Friday, October 22, 2010

The Rape of Lucrece

It seemed to me when I read the long poem “The Rape of Lucrece,” that something completely different was happening than what had happened in Shakespeare’s works so far (assuming the chronology of his works is right).

Lucrece is about a mythical/historical event from pre-Republic Rome in which the beautiful Lucrece ist raped by the ruler of Rome, Tarquin, then she kills herself and after her body is paraded through the streets the people rise up, kill Tarquin and establish the republic.

It sounds really boring. I have a hard time imagining an interesting rape, except maybe as porn. I mean, you know what’s going to happen. The only way to make it interesting is if suddenly the rapist and victim turn out to be someone they didn’t think they were – the victim turns out to be the president’s wife who’s snuck out of the White House to meet a love, and now the Rapist is in big trouble. Or as a comedy: the rape takes place in some kind of funny place where the rapist is continually struggling to open a lawn chair or tripping over toys left lying around by children or something like that.

Shakespeare does the same thing – the post-modernist thing – he did in “Venus and Adonis”, which was to slow time and go off on every possible digression he can find. Between the time that Tarquin, who is a guest in Lecrece’s house, gets out of bed and goes to her room and rapes her, the narration goes all over the place and it becomes a rumination on motivation, rationality and animal desire:

Tarquin wonders how he can do this, knowing he’s taking a huge political and personal risk, knowing he’s not going to think it was worth it in the morning, but still this animal desire, so overpowering in the night, cannot be denied.

Good line:

The sweets we wish for turn to loathed sours
Even in the moment that we call them ours

He’s not a psychopath, he’s everyman, who, late at night returning home alone and lonely, passes a whorehouse and tells himself: Don’t go in there, it’s a waste of money, it’s a waste of time, you don’t need this, in the morning you will regret it, but he keeps circling the block until finally he gives up and goes in.

The discussion during the rape and Lucrece’s actions and ruminations afterward are similar – self-aware and self-reflective, but not in a psychological way, more in a universal way. Shakespeare grasps at these big, abstract ideas: What is time? He even puts in a detailed art-historical description and critique of a painting, and Lucrece wonders how outward appearances can so well disguise inward character.

The amazing thing is: This isn’t just a pot-boiler, like “Venus and Adonis” is an erotic pot-boiler, it’s intellectually satisfying, it makes you think about a series of abstract ideas that nonetheless are applicable to you.

No one screams and goes nuts. Lucrece doesn’t do what rape victims in TV shows do today, “I just closed my eyes and went to a better place”. That’s one the great advantages to pre-Freudian writing: You can use action as a platform for ideas or whatever you want. Nowadays the only use of rape in literature is to create shock and pity, and I’m so tired of that. Victims always have to be victims, evil deed-doers always have to by sick psychopaths. Everyone needs therapy, everyone’s a victim, everyone’s always suffering.

You could argue that Shakespeare is not treating rape as the horrible thing it really is, the need for control, the breaking of a human soul, etc., and I would say: fine with me. I’m tired of that. I get the point already that rape is bad and hurts. Frankly, I can figure out that rape is horrible just by imagining it, I don’t need a psychologist to pop up and explain: “It’s not about sex, it’s about control.”

I want to hear something new, I want to hear what the writer has to say, about anything, really. As long as it’s intelligent and engaging. I really like the feeling that there is a restless, coherent brain behind the prose I am reading, and that he’s talking to me and not just parading schoolbook emotions past my eyes.

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