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Perverse Romanticism

Aesthetics and Sexuality in Britain, 1750–1832

Richard C. Sha

Publication Year: 2009

Richard C. Sha’s revealing study considers how science shaped notions of sexuality, reproduction, and gender in the Romantic period. Through careful and imaginative readings of various scientific texts, the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and Longinus, and the works of such writers as William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Lord Byron, Sha explores the influence of contemporary aesthetics and biology on literary Romanticism. Revealing that ideas of sexuality during the Romantic era were much more fluid and undecided than they are often characterized in the existing scholarship, Sha’s innovative study complicates received claims concerning the shift from perversity to perversion in the nineteenth century. He observes that the questions of perversity—or purposelessness—became simultaneously critical in Kantian aesthetics, biological functionalism, and Romantic ideas of private and public sexuality. The Romantics, then, sought to reconceptualize sexual pleasure as deriving from mutuality rather than from the biological purpose of reproduction. At the nexus of Kantian aesthetics, literary analysis, and the history of medicine, Perverse Romanticism makes an important contribution to the study of sexuality in the long eighteenth century.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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pp. ix-xi

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pp. 1-15

Perverse Romanticism examines how sexuality and aesthetics—customarily treated as opposed concepts—were actually united in Romanticism by a common distrust of function. Aesthetics has long held the notion that works of art should avoid function (purpose, interest). In this book, I ask why functionlessness or perversity has been so valued in aesthetics and so lambasted in sexuality.1 I also ask why Romantic writers such as...

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1 Romantic Science and the Perversification of Sexual Pleasure

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pp. 16-50

During the Romantic period, the sciences of sexuality and of sexual pleasure (neurology, botany, natural history, biology, and anatomy) acknowledged the perverseness of human sexuality, its resistance to reproductive telos and discipline. This conception of perversity helps explain why the Romantics constructed what Blake called “the lineaments of gratified desire” as a potential, if problematic, site of social liberation...

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2 Historicizing Perversion: Perversity, Perversion, and the Rise of Function in the Biological Sciences

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pp. 51-77

That Percy Shelley’s skepticism about the “the purposes for which the sexual instinct are supposed to have existed” (D. Clark 223) appears in his treatment of Greek pederasty shows the poet refusing to elevate one kind of sex act over another on the basis of purpose. Likewise, William Blake vehemently denied Emanuel Swedenborg’s point that “Organs and Viscera” of man’s body correspond to “Thing[s] in the created Universe ...

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3 One Sex or Two? Nervous Bodies, Romantic Puberty, and the Natural Origins of Perverse Desires

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pp. 78-140

I now turn from situating perversion in the Romantic period within the context of the rise of function in the biological sciences. The growing importance of function made it difficult to conceive of a perverted identity, and this transformation made the absence of the pervert a calculated absence. Thomas Laqueur’s claim that the Romantic...

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4 The Perverse Aesthetics of Romanticism: Purposiveness with Purpose

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pp. 141-182

Until this point, I have shown the extent to which function became the gold standard of biological knowledge. I have also indicated that this standard was under enormous pressure by virtue of the fact that one could not ascertain function without the “perversity” of nonfunctioning organs. The scientific separation of sexual pleasure from reproductive function did not help. Biology sought to exile the perverse from the...

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5 Fiery Joys Perverted to Ten Commands: William Blake, the Perverse Turn, and Sexual Liberation

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pp. 183-240

Few accusations in Blake’s illuminated works have the force and density of Orc’s accusation that Urizen “perverted to ten commands” “the fiery joy” (America 8:3 E 54). Orc, Blake’s symbol of revolutionary and sexual energy, here charges Urizen, Blake’s caricature of reason, with perverting sexual pleasure into commands. Blake often depicts Orc...

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6 Byron, Epic Puberty, and Polymorphous Perversity

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pp. 241-288

Puberty is hardly a poetic subject, much less an epic one. Nor does it seem particularly Romantic. Christopher Ricks has shown us why: it embarrasses.1 Against the maturity required of the epic, puberty seems hopelessly jejune. Yet I shall argue that puberty is not only Lord Byron’s epic subject in Don Juan, but also its truest one. As a volatile moment of bodily transition, puberty threatened categories of sexual and...


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pp. 289-324

Works Cited

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pp. 325-345


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pp. 349-359

E-ISBN-13: 9781421402611
E-ISBN-10: 1421402610
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801890413
Print-ISBN-10: 0801890411

Page Count: 376
Illustrations: 14 halftones
Publication Year: 2009

OCLC Number: 794701442
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Perverse Romanticism

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Subject Headings

  • Sex in literature.
  • English literature -- 19th century -- History and criticism
  • Romanticism -- Great Britain.
  • Aesthetics in literature.
  • English literature -- 18th century -- History and criticism
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