Academic journal article D.H. Lawrence Review

Cosmic Pessimism in Lady Chatterley's Lover: D.H. Lawrence's Tristan Legend for the Twentieth Century

Academic journal article D.H. Lawrence Review

Cosmic Pessimism in Lady Chatterley's Lover: D.H. Lawrence's Tristan Legend for the Twentieth Century

Article excerpt

Against Self-Help

When Jessie Chambers--D.H. Lawrence's "most important female companion and friend" in late adolescence and early adulthood, as well as the model for Miriam Leivers in Sons and Lovers--was turning nineteen in 1906, her brother Alan turned to Lawrence for advice on what birthday gift to get her (Ellis 1). He recommended a slim volume of Schopenhauer's essays, newly translated into English less than a decade before, and he even ended up reading aloud from the book to them at the birthday party. The essay he chose to read was "The Metaphysics of Love," and it was one of the earliest occasions that Lawrence used to identify the philosophical position that he would spend the rest of his writing career fleshing out. "Every kind of love," Schopenhauer writes in the essay, according to the translation Lawrence read out loud, "however ethereal it may seem to be, springs entirely from the instinct of sex" (171). Schopenhauer continues:

   Love is of such high import, because
   it has nothing to do with the weal
   or woe of the present individual, as
   every other matter has; it has to secure
   the existence and special nature
   of the human race in future times;
   hence the will of the individual appears
   in a higher aspect as the will of
   the species. (172-3)

To David Ellis, the "advantage of this view is that it allows Schopenhauer to explain the feeling lovers often have of being in the grip of powers quite beyond their control" (3). The "old stable ego" that Lawrence was intent on challenging in his works is obliterated through love, exposing the passivity behind passion, the blind Will behind scopophilic desire, and raw sexuality behind sentimental affection (Kinkead-Weekes 379). In sex is a vision of the future, a dissolution of the conscious self by the instinct of the species. Just twenty-one at the time of his initial enthusiasm for Schopenhauer's pessimism, Lawrence's own vision of the future grew bleaker over time, ultimately culminating in Lady Chatterley's Lover over two decades later.

Beth Blum situates Lawrence's bleak vision as a response to the self-help industry that took over Europe and the United States in the nineteenth century, only continuing to boom ever after. (1) Even though modernism "has long been defined by its rejection of Victorian moral imperatives," she sees "the concomitant rise of the self-help industry" as highlighting "the stakes and objectives of modernism's own genre of anti-advice" (118). In "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," for example, Woolf identifies the modernist novel as a space that, to Blum, "exceeds instrumentalism, surpassing the needs of 'happiness, comfort, or income' (precisely the province of self-help)" (131). Lawrence himself traces this self-help genre back to Benjamin Franklin, and ended up rewriting and reversing Franklin's maxims, "confessing that they inspired him to develop his moral philosophy," which "forms the backdrop to the sexual reform advocated in Lady Chatterley" (Blum 120).

Lawrence belongs to a tradition that includes Baudelaire, who complained of the "stupidity" of "those volumes which treat of the art of making people happy, wise, and rich, in twenty-four hours" (102-04). Flaubert was an early detractor, too--in his 1842 novella November, the narrator sounds almost identical to Schopenhauer, wondering if "happiness too is a metaphor invented on a day of boredom?" (92). (2) Lawrence didn't think much of Flaubert, but he did admire G.K. Chesterton, who noted how, in 1909, "On every bookstall, in every magazine, you may find works telling people how to succeed ... they are written by men who cannot even succeed in writing books" (Worthen 64; Chesterton 21). Nevertheless, bestsellers like Samuel Smiles's 1859 book Self-Help and Wallace Wattle's The Science of Getting Rich from 1910 ensured that this genre was here to stay (Blum 118).

As this industry took a stronghold of European and American culture, Schopenhauer's writings--balancing a curmudgeonly impatience and disgust with an eloquent lyricism--emerged as an antidote, inspiring artists from music to literature to reject the cheap optimism of these hack self-help writers. …

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