- Reviewed by
In the more than twenty years since publication of Kate Milieu's criticism of D. H. Lawrence in Sexual Politics, there have been numerous responses—supporting Millett, defending Lawrence, working for a middle ground. The general reader might reasonably expect that the examination of the Lawrence/Millett controversy had been exhausted, but the general reader would be wrong. The question of Lawrence's understanding of women continues to fascinate, and for that reason, of the three books here under review, Peter Balbert's will undoubtedly provoke the most debate. D. H. Lawrence and the Phallic Imagination presents a reading of Lawrence with which, for the most part, I happen to disagree, but I nevertheless admire the power with which the argument is made.
Before turning to that power, let me identify the basic quarrels that I have with Balbert's study. One is implied in the second half of his title: Essays on Sexual Identity and Feminist Misreading. Balbert might agree that not all feminists misread? [End Page 608] Lawrence, and his Introduction refers to feminist rejoinders to Millett (including one that I wrote for Modern Fiction Studies in 1975), but the actual study rarely takes this kind of response into account. Balbert does not refer to the work of Janice Harris, for example, who has presented a strong and reasoned reexamination of Millett, and he demonstrates no recognition that, for the most part, the majority of feminist critics no longer concern themselves with images of women in male writers, including Lawrence. The term feminist covers a wide range of responses that can be made by critics; Balbert makes his case on a limited sample.
Indeed, a more accurate title for Balbert's study would be Millett's Misreading, for the book essentially restricts its consideration of feminism to a refutation of Sexual Politics (with secondary interest in Hilary Simpson's D. H. Lawrence and Feminism ). The index includes twenty-six citations for Millett, several of which cover up to four and five pages. The only writer from whom Balbert quotes more, other than Lawrence, is Norman Mailer, whose Prisoner of Sex informs much of Balbert's response. And therein lies a second concern with the study: its heavy reliance on Mailer. Balbert is essentially rehashing an old argument.
Having made that point, however, I must confess that the old argument continues to engage. At the Lawrence International Conference this past summer in Montpellier, France, the best-attended panel was the one on Lawrence and feminist criticism, and one of the papers that drew the liveliest response reviewed, once again, Millett's work on Lawrence. Balbert's study not only serves as a useful review of the controversy, particularly in the early days of Prisoner of Sex, but also suggests some of the important reasons why this debate continues to engage us. The strength of Balbert's study—and the reason why it will be read, applauded, and denounced—is that it identifies the issues with such passion and clarity.
Lawrence's understanding of the phallic imagination, as Balbert recognizes, was both conservative and radical. More brilliantly and more fully than any other writer of the twentieth century, Lawrence demonstrated the way in which our sexual lives are affected by and in turn affect modern institutions. Balbert reminds us of the importance that Lawrence placed on marriage; his comments on the way in which Lawrence's emerging faith in marriage drives The Rainbow are particularly fine. For Lawrence, the love between man and woman may be "damnably difficult and painful, but it is the only thing which endures." Balbert is right that many feminist critics have not taken this position sufficiently into account.
If Lawrence was conservative in his response to marriage, however, he was radical in his response to other institutions...