July 01, 2008

Frances Ferguson on ‘Rape and the Rise of the Novel’

ReaderIn ‘Rape and the Rise of the Novel,’ Frances Ferguson has some interesting things to say about the discourses of ‘truth’ and ‘fiction’ especially in cases where the testimony of the rapist is pitted against that of the one (often the woman) who was raped. The demands of the courtroom create a conundrum, a catch-22 that disenfranchises women forcing them to remain in a rape script that renders them powerless.

Even as the political and fictional logic establishes the woman’s truthfulness, the link between her truthfulness and her powerlessness itself comes to function as an inevitably self contradictory formula. It thus imposes a limiting term on the very capacity for subversion or compensation that political reform and visionary fiction might hope to provide. Were a woman to become powerful, she would lose the weakness that is the very condition of the strength of her testimony. That is, her very lack of power guarantees her truthfulness; her not counting makes her words count. The question of authentic testimony about rape thus approaches something of a paradox of statutory rape in which the possibility of radical self-contradiction is defined as the easiest case, the most determinate and determinable reality (Ferguson 1989 :97).

Ferguson concludes that there have been three treatments of the history of rape:
1. there has been the determination of truthteller by gender – man or woman;
2. there has been a fictitious certainty defining rape in formal terms that involve possibility of self-contradiction;
3. and there has been competition between the story and the narrator, reality and the telling of it.

Ferguson suggests that the questions raised above appear in some of the pioneering examples of the novel form. She mentions Pamela (1740) by Samuel Richardson, but mainly focuses on Richardson’s Clarissa comparing the novel with Ovid’s tale of Philomela. [For more info on Richardson see: http://www.literaryhistory.com/18thC/Richardson.htm ].

While the metamorphic account of rape (Philomela) gives the shape of a memory to the story of an unspeakable act (the story of the rape of the Levite’s wife), Richardson rewrites the rape story to create the psychological novel. The novel is psychological, moreover, not because it is about the plausibility of its characters but because it insists upon the importance of psychology as the ongoing possibility of the contradiction between what one must mean and what one wants to mean. […] Clarissa becomes a psychological novel, then, not just in representing the ambiguity of forms and the struggles inherent in interpretation. In adapting the spirit of Lovelacean stipulation that nonconsent can be consent, Clarissa answers Lovelace not just by refusing her retroactive consent to the act of rape but by living the stipulated contradiction that his act and his construction of it have made it visible. Stipulation, trying to put a limit to ambiguity by defining the understanding of a term or a situation, is potentially infinite. (Ferguson 1989: 109)

Reference
Ferguson, Frances. 1989. ‘Rape and the Rise of the Novel.’ Misogyny, Misandry and Misanthropy. Ed. R. Howard Bloch and Frances Ferguson. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press. 88 – 112.


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