Manipulation in film, not only of the objects within the frame but of the audience as well, has been the practice of film makers for decades. In Philip Kaufman’s Quills (2000), a biopic loosely based on the last years of life for the18th century author, the Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush), the audience becomes not just an observer but an active participant in particular sexual acts through overtly suggested voyeurism. For what purpose does Kaufman so conspicuously manipulate the audience into committing these acts? In an ambitious argument for uncensored art, even when pitted against the utmost controversial fiction of the Marquis de Sade (a man who RollingStone.com calls “one sick twist” (Travers)) Kaufman wants his audience to actively lust for things they cannot have. For this reason, I examine the transition from the experience of fictional freedom in the first scene involving Mademoiselle Renard (Diana Morrison) with the oppression of that freedom within the rest of the film. By beginning the story here, Kaufman demonstrates that in order to understand what can be lost through censorship, one must understand, first hand, what exists prior to that loss.
Before the censorship debate plays out, there are subtle signs that reveal the director’s bias toward a lack of censorship intended to influence our opinion from the start. Within the first ten seconds, we are presented with the idea that fiction is the protagonist through white, beautifully calligraphic title credits which glow in stark contrast to a jet black screen. The gentle curves of the text represent something natural, not contrived, like human nature and the use of narrative to make meaning. The color and font also work as a metaphor for the greater good of those who bring fiction to light. With the title credits comes the sound of soft, quivering breath. It permeates the darkness and gains strength while accompanied by a lone clarinet holding a single, suspenseful note. It is unclear whether the soft breathing belongs to a man or woman, or whether it is derived from pleasure or fear. Immediately we question. We want to know more. In that wanting, we are seduced into lusting after the fiction unfolding before us. This ten seconds of manipulation is skillfully designed to guide us though a difficult debate as the argument for free speech is not one without complication.
Within the same opening minute, the Marquis de Sade is introduced to us through the sound of his voice which, like the white text, penetrates the darkness; or does it emanate from it? Either could be true. He addresses his “dear reader” introducing his “naughty little tale,” “plucked from the pages of history, tarted up, true, but guaranteed to stimulate the senses” (Kauffman). We are presented with the controversy that stems from the Marquis’ writing. While the film is a “tarted up” version of the real Marquis’s life, rather than embracing his historic penchant for committing horrific sexual crimes, it focuses on the writing that reflects the spirit in which these acts have been committed. If, in life, the Marquis’ actions are defined as criminal, could it be said that his fictionalized depictions of such acts should be considered criminal too? Or, is fiction the place to safely act out such libertine desires? In these few spoken words, we are presented with the dilemma which will plague and play with us throughout the film, whether we immediately realize it or not.
With no time to ponder, we are thrust into the tale of Mademoiselle Renard, a beautiful aristocrat “whose sexual proclivities [run] the gamut from winsome to bestial” (Kaufman). As the Marquis begins this line, the black screen fades up to an even, cobalt blue and classical music begins. We learn that the camera lens is pointed at a cloudless sky allowing us to gaze upward as if lying on our backs. The frame of blue is only contextualized by wisps of wavy, brunette hair which are carried into view on the wind while Mademoiselle’s rather innocent face, with half closed eyes and softly parted lips, enters and fills our entire overhead view. Her hair is upswept at the sides revealing the bare neck outstretched before us while loose tendrils of unruly curls carried on a strong breeze caress her face. That this sweet face belongs to a woman with such a wide range of sexual desire creates a great deal of intrigue and excitement for the viewer. With curiosity piqued, we linger in the space of this moment eagerly awaiting the Marquis’ next line.
At this point, the Marquis asks, “Who doesn’t dream of indulging every spasm of lust, feeding each depraved hunger” (Kaufman)? Mademoiselle slowly closes her eyes, gently leans her head back to the left and her breathing, growing stronger, is heard once again. Because the camera lens is understood to be the viewer’s eye, the positioning and proximity of that lens to this young woman has the intended effect of making the audience experiencing emotions they would generally entertain only behind closed doors. Having been inserted into this intimate space, we realize that the Marquis’ question is directed at the viewer as much as Mademoiselle. Mademoiselle Renard appears to be in a state of heightened pleasure and the viewer, for this brief moment, is unmistakably positioned to look up at her as if we are her lover.
Why begin with this image, particularly since Mademoiselle Renard is never to be referenced again after this scene? Cinematographer John Alton says of framing in Painting with Light:
The screen offers the advantage of an ability to photograph the story from the position from which the director thinks the audience would like to see it. The success of any particular film depends a great deal upon the ability of the director to anticipate the desires of the audience in this respect. (qtd. in Barsam, 141)
Following this philosophy, one can deduce that Kaufman acts on the supposition that the audience wants a film to awaken certain passions and offer an avenue to safely experience them. Since film has always been a voyeuristic experience, Kaufman raises the stakes by making the viewer painfully aware of the desire for indulgence through film. As Linda Mulvey says in her article “The Visual Pleasure of Narrative:”
The magic of the Hollywood style at its best (and of all the cinema which fell within its sphere of influence) arose, not exclusively, but in one important aspect, from its skilled and satisfying manipulation of visual pleasure. Unchallenged, mainstream film coded the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order. In the highly developed Hollywood cinema it was only through these codes that the alienated subject, torn in his imaginary memory by a sense of loss, by the terror of potential lack in phantasy, came near to finding a glimpse of satisfaction: through its formal beauty and its play on his own formative obsessions. (Mulvey)
Not only do we become aware of our own desires, thanks to Kaufman, we are granted the utmost freedom to experience it under an open sky rather than behind closed doors before we experience the loss that Mulvey describes.
With one quick twist, we learn that this window of opportunity is short lived. The Marquis goes on to say:
Owing to her noble birth, Mademoiselle Renard was granted full immunity to do just that, inflicting pain and pleasure with equal zest, until one day Mademoiselle found herself at the mercy of a man whose skill in the Art of Pain exceeded her own. (Kaufman)
This man (Stephen Marcus), whose filthy hands glide over Mademoiselle’s head and neck from behind, intrudes upon our own experience. As his black, leather executioners’ hood enters the frame, we learn from Sade that “Mademoiselle found herself at the mercy of a man whose skill in the Art of Pain exceeded her own.” The executioner has slated Mademoiselle for his next kill and our precious lover is being taken from us. He slides his meaty fingers over her exposed collar bones and into the shoulders of her dress. The corners of her mouth spasm, although her expression is difficult to read. Does she enjoy this? The executioner rips the dress, revealing her shoulders, and she shrieks in terror “Please, no!” Only now are we sure of her distress. Leather straps bind her hands behind her back rendering her helpless, as are we in the throes of this horror. History, during this French Reign of Terror, is more appalling than fiction because it rings true.
It is important to note here the finesse of Mademoiselle Renard’s casting and acting. As screenplay writer Geoffrey Wright says in the DVD special features:
Philip Kaufman wanted a classically beautiful woman, a woman who didn’t look contemporary, a woman who had a gorgeous antique quality and he looked at more actresses for this small role than any other in the film.
The attention paid to these details is a testament to the importance of the general viewer’s relationship with her. It is helpful that Diana Morrison, the actress who plays Mademoiselle Renard, does not have a great deal of star recognition so that presuppositions based on previous roles cannot be assigned. Also, Morrison’s facial expression during her extreme close-up remains skillfully blank. As is said about editing in Looking at Movies: An Introduction, the “tendency of viewers to interpret shots in relation to surrounding shots is the most fundamental assumption behind all film editing” (Barsam, 239). This holds true with any combination of cinematic elements. With no mis-en-scene yet to contextualize our film, all that is left to make meaning is the Marquis’ narrative. What we learn very quickly is that this narrative is powerful enough to reorder our entire sense of “reality,” which has been upended in a matter of seconds.
So, who is the Marquis de Sade and from where does such powerful fiction flow? Watching from behind bars in a prison tower perched high above the guillotine, the master of this story looks on with his own blank stare. The pleading eyes of Mademoiselle make contact with his own as the executioner slowly moves her hair and inhales the scent of her delicate neck. The Marquis’ steady voice continues, “How easily, dear reader, one changes from predator to prey! And how swiftly pleasure is taken from some and given to others” (Kaufman)! He is not just speaking of Mademoiselle but of himself, once the predator and now the caught and caged prey. A packed audience cheers and jeers with smiling faces once the shirtless executioner slowly and seductively bends her over placing her head gently in the guillotine. A body in a green dress separated from one of the many heads in a cart is passed over the crowd. Another cart of people to be executed, one looking like a disheveled version of the Marquis, are visibly distraught and sickened. In sharp contrast, the Marquis is composed and unmoved. His lack of outward emotion toward this long line of executions suggests a numbing madness.
Regardless of the Marquis’ lack of emotion, he and Mademoiselle are inextricably connected as demonstrated by the film’s editing. An extreme close-up of Mademoiselle’s face captures a drop of bright, red blood that falls to her cheek from the guillotine blade. We cut to an extreme close-up of the Marquis looking out with one eye, the other obscured by a black window bar. His face is more gray than black, perhaps suggesting a clouded version of good with a definite black and evil streak. As he turns away, we enter with him into his space. We circle around a jar of fanned black quills interspersed with two of muted white, suggesting that, contrary to the man, his writing is more vile than good. He continues to write on a sheet more than half filled using a white quill while chains bind his hands. An aerial view of the execution mob is seen from Sade’s vantage point but only by us as he writes. Humming Claire de Lune along with the children in the street, the Marquis’ quill releases a single drop of blood-red ink just as the guillotine blade begins to fall. Our view enters the flesh and blood sliced by the blade, a view that the Marquis does not get from his desk. What this editing works to say is that the Marquis’ internalized experience of this French Reign of Terror is released through writing and the tragedy of Mademoiselle Renard is, in this case, his muse, and we are active participants as his audience.
This connection between the three of us becomes a significant source of the film’s realism. As Laura Mulvey explains:
To begin with (as an ending), the voyeuristic-scopophilic look that is a crucial part of traditional filmic pleasure can itself be broken down. There are three different looks associated with the cinema: that of the camera as it records the pro-filmic event, that of the audience as it watches the final product, and that of the characters at each other within the screen illusion. The conventions of narrative film deny the first two and subordinate them to the third, the conscious aim being always to eliminate intrusive camera presence and prevent a distancing awareness in the audience. Without these two absences (the material existence of the recording process, the critical reading of the spectator), fictional drama cannot achieve reality, obviousness and truth. (Mulvey)
No longer shall we follow Mademoiselle’s story for hers has come to an end. Instead, we follow the Marquis to Charenton Asylum for the Insane years later. It is the blood, red color of the execution scene follows us as well, unifying our connection and coating the inside of a cell as if to say that the internal workings of the Marquis’ mind are blanketed with the culmination of all the deaths he has witnessed. The close-ups of eyes that first connected Mademoiselle and Sade now connect Sade and Charenton’s laundress, Madeleine LeClerc (Kate Winslet). She slides the viewing panel on the heavy metal door open and calls for linens. Her eyes are centered in the open panel looking straight at us, but she cannot see the red that covers the inner walls. This is the Marquis cell and because Maddie is looking in at us, the audience members have just become lunatics.
This is the beginning of our time both as the asylum’s watched and the watchers. We begin by seeing limited parts of Sade, whether his eye through a circular hole in the door or his hands reaching through the laundry shoot. By the time the title of the film appears, our transformation is complete. From here on out we witness portions of the film one step removed and yet our experience becomes increasingly intimate. One example of this is when Bouchon, the executioner gone mad, is seen in his cell masturbating to his view of Madeleine through a hole in the wall. While he enjoys a peep at a girl, we are subject to deriving shock or pleasure from watching him watch her through our own hole in the wall. Regardless of our personal reaction, we have been made guilty of voyeurism and have a stake in the argument of whether or not we require censorship to protect us from ourselves.
It is now, in the unfolding of the film’s events that we are ready to assess censorship from a well-rounded standpoint. If fiction is a safe place to play out situations of vice, purging it as the asylum’s Abbe de Culmier (Joaquin Phoenix) instructs the Marquis to do, then the position of this film begins by leaning toward the Greek philosophy that art is cathartic. On the other side of the coin, because the power of the Marquis’ story results in the death of Medeleine, incites the chaotic destruction of the asylum, and frees the residents to copulate in the pouring rain, Plato’s belief that art is dangerous also comes to fruition. Even the The Bible, as a text, is portrayed as a dangerous narrative means, God being accused of stringing his son up “like a side of beef” making the Marquis fearful of what God might do to him if he succumbs to the word. The inclusion of this platonic argument asks the audience to truly examine all sides.
By partaking in such fiction, what does the debate surrounding censorship mean for and about the viewer? Kaufman says on the Cinema Review website:
I have always been fascinated by extreme literature because it expands on our concept of what is human. And Sade more than anyone seems to demonstrate how extreme behavior can bring out hypocrisy in those who claim to be moralists. (“Production Notes: The Origins of Quills”)
We, the viewers are not left to our own idealistic assessments of what should and should not be. Kaufman is sure to make us get our hands dirty, tarnishing our own perceived halos. Forcing his audience to commit conscious acts of voyeurism, Kaufman does his best to remove that moralizing impulse we often feel in response to anything that appears to be dangerous, even fiction.
If this film proves anything, it’s that this argument is still going on today, whether through the resurrection an ancient criminal or the blaming of video game violence for children acting like vengeful lunatics. Telling are the last lines of the film which echo an earlier sentiment: that to know virtue one must also know vice. Fiction offers that outlet. In the viewer’s ability to experience natural emotions as well as exercise restraint is where Kaufman’s condemnation of censorship is revealed and thus gains its power. The audience is given the opportunity to strongly sense their own personal desire to act upon certain wants coupled with an understanding that such wants are best satisfied through fiction rather than experienced in real life. In that rare event that some person acts out the fiction, as is the case of the murderous executioner, Bouchon, there is already a predisposition to violence that exists before the influence of fiction. One is likely to conclude after seeing this film, censorship be damned and damn the author too.
Barsam, Richard. Looking At Movies: an Introduction to Film. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2007.
Mulvey, Linda. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Sonoma State University. Aug. 1975. Sonoma State University. 23 Apr. 2008 .
“Production Notes: the Origins of Quills.” Cinema Review. 23 Apr. 2008 .
Quills. Dir. Philip Kaufman. Perf. Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix, Michael Caine. DVD. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 2000.
Travers, Peter. “Quills (2000).” Film.Com. Rolling Stone. 23 Apr. 2008 .
Wright, Doug. “Quills Script.” Screenplay.Com. 20 Dec. 2000. 15 Apr. 2008 .
The poem “The Critick and The Writer of Fables” published in 1713 by Anne Kingsmill Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, is an ambitious attempt at a satirical play on gendered and formal limitations of Augustan poetry. The critick is representative of a male poetic society, and yet by acquiring a voice from Finch within the poem, it appears to represent one side of Finch’s own internal debate in deciding where her writing belongs. She makes a case for a new style of writing by satirizing the forms already in existence. The poem, at once, exemplifies an Augustan commentary about poetic definition while it inserts the thinly veiled female object of Finch, the fable writer, as the subject in the style of the Romantic poets. Finch carves a place for her own poetry between the satirical, warring poet and the pastoral, peaceful muse, making room for her various resulting combinations. Finch’s poetry resides somewhere between two chronological, poetic traditions, as well as a gender division, without fully occupying any one more than another. It is in her displacement that she finds her own space.
Breaking through Gender Oppression
The “Critick and the Writer of Fables” is bound centrally in Finch’s first published collection, Miscellany Poems on Several Occasions, in which gender consciousness is inescapable. From a publication that announces it has been written by a Lady, the brief introduction “From the Bookseller to the Reader” says:
THE Town, already having done Justice to the Ode on the Spleen, and some few Pieces in this Volume, when scattered in other Miscellanies: I think it will be sufficient (now that Permission is at last obtained for the Printing of the Collection) to acquaint the Reader, that they are of the same Hand; which I doubt not will render this Miscellany an acceptable Present to the Publick. (Finch A2)
According to this passage, Finch writes as a woman in a man’s poetic world, without apology and with enough coercive wit that both asks for acceptance and demonstrates her worthiness of such a valuable gift. Using her previous, though comparatively small, success with a few anonymously published poems, Finch introduces her greater body of public work with “no doubt” that it is acceptable. She argues that, since the town has already granted righteous acceptance of “Ode on the Spleen,” her talent has been established and the door is open for her to share more. While this argument reads as logical, her confidence reads as contrived in light of the parenthetical allusion to public resistance and lack of permission.
Because women have not been allowed to take part in the general poetic conversation as equals to men, Finch follows her introduction with the poem “Mercury and the Elephant.” This piece reveals the general opinion of male authors toward women’s writing, including the lines, “Solicitous thus should I be / For what’s said of my Verse and Me; / Or shou,d my Friend’s Excuses frame / And beg the Criticks not to blame / (Since from a Female Hand it came) / Defects in Judgment, or in Wit; / They’d but reply — Then has she Writ!” (Finch 2-3). Disconnect between the genders is undeniable. If women commit defects in judgment and then commit such thoughts to the page, is that considered well crafted writing? Who decides? Obviously, men are judge and jury of all that enters their world, including the thoughts of women. Finch goes on to say that men read for themselves, not for women, while women write for themselves and not for men (Finch, 3). Poetic permission reflects strong patriarchal control over the craft, although there is some small glimmer of value of feminine poetics referred to in the poet’s mention of friends who make excuses. Flawed as women may appear in their craft and wit, something brings those friends to Finch’s defense. It may be the slight recognition that difference is not necessarily wrong.
Men of Taste
In the poem, the friends who Finch speaks of mirror her relationships with other poets such as Jonathan Swift, Nicholas Rowe and Alexander Pope. While there are certainly more, these three present a gamut of opinions surrounding her work. According to Barbara McGovern in her book Anne Finch and Her Poetry: a Critical Biography, Swift was an admirer of Finch and encourages her to publish, while Rowe encourages Finch not to venture into publication, (although it is speculated that he included a verse epilogue from Finch in his play “The Tragedy at Jane Shore”) (McGovern 100). Rowe’s advice lies in direct conflict with an account from Myra Reynolds, in her introduction to The Poems of Anne Countess of Winchilsea. In admiration the likes of which Swift shared, Rowe describes Ardelia (Finch’s pen name) in one of his poems as a “divine nymph” whose praise is unqualified (Reynolds liii). Barbara McGovern and Charles H. Hinnant, in their book The Anne Finch Wellesley Manuscript Poems, A Critical Edition, describes a positive aspect of the relationship between Finch and Pope. This exists in both Finch’s admiration of Pope’s poetry as well as her playful criticism of his four lines in “The Rape of the Locke.” Their amiable interactions include Pope’s enjoyment of Finch’s poetry which likely leads Pope to influence the inclusion of two of Finch’s poems in Sir Richard Steele’s Poetical Miscellanies of 1713 in addition to Pope’s own inclusion of Finch’s “The Impromptu” in his 1717 volume of miscellany poems (Hinnant and McGovern xxxvii). Unfortunately, twelve years after Finch?s death, she became the butt of Pope and Gay’s satirical jokes in “Three Hours After Marriage” (Reynolds, lv-lvii). If this environment reads as fickle and complicated, one can understand why Finch had to navigate her way through the shifting public and poetic taste with care. Perhaps this explains why she references “men of taste” in the “The Critick and the Writer of Fables.” It is not the opinions of women that can make or break this artist.
The taste of the time was indeed shifting when “The Critick and the Writer of Fables” was published in 1713. Finch first learned to mirror the style of Dryden while she was Maid of Honor to Mary of Modena beginning in 1682. Her personal acquaintance with him is more than likely since they had both courtly and family connections; Dryden wrote “Ode to Mistress Anne Killegrew” for another of Mary Modena’s maids at that time, and Finch and Dryden became related through the marriage of cousins (McGovern 21). By the time Alexander Pope, the poet Finch most wanted to please, had published his new Pastorals, Finch had already written a great deal of her work in accordance with Dryden’s standards. Pope and Swift each shared similar annoyances for Dryden’s poetic devices such as his use of the triplet as well as the hiatus (Reynolds, lxxxix). These devices heavily peppered Finch’s poetry long before Pope had developed his taste. Interestingly, in “The Critick and the Writer of Fables,” Finch writes about a departure from the poetics of Dryden. This change in her own taste may account for Pope’s fickleness toward Finch’s poetry.
Finding Freedom in the Smallest of Spaces
How is it that Anne Finch was able infiltrate the masculine world of poetry in the first place? Although female authors at this time must write from within the trappings of their gender, they also find freedom to write within a space that does not compete with that of masculine poetry. In the scholarly paper “Women Becoming Poets: Katherine Phillips, Aphra Behn, Anne Finch,” Dorothy Memin explains of these poetesses:
In both form and content they cherish autonomy rather than preeminence and usually speak of themselves in self-deprecating low-keyed tones. And always the inescapable central term is gender: whereas male poets have imagined their own voices to be genderless, ?universal,? they never forget that they write, and will be read as women. (Memin 336)
It is likely, for these reasons, that Finch takes care to differentiate between the ways in which men read for themselves and women write for themselves, particularly after she publically declares herself a woman in a manner that might read as a public ruse; the interpretation of her anonymous work may have been presumed to be written by a man. But why this enormous focus on feminine humility? Mermin explains the connection between literary and moral reputation:
If women are peculiarly shy about having their works “exposed,” it is partly because their works and their selves are so often confused with each other. Their physical person — their beauty is generally the prime object of critical regard. (Mermin 338)
To tread this fine line between acceptance and rejection via humility is a skill that some like Aphra Behn had little stamina to execute well. While Behn’s good reputation could not survive public ridicule once she became too bold for male acceptance, Finch was far more careful. Although she does break gendered poetic boundaries by daring to make a woman the subject as well as the object in “The Critic and the Writer of Fables,” this places her in little danger of harsh criticism because the satirical tone of the poem distills her self-importance down to self-mockery.
While Finch refers to her published poems with this feigned yet necessary sense of humility, she and her husband also preserve, without publishing for fear of condemnation, a portion of her later work, now collected within the Wellesley Manuscript. As McGovern and Hinnant suggest, this fear likely stems from Finch’s allusions to political sympathies within her fables with the Jacobite cause during a time of anti-Jacobite hysteria:
What they bring out is the close relation that exists between a reluctance to publish and an attitude toward questions of moral, historical, and political import that refuses to resort to ideas of self censorship, expediency, concealment, or compromise in the preparation of a manuscript. (Hinnant and McGovern xxiii)
In these unpublished poems, Finch understands her feminine limitations within in the public realm. For a woman who published hundreds of poems, she never stopped writing what she honestly thought, if only as a matter of private self expression shared with a trusted few. These poems were Finch’s way to pledge personal allegiance to the Stuart family, regardless of public distaste for such a stance or for engagement of a woman in political debate. Considering the political climate and the further alienation at stake, particularly after her husband Hineage’s arrest for attempting to join King James on the continent after the Glorious Revolution, Finch was wise to be selective.
Suggesting this behavior as evidence of strict self protection is not to say that Finch was overly protective of all aspects of her work. She found room to speak publicly and playfully through her poetry using one of the altered Augustan elements best explained in Maragaret Doody’s The Daring Muse, Augustan Poetry Reconsidered. Doody says:
The heroic couplet was associated with matters thought foreign to women – classical learning, rule over the world. The more memorable poetry of Augustan women poets is usually in iambic tetrameter in which they could be allowed to toss off individual observations and feelings. In this form too, they could safely exhibit wit without being thought too arrogant. (Doody 242)
Doody puts words to the lack of women’s political impact in this medium by using phrases like “light verse with a point” or “unassuming, but nicely formed” to highlight her examples. Finch employed this low impact line-style in “Mercury and the Elephant” with good reason. Opening Miscellany with a poem describing the struggle of women writers, she had to be careful not to earn rejection before her audience turned only a few pages. To present her heart-felt dilemma in a style reserved for humor, she is likely seen at the time to be poking fun at herself. Finch would not always play coy though, refusing to back into a woman’s corner of the writing desk. She could just as skillfully cast off her individual observations using the traditionally heroic iambic pentameter in poems such as “Ardeliah’s Answer to Ephelia” and “Nocturnal Reverie” which Doody calls some of her best work (Doody 242). It is interesting to note that these were placed toward the end of Miscellany, perhaps because they were of too serious a tone, leaving her audience to work through the larger body of work before reaching the piece de resistance.
While the use of iambic tetrameter may have offered a foothold for women in a man’s poetic world, once that first step was taken, it was time to commandeer the muse. Trevor Ross in Making of the English Literary Canon : From the Middle Ages to the Late Eighteenth Century, traces the symbolic fall of Apollo, Greek god of poetry, throughout men’s works produced prior to and during the Restoration. Apollo, Ross finds, mirrors the valorized male in the position of the British laureateship and “by mid-century, Apollo, like modern royalty, enjoys only a ceremonial role in the governing of Parnassus, which is itself no longer a star chamber but a democracy” (Ross 179). It is this weakening of the national poet and the poet godhead that created space for new points of power. As Ross explains:
By the 1688 *Journal from Parnassus,* the emergence of professional women writers like Behn had become enough of a threat to Parnassus that they had to be exiled altogether, lest they “soon endeavour a Monopoly of Witt.” By then, the laureate ideal had become weakened sufficiently for women poets to begin appropriating Apollo in their own defense. Finch, in her “Circuit of Apollo” (1713), has the deity dividing the honours among all women since “they all had a right to the Bay’s” and then ceding his evaluative authority to the Muses, “Since no man upon earth, nor Himself in the sky” would dare to rid Parnassus of “three parts in four from amongst woman kind.” (Ross 181)
This hostile takeover of a masculine myth reshaped the poetic world for women, if not entirely for men. While it was a tremendous accomplishment for women in the fictional realm, it may have been more dangerous in the real world. The perceived threat quite possibly reinforced the thought that men must keep women out of politics and poetry. Still, the power of women cannot be denied when evidenced in their work. The muse, referred to twice in “The Critick and the Writer of Fables” is both adventurous and demanding, leading a female poet rather than a man. Equally important is the fact that she “strays” down various traditionally male paths, each time finding her way back to fables.
Within “The Critick and the Writer of Fables,” there is little evidence that the fable writer is a woman other than through Finch’s use of self deprecation. This may be due to the translation in her adaptation of La Fontaine’s original, “Contre cueux qui ont le Gout difficile,” although it more likely stems from her own sense of position within English literature. Charles H. Hinnant, in The Poetry of Anne Finch: An Essay in Interpretation, explains why the origins are not so clear:
Finche’s fables, like those of Swift or Gay, are not translation — or even imitations, in the sense popularized by Oldham and Pope. Thus they do not conform to what Dryden calls paraphrase — a mode “where the author is kept in view by the translator, so as never to be lost, but his words are not so strictly followed as his sense and that too is admitted to be amplified, but not strictly followed.” (Hinnant 168-169)
While keeping with the feel of what the poem attempts to achieve by illuminating the limitations that rigid criticism places on poetry, Finch expands the meaning to suit her concerns with a pertinent historical time, place and culture. According to Hinnant, Finch “retains the denunciation by La Fontaine’s critic of the hackneyed language of the epic and pastoral, but she adds a section on satire and begins by making her poet renounce the irregular ode in favor of the fable” (Hinnant 169). Fables are an enjoyable poetic format for Finch. She is largely a talented fable writer as well as a translator in four languages. Finch’s art in capturing La Fontaine’s message creates an enhanced translation that suits her present and personal predicament.
Sadly, for Finch, fables have lost their luster for the professional male poet. They are considered amateur and femininely inferior. This notion is made evident as the poem’s speaker calls fable writing a descent in form. In the critic’s opinion, “Fable, he cries, tho grown the affected Strain. / But dies as it was born, without Regard or Pain. / Wilst of his Aim the lazy Trifler fails, / Who seeks to purchase Fame by Childish Tales” (Finch 163). This description offers no kind word for the form. A lazy person, as opposed to the skilled professional artist, fails to create anything of worth by putting little effort into the creation and earning ill reward. Fame said to not come so cheaply in the shape of a children’s tale because only craft and skill can divine a thing of beauty. Is the ease with which Fables appear to flow truly the work of lazy triflers? Absolutely not. Hinnant explains the misconception in an historical context:
The grand tradition of English criticism from Sir Philip Sydney through John Dryden established a system of critical norms that privileged poetry over verse, mimesis over fiction invention over imitation, etc. Let La Fontaine and his English successors mark exactly the same categories, but they give a witty reemphasis to the features that they agree to discern. (Hinnant 168)
Of course these critical norms are the very ideals “The Critic and the Writer of Fables” rallies against. The poet wants to hasten toward the enjoyment of fiction rather than mimesis if only to instruct through a removed example rather than the satirical rantings of a mimetic reproduction.
To expound on this thought, the interesting twist in the first stanza is where the narrator says that fables “Teach, as poets should, whilst they Divert”(Finch 163). This line rings of what Augustan poetry is supposed to accomplish, to instruct the masses on transcendental truths. According to Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas. In “Chapter 10. Imlac’s History Continued. A Dissertation upon Poetry,” Johnson writes:
The business of a poet requires that he estimate the happiness and misery of every condition; observe the power of all the passions in all their combinations, and trace the changes of the human mind, as they are modified by various institutions and accidental influences of climate or custom, from the sprightliness of infancy to the despondence of decrepitude. He must divest himself of the prejudices of his age or country; he must consider right and wrong in their abstracted and invariable state; he must disregard present laws and opinions, and rise to general and transcendental truths, which will always be the same. He must, therefore, content himself with the slow progress of this name, contemn the applause of his own time, and commit his claims to the justice of posterity. He must write as the interpreter of nature and the legislator of mankind, and consider himself as presiding over the thoughts and manners of future generations, as being superior to time and place. (Johnson 2694)
Finch’s poem achieves all of these goals. She understands the joy of expression for men and the unhappiness of oppression for women. She creates a generalization of social experience for half the population in order to instruct both men and women in tolerance. She understands the skewed world view and those prejudices that are not her truth as a woman. She is not stagnant in time but, instead, traces the changing poetic times, instructing on the poetic possibilities, and painting this picture in broad strokes. Although these points may be understood by Finch’s public audience on some level, there is still the demarcation of this feminized form in which she delivers her message. Without critical distance, those readers of her time can not see the value in her departure from Augustan tradition.
How ironic that Johnson’s Rasselas is a fable defining what Augustan poetry should be while missing his own mark, ignoring half the picture so entirely. How can a man who ponders life so thoroughly come to the conclusion that poetry by Finch or any other woman has no place in his anthology, The Lives of the Poets, Linda Zionkowski, in her book Men’s Work : Gender, Class, and the Professionalization of Poetry, 1660-1784, argues that the female poet was not always excluded from what eventually became a masculine literary field. Johnson complicates the ability to understand the omission because he was known to offer female writers encouragement:
[His encouragement] prohibits an easy dismissal of the problem as an instance of gender prejudice. Although the increasing commercialization of eighteenth-century life complicated the distinctions between professionals and pseudoprofessionals, Geoffrey Holmes argues that during Johnson’s time, a profession was still characterized as a lifelong vocation requiring extensive training and application “The Lives” preoccupation with the nature of literary labor, the social status of poets, and the relation of poets to the audiences whose needs they presumably served reveal Johnson’s concern with detailing the distinguishing features of his profession. In repeatedly asserting what Magali Larson calls “the monopoly of competence” of nonaristocratic literary men, the Lives articulates and codifies new expectations for poetic careers — expectations that could not be met by writers whose class and gender required them to operate under an alternative economy. (Zionkowski 186)
To see poetry through the lens of labor obviously lessens the blame on gender alone. It is gender as attached to labor or, more precisely, the lack there-of that has its hand in turning the tide. Education is another aspect of this economic point of view. Without educating all women, how can they first train to be laborers? Johnson, and others like him, determined the rules for professionalism and inspired the exclusion of all women. While the motive for learning and recording what Johnson could about what he saw as a profession seems innocent enough, the result was tragic for poetic women who were no longer anthologized between 1750 and 1779 (Zionkowski 186). This is obviously only one theory and it is not an easy idea to rest all blame upon. Johnson must have been at least somewhat aware of his impact on the history of inspiring male-centric British poetry much to the dismay of his female poetic acquaintances.
Interesting as this revelation about the connection between poetry and labor may be, there is no such handy explanation that can excuse the “taste of men” for excluding the poetry of women, particularly when women’s textual elements evidence the gender divide time and again in those historical moments when they are included. “Taste,” a term briefly addressed by William Wordsworth in his “Preface to Lyrical Ballads, with Pastoral and Other Poems,” is only referenced in order to say that he does not fit into the traditional approach to what is acceptable in poetry (Wordsworth 649). This idea plays a significant role in Finch’s poem with which she criticizes “men of taste” for limiting poetic form to the exclusion of anything different. Wordsworth’s own taste renounces the contrived language and structure of Augustan poetry in order to replace it with common language which speaks to the common man (Wordsworth 650). Although Finch writes long before Wordsworth, her poem too argues for the need of language that speaks to the common human being (not just man), demonstrating that changing taste does eventually make room for the new but that it happens slowly.
Similar as Wordsworth and Finch may seem in their directives; Wordsworth had no real knowledge of Finch’s poetic identity. Of her selected pastoral poetry, referred to him by a friend, he says in a letter to Alexander Dyce in 1830:
Her style in rhyme is often admirable: chaste, tender, and vigorous, and entirely free from sparkle, antithesis, and that overculture which reminds one, by its broad glare, its stiffness and heaviness, of the double daisies of the garden, compared with their modest and sensitive kindred of the fields. (Hopkins, 178)
Speaking aptly on “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Nocturnal Reverie,” Wordsworth’s assumption is that this is entirely representative of Finch’s greater body of work. The reality is that much of Finch’s poetry adheres more closely to the Augustan style. Only a handful of her poems were pastoral.
Alexander Dyce, the recipient of Wordsworth’s note, is an important piece within the history of Finch’s legacy. Sharon C. Seelig’s article, “The Poets of the Renaissance,” investigates the poetic climate that existed at the time that Katherine Philips and Finch were included in an anthology by Dyce in 1827:
In his preface Dyce makes it clear that he is correcting an omission: Of the Selections which have been made from the chaos of our past Poetry, the majority has been confined almost entirely to the writings of men; and from the great *Collections of the English Poets,* where so many worthwhile compositions find a place, the productions of women have been carefully excluded.” (Qtd. In Seelig 163)
George W. Bethune produced an anthology of women authors as well in 1848, joining in the view that human nature, and in particular female nature (or intelligence), was improving. (Seelig 163). These changing points of view prove that Finch, with a talented group of other women poets, indeed carved a place in poetic history. Sadly, at the time, the increase in accessibility to women’s writing is attributed to improved female nature rather the opening of the door by more tolerant men and more persistent women. Although the end result, women finding their place in anthologies, is a move toward a more balanced artistic environment, I believe that Finch’s inclusion in anthologies alongside men like Pope gave her work more credence given the earlier stigma of being cordoned off for being the very thing that makes her superior against adversity.
Using the Tools at Hand
While the popular convention of Augustan poetry offered a framework with which Finch could put forth her perspective, it was lacking in the ability for language and form to readily reflect a woman’s full truth without being told in a man’s voice. Jacques Derrida, in his theory “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” recalls Levi-Strauss’ use of the term “bricoleur” to refer to someone “who uses the means at hand.” Derrida expands on this idea saying that bricolage, or “the necessity of borrowing one’s concept from the text or heritage which is more or less coherent or ruined, it must be said that every discourse is a bircoleur” (Derrida 920) Finch thus becomes a handywoman borrowing from past and failed poetic forms as avenues for the feminine voice. By doing so, she de-centers the original and creates something new. This is not unlike T. S. Eliot’s theory, in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” that the poet must conform to the cannon but must also expand the capabilities of the work just enough to make it new and interesting (Elliot 1093). Augustan poetry was the only convention at hand for women writers to be taken seriously, but was in need of change to accommodate the feminine voice. To create something entirely new is a sure fire way to be rejected in a climate that adores time honored tradition so Finch uses the tools she has at hand. By using Augustan references and modes of writing, Finch pushes portions of the old voices out of the way, makes room for her own, creating an entirely new public voice within the compilation.
Turning these broken forms in upon themselves for examination is partially an Augustan satirical function but, in the case of such self-reflexivity, it demonstrates an almost postmodern move. Linda Hutcheon, in her book The Politics of Postmodernism, defines historiographic metafiction which, through a two part process of dedoxification and self-reflexivity, reveals the power as well as the limitations employed by a particular narrative form. To dedoxify something is to problematize it by a reverse definition, one that denaturalizes and reveals the ideology behind a form as clouded by cultural norms. Hutcheon describes it best by saying:
Postmodern representational practices that refuse to stay neatly within accepted conventions and traditions and that deploy hybrid forms and seemingly mutual contradictory strategies frustrate critical attempts (including this one) to systematize them, to order them with an eye to control and mastery — that is to totalize (Hutcheon 35).
Finch performs this move by writing a fable about a fable writer, at once demonstrating that a fable, typically seen as artistic folly, is actually a powerful tool used to deliver her message. Within the same poem, she does this also by satirizing the satirical. While Hutcheon’s theory refers to a specific kind of postmodern narrative, the idea illustrates well Anne Finch’s use of poetic fable to reveal both the established social power, from the shortcomings fable possesses due to public imposition to the versatility with which it delivers her message about what the form has the power to do very well.
Another form Finch manipulates within “The Critick and the Wirter of Fables” is the recycling of epic references to Greek mythology. She turns this into something preposterously larger than life and then, like the muse, commandeers the story for her own benefit. Finch satirically employs the form but also reveals it as tired, if not for her new spin on the ending. Her passage reads, “The walls of Troy shall be our loftier Stage / Our mighty theme the fierce Achilles Rage, / Amidst her Towers, the dedicated Horse / Shall be received, big with destructive Force; / Till Men shall say, when Flames have brought her down. / “Troy is no more, and Ilium was a town?” (Finch 163). Finch references the city of Troy as well as the Trojan horse as “she? as if to say women’s poetry (her own) actively infiltrates a feminine city in order to reclaim power after a ravaging under the rule of men. In the end, neither the feminine city nor the feminine horse survives, but something new exits when Troy is replaced by the town of Ilium. Finch appears to understand that her poetry must go into battle, but also that the fight will render something new rising up from the ashes of destruction.
Next up for critique in “The Critick and the Writer of Fables” is the traditional Augustan pastoral, a true sleeper according to the critic. The idea of sleep is playfully handled in “The Critick and the Writer of Fables” when the critick says “Oh! stun me not with these insipid Dreams, / The Eternal Hush the Lullaby of Streams. / Which still, he cries their even Measures keep, / Till both the Writers and the Readers sleep” (Finch 164) Christopher Miller, in “Staying Out Late: Anne Finch’s Poetics of Evening,” examines the gender innovation of “Nocturnal Reverie” and compares Finch’s imaginative spin on darkness to the originating trope in which, “Finch mimics the famous evening-to-fantasy scholarly devotion in John Milton’s “Il Penseroso” (1631), but she focuses more on sensory absorption of the nocturnal world than on the humoral disposition associated with it” (Miller 604). In this nocturnal space, a different kind of pastoral where eyes would typically be closed, Finch, as the thinly veiled fable writer, says that the critic and “men of taste” must open their eyes to new poetry and see all the possibility that she sees by directing her reader toward “Nocturnal Reverie” at the end of Miscellany, Finch seems to agree that this form is tired although she can easily prove that it has the ability to move beyond the “Swain’s unhappy Smart” and the “Envy of the Plains” (Finch 163) Essentially, poets of the male persuasion need to wake up, read what waits in front of them, and by the time they get to her “Nocternal Reverie” at the end of Miscellany, they will have indeed learned from experience.
What Fresh Poetry is This?
When the only poetic form the critic will accept is revealed to be satire, the fable writer is astonished and critiques the critic right back. With biting tongue she asks, “Must only Satire keep your Fancies warm? / Wilst even there, you praise with such Reserve, / As if you’d in the midst of plenty starve, / Tho’ ne’er so liberally we authors carve” (Finch 164). It becomes obvious that the critic will never truly be satisfied, even with their form of choice. The thirst and hunger for poetic gems would be quenched if only the critic and “men of taste” would relinquish the lofty airs that fill them with nothingness in order to drink from the depths of an abundant well of craft. Finch’s poetry can lead them there but she cannot make them drink. Left to choose for themselves, the last lines leave them where they began, with “Operas and panegyricks” (Finch 164). In Finch’s lifetime she never did see much movement on this front.
This lack of transcendence permeates the end of “The Critick and the Writer of Fables.” Likewise, in “Song and Speech in Anne Finch’s ‘To the Nightingale,'” Hinnant talks about the ways in which Finch associates with the natural world rather than the superiority of the human world without ending on the note of achieved perfection (Hinnant 511). She does this here too and, while it may make the piece feel unfinished, I think Finch simply asks for the recognition that other poetic possibilities exist. While she does not directly describe what this new proposed form would look like, I believe she refers to poems she has already written. Everything is an experiment. Rather than hold poetry to some new immovable standard. In leaving the possibilities open ended, she has no desire to create new confines within which she and others must conform at her particular command. This is a grand departure from what her male counterparts consistently try to categorize and control. Finch just wants to be, and it’s oh so very romantic.
Derrida, Jacques. “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Comp. David H. Richter. New York: Bedford/St. Martin_ 2006. 914-926.
Doody, Margaret. The Daring Muse, Augustan Poetry Reconsidered. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985. 233-264.
Eliot, T S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” The Norton Anthology: Theory and Literature. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Ltd., 2001. 1092-1098.
Finch, Anne. Miscellany Poems, on Several Occasions. London: J[Ohn] B[Arber], 1713. Google Books. 5 Apr. 2008 .
Greenblat, Stephen, ed. “Chapter 10. Imlac’s History Continued. a Dissertation Upon Poetry.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: the Restoration and the Eighteenth Century. Comp. Lawrence Lipking and James Noggle. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Ltd., 2006. 2693-2694.
Hinnant, Charles H., and Barbara McGovern. “Introduction.” Introduction. The Anne Finch Wellesley Manuscript Poems, a Critical Edition. Athens: University of Georgia P, 1998. xv-xli.
Hinnant, Charles H. “Song and Speech in Anne Finch’s ‘To the Nightingale'” Studies in English Literature: 1500-1900 31 (1991): 499-513. JSTOR. College of Saint Rose, Albany.
Hinnant, Charles H. The Poetry of Anne Finch: an Essay in Interpretation. Newark: University of Delaware P, 1994. 166-196.
Hopkins, David, ed. Routledge Anthology of Poets on Poets. 2nd ed. Florence: Routledge, 1994. 178.
Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2002. 29-58.
McGovern, Barbara. Anne Finch and Her Poetry: a Critical Biography. Athens: University of Georgia P, 1992.
Mermin, Dorothy. “Women Becoming Poets: Katherine Phillips, Aphra Behn, Anne Finch.” ELH 57 (1990): 335-355. JSTOR. Neil Hellman Library, Albany. 15 Apr. 2008. Keyword: Anne Finch.
Miller, Christopher R. “Staying Out Late: Anne Finch’s Poetics of Evening.” SEL 45 (2005): 603-623. 12 Mar. 2008 .
Ross, Trevor Thornton. Making of the English Literary Canon : From the Middle Ages to the Late Eighteenth Century. Montreal, QC, Canada: McGill-Queen UP, 2000. 173-205.
Seelig, Sharon C. “The Poets of the Renaissance.” Fault Lines and Controversies in the Study of Seventeenth-Century English Literature. Ed. Claude J. Summers. Columbia: University of Missouri P, 2002. 156-169.
Wordsworth, William. “Preface to Lyrical Ballads, with Pastoral and Other Poems.” The Norton Anthology: Theory and Literature. Comp. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Ltd., 2001. 648-668.
Zionkowski, Linda. Men’s Work : Gender, Class, and the Professionalization of Poetry, 1660-1784. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001. 171-204.
This paper was discussed in The Guardian on the topic of Anne Finch’s poetry.
Taking stock, a reflective exercise often assigned at the end of a class, is also a graduation requirement. This is my first draft. Tweaking to follow… although references to “navel gazing” and “mental masturbation” are definitely keepers.
The Collegiate Experience and My Intellectual Cosmos
This reflective essay has been assigned to help connect my Senior Seminar experience, with its focus on pre-romantic poetry, to the greater Saint Rose experience and thus my intellectual cosmos. To be honest, I find this task rather difficult. My trouble stems from the Senior Seminar portion of this ponderance. Let me first say that I have thoroughly enjoyed the intellectual, in-depth conversation every class has offered and that I find significant value in the exploration of early literary theory and the ability to measure today’s ideas by comparison. Still, I struggle to kindle some sort of greater passion for the subject matter in a present-day application that brings new awareness to light.
In my ideal world, Senior Seminar should be more than an entertaining intellectual exercise. I had hoped for a topic that would engage my passion, inspire me to action in righting some contemporary wrong and raise my own awareness as well as the awareness of those who read what new discoveries my research has to offer. Instead, I am reminded time and again, as we jest about the many ways in which poets have continually pondered their navels, that the struggle of the human experience merely shifts at a snail’s pace. Looking to history offers little more than greater historical knowledge of humanity’s slowly morphing circumstances, faulty attempts at understanding through overly general categorization, and constant repetition of these mistakes. While history is a fantastic place to begin, traveling back in time is not necessarily the best place to finish, at least in the opinion of this Saint Rose senior.
While the official capstone of pre-romantics study has been a wonderful venue in which to exercise analytical skills developed in other classes, I would say that the study of theory and postmodernism have been my personal and intellectual capstones. Through these two classes I have become significantly aware of and even horrified by the assault of stereotypes upon my own thoughts. I have since used that awareness to both examine and challenge knee-jerk reactions as well as my long standing perceptions of this crazy world we live in. Theory has provided new ways of understanding beyond those with which I was familiar. By studying an array of alternative ideas, I found freedom in choice and relieved the constraint on my personal identity. Of course, one could argue that social constructs not only bind identity, but that there can be no identity without such definition. It is in the understanding that boundaries are arbitrary and differ from culture to culture that freedom to make new and different choices exists. Liberated in my ability to move beyond the limited scope of what little I was told I could be, I have also learned to see this postmodern world for what it is and have situated myself within as a global citizen. Armed with my new perspective, I dare to dream bigger dreams and choose to live a life in which I am more aware of the impact I have on others as well as myself.
An example of how Postmodernism changed my life stems from examining a postmodern text through a theoretical lens. Choosing Linda Hutcheon’s definition of historiographic metafiction, I have explored the film and filming process of The Last King of Scotland. This movie focuses on former dictator Idi Amin’s reign in Uganda as experienced by the fictional Dr. Garrigan. Many uneducated Ugandan citizens who watched this film in underground viewing huts believed the fictionalized version to be historical, calling the film “real.” While this might appear to suggest the realism that film technology has the ability to create, the project reveals a far more disturbing picture. Intimidated extras believed that Forest Whitaker was truly Idi Amin and that they were being paid to support his political agenda. A twisted version of the death of Uganda’s beloved Kay, Amin’s wife, corrupts her image through one more Western violation of a black woman for the sake of appealing to a Western audience. Also, in a culture where modesty is imperative, filmmakers in a bind to find willing extras coerced Amin’s impoverished former poet to run naked through a party scene, essentially blackmailing him so he could make enough money to return to his family when he merely wanted to read. Throughout my paper, which I still intend to polish and publish, unethical Western film making philosophy becomes as exposed as that poor poet. By the end of the fifteenth page, there is no question that ethical behavior is required in this failed form of historiographic metafiction, one influenced by money and the reinforcement of stereotypes rather than empowerment of all of humanity . Revealing the horrors of Hollywood-style colonization and commoditization of an entire third world nation, this, by far, is my most meaningful academic work to date. My latest paper on the poetics of Anne Finch could never be as powerful.
On a personal level, what I have learned in Postmodernism has inspired me to action. I have begun to thoroughly and independently research my own possible impact as a Westerner when volunteering in Africa this summer. I will continue to diligently study how best to immerse myself within the Ghanaian culture while recording the lives of dying HIV/AIDS patients for their soon to be orphaned children. Preservation of cultural and familial information is my main goal and I wish to leave as little impact upon these people as possible. For this reason, I have chosen a non-governmental organization serving the needs and projects developed by the local villagers rather than joining forces with one imposing Western ideological ideas and solutions. This is not to say that Western philosophy is entirely corrupt, but there is no denying that, in inextricable conjunction with capitalism, it consumes other cultures at an extraordinary pace. While the study of literature has been invaluable in gaining better understanding, literature without action is nothing more than mental masturbation.
I have, in a previous reflection paper, likened my personal growth through the study of literature to a spiritual awakening; the best possible outcome college can have on an individual without the involvement of religion. I can honestly say that the study of theory and the global impact of the postmodern have changed, for the better, who I am as a person. Saint Rose initially rejected my application and, upon appeal, accepted me with condition, so it is with great pleasure that I have proven worthy of that chance by earning a 4.0. While earning that grade is certainly a crowning achievement, it means nothing but for the fact that I am walking away with a new world view as well as an eye toward making a difference. That, to me, is an end result well worth the hard work I have invested in myself these past two years.
Having selected Philip Kaufman’s Quills (2000) as my “Writers in Motion” film of choice, I watched it twice, first to take in the entire story and again to take notes. For further insight, I watched the DVD extras on screenplay writer Doug Wright’s commentary, costuming, setting and casting, searched for the text of the screenplay to read for sheer literary value, and hit JSTOR for some scholarly direction. I also found accounts of the Marquis de Sade’s real life on the Time Warner True Crime site and discovered another devoted to PVC fetish wear designed in the Marquis’ name. Before I knew it, I had shoved so much material into my feeble little brain that my ability to create a single thesis ground to a screeching halt. I screamed, “TOO MUCH INFORMATION!” and took a break. This is how I roll.
Reading Barsam’s last chapter of Looking at Movies offers the perfect springboard for this paper I have yet to begin. With graduation looming just 15 days away, that’s what I call salvation in print. One method Barsam suggests is a tracing of dualisms or binary oppositions. In Quills, that could include things such as:
• freedom of speech/censorship
By outlining some of these issues, and this is by no means an exhaustive list, I find that the film pits these oppositions against one another in order to explore the gray areas in terms of what writing can and must accomplish.
What this film seems to want to say is that writing fiction or creating narrative is not only inherent in one’s nature, but that human nature is at odds with culture. More specifically, culture is the tool to reign in our human nature, particularly since the libertine nature of an individual is rarely good for a greater societal state of being. This is precisely where the purpose of fiction enters in and Barsam’s section on “Memesis or Catharsis” (321) comes into play..
If fiction is a safe place to play out situations of vice, purging it – if you will – as the asylum’s Abbe de Culmier (Joaquin Phoenix) instructs the Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) to do, then the position of this film begins by leaning toward the Greek philosophy that art is cathartic. Departing from reality for the sake of the story, the creators want to say that the more those in power try to suppress public access to what is essentially 18th century pornography (inherent human nature?), the more persistent and even violent the fiction becomes. The idea of “story” takes on a life of its own and will fight through the quill of its author or any other means to survive.
Alternately, while the Marquis says his theatrics are “just a play,” his words are undeniably influential and carry a great deal of power. Because the power of the Marquis’ story results in the death of a laundry maid, Medeleine LeClerc (Kate Winslet), as well as incites the chaotic destruction of the asylum’s own society, Plato’s belief that art is dangerous also comes to fruition. The Bible too is portrayed as a narrative of dangerous means, God being accused of stringing his son up “like a side of beef” making the Marquis fearful of what God might do to him if he succumbs to the word. The inclusion of this platonic argument asks the audience to truly examine all sides.
If this film proves anything, it’s that this argument is still going on today, whether through the resurrection an ancient criminal or the recent blame of video game violence when children act like vengeful lunatics. Telling are the last lines of the film which echo an earlier sentiment: that to know virtue one must also know vice and that fiction offers that outlet. According to the filmaker’s, censorship be damned but so too is the fiction writer.
While I haven’t the skill for it, I’d love to address a Freudian analysis of this film’s creators. What kind of person venerates a man who, in real life (and this is merely one of many counts against him), locks up six young girls for 6 weeks of torture and sexual abuse, releasing them to separate convents with instructions not to talk about their traumas all to make a case for free speech? I suppose I can understand that you’d want to use the worst case scenario for the ultimate effect, but what irked me most about this film is that I was coerced into finding the Marquis rather witty, sometimes charming, seductive and even logical if not completely self absorbed. How dare they make me cheer for such a perverse asshole. Maybe I should psychoanalyze myself (another approach Barsam mentions). Then again, I might get locked up too.
I’d go further but then I’d be writing my paper right here and now. That would ruin the surprise for even me (or something like that). This was an awesome place for some serious brain drain in order to sort some threads I’ve been considering (and to prove I read the chapter), so thanks for reading. Any feedback is welcome.