Thursday, April 23, 2009
The spectacle of Gerald Crich and Rupert Birkin wrestling on the library carpet in Women in Love’s “Gladiatorial” episode calls to mind a campy imagery, but doing so stripped naked and sweating already breaks the ground for a queer reading. This and other such incidents and statements make up the homosocial interpretation of the relationship between the Brangwen sisters’ lovers in D. H. Lawrence’ controversial novel.
Women in Love juxtaposes the love relationship between Rupert and Ursula Brangwen with that between Ursula’s artistic sister Gudrun and industrialist Gerald. For the purpose of this paper, that other romantic exploration in the novel—the hint of homosexual attraction between Rupert and Gerald—will be the focus. This reading of homosociality between Ursula’s and Gudrun’s lovers will be anchored in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s notion on “male homosocial desire” in Between Men.
It cannot be denied that Rupert’s and Gerald’s is a very intimate friendship, but Rupert’s yearning for male love brings this relationship into an altogether different, symbolic level. On the first hand of this male communion is the refusal to see no more than nonsexual, physical (in the case of the legendary wrestling scene) ties. It may be viewed as a simple male bonding from the heterosexual perspective, justifying the characters’ motives as being borne out of masculine fraternity. On the other hand, this very gladiatorial scene discloses the climax of homosexual desire between the two. In the interest of Sedgwick’s “male homosocial desire,” the relationship between Rupert and Gerald will be seen as being wedged between the contrasting intimate brotherhood and socially repressed romantic affair. Through the lens of this label, the characters’ behavior toward each other may be best explained.
In the beginning chapter of her book, Sedgwick elaborates the fundamental idea behind the erotic triangle that involves two rivals, often male, pursuing a common object, often female. The erotic gets invoked when it is realized that the ties of rivalry and love are equal and powerful. Likewise, Sedgwick throws in the familiar Freudian perspective on the Oedipal triangle. These two elements erupt into a crisis between desire and hostility. The tie between rivals is viewed as vigorous in a power struggle, like the quest for the third member. Thus, the ties may be viewed as either sexual (toward the third member) or nonsexual (toward the rival). However, Sedgwick argues that the third member is used only as a detour from the true partner that is the rival, citing feminist Luce Irigaray that “Male homosexuality is the law that regulates the sociocultural order. Heterosexuality amounts to the assignment of roles in the economy,” with homosexuality used to mean the grounding of patriarchal power in society. The real dynamics, then, of gender and class within the society in which women’s role and femininity are considered, points to homosexuality as a taboo condition. The regular male’s desire for the other, instead of being motivated by sexual satisfaction, is being motivated by homosocial gratification.
The abovementioned may be seen in the kind of relationship being maintained by Gerald and Rupert. The first instance happens in the novel’s second chapter wherein a friendly argument sees Rupert accusing Gerald of the Freudian desire to slit everyone’s throat and then of fearing being slayed. The built-in violence of the talk is obvious, but the psychological and emotional atmosphere in which the two relate tells more:
There was a pause of strange enmity between the two men, that was very near to love. It was always the same between them; always their talk brought them into a deadly nearness of contact, a strange, perilous intimacy which was either hate or love, or both....They burned with each other, inwardly. This they would never admit. They intended to keep their relationship a casual free-and-easy friendship, they were not going to be so unmanly and unnatural as to allow any heart-burning between them. They had not the faintest belief in deep relationship between man and man, and their disbelief prevented any development of their powerful but suppressed friendliness.
The initial sentence’ paradox and the recurrence of hostile descriptions mirror the abovementioned erotic triangle. As the discussion suggests, their tie has touches of rivalry apart from the hostile overtures. Rupert and Gerald are contestants; nonetheless, in their argument, they compete over no specific woman but over female herself. While one represents masculinity and mechanization, the other embodies nature and spirituality. The consummation of the triangle is seen with their relation with Ursula and Gudrun, who form the apex to complement the competitors’ base.
Other features of Sedgwick’s first chapter manifest in Lawrence’s background paragraph. The description shows the suppression of the characters’ actual relationship. They realize that they “burn” for each other; they may not “admit” it but they do not fail to know it. In addition, their motives include a “free-and-easy relationship” when what they actually yearn for is the opposite. As the rest of the sentence discloses, this type of bonding is devoid of the “heart-burning” they carry toward each other. Toward the end of the sentence, a justification for their repressed relationship is revealed: they feel required to prevent being “unmanly and unnatural,” suggesting their longing for intimacy and probably sodomy. Furthermore, they are merely incredulous over the plausibility of a “deep” tie between two men. Through negation, nevertheless, entertaining the very idea means the men consider the possibility. The suppression comes into play in consideration of Sedgwick’s argument about the dichotomy separating simple male bonding and homosexuality. Thus, Gerald and Rupert must avoid nurturing their relationship due to homophobia. Their milieu foists their fears upon them, opposing what they truly desire within.
Regarding this relationship, the major revelation is in the suggestively entitled chapter “Man to Man.” The drama unfolds when Gerald “looked at Birkin with penetrating eyes.” The suggestive adjective implies Gerald’s yearning for a sodomitic intimacy. More importantly, the word choice provides a shift into each man’s respective emotion toward the other. Gerald seems more repressive of the true nature of his relationship with Rupert. He surprisingly discloses mistrust and insecurity, seeming frightened to involve himself in a deep affair since “[h]e knew Birkin could do without him—could forget and not suffer.” Whereas this is the depiction of the manner in which Gerald treats his female lovers, the reversal of roles renders him the victim with the resistance to be treated in like manner. Meanwhile, Rupert contemplates on how to invigorate their tie and to address the “problem of love and eternal conjunction between two men.” He knowledgeably confesses his love and his eventual rejection of it. His resolution in the form of blood union suggests on one hand, a ritualistic strengthening of fraternity and on the other, of marriage, something that gets consummated in the homoerotic chapter entitled “Gladiatorial.” The tension between the desire for brotherhood and that for romantic realization may be addressed by Sedgwick’s concept of homosocial desire. Again, the character’s hesitation bars the attainment of their mutual feelings. Rupert invokes the idea of the blood but disregards the physical feature just as rapidly: “No wounds, that is obsolete.—But we ought to swear to love each other, you and I, implicitly and perfectly, finally, without any possibility of going back on it.” In spite of the “luminous pleasure” in Gerald’s countenance, he can just respond reservedly, caressing Rupert “as if withheld and afraid.” He wishes to “leave it till [he] understand[s] it better.” Due to society’s take in the spectrum along which companionship and homosexuality run, Gerald hesitates to jump into a fulfilled commitment. Probably he is frightened of his very desires, or possibly his abovementioned insecurity gets the better of him. Whatever the case, the absence of commitment implies their consequent and disastrous separation. Only when their relationships with the Brangwen sisters get strengthened will the two males be able to get intertwined, if only physically.
Nonetheless, Rupert advocates for the nobility of male love against Gerald’s reluctance. Gerald sees such a bonding as having “no basis in nature” when Rupert insists his desire to fulfill an ultimate commitment from Gerald and proposes the psychological requirement of an enduring male-male relationship. Rupert asserts for an “additional perfect relationship between man and man—additional to marriage,” although Gerald argues that he falls short of feeling adequate passion for it: “Surely there can never be anything as strong between man and man as sex love is between man and woman. Nature doesn't provide the basis.” Rupert responds “Well, of course, I think she does” and proceeds against the exclusivity of marital union: “And you've got to admit the unadmitted love of man for man. It makes for a greater freedom for everybody.” Hence, Rupert imposes his philosophy against Gerald’s reservation that male-male bonding lacks “basis in nature” and in Women in Love, he maintains his relationship with Gerald that is comparable in focus as that with Ursula. This is an indubitable pursuit of a realized homosocial love between the male characters.
Rupert and Gerald decline to drink before the actual tussling in “Gladiatorial,” suggesting that they refuse to lessen further their inhibition which is already reduced with their stripping nude for their engagement in physical contact. Their nakedness binds them homosocially, although the inevitable eroticism proceeds here:
So the two men entwined and wrestled with each other, working nearer and nearer...He seemed to penetrate into Gerald’s more solid, more diffuse bulk, to interfuse his body through the body of the other, as if to bring it subtly into subjection, always seizing with some rapid necromantic foreknowledge every motion of the other flesh, converting it and counteracting it, playing upon the limbs and trunk of Gerald like some hard wind. It was as if Birkin’s whole physical intelligence interpenetrated into Gerald’s body, as if his fine sublimated energy entered into the flesh of the fuller man, like some potency, casting a fine net, a prison, through the muscles into the very depths of Gerald’s physical being.
The author reechoes the concepts of flesh and penetration in the physical battle. Rupert and Gerald violently melt into each other due to their struggle to mix their contrasting compositions. On the one side, the wrestling can be taken for a physical but not necessarily sexual companionship. One the other side, it can be considered a consummate homosexual act, with the post-wrestling collapse into each other’s arms reminiscent of sexual gratification and the thematic violence seen in wrestling instead of in sodomy. The opposing ideas may be wedded yet again in the male homosocial desire principle. Via the masculine action in wrestling, Rupert and Gerald commit a non-genital love as engendered by homophobia. With their commitment in this male bonding, they solidify their heterosexuality while achieving their homosocial pursuits. They marry physically without engaging in behavior they know to be exclusive for heterosexual affairs. Finally, in the hope of avoiding the “clutching” ties of Ursula and of submitting to a non-genital, homosocial state of companionship with Gerald, Rupert states after the unrestrained man-to-man flesh contact that “[l]ife has all kinds of things…There isn’t only one road.” This assertion during a discussion with his lady partner suggests the probability of an escape from the normalized compulsion of heterosexual engagement.
While D.H. Lawrence toys with the theme of homosexuality, he allows for a reading of a higher message about unadulterated love. Initially, Rupert’s romantic confession to Ursula of love for the late Gerald is tinged with homosexual overtones:
“He should have loved me,” he said. “I offered him.”
She, afraid, white, with mute lips answered:
“What difference would it have made!”
“It would!” he said. “It would.”
Rupert’s reply expresses positive attitude about this love gathering more force. There is a persuasion that a union between Rupert and Gerald would transcend not only the melancholic events about Gerald’s death but also the interaction of heterosexual affairs. Meanwhile, for Lawrence, to push for a homosexual love to justify his lifestyle would have been too easy. The higher stake that is about nobler love becomes visible when Rupert asserts, “To make it complete, really happy, I wanted eternal union with a man too: another kind of love.” In this text, homosexuality plays second fiddle to the idea of another kind of love. There is already a level at which homosocial nobility is being declared by Rupert. Lawrence must mean that Rupert loves Gerald beyond his physical form, as may be hinted by the naked wrestling, that this love is essentially greater, possibly spiritual, in such a way that lying with another man to make love with him in a non-platonic manner does not bear so much significance.
To be able to grasp the suggestions of the characters’ homosocial acts, it is imperative to look into how Lawrence views homosexuality. In the “Prologue” to the novel, most of the chapter is spent depicting Rupert’s love and longing for men in the most direct and extensive way. For example:
He could never acquiesce to his own feelings, to his own passion. He could never grant that it should be so, that is was well for him to feel this keen desire to have and to possess the bodies of such men, the passion to bathe in the very substance of such men, the substance of living, eternal light, like eternal snow, and the flux of heavy, rank-smelling darkness.
Whereas other portions determine a more physically intimate, homosexual desire, this part permits a homosocial interpretation. Notwithstanding the apparent sexual overtones of the chapter, Rupert’s indicative yearning for sodomy, Rupert’s desire may actually go beyond the sexual. He wishes to “bathe in the very substance” of men, to “possess” them, to be one of their kind. The sex act cannot quite explain the spiritual longing that he feels. What he wishes is to transform into a consummate male who can control bodies and minds apart from his own, to become one in their homosocial aspect, far from women and the heterosexual strictures of society. His hesitation to give in to and his own fear of his desire stem from his homophobia, acquired through the link of such desire to the homosexual taboo. From this viewpoint, the physical contact, the blood union, his perpetual desire to carry a real relationship with a man, may be read in a homosocial framework, one sustained by desire that is non-genital and non-homosexual in aspect.
Therefore, the attraction between Gerald and Rupert should not be hinted outright as homosexual, since their real intimate desire does not rest in the physical fulfillment of their relationship. Regarding this, Lawrence had to say, “The psychoanalysts, driving us back to the sexual consummation always, do us infinite damage. We have to break away, back to the great unison of manhood in some passionate purpose. Now this is not like sex.” In here, the author exerts an effort to differentiate the higher “purpose” to be achieved among males and the libidinal act, owing to their vast distinction in value and meaning. This summon to engage to a homosocial setup is bereft of sex itself although it permits passion, such as that of Rupert’s.
More facets of the homosocial commitment between Rupert and Gerald beg to be examined from the attendant misogyny to the destiny that their respective erotic triangles are tragically heading. All the same, the issue of male homosocial desire serves as the foundation of their affair. Owing to the woman’s role in society, Rupert and Gerald’s relationship meets a calamitous ending, with their commitment unattained. As Ursula would have it, “You cannot have two kinds of love…because it is false, impossible.” Due to this dominant perspective, the homophobia foisted upon Gerald and Rupert brought about the reluctance and demise of their resisting masculinity. Nevertheless, Lawrence uses Rupert—with the latter’s retort “I don’t believe that”—as an instrument in reviving the hope for a homosocial setting liberated from the demands of heterosexuality.
Lawrence, D. H. Women in Love. New York: Modern Library Edition.
Oates, Joyce Carol. “Lawrence’s Götterdämmerung: The Apocalyptic Vision of Women in Love.” In Critical Essays on D. H. Lawrence. Dennis Jackson and Fleda Brown Jackson, eds. Boston: G. K. Hall and Co., 1988.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.