D. H. Lawrence, Merleau-Ponty, and the Phenomenology of Illness

Ulrika Maude

D. H. Lawrence’s early-Modernist prose, poems and theoretical writings dwell in intricate and often self-contradicting detail on the complexities of embodied experience. Although Lawrence was born in 1885, some twenty-three years before Merleau-Ponty, and died in 1930, twelve years before the phenomenologist published his first book, La Structure du comportement (1942), my aim in this paper is to argue that the writing and thinking of the two shares some striking affinities, and that an appreciation of Merleau-Ponty’s work can help us to unveil some of the more slippery but at the same time profound premises of Lawrence’s writing.

D. H. Lawrence aimed in his writing to capture a certain pre-objective view that shares much with Merleau-Ponty’s being-in-the-world. Lawrence, alongside other modernist writers, set out to develop an ‘impersonal’ mode of representation which, however, should not be seen merely as a ‘negation of personality.’ Instead, modernist writers, as Christina Walter has recently argued, set out to ask ‘what a personality is, as well as what more there is to the human subject than the person.’  The problem is most strikingly articulated in Lawrence’s notion of ‘blood consciousness’, which can be understood as an organic, bodily intentionality that operates outside of the realm of the intellect, cognition, or mental consciousness and outside of the self-reflective, self-conscious subject.

Lawrence had ample first-hand experience of illness since his early teens, and it is never far off in his writing. It is no coincidence, therefore, that even early works such as Sons and Lovers (1913) feature prominent instances of disease, dysfunction, sickness and bodily calamity – William Morel’s pneumonia, erysipelas and death; Paul’s subsequent pneumonia and his congenital ‘weak chest’; Mrs Morel’s terminal cancer; Walter Morel’s ‘swelling of the brain’ and alcoholism; and Baxter Dawes’ typhoid fever. Illness, ever present, however, rarely takes centre-stage in Lawrence’s writing. Instead, it haunts his work, as if it constituted the underlying condition of his blood consciousness that is, however, rarely candidly confronted. As Lawrence puts it in a letter of 1913, ‘one sheds one’s sickness in books – repeats and presents again one’s emotions, to be master of them’.