In the 1915 novel, The Rainbow, writer D. H. (don’t call be David—call me “Herb”) Lawrence (1885-1930) tells of a young man named Tom Brangwen who has a shift in consciousness during a moment of irritation with a child.
Lydia Brangwen, Tom’s wife, is in labour and her four-year old daughter, Anna, gets upset. Tom and Tilly, a cross-eyed housekeeper, can’t stop Anna from crying for her mother. When Tom lifts the girl’s body, “Its stiff blindness made a flash of rage go through him. He would like to break it” (p. 79).
Anna is “a little, mechanical thing of fixed will,” and Tom is “blind, and intent, irritated into mechanical action” (p. 78). They are blind and mechanized. Cut off. Disconnected. Tom is angry and Anna won’t stop crying. Each is alone to the other. Hostility evaporates their empathy. Tom doesn’t care what she wants and Anna doesn’t care what he wants.
We’ve all been there. Emotions veto reason. Anger kills happiness like car sickness kills enjoyment of scenery. They call it a loss of self-control but it’s more like a self trying to control what it can’t!
Lawrence describes a loss of self-control as feeling bewitched by moods, drowning in floods and being possessed by demons (Sanders, 1974). Popular culture stemming from religious images uses devils and angels to symbolize a good self who puts others first and a bad self who puts himself first.
Joe Campbell said that, “Every god, every mythology, every religion, is true in this sense: it is true as metaphorical of the human and cosmic mystery. He who thinks he knows doesn’t know. He who knows that he doesn’t know, knows” (“Masks of Eternity”).
It’s simple, really: get what you want—enjoy; don’t get what you want—don’t enjoy. The real trick is in the “what” that is wanted. It’s in the wanting/satisfying dichotomy that people go off kilter.
Tom wanted Anna to stop crying but she couldn’t. He wanted something he couldn’t provide because Anna controls her crying. Tom was alone in his wanting and a wall went up between himself and reality.
What happens when you want something you simply can’t provide?
“BONK!” Like a Nerf arrow falling from the sky, a thought hits Tom square in the head:
“What did it all matter? What did it matter if the mother talked Polish and cried in labour, if this child were stiff with resistance, and crying? Why take it to heart? Let the mother cry in labour, let the child cry in resistance, since they would do so. Let them be as they were, if they insisted. Why should he fight against it, why resist? Let it be, if it were so” (p. 79).
With this thought, Tom is freed. He’s released from wanting/getting. He accepts what is. No expectations. No disappointment. He sees Anna’s sad face as if for the first time. She is herself and not an object of his vexation. He feels life creating and has a “let it be” feeling way before Paul McCartney’s dreaming (see: Enjoy Knowing in the Rain).
Tom carries Anna outside, through the rain, and into the barn. He cradles her with one arm and feeds the cows with the other. Anna grows quiet. They sit listening to animals eating and Tom enjoys a “timeless silence”.
“The lantern shed a soft, steady light from one wall. All outside was still in the rain. He looked down at the silky folds of the paisley shawl. It reminded him of his mother. She used to go to church in it. He was back again in the old irresponsibility and security, a boy at home” (p. 116).
Later that night he steps outside, lifts his face to the rain and feels, “the darkness striking unseen and steadily upon him… and he was overcome. He turned away indoors, humbly. There was the infinite world, eternal, unchanging, as well as the world of life” (p. 118).
Religion and philosophy are guides. Where religion has rituals, philosophy doesn’t. Where religion has supernatural beliefs and a concept of faith (a belief in something without evidence), philosophy doesn’t.
Philosophy will only believe in something if it’s proven to be true by way of reason, but what is proven by way of reason in Tom’s experience with irritation, cows, a mother, sad child, and silence?
Nothing. Everything. Tom straddles a line between philosophy and religion. He enters a zone of enjoyment where practicalities give way to feelings of “stillness and rain” that are not easy to grasp.
Tom’s shift in consciousness is significantly ordinary and superlatively natural. He breathes as a boy and feels those old violins play “Try To Remember”. It could be described as a religious experience simply because it’s profound.
But religion is tricky. People are funny when they get serious.
Evangelical theologian Michael Dowd thinks, “God is a personification, not a person” (source). In Faces in the Clouds (1993) Stewart Guthrie says that religion is best understood as anthropomorphism and all images and concepts of God are interpretations and personifications. To personify is to see inanimate objects and living things as having human traits, intentions and feelings, but the thing about reality is that it’s real regardless of perception.
Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away” (1978).
Between self and other and thought and feeling, we interrelate, interconnect and go round and round each other within our blip of time.
Birth and death, cycles of nature, forces of the universe—they’re real. We can’t always predict what will happen but reality freed of expectation is a revelation.
Poet Omar Khayyám (1048-1131) wrote: “We are no other than a moving row, Of Magic Shadow-shapes that come and go”…
“Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend, Before we too into the Dust descend; Dust into Dust, and under Dust, to lie, Sans Wine, sans Song, sangs Singer, and—sans End!…
Oh, threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise! One thing at least is certain—This Life flies”…
My rule of life is to drink and be merry. To be free from belief and unbelief is my religion” (Ruba’iyat).
In this life we are, on the one hand, a self-creation, and on the other, an affiliation. One’s secret self, unique and separate from all others, is a self directed chemical reaction like “La Vie En Rose”. When everything is rosy and cheerful to you, a state of bliss from everything around you is a source of joy.
To Lawrence, a lack of “natural awe” and “natural balance” is a sign of the breakdown of modern life. Problems start at a subconscious level so we need to explore a new world of love—not to dictate imperatives, but to feel.
“The final aim of every living thing, creature, or being is the full achievement of itself…[So] the day is richer for a poppy, the flame of another phoenix is filled in to the universe, something is which was not… And I wish it were true of us. I wish we were all like kindled bonfires on the edge of space, marking out advance-posts.” (“Study of Hardy”, Phoenix, p. 403).
You are the one who sees blackness behind closed eyes. You are a secret other to another and another is a secret other to you. Your self is like a nut within a shell that is the universe universing.
A shift in consciousness towards acceptance, contentment and awareness like Tom Brangwen’s could happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime—even you, even here, even right this second!
Guthrie, S. (1993). Faces in the Clouds A New Theory of Religion. Oxford University Press. Available online: as a pdf.
Lawrence, D.H. (1915). The Rainbow. Penguin Books. Available online: The Project Guttenberg Ebook of The Rainbow.
Panichas, G.A. (1964). Adventures in Consciousness: The meaning of D.H. Lawrence’s Religious Quest. Mouton & Co.
Sanders, S. (1974). D.H. Lawrence: the world of the five major novels. Viking Press.