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Nature And Nietzschean Philosophy In Women In Love English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 4655 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The relationship between the works of Lawrence and the philosophy of Nietzsche has undergone sustained discussion by a number of critics. Throughout such critical work, the place of the philosopher within critique of Lawrence is often confined to what might be termed the more obviously Nietzschean issues of selfhood, power and will-in other words, to what might be termed concerns deriving from the individual. It is not my aim to seek some definitive conclusion as to the extent of Nietzsche’s influence over Lawrence, nor do I wish to exclude the concepts of power, will, selfhood and desire from my discussion of the novelist’s work-indeed, such concepts will be admitted into and inform my argument. I propose, instead, to concentrate on Lawrence’s treatment of nature and its role within the human environment in his novel Women in Love, paying sustained attention to Nietzsche’s philosophy. I suggest that the relation of Lawrence’s prose to Nietzschean thought is not only essential to any detailed critical analysis of nature within Women in Love, but that any ecocritical reading of the novel will of necessity be enhanced and, paradoxically, problematised by the presence of Nietzschean thought within Lawrence’s treatment of the natural world.

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Gerald’s identification with power could be seen to mark him out as the most obviously Nietzschean character in Women in Love, due to several Lawrencian ‘showpieces’ of physical coercion which, again, merge human character and the natural world. Gerald forces his mare to stay by a railway gate during the loud passage of a goods train, and despite her frightened convulsions, restrains the horse ‘almost as if she were part of his own physique’ (Ch.9, p.115), later defending his actions in terms of ‘the natural order…the courage to use the lower animal life for our needs’ (Ch. 12, p.143). Gudrun is simultaneously repulsed and attracted by Gerald’s behaviour toward the horse, and Gerald’s physical control later in the novel over Bismarck the rabbit is associated with an image of violent sexuality in the ‘deep red score…the long red rent’ (Ch.18, p.251) on Gudrun’s forearm. Gerald’s remark-‘Not rabbits?’-alluding to human promiscuity, produces in Gudrun ‘a smile of obscene recognition’ (p.252). The concept of raw, living, above all male power, tied to the land in an organic, primeval ‘racination’, represented not by nature itself but by certain individuals rising above and out of their surroundings, is reflected in Nietzsche’s description of the ‘sovereign individual’, the ‘ripest fruit on the tree’ (On the Genealogy of Morality, Essay II, p.40), and in the first half of Women in Love, Gerald maintains such ties to the natural world alongside his power impulses.

The most prominent of such links is that joining him to water, and the second glimpse Gudrun has of Gerald is in ‘Diver’. Seeing him swimming at Willey Water, she stands ‘as if fascinated…motionless’ by a man who ‘exult[s] himself because of his own advantage, his possession of a world to himself…in his isolation in the new element, unquestioned and unconditioned’ (p.46). Later, in ‘Water-Party’, Gerald submerges himself again, in the unsuccessful attempt to save Diana Crich and Dr Brindell, emerging from the lake ‘like a water rat…like a seal’ (Ch. 14, p.186). Interestingly, his hand, by this point, has been injured-‘I trapped it in some machinery’ (Ch. 14, p.168)-by the same cogs of industrialism that will later represent his domination over the mine-workers. It is almost as if nature and mechanism are engaged in a struggle over him: the eventual triumph of the latter is presaged by Gerald’s failure to obtain a beneficial ‘synthesis’ with organic forces. After being helped from the water by Birkin, he is ‘slack and motionless in the boat, his head blunt and blind like a seal’s, his whole appearance inhuman, unknowing’. It is no accident that Gudrun at this point ‘mechanically’ follows his boat (Ch.14, p.188).

Gerald’s incompatibility with nature, and concomitant switch to a mechanistic interaction with the world, is seen on its grandest scale in his vision of dominion over the mine-workers after Thomas Crich’s death:

They were all subordinate to him…they were his instruments. He was the God of the machine…The sufferings did not matter in the least. They were mere conditions, like the weather. What mattered was the pure instrumentality of the individual. (Ch.17, p.230)

The resonance of a Nietzschean will to power in Gerald might be seen as further reinforced by the extent to which the miners, ‘exalted by belonging to this great and superhuman system which was beyond feeling or reason, something really godlike’ (Ch.17, p.239) see their employer as a kind of ‘superman’. However, it must also be pointed out that Lawrence takes a strongly critical view of this portent of industrial mechanisation. Gerald’s actions may result in an absolute display of control that might be seen in terms of a Nietzschean triumph of the will to power, but this comes at the expense of reducing, eventually, his ability to control Gudrun, and finally, in his violent attack on Loerke late in the novel and subsequent wandering to his death, the ability to control himself. His error lies, in part, with a turning away from the landscape around him, seeing the earth as expendable, in showing disregard for its-his-roots. Gudrun’s final instance of ‘nostalgia’ for Gerald’s muddy boots and ‘undiscovered’ face is in fact the longing for a false totem, a hollow primitivism with feet of clay.

When viewing Women in Love in Nietzschean terms, Gerald might be seen as connected to ideas of European disintegration, and his responsibility for an industrialised dehumanisation as representative of the wider cruelty of World War I that lurks in the background throughout the novel, cruelty in part predicted by Nietzsche as the inescapable consequence of decadence. However, Gerald cannot be seen as an exact or complete figuration of Nietzschean thought within Women in Love, as his simultaneous identification with power and the joyful, perhaps even festive imposition of cruel force (his journeys by motor-car through the groups of workers have the air of ritual about them) also places him within Nietzsche’s conception of the pre-moralised ‘nobles’ existing before the rise of Socratic thought, Christian and Kantian moralities and the rise of such ‘unhealthy’ decadence. In short, whilst Gerald can be linked to Nietzschean thought within Lawrence’s novel, and whilst the natural world is an essential part of such connection, it is impossible to regard Lawrence’s character as an avatar of Nietzsche’s philosophy.

Indeed, the ‘Mino’ chapter of Women in Love contains an overt attempt by Lawrence to differentiate himself from Nietzschean thought, in that Rupert Birkin’s ‘assumption of male superiority’ in the behaviour of the Mino cat toward females is, for Ursula,

just like Gerald Crich with his horse-a lust for bullying-a real Wille zur Macht-so base, so petty (Ch 13, p.154).

In response, Birkin attempts to obviate the Nietzschean Wille zur Macht by dismissing it as ‘a base and petty thing’, whilst upholding the Mino’s desire to ‘bring this female cat’-and by extension, man’s desire to bring woman or women-‘into a pure stable equilibrium, a transcendent and abiding rapport with the single male’. Will to Power is translated into ‘a volunté de pouvoir…a will to ability’ (Ch. 13, pp.154-5). Birkin’s attempt at modification resembles Lawrence’s earlier distinction, in his ‘Study of Thomas Hardy’, of the weakness inherent in the ‘attitude to love’ of the overly domineering male:

‘[It] makes a man feel proud, splendid. It is a powerful stimulant to him, the female administered to him. He feels full of blood, he walks the earth like a lord. And it is to this state Nietzsche aspires in his Wille zur Macht… and under all this there is, naturally, the sense of fear, transition, and the sadness of mortality’ [4] 

However, Ursula’s riposte-‘Sophistries!’-to Birkin’s ‘volunté de pouvoir’ can be seen as more significant than a simple rebuke of one character by another. Birkin’s ‘translation’ seems to derive its difference from the Wille zur Macht in its sense of transcending the bounds of the untamed, beast-like subject, but as Colin Milton points out,

‘Will to power is nothing less than the ultimate metaphysical principle of Nietzschean philosophy, the ground of all being and in human life…nearly all its activity is unconscious’ [5] .

Milton’s emphasis on the significance of ‘subtler and more refined manifestations of will to power in figures like the artist, saint and philosopher that [Nietzsche] admires most’ [6] should also be noted in support of Birkin’s morality retaining its Nietzschean flavour despite Lawrence’s protestations. Such emphasis, however, fails to acknowledge the visceral life-force within such ‘artists’ or ‘saints’. According to Nietzsche, even the moralised man has elements of the beast within him, not least in his potential for turning his natural aggression in on himself in feelings of guilt and shame:

‘Pleasure in cruelty does not really need to have died out: perhaps, just as pain today hurts more, it needed, in this connection, some kind of sublimation and subtilization, it had to be transformed into the imaginative and spiritual’ (On the Genealogy of Morality, Essay II, pp.47-8)

It is partly through Birkin’s desire for a closer relation to nature and the organic world that his guilty conscience becomes apparent.

After Birkin is struck on the head by Hermione Roddice in ‘Breadalby’, he escapes, ‘barely conscious, and yet perfectly direct in his motion’ to ‘the open country, to the hills’ (Ch. 8, p.110). He is happy at first immersing himself in grass and flowers-‘it was such a fine, cool, subtle touch all over him, he seemed to saturate himself with their contact’ (p.110) but straight away realises that these examples of nature are ‘too soft’, plunging instead into the sharpness of a group of fir-trees. Such physical unity with nature adds to Birkin’s very humanity:

The leaves and the primroses and the trees, they were really lovely and cool and desirable, they really came into the blood and were added on to him. He was enrichened now immeasurably, and so glad (p.110)

Lawrence sets up a dialogue between human health and the fecundity of nature, and his description of the natural world is raised further, to the level of sexual symbolism, in Birkin’s knowledge of ‘where to plant himself, his seed; -along with the trees, in the folds of the delicious fresh-growing leaves’. Thoughts such as these, whilst compared in the narrative to madness, are for Birkin preferable to ‘that old sanity of the world, which was become so repulsive’ (p.111).

Of course, Birkin is reeling from concussion at this point, and his thoughts of physical union with nature must be refracted through the lens of delirium, but even when he has regained his senses, he describes humanity to Ursula as ‘dry-rotten…Mankind is a dead tree, covered with fine brilliant galls of people’ (Ch.11, p.130). At this point Birkin might even be seen as moving beyond Nietzsche in his disappointment with humanity; he sees not a preponderance of disease and certain sovereign ‘ripe fruits’ distinguishing themselves, but a canker within all mankind. However, he soon modifies his position, stating that ‘Humanity is less, far less than the individual, because the individual may sometimes be capable of truth, and humanity is a tree of lies’ (p.130).

Evidence as to the potential qualities of such individual ‘truth’ can be found in the sexual union of Birkin and Ursula. When the two declare their love for each other in the inn of their ‘Excurse’, Ursula’s casts Birkin in Biblical mythological terms:

This was release at last…It was the daughters of men coming back to the sons of God, the strange inhuman sons of God who are in the beginning (Ch.23, p.325).

Yet the sexual union which ends the chapter takes place not amongst the ‘straw and stables and petrol’ (p.324) of the inn. Lawrence is careful to avoid even the remote possibility of a parallel with the Nativity, Birkin instead driving to Sherwood Forest, where he and Ursula make love on a rug atop of the bracken, linked closely to the trees around them in the ‘faint sounds from the wood, but no disturbance, no possible disturbance’. The world is ‘under a strange ban, a new mystery had supervened’ and the couple find ‘sensual reality that can never be transmuted into mind content, but remains outside, living body of darkness’ (p.332). Birkin and Ursula’s highest moment of passion is achieved in the context of a mysticism grounded in their natural, organic surroundings.

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Lawrence’s uncomfortable relationship with Nietzschean thought, simultaneously distancing himself from the philosopher’s teachings whilst maintaining such tenets at a symbolic level, is demonstrated by Birkin’s support for concepts such as the rule of the strong, the fit surviving at the expense of the weak, and also a profound scepticism and frustration with the modern world. In a symbolic sense, Birkin is just as Nietzschean a figure as Gerald, and his relation to nature is essential to such figuration.

Seen in its cultural context, the proximity of nature to Birkin and Ursula’s sexuality can be seen to provide further connections between Lawrence and Nietzschean thought, at the price of disturbing political implications for Lawrence’s conception of worth gained through organic union. Anne Fernihough draws attention to one profound example of such influence in her examination of ‘völkisch’ ideologies prevalent in Germany in the 1910s and 1920s. Deriving in part from skewed readings of Nietzsche, and the eschatological Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler, völkisch dogma would eventually contribute to the philosophical ‘case’ for Nazism. A key concept in such ideologies was, Fernihough argues,

‘rootedness, in a native soil and among a native people…the overriding feeling was one of alienation or rootlessness: humanity’s kinship with the soil had been forgotten’. [7] 

The disintegration (Zersetzung), or indeed erosion of mankind’s links to its traditional foundations of social cohesion is a politically troubling concept in itself, but when linked to the idea that democratic ‘levelling’ made statistics out of human beings, such organicism allowed recourse to ‘”natural categories” and to a “natural hierarchy grounded in biology, to the differences universally inscribed in “nature”‘ [8] .

Ironically, such hasty categorisation can also be the result of ecocritical readings into Lawrence’s work that fail to recognise the political implications of an essentialist view of nature, such as Dolores LaChapelle’s ‘deep ecological’ critique. LaChapelle grounds her work on the call by the ‘philosophical guru’ [9] of deep ecology, Arne Naess, for ‘the equal right to live and blossom of all beings, human and non-human’ [10] , yet in her attempt to link such a doctrine with Lawrence’s writing, she falls prey to a generalisation and a hagiographical lack of scepticism, as when exhorting

‘the truth that [Lawrence] was working toward-not one system, the totally material earth and the other system, the totally spiritual heaven-but both earth and heaven, integral parts of one unified whole system’ [11] .

The failure of LaChapelle’s work to make reference to Nietzsche, even in passages dealing with ‘the power of [Lawrence’s] writing…these “dark gods” within’ is emblematic of her putting an ideological aim before close analysis and the willingness to include awkward or troubling concepts into the natural world as it exists in Lawrence’s works. Her account could be included within the rejection of the deep ecologist by Jonathan Bate as ‘a person who forgets that “utopia” literally means “nowhere”, a primitivist who forgets Rousseau’s wry admission that the state of nature ‘no longer exists and perhaps never did and probably never will’ [12] . Perhaps more worrying is LaChapelle’s tendency to link Lawrence’s work to an affirmation of ‘tribal culture’ and its ‘integrally linked sex, religion and the rhythms of the cosmos’ [13] , using as evidence the anthropologist Carleton Coon’s work The Hunting Peoples, a primitivist, racist text that calls for (white) humanity to learn from ‘the hunting people’, to avoid a future where ‘a few families of hunters may meet and ask one another: “Where has whitefella gone?”‘ [14] 

Later in her account of Lawrence’s work, Fernihough argues that ‘Women in Love…cannot be exempted, at a thematic level, from a full-blooded, völkisch organicism, nor indeed from the racist positions to which this kind of organicism can lead’ [15] , but goes on to attempt the retrieval from Lawrence’s writings a different artistic concept to such troubling organicism, ‘acting, in certain vitally important ways, as an antidote to it’ [16] . Such an attempt, whilst understandable in its motives, risks falling into the awkward position of both demonizing Lawrence and ducking his most awkward, troubling thoughts. Whilst nature and the organic in Women in Love can be related to organicist concepts also used to provide fertile philosophical ground for Nazism, Lawrence’s novel, like Nietzsche’s philosophy, is too multivalent to support directly a fascistic dehumanisation of the masses. Nevertheless, Lawrence’s ideas do not and cannot be made to cancel each other out like acid and alkali, in a process of neutralisation, but persist, rather, in worrying proximity.

One such instance of proximity comes in the differing qualities of the natural world observed by Ursula and Gudrun in ‘Sketch-Book’. Gudrun stares at the shores of the lake, and ‘from [the mud’s] festering chill, water-plants rose up, thick and cool and fleshy…she could feel their turgid, fleshy structure as in a sensuous vision’ (Ch.10, p.122). Her identification with organic strength thrusting up out of a state of putrefaction foregrounds Gerald’s appearance a page later, again associated with water in rowing across the lake, as ‘her escape from the heavy slough of the pale, underworld, automatic colliers’ (p.123). Conversely, Ursula observes the butterflies, ‘breathing pure, ethereal sunshine’, before ‘drift[ing] away, unconscious like the butterflies’ (p.122). Her response is representative of Lawrence’s refusal to restrict consideration of nature to a dark, mystical connection of power of the strong over the masses. After wandering away, Ursula encounters Birkin, dismisses his conception of ‘foul humanity created, for a universal defilement’ (Ch. 11, p.131) as ‘phantasy’, before considering humanity’s ‘hideous actuality. She knew it could not disappear so cleanly and conveniently’. Ursula’s opinion represents a call for pragmatic scepticism, distinct from Gudrun and Gerald’s primal assertion of power against a shapeless mass, and Birkin’s denouncing of the human race. Despite Lawrence’s typically quick recourse to misogyny in the undermining of her views as those of a ‘subtle, feminine, demoniacal soul’ (p.132), Ursula reflects a pluralism that prevents Women in Love from sliding into the realms of simplistic primitivism and at times racism seen in relation to the natural world and its inhabitants in Lawrence’s later works such as The Plumed Serpent and Kangaroo.

In the closing chapters of the novel, both main female characters, in fact, provide a balance to the more aggressive Nietzschean assertions of Gerald and Birkin. Despite Gudrun’s declaration upon seeing the alpine setting for the novel’s denouement that ‘one really does feel übermenshlich-more than human’ (Ch.29, p.410), thus aligning herself with a Nietzschean loftiness against any humans not fortunate enough to reach the heights of a Swiss chalet, her earlier devotion to Gerald’s machismo evaporates, as she senses his vulnerability:

Perhaps this was the secret of his passion, his forever unquenched desire for her-that he needed her to put him to sleep, to give him repose.

What then! Was she his mother? (Ch.30, p.484).

Gudrun’s change of heart, however, does not preclude the continued existence of a Nietzschean morality-after all, it is not power itself that she flees, but Gerald’s specific embodiment of such force.

It is in Ursula that the novel incorporates sustained resistance to mystical organicism. Birkin’s response to Gerald’s death is a paean to ‘the timeless creative mystery’ bringing forth ‘some new, more lovely race, to carry on the embodiment of creation’, and, in the ‘incorruptible, unsearchable’ qualities of this ‘fountain-head’, to the maintenance of power and strength as essential to the creation of such ‘miraculous unborn species’ (Ch.31, p.497). Such devotion can still be seen as closely aligned to Nietzsche’s identification of will to power at the heart of human existence, despite the important shift to ‘the timeless creative mystery’ as the wellspring for such power. However, the novel ends with Ursula in strident opposition to Birkin’s view that ‘eternal union with a man’ is an important factor within such life-force:

‘It’s an obstinacy, a theory, a perversity’… You can’t have two kinds of love. Why should you!’

Whilst Nietzschean ideas within Women in Love form an essential part of the novel’s treatment of life, of nature and of ‘the organic’, and, furthermore, cannot be excluded from any approach to the novel from an ecocritical perspective, Lawrence does not fully identify himself with the philosopher. Widmer is correct in his identification of the persistence of Will to Power in Lawrence’s work, and that the author ‘has hardly succeeded in transforming the Will to Power into a clearly different “superiority”, “vitality”, “fuller being” or “dark power”‘ [17] , yet in linking a ‘sometimes imitative, sometimes confirming, sometimes oppositional but long persisting’ series of connections to the concept of Lawrence as ‘an English Nietzsche’ [18] he demonstrates a syncretistic torsion of the author’s views.

Much critical work remains to be carried out in the formation of an ecocritical approach to Lawrence’s work, yet it is evident that the role of nature within Women in Love goes far beyond providing mere ‘landscape’ or ‘background’. Whilst Milton is correct to assert that Lawrence and Nietzsche employ horticultural metaphors ‘because they want to emphasise that the elements in man traditionally regarded as good and valuable have their origins in the natural and earthy’ [19] , he neglects both a full recognition of the ambiguity of Nietzsche in relation to Lawrence, and an acceptance that the role of nature goes far beyond that of origin. The terms ‘good’ and ‘valuable’ are far from being synonymous in Nietzsche’s philosophy; indeed, one might argue that the whole of On the Genealogy of Morality concerns the extent to which the ‘good’ as conceived in the Christian tradition is far from being that which is truly ‘valuable’, with the important caveat that any pure ‘Truth’ itself cannot and should not be sought. With regard to nature’s role in Lawrence, the ‘natural and earthy’ does not exist simply as an originating force, but has a power of its own in the world, in ‘the present tense’ as it were. While resisting the fundamentalist utopianism of a deep ecological reading, the novel’s flowers, trees, lakes, fields and mountains do not simply submit to the human characters, retaining only the status of meek backdrop. It is not a vengeful Gudrun, or an industrial accident that sends Gerald to his death. His attempts to find a road south across the alps fail, the ‘half-buried Crucifix’ offers no salvation, and the wild landscape of the Alps demonstrates its vast power by effortlessly melding him into its frozen embrace.


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