Historicizing Romantic Sexuality
How to Do the History of Pornography: Romantic Sexuality and its Field of Vision
Bradford K. Mudge, University of
Colorado at Denver
* Acknowledgment: I would like to thank my
spring 2004 Critical Theory class for their enthusiasm and
assistance. Thanks go as well to my colleagues Jeff
Franklin, Jake York, and Philip Joseph.
1 Foucault writes of this mid-century transformation: "Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy into a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species" (43). This argument occasioned a firestorm of criticism. One of the more nuanced responses is David Halperin's How to Do the History of Homosexuality.
My point is that
"pornography" made its first official appearance during the
same period and must be considered an important and related
event. According to the Oxford English Dictionary,
for example, the word "pornography," a neologism from the
Greek, entered the language in 1857. That same
year, Lord Campbell's Obscene Publications Act became the
first English legislation to target specifically "obscene"
materials. In the same way, in other words, that
discussions of homosexuality served to normalize
middle-class, heterosexual relations, discussions of
pornography served to reinforce the legitimacy of
"literature" proper. The boundaries between
legitimate and illegitimate literature began to be
patrolled with unprecedented enthusiasm. While Lord
Campbell was railing against obscenity in London, for
example, over in France Flaubert was in court defending
Madame Bovary against charges of immorality.
Such public scrutiny would have been unthinkable a hundred
years earlier. This essay is an attempt to tease the
prehistory of these mid-century transformations more fully
Sexually explicit materials from before 1900 have been
until recently very difficult to access. There are
now two modern sources. The first is Alexander Pettit
and Patrick Spedding's Eighteenth-Century British
Erotica; and the second is my own Sex and Sexuality,
Parts 3 and 4, Erotica 1650-1900 from the Private
3 See, in particular, Terry Eagleton's The Function of Criticism and Literary Theory: An Introduction. Eagleton's explanation of the "rise of literature" was as influential as it was convincing. In The Function of Criticism, he writes:
Seen historically, the modern concept of literary criticism is closely tied to the rise of the liberal, bourgeois public sphere in the early eighteenth century. Literature served the emancipation movement of the middle class as an instrument to gain self-esteem and to articulate its human demands against the absolutist state and a hierarchical society. (10)close window
Jameson's article finds an important predecessor in Walter
Benjamin's famous essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of
Mechanical Reproduction." There, Benjamin expresses
concern that the "aura" of the original–which
encourages engagement with history and tradition–is
eroded by reproductions that serve only to confirm the
status of art as commodity.
The reference is to Jean Baudrillard's
Simulations. I explain my debt to his work more
fully in the last section of this essay.
6 My Secret Life can with assurance, although not with certainty, be attributed to Henry Spencer Ashbee, the Victorian bibliographer whose collection of pornography now forms the core of the famous Private Case Collection at the British Library. See Ian Gibson, The Erotomanic: The Secret Life of Henry Spencer Ashbee. For an extended discussion of "pornotopia," see Marcus, pp. 265-86.
The central issue for
Marcus, and the one that I challenge, is pornography's
fundamental difference from literature. His
conclusion argues at length that pornography is
literature's irreconcilable nemesis: if literature is the
complex exploration of human existence, then pornography is
the simpleminded reduction of humanity to a single
function. Locked into the very categories he inherits
from the Victorians, Marcus insists that pornography's
"governing tendency in fact is toward the elimination of
external or social reality" (44). Historical
insignificance follows as a matter of course.
First, there is the matter of form. Most works of literature have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Most works of pornography do not. . . .
Like the main character of
My Secret Life, Marcus's "pornography" embodies a
deviance whose power is in direct proportion to the
legitimacy of that against which it is measured.
Kendrick has a lengthy discussion of "pornography" as a
nineteenth-century neologism from the Greek: "writing by or
about whores." Although his argument is particularly
well formulated, he is not the only scholar to make the
claim. See also Robert Darnton, The Forbidden
Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France; Lynn Hunt,
The Invention of Pornography: Obscenity and the Origins
of Modernity, 1500-1800; and my own The Whore's
Story: Women, Pornography, and the British Novel,
9 Kendrick's contention that "pornography" names an argument not a thing rewrites Eagleton's well-known introduction to Literary Theory in which he maintains that "literature" does not name an stable category of uniformly consistent aesthetic objects. That introduction, entitled "What is Literature?", concludes:
If it will not do to see literature as an 'objective,' descriptive category, neither will it do to say that literature is just what people whimsically choose to call literature. For there is nothing at all whimsical about such kinds of value-judgement: they have their roots in deeper structures of belief which are as apparently unshakeable as the Empire State Building. What we have uncovered so far, then, is not only that literature does not exist in the sense that insects do, and that the value-judgements by which it is constituted are historically variable, but that these value-judgements themselves have a close relation to social ideologies. (16)
The same, Kendrick argues,
is true of "pornography": it is, like "literature," an
infinitively variable construct over which social forces
vie for control of the cultural space.
10 Important to Hunt's chronology is Ian McCalman, Radical Underworld: Prophets, Revolutionaries, and Pornographers in London, 1795-1840, pp. 204-321. McCalman dates modern pornography quite specifically: after the Queen Caroline trial in 1820, pornographers broke away from their radical politics and began marketing obscene materials whose exclusive purpose was sexual pleasure.
More recently, Lisa Zigel's
Governing Pleasures: Pornography and Social Change in
England, 1815-1914 confirms both McCalmon's chronology
and Kendrick's definition. She goes on to provide an
extremely valuable analysis of Victorian pornography and
its entanglements with what she calls the "social
imaginary," that mental construct which is a society's
understanding of its own possibilities.
11 For example, in a recent and generally
very helpful collection, Launching Fanny Hill: Essays on
the Novel and Its Influences, numerous authors use the
word "pornography" without qualification to describe
Cleland's novel. In fact, Patsy Fowler, one of the
editors, admits that she "read[s] it as a traditional
pornographic text objectifying women and focusing only on
male power and gratification" (49-50). Deployed
anachronistically, "pornography" creates the text it
describes and renders invisible Cleland's subtle
12 For an introduction to the diverse
offerings of the period, see When Flesh Becomes Word: An
Anthology of Early Eighteenth-Century Libertine
Literature; Julie Peakman, Mighty Lewd Books: The
Development of Pornography in Eighteenth-Century
England; and Peter Wagner, Eros Revived: Erotica of
the Enlightenment in England and America.
13 Examples abound. Consider David
Loth, The Erotic in Literature; and Charles Rembar,
The End of Obscenity: The Trials of Lady Chatterly,
Tropic of Cancer, and Fanny Hill By the Lawyer Who Defended
Them. More recently, Julie Peakman and Peter
Wagner have catalogued the offerings of the eighteenth
century, and Walter Kendrick has rethought the legal
14 See, for example, Susan Cole, Pornography and the Sex Crisis; Andrea Dworkin, Pornography: Men Possessing Women and Intercourse; Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon, Pornography and Civil Rights; Susanne Kappeler, The Pornography of Representation; and Catherine MacKinnon, Feminism Unmodified.
For a different and more
recent perspective, see Jane Juffer, At Home With
Pornography: Women, Sex, and Everyday Life; and Laura
Kipnis, Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics
of Fantasy in America.
All discussions of voyeurism
in book or film have to mention Laura Mulvey's pioneering
work on the gaze in cinema. She is well known for
identifying a "male gaze" in contemporary film that
rigorously assigns sight (and narrative) to male
subjectivity, the object of which is then most often
female. See Mulvey, Visual and Other
16 Masturbation here confirms an
irrepressible sexual nature that must find release.
In the logic of the narrative, the act is neither dangerous
or deviant; instead, like her Lesbian experiences, it is
preliminary to the most satisfying interaction of all:
intercourse between heterosexual lovers. Cleland
rewards Fanny with marriage, but this fairytale ending
works to serve satiric ends and is not meant to suggest
that the finest of physical pleasures are reserved for the
marital bed. For a splendid history of masturbation,
see Thomas Laqueur, Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of
17 For an account of Cleland's revision of
this scene in his subsequent novel, Memoirs of a
Coxcomb (1751), see The Whore's Story, pp.
18 What Linda Williams pointed out in her study Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the 'Frenzy of the Visible'—that contemporary pornographic cinema is obsessed with the visual representation of female pleasure—is also true of Cleland's novel. In fact, a sound argument could be made that the entire novel coheres in its pursuit of and tribute to the female orgasm. In this episode, Fanny describes Louisa:
never was a girl constitutionally truer to the taste of joy, or sincerer in the expressions of its sensations, than she was: we could observe the pleasure lighten in her eyes as he introduced his plenipotentiary instrument into her. . . . (151)
Here, as elsewhere in the
novel, the emphasis is placed on the "truth" of her
it is to be noticed that, though all modesty and reserve were banished [during] the transaction of these pleasures, good manners and politeness were inviolably observed: here was no gross ribaldry, no offensive or rude behaviour, or ungenerous reproaches to the girls for their compliance with the humours and desires of the men. On the contrary, nothing was wanting to soothe, encourage, and soften the sense of their condition to them. Men know not in general how much they destroy of their own pleasure, when they break through the respect and tenderness due to our sex, and even to those of it who live only by pleasing them. And this was a maxim perfectly well understood by these polite voluptuaries, these profound adepts in the great art and science of pleasure, who never showed these votaries of theirs a more tender respect than at the time of those exercises of their complaisance, when they unlocked their treasures of concealed beauty, and showed out in the pride of their native charms, ever more touching surely than when they parade it in the artificial ones of dress and ornament. (157-58)
20 The centrality of French materialist
philosophy to Cleland's project is outlined in Leo Braudy's
well-known essay, "Fanny Hill and
21 For an account of Cleland's tasteful
pleasures, see Jody Greene, "Arbitrary Tastes and
Commonsense Pleasures: Accounting for Taste in Cleland,
Hume, and Burke," in Launching Fanny Hill, pp.
Also relevant here are four recent essays on sexuality and The Monk. See Steven Blakemore, "Matthew Lewis's Black Mass: Sexual, Religious Inversion in The Monk"; Wendy Jones, "Stories of Desire in The Monk"; Clara McLean, "Lewis's The Monk and the Matter of Reading, in Women, Revolution, and the Novels of the 1790s; and Clara Tuite, "Cloistered Closets: Enlightenment Pornography, the Confessional State, Homosexual Persecution, and The Monk."
See also D. L. Macdonald,
Monk Lewis: A Critical Biography. Macdonald's
work is a welcome revision of Lewis Peck's Life of
Matthew G. Lewis. Of particular interest is the
treatment of Lewis's alleged homosexuality and his parents'
23 Ambrosio is modeled on the character of
Montoni in Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho and
anticipates Schedoni in The Italian (1797).
Ambrosio differs in that his crimes all originate in lust;
he is a character who is motivated, from beginning to end,
by sexual passion. For a classic treatment of Gothic
excess, see Mario Praz, The Romantic Agony, pp.
53-94. Praz situates Ambrosio within romanticism's
larger fascination with Satan and his rebellious
24 Compare with Peter Brooks, "Virtue and
Terror: The Monk," ELH 40:2 (1973):
25 Two standard works on Austen have influenced my reading. See Marilyn Butler, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, pp. 197-218; and Lillian Robinson, Sex, Class, and Culture, pp. 178-193. See also, Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen, A Life; and Clare Tuite, Romantic Austen: Sexual Politics and the Literary Canon.
No discussion of sexuality
in Austen can avoid Jill Hedyt-Stevenson's work. Best
known for her essay, "'Slipping into the Ha-Ha': Bawdy
Humor and Body Politic in Jane Austen's Novels",
Hedyt-Stevenson argues convincingly for a sexual innuendo
crucial to Austen's fiction but largely ignored by
commentators. For a reading of sexuality in
Pride and Prejudice, see her forthcoming book
Jane Austen, Comedies of the Flesh, Chapter 2.
26 For an insightful treatment of Lydia and
Wickham, see Tim Fulford, "Sighing for a Soldier: Jane
Austen and Military Pride and Prejudice,"
Nineteenth-Century Literature 57:2 (2002):