Mary Wollstonecraft: Freak

Bear with me a moment: despite the background, this is really all for your amusement. Or mine, anyway.

I am in the process of re-reading some Wollstonecraft and I came across something that I did not remember, something of which I obviously took no special note the last time I read her. In the midst of explaining her opposition to any and all standing armies (You go, Wollstonecraft!) she explains that in such a heavily regulated and even dictatorial environment, those who know in advance that they are destined for promotion have no reason to behave well, and even little to study their military craft. While only some, blessed by family title or fortunate connections, will be corrupted by the idle time and the lack of incentives that results when one’s promotions are automatic, she argues that others are corrupted too.

With so much power in the hands of your superior – even a petty superior who wields it over only a few nonetheless has absolute power in their small domain. This leads to wielding that power dictatorially, but also it leads to corrupt flattery from those beneath. They can never be sure that simply being good at their job is enough to rise in rank, pay, benefits, and other trappings of success. You may be very skilled, but not quite what your superior is looking for when attempting to fill a specific position. In this world of absolute, capricious power, Wollstonecraft argues corrupt flattery will flourish.

Now, surely she’s right about these things, even if there have been a few small changes to the nature of armies that tend to move armies toward more objective measures of success, more objective bases for promotion, and thus fewer incentives towards corrupt flattery.

Well and good, right? Hereditary titles and the work-free success that comes with them will likely lead some to fill their time with partying and other non-productive flights of fancy. Capricious promotion will lead to obsequiousness. But what I’m interested in here is Wollstonecraft’s language. How does she actually describe this? Well, because the style of writing and some of the word uses will be unfamiliar to many, I had to give the above background, but knowing in general what she’s talking about, the following passage is clear:

A man of rank or fortune, sure of rising by interest, has nothing to do but to pursue some extravagant freak; whilst the needy gentleman, who is to rise, as the phrase turns, by his merit, becomes a servile parasite or vile pander.

What’s really interesting to me is how words come in and out of fashion, and how linguistic drift not only changes meanings over time, but can also change them back. I pull out the amusing part:

some extravagant freak

Wollstonecraft is obviously speaking of fetishes here, but I wasn’t used to seeing freak used in the sense of “get your freak on” in anything but the most contemporary of writing. In fact, I’d rather assumed that if I was going to read a Wollstonecraft talking about freaks, that it would be Mary’s second daughter*1 doing the writing.

My amusement is, of course, tempered when I note the negative context in which she’s discussing fetishes, but hey, you do you, Wollstonecraft. You can even go all in for the wode-dyed socks, if you like. I won’t say a peep.

Now if only I had a freak that I could deservedly call extravagant. All my fetishes are so pedestrian.


*1: Also named Mary. She may be more familiar to you by the name under which she wrote, Mary Shelley. Her Book of Freak is that obvious winner of Lord Byron’s ghost story contest, the one with the subtitle no one remembers.


  1. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    Nice, thanks, Daz.

    I still think to the contemporary reader that “fetish” works well here without distorting her argument, …

    …but obviously I’m wrong that this is what Wollstonecraft intended as the meaning of the particular word, freak, as distinct from the larger argument. .

  2. says

    Crip Dyke #2:

    I still think to the contemporary reader that “fetish” works well here without distorting her argument, …

    Hmmm… do I detect some wigglin’ goin’ on?

    The part that strikes me in that quote is that I thought the usage of “gentleman” meaning someone specifically of the lower ranks of the aristocracy had disappeared by her time, so that it and “man of rank or fortune” would have been synonymous by then. Obviously I was wrong.

  3. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    No wiggling. I’m conceding you’re right about the translation/ definition.

    I’m saying that I think it wasn’t an unreasonable interpretation of mine, since it was consistent with her argument. That doesn’t mean I was right. I guess I’m also saying that I *wish* it were true that “freak” had meant “fetish”. Again, that doesn’t make me right.

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