25 A Ring with a Lock

Object type: Love token or mourning ring

Materials: gold, rock crystal, and human hair

© Trustees of the British Museum, AF.1575


From John Locke’s mental library (Exhibit 1) to Joshua Reynolds’s gallery-like intellect (Exhibit 20), the basic argument is the same.  The mind of the modern sort is a collection of ideas produced by experience; they are modeled on the spaces in which people work.  Locke says the mind is a library; he is a collector of books.  Reynolds compares the mind to a gallery; he has helped to launch a massive, publicly funded gallery of art.  The rise of modern forms of individualism depends upon possession.  Owning material things enables a metaphorical transference to the ownership of other things, like ideas, rights, or faculties of mind.  A person owns ideas in the same way that she owns property.  She owns faculties (like reason or logic) because she owns ideas, the faculties becoming apparent as the stock of ideas increases.  She owns rights because she owns faculties.  Rights are things to be possessed, fought for, gained, or lost, by any person in possession of their full faculties.  She owns labor, which she can sell on the open market just like any pin, snuffbox, or gemstone; labor commands what the market will bear.  And, finally, she comes to own other, more intimately mental contents like opinions, virtues, or capacities.  Private property, private subjects: the individual by this account takes her rise as an effect of her absolute dominion over the things she owns.

William Say, after Henri Jean-Baptiste Fradelle, Belinda at her Toilet, ca. 1820.  (c) Trustees of the British Museum.

Ownership is one of many ways that a state of affairs—a situation that someone finds herself in—can give rise to a sense of mind.  But this by no means exhausts all the ways that we might stand in relation to things, or all the kinds of selves that might emerge from sets of relationships.  Take, for instance, Alexander Pope’s Belinda, the heroine of his mock-epic poem The Rape of the Lock.  Belinda appeared at a moment, at roughly the beginning of the eighteenth century, which is widely considered to witness the rise of modern consumer consciousness.  In a prior exhibit (Exhibit 9) we left Belinda at her dressing table, decked with all that land and sea afford (see right).  She is sitting for her cabinet portrait, surrounded bye the spoils of empire: perfumes from Arabia, gemstones from the Indies.  And what Pope calls the “moving toy-shop of her heart” is revealed to be the mirror of the luxury objects with which she surrounds herself.  It is hard to imagine someone more confidently put together as the function of private property.

Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock (London: 1714). "Some thought it mounted to the lunar sphere,/ Since all things lost on Earth, are treasur'd there."

The poem turns on Belinda’s “lock,” one of two coiled ringlets that she has carefully nurtured.  It is safe to say that these aren’t just any locks; they receive their heightened value in reference to the collection of things assembled around them.  But the poem does not end this way; the lock does not end up on Belinda's head.  Her treasured ringlet will be violently seized as a token of love or conquest; this is the “rape” of the title.  Belinda will “lose” it through force (“lose” is Pope’s word); the Baron will clip the lock from her head.  We are asked to imagine this “prize” sandwiched between rock crystal and foil, surrounded by gold, precious stones, and other markers of England’s preeminence in the global circulation of goods—in short, we are asked to imagine it in a ring on the finger of her attacker. 

Rings like the object of this exhibit were surprisingly common.  And they signified in two ways.  We know, partly from the literary record, that hair rings sometimes stood as tokens of sexual desire.  Rings like this turn up roughly a century later in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, as love tokens.  Surely this is how the Baron understands it-- though as an emblem, in his case, of sexual conquest rather than a free gift of deferred desire.  But for Belinda, the ring is clearly a sign of her dispossession, and it signifies therefore as a ring of mourning.  Hair rings were likewise given with this intention in view.  Such a ring turns up in Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa—when the heroine of that tale leaves rings with her hair as mementoes of herself.  (Though Clarissa's attacker, the Baron-like Lovelace, also insists on a lock of her hair as a token of his conquest.)  Rings like these have suggestive similarities with relics, as figures of irreversible loss and separation, the public display of something painfully private (see Exhibit 17).  Hair rings, in other words, were made to point both directions—just as likely to be worn in hope as in despair.  In either case, such objects exist at a specific junction of modernity, where early forms of consumer culture cross with traditional forms of love and death.

Now, it’s worth digressing for a moment, to register something that only turns up in footnotes in the exhibit catalogue.  Using hair like this has a name.  Or, at least, stealing hair in quite the way that the Baron steals it is a crime that has a name: it is trichophilia, the love of hair.  I say this because the very first time I turned up in a newspaper in an expert interview, it was for an article put together by a beat reporter covering the case of the “Tri-Met Barber,” a trichophile illicitly clipping hair from women in Portland-area public transit.  I think the reporter reached out because I had written a bit on The Rape of the Lock.  But it is also the case that I have wondered about the history of the fetishistic pursuit of other people’s hair, from Delilah to various "Jack the Clippers" to the Long-Beach based “Haircut Bandit” (who hit the Los Angeles news when I was writing my dissertation).  Anyways, for more on trichophilia as a paraphilic practice, see the wonderfully euonymous Brenda Love’s Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices—who has an extensive set of notes on trichiphilia (though Belinda’s story, I was disappointed to find, is not among them).

Edmund Spenser, Amoretti 75
One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it away:
Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.
"Vain man," said she, "that dost in vain assay,
A mortal thing so to immortalize;
For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eke my name be wiped out likewise."
"Not so," (quod I) "let baser things devise
To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:
My verse your vertues rare shall eternize,
And in the heavens write your glorious name:
Where whenas death shall all the world subdue,
Our love shall live, and later life renew."

To return to the point, the thing that interests me, beyond desire and mourning, is just this: Belinda’s lock isn't only clipped from her head and then kept by the Baron.  It is lost for a second time—and lost in a way that suggests a different order of artistic creativity.  In the last scene in the poem—and indeed the historical episode upon which the poem was based—the lock of hair becomes lost in a more literal way.  It is dropped, misplaced, mislaid, or otherwise nowhere to be found.  And this launches a troubling paradox-- of the kind that a poet like Pope, or Edmund Spenser before him (see right), would have delighted in: the lock only becomes famous because it vanishes into print.  The actual lock is lost, but the print version, shared with the world, remains intact.  Not all the tresses Belinda’s fair head could boast (Pope insists) could draw such envy as the lock she lost.  This requires, Pope insists, "poetic eyes": someone like Pope can see what others can't.  (Speaking poetically, the lock ends up in the "lunar sphere," where all things lost are treasured; this poetic place of lost property provided the frontispiece for the 1714 edition of the poem-- see above.)  For while they are all looking around for the lock itself, Pope claims to be able to see the vanished lock whisked up to the stars, where it becomes something like a poem-- which happens to be Pope's poem.  And so, the lock lives on.  For good or for ill, Belinda’s lock is only remembered because it was lost to the world.

A crude, anonymous woodcut of satirist Alexander Pope, "defeated" by Edmund Curll, who published a found manuscript of Pope's letters.  Scholars widely agree that Pope staged the whole episode to have his private letters published.

The general theft of the lock—which results in the celebrity of the victim and author alike—suggests a broader role for loss as a general condition of property, and, in the end, things like intellectual property or even authorship.  For Belinda’s lock only becomes hers in any significant way by being shared with the world; it registers as her lock because it is, in a word, published.  What is more, The Rape of the Lock, the poem that contains this fantasy of lost property, only ever appeared in public under the sign of the same paradox—a paradox common enough in Pope’s publication history that we may call it a pattern.  Pope insisted that The Rape of the Lock was only ever meant to be a privately circulating manuscript; it was, Pope at least publicly claimed, a pirated copy of a private poem that simply fell into the wrong hands.  Like the lock that it describes, it was published, he insisted, because it was lost.  This is one of the secrets of intellectual property generally.  An idea can only be truly, definitively one’s own once it has been circulated publicly.  This is why scientists and researchers rush to publish their ideas; they make them public to claim them as their own.  Here, precisely in this tension, is what makes intellectual property law so maddeningly complex; in the realms of intellectual property, at least, all property is lost property.  And what is true for the objects of the mind, I at least suspect, is true for objects of the hand as well.

Alexander Pope’s career frequently crossed with the law.  By the end of his writing life, he had been embroiled in multiple court cases to defend his ownership of the things he had written—even in the case of such things as The Rape of the Lock, which was clearly based on someone else’s trauma.  And so, when Pope found himself in court, in an action against George Bickham (whose pirated portrait of John Gay features in Exhibit 27), to defend his right in his Essay on Man, or when he sued Edmund Curll for publishing private letters in what is now regarded as a ruse on Pope’s part to see those letters into print (an episode that turns up in Exhibit 26), we may observe that property, at least as far as Pope’s career is concerned, is all along shot through with deliberate loss.  Like everything else, this is ownership based on debt, property on dispossession. 

I hardly know where to end, except to say that loss is a critical part of ownership—and it is time that we all recognized it.  Loss is the underwriting condition of property, a fact that intellectual property makes clear.  Loss emerges as an essential part of how something, even something important to one’s public identity, may be said to be owned—for Belinda, yes, but also for Pope, whose work emerges as a compendium of the property of other people.  Built into possessive models of selfhood is, in other words, a strange, vertiginous dispossession.  It is not that every owner implies someone disowned; it is that public dispossession is built into what it means to own something at all.  To own something yourself, you have to share it with the world.  This is not a paradox.  It is merely the sign that an ecology is at work.