Francis F. Steen
Caught Unawares by Love:
Restoration Portrayals of the Erotic Unconscious
Presentation given at the 1999 Annual Convention of the MLA in Chicago
Special Session on Cognition, Narrative, and the Psychology of Love


The topic of my talk is the erotic unconscious. While Restoration novelists frequently call on it, the philosophers of the period found the idea incoherent. Where Locke held that "No proposition can be said to be in the mind which it never yet knew, which it was never yet conscious of" (13), imaginative writers explore and document the operations of a desire that acts before you realize what is happening: an erotic unconscious. In Aphra Behnís Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister, published in 1684, the heroine Silvia recalls how she was caught unawares by love. "But for my Sisters sake. I play'd with you," she writes to her brother-in-law, Philander; "suffer'd your Hands and Lips to wander," innocently she thought, not knowing "all the while the Treachery of Love" (47). Further instances are found in a feminist utopian drama from 1668, The Convent of Pleasure by Margaret Cavendish.

This fictive etiology of love portrays an unconscious that is not Freudian. In Behnís narrative, the unconscious precedes the conscious; it acts independently of Silviaís conscious intentions and is only gradually discovered and named. In this sense, her conception is closer to Lakoff and Johnsonís cognitive unconscious: the vast complexity of embodied mental processes that operate below the surface of the autonoetic mind.


Maintained by Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California Los Angeles