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Romanticism and Sexuality - A Special Issue of Romanticism On the Net

  • Richard C. Sha

…plus d’informations

  • Richard C. Sha
    American University

We have grown so accustomed to linking Romanticism with transcendence and the visionary that sexuality—a term that refers to a quasi-medical discourse that encompasses both one's sexed being and sexual desire—would seem to promise little insight into Romanticism. And while our attention to Romantic ideology has enabled us to reread this transcendence as a kind of political denial that is, in Alan Liu's deconstructive formulation, paradoxically a Romantic form of engagement, we have yet to consider fully the vexed relations between Romanticism, sexuality, and politics.  [1] Why is Orc, Blake's embodiment of revolution, so insistently sexualized? What happens to Frankenstein when it is understood against contemporaneous medical attempts to deny women's essential contributions to generation? In a larger view, will romanticism look as ideological and escapist when we take seriously their investment in sexual liberation?

I can only proffer here a working hypothesis: that understanding how Romanticism is informed by such scientific and medical developments as the first human artificial insemination in 1776, Spallanzani's work on sperm and artificial insemination, the sexualizing of the brain, John Hunter's transplantation of the ovary of a hen into a rooster along with his studies of the descent of the testicle in the foetus, and the discovery of the female ovum in 1827, will challenge our assumptions about Romantic transcendence and our understanding of the politics of Romanticism. Romantic writers were far better read in medicine than we tend to remember: Byron consulted popular health manuals by Adair and Solomon; Coleridge read deeply in his physician, James Gillman's, library; Percy Shelley ordered Spallanzani's complete works and immersed himself in the vitalist controversy, while Mary Shelley read Gall and Spurzheim; Blake engraved plates for medical literature published by Joseph Johnson; and Keats, of course, was trained as a physician. For one, if artificial insemination helped to widen the gaps between sexual pleasure and reproductive function, then sexuality might enable meaningful liberation insofar as it is no longer necessarily chained to instrumentality. For another, since sexual desire itself was understood less in terms of a bodily urge and more in terms of a mental act by the end of the eighteenth century, this internalization of sexual desire was met with a host of strategies conflating the mind and body: physiognomy, emphasis on connections between the brain and nervous system, the materialization of the mind into the brain. Such strategies helped to make the sexualized brain readable; hence, physiological and neurological understandings of the body regularly resisted the very separation of body and mind that underwrites transcendence. Finally, how does the notion of Romanticism as a displaced politics alter when we turn our attention away from transcendence and towards the idea of sexual liberation? By that I mean what informs the Romantic turn to sexuality as a category where meaningful liberation is possible?

This gap in our knowledge about sexuality in the Romantic period is even more surprising given the spate of recent work on gender and Romanticism. I only have space to single out a few important works here: Andrew Elfenbein's Romantic Genius and Claudia Johnson's Equivocal Beings.  [2] Elfenbein's important study revises our understanding of Romantic transcendence insofar as he shows how gender experimentation and rebellion against heterosexuality became constituitive features of genius and the sublime. But Elfenbein's confidence in the fact that sexual experimentation is inseparable from gender experimentation—he argues that "although recent critics have separated sexuality and gender, the distinction did not exist in the eighteenth century"—underestimates the fluidity of biological sex in the Romantic period, not to mention the eighteenth-century construction of heterosexual intercourse as normative sexuality. Claudia Johnson's magisterial book has helped us to see what she terms the "crises of gender" in the 1790's: the ways in which the "man of feeling" usurped women's right to sentimentality and rendering them "equivocal beings." But did the vociferous medical debates about women's essential contribution—or lack thereof—to human generation underwrite these gender crises? And to what degree was biological sex itself in crisis? To the extent that medical literature increasingly put the onus on men and not women for sterility, the basis for male authority—what Carol Pateman refers to as the sexual contract—was indeed precarious.  [3]

Romantic period medical writers on sexuality were obsessed by two issues: puberty and eunuchs. Since writers such as Buffon, the Hunter Brothers, Everard Home, Gall, and Spurzheim concentrated on the fact that key features of sexual difference did not fully manifest itself until puberty—masculine strength versus female delicacy, facial hair in men—I am suggesting that in the Romantic period, sex was less determined by having distinct genitals than by later genital influence, what we now would only consider secondary sexual characteristics. That is, the two sexes were not thought to be incommensurate until after puberty; in fact, until puberty, men and women are in an "equivocal state." Here is the author of the 1819 article on "Generation" in Rees's Encyclopedia of the Arts and Sciences: the characters of sex "do not ... shew themselves in any single point; it is not merely a particular organic apparatus, nor those external forms which delight us, that constitute woman."  [4] The physician John Hunter's work on the descent of the testicle in the foetus further undermined the notion that biological sex was a clear given, especially now that the testicles were now known to be part of the "abdominal viscera."  [5] John Hunter, moreover, successfully transplanted an ovary from a hen into a rooster so that he could understand the ovary's effects over the body and biological sex. The cultural fascination with eunuchs—including Byron's—also pointed to the vagaries of biological sex: born male and now clearly effeminate, what was the gender or sex of an eunuch? That eunuchs with their testicles removed were thought to still be able to perform intercourse/penetration implied that sexual desire had no necessary connection to reproduction. If biological sex was more fluid in Romanticism, so too was the boundary between normal and abnormal sexuality. In English Sexualities, 1700-1800, Tim Hitchcock has argued that by the end of the eighteenth century, heterosexual penetrative intercourse became the norm of human sexuality. Before then there was more sexual diversity and "non-penetrative sex and mutual masturbation;" acts that fell under the category of sodomy were the norm.  [6] Hitchcock allows us to question which came first: Foucauldian "perverse implantation" or what I am calling heterosexual implantation, thus enabling a historically-informed deconstruction of the heterosexual/perverted binary. By noting how such writers as Voltaire, Bougainville, and Sade understood sodomy to be natural, furthermore, Rudi Bleys helps to underscore the fluidity of sexual roles.  [7] If such mobility helped to make sexual liberation seem possible, then, perhaps this helps explain why Romanticism ushers in Victorian sexology.

Our preoccupations with Romantic transcendence, the ensuing ironies that come with transcendence, and the ideological evasions of that transcendence have not been the only obstacles to the linking of sexuality and Romanticism. Of course, transcendence is itself a potent form of sexual blockage: Roy Porter and Lesley Hall's immensely learned The Facts of Life: The Creation of Sexual Knowledge in Britain, 1650-1950 devotes just two paragraphs to Romanticism, arguing that the "mundane sexuality" of the Enlightenment was "rejected in [Romantic authors'] quest for a more transcendental kind of love".  [8] Idealization of sex here makes Romantic sex hopelessly ancillary.

Our tendency to narrate the history of sexuality in terms of discontinuities and ruptures has also made the Romantic period almost irrelevant to that history. Romanticism is a seemingly asexual zone between eighteenth-century edenic "liberated" sexuality and guiltless pleasures, and the repressive sexology of the Victorians that enabled real sexuality to emerge. The long eighteenth century itself swallows a significant chunk of the Romantic period and, along with it, important figures in the history of sexuality like Richard Payne Knight. The eighteenth century has its Stone, Trumbach, Porter, Gilbert, Haggerty, Bouce, and Rousseau and so many scholars have been mining Victorian sexuality that we now know Victorian sexual repression to be at least partly a myth. One of the most significant books on the cultural construction of sex, Thomas Laqueur's Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud scants the Romantic period in part because its primary interest lies in unpacking the logic behind the Victorian passionless woman.  [9] This is despite the fact that one of its major arguments is that the two-sex model--one which understood women and men to be incommensurate—began to replace a one-sex model—which regarded women as essentially inferior men—around 1800.

I want here very briefly to reconsider some of the assumptions that have made the Romantic period inconsequential to the history of sexuality. The argument that lines between sexual acts and sexual identities were firm before Victorian Sexology—hence sexuality as an individuating category did not exist until sexology—implies that Romantic sex was a kind of foreplay to the real thing. An influential corollary to this claim has been the one that homosexuality did not exist until the word was coined in the last third of the nineteenth century; before then we had sodomites, not homosexuals. Hence Joseph Bristow's otherwise helpful Sexuality argues that "the rise of sexuality [is] a peculiarly modern phenomenon," and dates sexuality from the 1860's.  [10] Even if sexuality is invented by the Victorians, what enables sexology to emerge? Surely the Romantic period and its popular medicalization of sexuality offer crucial answers. While I agree that what we mean by homosexuality may be somewhat anachronistic for the Romantic period, I, along with Elfenbein, am suggesting that Romanticism was central to its emergence. Randolph Trumbach's argument in Sex and the Gender Revolution that around 1700 there emerged a third gender of adult effeminate sodomites or homosexuals helps us to think about how the Romantic period could at least have participated in the emergence of a modern sexuality.  [11] Finally, when Jean-Jacques Rousseau makes confessions of deviant sexuality (a predilection for being spanked and masturbation) perform the work of making him into an authentic individual subject, as does the open secret of incest for Byron's Manfred, then the chasm between sex acts and sexual identity can, at least in theory, be bridged by discourse.  [12]

If Foucault has helped us to see sexuality not in terms of subjectivity but in terms of power, he has nonetheless made it more difficult to understand Romantic sexuality insofar as he in one fell swoop rendered sexual liberation and sexual repression into politically empty gestures.  [13] On the one hand, in the hands of the Society for the Suppression of Vice and Thomas Malthus, sexuality became a powerful form of repression in the Romantic period: the sciences of population and refined statistical methods made it easier to track what followers of the Anglican Church were doing in the bedroom or elsewhere. Dissenters apparently did not keep parish registers. On the other hand, although we should profit from Foucault's skepticisms about sexual liberation, the Romantics were perhaps equally skeptical that sexual liberation would lead to meaningful political liberty. Thel's painful sexual education hardly implies a smooth transition from sexual enlightenment to liberation. Raped by the Tyrant Othman, Percy Shelley's Cythna pays the price for the Tyrant's "liberation." In Europe, Blake takes care to situate Orc's libidinal rebellion—his rape—against Enitharmon's joy, a joy that perversely takes pleasure from denying sexual pleasure through a religious ideology of female chastity that equates sex with sin. For the Romantics, liberation was a continual and costly process, not an end result. Louis Crompton's claim in Byron and Greek Love that the "discursive explosion" Michel Foucault asserts took place in France did not cross the channel further suggests that it may be high time to consider how Foucault renders Romantic sexuality opaque.  [14]

The idea that the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries witnessed the increasing influence of the passionless woman, the notion that women did not experience sexual desire, has also not been helpful to the understanding of Romantic sexuality. In Reproductive Rituals, Angus McLaren, for example, has argued that "by the beginning of the nineteenth century, one could speak of two sexual cultures: a 'low' culture of traditional beliefs in which women's sexuality was accepted, and a 'high' culture of scientific understanding in which women's sexuality had little place".  [15] Since women's "sensibility" was so prized in the Romantic period, and since Jean Hagstrum has helped us to see the relations between sex and sensibility, I want to think about how Romanticism complicates the idea of nineteenth-century female passionlessness. Scientific work in neurology further made it difficult to separate sensibility and sexuality, not to mention literary sensuousness and erotic sensuousness. Here, I should mention Bradford K. Mudge's The Whore's Story: Women, Pornography and the British Novel, 1684-1830, which argues emphatically that pornography in this period, and women's contributions to the emergence of pornography, helped to constitute the literary.  [16] The myth of female passionlessness, of course, has until fairly recently helped to sustain the idea that female friends could not imagine sex between women, and that lesbianism itself is a modern invention. Elizabeth Rose Wingrove's Rousseau's Republican Romance offers us a more productive way of thinking about the fantasy of female passionlessness. She analyzes the ways in which Rousseau figures political consent in terms of women's sexual submissiveness, making the "language of consent pass through the experience and expression of desire." For her, female passionlessness offers a model of "consensual nonconsensuality" that enables us to gauge the price of masculine sexual liberation.  [17]

The standard sexual history, then, is that changes over from hierarchy to complementarity hardens in the Victorian period and the notion of the passionless woman. This history, precisely because of Foucault and his emphasis on discontinuities, elides the central moment in which generation/reproduction is split from sexual acts: the sciences of sexuality in Romanticism make us aware of this elision. That both hierarchy and complementarity are simultaneously at work in the Romantic period—hierarchy before puberty, complementarity afterwards—perhaps makes Romanticism what James Chandler has called a "hot chronology" for the history of sexuality. The complex ways in which sexuality both heals the mind and body split in men yet not in women, moreover, suggests how crucial Romantic sexuality was to the notion of gender complementarity.

The contributers and I have therefore linked the terms Sexuality and Romanticism, then, in part as a corrective to Romantic transcendence and recent political understandings of Romantic transcendence, and in part to reclaim Romanticism's role in the history of sexuality. The range of the following essays alone suggests not only the richness of the territory, but also how much work remains to be done. Andrew Elfenbein offers a powerful reading of Freud's reading of Daniel Paul Schreber's reading of Byron's Manfred, arguing that romantic sexuality resists the psychoanalytic doxa that sexuality is constituitive of identity and instead positions sexuality as alien to identity. Peter Otto demonstrates how the quack, James Graham, managed to construct a compelling popular intervention into the sublime, through his Temple of Health and Hymen. My own essay seeks to begin to understand how human sexuality became a legitimate object of knowledge in the Romantic period, and focuses on how medical and scientific visibility helped to unravel rather than consolidate the relationship between sex and power. Building insightfully upon the magisterial detective work of Betty Bennett, Geraldine Friedman takes the case of Mary Diana Dods to argue for the necessity of what she calls queer biography: a form of biography that explicitly challenges the notion of a coherently gendered subject. Bradford Mudge provides much-needed analysis of Thomas Rowlandson's sexual prints, situating them in productive relation to both oppositional satire and the emergence of British pornography in the 1820's and 30's. And Catherine Burroughs shows us how the playwright Sophia Lee uses her Preface to The Chapter of Accidents (1780) to perform her 'virginality' so that she might allow her deflowered heroine to reap rewards usually reserved for virgins.

In closing, I want to thank both the contributers and the anonymous readers for helping me to put together what I hope will be a stimulating set of essays. Though the names of the outside readers are and have been absent, their readerly presences can be amply traced even in the virtual pages to follow. I thank also the organizers of the NASSR 2000 conference, "Romanticism and the Physical," for giving the us the impetus to write these essays and a venue for feedback. Michael Eberle-Sinatra deserves a sentence all to himself: the idea for this special issue was his.

Parties annexes