June 27, 2011
Final Essay: Lawrence vs. Damasio
It is interesting to observe how two seemingly different pieces of literature can be viewed as complimentary to one another when aligned in the right ways. Such is the case when relating D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913) and Antonio Damasio’s Self Comes to Mind (2010). Not only is there a notable time difference between these two, the styles and aim of each piece is also distinct. Lawrence’s novel tells a story of the Morel family who lives in a mining town in Europe. The family consists of Mr. and Mrs. Morel, a dysfunctional couple raising four children; William, the oldest, then Annie, Paul, and Arthur. The children’s relationship with their alcoholic father is often strained, and as a result they each find solace in their mother’s kind ways. The story follows the Morels’ from the birth of Paul until the death of their mother during Paul’s middle-aged years. Conversely, Damasio’s analytical piece traces the progression of scientific and medical knowledge in the field of neuroscience, specifically regarding consciousness. He builds upon previous theories and hypotheses and brings to light a new explanation for the way we humans think. On the surface, these two texts seem to be nearly polar opposites of each other, however, there are several parallels between these two works in which Damasio’s piece can be used to explain the reasoning behind character’s thoughts and actions in Lawrence’s novel.
When first speaking of consciousness, Damasio notes the mysterious fact that “no one sees the minds of others…we can [only] make informed guesses about what they think. We cannot observe their minds, and only we ourselves can observe ours, from the inside, and through a rather narrow window. [Our thoughts] are private and unobservable by a third party.”1 However, Lawrence’s book, and almost any book for that matter, allows the reader to jump inside the mind of the character(s) in order to understand their thoughts, which is perhaps why reading is especially intriguing. At the start of the novel the narration seems to relate most closely to Mrs. Morel, as it describes the resentment she feels for her drunk husband and the dread for her coming child. By the fourth chapter the narration shifts to focus on Paul, the third-born son, which continues throughout the rest of the story. At first William is the closest child to his mother, even after he grows older and moves away from the home. When William becomes very ill and dies, all of Mrs. Morel’s attention becomes focused on Paul. This focus is apparent in the way the remainder of the writing relates most directly to Paul’s thoughts and actions, describing his bitterness towards his father for the way he treats Mrs. Morel, and the confusion he feels when he enters into his teenage years and begins to experiment with love. While the reader does get several glimpses into the conscious mind of other characters, such as Mr. Morel, Paul’s girlfriend Miriam, and sister Annie, most of the novel is focused on Paul’s consciousness.
Damasio not only elaborates on the conscious state of mind but also the unconscious actions that we unknowingly engage in. The ultimate drive for survival is apparent in even the simplest of creatures, such as single-celled amoeba or bacterium, which participate in basic life functions such as self-defense mechanisms and reproduction. “Deprived of conscious knowledge…the single cell seems to have an attitude: it wants to live out its prescribed genetic allowance”1, which, at the core, is the unconscious drive for survival in all organisms, whether we consciously know it or not. The basis for this struggle for life is our desire to reproduce and pass on our genes to our offspring before our biological clock runs out. Sigmund Freud triumphed the fact that our unconscious minds are dominated by sex, from infancy to old age.1 This fact can be seen in Sons and Lovers by Paul’s desire for Miriam, though he is very confused by his feelings for her. After going round and round with their courting and then breaking off, Paul finally concludes that the problems between them may have been caused by their virginity and lack of sexuality in their relationship. While this may have been his unconscious desire since their meeting at an early age, it is only brought to light after he reaches puberty in his teenage years. However, when Miriam finally gives herself to him it does little good in the way of improving their relationship. He finds satisfaction in Miriam’s friend Clara, a married woman with whom he pursues a relationship for a short time but she eventually returns to her husband. This further strains Paul’s relationship with women, particularly his mother, whom he strives to please but struggles in choosing between her and Miriam, whom she dislikes.
Another interesting claim from Damasio comes from his discussion of rewards and punishments, as they apply to our own bodies and minds. He says that incentives for well-being and survival drive our desire to engage in certain activities, for example, our stomach becomes upset when we have not eaten, a certain “punishment” which indicates to our brain that we need to nourish ourselves. In a broader sense, this idea can be applied to life situations, in which we reward or punish others or ourselves in order to guide behavior. Such examples can be found in Sons and Lovers, such as the various prizes/gifts that the children present to their mother as an incentive to make her happy and receive her attention and love. One night when Mr. Morel comes home drunk, as he often does, he and his wife get into an argument over his drinking. In an attempt to appease her, Mr. Morel shows that he had bought the children gingerbread and coconut. In this way, he is trying to compensate for his drunkenness by bearing gifts for the children, which are the most important thing to Mrs. Morel. A final example comes as a punishment from Mr. Morel, who threatens to beat William after he rips the collar of the neighbor boy. Mr. Morel believes that he is teaching William a lesson, but their father’s violent punishments often drive his children further away from him rather than actually teaching them anything.
One of the most prominent ideas in Damasio’s work is the concept of brain mapping, in which:
“Whatever sits outside the brain is mimicked inside the brain’s networks. In other words, the brain has the ability to represent aspects of the structure of non-brain things and events, which includes the actions carried out by our organism and its components, like limbs, part of the [sensory] apparatus, and so forth.”1
He also emphasizes that the body is an object of the map in such a way that it incorporates itself into the mapping system via the body’s surface. “The representation of the world external to the body can come into the brain only via the body itself…[and] changes in the body by that interaction are mapped in the brain.”1 Our ability to recall memories is a direct result of this brain mapping, as seeing, smelling, hearing, feeling, or tasting something new or familiar will prompt the brain to relate the new information to something previously known. For example, in Sons and Lovers, Mrs. Morel gives Paul an old suit of William’s to wear to a formal, and upon seeing him in it she becomes emotional, as the memories of her deceased son floods her. When the Morels move from the Bottoms into a new house, the creaking sound of the ash tree in the front yard drives the children crazy, but their father rather likes it. It can be deduced that the reason the children do not like the sound of the ash tree is because their father enjoys it, but because the children dislike their father they relate the sound of the tree to him, and thus dislike the tree itself. As Paul grows older, he begins to take on similar antics to his mother, for example, making many of the same facial expressions. According to Damasio, mimicked actions such as these are “testimony to the close interconnections among the actual motion of the body, the representation of that motion in musculoskeletal and visual terms, and the memories that can be evoked in relation to some aspect of those representations.”1 Because of Paul’s closeness to his mother throughout his young life, it is likely that he would commit to memory physical and mental processes similar to hers and incorporate them into his own personality.
Sons and Lovers proves to be a very emotional piece, and the author conveys the character’s sentiments rather well. The overall feeling of the story is rather negative and depressing, as most of the events that occur in the book are dampening. Damasio comments that “a negative emotion such as sadness leads to the recall of ideas about negative facts…sadness slows down thinking and may lead one to dwell on the situation that prompted it.”1 William’s death has a certain impact on Mrs. Morel, who is unable to focus on anything except for her loss. Only when Paul falls ill with pneumonia does she realize the reality of the situation and is able to focus her energy into caring for Paul. Mrs. Morel’s unhappiness in her marriage resonates throughout the story, and the sadness that it brings her contributes to the negativity of almost everything else in the book. Her misery even transcends into her children’s lives, especially Paul, who grows to be very dependent on his mother, so much so that it affects his own love life as he is forced to choose between the girl he loves and his mother’s happiness.
Another interesting piece of information Damasio reveals regarding emotion is that “[emotional] effort [is] costly in the amount of energy it consumes—that is why being emotional is so bloody tiring. Fear is an agent of stress, and stress over time destroys life, mentally and physically.”11 This may explain Mrs. Morel’s early death as a result of a lifetime of stresses from her husband’s physical and mental abuse. As mentioned earlier, these stresses greatly influenced Paul, whose suffering and mental/physical exhaustion drove him to take his mother’s life. It may also account for Paul’s contemplation of suicide, as a result of the stress of his mother’s death and the mounting stress throughout his life as he lived in worry for his parent’s relationship.
The previous examples have shown how an analytical informational piece can be used to define or explain the thoughts and actions of characters in a fictional story. This is possible because we can peer into the consciousness of characters as they are written in a book, because the author gives us insight that would otherwise be impossible. Damasio gathered previous research and theories into a concise piece in which he presented both old and new information, and formulated several of his own hypotheses that are useful in understanding our own thought processes and the thoughts of others as well. By aligning Damasio’s work with Lawrence’s, we as students are actively participating in an attempt to understand and carry out Damasio’s ideas as they are presented in Self Comes to Mind. This activity gives us a chance to act as the philosopher or researcher such as Damasio is, as we interpret the thoughts and actions of Lawrence’s characters according to Damasio’s theory. In this way, we are better able to understand the conscious minds of others around us in our lives.21