Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Pleasure of Being Lost: "The Panther Captivity" and the Metaphysics of Commerce

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Pleasure of Being Lost: "The Panther Captivity" and the Metaphysics of Commerce

Article excerpt

This essay examines, critically, the way a popular post-revolutionary captivity narrative, "The Panther Captivity," challenges a model of self influenced by economic ideas about self-regulating natural laws.

Among the many revolutionary acts that took place in America at the end of the eighteenth century, some of the most striking were the stories of women who appeared reluctant to return to civilized society after spending time in the wilderness. Captivity tales, along with frontier romances, surged in popularity after the revolution; many women-authored captivity romances collapsed the genres, showing--according to Christopher Castiglia and Sandra Zagarell--how gender roles, nourished by a wilderness experience, could be redefined to reinvigorate family and offer a newly envisioned communitarian ethic opposed to the legalism underlying patriarchal rule.

What is most interesting about "The Panther Captivity," a short fictional tale attributed to one Abrham Panther and first published in 1787, is that it does both and neither. The title, emphasizing a woman's nine years alone in a cave, announces this to be something of a romance, an adventure in the wilderness. The story, however, is steeped in the conventions of the post-revolutionary sentimental captivity. But, perhaps most strikingly, in place of the resolutions inherent to any of these genres, it offers silence, which like the cave itself resonates with the mythic power of that which is beyond the available categories of the imagination.

It is tempting to see this enormously popular work about a woman who escapes her captors and lives alone in a cave in the wilderness for nine years as a radical feminist text that both critiques the exchange of women and offers an alternative, anti-patriarchal perspective. The tale, however, could also be seen to reinforce the dominant ideological categories that have been the subject of so much recent study. Indeed, as Judith Fetterly has recently noted, a great many texts do both at once. Attention of late has been turned from the critical reinvention of these tales (to make them coherent as texts and as ideology) to a query into what the production of contradictory and incoherent texts can tell us about the limits--and the potentially disruptive power--of literary form as it used to represent the contradictions of American society.

My approach has affinities to this later model. I am not interested in untangling the incoherent strands of "The Panther Captivity" to celebrate or critique a subtext of coherent, albeit implicit, values. But, rather than seeing the incoherence of the text only as a mirror of actual historical paradoxes, I take the incoherence to be the text's central subject of inquiry. My interest in incoherence is undoubtedly the product of contemporary critical trends. Keeping that in mind, I nonetheless argue here that questions about coherence as an ideal had their own relevance in post-revolutionary America; the study of such texts thus may provide fertile ground for our own inquiries into its meaning and usefulness as a critical tool today.

Specifically, in this essay I consider the incoherence of "The Panther Captivity" as a response to a cultural crisis about "economies of selfhood" inflected by the competing principles of political economy that were the subject of much debate during the 1780s. Particularly at issue was the very radical, very abstract idea, provided by the new "science" of economics, that "the market" was "a system" subject to specific laws that were self-regulating. I argue that the form and content of this narrative serve as a means to critique a view of the individual as governed by analogous self-regulating forces and laws. I read the tale as an intervention in the ideological empowering of the idea of the autonomous individual. I show the ways in which the text points to contradictions rather than resolves them and alternatively queries whether it is always good for individuals, or a society, to imagine identity as inherently coherent and thus manageable. …

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