Sean R. Silver – The Rape of the Lock and the Origins of Game Theory

The Rape of the Lock and the Origins of Game Theory1)

Sean R. Silver

Published in Connotations Vol. 19.1-3 (2009/10)

When I teach Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock, I generally spend an entire class on the game of cards. Early in the third canto the Baron and Belinda sit down to a game of ombre; what occurs over the "verdant field" (iii.52) of the card−table, described in the half−serious, half−teasing idiom of the mock−epic, forms the central set−piece of the poem. I find that students respond to the game best when they can see it—when the rudimentary rules are explained, and the students can see the game as it unfolds. To this end, I have experimented with a PowerPoint presentation which restages the game of ombre as though it were conducted at an online gambling website, which I call The point is to streamline the rules of the game, to make it look more like a game that they know, Hearts or Texas Hold−'em, for instance. I aim, that is, to emphasize the social relations which the game itself organizes. The payoff moment—at least in terms of the pacing of the lecture—is the last, deciding trick, when the Baron leads with the ace of hearts. Belinda slaps down her "unseen [King]," which "falls like thunder on the prostrate ace" (iii.95−98; Figure 1). Students, freed from thinking about the rules of play (is this "codille" or "vole"?) are prepared to discuss the sexual politics at play, the Baron's sad—and losing card—crushed by Belinda's gesture of masculine majesty. They therefore arrive at a provisional answer to the [→page 204] opening riddles of the poem, the twinned question of "what strange motive" would "compel ⁄ A well−bred lord t' assault a gentle belle" (i.7−8), and "what stranger cause […] ⁄ Could make a gentle belle reject a lord?" (i.9−10). They are ready to see the subsequent rape of the lock as a violent response to a spurned advance—a sexual assault meant, crudely, to reassert the Baron's gender identity. And they are also prepared to open up discussion of other dimensions of the game, this Spanish game played in England. They are equipped to reapproach the assembled worlds of playing−card kings and queens—the poem's "swarthy Moors" (iii.48), "warlike Amazon[s]" (iii.67), and so on—as a miniature mirror of the nascent British empire.

Figure 1. "[T]he King unseen […] falls like thunder on the prostrate ace."

There is a large body of work which treats Pope's game of ombre as an opportunity to talk about something else, to turn the discussion to, for instance, the gender politics of Pope's eighteenth−century coterie culture, or the object world of London's rapidly mercantilized economy.2) [→page 205] This is of course the approach I adopt in the classroom. I mention this at length because it stands in contrast to what is emerging as a significant and distinct thread in discussions of The Rape of the Lock. Beginning with William Pole's remarks in 1873, a number of scholars have developed readings of this scene which work to isolate the play of ombre from its cultural contexts—which turn to the game simply to discuss the game. The most recent among these, Oliver Baker's "Pope's Ombre Enigmas in The Rape of the Lock," may be taken as exemplary; Baker's method, which he indicates he developed in consultation with W. E. Markham and T. R. Cleary, develops what he takes to be a rigorous approach to taking the game on its own terms, in its own terms (233n1). Rather than cataloguing the poem's complicated allusive webwork, or charting out its rich and complicated social embeddedness, Baker's approach instead develops a nuanced understanding of such issues as the order of play, the cards dealt, and the strategies and tactics of a hand of ombre. As he himself notes, Baker thereby stands as the latest standard−bearer of a surprisingly long and eclectic list of scholars, which includes such luminaries as Geoffrey Tillotson and William Wimsatt. His paper asks to be understood, therefore, as an entry in an established tradition of reading, an established body of work which seeks to analyze a game—this game—as an artifact with a self−sufficient critical vocabulary. In this sense, it is satisfyingly exhaustive, part of what might be recognized as a tradition of game−theoretical treatments of games as merely games.3) Put differently, what we have here is a surprisingly resilient form of game−theoretical criticism: the seemingly closed loop of a game taken merely as itself.

Having said this, however, I would like to sound a note of caution. Baker's method is what he calls "unbiased close reading" (212); it is an attempt "to fully account for the content of Pope's forty couplets" (211). One might begin nevertheless to suspect that Baker's "unbiased" approach is in fact attended by a host of biases—biases which, not surprisingly, occlude much of the potential "content" of Pope's eighty lines. It will be the work of this essay, therefore, to sketch out [→page 206] the critical assumptions underlying Baker's approach, this special form of game−theoretical criticism. This investigation will require a turn, for a moment, to the history of chess. I turn to chess, briefly, in part because it is the oldest game exhaustively to be represented in English−language literature; the body of writing on chess outweighs that of any other single game. But my point in the end will be to suggest that readings like Baker's of The Rape of the Lock have a wider salience: they illuminate a special way in which game theory, far from promising simply to exhaust literary representations like Pope's poem, may in fact depend upon literary representations—or, more broadly, cultural context—for its explanatory power altogether. Let me, then, lay all my cards on the table. It will be my argument that The Rape of the Lock is not explicable through a game theoretical approach. On the contrary, the game theoretical approach is explicable through The Rape of the Lock. In a wider sense, far from excluding the cultural contexts of Pope's world, the game theoretical approach continually rediscovers them, for game theory traces its origins to the very coterie culture which The Rape of the Lock describes. It emerges precisely from the card−playing culture of Alexander Pope's Twickenham—for culturally specific reasons which I will discuss in their place. This essay's final trick will therefore offer an alternative history of game theory itself, through a reading of Pope's poem. For The Rape of the Lock, in the end, captures not only a game and a world; it also offers an opportunity to revisit the assumptions of game theoretical readings of all sorts of encounters, including pastimes like ombre and chess—but also like love and war.

*    *    *

Among the very first handful of books printed in English was the first English−language book on gaming: William Caxton's very free translation of an Italian original entitled The Game and Playe of the Chesse (1474). It is a curious book. As Jenny Adams notes, Caxton's translation, despite its title, "does not, in fact, have much to say about a game [→page 207] or about playing it." The Game and Playe of the Chesse traces, exhaustively, not so much the strategy and play of the game as, instead, its relationship to the world of feudal relations. "The work," Adams notes, "uses the chessboard and its pieces to allegorize a political community whose citizens contribute to the common good" (Introduction 1). It begins therefore not with the pawns, which would be described in the first major book on the play of chess (by the composer and librettist François−André Danican Philidor) as the "soul of chess" (xix).4) Nor does it begin with board and the rules of the game. It begins instead with a description of the piece which would be most important in a feudal society: the king. It proceeds to enumerate the king's various companions and counselors, numbering the pawns as the members of imagined professions: blacksmiths, drapers, farmers, etc. Chess, that is, becomes for Caxton a transparent excuse to introduce a culture.5) Criticism has thus tended to focus on The Game and Playe of the Chesse as an example of a mirror for a magistrate, for it proposes a way of reading the State as a game with rules and procedures.

The textual representations of games in English may therefore be thought to have had, from their beginnings, a mixed mode of discourse. Books on games have been, on the one hand, purely self−referential, composed of the rules and procedures of the game itself; looked at in this way, such a representation is interested strictly in how better to play a game as a game, with, that is, clearly definable procedures and objectives. Such representations have however also been, sometimes though not always at the same time, the mirrors of ostensibly unrelated modes of human discourse—politics, surely, but also love, business, and so on. Indeed, the predominantly "social" or "allegorical" forms of game−books, to borrow Adams's language, seem to predate the first handbooks on what might be called the strategy and play of games. Caxton's Game and Playe of the Chess predates Gioachino Greco's The Royall Game of Chesse−Play, the first such game−play handbook, by nearly 200 years. Is it possible, one might therefore wonder, that game theory is a relatively late development, which, [→page 208] rather than defining some essential substratum of the play of games, requires a prior cultural substratum to sustain it? The English republication of Greco's book, which in part capitalizes on the reputed love for "The Royall Game" by the martyr−king Charles I, would seem to suggest that even such eminently analytical games as chess are rarely ever simply games. There is some ideological or cultural remnant which clings to games—and which the fact of the game therefore offers continually to return to performance.

Chess has survived the royal culture in which it was originally embedded; like all games, it continues however to inhabit these two broad, by no means mutually exclusive, modes of discourse, what might be called the game−theoretical, and the "social" or "allegorical." Representations can, of course, slope predominantly into one or the other form. Take, as a nearly pure example of a game represented in the first mode, the chess game between the supercomputer HAL 9000 and Frank Poole in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). While killing time on a voyage to Saturn, astronaut Poole has challenged HAL to a game of chess, and has been hopelessly outplayed; HAL points out that he is about to win—says "I'm sorry Frank, I think you missed it. Queen to bishop three. Bishop takes queen. Knight takes bishop. Mate"—and Poole in fact resigns. Shortly afterwards, HAL inaugurates a plan to trap Poole outside the spacecraft, thereby, as it were, checkmating him in a surprisingly fatal way. But apart from simply anticipating the plot which is to follow, the issue which the film seems to pose through this chess set−piece is simply the very possibility of a computer playing a game at all. The way in which a computer plays chess becomes a way of posing the so−called 'hard' question of consciousness, whether HAL is in fact sentient. Here it seems critical to think about the game as a game—which the players play with various levels of skill. Scholarly treatments of this game tend for this reason to focus on factual reconstructions of move orders, with a few speculations upon the logical precision of the 'mind' of the supercomputer.6) The best of these is, I think, Murray S. Campbell's "An Enjoyable Game." Campbell applies to HAL 9000 vs. Frank Poole [→page 209] the lessons he learned while tinkering with Deep Blue, the IBM supercomputer which defeated then−world−champion Garry Kasparov in a six−game showdown.7) Campbell's essay adopts an approach which the film itself, in speaking the game's language, seems to prompt; he, like HAL, dwells extensively on move orders, variations, and improvements. The lesson he draws, in the end, is one of HAL's sentience, and perhaps insanity, determined precisely through the logical or illogical flow of the game. The fact that HAL is wrong about the mating line it sets out (there is a mating line, but not as HAL describes it) becomes in this mode of critical discourse a crucial explanatory clue.8)

There is of course another way in which games enter into the world—in which the game articulates a different register of human discourse, structuring, for instance, romantic attraction or political struggle.9) Take as an example of this social or allegorical mode of representation the well−known game of chess in the Thomas Crown Affair—the one with Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway (1967), a film which is virtually contemporary with 2001. Vicki Anderson (Dunaway) is an insurance investigator; she is investigating Crown (McQueen), a bank executive who she suspects has robbed his own bank. The scene which interests me begins when the two meet in Crown's posh and well−appointed library. Anderson notices a chess−board; Crown, cognac in one hand and cigar in the other, asks if she plays. The affective pacing of the scene which follows is shaped by the rhythm of the chess game they sit to play; it is, in other words, a scene conducted entirely through a game of chess, while being nevertheless about something completely different. After the first few moves, the camera begins to lose track of the pieces; the players likewise spend less time looking at the board than each other. Anderson traces the curve of her neckline; she touches Crown's fingers over the chessboard; she caresses the phallic head of one of her bishops in an invitation so obvious that even the thick−headed playboy Thomas Crown can't miss it. Everything about the staging of this scene indicates that the moves, themselves, are only the blind for some other struggle or [→page 210] contest. Crown, about to lose, instead makes a counter−offer: he invites her to "play something else," leaving silent the pun on the "mate" which was about to follow. When the game falls away what is left is the romantic attraction which is the real engine of the film, for the "affair" of The Thomas Crown Affair is in the end not about a bank robbery or insurance fraud. Such a chess game, like such an insurance investigation, structures the conduct of human commerce, providing the (however abbreviated and accelerated) rules of courtship. This courtship is not necessarily a low−stakes contest, as the amount of money in play itself suggests. Indeed, this contest of romantic attraction also mobilizes the banking establishment, global commerce (ivory chess−pieces, Persian rugs, Cuban cigars, French cognac, etc.), the insurance industry, and so on. But the clear point is that the encounter over the chess−board is a blind for a clearer, and more common, generic device—the sexual plot of comic drama. Bank executive and insurance investigator have, in other words, been "play[ing] something else" all along.

When HAL says "Mate," he simply means that he is about to win a game of chess; when Anderson leaves the same word unpronounced, she is not referring to the game at all. Alexander Pope's game of ombre might therefore be read in two ways—as the precise formal equivalent of the game of chess in 2001: A Space Odyssey, or as the formal equivalent of the game of chess in The Thomas Crown Affair. In the first instance, in the words of Geoffrey Rockwell, the game "formally isolate[s] a pocket of activities," abstracting a "time […] and place from the real world" (94); it stands as its own isolated object with its own sufficient rules and procedures. In the second instance, the game falls away to reveal something else, the psychological drives (romantic attraction) and global forces which exist outside it but nevertheless structure its play. In the first case, the game has its own (sometimes opaque) aesthetics and ethics, and is therefore often simply excerpted and made to stand as an object of its own. In the second case, the game is the object of a wide range of critical approaches, but has, itself, no essential ethical or aesthetic content. It is understood to [→page 211] be an integral part of the longer work and larger world in which it appears. Finally, and slightly paradoxically, in the former, the characters are themselves the objects of critical inquiry, since they speak, think, and express themselves in the language of the game which they play. In the latter, the characters are less important than the social forces at work. Put differently, in the first case, the game is a hermeneutic object, sufficient to itself, sealed up in a spaceship, as it were, and hurtled off to Saturn. In the second case, the game is part of a network, played in a library, rich with allusions to the global and literary world of which it is a part. As the trend of my remarks should, I hope, make clear, Baker's piece treats the game in The Rape of the Lock as an artifact of the first form. It takes up a specific game of ombre but consistently, perhaps even counter−intuitively, declines to consider the game's parabolic valences—taking up a critical position against the trend of recent, influential readings, which emphasize the embeddedness of the game's politics.10) This reading offers an extended consideration of the game in its own language, including variations which the game might have taken, but did not, and, in this sense, is the partner piece to Campbell's "An Enjoyable Game."

As Baker puts it, "[other] scholars can engage in […] literary analysis of the characters, motives, and social context of Pope's poem" (226−27); his task is instead to take up the burden of what he calls "the evidence of close reading" (226). He intends to determine "how skillfully, or unskillfully, the players enacted the first mock−battle at Hampton Court" (210); he intends likewise to evaluate "the individual players' [Ombre] skills," ranking them from "skilful Nymph" (Pope iii.45, qtd. in Baker 223) to "novice or […] nincompoop" (222). As he notes, his is the latest installment in a history of reconstructions of this particular game (cf. 211−12). These treatments, taken together, form part of a special category of what Herbert De Ley calls a game−theoretical approach to criticism; it is a special category because they represent game−theoretical approaches to the literary representation of a game. This would seem to provide what Baker calls an "unbiased," [→page 212] satisfyingly closed treatment of a hermetically sealed episode: a game read by game theory (211).

Baker's approach is nevertheless anything but tautological. It is moreover different than simply laying the groundwork for later critical approaches, as though revisiting the rules of the game were to determine the theoretical substructure of the struggle between Belinda and the Baron. A game−theoretical approach, on the contrary, draws on a wealth of assumptions, not least being the anatomy of human motivation. As De Ley notes, "[r]ather than studying things that happen to the players (except as they may change the conditions of the game), game theory focusses on the players' rational decisions" (44). Game theory, that is, is a focused way of thinking about human activity as a sum of isolatable, anatomizable elections—of 'logical choices.'11) In order for it to have explanatory force, it must assume that people, as Prashant Parikh puts it, make rational decisions about "positive benefits and negative costs"(919) based on the analysis of "partial information" (920). This is most obvious when Baker claims, for instance, that "[o]nly when Pope's audience have reconstructed the two defenders' hands" can they know whether they "should have drawn new cards" (215). The assumption is that when our information of the hands becomes unlimited, we can have perfect access to what a perfectly skillful player would or would not do, thereby, transparently, associating motivation in a straightforward way with the strategy of the game.

The promise of codifying motivations is of course both the great strength and the singular limitation of the game−theoretical approach—which has, in the twentieth century, expanded from the treatment of games to explain broader patterns of social behavior.12) Games are, historically speaking, part of the development of a polite culture of publicness elaborated by theorists and historians after J. H. Plumb, Norbert Elias, and Jürgen Habermas. From combat to card−playing, the development of games is an integral part of what Norbert Elias and Eric Dunning describe as the "civilizing process" (cf. Elias and Dunning 21−24); warfare gives way to poker.13) But the applications [→page 213] of game theory, in general, tend to recapture what Elias and Dunning argue are the atavistic roots of polite games of leisure; they reapply lessons learned in the analysis of card and board games to seemingly radically different fields of human endeavor—most importantly, economic theory and military strategy. The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (1944), by Manhattan−project mathematician John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern, is the most significant study in this tradition. Such books as John McDonald's Strategy in Poker, Business and War (1950) borrow and popularize von Neumann and Morgenstern's insights; they likewise make explicit the links which underlie such an approach: undergirding the critical application of game theory is the assumption that human decisions in larger−order social situations are ultimately as rational, or as rationalizable, as decisions made over the card−table.14) Largely due to the influence of such books, two−person, zero−sum game theory became the dominant narrative of the cold war era. Such a narrative, in Steven Belletto's words, worked by "conceptualizing the cold war as a game, and by playing this game according to specific rational strategies" (333).15) This theoretical sleight−of−hand may have worked, at least inasmuch as it helped demonstrate the winlessness of thermonuclear war, but it also has precisely the sort of corollary effects we would expect in a game−theoretical treatment of a cultural problem. American game−theoretical military strategy, for instance, abstracted the war from the rest of global politics; as Belletto notes, under the game theory narrative "the particularities of various third−world countries" became "less visible than their status as stakes" (335), as, in other words, the payoffs of a two−person, zero−sum game played between rational, non−culturally−embedded actors. What is lost in applications of game theory to real−world situations is precisely the "social" or "allegorical" dimensions of games themselves.16)

The explanatory appeal of game theory is therefore evidently closely knit to its historical applications; the assumption is that an understanding of the rules of a game captures human behavior—from local, individual decisions to broad political trends, from struggles between [→page 214] business partners to clashes between NATO and the Eastern Bloc. The alternative to game−theoretical approaches, again, as De Ley understands them, is what he calls the "narrative semiotic" approach—understood in the widest possible sense of the term.17) Such an approach imagines a hero "buffeted by fortune, a figure in the grip of forces greater than himself" (De Ley 44). Such a hero (or, Pope would add, heroine) would be governed by "some possibly subconscious, possibly mystical, or Jungian, or Lévi−Straussian psychological itinerary" (44). We might also think of Alexander Pope's invention of what he slyly calls a "Rosicrucian" (p. 143−44) system of sylphs, demons, and gnomes.18) The invisible world of The Rape of the Lock might be read, somewhat simply, as therefore merely figuring or shadowing forth some essential set of subconscious motivations, drives, or desires (cf. Fairer 53): take, for example, the moment when Ariel, appalled, sees "an earthly lover" (iii.144) lurking at Belinda's heart. Indeed, the entire catalogue of Belinda's dreams, with its moving toyshop of sword−knots, coaches, and other gewgaws might be thought allegorically to structure precisely this set of psychological or proto−psychological drives, just as the Cave of Spleen in the fourth canto might be thought to figure, in a more laborious way, a mystical, eerily Jungian subconscious.19)

This reading is nevertheless itself certainly too narrow; as Alex Hernandez notes, the Cave of Spleen is at once a gallery of Belinda's motives, and, through a sort of series of Ovidian metamorphoses, a confused clearinghouse of the spoils of British Mercantilism (cf. Hernandez 571). The sylphs might indeed also, in an extended sense, be read throughout as allegorical reflections of the social and political world which places Belinda at its center, for they pick out and guard particular items of Belinda's object−world: Zephyretta the "flutt'ring fan" (ii.112), Brillante the diamond "drops" (ii.113), and so on. Their very names imply their allegorical roles, hovering, as they do, over the objects of Belinda's dressing−table: gemstones, perfumes, ivory, tortoiseshell, etc. Pope likewise barely implies that the invisible creatures of the Rosicrucian system are meant to stand in as the engines of [→page 215] empire, for it is their locomotive power—the breeze from their wings—which moves Belinda's pleasure−barge, and perhaps the trading−ships of commerce, as well.20) The Baron would seem to localize, in a sort of microcosm, trading routes with such places as the Ottoman Empire. Writes Pope, it is "Coffee" (iii.117) which "Sent up in vapours to the baron's brain ⁄ New stratagems, the radiant lock to gain" (iii.19−20). It is not the Baron, but the coffee, which produces the "stratagem."21) When they sit down to cards, then, these players seem generally to be, in De Ley's words, at the mercy of "forces greater than [themselves]"—forces as large as the reach of the British mercantile system. From the forces of Empire arranged on Belinda's dressing−table to the Baron's caffeine high, The Rape of the Lock has therefore very little to say about people as 'rational actors.'

There are nevertheless compelling reasons to think that a game− theoretical approach would suit The Rape of the Lock, not least because it describes a world squarely in the middle of—or, more precisely, on the margins of—the historical ground zero of the development of English polite culture. Pope himself describes the card−game itself as a "combat" (iii.44), hearing the atavistic revenants of mortal struggle sublimated into polite play. There is in fact a yet more compelling reason than this: namely that game theory itself originated in precisely the time and cultural context of Pope's poem, with a letter penned in 1712—the same year as the first edition of The Rape of the Lock—by an Englishman named Waldegrave. Waldegrave's letter proposes what would come to be called a mixed strategy solution to a puzzle in the card game Le Her—a puzzle which, anticipating Cold War strategy, Waldegrave solves by assuming that it is two−player, zero−sum.22) Like all myths of origins, the rest of the story is somewhat less certain, beginning with which Waldegrave, precisely, penned the letter. Various candidates have been proposed.23) It is however certain that the game−theorist Waldegrave lived first in London, and later, as a Jacobite in exile, in Paris. It is also known that he was, like Pope, a British Catholic, when Catholics were restricted from living in England's urban centers. This means that Waldegrave was almost certainly in [→page 216] England, as part of the extended Catholic coterie culture centered in Twickenham, at precisely the time that Pope wrote The Rape of the Lock. Indeed, a 1714 letter from Pope to John Caryll—the addressee of the 1714 edition of the poem—mentions "Lord Waldegrave" (Works 6: 222), who is possibly the game theorist himself—though more probably the theorist's uncle. We can at any rate be certain that the Twickenham world described in so much detail by Alexander Pope was the very proving−ground of game theory in the first place.

As the trend of my argument so far should indicate, however, a close look at The Rape of the Lock tends less to provide apt material for a game−theoretical approach than it does a way of returning to game theory's fundamental assumptions—especially the very assumption that human decisions, even decisions in a relatively local context like that of a game, can meaningfully be isolated as a series of rational decisions made according to clear payoffs and utilities. Pope's Catholic circle included John Caryll (the addressee of the poem), the Waldegraves, the originals for the Baron (Lord Petre), Belinda (Arabella Fermor), and indeed the whole cast of characters in The Rape of the Lock. The key thing, as recent work has demonstrated, is that this circle constituted a persecuted religious minority, a group vividly conscious of itself as living under social and cultural penalty in a 'militantly Protestant' England (see Brückmann 14).24) There is a wealth of criticism exploring the centrality of social marginalism to Pope's poetry, including a recent essay arguing for the ultimately Catholic origins of the "Rosicrucian" machinery in The Rape of the Lock; Pope has, according to this line of thought, smuggled a basically Catholic understanding of the world into a poem about the British beau monde.25) What I would like to observe is that this world—the world of the mathematician Waldegrave—was also the world for which the mock−epic was most suited. This is because the severe restrictions on property ownership, the carrying of weapons, the holding of public office, and so forth, enforced a scaled−down existence, the chief thematic resource of which was, according to Peter Davidson, "bathos" (69). Denied the right to carry weapons, for instance, [→page 217] the characters of The Rape of the Lock fight with hatpins, clouded canes, and snuff−boxes. The very origin of Belinda's "deadly bodkin" (v.88)—once the seal rings of her great−great−grandsire—suggests the sort of sublimation at work, just as the oft−noted comparison of her petticoats to Achilles's shield extends it. In this world, it is less that the pretensions of high society are satirized by comparing them to trivial worlds than it is, I suspect, that trivial things have been all along invested with concerns much larger than them. Denied the right to hold office, the people of Pope's world play cards. Denied the ability to engineer government, Waldegrave theorizes two−player, zero−sum games. It is therefore only more obvious in this world than elsewhere that a card−game is never just a card−game. It is instead the sublimated clash of civilizations—the marshalling of troops and world resources—which the Catholic English could not directly organize.26) We might therefore reverse the assumption that game theory develops out of an unbiased look at games; quite the contrary, it is instead that game theory develops directly from a culture in which cards always already adumbrate the high−stakes gambles of political gamesmanship.

I would like to conclude by offering a few remarks about Pope's game of ombre, read as a Catholic or coterie game. Baker suggests, in an endnote, that it is possible that "the Baron is a very skilful player" who "decides to 'let' [Belinda] win" the game, though he dismisses this as "inconsistent with his subsequent behavior, and inconsistent with the rest of Pope's satire about le beau monde" (236n23). I would like to suggest a different possibility, outside the limits of the game−theoretical model, which does not assume that the Baron is trying rationally to "win" or to "lose" the game, or that Pope's poem is, strictly speaking, a "satire." To be quite clear, Baker does not read the poem as though it were simply a game. He reads the game of ombre as though it were simply a game, with clear stakes and motivations.27) Seen this way, the Baron's side of the game of ombre begins this way: he surveys his cards, calculates that the serious risk of bidding and losing outweighs the slim probability of bidding and winning, and [→page 218] therefore prefers not to bid, hoping successfully to defend against the bidder, but risking only the minor defeat of an unsuccessful defense. He then organizes his card−play best to thwart Belinda's bid, not so much positioning himself to win, as fighting not to lose. This is of course over−simplified, since, as Baker notes, one of the "counter−intuitive feature[s]" of ombre is "that it is often more [financially] 'rewarding' to successfully defend against an Ombre bid, than it is to successfully make that bid" (227). But the logic is true to the game−theoretical approach, which in general prefers assigning preferences to describing motivations.

I am not at all convinced however that such a scheme—even if it were complicated to address the Baron's true perceived utilities—quite captures the form of the Baron's logic, or, for that matter, Belinda's. If, for instance, we look specifically for the language of 'winning' in The Rape of the Lock, it turns up in two places. The second occurrence is in the last two tricks of the only tour in the game. The Baron has been on a winning streak. There are two tricks to go, and he needs them both to impose codille. He leads the jack of diamonds; Belinda's sloughs her queen of hearts. Here is how Pope describes it:

The knave of diamonds tries his wily arts,
And wins (oh shameful chance!) the queen of hearts.
At this, the blood the virgin's cheek forsook,
A livid paleness spreads o'er all her look;
She sees, and trembles at th' approaching ill,
Just in the jaws of ruin, and codille.   (iii.87−92)

More than one critic has noticed that Belinda's response is out of proportion with the winning (or losing) of a trick. One way of thinking through this problem is in the complex of meanings layered in the rhetoric of "winning"—of what it means to "win" the Queen of Hearts. In the simplest sense, it simply means that the Knave of Diamonds, because Diamonds were led, "wins" Belinda's slough card, the Queen of Hearts. This is simply a matter of the rules of ombre—of Belinda's possibly misplayed hand. And, of course, winning in this context means, by extension, that the Baron is 'beating' Belinda. But [→page 219] there is clearly, here, an allegorical scene being staged, which is recognized by both Belinda and the Baron, in which the Knave of Diamonds—a sort of eidolon or avatar for the Baron—plays and wins Belinda's most proper icon, the Queen of Hearts. It is a question of which way we are to read that "of": Belinda's card is not just a face−card belonging to the suit of hearts; it is also the image of a ruler who has power over the hearts of men. Belinda is, as it were, the image imprinted (like Esther Summerson to William Guppy) on the hearts of the men of the coterie world of The Rape of the Lock.28) The Baron's "win" therefore signifies in two ways. Belinda is, according to the rules of the game, possibly about to suffer "codille." But the "win" is also yoked zeugmatically to the "ruin" of social and romantic conquest. (Likewise, the "knave of diamonds" clearly stands in for the Baron. It is, however, similarly uncertain whether we are meant to identify the Baron with the riches that diamonds imply, or whether we are meant to think that he is merely the dupe of an industry—i.e., the international trade in gemstones—which depends upon the romantic plot to survive.) These are the stakes which begin to explain Belinda's response.

The question then is how it is that a game, with all its rules and procedures, may be articulated to a sexual plot, may in fact be determined, in all its steps and stages, by a sexual plot. That is, if before I was suggesting that a game could provide the inhabitable form for a plot of romantic attraction, I am now proposing that it may in fact be more useful to think of games as themselves already determined by the social or allegorical modes they only ostensibly structure. Pope's The Rape of the Lock can again provide a way forward. The other place that the language of "winning" turns up in the poem is not in the context of the card game at all:

Th' advent'rous baron the bright locks admired;
He saw, he wished, and to the prize aspired.
Resolved to win, he meditates the way,
By force to ravish, or by fraud betray;
For when success a lover's toils attends,
Few ask, if fraud or force attained his ends.   (ii.28−34)

[→page 220] Seen this way, the game of ombre is just one of the "ways" the Baron "meditates" as a means to "winning"—that is, achieving or gaining—the lock. This looks, at first, like the straightforward payoffs of the game itself have simply been sublimated into a series of fetishes; the real object of desire is Belinda, who has been displaced into a lock of hair, or a playing card. A new matrix of perceived ordinal utilities could be proposed, plotting fraud and force against winning or not winning the lock. The mistake however would be to think that the Baron's decisions could ever be subsequently broken down into rational motivations and 'payoffs,' that with enough qualifications and complications, the rhetoric of winning and losing would ultimately always be governed by rational thought, for the poem provides very little evidence for rational behavior at all. This passage, for instance, appears in the context of a sort of devotional sacrifice; the Baron rises before dawn to burn a hecatomb of offerings—tokens of former loves, mash notes, French romances, and so on. He falls 'prostrate to the floor' in a prayer "[s]oon to obtain, and long possess the prize" (ii.44). It is not at all clear to me that these strategies—prostration, devotional sacrifice, prayer—can be meaningfully wedded to a game−theoretical approach to The Rape of the Lock, for they seem to evade the economic logic of costs, risks, and gains altogether. It is perhaps best then to think of the game less as providing the rules for a romantic contest, than as articulating desires which precede and evade the logic of perceived utilities altogether. A desperate logic of sacrifice seems to be driving the Baron's behavior, motivated by, but not articulated to, a sublimated desire for Belinda, or Belinda figured as her lock of hair. Read this way, we are not in the spaceship of 2001, in which a game can be read simply as a game; the game, that is, is not its own compact object with its own rules and aesthetics. Rather, we are in the library of the Baron—the mock−epic world of Alexander Pope—with the cultural contextual burden which that implies.

Here, then, is how a reading of context, beginning with motivation rather than preference, can help explain the human play of cards. Approaching the game as the displaced articulation of a sexual plot [→page 221] helps explain the last trick in the tour, when the Baron plays the Ace of Hearts which he has been holding back until the end. This is a moment which arrives, as closely as possible, to revealing the Baron's drives, when the allegory, such as it is, collapses into what seems to be a direct offer of marriage. The Baron has already "pour[ed]" his diamonds out before Belinda; he has entered into what seems to be a recognizable ritual of courtship, which depends upon international circuits of exchange, including the global circulation of diamonds. He then plays a card which is merely a white field framing a red heart, thereby neatly paralleling, in reverse, the "livid paleness" which "o'erspreads" Belinda's "looks." Put differently, he is laying his panting heart on the table, having organized a card game into a complex offer of marriage. (The Baron's "prostrate ace" may further be meant to remind us of the other moment of "prostration" in the poem—when the Baron falls into uncertain but desperate prayer before his immolated pile of billet−doux.) And this means that Belinda's final play—plunging the King of Hearts on the Baron's single heart—is best read as an assertion of masculine dominance in a romantic exchange, answering and replacing, as it were, the Queen of Hearts with the King of Hearts as her most proper emblem. Pope's poem insists that Belinda's King of Hearts is until this moment "unseen"; Baker interprets this to mean that Belinda has accidentally slipped it behind another of her cards, perhaps the Queen of Hearts. He marks this as a sign of her unskillful play. But another possible reading—indeed, it seems to me, the more likely one—is that the King is unseen to everyone except Belinda. She, for her part, has held it back in a questionable move of card−playing strategy precisely to enable this scenario in a romantic contest. I am therefore convinced by Baker's argument that Belinda is not particularly adept at ombre; she seems, however, to be at least the Baron's match in balancing multiple valences of social discourse. Put differently, it is only the Knight—the forgotten third man—who thinks ombre is about the cards on the table; the Baron and Belinda have been playing something else all along.

[→page 222] This still does not answer the complex riddle of causes which opens the poem. It is only, instead, to suggest that a card−game is what allows Belinda and the Baron to articulate those causes; it is to argue that the game of El Ombre—the Spanish game called 'The Man'—is for Belinda and the Baron both a complex struggle of gender politics, and the distillation of global patterns of commerce, articulated through the language of a card game. There is a long tradition of thinking of game theory in connection with economics—beginning perhaps with Cournot's Researches into the Mathematical Principles of the Theory of Wealth, but cemented, certainly, by von Neumann and Morgenstern. So it may be best to think of the game of ombre in The Rape of the Lock through Georg Simmel's insight about the nature of money: that it only seems to be an objective system—is only experienced as an objective system—because it represents the concretized form of other people's subjective desires. Money is the fantasy of objective value which enables all sorts of exchanges.29) We might say the same thing about ombre—which is only barely more complex than the eighteenth−century British monetary system. Ombre facilitates a complex range of exchanges because it appears to stand outside those exchanges, when, in fact, it is the exchanges themselves—the contest of desires—which produces the system's seeming objective and concrete reality. It is because of this that neither Belinda nor the Baron seem to be playing a simple game of ombre, for the game of ombre is for them hardly a simple game at all. As the coterie context of The Rape of the Lock makes evident—but only more evident than other contexts—the card table is most fully understood as the contested terrain between subjective desire and the strange world of its objects.

University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI

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