“The stern underlying principle of the people who commit these barbarities is one that has its root deep in the basic passions of humanity; the determination to put an end to the ravishing of their women by an inferior race, or by any race, no matter what the consequences.”
Thomas Nelson Page, The Negro: The Southerner’s Problem (1904)
If we use the word ravish nowadays, it will be in the literary sense of seized and transported by delight. We use the words rapt and rapture in much the same way. To be rapt is, for us, to be in the grip of a strong interest: to be fascinated or mesmerized. Apart from premillennial dispensationalists, we use the word rapture as a synonym for bliss. We are accustomed to hear of a ravishing beauty, of rapt attention, or of rapturous applause, and these pleasant associations make it hard for us to connect these words with the violent act we call rape.
Yet all of these words have the Latin rapere as their common root, and rapere meant to seize and carry away by force, or violence. Thus when a city was sacked by a conquering army, that city was said to be raped. When a city was seized and raped by a conquering army, many unfortunate women in the city were also seized and raped, but the “rape of Nanking” did not take its name from the concurrent rape of Nanking women. Nanking and its women were both seized and violated, but they were seized and violated in very different ways.
In the narrow and exclusively sexual sense, the words rape and ravish mean to violate another person by forcibly use their body for sexual pleasure. To violate is to force, and violation is very much of the essence in many instances of sexual rape. The essential rapist is not a man who simply proceeds with the act of intercourse despite failing to obtain consent. This oaf is an accidental rapist, a rapist of necessity, not choice. For the essential rapist, violation is an essential part of his sexual pleasure.
The reason violation is pleasurable is not far to seek. Our will to power is our drive to possess power, and we experience our possession of power in the pleasure of violation: in the pleasure of overpowering resistance, the pleasure of forcing other people to act against their will. Thus I have an agreeable sense of strength when I am the one violating, and a disagreeable sense of weakness when I am the one violated.
Nietzsche explained the natural grounds of this pleasure of violation when he said of any individual life,
“Its object is to obtrude its own forms and insure its own unobstructed functioning.”*
Or, in another place
“In itself an act of injury, violation, exploitation or annihilation cannot be wrong, for life operates, essentially and fundamentally, by injuring, violating, exploiting and annihilating, and cannot even be conceived of as existing otherwise.”**
Thus Nietzsche tells us that violation of others is man’s greatest good, and would seem to be saying that man truly lives only when he is overpowering other men in acts of murder, rape and degradation. In this Nietzsche agrees with another student of human nature, the master marauder Genghis Kahn. In the words of that virtuoso of violation,
“Man’s greatest good fortune is to chase and defeat his enemy, seize his total possessions, leave his married women weeping and wailing, ride his gelding and use the bodies of his women as a nightshirt and a support.”***
* * * * *
Weak men do not lack a will to power. They have a will to power that is frustrated because they were cast into this world without the tools of power, or with tools of a bent and inferior sort. Not to put too fine a point on it, these men are too stupid, too ugly and too charmless to easily “obtrude their form” on anyone or anything, but this does not dampen their natural hunger for “unobstructed functioning.” These misfits wish to feel the joy of overpowering resistance just like everyone else, but they are forced by their grave defects of body and mind to suck the pleasure of violation from crude and cowardly acts of “injury, exploitation or annihilation.”
They often combine with other misfits in a gang, and then venture out to rob, murder and rape. If we take Nietzsche as our guide, this is how these misfits savor the greatest good in life, and life “cannot even be conceived as existing otherwise.”
* * * * *
E. A. Leak and his wife operated a country store about six miles west of Bryan, at the edge of the great alluvial flat of the Brazos River bottom. This was in 1874, when the cotton fields in the bottom were still worked by recently emancipated slaves, and most of Leak’s customers must have been black tenants, field-hands and sharecroppers. Among these people, the tools of power were scarce, but the will to power was strong, and life on the river bottom was consequently a violent jungle of murder, robbery and rape.
It was therefore with some misgiving that Mr. Leak must have unbolted the door of his store late in the evening of March 31, and with even greater misgiving that he admitted a crew of ten lowering black men. He stood, no doubt nervously, eyeing these men as they clumped around on the wooden floor, asking the price of various articles. Finally, one of the men asked to examine a gun that was displayed behind the counter, and when the storeowner handed it to him, “he pointed it at Mr. Leak’s head, saying, ‘now give up,’ and firing at the same time.”†
Fortunately for Leak, he was not napping, and therefore had the presence of mind to strike the shooter’s arm before the shooter pulled the trigger. Thus “the load took effect on the wall above his head.” Unfortunately for Leak, the shooter’s accomplices had their own shooting irons, and “they commenced firing from all sides, one shot taking effect in his breast and one in his thigh.”
Supposing the storekeeper dead, the black men “took what goods they needed and threw the other goods out of the house, and then went into his wife’s room and took her out and brutally outraged her several times before Mr. Leak.” Outraged was in those days a euphemism for ravished, just as ravished was a euphemism for raped.
The men in this crew were, apparently, known to Leak, since he lived long enough to give the Sheriff their names. If they were known to Leak, they must have planned to murder as well as rob him. The shooter may have been nervous when he pulled the trigger before he could complete his demand that Leak “give up the money,” but the ten black men probably planned to cover their tracks by burning the corpses of Mr. and Mrs. Leak in their bed. This would of course require that the goods they threw out of the house were gathered up before anyone noticed the fire, but we should not expect perfect planning from a crew of misfits.
The pleasure of violation was almost certainly essential to the gang rape of Mrs. Leak, as it was to so many similar rapes of that time and place. The black men wished to feel the pleasure of overpowering the will of this white man by taking his goods and his life, and then forcing his wife to do what was most directly opposite to his and her will.
Genghis Kahn would have understood the pleasure these but men took in violation, but he would have scorned puny scale of their outrage.
* * * * *
Thomas Nelson Page (1853-1922) was a lawyer and writer who is today remembered, insofar as he is remembered, for his nostalgic novels set on plantations in the Virginia tidewater before the Civil War. It was a world Page remembered with affection, and the comfortable courtesies that he said then joined the races were among his fondest memories. By the time he published The Negro in 1904, however, Page was profoundly alarmed by the growing violence of race relations across the South. He was especially troubled by the increased frequency with which white women were violated in the manner that poor Mrs. Leak had been violated, and with which black men were then lynched in a violent reprisal.
It was, Page said, an exchange of barbarity for barbarity. The barbarity of which he speaks in my epigram is the barbarity of lynching, but Page understood that the barbarity of lynching was a reprisal for what was commonly described in those days as “negro barbarism.” Indeed, this is the phrase that appeared in the headline of the newspaper article that the Galveston News published about the violation at Leak’s Store.
And barbarians who committed this violation suffered the violent reprisal that Page said they would.
* * * * *
On the day after the violation of Leak and his wife at Leak’s Store, four black men were lodged in the county jail, and a pose of white men were scouring the river bottom for the robbers and rapists who still roamed free. When a mob of angry white men appeared at the jail and demanded the four prisoners, the Sheriff attempted to deter them with the story that the jailer had wandered away with the keys. But the mob was not deterred, the cell was forced open, and the four black men were led a quarter mile to the edge of town, where two were hung from a tree. These two, named Higgins and Brown, confessed to participating in the violation at Leak’s store, but before they were hung pleaded the innocence, and saved the lives, of the other two black men. Before nightfall, the white posse in the river bottom had captured and lynched four more black men, and were said to be on the trail of the four who remained at large.††
I do not know whether they caught those four men. Mr. Leak was alive on April 1st, the day of the lynching, and was sufficiently lucid to identify Higgins and Brown as two of his assailants. But his wounds were said to be mortal, and we may suppose he died soon after. Mrs. Leak also identified Higgins and Brown, but thereafter disappears from the historical record, a lonely woman, both widowed and violated.
*) Beyond Good and Evil (1886)
**) The Genealogy of Morals (1887)
***) quoted in John Keegan, A History of Warfare (1993).
†) Galveston Daily News (April 1, 1874)
††) Galveston Daily News (April 2, 1874)