Novel * D.H. Lawrence * Toxic Masculinity, the Novelization * 1922
I get it. You see the title, see that it’s by the author of Lady Chatterly’s Lover, you make the instant connection. Oh, it’s his dick. Textually, it’s not. Aaron Sisson, another in a long line of awful people who happen to be a protagonist in a Modernist novel, doesn’t really fuck. I mean, he does, but he doesn’t enjoy it. Anyone looking for sneaky horniness in their literature should probably look elsewhere. There are arguments to be made that Aaron’s Rod is still a reference to the character’s magical wang, but I don’t think those arguments are particularly compelling. That’s almost entirely because the book itself is not compelling. Actually, that’s a bit of an understatement. Aaron’s Rod is a novel filled with all of D.H. Lawrence’s worst impulses as a writer, a thinker, and a person. And while it’s tempting to say this is just my liberal-ass 2019 sensibilities snowflaking up my vision, that’s not really the case. It’s just a bad book, poorly executed.
Modernism is filled with characters that are difficult to sympathize with. In many cases, that’s the point. Modernism came about in a time of post-apocalyptic turmoil, when the standards of a civilization were being reforged in blood and disillusionment. The best examples of Modernist literature, books like Point Counter Point or my ongoing examination of The Waste Land, delve deep into feelings of dislocation and disconnection. The people at the heart of these works are empty and shell-shocked (sometimes literally), and thus tend to display bad behavior. Many of them are struggling with their amorality, but there are very few likable characters in Modernist literature (which is why when one appears they’re so special, and goes a long way in explaining my undying, eternal love for Valentine Wannop). That said, there’s a difference between a disinterested, myopic character and one who just flat out fucking sucks. Aaron Sisson is the latter.
Aaron’s Rod begins with the titular character deserting his family on Christmas Eve. Just like, peace nerds, smell ya later. The best part is that he does it for no discernable reason. Nor is a reason ever given. His wife is not shown to be some kind of evil harpy. His kids are just kids. They’re annoying but so are all children. Nah, he just looks them over and bails. There’s a lot of wretched internal monologuing going on, but none of it pans out to much more than Aaron being a capricious asshole. His wife, who now has to deal with raising a family on whatever pittance Aaron sends her way, rightfully calls him a selfish monster over and over, but his entire demeanor is “pff, whatever.” There’s no apparent secret motivation, either. He doesn’t have a mistress. Doesn’t seem to want one. Aaron just bops around playing his flute and feeling resentful. By chance, he ends up hanging out with some cool kids, a group of rich Bohemian weirdos whom he doesn’t really like save for one guy. Sure, he ends up banging one of the women, but he insists he was tricked into it by the evil, wily woman having her way with him. Sure bud, you’re just so irresistible.
This novel was supposed to be a travelogue of sorts, following Aaron through a Europe ravaged by World War I. I guess technically it still is, because Aaron visits places like Milan and Florence and provides a viewpoint to what was happening to civilization in those places at that time. The problem is that viewpoint is not only unreliable, but wholly repellant. Because Aaron Sisson sucks so much. Relationships with women are impossible and in trying to have one your masculinity is stolen. The war robbed Europe of its manliness and that’s why everything is adrift and falling apart. Only men can understand men. You know, all those misogynistic chestnuts that Lawrence flirts with in his other, much better novels. Here in Aaron’s Rod, those thoughts are the entire book. The only other character to make any real impression on Aaron is Rawdon Lilly, who if anything is even worse. Regardless, the book itself is a muddled mess, even apart from the rampant, angry sexism.
Criticism of a novel like this is tricky, to say the least. As I’ve made clear, it’s just not a very good book. That said, with an author of the stature of D.H. Lawrence, scholars and critics feel like they have to give him the benefit of the doubt. I skimmed through the critical introduction that came with my version of the book but if ever a half-hearted critical work existed, boy that’s it. I imagine someone at Penguin Classics approached him about the opportunity to write up an introduction to an edition of a Lawrence novel and he got all excited. I left academia, but I imagine such an opportunity would be very exciting for those who spend their entire professional lives studying a single author. But then it comes out. “Yeah, we need you to write something about Aaron’s Rod.” Crestfallen, the reply: “Do we have to?” Well, he wrote the book and by the transitive properties of the literary canon, yeah homie, you do.
Most of that critical introduction is an attempt to parse what Lawrence was attempting in writing the novel in the first place. Obviously, it is a reaction to World War I. Pretty much everything written in Europe at the time was. The War not only destroyed land and lives, but it broke down society and civilization as well, deep down. Aaron Sisson feels this, but clearly isn’t smart enough to align his thoughts and emotions, so he lashes out and acts like a complete toolbox most of the time. He’s repelled by the surface normalcy of the Christmas holiday, but instead of trying to ascertain the reasons for that repellence, or attempting to communicate with the one person there he supposedly knows and trusts, he just leaves. Fuck it! Whatever! And while Lawrence presumably had his literary reasons for having Sisson do so – I mean the action is the crux of the novel, after all – he does an unusually poor job of elucidiating the reasoning.
It’s fairly clear to me that Aaron’s Rod wants to be a “novel of ideas,” in the same vein as the aforementioned Point Counter Point. That it fails spectacularly is something of an anomaly. Lawrence is an immensely complicated thinker and writer, which is why I can’t just simply paint him with the misogyny brush and dismiss him entirely. It’s a little too easy to read a character like Aaron Sisson and jump to the conclusion that the author feels the same way about the world. I’m not a Lawrence scholar by any stretch, but I’ve read enough that I’m not comfortable just flatly saying that the author condones the worldview provided in this novel. Of course, depending on your school of thought, it might not matter if he did. Personally, I think it makes sense to take into account the author and his history, but in this case I’m not sure it communicates much. Whatever Lawrence’s intentions, Aaron’s Rod is a difficult book to spend time with.
My apologies if you came to this looking for some kind of proper critical thought about this book. The nice thing about not being a real scholar is that I don’t have to spend too much time with things I don’t think are particularly valuable. Like yeah, I get the rod metaphor. It’s his flute, but also his dick, and when he plays it flowers and he gets laid, and when it’s destroyed that’s just like, the new world order, man. I don’t actually care. If I wanted to discuss Nietzsche, I’d read Nietzsche. Aaron’s Rod is just uncharacteristically sloppy, its ideas are all over the place, and what is plainly stated is repellent. And that’s okay. Not every attempt has to succeed. Which is good because this book sure as shit doesn’t.