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The Courtesan's Arts: Cross-Cultural Perspectives.

Martha Feldman and Bonnie Gordon, eds. The Courtesan's Arts: Cross-Cultural Perspectives.

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. xxviii + 396 pp. index. append. illus. bibl. $85. ISBN: 0-19-517029-6.

Martha Feldman and Bonnie Gordon have conceived, nurtured, and delivered a very successful multidisciplinary collection on courtesans and their artistic and cultural performance. A sharp focus, broad geographical and temporal scope, and substantial analysis mark a book of many merits. Sustained exchange among the contributors yields insight into both parallels and divergences among the varied cases. Besides, the editors' interest in music provides a distinctive center for a wider circle of cultural and social enquiry. A CD-ROM accompanying the volume illustrates diverse forms of musical performance discussed. While the brilliance of the Italian pieces, arranged and presented for this forum, outdazzles the sometimes faint archival recordings of the Asian music, hearing, as well as reading, the arguments is a boon.

At this project's center are courtesans, here defined as a small subset of unusually skilled women in not yet fully modern societies who practiced culturally valued arts for the delectation, principally, of men who were not their kin. The emergent model holds that, while embodiment defined all women, these reproducers of culture lived outside the predominant female roles that, subsumed into family, reproduced lineage instead. Social anomalies, these courtesans often engaged in nonmarital sexual alliances, but were not, the book insists, prostitutes. (Given a general minimization of sexuality, it is not clear why the Japanese geisha needs a separate excursus.) This rather narrow definition sets the terms for effective crosscultural comparison. It also excludes other women known as courtesans in these cultures and elsewhere. While most authors recognize that their exemplary cases belong on spectrums of behavior, the emphasis on artistry limits discussion of larger political and socioeconomic contexts, and sexual ones in particular. Some of the essays about recent Asian societies develop these wider arguments more fully.

Ambiguity, an unavoidable theme in studying courtesans, makes them both interesting and hard to trace. Though differently constructed by varying sexual ethics and caste systems, their social and cultural position was everywhere ambivalent in the moment and fluid across time. Their art earned prestige that might translate into empowerment, but they also had to negotiate shame, social isolation, and often poverty. Furthermore, as female and marginal, the very voices that this enquiry seeks to hear are often muffled in the sources. While for the twentieth-century Asian examples oral history and electronic recording bring us a more direct rendering, for more distant eras many courtesans lounge obscured in the fantasies and words of men. Acknowledging this challenge, the papers here seek carefully and imaginatively to read through to the women's shadows.

The collection's temporal and geographic ranges are wide. Two articles (Davidson, Faraone) about the hetaira of ancient Greece offer the oldest examples. The courtesans of early modern Venice garner the most discussion both from more broadly cultural (Gordon, Quaintance, Rosenthal, Ruggiero) and more specifically musicological perspectives (Davies, De Rycke, Feldman, Flosi). The rest of the essays focus on parts of Asia from early modern to recent times. Zeitlin writes of seventeenth-century China, while Pilzer tracks the twentieth-century "disappearance" of the Korean gisaeng. Of three papers on Japan, two (Downer, Matsugu) recount the historical evolution of the geisha, and one (Screech) imagines the seventeenth-century patron approaching the pleasure quarter. For India, three articles trace the roles of women performers from traditional settings (Srinivasan) to the twentieth century (Maciszewski, Qureshi).

By grouping essays on sometimes widely distant settings, a thematic organization accentuates comparison. Part 1 juxtaposes ancient Greece, Venice, and China to view the courtesan herself as spectacle. Part 2, in contrast, focuses only on Renaissance Italy and the elusive topic of vocal performance. Part 3 returns to compare bodily representations, evinced in part 1, but with traditional India in place of China. After the geisha excursus, part 5 picks up themes from part 3 to explore early modern fantasies of Edo and Venetian men. Lastly, considering the recent past, part 6 examines the mixed fates of traditional female entertainers in the "postcolonies" of modernizing and Westernizing Korea and India. The possibilities for similarity and nuanced difference are rich.

To a scholarly readership interested not only in women and music, but also broadly in early modern culture and society in a global context, I highly recommend this rare anthology, where the whole contributes as much as the parts.


York University (Toronto)
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Author:Cohen, Elizabeth S.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2006
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