Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Imlay, Wollstonecraft & Free Love

Mary Wollstonecraft
I recently wrote about the free love philosophy of the Englishman William Godwin. He believed that progress was achieved when people were perfectly free to follow the dictates of their mind (i.e. autonomy), and that marriage was therefore an artificial, prejudiced and tyrannical social institution.

In other words, the belief in free love was high-minded. It was supposed to lead to a moral progress in which people would follow pure reason and choose to act selflessly and benevolently for the good of others.

The theory was put into practice with damaging consequences spanning two generations. I want to look in this post at the case of Gilbert Imlay and Mary Wollstonecraft. Imlay was an American diplomat and businessman, Wollstonecraft a feminist author. They met in France at the height of the French Revolution. Both being advocates of free love, they began an affair and Mary fell pregnant. Imlay, true to the free love theory, quietly abandoned Mary - she gave birth to her daughter, Fanny, in 1794.

Mary wrote letters to Imlay during this period, criticising his behaviour. She drew on a more traditional understanding of morality to do so. The following is drawn heavily from a book by E. Michael Jones, Libido Dominandi.

Mary was critical of Imlay for following impulse (sensual passion/appetite), ungoverned by reason. She wrote, for instance,
Beware of the deceptions of passion! It will not always banish from your mind, that you have acted ignobly - and condescended to subterfuge to gloss over the conduct you could not excuse.

Along similar lines she wrote,
But is it not possible that passion clouds your reason, as much as it does mine? - and ought you not to doubt, whether those principles are so “exalted,” as you term them, which only lead to your own gratification?

Mary notes here that Imlay's "exalted" principles are really only being used to justify a pursuit of individual self-gratification.

She also attempts to describe a higher form of love than the sensual alone, one which requires self-denial, but which is held to more stably and which expresses a higher nature within man:
The common run of men, I know, with strong, healthy and gross appetites, must have variety to banish ennui, because the imagination never lends its magic wand, to convert appetite into love, cemented by according reason.

Ah! my friend, you know not the ineffable delight, the exquisite pleasure, which arises from a unison of affection and desire, when the whole soul and senses are abandoned to a lively imagination, that renders every emotion delicate and rapturous. Yes; these are emotions over which satiety has no power, and the recollection of which, even disappointment cannot disenchant: but they do not exist without self-denial. These emotions, more or less strong, appear to me to be the distinctive characteristic of genius, the foundation of taste, and of that exquisite relish for the beauties of nature, of which the common herd of eaters and drinkers and childbegetters, certainly have no idea

Finally, she notes the way that a life based on gratifying appetite can make someone jaded and less capable of love:
I shall always consider it as one of the most serious misfortunes of my life, that I did not meet you, before satiety had rendered your senses so fastidious, as almost to close up every tender avenue of sentiment and affection that leads to your sympathetic heart. You have a heart, my friend, yet, hurried away by the impetuosity of inferior feelings, you have sought in vulgar excesses, for that gratification which only the heart can bestow.

So what happened to Mary and her daughter? Mary returned to London in 1795, trying to rekindle the relationship with Imlay, but he rejected her. She then attempted suicide via an overdose of laudanum. In 1796, realising that Imlay was never going to accept her, she attempted to drown herself in the Thames but was rescued by a passer-by.

In 1797, in an odd twist to the story, Mary married William Godwin - the radical philosopher of free love. However, she died giving birth to a daughter, also called Mary, who would go on to write the novel Frankenstein.

And what of her first daughter, Fanny? She committed suicide as a young woman in 1816. There are different theories about what led her to do so, but one of them is that her two sisters had run off with another advocate of free love, Percy Bysshe Shelley, but she had been rejected by him.

Conclusions? Most obviously, in practice free love did not lead someone like Imlay to act selflessly toward others. Nor did it liberate individuals like Mary Wollstonecraft from tyranny. Nor did it crush prejudice so that individuals might follow pure reason. Nor did it usher in a new age of benevolent love.

As Mary's letters indicate, a free love philosophy had something like the opposite effect. It justified the pursuit of self-gratification. It harmed others grievously. It justified the pursuit of passion, ungoverned by reason. And it closed off the experience of a higher-natured love.

In a larger sense, the problem is that Enlightenment thinkers like Godwin were trying to find ways to justify assumptions about the individual as an autonomous actor in society. This individual was supposed to act according to his own unlimited will and reason, but whilst still advancing the common good. It was shaky ground to build a social philosophy on, as it relied on beliefs about human nature (man as a blank slate), about progress (that unfettered mind would advance knowledge and therefore moral culture), and about human goods (highly abstracted, indefinite forms of love and community as purposes in life).

The starting point is wrong. It is the wrong image of man. It is important that we ditch the Enlightenment project and describe man differently, not as an autonomous actor, but bound by his own nature to specific forms of human community and to specific roles within them - so that we fulfil our own selves, at least in part, through our commitments to particular forms of community.

There is one more post to come. Another generation was to be inspired by Godwin to adopt beliefs about free love - and they too were deeply affected by the real life consequences.

1 comment:

  1. By coincidence, a few hours before reading this post, I watched on cable an Irish film made in 2017, entitled Mary Shelley, about the historical figures you write about here. The film well illustrates the personal calamities that Mary, Percy, et al. brought on themselves through fidelity to their principles of personal liberation. No doubt, however, the filmmakers would not want to be associated with the viewpoint of this blog!

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