Reality and Therapy in the Novel

Reality and Therapy in the Novel

Discourse in the novel is dialogized, permeated with laughter, irony, humor, elements of self-parody and finally – this is the most important thing – the novel inserts into these other genres an indeterminacy, a certain semantic open-endedness, a living contact with unfinished, still-evolving and contemporary reality.1

– Mikhail Bakhtin, ‘Epic and Novel’

Humour: the divine flash that reveals the world in its moral ambiguity and man in his profound incompetence to judge others; humour: the intoxicating relativity of human beings; the strange pleasure that comes of the certainty there is no certainty.2

– Milan Kundera, ‘The Day Panurge No Longer Makes People Laugh’

This chapter picks up where the previous one left off. Again, my focus here is on our literary case study. The task I have set myself is to explain exactly how and why literature, in the context of post-war modernism, acted as an antidote to Lawrence’s romanticism. My argument has been that the experience of writing and the distinctive features of the novel as a creative form insistently pulled him in this direction. In this chapter I further develop this thesis paying closer attention now to the narrative and themes of the novel. We thus move from the internal features of the novel – its textual genesis and its metaphorical and stylistic deployment, which concerned us in the previous chapter – to the distinctive ways it marshals our engagement with the external world. Thus Chapter 7 moves from the ‘text’ and ‘texture’ of Kangaroo to its substantive focus. In ‘Context’ I argue that the novel (in Bakhtinian terms, as a historical and emergent tradition) forces the writer to develop his ideas in a specific and individualised context, and that this constant friction between myth and reality drives the writer away from idealised and abstract solutions. The writing of Kangaroo incited, perhaps even compelled, Lawrence to recover and articulate his own actual memories of the Great War, with dramatic consequences for his understanding of them. In ‘Sub-Texts’, again drawing on the theoretical writings of both Bakhtin and Lawrence, I emphasise the important relationship between the genre of the novel and psychology. Viewed as a kind of psychoanalytic therapy, Lawrence’s Kangaroo is both exemplary and pioneering. I will show how its commitment to an analysis of action and of relations that focuses on individual and internal motivations, accompanied by its ruthlessly dialogic approach to voice and perspective, forms a battery of therapeutic techniques against the generalities, the objectivities and the ideologies with which Kangaroo begins. As Lawrence himself said, the novel is the greatest instrument of relativity yet created.

Along the way, Lawrence’s novel gradually intimates an alternative to the contentious dichotomies that he seemed to confront. The nature of this ‘third path’ will be the subject of the remainder of this book. With a firm understanding of Kangaroo, an appreciation of the distinctive modernism that it explored, and the better sense of the idea of literature in which it was deeply grounded, we will be able to discuss how the novel might serve as a kind of model for an alternative approach to law and justice too.

Context: Lawrence’s nightmare and the recovery of memory

As Bakhtin sees it, the novel grew out of the humour and tragedy implicit in the contrast between myth and reality. That is of course the whole significance of Don Quixote. In Rabelais too, a refusal to be enchanted is crucial to the novel’s style and method. He relentlessly purges the genres which surrounded him of any trace of transcendence, both through his absorption in the world of the common people and his empiricism. Against the romantic vision of pleasure, Rabelais, the ‘doktor of physick’, juxtaposes sex and farting. Against the romantic vision of religion, Rabelais juxtaposes gluttonous friars. Against the romantic vision of war, Rabelais juxtaposes detailed descriptions of death, pain and mutilation. At each point, whether his subject is sexual, culinary or military, Rabelais’ scatological humour and forensic irony systematically replace false idealisations with real connections between things and substitutes genuine description for the fake and fanciful actions of romance.3 Many an epic might include the lines ‘And I deliver thee, said the monk, to all the devils in hell; then at one stroke he cut off his head’. Only Rabelais would think to give us more information.

[C]utting his cranium above the petrous bone, removing both the bones of the sinciput as well as the sagittal suture, together with the greater part of the coronal bone; by doing so he sliced through both meninges and opened up deeply the two posterior ventricle-cavities of the brain: and so his cranium remained hanging down over his shoulders at the back from the membranes of the pericranium in the form of a doctoral bonnet, black above, red within.4

This is indeed, as Max Weber put it, the disenchantment of the world, a task to which the novel has consistently applied itself with pitiless zeal.

Kangaroo likewise pits ideological fantasy against the disenchanted reality of life, which the modernists (like Joyce, or Otto Dix for that matter) insisted we could not ignore. Lawrence had some experience with what happens when one is trapped in someone else’s dream. It is called a nightmare.5 In Chapter XII, the long and anguished chapter of that name which immediately follows Somers’ cataclysmic encounter with Kangaroo, Lawrence – all but dropping the mask of fiction – recovers, after a long period of repression, the memories of his experiences during the Great War.6 Frieda and Bert Lawrence sought to sit out the war in Cornwall, but were expelled from there as a security risk. Forced to return to London and then spied on by the intelligence services there, as Richard Aldington confirms, Lawrence became furious at the demeaning, humiliating and hostile treatment he received. ‘It kills me with speechless fury to be pawed by them. They shall not touch me again – such filth’.7 By 1917, Lawrence was ‘feeling that he had been killed: perfectly still, and pale, in a kind of after death. He had always believed so in everything – society, love, friends. This was one of his serious deaths in belief’.8 This trauma and alienation drove the Lawrences into a self-imposed exile from England which lasted until his death in 19309 and explains why he was in Australia in the first place.

‘The Nightmare’, 50 pages of autobiographical rage, seems an oddly cumbersome digression right in the middle of Kangaroo and is one of the main reasons the novel has been branded incoherent. What does Cornwall have to do with Australia where, as one critic put it, ‘there was no positive provocation to action, no reason for remorse at not acting, and therefore no basis for emotional conflict’?10 Yet, while Somers himself asks why these bitter memories should be rekindled in Australia of all places, answers emerge that again relate Lawrence’s arguments and conclusions to the distinctive characteristics of the novel.

From a purely geographic point of view, there was something about the place that allowed Lawrence at long last to confront his experience of the intolerance and petty tyranny unleashed by the war. The coastline of New ‘South Wales’ near Thirroul, where the Lawrences lived, is strikingly reminiscent of Cornwall’s pastures and coal mines, each limned by dramatic sheer cliffs above and by rugged and isolated beaches below.11 And the Australian ethos, with its antagonistic and dogmatic egalitarianism, acted homeopathically, so to speak, upon him. Lawrence remained sympathetic to the mass culture, the democratic spirit, of Australia, and saw in it the extension of his own Midlands.

Of course he was bound to admit that they ran their city very well, as far as he could see. Everything was very easy, and there was no fuss. Amazing how little fuss and bother there was – on the whole. Nobody seemed to bother, there seemed to be no policemen and no authority, the whole thing went by itself, loose and easy, without any bossing. No real authority – no superior classes – hardly even any boss. And everything rolling along as easily as a full river, to all appearances … There was a difference of money and of ‘smartness’. But nobody felt better than anybody else, or higher; only better-off …

Somers for the first time felt himself immersed in real democracy – in spite of all disparity in wealth … And this was what Richard Lovatt Somers could not stand.12

The Great War had showed Lawrence what mass culture may lead to and he was frightened of it. From now on this soulless egalitarianism would be the marker of his displeasure with the very communities which in earlier novels he had sought to revere. For years, Lawrence had been fleeing from these memories and at last, in Australia, confronted them, perhaps because he saw there a strange combination of innocence and intolerance which revived his memories in a safe haven that permitted him to reflect on them.

From a narrative point of view, too, Lawrence’s memories of the Great War come to the fore immediately after the episode around which the whole novel turns. Somers has barely managed to escape from the violent clutches of Kangaroo, and stumbles out, horrified, into the dark, foreboding, Sydney night.

The fantasies of Cooley and, for that matter, those of Somers and of Lawrence, summon forth Lawrence’s memory of his own experiences with authority, leadership and the collective will during the Great War.

And then he realised that all the time, since the year 1918, whether he was in Sicily or Switzerland or Venice or Germany or in the Austrian Tyrol, deep in his unconsciousness had lain this accumulation of black fury and fear, like frenzied lava quiescent in his soul. And now it had burst up: the fear, then the acute remembrance. So he faced it out, trembling with shock and bitterness, every detail.14

Thus the Aussie Diggers’ jingoistic myths eventually leeched out of Lawrence – in the Bakhtinian manner that the novel demanded of him – a dissenting voice rooted in the everyday world that Lawrence had experienced during the war and which had festered since then like a secret abscess. Kangaroo bursts the boil; he has reminded Lawrence too closely of the ‘stay at home bullies’ who governed England and of the swaggering soldiers whose contempt so bruised him.

Lawrence, of course, never fought in the Great War. Frieda and he retreated to Cornwall and attempted to wait it out in seclusion after the personal horrors of 1915, which saw an acrimonious rupture with Bertrand Russell over the question of politics, and the trial and pulping of The Rainbow in which incomprehension of his writing rose to giddy heights of officious sadism. But Cornwall proved no escape. In Cornwall he suffered a series of suspicions, accusations, ignominies and shameful encounters with the military authorities. As an outsider with a German wife and a sullen and contrary temperament, Lawrence found himself the object of a distrustful and intolerant gaze. On Christmas Eve, for example, the police come to inform the couple that they must decamp from Cornwall to a kind of house arrest in London.

Lawrence attributes the hysteria and oppression of wartime to ‘the triumph of sordid, rampant, shamelessness’ which he experiences in the cruel diffidence of the bureaucracy and in the hysterical mob patriotism unleashed by the government and the press. This is what democracy leads to, he says – mob rule.16

But the most powerful effect on Lawrence’s life was to give him a taste of the invasive intimacy of oppression: what it feels like to be ‘rejected’ for service, or to have his body looked down on in contempt,17 or to be stripped naked and reduced to bare life.18 Lawrence is violated by power, humiliated by it.

‘Cough,’ said the puppy. He coughed.

‘Again,’ said the puppy. He made a noise in his throat, then turned aside in disgust.

‘Turn round,’ said the puppy. ‘Face the other way.’

Somers turned and faced the shameful monkey-faces at the long table. So, he had his back to the tall window: and the puppy stood plumb behind him.

‘Put your feet apart.’

He put his feet apart.

‘Bend forward – further – further –.’

Somers bent forward, lower, and realised that the puppy was standing aloof behind him to look into his anus. And that this was the source of the wonderful jesting that went on all the time …

Never again. Never would he be touched again. And because they had handled his private parts, and looked into them, their eyes should burst and their hands should wither and their hearts should rot. So he cursed them in his blood, with an unremitting curse, as he waited.19

This was perhaps the most traumatic experience of Lawrence’s life, a moment in which the violation of his sense of privacy and identity mingle with homoerotic shame,20 all in the name of – in the name of what? In the name of power, of justice, of right, of community, of necessity. Lawrence’s deeply personal and profoundly intense reaction leaves him with hostility to authority and society itself, no matter how it is articulated and in whose or what name. ‘He would obey no more: not one more stride … By God, no. Never while he lived, again, would he be at the disposal of society’.21

One might at this point observe that Lawrence’s grievances are trivial compared to what men endured at the front. One might even condemn Lawrence for his lack of perspective, his painful self-absorption. But Lawrence, as I have said, is not interested in theories of politics, but in the impulse to politics, in the psychological motivation towards certain gestures of power or subservience, belonging or resisting. The novel explores mass hysteria and moral violence, the intrusion of institutions into private life, not through the lens of political context but that of personal illusions, cruelty and arrogance. If power is conceived principally in personal terms, then the intimate humiliation visited upon Lawrence at the recruiting office – his reduction, as Giorgio Agamben might say, from citizenship to animal life22 – might be said to provide a microcosm of, indeed even a small constitutive moment in, the industrial-scale violence in which millions of men were treated as mere biological organisms whose suffering was necessary and useful.23 The question of motivations and dynamics can be seen on the pettiest scale more clearly than on the grandest. The two levels while incommensurable might nonetheless be complicit.

The conscription, all the whole performance of the war was absolutely circumstantially necessary. It was necessary to investigate even the secret parts of a man. Agreed! Agreed! But – .

It was necessary to put Richard Lovatt and the ugly collier through that business at Derby. Many men were put through things a thousand times worse. Agreed! Oh, entirely agreed! The war couldn’t be lost, at that hour. Quite, quite, quite! Even Richard, even now, agreed fully to all these contentions. But – !

And there you are. But – . He was full of a lava fire of rage and hate, at the bottom of his soul. And he knew it was the same with most men. He felt desecrated. And he knew it was the same with most men.24

Lawrence’s focus on the uniqueness of individual experience and the incommensurability of suffering is precisely what makes the book anti-political. His instinct towards examining the implications of the most minute and insignificant incident is inherent in the novel’s methodological pursuit of the universal in and only in the particular. The recovered memory of the assault on Lawrence’s particular conscience and body explains why Kangaroo turns in his subconscious from a ‘Jehovah-like figure’ to ‘a Thing’. Kangaroo’s claims for his own authority serve to bring to the forefront Lawrence’s traumatic experiences with the perils of all such totalising claims. Linking together in this way Kangaroo and the Great War, Lawrence did not find some new figure in which to believe but the impossibility of belief, at least political belief, at all. As he recognised so quickly, the First World War marked his loss of belief in any of the ‘isms’ which had up until then, and indeed thereafter, though with an increasingly blind hysteria and a mounting body count, seemed to promise the perfectability of mankind – whether egalitarianism, capitalism, socialism, patriotism or any other kind of romanticism. This disenchantment was the other side of Lawrence’s critique of modernity:

Kangaroo is just another snake-oil salesman touting just another ‘ism’ – egotism perhaps, romanticism certainly – that promises to cure the world. The Great War, as Eric Hobsbawm put it, ended the ‘long nineteenth century’.26 With it died that century’s romantic idealism in all its forms. We were now truly alone. Lawrence surveyed the wreckage and suffered deeply this loss as he attempted to find a way to go on.

In light of his experiences, Somers can see little to choose between Struthers and Kangaroo – indeed, of the two, at least Struthers doesn’t want to be God himself. But as we have seen, the question for Lawrence was not communism versus fascism, but on the contrary, the problems of belief and unbelief that both faced and the transcendence and utopianism to which both appealed. Struthers and Cooley both speak in the name of something greater than they; yet Somers sees in their eyes the ‘bullying’ that this unleashes in them, as he has felt it darting at him from the eyes of others. There comes a point at which the only resistance is to the terrible arrogance of such a claim. With a palpable rage, he resists the appeal to some greatness that leads to individual sublimation. In fact, in this spirit of scepticism, Lawrence saves his harshest words for those who attempt to revive ideals whose time has past. To be compelled into service for a dead ideal – which is Lawrence’s reading of the tragedy of Great War – is just a kind of bullying.27

When Somers looked into the face of Kangaroo, entreating love but demanding obedience, he saw exactly the same bullying will which offered Somers exactly the same two choices that had already driven him to leave England: submit to the authority I possess and the unity I perceive, or be condemned a traitor. In a farcical reprise of Lawrence’s wartime experiences, Kangaroo and his off-sider Jack Callcott threaten him and tell him to leave the country. Again, the events turn out to be closely parallel: two authorities, two refusals, and two exiles.

Having shattered Kangaroo’s dream of unity, Somers must now be banished in order to preserve it. That is the hysterical response of all such dreamers in the aftermath of their inevitable failure: exclusion, purges, exile and death. Under the challenge of the novel’s method, Lawrence’s dream of transcendence exposes his underlying nightmare.

Sub-text: The novel as a therapeutic genre

In short, for Lawrence, the novel was therapy: he was the patient and Kangaroo the analyst which reflected back, in a provocative yet passive fashion, his own memories and feelings. Accordingly, we would no more be justified in reading its exploration of romantic absolutism or authoritarian idealism as a political endorsement than in reading a patient’s dreams and fantasies as endorsement. They articulate problems, not resolutions. They reveal emotional states but do not prescribe outcomes. I would even describe Kangaroo as a document of post-traumatic recovery. The novel’s circular movement and gradually ramifying and thickening metaphors slowly allow the reader, as they allow the writer, to approach the traumatic heart of his concerns. In precisely this spirit, ‘The Nightmare’, at the very heart of the novel, brings Lawrence back to the experiences which were the origin of his anxieties, and forces him to face them head on. In the following chapter, ‘Revenge – Timotheus Cries’, as Lawrence finally examines his own feelings about these experiences, a new form of reconciliation hesitantly emerges.29

Lawrence’s contemporaneous writing on psychoanalysis predisposed him to just such a therapeutic method as essential to the methodology of the novel. As Alyse Gregory’s otherwise unflattering review of Kangaroo remarks, Lawrence was ‘the first writer to embody in artistic form the intimations of psychoanalysis with his own singular and authentic vision’.30 The urgency and catastrophe of the Great War had driven Lawrence in this hugely ambitious direction.

In a way that Lawrence had earlier experimented with, for example in parts of The Rainbow, his narrative focus and language remain fixed on ‘the deeper movements of the subconscious’32 and not on the external events that precipitate them. (That is what makes him an Expressionist in his writing no less than in his paintings.33) Anaïs Nin draws our attention to the ‘inner revolution’ of the book which steadily and radically displaces the book’s still-born outer revolution.34 The changing metaphors and metonyms of the Australian landscape, as I have already noted, operate as an unfolding illumination of the shifts in his self-understanding in a way that would be entirely familiar to anyone familiar with the psychoanalytic process.

This inner revolution is tied to three essential features, at least on Lawrence’s understanding, of the novel: its attention to psychology, polyphony and irony.


The novel’s fundamental commitment to the exploration of the psychology of individuals adds complex dimensions of explanation and interrogation to the ideas which, in the person of particular embodied human beings, are given voice.

We glimpse the logical and illogical reasons people have for their beliefs. We see the same ideas expressed by different people for different reasons. We see the same person expressing contradictory ideas at different times. We see opposite ideas struggle with each other. The net effect is a real deepening of our understanding.35

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