I'm an advice column junkie. I've never submitted a question but I read them obsessively. I also enjoy eavesdropping in the comments sections below as "Willow07" and "Jim no avatar" wrangle over the thorny issue of whether the obsessive-compulsive should or should not apologize for reorganizing his mother-in-law's Ladies of the American Revolution tampon collection. And if my reading has taught me anything, it is this: The debate is never really about the tampon collection. It's actually about defining standards we can all agree to when we condemn people and how we prioritize them. This kind of extra-legal self-legislation is—let's be honest—the only form of democracy we can actually participate in and enforce. (Sometimes it even pretends to be legal; this is why I loved Judge Wapner as a kid and why my dad loves Judge Judy.)
But there are other pleasures to be had, too. On the reader's side, it's voyeurism clothed in public spirit's garb. There might be some abstract curiosity about how to define or be a Good Person. On the writer's side, it's public confession, penance and absolution. With the double-plus of anonymity and exhibitionism! It's all marvelously Catholic.
It's also a completely bizarre social contract. Who decided someone with no apparent qualifications got to be the moral arbiter for a society? Where did this all start?
Picture it: London, 1691.
The “Ask A” genre was invented by one John Dunton, bookseller, who was taking a walk one day and told his friends (in a move future advice columnists would diagnose as passive-aggressive) that he'd just gotten an absolutely amazing idea but couldn't tell them what it was.
Here's his account:
I was one day walking over St. George's fields, and Mr Larkin Harris were along with me, and on a sudden I made a stop, and said Sirs, I have a thought I will not exchange for 50 guineas'…. the first hint of it was no more than a confused idea, of concealing the Querist, and answering his Question. However, so soon as I came home, I managed it to some better purpose, brought it into form, and hammered out a Title for it.
That title was The Athenian Gazette: Or Casuistical Mercury, Resolving all the most Nice and Curious Questions proposed by the Ingenious of Either Sex.
Here's how it worked: Say you were wondering, as many a good English citizen might, whether the Pope is the Antichrist. Delighted that there's finally a group of eminent scholars you can ask, you send your question either to the Roterdam Coffee-House in Finch-lane or to the one in Stocks-Market. The illustrious “Athenian Society” (which was, basically, just Dunton and two of his pals) would then meet twice a week at Smith's Coffeehouse to answer the questions, which they published from 1691 until 1697.
It was a new idea and not without its skeptics (one person wrote in to ask, “Why do you trouble your selves and the world with answering so many silly Questions?”). It also proved to be incredibly popular.
The response was so overwhelming that the “Society” had to issue a set of rules in Volume 2. Among other things, they order Querists to limit their questions to one or two at a time, “send no more Obscene Questions, for we shan't answer 'em” and to ask “nothing, the Answer of which, may be a Scandal to the Government, or an Abuse to particular Persons” (although the King of France comes in for his share of abuse).
Luckily for us, the rules were less restrictive in practice than they seem. The columns offer us a glimpse of what people, offered an anonymous platform for the first time, wanted to know. If you read Dear Margo and are French, you might, after reading this, lean back in your chair, blow a smoke-ring and grunt “plus ça change!” If you're not and don't, well, some things might just sound familiar.
Let me tell you about a problem a "friend" of mine is having.
Q: I knew a gentlewoman who wept the first night she slept with her husband, whether was it joy, fear, or modesty that caused these tears?*
A: We shall rather attribute it to a fearful modesty, than joy, or any other cause, because we find no instances of widows, when upon their marrying again have wept going to bed. Plutarch treating on modesty argues that though it be a weakness, it's an argument of a virtuous and ingenuous soul. Mandesto in his Travels says a young woman of Japan, being on her knees at the end of a table, waiting on her master in the apartment of women, and over-reaching herself to take a flagon that stood a little too far from her, chanced to break wind backwards, with which she was so much ashamed that putting her garment over her head, she would by no means show her face, but with an enraged violence taking one of the nipples of her breasts into her mouth she bit it off; with the anguish of which, and the shame she underwent, she immediately died in the place. This last instance deserves our pity, but the instance in the question our admiration, and wishes, that there were more instances of this sort, and less of the impudent and shameless behavior of the contrary.
Moral: If your wife weeps on your wedding night, she deserves our admiration. If only other women were modest like her, but not so modest that they suicidally bite off their own nipples when they fart.
Wimmenz be lying, amirite?
Q: Whether a woman may be believed when she says she'll never marry?
A: Yes, as long as she keeps her word, and longer than that you'll hardly believe a man.
Should we move in together?
Q: Whether it is lawful for two unmarried Persons, each consenting, to cohabit, etc. since marriage was a thing set up by Man?
A: Marriage as to the Essential part of it, was first constituted in Paradise: And as man was endowed with reason, so the external ceremonial parts were first left to his discretion. But when the world came to be peopled, and governments fixed, care was taken for the establishing laws, and amongst the rest a settled public solemnization of marriages—it being a contradiction that government could be happy and at peace without a certain method and way was established for legitimacy of succession in estates, etc. It's true in the Law of God we find not the least footstep of any ceremonial nuptials, or other marriages, than a continued cohabitation and its consequences, but silence is no certain argument that there was none, those that consult history will find it universally agreed upon (as if nature dictated it) that all nations had a certain public manner of solemnizing their marriages. And though our eminent lawyers lay down no other fundamental Act of Marriage than bed and board for a legitimacy of succession: yet this alters not the nature of politics, nor frees these clandestine aggressors of the civil ends of government from the scandal and infamy that national custom charges them with, nor the impiety they are guilty of by being an offence to tender and unsatisfied consciences, which every honest man would avoid, that has learnt this great truth, that no Man is born for himself.
Moral: Just because God didn't say there was a law doesn't mean that there isn't one. He might be hiding it. Saving it for a rainy day. Maybe it got lost in the Flood. Anyway, look, WE LIVE IN A SOCIETY. If you do this thing, you will be a clandestine aggressor harming the civil ends of government, and we will charge you with scandal and infamy.
Not that this happened to me or anything. I'm just curious.
Q: Why should the putting of a man's hand in cold water occasion a sudden emission of urine, notwithstanding his being fast asleep?
A: That “notwithstanding” has lost its way, for if at all it must be when a man's asleep, otherwise he must have a care here he touches his hands: Nor is there any difficulty in the emission when sleeping, more than waking, as appears by their sheets who have not the retentive faculty then, though at other times they are stanch enough. But we need not have wasted all these words about it, for we can assure the reader, 'tis a perfect vulgar error, as a thousand other received opinions are, and has nothing at all of truth in it—at least, in those experiments which we have made about it.
Moral: The Athenian Society performed some super-creepy experiments.
That advice-column chestnut, "Why do horses poop square?" makes its first documented appearance.
Q: Why a horse with a round fundament emits a square excrement?
A: The cells of the Colon form the feces into oblong cakes, and protrude them into the rectum, from whence they are exonerated by sphincter ani, which does not form them in the extrusion, the orifice being big enough to exonerate several of them at once. They are formed quadrangularly in the rectum, by protension and compression upon one another, as any other round or oblong substances which are soft would be, if they were thrust together. But yet some of them are not square on all sides, from this reason, they being discharged several of them at once, through a round fundament, the whole lump is round, the extremity and outward parts of it receiving their form agreeable to the thing forming, when at the same time the middle parts must needs be square, from the reason above. A Wide purse will admit several sorts of coin at the same time.
Moral: There are alternatives to making a silk purse out of a sow's ear.
Also, can you recommend some good munchies?
Q: What is Time?
A: A continued flux or Chain of Nows.
Join us in future installments as the gentlemen of The Athenian Mercury take questions on love, superstition and settle once and for all the question of how evil is the Pope, really.
* Spelling and punctuation for all entries has been modernized.
Lili Loofbourow is a writer living in Oakland. She writes about 17th-century ideas of reading and digestion, cognitive science, Chile, and femscularity. She blogs for Ms. and as Millicent over here.