Mortifying the Reader: The Assault on Verbal and Visual Consciousness in D.H. Lawrence's 'Lady Chatterley's Lover.'
Burack, Charles M., Studies in the Novel
D. H. Lawrence is well known for his verbal and imagistic extravagances. What is less understood is his hostility toward the dominating influence of language and vision on Western consciousness. Today, we would say that he was opposed to the logocentrism and ocularcentrism of modern subjectivity.(1) Indeed, his understanding of these features of modern consciousness anticipates that of many postmodern theorists.
Lawrence's attack on the hyper-verbal-visual mind is particularly prominent in Lady Chatterley's Lover.(2) Critics have examined the novel's themes of speech and sight, but I will show how Lawrence's literary techniques attempt to highlight and undermine the reader's own linguistic and visual processes. These techniques have ideological values that partially subvert the patriarchal ideology voiced by the narrator and main characters and thus suggest that Lawrence may have had stronger sympathies with feminism than has been asserted. Feminist attacks on Lady Chatterley have generally overlooked the subversive implications of its formal structures. Kate Millett, for example, supports her critique by citing masculinist statements made by Mellors, but she ignores passages that undercut those messages.(3) She also fails to attend to broader intentional structures that undermine all dogmatic assertions made within the novel. Recently, Carol Siegel has demonstrated that Lawrence was not nearly as anti-feminist as has been claimed: he strongly identified with the women's literary tradition, sought out the literary advice and response of women, and sometimes encouraged women to write.(4)
While there have been several studies of technique in Lady Chatterley, none have focused on the relationship between technique and reader response.(5) Understanding this relationship is crucial because Lawrence was fundamentally concerned with using language to radically transform the reader's consciousness--to undermine stultifying orientations to self and world and to evoke more vivid and integrated modes of knowing and acting. For Lawrence, these stultifying orientations are rooted in a split consciousness formed by a splintered civilization that overvalues rational, reflexive and visual thought. I have developed a poetics of narrative technique and phenomenology of the reading experience that analyzes the implied textual effects on the novel's ideal reader. The investigation does not focus on the actual, historical impact of the novel on readers but rather on potential reader responses suggested by the novel's textual effects. In short, I concentrate on what Wolfgang Iser calls "the implied reader": the "network of response-inviting structures, which impel the reader to grasp the text."(6) While not limiting myself to Iser's particular methodology, I show how Lady Chatterley's textual effects invite and channel potential reader responses. Actual responses are always unique and involve a dynamic exchange between text and reader: the text verbally prestructures possible responses, and the reader actualizes one or more of those potentials through an act of construction. Reading strategies are shaped by the reader's interpretive community and by idiosyncratic features of the reader's life and reading experience. Iser argues that one of the main functions of literature is to call into question the reader's habitual understanding of social conventions. In my analysis of Lady Chatterley, I am assuming, as Lawrence surely did, a reader who is at least open to being transformed by novel reading. This "ideal reader" will be simultaneously resistant and receptive to change. Carol Siegel has shown that for many of Lawrence's novels, this ideal reader was probably female. My study, however, does not presuppose a female reader; rather, I assume that the literary devices are potentially effective for male and female readers.(7)
For Lawrence, as for Nietzsche, there is a "double rhythm of creating and destroying" in "true art."(8) This double rhythm is present in Lady Chatterley's Lover. In this essay, I focus on the destructive impulse, examining how the novel seeks to disclose, dissolve and purge the reader's debilitating sexual ideas and inclinations and to stymie the verbal and visual processes that produce them. I call this destructive aim "mortifying" because the intention is to kill off the reader's deadening and moribund attitudes. The disintegration effort begins with the opening chapter and is most intense in the first half of the 19-chapter novel. Chapters 1-4 are completely dominated by scenes with a mortifying aim, and such scenes also predominate in Chapters 5-9. While these scenes also occur in the novel's second half, they do so with much less frequency and duration. The second half highlights the sex scenes between Connie and Mellors, which start in Chapter 10. In these scenes the mortifying intention gives way to an authorial desire to rejuvenate the reader's consciousness through vicarious experience of the couple's sexual encounters.(9)
The mortification devices have both conceptual and emotive functions. The main conceptual function is to make readers aware of the destructive and deadening features of their sexual consciousness and action and to induce them to repudiate these unvital modes of knowing and relating. Lawrence develops devices that call attention to the splits in the reader's consciousness between self and other, mind and body, ego and unconscious. He accepts Nietzsche's assertion that the fracturing of the Western consciousness was initiated by the ancient Greeks--their highly intellectual and visual culture reified the distinctions within the self, and between self and other.(10) That is, the Greeks made mental distinctions into phenomenal divisions. Some of the novel's techniques exaggerate the verbal and visual features of modern consciousness associated with these splits: dualism, verbosity, visuality, reflexivity, conceptualization, objectification, accentuated time-space sense. By using devices that amplify the splits in the reader's consciousness, Lawrence in effect completes the splintering process: he shatters, kills off, the reader's moribund erotic ideas and orientations, and prepares the way for new, more vital and integrative forms of consciousness. Thus, Lawrence uses the analytic tools of the modern mind against itself. In fact, he thought the great benefit of critical self-reflection was its ability to dismember itself by realizing its own limitations and fabrications. For him, the ultimate self-purification is to realize that the sacred energies of life, especially those experienced in passionate encounters, cannot be known conceptually. Critical reflection is thus most useful when it gives rise to silence, thereby paving the way for ineffable numinous experiences.
It is important to emphasize that Lawrence's attack on logocentrism and ocularcentrism is implicitly anti-masculinist. Simone de Beauvoir, who criticizes Lady Chauerley as masculinist, does not seem to realize that Lawrence shares her belief that the dualistic thinking inherent in patriarchal language is responsible for the construction of "Woman" as "the Other"--an Other that is persistently associated with the inferior or rejected pole of a whole series of asymmetrical polarities.(11) Feminist theologians like Mary Daly and Rosemary Ruether have also cited dualistic thought and language as responsible for creating and sustaining the sexist structures in Judaism and Christianity.(12) Recent feminist scholarship has linked ocularcentrism and male domination. The Lacanian film critic Laura Mulvey, for example, has examined the objectifying and controlling features of the scopophilic male gaze.(13) Lawrence's hyperbolic use of dualistic modes of consciousness to dismantle those very modes is analogous to feminist appropriations of traditionally masculine rhetorical devices in order to subvert male power.
The main emotive function of the mortification devices is to evoke in readers various forms of emotional repulsion toward modern sexuality: boredom, irritation, anger, rage. Many of Lawrence's Christian readers had been reared to repress rage. He believed that the more visceral the reader's repulsion, the more likely it was to be a "really new feeling" (Phoenix, p. 520). Lawrence's desire to release the reader's rage has feminist implications since critics like Elaine Showalter, Sandra Gilbert, and Susan Gubar have argued that feminist literature positively values female expressions of anger.(14) Repulsion is also a form of suffering, and Lawrence thought that suffering could be either purgative or obstructive. He believed that a "really new novel" produces pain and resistance, but the resistance can be overcome.(15) By stripping away readers' defensive, egoistic shells--what Wilhelm Reich calls "character armor"--the narrator of Lady Chatterley places them in direct contact with the suffering brought on by their sexual, asexual, or anti-sexual attitudes and practices.
The mortifying function of Lady Chatterley is implied in the narrator's description of the novel's power to lead the reader's sympathy away from old, dead things:
It is the way our sympathy flows and recoils that really determines our
lives. And here lies the vast importance of the novel, properly handled.
It can inform and lead into new places the flow of our sympathetic
consciousness, and it can lead our sympathy away in recoil from things
gone dead. Therefore, the novel, properly handled, can reveal the most
secret places of life: for it is in the passional secret places of life,
above all, that the tide of …
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Publication information: Article title: Mortifying the Reader: The Assault on Verbal and Visual Consciousness in D.H. Lawrence's 'Lady Chatterley's Lover.'. Contributors: Burack, Charles M. - Author. Journal title: Studies in the Novel. Volume: 29. Issue: 4 Publication date: Winter 1997. Page number: 491+. © 1999 University of North Texas. COPYRIGHT 1997 Gale Group.
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