Erotic Subjects: The Sexuality of Politics in Early Modern English Literature

Erotic Subjects: The Sexuality of Politics in Early Modern English Literature

Erotic Subjects: The Sexuality of Politics in Early Modern English Literature

Erotic Subjects: The Sexuality of Politics in Early Modern English Literature

Synopsis

Treating sixteenth- and seventeenth-century erotic literature as part of English political history, Erotic Subjects traces some surprising implications of two early modern commonplaces: first, that love is the basis of political consent and obedience, and second, that suffering is an intrinsic part of love. Rather than dismiss such assumptions as mere conventions, Melissa Sanchez uncovers the political import of early modern literature's fascination with eroticized violence.

Focusing on representations of masochism, sexual assault, and cross-gendered identification, Sanchez re-examines the work of politically active writers from Philip Sidney to John Milton. She argues that political allegiance and consent appear far less conscious and deliberate than traditional historical narratives allow when Sidney depicts abjection as a source of both moral authority and sexual arousal; when Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare make it hard to distinguish between rape and seduction; when Mary Wroth and Margaret Cavendish depict women who adore treacherous or abusive lovers; when court masques stress the pleasures of enslavement; or when Milton insists that even Edenic marriage is hopelessly pervaded by aggression and self-loathing. Sanchez shows that this literature constitutes an alternate tradition of political theory that acknowledges the irrational and perverse components of power and thereby disrupts more conventional accounts of politics as driven by self-interest, false consciousness, or brute force.

Erotic Subjects will be of interest to students and scholars of early modern literary and political history, as well as those interested in the histories of gender, sexuality, and affect more generally.

Excerpt

Erotic Subjects examines the intricate relationship between sexuality, politics, and literature in early modern England. A good deal of important recent scholarship has studied the politics of sexuality; this book studies the sexual dimension of politics. Throughout the following pages, I examine some surprising implications of the commonplace early modern equation of political and erotic unions—the claim that sovereign and subject, like husband and wife, are bound as much by reciprocal love as by law or necessity. Numerous scholars have observed that this translation of hierarchy into a romance between ruler and ruled shaped political discourse from the reign of Elizabeth I through that of Charles II. This work has taught us, as Arthur F. Marotti memorably insists, that “love is not love” in early modern literature. Rather, it is a discourse about power and influence, ambition and anxiety.

This book argues that love is not “love” in another sense, one that has received little critical attention but that is equally important for understanding sixteenthand seventeenth-century political thought. What we typically think of as “love”—a beautiful and benevolent attachment to an other—rarely appears in early modern erotic literature. Instead, love tends to show up as what Lauren Berlant has called a “queer feeling.” Narratives of masochism, erotic violence, and cross-gendered

1. Marotti, “Elizabethan Sonnet Sequences and the Social Order.” Other insightful accounts of the ideological force of early modern erotic discourses include Montrose, “Figurations of Gender and Power”; Goldberg, James I and the Politics of Literature; Norbrook, Poetry and Politics; Sharpe, Criticism; Victoria Kahn, Wayward Contracts; Purkiss, Literature, Gender, and Politics; and Bowers, British Seduction Stories.

2. As Berlant insists, love shares the complexities of sexuality. Despite the “absorption of the fantasy of love by normativity,” love remains charged with ambivalent, aggressive, masochistic, and narcissistic impulses that disrupt the ideals it is invoked to serve (“Love, A Queer Feeling,” 443–444).

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