Vol. 10 No. 18 · 13 October 1988

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Enlightenment Erotica

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,

Rogue Socialists

I was interested by the points made in the three letters in your last issue concerning my review of Dudley Miles’s book on Francis Place. David Craig has made a wrong deduction about my attitude to Wallas’s classic biography. In writing of the faint record of Place’s activity which (in the absence of the British Museum material) the historian faces, I was thinking of primary sources. And in witholding the adjective ‘scholarly’ I did not intend an adverse judgment on Wallas: I was trying to communicate a fact about Mr Miles’s life of Place which should be of interest to the reader – namely, that it is academic in its approach, and accordingly adopts academic conventions in the use and citation of evidence.

Michael Mason

Poetics and Politics

In his letter of 4 August concerning the statement of protest which contributors to a special issue of Poetics Today wished to place at the beginning of that issue, Anthony Easthope errs in reporting that Poetics Today is published in England. In fact, as of the current volume, it is published by Duke University Press in the United States. More importantly, he errs in stating that the 15 contributors ‘requested’ that their statement of protest be published. In fact, this ‘request’ was presented to the editorial board of Poetics Today as a non-negotiable demand. We quote from the letter of the guest-editors of this issue, Professor Teresa Ebert and Mas’ud Zavarzadeh: ‘if, for any reason … Poetics Today is no longer interested in publishing this collection of essays (as is, including the statement of protest), please let us know immediately so that we can offer the collection to other editors’ (our emphasis). We invite the editors of the London Review to consider what their response would be if they were presented with such a non-negotiable demand in similar circumstances.

‘It is as hard to keep politics out of literary studies as out of sport,’ Easthope writes. We entirely agree. Unlike Easthope, however, we believe it is worth trying. Easthope closes his letter by expressing anxiety about the fate of ‘the independent intellectual culture of Israel’ should Poetics Today refuse to publish the statement of protest. We find this somewhat paradoxical: our ‘independence’ is to be ensured by our acquiescing to the political agenda of this group of 15 contributors. We, too, are anxious about ‘the independent intellectual culture of Israel’, and for this very reason we think it essential to resist the incursions of politics of any kind, from any source. This does not mean that we exclude the political or the ideological from the pages of Poetics Today either as objects of analysis or as methods: after all, we did accept the Ebert-Zavarzadeh special issue on ideology for publication. But we will not risk our precious (and vulnerable) independence by publishing a political statement which implies a complicity that we do not acknowledge, and which sets a dangerous precedent.

On 6 July, Professor Ebert and Zavarzadeh proposed a ‘solution’ to the impasse: Poetics Today would publish the statement of protest as originally formulated, along with our own letter of response and an analysis of our letter by Ebert and Zavarzadeh. This analysis purported to expose the ‘bourgeois liberal ideology’ underlying our position. We could only interpret this proposal as a provocation designed to force us to reject the issue, thus saving the guest-editors from having to withdraw it. We have obliged them by rejecting the issue. Three of the original 21 contributors have disassociated themselves from the guest-editors’ position; two of them have withdrawn their essays from the Ebert-Zavarzadeh issue and are allowing Poetics Today to publish them separately, and we are waiting to hear from the third. We regret the inconvenience and delays that the contributors have suffered, and the ill-will that this affair has generated. But we do not in the least regret the decision we have taken.

Itamar Even-Zohar, Brian McHale, Roth Ronen
Poetics Today, Tel Aviv University

Safe for non-Christians

Of all the reviews which I have read of Dr Ryan’s Life of Bertrand Russell I found the one by his son (LRB, 1 September) the most interesting. But how deeply ingrained even yet is our English parochialism when such a man as Conrad Russell can write that his father helped the change ‘by which the world has become safe for non-Christians’. The world? I should have thought that for a very long time it has been ‘safe to be a non-Christian’ in Soviet Russia – in China – in all the lands dominated by Islam … But no, as long as one can ‘put a non-Christian case’ in a House of Lords debate with impunity the world has been changed for the better. It is pleasing to know that there are some good old intellectual traditions that continue to stand the test of time.

William Fryer
Cirencester, Gloucester

Tunnel Vision

In reading Philip Horne’s discussion of Ernesto Sabato’s book The Tunnel (LRB, 4 August), recently translated into English, I was surprised to read the following: ‘It is indeed a striking and impressive work, which makes one hope for English translations of the two later novels, Concerning Heroes and Tombs (1961) and Abaddon the Exterminator (1974).’ May I draw your attention to the fact that there is an English translation of Concerning Heroes and Tombs. I have it in my library.

Madeleine Zelouf
Givatayim, Israel

Forms and Inspirations

May I make one reservation with respect to Vikram Seth’s lucid and interesting essay on his poetry (LRB, 29 September), with its persuasive apologia for regular form and rhyme? In his useful discussion of the first four lines of Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ he rightly says that the fourth version he quotes is ‘less dense, less compressed than the third draft’ and concludes: ‘ “Load every rift with ore" has to be balanced with “Allow the poem to breathe." ’ The points are well made, and I take them. But I wonder if the virtues he argues for must invariably be enshrined in regular forms and rhymes – which is, I believe, the implication of much of this essay. Metre and rhyme do not necessarily produce clearer thought or feeling than free verse. I am not ‘against’ the use of regular form; the poems of mine LRB has printed are that way. But Mr Seth’s comparison of his own free verse with work of his in regular, stanzaic forms does not establish that the verse was better only because it was regular and metrical. He chose one solution, and found it worked. To argue from such a success that regular and stanzaic forms are the better or even the most likely approach seems unrealistic. It may be, for instance, that a success in regular form – producing the effect of ease – may have preempted an even more substantial success in another form. Also: I wonder if the regular and metrical forms he apparently prefers do not only accommodate but encourage authorial intrusion and direction. I don’t know, but I do wonder.

Jon Silkin
Midlothian, Scotland


I am grateful to Montagu Bream (Letters, 1 September) for drawing attention to a piece of information which does not appear in the Location Register of 20th-century English Literary Manuscripts and Letters. In a survey covering the papers of up to three thousand literary authors such omissions are unfortunately inevitable. That is why, with the help of the British Library’s Department of Manuscripts and a small grant from the Arts Council, we are keeping the Location Register’s 20th-century database open so that further pieces of information can be added from time to time – and eventually the data-base will be made available on-line. Further pieces of information from your readers would be gratefully received. It might be simpler if they wrote directly to the University of Reading Library.

David Sutton
The Library, University of Reading


Thank you for your publishing ‘Roy MacGregor-Hastie’s’ letter about Italy and the Italians (Letters, 4 August). I am assuming, of course, that ‘Roy MacGregor-Hastie’ is the latest non de plume of the author of The Henry Root Letters: his sociological analyses and racial slurs are so preposterous that they can only have been intended as satire. No one, for instance, could reasonably believe that serious literacy – the desire and ability to read widely and critically – is less widespread in Italy than in other countries, or that mass-circulation Italian magazines like Famiglia Christiana (‘forced on parishioners by a few zealous priests’) and Grand Hotel (‘a comic book for servant and shop girls’) are worse than what one sees people reading on the London Underground. In saying that Mussolini was ruined because ‘they’ (who?) provided him with false statistics about his armed forces, ‘MacGregor-Hastie’ demonstrates a dangerously faulty knowledge of modern Italian history and presents himself as one of those Northern Europeans who believe that authoritarian government is good for the naughty Latin peoples. This is borne out by his incorrect statement that the Tretino-Alto Adige region – i.e. the region with a large German-speaking minority and a considerable number of ultra-conservative voters – is the only really prosperous part of Italy. It is true that many Italian civil servants are underpaid, and it may also be true that only 30 per cent of Italians own their own homes and only 45 per cent have any investments, but are these statistics so different from those of other European countries? And even if they are, do they mean that people in Italy and elsewhere who do not own homes or have other material assets are necessarily inferior? What many of us foreigners who have chosen to live in Italy find most attractive about Italians is their apparently endemic incapacity to accept authority on its own terms. This can often make life inconvenient but never uninteresting. The only thing ‘MacGregor-Hastie’ seems to have picked up during the time he has spent here, however, is the Northern Italians’ age-old prejudice against the meridionali (South erners). He even uses this prejudice for casting aspersions on Professor Joseph LaPalombara, the Italo-American author of Democracy, Italian Style, who happens to have a Southern Italian name.

Harvey Sachs
Arezzo, Italy

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