RECOMMENDED FOR READING
The Erotic Imagination: French Histories of Perversity
Book by Vernon A. Rosario; Oxford University Press, 1997
In Quest of Erotism
Often eroticism is just a manifestation of illness, exhibited as a more or less marked symptom in a syndrome of manic exaltation. Dr. Joseph Guislain ( 1852) What is the origin of the "erotic"? The question seems unanswerable in the contemporary Euro-American context, where the erotic leaks out of the confines of the imagination and the bedroom to saturate all aspects of everyday life. Titillating images are almost numbingly omnipresent. Could anyone imagine selling alcohol, cigarettes, motorcycles, or perfume without at least a soupon of eroticism? This ubiquity masks the haziness of the subject matter: What is the erotic? A dictionary definition -- "of, devoted to, or tending to arouse sexual desire" -- fails to capture the erotic or its mechanisms of action, which are as diverse and ambiguous as they are controversial.
From the municipal level to the United States Supreme Court to international courts, some of today's most heated legal battles concern the definition and regulation of the erotic: pornography, censorship of sexually explicit art, sexual harassment, red light district zoning, AIDS education, sex surveys, same-sex marriage, and "indecent" material on the Internet, to mention only a few. Fascination with eroticism shifts quickly from prurient curiosity to politicomoral inquisition as the public scrutinizes transsexuals on the "Oprah!" show, J. Edgar Hoover's alleged homosexuality, Manuel Noriega's pornographic predilections, Saddam Hussein's supposed penchant for transvestitism, or politicians' sexual peccadilloes. 1 Individuals' erotic desires and the societal erotic imagination are confluent, but their sources are multiple and murky. It would be short-sighted to trace our current obsession with the erotic only as far back as the 1960s "sexual revolution," the Beat Generation, or even Sigmund Freud's sexual analyses of the psyche and of culture.
A hundred years ago, sexuality was already being declared a powerful personal and social drive. Ernest-Armand Dubarry, a journalist and scientific popularizer, 2 penned The Insane Lovers, a series of melodramatic novellas. To justify these potboilers, he declared: Sexual life occupies such a high position in social life, even national life; it plays such a major thoughts, our acts, and has such great influence on us all, that to neglect this power that leads us, under the pretext of not shocking the ears of rigid prudes, is the height of absurdity and foolishness. ( 1896b, 8) While Dubarry insisted on the social importance of discussing sex, he also recognized this as a perilous enterprise. To legitimize his representations of the erotic, he deployed medical protagonists who deliver lengthy, welldocumented lectures on "perversions of the sexual instinct." In one introduction, Dubarry borrowed the oft-cited apologia from Ambroise Tardieu's treatise on rape and sodomy: "No physical or moral misery, no wound, however corrupted it be, should frighten those devoted to the science of man; the sacred ministry of the doctor, in obliging him to see all, also permits him to say all." 3 Dubarry warned that to silence his "psychopathological passional novel series" would be tantamount to covering up a political scandal. Science was a "common patrimony," he exclaimed: it should not be "confiscated" by any one group but had to be employed by all for the sake of social education and salvation (7-9).
Please read the rest of the book at Questia online library
| Dubarry's posturing betrays his awareness of the fact that contemporary medical literature was the only legitimate place for representations of the erotic. But was this medical concern with individual and national sexuality an ancient professional prerogative? Or, to rephrase my opening query: Is there a genetic history of the erotic? In this book I investigate sexual pleasures: their genesis, history, mechanics, and effects. I argue that all eroticism in the modern Euro-American context is perverse because of the way sexual behavior and fantasy were theorized by physicians since the eighteenth century. 4 My focus is on France not simply because of the enduring allure of steamy French eroticism (for example, heady perfumes, the films Belle de Jour and Last Tango in Paris, or Ravel Bolero.) The mystique of l'amour fou is the product of a French "perversification" of sexuality that arose through the circulation of sensual stories, medical ideas, and literary styles among French physicians, novelists, and sexual "perverts" who populate the pages of post-Revolutionary medical and literary texts.
Victorian doctors and laymen in Britain and America believed France was a pernicious source of erotic literature. 5 Initially, they thought perversity was almost exclusively a French disorder. For example, in praising the translation of Lopolde Deslande's French treatise on masturbation ( 1835), Dr. Samuel Woodward, superintendent of the Worcester Insane Hospital, nevertheless noted: "The opportunities for discovering [masturbation's] extent with females is much greater in France, than in this or perhaps any other country" ( 1839, 348). In a review of Continental works on "perverted sexual instinct," Drs. Shaw and Ferris of New York observed that "no cases that we are aware of have been published in America" ( 1883, 185). For these distressed physicians, "sexual perversity" was a culturally and temporally variable phenomenon: it had spawned on the Continent and might spread to America. Thus, while physicians deployed biological theories to explain erotic pleasures, these scientific ways of understanding sensuality are also historically and socially contingent.
The first French use of rotique -- in the contemporary connotation of sexual rather than amorous -- is surprisingly recent. 6 It only emerged in 1825, not in a licentious novel or sexual treatise, but in the seminal text on gastronomy: The Physiology of Taste, or Meditation on Transcendental Gastronomy by the jurist, politician, and gourmand Anthlme Brillat-Savarin. This eclectic amalgam of anecdotes, recipes, and philosophical musings is an amiable parody of earlier sensualist scientific texts and marks the epitome of a literary fad for "physiologies" of various professions and even marriage. 7 By Brillat-Savarin's own admission, medicine was his mania and he considered himself an "amateur doctor" (27-34). He cultivated close links with the medical profession and it was his friend Dr. Richerand who convinced BrillatSavarin to publish his treatise on food. His happiest day, Brillat-Savarin confides to us, was when he was mistaken for a great physician while attending...