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  • Before Intimacy: Asocial Sexuality in Early Modern England
  • Michelle Parkinson
Before Intimacy: Asocial Sexuality in Early Modern England. By Daniel Juan Gil . Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. Pp. 187. $66.00 (cloth); $22.00 (paper).

This highly theoretical book of literary criticism begins with a description of "the social structure of passion" in the early modern world and then moves to analyze the works of Sidney, Spenser, and Shakespeare. The goal appears to be to map out a heretofore insufficiently described realm of literary sexuality opened by other theorists of early modern sexuality. It posits a unique form of human sexual relationship falling outside the realm of legible social practices-a kind of relationship that precedes and is then supplanted by the modern notion of intimacy. Gil's description of this unique form of sexual relation is theoretically flawed, but it nonetheless raises some interesting questions about the way we have, up to now, tended to see early modern sexuality.

Gil argues in his introduction and first chapter that these sexual relations arise from the "friction and turmoil generated by the conflicted, contested, and uneven emergence of a modern social formation" (xi). In the midst of the chaos of a collision between the medieval order that placed value on persons based upon their family's hierarchical status-their blood-and an emerging modernity that emphasized individual merit, the literary figures Gil describes disappear from functional sociability. First, attracted to one another by the newer social model of shared humanity, the subjects are then forced apart again by the intrusion of the old social order, which insists on blood-borne class differentiation; the shock of these colliding forces pushes [End Page 637] them outside social legibility but also creates powerful erotic connections based on an experience of radical alterity.

The first chapter, "The Social Structure of Passion," begins by rehearsing Niklas Luhmann's sociological description of intimacy. In fact, Gil argues, using Alan Bray's formulation, that "early modern friendship may indeed be the precursor to the intimacy Luhmann models" (3). Gil's purpose, however, is to describe an early modern rival to intimacy that "also defines sexuality as a structure of relationship that is set apart from day-to-day social life but which is not yet rooted in a domestic or private sphere" (3). So he turns to Norbert Elias's The Civilizing Process, the description of the emerging reliance on personal manners and conduct to designate true nobility in the Renaissance, a cultural change demonstrated in early modern conduct manuals. From here, Gil derives his notion of the confrontation of the old models of blood-borne nobility with the new models of universal humanity. The resulting crisis produced this socially uprooted rival to modern intimacy. In order, perhaps, to clarify why these crises should take the specific form of an erotic charge, the chapter then discusses Leo Bersani's "powerful account of sexuality as a pleasurable shattering of the ego or self" (8). In order to historicize Bersani, Gil transposes "the notion of sexuality as a failure of a self into an account of sexuality as a failure of certain kinds of social relationships"-the kinds of failures that would be the logical result of the fraught emergence of modernism in the sixteenth century. He then demonstrates the presence of older models of the personality-models that do not describe a personality at all in the modern sense but rather a set of physical conditions-in several early modern treatises and literary pieces, also demonstrating moments in these texts when the old model seems to break down momentarily in favor of the new. The chapter expertly analyzes how these failures are demonstrated in several of Sir Thomas Wyatt's sonnets, for example, concluding that "Wyatt takes as his task, as a poet, to explore the in-between spaces where social relationships between men and women and between men and other men break down and remain broken" (26).

In chapter 2 Gil discusses Sidney and Spenser in two separate sections. He begins by describing Sidney's Astrophil and Stella as working on the old assumption of blood nobility, noting that his lovers ostensibly come together with...


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