Was Marvell a seventeenth-century ‘incel’?

Given some of my recent reading, I find myself very relieved that I didn’t come to identify as an ‘Incel’, because many of the warning signs were there.

Bookish - Image by Strawbleu
Bookish – Image by Strawbleu

A community of self-professed ‘involuntary celibates’ has shot to attention in recent months after a number of its most radical activists carried out a number of terror attacks. While it’s not uncommon for the perpetrators of such deeds to be classed as loners, ‘incel’ is a new label for a particular brand of hatred and social distrust.

It’s mostly troubled young men unable to engage with society and in relationships, some of whom place the blame on women and/or societal evolution to explain their frustration and alienation. Some incels claim that past experiences or regular humiliation has irreparably damaged their confidence. Some – as I have done – perpetuate their own theories by collecting evidence of the way they are treated.

The most disillusioned of the incel community refer to themselves as ‘black-pilled’. This (with its clear Matrix overtones) is to settle on the belief that women reject ‘inferior’ men as they now possess all the tools necessary to seek those of higher status. Equally, a breakdown in societal monogamy enables men and women to use and manipulate their traits to their own advantage, while less worthwhile men are left in the dust.

(See a wonderful examination here.)

Ultimately, those with enough anger to burn at their frustration, alienation, and ‘not getting any’ find only each other for a disturbing community that can ostracise one another based on lowest common denominators (i.e. if you’re not a virgin, you’re bragging just by being there.)

Of course, this is the more extreme end of the scale, and there are others who deal with long spells of celibacy in different ways (such as an indulgent biography for Penguin). But ‘incel’ puts a name to a timeless problem that is little spoken of, which is how to deal with an involuntary absence of sex. Is disappointment excusable? Desolation? Anger? Misogyny?

It’s a problem that haunts some of the lyric poems of seventeenth-century poet Andrew Marvell, most prominently ‘To His Coy Mistress’.

Tactless, luckless, lifeless

I’ve always contended that ‘To His Coy Mistress’ is a poem about failure. The speaker’s attempts at seduction are unsuccessful, and his approaches are tactless and graphic. (One hears the warning bells about modern youth taking their sexual expectations from porn.)

It’s also noticeable that a poet who often uses enclosures as a means of fulfilment thinks here about expansion, which is clearly of no use. “Yonder all before us lie / Deserts of vast eternity”. Enclosure is recognised only in the grave (a fine and private place), which is too late – and by definition, failure.

Marvell’s more wholesome ‘The Definition of Love’ is a further example. The argument in this poem is that opportunities and loves arise when lines cross, as on a planisphere or astrolabe. Despite the near infinite amount of opportunity afforded by this analogy, the speaker’s fate is parallel lines that are destined never to cross.

The ‘definition’ must therefore explain how the speaker misses out, under his own mindset.

By the time we reach ‘The Garden’, Marvell’s speaker seems to have adopted something like a ‘black pill’ mentality. He sexualises nature before denouncing human companionship.

Such was that happy garden-state,
While man there walked without a mate:
After a place so pure, and sweet,
What other help could yet be meet?
But t’was beyond a mortal’s share
To wander solitary there:
Two Paradises t’were in one
To live in Paradise alone.

‘The Garden’, 57-64

Many have accused Marvell of misogyny here, though I’m not among them. This is not necessarily a straightforward dismissal of women; it could be a desire to rid the thoughts that plague him – of everything you want but cannot have.

We might even consider Abraham Cowley’s grand statement that the state of solitude befits only a few designated souls who are capable of transcending earthly pleasures (which, of course, includes himself):

Solitude can be well fitted and set right upon very few persons… The first work therefore that a man must do to make himself capable of the good of Solitude, is, the very Eradication of all Lusts, for how is it possible for a Man to enjoy himself while his Affections are tyed to things without Himself?

I think Marvell explores this sort of issue – whether or not he can just accept his fate without any sentimentality at all. In doing so, he creates a bizarre dehumanising fantasy state that eventually drowns in green thought and shade. The ascending hyperbole throughout ‘The Garden’ makes it difficult to determine exactly what sentiment is being displayed or even how genuine it is.

Yet, whatever we settle on, from isolation to misogyny, that’s only how Marvell addresses the problem of loneliness or how to fulfil one’s needs when you don’t feel ‘cut out’ for the environment you’re living in. It’s not denying the problem.

Is this the mind of the seventeenth-century incel?

Andrew Marvell - Portrait

Marvell’s readers have rarely sought loneliness in his works – that mercurial mood that can only be sensed rather than found. The private side of Marvell has seen him fashioned as a contented loner – one who sought solitude and isolation and who derived comfort and pleasure from them.

But that’s very different from a man who may have felt lonely, alienated, and bitterly disappointed to discover that his preferred solitude always raised more difficulties than rewards. Marvell’s unusual picture of solitude shows how the value of Epicurean delights is so easily undermined or displaced by the realities against which they are measured.

Perhaps ‘The Garden’ is an outright rejection of companionship, given a number of poems that explore different approaches and failures. But for me, the bizarre eroticism and unsustainable introversion reflects something much more human and yearning – and by that token, more difficult and painful.

This short sequence of poems epitomise how Marvell can strive just as hard – if not harder – to persuade himself away from privacy rather than towards it. It’s harder to live within a world of want and need than to blank it all out and just continue to exist. How do we make ends meet?


I realise there’s a good deal of simplification here, and a range of scholarship on Marvell and sexuality that I’m not referencing. But it’s an initial question that perhaps warrants more.

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2 thoughts on “Was Marvell a seventeenth-century ‘incel’?

  1. I’m actually rather jealous of incels, they are the most naive of all men. Only the truly blue-pilled could ever believe that a woman is the answer to their problems and their prayers.

    It has ever been thus, as literature throughout the ages tells us. But the application of neo-liberal free market principles to dating has brought us to its apotheosis. Consider Houellbecq, writing in 1994:

    “Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization. Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never. Some make love with dozens of women; others with none. It’s what’s known as ‘the law of the market’. In an economic system where unfair dismissal is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their place. In a sexual system where adultery is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their bed mate. In a totally liberal economic system certain people accumulate considerable fortunes; others stagnate in unemployment and misery. In a totally liberal sexual system certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude.”

    In ’94, this was a theory, little more than an observational hunch. In 2018, we have the data to prove it. An analysis of the Tinder Economy is devastating:

    View story at Medium.com

    In short, “The bottom 80% of men (in terms of attractiveness) are competing for the bottom 22% of women and the top 78% of women are competing for the top 20% of men.”

    If you don’t believe it, create a fake Tinder profile, OK Cupid profile, or Instagram account using a few pictures of an average or even below average woman. It will be inundated with hundreds if not thousands of offers of sex.

    Consider the effect this has on a person. Before online dating became a thing, the average woman might be approached by a guy maybe once or twice a week, now women are approached by thousands of men, daily.

    It does not take a genius to work out the effect this overwhelming imbalance between supply and demand has upon those who control the supply.

    In such a game, the only winning move is not to play.

    In a completely unchecked capitalist society, it is very likely that the 1% would end up with all the resources while the 99% starve. Under such circumstances, revolution would be inevitable. That is why hyper-capitalist systems fail and redistribution works. However there can be no redistribution in the sexual marketplace — people choose the best partner available to them and no-one can be compelled to sleep with anyone else. The incels who call for sexual “redistribution” are stupid and vile. The only tools available to us are those that promote monogamy and punish transgressions from this societal norm. Tools that have worked throughout the ages. However it is these very institutions — marriage, the family unit, etc — that the radicals in today’s society seek to tear down.

    The end result of all of this is very much as Houellebecq predicted nearly a quarter of a century ago.

    Incels are to be pitied, but they are simply fools who have not grasped the true nature of the system which they are enslaved to. True freedom comes from refusing to play by the rules of the game, from walking away from a rigged system designed to keep us in chains.

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