D. H. Lawrence’s Phallic Traditionalism
Sex and Religion
D. H. Lawrence argues that through the sex act, individuals participate in some kind of mysterious power running through nature. But does this momentary experience have any kind of long-term effect on them? Lawrence directly addresses this question. When the sex act is over, he writes, “The two individuals are separate again. But are they as they were before? Is the air the same after a thunderstorm as before? No. The air is as it were new, fresh, tingling with newness. So is the blood of man and woman after successful coition.” He states further that coition alters “the very quality of being, in both.”
But how? Not surprisingly, Lawrence actually says little about how the experience changes the woman, but as for the man he has plenty to say. After coitus, “The heart craves for a new activity. For new collective activity. That is, for a new polarized connection with other beings, other men.” As we have seen, Lawrence believes that sex involves an encounter with the creative force at the basis of nature. This encounter renews the male’s own creativity. He is eager, after the encounter, to break away from the woman for a time and to take action in the world, to bring something new into being: “Men, being themselves made new after the action of coition, wish to make the world anew. A new, passionate polarity springs up between men who are bent on the same activity, the polarity between man and woman sinks to passivity. It is now daytime, and time to forget sex, time to be busy making a new world.”
The man yearns for union with the woman. At the time, all other considerations other than that union become trivial. Union must be achieved. But once it is achieved, he is renewed and yearns now to come together with other men in a new kind of union: a union directed toward the accomplishment of purposive activity. Again, however, what of the woman in all of this? Doesn’t she yearn for a purposive activity beyond the marriage bed? Lawrence answers that, in the main, this is not the case. He writes, “Primarily and supremely man is always the pioneer of life, adventuring onward into the unknown, alone with his own temerarious, dauntless soul. Woman for him exists only in the twilight, by the camp fire, when day has departed. Evening and the night are hers.”
Lawrence’s view is that in life we must oscillate between an encounter with the source—through sex, for example—and purposive, creative activity. In other words, we must oscillate between blood-consciousness and mental consciousness. Lawrence is not anti-intellectual. Mental consciousness exists in order to allow us to carry out the inspirations we have received from blood-consciousness (recall that “it is through the phallic roots that inspiration enters the soul”). It is when mental consciousness is cut off from blood-consciousness and tries to make itself radically autonomous that problems result.
Lawrence at one point frames the issue of the relation of the two forms of consciousness in terms of “nighttime” and “daytime” selves:
Well, then, we have night-time selves. And the night-self is the very basis of the dynamic self. The blood-consciousness and the blood-passion is the very source and origin of us. Not that we can stay at the source. Nor even make a goal of the source, as Freud does. The business of living is to travel away from the source. But you must start every single day fresh from the source. You must rise every day afresh out of the dark sea of the blood.
When you go to sleep at night you have to say: “Here dies the man I am and know myself to be.” And when you rise in the morning you have to say: “Here rises an unknown quantity which is still myself.”
When Lawrence speaks of rising in the morning, he means emerging from the world of dreams. Like Jung, Lawrence believed that we encounter our primal, pre-mental selves in dream. But he does not just mean this. He means that whenever we emerge from an encounter with the source – whenever we have sloughed off, for a time, our individuality and then put it back on again – we must be prepared to be changed, to be inspired with something that has emerged from the source. We must be willing to bring this into the light. He alludes to this idea in Studies in Classic American Literature when he tell us he believes “That my soul is a dark forest” and “That gods, strange gods, come forth from the forest into the clearing of my known self, and then go back.”
Human beings generally make the mistake of absolutizing either the daytime self or the nighttime self; either making sex the be all and end all, to the exclusion of purposive activity, or vice versa. Lawrence writes that “With sex as the one accepted prime motive, the world drifts into despair and anarchy.” In the sex act, as we have said, the sense of individuality, of personal identity is lost and the participants have the sense of merging into some larger unity. But what of the rest of life? We must live as individuals, with a sense of ourselves as separate beings for most of our waking existence.
But what are we to make of our individuality? Some people find
the burden of separate, individual existence so great that they seek to have the sort of transcendence one can experience through sex on an almost constant basis, through alcohol or drugs or thrill-seeking. And what we often find with such individuals is that their lives come to pieces, they drift into “despair and anarchy.”
We have, according to Lawrence, two selves: the nighttime self which is the same in all of us, and which is an offshoot of the worldself, the life mystery; and the daytime self, which is different in each of us, and individual. To deny either is unnatural. We must shuttle back and forth between the two. If we absolutize the nighttime self, then we are destroyed as individuals. And any society that tries to found itself on the nighttime self would quite literally descend into chaos. (Consider the case of Woodstock, for example.) “Assert sex as the predominant fulfillment, and you get the collapse of living purpose in man. You get anarchy.”
But it is equally mistaken to assert purpose above everything. This is, in effect, the mistake of idealism. There are individuals who deny sex or any act that involves a contact with the source. Such acts involve a loss of control, and a temporary breakdown in the sense of individual separateness. And this is terrifying to many people. So they live, as it were, from the neck up and devote themselves wholly to achievement, to productive work, to purpose. This is essentially what Freud means by the sublimation of the libido. Such individuals may not literally cease to have sex, but their sex is mechanical and without any real sensual depth. “Assert purposiveness as the one supreme and pure activity of life,” Lawrence writes, “and you drift into barren sterility, like our business life of today, and our political life.”
Lawrence sees in these observations a key to understanding world history. “You become sterile, you make anarchy inevitable,” he says. In other words, if a society asserts purposiveness above all, eventually it reaches a mass psychological breaking point, and the society will abandon itself to pure sensuousness. If this happens, however, things are destined to cycle back again. Someone or some movement will arise in response to this sensuous anarchy, and it will put forward the solution: abandon sensuousness, in favor of pure purpose, or pure idealism. And so on. To quote Anaximander (one of Lawrence’s favorite philosophers), “they pay penalty and retribution to each other for their injustice according to the assessment of time.”
For Lawrence, the solution to this problem is for individuals to live in complete acceptance of sex and the blood-consciousness. They must accept these not only without guilt, but with positive reverence. Sex and all that puts us into touch with the primal, chthonic source is to be regarded as the touchstone of life. All plans and purposes of human beings are to draw their inspiration from the encounter with this source, and must be compatible with the free, regular, sensual contact with it.
Lawrence writes that “no great purposive passion can endure long unless it is established upon the fulfillment in the vast majority of individuals of the true sexual passion. No great motive or ideal or social principle can endure for any length of time unless based upon the sexual fulfillment of the vast majority of individuals concerned.” And just to make sure we have gotten his point, he says again a few lines later, “You have got to base your great purposive activity upon the intense sexual fulfillment of all your individuals.” (Mysteriously, he adds, “That was how Egypt endured.”)
To sum up, it is certainly true to say that Lawrence was preoccupied with sex. But that was because for him sex was religion. In sex we awaken the deepest part of ourselves; we become that part, which is itself part of the life energy of which we are an expression. In sex we contact this mystery, and draw creative strength from it. Lawrence insists, however, that we cannot dwell forever in this mystery. Our lives must be a perpetual shifting back and forth between blood-consciousness and mental consciousness. Contact with the chthonic blood mystery spurs us on to purposive action. And in terms of what our purposes are to be, we draw inspiration from opening ourselves to the chthonic and whatever it may bring forth.
Sex in the Head
Ideally, sex should not be the only means by which we contact the life mystery, but for modern people it usually is. That is, when they can manage to have fulfilling sex at all. The trouble is that modern people live almost exclusively from the intellect, from conscious, mental awareness. And they live with rigid conceptions of selfhood. These are constructions of the intellect and, not surprisingly, they make intellect central to selfhood.
We tend to think, in other words, that we are minds simpliciter. But it is actually worse than that. We tend to think of ourselves almost as disembodied minds, and we relate as one disembodied mind to another. We invest a tremendous amount in maintaining these conceptions. Anything that would break down or challenge our sense of individual distinction is regarded as a threat.
Consequently, as Lawrence tells us over and over again, we have “got our sex into our head.” This is a favorite expression of his. As much as we may locate our sense of self in the head, we cannot ever fully extinguish thereby the flame of the “lower self.” Rather than cede any of its power to the lower self, intellect must find some way to get sex into the head and control it. Sex becomes a matter of ego-aggrandizement, and the object of myriad neuroses. Even sexual arousal comes to be controlled by the head. The instinctual, animal sexual response that nature equips us with is suppressed by intellect. The head develops its own fixations and these become “cues” which trigger arousal.
For example, fetishism is a sexual response triggered not by the presence of an actual man or woman, or male or female genitalia, but by something which somehow symbolizes or refers to these. For example, the fetishist who gets excited over women’s underwear but has difficulty getting excited in the presence of a real woman. This is a person whose response is, again, intellectual and unnatural. He is disconnected from natural sexual feelings, and achieves arousal by routing information through the intellect: “I associate panties with women’s crotches, and they’re sexy, therefore this is sexy.”
The head may even declare some sexual feelings “wrong,” because they are incompatible with the ego’s self-conception. Repression and terrible inner conflict are the result. The more we get our sex into our head, the more a natural, fulfilling sexual response becomes impossible. The end result is almost inevitably impotence in the man and frigidity in the woman. Lawrence would not have been surprised at all had he lived to see the plethora of drugs that have now become available to treat sexual dysfunction, and the massive profits made by the companies that produce them.
One would think that getting sex into the head would put modern people off of sex, but instead it actually makes them terrifically hungry for repeated, transient sexual experiences. Lawrence writes, “The more individual the man or woman, the more unsatisfactory is a non-individual connection: promiscuity.” By identifying only with the “daytime self,” with the mental self alone, we in effect disown our bodies and their sensations and urges. But the urges remain, and we must satisfy them. So we go to a sexual encounter, but because we have rendered our bodies largely insensate, we wind up feeling very little. And because we are terrified of anything that might break down or transform our sense of ourselves, we emerge from the act unchanged.
We are unwilling to surrender ego and make ourselves vulnerable, and so the sex act becomes merely a gymnastic exercise, followed by some mildly pleasurable muscular contractions. Dimly, we sense that something is missing—or that we have missed out on something. So we are driven to go on to another encounter, but the old pattern repeats itself. Of course, part of what drives us to another encounter is the biological sex urge itself, but Lawrence believes that the sex urge alone cannot explain the extraordinary promiscuity of modern people.
A solution to promiscuity, of course, is to find a steady partner, ideally one to hold onto for a lifetime. But modern people tend to approach this from the head as well. Lawrence writes,
We have made the mistake of idealism again. We have thought that the woman who thinks and talks as we do will be the blood-answer. . . . We have made love and sex a matter of seeing and hearing and of day-conscious manipulation. We have made men and women come together on the grounds of the superficial likeness and commonality—their mental and upper sympathetic consciousness. And so we have forced the blood into submission. Which means we force it into disintegration.
We relate to potential love partners through the head, looking for intellectual agreement and a “shared mutuality of values.” This is much more so the case today than when Lawrence wrote. It has become increasingly the case in today’s world that one feels obliged in certain contexts (for example, the workplace) to suppress one’s feelings of magnetic attraction to the opposite sex, and certainly never to give voice to it. Some find an expression of such feelings to be somehow degrading or demeaning, no matter the context. And so men and women tend now to relate to each other primarily through talking, and talking mainly about ideas, opinions, and preferences.
The other side of the coin, of course, is relationships based upon physical attraction. While these may seem superficially more healthy than the relationships just described, in their modern form they are in fact no better. Modern people, as I have said, are caught up in preserving ego boundaries, and that means they are caught up in not losing themselves in the other, in not going too far in the direction of sensuous abandon. Hence, after a while, modern relationships based upon sex reach a dead end, where neither partner is willing to go further for fear of actually becoming something other than what he or she already is. The sex becomes overly familiar, overly mechanical, and, for lack of anything else to sustain it, the relationship ends.
Between dissatisfying sexual encounters, modern people (especially males) steel themselves against the possibility that the next time might be a profound, transformative experience by making a smirking joke of sex; by treating sex as a game in which numbers count: number of conquests, number of orgasms, minutes elapsed before ejaculation, inches of erection, etc. Sex becomes a possession of the ego, something I do which elevates me in my own eyes, a selfish pursuit. What it should be, in fact, is the most selfless pursuit of all—not in the sense of being altruistic, but in the sense of being egoless and ecstatic:
But today, all is image consciousness. Sex does not exist; there is only sexuality. And sexuality is merely a greedy, blind self-seeking. Self-seeking is the real motive of sexuality. And therefore, since the thing sought is the same, the self, the mode of seeking is not very important. Heterosexual, homosexual, narcissistic, normal, or incest, it is all the same thing. . . . Every man, every woman just seeks his own self, her own self, in the sexual experience.
Contrary to appearance, modern people hate and fear sex. They hate and fear the loss of control, the loss of ego, and the abandonment to the life mystery that real, “blood-conscious” sex involves. So they reduce sex to smut and laugh at it, and at themselves for wanting it. In his essay “Pornography and Obscenity,” Lawrence writes, “Pornography is the attempt to insult sex, to do dirt on it. This is unpardonable.” Further, as we have already discussed, scientism conspires with pornography to deflate the sex mystery and render it all a mundane matter of chemicals and “procreative drive.” “The scientific fact of sex is no more sex than a skeleton is a man,” Lawrence writes. “Yet you’d think twice before you stuck a skeleton in front of a lad and said, ‘You see, my boy, this is what you are when you come to know yourself.’”
The “scientific” approach to deflating sex is largely the hard-headed approach of the sexually-repressed male. The sexually-repressed female has given us the “lovey-dovey” approach. Sex is “something wonderful and extra lovey-dovey, a bill-and-coo process of obtaining a sweet little baby.” Both approaches are, Lawrence tells us, “disastrous to the deep sexual life.” “But perhaps,” he adds, “that is what we want.” We want, at some level, to destroy the sexual life because it threatens the ego and the control of intellect.
Fear of sex, Lawrence tells us in John Thomas and Lady Jane is “fear of the phallus”:
This is the root fear of all mankind. Hence the frenzied efforts of mankind to despise the phallus, and to nullify it. All out of fear. Hence the modern jazz desire to make the phallus quite trivial, a silly little popgun. Fear, just the same. Fear of this alter ego, this homunculus, this little master which is inside a man, the phallus. Men and women alike committed endless obscenities, in order to be rid of this little master, to be free of it! Free! Free! Freedom!
Remember that the phallus—the erect penis—is the second man
within the man: the expression of the primal, chthonic self. It is the bodying-forth in the male’s body of the unconscious, or the blood-consciousness. It is not a thing of intellect; its roots go much deeper. And because of this, it is an affront to the intellect, which prides itself on its autonomy. Lawrence is telling us that all of our reductive scientism, our pornography, our sanitized “lovey-dovey” smarm about sex, indeed most of modern life, are a concerted effort to deny the power of the phallus and to assert the radical autonomy of intellect.
It would be a mistake to understand Lawrence as simply saying that modern men and women fear a physical organ. In a way, Lawrence is saying this. The erect penis represents, in the minds of most people, the primal self within the self, deeper than intellect. And, indeed, it is under the control of that primal self; again, an erection cannot be “willed.” But recall also that for Lawrence the phallus is an expression of the life mystery that permeates all of nature.
The fear of the phallus thus represents, in another way, the fear and hatred of that
whichis greater than ourselves. It is no accident that the scientific “deflation” of sex usually goes hand in hand with atheism. They spring from the very same sort of mentality, the mentality that fears losing itself in something that would break the bounds of ego. To prevent this from ever happening, it must deny mystery, beauty, and God. These are all, in a way, the phallus. It must deny these or somehow explain them away. And above all it must deny itself pleasure. The fear of the phallus goes hand in hand with a fear of pleasure, for pleasure threatens to carry us away and give us a transcendent experience in which we feel absorbed into something greater than ourselves. As a Shaivite text says: “every pleasure is a divine experience. The entire universe springs forth from enjoyment. Pleasure is at the origin of all that exists.”
In “A Propos of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’” Lawrence writes that “the bridge to the future is the phallus, and there’s the end of it.” At this point, as strange as it may seem, it should be unsurprising to hear Lawrence make such a claim. What is surprising, however, is that he insists that he is not saying that the bridge to the future is sex. In the same essay, Lawrence goes on to say that if England (and, by extension, the entire modern, Western world) is to be “regenerated . . . then it will be by the arising of a new blood contact, a new touch, and a new marriage. It will be a phallic rather than a sexual regeneration. For the phallus is the only great old symbol of godly vitality in a man, and of immediate contact.”
What can Lawrence mean by “phallic rather than sexual”? One must keep in mind that
which the phallus represents. Lawrence is calling upon us to return to consciousness of the life mystery, in every way that we can. Sex is only one way. The phallus is “only the great old symbol of godly vitality in a man,” and it is this godly vitality that we must put ourselves back in touch with. But what does Lawrence mean when he says, further, that the phallus is the old symbol of “immediate contact”?
Here he refers to his provocative claim, discussed earlier, that the phallus “is a column of blood that fills the valley of blood of a woman.” The phallus is the means by which the two great rivers, which are metaphysical opposites, are brought together wordlessly, and more profoundly than any words or ideas could convey. The phallus represents this and all other forms of “blood-contact,” meaning instinctive or intuitive, non-verbal contact between individuals.
Lawrence believes that individuals relate to each other in countless, mysterious ways that he often designates by the term “vibrations.” We relate to the opposite sex through these vibrations. No matter our sexual orientation, the vibrations are there. We relate to members of our own family, or our own ethnic group, or to members of another, different ethnic group through these vibrations. We must learn somehow to recover our awareness of these, and cease attempting to relate to one another exclusively through words and ideas. But this is only part of what we must do to get back in touch with “the phallus.”
In the same essay, Lawrence speaks of the necessity of establishing an entire life lived in connection to the phallus:
We must get back into relation, vivid and nourishing relation to the cosmos and the universe. The way is through daily ritual, and the re-awakening. We must once more practise the ritual of dawn and noon and sunset, the ritual of the kindling fire and pouring water, the ritual of the first breath, and the last. This is an affair of the individual and the household, a ritual of day. The ritual of the moon in her phases, of the morning star and the evening star is for men and women separate. Then the ritual of the seasons, with the Drama and Passion of the soul embodied in procession and dance, this is for the community, in togetherness. And the ritual of the great events in the year of stars is for nations and whole peoples. To these rituals we must return: or we must evolve them to suit our needs.
This is, of course, a description of the kind of life our distant ancestors lived. It was a life lived, in effect, in constant meditation upon and connection with the phallic mystery, the pan power. The phallus is the “bridge to the future,” but this bridge takes us roundabout and back again to the distant past.
 D. H. Lawrence, Fantasia of the Unconscious in Fantasia of the Unconscious and Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious (New York: Penguin, 1971), 107.
 Fantasia, 108.
 Fantasia, 108.
 Fantasia, 109.
 Fantasia, 182–83.
 D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (New York: Penguin, 1977), 22. Italics in original.
 Fantasia, 110. Later in the same text he declares, “Sex as an end in itself is a disaster: a vice” (Ibid., 187).
 Fantasia, 111.
 Fantasia, 111.
 Fantasia, 111.
 The Presocratic Philosophers, trans. G. S. Kirk, J. E. Raven, and M. Schofield (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 118.
 Fantasia, 110–11.
 Fantasia, 85.
 Fantasia, 175.
 Fantasia, 175.
 D. H. Lawrence, Phoenix, ed. Edward McDonald (New York: Viking, 1968), 381–82 (Review of Trigant Burrow, The Social Basis of Consciousness).
 Phoenix, 175 (“Pornography and Obscenity”).
 Fantasia, 114.
 Fantasia, 114.
 John Thomas and Lady Jane, 239.
 D. H. Lawrence, Phoenix II, ed. Warren Roberts and Harry T. Moore (New York: Viking, 1971), 508 (“A Propos of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’”).
 Phoenix II, 510 (“A Propos of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’”).