From Past Guilt to Future Bliss: The Lonely Road to Pleasure

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With the Hand: A Cultural History of Masturbation By Mels van Driel, trans. Paul Vincent Reaktion Books, Pounds 20 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop Would a culture of solitary delight mean life in vivid colour, or a hundred shades of grey?

This book is a follow-up to Mels van Driel's critically celebrated compendium Manhood: the Rise and Fall of the Penis. This time he turns his hand to masturbation, still something of a taboo, he says. With the Hand is an enjoyable, human and humane study of attitudes to masturbation in science, sexology, education, religion, philosophy, art, song and literature, from ancient Egypt to the present.

Enthusiastic wankers have a bad reputation, says van Driel, whose goal is to rescue him and her from the category of the sad and lonely. He explores the history of self-love, "spanking the monkey", "jerking off", "bashing the bishop" (there are more terms for male masturbation than for female), and hopes to rehabilitate the regular masturbator to the realms of sexual legitimacy.

The history of masturbation is necessarily a history of attitudes to the body, to fantasy, love and intimacy. The book abounds with interesting material. There's a chapter on zoology, which shows that many animals masturbate. We can reassure ourselves that it is indeed "natural". Van Driel provides a history of the dildo from classical Greece on; Claude le Petit, a 17th-century French poet, wrote erotic verse and hoped that an aroused reader might roll the book up and use it as a dildo. Reading and masturbation have a long-standing association. Perhaps some clever techno-entrepreneur can find some way of amalgamating the Kindle and Rampant Rabbit?

Most religions have something to say on the matter and the author looks at Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Taoism, offering surprising insights. He also looks briefly at philosophers such as Kant and Schopenhauer. The chapters on writers, poets and artists feel a bit like lists of references to masturbation without deeper analysis. …