Sacred Carnality: D.H. Lawrence on Sex
Since it first came out in 1928, Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence has never quite shaken its reputation as literary porn. The novel tells of the love affair between the upper-class Lady Constance "Connie" Chatterley and her husband's gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors. The sex in the novel is graphic even by modern standards, making it a book that will probably never make it onto many reading lists. That's a shame because there's more going on here than an attempt to shock readers with provocative sexual content. Published just a few years before his death in 1930, the novel represents Lawrence's mature thinking on human sexuality and its importance to our well-being. That's what I'm going to take a look at here in the context of Lady Chatterley's Lover and his follow-up essay A Propos to Lady Chatterley's Lover.
So what did Lawrence really think about sex?
In A Propos to Lady Chatterley's Lover, the follow-up to his controversial novel, Lawrence he tells us, "That is the point of this book [Lady Chatterley's Lover]. I want men and women to be able to think about sex, fully, completely, honestly, and cleanly. If we can't act sexually to our complete satisfaction, let us at least think sexually, complete and clean....Years of honest thought of sex, and years of struggling actions in sex will bring us at last where we want to get, to our real and accomplished chastity, our completeness, when our sexual act and our sexual thought are in harmony, and the one does not interfere with another."
But what in the world does that even mean?
To answer that, first you need to understand what he was up against.
Our Views of Sexuality - The Problem
Western and Eastern intellectual traditions have long placed the contemplative life above the sensual. It's odd, really, when you think about it, those celibate Catholic priests and Buddhist monks, hellfire Protestant pastors, and solitary philosophers were given such an outsize role in defining our views of sexuality. But that is precisely what happened.
The Apostle Paul believed sex was a necessary evil that should be confined to marriage, and even then kept to a bare minimum, just enough to satisfy the urge. According to Saint Augustine, sex was only for procreation and was (again) another necessary evil that should only happen for the greater social good of reproduction. The Protestant pastors of the early modern period were not much better, arguing that the "sins of the flesh" were one-way tickets to eternal hellfire and should therefore be kept to the minimum of mechanical procreation.
Even the enlightened philosophers of the modern era - Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein - had little interest in human sexuality as a philosophical or even a spiritual question. Not surprisingly, their lives and works reflected that. Not one among them can be characterized as someone qualified to discuss the merits of sex through their own lived experience.
Thus it was through the eyes of these forever-pondering male phallophobes that we have conceptualized sexuality over the last two thousand years. And what an impoverished worldview! Sex became something dirty, debased, and undignified, nothing but a rutting animal act and an obstacle to any hope of transcending up and away from our disgustingly moist bodies.
Sexual urges were to be resisted altogether or limited to procreation and never enjoyed as a means of melting two human beings together in physical harmony. The life of the mind, of contemplation, of God, of the Absolute, of the Good Life, the Party, or whatever other sterile abstraction - this was called virtue. Enslaving oneself to the chains of libido - this was called vice.
Lawerence's Views on Human Sexuality
Lawrence believed this was a false dichotomy. We had it all backward. His goal was to recalibrate our approach to sex. Our carnal nature should not be the mind's enemy or something that must be suppressed.
On the contrary, Lawrence believed our sexuality as expressed through our bodies complements our minds. The healthy person engages in sex in ways that enrich, not impoverish, one's being, as well as that of their partner's. Stifling one's libido to purify the mind was to Lawrence unnatural, masochistic even. No, he felt we needed to embrace our sexual side, not fear it.
"The body's life is the life of sensations and emotions. The body feels real hunger, real thirst, real joy in the sun or the snow, real pleasures in the smell of roses or the look of a lilac bush; real anger, real horror, real love, real tenderness, real warmth, real passion, real hate, real grief. All the emotions belong to the body, and are only recognized by the mind."
In other words, only the body really feels, and that feeling adds texture to our experience, without which our emotional lives are deprived. The life of pure mind ends up divorced from sensuality, and diminished for it.
This is a very counterintuitive point that Lawrence is making and remains quite controversial. Yet, I believe he was on to something. The conventional wisdom states that carnal desires unsettle us; they drag us away from a higher state of being. Thus we struggle to keep those desires in check and cripple ourselves in the process. This is a mistake. Lawrence believed very few people understand that sex is not some dirty and furtive act, nor is it just a fleeting bit of fun. It should be an integral part of who we are and how we relate to our partners.
This is the power of Lady Chatterley's Lover. Lawrence's controversial views would have been nothing more than dead philosophical abstractions but for the fact that he was a gifted storyteller. He humanized his sexual philosophy in the form of a novel to give his readers flesh and blood characters of what he was trying to articulate. The protagonists of Lady Chatterley's Lover, Connie, her husband Clifford, and the gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors, became mouthpieces for Lawrence to express his own views.
One exchange provides an excellent example of what Lawrence was getting at, setting up a clash between the old way of thinking about sex and the new one. At this point in the story, Connie's affair with Mellors has been going on for some time, and she is thoroughly disillusioned in her sexless marriage to Clifford.
Clifford: "Do you like your physique?"
Connie: "I love it!"
Clifford: "But that's really rather extraordinary, because there's no denying it's [body] an encumbrance. But I suppose a woman doesn't take a supreme pleasure in the life of the mind."
Connie: "Supreme pleasure? Is that sort of idiocy the supreme pleasure of the life of the mind? No thank you! Give me the body. I believe the body is a greater realty than the life of the mind: when the body is really awakened to life. But so many people, like your famous wind-machine, have only got minds tacked on to their physical corpses."
Clifford: "The life of the body is just the life of animals."
Connie: And that's better than the life of professorial corpses. - But it's not true! The human body is only just coming to real life. With the Greeks it gave a lovely flicker, then Plato and Aristotle killed it, and Jesus finished it off. But now the body is coming really to life, is really rising from the tomb. And it will be a lovely, lovely life in the lovely universe, the life of the human body."
In another passage, Lawrence narrates Connie musing that true beauty requires physical passion.
"He [Oliver] put his face down and rubbed his cheek against her belly and against her thighs, again and again. And again she wondered a little over the beauty he found in her, through touch upon her living secret body, almost the ecstasy of beauty. For passion alone is awake to it. And when passion is dead, or absent, then the magnificent throb of beauty is incomprehensible and even a little despicable: live, warm beauty of contact, so much deeper than the beauty of vision."
And Oliver does some musing of his own near the end of the book.
"I stand for the touch of bodily awareness between human beings, and the touch of tenderness. And she is my mate....And as his seed sprang in her, his soul sprang towards her too, in the creative act that is far more than procreative."
This, for Lawrence, was sex recalibrated, where erotic passion reawakens our sense of beauty. With Mellors and Connie, we have two bodies embracing to unite in a "touch of tenderness" where the "creative act...is far more than procreative." He saw sex as a kind of mystical lost sacrament, something the pagans of the ancient world understood, but that had been banished to the gutter with the rise of Christianity. Connie and Mellors together rediscovered what this meant in practice. This was sex consummating the eternal union between man and woman, creating new life and thus harmonizing our existence once again with the natural cycles of the cosmos.
And make no mistake, even if this sounds a bit hippy-dippy, Lawrence is not making a case for free love, either. Far from it. Casual sex without any enduring intimacy attached to it leads to counterfeit love. Here the body is a plaything; sex is transient and devoid of mystery. It's just a bit of fun and goes no deeper.
If the wise old phallophobes of the past taught us to fear and hate the body, Lawrence felt the younger generation was not doing any better by treating the body like an amusement park. "From fearing the body and denying its existence, the advanced young go to the other extreme and treat it as a sort of toy to be played with, a slightly nasty toy, but still you can get some fun out of it, before it lets you down."
Between these two spectrums - the dour Puritan body-hate and the fashionable licentiousness of the youth - there was a balance. "Life is only bearable when the mind and the body are in harmony, and there is a natural balance between the two, and each has a natural respect for the other."
And sex was the means of achieving this natural balance.
But what was this balance in practice? For Lawrence, marriage was the answer. "The instinct of fidelity is perhaps the deepest instinct in the great complex we call sex. Where there is real sex there is an underlying passion for fidelity. And the prostitute knows it because she is up against it. She can only keep men who have no real sex, counterfeits: and these she despises."
Lawrence believed that the marriage bond between a man and a woman founded on true love (vice counterfeit love) represented the highest expression of sexual intimacy. It alone has the durability to tap into the harmonious mystery of existence, which is all about cycles of life and death, growth and decay, beginnings and endings. We are no different; we also live in this cosmos of never-ending cycles. The seasons change, and so do we. Life begins and ends, and so do we. The people we are in the beginning are not the people we are at the end.
Sex takes the two halves, the mind and the body, that comprise each individual, and then unites them together as man and woman. The beautiful harmony that Mellors and Connie found can be the result. "Sex is the great unifier. In its big, slower vibration it is the warmth of heart which makes people happy together, in togetherness."
Does Lawrence's argument have some merit? I believe it does. The fact that people keep reading Lady Chatterley's Lover almost a century after it was published shows that its universal themes have some staying power. It's still a captivating story made even better by Lawrence's gift of prose. Even if you don't buy his soaring rhetoric about the centrality of sex to our being, the highly eroticized romance between Mellors and Connie still captures our imaginations.
Perhaps because the love and passion they found for each other are something we all dream about experiencing ourselves. That uncertain and challenging search is what is universal in all of us. We know that most marriages will fail in the real world, and passionate sex is fleeting because we go about it for all the wrong reasons. And for me anyway, the graphic descriptions of lovemaking in Lady Chatterley gave the story a gritty realism absolutely missing in the sex-dead fairy tales of nineteenth-century romance novels.
Yes, Jane Austen, I'm thinking of you.
People understand that 'and they lived happily ever after' is the exception, not the rule to love, sex, and marriage. Some few of us get lucky and experience something akin to what Mellors and Connie did, while most others must settle for the shabby vicarious substitutes we get on television. That's a shame, really. While our society is more open about sex today, much of it is superficial when you think about it. Each person's sexuality is still a secret little black box we keep hidden in shame, or it's an ego-driven identity full of politics and incapable of any vulnerable intimacy.
Maybe this is just the way it is in our ego-centric civilization, which is why we still read Lawrence and find meaning in it. We want it to be otherwise, even if we don't know how. He saw the same things in his time. The way he argues sex ought to be remains an unattainable aspiration for most people, even if they fantasize about the idea. But in a society that worships the individual, as ours does, the kind of sexual union Lawrence was talking about is too mystical and demands too much dangerous vulnerability. So we muddle along through life with our deflector shields up, totally unaware of the potential connections we're passing up. I get it, though. Finding one person willing to put themself out there is hard enough; finding two like that who are attracted to one another is something else entirely, and I suspect, quite rare.
If you find it, hold on to it forever.
Lawrence, D. H. Lady Chatterley's Lover ; A Propos of "Lady Chatterley's Lover". Penguin Classics, 2009.