The Virgin of the World
“Hence that remarkable structure which differentiates the sexes (so far as land animals are concerned) appears to be a matter of outside and inside; because the greater force of heat in the masculine sex forces the genitals outside; whereas in females the heat is too weak to do this, with the result that they remain inside." The New Organon, Bk. II, Aphorism XXVII
Bacon wrote within two interacting but distinct traditions. His role as a polemicist for the new science of Galileo and Harvey and the corresponding scientific way of life is, of course, foremost in his literary activity. But, in addition, Bacon’s work is strikingly literary, and in this respect he takes his cue from the Renaissance humanist tradition whose literary forms he revives at a distance of several generations.
Superficially The New Atlantis is a remake of More’s Utopia wherein the vigilant communism of the Utopians is set to the side in order to glorify a society bent on scientific research and betterment through progress. No doubt Bacon meant this ideal to be taken literally, just as More believed that Utopia was a desirable place despite his heavy helpings of humanist hijinks. Within many of his texts, however, Bacon reaches a level of irony not nearly so evident in More. The irony that seeps through The New Atlantis shades with doubt whether the narrator’s praise of certain Bensalemian practices is the real author’s metacritical blame. One wonders whether Bacon had a clear way to relate his vision of a scientific society to rules of behavior for the rest of life, a matter that interested him greatly in his Essays. Or indeed if he really wanted clarity in that matter at all.
If Bacon had been French he would have belonged to the group that nation calls the “libertins du XVIIeme siècle," and indeed many of his themes echo or foreshadow much that can be found in Gassendi or Naudet. The narration of the “good Jew" Joabin was so unsettling to certain of Bacon’s readers that a few editions deleted it altogether as “offending modern taste." Both frank and sournois, it is one of the most complex and entertaining passages in Bacon’s writings.
These are the Bensalemian practices the narrator finds so highly superior to their European counterparts. First of all, they hold a holiday called the Feast of the Family where families are blessed to “flourish and prosper ever after in an extraordinary manner." (p. 477) In addition, there are no stews, dissolute houses or courtesans in Bensalem, “nor any thing of that kind." (Ibid.) The reason seems to be that the availability of extramarital sex (“unlawful concupiscence") makes the couple less desirous of having sex with each other (“natural concupiscence"). That is bad because it diminishes the chances for bearing children, which Joabin regard as the laudable purpose of marriage and of the upright life in general. In response to the argument that stews etc. serve the useful purpose of checking even “greater evils" such as adultery, deflowering virgins and unnatural lust, Joabin observes that those evils “remain and abound" in Europe despite the stews. “…unlawful lust being like a furnace, that if you stop the flames altogether, it will quench; but if you give it any vent, it will rage." (Ibid.) Equally “masculine love" is not practiced, though it is not clear whether this is due to prohibition or native disinclination. The principle behind these customs is individual chastity, which, for the Bensalemians, is indistinguishable from reverence for oneself. As regards marriage, polygamy is not allowed, engaged couples must wait one month until they can be married, and the children of those who marry without their parents’ consent are denied fully two-thirds of their otherwise normal inheritance. Unlike the Utopians, the Bensalemians are not allowed to check out their naked partners before consenting to marriage. However, they do have institutions called “Adam and Eve’s pools" where their friends can inspect the prospective partner.
A literal reading of this passage does little to enlighten us, however, as certain textual markers indicate. In the first place, the homily is placed in the mouth of a Jew, and not merely by way of a piquant aside. Rather an elaborate frame is constructed that begins by explaining why the Jews of Bensalem, and Joabin in particular, were good Jews, unlike the European or evil Jews. A little later another racial element is introduced when, after observing that in Bensalem increase of population is furthered not by polygamy but by chastity, Joabin describes the Spirit of Fornication as black, or, more precisely, “a little foul ugly Ethiop." (p. 476) Two things jump out from this racial tango. First off all, the narrator’s opinions mix racial slurs with approving comments on the Feast of the Family and Bensalemian chastity, “the virgin of the world." Are the narrator’s views Bacon’s own? It is unclear. I have found no other racist remarks in the rest of Bacon’s writings. In fact, it may not matter so much what Bacon himself thought. The literary situation is one where we are asked to accept as a package Joabin’s defense of Bensalemian chastity and the view that European Jews were evil and blacks represented the Spirit of Fornication. Secondly, as we find in so many other loci, the prospect of racial mingling and sexuality is arousing. In Bacon’s passage propogative, “chaste" sex is associated with racial exclusion and unproductive fornication with being black (It is unclear whether the Jew falls more on the black or on the white side of this equation). The titillation of the black/white sexual metonymy fueled furious imaginations from Confederate warnings over “miscegenation" to the celebratory video of superstar Biggz’ 13" cock stuffing any number of willing white women.
A second metatextual level is composed of a Proustian autobiographical irony. For Bacon himself practiced “masculine love" for what appears to have been most of his life. Moreover, when he did marry the fourteen-year-old Alice Barnham at the age of forty-five, he did so for her money. Of course, Joabin singles out just such behavior for special censure: “…many that do marry, marry late, when the prime and strength of their years is past. And when they do marry, what is marriage to them but a very bargain; wherein is sought alliance, or portion, or reputation…." (p. 477). (As a matter of poetic justice it appears that Alice got a little bit on the side as well.)
It is worth casting an eye on Bacon’s essay Of Marriage and Single Life (pp. 353-354) for his not surprisingly less than single-minded “real" views on those institutions. Marriage it turns out is good for some and not so good for others. Still, this wonderful essay is an occasion for some of Bacon’s best one-liners. “Wives are young men’s mistresses; companions for middle age; and old men’s nurses….he was reputed one of the wise men that made answer to the question, when a man should marry? – ‘A Young man not yet, an elder man not at all.’"