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David Sigler - Sexual Enjoyment in British Romanticism: Gender and Psychoanalysis 1753-1835. Review by Jim Rovira

Saturday, October 10, 2015 - 15:40

David Sigler, Sexual Enjoyment in British Romanticism: Gender and Psychoanalysis 1753-1835 (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015). 279 pp. (Cloth, $100.00 CAD; Paperback $34.95 CAD; ISBN 978-0-7735-4510-6).

Jim Rovira
Tiffin University

David Sigler’s Sexual Enjoyment in British Romanticism: Gender and Psychoanalysis 1753-1835 is an engaging study that significantly extends current scholarship in Romanticism and psychoanalysis beyond Romantic-era poetry to fiction, focusing primarily on non-canonical works but also discussing some canonical works of this period. It develops Joel Faflak’s argument in Romantic Psychoanalysis: The Burden of the Mystery (SUNY Press, 2009) that Romantic-era literature did not merely anticipate psychoanalysis, as has been shown for decades, but was in fact “a form of psychoanalytic thought in its own right” (Sigler 5). “Psychoanalysis” in Sigler’s study refers primarily to Lacan and, only secondarily, Freud, so that this monograph consists of a number of chapters employing Lacan in close readings of the literature under consideration to illuminate its psychoanalytic structure and commitments. Sigler argues that the literature of this period establishes and then destabilizes sexual difference and how that process creates the psychoanalytic subject.

One of the strengths of Sigler’s work is that he carefully defines most of his key terms, which is essential for a field in which the terms themselves are highly contested and defined differently by its major theorists. Citing Richard Sha, Christopher Nagle, and Thomas Laqueur as background, Sigler defines a work as “psychoanalytic” if it holds to the following four assumptions about human desire: 1) it is wild and only partially controllable; 2) it is a problem of language and narrative; 3) it seeks to be repeated in an “overwhelming blast of enjoyment that may be remembered but can never be safely recaptured” (6); and, 4) civilization and culture depend upon its restraint, particularly the restraint of sexual instincts. While it may seem odd to define the term “psychoanalytic” without explicit reference to the unconscious mind, Sigler engages the unconscious in relationship to desire as he proceeds, beginning with Chapter 1.   

Chapter 1, “The Literary Gender Debates and their Relation to the Unconscious,” argues that conceptualizations of “desire” are uniquely important during the period 1753 to 1835 because that is the period during which male and female desire began to be portrayed as distinct in literature of the period. “The modern concept of the unconscious,” Sigler argues, became necessary during this period as sexuality came to be understood as both “clandestine and secret” and “thoroughly subject to state regulation” (23). Belief in the unconscious mind is therefore associated with an understanding of sexual difference, or the process of sexuation. Sigler begins with the passage of The Marriage Act of 1753, which was designed to prevent clandestine marriages by requiring a formal marriage ceremony. He illustrates his points in a discussion of Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796) and William Kendrick’s The Whole Duty of Woman: or a Guide to the Female Sex (1753) which, he argues, propagated a theory of sexual difference that “pivoted around the question of sexual enjoyment” (26). This chapter also discusses the Marchioness of Lemington’s Rosina, or the Virtuous Country Maid (1828), Michael Ryan’s “Lecture IV. . .” in the London Medical and Surgical Journal (1833), John Armstrong’s The Art of Preserving Health (1795), Conjugal Infidelity (1788), William Blake’s “Some Questions Answerd,” Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry, Richard Polwhele’s The Unsex’d Females (1798), Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), and others. This chapter’s examination of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction develops and nuances Sigler’s thesis about the relationship between the differentiation of male and female desire and the unconscious mind in its discussion of these works.

Chapter 2, “‘It is unaccountable’: Anxiety and the Cause of Desire in Pride and Prejudice,” and all remaining chapters focus primarily on individual novels. Sigler here examines how Pride and Prejudice organizes sexual desire and how that organization contributes to the process of subject formation. In Sigler’s reading of Pride and Prejudice, “the [novel’s] intersubjective dynamics produce modern sexuality: the novel makes its characters into subjects of desire” (91), resulting in a focus on “individual psychic self-enclosure” that is a defining feature of both Romanticism and psychoanalysis (91). Sigler then moves on to Joanna Southcott in Chapter 3, “Dead Faith and Contraband Goods: Joanna Southcott and the Logic of Sexuation.” Focusing on Southcott’s A Dispute between the Woman and the Powers of Darkness (1802), an imagined dialog between Southcott and Satan, Sigler emphasizes how much of this text is about pleasure and desire, arguing that A Dispute is “a text about sexual difference disguised as a text about theology” (94). Southcott’s text demonstrates how “Gender identity [...] quickly becomes a matter of relationships within a structure, rather than a trait of any flesh-and-blood body or individual subject” (94). After crediting (who else?) Coleridge with the invention of the term “psycho-analytic,” Sigler sees Lacan’s “logic of sexuation” in effect in Southcott’s text, in which “‘man’ is the name for anyone who is completely subject to the phallic function […while] Women’s enjoyment, on the other hand, is not entirely limited to the phallic function […] they can enjoy in the phallic style while also sensualizing the Other directly” (102). For this reason, Southcott as presented in A Dispute is actually male while Satan stands in for the female, and her text “teaches us to see how sexuation can produce discourses that today we recognize as aspects of Romantic ideology” (119).

Chapter 4, “Brotherly Love and Two Masquerades in Mary Robinson’s Walshingham,” discusses Robinson’s complex and somewhat fantastic novel about incest, love, cross dressing, mistaken identity, and desire, which Sigler defines in terms of the title character’s grappling with Lacan’s Imaginary Order before transitioning into the Symbolic Order – or in other words, being forced to undergo the process of sexuation. Ultimately, “Sexual identity in Walshingham is not a matter of cunning or personal choice, but a contingent process with an inevitable outcome, following a path replete with traps” (150). These traps are described in Chapter 5, “Masochism and Psychoanalysis in Zofloya, or the Moor.” In this novel by Charlotte Dacre, “the title character, instead of avoiding his own sexual enjoyment, begins to embody the enjoyment abandoned in girlhood by the protagonist,” Victoria di Loredani (151). di Loredani’s pursuit of libidinal satisfaction leads her through a marriage to an older man to an affair with his brother and finally to a pact with the Devil, leaving a number of dead bodies behind her: one cannot help but imagine Loredani as a kind of evil counterpart to the Wife of Bath. Zofloya is the servant of her first husband’s brother who is later revealed to have been Satan all along. What makes this novel interesting to Sigler is the way in which it “articulates a form of sexual identity not locatable in a two-sex system but still reliant upon sexual enjoyment” (151), moving Sigler’s argument toward an apex in which the two-sex system has been completely destabilized. Sigler draws from Lacan’s The Logic of Fantasy to theorize masochism, which is designed to turn the masochist into an object governed by the terms of the contract more than by (in this case) his own desire, but it is through the terms of the contract that the masochist remains “covertly in control” (152). Masochism and psychoanalysis produce and feed one another to the point where masochism becomes “the embodiment of jouissance” (177), ultimately sustaining “a challenge to the binary structure of Romantic-era sexual difference itself” (180) as well as to the difference between psychoanalysis and masochism.           

Chapter 6, “Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Zastrozzi and the Psychoanalytic Act,” discusses a novel written when Shelley was a teenager, a work that attracts Sigler’s attention because “Shelley goes further in Zastrozzi than he would anytime else in his career in dismantling the gender binary: more than resisting, refusing, or perverting it, with Zastrozzi he negates the very possibility of sexual identity” (181). Sigler argues that Shelley solves in this novel the problem that Lacan considers in his seminar of 1968-9 and its discussion of “the psychoanalytic act,” which is the only way, according to Lacan, that the system of sexual difference could be traversed (182). After describing how the novel inverts or mirrors the Cartesian cogito ergo sum into the formulation, “Either I Do Not Think, or I Am Not” (189), it moves on to illustrate how the character Mathilda achieved a moment of supreme enjoyment that resolves the problem Lacan posited but could not solve – the objet petite a – and how the novel considers the implications of that moment. Shelley’s novel is not isolated from the other works under consideration in Sigler’s study, which demonstrates the influence of Robinson upon Dacre and then Dacre upon Shelley, emphasizing how each of these works “reshapes desire into patterns maladapted to the two-sex system” (216). Sigler’s conclusion, “Woman: As She Is, and As She Should Be,” takes its name from an anonymous 1835 attempt to take “stock of femaleness in the United Kingdom as it had transformed over the previous fifty years” (217). This 1835 work documents from a more conservative but still destabilizing point of view what Sigler demonstrates throughout his study.

Overall, Sigler’s work represents a significant contribution to a growing body of scholarship that considers Romantic-era literature as engaging in the work of psychology (often specifically psychoanalysis), which includes Joel Faflak’s Romantic Psychoanalysis: The Burden of the Mystery (2009), Laura Quinney’s William Blake on Self and Soul (2010), James Rovira’s Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety (2010), and Markus Iseli’s Thomas De Quincey and the Cognitive Unconscious (2015). I am tempted to revisit Blake’s works by interrogating them with each of Sigler’s points and could wish that Sigler had contributed such an essay to the recently published Sexy Blake (2013). Sigler even makes Lacan accessible, sensible, and relevant, and he has a written a book that is such a pleasure to read it even tempts me to reread Lacan.

The implications of Sigler’s study are wide ranging and perhaps take us to the current limits of scholarship on Romanticism and psychology or psychoanalysis. For example, Sigler’s work cracks the door on historicizing differences among Romantic/psychoanalytic works: “[Zofloya’s] meaning is different in a Romantic-era text than, say, one from later in the nineteenth century, as the contemporary cultural discourses surrounding industrial capitalism, imperialism, and slave labour were all quite different” (152). He does not walk through that door, however, thus registering debates about the periodization of Romanticism (or if it should be periodized at all) without delving fully into the issue. I do not want to appear to be criticizing Sigler for not accomplishing what he did not attempt but to illustrate that his work takes us to the point where the attempt must now be made. The next step beyond registering deep similarities among Romantic authors and psychoanalytic theorists may be recognizing depth psychology as “Romanticism” wherever and whenever it appears, and as we do so, historicizing differences while we theorize similarities.