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Reviewed by:
  • Perverse Romanticism: Aesthetics and Sexuality in Britain, 1750–1832
  • Colin Carman
Perverse Romanticism: Aesthetics and Sexuality in Britain, 1750–1832. By Richard C. Sha. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. Pp. 376. $57.00 (cloth).

Unfinished things have long held the critical attention of literary scholar Richard C. Sha. His first book, The Visual and Verbal Sketch in British Romanticism, pursued the rhetoric of the nineteenth-century sketch, not [End Page 185] just its jagged lines and inexact brushwork, but how such sketchiness masks the ideology that “less finish, less labor, and less fastidiousness” is somehow more authentic, more artistic, than works of considerable more polish. Explicitly concerned with Romantic era representations of eroticism that resist the supposed purpose of all sexual life (namely, reproduction), his latest study is similarly interested in how ideology masquerades as the pure and “natural,” and, with Romantic era sex in mind, he exposes how claims to naturalness also intersect with what he called in that earlier work “the current impasse between ideology and aesthetics.”1 Sexuality and aesthetics, after all, are not as incompatible as they seem: in the mid-eighteenth century, German thinker Alexander Baumgarten first used the term “aesthetic” to denote the relationship between human perception and bodily sensations.2Perverse Romanticism asks why the resistance to function, or usefulness, is celebrated in the realm of aesthetics but denigrated in sexuality (288). The answer the book provides is how sexualities historically excoriated as perversely purposeless can be reclaimed, even dignified, as the meaningful agents of liberation and social change.

While tradition would have us believe that reproduction is the finish line of healthy sexuality, during the Romantic period in England, erotic pleasure and reproduction were gradually uncoupled, and this uncoupling, for Sha, opened up “the possibility for sexuality to become a site of liberation” (16). As the scientific bedrock for an inquiry that seamlessly fuses medical and literary history, chapter 1 establishes how the movement known as vitalism was central to the emancipatory separation of purpose from pleasure. The nature of sexual reproduction came to be seen, in the vitalist vein, as dynamic and disorganized. The experiments of the Italian biologist Lazzaro Spallanzani were seminal, to say the least: using frogs, he proved that semen and egg must make physical contact for reproduction to occur, which not only overturned the misconception that a “seminal aura” was enough for fertilization but also made artificial insemination and the prophylactic possible.3

Perverse Romanticism is a survey with staggering theoretical depth; the complex subject of instinct comes under careful scrutiny in chapter 2. Among physiologists, the growing emphasis on function and its originating instinct relegated all nonfunctioning organs to the realm of the pervert. Where, they asked, are the locatable sources of desire: in the brain or in [End Page 186] the genitals? Such uncertainty led William Lawrence, professor of anatomy and surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons, to postulate that if thought is not the brain’s sole function, then the brain itself might be perverse. In chapter 3 Sha extends his skepticism of sweeping paradigm. Just as he challenges the Foucauldian premise that the homosexual didn’t exist prior to 1869, Sha brings pressure to bear on Thomas Laqueur’s contention that the one-sex model, which posited that the female body was simply a man’s body turned outside in, was swiftly replaced by the modern understanding of biological difference. Sex and gender, Sha posits, were too categorically unstable for such a neat, epistemic shift to take place. Reading Mary Wollstonecraft through the lens of neurology, he shows how both male and female bodies in her works are susceptible to nerves, or the “nervous sensibility” (91). Wollstonecraft’s daughter, Mary Shelley, inherited this belief, and in a condensed and compelling reading of her Frankenstein (1818), Sha argues that Victor Frankenstein finds himself feminized by a nervous disorder. Sha further explains that what unites some of the earliest investigations into same-sex desire by the likes of Voltaire, Bentham, and Percy Shelley is their shared interest in the queer amorphousness of puberty.

Shifting from medicine to aesthetics—not so abrupt a shift when one considers that Kant, Keats, Winckelmann...


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pp. 185-188
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