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D. H. Lawrence on Men & Women, Part 1
Part 1 of 6. For the whole series, click here.
1. Love and Strife
In a 1913 letter D. H. Lawrence writes that “it is the problem of to-day, the establishment of a new relation, or the readjustment of the old one, between men and women.” Lawrence’s views about relations between the sexes, and about sex differences are perhaps his most controversial – and they have frequently been misrepresented. But before we delve into those views, let us ask why it should be the case that establishing a new relation between men and women is “the problem of to-day.” The reason is fairly obvious. The species divides itself into male and female, reproduces itself thereby, and the overwhelming majority of human beings seek their fulfillment in a relationship to the opposite sex. If relations between the sexes have somehow been crippled—as Lawrence believes they have been—then this is a catastrophe. It is hard to imagine a greater, more pressing problem.
Lawrence came to relations with women bearing serious doubts about his own manhood, and with the conviction that his nature was fundamentally androgynous. Throughout his life, but especially as a boy, it was easier for him to relate to women and to form close bonds with them. Thus, when Lawrence discusses the nature of woman he draws not only upon his experiences with women, but also upon his understanding of his own nature. One of the questions we must examine is whether, in doing so, Lawrence was led astray. After all, Lawrence eventually came to repudiate the idea of any sort of fundamental androgyny and to claim that men and women are radically different. In Fantasia of the Unconscious he writes, “We are all wrong when we say there is no vital difference between the sexes.” Lawrence wrote this in 1921 intending it to be provocative, but it is surely much more controversial in today’s world, where it has become a dogma in some circles to insist that sex differences (now called “gender differences”) are “socially constructed.” Lawrence continues: “There is every difference. Every bit, every cell in a boy is male, every cell is female in a woman, and must remain so. Women can never feel or know as men do. And in the reverse, men can never feel and know, dynamically, as women do.”
Lawrence saw relations between the sexes as essentially a war. He tells us in his essay “Love” that all love between men and women is “dual, a love which is the motion of melting, fusing together into oneness, and a love which is the intense, frictional, and sensual gratification of being burnt down, burnt into separate clarity of being, unthinkable otherness and separateness.” The love between men and women is a fusing—or a will to fusing—but one that never fully takes place because the relation is also fundamentally frictional. Again and again Lawrence emphasizes the idea that men and women are metaphysically different. In other words, they have different, and even opposed ways of being in the world. They are not just anatomically different; they have different ways of thinking and feeling, and achieve satisfaction and fulfillment in life through different means.
Lawrence’s view of the difference between the sexes can be fruitfully compared to the Chinese theory of yin and yang. These concepts are of great antiquity, but the way in which they are generally understood today is the product of an ambitious intellectual synthesis that took place under the early Han dynasty (207 B.C.–9 A.D.). According to this philosophy, the universe is shot through with an ultimate principle or power known as the Tao. However, the Tao divides itself into two opposing principles, yin and yang. These oppose yet complement each other. Yang manifests itself in maleness, hardness, harshness, dominance, heat, light, and the sun, amongst other things. Yin manifests itself in femaleness, softness, gentleness, yielding, cold, darkness, the moon, etc.
Contrary to the impression these lists might give, however, yang is not regarded as “superior” to yin; hardness is not superior to softness, nor is dominance superior to yielding. Each requires the other and cannot exist without the other. In certain situations a yang approach or condition is to be preferred, in others a yin approach. On occasion, yang may predominate to the point where it becomes harmful, and it must be counterbalanced by yin, or vice versa. (These principles are of central importance, for example, in traditional Chinese medicine.) The Tao Te Ching, a work written by a man chiefly for men extols the virtues of yin, and continually advises one to choose yin ways over yang. Lao-Tzu tells us over and over that it is “best to be like water,” that “those who control, fail. Those who grasp, lose,” and that “soft and weak overcome stiff and strong.”
Like the Taoists, Lawrence regards maleness and femaleness as opposed, yet complementary. It is not the case that the male, or the male way of being, is superior to the female, or vice versa. In a sense the sexes are equal, yet equality does not mean sameness. The error of male chauvinism is in thinking that one way, the male way, is superior; that dominance and hardness are just “obviously” superior to their opposites.
Yet the same error is committed by some who call themselves feminists. Tacitly, they assume that the male or yang characteristics are superior, and enjoin women to seek fulfillment in life through cultivating those traits in themselves. To those who might wonder whether such a program is possible, to say nothing of desirable, the theory of the “social construction of gender” is today being offered as support. According to this view, the only inherent differences between men and women are anatomical, and all of the intellectual, emotional, and behavioral characteristics attributed to the sexes throughout history have actually been the product of culture and environment. (And so “yin and yang,” according to this view, is really a rather naïve philosophy which confuses nurture with nature.) Clearly, Lawrence would reject this theory. In doing so, he is on very solid ground.
It would, of course, be foolish not to recognize that some “masculine” and “feminine” traits are culturally conditioned. An obvious example would be the prevailing view in American culture that a truly “masculine” man is unable, without the help of women or gay men, to color-coordinate his wardrobe. However, when one sees certain traits in men and women displaying themselves consistently in all cultures and throughout all of human history it makes sense to speak of masculine and feminine natures. It is plausible to argue that a trait is culturally conditioned only if it shows up in some cultures but not in others. Unfortunately, the “social construction of gender” thesis has achieved the status of a dogma in academic circles. And, in truth, ultimately it has to be asserted as dogma since believing in it requires that we ignore the evidence of human history, profound philosophies such as Taoism, and most of the scientific research into sex differences that has taken place over the last one hundred years.
I said earlier that Lawrence believes men and women to be “metaphysically different,” and in his essay “A Study of Thomas Hardy” he does indeed write as if he believes they actually see the world with a different metaphysics in mind:
It were a male conception to see God with a manifold Being, even though He be One God. For man is ever keenly aware of the multiplicity of things, and their diversity. But woman, issuing from the other end of infinity, coming forth as the flesh, manifest in sensation, is obsessed by the oneness of things, the One Being, undifferentiated. Man, on the other hand, coming forth as the desire to single out one thing from another, to reduce each thing to its intrinsic self by process of elimination, cannot but be possessed by the infinite diversity and contrariety in life, by a passionate sense of isolation, and a poignant yearning to be at one.
So, men seek or are preoccupied with multiplicity, and women with unity. What are we to make of such a bizarre claim? First of all, it seems to run counter to the Greek tradition, especially that of the Pythagoreans, which tended to identify the One with the masculine, and the Many with the feminine. However, if one looks to Empedocles, a pre-Socratic philosopher Lawrence was particularly keen on, one finds a different story. Empedocles posits two fundamental forces which are responsible for all change in the universe: Love and Strife. Love, at the purely physical level, is a force of attraction. It draws things together, and without the intervention of Strife it would result in a monistic universe in which only one being existed. Strife breaks up and divides. It is a force of repulsion and separation. Now, Empedocles seems to identify Love with Aphrodite, and we may infer, though he does not say so, that Strife is Ares. In other words, he identifies his two forces with the archetypal female and male. This can offer us a clue as to what Lawrence is up to.
In Lawrence’s view, it is the female who wants to draw things, especially people, together. It is the female who yearns to heal divisions, to break down barriers. “Coming forth as the flesh, manifest in sensation” she seeks to overcome separateness through feeling, primarily through love. In the family situation, it is the female who tries to unite and overcome discord through love, whereas it is the male, typically, who frustrates this through the insistence on rules and distinctions. The ideal of universal love and an end to strife and division is fundamentally feminine—one which men, throughout history, have continually frustrated. It is characteristic of men to make war, and characteristic of women, no matter what cause or principle is involved, to object and to call for peace and unity.
Now the male, as Lawrence puts it, suffers from a sense of isolation, and a “yearning to be one.” He yearns for oneness, in fact, as the male yearns for the female. Yet his entire being disposes him to see the world in terms of its distinctness, and, indeed, to make a world rife with distinctions. Lawrence implies that polytheism is a “male” religion, and monotheism a “female” one. It is easy to see the logic involved in this. Polytheism sees the divine being that permeates the world as many because the world is itself many. Further, societies with polytheistic religions have always been keenly aware of ethnic and social differences, differences within the society (as in the Indian caste system), and between societies. Monotheism, on the other hand, tends toward universalism. Christianity especially, however it has actually been practiced, declares all men equal in the sight of God and calls for peace and unity in the world. (Lawrence, as we shall see later on, does indeed regard Christianity as a “feminine” religion, and blames it, in part, for feminizing Western men.)
This fundamental, metaphysical difference has the consequence that men and women do, in a real sense, live in different worlds. But perhaps such a formulation reflects a male bias towards differentiation. It is equally correct to say, in a more “feminine” formulation, that it is the same world seen in two, complementary ways. Indeed, it may be the case that it is difficult to see, from a male perspective, how the two sexes and their different ways of thinking and perceiving can achieve a rapprochement. Lawrence believes, of course, that they can live together, and that their opposite tendencies can be harmonized. In this way he is like Heraclitus, Lawrence’s favorite pre-Socratic, when he says “what is opposed brings together; the finest harmony is composed of things at variance, and everything comes to be in accordance with strife.” Heraclitus also tells us that “They do not understand how, though at variance with itself, it [the Logos] agrees with itself. It is a backwards-turning attunement like that of the bow and lyre.” In order to make a lyre or a bow, the two opposite ends of a piece of wood must be bent towards each other, never meeting, but held in tension. Their tension and opposition makes possible beautiful music, in the case of the lyre, and the propulsion of an arrow, in the case of the bow. Both involve a harmony through opposition.