«AMATORY CONVENTIONS, LUXURY TRADE, AND THE CULTURE OF EXCESS IN THE RAPE OF THE LOCK, ROXANA, AND GULLIVER’S TRAVELS by DAVID VINSON LILA GRAVES, ...»
The Yahoos are materialism incarnate because they care only about satisfying their most base desires. For Swift, the nakedness of the Yahoos serves not only to stress their lack of modesty or self-awareness; rather, their physical state also enables Swift to unmask and amplify the material façade of a modern civilization that uses clothing, jewelry, and other luxury items to disguise its most base self. As an ancient, Swift would no doubt assert that the very notion of assigning material objects the power to define or rebrand one’s identity is absurd and self-destructive; humanity is defined not by what it owns but by its values and actions. The Yahoos may not possess material goods in the modern sense, but that is not to say they do not crave materiality in other forms; they exist to satisfy their insatiable appetites, what Swift calls “their Wants and Passions” (194). They will stop at nothing to “greedily [devour]” the most offensive and foul food (195), and their sexual appetites, in particular, are ravenous and frequently unmanageable. The mating rituals of the Yahoos are a culmination of Swift’s brilliant and
prolific parodying of amatory tropes:
A Female-Yahoo would often stand behind a Bank or a Bush, to gaze on the young Males passing by, and then appear, and hide, using many antick Gestures and Grimaces, at which time it was observed, that she had a most offensive Smell; and when any of the Males advanced, would slowly retire, looking often back, and with a counterfeit shew of Fear, run off into some convenient Place where she knew the Male would follow her.
(222-3) In a single scene, Swift simultaneously subverts multiple amatory tropes to demonstrate the ways in which the Yahoos, however crudely, cultivate a ritual of sexual commodification and consumption. Foremost, the female (rather than the male) adopts the performative role of sexual prey even though it is she who prompts the seduction rite;
she thus appropriates sexual power and casts herself as sexual bait—and of course the male is eager to play along. Laura Mulvey’s concept of the “male gaze” in film is especially useful in evaluating the Yahoo mating ritual; her argument is that the camera itself fetishizes the female as an object48. Indeed, there is a cinematic element to much of Gulliver’s Travels, one which vividly stages performative displays and acts of voyeurism.
Swift satirizes courtship rituals as disingenuous codes of behavior; more to the point, it is the female who projects her gaze upon the male. In a brilliant inversion of the amatory template, the female Yahoo possesses the power to both commodify the male and to brand herself as a desirable commodity.
Swift also subverts the amatory seduction scene to further demonstrate the ways in which the desire for materiality (in this case, it is Gulliver’s flesh that is commodified) trumps the most fundamental of moral codes. The scene itself is furnished with multiple allusions to amatory seduction scenes: the weather is “exceeding hot” (225); it takes place outside in a fertile setting; and the vulnerable object of sexual desire (a naked Gulliver) is voyeuristically pursued by a sexual predator. The behavior of the young female Yahoo is especially unnerving: “Standing behind a Bank, [she] saw the whole proceeding, and enflamed by Desire... came running with all speed, and leaped into the Water... She embraced [Gulliver] after a most fulsome manner” (225). Not only is See: Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3 October (1975): 6-18.
Gulliver nearly raped, the girl’s youth points to an unfathomable sexual taboo in which a child, whose innocence is assumed, is attempting to molest an adult. The Yahoos possess no moral ethos; they are driven solely by the desire to satisfy their material appetites.
With respect to Gulliver’s psychological trauma, Rawson notes of Gulliver a “pattern of a reluctant male [who] parries the advances of a lustful female” (93). The pattern begins with the Maids of Honor at Brobdingnag, but it becomes darker, more disturbing, as Gulliver is undressed by the farmer’s daughter in Part II and is now attacked by a young Yahoo—such examples reiterate the dismantlement of old-world values and the emergence of unstable, dangerous new identities.
The psychological ramifications of this near-rape profoundly affect Gulliver. The brutish lust of the young Yahoo is to mate with a human in what Rawson describes as a “traditional litmus test of biological kinship” (95). The realization of his genetic compatibility with the very creature he most abhors unhinges Gulliver: “For now I could no longer deny, that I was a real Yahoo, in every Limb and Feature” (225). To once again reference Locke’s concept of “real essences,” both shape and rationality are signs of the human. Swift reverses this idea through his irrational Yahoos and rational horses. Upon realizing his kinship to the Yahoos, Gulliver’s concept of the “real” is entirely upended;
he now understands that the self-pride he once exhibited was a farcical set of self-told lies.
Gulliver now sees himself as more wretched than even the Yahoos because they at least do not pretend to possess a moral code. In a scene that echoes Gulliver’s previous philosophical discourses at Lilliput and Brobdingnag, his discussion with the Houyhnhnm he know calls “Master” covers Yahoo (or human) brutishness in all its forms: genocide, theft, sexual violence, exorbitant material greed, gluttony, sloth, deception, religious corruption, and especially ideological hypocrisy. Of course, the difference between this conversation and previous ones is that Gulliver has no rebuttal;
he is thoroughly convinced of his own innate inferiority. His only method of response is to assimilate by mimicking the superior race of the hyper-rational Houyhnhnms: “I trot like a horse [and] in speaking I am apt to fall in the voice of the Houyhnhnms” (235).
This admission, which is preceded by a scene in which Gulliver is horrified upon seeing his reflection in water, aligns with the notion that the subaltern transfers self-loathing into imitation and desire for assimilation: “The question of identification is always the production of an ‘image’ of identity and the transformation of the subject in assuming that image” (Bhaba 117). Gulliver later swoons when he learns he must return to England, a culture whose modern values of commodification and consumption disgust him. When kissed by an “odious animal” (244)—his wife—he also swoons. In what is perhaps the ultimate irony in a narrative which features the physical and psychological dangers of travel, Swift concludes with further descriptions of Gulliver’s pained reassimilation as a permanently displaced outsider inside his native country.
Swift deploys amatory tropes throughout Gulliver’s Travels to express the ways in which human beings are commodified as goods to be valued, used, abused, hoarded, or even traded—all veiled allusions to his indictment of the culture of consumption and commodification brought on by finance capitalism and global luxury trade. On many occasions Gulliver is cast as a traded commodity. Swift reverses the amatory trope of the male schemer at Brobdingnag when Gulliver is enslaved by the greedy farmer and sold to Queen for her amusement. In Part III, he is rendered powerless and taken captive by a Dutch pirate. Of course, the text is also abundant with references to other examples of enslavement—Gulliver’s initial shackling by the Lilliputians; the Lilliputians’ desire to enslave the Blefuscus; the binding of the Yahoos by the Houyhnhnms. In Gulliver as a Slave Trader (2006), Eleanor L. Robinson posits that Gulliver himself may have been a participant in mercantile slave trade—the very worst form of trans-global commerce and commodification. Robinson’s evidence is conjectured at best. Her argument is not that such references to Gulliver’s role in slave trade are explicit, but rather that they are silently encoded in the text due to their lack of palatability for Swift’s contemporary audience. In consideration of Swift’s rhetorical goals, the slave trade theory is at least supported by the narrative’s loaded references to racial guilt. Consider, for instance, a pivotal moment which occurs after Gulliver has returned from his last voyage. He declares that he will break from his sovereign duty and not reveal the location of any of his discovered territories; his desire is to thwart a certain expedition of an “execrable Crew of Butchers” who would dispossess the natives of their land with “Acts of Inhumanity and Lust” (249). Naturally, there exists a lingering ambivalence regarding
Gulliver’s transformation from a representative of hegemony to a self-loathing subaltern:
in one respect, his devolution is tragic, particularly in light of his repulsion towards his family; then again, Gulliver sees clearly—and for the first time—the corruption of values in modern British society. With the façade of modern values stripped away, Gulliver now perceives the absurdity and self-destructive nature of a society which defines itself not by its values and actions but by the materiality it desires and consumes. Such a truth devastates Gulliver’s psyche, but at least he finally sees it.
In Chapter Three, I have argued that the activity of travel greatly informs Swift’s satirical objectives and his engagement of the amatory template in Gulliver’s Travels.
Travel, of course, was closely linked during Swift’s lifetime to imperial conquest, transnational trade, and the continuous rise of capitalism. For Swift, the activity itself facilitated multiple modes of corruption, commodification, and consumption. In an effort to provide a framework for Swift’s indignation towards the new ideological and institutional shifts in Britain, I have positioned Swift as a Christian Humanist whose belief in old-world values were in direct discordance with modern sensibilities that supported finance capitalism and global luxury trade. Similarly, I have argued that Swift sensed and served witness to a collapse of classical notions of selfhood, to the emergence of new identities in possession of dangerous moral codes.
I have also explored how Swift’s prolific parodying of the amatory template facilitates the author’s anxieties about modern Britain’s culture of commodification and consumption, one brought on by finance capitalism and global luxury trade. Swift deploys amatory tropes to demonstrate the ways in which human beings are commodified as goods to be valued, used, abused, hoarded, or even traded—and Gulliver, over the course of his many journeys, is displaced and commodified as the permanent outsider.
The psychological impact upon Gulliver is considerable. His exposure to vast cultural ideologies initially confirms his self-constructed identity and his personal moral code (at Lilliput, for example), but he soon becomes overwhelmed with alternate perspectives that clash with his modern British sensibility. Part II of Gulliver’s Travels features an ancient’s perspective—one closely aligned to Swift’s own beliefs—and one that condemns modern customs of British law, politics, economics, and Britain’s history of imperialism and warfare. Part III is a romp of Menippean satire in which Swift attacks the “bad thinking” associated with European triumphalism and modern vices (luxury, political corruption, and philosophy). Of course, it is Gulliver’s encounters with the hyper-rational Houyhnhnms that finally shatter his previous understandings of the “real essences” of human identity. In this respect, his newfound existence as a self-hating subaltern seems like an inevitability. The amatory trope of inquiry, in particular, pervades Swift’s rhetoric and serves to dramatize the dangers of travel (both for the traveler and the native); moreover, the trope of inquiry shows how curiosity can lead to violations of not only geographical but also moral boundaries.
Swift subverts the tropes of the amatory male schemer and the female as sexual bait to emphasize Gulliver’s emasculation and commodification. The parody of amatory seduction scenes, which posit Gulliver as a victim of multiple near-rapes, helps to explain his psychic breakdown and his self-branding as a subhuman brute on comparable ground with the vile Yahoos. The Yahoos are especially useful in terms of deciphering Swift’s contextual satire of modernity and the culture of commodification and consumption fostered by finance capitalism and global luxury trade. The nakedness of the Yahoos and their voracious appetite for consumptive materiality affirms their symbolic status as materialism incarnate. In the process of depicting the ignorant vulgarity of the Yahoos, Swift exposes the material façade of a modern civilization which perceives luxury items as reasonable markers for self-definition—markers likewise used in the cultural practice of evaluating individuals not on the basis of how they act but by what they own. Swift’s parodic deployment of amatory tropes cumulatively expresses the dismantlement of oldworld values and the emergence of unstable, dangerous new identities.
In their introduction to Popular Fiction by Women: 1660-1730, Paula R.
Backscheider and John Richetti provide a wonderful summary of the collective critical efforts aimed to dismantle masculinist views regarding the novel tradition. At the heart of such masculinist views is the narrative that canonical male masters constructed a “culturally superior form of a certain kind of fiction” (Backscheider and Richetti x).
Female authors—namely Aphra Behn, Eliza Haywood, and Delarivier Manley—achieved exceptional success in the bourgeoning literary marketplace, but they were excluded from serious critical attention on the basis that their products were formulaic recipes designed solely for the entertainment of mostly middle-class female readers. Scholars have since convincingly uncovered how the formulaic aspects of amatory fiction disguise sophisticated critiques of contemporary society, male-female sexual politics, class politics, sexual identity, and certainly a wide number of other topics central to the eighteenth century British experience.
Over the course of three chapters, I have examined the role of amatory conventions in Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock (1717), Daniel Defoe’s Roxana (1724), and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1735). My primary purpose in doing so has been to expand amatory studies by introducing three canonical male authors into a body of criticism that has primarily focused on non-canonical female authors. Over the course of my thesis, I have demonstrated the considerable influence of the amatory genre on Pope, Defoe, and Swift, each of whom is commonly referenced as a canonical author.
The authors’ awareness and subsequent engagement of the amatory template calls for a reconsideration of the profound role in which the amatory genre plays in the novel tradition. Not only did the amatory genre facilitate the emergence of important female voices; it also influenced the ways in which canonical authors such as Pope, Defoe, and Swift presented their satirical and rhetorical objectives—this alone is enormously valuable evidence which supports not merely the cultural but also the literary merit of the genre itself.
Like female amatory authors, Pope, Defoe, and Swift were keenly interested in sexual politics—a phrase which points to the methods of role-playing and bullying enacted by both genders in the pursuit of dominance over one another, whether material, intellectual, psychological, or sexual. The amatory template is an ideal means to dramatize sexual politics, and all three authors display a mastery of parodying amatory tropes for this purpose. Moreover, they use amatory tropes in the process of treating sexual politics as symbols of currency, commodification, and exchange. The dramatization of sexual politics is indicative of a larger, shared concern regarding changes already underway during their lifetime. Pope, Defoe, and Swift used amatory tropes to express their anxieties about the growth of commodification and consumption in Britain, a cultural shift enabled by finance capitalism and global luxury trade. They were each reacting to the increased pervasiveness of a modern world capable of producing dangerous, new personalities and corrupt moral codes.