Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 8, 2007

Lady Chatterley

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 12:09 am

Watching a screener for “Lady Chatterley,” the French film inspired by D.H. Lawrence’s novel that played recently in New York, was like a trip down memory lane. Banned until 1959 in the United States, I read it as soon as it came out. As a 15 year old overwhelmed by raging hormones, the novel was a great introduction to the mysteries of sex along with Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer,” which had been banned until 1961, and a marital hygiene book that I discovered buried in my parent’s closet.

Although I was barely aware of class distinctions when I read “Lady Chatterley’s Lovers,” the clash between Lady Chatterley and Mellors, the gamekeeper, who both resented and loved his employer’s wife, was obvious to me. Lord Chatterley was a prototypical British bourgeois figure, who owned a vast estate of the sort associated with the eighteenth century as well as an inherited coal mine.

Since wounds suffered by Lord Chatterley during WWI had cost him the use of his lower body, his wife felt sexually frustrated. When she first spied Mellors bathing his bare upper body on the front yard of his house, she felt an immediate attraction. For Lawrence, Lord Chatterley’s paralysis was a symbol of the decline of the British Empire. Although he was not a political thinker, and by some accounts even a right-winger, Lawrence had little use for privilege. As the son of an illiterate coal-miner, he had a deep identification with the character Mellors.

Directed by Pascale Ferran, “Lady Chatterley” is more of a pastoral romance than a study in class relationships. The screenplay is based on an earlier draft of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” titled “John Thomas and Lady Jane” which some regard as more tender than the final product. The gamekeeper Parkin (renamed Mellors in the final version) was not as resentful and bitter toward those above him on the socio-economic ladder.

Parkin is much less concerned about the class differences with his lover than he is with the problems of getting involved with the opposite sex, whichever class they belong to. Mostly he prefers being on his own, strolling the vast estate with a shotgun strapped to his shoulders. When Lady Chatterley shows up, he finds it easy to respond to her obvious physical hunger but is much more ambivalent about what they call a permanent “relationship” nowadays. This is a tale more about Commitment than Class, but it is enchanting nonetheless.

Ferran made a good decision to cast actors in the roles of Lady Chatterley and Mellors who were not typical Hollywood icons. Since this is a French film, this is the least we might expect. If Hollywood ever came out with an American version of Lawrence’s novel, they’d probably cast Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Blanchett or somebody else just as wrong. As Parkin (the Mellors character), Jean-Louis Coullo’ch is balding and a bit paunchy. (The film’s website states that he was in the restaurant business and a stretcherbearer before becoming an actor.) Meanwhile Marina Hands as Lady Chatterley looks as if she’d never been near a Stairmaster, although her voluptuousness works well. All in all, this is a romance for those in their autumn years–in keeping with the sensibility of Lawrence’s novel.

Although it is difficult to figure out whether the softness of the film is attributable to creative decisions made by the screenwriter or intrinsic to Lawrence’s earlier version of the tale, it works as a film. I would have preferred more of the bite of the final version but can accept it on its own terms.

For those who are not familiar with this rather dated work, I would invite you to read the Project Gutenberg version on the Internet, or at least sections of it. It is filled with the sensitivity to class that is missing from the film and perhaps from the earlier version of Lawrence’s novel, as in this description of Lord Chatterley:

But Clifford was not like that. His whole race was not like that. They were all inwardly hard and separate, and warmth to them was just bad taste. You had to get on without it, and hold your own; which was all very well if you were of the same class and race. Then you could keep yourself cold and be very estimable, and hold your own, and enjoy the satisfaction of holding it. But if you were of another class and another race it wouldn’t do; there was no fun merely holding your own, and feeling you belonged to the ruling class. What was the point, when even the smartest aristocrats had really nothing positive of their own to hold, and their rule was really a farce, not rule at all? What was the point? It was all cold nonsense.

For all of his resentment of the upper classes, D.H. Lawrence was no friend of the working class either. (He was described, probably unfairly, as a “radical rightist” in a Guardian blog entry by Terry Eagleton.) His greatest novel “Sons and Lovers” treats the coal miner characters, especially the one based on his own father, as cruel and brutal. Lawrence sought desperately to escape from this world and enter one more attuned to his artistic needs. Politically, he was as appalled by the world of Lord Chatterley as he was by the coal miners he exploited. He was hounded by the authorities during WWI and was even accused of being a German spy. Unlike many other writers who broke the bourgeoisie and identified with the working class in the post-1917 era, Lawrence walked a tightrope between both major classes in society. He was appalled by the British General Strike of 1926 that must have seemed little better than a barroom brawl in his native village when he was growing up.

D.H. Lawrence, caught between two worlds

In doing some background research on this article, I came across J.M. Coetzee’s review of Peter Scheckner’s “Class, Politics and the Individual: A Study of the Major Works of D. H. Lawrence” in the January 16, 1986 NY Review of Books, along with other books on Lawrence. Scheckner was a classmate of mine at Bard College, a Marxist literary scholar and an expert on Lawrence. The review is worth quoting in its entirety:

In his short book, Peter Scheckner traces the course of Lawrence’s political thinking. Scheckner’s contention is that Lawrence wrote his best work while he was most deeply engrossed with the question of the relation of private to public life, but that he was unable to reconcile his desire for the end of industrial capitalism with his reluctance to commit himself to mass action to destroy it; he therefore ended his life retreating from social concerns into an idyll in which the importance of sex became artificially magnified.

Scheckner is surely correct in his claim that the “thematic dynamism” of much of Lawrence’s fiction emerges from an evenly balanced distaste for both capitalism and mass movements, reflected in an ambivalence toward working men which he recognized very clearly in himself: “I love them like brothers—but, my God, I hate them too.” Lawrence thought of himself as one of the working class, at least in “blood affinity.” But he felt that the British working class betrayed itself by joining in the patriotic fervor of the First World War. When the general strike came in 1926, he recoiled from the violence that went hand in hand with it, as well as from what he regarded as its disappointingly materialistic objectives.

As the son of a genteel mother who had married into the working class, and later as a member of a declassed intelligentsia, Lawrence’s emotional involvement in class relations was deep. In his writing his great theme is freedom. But about politics and particularly about economics, his ideas are often worse than naive. Had he lived deeper into the age of fascism, he would undoubtedly have made as much of a fool of himself as Ezra Pound was to do: there was certainly in him enough of a mix of furies of hatred (which, to give him his due, he recognized as “vicious against the deep soul that pulses in the blood”), yearning toward the strong man or leader, and utopianism.

Lawrence’s creative life provides yet another chastening demonstration that simple, even simple-minded ideas, explored to their uttermost with passionate persistence, can issue in great art. Somewhere in the back of his mind Lawrence knew this, knew that his own feelings and desires were mere grist for artistic processes whose operations he had best not interfere with or scrutinize too closely. “Morality in the novel is the trembling instability of the balance,” he wrote. “When the novelist puts his thumb on the scale, to pull down the balance to his own predilection, that is immorality.”

Scheckner’s study is most useful when it gives attention to the neglected plays and to the so-called leadership novels: Aaron’s Rod, Kangaroo, The Plumed Serpent. It is a rather airless book, concentrating myopically on Lawrence’s texts with barely a glance at fellow members of an intelligentsia squeezed, like Lawrence, between a right and a left equally indifferent to their interests. In order to prove that Lawrence jettisoned his working-class sympathies too precipitately in 1914, retreating into a sterile misanthropy, Scheckner presents working-class resistance to the Great War as rather more principled and uniform than it really was—as a reading of his main source, G. D. H. Cole’s Short History of the British Working Class Movement, 1789–1947, will confirm. Most surprisingly, Scheckner pays no serious attention to the thesis that Lawrence was never a socialist in embryo, but rather a radical conservative hankering after a preindustrial world of organic agricultural communities and craftsmen.

 

5 Comments »

  1. You neglected to mention that the NYRB Scheckner review was written by J. M. Coetzee.

    Comment by Stuart Newman — July 13, 2007 @ 2:23 am

  2. Comrade

    I think Eagleton’s designation as a radical rightist is reasonable. I remember as a teenager studying ‘The Rainbow’ and recoiling in horror at the blood and soil fascism strongly suggested in the opening chapter. His champions applaud his courage in raising issues of sexuality but Lawrence didn’t use his writings to call for an open, honest and rational assessment of relationships between people. Instead he covers the whole matter in an aura of mystical bullshit.

    Comment by Doug — August 15, 2007 @ 3:24 pm

  3. […] of encounters eventually becomes a deeper, more personal bond of love. They are divided not only by clear-cut class distinctions but also by other inconvenient encumbrances (such as Connie’s […]

    Pingback by Book Review: Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence (another of my favorites) « The Ambitious Ambigue — February 11, 2011 @ 11:04 am

  4. […] of encounters eventually becomes a deeper, more personal bond of love. They are divided not only by clear-cut class distinctions but also by other inconvenient encumbrances (such as Connie’s […]

    Pingback by Book Review: Lady Chatterley's Lover by DH Lawrence | Emlyn Chand — April 1, 2011 @ 9:57 pm

  5. Lawrence died in 1930, at a time when the Great Depression was just getting under way. Fascism had prevailed in Italy and was on its way to das triumph in Germany. Its alleged “ideas” were widespread among people who should have known better, but the full story was yet to unfold. Late in his short life, Lawrence denounced fascism and said he would have preferred some form of socialism. Who knows what he meant by that.

    We can speak with confidence of Ezra Pound’s fascism because we have the entire record of a career that encompassed the whole phenomenon from the March on Rome to the Piazzale Loreto. Lawrence was cut off before he could complete his trajectory

    Lawrence did undeniably imbibe and regurgitate much of the rightwing nonsense of his day–and IMO knew exactly what he was doing. He does not appear, like the disgusting and completely expendable Wyndham Lewis–there was very bad blood between the two men–to have been what we would now call a “political activist,” but he certainly belongs within the right-wing intellectual milieu of this time. Nevertheless, we don’t know for certain where he would have ended up, and there is a possibility that–given his independent streak and his dislike of militarism–he would have become at least some sort of right-wing antifascist if he had lived, maybe even some kind of socialist.

    I find I can live very well without any form of right-wing “great culture”–including the philosophy of Nietzsche and the music of Wagner, not to mention the novels of Saul Bellow. Call me a philistine, but “culture” is perhaps the single most renewable resource that human beings have–we can always make more of it; and the loss of great classics (after all most of Greek and Roman literature is lost) is no bar to the creation of new classics if needed.

    Nevertheless, I find Lawrence the novelist and critic a compellingly brilliant figure and one whom I personally am not inclined to give up in spite of his bad ideas. Not sure why that is, but I feel this very strongly.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — October 28, 2020 @ 12:28 am


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