Sexual Enjoyment in British Romanticism: Gender and Psychoanalysis, 1753–1835 by David Sigler (review)
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Reviewed by
David Sigler. Sexual Enjoyment in British Romanticism: Gender and Psychoanalysis, 1753–1835. McGill-Queen's University Press. viii, 280. $34.95

David Sigler makes sexual enjoyment integral to the study of British Romanticism, and he does so by showing how it constitutes gender and invents the unconscious. Baldly put, sexual enjoyment cancels out womanhood. This project alone merits considerable applause, especially since its psychoanalytical method is so generative, and its theory of gender is so rich. Because gender is inscribed through the limits of enjoyment, it is imbricated in the unconscious insofar as pleasures must be disavowed and nonetheless sexual difference must be maintained. Ranging widely over such authors as Burke, Blake, Wollstonecraft, Robinson, Southcott, Dacre, Austen, and Percy Shelley, Sigler repeatedly shows why self-regulation must contend with the unruliness of desire, a scene of writing that insists upon a gendering process that is involuntary, so much so that the gendered subject requires the unconscious. In this view, Sigler argues for what Lauren Berlant might call a "cruel enjoyment," since the promise of it is always staved off. Indeed, Sigler notes, "by sexual enjoyment, I mean to present an anglicized term for what Lacan has called jouissance: [End Page 303] primordial, all-engulfing pleasure pertaining to sexual gratification, culturally forbidden and largely inaccessible, and which, if attained, would fuse orgasm and death." The treatment of Lacan is engaging and admirably lucid, though sometimes this makes for grim reading: sexual enjoyment destroys sexual relationships and castrates both sexes. Occasionally one wishes for a reading that doesn't stamp out the possibility of relationality and end with the object petit a instead of a subject.

Chapters therefore examine how sexual enjoyment organizes both Elizabeth Bennet's and Darcy's subject formations: in both, the unlocatable origin of desire frustrates the fantasy of conjugal heteronormativity. Likewise, a delicious chapter on Joanna Southcott highlights her two very different paths to sexual enjoyment: one through God's pleasures and the other through Satan's. Suggestive is his claim that this is really a text about sexual difference disguised as theology. If Satan offers new ways to enjoy, Southcott must refuse them. Lacan helps Sigler recognize how the gulf of sexual difference between Satan and Southcott fosters a sexuation that denies possibility of authentic engagement because gender has become nothing more than the discourses of mastery and hysteria. Mary Robinson's Walsingham not only undermines any perceived naturalness of gender but also offers humiliation in the place of enjoyment, since difference is a process beyond any single subject's control. In Dacre's Zofloya, mutuality is instead a collision between masochism and psychoanalysis. Finally, Sigler rereads Percy Shelley's Zastrozzi as "imagining a relationship to unmitigated enjoyment which would render subjectivity itself, and therefore sexual difference, quite impossible."

In more positive moments, Sigler recognizes the generativeness of jouissance for alternative sexual identities. It is thus unfortunate that he does not grapple with Andrew Elfenbein's important Romantic Genius. One also wonders why those nascent identities cannot more often yield new methods of relationality. A very small window of hope occurs in Sigler's reading of Percy Shelley's Zastrozzi, which he regards as an undermining of normative gender. And yet ugly feelings aside, there is no denying the fact that Sigler has written an imaginative and important book, one that achieves the difficult feat of wedding Lacan and British sexuality so that we can understand the Romantic chiasmus of gender and the unconscious. Notwithstanding the fact that in this account pleasure largely exhausts itself – the two-sex system means that there is only cruel enjoyment – I admire the book a great deal. As Sigler reveals, gendered subjectivity in Romanticism emerges textually at the nexus of impossible demands. [End Page 304]

Richard C. Sha
Department of Literature, American University
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