Mudge, "How to Do the History of Pornography: Romantic Sexuality and its Field of Vision"
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
Romantic fiction inherited the eighteenth century's conflicted attitudes about novelistic pleasure but was itself produced in a cultural marketplace that had not yet fixed and formulated the discursive opposition between 'literature' and 'pornography.' Overshadowed by Michel Foucault's discussion of the medical-moral discourse and its role in the transformation of sex into sexuality in the late eighteenth century, the emergence of 'literature' and 'pornography' as diametrically opposed but mutually dependent discursive categories occurred at precisely the same time. This essay considers these issues and suggests that the emergence of 'literature' and 'pornography' can best be understood by rethinking how sexual bodies are represented in romantic fiction, specifically how the sexual bodies of Gothic melodrama contrast to their counterparts in realist novels of manners. This essay appears in _Historicizing Romantic Sexuality_, a volume of _Romantic Circles Praxis Series_, prepared exclusively for Romantic Circles (http://www.rc.umd.edu/), University of Maryland.
The body is the inscribed surface of events (traced by language and dissolved by ideas), the locus of a dissociated self (adopting the illusion of substantial unity), and a volume in disintegration. Genealogy, as an analysis of descent, is thus situated within the articulation of the body and history. Its task is to expose a body totally imprinted by history and the process of history's destruction of the body.
—Michel Foucault, "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History" (1971)
Is not the erotic portion of the body where the garment gapes? In perversion (which is the realm of textual pleasure) there are no "erogenous zones" (a foolish expression, besides); it is intermittence, as psychoanalysis has so rightly stated, which is erotic: the intermittence of skin flashing between two articles of clothing (trousers and sweater), between two edges (the open-necked shirt, the glove and the sleeve); it is this flash itself which seduces, or rather: the staging of an appearance-as-disappearance.
—Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text (1973)
The problem with the body as a positive slogan [of the irreducible, material real] is that the body itself, as a unified entity, is an Imaginary concept (in Lacan's sense); it is what Deleuze calls a "body without organs," an empty totality that organizes the world without participating in it. We experience the body through our experience of the world and of other people, so that it is perhaps a misnomer to speak of the body at all as a substantive with a definite article, unless we have in mind the bodies of others, rather than our own phenomenological referent.
—Fredric Jameson, "The End of Temporality" (2003)
This essay takes as its subject both the sexual body as represented in British romantic fiction and the imagination (is it "literary" or "pornographic"?) that was required to envision that body as a narrative event. Situated after the high watermark of "libertine literature" in the 1740s and 50s but before the emergence of "pornography" proper in the 1830s and 40s, romantic fiction inherited the eighteenth century's conflicted attitudes about novelistic pleasure but was itself produced in a cultural marketplace that had not yet fixed and formulated the discursive opposition between "literature" and "pornography." Overshadowed by Foucault's discussion of the medical-moral discourse and its role in the transformation of sex into sexuality—of sexual acts as isolated performances of a subject into sexual identity as a totalizing subjectivity derived from those acts—the emergence of "literature" and "pornography" as diametrically opposed but mutually dependent discursive categories occurred at precisely the same time that sexology began the work that would provide Foucault with his most compelling example: the creation of "homosexuality" (The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, 42-45, 85-91). With all due haste, in other words, historians of sexuality have considered the mid-nineteenth-century transformation of the sodomite into the homosexual but have neglected to connect the evolution of pornography to that same seismic, discursive shift. Relegated to the periphery, perhaps because of its own unseemly nature or perhaps because its fantasies appear less ideologically forceful than those of medicine or public policy, pornography remains an undervalued but crucially important feature of the modern state, a discourse whose status as worthless, forgettable, and disposable belies both its ubiquity and its undisputed economic power. Writing with confidence in the influential collection, Sexual Knowledge, Sexual Science: The History of Attitudes to Sexuality, for example, Julia Leslie notes, "There were two main discourses about sexuality in early modern England, one religious, one medical" (83). Historians of literature would disagree, of course, insisting that various kinds of literature, say restoration drama or the eighteenth-century novel, were similarly influential and similarly important as antecedents to the "modern" sexuality of the nineteenth century. Those with knowledge of libertine literature might even suggest that all of its various forms—bawdy poetry, whore dialogues, criminal biographies, divorce proceedings, salacious medical treatises, scandal fiction, etc—together constituted a "proto-pornography" also worthy of consideration. But neither historians of sexuality, nor historians of literature have been eager to include the emergence of pornography as one of the premier events of modern culture. Even Terry Eagleton makes a compelling case for the invention of modern "literature" and "criticism" without mention of pornography and its sudden appearance in the early nineteenth century. What if, however, modern "literature" had an evil twin, a shady and disreputable other whose pleasures mocked the refined taste of the public sphere even as they embodied the quintessence of its new consumer capitalism? What if, in other words, literature and pornography were complementary constructions whose Manichean drama (as artificial and self-serving a contest as those staged by professional wrestling) obscures the power with which they together construct and deploy sexual norms and deviancies? Then, presumably, the sexual bodies imagined by romantic fiction would become valuable prehistory to our modern paradigms; no longer either legitimate or illegitimate aesthetic representations, they would instead become both imaginative prefigurements of our lived realities and historical records of the evolving conflicts between private acts and the public domain that sought at once to express and control those acts.
When Foucault writes that "The body is the inscribed surface of events (traced by language and dissolved by ideas), the locus of a dissociated self (adopting the illusion of substantial unity), and a volume in disintegration," he challenges the corporeal "real" as always already inscribed with the discursive strictures within which that real appears. Such inscription—the body-as-text—tropes the imprisonment of nature by culture and exposes the power that discourse wields to know its object according to its own designs. Foucault's bodies—the docile or normalized, the criminal or perverse, the homogeneous or sanitized—must be "read," the invisible language written on their surfaces revealed and decoded by an act of the historical revision: the historian sees the body inscribed over time by knowledge and power. The sexual bodies of romantic fiction are also seen by acts of imagination, envisioned both as narrative and human possibility by authors testing the abilities of language to represent and recreate somatic pleasure. Envisioned again by a nuanced historicism, these bodies speak volumes. No less ideologically freighted than the bodies of history, the bodies of fiction can be seen as complex sites where the ideals and reals of human sexuality are tested against the cultural moment. Although made of words, these bodies can also live in the world: they emerge from living hands and go forth from the page to quicken the pulse, excite the desires, and stir the flesh. Like their historical counterparts, the sexual bodies of romantic fiction are both desirable and desiring. They too can choose to reveal or conceal, to expose or tantalize; they too can watch as other bodies dance provocatively in and out of view. Presorted by the categorical imperatives of the nineteenth century, however, these bodies have stories unfairly thrust upon them. "Literature" inscribes a legitimacy that pushes sexuality under the protective arm of humanism; "pornography" erases subtle satire and innovative technique and philosophical nuance and bestows a juvenile, masculinist fantasy uniform in intent and unwaveringly simplistic in effect. The former reminds us of what we are to remember; the latter of what we are permitted to forget.
But is it the case that these discursive categories have always been so radically different? So dramatically opposed in intention and effect? What indeed of the imagination that brings them forth in the world? A difference of degree or of kind? What of the middle ground? That which is traditionally figured as "erotic"? Roland Barthes insists that, whether in language or in life, eroticism can be found "where the garment gapes," where the space between the exposed and the revealed provokes wonder and imagination (9-10). Not to be confused with the schoolboy's desire to have the body fully exposed, eroticism is thus transformed from a problem of knowledge and possession—of knowing/seeing/having the body of the beloved—into a problem of imagination and relinquishment—of seeing what is to be seen and imagining what is not and letting go of the illusion of mastery. Barthes's formulation prohibits the body's status as ultimate referent: it is not body's exposure or possession that excites; it is the gap itself, the flash, the space between the concealed and the concealing. Desire, he insists, adheres to intermittence. It is more time than space, more narrative than character. This explains at least in part why fiction and film are so far superior to painting and sculpture as vehicles for the erotic.
If Foucault insists that the sexual body is discursively contingent, then Barthes insists that some discursive bodies are sexually contingent, that they defer and displace meanings with playful teasings that excite and arouse the attentive reader
Apparently Arab scholars, when speaking of the text, use this admirable expression: the certain body. What body? We have several of them; the body of anatomists and physiologists, the one science sees or discusses: this is the text of grammarians, critics, commentators, philologists (the pheno-text). But we also have a body of bliss consisting solely of erotic relations, utterly distinct from the first body: it is another contour, another nomination; thus with the text: it is more than the open list of the fires of language (those living fires, intermittent lights, wandering features strewn in the text like seeds . . .). Does the text have human form, is it a figure, an anagram of the body? Yes, but of our erotic body. The pleasure of the text is irreducible to physiological need. (16-17)
The opening distinction between the body of science and the body of bliss in no way mandates that the former prohibits the discussion of pleasure and that the latter indulges it; to the contrary, it is not the subject matter of the discourse that determines the distinction but instead the text's own awareness of the meaning it delivers: the "pheno-text," certain of its ability to transmit truth, is cold and haughty; the text of bliss is alternately provocative, flirtatious, and coy. That closing insistence—"The pleasure of the text is irreducible to physiological need"—pushes the eroticism of discursive body squarely into the realm of the imagination, into the gap between the certainties of the text (what it "means") and the musings of the reader (what is envisioned). "The pleasure of the text is not certain," Barthes contends, "nothing says that this same text will please us a second time; it is a friable pleasure, split by mood, habit circumstance, a precarious pleasure . . ." (52).
Taken together, the two bodies—the sexual body of Foucault's history and the erotic body of Barthes's language—emphasize both the obvious—an ongoing romance between lived sexuality and its modes of representation—and the not-so-obvious—that sexuality and its representations share a choice both of discursive locations and temporal modes. Foucault's "sexuality" and Barthes's "certain body" move out of historical flux into the atemporal space of knowable essence. Whether in life or in language, the body can be hypostatized as an eternal object or situated as an imagined event, a process unfolding in time. Not surprisingly, the different temporal modes occasion very different kinds of "authorial" and "readerly" satisfaction (terms that I am asking to signify both lived and representational acts). In other words, when bodies are produced and consumed as objects, both in life and in language, the satisfaction is akin to that of mastery, of knowing the other, of celebrating spatial dominance over temporal exchange. So conceived, sexuality deploys desire as a means to possession and ownership, a kind of somatic consumerism. Conversely, however, bodies can also be experienced as events, less objects than opportunity, moments in the history of subject and culture alike where pleasure can be shared, prolonged, and indulged. Pleasure in time—as opposed to desire over space—correlates to Foucault's sexual acts (as opposed identity) and Barthes's eroticism (as opposed to certainty). Crucial to the staging of sexual bodies in romantic fiction, temporality is not, however, an unchanging heuristic. On the contrary, its evolution is tied directly the shifting socioeconomic order out of which it emerges.
The historicity of the idea of the temporal stands tall amid contemporary musings about our changing cultural sphere. Arguing, for example, that many recent treatments have incorrectly "valoriz[d] . . . the body and its experience as the only authentic form of materialism," Fredric Jameson contends that a defining tendency of late capitalism is the "reduction to the present," which, he insists, occurs in concert with a "reduction to the body": "it seems clear enough that when you have nothing left but your temporal present, it follows that you also have nothing left but your own body. The reduction to the present can thus also be formulated in terms of a reduction to the body as a present of time" (712). Commensurate with instantaneous communication, global markets, and colonized subjectivities, this reduction signals a larger loss, the loss of history from cultural consciousness: consuming, entertaining, desiring everything and wanting nothing in the moment erodes past and future and limits engagement with the complexities of culture over time. Symptomatic of this reduction, and the larger loss in which it participates, is the "violence pornography" of American action films, which, according to Jameson, proffers a "succession of explosive and self-sufficient present moments of violence" that in turn "gradually crowds out the development of narrative time and reduces plot to the merest pretext or thread" (714). As Jameson notes in passing, the generic predecessor here is sexual pornography, whose "absolutely episodic nature" is composed of "intermittent closures [that] are allowed to be a good deal more final." It is this casual nod to an ill-bred generic relative—a relative stupidly self-evident, obstinately just there on the cultural landscape, and seemingly both important and not to the larger scheme of things—that I take as a point of departure for my own musings on the rise and fall of the pornographic imagination. Jameson is entirely correct, in other words, to suggest that sexual pornography is the purest form of reduction-to-the-present available today and that its gross panderings to the desires of its audience provide a model for other kinds of popular entertainment, but he misses an opportunity to think about how and why this may be important to our cultural moment. Is it the case, for example, that contemporary pornography is actually about sexuality and its pleasures, any more than action films, say, are really about crime and punishment? If pornography is about sexuality, what kind of sexuality is it and how does that sexuality serve larger cultural interests? Does the pornography of the nineteenth century participate in the normalizing project of medical-moral discourse or is it a form of resistance to that project? If pornography is not about sexuality, if it is only the simulated surface of a "real" vanquished long ago by forces currently invisible to the historian, how do we understand that process and render the invisible visible? How, in other words, can we trace the evolution of pornography and come to appreciate both the imagination that was required to bring it forth and the peculiar confluence of factors that have made it a defining presence in contemporary society?
This essay considers these questions and suggests that the emergence of "literature" and "pornography" can best be understood by rethinking how sexual bodies are represented in romantic fiction, specifically how the sexual bodies of Gothic melodrama contrast to their counterparts in realist novels of manners. To this end, I situate the discussion of romantic fiction between a reading of voyeurism in John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1749) and an argument about the pornographic spectacle in contemporary culture. Cleland's novel uses voyeurism—thematically and structurally—as a way of highlighting the transgressed boundaries of private pleasure. Like the book in which it appears, Fanny's spying looks into private spaces in search of a human experience she needs to understand, an experience as true and as desirable as it is forbidden. That experience, together with the imagination that makes it visible on the page and in the mind of the reader, challenges the hypocrisy of public morals and proffers a pleasure sadly absent in legitimate culture. Stephen Sayadian's 1982 film Café Flesh and recent controversies about NFL halftime entertainment dramatize an entirely different phenomena: more than a century and a half after the creation of pornography proper, our contemporary culture has witnessed the movement of the pornographic imagination outward from discursive quarantine and into every conceivable cultural nook and cranny. Popular film, television, music, advertising, and internet routinely display sexual bodies for our consuming pleasure, and yet, as I shall argue, the saturation of our contemporary marketplace with this material hardly signifies the culmination of Cleland's satiric, oppositional project. Gone is the material real of the sexual body and the threat posed by its dangerous passions. Gone too is both the adversarial posture assumed by genre or discourse and the erotic imagination which figures forth the sexual body. Instead, we have ubiquitous scopophilia, a new phase of disembodied desire in which pleasure is suspended well above corporeal referent. If Cleland's use of voyeurism insists on the possibility that private pleasures can and should correct public values, then current scopophilia frees the pleasure of watching from any subsequent action, public or private: current spectacles are saturated with simulated sexualities, sexualities that—appearances to the contrary—no longer reference sex at all, only its transformation into a hyper-real glamor, a state of being envied for youth and beauty and the indeterminate "wealth" they signify. The sexual bodies of romantic fiction, on the other hand, positioned as they are after Cleland and before post-pornographic super-saturation, document a crucial transition prior to the normalizing projects of the mid-nineteenth century. Specifically, they illustrate two choices available to the novelistic imagination. Lewis's gothic melodrama creates an entirely new trajectory for narrative pleasure, pushing desire well beyond the bodies of individual characters and into the structure of narrative itself, while the realist novel of manners, exemplified by Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813), predicates the reproductive power of romantic love upon the banishment of a certain kind of sexual body from the novel's field of vision. The former destabilizes sexual normalcy by figuring desire as protean possibility, a consistently recalibrated "want" forever subject to temporal change; the latter marries desire to character and fixes passion as an unproblematic means to a cultural end. Taken together, the two demonstrate the dramatic difference in the ways that romantic literature could envision sexuality and its pleasures before more rigid discursive categories held sway.
Mulling over the significance of the anonymous, eleven-volume autobiography, My Secret Life (c.1890), Stephen Marcus famously described how the pornography of the mid to late nineteenth century created a "pornotopia," an imaginary place where sexual desire reigned supreme and where other wants and needs—food, clothing, shelter, intellectual stimulation, emotional intimacy—all receded before the irresistible power of the genitalia. Pornotopian novels, he explained, make use of "that vision which regards all of human experience as a series of exclusively sexual events or conveniences" (216). Contemptuous of the "vision" he describes—the narratives of which, according to him, are perforce "transformed into unconscious comedy"—Marcus wanted very much to identify the "other" side of Victorian culture but had little interest in thinking further about the inextricable relationship between pornography and literature or its ongoing importance to the modern state. Nor was he interested in the historical emergence of pornography, in the process by which pornography evolved as a word, as a set of generically similar artifacts, as a way of envisioning sexual bodies and their pleasures, as a modern, commercial discourse with its own distinct epistemology. It was enough, perhaps, for Marcus to identify pornography as cultural "wish fulfillment," to establish its connections to the development of the novel, and to mine certain of its texts, chiefly My Secret Life, for social history. It was Marcus, after all, who had the temerity to drag obscene materials into the pages of respectable scholarship and, in so doing, bestow a certain kind historical value upon them. No matter that the "pornography" he identified was historically ahistorical, specific to the mid to late nineteenth century but timeless in purpose, method, and effect.
Although Marcus broke important ground, scholars had to wait until the late 1980s for a more comprehensive picture of pornography and modern culture. That book was Walter Kendrick's splendid history, The Secret Museum, a study that significantly expanded and refined Marcus's pioneering account (1-32). Kendrick's key premise is that "pornography," like "homosexuality," is a word of recent coinage whose facile deployment in the present wreaks havoc upon the subtlety with which we understand the past. He documents the early eighteenth-century fascination with Pompeii and the confusion generated by the obscene artifacts unearthed there. The compulsion to organize and classify and preserve the past chaffed against the moral responsibility to keep such artifacts away from the public eye. The result was the "secret museum," originally a basement archive open to gentlemen of means but a soon an apt metaphor for an entire discourse pushed to the edge of cultural self-consciousness.
It has been more than fifteen years since The Secret Museum challenged the status quo, but scholars have not entirely accepted Kendrick's argument that "pornography" is a distinctly modern phenomenon, one that dates only from the beginning of the nineteenth century. The cause is less incompetence and more an unlikely conspiracy between past and present. In the present, the word "pornography" tempts us with categorical certainty, naming a collection of artifacts whose status as deviant, while notoriously problematic when considered case by case, is nevertheless ironclad when viewed from across the cultural spectrum. As Kendrick explains,
"[P]ornography" has named so many things during the century and a half of its existence that any statement of what it means now must degenerate into nonsense within a very short time. In the mid-nineteenth century, Pompeiian frescoes were deemed "pornographic" and locked away in secret chambers safe from virginal minds; not long thereafter, Madame Bovary was put on trial for harboring the same danger. A century-long parade of court cases ensued, deliberating the perniciousness of Ulysses, Lady Chatterley's Lover, Tropic of Cancer, and scores of other fictions, many of which now appear routinely on the syllabi of college literature courses. All these things were "pornography" once and have ceased to be so; now the stigma goes to sexually explicit pictures, films, and videotapes. It would be laughably egotistical to suppose that our parents and grandparents called the wrong things "pornographic" out of blindness or stupidity. It would be equally stupid to think that we, at long last, have found in our X-rated images the real pornography. (xii)
It may be "laughably egotistical," but contemporary usage wants its own thought categories to rise above historical flux and order the confusions of the past according to the dictums of the present. As his quotation marks suggest, however, Kendrick's "pornography" will do no such thing. It will insist on naming an argument, a controversy, a debate, rather than a collection of generically similar, generically stable objects about which there is near universal agreement. In her influential edition Inventing Pornography (1993), Lynn Hunt carefully expands Kendrick's argument:
Pornography came into existence, both as a literary and visual practice and as a category of understanding, at the same time as—and concomitantly with—the long-term emergence of Western modernity. . . . For this reason, a historical perspective is crucial to understanding the place and function of pornography in modern culture. Pornography was not a given; it was defined over time by the conflicts between writers, artists, and engravers on the one side and spies, policemen, clergymen, and state officials on the other. Its political and cultural meanings cannot be separated from its emergence as a category of thinking, representation, and regulation. (10-11)
The history of pornography begins at the moment that the word itself is dislodged as a "given," as an absolute that imposes itself anachronistically upon contested terrain. Hunt insists that before the early nineteenth century, before the invention of modern "pornography," sexually explicit materials almost always served a larger social, political, philosophical, or aesthetic purpose. Thus, a properly historical account of the evolution of "pornography" must resist the knee-jerk moralism that the word itself encourages; it must avoid falling into "category," specifically the "category of thinking, representation, and regulation" bequeathed to us by the Victorians.
Kendrick and Hunt are perhaps overly optimistic in thinking that contemporary commentators will compare and contrast different "pornographies" before revising the historical record. Presentism is more likely to content itself with similarities, and long dead authors are all too willing to accommodate. It is difficult, for example, even with Kendrick's admonitions fresh in mind, not to think of John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (1749) as self-evidently "pornographic." Its narrative, after all, appears formulaic: an orphaned Fanny Hill arrives in London and follows a predictable path from "Lesbian" seduction and voyeurism, through defloration and cautious experiments, to group sex and flagellation, before being reunited with her lover and enjoying a happier-ever-after ending worthy of Jane Austen. Regardless of arcane diction and an amusing penchant for metaphor—"his weapon," "that fierce erect machine," "his red headed champion" (68-70)—Cleland's novel stages its sexual scenes with scripted precision, as if rewriting a plot hoary with age. Yet, as both Kendrick and Hunt would insist, "pornography" is precisely the wrong word to describe the most famous dirty book in English literature. The Memoirs may well mirror our idea of "pornographic novel," but in 1749, "pornography" was no more a recognizable discursive category than air planes were a viable mode of travel. Although every society since the beginning of time has policed "obscenity"—those materials or behaviors that for whatever reason offend the powers that be—"pornography"—the graphic depiction of sexual acts intended to arouse an audience—is exclusively the product of the modern state, which makes Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure decidedly . . . "proto-pornographic." Regardless of the obvious, two-pronged counter argument—the Memoirs does graphically depict sexual acts with the intent to arouse, and the object may well predate its naming—Cleland's novel appeared in a world in which libertine literature certainly existed in a variety of forms—bawdy poetry, whore dialogues, medical manuals, criminal biography, and trial proceedings, to name a few—but where "pornography" as word, discursive category, and—most importantly perhaps—commercial practice was more than a half century away. Lisa Sigel argues, for example, that commercial viability becomes centrally important to the Victorian understanding of the evils of "pornography." Certain artifacts became objectionable only when they were disseminated into the larger market, when they left the libraries of educated gentlemen and were offered for sale to the young, the impressionable, and the ignorant. The Victorians created a "pornography," Sigel claims, in which "Objects became indecent through the act of viewing or reading" (4). Textual obscenity thus became commensurate with and contingent upon the commercial expansion of the industry.
This semantic shell game, as unpleasant as it is, performs a necessary service, opening up "pornography" as an imaginative construct whose history as the potential to complicate our ideas about human sexuality and its representations. Imaginative constructs differ from categorical absolutes in that they perform actions, ways of seeing, untrammeled by a oppressive discursive identity. Like "homosexuality," in other words, "pornography" can uncritically erase the very historical process that brought it into being—regardless of critical intentions. Traditional commentators, for example—and Marcus comes immediately to mind—have often preferred to do a legal or social history that assumes the deviant otherness of their subject even as they catalogue forgotten texts or document changing obscenity laws. Feminist commentators, on the other hand, read "pornography" as the quintessence of patriarchal oppression, objecting to sexualized violence and demeaning stereotypes. Both groups treat "pornography" as a monolithic discourse, generally unspecified as to text or image and uniformly self-evident both in purpose and affect. Both assume that the word will remain a pejorative and that the category it names is transhistorical in nature. Thinking of "pornography" first and foremost as an act of the imagination, however, allows for a better understanding of pornography's satiric entanglements within the larger cultural field, for a more nuanced reading of its textual or visual strategies, and for a greater appreciation of its historical development. My consideration of the sexual bodies of romantic fiction focuses on the visual fields within which those bodies appear and on the very different techniques used to construct sexual possibility.
Consider, once again, Cleland's novel. Numerous commentators have emphasized the role of voyeurism in Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, in part because such episodes appear from beginning to end and in part perhaps because we are particularly sensitive to voyeurism as a staple of our own predominantly visual culture. Very early in her story, after having lain with Phoebe and having been nearly raped by one of Mrs. Brown's supposed "cousins," Fanny recovers from the trauma and chooses to begin her sexual education in earnest. She accidently comes upon Mrs. Brown and her sturdy "horse-grenadier" and decides to watch. Although the sight is anything but pleasing—Mrs. Brown is old and fat and fully exposed to Fanny's view—the "sighs and murmurs," the "heaves and pantings" are enough to arouse Fanny's "nature," and she masturbates (61-63). When Phoebe hears the story, the episode is quickly duplicated, but this time with young and beautiful lovers. As in the first episode, masturbation confirms Fanny's "nature," her sympathetic corporeal response to the passion she witnesses. Thus voyeurism sets up a kind of epistemological challenge for character and reader alike. At the level of the narrative, voyeurism proves first to Fanny and then to Phoebe that the former is sexually mature and physically ready for intercourse. This challenge is also aesthetic, as well as physiological, for both couples are carefully described in terms specific to the visual arts: Mrs. Brown presents her "greasy landscape" to the hidden Fanny; Polly is a worthy "subject for . . . painters . . . [needing] a pattern of female beauty" (62, 67). Like a connoisseur in a gallery, Fanny appreciates the beauty of sexual congress. That Fanny is aroused by both, in the first case against her will, proves 1) an aesthetic predisposition that allows the sight of erotic engagement to be transferred corporeally to the viewer; and 2) the existence of a underlying sexual "truth," a powerful, erotic "pleasure" untrammeled by love or marriage, a human "real" capable of asserting itself against the dictates of society. When the language of painting recasts voyeurism as an aesthetic experience, it satirically challenges traditional ideas of ideal beauty by asserting the material reality of the body. At the same time, it pokes fun at the aesthetic pretensions of high art by suggesting an unacknowledged sexual subtext. The strategy is common to the mock heroic, and this episode can be usefully compared to Pope's "The Rape of the Lock" or Ovid's The Art of Love. Of course, Cleland's use of voyeurism implicates his readers as well. The Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure uses Fanny's secret spying to play an elaborate game with the usually sacrosanct boundaries between public and private. Fanny watches a private act from an even more private position, where bedroom stands to closet as intercourse stands to masturbation. The narrative neatly duplicates the pattern: Fanny's private experience is written as an epistle to a friend, a shared pleasure between consenting adults, which is then overheard—"envisioned" to be more precise—by a closeted, presumably masturbating, reader. Like Robinson Crusoe (1719) or Moll Flanders (1722) or Pamela (1740-41), the narrative is delighted with its ability to render the private public. Unlike its more respectable predecessors, however, the Memoirs ups the ante as it proffers an even more private reality for public consumption.
The voyeuristic episodes that open Volume I are succeeded by Fanny's spying on her maid Hannah with Mr. H., and then Mr. H. catching Fanny with his footman Will. If the earlier episodes prove to Fanny the existence of her irrepressible sexual body, the later scenes insist that monogamy and sexual knowledge are mutually exclusive: the former provide knowledge she needs and wants, the latter knowledge she needs but doesn't want. While satisfying the reader's desire for fast-paced variety, these latter scenes also highlight a narrative intolerance for privacy. Interruptions abound because the forbidden always occurs behind closed doors, and it is the forbidden that the novel must put on display. In Volume II, voyeurism has to evolve in order to keep step with Fanny's increasing experience. Specifically, Volume II marks Fanny's emergence as a professional prostitute working out of Mrs. Cole's, and the narrative field of vision expands to accommodate group activity. No longer are we alone with Fanny in closet or bedroom; sex is now communal, creative, and openly commercial. The first event is storytelling, in which the prostitutes each in succession tell the story of their defloration; the second is group sex, in which pairs take turns having sex before the group. Although an objection may be raised that neither makes use of voyeurism proper, both signal a new stage in Cleland's sophisticated appropriation of the visual. As each prostitute tells her story, for example, the larger plot temporarily recedes, the storyteller assumes center stage, and the auditors and readers become one audience. It is not simply that listeners and readers together use their imaginations to bring the stories visually to life. It is also that the larger group of auditors marks the increasing legitimacy of the sexually explicit story while claiming an increasingly more public venue for its telling. That both auditors and readers have paid for the privilege unites them as customers expecting their money's worth, and so novel and brothel become reciprocal spaces, staging analogous events for analogous reasons. Cleland's novel, in other words, is self-conscious about its effect and, as I shall argue, deviously satiric as well. Thus, we should not be surprised when the storytelling is followed immediately by the group scene in which pairs take turns as the others watch. This "open public enjoyment" is intended to remove "any taint of reserve or modesty," and Fanny details the activities with a eye attentive to the subtle signs of female pleasure (150). The abrupt juxtaposition of storytelling and group sex, and the choice to have pairs perform in turn before the entire group, demand that each scene be considered in light of the other: verbal performance versus physical performance, listening versus watching, inexperienced virgins versus experienced women of pleasure. Cleland goes to some effort in the latter scene to make two points: first, the absence of modesty does not result in the absence of manners; and second, performers appear in "all the truth of nature" (159). His purpose is to connect the two scenes with the larger narrative and to validate all three as performances, as acts of a new kind of literary imagination, one truer to the sexual realities of human experience. Predictably, Fanny's own "imagination" is "heated" to excess, providing the standard by which the scene is to be measured:
Now all the impressions of burning desire, from the lively scenes I had been spectatress of, ripened by the heat of this exercise, and, collecting to a head, throbbed and agitated me with insupportable irritations: I was perfectly fevered and maddened with their excess. I did not now enjoy a calm of reason enough to perceive, but ecstatically indeed! felt the policy and power of such rare and exquisite provocatives as the examples of the night had proved. . . . Lifted then to the utmost pitch of joy that human life can bear, undestroyed by excess, I touched that sweetly critical point. . . . (161)
It is precisely the interplay between the seen and the felt, between the pleasure of beauty perceived by the eye and that expressed by touch, that brings Fanny to this "utmost pitch of joy." Her orgasm, once again calibrated to her aesthetic sensitivity, subsumes the reader, transferring pleasure from body to sight to word and back again with seamless ease.
Fanny does not attribute arousal to physiology only, to the corporeal "machine" whose material "real" is used elsewhere in the novel to challenge aesthetic idealism. Instead, she insists on imagination as an mediating agency between mind and body. Such mediation qualifies Fanny's espousal of the "Truth! stark, naked truth" which she purports to depict. Specifically, it challenges both the stable opposition between body and mind and the categories of "normal" and "perverse" that follow from it. When sexual pleasure is contingent on imagination as well as physiology, then normalcy becomes a matter of "taste" rather than "nature." Mrs. Cole, a paragon of maternal wisdom, is credited with the theory of pleasure that informs Volume II:
she considered pleasure of one sort or other as the universal port of destination, and every wind that blew thither a good one, provided it blew nobody any harm: that she rather compassionated than blamed those unhappy persons who are under a subjection they cannot shake off. . . . (181)
Tastes are here "arbitrary" rather than absolute, pleasures "unaccountable," not divinely ordained or physiologically predetermined. Only the unimaginable is unnatural.
For Fanny, however, sodomy proves unimaginable. She literally can not envision male-to-male intercourse, and Mrs. Cole does nothing to enlighten her:
I could not conceive how it was possible for mankind to run into a taste, not only universally odious but absurd, and impossible to gratify, since, according to the notions and experience I had of things, it was not in nature to force such immense disproportions. Mrs. Cole only smiled. . . . (193)
A chance opportunity at a public house gives her voyeuristic access to the forbidden and sparks her outrage and moral indignation. Interestingly, however, Fanny's outrage in no way compromises her ability to watch the scene from beginning to end and to describe it with the same loving attention to detail that she evidences elsewhere. Her objections to "so criminal a scene," in other words, appear ridiculous within a narrative that has just accomplished what its main character could not, a compelling and attractive visualization of male love. Put another way, Cleland sets Fanny up. She's the perfect straight girl, a brilliant foil for novel's overarching vision. The so-called perversions—more accurately, perhaps, "imaginative eccentricities"—are carefully orchestrated and lovingly defended. They have to end with sodomy, and Fanny's naivete is Cleland's insurance policy: against her better wishes, the novel will look at male-to-male intercourse and, in so doing, insist that it appear officially as a human sexual practice. After all, the Memoirs is committed to representing sexual pleasure, and Fanny's attempts at exclusion serve only to reinforce the narrative's catholic tastes.
Cleland's careful staging of sexual possibility confirms Sigel's contention that graphic materials often reveal a culture's "social imaginary": those hopes and fears, those desires and anxieties, that together constitute the condition of possibility for emergent sexualities. Cleland's insistence that aesthetics generally and literary aesthetics in particular are inextricable from the pleasures of the body, his ongoing interrogation of the boundary between public and private sexual experience, his sympathy for and his depictions of alternative sexual practices, and finally his linking of the erotic and literary imaginations all speak to the imaginary possibilities of mid-century. Marcus's "pornotopia" would preclude such considerations. Presupposing as it does a rigid and absolute division between the "literary" and the "pornographic," the idea of "pornotopia" reduces the complexity of graphic material to a single, non-literary intention: that of facilitating the orgasm of its user.
What was for Marcus an accurate depiction of a discursive opposition specific to the cultural life of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries becomes an historiographical blunder if uncritically carted back to the Romantic period. The sexual bodies of romantic fiction, however anticipatory of generic conventions still years away, appeared in a world not yet anchored by the absolutism of "pornography." As a result, Michael Gamer, in Romanticism and the Gothic, is quite right to consider the contemporary uproar that followed Matthew Lewis's The Monk (1796) as an important chapter in the pre-history of pornography. I would add that the novel itself must also be considered a crucial experiment in the history of the "pornographic" imagination and that Matilda, one of the most unusual characters in British fiction, is a brilliant emblem for the possibilities of a "pornographic" fiction as yet unrealized. Lewis, building deliberately upon Cleland and intimately familiar with French libertine literature, frees desire from the constraints of realism and the burden of character, builds eroticism squarely into the temporality of narrative, and anticipates the power of the image in modern culture. When contrasted to the sexual bodies of realistic fiction, specifically those of Pride and Prejudice (1813), Lewis's experiment highlights both the attractions of and the fears about a narrative pleasure untrammeled by either literary propriety or civic responsibility.
Ambrosio, the main character in The Monk, is an abbot who, encouraged by Matilda, will fall, not once like Adam and Eve, but over and over again, each time deeper into sin and depravity. Bewitched at each juncture by seductive power of fiction, Ambrosio has no defense against the magic embodied in paintings, stories, and music. Time and time again he will respond authentically to the beauty of an image or the emotions of a story only be tricked by a reality that he is unable to grasp. Matilda appears first, for example, disguised as Rosario, minutes after Ambrosio, alone in his cell, contemplates a small portrait of the Virgin, which had for the last several years "been the object of his increasing wonder and adoration":
"What beauty in that countenance!" he continued after a silence of some minutes; "how graceful is the turn of that head! what sweetness, yet what majesty in her divine eyes! how softly her cheek reclines upon her hand! Can the rose vie with the blush of that cheek? can the lily rival the whiteness of that hand? Oh! if such a creature existed, and existed but for me! . . . gracious God, should I then resist the temptation?" (65-66)
Soon after this scene Rosario tells Ambrosio a story of his sister Matilda who died heartbroken of her love for the noble Julian:
"Father, she loved unfortunately. A passion for one endowed with every virtue, for a man—oh! rather let me say for a divinity—proved the bane of her existence. His noble form, his spotless character, his various talents, his wisdom solid, wonderful, and glorious, might have warmed the bosom of the most insensible. My sister saw him, and dared to love, though she never dared to hope."
"If her loved was so well bestowed, what forbad her to hope the obtaining of its object?"
"Father, before he knew her, Julian had already plighted his vows to a bride most fair, most heavenly! Yet still my sister loved, and for the husband's sake she doted upon the wife. One morning she found means to escape from our father's house: arrayed in humble weeds she offered herself as a domestic to the consort of her beloved, and was accepted. She was now continually in his presence: she strove to ingratiate herself into his favour: she succeeded. . . . and he distinguished Matilda above the rest of her companions." (77-78)
Although very different, the two scenes perform analogous functions. In the first, a painting represents a bewitching image of real and ideal female beauty. Ambrosio is intrigued and confused. He desires the "real" that the painting represents even as he acknowledges that the representation is a "fiction," an unreality most likely superior to flesh and blood. The painting, in other words, like the Virgin herself, may be an "idea," a "perfect[ion]" unattainable by mortal man. And yet, Ambrosio wonders, what if that woman actually appeared? Could he resist her? In the second scene, Rosario tells a story of unrequited love. The purpose is twofold. First, Ambrosio must sympathize with the plight of the heroine. Which he does. Then, he must maintain that sympathy when the narrative shifts its ground, when Rosario springs the trap and declares, "I am Matilda; you are her beloved" (80). If the painting sparks desire, the story evokes compassion, both authentic responses to their respective representations. Then the ground shifts and Ambrosio has no choice but to follow.
It is this strategy of representational recalibration that is at the heart of The Monk's Gothic nightmare. Time and again Ambrosio will respond authentically to what he sees only to have the field of vision violently redefine his actions by shifting the boundaries of knowledge. The painting of the Virgin will also change, for example. Ambrosio—to his credit—initially resists Matilda and the temptations she proffers. In torment, he falls asleep and dreams:
During his sleep, his inflamed imagination had presented him with none but the most voluptuous objects. Matilda stood before him in his dreams, and his eyes again dwelt upon her naked breast. . . . Sometimes his dreams presented the image of his favourite Madonna, and he fancied that . . . he pressed his lips to hers, and found them warm: the animated form started from the canvas, embraced him affectionately, and his senses were unable to support delight so exquisite. (86)
As we will learn, it is not Ambrosio's "inflamed imagination" that is to blame, at least not entirely. In The Monk, fictions are real, which means that stories can change men into women, paintings can become animated, and nothing is entirely what it seems. The novel, in other words, like the fictions that it mobilizes against Ambrosio, allows desire to be made visible; it dreams the wants and fears of the unconscious and projects them into possibility. Reality is dynamic, not static, and transformations are the rule not the exception.
Like Rosario before her, the Matilda of this section had kept her face carefully hidden from the monk, a sign that reassures Ambrosio of her sexual uninterest. When Matilda sings to the ailing monk, however, "such heavenly sounds . . . produced [as if] by . . . angels" (94), he glimpses lips and an arm that fuel his imagination:
. . . how dangerous was the presence of this seducing object. He closed his eyes, but strove in vain to banish her from his thoughts. There she still moved before him, adorned with all those charms which his heated imagination could supply. Every beauty which he seen appeared embellished; and those still concealed fancy represented to him in glowing colours. Still, however, his vows, and the necessity of keeping to them, were present to his memory. (95)
Then, while Ambrosio feigns sleep, Matilda addresses the Madonna:
"Happy, happy image! . . .'tis to you that he offers his prayers; 'tis on you that he gazes with admiration. I thought you would have lightened my sorrows; you have only served to increase their weight; you have made me feel, that, had I known him ere his vows were pronounced, Ambrosio and happiness might have been mine. With what pleasure he views this picture! With what fervour he addresses his prayers to the insensible image! Ah! may not his sentiments be inspired by some kind and secret genius, friend to my affection? May it not be man's natural instinct which informs him—? Be silent! idle hopes! . . .
Of this discourse the abbot lost not a syllable; and the tone in which she pronounced these last words pierced to his heart. Involuntarily he raised himself from his pillow.
"Matilda!" he said in a troubled voice; "Oh! my Matilda!"
She started at the sound, and turned towards him hastily. The suddenness of her movement made her cowl fall back from her head; her features became visible to the monk's enquiring eye. What was his amazement at beholding the exact resemblance of his admired Madona! . . . Uttering an exclamation of surprise, Ambrosio sank back upon his pillow, and doubted whether the object before him was mortal or divine. (96-97)
Beauty is Matilda's weapon, beauty and the versatility of fiction. Her song, her portrait, her body, her face, even the beauty of her words and the selfless devotion to which they testify, all conspire to drive religious abstraction from Ambrosio's mind. The senses are assaulted one at a time; he will hear, see, touch, and taste beauty so exquisite as to be divine. When the cowl falls away, the monk experiences again the surprise of Rosario's denouement, a sudden recalibration that sends him reeling. The narrative strategy is now clear: it enacts a kind of striptease in which fiction succeeds fiction, revelation following revelation, each promising a greater pleasure to follow. Like a face first coming suddenly into sight, we see an old thing with new eyes, a revision that fundamentally changes the identity of the original. First Rosario, then Matilda, now the Virgin. The dream was of course prophetic; the figure in the painting has stepped off the canvas and sits before the monk in all her glory. At each juncture, Ambrosio sees more, literally and figuratively. As in Genesis, sex is here all about knowledge, about the desire to know more of woman and the pleasure she seems to portend. But the brilliance of The Monk results from how carefully Lewis orchestrates the dance of the imagination. At each juncture, Ambrosio discovers that his imagination has in fact been realized, that no matter how ambitious or unlikely his desires, no matter how perfect his ideals, they can be made real. If he can but dare to dream, then the fiction will deliver, the event will occur, and he will see and know with as little trouble as clothing falls away from skin.
Matilda begins as Ambrosio's platonic friend, and she will be by turns his lover, his whore, his procuress, his sorceress, his savior, and finally his ruin. At each juncture, there is a disclosure, a revelation, a truth that is presented to the monk as final, complete, and unchanging, and then, like clockwork, there is a new pleasure to be satisfied and yet another price to pay. What begins as pride will end with rape, incest, and murder. All the way along Matilda facilitates desire, at first its articulation and then its satisfaction. After the monk has been satiated by her charms, for example, his attention is captured by the young, innocent Antonia. Matilda is accommodating:
. . . she drew from beneath her habit a mirror of polished steel, the borders of which were marked with various strange and unknown characters.There is no more potent image in the novel. Matilda gives the monk an object, a magical "thing" that provides the opportunity to see his beloved at her most private. Matilda's "magic words" change reflection to projection, exposing the hidden to sight. Like an adolescent schoolboy, Ambrosio is delighted to see what is denied him, to see what is revealed when the smiling Antonia at last lifts her hands. But the magic mirror provides more. Accessed by the right words, it transforms the countenance that it reflects into the thing that that reflected most desires. The mirror must plumb the psychic depths of its user before generating the proper view. Moving in two directions at once, the mirror thus harmonizes internal and external, aligning carefully the longing for pleasure with the hope of its satisfaction. Of course, it is not the sight of Antonia that Ambrosio desires: he wants the pleasure that the sight portends. His "phrensy" of desire highlights not what the mirror has accomplished, but what it hasn't. The mirror can see, but not touch. It can in fact perform the most sophisticated seeing imaginable—becoming in the process an emblem for the "pornographic" imagination itself—but it fails to close geographic distance, it fails to bring two bodies together in an act of love. It remains, in other words, a representation, a fiction, a dangerous make-believe that no matter how magical still falls short of the desire it serves.
"Amidst all my sorrows, amidst all my regrets for your coldness, I was sustained from despair by the virtues of this talisman. On pronouncing certain words, the person appears in it on whom the observer's thoughts are bent: thus, though I was exiled from your sight, you Ambrosio, were ever present to mine."
The friar's curiosity was strongly excited.
"What you relate is incredible! Matilda, you are not amusing yourself with my credulity?"
"Be your own eyes the judge."
She put the mirror into his hand. Curiosity induced him to take it, and love, to wish that Antonia might appear. Matilda produced the magic words. Immediately a thick smoke rose from the characters traced upon the borders, and spread itself over the surface. It dispersed again gradually [and] . . . he beheld in miniature Antonia's lovely form.
The scene was a small closet belonging to her apartment. She was undressing to bathe herself. . . . The amorous monk had full opportunity to observe the voluptuous contours and admirable symmetry of her person. She threw off her last garment. . . . Though unconscious of being observed, an inbred sense of modesty induced her to veil her charms. . . . At this moment a tame linnet flew toward her, nestled its head between her breasts, and nibbled them in wanton play. The smiling Antonia strove in vain to shake off the bird, and at length raised her hands to drive it from its delightful harbour. Ambrosio could bear no more. His desires were worked up to phrensy.
"I yield!" he cried, dashing the mirror upon the ground: "Matilda, I follow you! Do with me what you will!" (240-241)
Matilda's magic mirror distills Lewis's own narrative strategy to its essence, providing a brilliant illustration of exactly the new kind of voyeurism that The Monk both provides and eventually condemns. With her magic words, Matilda creates a vision for Ambrosio that tempts him yet again with a beauty seemingly beyond his grasp, as it reassures him that the power she commands is on his side. Matilda is the fiction of desire personified, and the magic mirror is the means to her end. She is less a character than the condition of possibility for the narrative itself. She exists only to say to Ambrosio, "What is it that you really want?" or "What would you want if you could get away with it?" At each stage of the game, the monk thinks he knows what is going on, thinks that what he sees in his field of vision is actually "real," thinks he can satiate his desires and get away with it, thinks that Matilda loves him and will continue to protect him. The final disclosure, the final revelation, however, is not Matilda's to give, nor is she able to save him. When the monk learns with horror that he murdered his mother and then raped and murdered his sister, he also realizes that the Devil orchestrated each and every event and that Matilda herself was no woman, no sorceress, but a devilish spirit enacting a masquerade for the sole purpose of leading the monk to ruin. With this epiphany, Ambrosio's desires finally appear chimerical. When the Devil laughs, in other words, it is to say that the monk's most private fantasies—those innermost desires considered no necessary, so real, and so compelling—were on the contrary imposed from without, artificial constructs created by the manipulative fictions of pure evil. Rosario's story, the portrait of the Madonna, the magic mirror, the sorceress's spells, and last and most shockingly, Matilda herself were all tricks, imaginative feints, seductive fictions intended to fan the flames of Ambrosio's desire. If Cleland challenged literary pieties with the material real of Fanny's body, Matilda, by contrast, is supracorporeal: first male, then female, then blushing virgin, then the wanton whore, then the dangerous sorceress, and finally the devil in disguise. We learn nothing of her body—of the color of her hair, the shape of her face, the quality of her eyes—because she is the facilitator of pleasure, not its substantiation. She is a figure of possibility, a narrative device, whose function is to extend desire and to push past the boundaries of the normal. "What," she says to us, "do you really want?"
In its own way, the realistic novel is as much obsessed with the sexual body and its desires as is the gothic novel. Indeed, one might argue that the appropriation of that body is the condition of possibility for the romance fiction of Jane Austen, and that Foucault's entire argument about the construction of sexuality is neatly foreshadowed by and encapsulated within the normalizing strategies of Pride and Prejudice (1813). Foucault insists that all of the "garrulous attention" to sexuality coheres in one central purpose: "to ensure population, to reproduce labor capacity, to perpetuate the form of social relations; in short, to constitute a sexuality that is economically useful and politically conservative" (36-37). Pride and Prejudice takes for its subject the construction of the perfect love/marriage/family, a fantasy that will eventually be made real by the union of the finest offspring of the aspiring middle class (Elizabeth) with the noblest scion of the landed gentry (Darcy). The problem, of course, is Elizabeth's dysfunctional family: her out-of-control sisters and imbecilic mother conspire in volume one to embarrass the heroine and convince Darcy of "the inferiority of her connections" (35). When Mrs. Bennet visits the ailing Jane at the Bingleys, for example, the following conversation ensues:
"I did not know before," continued Bingley immediately [to Elizabeth], "that you were a studier of character. It must be an amusing study."
"Yes; but intricate characters are the most amusing. They have at least that advantage."
"The country," said Darcy, "can in general supply but few subjects for such a study. In a country neighbourhood you move in a very confined and unvarying society."
"But people themselves alter so much, that there is something new to be observed in them for ever."
"Yes, indeed," cried Mrs. Bennet, offended by his manner of mentioning a country neighbourhood. "I assure you there is quite as much of that going on in the country as in town."
Every body was surprised; and Darcy, after looking at her for a moment, turned silently away. (29)
So much depends upon the demonstrative pronoun. At once vulgar and shrill, Mrs. Bennet's "that" hangs heavily in the air, technically without referent but unambiguous. The sexual innuendo chaffs against the previous conversation, and the novel itself turns away with Mr. Darcy, silent with horror and embarrassment. It is this turn, the turn away from that which cannot be represented, the turn that is the silent act of the well mannered body—the carefully averted eyes and the refusal to see what it already knows can no longer be tolerated—it is this turn that the novel will reproduce linguistically, thematically, and narratively. The realist novel of manners must turn away from the very thing on which its existence depends: the possibility of sexual pleasure untrammeled by love and marriage.
Darcy's superiority finds its instantiation in his manners, a code of behavior that, unlike etiquette, embodies both the entirety of Darcy's character and the character of the socioeconomic order to which Elizabeth aspires. It is this code of behavior that negotiates the body's appearance in the social space. Manners structure the interface between public and private; they govern human interaction to the degree that even the most trivial of events can assume theological import. Most importantly, they strike a balance between the needs of nature and the prohibitions of culture. Darcy's mannered body, for example, represents not the absence of sexuality and its passions but their domestication, their subservience to love, marriage, and family. Like Pemberley, in other words, his family estate, Darcy's manners are intended to signify less the triumph of culture over nature and more the tasteful assimilation of latter by the former. When, for example, Elizabeth first approaches Pemberley, the description is unequivocal:
They gradually ascended for half a mile, and then found themselves at the top of a considerable eminence, where the wood ceased, and the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House. . . . It was a large, handsome house . . . and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal, nor falsely adorned. Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste. They were all of them warm in their admiration; and at that moment she felt, that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something. (166-67)Pemberley House is not a house: it is an hereditary estate, an architectural manifestation of a family whose wealth—financial, intellectual, and cultural—extends back from generation to generation into the murky prehistory of civilization itself. Numerous references to Pemberley earlier in the novel mark its achievement against and its distance from the middle-class confusion which is the Bennet family. Mr. Bennet's entailed estate, Mrs. Bennet's frantic attempts to marry off her daughters, and her daughters' unsupervised behavior are all of a piece; taken together they represent a social class whose financial, marital, and social value is endangered by ignorance, poor taste, and bad manners. Darcy's manners, however, once corrected by Elizabeth, are emblematic of the most noble virtues of the landed gentry. They are here made manifest by Pemberley's unpretentious superiority, its subtle appropriation of the surrounding beauty, and its refusal to employ artifice or accouterment. Elizabeth gazes upon Pemberley and sees Darcy for the first time. The recognition is aesthetic, not economic or political. Elizabeth does not feel "that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something" because she is desirous of money, power, or prestige; she feels that it "might be something" because she is impressed by the "taste" that is there embodied, a "taste" that speaks directly to the character of Darcy and his family and the values they represent. To be "mistress" of such an estate would be to assume responsibility for the reproduction—both physically and ideologically—of those values.
Elizabeth will later admit to her sister Jane that she dated her love for Darcy "from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley" (258). That the novel should emphasize the birth of love from the view of an ancestral estate is commensurate with its overdetermination of Darcy himself and with its containment of sexual pleasure within the normative confines of marriage-for-love. No more an average man than Pemberley is simply a house, Darcy is exposed to Elizabeth's critical gaze in a scene that directly reverses the more traditional disrobing of the lover's body. Paradoxically, Darcy's sexual body assumes significance only as it becomes clothed by cultural value: as it disappears behind his "beautiful grounds," as it is subsumed by his handsome, stone features, as it sinks beneath the weight of love's real purpose: the transmission of his cultural legacy to future generations. The logic of the realistic romance novel has it that the cloaking of the sexual body is more than adequately compensated for by the lover's insight into the psychological interior of the beloved's "self." When, in other words, Elizabeth sees the delicate balance between natural and cultural beauty, she sees into Darcy's true self—his impeccable taste, his mannered control of human passion, his pride—and for the first time she knows him intimately. Because Pemberley is the vehicle for her insight, however, because interior spaces have been externalized for her gaze, the novel is not simply substituting the events of inner life for those of history. It is not just following the dictates of the romance novel and representing the boy-meets-girl formula as the master plot for bourgeois subjectivity. Instead, Pemberley signifies Darcy's historical selfhood, his ability to represent value over time, his potential as patriarch. It is precisely this potential that requires Elizabeth for its fulfilment. Thus when she muses that "To be mistress of Pemberley might be something," Elizabeth evokes a kind of proprietorship at once economic and sexual, a proprietorship contingent upon her own reproductive faculties.
It falls upon Lydia, Elizabeth's promiscuous younger sister, to provide the transgressions against which Elizabeth, Darcy, and their fairy-tale marriage must be measured. Lydia appears in three incarnations: the officer-obsessed maid; the unrepentant mistress; and the shameless, haughty wife. Her elopement with Wickham at the beginning of Volume III provides both the crisis to which the novel has been building and the opportunity for understated heroism that Darcy needs to prove himself to Elizabeth. More importantly, however, Lydia embodies a passion unmediated either by common sense or by respect for her family and the larger social sphere that they represent:
"[N]ow for my news: it is about dear Wickham [exclaims Lydia] . . . . There is no danger of Wickham's marrying Mary King. . . . She is gone down to her uncle at Liverpool; gone to stay. Wickham is safe."
"And Mary King is safe!" added Elizabeth; "safe from a connection imprudent as to fortune."
"She is a great fool for going away, if she liked him."
"But I hope there is no strong attachment on either side," said Jane.
"I am sure there is not on his. I will answer for it he never cared three straws about her. Who could about such a nasty little freckled thing?"
Elizabeth was shocked to think that, however incapable of such coarseness of expression herself, the coarseness of the sentiment was little other than her own breast had formerly harboured and fancied liberal! (151)
Her younger sister's "coarseness of expression" marks a difference seemingly trivial when compared to the significance of the shared "sentiment." The former, after all, is only a linguistic variant of the same emotional deep structure, a different appearance of the same inner reality. Elizabeth, just like Lydia, fancied herself certain of the nature of Wickham's affections; she too could have dismissed the possibility of Mary King with equal certainty. Significantly, Lydia's contempt focuses on the sexual body of her rival: reduced to and marked by the imperfections of her appearance, Mary King is rendered insignificant—she is simply banished from the realm of the sexually desirable and the matrimonially worthy. Thus Elizabeth's "shock" derives in part from the "coarseness" of expression, Lydia's abrupt referencing of the sexual body, but more from the startling realization that she herself is also participating—emotionally, socially, and sexually—in the same marriage market. She sees all too clearly that it is a difference of degree, not of kind.
The "coarseness of expression," however, is anything but trivial. Although Elizabeth can not quite see it at the moment, the "expression" will drive the action that follows: it is commensurate with a way of seeing and acting in the world to which the novel is diametrically opposed. It is an unmannered acknowledgment of a one-to-one relationship between sexual passion and emotional compatibility, in which the body reigns supreme as the master signifier, a corporeal trump card with which there can be no arguing. Because Mary King is a "nasty little freckled thing," in other words, Wickham is constitutionally incapable of "care." Reduced to its capacity for sparking desire, the body loses its ability to purvey culture and tradition (Darcy) at the same time that it is prohibited from signifying depth of character and authentic, individual subjectivity (Elizabeth). It is a "thing" capable only of being used or not. The "coarseness of expression" matches blunt language to what the novel puts forth as simplistic and dangerously reductive thinking. Like Mrs. Bennet's demonstrative pronoun, it requires main character and reader alike to turn away in "shock" and displeasure. If at first, however, we turn from the expression, from Mary King's blemished body and the crude language in which it appears, then in short order we will also turn away from Lydia herself and all that she will come to represent.
Lydia's tragic flaw is not only that she enacts a selfish sexual passion oblivious of decorum, bad manners of an extreme kind, but also that she fails to appreciate the "real" value of sex. When she elopes, she puts the cart before the horse and provides Wickham sex without considering the possibility that "love"—and the marriage that institutionally enshrines it—may not necessarily follow. The cost of the elopement will be defrayed by the novel's hero, who, in a move that brilliantly exposes the means by which cultural power works its magic, buys Wickham's place at the altar and in so doing saves Lydia and her entire family from social disgrace. More importantly, Darcy proves himself to Elizabeth, who then accepts his offer of marriage and sets about the hard work of being "mistress of Pemberley." By the novel's close, the finest of the landed gentry has wed the finest of the aspiring middle class, the Bennet family has happily started down the road to rehabilitation, and matrimony—of the proper sort—has become the obvious solution to a host of cultural woes. This happily-ever-after ending is made possible by a single important event: Lydia and Wickham's banishment from the immediate environment. Their banishment removes the novel's premiere examples of bad taste and worse manners, it permits Mr. Bennet to assert himself as an effective patriarch, and it paves the way for Pemberley to become site of moral reformation. Their banishment also enacts the displacement of a certain kind of sexual body, that which actively pursues pleasure regardless of propriety and decorum, oblivious of the larger reproductive purpose that proper marriage is intended to serve.
Pushed outside the novel's field of vision, the ill-mannered sexual body does not require graphic description to become the sine qua non of the romance plot. It does not have to be literally "envisioned" by the narrative because it is not physical exposure or indecency that makes it such a powerful threat to all that is sacred in love and marriage. Nor is it a matter simply of an unbridled appetite, a libertine passion that could escalate out of control into dissipation, depravity, and disease. It is instead a peculiar obliviousness about the cultural weight that sex is meant to shoulder, a foolishly lighthearted disregard for the gravity of mating. In other words, the bad sexual body of Pride and Prejudice is a body without a brain, a body that lives in the moment and fails to take itself seriously as a purveyor of culture and tradition. As clothed in its ignorance as Darcy's is in history, Lydia's body reduces desire to the now; it is the site of immediate need and immediate gratification, and it cannot be permitted to coexist within the environs claimed by the novel's ideal romance. That romance coopts sexual pleasure as part of its master plan for middle-class normalcy, and Lydia's body represents both its condition of possibility and its greatest nightmare. If the sexual body in Cleland asserts an autonomous "real" materially grounded and inescapably human, a vital "truth" privately experienced but publically useful as satiric corrective to dominant hypocrisies, if the sexual body in Lewis lives in the shadows, polymorphous, protean, more imaginative possibility than corporeal given, more projection than substance, then the sexual body in Austen works for the greater good, barely visible under its cultural clothing but economically, socially, and psychologically indispensable.
Jane Austen exemplifies precisely that kind of "literature" that Steven Marcus used to counterbalance the "unconscious comedy" of pornography. "Literature," he wrote,
is largely concerned with the relations of human beings among themselves; it represents how persons live with each other, and imagines their feelings and emotions as they change; it investigates their motives and demonstrates that these are often complex, obscure, and ambiguous. . . . All of these interests are antagonistic to pornography. Pornography is not interested in persons but in organs. (281)
Austen's novels certainly fit the bill, prime examples of the literary humanism Marcus describes. Yet, as we have seen, the dichotomy is reductive. At what cost, we might ask, comes Lydia's banishment? At what cost does "literature" relegate certain sexual/textual pleasures to the dark side? Freud, in Civilization and Its Discontents, offers one perspective:
As regards the sexually mature individual, the choice of an object is restricted to the opposite sex, and most extra-genital satisfactions are forbidden as perversions. The requirement, demonstrated in these prohibitions, is that there shall be a single kind of sexual life for everyone. . . . Present-day civilization makes it plain that it will permit sexual relationships on the basis of a solitary, indissoluble bond between one man and one woman, and that it does not like sexuality as a source of pleasure in its own right and is only prepared to tolerate it because there is so far no substitute for it as a means of propagating the human race. (51-52)
Marcus's "literature," like Freud's "civilization," has trouble with "sexuality as a source of pleasure in its own right." The normalizing program of the latter, at least according to Freud, creates illness; that of the former, according to Marcus, saves us from puerile self-absorption. If the pleasures of literature celebrate a cultural "real" more commensurate with responsibility, duty, and the common good, the pleasures of pornography indulge a sexual pleasure unfettered by civic responsibility. My suggestion is that both Freud and Marcus describe a discursive opposition specific to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—one that no longer obtains (Baudrillard 42-43). It is no longer the case, I would argue, that the pleasure principle (read pornography) is locked in tragic conflict with the reality principle (literature). In the current socioeconomic order, an order marked by the supersaturation of sexual images throughout cultural marketplace, only desire itself is real.
Consider Stephen Sayadian's 1982 underground classic, Café Flesh. The film depicts a post-nuclear world in which the precipitating disaster—the "Nuclear Kiss"—has rendered 99% of the population unable to have sex. The "Sex Negatives," as they are called, become violently ill if they attempt any kind of amorous contact. The remaining 1% of the population, the "Sex Positives," are unaffected and are required by law to perform at clubs like the one that gives the film its title. The plot focuses on Lana and Nick (Michelle Bauer and Paul McGibboney), a sex-negative couple who frequent the shows at Café Flesh. Nick makes himself sick trying to love Lana, and Lana, who is actually a closeted sex-positive, feigns illness and stays with Nick for love. Their refuge is the Café, where the live sex acts and strange avant-garde theater torture the audience with unattainable pleasures and soon have Lana questioning her self-imposed celibacy. At the center of the film's consciousness is the club's MC, Max Melodramatic (Andrew Nicholas), who taunts and teases and insults both his immediate audience and his invisible viewers. His opening monologue—half Ed Sullivan, half Lenny Bruce—is delivered in a quick, smart, sing-song cadence dripping with sarcasm and hostility:
"Good evening, mutants and mutetes, and welcome to Café Flesh, the club where post-nuke cuties do it nightly for guys and gals who want to go all the way, but just don't have the equipment. You don't have to be ashamed. There is nothing wrong with just watching. . . . And me I am your humble guy for the night, Max Melodramatic, the man who likes to smile, the man who makes the masses happy. I just love sex negatives, I love those little tears of hunger in your eyes! That's my nectar. Could anything be sweeter than desire in chains? Oh, trust me folks, I know what you want, and I know what it feels like when you don't get it. Need is my fix, ladies and gentlemen. Max knows. So go ahead and remember what it was like to lust. Recapture the smack of flesh on flesh, that private ooze and lucky spasm, that panic in the loins that tells you . . . . Yes, yes, yes, yes. And tonight folks we are going to take it all back before your very eyes. Café Flesh is going to take you back to the old days. . . . So watch, remember, concentrate. Who can say, our humble spectacle might just be able to make you almost feel."
If satire is the mode, then nostalgia is the theme. The survivors are "erotic casualties" who can only watch and remember "the old days" when orgasms were an underappreciated fact of daily life. The "entertainments" of Café Flesh, however, are anything but comforting, and Max relishes torturing his audience with unattainable pleasure. "Need is my fix," Max sneers, "What can be sweeter than desire in chains?" "Need" is of course what it is all about, but unlike pornography proper, whose job it is to create a world in which all desires can be satisfied, Café Flesh does the opposite: in its strange post-apocalyptic, self-consciously theatrical world, desire is an addiction, an illness, a disease, a painful, insatiable but unsatisfiable need without corporeal manifestation or release. In the world of Café Flesh, individuals are stranded in a solipsistic hell that reduces sexual pleasure to voyeurism. For 99% of the population, there is only watching and remembering; there can be nothing more. All libidinal energies, all corporeal desires, all human needs are trapped within the field of vision demarcated by audience and stage. The pornographic imagination, untethered from the body and without hope of rest or resolution, suspends itself in sight, alert but alone, desiring only that which it cannot make real.
The satire of Café Flesh is vicious and clever, at once subtle and not. Shakespeare's play-within-a-play has been transformed into pornography-within-pornography, and the film, like the sex club it depicts, delivers an entertainment that confirms the deviancy of all involved. With Max's voice ringing in our ears, we—like the gloomy, doomed, perpetually irritable members of the audience—have to ask, "What have we become?" Options have been reduced to two: in this dystopia there are only exhibitionists and voyeurs, those who perform once private acts as public spectacles and those who watch. The sex itself, predictably perhaps, is at once strange and estranging. Actors perform by rote and ritual. Theatrical excess and stylized convention render the couplings distant, mechanical, and cold. The first show, for example, recalls domestic life before the disaster and features Mr. and Mrs. Sane, a housewife, supposedly at home with children, and her husband, a milkman dressed as a giant rat. He stays in costume—in mask and body suit and long tail—as dance-like ritual transitions to actual sex. At the back of the stage three grown men dressed as infants and seated in highchairs writhe in unison to the pulsating music. At no time can the sex emerge from the highly theatrical spectacle in which it is embedded; at no time, in other words, does the sex appear as anything else but a staged event. Although the sexual bodies of traditional pornography are visibly rendered—we see fellatio, cunnilingus, and intercourse—that "reality" can no longer maintain epistemological supremacy: its conventions are exposed by the spectacle in which it appears. In the second show, for instance, the stage becomes an office where the big boss, dressed from the shoulders up as a large pencil, has his way with a lingerie-clad secretary while another secretary, naked and typing, chants throughout, "Do you want me to take a memo?" Introduced again by Max, now dressed as Little Bo Peep and swinging in a swing, this performance repeats the pattern of the first: it begins as stylized dance with surreal costumes and dramatic music only to transition suddenly into actual sex. The fact that the real penis receiving real oral sex actually belongs to a giant pencil and that penis and pencil both keep time to the typist's arms and the music's beat and the clanging oil wells in the background is no less strange than the fact that the MC imitates Elvis while dressed as Bo Peep and that he harangues his audience in the "carnal charnel house" with bad puns about their "peepers" and their "need." The result is an estranging of both viewer and viewed: we are meant to realize that the film's satire does not reside exclusively with the sex negatives and that in its own way exhibitionism compromises common ideas of "authentic" subjectivity, and of "real" intimacy, as effectively as does voyeurism. Wanting to be seen subordinates one performance to another, displacing individual pleasure outward to the distant audience who in turn reflect it back for narcissistic approval. In other words, the film insists that something is missing on stage just as clearly and profoundly as there is something missing from the audience. Each loss, however, is predicated upon the other, both subordinate to the larger political and social economy in which they appear, for whatever else they are, the activities of the café are also commercial transactions. Precipitated by the "Nuclear Kiss" (disaster figured as foreplay) and mandated by governmental law, Café Flesh is a cultural microcosm, a futuristic distillation of our entire entertainment industry, not just the pornographic. It is entertainment generally—all advertisement, radio, television, film, and music—that appears metonymically on Max's stage, for there pornography has been transformed from a debased and marginalized other into the quintessence of modern, popular culture. Like the Marlboro Man selling a rugged, nostalgic individualism to millions of urban wannabes, or the cosmetics girl whose airbrushed features taunt consumers with the high cheekbones of transcendent female beauty, Max's stage purveys only that which we can never have, a pleasure that will remain perpetually out of reach, a desire that can be satisfied only by an inferior substitution.
Like all great satire, Café Flesh stands in parodic opposition to the very generic forms out of which it evolved. Its brilliance results from a bifurcated vision: it dramatizes at once the death of pornography and its disturbing resurrection as culture itself. In so doing, the film marks a juncture—historically arbitrary to be sure—when "pornography" is finally capable of critical self-reflection, capable of seeing its own "imagination" as distinct from but integral to both its aesthetic predecessors and its larger cultural environment. When Café Flesh rejects the fantasies of sexual wish fulfillment so typical of "pornography" proper, it demands critical engagement with its own history at the same time that it questions the simulated realities of contemporary culture. It thus signals the awareness of a new phase, a new era in the mass production of desire. The material "real" that deployed Cleland's sexual bodies as a philosophic challenge to middle-class pieties, the corporeal pleasures that he so carefully documents and catalogues, the various privacies that his novel envisions for public consumption, these are all obsolete as satiric devices by the time Café Flesh imagines our future and reconfigures our past. Obscenity of the sexual sort now no longer means anything at all, much less some variation of an anti-ecclesiastical rationalism self-consciously skeptical of social mores. During the romantic period, however, after libertinism but well before pornography and literature assumed their discursive antagonism, choices about how sexual bodies were represented in prose fiction were less constrained by genre and convention. The daring experiments of Lewis's gothic fiction were not yet in danger of being supplanted by the formula narratives of the nineteenth century; nor were Austen's strategic displacements the commonplace method by which romantic love normalized passion for middle-class consumers. On the contrary, romantic fiction could adapt the sexual body for diverse purposes: Lewis could push male fantasy against limits of the novelistic imagination; Austen could stabilize volatile tensions between classes with a master narrative of cultural reproduction.
After mid-century, however, the Manichaean drama became second nature for a nascent industrial state eager to police the increasingly diverse offerings of the marketplace, and soon it became almost impossible to remember a time when the word "pornography" had not been there to collect all the flotsam and jetsam despised by the purveyors of culture proper. Cleland's subtle satire and philosophic purpose lost out to cruder versions of Lewis's magic mirror. While Austen's descendants remained preoccupied with exactly that which their narratives were not allowed to envision, pornographers looked squarely at the forbidden and reproduced it over and over again for the sexual satisfaction of their readers. Like the sexual body itself, these formulaic fictions reproduced sameness with difference, offered an intimate view of the infinitely variable human body assuming a finite number of positions. Pornography soon became big business, with books and drawings and prints making way for photographs and motion pictures and VHS tapes and computer sites. As my reading of Café Flesh suggests, however, I believe that pornography has undergone yet another seismic shift, another profound change in the way that it works in the world. The pornographic imagination is no longer quarantined in underground book shops, art film houses, or strip clubs; it no longer envisions the sexual body in ways dramatically different from those employed by mainstream representations. Indeed, the pornographic imagination can be said to have leached itself throughout contemporary culture generally, saturating radio, television, advertising, and journalistic media with its own way of seeing.
This is not to suggest only that our cultural sphere is now awash in a seemingly unstoppable number of graphic images—which, of course, it is. It is also to claim, speculatively, that desire itself has been reconfigured to accommodate a new socioeconomic order and its overwhelming number of products and choices. In the late nineteenth century, "pornography" named a category of representations whose graphic depictions satisfied forbidden desires, where the very essence of the "pornographic" depended upon the certainty with which the "forbidden" was measured against the "acceptable." The triumph of late capitalism is precisely that nothing is forbidden and everything is available: moral boundaries are vestigial constraints honored more in the breach than the observance. When FCC chairman Michael Powell bellows his outrage at the recent NFL halftime show, he evidences a Comstockian prudery jarringly anachronistic and violently at odds with the made-for-TV spectacle. Furious because the unscripted revelation has, in his opinion, the power to corrupt our nation's youth, Powell bestows upon a single enlarged sweat gland a significance so bizarrely out of proportion to the split second exposure that we can only wonder if at that moment he had suddenly surfaced from a long, deep sleep. That the entertainment was grossly, overtly sexual from beginning to end highlights the disconnect between Powell's moral outrage and the exposed breast, a disconnect that also highlights the violent disparity between the old "pornography" and the new. Powell must declaim against the "forbidden" in order to legitimate the "acceptable" from which it deviated; he must read the brief flash of the sexual body as a profound threat to all that is sacred in order to mask the even more disturbing possibility that the sexual body no longer claims any real referential significance, that the spectacle has coopted that body and pushed its dangerous desires into dance and costume and lyric so as to hold out the promise of greater needs to be satisfied. Like a provocatively dressed adolescent tugging nervously on one item then other, the NFL display simulates sexuality with painful self-consciousness but at the same time is clearly not about sex at all. Lewis's magic mirror made desire visible; it plumbed the depths of Ambrosio's soul and, like the novel in which it appeared, brought the forbidden to light. Contemporary spectacle, no matter how loud and garish, no matter how crude and provocative, does the opposite: it displays everything but illuminates nothing. In so doing, it finds an analogue in the dark interiors of Café Flesh, where there is no satisfaction to be had, on stage or off.
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Tuite, Clara. "Cloistered Closets: Enlightenment Pornography, the Confessional State, Homosexual Persecution, and The Monk." Romanticism on the Net 8 (1997).
---. Romantic Austen: Sexual Politics and the Literary Canon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Wagner, Peter. Eros Revived: Erotica of the Enlightenment in England and America. London: Secker and Warburg, 1988.
Williams, Linda. Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the "Frenzy of the Visible." Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.
Zigel, Lisa. Governing Pleasures: Pornography and Social Change in England, 1815-1914. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002.
* 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 into view.
2 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 Case.
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:
4 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.
5 The reference is to Jean Baudrillard's Simulations. I explain my debt to his work more fully in the last section of this essay.
6My 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.
7 "[W]e know," Marcus concludes, "that pornography is not literature":
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.
8 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, 1684-1830.
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:
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 satire.
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 history.
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.
15 One of the best is Marvin Lanserk's "'Delightful Vistas': Genital Landscapes in Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure" in Launching Fanny Hill, pp. 103-123.
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 Pleasures.
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 Masturbation.
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. 223-226.
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:
Here, as elsewhere in the novel, the emphasis is placed on the "truth" of her "joy."
20 The centrality of French materialist philosophy to Cleland's project is outlined in Leo Braudy's well-known essay, "Fanny Hill and Materialism."
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. 221-65. Back
22 I would like to think that Gamer's argument is related to my own treatment of gothic pleasure, "The Man With Two Brains: Gothic Novels, Popular Culture, Literary History," PMLA 107 (1992): 92-104.
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' disastrous marriage.
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 energies.
24 Compare with Peter Brooks, "Virtue and Terror: The Monk," ELH 40:2 (1973): 249-263.
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): 153-178.