This essay reassesses the notion of passionlessness in relation to debates on race and women's fiction. In nineteenth-century writing by white men and women, the primitive other-animal, black, or Indian-becomes the touchstone of intact maleness in a smothering and emasculatory culture. To write about blackness is to write about desire, but it is also to avoid desire altogether: the black figure represents both sexuality and childish innocence. There is the same contradiction as that between "dumb beasts" and "the Beast," between the helpless and the wicked. But in the implicitly emasculatory scenarios of women's writing, this essay detects a rejection of female as much as of male desire. Women's novels both facilitate and impede a consuming gaze. In repeated episodes, the black male body is exposed and punished, celebrated and lamented, in the same moment. Blackness threatens to call forth or desublimate white desire, and white writers move between the sexual allure of blackness and the need to reaffirm the superiority of white discipline. The emasculatory scenario serves as another opportunity to assert a Christian, maternal love, even if, to the other readers, this can seem an unconvincing "cover story" for the texts' secret "black" desire.
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