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D H Lawrence and pornography

By Peter Sellick - posted Tuesday, 16 February 2016


Lawrence's novel Lady Chatterley's Lover was banned in Britain and Australia after its publication in Paris in 1928 and in Australia was only released from that ban in 1965. The novel was at the centre of obscenity trials all over the world. It was seen to be corrupting of sexual morals and an outrage against the British class system because it described an affair between a gamekeeper (Mellors) and an aristocratic woman. The class difference is highlighted by Mellors insistence of speaking in the dialect of Derby rather than plain English.

In our time of internet pornography where every orifice is meticulously depicted, when four letter words are common on movie screens and sex has become recreational, how do we assess Lawrence's depiction of love? A recent reading convinced me that Lawrence depicted the sexual act in a way that was the opposite of pornography. For both Mellors and Lady Chatterley, even though their relationship was adulterous, their sexual affair opened them to real love. Mellors, returned from the war to find his wife putting herself about in the most scandalous fashion was determined to live as a solitary. Lady Chatterley was trapped in a marriage to a man who lived in the abstract. His crippled body that confined him to a wheelchair was mirrored by a crippled soul that demanded duty from his wife but was incapable of love.

The descriptions of sex are the antithesis of the crippled soul that would abstract itself from the body. What we get in these descriptions is the blood driven response of a man towards a woman, the very essence of sexual relationships. Lawrence is remonstrating against the abandonment of the body for the life of the mind as typified by the husband and his friends. They dream of becoming like smoke, bodiless and adrift. In our day we fantasise about having our consciousness uploaded into a computer were we too would become bodiless.

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Lawrence's descriptions of sex are not gratuitous, they serve the point of the novel, that we exist as bodies and that we love as bodies and everything else is pornography. A clue to what he thinks pornography is is given in Women in Love. In a conversation between Birkin and his lover Hermione about the relationship of knowledge to Being we find the following:

"But your passion is a lie," he went on violently. It isn't passion at all, it is your will. It's your bullying will. You want to clutch things and have them in your power. And why? Because you haven't got any real body, and dark sensual body of life…..As it is, what you want is pornography – looking at yourself in mirrors, watching your naked animal actions in mirrors, so that you can have it all in your consciousness, make it all mental." …"But do you really want sensuality? she asked, puzzled. …Yes, he said, "that and nothing else, at this point. It is a fulfilment – the great dark knowledge you can't have in your head – the dark involuntary being, It is death to one's self – but it is the coming into being of another."

Birkin accuses Hermione of having only one fruit in her mouth, the eternal apple, in other words, the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil given to Eve by the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Lawrence's take is that once the fruit had been eaten humanity was doomed to experience the world through knowledge and that this distanced us from immediate experience, the "dark knowledge you can't have in the head." His accusation against Hermione is that she is abstracted, removed from the dark lusts of the blood so that experience is not felt but observed from afar. Thus she does not possess a real sensual body, sensation is filtered through knowledge, spontaneity is smothered, the will is always in control.

This is what pornography is, not the felt desire for the other that leads to ecstasy and the little death, but observation, as in a mirror so that one is essentially absent from the experience. Pornography consists of the manipulation of images to produce an erotic effect, it is removed from deep erotic experience and is a perversion of it. It may be that this abstraction is at the base of the modern experience of life. We tend to distance ourselves with management and procedure so that we are insulated from raw experience. For us it is the will to power that counts and that cuts us off from real emotion and real being. We have become "intellectual man".

The criticism of pornography is that it domesticates the sexual act. When young men get their sex education from pornography they are trained in what to do, they have seen it all and re-enact it. This means that it must be mechanical, a mere aping of the actions of porn stars. The self is left at a remove and the "dark involuntary being" of desire is dampened.

"But how?" How can you have knowledge not in your head" she asked…"In the blood," he answered; "when the mind and the known world is drowned in darkness everything must go – there must be a deluge."

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Lady Chatterley's husband and friends dismiss sex as a negligible bodily function that one can well do without. Mellors shows her the power of it, the involuntary darkness. It overcomes the class system and their own loneliness and the novel leaves them trying for divorces so that they can be together, an unlikely couple with little in common but how their bodies fit together. For Lawrence this is enough.

Lady Chatterley's Lover was banned because it was obscene, a category that we no longer understand, certainly as regards sex. We now have sex education in schools in which students are taught what fits where and how to guard against pregnancy and STDs. While this is necessary knowledge for young people to have it cannot transmit to young people the emotional, personal, relational, and even economic seriousness of sexual life. While our culture is drowning in sexual images we seem to have lost the thing itself, that thing that bonds couples for life.

As is always the case we need art to convey this. It may be the art of the Song of Songs or in the book of Ruth or in John Donne's poetry or the books of John Updike. It may also be found in a book that was banded for 37 years in this country. Perhaps Lady Chatterley's Lover could find itself on the syllabus in high school English?

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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