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The Self and its Discontents: Ursula’s Progress in The Rainbow

Jacqueline Gouirand
p. 45-56

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1The Rainbow can be read as an experiment in the speleology of the human psyche, with Lawrence here the explorer of those depths which Freud was attempting to probe at the same period. To do so, Lawrence resorted to a new method that he described as “exhaustive,” in what was a transitional period in his literary project, a period of intense creativity during which he produced not only his major fiction but also a series of essays in which he constructed what he termed “his philosophy.” Lawrence had long groped his way from the depths, before the novel became “the real thing”:

  • 1 Letters II, ed. George J. Zytaruk and James T. Boulton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981 (...)

I begin to feel something of the source, the great impersonal which never changes and out of which changes come.1

  • 2 Letters II, 165.

At the same time, the novelist remained faithful to the subject of The Sisters: “A story of woman becoming individual, self-responsible, taking her own initiative.”2

  • 3 D.H. Lawrence, The Rainbow [R] (Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 40.
  • 4 Study of Thomas Hardy in Phoenix (London: Heineman, 1967), 446.

2In The Rainbow, the movement leading from one generation of the Brangwens to another corresponds to the expansion of “the self,” the individual attempting to reach “a beyond” which merges with the infinite and is a promise of fulfillment. The core of the novel reveals mankind’s urge toward metaphysical knowledge: “a logic of the soul.”3 Man and woman attempt to step across the doorway to the unknown, in order to penetrate into the light where the conflict between polarities should be wiped out, where Law and Love, according to Lawrence’s definition in hisStudy of Thomas Hardy, should be reconciled. Being closer to the unknown, to eternity, than men are, women are endowed with the power to apprehend it and establish a link with it. They act as intercessors to help establish this link, as this process is difficult for men to accomplish, “(Man) dare not leap into the unknown.”4

  • 5 Michael Bell, D.H. Lawrence, Language and Being (Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 1 (...)
  • 6 Jacques Le Rider, Modernité viennoise et crise de l’identité (Paris: PUF, 1990), 34.

3It is however Ursula, representing the third generation of the Brangwens, who will be able to go further in the quest for this completeness of being that is spurred by the individual’s deepest desire, a quest corresponding to an evolutionary conception of man that “only mattered to Lawrence if it offered a way of understanding a psychic life in the present.”5 In order to achieve completeness of being, the synthesis of the spiritual and physical elements must be achieved, while allowing each element to retain its vital and dynamic force. By creating a modern heroine, Lawrence reminds us that what ismodern is above all what “follows the failure of individualism, everything that no longer is, but is in the process of becoming.”6

  • 7 Thomas E. Eller, Reconstructing Individualism, Autonomy, Individuality and the Self in Western Tho (...)

4Hence a representation of individuality as the enduring and mutable subject of an unceasing journey through the possibilities of meaning. Hence the questioning of the immutable permanence of the subject, brought about by the crisis of identity. This has affinities with the mystical preoccupation of the Viennese modernists, symptomatic of the discontents described by Freud. Hence the necessity to distinguish between selfhood andidentity, the illusory character of the latter being obvious, insofar as the individual is “a self in motion that makes use of the discourse of autonomous individuality in conjunction with an ongoing series of displacements of its position in order to re-interpret the history of its behavior from continuously shifting vantage points.”7

  • 8 Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents (London: Penguin Books, 2002), 42.

5In Lawrence, the self is not what is finished or within. It is what is subject to an ordeal of flux, both internal and external. We shall follow Ursula in the process of herBildung, a process in which she is vulnerable, alive to possibility and to peril, since the gradual passage from rural life to a more modern type of civilization has a damaging impact on the individual. She will have to confront forces which she cannot control, but with which she must establish that “happy accommodation” that Freud advises us to find in Civilization and its Discontents: “Much of mankind’s struggle is taken up with the task of finding a suitable, that is to say, a happy accommodation between the claims of the individual and the mass claims of civilization.”8

6As a child, Ursula’s personality is a compromise between that of her father (she borrows from her father’s leaning towards an idea of the absolute) and her mother Anna, with whom she shares the need to act and a particular zest for life. She is very sensitive and she appears vulnerable to the loss or annihilation of her self when she is alone with her father: “He was her strength and her greater self” (emphasis mine). But she soon adopts a strategy of self-denial in order to combat her sense of impotence in the face of her father’s domination: “And very early she learned to harden her soul in resistance and denial of all that was outside her, harden herself upon her own being” (R 208). She builds from an unstable emotional base and inner world that mirrors her mother’s realism and her father’s abstraction. This discovery calls for her rejection of his atavistic authority. Later on, the same strategy of self-denial will operate when she attempts to complete herself through her opening to the “otherness” of the external world. She is reassured by the presence of her family and by the familiar surroundings, but at the same time, she realizes that she must move on.

  • 9 D.H. Lawrence, Psychology and the Unconscious (London: Heineman, 1961), 208.

7Hers will be a chequered career, from childhood to early maturity. She will make numerous mistakes (falling in love with the wrong people, taking up the wrong profession) but she will always be animated by her inner impulses towards personal growth. These impulses can be partially explained in the Freudian manner, by reference to parental influences. However they cannot entirely be explained in this manner. The source and the nature of Ursula’s questing are deeper and are more coercive than her conscious deliberations. She lives from her “true unconscious.” “What then is the true unconscious? It is not a shadow cast from the mind. It is a spontaneous life-motive in every organism. Where does it begin? It begins where life begins […].”9

8Moving out of the intricately woven illusion of her young life is her first step in her adventure. Moving out of: “The illusion of a father whose life was an Odyssey in an outer world; the illusions of her grandmother […] then the multitude of illusions concerning herself […],” then the mirage of her reading: “out of the multicoloured illusion of this her life, she must move on to the grammar school in Nottingham” (250). Only in high school did she think she would inherit her ownestate, acquire a status, be singled out. At home “she was uneasy, unwilling to be herself, or unable” (252).

9Her world is constantly divided. On Sundays she feels free but on weekdays she is afraid lest “her undiscovered self should be seen, pounced upon, attacked […]” (252). Like her forebear, she craves for the ecstasy but she feels that the modern world she lives in has expelled ecstasy. So “She lived a dual life, one where the facts of daily life encompassed everything, being legion, and the other wherein the facts of daily life were superseded by the eternal truth” (257).

10As she becomes conscious of the necessity to act and assume her weekday life, the maturing Ursula personifies the exceptional individual engaged in a polar/dualistic process of discovery of a metaphysical self. She becomes aware of herself as a distinct and separate entity, while she is “in the midst of an unseparated obscurity” (R 263). Her questioning becomes obsessive:

How to act, that was the question? Wither to go, how to become oneself? One was not oneself, one was merely a half-stated question. How to become oneself, how to know the question and the answer of oneself, when one was merely an unfixed something—nothing blowing about like the winds of heaven undefined, unstated.
(R 274)

11Before making friends with Winifred Inger, Ursula is described as someone who is wavering, shrinking from people, prone to conflict as she strives for satisfaction and fulfillment: “She gave something to other people but she was never herself, since she had no self” (R 311). This particular friendship with her teacher is a significant phase in Ursula’s development insofar as Winifred affords her access to the man’s world,thus widening the field of her experience and enabling her to absorb a new philosophy, weaning her away from her religious beliefs, giving her a new vision of woman’s role and destiny, a different vision from her mother’s. But after a few months of exchange and intimacy, the universe whose doors had been opened for her is mere chaos, the dimension of the human being reduced to an abstraction, an instrumental functionality.

12Despite her despair, Ursula resists. The process of rejection which follows in the aftermath of fusion is thus inevitable: “Never could she escape that: she could not put off being herself” (R 319). This is a significant example of Ursula’s awareness of the danger of stagnation, a danger which becomes associated with images of Winifred. “But a heavy clogged sense of deadness began to gather upon her from the other woman’s contact. And sometimes she thought Winifred was ugly, clayey” (ibid.).

13D.H. Lawrence had already shown in his early fiction that the important thing is for the individual not to deny the “God in him,” not to allow conventions or conscious mental attitudes to impede the impulse to self-determination (George Saxton’s decline in The White Peacock is the result of a blockage of his true path to development). Ursula happens to be attracted to people who attempt to live a mechanical life of abstraction, people whose deeper selves are denied because they have allowed the conscious will to reign supreme. In his essay “Democracy,” Lawrence writes that

  • 10 “Democracy,” in Phoenix (London: Heinemann), 104–105.

The invented ideal world of man is super-imposed upon living men and women, and men and women are thus turned into abstracted, functioning, mechanical units.10

14Mechanization is the modern enemy.

  • 11 Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, 42.
  • 12 Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, 44.

15The “man’s world” that Ursula was eager to know, and from which she had expected some form of recognition, proves sterile and false. College will represent another illusion, since what it offers her is a spurious form of eternity whereas in her expectations it had represented the absolute. Till now, her progress towards the outer world had been punctuated by circles that become wider, as she passed through them. These successive circles correspond to a series of illusions which she builds up (teaching, religion, college, Winifred, Schofield). The urge for freedom which has been a major incentive in her actions is, according to Freud, “directed against the particular forms and claims of civilization or against civilization as a whole.”11 Moreover “having more freedom she became more profoundly aware of the big want” (R 377). There is a serious obstacle in her progress insofar as demand becomes unconditional and opens onto the insatiable. Freud reminds us that “it is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built on renunciation, how much it presupposes the non-satisfaction of powerful drives.”12

16Ursula feels deep, deep inside her, “the wonderful real somewhere that was beyond her” (R 377). She seems to have stumbled upon the fundamental knowledge that although life is a struggle between the different levels of consciousness, the mind possesses a mysterious internal power of symbolic understanding. It is through the physical science of botany that Ursula discovers the non-physical infinite and comes to understand that nowhere is there to be found or experienced a nature that is limited and that the ordeal of the self is its exposure to the consummation of an infinite being and creative energy: “Self was a oneness with the infinite. To be oneself was a supreme, gleaming triumph of infinity” (R 409).

17From the first thrills of adolescent passion related in the chapter “First Love” to that bitterness of ecstasy that no balm can soothe, there is no hope of discovering that any durable balance has been established, that kind of balance provided by the power of desire which gives consciousness its unity since the self integrates the other.

  • 13 Lou Andreas Salomé, L’Amour du narcissisme. Textes psychanalytiques (Paris: Gallimard, 1980), 145.
  • 14 Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, 1–2, “a feeling of something limitless, unbounded—as it w (...)
  • 15 Ludwig Klages, De l’Éros cosmogonique (Paris: Harmattan, 2008; Vom kosmogonischen Eros, Munich: G. (...)

18The arguments exchanged by the lovers lead inevitably to conflict, as a battle of wills emerges. A ruthless struggle is substituted for the desired embrace in the scene where Ursula offers her body to the moon, unable to find a boundary against which to measure herself and as the man being is reduced to powerlessness in an act that is performed without him. In this experience Ursula does not address the other. Her confrontation is with her own image which is caught in the flux of the universe (the moon in this episode, the stars in the last phase of her relationship with Skrebensky). The feminization of culture betrays a fascination with the elation that she feels when merging with the cosmos, the return to the primary symbiosis, “the positive fundamental aim of the libido being the intuitive identification with the whole.”13 In such scenes, can we argue that Lawrence is giving us examples of the oceanic feeling mentioned by Freud or is it more appropriate to speak of an Eros of substitution?14 The Eros of substitution which is instituted remains a distant Eros according to Ludwig Klages: “In their amorous transports, the individuals consider their partner as Another with an unfathomable depth who never becomes united with them, as if an eye of the Great All were observing them from the deep of a purple night.”15

  • 16 D.H. Lawrence, Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious (London: Heinemann, 1961), 28.

19Ursula’s sexual energy becomes destructive. She desires to pursue her communion with the moon, to let her naked self “away there beating upon the moonlight.” In such a trance, she rejects not only the male but mankind as well: “He was the dross, people were the dross” (296). She exalts her anima to such a degree that the encounter cannot be achieved: “ She could be her maximum self, female, oh female […]” (281). In her quest for a maximum self, for the transcendence that the act of love can generate, Ursula passes from one state to another, experiencing those “allotropic” states described by Lawrence in his celebrated letter to Garnett in June 1914, when he was working on The Rainbow: “only at his maximum self does an individual surpass all his derivative elements and becomes purely himself.”16 He explores “the dark mental processes” revealed by his characters at certain epiphanic moments, moments revealing that even love is deprived of the power to bring men and women together, since the subject has no choice but to face an inner conflict that is determined by the sex drive and the ego, a conflict bringing into play sadistic and masochistic tendencies (see the episode preceding the lovers’separation when Ursula, in the manner of a harpy, a female vampire, fiercely goes at her victim in an ultimate lunar scene in which Anton is destroyed): “She seemed to be pressing her beaked mouth till she had the heart of him” (R 444). Freud admits that

  • 17 Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, 4.

There are cases in which parts of a person’s mental life—perceptions, thoughts, feelings—seem alien, divorced from the ego, and others in which he attributed to the external world what has clearly arisen in the ego and ought to be recognized by it. Hence even the sense of self is subject to disturbances and the limits of the self are not constant.17

20The end of this affair which contained the seeds of death is another deep disillusion for Ursula, as Skrebensy was for her the promise of achieving completeness. She has thus failed to reach this higher state of ontological awareness through their relationship, a failure which provoked in her a state of apathy and a sickness of the soul in the wake of their breaking off. She must now direct her scrutiny inwards in order to confront her real being. Her inner journey, which is now inescapable, is achieved in the scene of the encounter with the horses which symbolize all the pressure that is pressing down on her (the pressure of society and sexuality). They bring about a revelation which can be compared to the renewed vision following from the observation of living cells through the microscope: “In a sort of lightening of knowledge their movement traveled through her” (R 452). Their savage violence is that of the sacred, those cosmic forces which both inhabit man and overwhelm him, making his civilization as derisory as a miserable camp, “the eyes of the wild beast gleaming from the darkness watching the vanity of the camp fire” (R 405). Ursula’s successive shifts from conscious understanding reflect her attempt to resolve the tensions in her psyche. She avoids being enclosed by the horses, choosing to pass into the cultivated field “out to the high-road and the ordered world of man” (R 452) (emphasis mine). She gradually manages to unify the different aspects of her self, to realize that she was “the naked kernel, thrusting forth the clear powerful shoot […]. The kernel was the only reality” (R 456). She has now achieved hersingleness of being, akin to a Yeatsian “unity of being.” Ursula is thus rendered able to see the world differently and to reject the conventional life she was presumed to live. She can thus begin to live anew. After this apocalyptic scene, she apprehends the supreme form of experience in which the unknown is changed into the known, by way of the conscious vision of the rainbow which is the final phase of her quest, a phase affording her access to the ultimate revelation of the dynamic nature of the link between past and present, the ephemeral and the eternal, man and the cosmos.

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Notes

1 Letters II, ed. George J. Zytaruk and James T. Boulton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 143.

2 Letters II, 165.

3 D.H. Lawrence, The Rainbow [R] (Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 40.

4 Study of Thomas Hardy in Phoenix (London: Heineman, 1967), 446.

5 Michael Bell, D.H. Lawrence, Language and Being (Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

6 Jacques Le Rider, Modernité viennoise et crise de l’identité (Paris: PUF, 1990), 34.

7 Thomas E. Eller, Reconstructing Individualism, Autonomy, Individuality and the Self in Western Thought (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1989), 12.

8 Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents (London: Penguin Books, 2002), 42.

9 D.H. Lawrence, Psychology and the Unconscious (London: Heineman, 1961), 208.

10 “Democracy,” in Phoenix (London: Heinemann), 104–105.

11 Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, 42.

12 Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, 44.

13 Lou Andreas Salomé, L’Amour du narcissisme. Textes psychanalytiques (Paris: Gallimard, 1980), 145.

14 Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, 1–2, “a feeling of something limitless, unbounded—as it were oceanic.”

15 Ludwig Klages, De l’Éros cosmogonique (Paris: Harmattan, 2008; Vom kosmogonischen Eros, Munich: G. Müller, 1922; Bonn: Bouvier/Verlag, 1963), 59.

16 D.H. Lawrence, Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious (London: Heinemann, 1961), 28.

17 Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, 4.

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Jacqueline Gouirand, « The Self and its Discontents: Ursula’s Progress in The Rainbow », Études Lawrenciennes, 45 | 2014, 45-56.

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Jacqueline Gouirand, « The Self and its Discontents: Ursula’s Progress in The Rainbow », Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 45 | 2014, mis en ligne le 28 février 2015, consulté le 19 novembre 2017. URL : http://lawrence.revues.org/221 ; DOI : 10.4000/lawrence.221

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Auteur

Jacqueline Gouirand

Jacqueline Gouirand is the author of a French biography of Frieda Lawrence (Frieda von Richthofen, muse de D.H. Lawrence. Paris: Autrement, 1998). She is the author of “A Checklist of D.H. Lawrence Translations, Criticism and Scholarship published in France, 1976–1985,” D.H. Lawrence Review, 3 (1988): 331–335 and “A Checklist of D.H. Lawrence Translations, Criticism and Scholarship published in France, 1986–1996,” 2 (2000): 43–53. She has published many articles in Etudes lawrenciennes and is co-author (with Pierre Vitoux and Ginette Katz-Roy) of Lady Chatterley, (Paris: Autrement, “Figures Mythiques,” 1998).

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