Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Religious Initiation of the Reader in D. H. Lawrence's the Rainbow

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Religious Initiation of the Reader in D. H. Lawrence's the Rainbow

Article excerpt

Some of the most influential modern British writers sought to evoke numinous states of consciousness in their readers. Using a phenomenological approach to the reading experience, this essay argues that D. H. Lawrence structures his novel The Rainbow as a religious initiation rite for revitalizing and reintegrating the reader's consciousness.

Many British modernist writers were deeply interested in radical transformations of consciousness. Some of their most powerful artistry went into crafting representations of epiphanies, visions, sacred encounters, and other numinous moments when consciousness is expanded, intensified, integrated or transfigured. While these representations have been studied for their symbolic meanings, what has often been overlooked is their impact on the reader's consciousness. Such textual effects are crucial because some of the most influential modernists understood their literary aims in visionary terms. Indeed, some modernist poets and novelists even hoped that their representations of numinous experiences would evoke analogous states of mind in the reader. One way to investigate the transformative effects of these representations is to use a phenomenological approach to the reading experience. Wolfgang Iser has developed an approach that focuses on how textual structures invite and channel "the implied reader's" cogniti ve and emotive responses (Iser 34). His phenomenological method assumes that the text verbally prestructures possible responses and that the reader actualizes one or more of those potentials through an act of construction. Textual meaning is "no longer an object to be defined, but is an effect to be experienced" (10).

One of the British modernists most intent on producing fundamental transformations of consciousness in his readers was D. H. Lawrence. Indeed, Lawrence had an explicitly religious understanding of the artist. On February 24, 1913, a month before he began composing what would become The Rainbow (1915), he wrote about the numinous nature of his own creativity: "I always feel as if I stood for the fire of Almighty God to go through me--and it's a rather awful feeling. One has to be so terribly religious, to be an artist" (Letter 550 in Letters, vol. 1, 519). Like many of the Romantic poets, he experienced creative inspiration as a holy encounter. Readily generalizing from his own experience, Lawrence believed that "[a]t the maximum of our imagination, we are religious" and that "[a]n artist can only create what he really religiously feels is truth, religious truth really felt, in the blood and the bones" (Phoenix 559, 562). In The Rainbow, Lawrence's religious sensibilities are powerfully evident. Less apparent is how he seeks to provoke numinous experiences in his readers. Critics have examined the nature of Lawrence's religious ideas and symbols, but have skirted the question of how the intensely evocative Rainbow functions as religious art.

I will argue that The Rainbow can be considered "hierophantic art" in that it seeks to evoke sacred experiences in the reader. By "sacred experiences" I mean subjective experiences of divinity in or beyond the world. The structure and character of The Rainbow's narrative textures suggest that Lawrence is trying to play the role of a hierophant: he is acting like the conductor of a religious initiation rite who leads novitiates through a series of transformative experiences designed to culminate in the awareness of or union with the divine. In a typical initiation rite, the hierophant attempts to break down and purge the novitiate's ordinary, habitual mode of consciousness and to evoke a new, sacred mode. My phenomenologically oriented analysis of The Rainbow shows that the novel possesses an initiatory rhythm of destruction (mortification, purification, purgation) and sacralization (revitalization, reintegration) that is repeated four times: once in the portrayal of the anonymous pre-modern Brangwen generati ons, and again in the depictions of each of the three named, and progressively more modern, generations, those of Tom and Lydia, Anna and Will, Ursula and Anton. …

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