Western civilization was born of a swift and violent rape.
Zeus, the great god of ancient Greek myth, voyeuristic, rapey, gives into his overwhelming urges, dons the form of a swan, swoops down upon a young and unsuspecting Leda, rapes her, and leaves her reeling, and pregnant with her attacker’s children, perhaps the most notable of which is Helen. Yes, that Helen. The one who’s beauty spawned the Trojan War (although perhaps had Zeus used Trojans none of this would have happened… but I digress).
(Watch that word, by the way, “rapey.” It figures prominently in this blog post.)
For me the best and most poignant version of the story is W.B. Yeats’s Leda and the Swan. Yeats foregrounds the brutal violence with which Zeus the rapist assaults his victim so that there can be no mistake as to what is taking place. And we, as readers, or witnesses, are powerless:
A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?
Those last 2 lines remain as problematic as ever. And there has been some excellent criticism over the years suggesting that, for Yeats, not only was this assault the birth of civilization, but a useful metaphor for the troubled Ireland in which he grew and lived and worked, witnessing his beloved isle’s destruction, “The broken wall, the burning roof and tower.”
I wrote my master’s thesis on this poem. My intention was to defend Yeats as a poet, and his right, as an artist, to use whatever metaphor he chose. His Vision of civilization’s beginnings intermingled with his sorrow for Ireland. The poem indicates that he felt, to use a common expression, that his homeland had been raped.
What sparked my defence of Yeats was classmate’s presentation in which she argued that by writing about a rape the artist was necessarily enacting a rape. I could not have disagreed more strongly. Was she saying that Yeats, by virtue of this poem, had committed a rape, that he was now a rapist as well as a poet and a politician? That he, or his poem, was… rapey? I just could not accept that reasoning.
Looking back, she may have had a point… to an extent.
But does that mean that by defending Yeats as a poet, that I was also defending him as a rapist? Of course not. That’s ridiculous. But would I have been so quick to defend him if I’d been a rape victim? I still stand by my argument that it is ultimately the right of an artist to use whatever metaphors best foreground his or her vision.
In our culture rape has become almost sacred, as it were, and will not brook being profaned by flippant representations in the pop cultural lexicon (there are some exceptions).
Robin Thicke’s song Blurred Lines, or at least the uncensored video that goes along with it, has been described as “rapey.” Whether you would agree with that characterization is secondary to my point: that “rapey,” as a word, is silly, and perhaps trivializing as an adjectival form of the noun or verb “rape.”
One of my Facebook Friends (and real life friends, for that matter), the always relevant, well-informed, and forthright Shayne Gryn, took me to task on that point, arguing that “‘rapey’ is a useful word to describe something seriously problematic.”
Shayne is one of the most Feministic men I know. Or to put it more appropriately, no other man I know has the level of respect for women that Shayne does. As such, of late Shayne has been talking a lot about Rape Culture, the theory that in our cultural context, as one publication puts it, “prevalent attitudes and practices normalize, excuse, tolerate, or even condone rape.” To wit, we live in a “rapey” society.
It’s the word that I have a problem with. Rapey is a fairly recent term, an adjective that denotes either an inclination to rape, as in “He’s not just creepy. He’s downright rapey,” or characterized by rape, as in, well, the argument that Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines is a bit rapey. But I believe that “rapey” is just a bit to cutesy a term for its connotation. The suffix –y, attached to “rape” to form the descriptor, indicates the informal, the endearing, and the familiar. Its use, in some cases, suggests nicknames (Jakey, Davey, Barbie, Suzy, Robby… birdy, fishy, doggy… Grumpy, Dopey, Sneezy…) As such it suggests that “rapey,” is a nickname for someone who is inclined to rape (“Hey Rapey! Get any action this weekend?”). However the function of the suffix becomes problematic because it is indeed “sometimes used to mean ‘allowing, fostering, or bringing about’ the specified action,” which in this case is rape.
And, again, as Shayne has argued, “rapey” is perfectly useful as a referent to something troublesome. But would you refer to a creepy guy skulking around a playground as seeming a bit child-molesty or pedophiley? That would be like calling him a bit of a pedophile rather than simply a pedophile.
But I’m all about words and whether they adequately express ideas and thoughts. Shayne, at least in this instance, is more concerned with ideas and how we can best express them as to be understood and dealt with. Perhaps, he argues, my focus on the word “is a distraction from the arguments in which the word is used.” He may be right. What is clear is that he and I agree on the idea of rape and the rape culture as reprehensible, we’re just approaching it from two different directions. We will, I’m sure, eventually meet in the middle.