Jeeves and the Incest Taboo

So I’ve been rereading some Wodehouse here lately, and it’s got me thinking seriously about the incest taboo.

Follow my thinking. Roderick Spode, the short-panted fascist wannabe, admits to Bertie Wooster that he has long held feelings of love for Madeline Bassett, the daughter of Spode’s good friend Sir Watkyn Bassett. The respective ages of Spode and Sir Watkyn aren’t clearly enumerated, but one suspects that they are contemporaries, though the ITV series Jeeves and Wooster cast Spode as perhaps a little younger than Sir Watkyn (or, at least, not as gray). There was a time when a friend your own age might legitimately express a fancy toward your daughter, creepy though we now regard the thought of someone who is practically an uncle watching you grow and mature like a tomato he can’t wait to pick the moment it’s ripe. Among the aging nobility, marrying a girl in her teens was simply how business might be conducted. And face it—from the girl’s perspective, not a lot changes. In a patriarchal society, she is expected to be obedient to her father, and marriage simply transfers that obedience to a husband. Traditionally, the woman never becomes a person of her own, a subject. The husband becomes the new father, his will to be done.

Much has been written on how such a system essentially infantalizes the wife vis-a-vis her husband. However, what this patriarchal framework also does is sexualize the role of the father. After all, the proper suitor seeks the desired female in order to have in his possession the dutiful, submissive woman. However, the father of said female, in this position, is already fulfilling the role of the husband in that he is owed the unquestioning duty of his daughter. In other words, a patriarchal framework automatically imbues the father-daughter relationship with a sexual component. The husband will take on the role of a new father, yes, but in the meantime, the father is essentially the husband of his daughter. Marriage does not change her ground state.

No wonder, then, that modern proponents of patriarchy cannot seem to escape the trappings of incest. Fundamentalist Christians hold “purity balls” that exhibit all the external trappings of a prom or other school dance, save that this dance is for fathers and daughters; indeed, daughters trapped in such environments have been encouraged to see in their fathers in terms of romantic partnership until they are themselves married. Of course, marrying women young enough to be their daughters (or younger) still proves popular among today’s financial aristocracy, so the incestual drive is by no means limited to only one species of regressive.

And do you not wonder why parents often have such trouble talking about matters sexual with their children? It seems odd. After all, sex suffuses our lives. I don’t mean that in a mystical way—I mean that we would not be here without at least one instance of sexual activity having occurred. Or as the comedian Bill Hicks used to say when asked if he was proud to be an American, “I don’t know. I mean, my parents fucked here, but that’s about it.” How much history that we study is just wrapped up in the unspoken centrality of fucking? Two examples come right to mind: Henry VIII knew that he couldn’t get a male heir without a few rounds of “hide the purple parsnip,” while many Jim Crow laws in United States were predicated upon the perceived necessity to prevent fucking across the color line, which people had already been doing for quite some time. Sex is the driver of our lives and our history, the means by which our species perpetuates itself (and, therefore, evolves), and yet the average American parent will more likely find his face reddening trying to explain sex to a six-year-old than he will trying to explain the Holocaust, despite the fact that the latter doesn’t really do our species much credit at all.

That, I believe, is because we are still at rock bottom a patriarchal society. And in a patriarchal society, girls, for one, will never become independent, and therefore the father-daughter relationship remains sexualized. The embarrassment we feel in talking to the young about sex is the attempt to disguise the sexual nature of this relationship in a patriarchal framework. This, at the core, is the source of embarrassment, and so maybe people feel compelled subconsciously to exhibit to the world a lack of sexual interest in this child: “See how this discussion makes me uncomfortable? Surely no incest taboo will be broken here!” (Indeed, we’re suspicious of those who converse too freely on matters genital with youths.) And this dynamic, too, underlies current conservative dismissal of feminism, often expressed along the lines of: “Early feminists fought for the right to vote, but these girls nowadays just want to sleep around!” Yes, current feminist thought readily emphasizes the necessity of removing shame regarding sexuality, of allowing for the open discussion of our bodies, because that is central to the dismantling of patriarchy, to the idea that our sexuality is not our own but the possession of some father figure.

The real irony here is that the party of patriarchy is desperately fighting to retain that which, put into words, would horrify it otherwise: a sexualized relationship between father and daughter. And they call us perverts.

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