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Via Negativa: Lawrence and the Language of Romanticism

Kyoko Kay Kondo
p. 85-100

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  • 1 Michael, Ragussis. The Subterfuge of Art: Language and the Romantic Tradition (Baltimore: John Hopk (...)

1Michael Ragussis in his book, The Subterfuge of Art: Language and the Romantic Tradition, indicates how Lawrence’s novels must educate readers to the special demands that they make.1 They typically set up a dialogue between, on the one hand, the narrative voice which employs a constantly shifting and evolving vocabulary and, on the other hand, a reader who must learn not to hold on to a conventional and fixed terminology. In this way, Lawrence’s longer fictions are heuristic in quite a radical, linguistic sense. Ragussis places Lawrence at the end of a long line of romantic writers and sees his modernist techniques as a powerful culmination of this tradition. In fact, although he speaks of Lawrence’s art quite generally in this connection, it is surely not accidental that his exemplary text is actually Women in Love, for I believe that the joint project of The Rainbow and Women in Love exemplifies this linguistic heurism in an especially intense and effective way within Lawrence’s oeuvre at large. It was for him a period of extraordinary expansion in both technique and world vision; an expansion fertilized to a significant degree by his eclectic reading. And this reading in turn, therefore, helps us in retrospect to see the import of his new achievement. I wish to revisit here a particular aspect of his linguistic heurism which has been noted by Ragussis and other critics: his use of negative forms.

2Considered as a stylist, Lawrence is at once brilliant and notorious. His voice is immediately recognizable and always it would seem fatally open to parody, and unwitting self-parody, and yet it constantly eludes this to penetrate the limits of a more conventional vision. A striking feature of his narrative language is his recourse to negative constructions. We recognize this characteristic in another great individual poetic voice which also brushes constantly with the threat of bathos. Wordsworth, too, has precisely such a recourse to negative forms, almost at times as a stylistic tic: recall, for example, these lines from “Tintern Abbey.”

These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye;
But oft, in lonely rooms, and “mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration: feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love. (“Tintern Abbey” 164, 22-35)

  • 2 D.H. Lawrence, “Chariot of the Sun by Harry Crosby,” Phoenix  I, 256.

3Lawrence understood that Wordsworth’s genius was to create new feelings, or to make new feelings conscious, by tearing a hole in the fabric of the familiar.2 Wordsworth persuades us of the reality of these feelings by the tentativeness with which he allows himself to formulate them; thereby obliging, or seducing, the reader to take on the creative burden with him.

4So, for example, in the passage just quoted the negations are crucial to the effect. And the formally semantic negations, such as in the phrases “have not been to me,” “unremembered pleasure,” “no slight or trivial influence,” “unremembered acts,” are themselves caught in a larger context of imagined negation. For although the beauteous forms are actually before the speaker’s eye as he speaks, his description represents them as they have stayed with him internally during the long period of his absence. In that respect they have indeed been to him precisely as they would have been to “a blind man’s eye.” So the reference to the blind man’s eye has a curious doubleness which resists analysis. On the one hand, it is true that the blind man could not have seen the landscape which the speaker has internalized, and yet once internalized this landscape exists for the inner eye with an intensity and intimacy for which the blind man seems an especially appropriate vehicle. In other words, the logically negative reference to the blind man’s eye functions here as a positively imagined intensity.

5Lawrence, too, of course, was to suggest the heightened sensory awareness and concentrated inwardness of the blind in his story “The Blind Man.” Equally Lawrencean, too, is the connection that Wordsworth makes between what was “felt in the blood” and passed even into the “purer mind.” There are differences here, too, of course. While Wordsworth was iconoclastic in his day, he nonetheless insinuates these effects in a mainly subliminal way. The reader is influenced largely unconsciously by linguistic touches on a par with those “unremembered acts” of kindness, whereas Lawrence’s expression is often more consciously challenging. His corresponding term “blood-consciousness,” for example, is a deliberately provocative oxymoron as when he uses it as a challenge to Bertrand Russell. Having read The Golden Bough and Totemism and Exogamy in 1915, Lawrence wrote to Russell in December of the same year about the importance of “blood-consciousness” in contrast to “mental-consciousness,” which “depends on the brain, the nerve system and the eyes as its source or connector,” whereas the former depends on “the sexual connection.” (Letters ii 470) Yet despite differences in content and context between Wordsworth and Lawrence, the creative continuity between them is tangible and, given the historical significance of this romantic tradition, I believe it is worth reflecting more closely on the forms of negation as they function within the imagination.

6Rosemary Sumner in her book, A Route to Modernism: Hardy, Lawrence, Woolf, has devoted several pages to Lawrence’s negatives in their novels. She rightly explains how his negative formulations function to displace the usual expectations, perceptions, and understandings, so as to make room for Lawrence’s heuristic forays. At the heart of both Hardy and Lawrence is what she calls “the adventure to the unknown.” (Sumner 94) And behind this formulation we can feel the longer religious tradition of the via negativa, the way of negation, through which the devotee seeks a transcendental spiritual truth. Without disagreeing with this general account, I wish to pause a little on the detailed imaginative play of the language itself for which the word “negative” may be a misleading term. For examined more closely, Lawrence’s language perhaps functions in a more subtle way which may in turn illuminate the workings of language as such. Why is it that, so often, the language of negation does not seem negative? What is the linguistic basis of this Lawrencean rhetoric? More particularly, I believe there is a tendency in the critical rhetoric of Lawrenceans to think of his stylistic idiosyncrasy as a linguistic, as well as a moral, iconoclasm, but all great creative achievement in language is likely to be through fulfilling, rather than resisting, the deeper laws of language.

7Let us look at some examples. In November 1913 Lawrence read Walter Pater’s essay “Winkelmann” which discusses ancient Greek sculpture and especially the Aphrodite of Melos. Pater writes “It unveils man in the repose of his unchanging characteristics… not what is accidental in man, but the god, as opposed to man’s restless movement.” (Pater 205) Lawrence then wrote to Henry Savage in January 1914, when he had already written some 340 pages of what was to become The Rainbow. Evidently drawing on Pater, he tells Savage that [in this new book]

there is a bit of stillness, like the wide, still, unseeing eyes of a Venus of Melos, […] There is something in the Greek sculpture that my soul is hungry for—something of the eternal stillness that lies under all movement, under all life, like a source, incorruptible and inexhaustible […] So long I have acknowledged only the struggle, the stream, the change […] there is behind every woman who walks, and who eats her meal, a Venus of Melos, still, unseeing, unchanging, and inexhaustible […]. Soon I shall send your books back. I have enjoyed the Pater so much. (Letter ii 137-38)

8Lawrence’s language here typifies his familiar emphasis on negative forms to express a positive presence or value: “unseeing,” “incorruptible,” “inexhaustible,” “unchanging.” And several of these words are given the further characteristic emphasis of Lawrencean repetition. We might, therefore, be tempted, in accordance with the general formula invoked by Sumner, to say that these are expressions of Lawrence’s linguistic iconoclasm, his insistence on negation in order to open an uncharted space for thought. Yet this seems to miss something about the actual impact of these expressions. For in the imaginative dynamic of the language we have a highly positive, physical image of the statue and of the woman; and this is not just because of the images invoked, it lies in the negations themselves, for Lawrence is effectively exploiting a more general law of language here, one which is after all equally there in principle in Pater, albeit without Lawrence’s insistent emphasis. We are told that our physical vision, if we were to wear spectacles that turned the world upside down, would in a few days right itself within the brain. In some comparable way, it is as if our imagination responds to the conceptions and images invoked by language with an instinct to reify, to make sense, to give ourselves a positive entity. I use this visual image, therefore, to indicate that the terms “positive” and “negative” here are not primarily evaluative but ontological terms through which something is brought positively into being through language. No doubt there are also negative usages which really function as negatives, but much of the time such expressions enact this principle of imaginative reversal. The longer term effect of this imaginative law of language can be seen, for example, in the evolution of individual words. Words which have been formed etymologically through negation become simply positive terms to our common understanding. So, for example, the word “innocent,” although its original Latin meaning was literally “not harmful,” seems now to have no negative ring to it. Like Lawrence’s “incorruptible” here, it feels to the imagination like a fully positive term, sometimes even radiantly so. For although we may use language for purposes of reasoning, it is in itself at all times radically metaphorical and arational, so that the technical positives and negatives of language follow quite different laws of calculation from those of mathematics.

  • 3 Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics. Trans. Wade Baskin, (McGraw-Hill, 1966).

9Now none of this should really be surprising as it enacts a fundamental law of language posited by Ferdinand de Saussure: namely that the signs which bear linguistic meaning are generated by a process of differentiation in which, as he emphasized, there are no positive terms.3 In this sense it is an illusion to think of the positive and negative terms of language as necessarily differentiating between positive and negative entities. They may do so, of course, but that is at the level of specific utterances within language rather than at the level of the verbal forms themselves.

10Accordingly, all the terms used by Lawrence in the passage just quoted, although they formally signal their negative construction, actually have a quite positive meaning as we actually respond to them. In other words, despite Lawrence’s emphasis being literally on a negation, it only reinforces the in-built tendency for these terms to be, or to become, positives. Moreover, when a positive term becomes so through this via negativa it stands for us as more than a simple positive. At the conceptual level, for example, we might say that what is suggested by the word “unchanging” is indeed the truly positive, or default, term even as it is being presented from the perspective of the negative. In other words, irrespective of any value that may be placed upon the changing or the unchanging as such, change would seem in the first instance to be a threat to, or diminution, of any entity which remains stable. Now in so far as stability would seem to be the normative or unmarked concept here, we could on the face of it simply use a positive term such as the words “stable,” or “fixed,” but the use of “unchanging” in this context precisely suggests something more dynamic, and therefore more significantly unchanging. The simply stable entity does not seem to have that implied potentiality for, or susceptibility to, change which is what gives the word “unchanging” its positive force, its sense of actively sustaining itself in the face of change.

11What this closer inspection brings home is that Saussurean differentiation is a technical and formal process which mainly concerns the historically remote stage of the production of language. For present speakers of a language, it is part of the unconscious of language. The word “unconscious” is itself, of course, a striking example of reification of the negative with a foundational implication for modernity. Deconstructive critique, which claims descent from Saussure, has made much of the linguistic unconscious in pursuing what Paul Ricœur has called the modern “hermeneutics of suspicion.” (Ricœur 285) But if, like Ricœur, one is concerned rather with the nature of linguistic creativity, then the unconscious of language is an inescapable condition which has to be understood precisely in a positive not a negative spirit. For Saussure’s analytic point has a rather abstract relation to our experience of language as the imaginative medium of consciousness drenched with feelings, values, motives and associations. It is only if we see the Saussurean process of differentiation as part of the radically metaphorical nature of language at large that we see its functioning more clearly. Or rather, perhaps, we see it not more clearly but more complexly and accurately.

12In this connection we may return to Lawrence’s remark that his “soul is hungry” for something in the Greek sculpture. For this opening remark conditions his description of that “something” which he can only describe in these formally negative terms. In other words, the whole ensuing thought is placed under the sign of metaphor and no less so for its being a dead or a subliminal one. Lawrence’s remark recalls the wondering question of a mature student who once asked why it is that we speak of being hungry for learning and knowledge as a metaphor, as if it had a merely secondary relation, a lower order of reality, as compared to physical hunger. The remark came from one who had indeed felt this cultural hunger for some years as a greater pang and lack than physical sustenance. One can surmise that in the longer history of the race physical hunger as a primordial pang would have preceded this sense of cultural deprivation and this is therefore the order preserved in language. But within the experience of a modern speaker, the felt priority can be reversed. This example reminds us that the logical forms and historical survivals in language do not determine its present meanings and evaluations. T. S. Eliot rightly referred in East Coker to the “intolerable wrestle with words and meanings.” (Eliot 125) The truly creative artist struggles not just with words, but with the new meanings that can be derived from the words we already have.

13In this respect, to throw light on the nature of creativity, the working of Saussurean differentiation needs to understood within an awareness of the creative process as a listening to the promptings that arise from the language itself. A number of European thinkers have discussed this and F. R. Leavis, after giving close thought to Lawrence’s creativity, puts it as follows:

All writers of major creative works are driven by the need to achieve a fuller and more penetrating consciousness of that to which we belong, or of the “something other than itself” on which the “physical world ultimately depends.” It is inseparable from the need to strengthen the human grasp of a significance in life that will inform and guide creativity. The English language is in the fullest sense alive, with hints, apprehensions and intuitions. They go back to earlier cultural phases. The writer is alive in his own time, and the character of his response, the selective individual nature of his creative receptivity, will be determined by his sense – intensely individual – of the modern human condition. (Leavis 68)

14Leavis, of course, always saw T. S. Eliot as the great creative artist of his generation, because he both exemplified this process and lived up to its high criterion, but he then came increasingly to see Lawrence in similar terms. Yet if Saussurean differentiation needs to be placed in this thicker context of the overall historical culture, so the Leavisian account gains from seeing the detailed laws of language through which it works. The specific question of Lawrence’s negatives allows us to catch this more general process on the wing. Wilhelm von Humboldt once remarked that no one has ever attended the birth of a language, we are always born into it, but maybe one can attend, or as Lawrence might say attend to, the maieutic process by which language constantly gives new birth to itself. (Humboldt 42-3)

15At the same time, if Lawrence allows us to see the laws of linguistic change occurring close up, he also reveals with unusual openness, the waste and danger of this partly Darwinian process. Many possible changes do not survive, and in many cases no doubt it is for good reason. New formations or meanings that survive beyond the style of an individual writer to become part of the general stock of the language must be adaptable to general use. And even to function within the world of the individual writer, or single poem, they must carry a weight of reality. This creative conception, therefore, places an extreme burden on the capacity to inhabit language as a world in itself, yet with a constant reality check to prevent this linguistic internalisation from being merely solipsistic. In that respect, it is indicative that the passages I have quoted from Wordsworth and Lawrence, though not chosen for that purpose, all play upon the image of blindness. For if the ancient myth of the blind bard suggested an openness to divine inspiration, it has a secular parallel in this modern conception of creativity as a listening to language: the poet’s attention is directed towards an inner prompting. Martin Heidegger in a number of memorable lectures, including the one entitled On the Way to Language, plays on the notion of listening (Heidegger 123-24) as does Lawrence at the beginning of Studies in Classic American Literature. (SCAL 2) We must learn to listen to the American writers, just as they listened, albeit partially and with difficulty, to their inner promptings. At the same time, the purely inner sources are not enough. As the passage from Wordsworth made clear, the inner eye has first been richly fed by the external world and Wordsworth remains the great poet and analyst of the recollective process whereby the internal and external worlds constantly interact in mutual recreation.

16It is appropriate, therefore, that even more widespread than the image of blindness or non-seeing in Lawrence is that of characters who intuitively see their world with the radiance of an inner vision. The Rainbow begins with a description of the lives of the Brangwens at the Marsh Farm: “There was a look in the eyes of the Brangwens as if they were expecting something unknown, about which they were eager.” (R 9) Tom meets an aristocratic foreigner at a hotel in Matlock, and finds there is a “life so different from what he knew.” (R 25) He wonders, “What was there outside his knowledge, how much? […] Where was life, in that which he knew or all outside him?” Unsatisfied with his life on the farm he drinks heavily, and then he sees Lydia, a Polish woman, walking: “She walked hastily, as if unseeing, her head rather forward. It was her curious, absorbed, flitting motion, as if she were passing unseen by everybody, that first arrested him (R 29), and “gradually, even without seeing her, he came to know her” (R 40). The passage is shot through with negative forms with highly affirmative impact and, as with the word “unchanging” discussed earlier, the impact is of an inner power created in the tension between negative form and affirmative meaning. Meanwhile, of course, not all characters, or human beings, share this transformative vision. In Women in Love Gudrun looks out on the mountain peaks of the Tyrol:

Gudrun saw all their loveliness, she knew how immortally beautiful they were,great pistils of rose-coloured, snow-fed fire in the blue twilight of heaven. She could see it, she knew it, but she was not of it. She was divorced, debarred, a soul shut out. (Women in Love 403)

17In respect to the tension between inner and outer, Clive James has observed that “Lawrence is beyond the reach of any other modern writer writing about what can be seen, since whatever could be seen he saw instantaneously and without effort – which is probably why he could regard it as nothing but the periphery of the real.“ (James 160) If it were not for his vivid appreciation of the “external” world, Lawrence could not afford the intensity of his internal, transformative vision of it.

  • 4 Cushman, Keith. D.H. Lawrence at Work: The Emergence of the Prussian Officer Stories, 11; Roy Littl (...)

18And, of course, this internal intensity was a double-edged value. Lawrence’s writing in The Rainbow, and even more in the earlier drafts, may be at times too much of a personal and internalised rhetoric, yet precisely in this respect it may also be understood as a form of Darwinian excess. New formulations spew forth many of which may be wasted, so that a new entity may survive. Survival is a matter of connection to reality, however complexly that term may be defined, and it is clearly not to be understood in a merely positivistic spirit. Roy Littlewood and Keith Cushman have both analysed the crucial process of discovery in Lawrence’s early tales, a discovery in which psychological truths, narrative imagination and linguistic heurism are inseparable.4 Cushman compares the corpse washing scenes in The Rainbow to the ending of “Odour of Chrysanthemums” in its final version of 1914: in death Tom is “inviolable,” “unapproachable,” “inaccessible,” “absolute,” “a majestic Abstraction” (Rainbow 233), and his wife feels her own singleness. Such a confrontation should be highly charged emotionally, but Lawrence has not even bothered to polish or develop it. In fact most of the emotional content of the scene in the story is absent here, and instead we have the feelings of the woman presented almost intellectually with too long a string of adjectives without relation to the feelings of the women. The dead Walter Bates is just as inviolable and absolute but these qualities are rendered dramatically. The dead Tom is simply a “majestic Abstraction.“This short scene in The Rainbow is definitely inferior to the ending of the story.” (R 11)

19In a sense, we might say that if the Tom Brangwen scene has become too abstract it is by virtue of precisely that Saussurean process of in-built reification, of the production of a positive sign from a negative differentiation, that underwrites Lawrence’s heurism at all times. For such passages indicate the dangers of the process, that the mechanism can only too readily spew forth notionally new entities like a sorcerer’s apprentice, if not checked by an equally powerful discipline of reality. This too-ready proliferation of terms was the vice to which Lawrence’s style always remained susceptible, as in notorious passages of The Plumed Serpent, yet it was also inseparable from his best achievements which constantly illuminate an intrinsic imaginative law of language.

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Lawrence, D.H. “The Blind Man,” in England, My England and Other Stories, ed. Bruce Steele. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

—————“Odour of Chrysanthemums,” The Prussian Officer and Other Stories Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

—————The Rainbow, ed. Mark Kinkead-Weekes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

—————Studies in Classic American Literature, eds. Ezra Greenspan, Lindeth Vasey and John Worthen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

——————Women in Love, eds. David Farmer, Lindeth Vasey and John Worthen.Cambridge: CUP, 1987.

——————The Plumed Serpent, ed. L.D. Clark. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

——————The Letters of D.H. Lawrence, vol. ii, eds. George J. Zytaruk and James T. Boulton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Cushman, Keith, D.H. Lawrence at Work: The Emergence of the “Prussian Officer” Stories. Charlotteville, VA.: Virginia University Press, 1978.

Eliot, T.S. The Complete Poetry and Plays. New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1971.

Heidegger, Martin. On the Way to Language. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.

James, Clive, “D.H. Lawrence in Transit,” D.H. Lawrence: Novelist, Poet,

Prophet. ed. Stephen Spender. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1974.

Leavis, F.R. The Living Principle: “English as a Discipline of Thought. Chatto & Windus, 1975.

Littlewood, Roy. “D.H. Lawrence’s Early Tales.” The Cambridge Quarterly, 1965, 1 (2), 107-24.

Pater, Walter. Studies in the History of the Renaissance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1873.

Ragussis, Michael. The Subterfuge of Art: Language and the Romantic Tradition. Baltimore: John’s Hopkins University Press, 1978.

Ricœur, Paul. The Rule of Metaphor, trans. Robert Czerny et al. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. Trans. Wade Baskin.McGraw-Hill, 1966.

Sumner, Rosemary. A Route to Modernism: Hardy, Lawrence, Woolf. London: Palgrave, Macmillan, 2000.

Von Humboldt, Wilhelm. On Language: The Diversity of Human Language Construction and its Influence on the Mental Development of Mankind, trans. Peter Heath. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1988.

Wordsworth, William. Poetical Works of Wordsworth, ed. T. Hutchinson. London: Oxford UP, 1904.

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1 Michael, Ragussis. The Subterfuge of Art: Language and the Romantic Tradition (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1978).

2 D.H. Lawrence, “Chariot of the Sun by Harry Crosby,” Phoenix  I, 256.

3 Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics. Trans. Wade Baskin, (McGraw-Hill, 1966).

4 Cushman, Keith. D.H. Lawrence at Work: The Emergence of the Prussian Officer Stories, 11; Roy Littlewood, “D.H. Lawrence’s Early Tales,” The Cambridge Quarterly, 1965, 1(2), 107-124.

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Kyoko Kay Kondo, « Via Negativa: Lawrence and the Language of Romanticism », Études Lawrenciennes, 41 | 2010, 85-100.

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Kyoko Kay Kondo, « Via Negativa: Lawrence and the Language of Romanticism », Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 41 | 2010, mis en ligne le 24 janvier 2014, consulté le 29 mai 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/lawrence.147

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Kyoko Kay Kondo

Kyoko Kay Kondo, Professor at Chiba University of Commerce, has published Development of Form in D.H.Lawrence’s Novelistic Art (Tokyo: Kirihara, 1991) and various essays (notably in Writing the Body. London: Greenwood, 2001; D.H. Lawrence: New Worlds. New York: Fairleigh Dickinson, 2003; D.H.Lawrence and Literary Genres. Napoli: Loffredo Editore, 2004; D.H. Lawrence: Literature, History, Culture.Tokyo: Kokusho-Kankokai, 2005, and in Etudes Lawrenciennes).

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