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The art of appropriation: the rhetoric of sexuality in D.H. Lawrence.

In his celebrated essay "Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbance," Roman Jakobson divides language along two major rhetorical axes: in the metaphoric mode, words substitute for one another on the basis of similarity; in the metonymic one, contiguity is the basis for substitution. In verbal narratives, as Jakobson emphasizes, either of these "gravitational poles" may predominate: symbolic prose, for example, privileges the metaphoric mode since the law of similarity prevails; realistic prose, by contrast, favors metonymy since contiguity motivates the connection (109-12). Metaphor and metonymy function less as particular tropes than as grand binary orderings, large-scale modes of relation. Selection through similarity - the attraction of likes - or combination through contiguity - the attraction of closeness-to-hand - shapes the structure and style of narratives.

Though Jakobson surveys different types of verbal art, he does not include erotic narratives. Yet here, too, his binary model has an interesting application: it has much to say about the way rhetorical codes compose and position sexual ones. At its simplest, metaphor and metonymy project two distinct approaches to sexual choice: the selection of partners is motivated either by similarity or contiguity, their availability for the sexual act. The mode of selection in turn determines both the type of sexual practice involved and the disposition of roles within the sexual act. These gender implications of Jakobson's binary rhetoric - their construction of masculinity and femininity in erotic narratives - are the special concern of this essay.

In her exploration of how cultural myths position women in language, Margaret Homans shows how traditional thematics of gender identify women with the literal level of narrative, which is then labeled feminine. By contrast, that thematics identifies with the masculine: the language of tropes takes the literal sense as its base and then transcends it. Culture constructs masculinity through its association with the more highly valued figurative level (4-5). But since the figurative itself is bipolar, each of its poles (metaphor and metonymy) configures a different dynamic role for desire: each organizes the phallic drive in its own special way. Each reads phallic desire with the kind of sharp gender bias that we shall later explore. In locating the phallus as the symbolic agent of eros, both metonymy and metaphor empower the male, relegating the female to a subservient role.

To explore these intersections I have chosen the work of D. H. Lawrence, not only because of its importance to 20th-century discourses on sexuality, but also because, in his essays, Lawrence develops his own theories about the dynamics of the sexual exchange, theories that reverberate in his-narratives. In displaying, in a peculiarly transparent way, the workings of phallic desire, Lawrence's narratives show how the two major tropes serve this desire. Although they both dispose of the female as merely the object of male aspirations and goals, each trope locates her within a specific male plot of appropriation: each tells the story of her subjection with its own special emphasis. While in theory Lawrence sometimes celebrates the perfect polarization (or balance) of sexual roles, his narratives in fact project the male as the source of the erotic power that transfigures the female.

Although it moves well beyond the limits of Jakobson's particular theories, this essay engages in readings of phallic desire in Lawrence by means of those two rhetorical codes. I shall first link some contemporary interpretations of the dyad of metaphor and metonymy that display a marked phallic bias to a rhetoric of sexuality as it unfolds in Lawrence's own essays.


Most theorists of language agree that metaphor involves a transfer of meaning, a crossing from one semantic domain to another: ideas associated with the vehicle (the metaphorical term) are projected onto the tenor (the principal idea), where they produce new meaning relations.(1) But theorists have rarely conceived of this crossing as wholly benign. Rather, as Patricia Parker puts it, "the link between metaphor and usurpation runs through the most influential definitions. . . . [T]he 'transfer' of metaphor seems inseparable from a kind of violence, or violation" (136). It is precisely this sense of a trespass, the colonization of a weaker and less-established terrain, that accommodates metaphor so readily to phallic designs. Metaphor tells the story of its own operations - of entry and takeover, penetration and conquest. In erotic narratives, it configures a (male) act of appropriation that locates the female as the fascinating yet alien territory awaiting exploration and domination.

Some examples from contemporary theories of metaphor will clarify these connections. For Max Black, the vehicle (or "focus") "selects, emphasizes, suppresses, and organizes" the tenor (or "frame"), thus imperialistically imposing a new set of meanings on a more passive and receptive domain ("Metaphor" 44). Paul Ricoeur neatly characterizes this move as one of "predicative assimilation" (148): the vehicle grasps the fresh possibilities opened up by the transfer to effect a rapproachement and to draw the domains of the vehicle and tenor closer together. Likewise, Eva Feder Kittay returns repeatedly to the idea of metaphor as the "inducement" of one set of meanings onto another: metaphor "structure[s] an as yet unstructured conceptual domain . . . thereby altering, sometimes transiently, sometimes permanently, our ways of regarding the world" (37, 156, 169-70, 260). In George Lakoff and Mark Turner's definition of metaphor, the colonizing agenda is even more striking: aspects of a source domain are mapped onto a "target" domain, and in the process superimpose a new metaphorical understanding (103). While "mapping" suggests the charting of a territory as a prelude to entry and exploration, the word target makes the aggressive implications more explicit: it includes the subject who shoots and the weapon that is aimed and discharged.

While such definitions emphasize a latent imperialism - the idea of territorial expansion - in the conception of metaphor,(2) they do not explicitly gender the trope. Nelson Goodman's well-known definition, however, does exactly that. The transfer of meaning is conceived of not only as an aggressive expansion ("an expedition abroad . . . a whole apparatus of organization takes over a new territory. . . . [T]he choice of territory for invasion is arbitrary"), but also as a seduction, an act of enforced penetration and conquest: it is "an affair between a predicate with a past [male] and an object [female] that yields while protesting" (73-74, 69). The step toward configuring metaphor as a textual rape is a short one. Indeed, that is how Christian Metz characterizes the process. Metaphor, writes Metz, "forces its way into the fabric of the text, without the pretext of any 'natural' linking, the only justification for the invasion being its resemblance to another element" (204). Thus Metz clarifies the link between metaphor and an erotics of domination: metaphor breaks through established bounds and scouts out weaker domains as a prelude to entry and annexation.

But underscoring the complicity between a metaphorics of eros and the imperial enterprise, this process is one of the central modes of Lawrence' s many ways of portraying the sexual act in his essays. As the agent of eros, the metaphorical vehicle configures the male sexual drive: it imposes a new order of meaning upon the more passive (female) domain of the tenor. In the Study of Thomas Hardy (1914), for example, Lawrence characterizes one erotic encounter as follows: "she is the unknown, the undiscovered, into which I plunge to discovery, losing myself" (103). As he expands this metaphor, he identifies the male sex adventure with the journey into the underworld, the harrowing of hell. In this scenario, the woman represents the "dark continent" whose exotic treasures the heroic crusader displays on his return to the light:

"For a man who dares to look upon, and to venture within the unknown of the female, losing himself, like. . . a man who enters a primeval, virgin forest, feels, when he returns, the utmost gladness of singing . . . the amazing joy of return from the adventure into the unknown, rich with addition to his soul . . . the inexhaustible riches lain under unknown skies over unknown seas" (104).(4)

As the climax to this act of incorporation, the male orgasm is central: it marks the consummate end of the enterprise, the outward and visible sign of an inner assertion, the male will-to-power that imprints its own likeness on a supine domain. In this erotic pioneering, the colonizer is at once trailblazer and prophet: his expansionist fervor is the model for those future explorers who, perceiving the "unrealized vastness" of the female terrain, "will endlessly follow [him]" (104). But the male-female roles are far from symmetrical: while he carries the imperial torch, she - the benighted native - awaits dawn's light with some trepidation: "they [wives] turn their faces east, towards the sunrise, and the brilliant, bewildering, active embrace of a husband" (105).(5) In rhetorical terms, we can summarize this scenario as follows: identified with the metaphorical vehicle, the male "transport" takes over a female terrain (the tenor), which at once resists and succumbs to its overwhelming force.

But the situation is not so simple or one-sided. In the same essay, Lawrence posits an alternative form of erotic engagement by juxtaposing "consummation" - the kind of orgasmic appropriation outlined above - with "contiguity" - the "eternal non-marriage" in which the partners are "two, they are never Two-in-one" (85): they lack mutual interaction. As the erotic object, the female exists close to yet detached from the male as the passive instrument of his pleasure. In this particular hierarchical ordering, the man in love says: "I, the man, am the supreme, I am the one, and the woman is administered unto me, and this is her highest function" (103). In effect, Lawrence exchanges the orgasmic trope for a masturbatory one in which the female body (or one of its parts) is the object of fetishistic attention. Narcissistically turned in on himself, "afraid of the unknown" and "enjoying the strange motion of the stranger, like a pleasant sensation of silk and warmth against [him]," the male abjures the romantic sex adventure, the orgasmic impulse to go beyond himself, choosing instead the proximate pleasures of bodies (in this case, the "sensation of silk," a metonym for the female body itself). Solipsistically shifting from one masturbatory scene to the next, he is "self-enclosed, self-sufficient," in "constant reaction upon himself." Through successive displacements of one body part for another, he postpones the ultimate orgasm that collapses the distance required to keep the fetishized object in place and merges the two into one. In the Lawrentian prognosis, this type of lover degenerates into a "roue," frantic in his pursuit of a private mirage that evaporates in his attempts to possess it (103).

But this alternative scenario articulates exactly the main features of the relationship between metonymic signs: their separateness, their hierarchical positioning, their easy displacement of one by the other, and their mediation through contiguous contact. We can briefly examine each of these features. Since in metonymy there is no crossing between domains, no interpenetration of meanings, signs remain "separate and distinct" from each other (Rice and Schofer 26).(6) Connections without "dependence (that is to say, without inclusion)," as Gerard Genette puts it, govern metonymy (108). More importantly, the metonymic relationship is hierarchical in a manner quite different from the metaphorical one: based on cause and effect, agent and instrument, user and used, it privileges the first term in the series. (The metaphorical hierarchy, by contrast, is based on possessor and possessed.) Metonymy thus facilitates the identification of the male with the dynamic first term, relegating the female to a purely functional role. The narrow range of these binaries - their repetitiousness and predictability(7) - in turn produces the kind of mechanistic accounts of the sexual act typical of pornographic texts. Because metonymic signs form loose chains of association, they easily displace one another. It is precisely this easy displacement that enables Jacques Lacan to identify metonymy with the dynamics of desire in general when he speaks of a subject "caught on the rails - eternally stretching forth towards the desire for something else - of metonymy" (167). Since there is no compulsion to possess the object in question, moments of fetishistic arrest are stopping stations in a restless detour from one substitutive site to another without special climax or closure. Metonymy is a "phallic conceit," an articulation of masculine restiveness, "anticipation forever stretching along the line of disclosure to close signification" (Gallop 30).(8) Finally, its mediation through contiguity makes metonymy the sign of fetishized sex. In Freud's well-known analysis of fetishism, for example, the fetishized objects (foot, shoe, fur, velvet, underclothes) substitute for the female phallus not on the basis of similarity (metaphor), but of spatial contiguity (shoes or feet, Freud suggests, become objects of fetish precisely because they are nearest the female genitals, as the "inquisitive boy" peers up "from below" ["Fetishism" 354-55]. In sum, male fetishization of the female body (or one of its parts) is essentially metonymic in structure.

Although in his essays, Lawrence configures the sexual act as the expression of the tension between these two gravitational poles - "a dual passion of unutterable separation and lovely conjunction of the two" (Reflections 10) - in his fiction the metaphoric imperative often seems to prevail. Metaphor takes advantage of the complicity between its basic operation (the act of appropriation) and the phallic drive to possess and conquer. It lends itself to narratives that inscribe the female as the alien other who subjects herself to the male will-to-power. As a consequence, representations of metonymic sex (contiguous bodies, masturbatory sexual play) are comparatively rare in Lawrence's fiction, especially in their "pure state" uncontaminated by the complementary impulse to usurpation and conquest. One particular episode in a novel is exemplary: in the encounters between Will and Anna in The Rainbow that mark the culmination of their erotic life, the pair depersonalize one another, Anna's body is fetishized, and Will makes his primary goal the intensification of pleasure rather than the inducement of orgasm. It is to this episode (often labeled "pornographic") that we now turn our attention.


After Will and Anna have relinquished their attempt to sustain the blissful (metaphorical) union, the ideal two-in-one, "complete and beyond the touch to time and change" (135), achieved in their honeymoon idyll in Anna's cottage, they engage in a "profound" and "violent" sexual experiment in which they abandon the "moral position" that had previously constrained their lovemaking. Though Lawrence wrote this extensive scenario (twelve pages in all) into the final manuscript of The Rainbow in a deliberately provocative language ("immoral and against mankind") he was subsequently forced to tone down its lubricity to accord with the propriety and demands of a publisher (Methuen) who was "offended by the callous, predatory quality of Will's amorousness" (Ross 46-52). Noting their differences from other Lawrentian representations of sex, critics have since faulted these scenes both for their pornographic "perversity" and for their gross "sensuality."(9) This "perversity," as we shall see, results because Lawrence uses metonymy as the constituting trope of phallic desire in its instrumental and fetishistic dimension.

The episode commences with Will's growing "sil[ence]" and "separate[ness]," an "indifference to responsibility" that makes him withdraw from Anna. Permitting the "unadmitted life of his desire" to come to the fore, he pursues other women precisely because they are strangers ("He wanted the other life . . . [h]e wanted the other"). He cultivates random connections without commitment based on a simple contiguity, closeness-to-hand. A young factory girl (Jenny) who sits beside him in the Nottingham Empire whets is sexual appetite. A purely contingent figure, Jenny signifies only the anonymity that liberates his desire and objectifies her in the process ("He was quite unaware that she was anybody").

Later in a park, Will conducts an experiment in erotic reduction with Jenny as the instrument upon which he plays out his desire. Here the mouth is the fetishized organ. "[O]pened, exposed . . . red and vulnerable," Jenny's mouth is the site of an elaborate game, which highlights Will's cool, yet obsessive, manipulation of its interior depths. At one moment he "almost los[es] control of himself," almost submits to the orgasmic release that collapses the distance necessary to keep Jenny's mouth in view as his fetishized object. It is precisely Will's "cold suspension" that enables him to abandon Jenny without qualms in his "desire for something else" - in this case, the closest sex-object to hand. His desire drives Will back into the domestic enclosure, where Anna plays the role of the composite female, the sum total of all the women Will might have desired as he lives out his fantasy of an absolute pleasure (210-16).

Transforming themselves into "strangers," Will and Anna coexist less as human than as sexual beings ("each was seeking gratification pure and simple"). In rejecting her children and Will's role as their father, Anna rejects both the maternal and paternal metaphors. She "throw[s] everything overboard, love, intimacy, responsibility," engaging Will in a game in which she is at once the "challenge" and the frustrating obstacle. A powerful metonymic hierarchy based on the dyad of agent and instrument dominates the description that follows. Subtly excluded from the position of subject, Anna becomes the pure object of Will's desires, her body a metonym for his totalized pleasure ("she, separated . . ., received all his activities upon her as if they were expected by her").

As metonymic agent, Will acts out the (Lacanian) drama of a satisfaction that recedes as it comes into focus since it lacks the complete satiation of an end-point or orgasm. Obsessively turning back on itself, Lawrence's description records only minor variations, minute refinements of pleasure. With a deliberate calculation and through small sensual increments ("[H]e must enjoy one beauty at a time"), Will avoids the orgasmic crisis that collapses his role as voyeur and terminates his progression: metonymic displacements from one erotic site to another generate fresh predilections, fresh tactile and visual pleasures ("But he neither saw nor touched the perfect place, it was not perfect, it was not there"). In this drama of ceaseless deferment, the foot plays the role of the fetish whose nightly unveiling he anticipates and postpones: "He would say during the daytime: 'tonight I shall know the little hollow under her ankle, where the blue vein crosses' . . . the little miraculous white plain from which ran the little hillocks of the toes and the folded, dimpling hollows between the toes." Keeping orgasm at bay, this fetishistic sexuality replaces the metaphoric impulse towards union with a metonymic "veering off of signification" (Lacan 160) and tropes it as Will's successive riflings of the "unknown sensual store" that diverts and distracts him.

In effect, metaphoric appropriation and conquest are the implicit norms against which the "decadence" of metonymic sex - its revelation as "a passion of death" - is judged and found wanting.(10) In place of the consummate end of the enterprise (the orgasm), which issues in open possession, this metonymic engagement ends in a claustrophobic entombment. The logic of extreme contiguity is pressed to its limits: Will's ultimate desire is to "wallow" in Anna, to "bury himself in her flesh, cover himself over with her flesh." Instead of the swift build-up towards a climax, there is a slow diminution of energies. The emergence of a terminal fetishized site, a covert anal location, "a bud that blossomed into beauty and heavy fundamental gratification," marks the last link in the chain of metonymic displacements. This fetish signifies a libidinal dead-end, the exhaustion of erotic invention itself.

Unlike the metaphoric drive, which resolves itself in an orgasmic climax produced from within, this metonymic engagement resolves itself therapeutically by an action imposed from without. Will's conversion to public do-gooding, as opposed to private pleasure-seeking, relocates his desire. His absorption in teaching woodwork to the village boys brings his erotic life to an end (216-22).


If metonymy inscribes phallic desire in descriptive terms - the fetishistic close-up, the amplified detailing of body-parts(11) - metaphor, by contrast, has a "very close affinity to the mode of thinking we call narrative: metaphor's tendency is to generate stories" (Mellard 154). Metaphor tells tales, as we saw, of usurpation - of entry, penetration, take-over (these, of course, are not so much absolute categories as approximate strategies: there is always some degree of cross-fertilization between them). Metaphoric representations of the sexual act are characterized not by the restless shiftings from one erotic site to the next but by the single-minded drive towards a goal, the grand denouement of orgasm, which burns up the desire that sustains it: there are no messy residues, no unproductive deviations, no awkward remainders. They tell a classic tripartite story, based on the male sexual paradigm:(12) it starts with arousal, the initial incitement to action, the perception of a new domain to be mapped and explored; it drives forward into the middle, where the foreplay is a kind of foray, a testing of the ground as a prelude to take-over; its denouement is the orgasm, which subsumes the earlier stages and imposes the stamp of authority on the quest just accomplished.(13) Arousal, foreplay, climax - the standard male paradigm - thus form a conservative narrative plot in contrast to the "perverse" descriptions produced by metonymy.

The most effective way of tracking these metaphorical plots is to follow the separate trajectories mapped out by the vehicle and the tenor. Extended metaphors (of the type used by Lawrence) tell not just one story but two: they narrate a double chain of events. While the vehicles (the literal meanings of the words used metaphorically) unfold one particular story, the tenor unfolds another.(14) An exemplary instance of such double plots may be found in John Cleland's extravagantly metaphorical novel Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, where the vehicles tell a story of their own that often rivals the plot of the physical love making for dominance. In such double plots, the vehicles chart the progress of male desire typically as either a colonizing campaign, a martial assault on a citadel (the female body) that resists but ultimately succumbs to an irresistible force, or as a flood-tide that inundates a colonized land, sweeping all opposition away.(15) The tenor in turn charts the physical progress of the love making with the female body as the fertile territory across which the martial campaign is conducted.

In the same way, the extended sexual metaphors developed by Lawrence tell two separate stories. Combining, the vehicles generated their own chronological sequences, plots of the male orgasmic progress that regularly supplant the narrative detailing (the tenor) of the love making itself. In Lawrence's fiction, good orgasms are those that tell the tale of penetration, possession, and conquest - the colonization story - without female subversion or sabotage. Bad orgasms, by contrast, encode female eroticism not as a complementary but as an oppositional force that disarms the male plot of possession, disrupting its thrust and momentum. The clitoral orgasm displays this narrative logic most transparently; while it mimics the rhythms of phallic desire, duplicating its patterns, it fails to achieve its positive objectives or goals. The two major episodes of love making in The Rainbow between Ursula and Skrebensky exemplify this female subversion of male potential.

The first episode takes place towards the end of Fred Brangwen's wedding party. As the music begins to play, Skrebensky leads Ursula out of the brilliant light of the moon into the shadow of the cornstalks. In the erotic engagement that follows, Skrebensky's role as potent male colonizer is thrown into violent reverse. The vehicular sequence that plots his particular progress tells the story of a ruthless invader who, in taking over a virginal land, drains and debilitates it. Troped initially as a "dark, impure magnetism" that encroaches on Ursula's "liberty," Skrebensky becomes a "soft weight upon her, bearing her down . . ., overcoming her life and energy," and finally an oppressive force that "set[s] a bond round her . . . [and] enclose[s] her in a net of shadow" (296-97). In a dramatic reversal of power relations, however, Ursula mutinously shakes off her conqueror, deranging the male plot of possession. Her vehicular sequence - "bright as a steel blade," "bead of gleaming power," "burning and brilliant and hard as salt," "consuming, scathing poison" - tells the story of an insurgent force whose deadly weaponry repels and paralyzes the oppressor. One crucial detail, omitted from the first published version, pinpoints the cause of the crisis: as Skrebensky's soul "groan[s] over and over: 'Let me come - let me come,'" the text identifies this disruption of the dynamics of power with Skrebensky's failed orgasm, his inability to assert his male potency at precisely the point at which he needs to. Since he is no longer "the indomitable thing with a core of overweening, unabateable fire," he (and not Ursula) is "subject now" (296-300). Put differently, Skrebensky has lost his credentials, his claim to be a first-rate imperial gent in the service of eros.

The second (and final) major encounter between Ursula and Skrebensky, on the Lincolnshire sandhills, under the "high blast of moonlight;" effectively ends their relationship. This passage insinuates for the first time in Lawrence's fiction a metaphor of the clitoral "beak" that locates the predatory power of the female to tear asunder the links in the male orgasmic sequence and to disrupt its orderly progress. In subverting the male plot of possession, it installs the female as the agent of take over. Identified with the colonized territory, Skrebensky is violently "encompassed" by Ursula before he is finally "crushed" and "obliterated forever." As phallic usurper, Ursula rapes the domain she lays hands on. Her vehicular sequence narrates the destructive female counterpart of the constructive male model. Not only is Ursula's foreplay a lethal foray that rips Skrebensky's body apart ("she seemed to be pressing in her beaked mouth till she had the heart of him"); but her climactic act of possession also razes the conquered domain, leaving it cold and inert ("He felt as if the knife were being pushed into his already dead body" [443-45]).(16) If male erotic colonization is a legitimate adventure that vitalizes a hitherto frigid and sterile domain, its female counterpart is a misadventure that leaves dislocation and death in its wake.

In troping the clitoris as the "beak," both The Plumed Serpent and Lady Chatterley's Lover isolate in it one common trait: its simultaneous duplication and deformation of the phallic trajectory. Its "scandal" lies in its resemblance to the model it at once mimics and opposes. At the end of The Plumed Serpent, notoriously, Cipriano reeducates Kate on sexual matters, reorientating her away from the clitoral, towards the vaginal orgasm.(17) Precisely because the clitoral orgasm lacks a plot, a completed sequence of actions that gives the male climax its special significance, it dissipates sexual energy at the point where it seems to produce it. Associated with the "curious irritant quality of talk" that always misses the point, it disperses its extravagant energies. (Vaginal orgasm - the "fountain gushing . . . with a noiseless soft power" - exemplifies, by contrast, the well-regulated recurrence of an orderly circuit.) Put differently, Kate's "spasms," the "beak-like friction" that "flares out in circles of phosphorescent ecstasy" or that seethes like "foam-effervescence," inscribe the deathly perversion of the male drive to possession. In place of the undeviating thrust towards a goal, these spasms circle around on themselves without special climax or closure. In the first occurrence, an unproductive "fire" burns itself out, leaving a luminous void in its wake; the second lacks the purposeful discharge that marks the proper end of the enterprise. Missing in both is the final emission that saturates the male climax with meaning (421-23).

In Lady Chatterley's Lover the description of the clitoral orgasm still retains the colonization metaphor as the covert basis for its critique. As a climax to his account of his sexual history, Mellors tells Connie how his wife (Bertha Coutts) wants "to work the thing herself, grind her own coffee." In her clitoral frenzy, she "tear[s], tear[s], tear[s], as if she had no sensation in her except at the top of her beak." This is only the last instance in a sequence that associates the clitoral orgasm with a subversion of the male urge to possess. Not only does the subject rise just at the moment the master has exhausted himself, at once miming and undermining the master's activity (Bertha "start[s] on her own account" after Mellors had "come and really finished"); but, in addition, Bertha's "blind beakishness" rends apart the domain Mellors has pacified and subdued. In her rapacious exploitation, she usurps power at exactly the moment the old regime has enfeebled itself and reached the end of the line (201-03).(18)


In Lawrence's fiction we can isolate two major scenarios that exemplify the metaphoric organization of narrative based on the model of the male orgasm. In both, an initial arousal - the stimulus to action - incites the momentum of a middle that has the end already in sight. New vistas (ontological geographies) open up before being triumphantly annexed. At the same time, both scenarios subtly deviate from the more straightforward masculine plot of possession and conquest. For example, because the "Excurse" episode in Women in Love relocates the energizing source of the action, displacing it from phallus to anus, it entails new mappings and explorations as well as a dramatic reversal of sexual roles. Lady Chatterley's Lover also deviates from the norm but in quite a different way: it imposes the pattern of the perfected male orgasm on the female protagonist. Over the space of four erotic encounters, by overcoming stereotypical female resistances, Connie at last achieves a complete phallic orgasm.

The "Excurse" episode opens with a startling simulation of colonial trespass. As Birkin and Ursula sit by the fire in the parlor of the Saracen's Head, a charismatic alien (Birkin in metaphorical guise) - "a strange creature from another world" - disrupts the tranquil scenario. Radiating a potent magnetic energy - "a dark fire of electricity" - he transmits it to Ursula, who, appropriating it for herself, returns it to him intact. A second vehicular sequence tells a complementary tale. Discharged from its dynamic source in the male, from Birkin's "marvellous flanks and thighs," "floods of ineffable darkness" sweep over Ursula, fertilizing and enriching a hitherto barren domain and infuses her with an "essential new being." In these classic tripartite sequences, an irruptive incitement to action precipitates the vitalizing transfers of the middle, issuing in the climactic act of appropriation that closes the story.

This vehicular plot correlates with the plot of the tenor, the progress of the physical love making, where, however, the displacement of the erotic source of the action complicates the trajectory. The fact that, as the text insists, the anal source is as yet unknown to Ursula,(19) triggers a radical reversal of roles. In place of the adventuring male, who prospects and explores, the female here takes over the role. As Birkin stands on the hearthrug, looking down on Ursula (who now kneels before him), it is she who maps out the undiscovered terrain. Putting her arms around Birkin's loins, she "trac[es] the back of his thighs, following some mysterious life-flow there . . ., touch[ing] the quick of the mystery of darkness that was bodily him." In so doing, Ursula uncovers the "heavenful of riches" that this strange "dark continent" yields up and that she appropriates for herself. Climax is consolidation, imposing the seal of possession on the domain just disclosed. While Birkin, freshly empowered, is the sovereign ("He looked down at her with a rich bright brow like a diadem above his eyes"), Ursula is his consort - the "paradisal flower" that enhances the kingdom and radiates it with "golden light" (312-14).

Indeed, Birkin's subsequent transfiguration into Egyptian Pharaoh may well be read as an extension of this imperial fantasy. Seated in "immemorial potency" at the wheel of his car on the same afternoon, he usurps a new ontological realm. Through his access to an "unthinkable . . . timeless force," he takes over a "dark subtle reality" whose power seems to come from another domain (318-19). Telling the story of their own operations, these extended metaphors weave together two distinct narrative threads: first, the penetration to a secret source of erotic vitality and, second, the opening up of a dark domain that yields up its treasure. Both adventure stories turn on the romance of conquest that follows the triumphant end of the quest.(20)

Lady Chatterley's Lover offers an intriguing variation on this progression: the female protagonist is assigned the role not of remapping but of painstakingly mastering the royal route to the perfected male orgasm. Female incompetence is the prerequisite of female attainment. Through a four-stage advancement, each stage eliminating a block, Connie slowly enters this new-found domain. While the Lawrentian males - Birkin, Aaron, Mellors - already possess this domain as part of their natural endowment, the female approaches it circuitously through tribulations and trials. In narratological terms, a succession of false starts - arrests, postponements, reversals - generates the build-up to the fourth encounter, where phallic desire finds the perfect plot of appropriation to match it.

In the first two encounters, female incompetence is linked to a traditional female passivity: Connie's inability to participate in the action. Her quiescence (the "sleep from which she did not begin to rouse till [Mellors] had finished" [115-17]) short-circuits the narrative, truncates its progression, and eclipses the middle and end of the story. In Barthesian terms, the "statement of the question (formulation of the enigma)" (S/Z 84) that incites the initial action is here reserved for the end. Connie's obsessive interrogating, which, narratologically speaking, should precede the events it precipitates ("Why was this necessary? . . . Was it real? . . . What was he feeling? What was he thinking?"), marks the anti-climax that concludes the performance. Instead of arousal, it produces deflation; instead of closing, it reopens the case. From this point on, ever more complicated trial-runs ensure that Connie achieves mastery only through the requisite female vicissitudes.(21)

In the third encounter, by contrast, annunciatory tropes - "soft flames," "bells rippling" - seem poised to transform an auspicious beginning into a swift-moving progress. Instead of an anticipated build up of tension, however, a sudden arrest halts the narrative drive prematurely: "But it was over too soon, too soon." In an abrupt double-take, the plot remobilizes its energies, reassembles its parts, and moves rapidly into the middle space of the story. Connie feels "the unspeakable motion that was not really motion, but pure deepening whirlpools of sensation, swirling deeper and deeper . . . till she was one perfect concentric fluid of feeling." In this description, however, two elements still pinpoint a defection from the complete phallic norm. Since this motion is "not really motion," its impulses seem to neutralize one another in the absence of a strong masculine thrust. In addition, the metaphor "concentric circles" harks powerfully back to the "circles of phosphorescent ecstasy" that describe Kate's clitoral orgasms in The Plumed Serpent. Predicated on the circle that narcissistically turns round on itself rather than on the line that boldly stretches toward a goal, the climactic moment is compromised. It involves less a triumphant act of appropriation than its sudden undoing: "And they lay, and knew nothing, not even each other, both lost" (133-34). The consummation of metaphoric desire - the phallic climax that discloses new domains to possess - is still not attained. It awaits the celebrated fourth encounter.

As a prelude to this encounter, a "degraded" enactment shows up the male in his role as a failed colonizer. In a kind of parody of metonymic sexual modes, Connie is installed as voyeur,(22) detached and separate from the sex act in which she participates. As she looks down from the "top of her head," she witnesses only a bungled act of possession: Mellors's "ridiculous posture . . . ridiculous performance." (With its insistence on passionate questing, on being caught up in a dynamic sex-adventure, metaphor specifically refuses the cool voyeuristic dimension, the fetishistic fixation, the erotic playing at roles, the masquerades of desire endemic to metonymic sex.) In distancing himself from this encounter, the narrator practices the very detachment he deplores, recording only mistimings of rhythm and pace. After a botched beginning that lacks the subtle restraint that good beginnings should have ("the peculiar haste of his possession"), the middle too is deficient: it lacks the female involvement ("she lay with her hands inert on his striving body") in the act of appropriation of which she herself is the object. The climax confirms the collapse into bathos. In his anxiety to precipitate it, Mellors mistimes the denouement as metaphors based on hasty withdrawal ("the sort of anxiety of his penis to come to its little evacuating crisis seemed farcical") displace those based on secure and completed possession. Indeed, like an unruly subject who takes instant advantage of her conqueror's weakness, Connie wants simply to "heave her loins, and throw the man out, escape his ugly grip." If, as the text puts it, "men despise the intercourse act," it is because the "act" does not live up to the romance of possession and conquest for which it nevertheless offers the model: as such failure, it is a "humiliating anti-climax" (171-72). The scene is now set for an enactment that discredits this evidence as the sex-act opens up vast new panoramas and makes their appropriation complete and secure.

If female desire is "another economy which diverts the linearity of a project, undermines the target object of a desire" (Irigaray 104), then the fourth encounter records the precise opposite of such an economy. A dynamic linear drive already sights the target of the desire and moves toward it without arrest or deviation. As Connie achieves the perfected male orgasm, classic narrative articulations fall into place. Because she assumes all the male features, not only is female subversion defeated; in effect, the male role itself becomes redundant. After his "inexorable entry inside her," Mellots functions solely as excitant, "the center of soft plunging" that keeps the act in motion and on course.

Thereafter, Connie's orgasm is metaphorized as a vast quest adventure, energized by a huge tidal force that, in sweeping all before it, discloses hitherto undreamt-of horizons. The main emphasis is on expansion: the immeasurable distances traversed, the fresh vistas revealed. A powerful vehicular sequence based on the "dark waves rising and heaving" sets the narrative process in motion, overwhelming the primary story of the physical love making itself ("Oh, and far down inside her the deeps parted and rolled asunder, in long, far-travelling billows"). An ever-expanding movement opens up new prospects ("and she was deeper and deeper disclosed, and heavier the billows of her rolled away to some shore, uncovering her, and closer and closer plunged the palpable unknown"). New ontological geographies, new endless vistas disclose the boundless abyss between the old self and the new one that the latter will come to possess ("and further and further rolled the waves of herself away from herself"). Climax confirms possession, imposing the seal of authority on the quest just concluded, nominating its issue in a male gesture of self-affirmation and master ("She was gone, she was not, and she was born: a woman" [174]). It locates the new self in sovereign control of the vast internal geographical spaces it has traversed.

This is the last time in Lady Chatterley's Lover Lawrence tells this particular story. With the male orgasmic trajectory securely in place, all that remains is to surround it with rituals that extol and enhance it. This is exactly what the subsequent encounters - the nuptials of John Thomas and Lady Jane in the fifth and the pastoral flower-wedding in the sixth - set out to achieve (209-11; 222-24). Even the seventh encounter (involving anal penetration), which combines the manipulative detachment of a metonymic performance with the highly charged purpose of a metaphoric appropriation, shifts the focus away from the act itself onto a celebration of its after-effects - its "(b)urning out the shames . . . in the most secret places." In this episode, Mellors's "phallic hunt" draws out the full predatory implications of the colonization metaphor: it not only penetrates to "the core of [Connie's] physical jungle"; it also exploits its resources, "smelt[ing] out the heaviest ore of [her] body into purity" (247).


This essay shows that it is not just figurative language in general that privileges the masculine standpoint (as Homans has finely demonstrated), but rather that each of the two major tropes constructs phallic desire in its own special way. metonymy describes a strongly sensual drive whose reference is immediate pleasure: its focus is voyeuristic, its mode fetishistic. Metaphor, by contrast, projects scenarios of erotic appropriation: of male penetration and female surrender. But the essay also shows that Lawrence cultivates metaphor precisely because it tells stories of phallic empowerment (or frustration).(23) His major erotic scenarios are unwritten by narratives of an ever-expanding desire that incorporates its own objects. At the same time, moreover, Lawrence downgrades metonymy because it deals with the local (contiguous). In calling home desire, it signifies a narcissistic reversion to modes of self-satisfaction. In such mates, metonymy undermines the imperial project, deflecting it from its goal of erotic control and assimilation. It is from this perspective that it appears as "perverse." Both tropes hierarchize desire, however, by locating the female as the object of male aspirations. While metonymy projects fantasies of all-absorbing voluptuous diversions played out on the home front, metaphor unfolds visions of imperial conquest in far-flung erotic domains.


1 In the statement "man is a wolf" (much favored by analysts of metaphor), the commonplace notions associated with wolf are transferred onto the idea of man, so that human traits are now talked of in wolf-language. A kind of semantic "colonization" of one term by another takes place. For a classic account of this process, see Max Black's essay "Metaphor" (25-47), which he later revised in "More about Metaphor" (47-76).

2 In Nietzsche's conception of metaphor, this idea is central. As Paul Cantor puts it, for Nietzsche, "metaphor is an imperialistic principle. . . . [M]an's capacity for metaphor is a special case of . . . his will to power." The metaphorical process involves both expansion and assimilation: "Words extend their meaning the way the amoeba extends a pseudopod to incorporate and digest foreign matter" (75).

3 The Study of Thomas Hardy is a veritable compendium of metaphoric projections of the sexual act, whose gender positionings we can briefly summarize: the fiery poppy whose sudden flowering connotes the orgasmic fulfillment of both the man and the woman makes gender roles equal (ch. 1); the wheel (male) and the axle (female) relegates the woman to the position of passive stabilizer of the active man (ch.6); the cosmic dance equalizes gender roles (ch. 7). Chapters 2 and 9 develop a colonial metaphorics of sex to its fullest, casting the female in her purely territorial role - "the undiscovered half of the world" - and calling the male to exploitation and conquest (104).

4 The analogy between this account of the sex act and Victorian stories of colonization - the perilous opening up of the "dark continent" - is striking. These late nineteenth-century discourses of power are, in Patrick Brantlinger's summing-up, "non-fictional quest romances in which the hero-authors struggle through enchanted, bedeviled lands towards an ostensible goal . . . sheer survival and return home to the regions of light" (180-81). Jane Miller shows how women serve as metaphors for the invasion and colonization of territory: "A prevailing imagery of penetration, of stamina and of the eventual discovery of the strange and the hidden at the end of a journey requiring courage and cunning serves to merge the colonizing adventure definitively with the sexual adventure" (117).

5 By the time he wrote "Fantasia of the Unconscious" in 1922, Lawrence had literalized this metaphor, the colonizing adventure now constituting man's dominant purpose in life: "Primarily and supremely man is always the pioneer of life, venturing onwards into the unknown. . . . [W]oman exists for him only in the twilight, by the camp fire, when day has departed" (106). By 1924, in an essay "On Coming Home," the collapse of the British imperial dream is linked to male sexual "decadence." Lawrence pinpoints the source of England's malaise in those ineffectual colonizers - "queer, inane, half-female-seeming men" - who lack the nerve to pursue a policy of aggressive expansion: England is the "rotten spot in the empire," only "pretending to direct the destinies of the world" (Reflections 182-83).

6 Rice and Schofer demonstrate how, unlike metaphor, which involves a transfer of semantic features, metonymy keeps the two domains of meaning intact (26). For example, the two terms in the metonymies White House/president or Burgundy/wine do not modify one another's meanings. The connection between them is based on a purely accidental proximity.

7 Precisely because metonymy breaks down wholes into separate parts, each related to the other in terms of agent and instrument and so forth, it tends to produce reductive and mechanistic descriptions. See James M. Mellard's analysis of this "reductive categorization into parts" (103-04).

8 Especially among Lacanian interpreters, there is considerable disagreement about the gendering of metaphor and metonymy. Without rehearsing their complex arguments, we can summarize their conclusions. While Ellie Ragland-Sullivan asserts that "[m]etaphor and metonymy are not gender specific" (73), Juliet Flower MacCannell codes metaphor as masculine (phallic, paternal) and metonymy as feminine (the maternal other) (100). Jane Gallop views desire as masculine, whether mediated through metaphor or metonymy, and sees female sexuality as metonymic, produced by "touching, nearness, immediacy, contact" (28-30).

9 For Daniel J. Schneider, they represent Will's "plunge into perversity"; (85) for Alastair Niven, their eroticism collapses into "hysteria or pornography"; (84) for H. M. Daleski, they are marked by a "voluptuous sensuality" (106).

10 Michel Foucault offers an historical context within which to locate the dichotomy between a metaphoric ethos of assimilation and union (the two-in-one of conventional marriage) and those peripheral sexualities (metonymic promiscuities) that a metaphoric culture condemns as retrogressive. Starting at the end of the eighteenth century, the proliferation of discourses about sexuality endeavored to "expel from reality the forms of sexuality that were not amenable to the strict economy of reproduction: to say no to unproductive activities, to banish casual pleasures, to reduce or exclude practices whose object was not procreation" (36).

11 Jakobson, for example, associates both a "multiplicity of detail" and a close-up focus with metonymic techniques in writing and film (111-13).

12 Peter Brooks's account of desire is based on this paradigm. The arousal of narrative interest is a "kind of tumescence"; the dilatory middle space resembles "forepleasure"; and the "gratification of discharge" is the climax that terminates the story (102-03). This analogy between narrative and sexual intercourse has been widely criticized by feminist theorists, most succinctly perhaps by Teresa de Laurentis (107-09).

13 Helene Cixous's account of female desire enacts a parodic subversion of the masculine model based on the romantic colonial quest. A feminine erotics would not be "about destiny, but about the adventure of such and such a drive, about trips, crossings, trudges, abrupt and gradual awakenings, discoveries of a zone at one time timorous and soon to be forthright" (256).

14 Luz Aurora Pimental gives a detailed theoretical account of this kind of metaphoric narration (34-67). Extended (or threaded) metaphors have an essentially narrative character. The vehicles of the derived metaphors join together to form complex narrative sequences that possess a large degree of autonomy. These sequences constitute virtual secondary narratives with their own organization - their beginnings, middles, and ends. While they depend on the main narrative, these vehicular sequences frequently (as in Lawrence's extended metaphors) take over the role of the telling the main story. They possess the status of paranarratives.

15 One engagement starts typically with "the engine of love-assaults," which first "penetrates," then "[d]rives forward with fury," until at last it achieves a "compleat triumph over a maidenhead." Here the vehicular sequence (the words underlined) generates the secondary narrative of a successful military campaign, ending in annexation. Another engagement starts with the metaphor "liquid emanation," working through its "flood" connotations into the final "overflow" that concludes the performance (40-41, 185).

16 Both of these overtly heterosexual scenes also inscribe a covert homoeroticism, the narrator at once identifying with the female who penetrates and the male who is penetrated and raped. As Jonathan Dollimore remarks (in relation to the anal eroticism in Women in Love and Lady Chatterley's Lover), Lawrence is "at once blindingly heterosexist and desperately homoerotic" (275).

17 The distinction Lawrence draws between the clitoral and vaginal orgasms - the "two orgasm theory" - has, of course, long been medically discredited.

18 In the light of the colonization metaphor, Bertha's mimicry of Mellors may be read in contradictory ways: either as a sign of inferiority in a manner that the colonized in their habits mimic their betters or as a sign of subversion, a belated send-up that threatens the authority exercised by the master. For the function of mimicry in the colonial context, see Brantlinger (60) and Homi Bhabha (199). For essays that link these clitoral scenes to a male fear of female predominance, see Robert Scholes (138-41) and Mark Spilka (183-86).

19 As a prelude to the erotic scenes at the Saracen's Head, Birkin speculates about whether Ursula would "so much go beyond herself as to accept him at the quick of death" (304).

20 Such a densely textured episode as "Excurse" has inevitably elicited a variety of readings - biblical, apocalyptic, yogic, psychanalytical, among others. The present "imperial" reading is already anticipated in the episode "Mino." There, Ursula and Birkin thrash out issues of hierarchy, control, domination, resistance, while the arrogant (male) cat, Mino, stakes out his territory and brings the (female) outcast cat into subjection (144-54). This "cat" episode is an allegory of the colonial encounter in miniature.

21 The second encounter also ends in deflation. Because Connie wills herself into separateness, the plot remains suspended - "waiting, waiting" - without a middle or end to complete it (125-26).

22 Male voyeurs, who witness prodigious sexual feats, are the stock-in-trade of erotic writing from Cleland and Sade to Anais Nin and Erica Jong. Female voyeurism, by contrast, is usually confined to the ingenue's learning period: a passing phase in the female's initiation into the erotic life.

23 Stephen Heath has shown how contemporary representations of the orgasm are often recodings of Lawrence, reproducing the same images, the same rhythmic buildup to an explosive climax. While, as Heath notes, Jilly Cooper and Erica Jong reproduce the Lawrentian paradigm with small variations, Brigid Brophy reverses it (she attributes the initiatory role to the female), and Kate Millett subverts it ("turning initiation into complicity into reciprocity" [126-36]).

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Gerald Doherty studied medicine at University College, Dublin, before completing his doctorate at University College, London, where he taught Renaissance literature for some years. He has recently retired from teaching literary theory at the University of Turku in Finland. He has published widely in article form in such journals as PMLA, Modern Fiction Studies, Style, Mosaic, The Arizona Quarterly, The D.H. Lawrence Review, and The Journal of Narrative Technique, among others. An essay on the rhetoric of sexuality in James Joyce's Ulysses in forthcoming in European Studies in Joyce (1996).
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Title Annotation:Rhetoric and Poetics
Author:Doherty, Gerald
Date:Jun 22, 1996
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