Historians' Watch

Boris Johnson, Rogue Masculinity, and Our Picaresque Political Moment

Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, to give him his full name, has for the past two decades performed for us all in public life as a roguish figure; consistently mendacious, tactically offensive, always on the make. Johnson is habitually unwilling to endure the consequences of his actions or to listen to the advice of experts.

As of 30 July, he is Prime Minister of the UK, and strides into No. 10 Downing Street on the back of 92,153 votes from Tory members, a whopping 0.13% of the country’s electorate. UK columnists are starting to draw historical parallels between how Boris conducts politics and the seedier aspects of seventeenth-century political crises. These parallels run deeper than they know. Boris’s performance is what English people four-hundred years ago would know as ‘false-facing’, and the form of masculine assertiveness that he projects (he is at best a serial philanderer) would remind them of a type of roguish gang boss called ‘the Upright Man’ (yes, the name is a salacious pun).

The way that roguish literary and stage characters in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries channelled consequence-free misogyny and domineering deception was entertaining and titillating for a generally male audience, and many best-selling works relied on characters that have much in common with the Prime Minister (such as Bampfylde Moore-Carew, ‘Captain Macheath’, and Meriton Latroon). This genre of literature is generally called the ‘picaresque’ or ‘rogue literature’, and in its original formulation it was meant to cynically reflect the ‘fallen’ and sinful nature of the world, to be darkly comedic, and fundamentally satirical. Alarmingly, in 2019 the picaresque has become effective as political performance. I want to offer some historical context for this moment and to explain why this ‘picaresque politics’ presents an enormous danger for our democratic norms.

Johnson’s repertoire in politics has long relied on constant, presumptuous mendacity, on a deliberate disdain for the details, and on a relentless performative optimism. These are essential ingredients for any confidence trick, known to early modern people as ‘cony-catching’. Cony-catching took many forms in literature, many of which rely on colourful lies: a rogue might pretend they had lost all of their property by fire or shipwreck and wring out some sympathy coin; they might entrap a gentleman via proffered sex and then extort money from them en flagrante, posing as an aggrieved relative or husband; they might cheat at cards or dice, pretend to read your future for a fee; they might fake madness, or physical disability, or former service in war; they might also resort to creative thievery by stealing linen off of clothes lines or enticing dogs out from under hunting elites.

Regardless of the con they used, rogues were always necessarily on the move in order to avoid discovery. This imagined underworld of smooth-talking characters had a hierarchy, and at the top was ‘The Upright Man’. The sixteenth-century author Thomas Harman described how ordinary rogues inevitably became ‘upright’ as they grew in experience, “after a yere or two at the farthest… unles they be prevented by twinde hempe”, in other words, unless they were executed.[1] Upright men purportedly led larger groups or gangs of beggars, thieves, and prostitutes, and they were described as sexually domineering. At night, amidst illicit revelry, ‘he that is hardyste maye have his choyse’. Translated to modern English and modern politics: “just pat her on the bottom and send her on her way”, or “voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts” or (Boris’s remarks while mayor of London during the 2012 Olympics), describing the experience of watching “semi-naked women playing beach volleyball … glistening like wet otters”, or finally (from the mouth of another ‘upright man’ in American politics) “when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ‘em by the pussy. You can do anything.”

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, ‘The Cardsharps’, 1594. Wikimedia commons.

When lies have no horizons, while there is always another con to run, rogues can do anything. And here is the essential thing about the roguish character in early modern literature: they are always running a con, always in the process of stealing something. This freedom to perpetually re-invent the self socially and sexually, both attracted and threatened contemporaries. Parliament passed sumptuary laws to regulate outward appearance along class lines and vagrancy statutes to control the mobility of the poor; ministers thundered from the pulpit and pundits from the presses about the dangers of vagabonds and ‘false’ beggars; avid readers consumed hundreds of racy rogue stories, both in print and on stage. It is instructive that Falstaff was the character who so affected Elizabeth I that she apparently requested further work from Shakespeare featuring him, and it was John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, first staged in Newgate prison, that took Hanoverian London by storm with the bawdy escapades of Polly Peachum and the rogue highwayman Macheath. We live with the echoes of this fascination. As Fintan O’Toole has so neatly put it, the UK seems tragically willing to go along with the fiction that Boris Johnson is ‘Prince Hal’, and will duly transform into a sober and stable ruler when the moment demands it, when in reality he is Falstaff instead, and he shall prove a conniving mercenary forever. O’Toole also notes that Johnson’s comic novel, Seventy-Two Virgins (2004), features an ‘unflattering self-portrait’ in the form of a quintessentially roguish character named Roger Barlow, whose ‘career of mendacity’ is defined by his successful evasion of both questions and consequences.

‘Roguery’ and ‘knavery’ have spilled into the political worlds of Britain at various times since the seventeenth century. Once fully introduced we would be hard-pressed to find a subsequent moment where they are absent. The concepts became quickly associated with the rampantly dishonest and ruinous financial speculation of the ‘South Sea bubble’ in 1720, they animated critiques of the corrupt ‘Whig oligarchy’ put into place by Robert Walpole in the aftermath of the first Jacobite rebellion in 1715, they haunted the emergent party politics of the ‘exclusion crisis’ in 1679, when Whigs led by the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury attempted to bar James II from the succession on account of his Catholicism and his penchant for absolutism, and certainly when Titus Oates told tall tales about Jesuits and lurid plots to kill Charles II during the same period. Everyone was ‘false-facing’, and the truth assumed absent. The boundaries between classes were increasingly blurred by serial dishonesty, to the point where the ‘Beggar’ narrator of Gay’s opera concluded thus in 1729: ‘you may observe such a similitude of Manners in high and low Life, that it is difficult to determine whether (in fashionable Vices) the fine Gentlemen imitate the Gentlemen of the Road, or the Gentlemen of the Road the fine Gentlemen.’[2] Who are the real rogues?

With respect to Brexit in particular, Boris has aptly marshalled duplicity already, famously through the two alternate futures that he projected in a pair of opposing columns prepared for The Telegraph in 2016. The first was tepidly pro-EU and the second offered full-throated support for leaving the EU. He opted to go to press with the latter. It is this sort of double doubt and dishonesty which proves so corrosive to our politics and which does so much to destroy trust; the loss of which now animates the op-ed jeremiads of our political moment. Rogues directly benefit from a cynical political landscape in which the standards of behaviour are coarsened, and as part of the con, they often try to create exactly this environment of generalised selfishness and distrust.

Such rampant narcissism has peculiarly characterised English rogues above many others. By the eighteenth century English rogues lied purely for themselves and their own gain, whereas in earlier Spanish picaresque literature rogues lied just as often to expose social hypocrisy. We now associate Don Quixote’s famous ‘tilting at windmills’ with entertaining futility, but in the context of the novel it was precisely the opposite, Quixote’s opponents were not windmills at all, but threatening giants, and his chivalry demanded they be slain to protect innocents. Spanish rogues retained a certain nobility and honesty in their social critiques, English rogues wholly embraced venal self-interest for no higher reason than spectacle. Duplicitous and domineering sexuality goes hand in hand with this type of corrosive cynicism, and male rogues consistently ‘use’ women as props, as bait, as ornamentation.

James Maclaine, the gentleman highwayman, ‘The Ladies Hero’, full-length standing against a plain background, 1750. Etching and engraving, British Museum collections online, licensed under Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Rogue masculinity is toxic masculinity. The genre’s male anti-heroes consistently manipulate and abuse women, and it is no coincidence that ‘pick-up artists’ today describe their activities as ‘The Game’. Viewing life, sex, and potential harm in this way, as ‘just a game’, is both an unconscionable privilege of masculinity and increasingly of class, and also a powerful reference to the games played at the expense of early modern women throughout rogue literature. That the odd female character such as Moll Flanders ostensibly flips this script proves thin exception to this grim rule.

By now I hope you recognize ‘Boris Johnson’, to give him his stage name, in the conventions of roguish duplicity–the lies without end–that I have outlined here. I hope you sense how the siren attraction of his thrusting politics of belief is based on an all-consuming cynicism about what comes next. This lie is entirely without horizons and without end. ‘Brexit’ is not a promise that is ever meant to be fulfilled; it shifts in form and function exactly like a rogue does, in a direct effort to thwart its own realisation.

I need to conclude by sounding a heavy note of caution: this cultural trope is dangerous first because it is captivatingly and iconoclastically funny, because it channels our animal attention in all the wrong ways; but in 2019 satire is dead, and the humour of rogues has been entirely co-opted by a resurgent political project bent solely on self-aggrandisement, and on power for power’s sake. These ‘Upright men’ can also transform into something even more dangerous (in Johnson’s case it seems clear this transformation has taken place), they can become what Walter Benjamin described in 1931 as ‘the destructive character’:

The destructive character knows only one watchword: make room; only one activity: clearing away. His need for fresh air and open space is stronger than any hatred. [He] is young and cheerful. For destroying rejuvenates in clearing away the traces of our own age… no vision inspires the destructive character. He has few needs, and the least of them is to know what will replace what has been destroyed. First of all, for a moment at least, empty space, the place where the thing stood or the victim lived.[3]

In 2019 destructive characters are not simply inside the gates, they have taken charge, and what comes next is always a ‘clearing away’. We must never forget, however, that the con is always on, that for rogues disaster means chaos, and chaos invites profit. Rogues are always stealing something, and today they are stealing our democracy right in front of us, in slow motion.

[1] Thomas Harman, A caueat for commen cursetors vulgarely called vagabones, 1567, p. 13.

[2] The Beggar’s Opera, Act III. Scene XVI, Lines 18-25.

[3] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Destructive Character’, One-Way Street and Other Writings, 1931, p. 157.

One Comment

  1. In addition to its inspirational content, I like the luscious style of the writing. I recognized Dr Hitchcock’s poetic talent some years ago when I asked his historical advice for my PhD thesis in Shakespeare studies. Yet I could not have an opportunity to read his writing until now. This article updates my appreciation of his Shakespearean talent. When I read Marx for my endeavour in literature from below, I am surprisingly pleased that Marx sometimes reads like more Shakespearean than Shakespeare himself. Dr Hitchcock now gives me a similar kind of Shakespearean pleasure.

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