The reasons for this blog: 1. To provide basic author information for students, teachers, librarians, etc. (Please see sidebar) 2. I think out loud a lot as I work through writing projects, and I'm trying to dump most of those thoughts here rather than on my friends.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Today's WIP problem is one of modern sensibilities running smack into history and bringing everything to a halt. The problem is: rapists = bad. No question about that. However, you find plenty of Greek heroes and gods raping left and right. In the Bronze Age the winners of wars killed all the men among their enemy, then took all the women and kept them as slaves for textile production and for bedmates. The women didn't have any choice. And since only men wrote the stories (or histories), we don't know what the women thought about it. The overriding impression I get is that they just endured--but again, all we have is what men said about it. I was looking at a recent book by a woman arguing that the words "seduction" and "rape" were interchangeable in Greek myths, but--again--what she's looking at was all written by men, who probably were more comfortable believing that women didn't mind. (Plus, she narrowed down her thesis to leave out all the myths that didn't agree, then went back and mentioned the few outside the narrowing-down that did agree, just to shore up her point. IMO, this is an example of why you always have to read nonfiction with skeptical eye.).*

I've been struck by Pepys' (17th century England) ability to force himself on women, and by his apparent inability to care how they felt about it. There's this self-centeredness to him, like if he enjoys what he's doing, what the women think about it is inconsequential. And the richer he gets, the more he seems to feel that all women can be had, if he just cares to put forth the effort (g*d knows even he admits he flat-out raped Mrs. Bagwell). I see the same self-centeredness in the Greek warriors taking their prizes back to their tents.

And I saw the same thing in Genji (10th/11th century Japan), over and over, but most of all at the end of chapter nine, where Genji finally consummates his relationship with Murasaki. And that's just creepy, because he first saw her when she was maybe ten years old, and he took her off without permission and groomed her to be the kind of woman he wanted. Then he decides it's time to do the deed, and I don't know how old she is by then, but it's barely out of childhood. She's always thought he was a dear friend and companion and playmate, and then one night he just does it. Typically, we don't get to hear about it, just the aftermath, when Genji has left and little Murasaki stays in bed all day and everyone assumes she's feeling sick:

"That this was what Genji had so long been wanting came to her as a complete surprise and she could not think why he should regard the unpleasant thing that had happened last night as in some way the beginning of a new and more intimate friendship between them."**

Remember, he's the master, the boss of the house, an important man whom nobody can gainsay. So anyway, when he comes back, she hides under the covers and stays there and won't talk to him, but he doesn't quite get it, and tries to cajole her. When he finally pulls the covers away, he finds that she's so upset she's worked herself into a sweat. He tries giving her gifts, then pretending to be angry, but "he found even her rebuffs in a curious way endearing." This goes on as he completes the process of marrying her (sleeping with her that night was the first step). She has zero choice in the matter, and it doesn't matter one iota how she felt about sex. It's very clear she didn't like it, and that he doesn't care whether she did, and to me he doesn't seem likely to care in future, either. All that's important to him is how she interacts with him before and after, and how it impacts his daily pleasure in her company (she'd better start being nice to him, or else she's history, is the feeling I get).

Notice that this book was written by a woman. She lived in a society where men could do as they pleased and women were their cloistered subjects, and to me, every page drips with the assumption that men had the right. To me, Murasaki (the author, not the character; they have the same name) felt that the way to tell a good man was by how generous he was about financially supporting all the women in his life, and by how artistically he went about his love affairs. To me, this is a clue about how women might view rape and forced sex, in a world where men could see only as far as the ends of their, er, noses. Beyond their own pleasure, men had no need to consider. Beyond that, things might get a little uncomfortable. So they didn't go there, either emotionally or mentally. Conveniently, then, they had no need for a conscience, the same way you don't have to have empathy for animals if you believe their only reason for existence is for the use and convenience of mankind. And if the men essentially dictated the foundations of right and wrong, then the society as a whole had no conscience or empathy. The entire culture, the entire world, didn't go there.

That's why--if the entire world around you views rape as something that just kinda happens, like blisters or dandruff--I'm wondering if you (as a woman) are going to perhaps take it in stride in a way modern women can't even begin to conceive.

All this to say, my stumbling block is that I've got some good guys who perform a retaliation molestation. The point is that women were property, and if some guy came and messed with your property, you went and messed with his right back. Back then, you could do this and still be a good guy. The books from those times and cultures are full of good guys who molested and raped women. My guess is that there was just a big blank spot in the guys, in this one place where people today have empathy and conscience. And I don't know how to handle this. By all rights, this action ought to make my characters bad guys. How do I keep them good guys? Do I let them have a glimmer of modern conscience? If so, how do I do that without being forced and unnatural? Even more important, how do I do it without being author-intrusive and didactic? Because if I do that, I might as well hand Helen of Troy a sword and let her go out and kick Achilles @ss and win Hector's body back single-handed.

Am I wrong, though? If something's morally wrong now but was acceptable practice long ago, does that mean it was always wrong? What if it was more than acceptable long ago--what if it was honorable?

*And blogs, too. Including this one.

**This is from the Arthur Waley translation.

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