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New Literary History 31.3 (2000) 553-572

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Rethinking Romantic Incest:
Human Universals, Literary Representation, and the Biology of Mind

Alan Richardson

Incest--or rather, the avoidance of incest--has struck a number of influential thinkers as providing the key to understanding human culture. Frazer made the universality of the incest prohibition central to his demonstration of deep similarities among so-called primitive and modern cultures alike in his 1910 study, Totemism and Exogamy. Freud went further and made the repression or sublimation of incestuous desires crucial both for the development of individual psychic life and for the rise of human society in works like Totem and Taboo. Levi-Strauss, in Elementary Structures of Kinship, made the incest prohibition the "fundamental step because of which, by which, but above all in which, the transition from nature to culture is accomplished." 1 Over the past decade, the ubiquity of incest avoidance has proved no less significant for those seeking to establish the biological foundations of culture, or to call the distinction between nature and culture radically into question. In Human Universals, Donald E. Brown presents the Darwinian approach to the universality, "or near-universality," of the incest taboo as an exemplary case of how biological anthropology should best be theorized and empirically tested. 2 Steven Pinker, distilling the new field of evolutionary psychology for popular consumption in How the Mind Works, includes an anti-Freudian account of incest avoidance that covers much of the same ground as Brown. 3 Illustrating his theory of "gene-culture co-evolution," E. O. Wilson, the founder of "sociobiology," presents still another, updated version of the evolutionary theory of incest avoidance in his recent book Consilience. 4

Creative artists too have long recognized the universality of the incest prohibition and its role in defining the difference--or congruence--between humans and other animals. The incestuous brother in Beaumont and Fletcher's A King and No King (1611) claims that to "cure" his lovesickness, one must first "Orethrow Divinity, all morall Lawes, / And leave mankinde as unconfinde as beasts." 5 Literary violations of the incest taboo--at least outside of pornography--are anything but casual: they broach the fundamental laws of human society and raise the [End Page 553] question of a shared human nature. In Coleridge's metaphorical terms, the incest prohibition is the "Citadel, that contains the very Palladium of the Human Race," its tutelary shrine and safeguard. 6 But though the stakes are uniformly high, the representation of incest takes on different forms in different cultural moments. As James Twitchell remarks in his book-length study of incest in modern culture, Forbidden Partners, the Romantic era (especially in Britain) stands out both for the "frisson" and the self-consciousness that it adds to the portrayal of incestuous desire. 7 In relation to many pre-Romantic literary treatments, to speak of a desire for incestuous union is in fact a misnomer. In Oedipus Rex, in the Nibelungenlied, in eighteenth-century novels like Defoe's Moll Flanders and Burney's Evelina, the incestuous love (actual or apparent) is inspired before the revelation of any kinship bond. The same holds true for the British Gothics that feature incestuous couplings for their shock value and to further intensify an atmosphere of moral squalor. Ambrosio, in Lewis's The Monk, learns that Antonia is his sister only after raping and murdering her. Edmund in Walpole's Mysterious Mother also learns only after the fact that he has coupled with his sister (who, thanks to an earlier and, on his side, unknowingly incestuous encounter, also happens to be his daughter).

In contrast to these examples of what is called "unconscious" or, better, "unwitting" incest, the incestuous heroes and heroines of the Romantic tradition quite knowingly pursue their forbidden loves. This is especially true of portrayals of sibling incest which, as several critics have remarked, is the quintessential form of Romantic incest. 8 It is not only the conscious pursuit of prohibited relations, however, that sets the Romantic representation of sibling incest apart from eighteenth-century and Gothic...