Arcadia: ‘Sex and literature’, and the will to know

Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard, explores the conflict between people equally intellectual in their interests but very different in their approaches.

There is a great deal of heated debate between a scientist, an establishment academic and an academic outsider. Bernard, a Byron scholar, thinks Valentine’s approach pedantic and impersonal; he considers him incapable of appreciating the arts. Valentine, a mathematician, thinks Bernard is theatrical, imprecise in his methods, and his proofs insufficiently rigorous. At one point, Valentine wonders why Bernard’s researches into who wrote what matter, and Bernard furiously dismisses all of science in response because it isn’t personally relevant – it isn’t ‘self-knowledge’ – and wonders how scientists ‘con[ned] us out of all that money’.

Stoppard also deals with misconceptions about different fields. Bernard assumes that Valentine is claiming that material scientific progress is superior in importance to the arts. But Valentine demonstrates that a scientist’s devotion to logic doesn’t render him incapable of appreciating poetry. It doesn’t mean he’s against poetry, or that he has nothing to contribute to literary analysis. Valentine considers the work that Hannah and Bernard are doing ‘trivial’, because it doesn’t matter who wrote what. But their findings help him solve a mathematical problem he’s working on. Science can benefit from a literary historian’s meticulous research and focus on seemingly trivial details. Hannah, the literary scholar, looks at Valentine’s computer screen, at the graph of an iterating equation, and says “How beautiful!”

At one point, Hannah says to Valentine, ‘You can’t believe in an afterlife.’ Valentine replies, ‘Oh, you’re going to disappoint me at last’ – he’s used to people assuming scientists are aggressive rationalists (though this isn’t what Hannah means – she is referring to the need to search for our own answers, to persist with the search for its own sake). People in a field needn’t have the same predilections. And very often, academics from different disciplines can learn a lot from each other.

Stoppard’s characters look at the same question from both a literary and a scientific approach, and both give them the same answer. Both fields have the ability to answer fundamental questions. And literature and science have the same goal in the end – to understand the world around us, the predicament of humanity and its fate. ‘Comparing what we’re looking for misses the point. It’s wanting to know that makes us matter,’ says Hannah.

However, the conflict in the play is not all intellectual. Sexual liaison is almost ubiquitous. But in Arcadia, the conflict is not between sex and morality but between sex and intellectualism.

Thomasina: … Does carnal embrace addle the brain?
Septimus: Invariably.

Thomasina: I hate Cleopatra…. Everything is turned to love with her. New love, absent love, lost love – I never knew a heroine that makes such noodles of our sex…. [T]he Egyptian noodle made carnal embrace with the enemy who burned the great library of Alexandria without so much as a fine for all that is overdue.

The morality of the Regency is demonstrated to be rather hypocritical. Captain Brice is shocked by Thomasina’s cheerful mention of carnal embrace in conversation, but no-one, including Captain Brice, seems averse to the activity. The most prominent, of course, is Mrs Chater, ‘with a pleasing voice and a dainty step’, whose predilections are apparently of some renown. Lady Croom, with her crisp, forceful, feminine personality, complies with Septimus’ proposal in her own style. Mr Chater, weak and protesting, makes sporadic attempts to defend his honour, generally abandoning them to advance his (not very successful) career as a poet. The conduct of Lord Byron, though he never appears on stage, seems very much in character. Septimus is a faintly misogynist cynic who goes about seducing everyone, but his fondness for the only exponent of intellectualism over sex is Platonic and genuine.

However, this is no pitiless Ibsenesque reveal. Stoppard’s characters treat morality as a matter of form, like a dance, perhaps something of a joke. Lady Croom and Mrs Chater play their traditional gender roles in society and incorporate sex into them quite effortlessly. Apart from a few epigrams exalting ignorance, nobody (except, occasionally, Mr Chater) makes any attempt to claim chastity or assert moral superiority. There is no moral intolerance – it seems to be almost accepted that most of them cheerfully participate in sexual intrigues as a matter of course. Yet these intrigues have a profound impact on the course of their lives.

Lady Croom: … Indeed, I never knew a woman worth the duel, or the other way about.

In the modern age, on the other hand, the dominant characters are Valentine and Hannah, the intellectuals. Sex is no longer a powerful force – one automatically dismisses the sex-related conversation as irrelevant; the focus is on the intellectual debate. Hannah and Valentine, civilised, wry and independent, are entirely intellectual in their predilections, and they are sceptics of rhetoric, intellectual pretension and sex. Valentine calls Hannah his fiancee and proposes to her largely as a joke. But he is moved to do so by the fact that he can genuinely relate to her intellectually. (Interestingly, this is probably the only proposal in the play that is entirely devoid of sexual reference.) When Bernard invites Hannah to London, she isn’t very interested – “Your conversation, left to itself, doesn’t have many places to go. Like two marbles rolling around a pudding basin. One of them is always sex.”

Bernard moves through the acts executing his rhetorical ‘performance art’ – sex is apparently a form of performance art too. Chloe moves in and out, protesting and picking up on sexual threads in the conversation. However, Bernard and Chloe have interesting things to say. Chloe is the only character who listens politely to Bernard’s academic lecture (though she does seem most fascinated by mentions of sex). Her perspective leads her to an interesting version of the second law of thermodynamics and the world’s descent into chaos. Sex has its part to play in the search too. It’s clearly part of the dance.

Despite the freedom of language and the open discussion of sex in conversation, the idea of sexual contact as disrespect is taken more seriously in the modern age than in the Regency – but not much more seriously.

Chater: You insulted my wife in the gazebo yesterday evening!
Septimus: You are mistaken. I made love to your wife in the gazebo…. and if someone is putting it about that I did not turn up, by God, it is slander.

Valentine: Well, you shit. I’d drive you but I’m a bit sloshed.

Chater protests out of habit, but is apparently used to this sort of thing. Septimus sees sex as a compliment, not an act of disrespect (though he clearly has more respect for the intellectual Thomasina than the obliging Mrs Chater). The modern age is resigned and weary rather than indignant.

At the end, Hannah and Gus dance, keeping a decorous distance, while Septimus and Thomasina dance fluently. The dance represents the deep personal connection between Septimus and Thomasina – they stimulate each other intellectually, they discuss sex openly, and though their relations are largely Platonic they are extremely fond of each other (more so than any other pair in the play). Intellectual thought and conversation are more the norm in the 90s than they were during the regency, but Hannah, Gus and the rest are unable to establish the same profound connection. With Septimus and Thomasina, there was no barrier between the disciplines, or between man and woman. In the modern age, we are more evolved but more hesitant, more alienated from the world around us. There is more distrust between people of different disciplines, people with different points of view. People wonder whether their struggles are worth it. One intelligent and ingenuous man gives up the struggle and ceases to speak. But we can still try.

There are many things we don’t understand, but it’s ‘better to struggle on knowing that failure is final’. We must continue to dance, though the world is doomed, about to burst into flame around us.


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