When Flesh Becomes Word: An Anthology of Early Eighteenth-Century Libertine Literature

When Flesh Becomes Word: An Anthology of Early Eighteenth-Century Libertine Literature

When Flesh Becomes Word: An Anthology of Early Eighteenth-Century Libertine Literature

When Flesh Becomes Word: An Anthology of Early Eighteenth-Century Libertine Literature

Synopsis

When Flesh Becomes Word collects nine different examples of British libertine literature that appeared before 1750. Three of these--The School of Venus (1680), Venus in the Cloister (1725), and A Dialogue Between a Married Lady and a Maid (1740)--are famous "whore dialogues," dramatic conversations between an older, experienced woman and a younger, inexperienced maid. Previously unavailable to the modern reader, these dialogues combine sex education, medical folklore, and erotic literature in a decidedly proto-pornographic form. This edition presents other important examples of libertine literature, including bawdy poetry, a salacious medical treatise, an irreverent travelogue, and a criminal biography. The combination of both popular and influential texts presented in this edition provides an accessible introduction to the variety of material available to eighteenth-century readers before the publication of John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure in 1749.

Excerpt

In the spring of 1987, Catherine MacKinnon lectured at the University of Colorado. Her subject was feminism and pornography, and she spoke with great passion and intelligence. Pornography, she argued, is the epitome of patriarchal oppression. It is not the distant cousin of literary fiction or cinematic fantasy, deserving protection or analysis; it is instead its own kind of sexual violence, a text that acquires psychological and political reality when it facilitates the orgasm of its user. That “pleasure” may appear solitary and victimless, but because objectification is its means, oppression is its end. Pornography, MacKinnon continued, is an industry that hurts women twice: first in its production, where it exploits and humiliates (Deep Throat serves as the rule, not the exception), and then again in its consumption, where it structures the death of female subjectivity as the precondition of male satisfaction. The First Amendment is thus irrelevant. Pornography is neither “free” nor “speech.” Pornography is a crime whose violence is invisible precisely because it is seamlessly consistent with the patriarchy that produced it. Sex is to feminism, MacKinnon concluded, what labor is to Marxism: that which is most one's own, and most taken away. Predictably, perhaps, the question-and-answer session after that lecture was as heated and contentious and ill mannered as any I have heard before or since.

For a young assistant professor finishing a traditional biography of an early nineteenth-century woman of letters, this lecture came as a rude awakening. I was more than intrigued and profoundly perplexed. No stranger to feminist thought and politically sympathetic, I was certainly not offended by MacKinnon's indictment. Nor did I have a personal stake in the argument: pornography had not played a large role in my youth, and there was certainly no room for it at the time in my politically correct universe. Nevertheless, I was disoriented. Like a traveler on a well-known journey who suddenly arrives at an unexpected destination, I had followed the argument to troubling conclusions. Somewhere along the line, pornography had relinquished its status as text and had become a sexual act, and that act had in turn been transformed from private and prurient into public and commonplace. No longer a cultural aberration, an unwanted waste product of the modern marketplace, pornography became constitutive of and not incidental to patriarchal expression. The crisis was thus . . .

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