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Losing the Self: Transgression in Lawrence and Bataille

Alfie Bown
p. 259-280

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  • 1 For invaluable help and assistance in the preparation of this article I would like to thank Dr Howa (...)

1Transgression is the crossing of a boundary or limit. It carries with it a legal implication, and a moral one. In Middle English, transgression is disobedience to God’s law. As Lydgate writes in 1426, the earliest use in English retained by the OED, “transgressyoun ys for to say A goyyng fro the ryht[ë] way.” D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) and Georges Bataille (1897-1962) both reconfigure the concept of transgression. Criticizing the traditional conception of transgression as the immoral yielding to temptation or impulse, both propagate the following of impulses to escape repressive modern subjectivity. Rather than seeing repressed desire as a potentially destructive force, Lawrence betrays a certain “essentialism” in his attempt to rediscover a natural human “soul” and allow this internal self freedom of expression (PUFU 64). Bataille too reformulates the idea of the repressed subject, positing that repression is not the universal condition as it is in Freud, but rather the condition of modern life (Freud 21:64). Bataille sees Freud’s category of the “id” as itself reductive; to view experience as stemming from the individual self is for Bataille the fundamental way in which experience is restricted. He therefore champions a transgression of selfhood in its entirety. Bataille, the proponent of transgressing identity, would appear to be in direct opposition to Lawrence, the seeker of an essentialist self. However, it is the hypothesis of this essay that there is, in the end, a sense in which Lawrence’s work stretches for something beyond those limits within which it is often confined. Such a Lawrence has been critically neglected both by his older advocates and by the subsequent backlash against those readings.1 Reading Lawrence through Bataille allows for a theoretical perspective that remains within his contemporary framework. Such a reading, I argue, reveals the ways in which Lawrence remains restricted by certain conceptions of selfhood. Simultaneously, a Bataillian reading also illuminates those moments at which Lawrence’s work most powerfully challenges the ideology of his time, revealing the more radical side of his project.

2Psychoanalysis reformulates conceptions of selfhood, establishing the idea that civilization is predicated upon certain necessary repressions. The unconscious repression of primary desire is the vital precondition for communal life, the a priori condition for interhuman exchange (Freud 21:64). The metaphorical form that initial prohibition takes is the threat of castration, which instigates the taboo against incest, establishes the authority of the father and forms the child as subject. The image of the prohibiting father is the basis for the providential image of God. The superego replaces this God; it is the internalization of this God, with the difference that it thinks it is doing things according to its own moral judgment. The superego forms at the very moment of prohibition of the child’s demand for the mother’s breast, and cannot be reversed.

3Perceiving that the normative modern subject is constituted by deep-seated oppression, Lawrence dreams of experience, in many ways akin to older romantic models, in which the self can achieve unoppressed satisfaction. In The Notion of Expenditure (1933), Bataille establishes capitalism as a process of restricted exchange, whereby all human interaction is characterized by one giving to another in the expectation of a recompensing act. He propagates action of a different kind, in which expenditure, of one’s own identity, is made without repose (Bataille 1985, 117-8). Story of the Eye (1928) is his fictional expression of the ways in which moments of freedom are found through such practice. Responding to the same contemporary questions of selfhood, Lawrence and Bataille speak remarkably different languages but illuminate one another, mainly through their differences, but with important crossovers. Criticism has limited Lawrence’s radicalism as a result of what is perceived to be a consistent effort to maintain the myth of the self-governing, self-fulfilling individual (Skelton 1). On the other hand, Bataille has been upheld as an avant-garde thinker whose philosophy continues to influence radical art and philosophy today.It is true that whilst Bataille’s project is concerned with renouncing the self in its entirety, Lawrence is at times bound to the idea of individual selfhood. However, I want to argue that, particularly in his later writing, Lawrence pushes these limits, suggesting a transience that exceeds these boundaries.

Lawrence and “that which is perfectly ourselves”

4In Women in Love (1920), Birkin closely replicates Lawrence’s own position in his search for “that which is perfectly ourselves” (WL 151). In Fantasia and the Unconscious, Lawrence sets out “to trace the creative or religious motive,” the desire of the individual “to build up out of his own self […] something wonderful.” This is the first motive for all human activity; “the sexual motive comes second” (PUFU 67). Where Freud sees all desire as refracted sexual desire, Lawrence sees Freudian theory as reductive and suppressive of a natural human impulse towards development. He comes to a powerful conclusion: “to be alone with one’s own soul! This, and the joy of it, is the real goal of love […] Not my ego, my conceit of myself. But my very soul. To be at one in my own self” (PUFU 157). For Lawrence, “beyond” the trinity of Freudian categories - “the Mind, [the] conservative psyche, and the incalculable soul” - is “the individual in his pure singleness […] in his oneness of being.” Experience is possible in which “soul and mind and psyche transfigure into oneness” (PUFU 154). In “Democracy,” he states that “the living self has one purpose only: to come to its own fulness of being” (Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine 106). Each human has an individual self whose development can be realized.

5Lawrence’s conceptualization of repression and the unconscious differs from the Freudian model. R. A. Gekoski asserts that there is a paradox in psychoanalysis; that its aim is to give us clear, reliable and profound access to the world of the unconscious” while it also claims that the unconscious is unknowable. Because of that, he can assert that while inhabiting the same intellectual ground, Lawrence was “moving, as Freud was moving, towards a greater creative understanding […] of the unconscious” (Gekoski 197, 206). However, the difference between nineteenth-century models and the Freudian unconscious is that the patient cannot remember repressing. The analyst cannot observe repression but can only explain behaviour with the hypothesis of a repressed memory. Lawrence writes: “once we can admit the known, but incomprehensible, presence of the integral unconscious; once we can trace it home in ourselves and follow its first revealed moments […] at last we can begin to live from the spontaneous initial prompting” (PUFU 45). Lawrence’s concept of the unconscious then, is distinct from the Freudian. The repressed is known but incomprehensible, so Lawrence has inverted psychoanalysis. In Freud, the repressed is unknown, forgotten, but to be constructed, for this is the task of psychoanalysis. In Lawrence one can know what one has repressed, by locating that spontaneous initial prompting. The initial prompting might be incomprehensible, but it can be followed. In short, repression is not a given in Lawrence. While some characters are suppressed, others find fulfilment in a realization of natural impulse.

  • 2 Milan Kundera describes kitsch as “the absolute denial of shit”; see The Unbearable Lightness of Be (...)

6In Women in Love, Birkin and Ursula find fulfilment in searching for a fundamental selfhood beyond exterior identity; they become what Lawrence describes in Fantasia, “two people who can be silent together, and not conscious of one another outwardly,” a “pure circuit” between them (PUFU 157). As Birkin says, “I don’t want to see you or hear you […] I want to find […] the you that your common self denies utterly” (WL 151). Gerald and Gudrun are the opposite example. A passage from before Gerald’s death reads: “between […] any two people on earth, the range of pure sensational experience is limited” (WL 469). This is a common feature in Lawrence, a free indirect discourse following the thought of one character. It is Gerald for whom “there is only repetition possible, or the going apart of two protagonists, or the subjugating of the one will to the other” (WL 469). Gerald’s “will” is the cause of his tragic unhappiness. Whereas Birkin and Ursula search for an essential self, Gerald and Gudrun possess the exterior identity that characterizes the modern subject and which produces a “will” to overpower and control. As Gerald says, “if your will isn’t the master, the horse is master of you” (WL 143). Likewise, Hermione says that she has “made herself with her will. The will is used to reject otherness and create an exterior identity, which is an idealized, kitsch concept of the self.2 Like the Schopenhauerian will in the individual, the will in Lawrence is used to dominate others, and it damages the dominating as well as the dominated. Birkin remarks that “such a will is an obscenity.” Hermione excludes his words to prevent herself from falling into “ultimate madness” of destroyed identity, “her mind remained unbroken, her will was still perfect.” For her “submitting to all this realisation [...] seems to destroy everything” (WL 144-146). Whilst certain characters are able to escape performative identity, others cannot. Birkin describes an African statue, “it conveys […] the whole truth of that state, whatever you feel about it,” but Gerald resents it, “he wanted to keep certain illusions, certain ideas like clothing” (WL 80). The inadequacies of kitsch conceptions of the self are always threatened. Hermione has “a void,” “a terrible gap of insufficiency” that she cannot stop up (WL 15). Those who are obsessed with exterior, social identity are miserable; they must continually strive to uphold their view of themselves, repeatedly rejecting otherness. Such people live by ideals and always feel inadequate and unfulfilled, the conditions of the modern subject, but it is possible to locate an initial self beyond this construction.

7Michael Black suggests that for Lawrence people ought to have the courage to become what they are (Black 97-8). This suggests that not all individuals suffer the alienation that creates a destructive social identity. Gerald has suffered early traumatic experience. As Birkin muses, “he had slain his brother. There was such a thing as pure accident […] A man can live by accident, and die by accident. Or can he not?” (WL 25). The uncertain syntax incites consideration, but the question is less over whether we regard the death of the brother as an accident, “a man can […] die by accident,” of whether Gerald secretly meant to do it in a Freudian sense, than it is of whether Gerald experiences it as an accident subsequently, “a man can live by [a belief in] accident.” Gerald perhaps cannot, relating strangely to his belief in the primacy of the will, which is inimical to the concept of accidents. For Gerald, “man’s will [is] the absolute, the only absolute” (WL 231). This will is dangerous and linked to exterior identity. The will is that which rejects otherness and justifies violence.

8Jonathan Dollimore concludes that in his celebration of “fullness of being,” Lawrence is characterized by a fear of disintegrative forces in the modern world and their threat to stable selfhood. Noting Lawrence’s embrace of the term “individual” and his reminder that its derivation means that which is not divided or divisible, Dollimore claims that Lawrence “actively exclude[s] and den[ies][…] otherness” (Dollimore 1984, 267-9). On the contrary, Lawrence recognizes that a social, exterior identity is constitutive of kitsch; the creation of a complete identity at the expense of aspects of the self. Lawrence defines a “ready-made mental self,” an ego, something like false consciousness, which is characterized by the rejection of otherness. This is the self to which Gerald and Hermione tragically confine themselves, and it is opposed to the free impersonal self, or “that which is perfectly ourselves,” that is so celebrated in Lawrence (Late Essays and Articles 215, WL 151). The Western world is characterized by idealism, and this operates as exterior identity (PUFU 55). It is a kitsch process of denying aspects of the self, something like Kristevan abjection. Kristeva poses the question of how much one has to lose in order to become a unified subject. It is the creation of an idealized “I” which is born from the rejection of shit, to use Kundera’s terms, or “amid the violence of sobs, of vomit” in Kristeva’s language (Kristeva 3). Lawrence interprets Freud’s belief that a certain repression is necessary for any communal life as the justification for restricting the impersonal self; it insists on the loss of certain aspects of the self through repression. Lawrence does not actively exclude otherness at all, but he locates his anti-idealistic, anti-kitsch view of the self within an interior that maintains an aspect of humanist essentialism. By Bataillian standards this can be construed as a conservative position. Lawrence allows his picture of the reality that lies beneath the fictions of identity to be constructed by these fictions themselves, but the extent of what he criticizes as exterior social identity needs to be emphasized. The “free impersonal self” is nothing like social identity. For Lawrence’s contemporary T. S. Eliot, the impersonal is something like a tradition that should remove the agency of the subject, who should then merely operate as a vehicle for the tradition’s ideas. For Eliot, emotions in the subject are an incoherent mess, so one should keep them out of the text (Eliot 44). Conversely, for Lawrence emotions should be repeatedly laid down. This facing up to identity is where Lawrence is closest to Bataille. Where Birkin and Ursula are able to seek something beyond social identity, Gerald and Gudrun are a tragic representation of the way that social identity alienates the individual from something beyond these constraints. Black observes that the point of Women in Love is an exploratory effort that calls the self into question, even though it ultimately affirms “that which is perfectly ourselves” (Black 198). Though this is true, the “impersonal” self that remains is distinctly removed from social subjectivity. Also, particularly in his later work, even this remaining humanity comes into question as Lawrence depicts moments that challenge the boundaries between the self and the world.

Bataille and the Form of Fascism

9In Story of the Eye a continual breaking of taboos makes the subject “feel more free” (Bataille 2001, 26). Moments of transgression encompass a renunciation of one’s identity by breaking those limits that guarantee the identification of the subject within the social body. Bataille’s postscript documents his childhood experiences, explaining that his blind father fantasized about his mother’s infidelity (Bataille 2001, 69-72). The jealous father metaphorically establishes the taboo of incest. As it is patriarchal language rather than the literal figure of the father that is important for Bataille, the figure of the father symbolizes rather than forms the repression that constitutes the modern subject. Clifford Chatterley is a similar figure, though giving Connie permission to have a love affair that he does not want to know about (in all three versions), he is incapable of fantasizing about being cuckolded and would prefer to actively repress the reality. For the narrator of Story of the Eye, just as for Clifford, these become internalized mentalities, but where in Clifford they are so deep-seated as to go unchallenged, in Story of the Eye they are escaped from by transgression. Freud conceptualizes pleasure as “a principle of constancy” that causes us to maintain homogeneous chains of sameness that we have a compulsion to repeat (Freud 18:9). Pleasure is avoiding excitation of the mental apparatus; an economic principle that denies risk in favour of stability. Bataille sees this type of pleasure as a reality of modern life, but not as the sole source of pleasure. For Bataille, the entry into social life produces “the horror of human impotence” in the individual (Bataille 1985, 161). So prominent are the affects of fear and guilt in the modern subject that pleasure comes to be derived from safety, but real pleasure is found in heterogeneous moments of escaping identity. Clifford Chatterley wants a “steadily lived life” whereas Mellors represents “a sudden rush of a threat out of nowhere.” Clifford finds happiness in a pleasure principle but it is risk, in Mellors, where real pleasure is found (LCL 47-8).

10In “The Metaphor of the Eye,” Roland Barthes makes the link between transgression and language, remarking that “the transgression of values that is the avowed principle of eroticism is […] based on a technical transgression of the forms of language.” Two series of metaphors develop in the text, one linking round objects - the eye, the egg, the sun and the testicle - and the other linking fluid substances such as tears, milk, urine, egg yolk and sperm. Representational images such as a crying eye compared with egg yolk seeping from the egg are acceptable, but when Bataille switches the categories to produce images such as a urinating sun, transgression becomes apparent. The experience of transgression becomes the experience of diverting language from its usual course. It “reproduces the random character of associative fields” that Saussure has established. What is important here is the emptiness of discourse; “everything […] is on the surface” (Barthes 2001, 125-6, 123). Bataille views all discourse as exclusionary and silencing, and locates pleasure in transgressing these restrictions. The narrative chain is broken by the insertion of a new metaphor. As Michelle Richman puts it, “eroticism is to sexuality as the nondiscursive is to language” (Richman 90). Transgression, of this technical form not found in Lawrence, is an eroticization of language that forces the realization that this language is empty of inherent meaning. Such a transgression relies on a materiality of the signifier that Lawrence would not accept.

  • 3 Here I have used Derrida’s translation, the passage is not translated elsewhere.

11Roland Champagne notes that the text reduces the status of fascism, the Church and capitalism (Champagne 180). However, it is not that Bataille counters specific contemporary ideologies but rather that, seeing fascism as formal rather than constituted by content, he criticizes all notions of ideological structure and truism (Bataille 1985, 137-161). It is accepting otherness as such that is the logic of fascism. Today this is not universally acknowledged. In 2009 on the BBC, Jack Straw set up national identity in “decent British values” as that which is against national fascism, carrying out a rejection of otherness in the very act of denouncing it. Every truth-affirming statement is structurally fascist. Foucault defines Bataille’s eroticism as “an experience of sexuality which links, for its own ends, an overcoming of limits to the death of God.” God here is the guarantor of identity and of the truth claim, and eroticism is an ecstasy that has killed God, “in order to lose language in a deafening night” (Foucault 1977, 31-3). Transgression is an escape from the attempt of discourse to define identity. Bataille changes the words he uses to describe transgressive experience: “I designated the sovereign operation under the names of inner experience or extremity of the possible. Now I am also designating it under the name of meditation.3 Derrida explains that what is at work here “has been the necessity of transgressing both discourse and the negativity of the bothersomeness of using any word at all in reassuring identity of its meaning.” The use of any term to describe this experience is to imprint identity on an experience of non-identity. It is impossible to speak of the experience of transgression, whilst one can speak of its effects. Bataille attempts to find a way of writing that does not close meaning down as discourse does. Derrida terms this a “neutral language” that “can enounce nothing, except in the form neither this, nor that” (Derrida 347). The restricted economy is the sum of discourses accepted as true or false, the total stock of the archive. The writing of sovereignty attempts to escape the restricted economy and unveil the existence of the general economy, in which other possibilities of experience are found. In “Method of Meditation” Bataille explains, “it relates the known to the unknown” (Bataille 2001, 93). It unmasks discourse for what it is, as adhering to the logic of fascism. Eroticism, or inner experience, is experience that reveals and escapes these constraints.

12Foucault’s project in The History of Sexuality is to repudiate the idea of a sexuality that pre-exists discourse. He establishes discourse not as something which acts as a repressive force, preventing sexual practice and expression, but rather as that which produces forms of sexual identity. “The effects of truth are produced within discourses,” Foucault says, “which in themselves are neither true nor false” (Foucault 1986). Discourse is a fascist form that generates identity, in doing so, rejecting otherness, silencing it. In Bataille then, the escape from the discursive instigates the dissolution of identity. Bataille defines eroticism as “assenting to life up to the point of death” (Bataille 1986, 11). It is an aspect of “inner experience.” He explains that eroticism is “that which one usually calls mystical experience: the states of ecstasy, of rapture, at least of meditated emotion […] an experience laid bare, free of ties, even of an origin, of any confession whatever” (Bataille 1988, 3). Inner, then, is the opposite of interior; internal selfhood is lost. It is an experience of absolute non-meaning, and cannot be interpreted; it reveals that which is silenced by discourse. Richman explains that “the general economy encompasses the total energy of the planet, with the sun as its privileged, radiant centre” (Richman 91). The sun gives without repose, whereas in the restricted economy, giving is always predicated by expected return. Story of the Eye documents instances of inner experience, laid bare and free of ties. As Bataille defines inner experience as free of any confession, here confession is directly inverted, with a priest conducting sexual acts in the confessional booth and suffering death by asphyxiation (Bataille 2001, 60-7). Jeremy Tambling suggests the opposite is true of Lawrence; that he “repeats his emotions confessionally” (Tambling 157). In the Bataillian experience there is no internal identity from which to confess. As the narrator of Story of the Eye explains, most people are unable to experience the world in this way; “the universe seems decent because decent people have gelded eyes […] I did not care for what is known as ‘pleasures of the flesh’ because they really are insipid; I cared only for what is classified as ‘dirty’” (Bataille 2001, 42). It is that which is “classified as dirty” with which this experience is concerned, so it is a re-engagement with that which has been abjected, that which has been exiled by the kitsch self. Lawrence’s use of language considered “dirty” in Lady Chatterley’s Lover is comparable. The “gelded eyes” evoke castration, but here it is only “decent” people who suffer from it. Castrated eyes are central to the text, as the image of the eye is linked to the severed testicle of the bull. The castrated eyes represent the way the world is viewed in general, by the majority. It is a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of humans to recognize the repressed reality of being. As in Lawrence the condition of being castrated is not inescapable. For Bataille, as for Lawrence, conceptualized ways of thinking and feeling are insipid, lacking in pleasurable experience.

13Transgressions are a momentary repose from the constraints of the taboo. They suspend rather than abolish the rule, but they remind the individual of the inadequacies of identity. The transgression of a boundary reveals that the boundary is only conceptual, altering the subject who has experienced transgression. The limit though, is re-inscribed in this action. However, the transgression does not only show that claims to pin down meaning are futile; it is by no means merely another way of articulating postmodern theory. Transgression produces a pleasure from exceeding boundaries. Champagne puts it well when he says that in transgression “the limits of the self […] slip away […] and reveal a mystical sense of continuity with the universe” (Champagne 187). It is a way of responding to the lack of presence in which to invest meaning in the postmodern world. As Foucault explains in his essay on Bataille, transgression is “profanation in a world which no longer recognizes any positive meaning in the sacred […] not only the sole manner of discovering the sacred in its unmediated substance, but also a way of recomposing its empty form” (Foucault 30). Thus where Lawrence locates sacred meaning in the human, Bataille perceives the impossibility of this, and his answer is transgression.

Bataillian Lawrence

14Lawrence’s later work opens up questions of selfhood that previously seem resolved in his work. In “Chaos in Poetry” (1928) he writes:

To the animal all is chaos […] And the animal is content. But man is not. Man must wrap himself in a vision […] of apparent form and stability, fixity […] Then comes a poet, enemy of convention, and makes a slit […] But after a while […] man daubs a simulacrum of the window that opens on to chaos […] Homer and Keats, annotated and with glossary. (Selected Critical Writings 234-5)

15Just as for his near-contemporary Gustav Mahler in his third symphony, for Lawrence too animals reveal that humanity is impeded nature. Here the poet reveals the un-interpretable endlessness of the cosmos of which we are part, but discourse annotates the vision, explaining it away back into reason. Lawrence continues, “so long as this process can continue […] will a civilization continue more or less happily, completing its own painted prison” (Selected Critical Writings 235). All boundaries between inside and out are constructed. As Lawrence says in Apocalypse (1931), “[we] are part of the living, incarnate cosmos. I am part of the sun as my eye is part of me. That I am part of the earth my feet know perfectly, and my blood is part of the sea” (Apocalypse 149). The metonymic chain remains uninterrupted; the sun compares with the eye and blood with the sea, so language maintains the sustainable equivalence that Bataille subverts. Bataille seeks a continuity that would end “our discontinuous mode of existence as defined and separate individuals” (Bataille 1986, 18). Lawrence’s attempt to blur the boundaries of the self evokes Bataille’s claim, although on a technical, formal level his language retains an essentialist quality. Nonetheless, he recognizes that modern life has created a system of differentiation and has organized constructed individualities into binary oppositions so that all entities are perceived as distinct from one another. For Lawrence, these boundaries are always permeable, but the dream of breaking this condition of life requires a major break in the Western world, that which guarantees identity and difference.

16In “The Woman Who Rode Away,” (1924) Lawrence contemplates this sacrifice. Laurie McCollum has recently read the text as Lawrence’s attempt to restore the marginalized female to the centre of society, but the story is in fact concerned with the destruction of Western society in its entirety (McCollum 240-2). The actions of the female heroine are described as “madness,” indicating a transgression of the entire system of Western reason. It is similar to Bataille’s injunction to “relate the known to the unknown.” Madness is the other side of reason, a “chaos” that exists hidden by discourse. The madness that Hermione avoids in Women in Love would be tragic, but now Lawrence suggests that this is the necessary step beyond. It is no longer enough that some individuals may live unrepressed lives. The heroine feels she has “passed beyond” after “a great crash at the centre of herself” and she wonders “or else it was a crash at the centre of the earth, and meant something big and mysterious” (WWRA 250). It is both, as the destruction of identity requires the surrender of the Western identity to otherness. In his depiction of otherness in “The Woman Who Rode Away,” Lawrence is open to the charge of both a racial and gender-based prejudice. However, regardless of the perhaps vulgar presentation of an “other” culture, Lawrence’s radicalism comes in the positivity found in death, and the necessity of a death that transgresses Western identity. At the story’s conclusion the narrator is faced with her death, but death here is not accompanied by a tone of dread. Bataille describes the sensation of looking down from a great height, “the lure of the void and of ruination does not in any way correspond to a diminished vitality” (Bataille 1993, 108). Death embraces rather than denies life, and this is likewise the tone in “The Woman Who Rode Away.” It is the Western world, and its logic of identities and differences that denies life, and positivity is found in its absolute sacrifice. Here in Lawrence’s later work, he too sees death as that which will restore life, of the universe, but not of humanity as we know it.

17An acceptance of death casts doubt over the concept of a stable self. Whereas the death-drive in Freud is principally imagined as that which is found “beyond the pleasure principle,” it is also paradoxically part of this pleasure principle. The death drive, the desire for a return to an earlier state of things, seeks homeostasis, and is therefore preservative, like the pleasure principle itself (Freud 18:36). For Bataille, it might be possible to frame the Western world as predicated on the death drive. The subject seeks death, but only a certain type of death, a particular death that confirms what the subject has been in life, a death which produces a finitude which guarantees identity by closing the text of the life of the subject. In Bataille death is reformed as that which would lift this identity. Identity itself diminishes and restricts vitality and death would free this life from these constraints. Lawrence comes to accept something of the transience of death in his later work, embracing the potential of an experience that would break down the conceptualized boundaries between individuals and the infinite plurality of the world. In one of his final poems, “Bavarian Gentians,” Lawrence depicts this sense. He describes the place of death as “the sightless realm where dark is married to dark,” yet this world is characterized not by static death but by life in death, as the finals words “the living dark” suggest (Complete Poems 960).

18There are similarities between these moments in Lawrence and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. In Das Lied, the words “The Farewell,” the title of the final section, are directed at the Western world. Identities and differences dissolve in an infinite plurality of nature, indicated by the repeated final word of the piece, “endless.” The funeral music that accompanies the farewell is interspersed with moments of positive tone evoking nature and its infinity. Like Mahler, Lawrence brings together reason and knowledge with its opposite. The narrator of “The Woman Who Rode Away,” like Birkin, has “no will of her own,” but now there is a sense that living as such is not adequate, and that some other engagement with otherness is needed (WWRA 45). In “The Man Who Loved Islands,” the rejection of otherness denies happiness. When Mr. Cathcart moves to the smallest island and lives alone, his solitude becomes tragic. The final passage notes that he has lost a sense of time; “time had ceased to pass” (WWRA 173). Though Bergson’s early work bored Lawrence, this evokes his concept of “pure duration” (Letters 554). Pure duration is defined by Bergson as “the form which the succession of our conscious states assumes when our ego lets itself live, when it refrains from separating its present state from its former states” (Bergson 100). It has definite resonances in Lawrence’s propagation of forgetting oneself in a moment, for which he coins the neologism “momentaneity” (Complete Poems 183). Though Lawrence’s sense of the moment is not a technical release from identity but rather a spontaneous impulse from the deeper self, it here seems not enough to merely experience occasional release. A relinquishing of life as characterized by exterior identity is required.

19If Bataille’s “neutral” language is the statement that cannot be pinned down and archived, which disappears when uttered, Lawrence’s concept of “art-language” reveals a similar approach towards discourse. Art-speech is “the greatest universal language of mankind, greater than any esoteric symbolism, […] whereas the authenticated symbol stands always for a thought or an idea, some mental concept, the art-symbol or art-term stands for a pure experience” (Studies in Classical American Literature 169). It is a way of describing a state of being which is not kitsch. Patrick Ffrench speaks similarly of Bataille, claiming that his texts play the role of Barthes’ “sens obtus” as opposed to “sens obvie” (Ffrench 5). Whilst the latter refers to the signification of the image, the “sens obtus” has a materiality exceeding structured signification; it undoes categories and presents the whole image, like Birkin’s African statue. There may be an element of Birkin’s statue that is a proto-Guardian-reader xenocentrism, and if so, this is one of those unconscious ways in which our view of reality is always constructed by the fictions of our discourse, and now needs to be questioned. In “Morality and the Novel,” Lawrence writes “they are all of them busy nailing things down. [...] Religion, with its […] One God, who says Thou shalt, Thou shan’t [] philosophy, with its fixed ideas, science, with its ‘laws’ […] But […] if you try to nail anything down, in the novel, either it kills the novel, or the novel gets up and walks away with the nail (Study of Thomas Hardy 150). The concept of internal selfhood is an attempt to nail down meaning, and so though Lawrence may hold onto a sense of internal selfhood, his later work also pushes the self to its limits, opening up rather than closing down its meaning.

Conclusion: Representing Reality

20In Pornography and Obscenity (1929), Lawrence writes critically that “in sexual intercourse there is a give and take […] but in masturbation there is nothing but loss,” yet, in “The Woman Who Rode Away,” it is loss in which the vision of future life is invested (Late Essays and Articles 245). Even in his later writings then, there is ambiguity between a preservation of the self and its dissolution. By 1925, an increasing preoccupation with the idea of death had begun to take up residence in Lawrence’s work, and the presence of enduring static attitudes is replaced by a commitment to re-seeing and re-thinking. At the end of Apocalypse, for example, as in “Bavarian Gentians,” the central self dissolves as Lawrence accepts transience in death (Apocalypse 149). Like Bataille, Lawrence’s work begins to question the idea of truth, challenging the investment of meaning in stable presence. At times Lawrence seems bound to maintaining the self, but in his later work he demonstrates the need to reopen these questions. On the other hand, Bataille is directly concerned with the renunciation of identity in its entirety. Although Lawrence’s project is for the most part tied to an essentialist self, precisely that which Bataille wants to destroy, in the end there exists simultaneously, and often ambiguously, the suggestion of a transcendence that exceeds these constraints. Criticism has exaggerated the conservatism in Lawrence’s conception of selfhood. Lawrence’s work displays the near impossibility of the subject’s complete renunciation of identity when the subject renouncing identity is himself a subject of identity. His project is to reveal the fictions upon which the Western world is predicated, but his vision of the reality behind these fictions is always structured by the fictions themselves. Reading Lawrence through Bataille, I think, illuminates both the ways in which Lawrence is limited by certain cultural conceptions of identity, and also the ways in which his work questions and subverts these identities.

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1 For invaluable help and assistance in the preparation of this article I would like to thank Dr Howard Booth, Professor Jeremy Tambling, Pat Evans and James Smith. For an up-to-date summary of critical reception see Howard J. Booth (ed.), New D. H. Lawrence (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009), 1-11.

2 Milan Kundera describes kitsch as “the absolute denial of shit”; see The Unbearable Lightness of Being trans. Michael Henry (London: Faber & Faber, 1984) pp. 248-51. Barthes similarly describes it as “proof of identities…crudely fake” in “Wilhelm von Gloeden”, The Responsibility of Forms, trans. Richard Howard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 195-197.

3 Here I have used Derrida’s translation, the passage is not translated elsewhere.

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Alfie Bown, « Losing the Self: Transgression in Lawrence and Bataille », Études Lawrenciennes, 43 | 2012, 259-280.

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Alfie Bown, « Losing the Self: Transgression in Lawrence and Bataille », Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 43 | 2012, mis en ligne le 20 décembre 2013, consulté le 29 mai 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/lawrence.105

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Alfie Bown

Alfie Bown is a postgraduate student working on Dickens and comedy with Professor Jeremy Tambling at The University of Manchester. He is interested in the history and theory of comedy, how this was treated by Dickens and how it is thought of today.

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