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Notes on “Life” in Language: D.H. Lawrence’s Erlebte Rede

Michael Bell
p. 9-22

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  • 1 See D.H. Lawrence: Language and Being (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

1This article is a possibly Quixotic attempt to engage what seems to me at once the most elusive, and yet the most fundamental, aspect of Lawrence’s relation to language. Much of his early reception during, and shortly after, his lifetime was as an artless writer and simplistic thinker whose naivety was evidenced in his repetitious and insistent didacticism. His heavy-handed style, only too fatally, revealed the man. Of course, since those early days serious readers have come to recognise his considered artistry, and an important locus for this new understanding has equally been the question of style. I have myself tried to suggest at some length the import of this topic in Lawrence as for example by tracing the different modalities of language instantiated in the sequence of his novels.1 But behind such local analyses lies a more radical question concerning Lawrence’s whole relation to language. For, as some readers have always recognised, his use of language is the index of an attitude to life, or more precisely perhaps, of a quality of life instantiated in his language.

2But what exactly is meant by this? This fundamental claim about Lawrence’s writing can sound more like a grandiose rhetorical gesture than an analytic insight; which is why generalised appeals to Lawrence’s sense of life have been an ambivalent staple of his positive reception. While such critical attestations are not wrong, they are subject to banality and are likely strike the unconvinced as sentimental rather than authoritative. J.C.F. Littlewood, a serious critic in the Leavisian tradition, invoked this criterion in order to argue its significant absence in Sons and Lovers:

  • 2 J.C.F. Littlewood, “Son and Lover,” The Cambridge Quarterly, vol. 4, no 4, Autumn/Winter 1969/70, 3 (...)

Here the crucial term is spontaneity, though “truth” or “truth to life” come close behind. The question therefore arises, what does spontaneity mean, what ought we to want it to mean, when it is used to describe great writing or an element in a great writer’s success? The answer I in effect gave when commenting on Odour of Chrysanthemums was that it means the pure flow of life through Elizabeth Bates when she looks at her husband […].2

  • 3 Tom Paulin, Writing to the Moment: Selected Critical Essays 1980-1996, (London: Faber and Faber, 19 (...)

3And in supporting Jessie Chambers’s critique of Sons and Lovers, Littlewood goes on to cite her reference to Lawrence’s “seemingly effortless translation of life” (Littlewood 326). While these phrases serve well enough for a critic of Littlewood’s ability, Tom Paulin once sweepingly dismissed virtually all Lawrence criticism as appealing naively to “life” as if it were a transparent value unmediated by art.3 Actually, Jessie Chambers’s “seemingly” and Littlewood’s reference to “great writing” both suggest an awareness of the artistic mediation but Paulin has a point in that the notion of “life” often forecloses analysis by acting as both premise and conclusion of the critical case. Yet rather than simply contrasting the invocation of “life” and “art” as he does, Paulin might better ask what it is about Lawrence’s writing as art that produces this effect of life.

4Since this question which Paulin does not go on to ask seems, to me to touch the fundamental point about all of Lawrence’s expression in language, I would like in this article to suggest some possible means of bringing it into analytic focus. What does it really mean to speak of life in language? Beneath the critical assertion lies a philosophical abyss. For example, is the quality of life that Lawrence invokes something described, or referred to, or is it something actually embodied in the forms and gestures of the language itself? And how securely can we distinguish between these possibilities? To answer such questions where Lawrence is concerned is also to explain in part those features which once appeared, and sometimes simply are, artlessly clumsy and didactic. The point, in other words, is not to deny Lawrence’s bathetic lapses, but to understand why he allowed himself to be susceptible to them. In effect, this means being able to appreciate how his apparent naivety in the common pejorative sense is linked to the more positive and elusive quality for which Friedrich Schiller used the term “naive.” For Schiller, of course, essentially engaged the same Lawrencian predicament of modern self-consciousness as a constant internal threat to psychic integrity and, in his classic essay on “Naïve and Sentimental Poetry,” he also focused it, above all, on the question of literary style.

5It may be significant that Littlewood’s example of “the pure flow of life” is one mediated through the consciousness of Elizabeth Bates, for the early impression of an artlessly direct transcription of personal experience into that of fictional characters arose partly from Lawrence’s characteristic use of free indirect speech, or style indirect libre. He seemed unconcerned with maintaining the elementary distinction between the character’s and the narrative voice. And since Lawrencian characters so often reflect the evident concerns of the narrative voice, itself often highly personalised and biographically inflected, it seemed natural for readers to see the author as simply speaking through his characters. Hence the confidently biographical readings which for so long plagued Lawrence’s reception. And, of course, the impression of artlessness was increased for academic readers schooled to think of free indirect speech only on the Flaubertian model as a matter of irony. For many readers, the implicit judgemental distance between character and narrative voice was the only possible point of this narrative mode.

6Quite manifestly, as Littlewood recognises, Lawrence flies in the face of such modernist assumptions about this narrative technique and I believe that the underlying significance of his doing so, as well as the inherent flexibility of the narrative method itself, can be unpacked by comparing its common designations in French, English and German. The French expression style indirect libre is commonly translated into English as “free indirect speech.” The French word style suggests a written form, and perhaps reflects a characteristic concern in much twentieth-century French thinking about literature with questions of textuality and the institutionalised formations of literature. By contrast, the English phrase privileges speech. It thereby emphasises the dramatic impression of a living voice, whether this is understood primarily as that of the character or of the author. By comparison, the German expression Erlebte Rede, although it is only a term of art with the same technical meaning as these other phrases, is semantically even more heavily loaded towards the English emphasis on life. It literally means something like “speech, or discourse, imbued with life.” To dwell on the literal, rather than the technical meaning, of this phrase provides a clue for thinking about what is at stake, or what is the characteristic effect, in Lawrence’s use of this narrative mode. In the more literal sense, Lawrence’s language is always and pre-eminently an erlebte Rede, with a small “e,” a speech charged with life, and, since these two meanings are intimately connected in Lawrence, it is helpful to approach the more fundamental meaning through the more technical one.

7It is no accident that The Rainbow, as the first fully mature novel in which Lawrence expressed his central conception of cosmic life in relation to human personality, society and history, is also the work in which his use of Erlebte Rede has a not merely local, but a structurally strategic, and thematically central, significance. In this respect it is a significant contrast from the preceding novel, Sons and Lovers, which, despite its remarkable achievement, is weakened by the tendency of the narrative voice to side too readily with Paul’s perception of both Miriam and Mrs Morel. This identification happens, of course, for good reasons. Lawrence was now developing what was to become his characteristic technique of exploring a theme through a central character who is charged with certain Lawrencian life values but Paul’s embodiment of these values is subtly distorted by the way his viewpoint dominates the presentation of Miriam, Mrs Morel and Clara. This is usually discussed in terms of a biographical bias in the creation but as a literary effect it can also be seen the other way round: the mature Lawrencian conception of a supra-human life value is only half-emergent within a narrative of personal conflict which is not its fully appropriate vehicle. The novel affirms through Paul an impersonal life feeling, such as he glimpses momentarily in the sexual episode with Clara in a field to the sound of pee-wits, but the significance of this is lost in the discarded relationship with Clara.

8By contrast, the opening of The Rainbow, especially if it is considered less for its thematic content than for its sheer function as a prelude, immediately establishes a more impersonal plane for the whole of the succeeding narrative. Of course, it supplies a necessary pre-history of the principal characters but just as important as what it tells us is what it does. With its rhythmic and Biblical language, it establishes the shared life-feeling of the Brangwens from which named individuality only very gradually emerges. Much as the sustained chord at the beginning of Das Rheingold suggests a still unified complex from which the good and evil of the Nibelungen narrative will emerge, so here the narrative introduces the underlying strains through which the Brangwen life form will increasingly seek to differentiate itself internally. And this differentiation is not just a matter of division into separable individuals: it is a complex tension whose structure lives on in microcosm within all the characters. Most importantly, the life of the early Brangwens is far from being the simple nostalgic idyll that is sometimes read into it. Take the following sentences for example:

  • 4 The Rainbow, ed. Mark Kinkead-Weekes, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 10.

They took the udder of the cows, the cows yielded milk and pulse against the hands of the men, the pulse of the blood of the teats of the cows beat into the pulse of the hands of the men. They mounted their horses, and held life between the grip of their knees, they harnessed their horses at the wagon, and, with hand on the bridle rings, drew the heaving of the horses after their will.4

9The Brangwen life form is energised by the polar tension of its two opposed imperatives: the need to feel rooted, to have a sense of participatory belonging in the world, meets an equal and opposite need to escape the maddening round of daily and seasonal demands. Both urges are felt in the insistent, repetitious, claustrophobic rhythm of the first sentence which then colours the positive energies of the second. The rhythmic gesture modifies the semantics. As this underlying conflict variously works itself out in all the subsequent characters’ lives it gives the whole action a remarkable impersonality. For what we call the “characters” are only apprehensible as such in so far as they participate in this over-arching process.

10The function of the “prelude” section, then, is to establish an impersonal play of life values occurring at a level beyond personality yet which can only be felt, known or articulated within and by the individual. Hence, rather than being primarily a story of individuals within a natural and social-historical setting, The Rainbow is the story of a process working itself out through the individuals who are its necessary vehicle and condition. In this respect, The Rainbow, of all Lawrence’s extended fictions, provides the most overt and thematised rationale for his particular mode of Erlebte Rede, a mode in which every minor detail of daily life comes into view as part of a life process of continual discrimination and largely unconscious choice. Whereas we say of Joyce’s Ulysses that its main character gradually comes to be the language itself, in The Rainbow we might say that the main character is established at the outset as a complex quality of life instantiated in language.

11Now, I take this to be an unexceptional account of Lawrence’s characteristic expression and it may serve adequately enough to refer to the intersubjective experience of reading his fiction. We know what is meant if we share the response to the work. But the notion that all Lawrencian language is an erlebte Rede, a language charged with life, remains problematic both critically and philosophically so that its general justification calls for more close discrimination.

  • 5 S.L. Goldberg, “The Rainbow: Fiddlebow and Sand,” Essays in Criticism, XI, 1961, 418-434.

12A major critical problem is that such a conception obliges the author to speak on behalf of life. This is not in itself a problem in so far as it is only what every writer, indeed every human being, does all the time. Every human utterance is an expression of life, if only in the sense of a betrayal of it. Such is the more or less explicit viewpoint, for example, of Lawrence’s critical writing, whether on literary or on more general topics, and indeed that is the reason for its special penetration and enduring power. The difficulty arises when “speaking on behalf of life” becomes a self-conscious project or standpoint within the narrative; when, that is, the life of the narrative is not just a suffusive complex of qualities of its language but becomes a specifiable viewpoint within it. Moreover, where the technique of Erlebte Rede is in question, this viewpoint may be ambiguously distributed between the narrative language or a character. Many years ago, for example, S. L. Goldberg commented, I think rightly, that the third generation of The Rainbow is relatively thinner in its dramatisation because Ursula becomes virtually the exclusive vehicle of the book’s life values whereas in the earlier generations the working out of these values through discrimination and conflict is shared between the couples.5 For the earlier couples, the life process is larger than either or both of them, whereas Ursula, as the single carrier of the book’s values, risks making them appear too merely personal.

13Once again of course, there is a proper logic to this in so far as Ursula’s generation undergoes a more conscious and articulate conflict that is internal to the individual self. Nonetheless, there is a relative thinning of texture as she becomes a more self-conscious vehicle of the book’s life values. And this remains a recurrent problem for Lawrence’s longer fiction, especially with its overtly “Lawrencian” characters such as Rawdon Lilly, Richard Somers or Ramón Carrasco. For readers unconvinced of Lawrence’s implicit claim to speak on behalf of life, the pronouncements of these characters may seem on occasion to clinch the case against him. But if we read in the order of charity, these occasions can be better seen perhaps as merely too explicit manifestations of what gives Lawrence’s writing its importance more generally: namely, that it is always engaged with fundamental life values even when addressing some apparently local or mundane affair. In sum, we may say that if Lawrence occasionally reifies the quality of life in this way, these moments are not to be taken in themselves as the true focus of his sense of life, but rather as providing a pointer to what we should be attending to in the wider body of his writing. Yet to say this still returns us to the underlying philosophical question: in what sense can language be charged with life?

  • 6 Suzanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953), 208-235.

14This question is as elusive as it is profound. Is it only a kind of metaphor to speak of life in language? And if it is, does that make it a sentimental illusion? Or should we rather say that the metaphorical and imaginary are simply in the nature of the case where language is concerned? Language, after all, is never coincident either with the objects to which it refers or with the subject who speaks it. Since nothing is truly there at any time in the symbolic medium of language, does this weaken or strengthen the case for thinking of it as an instantiation of life? Here it is useful to draw on Suzanne K. Langer’s account of “poesis” in Feeling and Form.6

  • 7 Mark Spilka, The Love Ethic of D.H. Lawrence (Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 1955), 12-3 (...)

15Langer continued the work of Ernst Cassirer’s three-volume neo-Kantian Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (orig. 1923-5-9) in which he reflected on the symbolic modalities of myth, language, science and art through which the human creates its world, or worlds. Moreover, as Mark Spilka noticed long ago, Cassirer’s sense of language has a special consonance with Lawrence’s.7 This is because Cassirer brought to the Kantian tradition a sense of evolutionary process which underwrote philosophically both a sympathetic understanding of mythopoeic sensibility and a corresponding critique of modernity. Within such a radical understanding of the symbolic as the primary mode of human consciousness, Langer argues that the true medium of poetry, by which she means in effect imaginative literature at large, is not actually language, as might be commonly supposed, but life, or more specifically again, what she calls “virtual life.” As far as human being is concerned, life is always already symbolic. In discussing literature, however, even sophisticated, knowledgeable and professional readers get so absorbed by its content, or by its linguistic and formal properties, as to lose consciousness of its primary medium and mode of significance. As she puts it: the “illusion of life is the primary illusion of all poetic art” (Langer’s emphasis). She goes on to explain:

The word “life” is used in two distinct general senses […]: the biological sense in which “life” is the characteristic functioning of organisms and is opposed to “death” and the social sense in which “life” is what happens, what the organism (or, if you will, the soul) encounters and has to contend with. In the first sense, all art has the character of life, because every work must have organic character, and it usually makes sense to speak of its “fundamental rhythm.” But “life” in the second sense belongs peculiarly to poetic art, namely, as its primary illusion. The semblance of experienced events, the illusion of life, is established with the opening line […]. (Langer 213-4)

16Note that Langer uses the word “illusion” here in a purely descriptive sense with no pejorative overtone, and indeed she uses it interchangeably with Friedrich Schiller’s crucial, and very positive term, “semblance.” The significant point here is that poetic language does not most essentially seek to represent something outside itself: “The virtual world in which events develop is always peculiar to the work” (Langer 217). And this means, as she goes on to say, that “virtual events are qualitative in their very constitution—the “facts” have no existence apart from values […] they are poetic facts, not neutral facts to which we are invited to take a poetic attitude” (Langer 223).

17Langer’s understanding of life as the primary illusion of poetry is helpful for focusing what we might mean by “life” in Lawrence’s work. It surely points to what so many readers have intuitively felt as its crucial quality, and where that primary intuition of life is lacking in the reader’s response, the work is shorn of its fundamental significance. Yet her emphasis on poetry, or “poesis,” although it is specifically intended to encompass literature at large, still leaves it an open question exactly how language invokes the virtual life which is its medium. Does language invoke “life” referentially as something outside itself or does it embody the essential quality of life within itself? One might say that, irrespective of formal literary genres, we may call language poetic whenever it embodies or enacts rather than simply refers. The sentence quoted earlier from the opening of The Rainbow is clearly an instance of this. The overwhelming impact of the sentence lies in a rhythmic repetition which confounds distinctions of inner and outer: the structure of the feeling is the structure of the Brangwen world. Yet the opening of The Rainbow may be thought a special case as an explicitly poetic prelude. By contrast, perhaps, Lawrence’s travel writing is not formally fictional, and it seeks precisely to convey an external world the reader is presumed not to know, yet the same remark manifestly applies to a passage such as this from Sea and Sardinia:

Under the lid of the half-cloudy night sky, far away at the rim of the Ionian sea, the first light, like metal fusing. So swallow the cup of tea and the bit of toast. Hastily wash up, so we can find the house decent when we come back. Shut the door-windows of the upper terrace, and go down. Lock the door: the upper half of the house made fast.
The sky and sea are parting like an oyster shell, with a low red gape. Looking across from the verandah at it, one shivers. Not that it is cold. The morning is not at all cold. But the ominousness of it: that long red slit between a dark sky and a dark Ionian sea, terrible old bivalve which has held life between its lips so long. And here, at this house, we are ledged so awfully above the dawn, naked to it. (SS 10)

18This is an “external” description in so far as it vividly represents the dawn but, of course, what it essentially represents is not an external fact but an experience in which the dominant note is an intense vulnerability rather exacerbated than assuaged by the nervous locking up of the house. Indeed, the ungrammatically phatic syntax communicates not so much a sequence of actions as of nervous instructions to the self. Moreover, the vulnerability is not primarily associated with possible human actions, such as robbery, but arises from a sense of cosmic exposure, in a vastness of both time and space, before which the house itself is merely “ledged” (where we may at first read “lodged”) and leaves the human beings “naked.” The “low red gape” and “that long red slit” carry a deathly threat with an obscure but somehow obscene sexual suggestion as if the “bivalve” is both a mouth and a vagina dentata which will eventually consume, in either capacity, the life it holds between its lips. This passage occurs early in the narrative and suggests a pre-condition of the whole subsequent journey: life for Lawrence is something you can only experience through the most naked exposure.

19Lawrence, of course, was more than naked, he had a notably, if not notoriously, “skinless” personality. By conventional standards his responses in all directions could be ungovernably intense. Not long afterwards, for example, he is overcome by anger at the dirty life of the village in Sorgono. Yet significantly, even as he experiences this anger, he himself recognises its irrationality and acknowledges the force of Frieda’s tellingly phrased rebuke:

Why don’t you take it as it comes? It’s all life. (SS 96)

20This puts in a nutshell the difference between Lawrence and most of the rest of us with respect to life. Frieda’s common sense highlights what is at stake. For her, to say that it is “life” consigns it to an externality that neither requires nor justifies such an intense response. “Life” understood as a general category distances, if not deadens, and thereby makes the experience manageable. By contrast, in Lawrence, whose skinless condition was principled as well as natural, both a willing burden and an unsolicited gift, life was not something outside himself but precisely the internal intensity of his response.

  • 8 I discuss this in F.R. Leavis (London: Routledge 1988), 41-43.
  • 9 Revaluation (London: Penguin, 1964), 216.

21How, then, do we recognise this in his use of language? First, to put the point negatively, although his voice is always recognisable, we do not think of him as possessing a “style.” A style, as the word is usually understood, would in itself be a kind of skin preventing the naked Lawrencian encounter. But more positively and importantly, his language always gathers its referential function into a participatory and enactive presentness. The notion that language can be enactive has been controversial.8 In the English literary context, it was vitally affirmed by F.R. Leavis. He claimed, for example, that in Keats’s lines from the Ode to Autumn “[…] thou dost keep/ Steady thy laden head across a brook […]” as the syntax runs over the line ending, the reader is led to enact internally the momentary imbalance and steadying of the laden head.9 This effect has been seen as an illusion, a merely fanciful claim on Leavis’s part, without it being recognised that what is involved here is a major crux in modern understandings of language.

22There are two opposed, and mutually incomprehending, traditions whereby the same analytic insight can have quite opposite implications. An influential branch of the semiotic tradition, commonly laid at the door of Ferdinand de Saussure, culminates in deconstruction. By treating language as a system of representation and communication, this tradition constantly invites recognition of the failure of language to encapsulate either the world or thought. An opposite tradition passes through Wilhelm Dilthey, Martin Heidegger and F. R. Leavis. In this tradition language is the largely unconscious matrix out of which past experience can be tapped in the constant creation of the human world. In the creative process there is no fixed standard of adequacy either external or internal. Otherwise it could not be truly creative. Hence, in the first conception, for example, the thought that language speaks through the individual subject is a scandal, while in the latter it is to be positively embraced. For on this latter model, it is in effect life which speaks through language. Likewise, in the first conception, language is ontologically distinct and it is therefore illusory to think of it as enactive while in the latter conception the internal psychological process is of the essence because what is enacted is not some external aspect of the world but the human subject’s participation in a living process at the level of virtuality defined by Suzanne Langer. The problem of defining what we might mean by speaking of life in language is a philosophical, a literary and a human question in no way peculiar to Lawrence, but he throws it into an especially sharp relief because of its critical centrality to the significance of his oeuvre and because of the exemplary force of his naked self-exposure to life.

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1 See D.H. Lawrence: Language and Being (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

2 J.C.F. Littlewood, “Son and Lover,” The Cambridge Quarterly, vol. 4, no 4, Autumn/Winter 1969/70, 323-361 (325).

3 Tom Paulin, Writing to the Moment: Selected Critical Essays 1980-1996, (London: Faber and Faber, 1996) esp. 203-207.

4 The Rainbow, ed. Mark Kinkead-Weekes, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 10.

5 S.L. Goldberg, “The Rainbow: Fiddlebow and Sand,” Essays in Criticism, XI, 1961, 418-434.

6 Suzanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953), 208-235.

7 Mark Spilka, The Love Ethic of D.H. Lawrence (Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 1955), 12-31; I develop the evolutionary aspect of the Cassirer parallel in D.H. Lawrence: Language and Being. op. cit. 2-4, 59-96.

8 I discuss this in F.R. Leavis (London: Routledge 1988), 41-43.

9 Revaluation (London: Penguin, 1964), 216.

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Michael Bell, « Notes on “Life” in Language: D.H. Lawrence’s Erlebte Rede », Études Lawrenciennes, 44 | 2013, 9-22.

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Michael Bell, « Notes on “Life” in Language: D.H. Lawrence’s Erlebte Rede », Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 44 | 2013, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2014, consulté le 29 mai 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/lawrence.182

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Michael Bell

Michael Bell is Professor Emeritus at the University of Warwick and Associate Fellow of the Centre for Research in Philosophy and Literature. His principal publication on Lawrence is D.H. Lawrence: Language and Being (CUP, 1992). He has published much else on Lawrence including a chapter in his latest book Open Secrets; Literature, Education and Authority from J.-J. Rousseau to J.M. Coetzee (OUP, 2007).

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