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Lawrence, Darwin and Tragedy

David Mitchell | October 11, 2018

D. H. Lawrence’s thinking was influenced by reading Darwin. Did this move him, as it did some novelists, towards a tragic vision of life?

The Ottoline Club met on 5th June 2018 in the Archive for a talk by Catherine Brown, Senior Lecturer in English, on “Lawrence, Darwin and Tragedy”. Those present were: Catherine Brown, Charlotte Grant (Faculty of English), Phil Hunter (Faculty of Law), Sebastian Ille (Faculty of Economics), Peter Maber (Faculty of English), Lars Kjaer (Faculty of History), Ursula Smartt (Faculty of Law), Anthony Grayling (Master) and David Mitchell (Faculty of Philosophy).

‘A barren tragedy’: that is the verdict which his former lover offers upon the death of Gerald Crich, one of the protagonists of Women in Love. How is that phrase to be interpreted? There are tragic lives and tragic deaths in Lawrence’s fiction, and there is the famous opening of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, ‘Ours is essentially a tragic age…’. But do his novels convey a tragic vision of life? In several literary writers who were significant for Lawrence, there is a tragic vision of life which can be seen as in part a response to the work of Darwin. A prime case of this is Thomas Hardy, about whom Lawrence wrote an extended study. Lawrence’s own thought was much shaped by reflection on the work of Darwin, and of followers of Darwin such as Spencer and Haeckel. But Catherine’s thesis in this talk was that Lawrence’s idiosyncratic appropriation of Darwin was really very much more comedic than tragic in character.

Crich’s is a barren tragedy because at a certain point in his life he failed to develop himself. He could have done so, according to Rupert Birkin in the novel, by lowering his guard, by being ready to enter into a radically open relationship. Birkin’s reflections on his friend’s death were cited by Catherine as a key expression of the Lawrentian vision of life. Though individual lives may be tragic, this is to be set against a backdrop of growth and constant renewal: there is an ‘inexhaustible fountainhead’ of forms and ways of life. And individual human tragedy is all the less decisive within the overall vision, Catherine added, because of the biocentric character of Lawrence’s thought, his ecocritical stance.

Catherine took Birkin’s reference to the ‘fountainhead’ in theistic terms. That was on the face of it in deep contrast to a Darwinian conception of the development of life, but she reminded us of Darwin’s readiness to allow that evolution by natural selection could possibly be thought of as, in its entirety, the work of a creator. She also suggested a kinship between the closing words of The Origin of Species , ‘…endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved’, and Lawrence’s outlook: in the comedic vision, the game is never up, and there is always a continuation.

Catherine was pressed in both of these connections during the following discussion. How much affinity was there between Lawrence’s thought and different versions of evolutionary theory? And how is the category of the comedic to be specified? Catherine was happy to say that to the extent that Lawrence had a consistent position it was a broadly Spencerian one, but keen to maintain that in many ways that brought him close to Darwin too. When Lars noted the modern explanation of the extinction of the dinosaurs as due to a chance event rather than to their being ‘unfit’ in any substantial sense, Catherine thought that too was in keeping with Lawrence’s views: his was in effect a ‘flat ontology.’ As regards the comedic, Catherine thought of it and the tragic as jointly exhaustive of the relevant domain, but took up Anthony’s reference to the contrast between tragedies of individuals’ flaws and tragedies of fate. It is in rejecting the latter that Lawrence’s vision is comedic.

David Mitchell

Senior Lecturer in Philosophy