Much Too Enlightened Males
Felix V. Leshchinsky
Writer’s comment: I would like to thank Professor Manfred Kusch for his interest in me and my ideas as well as for his constant support and guidance throughout the course. His mischievous smile, even when he sounded serious, gave me the courage and confidence I needed to write for a class paper what I would entrust only to a dairy (if I had had one). I also want to express my gratitude to Professor Marc Blanchard for introducing to me the style of critical writing, and to the Prized Writing editors for the time and effort spent on editing my essay.
—Felix V. Leshchinsky
Instructor’s comment: Felix, a pre-med student with a weakness for literature, could well have lived and thrived during the Enlightenment, circulating in the salons of Paris where he would have exchanged wittily subversive remarks with his fellow philosophes. Of course, it helps to have grown up in Leningrad, now Saint Petersburg, in the Soviet Union, now Russia. There he developed his great ability to discern “the things that were not,” to be attuned to the less glorious (Felix would say: more glorious) world the authorities (and authors) were trying to hide. In class, Felix could thus always be counted on to produce interpretations and opinions that would make the rest of us seem hopelessly naive, trusting, even benighted. “Ah, these Americans!” he would think, but not say, with typical contempt and envy. That after only two years in this country he also wrote English more elegantly and imaginatively than most native students did not reinflate us.
—Manfred Kusch, Comparative Literature
—My brother Toby, quoth she, is going to be married to Mrs. Wadman.”
—Then he will never, quoth my father, be able to lie diagonally in his bed again as long as he lives.”
(Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy)
The eighteenth century, what a magnificent time—a contemporary critic is likely to exclaim, and indeed it was. The century of Diderot, Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Kant, Swift, Sterne, and others, whose names still make pound the sensitive hearts of many students of history, philosophy, and literature. The Age of Enlightenment, when every aspect of man’s life—morals and vices; natural and conventional laws; issues of government and religion, of marriage and child rearing, of politics and economy, of the sciences and the arts—was scrutinized under the critical eye of thinkers and often discarded without pity. A time of blossoming critical and literary thought, a time of great intellectual challenges, trials, and successes—in a word, a splendid, magnificent, glorious time.
And what books were written, what literary marvels were produced! Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, Voltaire’s Candide, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Rousseau’s First and Second Discourses . . . Innovative and daring, they questioned a traditional, God-blessed and Church-sponsored view of man’s life, providing armies of scholars with an enormous literary and philosophical heritage and throwing wide the horizons of the world for their readers.
So they did for me, too. And yet, while enjoying immensely the ironic, sometimes sarcastic, tone of these books, I could not help noticing a quite intriguing detail, which “sparked” my curiosity now and then. To put it in a delicate way, the main male characters in the books either are not capable of dealing with the opposite sex at all (as in the pitiful case of Captain Gulliver) or they have certain difficulties in doing so (and we will see many examples of this kind). The notion of male sexual failure emerges in all these books, suggesting to the attentive reader that probably not all the discoveries of the eighteenth century were that glamorous.1
Let us, however, look into the texts. Uzbek, a Persian traveler in Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, leaves his beautiful wives in the seraglio in Ispahan under the watchful eyes of the eunuchs and heads for Paris (eternal dreams of any married man) “to pursue the laborious search for wisdom” (41). The reader might ponder how “laborious” this “search” could be in Paris, but nothing of that kind ever happens; certainly Uzbek is not having a good time there:
where his wives, lacking Uzbek to “discharge” his conjugal duties for many years, question his authority.
The concerned reader might expect Uzbek to come back; surprisingly, he does not. Although the actual reason for this is to remain obscure, the wise Uzbek understands that his return will make no difference in his family matters:
Jealousy? What can threaten Uzbek’s masculinity in the closed seraglio? The answer is as ironic as it is humiliating, not only for Uzbek but also for the reader, when they both find out that Zephis has found consolation in the “deft hands” of a slave-girl, that Zashi has taken a white eunuch as a lover, and that even Roxana, Uzbek’s youngest and therefore favorite wife, “falls” after twelve years of abstinence. Her more dexterous and “efficient” new lover makes her realize in what a wretched, humiliating, waiting state she has remained all these years. Roxana’s (and the novel’s) last letter is nothing else but an unsatisfied wife’s wrathful and daring rebuke of her impotent husband:
And the intuitive reader recognizes the nature of that amendment.
At approximately the same time, in Redriff, England, another wife has been suffering more than just a prolonged sexual inattention. Her husband of 27 years, the honorable Captain Lemuel Gulliver, upon returning from a particularly long overseas voyage, has behaved rather strangely:
Although Mary Gulliver has not been too spoiled by sexual attention from her husband, this respected woman has managed to beget a child—not once, not twice, but three times, thus taking full advantage of those few nights that the captain did spend under the roof of his own house in between his adventures. This time, however, the reader doubts very much that Mrs. Gulliver will ever enjoy her womanly delights:
I began last Week to permit my Wife to sit at Dinner with me, at the farthest End of a long Table. . . . Yet the Smell . . . continuing very offensive, I always keep my Nose well stopt with Rue, Lavender, or Tobacco-Leaves. (488)
In fact, the honorable captain has always displayed a tendency to avoid his wife. After only two years of marriage, Gulliver decided to go to sea “to make his fortune” and to avoid the sexual challenges of conjugal life.
He has not succeeded in the second part, however. Even many leagues from the matrimonial bed his masculinity has been questioned unmercifully. The nasty rumors about his “violent” affair with a Lilliputian lady of honor, the wife (oh, those wives!) of the Treasurer, make the poor captain defend himself in two-and-a-half pages of his memoirs, giving a thorough account of all occasions when the two saw each other, and providing numerous witnesses to those encounters. The reader can only speculate why Gulliver never refers to the obvious, the twelve-fold difference in their sizes, which alone would clear their names from the terrible accusations. Maybe the captain, a perfect gentleman, does not even dare to doubt the lady’s physical “capacity,” or . . . maybe he has a strong reason to believe that this would not be a winning argument—after all, the whole court has had a chance to see the actual size of his penis. (Poor, poor Mary Gulliver.)
But whatever indeed happened in Lilliput was not as humiliating for the honorable captain as his experience in Brobdingnag. For example, what about those little games he was subjected to by the Maids of Honour, when “they would often strip me [Gulliver] naked from Top to Toe, and lay me at full Length in their Bosoms; wherewith I was much disgusted; because . . . a very offensive Smell came from their Skins” (178)? Or what does the captain mean when he says that
A middle-aged sea-dog, stripped naked by a sixteen-year-old girl who plays with him as with a toy, not to mention the “very offensive smell” that he must suffer—I think that Gulliver has already said too much. Understanding that the captain’s olfactory preoccupation is just a Freudian pretext for avoiding relations with women, the reader might see Gulliver’s eventual retreat into a horse stable in a purely sexual context. After years of sexual abuse, our hero finally has found a place where his masculinity will not be challenged.
But what about Candide—a Westphalian stud who does not seem to mind a sexual challenge?—my reader might ask impatiently.2 Candide travels all over the world, not to escape Lady Cunegonde, but to seek her love. Is he also an example of a sexual failure? But isn’t he? Consider, my gentle reader, the “big, six-foot Bulgar” soldier, the first man in Lady Cunegonde’s life; or the Bulgar captain “with soft white skin”; or Don Issachar, who enjoyed Cunegonde’s beauty on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Sabbath; or the Grand Inquisitor, who did the same on the other days of the week; or, above all, the Spanish governor in South America, the man with a long name, great mustaches, and malevolent smile, who enjoyed the charms of Candide’s beloved longer than anybody else. And of what could our tender lover boast? A kiss in the Baron’s castle, for which Candide pays dearly thereafter; a couple of hours on a “beautiful couch” in Don Issachar’s little house, even interrupted by the irascible Jew; and a sea voyage to Buenos Aires, which could have been more romantic if the fair Cunegonde had not engaged in a competition with other passengers to see who had the most miserable life. A pitiful score, especially when the reader realizes that almost every man who has crossed Cunegonde’s path has enjoyed favors, unbeknownst to the naive Candide.
Obviously, it is a sexual failure, although of a different sort from that of Gulliver, for what threatens Candide’s sexuality are not the odious demands of women but the winning performances of other men. And when at the end of the story he finally receives Cunegonde all to himself, his displeasure matches that of the reader—not quite a victory, since he has Cunegonde only because, as the trustful Cacambo has put it, “she’s lost her beauty and become horribly ugly.”
Let us go back across the channel, to England, where another book is being written, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. This novel deals exclusively with failures—in marital affairs, in religious discourses, in conceiving a child, in reading books, in delivering a child, in telling a story, in christening a child, in the science of fortification, in sexual life, even in writing in a “straight line”—a wonderful succession of sometimes funny, sometimes ironic failures that fill the days of our lives, or at least the days of the Shandy family. All the male Shandys are hilarious and admirable, for they accept their failures with cool British dignity.
Such is Walter Shandy, a home-made philosopher and pedant, who for many years of his life made it a rule, on the first Sunday night of every month, to wind up a large house-clock:
An excellent plan, no doubt, but one that has brought about a great misfortune (and started the domino chain of many, many others)—and, as my reader might have guessed by now, not without a woman’s interference. Walter Shandy’s wife, Tristram’s mother, had the nerve to interrupt whatever she and her husband were doing with a question so untimely that it allows him later to say: “—But alas! My Tristram’s misfortunes began nine months before ever he came into the world” (3).
Such is Uncle Toby, Walter’s brother, a man of “the most extream and unparallel’d modesty of nature” after “a stone, broke off by a ball from the parapet of a horn-work at the siege of Namur, struck full upon [his] groin” (48), rendering him obsessive about the fortifications forever thereafter. This obsession (“Hobby-Horse”) gives the reader not only plenty of enjoyable moments, but also an example of Freudian sublimation, for the sole idea of a fortification is “to plug the hole.” Nor does the reader find it surprising that uncle Toby struggles with his projects no less than his brother Walter.
Such is, finally, Tristram Shandy, the narrator, whose “misfortunes,” according to his father, “began nine months before ever he came into the world” and continued long thereafter, and who quite understandably cannot manage a straight line, in either telling a story or getting an erection. He is destined to fail, first, because he belongs to the Shandy family, and second, because . . .
Walter Shandy is, as always, right: you may as well take off the head, too. For everywhere in the world, from sunny Persia to foggy England, the hardships of matrimony cannot be dealt with by using only one’s head. Uzbek and Gulliver, Candide and Tristram Shandy, Uncle Toby and Walter Shandy himself could live much happier and more tranquil lives if they knew how to balance their intellectual pursuits with more earthly matters. To the modern reader, unfortunately, they may appear too “enlightened.”
1If my reader wonders why I am taking so great an interest in this matter, I would like to point out that his or her (especially her) speculations are totally erroneous and irrelevant to the subject.
2Note that Uzbek is a Persian, and Candide is a German. Apparently when French writers create a hero with “limited” sexual prowess, they don’t assign him a French origin, probably preserving the myth of French sexual vigor. Works Cited
Montesquieu, de [Baron de La Bréde, Charles de Secondat]. Persian Letters. New York: Penguin, 1973.
Sterne, Laurence. Tristram Shandy. New York: Norton, 1980.
Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. New York: Da Capo Press, 1988.
Voltaire [Francois Marie Arouet]. Candide. New York: Bantam, 1959.