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Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net

Number 57-58, February-May 2010

Romantic Cultures of Print

Guest-edited by Andrew Piper and Jonathan Sachs

Managing Editor(s): Michael Eberle-Sinatra (founding editor [romantic]) and Dino Franco Felluga (editor [victorian])

Publisher: Université de Montréal

ISSN: 1916-1441 (digital)

DOI: 10.7202/1006532ar

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Richard C. Sha. Perverse Romanticism: Aesthetics and Sexuality in Britain, 1750-1832. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. ISBN: 978-0801890413. Price: US$55

Bradford Mudge

University of Colorado Denver


Richard Sha’s second book presents an argument about the perversity of Romantic aesthetics so compelling and so obvious in retrospect that we can only wonder why it took Romanticists this long to make the case. Sha argues that Foucault’s history of sexuality incorrectly emphasizes Victorian compliance over Romantic resistance and that its understanding of the evolution of discursive power needs to make all ideas of sexual liberation seem like quaint delusion (43). As a result, Sha maintains, we have underestimated both the complexity of Romantic entanglements with medical knowledge of the body and the degree to which changing ideas of human sexuality have informed aesthetic practice. Specifically, an increasingly undeniable gap between sexual pleasure and reproductive function encouraged the Romantics to recognize and resist the forces of hetero-normativity. The subsequent move from corporeal to aesthetic was logical if not unproblematic. When poems become organic, in other words, aesthetics presupposes biology, and William Hunter and Immanuel Kant can be seen to share a purposiveness without purpose, a recognition that pleasure without function is an unavoidably natural unnaturalism common to art and bodies alike. Put another way, when the Romantics turned away from rational aesthetics, they turned toward a perversity that sought to blur sacrosanct boundaries between poet and audience as it challenged inherited ideas about anatomy as destiny.


Sha makes his case by offering up detailed readings of the science of sexual pleasure. Sha’s first three chapters consider the changing arguments of neurology, botany, natural history, biology, and anatomy. His fourth chapter then focuses on the impact of this science on Romantic aesthetics before the book turns in its two finals chapters to Blake and Byron. Chapter One, “Romantic Science and the Perversification of Sexual Pleasure,” explains the emergence of vitalism, the shift from generation to reproduction, and the changing relationship between anatomy and physiology. William Hunter occupies central stage, and Sha carefully situates his work in relation to that of Compte de Buffon, the Abbé Spallanzani, Albrecht von Haller, Erasmus Darwin, Franz Gall, and J. G. Spurzheim, among others. Sha’s purpose is first to identify those moments when sexual pleasure becomes unhinged from reproductive function and second to anticipate the repercussions of that separation for aesthetic theory. With confidence and precision, Sha opens up a whole world of scientific inquiry largely ignored by literary scholars. His careful study of materials in the National Library of Medicine obviates the need for a top-down argument, and we are treated to a dazzling array of new authors, new arguments, and new ideas presented with detail and clarity. Sha’s project, in other words, is properly archival, and nowhere do we sense the violent imposition of present upon the past.


In Chapter Two, Historicizing Perversion, Sha continues his exploration of the complex connections between pleasure and function. He examines ideas of locus and instinct and destabilizes arguments, both then and now, about the identifiable ground of reproductive pleasure. George Cuvier’s comparative anatomy is contrasted with the transcendental anatomy of Geoffroy St. Hilaire as Sha traces the emergence of ideas of perversion that search for the origins of their own pathologies hither and yon. Contemporary scholarship is engaged throughout, and we are not allowed to forget that the history of perversion is also the history of modernity. Chapter Two concludes:

I have shown how the Romantic period witnessed the rise of function in the biological sciences. I have also argued that the rise of function made it more difficult to conceive of a perverted identity. Yet, because localization relied upon tenuous connections between function and structures, the gaps between structure and function and the increasing proliferation of organs of the mind are places where we can look for the pervert. . . . The skepticisms and problems endemic to the localization of sexuality within the body that I have traced in Morgagni, Cuvier, Geoffroy, Bell, and Gall, however, suggest that sexuality was emerging long before [Arnold] Davidson allows it to have emerged. Davidson’s claim that, before Victorianism, sex was anatomy and destiny prevents Romanticists from accounting for why Blake, Byron, and the Shelley’s turned to sexuality as a site for thinking about liberation. . . . I can only speculate that the turn to psychiatric identity as the container for sexuality in sexology was the logical outcome of a century of struggling to locate sexual function in the body and that this struggle forms a crucial if neglected chapter in the formation of hetereonormativity.


As this passage suggests, Perverse Romanticism is carefully and at times densely argued. Sha can move quickly from point to point, intertwining arguments about primary and secondary materials and challenging conventional ideas in several different ways at once. In Chapter Three, for example, Sha expands our understanding of Thomas Laqueur’s argument about the transition from a one- to a two-sex model as he reads Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Robinson and their arguments for gender equality. Highlighted along the way are the connections between new ideas about the nervous system and the Romantic preoccupation with puberty, hermaphrodism, and eunuchs. At the same time, we learn about which medical treatises were in whose libraries and where this or that personal physician had done his training and under whom. The result is an argument as trustworthy as it is detailed, and when larger insights are proffered, the crucial historical work has already been done:

. . . the French Revolution made it difficult for hierarchy to be naturalized in a sexed body. Insofar as puberty transformed one feminized sex into two, it brought to crisis both sexual difference and the necessary heterosexuality of human desire, and it had the potential to do so within every human body. The body's plasticity and the mobility of sex explain why Voltaire, Bentham, and Percy Shelley would turn to puberty to help explain same-sex desire. By aligning same-sex desire with a natural rite of passage, they helped universalize homosexual desire and suggest that desire was based upon resemblance rather than difference. Read in this light, perversion and normalcy were part of a continuum, not a binary opposition, and thus the trick was to persuade others of this continuum and its consequences. Finally, to the extent that it was possible to see sex as something inscribed upon the body by both biology and culture, one could begin to question whose interests were served by the forms of inscription sex took.


By the end of Chapter Three the fault lines between the medical and the political have been clearly mapped, and we have come to understand how scientific arguments of the Romantic period both emerge from and open themselves to the social forces seemingly beyond their boundaries.


Sha's own argument then makes its final move in Chapter Four, “The Perverse Aesthetics of Romanticism,” which brings medical and political in alignment with the aesthetic. Kant is reintroduced, and Sha moves to Coleridge, Longinus, Sappho, Blake, Winckelmann, Burke, and Richard Payne Knight. The intent is to reread Romanticism in its entirety, to offer a new understanding of the period and not just a smattering of its more influential thinkers. In this Sha is successful, which is a brilliant and wonderful accomplishment, but I confess nonetheless to occasional bouts of vertigo. I missed the stabilizing influence of extended readings and found myself wanting more on Shelley’s Frankenstein, Wordsworth’s “Preface,” and Keats’s women. I wanted, in other words, occasional respite from the quick, tight turns of argument, places to catch my breath and feel secure with the illusion of textual mastery. This complaint is, of course, only made possible by Sha’s strengths as a critic and by the fact that his book then concludes with two game-changing chapters, one on Blake, the other on Byron, extended readings of individual authors whose unparalleled success points paradoxically to missing chapters on Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats.


Chapter Five, “Fiery Joys Perverted to Ten Commands,” focuses on the perversity at the heart of Blake, a perversity more epistemological than thematic. Sha’s knowledge of Blake is encyclopedic, and we are quickly convinced of the self-consciousness with which Blake weaves his tangled webs. This summary merits quotation in full:

In Blake’s hands, perversion is an exceptionally flexible instrument, one that announces a turning away but that also demands that readers themselves reevaluate the standards by which perversion is measured. To the extent that perversion can turn and yet suspend moral judgment, the turn of perversion must be initially unpredictable. Because Blake’s ground shifts, the turning of perversion has the possibility of developing into a full-blown vortex. Whereas perversion often works by grounding itself in nature, in Blake, nature is not a stable construct. Los and Urizen constantly hammer nature into form. Not only is nature always shifting because it is continually generated, but also Blake replaces the already shaky ground of nature with the imagination. By making the creative imagination a type of Christ, and by making the imagination the bridge between Christ and man, Blake argues that nature perverts spirituality. Moving the ground of perversion from nature to the imagination, of course, enables Blake to pervert perversion.


In addition to its argumentative clarity, this chapter provides the wealth of supporting detail we have come to expect: Blake and Paine, Blake and Lavater, Blake and Haller, Blake and Hunter, and the list goes on. That Sha could then craft a comparable success in his last chapter, “Byron, Epic Puberty, and Polymorphous Perversity,” is impressive and fortunate. The book concludes with a reading of Don Juan, which, like his reading of Blake, changes the scope of our contemporary critical discussions. We see how Byron plays with gender and undermines the stabilizing boundaries between normal and monstrous. Close readings of the poem alternate with medical sources and with modern critical accounts. Relevant discussions of eunuchs and sodomy engage with debates about effeminacy and luxury, dieting and intoxicants, cross-dressing and pugilism.


Perverse Romanticism is, in short, a splendid achievement. The honorable toil of archival research is everywhere apparent, and readers can without undue effort or concern reap the benefits of painstaking care, original thought, and convincing argument. Most important, the field of Romanticism benefits both from the introduction of fascinating new medical materials and from a reconsideration of the history of sexuality that changes received wisdom and opens previously unchallenged assumptions to scrutiny and debate.

Author: Bradford Mudge
Title Reviewed: Richard C. Sha. Perverse Romanticism: Aesthetics and Sexuality in Britain, 1750-1832. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. ISBN: 978-0801890413. Price: US$55
Journal: Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net, Number 57-58, February-May 2010
URI: http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/1006532ar
DOI: 10.7202/1006532ar

Copyright © Bradford Mudge, 2011

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