"Degenerates are not always criminals, prostitutes, anarchists, or outright lunatics," the physician and journalist Max Nordau cautioned in 1893, "they are often writers and artists." Indeed, without writers and artists, medical experts in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would not have had much of the material on which they based their theories of sexual perversions. Thus it was that Rene Descartes could be diagnosed as a fetishist, because of his inordinate attraction to cross-eyed women, Gustave Flaubert as a hysteric, because of his hypersensitive imagination, and Emile Zola ("the novelist of the quivering nostrils") as an epileptoid degenerate, olfactory fetishist, and sexual psychopath, because of the suspicious richness of odors emanating from the pages of his books. Drawing upon the writings of literary figures such as Diderot, Rousseau, Zola, Flaubert, and Huysmans, and physicians and psychologists such as Tardieu, Binet, and Charcot, Vernon Rosario argues that the modern idea of the perverse first emerged in late 18th-century France and was shaped largely by the strange confluence of medical writings, patient confessions, and literary narratives. Beginning with the shocking revelations of masturbation and masochism in Rousseau's Confessions, and the widespread public alarm over the "fatal convenience" of the "solitary vice," The Erotic Imagination illuminates precisely how various forms of eroticism came to be classified as perversions. Rosario takes the reader through a dizzying proliferation of "pathologies"--including the bizarre theories which enabled doctors to identify homosexuals, or "inverts," according to bodily stigmata, to the "uterine fury" of nymphomania, to an astonishing range of hysterias, fetishes, and erotomanias until finally only marital, reproductive sex survived as normal. Such "perversification" of sexual desire attempted to close off and regulate those erotic expressions seen as threatening to the social order, national population, military power, and the supremacy of will and reason. In each case, Rosario argues, the original culprit of deviant behavior was identified as the imagination--a perilous site beyond surveillance, highly susceptible to the salacious effects of literature, where irrational associations might take root and usurp the "reality" of conventional sexuality. What emerges most compellingly from Rosario's study is the anxiety produced by the erotic imagination and the elaborate, often desperate theoretical fabrications designed to contain it. Filled with extraordinary case studies and written in prose that is as lively and entertaining as it is insightful, this book offers both a history of the erotic imagination and its narrative expressions, as well as a fascinating mirror in which our contemporary ambivalence about sexuality--from the acrimonious rhetoric of family values to censorship of pornography and hostility towards gays--takes on surprising new significance.
Literature & Fiction, Erotica, French,