Does Lawrence's "The Dance"-- to use his own words-- "only care about the emotion?"

Mike Laws, English 171, Brown University, Autumn 2003

In "The Theatre," as we have seen, D.H. Lawrence calls on an Italian performance of Ibsen's Ghosts to reveal something about the national temperament, the literary sensibility of the land. Contrasting this sort of play with one by Italy's own D'Annunzio -- a piece of theatre he dubs a "foolish, romantic play of no real significance," but which the Italians nonetheless love -- Lawrence goes on to claim,

It was the language which did it. It was the Italian passion for rhetoric, for the speech which appeals to the senses and makes no demand on the mind... It is the movement, the physical effect of the language upon the blood which gives him supreme satisfaction... It is the sensuous gratification he asks for.

And yet it is hard to imagine any words that could better describe "The Dance," a subsequent section of D.H. Lawrence and Italy. "The Dance" is perhaps most notable for its relative lack of interpolation; where Lawrence typically acts as sage-writer, drawing complicated interpretive lessons from a seemingly insignificant event, here he describes only the bare facts of the scene, occasionally inserting a personal reaction or generalization, but never deducing any grand, great truth from what he witnesses. This strategy has two obvious effects: it abbreviates the chapter (six pages in my book, much less than any previous section), and, in its lack of clear-cut explication -- Lawrence never states right out what this all means -- renders the section quite cryptic. Lawrence effectively leaves it to the reader to decide what the message is he is attempting to impart.

The extent to which Lawrence's characterization of Italian writing in "The Theatre" applies to his own techniques in "The Dance" is most apparent in the description of the dance itself:

The women's faces changed to a kind of transported wonder, they were in the very rhythm of delight. From the soft bricks of the floor the red ochre rose in a thin cloud of dust, making hazy the shadowy dancers; the three musicians, in their black hats and their cloaks, sat obscurely in the corner, making a music that came quicker and quicker, making a dance that grew swifter and more intense, more subtle, the men seeming to fly and to implicate another strange inter-rhythmic dance into the women, the women drifting and palpitating as if their souls shook and resounded to a breeze that was subtly rushing upon them, through them; the men worked their feet, their thighs swifter, more vividly, the music came to an almost intolerable climax, there was a moment when the dance passed into a possession, the men caught up the women and swung them from the earth, leapt with them for a second, and then the next phase of the dance had begun.

This sentence actually continues on, more or less doubling the length of the segment I've reprinted here, adding more and more commas, comma splices, semicolons, etc. -- in other words, further mimicking the intensity and uncontrollable passion of a song and dance routine that has become a "possession," that has literally taken over the bodies of its participants. The reader is given no chance to pause and reflect, to absorb what is occurring here in the writing -- in other words, the aim of the paragraph is to rush itself over the reader, to allow him to experience viscerally what these dancers and musicians are feeling. Lawrence might be an Englishman, but he is appealing to the same "passion for rhetoric" and "sensuous gratification" he earlier equated with the Italians. Thus it is no coincidence that there is not much interpretation going on here, and that so much of the description of the dance employs sexual imagery (especially in diction -- the look of "transported wonder" normally reserved for orgasm, the "climaxes," "palpitations," and "ecstasies" that recur throughout).

My principal question is, of course, why Lawrence would do this-- why he limits himself to pure observation here, when elsewhere he lapses into abstractions on the greater truths such scenes ultimately take on. Is he perhaps suggesting that there is something mystical, unknowable, about this dance? Something else? There seems to be a strong undercurrent of class-tension in this essay; is it possible that Lawrence, by giving us such an ecstatic, unblinking description of the dance, means to argue that anyone, regardless of class status, can be swept up in these emotions -- love, passion, and sex?


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Last modified 28 October 2003