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The Catholic way is to include, and then sift: wise words from a wise priest that I remembered a few years back when I was reading, in this journal, an article withering in its condemnation of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the British court decision that opened the way to its publication. The piece hammered away at the book’s embarrassing shortcomings, skewered its soft targets, excoriated Lawrence generally, and laid at his door responsibility for all of the pornography we have been subjected to since, finally liberated, with his unexpurgated novel, “from dingy shops in seedy quarters.”

Reading the piece, I remembered what Lawrence had meant to me when I was young, when the real groundwork was being laid for the situation in which we find ourselves today—laid not by Lawrence, I submit, but by people such as Ann Landers, Betty Dodson (“Guru of Self-Pleasure for Generations of Women”), and the second-wave feminist Kate Millett, whose 1970 polemic, Sexual Politics, consigned Lawrence to the special circle of hell reserved for male authors who presume to tell us what women want.

Lawrence’s ideas, like his style, have always been easy to mock. Yet even individuals with strong grounds for resenting him—Mabel Dodge Luhan, for example, whose hospitality he accepted even as he assassinated her character—admitted, after he died, that he had been right. “Lawrence was always right,” Luhan wrote in a memoir called Lorenzo in Taos. “Although he never ‘adapted’ and never fitted into the environment, though he suffered and made anyone who came near him suffer; though he threw everyone over sooner or later, and not once, but as often as they rejoined his turbulent and intractable spirit . . . Lawrence was right,” the same conclusion reached by Rebecca West in an elegy, and by Catherine Carswell as she protested the posthumous portrayal of Lawrence in the press.

Despite the worst his detractors continue to say about him—sometimes with good motives, sometimes with bad (Luhan, incidentally, had tried and failed to break up his marriage)—the appeal of Lawrence and his books has not abated. In the last few years alone, Geoff Dyer edited a selection of his essays, Rachel Cusk wrote a novel reimagining his relationship with Luhan, Frances Wilson published a biography that maps passages of his life onto the framework of The Divine Comedy, and in a freewheeling historical novel that follows the legal trials of Lady Chatterley in America, Alison MacLeod placed at the center of the action, of all people, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. Every half-baked writer acquainted with Lawrence in his lifetime felt compelled to write about him after his death, and even today, anyone searching for an alternative to the zeitgeist may find himself grappling with this most unwoke of writers. In my own case, when I was still decades away from the Catholic Church, some of whose foundational teachings align with Lawrence’s, I was riveted by Sons and Lovers and The Rainbow, The Lost Girl, and, yes, long sections of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a book unfortunate in its title (the author wanted to rechristen it Tenderness). On the frontispiece of her novel about Lady Chatterley and Jackie Kennedy—a book she did call Tenderness—Alison MacLeod quotes Gwyn Thomas speaking to the defense solicitor for Penguin Books: “If they want to renounce Lawrence, then let them, for pity’s sake, renounce life.”

And what was life, for Lawrence? Touch, in a word. Connection, or real intercourse with other human beings and the created world. Nothing could be more unjust than to blame Lawrence for the situation that has overtaken us today, given that he not only saw what was coming but struggled to inoculate us in advance against what he would have bluntly called a machine-driven, life-destroying epidemic of masturbation.

When I was a girl growing up on the outskirts of a tough-talking fishing community in Maine, I never heard the word “masturbation.” It was a dark mystery that I stumbled upon at the hands of a rule-breaking playmate who, on a sleepover, wanted to “play sex,” and proceeded to masturbate me through my nightgown, triggering a reaction for which, again, I had no name. For all I knew, I was the only person in the world to whom something like this had happened, and as time passed, and the behavior became a solitary habit, feelings of isolation and anxiety intensified. “Masturbation is the one thoroughly secret act of the human being,” Lawrence wrote in a late essay called “Pornography and Obscenity,” “more secret even than excrementation,” and I can confirm that, without knowing what it was, I experienced it primarily as something separating, something I even feared might somehow unfit me for ordinary happiness. I couldn’t ask my parents what I was doing, fearing their judgment as much as their possible confirmation of my strangeness. But I also couldn’t ask them because of the nature of the act itself, which seemed to me inseparable from secrecy and shame.

Finally, in early adolescence, in an adult novel I had borrowed from the library, I came across a veiled description of the behavior in question. Nervously, with this mediating object in hand, I approached my mother, whose explication of the passage was both balanced and matter-of-fact: This is something you can do to yourself but is meant for marriage; it’s an ordinary temptation, but a manageable one; and so on. She also told me, in that conversation, about an early experience of her own. But in her case, I noticed, she had immediately asked her parents what had happened to her, and her parents, besides explaining, had told her she shouldn’t do it to herself, advice she took seriously enough that at night, when she couldn’t sleep, she would call her father or mother to come and read to her, so she wouldn’t be tempted.

Listening to my mother talk this way, I was vastly relieved, but also painfully bewildered by the seeming chasm between her experience and my own. Trusting her parents absolutely, she had suffered neither embarrassment nor fear, perhaps because she was so young, younger even than I was at the time of that ill-fated sleepover. But it was also true—a connection that occurred to me only years later, Catholicism being another dark mystery that wasn’t unpacked in my home—that my mother had been raised in the Catholic Church. Relaxed candor and balanced counsel are hardly qualities modernity associates with Catholicism. Yet there was a prudery in my Protestant father, an anxious fearfulness about human nature, that was entirely missing from my catechised mother. When she left the Church to marry my father, intentionally aligning herself with his values and seemingly seconding his views, she nevertheless retained, like a kind of fossil fuel, other habits of mind that occasionally made themselves felt: faint vestiges of another approach to life altogether.

At least, that was how things stood before the great upheaval in the culture, when any recessive remains of traditional values and common sense were simply obliterated in the sandstorms of the 1960s. Shame on my grandparents, initiates of the new orthodoxies would have responded to my story, for telling my mother that masturbation was wrong. Before abortion was legalized or gay marriage dreamed of, a campaign to normalize masturbation was underway in America. Ann Landers and Dr. Joyce Brothers were at the forefront of the campaign, which aimed to eliminate masturbation’s stigma by canceling reservations about its effects, and as their syndicated columns carried the new wisdom to every city and small town, the path opened swiftly from acceptance, to approbation, and even, in some circles, to enthusiasm.

Those were the years when second-wave feminists were focused on the supposed science of female sexual response, including what they derisively called “the myth of the vaginal orgasm.” Female masturbation, according to the new science, was not only acceptable, it was necessary, because sexual intercourse was not pleasurable for women. Women needed to be masturbated, or better yet, to masturbate themselves, in order to achieve satisfaction. Does anyone remember, in the movie Tootsie, Teri Garr’s hilarious send-up of the new feminist tropes, in a defensive rant that included the line, “I’m responsible for my own orgasm!”? In one of the more successful early manifestations of what would eventually be called cancel culture, the new orthodoxy was rapidly set in stone. Masturbation was not only harmless; it was good. It was relaxation and rejuvenation, self-care and self-love. From Ann Landers’s columns in the 1970s to the candy-colored vibrator on Gwyneth Paltrow’s popular website in 2022, there is more or less a straight line, as a traditional understanding of sexual intercourse as an act of mutual self-giving and love was replaced by an attitude that regarded a sexual partner primarily as a means to one’s own satisfaction. If such an unfortunate, utilitarian way of thinking had previously been attributable mainly to men, women were now encouraged to adopt the same line.

Meanwhile, long before the capabilities of the smartphone exponentially increased masturbation’s sway, the film industry was on board with the project. At first, it was only the occasional, self-consciously transgressive film (End of the Road in 1970, or Blue Velvet in 1986) that forced the issue into the open. But soon enough, as being willing to masturbate onscreen became the new bar for an actress establishing her professional bona fides, mainstream cinema began retailing the practice, confronting audiences with content that would have been unthinkable a generation earlier.

And then television followed suit, in popular series like Sex and the City, to a point where onscreen masturbation—female masturbation, at least—has become, in my daughter’s word, ubiquitous.

There are a few things worth pointing out, before we turn to Lawrence’s novel. For one, upheavals of this kind—transgressions against deeply held norms—are always accompanied by transgressions against language. In this case, the word “sex,” which had traditionally been understood as a shorthand for sexual intercourse (“they had sex”), was repurposed to cover every kind of masturbatory substitute. After all, if sex is about the self rather than the intimate congress of a heterosexual couple, and if masturbation is not only benign but more satisfying than intercourse, then why not strip the word of its longstanding physical implications? Why not “phone sex,” “gay sex,” “sex” with life-sized dolls, and so on? Once the qualifying adjectives were discarded, the word itself became a euphemism, a frequent stand-in for that other word, which, despite a decades-long campaign to render it socially acceptable, was still too uncomfortably explicit (turbare) for general use. No one says, for example, in writing to a columnist for advice, “my girlfriend and I masturbate while we watch each other undress on our separate screens.” Instead they say, “We have sex online.”

Another thing worth noticing is how many suppressions are demanded by what are advertised as projects of liberation. These may be actual physical suppressions, such as the suppression of ovulation by the Pill, which in turn suppresses the libidos of many of the women who take it and leads to lower rates of female satisfaction overall. But the psychological suppressions are often even more striking. How many young women, beginning in the 1960s, forcibly suppressed their instinctive modesty, not to mention their natural desires for commitment, marriage, children, and even love itself, in order to play a part in the new world? In the same way, now that masturbation is de rigueur, film actresses submit to mandated rituals of humiliation, overriding their embarrassment and suppressing their distaste, in order to crush a taboo Lawrence rightly identified as primal.

Liberation of the flesh, as its consequences unspool, turns out to be liberation from the flesh: from its natural desires and instinctive aversions both. Across the board, in a technology-infatuated world, we are witnessing a dramatic rise in disassociated, body-rejecting behaviors. Reproductive technologies originally developed for the infertile—ever more sophisticated procedures that outsource ever more personal bodily functions to machines and the bodies of strangers—increasingly attract individuals who choose not to have children the natural way, and have the resources to attain their ends by other means. It is worth remembering, in this connection, that in the Baby M case, which first brought the phenomenon of surrogacy to the attention of the average American, the wife of the sperm donor was not actually infertile. She was a pediatrician who, having diagnosed herself with a possible case of MS, and wishing to avoid the risks associated with pregnancy and childbirth (“nobody could give you any guarantees”), joined her husband in passing the work of gestation to a working-class housewife.

Why an epidemic of disembodiment should end in irreversible self-repudiations—surgical castrations, for example, and sanctioned suicides—is a subject for another essay. For our purposes, it is enough to point out that however advanced the procedures designed to circumvent the ordinary business of getting children, and however romantic the rhetoric employed by the surrogacy industry to recruit clients, all such practices depend, in the first place, on masturbation, a seminal act of alienation never mentioned in any glossy brochure.

“So much depends,” to repurpose William Carlos Williams’s terse opening to “The Red Wheelbarrow,” on a man alone in a bathroom with a plastic cup.

By the end of his life, when he was writing Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Lawrence had foreseen nearly all of these developments. It’s all there in embryo in the jaded society at Wragby, the Chatterley estate in the coal-and-iron Midlands of England: self-serving, masturbatory sex; an industry-driven destruction of nature; surrogacy as a make-shift; even a nascent transhumanism. Connie Chatterley’s husband, Clifford, in his wheelchair—overactive in his mind, dead in his sex—is actually sterile, but his friends all aspire to be. One wife, averse to childbearing, looks forward to female “inoculation” and test-tube babies (“Let us poor women off!”). The men, if they want sex at all, want it inconsequential and impersonal, no more significant than an exchange of social pleasantries. “I like women,” one protests, dissenting a little from the consensus, “therefore I don’t love them and desire them. The two things don’t happen at the same time in me.” Everywhere, in the interminable, desultory conversations at Wragby, there is evidence of a fateful separation of body and mind, and a resulting impasse between men and women.

“A woman has no glamour for a man any more,” Connie says wistfully to the man who has just rationalized his disinterest in sex. “Has a man for a woman?” he asks. Connie ponders the question. “Not much,” she admits.

When Clifford, contemplating a Wragby without an heir, first broaches the possibility that Connie have a child by another man—the fruit of a brief, meaningless affair, after which they can go on as they are—Connie listens “in a sort of wonder, and a sort of fear.” They have been crossing the estate’s park, Clifford in his motorchair, Connie walking alongside, and are entering the wood, a remnant of the great forest where Robin Hood hunted, a last vestige of an older, pastoral England. This wood is a sanctuary still, a refuge for small creatures and birds, but Connie can hear, as Clifford rattles on (“We ought to be able to arrange this sex thing, as we arrange going to the dentist”), the machinery of the collieries in the distance, and she can smell the sulfur: “Even on windless days the air always smelt of something under-earth.” At night, like throbbing searchlights, the red glare of the pit furnaces lights up the undersides of dark clouds, and by day, when Connie is driven out in a motorcar to a nearby town, she can see for herself the coal-blackened dreariness of the dwellings and shops:

The car ploughed uphill through the long squalid straggle of Tevershall, the blackened brick dwellings, the black slate roofs . . . It was as if dismalness had soaked through and through everything. The utter negation of natural beauty . . . the utter absence of the instinct for shapely beauty which every bird and beast has, the utter death of the human intuitive faculty was appalling. The stacks of soap in the grocers’ shops . . . the awful hats in the milliners! . . . followed by the plaster-and-gilt horror of the cinema with its wet picture announcements, “A Woman’s Love!”

For Lawrence, all of the alienated values of the ascendant industrialized world were summed up in the shadow pictures of the cinema. In “Pornography and Obscenity,” deriding the mawkish sentimentalism that passed for art in his day, he accuses the new popular entertainments of existing primarily to promote “self abuse, onanism, masturbation, call it what you will.” Not only, he insisted, do such entertainments alienate individuals from one another and from the “solid stuff of earth” (“the close-up kisses on the film, which excite men and women to secret and separate masturbation”), they separate a man from his actual self, his lived experiences and real human emotions. “When I went to the film,” one sardonic poem of Lawrence’s begins,

and saw all the black-and-white feelings that nobody felt,
and heard the audience sighing and sobbing with all the emotions they none of them felt . . .
and caught them moaning from close-up kisses, black-and-white kisses that could not be felt,
It was like being in heaven . . .

Lawrence anticipated, too, in developments already underway in his day, the ever more private opportunities technology would afford this kind of unnatural, antisocial stimulation. As the novel progresses, Clifford is less and less interested in his friends and his work—a supercilious kind of writing “which leaves everything in bits”—and in his wife, whom he hasn’t touched in years. He prefers the company of the wireless, which he has had installed at considerable expense and on which he can sometimes receive signals from Madrid or Frankfurt. At night, in the drawing-room, he sits alone for hours, “listening to the loudspeaker bellowing forth. It amazed and stunned Connie. But there he would sit, with a blank entranced expression on his face, like a person losing his mind.”

For Connie, this behavior of her husband’s—his gravitation to the machine and its increasing monopoly on his attention—is a final straw. She flees to the woods, where gradually, over time, she enters into a relationship with Mellors, the gamekeeper who has been charged with restoring what the war destroyed.

At this point, it is necessary to distinguish the novel people imagine—a lusty, titillating tale—from the book Lawrence actually wrote. The recent Netflix adaptation, which featured a specimen of working-class beefcake having hot sex with a sexually forward flapper, has little to do with Lawrence. What Lawrence was trying to recover were certain elemental realities, above all the primordial attraction—the “glamour,” if you will—of a man for a woman, and a woman for a man, categories already under threat in a postwar world. It is this mystery of the other—the one specifically created for the human being from the beginning—that emerges unlooked-for in the Wragby forest. Sheltering from the rain in a toolshed in a hidden clearing, unwelcomed by Mellors whose hard-won solitude she is threatening, Connie watches the man at work, as alone in his world as if he had been Adam in the beginning, building coops for the pheasants or shutting them up safe at dusk. In long, unhurried passages—the most beautiful passages in the book—Lawrence describes, from the point of view of the woman, and eventually of the man, the uneven, difficult emergence of a fully human relationship in a world also slowly returning to life, in a cold spring.

But even as the novel communicates certain elemental truths, it also gives the reader particular, prickly individuals, uncooperative individuals whose settled prejudices and painful pasts, private reservations and sudden, flaring resentments continually thwart the arc of conventional romance. Mellors, the more instinctively aristocratic of the two, is physically frail and intellectually remote, and Connie—a soft, big-boned girl, inclined to freckles, with wide blue eyes—is by turns depressed and defiant, resistant and unexpectedly acquiescent. In short, they are human beings, and when they finally come together in an act of physical intercourse, the sex that they have is not “hot” but eerily quiet, not enthusiastic but shot through with misgivings and fears. This is not casual sex. It is not entertainment or exercise, contracepted or masturbatory, looking out for its own pleasure above all. On the contrary, what the novel convincingly dramatizes is the terrifying seriousness of sex, the kind of sex that, when certain conditions obtain, can end in new life, but even when it doesn’t, knits a man and a woman together in a relationship unlike any other.

This is the kind of relationship that is under threat in the novel, as much in danger of extinction as any species in the natural world. There is a description in Mary Webb’s novel Gone to Earth of a harvest field after a long day of reaping. One small square of uncut wheat remains, packed with rabbits, who have withdrawn all day from the peripheries as the machine went around. Now the local people wait, with knobbed sticks, for the machine to resume, and the rabbits to bolt . . .

This is the atmosphere conjured in the predicament of Connie and Mellors, in their shrinking sanctuary, and one of the strategies Lawrence employs in his campaign of resistance on their behalf is linguistic. The dialect Mellors reverts to in times of intimacy or strife—an earthy, plainspoken Derbyshire that includes an old Anglo-Saxon word for sexual intercourse—Lawrence opposes to the tide of abstraction carrying people away from creation, from its plain truths and natural laws. In hindsight, one cannot help but wonder: If the same people who so strenuously objected to Mellors’s speech had been able to foresee, as Lawrence seemed to foresee, the contemptuous, marginalizing language thrown in the face of ordinary men and women today—“cisgender,” for example, and “heteronormative”—would they have had second thoughts? Unlike the word “sex,” which has been so co-opted and generalized that by this point it means nothing at all, the word “fuck” has proved more sturdily resistant to appropriation.

In the end, it is not the language of Lawrence’s alter ego so much as the fecundity of his heroine that keeps the small flame of Connie and Mellors’s relationship from blowing out. Another novel comes to mind: P. D. James’s futuristic The Children of Men, in which a child is conceived in a literally sterile world, a world in which no child has been born in twenty-five years. Connie’s pregnancy, in Lawrence’s novel, is ringed round with the same anxiety and terrified hope. Like so many of our contemporaries, Mellors is afraid to bring a child into the world, but the child in Connie’s womb, like the chick she holds in her hands at the very center and turning point of the novel—“there it stood, on its impossible little stalks of legs, its atom of balancing life trembling through its almost weightless feet into Connie’s hands”—is at once miniscule and powerful, capable of pulling a man like Mellors into the future. Nothing in the novel is guaranteed. Lawrence maintains a note of uncertainty to the end. But there is hope for the human couple—“all the bad times that ever have been, haven’t been able to blow the crocus out”—even in a world seemingly bent on self-destruction.

Lawrence may have been a prophet, but if he was, we have no pressing need of his prophecy now, as the consequences of an insouciant attitude toward masturbation combined with certain technological developments are becoming clear. In a 2019 article called “A Science-Based Case for Ending the Porn Epidemic,” Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry summarized the already outdated data. After 2006 or 2007, when endless, instantaneous, high-definition pornographic video became available, along with the smartphones and tablets on which to access it, rates of erectile dysfunction in men under forty rose from a previously stable baseline of around 1 percent to anywhere between 14 percent and 37 percent. The chronic consumption of pornography, according to the studies Gobry cites, rewires the human brain in ways that damage a person’s sexuality, relationships, and mental health. “The neurochemical rush of an always-on kaleidoscope of sexual novelty” desensitizes the user, who requires stronger and stronger stimuli in order to achieve the same end—increasingly violent, misogynistic, racist, and even incestuous porn. These requirements spill over into the user’s relationships with real women, with predictable results: a “sex recession,” marital unhappiness, and divorce. As if this weren’t enough, the porn addict develops “hypofrontality,” or an impaired prefrontal cortex, leading to decreased decision-making ability, decreased working-memory performance, higher impulsivity, and so on. All the old wives’ tales, in other words, contained more than a grain of truth: People who masturbate excessively risk both impotence and mental retardation.

We are not animals. Our sexual desires and responsiveness, our ability to have erections and orgasms, are not automatic or purely instinctive but conditioned. This was always understood to be true for women—their sexual responsiveness is more subjective than men’s—but men, too, are more vulnerable than we imagined. Not even young men, it turns out, can easily shift from masturbating compulsively to shadow pictures on the internet, to having intercourse with another human being.

Nowhere in Gobry’s article—any more than in Gwyneth Paltrow’s coy advertisements for her vibrator—do we encounter the word “masturbation.” Taboos have their place, but surely this is a time for plain speech: Our epidemic of pornography is more accurately an epidemic of masturbation. The whole edifice of the current porn industry is predicated on a widespread, politically correct, largely unexamined acceptance of masturbation, which may explain why so much work had to be done in the last decades of the twentieth century to destigmatize a behavior that subsequent technologies would render irresistible.

Even now, as the consequences are becoming clear and a few alarmed men on the internet are taking pledges not to masturbate, masturbation’s moment in our influencers’ imaginations may not have peaked. Not only films in current release but also celebrated books by award-winning authors are everywhere peddling the same wares and steamrolling the same inhibitions, even more insistently, as if the time were short.

None of this should come as a surprise to the Catholic Church, the reputedly puritanical, life-killing Church that, almost alone in a world that went cavalierly down a certain path, never stopped warning us about a behavior she called “disordered.” Not wicked or unforgivable, repugnant or shocking. There is no hand-wringing in the Church’s teaching, no harsh judgment or fear, but there is no fudging either, or squeamishness about the facts of life. The note sounded by the Church is the same I heard from my mother years before, or from Lawrence: “In the young, a certain amount of masturbation is inevitable, but not therefore natural.” Like Lawrence at his most plainspoken (“Is masturbation so harmless though?”), the Church—both in her faithfulness in naming sin, and in her related privilege of remitting it—has perennially provided a crucial check on a behavior that, when cut loose from the moral law, can overwhelm young people to a point where their future happiness is in jeopardy.

As with all sin, it is not the behavior itself so much as the denial that the behavior is disordered (“If we say we have no sin . . .”) that may predict more serious transgressions and infidelities. This is true even, or especially, in the Church herself, and above all in the priesthood, where the perfidy of an individual consecrated to hand on the truth is uniquely destructive. I remember, in my own life, a long, uncomfortable argument with a priest in a face-to-face confession, a priest who denied that masturbation was a sin and called me “neurotic” for confessing it, and then, as I was leaving, having extracted the absolution I was looking for (“Father, you give me absolution, and I’ll be fine!”), wanted a hug, a hug from which I had difficulty extricating myself. All the way home, not knowing whether to laugh or to cry, I wondered, “Did we have these problems on this scale when we called sin sin?”

Another example, from another life. In her memoir Seeing Through Places, the novelist Mary Gordon recalls a similar moment in a confessional: a disavowal by a priest of the sin of self-abuse she was there to confess. In Gordon’s case—she was young, on the cusp of adulthood—the priest’s bewildering pronouncement destabilized her strictly formed faith and contributed to her leaving the Church for many years. But was that moment in the confessional not predictive, too, of the priest’s eventual abandonment of his priesthood, a denouement that Gordon herself, even from her own estranged vantage point, found too painful to contemplate? When he telephoned her years later and invited her to his home to meet his wife and children, she didn’t go. (“I didn’t want to visit him in an ordinary house . . . I didn’t want to think of any priest having a home, and I didn’t want to think of him as anything other than a priest.”)

There are some threads that, if you pull them, can end in a whole garment’s giving way.

If the Church were to approve gay marriage, or gay parenthood, she would first need to approve masturbation, and sodomy, which is simply masturbation with another person. This she has never done. Nor has she countenanced such practices as in vitro fertilization, which separate things that naturally belong together and exclude from the moment of conception the natural, procreative act that, in her teaching, is the consummation of a sacrament. Against the supposed right of every person to be a parent by any means possible, the Church has always asserted the right of the child: to be generated by love, “the specific act of the conjugal love of his parents.”

In the year before he died, in the essay “A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” Lawrence defended some of the core teachings of the Catholic Church: the importance of modesty, the life-affirming rhythms of the Church’s liturgical year, the permanence of marriage. It was as if, at the end, he had begun to understand that in a unique way, in an alienated age, what he called the Church of the south, or the old Church, had kept faith with nature. In this, he both anticipated and surpassed a group of future feminists who, as they demonstrated on behalf of the birth mother of Baby M, were disconcerted to find themselves on the same page as the Vatican. (“This may seem like an odd alliance,” Erica Jong commented defensively, “but I really think the Pope is right on this one.”) 

Lawrence, in a similar position, showed himself neither defensive nor grudging. To the extent that he understood her, he threw his rhetorical weight behind the Church, scorned her detractors (“The Chief Priest of Europe knows more about sex than Mr. [Bernard] Shaw . . . because he knows more about the essential nature of the human being”), and on the subject of marriage, repeatedly doubled down. For example:

The sense of the eternality of marriage is perhaps necessary to the inward peace, both of men and women. Even if it carry a sense of doom, it is necessary. The Catholic Church does not spend its time reminding the people that in heaven there is no marrying nor giving in marriage. It insists: if you marry, you marry forever! And the people accept the decree, the doom, and the dignity of it.

Or again:

The Church, celibate as its priesthood may be, built as it may be upon the lonely rock of Peter, or of Paul, really rests upon the indissolubility of marriage. Make marriage in any serious degree unstable, dissoluble, destroy the permanency of marriage, and the Church falls. Witness the enormous decline of the Church of England.

But what he defended in some passages of the essay, he took back, seemingly without realizing it, in others. “A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover” is a patchwork in which perfectly orthodox insights coexist with a reflexive paganism, and arguments for Catholicism with disparagements of Jesus himself, whom Lawrence lumps with Plato and Buddha: “three utter pessimists . . . [for whom] the only happiness lay in abstracting oneself from life.”

Similar charges of inconsistency may be brought against Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The last third of the novel, especially, contains passages the reader simply has to pass over in silence, passages in which the narrator, or the author, lacking a coherent theological vision, falls back on pantheistic clichés—flowers in the pubic hair, sex in the rain—or into an old habit of lecturing, or hectoring, which wearies the reader, and confuses, and in some cases even undermines, the argument of the book as a whole. 

“One sheds one’s sicknesses in books,” Lawrence wrote to a friend, and indeed one can trace in his writings a habit of trying on whole worldviews, only to discard them as they prove insufficient. If the Catholic way is to include and then sift, Lawrence was doing his own radical sifting over a lifetime. If he had lived, we would have had more books, more perfectly realized books perhaps, as he might finally have outgrown some of the misapprehensions that mar his last novel. But he didn’t live. He died at forty-four, leaving behind an endlessly provocative, dramatically imperfect oeuvre, in which the wheat and the tares remain inextricably mixed.

But should we, on that account, repudiate Lawrence altogether? There is a temptation in conservative circles today, stung by the world’s shunnings, to cancel the world back and insist that we have nothing to learn from feminists, ecologists, the likes of D. H. Lawrence, and so on. But imperfect prophets—individual authors as well as entire religious traditions—matter, not only because they offer footholds to people searching for truth, partial revelations that buy time from the devil, but also because sometimes, in the mix, they have something to say even to the so-called elect.

In a world bedeviled by a new gnosticism, a world in which the body, in Lawrence’s formula, has been reduced to the status of a trained dog (“at best the tool of the mind, and at worst, its toy”), sex is whatever people think it is, and marriage, too. At the same time, even as conscientious individuals husband heirloom plant seed and agonize over the future of animal species, a shocking proportion of our own male population is compulsively wasting the raw material of our human future—a sadly apt image of a widespread rejection of the human project. In this world, at once self-indulgent and self-erasing, one could do worse than be a reader of D. H. Lawrence. Even Lawrence’s uninformed objections to Christianity sometimes go straight to the heart of a matter, and “no Christian,” T. S. Eliot warned, “ought to feel sure that he is religious-minded enough to ignore the criticisms of a man who, without being a Christian, was primarily and always religious.”

Patricia Snow writes from New Haven, Connecticut.

Image by Store Norske Leksikon, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped, filter added, triplicated. 

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