Is the impossibility of comprehension between men and women vital to D. H. Lawrence's work, and even the incomprehensibility of a feeling to oneself? Over and over again in the novella collection Three Novellas, and especially the novella The Ladybird, but also The Captain's Doll, the writer hammers away at the problem of loving in a like manner. If "I love you" are the three words that mean so much to the person hearing them, is it not hugely troublesome that these three words semantically mean so little? If one were to say "pass the sugar", the meaning is clear but its meaningfulness minimal. In "I love you" the meaningfulness is immense, but its meaning incredibly vague. Lawrence searches out this vagueness in all its manifestations. In The Ladybird, a German officer convalesces in the company of an English husband and his wife, and offers a disquisition on love. "Well! Now listen. The same with love. This white love that we have is the same. It is only the reverse, the whited sepulchre of the true love. True love is dark, a throbbing together in darkness, like the wild-cat in the night, when the green screen opens and her eyes are on the darkness." Earlier he says to the wife "our soul is quiet and heroic". Love in Lawrence is both instinctive and curiously negotiable. "It was to the Count she belonged. This had decided itself in her down to the depths of her soul." This is instinctive love, where it is the narrator commenting on the feelings of the character almost beyond the characters' own thoughts. At the other extreme we have the central character in The Captain's Doll, who explains his position on love to a woman who loves him. "Why? Well for what purpose does a man usually ask a woman to marry him?" "There is only usually one reason", she replied, in a rather small voice. She says the reason is that he really loved her, and the central character says "leaving aside the question of whether you love me or I love you", and she replies that she certainly won't agree to wed. Where she must love to marry him; he sees it a final irrelevance, saying, "all this about love is very confusing and very complicated."
Love is a problem of language and feeling. If it is a word that covers so much, how can we assume the person is using it in the same way when we say "I love you"? When the central character Alex says to the woman in The Captain's Doll that "as far I was concerned love was a mistake," she screamed back "love!", "a mistake". However this problem of love's perplexity is quite different from that explored so often by another great writer of love as incomprehension, Marguerite Duras, and this lies partly in the nature of course of the sex of the writer writing, the problematic each writer is interested in exploring, and the style adopted. Duras offers what has been called, in Julia Kristeva's words, an aesthetics of awkwardness, a hesitant, fractured prose that reflects the hesitancy of feelings often caught in a melancholic condition. Lawrence is a much more robust writer, given to hammering away at an emotion and using nature to bring out its broader significance. It is we might say an aesthetic of assertiveness. Near the end of The Captain's Doll, Alex and the aristocratic woman Hannele who loves him are climbing a mountain in Germany. "So he struggled on till he was more or less over the brim. There he stood and looked at the ice. It came down from above in a great hollow of ice. A world, terrible place of hills and valleys and slopes, all motionless, all of ice. Away above the grey mist-cloud was looming bigger." Ice is mentioned another three times in the same paragraph, with Lawrence always a writer given to repetitious effect, determined to push the word again and again. Nature is terrible through the word ice, but it is also indicates of course the nature of the central character who refuses to open his whole self to the woman. Earlier in the novella the narrator informs us of Alex's emotional self-protection by saying Alex "could not get over his disgust that people insisted on his sharing their emotion. He could not bear their emotions, either their activities...But the moment they approached him to spread their feelings over him or to entangle him in their activities a helpless disgust came up in him, and until he could get away he felt sick, even physically." In each instance - in the description of nature and the description of direct feeling - Lawrence lays it on thick, but this is the thickness almost of a painter given to layering the painting with the same colour to arrive at density: what a Van Gogh does to paint, Lawrence does to words. Lawrence wants us to understand the iciness of Alex's feelings symbolised by the mountainous cold, and his problem with human warmth as he shows disgust towards it. This is an unavoidably assertive exploration of the gap between the sexes, not at all an aesthetics of awkwardness.
Another area in which Lawrence differs from Duras is in the dynamic between men and women. Where there is often in Duras the melancholic sense of inevitability reflected in her comment in Practicalities that when men are in a relationship with a woman "they act a part, because they're bored" Lawrence is more interested in the fluidity and difference between men and women and the roles they adopt that means gender specifics are weakened, but at a price. In a short essay called 'Cocksure Women and Hensure Men' Lawrence talks of the tragedy of contemporary women who are so often cocksure. "She becomes cocksure, she puts all her passion and energy and years of her life into some effort or assertion, without ever listening for the denial which she ought to take into account. She is cocksure, but she is a hen all the time." This is Lawrence returning to fundamental notions of gender, but doing so to show that certain women adopt a masculine role to their own detriment. "She is marvellous out-manning the man. But, alas, it is all fundamentally disconnected. It is all an attitude, and one day the attitude will become a weird cramp, a pain, and then it will collapse...Having lived her life with such utmost strenuousness and cocksureness, she has missed her life altogether. Nothingness!" If Duras talks of the social roles men and women usually play, Lawrence indicates these are roles easily deviated from but a certain fundamental price is paid.
Lawrence is clearly a much more elemental writer than Duras, which is partly why we invoked the symbolic nature of the ice that reflects the glacial aspect of Alex's character in The Captain's Doll. It is as though he is part of a bigger elementalism than his own body, and though we use the term symbolism we want to do so with some caution. Lawrence is the sort of writer who wants more the elemental than the symbolic. This means that the ice doesn't symbolise Alex's feelings; it is strangely part of them, part of some bigger relationship with nature where he feels his masculinity has to match the forces of its power. When he says "...I tried marriage once on the basis of love, and I must say it was a ghastly affair in the long run...As far as love goes. And yet I want marriage. I want a woman to honour and obey me", it is is as if he saying that the ice ought to be part of him, part of what makes him a man. In an essay called 'Nobody Loves Me', Lawrence talks rather disparagingly about a woman who used terms like cosmic consciousness and love of humanity but admitted it "did stand for something that was not merely cerebral. It stood, and I realized it afterwards, for her peace, her inward peace with the universe and man." The Captain's Doll might lightly mock Alex's determined need to remain cool in the face of love, but is it central to his inward peace? "Hannele did not exactly represent rosy love. Rather a hard destiny. He did not adore her. He did not feel one bit of adoration for her. As a matter of fact, not all the beauties and virtues of woman put together with all the gold in the Indies would have tempted him into the business of adoration any more."
In many ways Alex is like the husband in The Ladybird, someone who his wife feels "was like death; like risen death. She felt she dared not touch him...she could tell that he shrank with a kind of agony from contact. She thinks of his "incomprehensible coldness", and "the strange coldness in his voice" Yet as with Alex there is a coldness, and the "sound of his words, and the strong cold desire in his voice excited her, pleased her, and made her heart freeze." But the Count that she falls in love with represents true love, the narrator suggests, "a throbbing together in darkness" Is it inevitable that with these different forces of love at work that people are going to be conflicted, and is this why Alex in The Captain's Dollrefuses to be drawn to the dark love that he would believe Hannele is offering him? "I won't be loved. And I won't love. I won't have anybody loving me. It is an insult. I feel I've been insulted for forty years: by love, and the women who've loved me. I won't be loved. And I won't love. I'll be honoured and I'll be obeyed: or nothing." Hannele replies, "then it'll most probably be nothing...for I assure you I have nothing but love to offer." There is a sense here that the white light is safer, but also colder, and Lawrence may wonder whether from this white love which seems based on duty, commitment, care and consideration, whether one is in touch with the world. In the essay 'Nobody Loves Me' he talks of love much more broadly. "Nevertheless, though the colliers or cotton workers or whatever they be are a long way off and we can't do anything about it, still away in some depth of us, we know we are connected vitally, if remotely with these colliers or cotton workers, we dimly realize that mankind is one, almost one flesh. It is an abstraction but also a physical fact." Lawrence afterwards talks of the vibration of life, and how these workers in some way affect him even if they are all unknown to him. Are all these lovers of white light denying this reality, refusing the vibrations, or are they actually more attuned to them? By not letting themselves be overcome by singular emotions, are they capable of sensing more of the world?
At the end of the essay 'Nobody Loves Me', Lawrence says "the love of humanity is gone, leaving a great gap. The cosmic consciousness has collapsed upon a great void." The question Lawrence often asks is how does one resurrect it; is it through the dark forces of erotic love, or the lighter forces of care and consideration? At the end of The Captain's DollAlex says "if a woman honours me - absolutely at the bottom of her nature honours me - and obeys me because of that, I take it, my desire for her goes much deeper than if I was in love with her, or I adored her." But this is someone trying to hold their centre where the one who lives wholly for another is already decentred and surely closer to the cosmic consciousness because she is no longer at least the centre of her own. However, does that de-centring really make us more unselfish than the person who believes in honour and obedience? Lawrence is as we've proposed very much an elemental writer, coming down on the side of the primitive, yet as critic W.W. Robson reckons in an essay on Lawrence in The New Pelican Guide to English Literature, Lawrence's "didactic prose is at its best when it reveals in its oscillatory, fluctuating movement, this recurrent self-questioning." Characters in his work constantly misunderstand each other, but try to conceptualise emotionally that misunderstanding, either to themselves or others. This is exactly what happens as the Count seduces the wife in The Ladybird, as the wife thinks of her husband in the same novella and in the exchanges between Alex and Hannele in The Captain's Doll. Lawrence is a deep dialectician, trying to wrestle from the misunderstandings between the sexes some philosophy of being. As he says in the essay, 'Love': "There must be brotherly love, a wholeness of humanity. But there must also be a pure, separate individuality, separate and proud as a lion or a hawk. There must be both."
© Tony McKibbin