Rereading de Beauvoir 12: Myths, Ch. 2, pt. ii

Part Three: Myths. Chapter 2, Part II. D.H. Lawrence or Phallic Pride (236-44)

[This is part of a chapter by chapter re-reading of Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex”. You can find all the posts here.]

This is a pretty short sub-chapter, but like the others in this section, it gets it’s own post. First up, though, here are some bio pages about D.H. (David Herbert) from the University of Nottingham.

SdB sets out by contrasting all the ways in which D.H. is not Montherlant: he wants to “situate [woman and man] in the truth of Life”; he’s an optimist; he rejects ‘sex versus brain’…” So, thinking back to the master-slave thing, according to SdB, D.H. realizes that man needs woman, not just as ‘Other’ to acknowledge him, but in order for him to fulfil himself, or his virility (which seem to amount to the same thing).  So, for D.H., woman “is thus neither diversion nor prey, she is not an object confronting a subject but a pole necessary for the existence of the pole of the opposite sign.” (236) Or, later, and more simply, ‘she is to him what he is to her’. (237)

dh-lawrenceMost/many of us will have read Lady Chatterley’s Lover (and perhaps partly because of its history as a banned book) about the upper class, and married Lady (Constance) Chatterley  and her love affair with the gamekeeper Oliver Mellors. Come to think of it, maybe it was sex across the class divide that was really the ‘obscene’ part, not the actual sex bits. But, as usual, I digress…  SdB also discusses The Rainbow + Women in Love (about the Brangwen sisters, Gudrun and Ursula, and their relationships — with Gudrun’s character said to be at least partly modeled on Katherine Mansfield); Sons and Lovers (about Gertrude Morel, née Coppard, who married ‘down’, and her sons: her relationships with them and their relationships with women and with her — or the relationships they fail at because of the hold their mother has over them); and The Plumed Serpent (more on that below).

I’m sure you can feel the big “but” coming that aims to sweep away any notions we might have had that among all the ‘great’ male writers, D.H. was the one who ‘got’ women — or at least, who treated them as the equals of men. (I, for one, thought that, at the urging of at least one smart man. Now I don’t know what to think, and I’m too lazy to go back and reread  him. For now, anyway.)

So, anyway, while it might look like there’s fair reciprocity going on, in which neither of the two sexes is privileged, that’s not at the case, according to SdB: “Lawrence passionately believes in male supremacy. The very expression ‘phallic marriage’ the equivalence he establishes between the sexual and the phallic, is proof enough.” (239-40)

I need to go back a little here. Earlier, SdB quotes D.H. from something called A propos of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’, in which he wrote: “Marriage is no marriage that is not basically and permanently phallic. … Marriage is no marriage that is not a correspondence of blood … The phallus is a column of blood, that fills the valley of blood of a woman.” (237-8) etc. etc. In addition, these rivers of blood can apparently never be mingled.

I find I can’t make too much sense of precisely what D.H. means by ‘phallic marriage’, but SdB is convinced. “Of the two bloodstreams that mysteriously marry, the phallic stream is favoured,” she writes. (240) She also observes that D.H. “almost never shows a man excited by a woman: but over and over he shows woman secretly overwhelmed by the vibrant, subtle, insinuating appeal of the male.” (240)

SdB also seems pretty contemptuous of D.H.’s commitment to monogamous marriage, and to a monogamy in which the woman derives justification for her existence from her husband. An idle thought comes to mind here about how some feminist critics who rather dislike Sartre (SdB’s lifelong comrade / collaborator / lover / whatever?) have seen their relationship as unfair / exploitative (or something). I’ve always resisted that characterisation, and then given up thinking about it after concluding that you can never really know the essence of someone else’s relationship. But I also wonder if the critics haven’t unfairly applied traditional mores to Sartre-Beauvoir, mores which demand that the only good husband (for women) is a monogamous one, and that a wife who accepts a non-monogamous husband is a fool or a victim or both. Like I said, just an idle thought. Which I came to think because it does feel like SdB’s own distaste for monogamous marriage is apparent in her analysis of D.H.: “Lawrence was just as vituperative as Montherlant concerning the woman [like SdB?] who wants to reverse the roles.” (241) And of course she sees Monterlant in Gertrude Morel’s emasculation of her sons.

But it is The Plumed Serpent that SdB holds as “reflecting in its entirety Lawrence’s ideal”. (243). Set in Mexico during the revolution, it is about an Irish tourist and widow, Kate Leslie, who after meeting a Mexican general Don Cipriano, is drawn into his fascistic pagan cult. In SdB’s telling “little by little … she gives her body and soul to Cipriano … she adopts his goals, his values, his universe.” (244)

“We can see why Lawrence’s novels are first and foremost ‘guidebooks for women’. It is infinitely more difficult for the woman than for the man to submit to the cosmic order, because he submits in an autonomous fashion, whereas she needs the mediation of the male … Once again, it is the ideal of the ‘real woman’ that Lawrence offers us, that is, of the woman who unhesitatingly assents to defining herself as the Other.” (244)


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