Saturday, November 13, 2010

women in love with fascists

As part of my general effort to improve myself I've been reading some of the classics that I missed in my, well, liberal arts education in the 1970s. I began with Joyce and Kafka and I'm sort of working my way down. My most recent victim--er, author--is D.H. Lawrence.

I started out with Sons and Lovers, a more or less autobiographical story of a family in the midlands coal country of England around the turn of the last century. While I wondered a little bit about Lawrence's view of the world--he has a tendency to impart global significance to what sounds to me more like a fear of physical intimacy--the sheer power of his story-telling made me an immediate fan. Two parts stood out especially: the internal dynamics of the family, in which the mother withdraws affection from her alcoholic husband and directs it toward her male children, and the protagonist's relationships with two women, one of whom (Miriam) is a friend but never really a lover, and the other of whom (Clara) is a lover but never really a friend. These stories, while highly situated in time and place, obviously touch on universal themes, and Lawrence's treatment of them is as good as any I've seen.

With this in mind I progressed to the much longer and rather more structured Women in Love, the movie for which I had seen as a teenager but which I had never read. Women in Love tells the story of two sisters in 1920s-ish England, Gudrun and Ursula, who couple up with (respectively) a ruthless industrialist (Gerald Crich) and a sort of faux bohemian (Rupert Birkin) said to be a stand-in for Lawrence himself. The book's strong point is its unmatched description of the ambivalence of the male-female relationship--the way love and "hate," or anger, can so easily co-exist-- summarized in Gudrun's request that Gerald "try to love me a little more and want me a little less"(she dumps him, figuratively and in a sense literally, shortly thereafter). No less significant is homoerotic aspect of many male friendships, most famously captured in the nude wrestling seen which is the part of the movie everyone seems to remember. Wrestling and, perhaps, something more: Gerald is said to "withdraw" his hand from Rupert, a rather odd choice of terms for a wrestling match, but less so if a more intimate encounter was hinted.

That's the good news. The bad news is that the book is suffused with a combination of nihilism, pseudo-sophistication, and celebration of Nordic male power--Gudrun becomes attracted to Gerald after (inter alia) watching him terrorize a rabbit and nearly choke a horse--that is perhaps understandable in its historical context but quite disturbing knowing what followed it. That the climactic scenes take place in Austria, and that Gerald eventually loses Gudrun to a Dresden-based artist (Loerke) who Rupert describes as a "gnawing little negation . . . I expect he is a Jew--or part-Jewish" and whom Gerald later attempts (albeit unsuccessfully) to kill--doesn't make thing much better. It must be conceded that this sort of casual antisemitism was pervasive after the First World War: it shows up in Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and T.S. Eliot in frequently more grotesque forms. Still, it is disturbing, especially from someone like Lawrence who believed himself a victim of intolerance and a defier of convention, but appears to have been all too predictable in his cultural prejudices.

It is said that to a hammer everything looks like a nail. Perhaps, since I began to study the Holocaust, I have come to see everything through its prism. But I found it very difficult to get past this aspect of Women in Love, which was not peripheral but central to the book's theme; and I'm not sure at this point I want to.


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