Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Repressed Never Left, So How Can It Return?

I'm struggling with the Epilogue to my dissertation, which is the last official piece that needs to be written before I begin hasty revisions on the whole thing in advance of a May 16 defense. The Epilogue (or Conclusion or Afterward or what have you; it hardly matters) seems to me a singularly pointless document; it's six pages that mendaciously suggest that this project is finished. I don't know that this project is even at a finishing point, except that I've arbitrarily decided that it's time to let 5 senior scholars get together and tell me what's wrong with it.

I've decided that I'm just going to write about how I got into the project, and how the project relates to similar issues in contemporary life. I don’t know how close this will be to the final product; it’s a pretty sharp left turn from the style of my dissertation itself. And it’s rough. So, so rough. But I thought I would work out the bones of a draft here and let complete strangers on the internet tell me what's wrong with it.[1]


This project was prompted in part by media coverage of the Josef Fritzl incest and imprisonment case. Fritzl was an Austrian pensioner, living in the small village of Amstatten in Niederösterreich in 2008 when it was discovered that he was holding his adult daughter Elisabeth captive in the basement of his house. He imprisoned her there for 24 years, raping her repeatedly and fathering her seven children, one of whom died when Fritzl refused to allow necessary medical treatment. Fritzl's wife and neighbors all pleaded ignorance and shock when his crimes were uncovered. The case received international media attention, and Fritzl continues to be a reference point for subsequent incest cases—perpetrators in Colombia and Italy were compared to Fritzl. In March 2011, a German man convicted of 162 counts of sexual crimes and sentenced to 15 years in prison became known as “the German Josef Fritzl” by multiple news outlets.

Unfortunately, incest cases seem to pop up in the news with some regularity, and coverage often reveals that incest poses questions we are ill-equipped to answer, among them, shockingly, “what’s the harm?” In December 2010, a Columbia University professor, David Epstein, was arrested and charged with third-degree incest for having a consensual affair with his 24-year-old daughter. Like Josef Fritzl’s, the case made national headlines, but unlike the Fritzl case, the collective reaction was somewhat more difficult to parse. Although the usual instinctive revulsion attached to this case, there was no clear-cut way to condemn it as abuse: the affair began after Epstein's daughter had reached the age of majority and was, by all reports, completely consensual.

In the wake of David Epstein’s arrest, I was sent by several colleagues aware of my project the link to an article in Slate by William Saletan called “Incest Is Cancer.”[2] The article is subtitled “The David Epstein Case: If Homosexuality Is Okay, Why Is Incest Wrong?” and this is the question with which Saletan grapples throughout, ultimately offering a clear distinction between the effects of gay marriage and the effects of incest on society. As I read, I was pleased to find his argument adroit and convincing—and shockingly medieval. Though Saletan contextualizes the problem of incest in the liberal/conservative divide over gay marriage:

At this point, liberals tend to throw up their hands. If both parties are consenting adults and the genetic rationale is bogus, why should the law get involved? Incest may seem icky, but that's what people said about homosexuality, too. It's all private conduct. To which conservatives reply: We told you so. We warned you that if laws against homosexuality were struck down, laws against polygamy and incest would follow. And now you're proving us right.[3]

The genetic rationale for rejecting incest is bogus because, of course, effective birth control makes it moot. In the Middle Ages, genetic problems were only vaguely on the radar—think Laban’s sheep in Genesis[4]—and never connected to incest. So in fact, this is rather how medieval people might have viewed sexual transgression: allow one, and pretty soon they’re all allowed. The temptation of a look turns into the pleasure of a caress turns into the fulfillment of more dangerous desires, and soon enough both souls are lost.[5] The “slippery slope” objection was common and fervent in the Middle Ages.

But in refuting this medieval objection, Saletan appeals to medieval logic, arguing that incest erodes the family from within, and not only that, but it prevents family members from creating the new families—the new community connections—that shore up a society.

When a young man falls in love with another man, no family is destroyed. Homosexuality is largely immutable, as the chronic failure of "ex-gay" ministries attests. So if you forbid sex between these two men, neither of them is likely to form a happy, faithful heterosexual family. The best way to help them form a stable family is to encourage them to marry each other. Incest spectacularly flunks this test. By definition, it occurs within an already existing family. So it offers no benefit in terms of family formation. On the contrary, it injects a notoriously incendiary dynamic—sexual tension—into the mix.

The argument here is purely Augustinian. Of course, Augustine would never have been an advocate for gay marriage. But the argument against incest rings true: “The supreme human law is love and this law is best respected when men, who both desire and outght to live in harmony, so bind themselves by the bonds of social relationships that no one man monopoloizes more than one relationship, and many different relationships are distributed as widely as possible, so that a common social life of the greatest number may best be fostered.”[6] Augustine (or his translator) offers a surprisingly lovely justification for exogamous marriage: the Christian duty to spread the love beyond the nuclear family.

This argument was adopted and reiterated in various ways throughout the Middle Ages. Exogamous marriage was the foremost means of building connections in society. Gayle Rubin, of course, has demonstrated that these connections were forged on the bodies of women who were exchanged to create them,[7] but there is nevertheless a strong communal impulse away from incest. However, it is apparently an impulse that must be continually rearticulated, as Walter demonstrates in The Clerk’s Tale. The uncertainty of his excessively exogamous marriage to Griselda drives Walter to contract a second marriage to his nameless and disguised daughter. The marriage is presented as practically perfect in every respect, if its incestuous nature can be ignored—which, of course, it can, as Walter’s people prove. Chaucer emphasizes throughout The Clerk’s Tale how incest obscures terrible abuses of authority, for which the abuse of Walter’s perpetually silenced daughter becomes an important cipher.

What we learn every time we encounter incest, whether in an obscure medieval poem or a contemporary news article, is that it is never solely a problem of the family alone. Incest is always, always a social problem that captures the attention of the community and that requires a communal solution. The social nature of incest becomes particularly apparent in the ways that medieval people talked about marriage, as in the mid-fourteenth-century instructive work Jacob’s Well:

We schewyn acursyd alle þo þat makyn ony contract of matrimonye, or are weddyd to-gydere in ony degre of kynrede, or of affinyte, or of ony gossyb-rede forfendyd be lawe, or in ony degre þat hath a lawfull lettyng, ȝif þei þise degrees knowyn; And alle þat helpin or procuryn þer-to wyttyngly. And alle preestys þat wyttyngly & wylfully solemnyzen swych unleeful matrimonye, or weddyn ony oþere but here own parysschenys wyth-oute leve, or weddyn wyth-oute þe banys askyd; And all þat, be strengthe, manace, or dreed, don swych weddynges be solemnysed, & wyth-oute syb-redes, in cherchys, in chapellys, or in oratoriis; & alle þat ben þere present at swyche weddynges, gylty þer-of, & wyttynge, & wel payed þer-wyth.[8]

Not only are those who contract unlawfully incestuous marriages shewyn acursyd, but so too are all those who knowingly help them do so, and any priests that solemnize incestuous marriages, and, most tellingly, anybody who is even present at such a wedding. All that are present and aware of the incestuous relationship are gylty þer-of. Knowing the sin and keeping silent is the same as committing it. The language of this imprecation is unequivocal and seems to account for every possible circumstance that might be offered to mitigate the severity of participating in an incestuous marriage. The regulation of incest is a responsibility for the entire community. Yet the perpetration of incest is repeatedly depicted in literature as a secret carefully kept—Lot and his daughters are sheltered alone within a cave high on a mountain; Euphrosyne and her father share a cell and then a grave that both isolates and binds them. But even though incest is intended to be kept silent—even though, as numerous feminist critics have demonstrated, the incest taboo is not in the deed but in the speaking of it[9]—incest outs. The sheer frequency of incest as a plot device in literature, regardless of the era, demonstrates our enduring fascination with it as an unsolved problem that touches and violates values we hold fundamental to the definition of society. While this fascination is disturbing in its voyeuristic aspects, which become apparent in my examination of incest images such as those in the Illustrated Old English Hexateuch, it is also necessary for reclaiming the speech that the incest taboo seeks to preclude. That speech is vital not only for telling the story of the victimized daughter—although that alone is more than sufficient for its recovery—but also for recognizing the continuity of thought about incest over the course of more than a millenium of English literary history. Knowing of the crime and keeping silent is the same as committing it.

That continuity became apparent when Josef Fritzl was sentenced to life in prison for his crimes in March of 2009. The Austrian daily newspaper Heute ran the news of the sentence alongside an image of the central panel of Hieronymous Bosch’s 1504 triptych The Last Judgement.[10] In it, Christ, radiant and enthroned, sends sinners left and right, while in the foreground monstrous creatures—dragon, demon, and human alike—torment sinners and each other as the world falls to pieces. It is an unabashedly religious image, yet it was juxtaposed with the unquestionably secular legal proceedings. The image suggested both the fundamental immorality of Fritzl’s crimes as well as a looming cosmic judgment that exceeded his earthly sentence. Perhaps it also hinted at our longing for an explanation, for repentence, from Fritzl on behalf of Elisabeth and her six surviving children, all of whom were forced to adopt new names and new identities in a new location—or perhaps, to forge identities for the first time in their lives, freed from the basement in Amstatten but never entirely free of the effects of their father-jailor-abuser’s deeds. It’s likely that that repentance will never come, as Antiochus never repents for his abuse in Apollonius of Tyre. Nevertheless, willingness to face narratives of incest from the Middle Ages, and to take them seriously despite the sheltering distance of their bygone origins, offers us a means of facing our own narratives—and understanding our own unwillingness to do so.

[1] P.S. Enjoy my unfinished footnotes—this is how I always write. In the next three weeks I have to fix something like 150 unfinished (or unstarted, in some cases) footnotes.

[2] William Saletan, “Incest Is Cancer,” The Slate,, accessed April 1, 2011.

[3] Saletan is here referring to remarks made by Senator Rick Santorum....

[4] Genesis 30.

[5]See, e.g., Ancrene Wisse Book IV, ll. 327ff.

[6] Augustine also notes the instinctive revulsion incest generates: “There is also the argument from that indefinably precious modesty of our human nature which makes even the purest of parents to blush over the element of lust in the generative act and which bridles this desire when a double respect is due to a partner by reason of close consanguinity.” Augustine, City of God, trans. Gerald G. Walsh and Grace Monahan (New York: Fathers of the Church, 1952). FIND OTHER TRANSLATION

[7]“The Traffic in Women,” XX

[8] Arthur Brandeis, ed., Jacob’s Well EETS os 115 (London: EETS, 1900), 21.

[9] See, e.g., Judith Butler, Antigone’s Claim; Rosemary Champagne, The Politics of Survivorship; Jen Shelton, “Speaking Incest in the Voyage Out”; Josephine Rijnaarts, Lots Töchter, and many others.

[10] Annoyingly, though I know this to be true because I saw it with my own eyeballs, I cannot find a trace of this article online. I have asked my library to get it for me—they refused, and my e-mail to the newspaper itself garnered no response, perhaps because my German’s getting pretty rusty. If I never get my hands on the article or its citation, I may have to scrap this paragraph.