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.
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.
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,‘The Garden’, 57-64
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.
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?
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.