Sunday, March 13, 2011

Treason of the Blood, Part 1

Miscegenation. A fancy latinate word for something that our forebears usually thought about in cruder terms: the sexual and/or conjugal mixing of races. It signified the violation of a taboo, the transgression of boundaries. A sin against nature. Mixed-race liaisons in literature have pretty much always ended badly, with one or both parties paying the ultimate price for their transgression. Often in Othello-ish terms, whereby a white woman is murdered by her black lover. William Faulkner's Light in August and Richard Wright's Native Son are two modern works that owe their moral structure to Othello. In both, a demonized black or "racially impure" man kills a white woman in her bed. Both murdered women are "free-thinkers" who are trying to escape from the strictures of class and gender. Both men are socially marginal, oppressed by history, and burdened with the question of race. That's why they all have to die.

Happily, history seems to have overtaken literature on the subject of race-mixing. There are lots of interracial couples now. I can think of four, just among the parents in my son's fourth-grade class. It's no big deal, at least in my part of the world.

But for much of history, interracial marriage was a very big deal. It could get you killed, or at least exiled from your community. It wasn't just distasteful--it smacked of treason, at least from the dominant white perspective.  While it was considered acceptable for a powerful white man to have a black mistress (think Jefferson), a white woman who consorted with men of other races was worse than a whore. She was a traitor to her own kind. These liaisons were considered monstrous--in the iconography, the man was often portrayed as almost simian. So the mixing of races became, by implication, a mixing of species as well.

The fact that Shakespeare, our most deified and mythologized dramatist/poet, wrote a play about miscegenation has perplexed, disturbed, and intrigued readers for four centuries. People from all walks of life have weighed in on this most famous literary mesalliance.  Check out this quote from well-known Romantic poet and drug addict, Samuel Taylor Coleridge: would be something monstrous to conceive of this beautiful Venetian girl falling in love with a veritable negro. It would argue a disproportionateness, a want of balance, in Desdemona, which Shakespeare does not appear to have in the least contemplated.

Now here's a perfect example of the kind of thing I was talking about in one of my authorship posts. Namely, why I don't want to know anything about the personal lives and political opinions of the authors I admire. I love Coleridge's poems. Love the stately pleasure dome, and the undead romance between Christabel and Geraldine. Love the albatross and the creepy Mariner.  Not so enamored of this racist quote--although it is interesting in other ways. Let's have a look.

First, the phrase "veritable negro."  As opposed to what, a putative negro?  Coleridge implies that Othello's race must be at least ambiguous--otherwise Desdemona is guilty of "disproportionateness."  Now there's a word. A neologism, I suspect--why not simply "disproportion?"  The "ness," of course, works as an intensifier. Having fallen in love with an unambiguously African man, she must be really disproportionate. Exceedingly, excessively out of balance. Nowadays, we understand "unbalanced" in psychological terms. "After the death of his wife (dog, mother, career) Mr. Smith became unbalanced." He started acting crazy. I think Coleridge understands it differently. He's talking about an aesthetic problem here--Desdemona, despite her beauty, doesn't understand symmetry.  Her aesthetic sensibilities are flawed. She doesn't see the balance in nature. She's got a Cubist's perspective on the world.

Coleridge, of course, was a Romantic in the most pathological sense of the term. He liked his women pale and frail, wasting away in some florid Lake Country bower. Not outspoken and rebellious. And definitely not in charge of their own sexual desire. Disproportionateness, indeed. One has to wonder, however, if Coleridge was aware of the irony of his word choice. Because he clearly echoes Iago, who, in Act 3, says similar things about Othello's wife and her odd predilections:

Not to affect many proposed matches 
Of her own clime, complexion, and degree,
Whereto we see in all things nature tends--
Foh, one may smell in a such a will most rank,
Foul disproportions, thoughts unnatural!

Iago here plays on Othello's self-hatred, his bone-deep certainty that a woman like Desdemona couldn't possibly love a man of his color and condition, unless there was something really wrong with her. What's that corny old expression? I wouldn't join a club that would have me as a member?  Othello secretly feels inferior to his wife, and finds it easy to believe that her affection stems from something pathological. Some excessive, extravagant, and corrupt aspect of her own nature. An unnatural, foul disproportionateness. Notice Iago's crude reference to smell--Desdemona's desires are not only perverted, they're malodorous, too. Iago's comment, insulting as it is, doesn't make Othello angry, because it's what he suspects himself. No one of Desdemona's complexion and degree--skin color and rank--could ever love a guy like him. She must be unbalanced.

Bestial Imaginings

In the last Othello post, we left Iago and Roderigo crouching in the bushes in the dead of night, hoping to scare Brabantio into annulling Othello's marriage.  Brabantio, awakened from a sound sleep, comes to the window. "What is the reason of this terrible summons?" he asks. Of course this reminds us of Hamlet--after King Hamlet's ghost does its disappearing act, Horatio remarks that "it started like a guilty thing upon a fearful summons."  The fearful summons being, presumably, marching orders from Hell.  Brabantio responds to his own summons fearfully--he knows that whatever has awakened him, it's likely nothing good. Sure enough, Iago hisses out the hellish news:

Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise!
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell,
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you.
Arise, I say. 

I've always found it jarring that Iago frames this obscene accusation in quasi-biblical language. "Arise, arise!" reminds me of Paul's letter to the Ephesians: "Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light," or this one from Isaiah: "Arise, shine, for your light has come...." And even Deborah's song from Judges: "Awake, awake, Deborah...Arise Barak, and lead away your captives...."

Yep, I've got the whole Bible memorized, cover to cover. 

Just kidding. But this little speech really is a wolf in sheep's clothing, isn't it? We have this sublime biblical echo, with its prophecies, promises, and divine commands, as well as the disturbing picture of copulating sheep and demonic offspring. Dark doings wrapped in the language of light. Iago claims to be "enlightening" Barbantio, but really he's just making the truth--Desdemona and Othello are married--seem darker and dirtier than it is.

To Iago, everyone's a beast, a smelly, fearful creature driven by foul appetites. Although he often speaks in racist terms, I don't think he's a racist himself. He hates everyone, pretty much equally. He uses racist images and language to his advantage, because that's what gets a rise out of people. Really he doesn't care about race--he's a universalizing nihilist, a moral anarchist, a Machiavel. He's Richard III's more nuanced descendant--racism is just one more tool in his box of dirty tricks.

I guess I'll stop here for today--this post is obviously getting too long. More on sheep, horses, and treasonous blood next time...

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