- Lot's Daughters: Sex, Redemption, and Women's Quest for Authority
Robert Polhemus is an engaging writer and a critic with a notable record of publication, but his latest work, Lot's Daughters, is a mixed bag of a book, and one that leaks badly at the seams. Some idea of its heterogeneous nature is provided by a mere noting of its contents. The opening section, about one-quarter of the book, is devoted to pre-modern views, mainly rabbinical and early Christian, of the story of Lot and his daughters. Most of the book, about 300 pages, discusses the following subjects: Jane Austen and Mansfield Park; Mary Shelley and Mathilda; the Brontë family, Jane Eyre, and Wuthering Heights; William Stead and Lewis Carroll; Freud and "Dora"; Shirley Temple; Woody Allen and Mia Farrow; Carolivia Herron and Thereafter Johnnie; and Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. To bind this material one clearly needs a unifying theme — in a word, a complex. This Professor Polhemus lavishly provides with what he calls "the Lot complex." But that is where the trouble begins.
What most people remember of the Lot story is that his wife, fleeing Sodom and Gomorrah together with her husband and two daughters, looked back when she had expressly been forbidden to do so, and was instantly turned into a pillar of salt. But that is only a prelude to the main story of Lot and his daughters in Genesis 19. Since this tends to be forgotten, perhaps repressed in memory, it may be as well to quote what happens when the fugitives take refuge in a cave:
And the firstborn said unto the younger, Our father is old and there is not a man in the earth to come in unto us after the manner of all the earth: come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve seed of our father. And they made their father drink wine that night: and the firstborn went in, and lay with her father; and he perceived not when she lay down, nor when she arose.
The next night the younger daughter repeats this, and so were "both the daughters of Lot with child by their father." The story of Lot and his daughters, therefore, is predominantly one of incest, not discounting the daughters' presumed wish to repopulate the earth following what they took to be the elimination of the [End Page 211] rest of humanity with the destruction of their world, of Sodom and Gomorrah. And tales of incest would seem to be what Polhemus is preparing us for in a self-conscious (and self-condemnatory) statement in his Preface: "I feel a silly urge to write Reader, I'm not 'soft' on incest; I never lusted after my daughters; our relations are good; I'm a nice grandfather, etc, etc." (x, Polhemus's italics). But, excluding a chapter on paintings of the subject, in a long book that alternates discussion between people and texts, there is only one actual account of incest (in a 25 page section), that which occurs in a little-known novel, Thereafter Johnnie, published in 1991 by the American writer Carolivia Herron. What this accordingly entails in a book about the ostensible descendants of Lot and his daughters, whether fictional or real, is determined extrapolation.
Polhemus maintains that the "disreputable Bible story of father-daughter incest" in Genesis provides "an effective means and model for understanding the history of gender and familial relations not only in the past but right now" (x). This is to give the Bible story a hugely expansive quality, and an opening move is to transform it at the core. "The daughter's talk of sexual seduction can be heard as the expression of Lot's (the aging male's) desire" (10). The daughter's seduction of her father "can," no doubt, be "heard as the expression of Lot's desire," depending on who is doing the listening, but there is absolutely nothing in the biblical account to support...