Shakespeare's Perfume: Sodomy and Sublimity in the Sonnets, Wilde, Freud, and Lacan

Shakespeare's Perfume: Sodomy and Sublimity in the Sonnets, Wilde, Freud, and Lacan

Shakespeare's Perfume: Sodomy and Sublimity in the Sonnets, Wilde, Freud, and Lacan

Shakespeare's Perfume: Sodomy and Sublimity in the Sonnets, Wilde, Freud, and Lacan

Synopsis

Starting with St. Paul's argument that the Greeks were afflicted with homosexuality to punish their excessive love of statues, Richard Halpern uncovers a tradition in which aesthetic experience gives birth to the sexual--and thus reverses the Freudian thesis that erotic desire is sublimated into art. Rather, Halpern argues, sodomy was implicated with aesthetic categories from the very start, as he traces a connection between sodomy and the unrepresentable that runs from Shakespeare's Sonnets to Oscar Wilde's novella The Portrait of Mr. W.H., Freud's famous essay on Leonardo da Vinci, and Jacques Lacan's seminar on the ethics of psychoanalysis. Drawing on theology, alchemy, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and literary criticism, Shakespeare's Perfume explores how the history of aesthetics and the history of sexuality are fundamentally connected.

Excerpt

Sodomy and the sublime: once the pleasures of alliteration have faded, it is not at all clear what might connect the two. Sodomy is primarily a legal and theological category whose heyday was the medieval and early modern periods. the sublime is an aesthetic category that originated with Longinus but flourished in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. So the two terms inhabit not only different and apparently unrelated discourses but also distant historical and cultural moments. the temporal problem is perhaps the less serious of the two, since the category of the sublime often seems to be applied after the fact. Longinus detects it in Homer, who surely lacked any inkling of the concept; Edmund Burke finds it in Milton, who at least had read Longinus, as well as in Shakespeare and Spenser, who had not. So if the conjoining of sodomy and sublimity seems anachronistic, at least anachronism is built into one of the two terms. Still, other problems remain. Sodomy has generally denoted a class of nonprocreative sexual activities (usually but not always same-sex activities) for which one might be denounced, prosecuted, or executed. Sublimity is a class of aesthetic phenomena associated variously with grandeur, exaltation, the experience of fear or pain, and the limits of representation. Both categories have been so diversely construed that they are fuzzy around the edges, but it isn’t intuitively obvious how they might overlap, either logically or culturally. Sodomy doesn’t engross much space in treatises on aesthetics, and aesthetic issues, conversely, don’t much preoccupy the jurists and theologians who define sodomitical acts.

Things seem less dire if we shift categories a bit and speak of sexuality and aesthetics, for here we find a rich tradition, from Plato to Freud, connecting erotic (often homoerotic) desire and artistic creation or transcendent experience. Freud’s concept of sublimation, in which sexual . . .

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