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Enlightenment EroticaDavid Nokes
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Vol. 10 No. 14 · 4 August 1988

Enlightenment Erotica

David Nokes

3489 words
Eros Revived: Erotica of the Enlightenment in England and America 
by Peter Wagner.
Secker, 498 pp., £30, March 1988, 0 436 56051 8
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’Tis Nature’s Fault: Unauthorised Sexuality during the Enlightenment 
edited by Robert Purks Maccubin.
Cambridge, 260 pp., £25, March 1988, 0 521 34539 1
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The New Eighteenth Century: Theory, Politics, English Literature 
edited by Felicity Nussbaum and Laura Brown.
Methuen, 320 pp., £28, February 1988, 0 416 01631 6
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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.

Wagner makes frequent references to the ‘need’ for pornography without ever seeking to define the nature of this need. At one point he gestures vaguely in the direction of a social analysis, by suggesting that the spread of pornography ‘served as a kind of “ersatz” for the less fortunate people who were ... hankering after the extra-marital liaisons of the rich and mighty which they could not afford to have. It is obvious that most members of the upper class had not as urgent a need as the lower echelons of society to be acquainted with the sexual adventures of people of their own status. For the former did every day what others were reading about.’ According to this ‘ersatz’ theory, anti-aristocratic pornography served an ‘alleviating function’. But alleviating what? And for whom? If Wagner is suggesting that the encouragement of masturbatory fantasies among the ‘lower echelons’ served to dissipate the sense of social or sexual injustice, why does he also argue that the works of the French pornographers had an important influence on the downfall of the Ancient Régime? ‘This is tricky ground,’ he tells us, and hurries on to his next set of full-frontal exposés.

In a work which deals extensively with the subject of flagellation, it is somewhat disturbing to read that ‘by 1720 Puritanism ... had almost been flogged to death.’ This is a favourite cliché, and we are later told that the themes both of clerical licentiousness and of extra-marital relations had likewise been ‘flogged to death’. Catholics, however, remained ‘the traditional whipping-boy’ of English satire.

Like many a later pornographer, Edmund Curll, whom Wagner dubs ‘the tsar of English pornography’, had a trick of dressing up his wares with lurid catchpenny titles. In this, too, Wagner has caught the true Grub Street flourish. His subtitle, ‘Erotica of the Enlightenment in England and America’, which is no doubt intended to boost American sales, is frankly misleading. American erotica is relegated to a mere ten pages at the back of the book for the simple reason, as Wagner reluctantly concedes, that ‘no home-grown pornography was published in 18th-century America.’ In a land where the indigenous pornography industry now grosses several billion dollars per annum it is amusing to observe the earnest scholarly disputes to determine whether the humble doggerel ‘Upon a Fart’ was indeed the first authentic example of All-American smut.

There is a considerable overlap between the material presented in Eros Revived and that examined in ’Tis Nature’s Fault, a volume of scholarly essays on ‘Unauthorised Sexuality during the Enlightenment’. But the differences of approach between the two books further underline the academic limitations of Wagner’s glossy anthology. For Wagner, Aristotle’s Masterpiece is a pseudo-medical piece of erotica whose main appeal lay in its descriptions of ‘the Organs of Generation in Women’ and of ‘the Use and Action of the Genitals’. This cursory description confirms Roy Porter’s argument in ’Tis Nature’s Fault that, although well-known, Aristotle’s Masterpiece has too often been dismissed as ‘a mere catchpenny pamphlet’. In a careful exegetical study Porter argues that ‘far from being a pot-pourri of remnants of sexual lore, it is an integrated and coherent work whose unifying theme is the subject of reproduction.’

Similarly, although Wagner’s discussion of Fanny Hill is among the more illuminating sections of his book, it falls short of the analytical subtlety of Peter Sabor’s essay in ’Tis Nature’s Fault. Commenting on the abridgement of the original Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure to the shorter and less explicit Memoirs of Fanny Hill, Wagner concentrates on the exclusion of a homosexual scene, while Sabor cleverly suggests how Cleland’s expurgated text actually makes fun of the business of censorship. ‘At times,’ he writes, ‘the bowdlerised text pruriently draws attention to deleted material in Sternian fashion, through a row of asterisks – such as those that replace the words “I felt his hand on the lower part of my naked thighs” in the original.’ Both Wagner and Sabor quote Fanny’s final ecstatic encounter with her beloved Charles: ‘My thighs, now obedient to the intimations of love and nature, gladly disclose, and with a ready submission resign up the lost gateway to the entrance of pleasure: I see! I feel! the delicious velvet tip! – he enters might and main with – oh! – my pen drops from me here in the ecstasy now present to my faithful memory!’ For Wagner, the euphemistic comedy of Cleland’s style here has a jarring effect. ‘The jaded modern reader, used to hard-core scenes in text and film ... cannot help smiling at Cleland’s “velvet tip”.’ Sabor, less jaded, points to the ingenious parody of Pamela’s writing-to-the-moment technique as the pen drops in homage to the penis.

Paul-Gabriel Boucé’s essay on ‘Chthonic and Pelagic Metaphorisation in Eighteenth-Century English Erotica’ is a virtuoso display of linguistic excarnation, turning the flesh into the word. For Boucé sex is lexis; a vagina is never merely a vagina, but a thesaurus of metaphors; a penis is not just a penis, but an encyclopedia of natural history. As he surveys the mass of Enlightenment erotica, he is stimulated not to sensual gratification but to observvations on ‘the development of such sciences as topography, cartography, geography, obstetrics and botany’. Yet there is surely something tongue-in-cheek about the erudition that can dignify bawdy ballads and smutty squibs in such terms as this: ‘a frequent rhetorical epiphenomenon of the nuclear chthonic metaphor is the use of a bellicose lexis to describe the inevitable “amorous combat”, especially that of poliorcetics.’

Most of the remaining essays in ’Tis Nature’s Fault are devoted to the subject of sodomy – ‘that utterly confusing category’, as Foucault called it. Reading through the counterpointing essays of Randolph Trumbach, G.S. Rousseau, Arend Huussen and Michael Rey is like eavesdropping on a seminar. Participants in the debate argue about who did what to whom, how often and for how much in a way that reinforces rather than removes the sense of confusion about categories. Exchanging rival sets of statistics, mainly based on criminal prosecutions, contributors discuss the differences between a homosexual network and a homosexual subculture, and dispute the significance of the French Police’s substitution of the term ‘pederasty’ for sodomy. For all of them, the sudden spate of prosecutions and executions in Holland between 1730-32 is a fact of major significance. Louis Crompton has referred to these ‘Dutch Massacres’ as the first genocide of homosexuals in Western civilisation, but the contributors to ’Tis Nature’s Fault adopt a more sober tone. Trumbach puts the number of those executed at 267; Rousseau estimates 200, while Huussen’s detailed table of statistics seems to point to a figure of 97. Amid all these calculations, Michael Rey’s perceptive essay on the life-styles of Parisian homosexuals, compiled from the police archives, is both illuminating and elegant. Like many a later police force, the Paris gendarmerie used agents provocateurs to entice homosexuals into illegal acts. Their detailed descriptions of pick-up methods and locations, together with their careful cultivation of gay slang, reveal a certain fascination with the rituals and codes of a sub-culture. One interesting fact which emerges from these studies is the reluctance of male homosexuals to admit to a taste for passive sodomy. Rey’s researches into the police files for 1723-4 indicate that while 35 men were recorded as active sodomites, only five offered themselves as passive partners.

Trumbach’s essay opens with the emphatic declaration that ‘the history of sodomy ... encapsulates the history of all society.’ Just as feminists have for twenty years been attempting to redefine history in terms of her story, so these essays represent a concerted endeavour to re-examine ‘Enlightenment’ values from a homosexual viewpoint. Rousseau’s essay sounds the most evangelical note in its attempt to enrol the champions of Augustan culture in the cause of Gay Liberation. He begins, modestly enough, with Addison and Steele, whom Pope once called ‘a couple of H – s’. But what of Pope himself, and his Scriblerian confederates? Why, Rousseau demands, are Ehrenpreis and Mack so reticent about the ‘frequently homoerotic correspondence’ between Pope and Swift? What of Gay, ‘who never married and whose psychological attachment to the older, if occasionally paternal, Pope merits more attention than it has received?’ Not for the first time Rousseau’s enthusiasm gets the better of his facts here: Gay was actually three years older than Pope. But was Gay then gay? These men, Rousseau opines, ‘were probably not homosexual (certainly there is no evidence of genital activity) but they were homosocial and homoerotic by any definition.’ Newton is enlisted into the gay fraternity, partly on the fictional evidence of John Barth’s Sot Weed Factor; Gray is ‘clearly homosexual’; Akenside is ‘exclusively homosexual’; and Handel is declared ‘more homosocial than the norm for the age’. As Rousseau extends his list to include Burke, Smollett, Cleland and Horace Walpole, his real target becomes clear. It is the ‘prudery and cowardice’ of Augustan scholars who have formed a conspiracy of silence about these matters. Time and again he repeats the charge of prudery and cowardice, each time with a more damning tone. ‘When Frank Manuel suggested that Newton may not have been primarily heterosexual, the Newtonian establishment attacked him as if he had uttered the unthinkable.’ Isaac Kramnick was ‘savaged’ for broaching the subject of Burke’s homosexuality. Wilmarth Lewis was cowardly ‘to pretend that [Horace] Walpole was heterosexual.’ As Rousseau warms to his theme, his essay takes on an imperial sweep. The Mutiny on the Bounty was inspired not, as Hollywood would have us believe, by the nubile females of Tahiti, but by sodomy and sexual sado-masochism; the Grand Tour was less a pursuit of foreign culture than of foreign boys, not palazzi but ragazzi even the loss of the American colonies was in part attributable to the fact, alleged by Rousseau, that the commander of the British forces was gay.

Although Felicity Nussbaum and Laura Brown diplomatically avoid so vivid a phrase as ‘prudery and cowardice’, their charges against the conservatism of the Augustan establishment are scarcely less severe. For them the taboo areas are not sexual but ideological. ‘Theory’ is the dirty word that has been banned from the vocabulary of 18th-century scholars. The workings of the Augustan establishment are presented as a perfect image of American business organisation. The Yale Boswell industry, for example, is described as an editorial project ‘on the model of American corporate enterprise’ funded by the Mellon banking fortunes. The American Society for 18th-Century Studies, with its regional subsidiaries, its journal and conferences, represents the institutionalisation of scholarship on business lines. Trading under the flag of liberal humanism, Eighteenth Century Inc. exists to promote a product as safe, reassuring and universally recognisable as Coca Cola or Levi jeans. Theory, they argue, represents a dangerous disruption of this cultural cartel, threatening to replace the familiar and prestigious trade-marks with a series of local community projects. They cite Howard Weinbrot’s remarks on the ‘balkanisation’ of literary studies: ‘As scholars take the time to learn about the history of women, popular culture, or the latest version of a derivative critical theory, they take less time to learn about literary texts themselves and the dominant culture that produced them. Consequently the periphery becomes the centre ... ’

The aim of The New Eighteenth Century is to reverse the terms of Weinbrot’s assumptions, and prove that the periphery is the centre. Nussbaum and Brown insist that the apparcnt order and confidence of Augustan culture is based upon the exploitation and marginalisation of such neglected groups as women, servants and slaves. The essays offer a rainbow coalition of scholarly activists, combining to displace, or at least de-stabilise, the notion of a ‘dominant culture’. ‘The most important work,’ the editors argue, ‘always insists on the relations between ideology, gender, race and class, and on the functions of the oppressed and excluded in texts and cultural formulations.’ Writing in the hortatory tones of a manifesto, they lay down strict guidelines for the new work that must be done to ‘re-formulate’ our view of the 18th century. ‘Such a reformulation will require rigorous collaborative efforts of fresh and inventive kinds; it will require reconstructing writing, research and teaching as truly collective activities.’

As in all manifestos, there is a good deal of stereotyping here. The editors represent ‘traditional’ scholars as perpetuating a myth of the 18th century as a ‘tranquil haven’ of political and cultural stability. But it is over seventy years since Saintsbury offered his Survey of 18th-Century Literature as ‘a place of Rest and Refreshment’. In more recent times, humanist critics like Pat Rogers and Claude Rawson have explored the unfrequented alleys of Grub Street and examined the Augustan ideal ‘under stress’. Indeed the word ‘new’ in the title of this book owes more to the Madison Avenue hype of corporate America than to serious literary scholarship. Many of the essays in this volume are interesting, but few are new in ideological terms. John Richetti offers a useful essay on the representation of the underclass of servants and proletarians in 18th-century fiction. Yet his conclusion, that the ‘lower orders’ are largely invisible in the novels of the period, except as comic servants, strongly recalls Orwell’s remarks on Charles Dickens in an essay written in 1939. Significantly, Richetti evidently regards E.P. Thompson’s historical studies of the period as ‘new’, arguing that Thompson’s ‘revisionist view of 18th-century English society emphasises that ruling-class hegemony was imperfect.’ But yesterday’s revisionism is today’s orthodoxy, and if ‘newness’ is to be the watchword, then surely we must take account of the latest revisionist theories of Jonathan Clark and others, which repudiate Thompson’s radicalism and re-assert the hegemony of the ruling class

Laura Brown’s essay on Oroonoko, ‘The Romance of Empire’, is a splendid example of the kind of study which this volume is designed to foster. Written by a woman – Aphra Behn – and dealing with the slave-trade, Oroonoko becomes ‘a theoretical test case for the necessary connections of race and gender – a model for the mutual interaction of the positions of the oppressed in the literary discourse of its own age’. Examining the ways in which both women and slaves become part of the commodity exchange of colonial capitalism, Brown makes a careful study of the noble Oroonoko’s feminised status, particularly in the attention given to exotic dress. Her lucid de-constructionist reading, as precisely formulated as an algebraic theorem, is a most satisfying piece of analysis.

Other essays in the volume make little attempt to seem ‘new’. Fredric Bogel has a fascinating study of ‘Johnson and the role of authority’ which could equally easily have found its way into the despised journal Eighteenth-Century Studies. It begins with two contrasting images. In the Dictionary Johnson defined tripod as ‘a seat with three feet, such as that from which the priestess of Apollo delivered oracles’. Yet Johnson’s own celebrated three-legged chair was a rickety, unstable thing that was only kept upright by Johnson’s ‘considerable dexterity’ and the support of a wall. Bogel’s sensitive exploration of Johnson’s sense of guilt in the assumption of roles of authority is a fine psychological study, and contains some particularly interesting observations on Johnson’s ghost-writing. Carole Fabricant offers an illuminating essay on the 18th-century heritage business showing how, as early as the 1750s, rival guidebooks to the stately homes of England competed in assuring their readers that a Sunday-afternoon trip to Blenheim or Stowe would add ‘a new relish to the day of rest’ and leave ‘the heart better disposed either for a religious thought or a benevolent action’. Her analysis of the political factors underlying the growth of tourism chimes in with Peter Wagner’s comments on the ‘alleviating’ function of pornography. Both Fabricant and Wagner seem to suggest that the relative stability of 18th-century English society in part resulted from a kind of voyeurism. The spirits of the ‘lower orders’ were raised from the miseries of everyday life by seductive glimpses of the obelisks and odalisques of the rich and powerful. It is a thesis which suggests that the land will still be safe for Thatcherism while the newsagents’ shelves are filled with copies of Country Life and Mayfair.

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Letters

Vol. 10 No. 18 · 13 October 1988

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’?

Peter Wagner
Catholic University,

Vol. 10 No. 19 · 27 October 1988

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.

David Nokes
King’s College, London

Vol. 11 No. 1 · 5 January 1989

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.

Peter Wagner
Catholic University, Eichstätt, West Germany

Vol. 10 No. 15 · 1 September 1988

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.

Peter Fryer
London N6

We wouldn’t bet on it.

Editors, ‘London Review’

Vol. 11 No. 2 · 19 January 1989

‘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.

David Nokes
King’s College London

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