FILM MAY 25, 1959
Lady Chatterley's Lover
by D. H. Lawrence
Thirty-one years after its initial private publication in Italy, the unexpurgated final version of Lady Chatterley's Lover appears in this country. An abridged edition of this version was published here in 1930; the first version (of the three Lawrence wrote) appeared here in 1944. Now the general public may read what has heretofore been available only to contrabandists and scholars with access to locked library shelves.
The novel's publication inevitably raises the issue, not only of intrinsic literary merit but of censorship. First, is the book censorable? The answer is: Indeed, yes. In the light of current legal and extra-legal practice, its language and many of its scenes come well within the usual scope of the suppressors. No doubt there are books containing language and scenes perhaps even more daring that have been untouched, but the law does not have to indict A, B, and C in order to indict D. Luck and notoriety are more operative in these matters than logic.
Ulysses apart, this is the most notorious novel of the 20th Century, prosecuted from Poland to Japan. As late as 1953 an English magistrate inveighed against the expurgated version (the only one permitted there) as "absolute rubbish." Now Grove Press has decided to test the unexpurgated book here and is getting a quick reply to the challenge. In Washington a criminal law test has already begun; in New York the Post Office Department has seized mailings and will shortly decide whether the book is mailable.
For those of us who doubt the moral superiority, let alone the keener literary taste, of police chiefs and postal inspectors, the great snare in proceedings of this sort is a kind of surprised tedium. The serious writer and reader are concerned with the exploration of human relationships, therefore always at least to some degree concerned with sex, and are jolted out of their concern in a curious way by the obtrusion of police and postmen. The first reaction is often to smile; it seems almost as anachronistic and silly to become angry as to rush out and shout "Votes for women!" How can one fight seriously, one feels, about a matter which has so long ago been taken to the barricades and which has for so long been settled in one's own mind?
Yet--and this must be faced at last--the fight goes on: because the police postal mind goes on and has, besides its superiority in numbers, one huge advantage. It can define obscenity. Dogmatism always has an advantage over the free-ranging mind. Some of us are stuck (one might say) with the passionate belief that obscenity cannot be defined, that what disturbs one man will be perfectly acceptable to another, that no universal moral yardstick is ever possible. The tendency to deprave and corrupt is usually taken as the touchstone of obscenity. Well, if it is any help, I can report to the Post Office that I have just finished this book and would not be a whit purer if I had not read it.
Very possibly the matter of censorship will never be settled until we look past the immediate battle which, even if won, really cures nothing, and examine the source of the urge to censor. Its conduit is, almost always, the ecclesiastical channel, but perhaps this is only another instance of the wisdom of the church (all churches) in recognizing and using human truths. The reluctance to abolish capital punishment lies, probably, not in concepts of justice but in latent sadism; just as probably, the reluctance to abolish censorship arises fundamentally not from a desire to protect our 14-year-old daughters but from repressions that society puts on our own sexual 13 lives and thoughts. The sexually happy man or woman is not deeply interested in or conscious of police notions of decency.
This is not to say that even the healthiest parent will necessarily want to put Lady Chatterley into the hands of his early adolescent son or daughter, any more than he will want his son to lift a weight that he could handle at twenty or his young daughter to marry immediately and have children. But he resents being told that he may not give the book to them--even mail it to them--when he sees fit; may not, in fact, buy it for himself.
The law insists not only that it can decide what is proper for me to read (and I may be a lot less tolerant than you), it implicitly assumes that if it didn't protect me, I would do nothing else but buy pornographic books and see pornographic films. Its attitude is that of Latin civilizations toward their women--if it weren't for the duenna, they would certainly misbehave. A nice compliment to their wives and daughters; a nice compliment by the law to you and me.
Sometimes it is granted that you and I could be trusted but that most people need protection, and so we must put up with the inconvenience for the sake of the majority. That the weak-willed exist is inarguable; equally so, that we all have our weak-willed moments. Certainly, too, in the absence of censorship laws, cheapjack publishers and film producers would rush to exploit the new liberty. But can one honestly visualize mass corruption as the result? The mere increase and availability of salacious material would tend to surfeit its audience. Nudity soon bores; and the makers of pornographic pictures soon elicit only pity as they so fruitlessly struggle for variety.
Undoubtedly there are members of society who might be seriously affected by exposure to pornographic materials, but it is hardly rational to gear society to the level of its weakest members, like a wartime convoy. In any event, can such highly susceptible persons be protected merely by censoring books and films? Is it not then also necessary to ban lingerie shop windows and the wearing of perfume in public and dancing? Is it not illogical to do less? And is it not madness to abolish freedom because some would abuse it? Do we ban French-fried potatoes because few of us have ulcers?
Some of the censor's best blows are struck, I believe, by his enemies, because they cannot agree on one basic principle: all censorship--of any kind--is untenable and immoral. It is they, the opponents, anxious to prove that they are "decent" even though they are liberal, who hamstring themselves. They oppose, let us say, restrictions on serious literature but they affirm stoutly that there must be some control over trash. (And who is to differentiate? And suppose there are people who want to read trash. What about their civil liberties?) Or certain works may be circulated to adults but not to children, the decisive factors being availability and price. Trade books and the theatre must not be censored, low-priced, paper-bound books and films must be controlled. (And the whole sneaky war of adolescents versus their parents must be perpetuated, a war which the adolescent always wins. Adolescent interest in sex cannot be censored out of existence. As with liquor, home influence is the only real safeguard.)
Worst of all, in my view, is the liberals' argument that books like Lady Chatterley are not sexual, they are Beautiful. Surely, they say, the magistrate must see that this novel is spiritual, not physical. This, to me, is the most wrongheaded of defenses and self-defeating. The erotic passages in Lady Chatterley are most certainly intended to evoke erotic responses. Not something mistily lovely but distinctly sexual. The artist has as much right--even necessity—to evoke that response in a reader as he has to evoke appreciation of a landscape. If Lawrence doesn't make you feel in your very glands what it meant to Connie and Mellors to find at last a satisfactory sexual partner, then he has failed as an artist.
There is the crux of the matter. Let not the defenders of Lady Chatterley claim that it is, by postal definition, a "pure" work. It is a sexually stimulating work (among other things) and rightly so. To lose that point is to betray Lawrence. What must not be conceded to the Post Office and others is that sexual stimulation is necessarily, or usually, synonymous with depravity and corruption. Or as Mr. Justice Stable said in his charge to the jury in a recent English obscenity case, "Is the act of sexual passion sheer filth? It may be an error in taste to write about it. It may be a matter in which perhaps old-fashioned people world mourn the reticence that was observed in these matters yesterday. But is it sheer filth?"
Certainly there is, as noted earlier, such a thing as pornography--by derivation "the writing of prostitutes." Most of us have seen examples of it which seem to have no raison d'etre besides almost mechanical sexual stimulation; and as soon as we are old enough to appreciate a context, we reject it as having little to do with sexual realities or even desirabilities. At best it becomes funny, not inflammatory. Must society cripple serious artists in order to obliterate the relatively minor nuisance of pornography? If centimeters of bare skin are the criterion, we will not only have to burn crates full of Tillie and Mac but also the canvases of such an utterly sexual artist as Renoir.
There is no viable, no moral middle-ground in this matter. Opponents of restriction on the artist's freedom are forced to fight also for the freedom of the pornographer. Anything less is to appease the beast by feeding him scraps that only keep him alive to attack you. You may throw him garbage, but it strengthens him, nevertheless.
The matter is uniquely complicated in this instance because of the personality of Lawrence. In spite of his life-long tribulations with censors, he was himself considerable of a prude. He called Lady Chatterley a "phallic novel, but tender and delicate"; but he called Ulysses a "dirty" book. Norman Douglas said (as quoted in Nehls' excellent composite biography): "Lawrence was no Bohemian; he was a provincial, an inspired provincial with marked puritan leanings. He had a shuddering horror of Casanova's Memoirs; he was furious with a friend for keeping two mistresses instead of one, and even with the Florentine for showing an inch or two of bare flesh above the knee--'I don't like it! I don't like it! Why can't they wear trousers?'; my own improprieties of speech he ascribed to some perverse kink of my nature."
Thus we find that Lady Chatterley must be defended against its own author's private state of mind as found in others. Well, history is largely the record of God-sure people butchering people who are differently God-sure, so it is a relatively minor irony that a literary rebel should want to impose bonds on other rebels. To protect Lawrence's work, we must see what he did not see; that the only sure route to freedom for him is via the freedom not only of Joyce and Casanova but of Fanny Hill, as well.
The previously suppressed passages of Lady Chatterley's Lover are so numerous and so integral that no criticism based on the abridged version can have validity. Euphemism and ellipsis are maiming to a work which depends for its effect not only on certain sexual actions and reactions but also on a vulgar vocabulary. To "love" a woman did not mean the same thing to Lawrence as its ruder four-letter synonym. It is this confrontation of what may be called the facts of the facts of life that is an essential of this work. Whether this confrontation is artistically successful (as distinct from being morally permissible) is another, interesting subject.
Two of the most commonly held assumptions about this novel are that it is a symbolical work and that it is the story of a triangle. In my view, both these assumptions are wrong. It is an explicit roman a these, with nothing left symbolical, everything carefully spelled out; and it is the story of a quadrangle.
Lawrence's thesis, well-known, is that civilization is destroying the human spirit: that the intellect, as well as the machine, is the enemy of life: that we stand in this century (H-bomb or no) on the brink of destruction: and that only a return to a full life of the emotions can save us from withering and death. But these ideas are not merely symbolized in this book; every major character fully articulates his point of view. Nothing is left hinted at, shadowy or suggestive. Even Clifford's war wound is an absolute fact, completely utilized on the topmost level of the book, not a symbol like Jake's in The Sun Also Rises, The factories beyond the park, the dreariness of the Midland towns, the currents of English and world society, the meaning of Mellors' revolt, all these and more are dealt with in the explicit propagandistic vein of Ibsen and Zola at their most hortatory--as far removed from, say, the symbolic methods of Melville or some of Lawrence's other work like The Plumed Serpent and The Fox as is imaginable. The poetry in this book, where it exists, lies in the emotional states arrived at openly by the characters, not in any symbolic illumination of forces beneath the surface of life.
This explicitness is further augmented by the quadrangle--by the pairing of Mrs. Bolton, the nurse, with Clifford as a balance for the pairing of Mellors with Connie. In this unabridged version it is clear that, in his impotent, lately childish fashion, Clifford is as sexually involved with his nurse as his wife is with the gamekeeper. The relationship is necessarily different for physical reasons, but the outcome, in character development, is much the same. He becomes a fuller, more competent man. It is surely laboring the term "symbolism" to apply it to tiKis patent (and literal) man-handling of the aristocrat by this deep-breasted working woman. Clifford himself, if not the critics, knows what has happened to him.
These two points aside, the most remarkable thing about the novel is that it seems considerably more than 31 years old. Consider that 1928, the year of its first publication, was also the year of The Sound and the Fury and that The Sun Also Rises was already two years old, and you see not only an illustration of the difference between the novel's development here and in Britain; you see plainly that Lawrence is a man from the past coming forward, not an innovator. The Hemingway and Faulkner novels, from their first words, exist as themselves, unselfconscious and new. Lady Chatterley seems a late Edwardian novel, still trailing bits of plush as it pushes onward. To the present-day reader, it has a good deal of the air of fin de siecle rebellion--glimpsed 25 years later but still the same Free Love Marching and Chowder Society. And it is this air that gives the repeated use of earthy language a tone of forced bravado rather than of healthy shock and peasant candor.
There are, too, a couple of nervousnesses in the book. First, although a major portion of the story deals with Connie’s movement from the sterility of the educated upper classes to the pulsing elemental animalistic life of Mellors, Lawrence lacked the courage to make Mellors a pure animal, an O’Neill Hairy Ape. Mellors is not only a person of some intellect and education, he is also--with a nice bow to British proprieties--an ex-officer. The bet, therefore, is carefully hedged. Lawrence seems to have been afraid to make Mellors the ordinary countryman that a gamekeeper would usually be either because of a taint of conventional “appropriateness” left in his soul or because of a belief that an ordinary countryman would have made an uninteresting character. If either of these hypotheses is true, does that not impair his basic thesis? And if Lawrence felt he had to endow Mellors with some intellectual quality in order for Connie to be attracted to him, does not that too impair the thesis that salvation and worth reside in the sheerly elemental life?
The second nervousness is in relation to politics. The theme of Communism mutters trough the novel like thunder on the horizon. It is discussed by various characters. Mellors has “bolshevist books” in his bedroom. (In the first version of the novel the gamekeeper ended up as the secretary of the local Communist Party.) Lawrence, with his extraordinary dog-like powers of scent, early sniffed the titanic changes for the world inherent in the Soviet revolution but lacked the intellectual courage or penetration to make decisions about them, pro or con. He could neither completely face them nor forget them.
Other curiosities might be noted. I do not understand Clifford’s allowing his friends to use broad language in the presence of his wife, and I simply do not believe the way in which Connie’s father jokes about her, sexually, with Mellors. There is an unsteadiness of control in points of view throughout the book, best exemplified by a little disquisition on the novel (by the intruding author) in Chapter Nine. Several times we are made aware of the author’s chronic anti-Semitism--a fact largely glossed over in discussions of this love prophet.
But--and it is a large antithesis--in spite of its technical defects, its persistent air of hothouse freedom, its touches of fierce inverted snobbism, the novel finally triumphs over its faults. Its power derives from two factors, I believe. The first is Lawrence’s total subscription to his work. This only seemingly contradicts the nervousnesses discussed above. The point is that all of Lawrence--imperfections and cripplings included--is thrown into his work, and his burning commitment carries him through the slightly ridiculous passages and the flaws. His fervor, born of revolt against smug morality and supercilious intellectualism, may be too vindictive to be whole-souled, but it is sufficient to sustain him through scenes that would sink a lesser man.
Second, his prophecies and beliefs seem to have been substantially validated by the passage of time. Civilization has not become, in as neat and pat a way as he thought, the slave of the machine; the wearing of red trousers by the villagers would do little for them now; but the pace and trend of modern life have to some degree anesthetized human feelings: have made large emotional experience very difficult in the Western world. The fight against intellectual conformity is much promulgated now, but the threat of emotional conformity is perhaps more important--since few people were ever intellectual non-conformists anyway. The sense of life as emotional adventure, as the opportunity to bare one’s breast to the thorn and thus sing, is a diminishing one in our pre-packed, deep-freeze loss, the biggest price we have paid for technology and organization and factual knowledge; and it may be that only in the emotional man revived will it be possible to approach fullest truth. Of these beliefs, Lawrence is a hobbled but dedicated spokesman.
That he is, in the most rigorous view, a great writer is worth doubting. That he is an important one is past question. The paradox of Lawrence, I believe, is that--unlike truly great artists--the more you have liberated yourself the less he means to you. Norma Douglas was perhaps cruelly accurate:
I think the writings of Lawrence have done good; his influence was needed by a large class of our fellow- creatures. He has done good negatively as a warning to thinkers and writers; positively, because his work is in the nature of a beneficent, tabu-shattering bomb … Scholars and men of the world will not find much inspiration in his novels. Lawrence opened a little window for the bourgeoisie. That is his life-work.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic.
By Stanley Kauffmann