Pope Anticipated the Ansari Affair

C. R. Leslie, arguments break out after Belinda’s lock is “raped”

Thursday

Yesterday I suggested that Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock can illuminate the Aziz Ansari date-gone-bad that many are discussing. The situations don’t match up exactly given that, in the poem, the fan harasses the star rather than the other way around. As in the Ansari case, however, skewed social values contribute to the bad encounter.

To review what happened, 22-year-old “Grace” met up with Ansari at a party and was excited when later he asked her out on a date. As the date proceeded, however, she felt increasingly uncomfortable. Here’s a sampling of what she says happened:

Throughout the course of her short time in the apartment, she says she used verbal and non-verbal cues to indicate how uncomfortable and distressed she was. “Most of my discomfort was expressed in me pulling away and mumbling. I know that my hand stopped moving at some points,” she said. “I stopped moving my lips and turned cold.”

Whether Ansari didn’t notice Grace’s reticence or knowingly ignored it is impossible for her to say. “I know I was physically giving off cues that I wasn’t interested. I don’t think that was noticed at all, or if it was, it was ignored.”

Ansari wanted to have sex. She said she remembers him asking again and again, “Where do you want me to fuck you?” while she was still seated on the countertop. She says she found the question tough to answer because she says she didn’t want to fuck him at all.

Eventually she brought the evening to a close by calling a car and leaving, crying all the way home.

Everyone, it seems, has an opinion on the matter, from those who believe that Grace should have been more forceful and communicative to those who fault Ansari for not understanding her “verbal and non-verbal cues.” Some who believe that Ansari was out of line nevertheless want to separate the episode out from the #MeToo movement, which they feel should be reserved for criminal acts. Others, especially young women, recognize in the episode their own bad dates and want more of the #MeToo spotlight turned on bad male behavior, even when it isn’t criminal.

In Pope’s mock epic, the “rape” is what we would call sexual harassment and involves a pair of scissors (Pope uses the Latin word “forfex”). A rakish aristocrat, having flirted with and then been rebuffed by Belinda, goes after a lock of her hair:

The Peer now spreads the glitt’ring Forfex wide,
T’inclose the Lock; now joins it, to divide…
The meeting Points that sacred Hair dissever
From the fair Head, forever and forever!

Pope addresses the poetic muse in an effort to figure out what has gone wrong:

   Say what strange Motive, Goddess! cou’d compel
A well-bred Lord t’assault a gentle Belle?
Oh say what stranger Cause, yet unexplor’d,
Cou’d make a gentle Belle reject a Lord?
And dwells such Rage in softest Bosoms then?
And lodge such daring Souls in Little Men?

He concludes that society has lost all sense of proportion. Celebrity culture causes certain people to see themselves as gods and others to worship them as such. So obsessed is “the Baron” with Belinda that, in mock imitation of the Homeric Greeks, he offers up a sacrifice to the goddess Love to win her:

   For this, e’re Phoebus rose, he had implor’d
Propitious Heav’n, and ev’ry Pow’r ador’d,
But chiefly Love — to Love an Altar built,
Of twelve vast French Romances, neatly gilt.
There lay three Garters, half a Pair of Gloves;
And all the Trophies of his former Loves.
With tender Billet-doux he lights the Pyre,
And breathes three am’rous Sighs to raise the Fire.
Then prostrate falls, and begs with ardent Eyes
Soon to obtain, and long possess the Prize:
The Pow’rs gave Ear, and granted half his Pray’r,
The rest, the Winds dispers’d in empty Air.

Belinda, meanwhile, is having her ego stroked by everyone about her:

Fair Nymphs, and well-drest Youths around her shone,
But ev’ry Eye was fix’d on her alone.
On her white Breast a sparkling Cross she wore,
Which Jews might kiss, and Infidels adore.
Her lively Looks a sprightly Mind disclose,
Quick as her Eyes, and as unfix’d as those: 
Favours to none, to all she Smiles extends,
Oft she rejects, but never once offends.
Bright as the Sun, her Eyes the Gazers strike,
And, like the sun, they shine on all alike.
Yet graceful Ease, and Sweetness void of Pride,
Might hide her Faults, if Belles had faults to hide:
If to her share some Female Errors fall,
Look on her Face, and you’ll forget ’em all.

Belinda is not responsible for the assault, but she is guilty of toying with the Baron, if for no other reason than to vaunt her power over him. He believes that he will be lifted up if he wins her, and she uses his adulation to confirm her self-worth. Neither one is very deep.

Nor is anyone around them. The rest of society is an 18th-century version of Access Hollywood glamor culture, easily distractible and having no sense of what matters. No wonder the two young people behave as they do:

   Hither the Heroes and the Nymphs resort,
To taste awhile the Pleasures of a Court;
In various Talk th’ instructive hours they past,
Who gave the Ball, or paid the Visit last:
One speaks the Glory of the British Queen,
And one describes a charming Indian Screen.
A third interprets Motions, Looks, and Eyes;
At ev’ry Word a Reputation dies.

The unfortunate result is a public scandal and, as in our own case, everyone has his or her own take on the matter:

All side in Parties, and begin th’ Attack;
Fans clap, Silks russle, and tough Whalebones crack;
Heroes and Heroines Shouts confus’dly rise,
And base, and treble Voices strike the Skies.

I think that, as in Pope’s poem, celebrity culture blinded both Grace and Ansari. Grace was thrilled to be dating a star, perhaps so much so that she wasn’t as forceful as she should have been about setting boundaries (made more challenging by the power imbalance). Ansari, meanwhile, appears to have thought his stardom gave him special license to push things fast.  Maybe he took for granted that a fan would want to go along with whatever he wanted.

Perhaps Grace fell in love with the star’s sensitive persona in Master of None, assumed he would be that way in real life, and felt betrayed when he wasn’t. Ansari, meanwhile, didn’t acknowledge his star’s sense of entitlement. Everyone was projecting and nothing was real. No wonder everything went downhill.

In the poem, Pope presents us with a character who tries to wake everyone up to what really matters in life. Clarissa tells Belinda to focus on merit, not on appearance:

Beauties in vain their pretty Eyes may roll;
Charms strike the Sight, but Merit wins the Soul.

You won’t be surprised that the advice goes unheeded:

   So spake the Dame, but no Applause ensu’d;
Belinda frown’d, Thalestris call’d her Prude.

Instead, the Baron is unrepentant while Belinda cries and then throws a temper tantrum. No one learns anything.

Pope wrote Rape of the Lock in response to a real life blow-up. Satire’s moral purpose is to bring us to our senses. We need it now as much as ever.

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