Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Sex, Teleology, Cultural Evolution, and the Novel

Note: I revised this on 15 October to add several paragraphs to the final section.
After a couple of posts on music as a force in history it’s time to return to the main line, literature, in this current series on direction in cultural evolution.

For a long time historical direction was attributed to teleology. In the case of the British novel that could be taken to imply that, in Tristram Shandy, Laurence Stern was trying for Pride and Prejudice, but just couldn’t get there. And Jane Austen was trying for Tess of the D’Urbervilles, but didn’t know how to pull it off. Hardy, in turn, was really going for a Lady Chatterly's Lover, but missed by a mile, for some unknown reason.

Put that way, the notion of history as having a direction, of culture as evolving in a specific direction, seems absurd. And so the notion of teleology in history (and certainly in biological evolution) has been abandoned. And rightly so. I have no intention of trying to resurrect it.

And yet, in a long post at 3 Quarks Daily, Macroanalysis and the Directional Evolution of Nineteenth Century English-Language Novels, I argued that Matthew Jocker’s analysis of influence in 19th century novels shows clear sense of directedness. It’s not merely that earlier novelists influenced later ones – how else could influence operate? – but that the overall pattern of influence has the look of direction. Something, some cultural problematic, is being worked on in a coherent way over time. What is it?

Note that I have no intention of answering that question. Rather, I’m attempting to get a better understanding of what the issues are.

Sex in the Novel (?)

I want to look at the treatment of sex as I think that will give us some clues – and, of course, it links to my previous post in this series, Culture as a Force in History: the United States of the Blues, where I examined the force of sexual expressiveness in American popular music. Sexuality figures in all of the following novels in some way:

1759-1777 Tristram Shandy
1813 Pride and Prejudice
1847 Wuthering Heights
1859 Adam Bede
1891 Tess of the D’Urbervilles
1899-1903 Heart of Darkness
1928 Lady Chatterley’s Lover (privately published)

But it is one thing for sexuality to play a role in the plot, as it must, if only by implication, in any plot that ends in marriage. It is something else again for sexual activity to be directly depicted in the novel. That doesn’t happen until the 20th Century, and then it’s accompanied by obscenity trials. The 19th Century was rife with pornography, both in images and writing, but that was separate from polite letters.

Why? What’s going on? That’s certainly more than I can cover in a brief blog post, nor do I think a book or three would be adequate, not to get to the bottom of things. But I can offer some remarks on some of the novels to end this section. Then I’ll take a look at the 20th Century, starting with Heart of Darkness, and close with some more general observations.

* * * * *

Tristram Shandy: Sexual joking is plentiful, much of it around the location of a wound that Uncle Toby received in his groin. The Widow Wadman, for example, is romantically interested in him and so wants to know whether or not he is sexually capable.

Pride and Prejudice: One of the Bennett sisters, Lydia, elopes with Wickham. Darcy persuades them to marry with a cash payment to Wickham. One is left to assume that there is a sexual motive in the elopement.

Wuthering Heights: Mating, pedigree, and biological inheritance are of considerable importance in this novel. These days the passion of Catherine and Heathcliff is too easily read as sexual, but, as Joseph Carroll points out, The Cuckoo’s History: Human Nature in Wuthering Heights, it isn’t. It’s disordered attachment. Teasing the two apart – sexual passion and attachment – has been a major piece of work, both for the novel and for psychology (cf. Romantic Love, Conversation, Biology, and Culture).

Adam Bede: Hetty Sorrel is seduced by a local squire and bears him a child out of wedlock. Desperate, she murders the child. She’s caught, found guilty, and sentenced to hang. The young squire learns of her fate and gets her sentence commuted to transportation to Australia.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles: Tess is raped by the local lordling and then bears a child who dies as an infant. She falls in love with a young parson of advanced views and they wed. Alas, his views are not advanced enough to tolerate her past, which she confesses to him on their wedding night (after he’d confessed to his own past indiscretions). He rejects her; she’s devastated. From there on (we’re only halfway through) it gets complicated. But Tess ends up getting hanged for the murder of that young lordling.

It’s worth noting that in Victorian England getting a divorce required an act of Parliament and prostitution throve.

Heart of Darkness and Sex in the 20th Century

Now let’s look at Heart of Darkness, which was serialized in 1899 and 1900 and published in full in 1903. Ostensibly it has nothing to do with sex and marriage. One protagonist, Marlow the narrator, is a bachelor and not looking to marry, at least not in this story. The other protagonist, the mysterious Mr. Kurtz, is engaged, but the story isn’t about that relationship.

And yet that engagement pervades the story. Kurtz, we learn at the very end, went to Africa to make his fortune so that his Intended’s relatives (she has no name in the story) would approve of him. The final act in the story is a conversation that Marlow has with that Intended to tell her of Kurtz’s fate. She asks what Kurtz’s final words were and Marlow lies, telling her: ‘The last word he pronounced was—your name.' But that is a lie, for his last words were ‘The horror! The horror!’

Why the lie? That question is properly directed, not at Marlow, but at Conrad. Why did Conrad have his narrator lie on that crucial point?

While Kurtz was in the Congo, it would seem, moreover, that he had a native mistress. We’re not told that in so many words, but we’re led to infer that.

When Marlow finally arrives at Kurtz’s compound, he and his crew remain on the boat and Kurtz is brought to them on a stretcher. Shortly after he was placed into a small cabin aboard this ship this woman comes down to the shore and then leaves:
"She walked with measured steps, draped in striped and fringed cloths, treading the earth proudly, with a slight jingle and flash of barbarous ornaments. She carried her head high; her hair was done in the shape of a helmet; she had brass leggings to the knee, brass wire gauntlets to the elbow, a crimson spot on her tawny cheek, innumerable necklaces of glass beads on her neck; bizarre things, charms, gifts of witch-men, that hung about her, glittered and trembled at every step. She must have had the value of several elephant tusks upon her. She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent; there was something ominous and stately in her deliberate progress. And in the hush that had fallen suddenly upon the whole sorrowful land, the immense wilderness, the colossal body of the fecund and mysterious life seemed to look at her, pensive, as though it had been looking at the image of its own tenebrous and passionate soul.

"She came abreast of the steamer, stood still, and faced us. Her long shadow fell to the water's edge. Her face had a tragic and fierce aspect of wild sorrow and of dumb pain mingled with the fear of some struggling, half-shaped resolve. She stood looking at us without a stir and like the wilderness itself, with an air of brooding over an inscrutable purpose. A whole minute passed, and then she made a step forward. There was a low jingle, a glint of yellow metal, a sway of fringed draperies, and she stopped as if her heart had failed her. The young fellow by my side growled. The pilgrims murmured at my back. She looked at us all as if her life had depended upon the unswerving steadiness of her glance. Suddenly she opened her bared arms and threw them up rigid above her head, as though in an uncontrollable desire to touch the sky, and at the same time the swift shadows darted out on the earth, swept around on the river, gathering the steamer into a shadowy embrace. A formidable silence hung over the scene.

"She turned away slowly, walked on, following the bank, and passed into the bushes to the left. Once only her eyes gleamed back at us in the dusk of the thickets before she disappeared.
Note that descriptive phrase in the first paragraph: “…her hair was done in the shape of a helmet…” Notice also the phrase I’ve underlined, about her arms. This scene is repeated the next day:
"We had carried Kurtz into the pilot-house: there was more air there. Lying on the couch, he stared through the open shutter. There was an eddy in the mass of human bodies, and the woman with helmeted head and tawny cheeks rushed out to the very brink of the stream. She put out her hands, shouted something, and all that wild mob took up the shout in a roaring chorus of articulated, rapid, breathless utterance.

"'Do you understand this?' I asked.

"He kept on looking out past me with fiery, longing eyes, with a mingled expression of wistfulness and hate. He made no answer, but I saw a smile, a smile of indefinable meaning, appear on his colorless lips that a moment after twitched convulsively. 'Do I not?' he said slowly, gasping, as if the words had been torn out of him by a supernatural power.
Again, the helmeted head. Now, this paragraph is from Marlow’s conversation with the Intended:
"She put out her arms as if after a retreating figure, stretching them black and with clasped pale hands across the fading and narrow sheen of the window. Never see him! I saw him clearly enough then. I shall see this eloquent phantom as long as I live, and I shall see her too, a tragic and familiar Shade, resembling in this gesture another one, tragic also, and bedecked with powerless charms, stretching bare brown arms over the glitter of the infernal stream, the stream of darkness. She said suddenly very low, 'He died as he lived.'
Again, that gesture, but this time in the body of a different woman.

What do we make of this? I’m not sure, but were I to set out on a full argument I would argue, in the first place, that Heart of Darkness seems to be all but an explicit denial of world of those earlier novels, the ones framed by marriage. This one is NOT framed by marriage, and tells us so.

The world of this story is, in the worlds of James Brown, a man’s world, a world in which women’s concerns for and about marriage are peripheral. It is also a cruel and barbaric world. Yet even if we assume that the helmet-haired woman was Kurtz’s mistress – how else can we explain her behavior toward him, and his toward her? – Conrad does not depict anything of their sexual life, nor does he invite us to imagine much about it. He only invites us to imagine that it was there and that it was powerful.

That woman, of course, was not European, nor even of Kurtz’s race. She was of a different race, on a different continent. A different world.

A quarter of a century later we have Lady Chatterly’s Lover, which managed to depict sexual activity between a man and a woman, that is, between Lady Chatterly and her gamekeeper. The depiction, however, was mild even by the standards of contemporary Harlequin romances, but it was enough to get the book banned for obscenity. The Wikipedia informs us, moreover, that sex isn’t quite the point:
Richard Hoggart argues that the main subject of Lady Chatterley's Lover is not the sexual passages that were the subject of such debate but the search for integrity and wholeness. Key to this integrity is cohesion between the mind and the body for "body without mind is brutish; mind without body... is a running away from our double being."
I’m willing to read that search as a search for unity of being, but why, why does that search have to extend outside marriage when marriage itself is supposed to be about union?

Given that marriage is a legal arrangement, the state is implied as well. The sexuality that is problematic in Pride and Prejudice, Adam Bede, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles is illegal. In Heart of Darkness, of course, legality is beside the point. Kurtz’s narrative is set in a different world. Lady Chatterley’s Lover returns us to Europe, but the sexuality it depicts is illicit and the mode of depiction may the novel itself illicit.

These days, of course, that extra marital sex should be problematic seems a bit quaint. But I’m not posing it as a contemporary question, much less an eternal one. I’m posing it against the history of the British novel over the previous two centuries. And in that context I don’t know what’s going on beyond a reiteration of the obvious conventions and legalities.

It seems to me that marriage, as depicted in these novels, even those that masquerade as realistic or naturalistic, is not simply or merely a representation of marriage as it exists in the real world. It is doing structural work in those novels. But the effort to somehow acknowledge the power of sexual desire throws that structural burden onto the novel form itself so that marriage becomes subordinated to the novel as a form. Once marriage has become subordinated, the novelist is free to give sexuality its due.

[The concerns and achievements of the American novel are, of course, somewhat different.]

Where’s this Inquiry Going?

I don’t know. But I believe that, by the time it gets there, we will have had to ask, and answer, this simple question: What’s sexual shame? Why do humans for the most part insist on privacy for their sexual activity?

I’m asking that question against the background of primate sexuality in general. In my reading of the ethological literature our primate relatives do not have any qualms about copulating in public and thus in full view of others. Our need for sexual privacy is not something we’ve inherited from our animal forbearers.

That is, we place sexual activity in a social space – for even two people constitute a society – that is separated off from the larger social space of the group. What else do we do in this social space, or one very like it? Where did this social space arise, and why? What is the neural basis of this social space? And what does it have to do with story telling?

Story telling – I’m thinking in particular of oral performance in preliterate cultures – is a public activity. THAT it IS public is the point. These stories are to be shared. But the public space of story-telling is different from the public space of ordinary gossip, of foraging or hunter, of basket-weaving and tool construction, and so forth.

So now we’ve got three social spaces: 1) the space of mundane everyday activities, 2) the space of story-telling, and 3) the space of sexual activity. How is it that, in 19th Century Europe, we have a public story-telling space that is centered on marriage and a different story-telling space that is centered on sex (pornography)? Why is it that sexuality appears in the story-telling space of marriage as an illicit activity?

Those are some of the questions we need to investigate if we want to figure out what’s going on in these British novels. The issue is one of imaginative form and involves a group of correlated assumptions and conventions about love, sexuality, marriage, personhood, the mind, the will, language and representation and who knows what else.

A certain range of understandings on these matters was in place during the middle to late 18th Century. Tristram Shandy arose from those understandings. By the time D. H. Lawrence was writing over a century and a half later, those understandings had become revised, but not completely so. The remnants of those old understandings persisted in the class difference between Lady Chatterley and her lover, in the illicit nature of their relationship, and in the problematic the novel presented to the legal system.

The psycho-cultural process that led from that first novel to that last, through all the intervening novels was not a haphazard one. It had a direction. And those novels were not external commentary on that process. On the contrary, they were central to its dynamic. For it is through those novels that the people driving the process could see and make sense of their lives.

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