s mistake is pointed out by Alison Light, who argues that “novels, as constructs of the imagination, might be attempts at ‘ungendering’ and however unsuccessful at dispersing or even transgressing the gendered experience of an author and its unusual restraints” (Light 176).

6Alison Light is one of the many feminists who have defended Lawrence against his blanket condemnation by Kate Millett. Among the others who have defended him, we may mention Sheila Macleod, Carol Dix, Hilary Simpson, Lydia Blanchard—all of whom share a pro-Lawrence stance in opposition to that of Millett. Sheila Macleod, in her Lawrence’s Men and Women (1985) makes a plea for a balanced view of Lawrence’s treatment of the man-woman relationship. Carol Dix argues that Lawrence offers as many positive views of woman as negative ones (Becket 147). Hilary Simpson, in her D.H. Lawrence and Feminism sought to place Lawrence’s changing attitudes to women within the perspective of the contemporary women’s movement. Simpson historicizes Lawrence. She not only shows the limitations of Millett’s approach, she also opens up areas through which to develop a fuller comprehension of Lawrence’s conflicting concerns regarding the man-woman relationship. She gives an account of Lawrence’s shift “from a liberal, pro-feminist position before the first world war to the rabid post-war vision of women as a destructively dominant sex, and of programmes for masculinist revolution” (Simpson 90). Although the trajectory of Lawrence’s attitude to women culminates, in Simpson’s account, in “programmes for masculinist revolution,” we cannot identify her stance with that of Millett because the latter lacks the detached standpoint of a historian. What makes her study useful is that it points to the provisional character of Lawrence’s disillusionments with women after the war. Her book reveals her penetrating insight into the Lawrencian concern: “He (Lawrence) must have felt that women in whom he had much of his hope for the future had merely become more like men” (Simpson 94). The provisionality which is (perhaps inadvertently) suggested here lies in the fact that Lawrence sincerely believes that men are incapable of any becoming, because of their categorical adoption of Judeo-Christian culture, with the result that the only hope of reconstruction lies with women. The fixity of male culture can only be disrupted by the female. This concern is corroborated by the “abstract” male and female principles in operation in the exploratory prose of Lawrence. Lawrence’s view of the female as the “unknown” is the source of the provisionality of his stance. The principle of the female as the source of creativity renders all the supposed “fixity” of the male provisional, indeterminate and inconclusive.

7The mixed response of second wave feminism to Lawrence’s view of women points to the underlying uncertainty and provisionality of his perspective. This pervasive ambiguity is pointed to by third wave feminism: Fiona Becket calls it Lawrence’s “idiosyncratic approach to the relations between men and women” (Becket 144). The issue of sexual ambiguity, together with the other central questions with which third wave feminism is engaged such as radical alterity, sexual difference, “écriture féminine” and ”female sexuality,” are also major concerns for Lawrence.

  • 1 In “Books” Lawrence says, “Man is a thought adventurer. Man is a great venture in consciousness” (P (...)

8While Lawrence did not live to interact directly with third wave feminism, in his ideas about the man-woman relationship, in his radical evaluation of sexual values, he shares many of the major concerns of this moment in feminist criticism. Lawrence’s “thought adventure”1 in this regard has affinities with that of French feminists such as Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous and Julia Kristeva, whom Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan qualify as “essentialists” (Rivkin 528). Contemporary feminism has indeed come a long way from its slogan “the personal is the political” and from an explicitly political agenda for the emancipation of woman. Feminism has since then diversified its interest to the point where it has now become a “chameleon-like organization,” as Imelda Whelehan calls it (Brooker 100): it now concerns itself with questions of women’s role in consumer societies, its political debt to the Enlightenment project, with the tensions between the contradictory agendas of white middle class Western women on the one hand and those of the third world women of colour on the other. The theoretical and practical field is further complicated by the new agendas which have emerged within Lesbian studies and Queer Theory. Lawrence’s writings manifest little in the way of an affinity to the disputes between white intellectual feminists and third world feminists. However his awareness of the ambivalence of sexual identities, as revealed and represented in his fiction, notably in “The Fox,” aligns him, albeit remotely, with the proponents of Queer Theory.

9The most important correspondence between Lawrence as critic of culture and the third wave feminism is in their attitude to sexual difference. French feminist theory, in the work of Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva, emphasizes sexual difference. Difference is defined differently by each of these three feminists. Cixous locates sexual difference in sexual pleasure and speaks for the liberation of sexuality. She emphasizes the need for a transformation of our relationship to our body, in an idiom which has a distinctly Lawrencian resonance. In Lawrence’s scheme of things “the body is not an instrument, but a living organism” (“Education of the People,” Phoenix 618). Cixous seems to associate femininity with the body, seeking to liberate it from its marginalized status in patriarchal ideology. For Cixous, the differential conception of man and woman is definable in feministic terms, insofar as the conception itself is derived from a phallocentric conceptualization:

We can no more talk about “woman” than about “man” without getting caught up in an ideological theatre where the multiplication of representations, images, reflections, myths, identifications constantly transforms, deforms, alters each person’s imaginary order in advance, renders all conceptualizations null and void (Cixous 268).

10For Cixous, the difference between man and woman lies in sexual pleasure. Like Deleuze, she almost dissolves sexual difference into an inhuman flux: “Men or women, complex, mobile, open beings” (Cixous 269), almost echoing Lawrence who says, “Man or woman, each is a flow, a flowing of life” (“We Need One Another,” Phoenix 192). In regard to sexual difference, Cixous says that “it is at the level of sexual pleasure in my opinion that the difference makes itself most clearly apparent in as far as woman’s libidinal economy is neither identifiable by a man nor referable to masculine economy” (Cixous 268). Lawrence expresses his awareness of “woman’s libidinal economy” as identifiable by a man, by way of adjectives expressing indefiniteness like “deep” and “exquisite” : “A woman reaches her fulfillment through love, deep sensual love, and exquisite sensitive communion” (Fantasia 124). Again in Fantasia of the Unconscious, Lawrence says, “In love it is the woman naturally who loves, the man who is loved. In love, woman is positive, man is negative” (98). Hélène Cixous regards woman’s libidinal economy as differing from the masculine economy. This difference is the source of all creativity: “The difference would be a crowning display of new differences” (Cixous 269). Her quarrel is not with man but with the phallocentric Western metaphysics that identifies woman with the body and dismisses her. She emphasizes the “feminization” of experience, an emphasis which, as Simpson observes, is the ultimate foundation of Lawrence’s thought: “He (Lawrence) had urged for the feminization of experience, the necessity for men to take women, and the feminine side of their own natures, seriously” (Simpson 94). Cixous’ version of the Lawrencian concept of the “feminization of experience” runs thus: “there is no invention possible whether it be philosophical or poetic, without the presence in the inventing subject of an abundance of the other, of the diverse: persons detached, persons thought, peoples born of the unconscious" (Cixous 269, my emphasis).

11I have emphasised the last part of the last sentence quoted in order to highlight the affinities between Lawrence and Cixous. Lawrence has always spoken of the consignment of knowledge to the unknown—the “unknown” is the site whereto a woman is capable of leading man. In The Symbolic Meaning, Lawrence writes, “The goal is to know how not to know” (196) and in Fantasia of the Unconscious he postulates, “The supreme lesson of human consciousness is to learn how not to know” (76.) In Lawrence’s schema as in that of Cixous, a balance between the male and the female is necessary for creation to be possible. In the draft of Le Gai Savaire, Lawrence writes, “We start from one side or the other, from the female side or the male, but what we want is always a perfect union of the two” (quoted in Brown 90). In his “Study of Thomas Hardy,” Lawrence also speaks for a balance between the male and female principles.

12Lawrence shares with Cixous the emphasis on a creativity to be achieved through the incorporation of the other, as represented by woman, while not however destroying difference. Lawrence the critic of culture is disillusioned with Western metaphysics. He seeks to oppose it by opening up other horizons of thought than those of the Judeo-Christian culture. Cixous also associates such a culture with the phallogocentric drive from which she seeks liberation by championing the body—“the immense material organic sensual universe that we are” (Cixous 269).

13Luce Irigaray’s emphasis on difference, as against identity, also resonates with the thrust of Lawrence’s approach. She writes, “Woman exploitation is based upon sexual difference; its solution would come only through difference” (1993, 12, 13). Like Lawrence, she has endorsed the hypothesis of a human nature, conditional upon the schema of difference. In her book Je, Tu, Nous (1993), she celebrates a pre-existent, “natural” virtue : “(woman’s) choices tend more toward maintaining peace, a clean environment, goods we really need in life, humanitarian options” (1993: 12). Lawrence likewise sees man and woman as belonging to two different principles, forming an eternal duality that is pre-personal. This duality is sometimes metaphorical: “The love between man and woman is the perfect heart-beat of life, systole, diastole” (“Love,” Phoenix 153). In the same essay, Lawrence argues for a polar differentiation as the goal of the man-woman relationship: “I am in the beloved also, and she is in me. Which should not be, for this is confusion and chaos. Therefore I will gather myself complete and free from the beloved, she shall single herself out in utter contradistinction to me” (Phoenix 153). Likewise, Irigaray says, “One sex is not entirely consumable by the other. There is always a remainder” (Irgaray 2005, 14) Lawrence’s denunciation of equality or sameness anticipates Irigaray’s approach: “Now-a-days, alas, we start off self-conscious, with sex in the head. We find woman who is the same” (Fantasia 126). Other emphases of Irigaray, such as biologism and the validation of human nature, are also to be found in Lawrence. Lawrence is an essentialist, as Irigaray is too. In Fantasia of the Unconscious, he writes, “A child is born sexed. A child is male or female; in the whole of its psyche and physique is either male or female and will remain either male or female as long as life lasts” (96). The difference is accentuated by Lawrence’s insistence on an irreducible difference at the level of communication:

Woman will never understand the depth of the spirit of purpose in man, his deeper spirit. And man will never understand the sacredness of feelings to woman [….] the whole mode, the whole everything is really different in man and woman […] for the magic and dynamism rests on otherness (Fantasia 103, my emphasis).

  • 2 In The Symbolic Meaning, Lawrence identifies women as “the sacred mystery of otherness” (128).

14It is on the affirmation of such a difference that Luce Irigaray insists. Like Cixous, Irigaray attempts to theorize the feminine outside the phallic economy (Jackson 172). We have pointed to a similar emphasis in Lawrence. Patricia Waugh, in her essay “Postmodernism and Feminism,” has pointed to Luce Irigaray’s tendency to regard “alterity as the sublime space outside the law recoverable through madness, hysteria, or some metamorphosed return to the body” (184). This tendency identifies femininity with a mysterious, irrational and unpresentable otherness, an otherness pointed to in an affirmative sense by Irigaray, as is also the case in Lawrence. In a letter to Cynthia Asquith in the autumn of 1915, Lawrence writes: “If only the women would get up and speak with authority” (quoted in Widdowson 93). This utopian space beyond rationality, consciousness or language is what Lawrence identifies woman with, what he explores in the body of his non-fictional writings. His identification of femininity with the “unknown”2 and Irigaray’s postulate of a “sublime space” epitomize their similar lines of thinking, which they together share with Gilles Deleuze.

15For Irigaray, “feminine pleasure has to remain inarticulate in language, in its own language” (Rivkin 571). Lawrence also argues for keeping the feminine and its pleasure beyond definition. In The Symbolic Meaning, Lawrence says, “She (woman) can never give expression to the profound movements of her own being” (145). Irigaray also affirms that femininity has the power to disrupt the patriarchal univocity. Such an attitude is both profoundly Deleuzean and is also Lawrencian. In “The Power of Discourse and Subordination of the Feminine”, Irigaray writes, “the feminine finds itself defined as lack, deficiency or as imitation or negative image of the subject, they should signify that with respect to this logic a disruptive excess is possible on the female side” (Rivkin 571). Irigaray’s idea of the “disruptive excess” of the feminine is akin to Lawrence’s figuring of woman as “the sacred mystery of otherness” (The Symbolic Meaning 128). He says, “When the self is broken, the mystery of the recognition of otherness fails, the longing for otherness becomes a lust” (The Symbolic Meaning 125). Lawrence’s emphasis on otherness and becoming in regard to the man-woman relationship, like that of Irigaray, involves a strong opposition to ‘oneness’ and identification. The reduction of all things to a hypothetical oneness, in Lawrence’s view, results in the impoverishment of life (The Symbolic Meaning, 65). For Lawrence the critic of culture, the body has primacy over the spirit. He has deliberately privileged the body so as to disrupt the metadiscourse of Judeo-Christian culture that exalts the spirit and its oneness.

16Echoes of Lawrence’s thought adventure can also be found in Julia Kristeva’s largely apolitical discourse. Kristeva’s originality as a feminist thinker rests mainly on her concept of the “semiotic” and its power to disrupt. Kristeva employs the term “semiotic” in order “to name the pre-linguistic drives and impulses associated with the pre-oedipal experience of the infant” (Brooker 228). Kristeva associates the maternal symbolic realm with creativity. She suggests that while this realm appears to be superseded by the realm of law and language, it continues to exert pressure from within (Jackson 167). Lawrence’s concept of the primal consciousness has aspects in common with Kristeva’s “semiotic.” The primal consciousness in Lawrence is “pre-mental and nothing to do with cognition […] the primal consciousness is always dynamic and never like mental consciousness, static” (Fantasia 34). For Lawrence, the realm of primal consciousness is less closely associated with creativity and with the realm of the mother, though it is a force that is as disruptive as Kristeva’s “semiotic.” Kristeva regards femininity as the non-essential, non-biological attribute, social rather than natural. The feminine, Kristeva argues, is marginal to the symbolic order. The feminine, like other marginal groups, enjoys greater access to the semiotic, which is also marginal to the symbolic. Such marginal groups, including woman, exert pressure on the symbolic order and as such have a revolutionary potential. She argues that “women’s struggle cannot be divorced from revolutionary struggle, class struggle and anti-imperialism” (Jackson 170). Lawrence’s pre-war view of women, as pointed out by Hilary Simpson, suggests that he harboured a faith in woman’s capacity to disrupt the established order.

17All three feminist thinkers Kristeva, Irigaray, and Cixous are concerned mainly with the task of theorizing the feminine rather than with the project of a feminist political movement. Lawrence’s emphasis is similar: as a critic of culture, he is more interested in the concept of the feminine than in the real life problems confronting women. This brings us to the concept of “écriture féminine” as deployed within the school of French feminist theory from the 1970s and in subsequent decades.

18Ecriture féminine” is a mode of feminine writing advocated by Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray. Ecriture féminine “challenges the discourse of the SYMBOLIC order in a counter language appropriate to feminine DESIRE and DIFFERENCE” (Brooker 85). “The concept of écriture féminine, the inscription of the female body and female difference in language and text, is a significant rhetorical formulation in French feminist criticism, although it describes a utopian possibility rather than a literary practice,” writes Showalter (Showalter 312). Although Lawrence’s conscious concern has little to do with écriture féminine, his awareness of such a possibility is significant. Many critics of Lawrence have pointed out that Lawrence, a male author, appropriated female consciousness in many of his fictions. Even in his non-fictional writings, we find Lawrence speaking of female consciousness and its role in creative writing. The fiercest of all his critics, Kate Millett, has spoken of Lawrence’s conscious act of assuming “female consciousness” in Lady Chatterley’s Lover : “He (Lawrence) is the most subtle as well, for it is through a female consciousness that his masculine message is conveyed” (Millett 71). Likewise, Hilary Simpson, whom we have already mentioned, identifies in Lawrence the urgings for the feminization of experience

19In Irigaray’s view, the source of écriture féminine lies in the “biological female BODY” and, “the source of this writing is evidently antagonistic to the operations of patriarchy inscribed in conventional writing” (Brooker 85). Lawrence’s optimistic outlook on women involved his trust in their “becoming individual, self-responsible, taking her own initiative.” He would unquestionably have approved of Irigaray’s view. The striving to speak a corporeal language, in Irigaray’s theory, strikes a new note: “We have to discover a language (langage) which does not replace the bodily encounter, as paternal language (langue) wants to do, but which can go along with it, words which do not bear the corporeal, but which speak the corporeal” (Lodge 421). Lawrence is aware of the limitations of “paternal language” and its capacity to speak adequately to what a woman is. Without a language of her own, woman cannot speak of herself. Lawrence writes in The Symbolic Meaning:

What woman knows, she knows because man has taught it to her. What she is, that is another matter. She can never give expression to the profound movements of her own being. Man is the utterer, woman is the first cause. (145)

20Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous have taken up the challenge and have attempted the apparently impossible task of speaking the corporeal. Awareness of the difficulty of the speaking/giving voice to the corporeal did not stop Lawrence from his ventures in Fantasia of the Unconscious, where he offers a sensitive and informal approach to the challenge of speaking the corporeal.

21The “utopian possibility” of écriture féminine, as Showalter calls it, is envisaged by Cixous in her famous essay “Sorties.” Such a possibility, if translated into reality, would transform the whole society. Lawrence would have been equally exultant regarding such a possibility.

22Irigaray has referred to the relationship with the mother as the “dark continent” (Rivkin 415). Lawrence also referred to the body as the “dark continent” and, to a certain extent, he subscribes to the challenge taken up by Irigaray. He says:

In the very darkest continent of my body there is god. And from him issue the first dark rays of our feeling, wordless, and utterly previous to words: the innermost rays, the first messengers, the primeval, honorable beast of our being, whose voice echoes wordless down the darkest avenues of the soul, but full of potent speech. Our own inner meaning (“The Novel and the Feelings,” Phoenix 759).

23Lawrence here underlines the limitation of language, the language of a culture that has rejected or dismissed the body and its capability to speak the corporeal.

  • 3 Sanatan Bhowal, “Lawrence and the Question of Gender in Our Times”, Etudes Lawrenciennes 45, 2014. (...)

24Contemporary feminism has come a long way from the emancipatory project of Kate Millett, having moved to a recognition that there is no universal woman for whom feminism can speak. It is skeptical about universal truth claims, doubtful about the idea of a stable, pre-social self and questions the pretensions of a disembodied rationality. Lawrence’s radical uncertainty and provisionality about universal truth claims, coupled with his destabilization of the Cartesian ego, are traits which align him with the concerns of contemporary feminism. Recent emphases within feminism—on a radical alterity, on a feminine space outside of rationality, the fondness for images suggestive of fluidity or hybridity, such as the nomad or the cyborg— are all features to be found in Lawrence. Feminist theory is mistrustful of the unitary totalization of patriarchal theory. It is now to be envisaged as “a process of theorizing rather than as a privileged body of knowledge” (Jackson 8-9). The term “theorizing” implies that that the thinking is fluid and provisional, liable to continual modification, whereas “theory” implies something static—a fixed point of reference (Jackson 8-9). In similar fashion, Lawrence regards theory as something fixed and therefore inadequate to the demands of life’s constant flux. In his review of Trigant Burrow’s The Social Basis of Consciousness, Lawrence writes: “Theory as theory is all right. But the moment you apply it to life, especially to the subjective life, the theory becomes mechanistic” (Phoenix 378). Lawrence exalted theorizing over theory by way of his submission of knowledge to the sovereignty of the unknown. We have already alluded to the Lawrencian emphasis on knowing how not to know. The fluidity and provisionality of Lawrence’s theory is his central contention against a Judeo-Christian culture. Lawrence privileges flux over form, being over knowing, fluidity over fixity, in a manner congruent with the core issues of contemporary feminism. Viewed in relation to the fluidity of contemporary feminist thought, Lawrence is to be regarded not as a sexual politician but more as a thought adventurer, deeply interested in the question of gender.3

25Lawrence’s concept of the body has in many respects affinities with contemporary feminism. Like Lawrence, feminists have exposed the somatophobia of Western thought. From the beginning, the feminist project is connected to the body. What is of moment for feminism is the persistence of the mind/body binary within the dominant (masculine) culture and the enduring association between the devalued term and the feminine. The female body, as viewed by the dominant culture, is intrinsically unpredictable, leaky and disruptive: a body which generates ontological anxiety. As such, the early second wave feminists, especially Simone de Beauvoir, regarded the body as a burden to be rejected, in pursuit of a free space of intellectual self-affirmation. Other feminist writers, of the third wave, have developed theories which on the contrary are explicitly embodied, as with the idea of écriture féminine.

26Lawrence’s perspective does not of course entirely overlap these different trends of contemporary feminism. He does however share their major concerns. He associates the female with the body. But unlike Beauvoir, who likened female genital sexuality to a “carnivorous swamp” (Price 4), Lawrence celebrated the body in the female. In Phoenix, he says, “The true female will eternally hold herself superior to any idea, will hold full life in the body to be the real happiness” (“Study of Thomas Hardy” 481). Simone de Beauvoir’s comment on the reproductive aspect of the female body further underlines her dismissive attitude: “It is impossible simply to equate gestation with a task, a piece of work, or with a service, such as military service. Woman’s life is more seriously broken in upon by a demand for children than by regulation of the citizen’s employment” (Beauvoir 90).

27What Lawrence has said of the female body —to the effect that women “will hold full life in the body”—corresponds to Irigaray’s emphasis on sexual difference. Similarly his conception of the body embraces an incarnational approach to sexual difference. Like Lawrence, Irigaray also celebrates female embodiment. She emphasizes the multiple forms of female embodiment, such as the self-touching two-lips that characterize the female morphology: “Between our lips, yours and mine, several voices, several ways of speaking resound endlessly, back and forth. One is never separable from the other. You/I: we are always several at once” (Irigaray 1985, 209). Her emphasis is on fluidity, a quality marking the inherent excess of the feminine and which resonates with the sense of fluidity contained in Lawrence’s concept of the body. Her concern, as pointed out by Janet Price and Margrit Shildrick, is not with the female body as such but with the “feminine morphological imaginary” (Price 6). In his concept of the body, Lawrence is mainly concerned with the morphological imaginary, rather than with the lived body, at least in his non-fictional writings.

28Freud, Lacan, and feminists such as Melanie Klein and Nancy Chodorow have all articulated a degree of alienation from the maternal body. For Lawrence however, the solar plexus, as primary centre of the psyche, where a child feels at one with the mother, is never separated and the grown-up individual continues to draw his vitality from it. However Lawrence posits that the central gate, the navel, of the gender-neutral body, which opens onto the “whole universe,” is closed for ever at the moment of birth. The other gates : eyes, mouths, ears, nostrils and the two lower gates of the passionate body remain open. But as regards the central gate, Lawrence is categorical: “Too dangerous to leave it open” (Fantasia 28). This “central gate” in the Lawrencian schema thus corresponds to Lacan’s “Real.”

29This question of “danger” here echoes Julia Kristeva’s theory of the “abject." “The abject is what the subject seeks to expel in order to achieve an independent identity but this is impossible since the body cannot cease both to take in and expel objects” (Brooker 1). In Kristeva’s schema, the abject is always ambiguous: desirable and terrifying, nourishing and murderous. “It is violent, clumsy, breaking away with the constant risk of falling back under the sway of a power as securing as it is stifling” (Kristeva 1982: 13). The “abject threatens the corporeal and psychic boundaries of the embodied self. This intrinsic but unstable part of the self is charged with the unease of the Judeo-Christian culture regarding body fluids, especially those of the female body. Women, associated with the abject, are both a dangerous and an excluded other. At the same time, as mothers, they are an originary presence. For Kristeva, abjection is a process through which the child takes up its own body image, detaching itself from the improper and unclean connection with the body of the mother (Price 103). In Powers of Horror, Kristeva argues that if the female body is quintessentially the “abject” body, it is because of its procreative functions.

30For Lawrence, the presence of the mother is often dangerous, threatening to devour the child. But in such cases, the mother deviates from her “originary presence,” prompted instead by her “will,” located in the upper centre of her consciousness, the site of her “ego.” This is why Lawrence emphasizes that the mother-child “communication must be impersonal” (“Education of the People,” Phoenix 625). The abject in Kristeva’s schema corresponds to Lawrence’s concept of the unconscious, insofar as the unconscious is posited in the Lawrencian schema as the originary principle. But unlike Kristeva’s abject, Lawrence’s unconscious is “the spontaneous life-motive in every organism” (Fantasia 212). “The true unconscious is the well-head, the fountain of real motivity” (Fantasia 207). In Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious, Lawrence affirms, “We must discover, if we can, the true unconscious, where our life bubbles up in us, prior to any mentality. The first bubbling life in us, which is innocent of any mental alteration, this is the unconscious. It is pristine, not in any way ideal” (Fantasia 212). While Kristeva’s abject is certainly not “ideal,” it is not “pristine” either. The child, in Lawrence’s conception, does not have to gradually alienate itself from its mother to appropriate its well-defined body. The abject always poses a threat to stability, to the identity and fixity of the materialized body. Lawrence’s unconscious also ensures, because of its connection with the body throughout the lifetime, a renewal of the already formed subject. It thus endures as a disruptive force set against any final fixity. The ambiguity of desirability and horror characteristic of Kristeva’s abject is alien to Lawrence’s concept of the unconscious.

31Lawrence’s conception of the unconscious can be aligned with Judith Butler’s theory of the “constructive outside.” Lawrence’s unconscious, as source and support of all our being, is however less concrete than either Butler’s “constructive outside” or Kristeva’s “abject.” In this respect, both feminists are preoccupied with the quest for the process through which femininity is constructed by culture. In the case of Butler, the “constructive outside” is associated with the feminine body. Kristeva’s “abject” is related to the feminine body in the same way. Lawrence’s unconscious is however gender-neutral. For Butler, the bodies that fail to materialize provide the necessary “outside” for the materialization of bodies that matter (“Bodies That Matter” 243). Lawrence’s emphasis on women’s close association and almost identification with the body that the Judeo-Christian culture has devalued opens up new perspectives, through his affinities in this respect with Kristeva and Butler. Lawrence would have broadly agreed with Kristeva’s concept of the “abject” and with Butler’s theory of the “constructive outside,” since he always exalted body over mind, being over knowing.

32Butler’s “bodies that matter” and Kristeva’s “subject,” formed by a process implying the constant exclusion of the “abject,” are not the real bodies which have been devalued by Judeo-Christian culture. Lawrence, on the other hand, is concerned with bodies that are always in the process of change, mutation and even transformation, because of their inseparable link to the unconscious. It is the link that the Judeo-Christian culture has attempted to cut off. Lawrence celebrates the fluid constituent of the body which disrupts and enables our being to renew itself and be reborn, like the mythological phoenix.

33Lawrence’s concept of the ego as a “spurious self,” denying the life contained in the body, his concept of theory and, above all, his concept of the solar plexus as the primal spontaneous centre of consciousness—all display their crucial vital correspondence with those of T. Minh-ha, a leading contemporary feminist.

34Minh-ha’s concept of the ego is essentially Lawrencian. She argues: “Ego is an identification with the mind. When ego develops, the head takes over and exerts a tyrannical control over the rest of the body” (Minh-ha 261). Unlike Julia Kristeva and Judith Butler, Minh-ha emphasizes the tyrannical sway of mind over body. In Lawrence’s schema, cognition takes place in the mind as a result of the perfect polarized circuit established between the first four poles of dynamic consciousness: “The moment there is a perfect polarized circuit between the first four poles of dynamic consciousness, at that moment does the mind, the terminal station, flash into cognition” (Fantasia, 74). The “circuit” is established through “the whole body” (75). But when the mind, the ego, takes over the rest of the body, the responses it provokes are perverse and negative. Life loses its vitality and turns mechanistic, living from a fixed idea. The mind on its own can only give us a set of fixed ideas, empty of any dynamic value. In Phoenix, Lawrence argues that the mind subtly provokes and dictates our feelings and impulses (“Education of the People” 629). Lawrence the critic of culture warns against the fixity of the ego which denies all spontaneous vitality of life: “But once we fall into the state of egoism, we cannot change. The ego, the self conscious ego, remains fixed, a final envelope around us” (“The Crown” Phoenix II 396).

35Lawrence’s concept of the solar plexus as the first psychic centre in man of the profound and pristine consciousness significantly corresponds to Minh-ha’s similar postulation. This centre (the solar plexus) is the one closest to the body in Lawrence’s schema. In her essay “Write Your Body,” Minh-ha draws on the procedures prevalent in Asia, according to which there are three centres in our psyche: the intellectual, the emotional and the vital. She concentrates on the vital centre and writes:

This centre, located below the navel, radiates life. It directs vital movement and allows one to relate to the world with instinctual immediacy. But instinctual here is not opposed to reason, for it lies outside the classical realm of duality assigned to the sensible and the intelligible (Minh-ha 262).

36Lawrence’s concept of the solar plexus is also located below the navel. The “vital movement” and “instinctual immediacy” which this centre provides are very close to Lawrence’s concept of the function of the solar plexus. The Lawrencian whole consciousness starts out from one sympathetic centre. It then proceeds by way of its polarization and through its corresponding voluntary centre and, finally, through the correspondence of the complete dynamic flow, from one plane to the other. Minh-ha’s concept of “body consciousness” is in tune with the Lawrencian whole consciousness, where the mind/body binary is transcended. Minh-ha relates this vital centre to women’s body-writing:

So does certain women’s womb writing, which neither separates the body from the mind nor sets the latter against the heart [.. ] but allows each part of the body to become infused with consciousness. Again, bring a new awareness of life into previously forgotten, silenced or deadened areas of the body (Minh-ha 262).

37Minh-ha attributes to this centre of the body the capacity to infuse the whole body with consciousness. Lawrence likewise emphasizes the qualitative difference of the knowledge provided by the solar plexus, in contrast to a merely mental knowledge:

Primarily we know, each man, each living creature knows, profoundly and satisfactorily, and without question, that I am I. This root of all knowledge and being is established in the solar plexus; it is dynamic, pre-mental knowledge, such as cannot transferred into thought (Fantasia 34).

38Minh-ha would certainly agree with Lawrence that women’s body-writing does not concern itself with mere “thought,” with all its fixity. The emphasis on the unknown in the writing of women is again Lawrencian: “the writing of women is really translated from the unknown, like a new way of communicating rather than an already formed language” (Minh-ha 264).

39In spite of his great concern for the body, Lawrence did not define the body as such. Irigaray has celebrated the multiple forms of female embodiment. She has not however defined the normative body. The slipperiness of the body proves its dynamic and contingent fluidity— a point on which both Lawrence and the feminists agree. Lawrence focuses on this elusiveness in his Fantasia of the Unconscious metaphorically:

It is no good looking at a tree to know it. The only thing is to sit among the roots and nestle against its strong trunk, and not bother. That’s how I write all about these planes and plexuses—between the toes of a tree, forgetting myself against the great ankle of the trunk (43).

40Spivak and Butler are in agreement, though their respective emphases differ somewhat. Butler states, with her characteristic insistence on performativity and on the discursive construction of the body: “There is no reference to a pure body which is not at the same time a further formation of that body” (Butler 1993, 10). Spivak’s emphasis is more general and is therefore closer to Lawrence: “There are thinkings of the systematicity of the body, there are value codings of the body; the body as such cannot be thought” (Spivak 149). This definition, or negation of definition, by the invocation of the body’s undefinability, recalls Lawrence’s reference to the “dynamic pre-mental knowledge” to which one has access through the solar plexus: the knowledge which “cannot be transferred into thought” (Fantasia 34). Lawrence the critic of Judeo-Christian culture focused on the deadening fixity resulting from the dismissal of the body. This culture, Lawrence argues, had rendered all the thought of the post-Cartesian Western philosophy meaningless. He seeks to escape this cul-de-sac by celebrating the fluid body, just as the contemporary feminists do, albeit sometimes for a different purpose.

41Notwithstanding the misreading of his work by second-wave feminists, Lawrence’s engagement with the feminine offers third-wave feminists solid ground on which to fall back on, given the affinities between his writings and the thrust of a critical feminist project.

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1 In “Books” Lawrence says, “Man is a thought adventurer. Man is a great venture in consciousness” (Phoenix, 731). In the great bulk of his non-fictional writings Lawrence himself emerges as a thought adventurer, touching, as he does, upon many vital issues in contemporary thought.

2 In The Symbolic Meaning, Lawrence identifies women as “the sacred mystery of otherness” (128).

3 Sanatan Bhowal, “Lawrence and the Question of Gender in Our Times”, Etudes Lawrenciennes 45, 2014.

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Sanatan Bhowal, « Lawrence and Feminism », Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 49 | 2019, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2019, consulté le 18 août 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/lawrence.418

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Sanatan Bhowal

Sanatan Bhowal, Associate professor in English in P. D. Women's College, Jalpaiguri, WB, India, got his Ph. D. award from North Bengal University in 2008 for his thesis on D. H. Lawrence's non-fiction. In this thesis, under the title "D. H. Lawrence: the Critic of Culture," he tries to study Lawrence's ideas on gender, the body, ethics and aesthetics, ideas which  anticipate many vital aspects of contemporary thought. Lawrentian thought,  however, and however paradoxical it may sound, seeks its suspension by knowing its own limit in order to have a new beginning. Sanatan Bhowal three articles published in The Atlantic Critical Review are --"Lawrence and the Body" (April-June 2006; Vol. 5 No. 2), "Lawrence and the Question of Ethics and Aesthetics of Our Times" (April-June 2008; Vol. 7 No. 2), "D. H. Lawrence and Gilles Deleuze: A close Correspondence" (Oct.-Dec. 2008; Vol. 7 No. 4).

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