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Time, Desire and Horror: Towards a History of the Senses.

Good social and cultural historians are both fact-bound and original at once, so the requirements for being either keep rising. The kinds of material thought vital to social and cultural history multiply continually, as do the precautions for reading any historical records without preconceptions or biases that had previously passed unnoticed. At the same time, hitherto unsuspected or neglected subjects never stop emerging from history - some factitious, but others with real integrity and coherence such that, once recognized, they can no longer be overlooked or ignored. In these conditions, to stay on top of the current research in all its variety while also innovating within it year by year is a tour de force that precious few social or cultural historians can pull off any longer. Of those few, none succeeds more impressively in both fields combined than Alain Corbin.

The present volume groups thirteen short studies by Corbin first published in many different journals or collaborative volumes from 1980 to 1990. Each defines or redefines some unfamiliar passage or aspect of the human landscape from the vantage point of nineteenth-century France, citing recent monographic literature and archival sources in equal abundance. Each topic starts out looking like a mere curiosity but ends up instead as a sensitive index of its time and place that therefore points beyond both.

To take those thirteen diverse studies in their order of republication here, the first deals with the nineteenth century's ever more exacting regulation of the time of day, the second with the social diffusion of table and body linen, the third with civil conflicts within provincial theater audiences under the Restoration, and the fourth with the myths and realities surrounding the live-in maidservant's role in bourgeois life. The fifth explores how men's sexist anxieties distorted their accounts of women's behavior, and the sixth how penologists and reformers alike constructed a largely mythic image of the prostitute. The seventh considers the demand side of the rise in mechanical contraception, and the eighth how fantasy ran riot among experts on hereditary syphilis. The ninth concerns sex manuals waxing lyrical over copulation provided it was marital and budgeted, the tenth the rising public sensitivity to noise and stench as reflected in successive complaints against industrial pollution, the eleventh the false stereotyping by Parisians of Limousin migrants, and the twelfth the gradual removal of the sight of blood from the streets of Paris. Finally, still taking off from modern French examples, Corbin reflects on the problematical outlook for a history of the senses: it would need to take account of progressive human sensitization and insensitization to changing stimuli as well as reconstruct everyday sensory experience that goes unrecorded precisely because it is taken for granted. To my own (historically conditioned) taste, the last is the morceau de choix of this whole rich baker's dozen of Corbin samplers.

The one thing wrong with this book is its presentation. Packaged as what it is, a set of luminous historical vignettes by a prodigious and versatile researcher, it would surely find the large readership it deserves. Instead the title hints at an obscure thematic unity, the subtitle asserts an imaginary programmatic purpose, the jacket copy speaks of a single, sustained study, and Corbin's own brief preface to the collection leads off incongruously: "The end of the 1860s was a crucial period for Western civilization." (p. viii) Fortunately, this bogus master motif does not recur in Corbin's thirteen chapters proper, which make a great little book not least because of their very diversity.

Rudolph Binion Brandeis University
COPYRIGHT 1997 Journal of Social History
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Binion, Rudolph
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1997
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