Saturday, February 20, 2010

Anna Clark's "Desire: A History of European Sexuality": Book Review

Transgressive or sinful, revolutionary or creative? Europeans defy desire's definitions. How has sexual desire evolved within classical, biblical, medieval, and modern contexts from permitted to proscribed, encouraged to persecuted, and now mystified or commodified?

Clark provides a briskly narrated, heavily documented, abundantly anecdotal summation. Her chapters move very rapidly, and she hints when confessing at having to pass over 400-1100 CE how quick the pace must have been for only 220 pp. of text-- but over a thousand footnotes. The range feels compressed by editors, but she keeps academic discourse lightened by fresh insights and intriguing examples. I feared it'd bog down in stolid jargon or theoretical harangues, but it kept my interest throughout as she leavens serious argument with compassion and verve judiciously applied.

An opening chapter cautions us against assuming our times brought sexual liberation, and throughout we learn how crippling this supposed advantage may prove for women not willing to be humiliated or exploited by their radical masters in some rarified, enlightened utopia. Greece & Rome earn attention for the unequal treatment allotted who could indulge and who was constrained. Classifying who acted out a sexual function appears more the traditional concept than asserting one's actions as one's identity, but by medieval times-- Clark shows using Mark Jordan's interpretation of "sodomy," (also reviewed by me)-- this appears to have begun to be formulated. Her work incorporates Foucault's social construction throughout, but she challenges or corrects its application when facts argue otherwise.

For instance, heterosexual desire was not normal for medieval clergy. No desire between humans was "sexually normative," in fact, to a clerical adjudicator. Men and women craved each other as a result of the expulsion from Eden. Intense passion between a married couple-- as ridiculed in pagan Rome or as condemned by papal Rome-- signaled danger. Any uncontrolled desire among humans in medieval times might result in disruption, of a marriage, or within a monastery or a convent. The orderly function of society demanded control.

Two chapters on medieval sexuality into the Renaissance offer a welcome amount of detail as legal and religious administrators clashed with an increasingly restive populace, from at least the extant records we find. Against imposition of penalties and punishments for sexual excess, "twilight moments" when untolerated activities or deviant desires were followed in the shadows by otherwise upstanding citizens often. Clark uses this term for many human moments of release and abandon that did not leave their perpetrators permanently stigmatized. The doers were regulated in that they had to, at dawn's early light, return to conformity, but Clark shows how often people managed to find desires fulfilled without fatally compromising their positions or their safety.

The case of "la Malinche" opens a section on the New World; it explores the impact of Old World attitudes on Mesoamerican situations deftly. The book skips to the Enlightenment and the rise of appeals based on nature against these imposed norms. Sex radicals led by such as Rousseau attacked aristocratic libertines; if sex was a natural drive, then the middle classes needed it to be freed of "artificial lust" as the nobles flaunted. Laborers expected better too, and while revolutionaries played into feminist and proletarian protests for divorce and equality, they also reinforced against the libertines' vices a call for chastity within marriage. Radical calls for sexual freedom could trap women within male domination as well: "If sex was a natural pleasure to be indulged in like food, women were just objects to be consumed." (121)

It took until about 120 years ago before the female body's sexual responses began to be understood, and disentangled from those of reproduction. Homosexuality was coined in 1869; "inversion" as a same-sex identity began to be debated. Victorian and 19c continental reactions to more politicized or bohemian sex radicals and the competing school of "social purity activists" complicated intellectual attempts to formulate sexual categories. Many feminists "asserted that females had evolved to a higher level than men, because men did not seem to control their primitive sexual instincts." (150)

By the 1920s, especially in Germany and England, sex advisors inspired by Freud and Wilhelm Reich, modernism and Marxism, the "New Woman" and Darwin, took advantage of a weakening clerical control and a wealth of consumerism to promote "marriage counseling." Of Theodore Van de Velde, Clark notes how his explicit instructions for mutual orgasm made it seem "a daunting task much like assembling a piece of Ikea furniture with moving parts." (175)

Sweden, in fact, gains a prominent role as Gunnar and Alva Myrdal spearheaded what appears to be the foundation of the secular welfare state. Whether sleeker lines of chairs or streamlined methods of sterilization, Sweden leads Western Europe into a managed approach to sex, as opposed to procreation. Bolshevik and Nazi attempts to adapt political transformation to utopian or efficiently marshalled sexual energy earn nuance in Clark's careful explanations of the failure of Soviet reforms and the ambiguity of homosexual relations as expressed or repressed during the Third Reich.

Finally, the postwar era opens with a comparison and contrast between "Humanae Vitae" and the author of the soft-core "Emmanuelle" novel's spirited, defiant response to Pope Paul VI. Both, Clark finds, champion the mystical, transcendent notion of sexual transport, despite their obvious differences. The ideal of sex as a release for a higher calling fades as consumerism voraciously reduces desire back down to a commodity.

Clark concludes rapidly but thoughtfully on this theme. Did sex radicals win? Sexual pleasure is seen as a right; abortion and birth control are allowed by governments. "Yet the idea of sex as creative, spiritual and revolutionary no longer seems central to radical movements. Of course, the idea of sex as transcendent may persist in underground cultures of raves, of the drug ecstasy, S-M, tantric sex, goth subcultures, or anarchists, but this is not prominent in public discourse." (219-20)

Are younger Europeans bored with sex? Is it so freely available that it's banal? Clark proposes some reasons why this may be so in Western Europe. Televised pornography in France, or the widespread collapse of Catholic power: neither satisfies her, for religion remains influential in the US even as Americans also have lost an expectation of "sexual utopianism."

"Sexual consumerism" bested the utopian dreams of pope and porn star, apparently. Given "virtual sexual exchange" that can be assumed on the Net, identities grow fluid, as "the sexual self can be detached from the body." (220) Sexual entitlement may spread via pornography, but Clark cites sources that may indicate this works to women's satisfaction even more than men's. Making sexual fulfillment too dreamy and ethereal may be impractical, risible, or unattainable compared to a consumerist marketplace peddling possibilities.

"On one level, sexual desire cannot be 'liberated,' because there is no 'authentic' natural desire to be freed; rather, sexual desire is now just constructed in different ways." Maybe we have lost hope for utopian imminence in any fashion. Yet Clark ends by lamenting the reduction of sexual desire, the loss of trust in it "as creativity, as fuel for a larger revolutionary vision of transforming society and the self?" (221)

This volume may be marketed for classrooms, but the general reader will find it largely accessible. A wealth of everyday detail adds to the usefulness of this study, although the editing down of the packed chapters makes the last chapter shorter than the topic of contemporary sexuality studies deserved. Intellectual debates merited more coverage: Lacan vs. Deleuze & Guattari may get short shrift, for example. I wish more than the last few pages had been devoted to defining today's qualities of Western European attitudes and how they differ more broadly from American ones.

Overall, I recommend this. Its generous attention to academic studies in the endnotes may inspire readers to investigate more the many sources Clark incorporates, however briefly, into her text. Its brevity nevertheless directs you to a depth of research that should entice many to find out more about one of the most enduringly provocative topics of all. (Posted to Amazon 2-20-10)


tamerlane said...

Sexuality in medieval Europe was less demure than one might imagine. Take Gawain's tale in Wolfram's Parzival, where within minutes after arriving at a remote castle, he and the lord's cousin are caught engaging in some heavy petting, with comic knightly combat ensuing.

Or Hartmann's Erec (translated from mittelhochdeutsch into english by my dear friend, Michael Resler), where the protagonist and his new bride, Enite, spend their entire days making love, crawling out of bed only to attend mass each morning.

Fionnchú said...

See my review "Medieval Sexuality: Doing Unto Others" from a ways back. Ruth Mazo Karras tells all that we know, factual & fictional. You are right, TL, on the surprisingly energetic couplings that filled the bestsellers of 1346.