The Art of Appropriation: The Rhetoric of Sexuality in D. H. Lawrence

By Doherty, Gerald | Style, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

The Art of Appropriation: The Rhetoric of Sexuality in D. H. Lawrence


Doherty, Gerald, Style


In his celebrated essay "Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbance," Roman Jakobson divides language along two major rhetorical axes: in the metaphoric mode, words substitute for one another on the basis of similarity; in the metonymic one, contiguity is the basis for substitution. In verbal narratives, as Jakobson emphasizes, either of these "gravitational poles" may predominate: symbolic prose, for example, privileges the metaphoric mode since the law of similarity prevails; realistic prose, by contrast, favors metonymy since contiguity motivates the connection (109-12). Metaphor and metonymy function less as particular tropes than as grand binary orderings, large-scale modes of relation. Selection through similarity-the attraction of likes-or combination through contiguity-the attraction of closeness-to-hand-shapes the structure and style of narratives.

Though Jakobson surveys different types of verbal art, he does not include erotic narratives. Yet here, too, his binary model has an interesting application: it has much to say about the way rhetorical codes compose and position sexual ones. At its simplest, metaphor and metonymy project two distinct approaches to sexual choice: the selection of partners is motivated either by similarity or contiguity, their availability for the sexual act. The mode of selection in turn determines both the type of sexual practice involved and the disposition of roles within the sexual act. These gender implications of Jakobson's binary rhetoric-their construction of masculinity and femininity in erotic narratives-are the special concern of this essay.

In her exploration of how cultural myths position women in language, Margaret Homans shows how traditional thematics of gender identify women with the literal level of narrative, which is then labeled feminine. By contrast, that thematics identifies with the masculine: the language of tropes takes the literal sense as its base and then transcends it. Culture constructs masculinity through its association with the more highly valued figurative level (4-5). But since the figurative itself is bipolar, each of its poles (metaphor and metonymy) configures a different dynamic role for desire: each organizes the phallic drive in its own special way. Each reads phallic desire with the kind of sharp gender bias that we shall later explore. In locating the phallus as the symbolic agent of eros, both metonymy and metaphor empower the male, relegating the female to a subservient role.

To explore these intersections I have chosen the work of D. H. Lawrence, not only because of its importance to 20th-century discourses on sexuality, but also because, in his essays, Lawrence develops his own theories about the dynamics of the sexual exchange, theories that reverberate in his narratives. In displaying, in a peculiarly transparent way, the workings of phallic desire, Lawrence's narratives show how the two major tropes serve this desire. Although they both dispose of the female as merely the object of male aspirations and goals, each trope locates her within a specific male plot of appropriation: each tells the story of her subjection with its own special emphasis. While in theory Lawrence sometimes celebrates the perfect polarization (or balance) of sexual roles, his narratives in fact project the male as the source of the erotic power that transfigures the female.

Although it moves well beyond the limits of Jakobson's particular theories, this essay engages in readings of phallic desire in Lawrence by means of those two rhetorical codes. I shall first link some contemporary interpretations of the dyad of metaphor and metonymy that display a marked phallic bias to a rhetoric of sexuality as it unfolds in Lawrence's own essays. 1

Most theorists of language agree that metaphor involves a transfer of meaning, a crossing from one semantic domain to another: ideas associated with the vehicle (the metaphorical term) are projected onto the tenor (the principal idea), where they produce new meaning relations. …

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