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.


Jacob Bronowski on the Missing Shakespeare of the Bushmen

Jacob Bronowski–who so entertained and edified many of us with The Ascent of Man–was very often a wise man but he was also Eurocentric, a weakness that produced astonishingly reductive views about the ‘East’, about ‘uncivilized’ and ‘uncultured’ societies. This inclination is noticeably on display in his dialog The Abacus and the Rose,¹ in the course of Professor Lionel Potts–making Bronowski’s case–introduces Dr. Amos Harping  to the beauty and creativity and cultural significance of science:

HARPING: Who will assert that the average member of a modern society is more fully human, or more alive, than a Bushman, an Indian peasant, or a member of one of those poignantly surviving primitive peoples with their marvelous aert and skills and vital intelligence?

POTTS: Who will assert what? I assert it, Amos Harping. I assert that the average man who drove our train up here is more human and more alive than any of your poignant primitive people. The skills of the Bushman, the vital intelligence of the Indian peasant? You are tipsy with sentiment, Harping, or you would not compare them with the  man who reads your proofs. The Bushman and the peasant have not been cowed by science, Harping. They  have failed in culture: in making a picture of the universe rich enough, subtle enough–one that they can work with and live by beyond the leve of the Stone Age. They have failed because they did not create a mature view of nature, and of man too, Harping. My God, you talk, you dare to talk, of their marvelous art. Since when have you been an admirer of Bushman art, Harping?

HARPING: That’s a pointless question, Potts. I have always admired it.

POTTS: Then why did you give me Rembrandt when I asked you for a painter?  Why do you, Dr. Amos Harping, lecture to your students about George Eliot and not about Indian folk poetry. Because you know that Rembrandt is a more mature artist than any Bushman, and George Eliot than any folk poet. I don’t understand you, Harping. How can you be so blind to the evidence of your own practice? You try to enrich the emotional appreciation of your students–how? By discussing Shakespeare with them; and Joseph Conrad, and D. H. Lawrence. How does it happen that Shakespeare was not born in the bush–or Conrad or Lawrence? Every work that you present to your students as masterly, as profound and sensitive, was produced in a society with a high standard of technical sophistication….Do the great works of man ever come from the poignant primitive peoples? Do they even come from the poor whites of Tennessee, from the stony fields of Spain, or from the starveling fisheries of Sardinia?….Where were the books written that most deeply express and explore the humanity of man? In the Athens of Sophocles, in the Florence of Dante, in the England of Shakespeare. Yet these were not simple, ascetic societies…they were the most highly developed technical and industrial societies in history.

I will leave these excerpts here without comment, except to note Saul Bellow‘s “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus” quote and Ralph Wiley and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ responses.


1. Bronowski, J. 1965. “The Abacus And The Rose,” reprinted in J. Bronowski, Science And Human Values. 2d ed. New York: HarperCollins.

Lawrence’s Rainbow Still Glistens

So much has been written about DH Lawrence‘s The Rainbow that further commentary is perhaps superfluous, but possible redundancy has never been much of an influence in decisions to write. So here I am, offering my dos pesos.

The Rainbow, ostensibly the multi-generation history of the Brangwen family (which continues in Women in Love), is an ambitious novel in which Lawrence advances many philosophical theses–ethical, metaphysical, and political–using a diverse set of literary techniques: internal monologues; authorial interventions and asides; and character construction and dialogues.  It situates these in its recounting of relationships between men and women, fathers and daughters, husbands and wives, teachers and students, and even employers and employees. (The Rainbow also features extended commentaries on, among other things, the educational system, the pernicious influence of industrial life on the English countryside, and the changing roles of women in society.)

I will not be the first, and certainly not the last, to note that Lawrence’s vision of the power plays between human beings can be bleak and dispiriting; this does not make it any less interesting. Sexual love and the relationships that spring up around it, are often, if not always, territories for the contestation of wills and selves doomed to remain opaquely hostile to the other; the ‘relationship’ such as it is, appears not so much as a shelter from the surrounding storm, as a theater for the creation of one.  Anger, fear, resentment, jealousy are as central to this battle as are the more exalted emotions normally associated with the mingling of bodies and souls. Man and woman bring a complex set of motivations, histories, and unresolved existential crises to their ‘encounter’; contact is made with the counterpart, and battle is almost immediately engaged. Sometimes there are are literal or figurative honeymoons; sometimes not. (Lawrence’s description of the cascade of confused anger and longing that can send a loving relationship careening downward approaches, at times, Tolstoy’s brilliant descriptions of the decay that infects Vronsky and Anna’s passions in Anna Karenina.)

An editor at a publishing house might well have returned Lawrence’s manuscript with the comment “It’s a little too interior, if you know what I mean.” Much of the ‘action’ in the novel is located in the maelstrom of characters’ minds;  the reader is frequently granted privileged access to extended attempts at resolutions of intractable, torturous compounds of emotional impulses. Digesting these and generating sympathy for, and empathy with, Lawrence’s characters remains the primary challenge for any reader.

Most critical takes on The Rainbow justifiably focus on the sexual relationships at its core; but Lawrence’s descriptions and analysis of the negotiations of power between employer and employee (at Ursula’s school) and between teacher and student (at the same venue) are also fascinating. These encounters are no less fraught than the sexual ones with struggles for pole position, for the deployment of strategies designed to assert one’s self in order to fully realize it.

The Rainbow is not a light read, but it is never tedious; the tone is magisterial, and only occasionally pompous. In scope and ambition it comes close to being an epic.

Remembering What One Reads

In DH Lawrence‘s The Rainbow–on which I will soon pen a few thoughts here–in Chapter 12, ‘Shame,’ Ursula wonders, overcome by tedium at studying “English, Latin, French, Mathematics and History:”

Why should one remember the things one read?

Why indeed? Ursula’s question, of course, is directed at the unquestionable tedium and seeming futility of an education that only in “odd streaks” provides her a “poignant sense of acquisition and enrichment and enlarging,” but I want to try and think about it in terms of reading in general: Is it such a bad thing if one cannot remember all that one reads?

Here is an experience, familiar, I would think, to many readers. The book ends, the last page is turned, we put it on our shelves, acknowledge the pleasure it has given us, and move on. Little of what we read stays with us; a few days later, we are only able to vaguely describe the details of the book–if a novel, perhaps the particulars of the central narrative; if an analytical work, perhaps those of the argument. We feel mortified: Are these the ‘senior moments’ we were warned about? Is decrepitude, finally, here? Are we lacking in ‘reading comprehension’? The recapitulation that should be so closely associated with the pleasure that we felt while we were reading appears to have gone missing; why aren’t the book’s contours available for articulate recall?

This anxiety finds its grounding, perhaps, in a couple of dimensions. An educational culture of standardized tests might have convinced us ‘comprehension’ is the same as ‘recall’, and we might, too, have forgotten the most straightforward pleasures of reading.  In the former, we are unable to trust ourselves that being unable to remember particulars does not straightforwardly translate to ‘complete failure to comprehend central narrative/argument and internalize, store, and possibly reaccess on provision of appropriate stimulus at later points in time.’ This is all pretty gruesomely instrumental, to be honest; a ‘successful reading experience’ becomes one that we are able to ‘deploy’, ‘use’, ‘bring to bear’ on some act of practical cognition. The ‘value’ of reading then becomes measured by its ‘utility.’

So it is to the latter dimension that we should rather turn. The act of reading is pleasurable in itself; it is not a means to an end, it is an end of its own. While reading, we are–in the way that we were instructed by the  enthusiastic reading-boosters of our childhood, our parents and teachers–transported. The encounter with the book is refuge, journey and scholarship all at once. (I acknowledge that ‘scholarship’ is a rather portentous term for some, if not many, of our reading encounters!) While reading, for that period of time, we enter into dialogues and conversations with several selves–the author and ourselves, at the bare minimum–in several registers. The end of the reading of a book is not, and should not, be occasion for ‘outcomes assessment’; it might be more appropriate to mark it with farewells to a companion that is able to–for the hours that we let it–remove us from a world ‘full of care.’