Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

D. H. Lawrence: Pleasure and Death

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

D. H. Lawrence: Pleasure and Death

Article excerpt

D. H. Lawrence was a virtual textbook embodiment of Freud's theories about the pleasure principle and the death instinct. Focusing on acultural determinism, Freud viewed destructiveness and the pleasure principle as equally fundamental to the "vacillating rhythm" of life,(1) yet he also asserts that the pleasure principle "seems actually to serve the death instincts" (p. 63). He conceptualized the desire to move beyond the pleasure principle as "an urge

inherent in organic life to restore an earlier [inorganic] state of things" because "of the conservative nature of living substance" (p. 36). Seeking a key "to a universal logic of human social life," Freud formulated his theory of "death instincts," pronouncing that "the aim of all life is death" (p. 38). As a proximate case in point, he had before him that extraordinary manifestation of man's destructiveness, the "terrible war which has just ended" (p. 12).

Lawrence's great struggle can be couched as an attempt to imagine a world free of the deathwish and Dantean teleology. As antagonists worthy of his animus, he denominated the death grip of class and family constrictions; the landscape laid waste by the industrial revolution; Christianity's death-obsession; the horrific desolation of the Great War. Much of Lawrence's major fiction--including Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow, Women in Love, "The Woman Who Rode Away," St. Mawr, The Man Who Died, and Lady Chatterley's Lover--concludes irresolutely, as if impelled by desire toward unreachable solutions, ones impossible of fulfillment or completion this side of death. Lawrence, it seems, lacked faith in the future he craved, one predicated upon affirmation of human relations and mortality. If such fulfillment is to occur, Lawrence implies, it must do so beyond the confines of his fictive texts.(2)

The deadly combat with his mother, who in Lawrence's representation had already devitalized his father and killed his brother, was primary, repeatedly refought, a haunting that recurred throughout his life. In an act of adoration, Lawrence rushed the first copy of The White Peacock into his dying mother's hands (in 1910), but though the inscription he had written for her was read out, she turned away and never mentioned it. Having loved his mother "almost with a husband and wife love" that "doesn't seem natural" and having been "born hating my father" so much that he could wish him damned,(3) Lawrence came to describe his mother's dying with increasing distance and aesthetic disdain: "It is a continuous `We watched her breathing through the night' [from Thomas Hood's `The Death-Bed'] ... and still she is here, and it is the old slow horror. I think Tom Hood's woman looked sad but beautiful: but my mother is a sight to see and be silent about for ever ... Banal! ... The desire of my life, at present, is to have mother buried." He then writes, suddenly, without transition, that he has just proposed marriage to Louise Burrows.(4)

Dominated by his mother in life, Lawrence performed an exorcism during her dying; subsequently, as Sons and Lovers' Paul Morel, and though his mother "did not consent to die," he and his sister, driven by impatience at her lingering, committed euthanasia to get free of her. Afterward, they "laughed together like two conspiring children. On top of all their horror flicked this little sanity" (p. 394). Lawrence's maternal deathbed depiction represents a repudiation of Victorian convention. The aesthetic death, public mourning, and ritual funeral are stripped bare to reveal a dark underside: dying that is agony for the mother and agonizing for the survivors; a self-absorbed father with no thought but for himself; ungrieving children; an unappeased dead mother who remains a haunting presence. In a final chapter called "Derelict," Paul turns from "the darkness" he associates with his mother and heads alone toward symbolically ambiguous city lights, in what Lawrence calls Paul's "drift toward death. …

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