From D.H. Lawrence to the NHS

In perusing the usual plethora of end-of-year lists, I was struck by a comment made by Joanna Briggs in her contribution to the White Review‘s annual survey of books read by book-lovers. As is often the case, these end-of-year lists are not restricted to books released over the last year, with some preferring to just comment on the books they read from whenever. Briggs focuses on one book in particular: The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence. She writes:

It’s said that DHL isn’t someone feminists should read, but it’s almost an accident a man wrote The Rainbow. Someone had to. It’s the story of a woman getting free, from her family, the land, society, her own head. There’s so little irony in it, barely a gap between the prose and its reader, that the novel’s an emotional education in itself, somehow. I read feelingly: that doesn’t sound right, but I don’t know how else to describe it. I would wheel my nephew to the park, pointing out the NHS rainbows, and teaching him to say raaain-boh. If this had to be our new religion, I was down. When Ursula Brangwen [the book’s protagonist] sees one, it heralds ‘the earth’s new architecture’ — the least we need.

I was struck by this allusion to a connection between amorous freedom and the near-ubiquitous NHS rainbows, drawn by children, that pepper the windows of every other house in the UK — especially as I’d just finished a post on Deleuze and the contradictions of Covid libertarianism.

Although, as Briggs also alludes to, Lawrence isn’t that popular in this day and age, never having quite recovered from various feminist attacks on his work and person, Deleuze was partial to his purple prose and he features often in his writings. Lawrence’s scandalous view of love was very similar to his and Guattari’s view of schizophrenia, for instance. Indeed, they compares the two in Anti-Oedipus, as both constitute a process without a goal.

Elsewhere, Deleuze and Guattari address Lawrence’s implicit influence on the anti-psychiatry movement, noting that Lawrence’s “reservations with regard to psychoanalysis did not stem from terror at having discovered what real sexuality was”, but rather from “the impression … that psychoanalysis was shutting up sexuality in a bizarre sort of box painted with bourgeois motifs”. It is he, more than any other, who seems to ground their anti-oedipal sentiments. For Lawrence, “Oedipus is not a state of desire and the drives, it is an idea, nothing but an idea that repression inspires in us concerning desire; not even a compromise, but an idea in the service of repression, its propaganda, or its propagation.”

Lawrence, then, becomes a sort of sexy Spinozist. He is distrusting of ideas only in so far as they forget the body. Spinoza argues in the Ethics that an “emotion which is a passion ceases to be a passion as soon as we form a clear and distinct idea of it.” Whilst this sounds like it is in favour of Freud’s psychoanalytic method, Freud does not complete the process. The point for Spinoza is that, “if we form a clear and distinct idea of an emotion itself, this idea will not be distinguished from the emotion itself insofar as it is related to the mind alone … Therefore the better we know an emotion, the more it is placed within our abilities and less passive the mind is in relation to it.” Oedipus, in this sense, is an attempt to external emotion and make it inert. It does not place emotion within our abilities but rather puts it on an operating table for cold dissection. Whilst this, too, sounds commensurate with the “cold rationalism” assigned to Spinoza by Mark Fisher, the truly frosted appraisal of the self comes from within the depths of things. Cold rationalism is dissecting oneself with the same cold reason one would dissect a cadaver; half the faults in Freudian psychoanalysis can be traced back to Freud’s difficulty to achieve this sort of self-perception. As Fisher once wrote, making the case for William Burroughs as a Spinozist par excellence: “Where Freud privileges one particular image, or set of images — what Deleuze-Guattari call the family photo — so as to freeze desire into familial representations , Burroughs realises that, in principle, any image can function to capture desire.”

The same is true of Lawrence who, in his Fantasia of the Unconscious, sets out with pen and paper to record his observations of a baby in its crib, only to find the world around him intruding on the task at hand.

I come out solemnly with a pencil and an exercise book, and take my seat in all gravity at the foot of a large fir-tree, and wait for thoughts to come, gnawing like a squirrel on a nut. But the nut’s hollow.

I think there are too many trees. They seem to crowd around and stare at me, and I feel as if they nudged one another when I’m not looking. I can feel them standing there. And they won’t let me get on about the baby this morning. […]

Huge, straight fir-trees, and big beech-trees sending rivers of roots into the ground. And cuckoos, like noise falling in drops off the leaves. And me, a fool, sitting by a grassy wood-road with a pencil and a book, hoping to write more about that baby.

Lawrence decides to give in to his own distraction. He considers the trees as he would “the miserable baby with its complicated ping-pong table of an unconscious.” And yet, immediately, he comes up against the restrictions of his all-too-human expectations.

Trees that have no hands and faces, no eyes; yet the powerful sap-scented blood roaring up the great columns. A vast individual life, and an overshadowing will — the will of a tree; something that frightens you.

Suppose you want to look a tree in the face? You can’t. It hasn’t got a face. You look at the strong body of a trunk; you look above you into the matter body-hair of twigs and boughs; you see the soft green tips. But there are no eyes to look into, you can’t meet its gaze. You keep on looking at it in part and parcel.

It’s no good looking at a tree to know it. The only thing is to sit among the roots and nestle against its strong trunk, and not bother. That’s how I write all about these planes and plexuses — between the toes of a tree, forgetting myself against the great ankle of the trunk. And then, as a rule, as a squirrel is stroked into its wickedness by the faceless magic of a tree, so am I usually stroked into forgetfulness, and into scribbling this book. My tree-book, really.

When Lawrence returns from his digression to the peculiar unconscious of child, in relation to mother and father and outer world, it is hard not to keep the trees in mind. At first, this multiple-page meander seems to be wholly in service of demonstrating that old adage, “we cannot see the wood for the trees”, but there is a suggestion that, in its very familiarity, this mundane phrase covers over its own deep-rooted depth.

The point, for Lawrence, is that only so much can be ascertained by reason cold to emotion. Cold reason is instead achieved through emotion. It is through feeling that the world can truly be reasoned with. And so, when he sits before a child and attempts to understand its behaviour, which is disturbed by the child’s insistence on crying and making a fuss, he finds himself frustrated that the negative emotions that the child’s cries conjure instead get in the way of his reasoning. However, if he were more attuned to his own frustrations, and those of the child before him, he may find that he is in a better position to think about the emotional landscape they share.

“So there are two planes of being and consciousness and two models of relation and of function”, he writes, abruptly ending his discussion of trees. “We will call the lower plane the sensual, the upper the spiritual. The terms may be unwise, but we can think of no other.” It is a jarring transition. “Please read that again, dear reader; you’ll be a bit dazzled, coming out of the wood.”

These two planes are of central importance to Lawrence, and particularly in The Rainbow. The intergenerational family drama that unfurls is precisely one where sensuality and spirituality are held in tandem, albeit with great difficulty. The central premise of the novel seems to be that, whilst one leads to the other, access is difficult. To muse upon the trees is all well and good but the landscape is ever-changing. The land below the rainbow is not eternal. Our understanding of what the rainbow signifies changes with the times, but the journey itself, towards an immanent relation between sensuality and spirituality, remains underneath.

We witness this tension first when Anna Brangwen muses on the rainbow as she lies pregnant with her daughter, Ursula. For her, the rainbow is so much more than a mere hopeful image. It is a kind of heavenly oasis. It is this glorious trail sketching the trajectory of the sun, from light to dark. “Dawn and sunset were the feet of the rainbow that spanned the day” — and, in the sun’s scope, Anna Brangwen does indeed see “the hope, the promise” — but to gaze upon a rainbow is, again, to render it inert. There is a reason why the ends of a rainbow are said to home a pot of gold. With some notion of how a rainbow is manifest, by refracted light in moist air, we know that the end of a rainbow can never be reached, but the day that stops us pursuing its promise is the day we die.

As such, Anna Brangwen sees in the rainbow her own self, her own striving for love and life. Especially as a mother with child, she sees herself as a vector for freedom and the unending journey of life lived, whether by herself or an infant other. Even if her life were to settle down and centre on that respectable stability of the family home, it would still be a point of orientation rather than an end itself. The home is just a stop-off point between journeys.

Lawrence writes:

If she were not the wayfarer to the unknown, if she were arrived now, settled in her builded house, a rich woman, still her doors opened under the arch of the rainbow, her threshold reflected the passing of the sun and moon, the great travellers, her house was full of the echo of journeying.

She was a door and a threshold, she herself. Through her another soul was coming, to stand upon her as upon the threshold, looking out, shading its eyes for the direction to take.

The sensual adventure of motherhood becomes a Bifröst, leading her to new spiritual heights, and the soul that comes, Ursula Brangwen, finds her life defined by this same journey, which is at every stage made a puzzle for her desires to navigate. This is because the sensual and the spiritual, at least in Lawrence’s conception, exceed far beyond the familiar associations those words contain.

The most striking scene, in this regard, comes when Ursula is being courted by Anton Skrebensky, a young soldier. They find themselves in a cathedral and, as Anton leads Ursula into its depths, the cathedral becomes a crypt for sexual desire itself. Rather than functioning as a rainbow — a path between two planes — the church collapses sensual and spiritual together, limiting both, even in its grandeur. Anton and Ursual, in their heretical desires for one another, and confused by the strictures of the world outside, fumble for Lawrence’s lower plane and struggle to make sense of the resulting adventure, though they are captivated all the same.

Anton is the first to break the illusion, drawing Ursula’s attention to the false frontage of the cathedral itself. He is enamoured by it despite its falseness, but he cannot follow through to the beyond that the cathedral represents. It is appreciated as a grand, magnificent symbol of the divine but he cannot take it with him in his mind. He cannot see it in the world beyond and in his desire for Ursula. As a result, he is enraptured by an institutional spirituality that nonetheless botches the sensual.

Meanwhile, Ursula comes to appreciate the journey between one and its other anew; the immanent relation of the two planes and the passing-through that can only be attained by giving oneself to that same immanence. Yes, the arches of the church roof are mesmerising and inspiring but they are nonetheless grey imitations of rainbows in the skies beyond.

The scene plays out as follows, dramatising the entanglements of feeling and reason, time and space, god and nature, that would come to define Deleuze’s Spinozistic philosophy of immanence:

“It is a false front,” he said, looking at the golden stone and the twin towers, and loving them just the same. In a little ecstasy he found himself in the porch, on the brink of the unrevealed. He looked up to the lovely unfolding of the stone. He was to pass within to the perfect womb.

Then he pushed open the door, and the great, pillared gloom was before him, in which his soul shuddered and rose from her nest. His soul leapt, soared up into the great church. His body stood still, absorbed by the height. His soul leapt up into the gloom, into possession, it reeled, it swooned with a great escape, it quivered in the womb, in the hush and the gloom of fecundity, like seed of procreation in ecstasy.

She too was overcome with wonder and awe. She followed him in his progress. Here, the twilight was the very essence of life, the coloured darkness was the embryo of all light, and the day. Here, the very first dawn was breaking, the very last sunset sinking, and the immemorial darkness, whereof life’s day would blossom and fall away again, re-echoed peace and profound immemorial silence.

Away from time, always outside of time! Between east and west, between dawn and sunset, the church lay like a seed in silence, dark before germination, silenced after death. Containing birth and death, potential with all the noise and transitation of life, the cathedral remained hushed, a great, involved seed, whereof the flower would be radiant life inconceivable, but whose beginning and whose end were the circle of silence. Spanned round with the rainbow, the jewelled gloom folded music upon silence, light upon darkness, fecundity upon death, as a seed folds leaf upon leaf and silence upon the root and the flower, hushing up the secret of all between its parts, the death out of which it fell, the life into which it has dropped, the immortality it involves, and the death it will embrace again.

Here in the church, “before” and “after” were folded together, all was contained in oneness. Brangwen came to his consummation. Out of the doors of the womb he had come, putting aside the wings of the womb, and proceeding into the light. Through daylight and day-after-day he had come, knowledge after knowledge, and experience after experience, remembering the darkness of the womb, having prescience of the darkness after death. Then between-while he had pushed open the doors of the cathedral, and entered the twilight of both darknesses, the hush of the two-fold silence, where dawn was sunset, and the beginning and the end were one.

Here the stone leapt up from the plain earth, leapt up in a manifold, clustered desire each time, up, away from the horizontal earth, through twilight and dusk and the whole range of desire, through the swerving, the declination, ah, to the ecstasy, the touch, to the meeting and the consummation, the meeting, the clasp, the close embrace, the neutrality, the perfect, swooning consummation, the timeless ecstasy. There his soul remained, at the apex of the arch, clinched in the timeless ecstasy, consummated.

And there was no time nor life nor death, but only this, this timeless consummation, where the thrust from earth met the thrust from earth and the arch was locked on the keystone of ecstasy. This was all, this was everything. Till he came to himself in the world below. Then again he gathered himself together, in transit, every jet of him strained and leaped, leaped clear into the darkness above, to the fecundity and the unique mystery, to the touch, the clasp, the consummation, the climax of eternity, the apex of the arch.

She too was overcome, but silenced rather than tuned to the place. She loved it as a world not quite her own, she resented his transports and ecstasies. His passion in the cathedral at first awed her, then made her angry. After all, there was the sky outside, and in here, in this mysterious half-night, when his soul leapt with the pillars upwards, it was not to the stars and the crystalline dark space, but to meet and clasp with the answering impulse of leaping stone, there in the dusk and secrecy of the roof. The faroff clinching and mating of arches, the leap and thrust of the stone, carrying a great roof overhead, awed and silenced her.

But yet — yet she remembered that the open sky was no blue vault, no dark dome hung with many twinkling lamps, but a space where stars were wheeling in freedom, with freedom above them always higher.

Though Anton’s passion may be captivating, it is nonetheless a method of capture. Ursula will not be betrothed. She wheels out in her own freedom and finds her relationship with Anton cannot be settled on. There is too much life to live to be a soldier’s wife. As the book reaches its conclusion, it is to that higher freedom that Ursula returns, always with difficulty, but in her striving she discovers it again and again. Though her mother once imagined a home as a port for freedom’s rest, Ursula, witnessing the march of industry and capitalism’s captivation of all, sees the home built anew as a prison for the broken worker.

In everything she saw she grasped and groped to find the creation of the living God, instead of the old, hard barren form of bygone living. Sometimes great terror possessed her. Sometimes she lost touch, she lost her feeling, she could only know the old horror of the husk which bound in her and all mankind. They were all in prison, they were all going mad.

She saw the stiffened bodies of the colliers, which seemed already enclosed in a coffin, she saw their unchanging eyes, the eyes of those who are buried alive: she saw the hard, cutting edges of the new houses, which seemed to spread over the hillside in their insentient triumph, the triumph of horrible, amorphous angles and straight lines, the expression of corruption triumphant and unopposed, corruption so pure that it is hard and brittle: she saw the dun atmosphere over the blackened hills opposite, the dark blotches of houses, slate roofed and amorphous, the old church-tower standing up in hideous obsoleteness above raw new houses on the crest of the hill, the amorphous, brittle, hard-edged new houses advancing from Beldover to meet the corrupt new houses from Lethley, the houses of Lethley advancing to mix with the houses of Hainor, a dry, brittle, terrible corruption spreading over the face of the land, and she was sick with a nausea so deep that she perished as she sat. And then, in the blowing clouds, she saw a band of faint iridescence colouring in faint colours a portion of the hill. And forgetting, startled, she looked for the hovering colour and saw a rainbow forming itself. In one place it gleamed fiercely, and, her heart anguished with hope, she sought the shadow of iris where the bow should be. Steadily the colour gathered, mysteriously, from nowhere, it took presence upon itself, there was a faint, vast rainbow. The arc bended and strengthened itself till it arched indomitable, making great architecture of light and colour and the space of heaven, its pedestals luminous in the corruption of new houses on the low hill, its arch the top of heaven.

And the rainbow stood on the earth. She knew that the sordid people who crept hard-scaled and separate on the face of the world’s corruption were living still, that the rainbow was arched in their blood and would quiver to life in their spirit, that they would cast off their horny covering of disintegration, that new, clean, naked bodies would issue to a new germination, to a new growth, rising to the light and the wind and the clean rain of heaven. She saw in the rainbow the earth’s new architecture, the old, brittle corruption of houses and factories swept away, the world built up in a living fabric of Truth, fitting to the over-arching heaven.

To return to Briggs’ reappraisal of the rainbow — a mother pointing out rainbows to a child, imploring a child to speak its name and draw one; a child no doubt wholly oblivious to the realities of Covid-19 — she uncovers from that now-ubiquitous symbol a far more radical message: nothing less than a new architecture, in which hospital and home are freed from the limitations of institutional politics.

This is not the libertarianism of Covid skeptics but the collective striving of the downtrodden. It is a show of support for the nurses and doctors who march “hard-scaled and separate on the face of the world’s corruption”, and who are living still. It is they who need a rainbow overhead to look up to, understanding that their collective strife can build a better world beyond capitalist drudgery.

It is in this way that the rainbow is not simply a hollow beacon of hope that the virus will be over soon but that, through the fog of industry, a secret beauty of collective purpose is molecularising on the horizon.

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