Teaching Libertinism Saturday, Apr 14 2007 

This week my honors tutorial students read three poems by John Wilmot, earl of Rochester (“Satire against Reason and Mankind,” “Love and Life,” and “The Imperfect Enjoyment”), William Wycherley’s play The Country Wife, and Aphra Behn’s “The Disappointment,” making libertinism our theme for the week. Rochester

I’ve taught all of these texts fairly frequently in my regular eighteenth-century lit courses. The students in those classes almost always love Rochester’s use of explicit sexual language and frank discussion of sexuality. They are usually able to move beyond the language and sexuality to see something deeper. We can move to Wycherley and Behn to see how Rochester’s contemporaries responded to his poems.

WycherleyI was a little surprised, therefore, by my HTC students’ general responses to his poetry. Few, if any, expressed any real enthusiasm for his work, and the majority seem to want to dismiss him as simply a misogynist or a pervert. They generally had better things to say about Wycherley’s play and Behn’s poem. And I was definitely pleased that some of them were able to see the comedy of China scene and appreciate Wycherley’s genius. They all seemed to enjoy Behn’s poem, with many of them writing their papers on her this week.

BehnWhat struck me about this was the fact that these students generally feel more comfortable talking and writing about aesthetics than they do issues of gender and sexuality, which is the reverse of the students in my regular eighteenth-century classes. As long as we’re talking about Behn’s use of classical mythology or religious imagery, they can participate quite effectively, but as soon as I ask them about her (or, heaven forbid, Rochester’s) construction of the female body, they don’t have the experience to do so effectively.

I understand that this is largely a factor of their inexperience in discussing such frank representations of sexuality in the classroom — most of my students in this class are freshmen and sophomores and have not yet had the literary theory course or courses on gender and/or sexuality in literature, all of which would provide them with a critical vocabulary for approaching such works. So, I’m going to have to adjust a bit. This is my first time teaching in the program, so I’ll have to think about how and whether to continue pushing them to deal with issues of gender and sexuality. Next week we’re reading Oroonoko, Fantomina, and The Female Husband, so we won’t be able to escape these issues. But I will perhaps have to reframe the ways in which I talk about these texts.

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The Libertine: A Review Friday, Mar 2 2007 

The film version of Stephen Jeffreys’s The Libertine was, for me, perhaps the most anticipated movie ever. (The last Star Wars movie might also be in competition for that title.) I saw it as soon as it came to Athens. I watched it again on DVD tonight — I’ve actually been postponing watching it again for as long as I could. My memory of the film wasn’t very good, and I wanted to wait until I could come at it fresh again.

Here’s the trailer:

First let me say that I love Stephen Jeffreys’s original play. It captures a lot of the spirit of the Restoration even if it plays around with the historical facts a bit. Even though Jeffreys adapts his own play for the screen, the script really goes awry in the translation. On the whole, I think the movie’s direction, cinematography, set design, makeup, acting, etc. all work, but the script just simply sucks. It sucks bad. Really, really bad.

Johnny Depp plays John Wilmot, earl of Rochester. In many ways, this is inspired casting. Or at least it would have been a decade ago. By 2004, Depp is a little long in the tooth to play Rochester, who died at the age of 33. But Depp nevertheless does an excellent job in the part.

My main criticism of the movie’s depiction of Rochester is that its Rochester just isn’t sexy. We never get a sense of why people like him. When Sir George Etherege (played by Tom Hollander), who has written a play (The Man of Mode) whose central character is based on Rochester, tells the earl early in the film, “You’re an endearing sort of chap,” we should see that this is true. Unfortunately, we never do.

The movie begins with a monologue spoken by Rochester:

Allow me to be frank at the commencement: you will not like me. No, I say you will not. The gentlemen will be envious and the ladies will be repelled. You will not like me now and you will like me a good deal less as we go on. Oh yes, I shall do things you will like. You will say “That was a noble impulse in him” or “He played a brave part there,” but DO NOT WARM TO ME, it will not serve. When I become a BIT OF A CHARMER that is your danger sign for it prefaces the change into THE FULL REPTILE a few seconds later. What I require is not your affection but your attention. I must not be ignored or you will find me as troublesome a package of humanity as ever pissed into the Thames. Now. Ladies. An announcement. (He looks around.) I am up for it. All the time. That’s not a boast. Or an opinion. It is bone hard medical fact. I put it around, d’y know? And you will watch me putting it around and sigh for it. Don’t. It is a deal of trouble for you and you are better off watching and drawing your own conclusions from a distance than you would be if I got my tarse pointing up your petticoats. Gentlemen. (He looks around.) Do not despair, I am up for that as well. When the mood is on me. And the same warning applies. Now, gents: if there be vizards in the house, jades, harlots (as how could there not be) leave them be for a moment. Still your cheesy erections till I have had my say. But later when you shag–and later you will shag, I shall expect it of you and I will know if you have let me down–I wish you to shag with my homuncular image rattling in your gonads. Feel how it was for me, how it is for me and ponder. “Was that shudder the same shudder he sensed? Did he know something more profound? Or is there some wall of wretchedness that we all batter with our heads at that shining, livelong moment.” That is it. That is my prologue, nothing in rhyme, certainly no protestations of modesty, you were not expecting that I trust. … I am John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester and I do not want you to like me.

The film presents this prologue as a serious speech, which I think is a real mistake. It should be light and fluffy, like the prologues of Restoration comedies. We should be in danger of liking Rochester from this first moment we see him. We should laugh when he tells us about “putting it around.” We shouldn’t be creeped out. There has to be some possibility that we will have his homuncular image rattling in our gonads, but this film never gives us that possibility.

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So Eighteenth Century Friday, Oct 27 2006 

Near the end of the quarter this past winter, the students in my graduate seminar and I were discussing my favorite books. As part of the conversation I expressed by chagrin about the fact that I don’t read much contemporary fiction, a lack that probably distinguishes me from most of my friends and colleagues. My graduate students, however, were not terribly surprised by this revelation. As one of them offered by way of explanation, “You’re so eighteenth century!”

It’s true that I love my period, but as a literature professor it is often awkward to admit how ignorant I am about contemporary literature. It can also lead to some embarrassment, even if only in my own mind. (I should note that I do read contemporary literature from time to time, just not as much as other people I know. I love, for example, Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate and Edwidge Dandicat’s The Dew Breaker. I also read contemporary GLBT lit.)

Case in point: last night my department (or at least the Creative Writing Program in my department) sponsored our annual Writers Harvest, a benefit for hunger relief. The program featured three writers who read from their own work and a short “interlude” of selections to be included in the first issue of the New Ohio Review (at least that’s my understanding of what these latter selections were).

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This Gaudy Gilded Stage Thursday, Oct 26 2006 

I’ve reached a milestone in my blogging: I’ve accidentally deleted a post! Here’s a recreation of that post, as best as I can recall it’s content. I’ve also added a little that clearly wasn’t there before, just because I can.

When I first decided to start a blog, I sought the advice of one of my friends, mistersquid. When we discussed a name for my blog, he suggested I use something from my work that also had some special meaning for me. Shortly after our conversation, I knew that I wanted to use the opening line from my favorite poem by John Wilmot, earl of Rochester (pictured right, placing a laurel on a monkey, a comment on the quality of his rival poets):

Leave this gaudy gilded stage,

From custom more than use frequented,

Where fools of either sex and age

Crowd to see themselves presented.

To love’s theater, the bed,

Youth and beauty fly together,

And act so well it may be said

The laurel there was due to either.

‘Twixt strifes of love and war, the difference lies in this:

When neither overcomes, love’s triumph greater is.

As I write in the introduction to my book, this poem encapsulates a key element of Restoration libertinism: the impulse to retreat from and mistrust the “gaudy gilded stage” of public life expressed in a poem written for some level of public consumption.

This tension between public and private strikes me as particularly apropos to writing a blog. I’m asking what will probably turn out to be a relatively small number of people to retreat into a kind of private space, my blog, while publishing that blog on the internet for all and any to read. Like the libertine performing for his would-be lover and the members of the court who will read this particular performance, I exist in a space between my private thoughts, ideas, and interests and the public, mostly anonymous readers who might stumble across my blog.

Since I’m recreating this entry retrospectively, I can add here that I already feel the tension between creating a public persona for anyone to read and trying to be “myself,” whoever that is. I will be interested to see how this plays out in posts to come.