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Tuesday, June 21, 2022

In Praise Of Brothels And Promiscuity–Shakespeare, Hypocrisy, And Moral Sanctimony

The word "whore" occurs over 50 times in Shakespeare’s works, and pimps and madams appear as memorable and entertaining characters. In the Henriad, Mistress Nell Quickly who runs the Boar’s Head Tavern is a sexually promiscuous woman who was likely an after-hours prostitute, not unlike a frequent customer of her tavern and a friend, Doll Tearsheet.

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Shakespeare’s 1604 comedy Measure for Measure takes place in a city where where sexual promiscuity has become widespread. When a reforming purge of brothels gets underway, those in the trade are the obvious targets for the city’s governors. The brothel-keeper Mistress Overdone and the pimp Pompey are paraded as scapegoats, but they each challenge the judgement of those occupying the moral high ground.

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Mistress Overdone announces that the authorities themselves are corrupt; the one who informed on her, she says, is himself a whore-monger who has fathered a child out of wedlock.  

Pompey attacks the law as arbitrary: prostitution would be "a lawful trade...if the law would allow it".  Pompey argues that sexual urges are natural. A pimp may be the subject of official notice, but prostitution is driven by demand. Pompey explains that the only way authorities could successfully eradicate prostitution and regulate desire would be to neuter "all the youth of the city".

In Pericles, Prince of Tyre, a princess is kidnapped by pirates and sold into sexual slavery. To the brothel-keepers, it is evident that the princess, Marina, is a highborn virgin and thus a profitable investment. Customers flock to their door, but the brothel proprietors soon find that Marina is bad for business as she miraculously converts her clients. As the pimp Bolt comically complains, the saintly Marina has even sent one customer "away as cold as a snowball; saying his prayers too"!

Bolt continues by arguing that pimping is a desirable alternative to other lowly professions, such as soldiering: "What would you have me do? Go to the wars, would you, where a man may serve seven years for the loss of a leg, and have not money enough in the end to buy him a wooden one?"

According to contemporary gossip, Shakespeare was not only notoriously promiscuous, but also part of a love triangle in which all three parties contracted venereal disease. The standard Elizabethan treatment for syphilis was mercury; as the saying goes, “a night with Venus, a lifetime with Mercury.”

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Prostitution was common in Elizabethan times and only occasionally prosecuted.  In the main prostitution was a profession like any other, subject to supply and demand, a living for those living on the margins.

Moral eyebrows might have been raised, but no universal opprobrium.  Prostitution was simply a way of life.  Nell Quickly is not a victim, nor a sexually abused, enslaved woman, but lively, bawdy, and as vital as Falstaff.  Those who criticize Mistress Overdone’s profession are no more than sanctimonious fools - men who in contrast to her and her women are dishonest.  Men whose tenuous authority turns them into moral panderers, righteous bawds.

How different from the current era where moral panderers and righteous bawds are universal.  These guardians of female virtue are far worse than Don Angelo, the Governor pro tem of Vienna in Measure for Measure who closes all brothels in the city, condemns to death an innocent man for promiscuity, but who attempts to seduce a novitiate, the sister of the condemned man, by offering to free him for a night in bed with her.  

Today’s latter day arbiters of of morality have not simply decried ‘unwanted’ sexual activity, but have raised sexual innuendo to a crime.  Women, despite the militant feminism of their defenders, have become victims; and they, regardless of circumstance, enabling environment, or even willingness will always be so. 

Men are ipso facto sexual predators. The MeToo movement is a transparent attempt to neuter men, to place them in moral stocks, tar and feather them, whip and exile them for just insinuating male pursuit. These petty moralizers are as hypocritical as Angelo – the public image of women on the cover of every woman’s magazine is sexy, provocative, and tempting; yet the guardians claim innocence.  Temptation is a man’s problem.

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Abel Ferrara best known for The Bad Lieutenant made a film entitled Welcome To New York – the story of a wealthy, powerful, promiscuous French politician who is accused of rape by a New York City prosecutor who later drops all charges.   

The story is obviously but loosely based on the saga of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former head of the International Monetary Fund and presumptive President of France who was accused by an African maid of rape.  The prosecutor, Cyrus Vance Jr. overstepped his bounds, apparently motivated by political ambition, and pursued the case against Strauss-Kahn despite increasingly exculpatory evidence.  Strauss-Kahn returned to France, his political career ruined, but because of his financial genius, currently is a well-remunerated consultant.

Ferrara’s story, however, is not a fictionalized account of the long legal process nor a biopic of Strauss-Kahn.  It is the tale of an unashamed philanderer who refuses to be put in the cage of conventional morality.  He is neither proud of nor guilty about his infidelities or sexual appetites.  It is who I am, he says, a self-described libertine whose supposed immorality is other people’s problem.

The real-life Strauss-Kahn was no less defiant.  When he flippantly rejected charges of procuring, he said that he had no idea that the women at a party he attended were prostitutes.  “All women look the same without their clothes”, he said.  “I did no wrong”.

The wife of the fictional Strauss-Kahn, played by Jacqueline Bisset, has stayed with her husband for twenty years less out of love than her desire to be First Lady of France.  Her fabulous wealth is not enough,  and only the position of La Présidente will satisfy her ambition.  She knows her husband well, and has tolerated if not accepted his sexual profligacy because it is inconsequential and irrelevant given the intellectual brilliance and political savvy of the man.

Sexual libertinage, promiscuity, or addiction – whatever the press might call it – is in his eyes morally neutral.  Prostitution has always been tolerated if not legal in France, and women are as much commodities as those he has always traded on world markets.   The fact that his sex drive is more insatiable than others is not the point.

The  penultimate scene – that of Devereaux propositioning the maid – is the moral closure of the film.  He is virile, irrepressible, contemptuous of the bourgeoisie and its myopic values, and subversive of them.  He is reminiscent of Fyodor Karamazov, the father of the brothers of Dostoevsky’s novel, who is as sexually driven, condescending, and irreverent.  Both men are attractive in their will, defiance of the meek, timid, and sexually repressed.

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Ferrara’s film is particularly important because it was produced in a very politically correct time and dealt with subjects– accusations of rape, infidelity, and sexual ambition -  which are reported in only predictably correct ways.  Devereaux’ legal proceedings and acquittal do not interest Ferrara.  The film is as ambiguous on this score as the claims and defense of the case on which it was based.  Ferrara is only interested in showing an absolutely confident, determined, willful, unapologetic, and unrepentant man in the face of sanctimonious social censure.

Sex for Devereaux was necessary and ineluctable. As in the case of most older men, sex with younger women is their only hope of retaining the potency and vitality of their youth.  Although sexual conquest is enough for most men, Devereaux could not stop there.   It was the sex act in all its twisted diversity that mattered.  And what was wrong with that?

Infidelity, always the object of derision in America, is only a sidelight in Ferrara’s film.   It is of absolutely no consequence in the arranged marriage of the Devereaux and no consequence at all within the context of individual will.  Nietzsche is famous for his Superman; but he was right in his statement that the only validation of the individual in a meaningless world is the expression of his will.   

Devereaux is a perfect Nietzschean Superman.  Men always cheat on their wives because sexuality is the defining characteristic of human nature; and lovers, the variety of sexual experience, the roll call of conquests, and the loosening of the traces, make us – especially men - what we are.

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Fyodor Karamazov is often dismissed by modern critics as an unduly authoritarian father, for his emotional dismissiveness of them, and for his all-consuming selfish desires.  Yet Fyodor is the most attractive character of all the Karamazovs.  He wants no part of Alyosha’s religiosity or of Ivan’s academic atheism.  Dmitri is weak, susceptible, and morally suspect.  

Only Fyodor – like Nietzsche’s Superman and Ferrara’s Devereaux – follows his own instincts as an expression of will, a scorn for bourgeois society, and an understanding that dismissiveness and pleasure are all that count in a world that amounts to very little.

Sharp edges, moral imperfections, and stubborn sexuality are all universally condemned in American progressives’ desire to reform the world.   Great statesmen– FDR, LBJ, MLK, Thomas Jefferson, and many others – are now judged more on the basis of the rectitude of their personal lives than for their political leadership.  Jefferson’s sex life with slaves; Martin Luther King’s Lothario lifestyle, Roosevelt’s longtime mistress; Clinton’s dalliance with an intern are now judged alongside of war and peace, social reform, justice, and equality.

Of course ambitious and intelligent men will do just about anything to get what they want; and since power breeds even more  marital and social infidelity, no one should be surprised at their stretching the truth, evasion of accountability, and amoral pursuit of their goals.

Our lenses have become distorted by sanctimony and idealism.  The world is no different than it was in the days of empire and long before.  Men and women are just as territorial, protective, violent, and ambitious as in the days of Henry VI or Elizabeth I.  Humanity is not progressing, but acting as it always has. 

Welcome to New York is a film for our times; and Shakespeare’s bawds and panders are just like us.

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