Friday, August 30, 2013

How Literature's Great Womanizers Put Today's Scandals in Context

Bob Filner's term as mayor reaches an ignominious end Friday.

that "he tends to operate only with folks that are beholden to him in some way."

If true, the soon-to-be-ex-mayor would have plenty of company in art and literature, where lecherous characters pressing their advantage on anyone who strays into their paths is an age-old theme, and the depth of these characters' depravity is only limited by human imagination. And while many of them are punished for their actions, many are not. To help put today's scandals in context, here's a by-no-means complete list of great fictional womanizers, listed approximately from least to most offensive:

FAMOUS LECHERS: Satyrs from Greek mythology, as seen in Euripedes's "The Cyclops"

OTHER CRIMES: Fibbing, drinking a lot

COMEUPPANCE: None really. Satyrs will be satyrs.

WAS JUSTICE SERVED? Sure. Satyrs were invented to have a good time, and that's exactly what they do. If you actually want a monster, you'll have better luck with human characters.

FAMOUS LECHER: Sir John Falstaff, as seen in Shakespeare's "Henry IV" parts 1 and 2, and "The Merry Wives of Windsor"

OTHER CRIMES: Public drunkenness, patronizing brothels, desertion and contributing to the delinquency of a future monarch.

COMEUPPANCE: Repudiated and banished by Prince Hal, dumped in the river in a laundry basket by the objects of a seduction-for-money scheme and disguised as a woman and beaten up. Died, presumably of venereal disease, offstage in "Henry V" but invited to hang out with his tormentors at the end of "Merry Wives," so take your pick.

WAS JUSTICE SERVED? Falstaff was an irascible cad whose primary evils were to himself and not to others. Dramatically, Hal had to cast off his lowlife friends in order to become king, but having his former friends arrested for the very things he'd done with them earlier was pretty hypocritical.

FAMOUS LECHER: Judge Brack from Henrik Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler"

OTHER CRIMES: Patronizing a brothel, attempted blackmail

COMEUPPANCE: The woman he tries to blackmail into having an affair with him shoots herself instead of acceding to his demands. No Hedda for you!

WAS JUSTICE SERVED? Not in the least. In fact, a judge who takes friends to brothels and tries to blackmail old family friends is exactly the sort of person likely to be a serial offender.

FAMOUS LECHER: Tartuffe from Moliere's "Tartuffe"

OTHER CRIMES: Serial extortion, fraud, attempted rape

COMEUPPANCE:After attempting to seduce the lady of the house and seizing her family's home and possessions via extortion, the king, who heard about Tartuffe's chicanery, had him arrested, thus invalidating his legal claims.

WAS JUSTICE SERVED? Yes, but Moliere still had to halt productions over the objections of the irony-deficient archbishop of Paris, who threatened to excommunicate anybody who had the audacity to laugh at a hypocrite who used religious piety to gain power over people.

FAMOUS LECHER: Angelo from Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure"

OTHER CRIMES: Executing people willy-nilly for fornication, attempted to use his position as de facto ruler of Vienna to force the pious Isabella to sleep with him in exchange for commuting her brother's death sentence

COMEUPPANCE: Ordered to marry his ex and be executed so that she might have his possessions to replace the dowry that was lost at sea. However, the death sentence was revoked after impassioned pleas from his ex and the woman he attempted to wrong.

WAS JUSTICE SERVED? No way. But you don't get to kill people at the end of a comedy.

FAMOUS LECHER: Sir Mulberry Hawk from Charles Dickens' "Nicholas Nickleby"

OTHER CRIMES: Attempted rape, assault, murder

COMEUPPANCE: When a former friend turned on him for his cruel revenge on the woman who had the audacity to object to being treated like a whore, Hawk killed said friend in a duel and fled to France, where he spent all his fortune and later died in debtors prison.

WAS JUSTICE SERVED? Perhaps. Victorian debtors prisons were notorious, and the formerly powerful nobleman died in well-deserved obscurity. However, someone from the lower orders would have been hanged for similar offenses, and Hawk never showed any remorse for his crimes.

FAMOUS LECHER: Archdeacon Claude Frollo from Victor Hugo's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame"

OTHER CRIMES: Extortion, sexual assault, attempted rape, attempted murder

COMEUPPANCE: After becoming completely unhinged when the woman he's obsessed with is hanged -- a hanging, it should be mentioned, for which he's directly responsible -- he is thrown off Notre Dame Cathedral by the titular hunchback.

WAS JUSTICE SERVED? Frollo wasn't always a bad guy -- he sheltered his dissolute brother and adopted the orphaned Quasimodo. But the celibate life clearly did him no favors, and his first crush crushed him. He never repented his crimes, though at least he ended up dead at the end.

FAMOUS LECHER: Humbert Humbert, as seen in Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita"

OTHER CRIMES: Kidnapping, statutory rape, transporting a minor across state lines for immoral purposes, murder, reckless driving.

COMEUPPANCE: Arrested, imprisoned

WAS JUSTICE SERVED? Humbert isn't only unremorseful, he's still singing the praises of underage girls. At least he's been imprisoned for as long as it took him to write a nearly 400-page confessional.

FAMOUS LECHERS: The Duc, the Bishop, Curval and Durcet from the Marquis de Sade's "The 120 Days of Sodom"

CRIMES: Pretty much everything you can think of, and lots of things that you don't want to think of. Except perhaps wire fraud and cyber-bullying, but only because the technology hadn't been invented yet.

COMEUPPANCE: This novel of extreme violence, sexual and otherwise, was never finished, but I don't get the impression that the embittered, imprisoned de Sade was at all interested in teaching any moral lessons, apart from "anything goes."

WAS JUSTICE SERVED? Ha. Not even close.

Great leches in literature have served many purposes, including comic relief, giving the audience satisfaction when they are punished, and even making one uncomfortably aware that one is identifying with a character who does horrific things. So when lecherous behavior in real life comes to light, recalling fictional parallels can provide context, and occasionally even a bit of pleasure.

Especially when it involves imagining dumping someone hidden in a clothes hamper into a body of water.

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