Voluptuous Repetition

I read DH Lawrence’s Women in Love recently, and it got me thinking about repetition — in descriptive language and in some implications for game play. Throughout the book, I was taken by Lawrence’s stunning descriptive passages, often rhythmically marked by the perpetual repetition of the same adjectives — sometimes used multiple times in a sentence, series of sentences, and again in other passages throughout the book, over and over. Here are a few examples:

The Pussum sat near to Gerald, and she seemed to become soft, subtly to infuse herself into his bones, as if she were passing into him a black, electric flow. Her being suffused into his veins like a magnetic darkness…Between her and Gerald was this silence and this black, electric comprehension in the darkness.1

Hermione came down to dinner strange and sepulchral, her eyes heavy and full of sepulchral darkness.2

A terrible voluptuous thrill ran down her arms—she was going to know her voluptuous consummation…she was going to have her consummation of voluptuous ecstasy at last.3

In their voices she could hear the voluptuous resonance of darkness, the strong, dangerous underworld, mindless, inhuman. The sounded also like strange machines, heavy, oiled. The voluptuousness was like that of machinery, cold and iron.4

I could go on and on (and on) bringing in examples, and it is truly a pleasure to retype some of the absolutely perfect sentences that Lawrence composed some 100 years ago…okay, here’s another one, sans some of the repetition I’ve been highlighting: “There were all the afterdays when her hands, like birds, could feed upon the fields of his mystical plastic form.”5 These examples of repeated words — dark, electric, sepulchral // voluptuous, (and in later passages, radiant, luminous) — manifest some of the major motifs of the book.

In the introduction to the paperback Penguin Classics edition of the book, Amit Chaudhuri explains what some may see as the overwrought nature of the writing as Lawrence working out a ‘poetics of the present’:

Lawrence in struggling to take the Romantic/modernist moment out of its canonical, humanist lineage; and the overwriting in these passages is at once a sign of that struggle, as well as a gesture towards the radical incompatibility of that Lawrentian ‘here and now’ in the English canon.5

Rather than describing a sequence of events, Lawrence engages in the activity of prose description to call out and name eternal, creative energies. Though there are two main ‘love stories’ that play out through the book — between Birkin/Ursula and Gerald/Gudrun — these characters and their interactions seem less important as drivers of a narrative constituted through discrete plot points and more as conduits of metaphysical forces. We glimpse the surging and pulsing of darkness, electricity, radiance, voluptuousness through Lawrence’s piercing descriptions of what might seem narrative action in some other novel.

Of course, pretty much all literature deals with Eternal Truths in some way, shape, or form, but how Lawrence approaches this at the level of the sentence, the paragraph, the scene is a distinct achievement. It’s almost as if Lawrence, plumbing the depths, has discovered the ‘just right’ word for a previously undiscovered thing. This is similar to the scientific project of naming, creating taxonomies, but also to the ritualistic mantra — the obscured word or sequence of words that can be uttered to unlock some divine power. Lawrence straddles the scientific and mystical, attempting to identify the appropriate objective name for the eternal thing.

The subject of Lawrence’s description is, most of the time, sex — that voluptuous consummation. This is quite clear in passages throughout the novel, as well as in Lawrence’s original foreword to the novel, in which he defends himself against stylistic criticisms:

In point of style, fault is often found with the continual, slightly modified repetition. The only answer is that it is natural to the author: and that every natural crisis in emotion or passion or understanding comes from this pulsing, frictional to-and-fro, which works up to culmination.7

Right. But as John Swift observes in his essay on repetition in Women in Love, the effect of repetition in the novel is often to put off culmination, and rarely do any of the characters actually reach some climax, physiological or metaphysical.8 Again, this use of description seems to be in service of naming forces fundamental to the individual characters, forces of creativity underlying all acts of procreation. Just as ‘camellia’ is the precise word to refer to the continual repetition of a specific type of flower, a particular arrangement of petals and pistols, Lawrence is rooting out the precise keys for mystic forces, energies. Adjectives evoking sensations, energies, become objects — becoming objects, they can be scrutinized, turned and held. Naming does close off other possibilities for a thing not captured in the chosen name, but it is not inherently a culmination — the name can be re-uttered to bring the thing back to life, raise it back into awareness, cast it again in a certain light.

In a very mechanical way, this way of looking at repetition-as-naming resembles the use of description in interactive fiction, as well. Often, the description of a room or an object holds a key to the just right combination of words that a player needs to input in order to advance the narrative, to accelerate the moment, to motivate from a paused state (i.e. being stuck) to a story that continues (sometimes to the detriment of gameplay). I’m playing Douglas Adams’ (with Steve Meretzky) Infocom adaptation of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy right now, which offers an infamous example of this: quite early in the game, players need to place objects in the room just so in order to successfully obtain a Babel Fish translator — which otherwise falls down a drain, gets swept up by a cleaning robot, etc. Not quite a metaphysics, but the IF player is rooting around for a mantra, the secret phrase that, when typed, will motivate the game to continue.

Interestingly, it seems that Lawrence anticipated this connection to rules/games (if not video games). Early in the novel, Birkin (a kind of brooding, philosophe in the mold of Lawrence) criticizes and rejects the common rites and rituals of society, reflecting on the prattle of socialites at a party, and comparing these interactions to games with rules that have grown stale for their familiarity:

How known it all was, like a game with the figures set out, the same figures, the Queen of chess, the knights, the pawns, the same now as they were hundreds of years ago, the same figures moving round in one of the innumerable permutations that make up the game. But the game is known, it’s going on is like a madness, it is so exhausted.9

While others at the party go on talking about the beauty of the ‘old institutions’ of Catholicism, Birkin exits, going on to have a Swamp Thing-esque encounter with some plants: “To lie down and roll in the sticky, cool young hyacinths…nothing else would do, nothing else would satisfy, except this coolness and subtlety of vegetation traveling into one’s blood. How fortunate he was, that there was this lovely, subtle, responsive vegetation, waiting for him, as he waited for it.”10 No further comment.

Perhaps the difference between a game like chess — which has a limited set of outcomes even if there are innumerable ways to reach those outcomes — and IF is that the outcome is not known (even if it is already coded into the game, what phrase the player needs to type). There is still the thrill of discovering that phrase needed to open the door, perhaps akin to Lawrence’s own discovery of just how right ‘voluptuous’ works as an adjective, to be repeated, re-invoked to open up that analogous metaphysical passage.

I could also think about how the preservation of cultural heritage is a kind of exhaustion — keeping something going on, the same, the same, like a madness — but, well, I’m exhausted.

Notes

  1. D.H. Lawrence, Women in Love (New York: Penguin Books, 1920 [2006]), 73.
  2. Ibid., 89.
  3. Ibid., 105.
  4. Ibid., 115.
  5. Ibid., 332.
  6. Amit Chauduri, “Introduction,” in Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence, (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), xiii-xiv.
  7. D.H. Lawrence, Women in Love, 486.
  8. John H. Swift, “Repetition, Consummation, and ‘This Eternal Unrelief,’” in The Challenge of D.H. Lawrence, ed. Michael Squires and Keith Cushman (Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1990), 122.
  9. Lawrence, Women in Love, 99.
  10. Ibid., 107.

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