Reading Sex in the Eighteenth Century: Bodies and Gender in English Erotic Culture.
As a book intended to introduce students and scholars to ways of reading erotic imagery in literature, Reading Sex in the Eighteenth Century has much to recommend it. Karen Harvey is a sophisticated scholar whose methods of analysis highlight the richness of her subject. By offering a wide variety of intertwining readings that examine gender, space, motion, stasis, sensory gratification and disgust, Reading Sex in the Eighteenth Century shows that codes about sex, sexuality, and gender are anything but obvious. Indeed, Harvey demonstrates that sexual knowledge is deeply encoded and involved in multiple conversations that need to be closely examined. By excavating the multiple and often contradictory ways that erotic literature represents sex and bodies, Harvey has shown herself a master of textual examination. Some of the work that Harvey does here, such as reading the sensory descriptions of sexuality, raises very interesting issues about the emphasis on touch over smell and sight over sound, issues that will no doubt affect future readings of erotic literature.
Much hinges here upon Harvey's definition of the realm of the erotic which she positions against amatory and pornographic literature. Harvey believes that erotica is a discreet body of literature and needs to be addressed as such. In creating her definition, Harvey takes to task historians of pornography for examining authorial intention and not focusing on content. In contrast, her own definition of erotica focuses entirely on content: erotica according to Harvey "depicted sex, bodies and desire through illusions of concealment and distance, and depictions of sexual activity were characterized by deferral and silence. Despite these illusions, sexual pleasure and the sexual act were primary." (Page 33.) Instead of focusing on the work pornography performs in the culture (for the author or for the audience) Harvey examines how erotica works as a textual practice. This gives her a very inward leaning book that examines how imagery works in a number of erotic books rather than how it works in the eighteenth century overall or across a wide variety of writings in the eighteenth century.
This apparently clear-cut criterion for differentiating the realm of the pornographic from the erotic breaks down if one intimately knows the text and its context. Harvey uses her criteria to decide that Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (Fanny Hill) is pornographic because it reveals bodies rather than cloaking them in metaphor and innuendo. I believe that Fanny Hill relies on a great number of extended metaphors and utilizes a great number of descriptive practices at least in comparison to later works. To me, it seems like a good candidate for the title erotic literature; to Harvey, however, it deserves the sobriquet "pornographic." Furthermore, Wilkes's "Essay on Woman" in my view makes great use of metaphor but Harvey sees his work as pornographic rather than erotic at least when compared with A Voyage to Lethe or A Chinese Tale. This clear-cut definition based on textual practices ends up not being any more clear-cut than definitions based on context. In the end, she says "tomato" and I say "tomato."
Alone, this problem of definitions can only stimulate conversations about what counts as innuendo or metaphor and what falls short. However, Harvey wants to situate erotica in the male world of convivial homosocial pleasures. To do this, she argues that men engaged in sociability read these works in public places like the Hellfire Club and the Beggar's Benison. The problem with this, however, comes from the historic evidence that shows that male readers engaging in convivial pursuits like those in the Beggar's Benison read Fanny Hill (a pornographic work), not A Chinese Tale (that she describes as an erotic work.) They also "rubbed penis to penis upon a testing platter" which seems to me to be a pornographic act aimed at blunt sexual pleasure rather than a convivial act aimed at refined mirth. And yet, she uses these clubs to provide a context of refined conviviality for erotica. To discuss the Hellfire Club as the context for erotica without discussing Wilkes (a member of the club), or the sexual images in his poetry because of its pornographic (rather than erotic) associations does a disservice to the sexual context of the eighteenth century and seems to be a way to split hairs. These hairs are central for understanding the politics of sexuality and the sexuality of politics during the period when the members of the Beggar's Benison were noted freetraders, as David Stevenson has shown; to avoid them is to render the period bald and bland.
While I have great sympathy for her project of creating a usable definition for erotica that does not hinge on "acceptable" pornography or pornography "lite", her book cannot bear the weight of her definitions. This does not mean, however, her project lacks in merit. It can and should be read by all scholars interested in sex, gender, and bodies. However, I suggest a better way to "read" her work is to look at it as a series of fascinating papers on the ways that the erotic is concealed and expressed in the eighteenth century and the implications of those strategies. For these readings alone, it is a worthwhile and eminently useful book.
Lisa Z. Sigel
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|Author:||Sigel, Lisa Z.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2006|
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