Friday, November 16, 2012

A Vile Antithesis: Amphibious Things

  Let Sporus tremble — "What? that thing of silk, [305]
, that mere white curd of ass's milk?
Satire or sense, alas! can Sporus feel?
Who breaks a Butterfly upon a Wheel?"
Yet let me flap this Bug with gilded wings,
This painted Child of Dirt that stinks and stings; [310]
Whose Buzz the Witty and the Fair annoys,
Yet Wit ne'er tastes, and Beauty ne'er enjoys,
So well-bred Spaniels civilly delight
In mumbling of the Game they dare not bite.
Eternal Smiles his Emptiness betray, [315]
As shallow streams run dimpling all the way.
Whether in florid Impotence he speaks,
And, as the Prompter breathes, the Puppet squeaks;
Or at the Ear of Eve, familiar Toad,
Half Froth, half Venom, spits himself abroad, [320]
In Puns, or Politicks, or Tales, or Lyes,
Or Spite, or Smut, or Rymes, or Blasphemies.
His Wit all see-saw between that and this,
Now high, now low, now Master up, now Miss,
And he himself one vile Antithesis. [325]
Amphibious Thing! that acting either Part,
The trifling Head, or the corrupted Heart!
Fop at the Toilet, Flatt'rer at the Board,
Now trips a Lady, and now struts a Lord.
's Tempter thus the Rabbins have exprest, [330]
A Cherub's face, a Reptile all the rest;
Beauty that shocks you, Parts that none will trust,
Wit that can creep, and Pride that licks the dust.  --Alexander Pope, Epistle to Arbuthont found best by every-hero-since-the-crack-of-time Jack Lynch here.
You think that's long? It isn't: it's great. Lord Hervey was effeminate, and perhaps more. Pope refers to him as Sporus, who was the pretty boy whom the Emperor Nero had 1) castrated, 2) freed, and then whom he 3) married. It looks at first glance to be the usual attack on homosexuality (assumed), except that it isn't. Pope implied that Hervey is homosexual, but also that he is an impotent homosexual. He never enjoys women nor men. Nor does Pope give Sporus a Nero -- there is no masculine to Hervey's feminine, no 'top' for him to play 'bottom' to. No, what Pope points at with disgust is that Hervey is a mix. He is a discordia discors. 

In the portrait of Sporus, Pope lambasts Hervey's wit as being "between that and this,/ Now high, now low, now Master up, now Miss." By the theory of mind most operative in Pope's day, wit would come from the ability to show unexpected similarities in disparate things and unexpected distinctions in presumed like things. However, each bit of wit, to be true wit, had to be tempered by a knowledge of place (the infamous "decorum") and, most of all, serve a purpose. Pope did not merely believe in Horace's maxim of "utile et dulce," he saw it as a guide star. Hervey's wit had to be in the service of Nature.

When Pope ridiculed Ambrose Phillips, it was along the lines of truth and nature, and when he criticized other moderns, it was because they derived their practice from their rules or observations rather than from nature or what must be true. This Catonian streak can make Pope difficult at times, at least partly because he is not consistent. Three Hours After Marriage is for simple entertainment and a la mode, after all.

Hervey's crime, in Arbuthnot, is being an amphibian -- one who slips from male to female and back again. He is very much like Pope's view of woman when he says that "Most women have no character at all." Women can change their whole selves, and so the Theophrastan idea of character does not fit them. Similarly, a woman's freedom and art with clothing and cosmetics mean that she can blend into any environment she desires. This is the disability of women, in Pope's mind (in Epistle to a Lady):
 Nothing so true as what you once let fall,/ 'Most Women have no Characters at all.'/ Matter too soft a lasting mark to bear,/ And best distinguish'd by black, brown, or fair."
It amazes me that people can think there is misogyny present. The "character" intended is obviously not the sweat-stained inner soul and integrity of the locker room motto. It is the germ within that cannot be crushed and which grow into a predestined form.

The amphiotic, including amphimixis, is disturbing. Medievals, who lived and thought the Great Chain of Being, saw mixed things as blasphemous or miscreant. The best one could hope for, if one looked mixed, is to be ruled a lussus naturae (freak of nature) and thus not personally in league with Satan. The reason for the revulsion is simple enough. If each creature fits into a niche of intellect and soul, and the niches run from God at an infinite height to nothingness at an infinite small, then something that is two places/positions is defying the order God set upon the cosmos. A person who willingly mixes is willingly creating discord.

Once more, though, idiots will be idiots. Folks given a metaphysical concept will almost instantly apply it to the flesh. Their deductive reasoning will run from, "God put each thing in its place, and you seem to be manly and female" and conclude with a beating. It may only take red hair, or a stubby thumb, or a club foot. Pope, you will notice, is not doing this.

Pope studiously avoids physical descriptions. When he provides them (Edmund Curll in Dunciad), it's notable, but his usual tactic is to talk about a person's character through a behavior. Lord Hervey is offering up the continuous wit without a purpose that devalues language, and he is girlish and a man; he is both empty and poisonous.

The disgust with the mixed would continue. Gay men today write about the "straight-acting" code and how gay men who are "straight acting" do not get the ill treatment that presumably gay acting men do. This discussion is at least slightly off the beam, as the vicious and illegal behavior gay men fall victim to is usually men reacting to an effeminate man, and effeminate men are routinely harassed even if heterosexual. (Gender codes are policed by the same sex, and so men force men to be 'manly' as women force women to be 'feminine.') Women who are masculine (as opposed to assertive) also get hostile reactions, whether they are lesbian or not.

You going to eat that pencil?

In the 1890's, Gerard Manley Hopkins addressed the issue of the God of Placements:

"Pied Beauty"
GLORY be to God for dappled things—
  For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
    For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
  Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;        5
    And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
  Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
    With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:        10
                  Praise him.

Be sure, he tells his readers, that God does not need our version of consistency. Further, the very concept that God has to be homogenous is unnecessary. Plato may have needed a god that was internally consistent, like a giant ball of Silly Putty surrounded by an egg of Demiurge, but Plato's god is not alive. The Platonic god is affectless. 

All of the Middle Eastern religions have a God who is involved by emotion or impulse. A living God who loves can create out of love without having any lack. What's more, differences and mixes are all actualities and eventualities confined to time and space; for the eternal, there is only the glory, the exultation, the amazement, and the praise and love.

Lord Hervey was despicable, probably. However, what Pope lashes him for is being an artificial creature -- a man who is self-made without reference to nature (which does not mean hetersexuality, but productivity). Pope could not see that he, too, was amphibious, also antithetical. A man 4' tall who had to wear a corset simply to stand erect is an embodied paradox. A poet with a sensitive mind lived in physical pain for all of his adult life and wrote with placid ease. I wonder what the Confessional poets would have done if they could have claimed a quarter of Mr. Pope's pains. A man who never got consideration from women because of his condition, and yet he wrote lovingly of women. He was a Roman Catholic and despised for his religion, discriminated against, and yet he supported the conservative party.

What's more, and worse, is the amphibian life. Death does not hurt, I assume, but dying does. We spend a good portion of our lives neither born nor adult -- struggling between two characters, fighting between child and self. Even as our beauty forms and fades, we are in the crisis of sloughing off our births. Then we spend more time neither adult nor dead, but merely dying very slowly. We have our powers, and the supports and succors we long for have passed, but we have not death -- just an unresolving blur.

I can feel it these days, the tug of war. The white flag in the middle of the rope may jerk back to my side a foot or two, but more people keep joining the other side, and there was never any doubt about the outcome.

No comments: