The politics of misogyny

Who will guard us from the guardians? “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” – this is a question posed by a satirist, Juvenal. It is funny, really: you would imagine that the question would first turn up in Plato or Aristotle, reach its canonical form there – that great rounded form of the thing finally said, as though the whole ocean of discourse had washed over it and worn away every unnecessary edge. But it does not crop up there, nor in Cicero, but in a poem directed against women. “I know the advice my old friends would give/Lock her up and bar the doors. But who is to keep guard over the guards themselves?” (Peter Green’s translation).

Dryden introduced his translation of the Satire as follows:

This Satyr, of almost double length to any of the rest, is a bitter invective against the fair Sex. Tis, indeed, a Common-place, from whence all the Moderns have notoriously stollen their sharpest Raileries. In his other Satyrs the Poet has only glanc’d on some particular Women, and generally scourg’d the Men. But this he reserv’d wholly for the Ladies. How they had offended him I know not: But upon the whole matter he is not to be excus’d for imputing to all, the Vices of some few amongst them. Neither was it generously done of him, to attack the weakest as well as the fairest part of the Creation: Neither do I know what Moral he cou’d reasonably draw from it. It could not be to avoid the whole Sex, if all had been true which he alledges against them: for that had been to put an end to Humane Kind. And to bid us beware of their Artifices, is a kind of silent acknowledgment, that they have more wit than Men: which turns the Satyr upon us, and particularly upon the Poet; who thereby makes a Complement, where he meant a Libel.

Surely there is something of interest here – that an eminently political counsel, something that has been absorbed into the works of the great modern political thinkers, should have first appeared as a question aimed at scoring points against the sucker who thinks he can control his wife’s sexuality, when, as the poem makes clear, she herself can’t. In Juvenal’s poem, a woman’s sex life assumes the dimensions of some vast natural disaster, some erupting volcano, some tsunami. A woman’s sex life buries Pompei all over again. It is so ferocious it turns a woman into a man, and the poet chases this image into every configuration he can imagine.

In fact, of course, the poem so digs at its own fantastic notion of women as to collapse under its own ridiculousness – which Juvenal recognizes at the end of the poem, when he recognizes that he has turned a satire into something more like a tragedy.

You think this is feigned; the Satyr in a Rage

Struts in the Buskins of the Tragick Stage;

Forgets his Bus’ness is to Laugh and Bite,

And will of Deaths and dire Revenges write.

The move from Satire to Tragedy is the move from the domestic to the political scene. And the object of the invective that makes this move possible is woman, in all her states, pinned by her desires, by her sex.

It isn’t surprising that Dryden’s translation is not a wholly innocent venture: as Tanya Caldwell has pointed out in an essay on Dryden and Jacobite politics, at the time Dryden made the Satyr he was involved in a campaign of subtle sniping at Queen Mary – William’s consort. Mary’s status as a Stuart allowed the royal house to justify itself in strained dynastic terms after the Glorious Revolution had dethroned James II. Dryden reached for the rich literature that blamed women for such perturbations of order – a literature full of Hamlet’s Mother types. The Satyr, an encyclopedia of tropes that range from bitch to slut to hag, came in handily – with Dryden providing himself some cover by displaying concern about the strange fury of the Latin poet.

In this way, the phrase enters into English literature in a context that mixes misogyny and politics. A recognizable moment, given recent events.

So it is an interesting question: can one simply take a phrase from such a political satire and, freeing it from its associations, translate it into a rhetorical question having purchase on the just social order? That order suffers under the pressure of two infinities – on the one hand, the infinity of violence, where revenge calls to revenge, and the feud tends to expand in scope until it catches up everyone – and on the other hand, the infinity of order, where those who induce order, by their very position, have access to the abuse of order that calls for them to be subordinated, in turn, to other guardians – and so on in an expanding ring. At the limit, order is always under the spell of a transgressive force that wells up from its own logic and nature, and that forces the order to expand. This is the seed of regulation and bureaucracy that can’t be dreamt away by the libertarian adolescent.

John Stuart Mill uses the phrase in his essay on representative government to summon up a fear of an absolute disconnect between government and governance:

The bulk of the assembly may keep their hands clean, but they can not keep their minds vigilant or their judgments discerning in matters they know nothing about; and an indolent majority, like an indolent individual, belongs to the person who takes most pains with it. The bad measures or bad appointments of a minister may be checked by Parliament; and the interest of ministers in defending, and of rival partisans in attacking, secures a tolerably equal discussion; but quis custodiet custodes? who shall check the Parliament? A minister, a head of an office, feels himself under some responsibility. An assembly in such cases feels under no responsibility at all; for when did any member of Parliament lose his seat for the vote he gave on any detail of administration?

Now Mill was far from being your standard issue Victorian sexist. He was a defender, from his earliest years, of political and social autonomy for women, including reproductive rights. The phrase by Mill’s time had become part of the mill of phrases in serious journalism about politics. He uses it in an interesting way, since it refers to Parliament instead of to government bureaucracies. This is a twist. There is still, here, a faint air of perversity.  There is still something of its origin, however muffled, that survives in the phrase.

But recently, with the influx of a clearly anti-woman majority in Congress, accession to the presidency, and triumph in the Supreme Court, the misogyny of the original context starts to seem more relevant. Juvenal’s phrase after all is a reproach to the fictional man he is addressing – a man who loses his mastery by marrying, or even by any sexual approach to women. For Juvenal, the corruption of the guardian precedes not from the guardian, but from the subject he guards – the woman. The woman seduces the guardian and thus turns him against the master – the husband.

It is interesting to consider, then, the phrase’s career. Who will guard the guardians, as originally written, goes against the liberal/libertarian appropriation of the phrase. Juvenal’s triangle between seductive woman/keeper/master was replaced by one between the people/watchman/the State. The people, here, must be on guard against the guardian, while in Juvenal’s meaning, the master must be on guard against the guard’s being turned against him.

Such is the river of twists to which poetry, politics and history are subject. Who will guard the keepers of the meanings? Who, or what thing, is floatin down this river?


Roger Gathmann