Friday, November 8, 2013

Where this begins: Mapping the erotic terrain of 19th century spec fic

The popular imagination of the last several decades has led to some bizarre mythologies invented about previous centuries.  We all feel we know different eras: Filthy plague and guilt ridden medieval Europe, or the completely rational 18th century with a soundtrack of constant harpischords. Or those Victorians – that was the whole 19th century, wasn’t it?  Sexually repressed and prudish and don’t you know they covered their piano legs because the very mention of a leg of something would set them off.

Well, it was slightly different.

We’ve invented a lot about the past, and it’s the job of the scholar to unpack what it is that we’ve made up in our heads, and square that with whatever was left behind by our predecessors in their mad rush to be dead.  In this case, that was paper.  A lot of paper.  And great deals of that paper had stories written or printed on it.  Of that sum total of literary output, there was a lot of what we could call science fiction, but let’s be devils instead and say “speculative fiction”.

Why, you say.  Why would you want to rename something we know now, a package marked “sci fi” that we surely have a grip on.  Why make things complicated and make me learn new words?  Because I have more time that sense on my hands and I want to educate someone, somewhere, somehow.

“Speculative fiction” is a term that you may find more useful than the more familiar “science fiction”.  “Sci Fi” has that wonderful rhyming that the young people like nowadays, but it doesn’t quite describe every story I’ve picked to examine in this paper.  The speculative aspect is an umbrella term for, yes, science fiction, but also horror, fantasy, and general alternative fiction.  The weird, the compelling, the dreamy, the terrifying – they all have a seat at this table.

The 19th century certainly did have science fiction proper, but it also had a lot of semi-scientific fiction that straddled more boundaries than was good for it.  The first story we’ll be looking at is Poe’s “Ligeia”, which has more in common with spiritualism and erotica than it does scifi, but it does echo important points of the latter genre.  The last story has one of the favorite 19th century horror/science stock images, a blood transfusion and revivification scene – are you going to tell me that does not bridge more than one genre?  No?  Good.  Because even if you did, I couldn’t hear you.  This is a book, not a phone.

“The chemistry of ideas is always catalyzed by the intellectual framework of a given era” (Friedman 68)

In order to understand what is going on in the literature of any given period, you simply must know something of its history.  The romantic image of an isolated, self-contained writer infatuated with his or her own imagination blessedly died with the Romantics, in a fit of narcissistic ague.  Writers, even writers “back then” never worked in a vacuum.  They got up every morning, peed, scratched, read papers or books over breakfast, talked to other people, eavesdropped, and so on.  To varying degrees, all the authors we’ll be looking at here were cognizant of the social, political, and yes, scientific news of their day.  They were also very invested in their careers.  Poe, for instance, was an active (and vicious) literary critic.  All the folks we’re going to meet here knew the trending topics of the day, and they often knew them well.

The scrying mirror of literature: fixations shared by these authors

The literature of the 19th century has had more than its fair share of academic interest, but I’m going to give it a little more here, specifically in terms of its speculative fiction.  I don’t think we’ve learned all we can from what was published in certain times and places.  I don’t think we’ve fully teased out the patterns started in that century that inform our sci-fi, fantasy, and horror today.

The “long 18th century”, that pipsqueak upstart, has threatened to unseat the magisterial 19th in academe’s more happening circles.  But I’ve never been accused of being timely, on the pulse, or otherwise with it, and I never intend to put myself in that position.  So let’s look at some well trodden ground, shall we?

Due to widespread literacy and arenas for publication and dissemination of written work, we in the 21st century have a wealth of information about what made the 19th century literary mind tick.  We know what individual authors were interested in and we also know what actually sold.  So it’s possible to come up with a list of ideas/symbols that were of particular importance to spec fic writers of this time period.  Look for these things to crop up again and again in the close readings we’ll be doing:

Literary obsessions:  Power imbalances
Literary obsessions:  Observation/vouyerism
Literary obsessions:  Physical and moral perfection

Literary obsessions:  Woman as lover and enemy
The misogyny in these stories is striking and disturbing to the modern reader.  In this era, the hard-won advances of feminism were just beginning, and it was taken as a given that women were lesser. Western society at this point was profoundly dependent on the subjugation of an entire gender.  The independent woman, the intelligent woman, the sexual woman – all these qualities threatened to undermine the social order.  So given these fears (and what is feared is often quite enticing) there is no end of powerful, sexual, and even domineering women in these stories.  But powerful does not mean empowered.  

Related at first to religious discourses, and later religiously-informed secular discourses, the denigration of women in the 19th century was obsessively revisited territory.  There was no safe quarter from the “certitude” that women were not only lesser, but evil as well and had to be controlled at all costs, despite being little more than available bodies.  As an example: early scientific writings on sexuality and reproduction relied for millennia on the concept of “preformationism” (Friedman 77).  This hypothesis was really a fervent belief that human reproduction was entirely depending on infinitesimally small fully formed humans contained in sperm.  In this “chemistry of ideas”, the woman’s uterus was an incubator, and a woman was base materials to house the vital male seed.  This belief had remarkable popularity, even in the face of mounting scientific evidence that conception required both parent’s gametes: “this belief that parenthood is really a male function – that man is an artist, the woman mere material – goes back at least as far as Aristotle" (Friedman 79). To complicate matters, women, although in this schema were subhuman, but they were not innocent in the eyes of 19th century culture.  Take for instance the 19th century scientific fixation on semen.  Untold academic emissions flew across the globe as male scientists, informed by male preachers, thinkers, and writers, theorized the meaning of spunk.  Semen was a vital essence, and therefore must be preserved for the man’s safety and health – anything or anyone that aided its loss was therefore trying to kill the man.  In a world that predated the Kinsey reports, the semiotics of semen was a life and death matter, with a clear victim, and a clear villain: “Misogyny permeated this new science. If semen must be preserved, and women entice its ejaculation, women are dangerous.  This warning was written in 1870” (Freidman 95)

Similarly, the high-Victorian “true woman”, stereotyped as a domestically and sexually submissive creature, was still being “built” in western cultures: “Woman,  in  the  cult  of  True  Womanhood'  presented  by  the  women's magazines, gift  annuals and religious  literature of  the nineteenth  century, was  the  hostage  in  the  home.2  In  a  society  where  values  changed  frequently, where  fortunes  rose  and  fell  with  frightening  rapidity,  where social  and  economic  mobility  provided  instability  as well  as hope,  one thing  at  least  remained  the  same-a  true  woman  was  a  true  woman, wherever she was found” (Welter, 151-152).  The metaphorical twin of the “true woman” was the rebellious and sexually voracious woman, immortalized in characters like Bram Stoker’s Lucy, and his succubi.  The erotic potential of both a submissive woman and her aggressive counterpart was not lost on 19th century artists and authors, so we see a literary era populated with sexualized women, often complicit in their objectification, whether they are victim or aggressor.  

Notes: Friedman 68, 77