- Eros Revived: Erotica of the Enlightenment in England and America by Peter Wagner
Secker, 498 pp, £30.00, March 1988, ISBN 0 436 56051 8
- ’Tis Nature’s Fault: Unauthorised Sexuality during the Enlightenment edited by Robert Purks Maccubin
Cambridge, 260 pp, £25.00, March 1988, ISBN 0 521 34539 1
- The New Eighteenth Century: Theory, Politics, English Literature edited by Felicity Nussbaum and Laura Brown
Methuen, 320 pp, £28.00, February 1988, ISBN 0 416 01631 6
Mary Fiddler, a fine blooming lass of 18, her – is like silk itself, and bubbles as white as snow; she is just in her prime, and fit for business, she is broke in this spring, by a well-known gentleman of the turf. Her movements are regular, her pace elegant, and her action is good: and when you mount her, she begins to f—k away to the tune of the ‘Dandy O’. Her price, 5s. ‘She riggles her a—e su’ cantily.’
The description of this prime young filly, taken from the Edinburgh publication A Genuine List of Sporting Ladies (c. 1770) is typical of many entries from whores’ directories included by Peter Wagner in Eros Revived. Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, published regularly between 1760 and the early 1790s, prided itself on providing up-to-date information for the sporting gentlemen of London, including full details of starting prices and hot tips for favourites. Such lists, as Wagner observes, were published less as practical form-books than as a sub-species of erotica designed to stimulate the imagination. The true clientele for these directories were solitary masturbators eking out their lonely pleasures with fantasies of Eliza Booth who ‘when mounted ... causes her rider the most pleasing delirium’, much as one might add relish to a frozen dinner by leafing through an Egon Ronay guide.
What Wagner fails to acknowledge is the extent to which his own book is designed to stimulate similar vicarious thrills. In his opening chapter on ‘Medical and Para-Medical Literature’ he asserts that many pseudo-learned works, such as Aristotle’s Masterpiece, used science as a screen for titillation. ‘More often than not, science served as a veil and morality as a pretext for the discussion of topics that were otherwise taboo or even obscene.’ In much the same way, Eros Revived, with its copious footnotes and voluminous bibliography, lends an air of academic respectability to what is, in reality, a paean in praise of pornography. Lavishly illustrated, handsomely produced and bulging with four-letter fantasies and priapic pleasures, the book has the appeal of an antique Penthouse annual, in which the centrefolds burst forth from scanty period costumes. Wagner presents himself as a tireless researcher in the cause of sexual enlightenment, yet even he has to concede some tedium in the task. ‘No single person can possibly read the thousands of erotic books, pamphlets and broadsides’ published in ‘the Age of Enlightenment’. Indeed, what emerges most forcefully is the sheer volume of erotica in what he terms ‘this macho century’. He draws our attention to the ‘massive’ literature on masturbation, but mercifully spares us the ‘tedious and repetitive enterprise’ of recounting all the examples of lecherous persons in the satires of the period. Yet if, as one contemporary pornographer has affirmed, ‘the essential nature of pornography is repetition,’[*] Wagner is determinedly faithful to the spirit of his subject-matter. With the single-minded dedication of a Casanova or a Don Giovanni he records several hundred literary encounters of Dick and Fanny, Pego and Pussy, until exhaustiveness gives way to exhaustion.
What is most strikingly absent is any sustained attempt at scholarly analysis of the material he presents in such quantities. An interesting section is devoted to the mass of anti-aristocratic pornography which appeared in France in the years preceding the Revolution. ‘If the philosophes had an influence on the events that brought about the revolution, so had the writers of bawdy and obscene chroniques scandaleuses,’ Wagner asserts. Certainly a work like Bordel national sous les auspices de la reine (Paris, 1790) demonstrates a far from reverent attitude towards the French royal family. In one scene Lafayette is described having intercourse with Marie Antoinette while being simultaneously buggered by Bailly. Marie Antoinette declares that her only pleasure is to be foutue en con and wants to engage a whole regiment of soldiers as well as several monastic orders to satisfy her desires. But by allowing anger to vent itself in laughter satire may often be a substitute for, not a summons to, revolution. Rochester’s obscene ‘Satyr on Charles II’ was the work not of a puritan revolutionary but of a privileged fellow libertine, and Private Eye’s fascination with the alleged exploits of ‘Randy Andy’ hardly suggested that the British royal family was in danger from republican zealots. Wagner never attempts to examine the ideological relationship between pornography and politics. He speculates that the sexual atrocities committed against aristocrats during the Revolution ‘may have been inspired by sinister and malicious allegations from political pornography’ but elsewhere assures us that most French pornographers simply adopted the fashionable anti-royalist tone as a convenient pretext for their age-old trade.
[*] Porn Gold by David Hebditch and Nick Anning (Faber, 401 pp., £14.95, 27 June, 0 571 14683 X).
Vol. 10 No. 15 · 1 September 1988
From Peter Fryer
I haven’t seen A Genuine List of Sporting Ladies (c. 1770), quoted by David Nokes (LRB, 4 August), but would be sporting enough to wager a large sum of money that ‘bubbles’, in the second line, is a misprint for ‘bubbies’, meaning breasts.
From Editors, ‘London Review’
We wouldn’t bet on it.
Editors, ‘London Review’
Vol. 10 No. 18 · 13 October 1988
From Peter Wagner
It seems that any author who ventures into the abominable if still rather unknown field of Enlightenment erotica in order to enlighten the scholarly world must be prepared for severe criticism, if not downright punishment. Strangely enough (or should it be – tellingly enough?), that sort of criticism, at least in England, seems to be related more to the scholars’ personal feelings and moral opinions, and less to the points any given study might make. Quite obviously, there is something strange and fascinating about erotica if it/they can produce such reactions. You can write, without fear and trepidation, about hats, the climate, furniture (except chamber pots) and dogs in the 18th century: but if you dare open the door to the unmentionable room, there will be critical disapproval, to say the least.
Perhaps a short glance at David Nokes’s review (LRB, 4 August) of my Eros Revived will prove illuminating in this context. A brief look at the inside flap of the dust-jacket would have told Dr Nokes that the version he read is not a ‘scholarly’ study of the sort produced by the university presses of Oxford and Cambridge. Rather it is an abbreviated and slightly altered version of a doctoral dissertation in two volumes. For some very odd reason the Sorbonne, in 1986, saw fit to award me a PhD for this work. Dr Nokes, however, is not interested in such details: he is more concerned with the feelings my book, and the aims he suspects behind it, provoked in him. Apparently ‘designed to stimulate … vicarious thrills’, my book ‘lends an air of academic respectability to what is, in reality, a paean in praise of pornography’ which has the ‘appeal of an antique Penthouse annual’. I wish I could check up a little on these judgments, but my knowledge of Penthouse annuals is almost non-existent. Dr Nokes continues to deplore the absence in my book of ‘scholarly analysis of the material’ and of the ‘ideological relationship between pornography and politics’. What I have presented is, in fact, nothing more than a ‘glossy anthology’.
Dr Nokes has completely ignored my discussion in the Introduction of the implications of erotica (he treats as pornography what the analysis he calls for proves to be obscene or erotic writings); he also voices some opinions about anti-aristocratic erotica that come straight from my pen. It is most interesting that in a later section of his review Dr Nokes admits, although grudgingly, that Eros Revived contains ‘illuminating sections’.
What has provoked Dr Nokes to attack my book in a manner that goes beyond the limits of ordinary scholarly polemic? Since I have never met or offended Dr Nokes, there can’t be anything personal in the matter. It must be the very subject of erotica that ‘turned him on’ (and against me), if I may use one of the clichés with which my book is apparently studded (‘studded’ from the noun ‘stud’?).
He makes no attempt whatsoever to distinguish between such words as ‘erotic’, ‘bawdy’, ‘obscene’ and ‘pornographic’. Erotica, for him, is pornography – but what is pornography, or rather, what was it in the 18th century? I have tried to show in five pages of my Introduction how difficult it is to answer this question. The difficulty also explains why I have been very careful with judgments in my analysis. One aspect of pornography (of which there was comparatively little when one takes into account the amount of obscene or bawdy satire that there was) is what I have called a ‘chameleon character’: i.e. its capacity to adapt and to ape. It is for this very reason that cut-and-dried answers are not called for when one assesses literary, popular, para-medical and satirical writings in a field that ranges from the mildly erotic to the explicitly pornographic.
Eros Revived, even in its ‘popular version’, tries to do a number of things. It attempts to provide a survey of the vast and varied field of ‘erotica’ (which is not, but includes, pornography). That in itself, and in the absence until 1986 of any major serious study, is no small achievement when one considers the time and research funds I spent between 1978 and 1985. It also attempts to give some careful answers to a number of questions raised in each of the nine chapters. These questions relate to the obvious increase of erotica in the 18th century; to aesthetic, literary and political issues; and to the relation between so-called ‘high’ literature and ‘low’ erotica.
If Dr Nokes had really cared about the subject-matter and its implications, he would no doubt have found sufficient pabulum, even in the less illuminating sections of my book. But in his Swiftean moral urge to prove that man is not a rational animal and merely capable of reason, he has mistaken me for a pornographer who, like Edmund Curll in the early 18th century, presents himself as a tireless researcher. Am I a pornographer because I write about erotica? Are people (‘scholars’) who do research into capital punishment in the age of Enlightenment really sadists?
The English scholarly reaction to the subject I have tried to explore seems to be conditioned by a peculiar mixture of moral indignation, shame, and of being blasé rather than ‘excited’. Like Laurence Sterne, who was not an Englishman, I feel that ‘they order … this matter better in France,’ or in a number of other countries where I have lived and worked. For me, it is hardly surprising that Dr Nokes chides Paul-Gabriel Boucé for a Gallic linguistic performance (in the volume of essays edited by Robert Maccubin) that turns the flesh into the word. Surely Dr Nokes would never deign to dignify bawdy ballads by describing them from a humorous point of view and in an appropriate style. Rather, he prefers his old game of indignation and reproach, which makes me a pornographer and G.S. Rousseau (in the volume I have cited) a champion of Gay Liberation because he writes about homosexuals in the 18th century. Dr Nokes’s reaction is by no means singular: when my good friend Peter Sabor and I edited, three years ago, Cleland’s Fanny Hill in the World’s Classics and Penguin Classics series, Pat Rogers reviewed our editions with the same feelings and opinions (cf. the blasé reviews of Eros Revived by D.J. Enright and A. Powell in the Observer and the Telegraph). Erotica, at least for (elderly?) English critics, seems to be a boring and useless subject. I will not speculate on the reasons I perceive behind this phenomenon, but I think it would be much more gentleman-like if critics like Dr Nokes at least admitted their dislike and refrained from reviewing books that will never be able to ‘satisfy’ their needs. As a German, it was not exactly easy for me to write this book in English. I have done it because the subject-matter (English and American writing) suggested it, and because I expected my audience to be interested in what I had to say about a field that had been (deliberately?) ignored. Dr Nokes has now brought me to the point where I begin to regret my decision. Could it be that Sterne’s narrator was right and that they really do ‘order that matter better in France’?
Vol. 10 No. 19 · 27 October 1988
From David Nokes
I am sorry Peter Wagner feels that my review of his Eros Revived went ‘beyond the limits of ordinary scholarly polemic’ (Letters, 13 October). That I expressed some reservations about the book I readily admit; that these amounted to a ‘downright punishment’, I deny. Dr Wagner acknowledges that I am ‘by no means singular’ in my opinion of his work. Pat Rogers, D.J. Enright and Anthony Powell have, on his own admission, expressed similar criticisms. I must say, I find it reassuring to see myself included in this band of ‘elderly English critics’, though, for the record, I should add that I am only one year older than Dr Wagner himself.
I complained in my review at the lack of scholarly analysis in Eros Revived. Dr Wagner clearly feels that I have thereby impugned his academic reputation. Yet he still seems unsure what scholarly status he wishes to claim for his book. He directs where I will find that the book ‘is not a “scholarly” study of the sort produced by the university presses of Oxford and Cambridge’. Yet he goes on to insist that ‘the Sorbonne, in 1986, saw fit to award me a PhD for this work.’ Indeed the same dust-jacket informs us that Dr Wagner holds not one but two doctorates from Saarland and the Sorbonne. And throughout the book he tells us repeatedly of his lengthy scholarly labours in university libraries throughout Europe. It seems a little inconsistent to make such a flourish of one’s scholarly credentials and then cry ‘foul’ if one’s work is judged by scholarly criteria.
Side-stepping most of my specific points, Dr Wagner prefers to speculate on the hidden motives behind my review. In tackling the subject of erotica he presents himself as a pioneer, daring to ‘open the door to the unmentionable room’. Those, like myself, who express reservations about his work are thus revealed, ipso facto, as conservative prudes. He says of me: ‘It must be the very subject of erotica that “turned him on” (and against me).’ This kind of crude ad hominem speculation is a highly convenient way of deflecting criticism. Those who approve of Dr Wagner’s work are the good guys fearlessly confronting taboos; those who disapprove are puritan reactionaries, disguising their typically English repressions under the fig-leaf of pedantry.
Dr Wagner makes only one substantive point in his rebuttal of my review. He accuses me of making ‘no attempt whatsoever to distinguish between such words as “erotic”, “bawdy”, “obscene” and “pornographic” ’. This may be true, but I would argue that Dr Wagner’s own attempts to establish separate categories and definitions for these terms are themselves haphazard, vague and inconsistent. His letter repeats the point made in his (very brief) Introduction that it is very difficult to define such differences. ‘Entire books,’ as he says, ‘have been written on the question, what is pornography?’ Wagner dismisses the OED definition of pornography as ‘vague’, citing with approval Anthony Burgess’s ridicule of its terms as applying equally well to underwear advertisements and to ‘hard-core’ magazines. In the four hundred pages of Wagner’s text and notes one might have expected him to have offered an intellectually cogent analysis of the nature and function of pornography. But as I noted before, at the end of several chapters describing class-based pornographic lampoons, Wagner still finds himself on ‘tricky ground’ in attempting to offer any account of the function of pornography: ‘for even today we do not know exactly what pornography does.’ He is content to conclude as he begins, by presenting pornography as ‘a chameleon, appearing in various guises’. It is just such a chameleon that I attempted to present in the review.
King’s College, London
Vol. 11 No. 1 · 5 January 1989
From Peter Wagner
It is a pleasure, perhaps even a pleasure tinged with eroticism, to pick up the gauntlet thrown down so forcefully by Dr Nokes (Letters, 27 October 1988). He repeats the charges made in his initial review of my book, Eros Revived, and merely admits his vague use of several terms (‘erotic’, ‘bawdy’, ‘pornographic’). Again, he brings the accusation against my book that it is pornography disguised as a scholarly study.
Since Dr Nokes has complained about my ‘side-stepping’ his ‘specific points’, I should like to comment in detail about these points while trying to explain some misunderstandings. In his review of my book Dr Nokes revealed an amazing if puzzling gift for misreadings and misrepresentations that come out again in his letter. Apparently, he has read my letter as carefully as he has read my book: Pat Rogers did not review Eros Revived, but rather the editions of Fanny Hill Peter Sabor and I published in 1985. I used the adjective ‘elderly’ with a question-mark, and I doubt if Pat Rogers would like to be seen in a group containing a scholar like Dr Nokes who rejoices at the thought of being put on one level with Messrs Enright and Powell and passes off some of my ideas about pornography and politics (in the chapter on anti-aristocratic satire) as if they were his own. I do not know about English scholarly habits – but I have been taught in Germany and France that that kind of ‘theft’ is one of the most dishonest acts that can be committed by a scholar. This is not a ‘crude ad hominem speculation’, but a sad fact, as any reader can find out when comparing Chapter Three of my book and the second column of Dr Nokes’s review.
A careful reading of my letter (and of the dust-jacket of the book), would also have told Dr Nokes that the Sorbonne did not give me a PhD for the book published by Secker, which is, as I wrote, an abbreviated and slightly altered version of my Sorbonne dissertation of 1986. Secker does not publish doctoral dissertations. But if Dr Nokes had cared to compare Eros Revived with the dissertation (available from the Atelier National de Reproduction de Thèses in Lille) he would have discovered that the book version has preserved the structure and substance of the academic original, including the huge bibliography. Since the book and the dissertation are so similar, I think it is also an insult to the four professors who assessed my dissertation (with the final top-verdict: mention très bien) to be saying that I have written a book that pretends to be scholarly but is essentially pornographic.
I do realise that I run the risk again of being called a show-off who ‘flourishes his academic credentials’. I do feel, however, that I should point out to Dr Nokes that one cannot hold a PhD ‘from Saarland’. The Saarland has got one university, which is in Saarbrücken – if Nokes happens to have an atlas around, he could check up on this. Also, it is customary, and indeed polite, to acknowledge the help of friends and institutions in a book that was in preparation for more than eight years.
Dr Nokes would have preferred clear-cut (or cut-and-dried) answers about the nature and function of pornography, and about the ideological relationship between pornography and politics. Again, a close reading of my book will prove that a number of careful answers and suggestions have been provided. Dr Nokes does not seem to be able to understand that 18th-century erotica could be multi-functional (e.g. alleviating and pornographic and revolutionary): for him, it must be either/or. It is this intricate and elusive aspect of erotica that I have tried to describe as ‘chameleon’. I would have been happy, of course, to provide simple answers (and solutions) after sifting through a century of licentious books, but alas, I did not find them.
My last point relates again to the dualistic, black-and-white Weltanschauung which he imposes on my book and, eventually, on myself. Although I have been teaching at a Catholic university for several years, I do not, as a rule, distinguish between the good guys (researchers into erotica) and the bad guys (puritan reactionaries and prudes). I have never replied to reviews of my previous books (sorry to show off again): what provoked me about his critique was not the fact that he found fault with technical-scholarly aspects of Eros Revived but his unproven allegation that my book is pornography. In my previous letter, I argued that such a procedure is a typically convenient manoeuvre for the kind of conservative critic I have repeatedly found in England (not in France and the United States). Instead of focusing on important technical and ideological issues, such critics will, from the very beginning, tell you that the very research into an admittedly ambiguous field is bound to produce a dirty book. What is a dirty book? My fellow-countrymen, Wolfgang Iser and H. R. Jauss, if Dr Nokes has cared to read their books, have proved beyond doubt that there is something called ‘reception’ which goes on in readers’ heads. It is difficult to describe, let alone to control, that reception. In the case of erotic books, it would be safe to predict, however, that a prostitute’s reactions will be different from a nun’s or a priest’s. It also seems that studies of erotica (since they are bound to contain erotic material) are apt to lead to different reactions in the scholarly world: I should mention, for the record’s sake, that Eros Revived has found favour in the eyes of younger English and American critics who have perceived scholarship, analysis and helpful research where Dr Nokes has discovered pornography. It is, in other words, virtually impossible to discuss erotica without being accused of insincere intentions by people like Dr Nokes who equate erotica with pornography, and pornography with dirt and smut that is bound to rub off on anyone who attempts an analysis.
Catholic University, Eichstätt, West Germany
Vol. 11 No. 2 · 19 January 1989
From David Nokes
‘It is a pleasure,’ writes Peter Wagner (Letters, 5 January), ‘perhaps even a pleasure tinged with eroticism, to pick up the gauntlet thrown down so forcefully by Dr Nokes’ This pleasure is entirely his. Dr Wagner has expressed his unhappiness with my review of his book Eros Revived not only in two letters printed here but also in a long personal letter of remonstrance. I find it difficult to know how best to answer the multiple accusations of bias, malice and ignorance contained in these letters. There is an obvious temptation to respond in the same style of academic point-scoring. Yet clearly beneath Dr Wagner’s barrage of circumstantial details concerning his doctoral degrees there remains one central issue: he feels that I have done him a serious injustice in my review. I shall therefore confine myself to answering just one of the several minor points contained in his last letter, before returning to that main issue. I was wrong to say that Dr Wagner’s first doctorate was ‘from Saarland’. The dust-jacket tells us that it was in fact from ‘the University of the Saarland’. I apologise for the omission of the definite article.
I did not accuse Peter Wagner of being a pornographer, nor his book of being pornography. I described it as ‘a paean in praise of pornography’. There is a difference. What Peter Wagner offers, I believe, is by way of being a detailed, illustrated catalogue of erotica. I do not question the scholarly seriousness with which he set about collecting, annotating and arranging his voluminous materials. What I question is the level of scholarly analysis of the works so lavishly illustrated and described. I hoped I had made that point clear by contrasting Roy Porter’s analysis of Aristotle’s Master-Piece with that contained in Eros Revived. No, I do not find anything suspect or disturbing about the discussion, scholarly or otherwise, of erotic literature. Nor am I seeking ‘cut-and-dried answers’. Elsewhere in my review I praised essays on erotic literature by Peter Sabor and Roy Porter, not because they offered any simple interpretations, but, on the contrary, because they demonstrated a subtlety and complexity of analysis which, I felt, Peter Wagner’s book lacked.
I genuinely regret that Dr Wagner feels so damaged by my review. I can only endeavour to assure him that I did not write it out of prudery or prejudice, but from the conviction that a reviewer is expected to express, clearly and honestly, his reactions to books he undertakes to review.
King’s College London