Paul Morel and Travis Bickle: The World-Dissolving Melancholic Gaze

In Sons and Lovers (1913), D. H. Lawrence directs many glances at the Derbyshire landscape, often through his characters’ distinctive visions. Here is one, this time through Paul Morel:

He was brooding now, staring out over the country from under sullen brows. The little, interesting diversity of shapes had vanished from the scene; all that remained was a vast, dark matrix of sorrow and tragedy, the same in all the houses and the river-flats and the people and the birds; they were only shapen differently. And now that the forms seemed to have melted away, there remained the mass from which all the landscape was composed, a dark mass of struggle and pain. The factory, the girls, his mother, the large, uplifted church, the thicket of the town, merged into one atmosphere—dark, brooding, and sorrowful, every bit. [Bantam Classic, 1985, pp. 271]

In this vivid passage, Paul’s melancholia affords him a lens through which to interpret his surroundings, now infected with his own subjectivity. The world he ‘sees’ has the shapes and forms that it does because they are the ones he has imposed on it. So overpowering is his current sense of desolation that the boundaries between objects break down, principles of individuation fail to hold sway, and the substratum that is the foundation of the visible world is revealed. In this state of mind it can only be the ‘vast, dark matrix of sorrow and tragedy’, ‘a dark mass of struggle and pain.’ As a daily coping mechanism, this brooding assemblage is understood as, and interacted with, as physical objects, including animate and inanimate ones, like ‘houses and the river-flats and the people and the birds’ but at times like these–a characteristically intense interaction with a woman, in this case, Clara Dawes, his lover–this construction crumbles, and the artifice of it all is revealed. As is the grim underlying reality. (Paul’s interpretive scheme is not a linguistic one; it seems to be constructed from felt emotions and sensations.)

An interesting analogy with Lawrence’s technique here is that employed by Martin Scorsese in Taxi Driver when showing us Travis Bickle‘s New York City. Scene after scene shows a grim tapestry of violence, sexual degradation, and corruption of all stripes–‘the filth’–which so corrodes Bickle’s sensibilities and generates an ultimately violent retaliation. So relentless is this depiction of ‘the open sewer’, so ubiquitous its presence outside Bickle’s car window, that viewers of Taxi Driver might wonder if Bickle was driving around the same city block again and again. But that, of course, is the point of it all: the diversity of the city has been dissolved and made shapeless and formless by Bickle’s gaze. What we see on the screen is Bickle’s subjectivity imposed on the landscape outside, now understood and contextualized by his distinctive perspective into ‘one vast matrix of of vice and dirt’, with its streets and corners and peoples and street lights all merged into one atmosphere–dark, brooding, and sorrowful, every bit.’

Paul Morel and Travis Bickle live in distinctive worlds of their own.


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