Although the differences between these two recent books by major critics of D. H. Lawrence are obviously important, the similarities are more interesting: both writers draw on years of reflection and experience (Kingsley Widmer has been writing on Lawrence for more than thirty years, Michael Bell says that his study was conceived some twenty years ago); both are intolerant of other readings of Lawrence (Widmer of the normative critics, Bell of more recent approaches); and both are as concerned with what they perceive as Lawrence's failures as with his successes.
Widmer is the more fun to read. Those who entertain the notion that we become more conservative as we age need to account for this man. In 1962 Widmer took on normative critics of Lawrence with The Art of Perversity; now 30 years later, in Defiant Desire, he reads Lawrence not only against the grain of normative scholarship but against most other Lawrence scholarship as well. In this reworking of several earlier essays, Widmer revels in his own, well, perverse readings of Lawrence, and since he finds Lawrence or his work totally obtuse, incoherent, overweaning, desperate, patronizing, racist, inconsistent, muddled, redundant, nasty (and this is only for starters, in the first quarter of the book), we must certainly wonder why Widmer keeps coming back for more.
He gives us the answer. It is to rescue Lawrence: "Much of the critic's job . . . is to try to recognize what is significantly there, and then to attempt to relate it to a possibly better truth, including its own better truth." The arrogance is typical Widmer, but Lawrence gives us the better truth: "It is [End Page 402] the fight of opposites which is holy." Whatever his arrogance, Widmer is a powerful reader of that fight of opposites.
Widmer takes his subject from Lawrence's argument about Women in Love: "Desire is . . . primal." The religious experience of intense desire comes at great cost, however, including the negation of much, Widmer argues, that we understand as fundamental to the values of Western civilization. Lawrence is best understood "as a révolte, an outsider prophet, considerably belonging to a different and darker matrix of sensibility." For Widmer, it is the polarity between desire and will that furnishes the central dialectic informing Lawrence's work.
Widmer traces the way in which that dialectic between desire and will is worked out by Lawrence in his response to Nietzsche, an affirmation as well as an attack on the Nietzchean Will to Power "as an expression of ego, rather than deeper, spontaneous vitalities." In succeeding chapters, Widmer considers the tensions of the dialectic first in Lady Chatterley's Lover and then in readings of Lawrence by Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, and Herman Melville (as read by Lawrence in Studies in Classic American Literature), concluding with a chapter on "Lawrence as Dissident Culture Hero." This final chapter is both the most challenging and most frustrating of the study, for here Widmer makes explicit that he is not as interested in the texts that Lawrence created (seeing almost all of them as flawed in important ways) as in a broader socio-cultural phenomenon that he calls Lawrenceanism, the shaping of contemporary thought about such subjects as obscenity and censorship, misogyny, and eroticism. Admirers of the Lawrence of Sons and Lovers or "Snake" or "The Horse-Dealer's Daughter" will gain much from Widmer's reading but will nevertheless leave this study fundamentally unconvinced of the conclusion.
Similarly Michael Bell, in Language and Being, sees Lawrence as a flawed writer who must be rescued from critics, although not the normative critics like F. R. Leavis who concern Widmer. Rather, Bell takes on more recent critics of Lawrence (including this reviewer) who draw on structuralism, poststructuralism, and deconstruction to discuss Lawrence's awareness of language: "Unfortunately, acquaintance with such thought has not so much alerted people to Lawrence's own awareness of language as draw [sic] him into their own essentially alien, and misleading, preoccupations...