Friday, November 20, 2015

Messy Modernism. D.H. Lawrence. The Rainbow.

The other big modernist book I read this summer was D. H. Lawwrence's The Rainbow, a book I had not read in 35 years.  The Rainbow has been an important book for me at various times in my life, and played a much more central role  than Joyce's Ulysses.

I first read The Rainbow between 1968 and 1969. I came to it having read Sons and Lovers a year earlier, when I was in Britain in my Junior Year Abroad.  Falling in love with Lawrence, I naturally next went to his then most famous novel, Lady Chatterley's Lover. After Lady Chatterley, I returned to Newcomb College (Tulane) as a senior and decided to write my Honors Thesis on Lawernce. I was invited into a graduate seminar by my thesis advisor, Dr.Phillip Bollier.  

In Dr. Bollier's seminar, I read The Rainbow, Women in Love,  My first reading of Lawrence (despite I'm sure Dr. Bollier's intentions) was for what I thought Lawrence could teach me about life.  I was 19 and desperately looking for someone to help me figure out who I was.  I was moving from what I saw as a conventional life,  Family, college, sororities, dating and not much more: these were the conventions of life for most of the people I knew in a southern college for women in 1968.  But I also knew there was a larger life out there.  I wanted to live in Berkeley.  I wanted to be part of something larger.  I wanted to have deep passionate relationships.  I wanted to understand the almost sacred mysteries of sexuality.  My young reading of Lawrence promised those things.  

I next read and re-read Lawrence, particularly The Rainbow and Women in Love, between about 1970, when I first entered graduate school, and 1980, when I finally defended my dissertation.  This time I read Lawrence for scholarship and analysis.  I read it in the context of two of Lawrence's major essays, "The Study of Thomas Hardy" and "The Crown," and Lawrence criticism.  I even got to the point where I had a color chart outlining all the various image patterns in the novels. One might say I read The Rainbow to death.

After I got my Ph.D.  I never read The Rainbow again until this summer.  It felt in a way spoilt for me.  I was embarassed by my early reading of Lawrence for life-lessons, and I was throroughly sick of the structural analyses I had so painfully created.  It seemed to me that whatever The Rainbow was, it had pretty much died for me. Then this summer, thirty-five years later, I returned to the The Rainbow, hoping that I would be long enough past those earlier readings and able to see it again in some real and direct way.  I purposely chose a copy that had no annotations; I did not read with a pencil in my hand; and I made no return to criticism.  

In this latest reading there were lingering traces of earlier readings, but I felt far enough away to be able to enact different a relationship with e book.  There were many passages (most of which had figured in my dissertation) that I remembered almost word-for-word.  But there were other passages that I did not remember at all.  Read again in the larger context of the novel, the familiar and the unfamiliar worked differently.  There were new discoveries, particularly the extraordinary descriptions of nature, most of which I had paid scant attention to, since I was earlier reading for character or theme.  I also felt I had a better understanding of some of the more opaque experiences described in the novel, mostly because I am 35 years older and have a much greater range of experiences through which to understand them.  I also realized (in a way I was earlier hesitant to admit) that the book is uneven.  On the other hand, some parts that truly eluded me earlier now seemed much more accessible.  

The Rainbow as a material object has not changed (other than the new Cambridge edition that was published--thankfully--after my dissertation was finished).  The words I read in the 1960s and 1970s are the same.  But the meaning of value or the book has changed constantly.  For one thing, I am now 23 years older than Lawrence was when he died, and 37 years older than he was when he published The Rainbow.  I have tried to teach generations of students that a book only "means" through the interaction with its readers.  And it is curious to consider what contemporary students might make of The Rainbow.  (Which is not to say that all readings are equally valid or robust).  But thinking about my three very (but not completely) different readings makes me wonder not only about how the thousands of books I have read over my life have shaped me, but also how I have I have shaped them.



Gert Buelens said...

very interesting!
a technical blog comment, though: for real reading rather than short notes to accompany pictures white on black is very hard on the eyes

Debra Journet said...

Thank you so much for your comment. I am pleased (and proud) that you found the post interesting. Re the color. I have a bit of a quandary since most of my blog posts are dominated by pictures and I think they look better on a black background. But I'll see if there some easy way to reverse on specific posts. Thanks again. Debra