Monday, November 26, 2012

The Excellent Absurdity of Legitimate Rape: A Note on Art and History

[By Jerry Ward]

The American mind seems to have a limited capacity for dealing with either the diachronic or synchronic aspects of issues.  That is unfortunate.  However, if we seek to overcome those limits, we discover a profound need to deal with the absurd.  In August 2012, we had occasion to consider the excellent absurdity of legitimate rape.

Representative Todd Akin of Missouri said on public television”

It seems to me, first of all, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare.  If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.

Had Akin momentarily become the anti-hero of Voltaire’s novel Candide and were his unguarded remarks  informed by the twisted beliefs of Dr. Pangloss?  Was he at all aware of what Mark Twain, a famous writer from Missouri, had said about the madness of “rape” in King Leopold’s Soliloquy?  Perhaps not.  Few of our politicians can demonstrate cultural literacy.  But from the angle of literary analysis, it seemed Akin had uttered a proposition about “rape” that was itself “legitimated” by the genocidal “rape” of indigenous peoples to obtain the Lebensraum that is now the United States of America.  From the angles of cultural analysis and biology, it seemed Akin was dead wrong,  because “legitimate rape” of the African female body during the period of slavery so frequently resulted in pregnancy. Akin suffered from the convenient amnesia that for thousands of years has made rape legitimate. Much of the outrage about his statement pertained, I suspect, to his treachery in revealing a secret that was no secret.

When I informed a friend that

I need your opinion on the absurd topic of "legitimate rape." Does it make any sense to use the wording as a category for analysis in history or as what I call an analytic metaphor? I want to write a short essay on the antiquity of the concept (the Romans legitimately raped people and territories to create the Roman Empire) and its contemporary uses (American citizens are legitimately raped by political uses of disinformation or misinformation).

he replied

The definition of rape has evolved over the centuries. As you state the Romans, and earlier civilizations did not consider what they did as "rape" by the traditional definition. It was an act of power, pillage and empire building. Much has to do with the position of women as subservient, "baby makers" and sexual objects historically. Also recall that under Greece and Rome, soldiers had young male escorts that accompanied them for sexual purposes that one could define as having been "raped" regardless of how Akin used this in reference to pregnancy and abortion. The entire concept is much broader and complicated than what the media has superficially attributed to (an ignorant Republican…--you get my drift). I think your inclusion of the political use of the term "rape" is right on and again reinforces the multiple uses and realistic definition outside of a violent sexual act against one’s consent. I recall a picture of a woman protesting the government and taxes. She held a sign that said something to the effect that "I don't have to worry about a sex life, the government fucks (i. e. rapes) me everyday...”

It is obvious, as my friend added in a later email, that “legitimate rape” as an analytic metaphor can indeed reveal much about “an historical continuum” that extends from such literary works as “The Epic of Gilgamesh” and the Homeric epics to aesthetic treatments of rape in the visual arts to  the political histories of the  Japanese rape of Nanjing and the recent and very costly rape of Iraq and to the contemporary  neo-colonial rape of the continent of Africa that must be studied in depth in the realm of the post-colonial.  In her forthcoming book, Policing the Womb: The New Cultural Politics of Reproduction (Cambridge University Press), Michele Goodwin promises to enlighten us, by using empirical evidence, about the “political and regulatory discourse on women’s reproduction.”  Nevertheless, something more is needed.   Akin’s opening of Pandora’s box warrants our giving literary and cultural attention to how the symbolic discourses of female and male bodies describe and indict what is after all these centuries still primitive in world civilizations. Perhaps when I do write “An Absurd Essay on the Absurdity of Legitimate Rape,” I shall be compelled to suggest : human beings still pray to an unknown God as John Donne did in Holy Sonnet 14 (1633)

Take me to You, imprison me, for I,
Except You’enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except You ravish me.

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