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Inspired by the last class where I read Oronooko:

 

The Behnian Condition

On Aphra Behn's sort-of revolutionary stance (in Oroonoko):

 

We may stand in judgment of the slave driver, but that history has helped put our economies where they are right now, in incremental fashion since 1688, and further, by overcoming the problem of slavery, we stand at a place where the former times of Western slavery and their concomitant reforms allow us the version to judge the old historical times. It is easier to stand in judgment than to sympathize with the unimaginable, but realize that in 1688, the British Empire was yet to reach its zenith, and in terms of human capital the ten million slaves taken (and given by African chiefs to Europeans for trade) represented an investment that could only be translated into today's US currency in the trillions. Given so much to be gained -- a healthy economy, albeit built on the backs of others' labors -- Aphra Behn's denouncements of slavery, as well as the obvious structure of the story that strongly sympathizes with Oroonoko's (and his people, and his people) position, instead of interpreting Oroonoko for how it fails to go far enough in progressive vision, perhaps we must look at how far it does go, and compare how the understanding of human equality between races actually got much worse as the Western economy, and for some, Western civilization, became increasingly and absolutely dependent on the subjugation of "lesser" races, especially since technological advances that would allow sugar and cotton farming to be profitable without slavery, were in 1688 almost 200 years away.

 

And so, as with other unimaginable tragedies of history, we must "never forget," but we must put ourselves not in judgment but try to understand the hardness of hearts of an entire civilization, and thereby actually try to answer the question, "How did this happen?"

 

 

Could we interpret the poetics of Oronooko as in the rudimentary beginnings of how to tell a prose narrative? A number of the different major plot turns in the near-novel reminded me of other scenes from other classics: of course, Shakespeare’s Othello, Gunga Din, the picaresque-esque revenge plot device, Oronooko-as-Achilles, King David and Uriah and Bathsheba, 2 Samuel 11?

 

Could we consider Behn’s regard and tone toward slavery as that of a pre-colonial jeremiad?

 

Does Behn questions her time period’s understanding of rights to the owned body, as in wives/women as property and slaves as property? On page 38 of my version, Mr. Trefty chooses not to “know” Imoinda in the biblical sense because of her persuasions, but it seems that he has a “right” to her: “The company laugh’d at his civility to a slave…”

 

If Oronooko’s people are willing to die for honor, then what does that say about their owners? How can we classify this Behnian critique?

 

What is the tragedy? That Oroonoko earns no revenge, or that slavery and circumstances cut short his noble life? Or that in the colonial/plantation/slavery system, the best virtues for whites are the ones that are “worst” for subalterns to have?

 

 

 
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