Writing for affect

January 26, 2019 0 Comments
When we have sufficiently tortured each other

By accident I happened on four late-night radio voices discussing ‘consent’.  Their focus was Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel-in-letters, Pamela; or, Virtue rewarded, and Martin Crimp’s current stage production at the National Theatre, When we have sufficiently tortured each other, which is based on chunks of Richardson’s lengthy book. 

Both are tough reads, in the #MeToo age.  In the novel the letter-writer, a maid called Pamela, is targeted by a squire, ‘Mr B’, who attempts to flatter, bribe, seduce and rape her.  She resists but – after an exhausting series of adventures – all ends ‘happily’ when she accepts his proposal to marry him.  Pamela was a best-seller at the time, and divided readers into two camps, the Pamelists, for whom Pamela’s virtue and sense were real and laudable, and the anti-Pamelists, who saw her as an amoral hypocrite and her machinations as a sham.  (Henry Fielding, in his counter-novel Shamela of 1741, was one of the latter).

Samuel Richardson

The sexually explicit stage production, with Cate Blanchett and Stephen Dillane imprisoned in a modern garage, has also had mixed reviews.   It’s been criticised, among other things, for its lack of dramatic conflict, since the clever (unnamed) Woman easily and repeatedly outwits the nominally more powerful Man.

The radio intellectuals soon get themselves into all kinds of conceptual and moral tangle in discussing the two works.  Are Pamela’s dilemmas in 1740 paralleled in today’s sexual politics?  The ‘will I be blamed?’ worry of the novel seems a current concern.  So too ‘grooming’, ‘gaslighting’ and ‘Stockholm syndrome’ – or maybe not.  ‘Who’s in control?’, too, is common to novel and play.  Is masculinity ’toxic’, or is it ‘all talk’?  Or is talk (‘discursive power’) a feminine weapon, in refusing consent?  And isn’t the ‘formal’ consent of Richardson insufficient today; only ‘enthusiastic consent’ will do.  What about the second, almost pornographic part of Pamela, and the third, the ‘happy marriage’?

Mr B. finds Pamela writing

The conversation got faster and faster, as each speaker tried to finish the flow of ideas ahead of the next, and more and more confusing (a ‘soupy mess’ is how one of them called contemporary sexual politics), so that my attention was beginning to wander, when one of them suddenly said ‘I wonder if we put too much analytical load on sex now.  We want too much of sex.  We want sex to tell us everything.  Sex is too public.  We talk about it too much’.  There’s too much ‘fighting talk’ about sexual behaviour, she suggested; it’s constantly weaponised and should be de-armed.  A more sensitive vocabulary’s needed for relationships (earlier the voices had noted a complete absence of ‘empathy and tenderness’ in the Martin Crimp play).

It struck me that the word she was aiming for, but didn’t arrive at, was ‘affection’.  It’s a word that’s almost fallen out of the dictionary these days, which is a pity (the word ‘affect’, on the other hand, is alive and well in psychological writing).  The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as ‘favourable or kindly disposition towards a person or thing; fondness, tenderness; goodwill, warmth of attachment’.  It quotes a manuscript of 1440: ‘Affeccyon, or hertyly wellwyllynge’, and from Henry Fielding’s novel Tom Jones, published eight years after Shamela: ‘We are no sooner in Love, than it becomes our principal Care to engage the Affection of the Object beloved.’

Pamela and Mr B in the summer house

Today the range of ‘affection’ seems to have retreated to that of family relations.  (My father wasn’t a man who demonstrated his feelings much, but he signed every letter to me ‘Yours affectionally’, something that I always found touching.)  Maybe we need to restore the word to the realm of romantic and sexual relationships.  That would have the advantage of disentangling us from the regressive vocabulary of sexual politics and ultimately self-defeating attempts to read the suspected motives of the partner.  And it would replace cold analysis with a warmer empathy.

Of course, this wouldn’t be welcomed by contemporary writers.  Novelists and playwrights alike prefer to mix private and public, feelings and politics.  That recipe grips readers and audiences in a way that more tender relations cannot, they would say.  Writers in past centuries wouldn’t agree, though: there were many in the eighteenth century, Fielding included, for whom ‘sentiment’ was easily novelisable, and in the nineteenth century Dickens and others rarely fought shy of sentiment or indeed sentimentality.

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