Sexing it

Sexing it

Language is one of the oldest tools of representation. The elder sophist Protagoras is credited with gendering language in an effort to make it more precise. Like Prodicus, Gorgias, and other sophists, Protagoras is mostly remembered as a foil for Socrates. His thoughts on gendered language are lost. But with the recovery of many classical texts in the seventeenth century, the impact of the classical heritage and the power relations of gender are heard deeply in Aphra Behn’s introduction to The Lucky Chance (ca.1686):

All I ask is the Priviledge for my Masculine Part the Poet in me, (if any such you will allow me) to tread in those successful Paths my Predecessors have so long thriv’d in, to take those Measures that both the Ancient and Modern Writers have set me, and by which they have pleas’d the World so well: If I must not, because of my Sex, have this Freedom, but that you will usurp all to your selves; I lay down my Quill, and you shall hear no more of me, no not so much as to make Comparisons, because I will be kinder to my Brothers of the Pen, that they have been to a defenceless Woman; for I am not content to write for a third day only. I value Fame as much as if I had been a Hero; and if you rob me of that, I can retire from the ungrateful World, and scorn its fickle Favours.

Behn had many strikes against her in the pursuit of heroic status. First, she was a tremendously successful restoration playwright. This was a difficult feat, given that the compensation for writers consisted only of the third day’s receipts for the play, and often plays did not even manage a three-day run. Even outside the sexual politics she inscribes, because she was one of the first women writers to earn a living solely through writing— rather than a husband, or patron’s support— Behn was excluded from heroic consideration. The patronage system had long supported a separation of artist from the tawdry business of earning a living. In his monumental History of England in six volumes of 1778, David Hume takes Charles II to task for his failure to support “men of superior genius,” saying that “most of the celebrated writers of this age remain monuments of genius, perverted by indecency and bad taste.” Behn is not mentioned, however one of her heroes, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, is:

The very name of Rochester is offensive to modest ears; yet does his poetry discover much energy of style and such poignancy of satire, as give ground to imagine what so fine a genius, had he fallen in a more happy age, and had followed better models, was capable of producing. The ancient satyrists often used great liberties in their expressions; but their freedom no more resembles the licentiousness of Rochester, than the nakedness of an Indian does that of a common prostitute.

The dame Virtue, modest and clothed in white, continues to define the aristocratic notion of the hero. Hume’s comparison of the licentiousness of Rochester that of “a common prostitute” illustrates the tension between an emergent market economy and a decaying system of patronage. Writers no longer lived in gilded cages, but were thrust into markets to compete for fame and love among a common populace. In an oblique way, it was the failure of the government of Charles II— who failed to compensate Aphra Behn for her short career as a spy in 1666— forced her into debtor’s prison, and then into the marketplace to become a popular playwright. However, it is not the political intrigue after the restoration that is of abiding concern to the development of documentary practice, but the form of Aphra Behn’s prose work Oroonoko which best illustrates the shift in modes of representation.

Oroonoko: Or, The Royal Slave. A True History (1688) sits on an uncomfortable border between the genres of travel writing, history, and the novel. “True Histories” were meant to be both entertaining and informative, assuming implicitly that testimony was the truest way to represent a claim to truth. The position of the narrator is a curious one. The narrator is a character in the story, an eyewitness to truth— but unlike later novelistic approaches, the narrator is neither omniscient nor central to the action. The narrator is a disinterested bystander, an outsider whom we can trust to tell the truth of the situation. Or at least, this is the claim:

I do not pretend, in giving you the History of this Royal Slave, to entertain my Reader with the Adventures of a feign’d Hero, whose Life and Fortunes Fancy may manage at the Poet’s Pleasure; nor in relating the Truth, design to adorn it with any Accidents, but such as arriv’d in earnest to him: And it shall come simply into the World, recommended by its own proper Merits, and natural Intrigues; there being enough of Reality to support it, and to render it diverting, without the Addition of Invention.

I was my self an Eye-Witness to a great part, of what you will find here set down: and what I cou’d not be a Witness of, I receiv’d from the Mouth of the chief Actor in this History, the Hero himself, who gave us the whole Transactions of his Youth; and though I shall omit, for Brevity’s sake, a thousand little Accidents of his Life, which, however pleasant to us, where History was scarce, and Adventures very rare; yet might prove tedious and heavy to my Reader, in a World where he finds diversions for Every Minute, new and strange.

The documentary writer poses as a direct witness to the events, and as an editor of the tedium. In a world filled with the “strange and new” something must always be left out, for the sake of brevity. The fundamental problem is one of trust, of authority. Why should a representation be believed, amid the competition for a reader’s attention? Perhaps the answer rests firmly in the construction of the hero as an object of love. Along with a new print culture came a new moral purposes, new models, and new technologies of image making all competing for attention. The “true history” was only one strategy of proving one’s authority, competing with many others that advance and recede.

New market economies put pressure on the definition of heroic behavior, particularly for authors. To adopt the stance of the documentary observer, as Behn so clearly has, displaces her subjectivity into the shadows of the text. However, the question of motive is never far from the reader’s mind. In the emergent documentary trope, the author’s moral character is removed from direct reference. An author surrenders their personal heroic nature in service of the truth— truth is erected as a new sort of hero. Is this possible? In context, it seems that any such construction must always be paradoxical and imaginary. The author cannot truly be absent from the text. Can a female author of bawdy plays be taken seriously as the presenter of a “true history”? For Hume, the answer would certainly be a resounding no.

Hume’s plea for a return to the patronage system, still healthy in France by his estimation, would not be realized. Behn’s dissatisfaction with the system of writing for the third day was replaced with new worries regarding intellectual property and the sheer survival of art in a capitalist marketplace. Behn’s observation regarding the difficulty of being taken seriously because of her sex anticipates controversy across the eighteenth century, when new techniques of representation confronted new types of authority.

3 thoughts on “Sexing it”

  1. Although Rochester helped Behn with her career and (according to her) with her writing, I haven’t seen any evidence that Behn and Rochester were lovers. In his own circle, he was almost as notorious a buttinski critic as a rake, and it’s quite possible that Behn’s ambition was enough to attract his attention.
    In other words, more Sand-Flaubert than Sand-Chopin.
    Of course, there’s plenty of pressure — during an artist’s lifetime and even more afterwards — to transform any female artist’s professional relationships into sexual relationships.

  2. Thanks, Ray— this is why I write this stuff in public.
    I have removed the offending word “lover” and substituted “hero.” A bit of further research (Loraine Fletcher’s review of The Secret Life of Aphra Behn) turned up this description of the relationship which is perhaps a bit more accurate:
    Behn adored, without ever being quite part of, the “merry gang” of Rochester, Savile, Etherege: the young men who were at home in both worlds. Her elegy for Rochester, who died of syphilis at 33, has a gravity rare in her work. “He ne’er shall rise from Death’s eternal Night,” she claims, refuting Bishop Burnet’s story of a deathbed conversion along with Anglican fictions in general; she made herself heiress of Rochester’s plangent atheism.
    It also turned up this interesting bit (in the same review)
    Though Behn flirted with women (such as the actresses Nell Gwynn and Elizabeth Barry) on paper and probably in person, erotic engagement with male brutality seemed to spark her most powerful writing. Her poem Love Arm’d (“Love in Fantastick triumph sat/Whilst bleeding hearts around him flowed”) is closer to Tyburn than to Petrarch. This may have been written during her first obsession with John Hoyle, a lawyer with a record of casual murder and buggering boys; he had little time for her.
    I suppose her work itself that makes me fantasize a more direct relationship, as evidenced by the reviewer’s reading of The Rover:
    Sadeian lyricism makes Willmore in her 1677 play The Rover a romantic hero, with his amusing attempts to rape every woman he meets while he waits for a good dowry. He is a Royalist in exile, modelled on Rochester or Charles himself, and the whole play a tribute to a sentimentalised Cavalier past. Behn’s private reservations, perhaps even sadness, appear in Angellica Bianca, the prostitute who shares her initials and who must also sell her wares in a competitive market. Angellica falls in love with Willmore, who rejects her. There’s no demand, the play implies, for exceptional women, no place for a juster politics.

  3. It’s been too long since I read “The Rover” — I enjoyed it, but didn’t relate the two A.B.s. But even if a relation seems clear on re-reading, I’ll probably try to remind myself that the Restoration’s characteristically sharp-focus self-awareness was as much an honest acknowledgment of one’s fantasies and possibilities as of one’s biography.
    We all have a writerly urge to replace the unknowable intricacies of friendship by narrative formulae more rounded with handling, such as “love affair” or “discipleship.” This just happened to be a time I remembered to fight the urge! (Partly because Rochester becomes a more complex figure — and one more capable of writing his poetry — when I bear in mind his championing of Behn and his warm nonsexual friendship with Gwynn.)
    And no matter what your reasons are for essaying in public, I’m very grateful for it.

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