Saturday, July 08, 2006

I have been reading

an evil genius: it is a ridiculous phrase, I realize, but sometimes it's the only thing that will do.

I always feel very strongly with certain books written hundreds of years ago that I am in the presence of very high-caliber intellectual force: I read widely across a lot of different kinds of eighteenth-century prose, for instance, and you can tell right away how clear and forceful (or not) the particular writer is going to be. Some of this is pretty much what you'd expect--there is something remarkably refreshing about reading Hume or Adam Smith or Godwin, there is such clarity and energy to their thought, and something similar goes for Burke who is always extraordinary. Some of it is disappointing: I recently read the very important and influential book by Hartley on the human mind and associationism and was disappointed to find it lacking that quality of power or freshness, and I was DYING to read a book by one Robert Wallace about population-related matters only it turned out to be not distinguished at all in its thinking, it was a great let-down. Then again there are some minor and little-known books of great force and freshness: some of these writers on agriculture, for instance, will really get to you. It doesn't have to be genius, by the way; it's more a question of voice.

The "evil genius" thing is a bit different. Partly I've been reading around proto-eugenics stuff, and in that sense lots of these eighteenth-century guys could be jokingly described as evil except that before the twentieth century it was often the on-the-whole-good-or-at-least-progressive-and-egalitarian guys (that's the horrible irony, of course) who liked to think about improving the human species in the same way you might improve a breed of cattle or manipulate the coupling of dogs in order to get healthier or more intelligent or more beautiful offspring. I'm not suggesting this is a good idea, not at all, but really, we can't go around holding these guys to account for things hardly within their imagining--or can we? This is some of what I get to write about in my chapter, I think--to what extent is the logic of extermination built into ambivalent-about-reproduction schemes of human perfectibility?

But some of the things you read from this period about racial difference will really turn your stomach. I have been making myself rather sick today, in an interesting way, with William Lawrence, who definitely falls (I don't talk this way when I'm lecturing, just in case you're worrying!) into the evil genius category. Evil, because what he says is so awful; genius, because it isn't dry and minor and irrelevant in the way you might expect of a now little-known early nineteenth-century book on human physiology full of thoroughly discredited and outmoded ideas, but rather lively and active and engaging in a way that makes his racial ideology all the more poisonous.

And yesterday I was reading and sort of half in love with Pierre-Jean-George Cabanis, he's got that same genius quality: in general the French medical-scientific stuff is a lot more flowery and rhetorical than its British counterparts, not always to good effect, but Cabanis manages to be rhetorical and supremely intellectual and engaging at the same time, it's quite excellent. His big book that I've been meaning to read for ages is Rapports du physique et du moral de l'homme but laziness about reading things in French meant I got hold of the really very good translation by Margaret Duggan Saidi, edited by George Mora: On the Relations Between the Physical and Moral Aspects of Man.

I have been working my way through it with equal parts enthrallment and horror. (It's a funny edition, Johns Hopkins UP from 1981 only really it's typed--offset printing, maybe? I'm not good on those technical details, but it's more like a xerox than a book--rather than properly typeset, and it says "Translated under the Special Foreign Currency Program of the National Library of Medicine. . . by the Agence Tunisienne de Public-Relations, Tunis, Tunisia, 1975." There's a story in this somewhere, but not one I can deduce from the available evidence....)

So why evil? Cabanis doesn't have all the racial stuff that you see in Lawrence and some of his contemporaries. But it is the most sickening separate-sphere thing you have ever seen, he has mixed feelings about Rousseau for instance but loves what Rousseau has to say about Sophie's education in Emile. Here are two paragraphs that had me absolutely dying with horror:

If the evil destiny of women, or the baneful admiration of undiscerning friends, pushes them along a contrary path; if, not content with pleasing by the graces of a natural spirit, by pleasant talents, by that art of society they possess to an undoubtedly higher degree than do men, they wish to astound by feats of strength and join the triumph of science to gentler and surer victories, then almost all their charm vanishes. They cease to be what they are in making quite vain efforts to become what they wish to appear. And losing the charms without which the power of beauty itself is quite uncertain or fleeting, they acquire most often only the science of pedantry and ridicule. In general, erudite women know nothing well. They confuse and mingle all objects, all ideas. The moment their lively conception had seized certain parts they imagine that they understand everything. Difficulties rebuff them: their impatience overcomes them. Incapable of fixing their attention long enough on one thing, they cannot feel the lively and profound pleasures of a deep meditation. They are incapable even of this. They go rapidly from one subject to another and retain only partial, incomplete notions that almost always form the strangest combinations in their heads.

For the small number of women who can obtain true successes in these categories that are completely foreign to the faculties of their minds, things are perhaps even worse. In youth, in maturity, in old age, what will be the place of these ambiguous beings who are, properly speaking, of no sex? By what attraction can they engage the young man seeking a companion? What assistance can ill or aged parents await from them? What sweetness will they cast over the life of a husband? Will one see them descend from the heights of their genius to take care of their children, of their homes? All those very delicate relations that constitute the charm and ensure the happiness of the woman no longer exist. In wanting to extend her empire, she destroys it. In a word, the nature of things and experience also prove that if the weakness of the woman's muscles keeps her from descending into the gymnasium and the race-course, the qualities of her mind and the role she must play in life keep her perhaps even more forcefully from making a specatacle of herself in the school or in the Porch.

(What I really felt is that I have to go and get really muscley like a machine, a machine of the masculine type--but isn't it extraordinary that something written over two hundred years ago can stir me up like this? I told you he was an evil genius....)

I've been doing a tiny amount of light reading around the edges, some good stuff. First of all a quite wonderful and rather enigmatic novel by Pamela Dean; I ordered it used from Amazon ages ago and it finally came, Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary. I loved it--there is just something magical about this woman's books--it is funny, they would make absolutely disastrous models for starting-out writers, she does all sorts of things that shouldn't work at all (like have pages and pages of summary of Shakespearean plays, and everyone talking in quotations from Shakespeare) and yet they totally do. My enjoyment of this one was augmented by my realization that the thirteen-year-old main character Gentian is pretty much frighteningly exactly like I was when I was thirteen--only of course in the enchanting world of Dean's novels they always have other friends who are just the same, reading Shakespeare and wanting to be Jane Goodall and all that sort of thing. And I read another battered Marion Zimmer Bradley paperback, two novellas one of which I'd unfortunately read before without remembering the name: The Planet Savers/The Sword of Aldones (it's got an absolutely fascinating author's afterword that provides a sort of mini-writerly-autobiography with truly horrifying insight into gender stuff from the 50s and 60s and the difficulty of making a career as a pulp novelist, really quite mesmerizingly interesting--I do like MZB's books so much, I know people think they're impossibly trashy and yet at her best--admittedly not in these particular novellas--she is quite wonderful!). And I've just finished another very good book I've been wanting to read for a while now, The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl by Tim Pratt. I would have liked a bit more character development for the protagonist, she is appealing but not quite there: there's a tiny bit of backstory that feels underdeveloped and sometimes I felt she was a cipher standing in where you really want someone very warm-blooded and engaging. But it's a great read, and he's a really good story-teller, I felt the sense of pace and plot and stuff were all remarkably accomplished. I will look for his next novel with eagerness, definitely someone to watch out for.


  1. Oh I'm so glad you loved Juniper, G & R! That is one of my all time favorite books even though I always end up thinking that I missed parts of it along the way somewhere - but that's part of Dean's charm I guess. She piles so much on (even the Shakespeare) that you just want to keep going, even though you're not sure just where the hell you are going!

    Anyway - love it, love Tam Lin, Dean is fabulous!

  2. Somewhat tangential, but have you read Olaf Stapledon's pro-eugenics pieces? The man was absurdly, naively idealistic. He later recanted for all the obvious reasons and turned very, very cynical.

    A little joke. My old anthro professor asked a bonus question about William Sumner (big Social Darwinism booster).

    Q: William Sumner's nickname when he was a professor at Yale was:

    (a) Eli
    (b) Bulldog
    (c) Billy
    (d) Old Screw-the-Poor

    ps--We'll be at the Metaxu thing tomorrow as well. Say hi!

  3. In defense of Rousseau (and by extension, Cabanis), I'm not quite sure you get the point. They were not putting down "women" per se as much as trying to explain the important role of "womanly virtues" in their (and any) society... that they were important, and needed be preserved. You'll notice his reference that they "lose their charm"? The "charm" of which he speaks is the same "charm" to which Plato speaks in his dialogue on temperance entitled "Charmides". It is the same charm that holds Plato's "Republic" together (His rulers were wise, his guardians courageous, and his citizens temperate). It is the same "charm" that held the Athenian and American Republics together. It is a virtue and the "opposite" of "another virtue", courage (which is NOT to say that women cannot be courageous, its' just that they are usually less physically strong than men and not as experienced in using physical force to achieve their aims as men are).

    The virtue of temperance enables one to "refrain" from acting, when it is proper to refrain from use of force. The virtue of courage enables one to use force, when it is appropriate to use force in a situation in which no other solution can be arrived at (ie - war/police). They are BOTH virtues, which, taken together, make one wise (Plato, "Laches", on courage).

    In symbolic terms, this could be imagined as Beauty riding a Lion (ie - the Egyptian Qetesh).

    These are the virtues that made society possible, just as their opposite virtues are necessary to defend that society from those who might seek to conquer it.

    Without the presence of women, men tend to "go it alone". Womanly virtues are what attract men and "bind society together". And when women seek to become "more like men" and seek to "imitate men", they do not "attract" men. A man sees a "competitor" and not a "mate".... someone to complement and complete him.

    And so Rousseau educated his "Emile" with books stressing "individual action" apart from society (Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe"), and Sophie was educated in the ways of simple society (Fenlon's "Adventures of Telemachus"). He wished her to be "attracted" to Emile in the same way that Eucharis was attracted to Telemachus.

    ...and "symbolically", Wisdom has always been a woman. Only sometimes, Athena, unlike Aphrodite, had to transform herself into Pallas in order to battle Neptune.