Rude Britannia

Half-naked slaves hover in attendance, pearly flesh gleams on satin drapery, languorous women sprawl open-thighed on cushions, in a realm given over to its own dark sexual practices. "Harem" conjures up a lascivious fantasy, with trappings of gauzy veils, perfumes, opium pipes, and even a special exotic vocabulary: houri, odalisque, baigneuse.

There is a mythical territory called the Orient, which, as Edward Said commented, is part of Western culture, and in this world the harem has long been the focus of Western erotic reveries. The dull fact that the real harem was actually the family quarter seems never to have impinged. There are no screaming babies in this fantasy, no awkward toddlers tugging at the gorgeous trousers or playing havoc with the rose-petals.

One thing you must never do in the harem is to let the Viper drink at the Tavern f the Perfume-Makers. This and other secrets of the forbidden territory are made known in Robert Irwin's new novel, Prayer-Cushions of Flesh. Irwin's virginal hero, Prince Orkhan, escapes from The Cage, in which the sons of the sultan are imprisoned, emerges into the harem and the foolish boy wastes no time in letting the Viper loose. Elaborate erotic consequences follow, but the book, like the stories of Scheherazade, defies simple categorisation. It's a parable about the nature of desire and satisfaction, with an inner life as resistant to easy impositions of ulterior meaning as any story in The Arabian Nights. The details are based on medieval Arabic histories, rather than the result of Western fantasies imposed upon the Orient, for Irwin is a noted Arabist and the author of a lucid and perceptive book on Islamic art.

Irwin's The Arabian Nights, A Companion (1994) summarises the history of Western sexual fantasies centring on the Middle East, from the young aristocrats of the Grand Tour to Pasolini and Borges. It would seem that the more prudery Westerners experienced at home, the wilder their behaviour in the East; genius was no bar. Flaubert found a passionate release from the restraints of 19th-century France, and his Selected Letters describe Egypt as a demi-paradise of indulgence. "The wildest excesses would convey only a feeble notion ... Maxime [Du Camp] had himself wanked the other day among some deserted ruins..."

Hardly the stuff of the usual holiday postcard, but let's be honest: sex has always been a major unspoken theme of tourism, though few letters home can have been so brilliant. Here is Flaubert in the room of the dancer and musician Kuchuk: "We lay upon her bed, made of palm branches. A wick was burning in an old-fashioned lamp hanging on the wall in the next room, the guards were talking in an undertone to the servant, an Abyssinian negress with plague scars on both of her arms. Her little dog was asleep on my silk jacket. I sucked her furiously; her body was all of a sweat, she was tired from dancing, she was cold."

Art and culture are the accepted disguises of erotica. Sometimes the hopeful student looking for excitement can find lascivious literature lurking under a heavy overcoat of scholarship, as in The Libertine Reader. This mammoth tome of more than 1,300 pages is distributed by that most respectable American university giant, MIT, and presents translations of flighty 18th-century French texts with a crushing critical commentary just in case you might enjoy yourself. Be warned: the talking vaginas in Diderot's "The Indiscreet Jewels" are an "exteriorizing dynamic of conversation", and no giggling at the back of the class! But nine sexy stories including one work of genius, "Dangerous Liaisons", are good value.

Also from a deeply serious US publisher, the Johns Hopkins University Press, comes a 1960s translation of Casanova's autobiography, with a full- length Flemish nude sprawling head-to-toe across the spines of all six volumes, thus cunningly encouraging the punter to acquire the whole set. Although it's a paperback publication, this edition has cultural aspirations reminiscent of the stirring volumes considered acceptable in the libraries of those who had made the Grand Tour. The text has a curious antiquarian appearance and is adorned with black and white engravings of traditionally harmless subjects, and comes equipped with notes that "elucidate the social, biographical and geographical background". Casanova is claimed by (male) scholars to be a wonderful source of social history, but it does seem doubtful whether anyone would really find it worth while wading through 12 volumes of sexual seduction for the odd political insight or nugget about legal peculiarities.

And Casanova is a prime example of how glaring sexual patriarchy can pass unchallenged when wrapped up as social history. If any modern author were to write "the womb is an animal, so self-willed, so irrational, so untameable that a wise woman, so far from opposing its whims, should defer to them", it would probably lead to book-burning, yet many subsequent writers have acclaimed Casanova's literary qualities. V S Pritchett attempted to redeem him as "superior to all other erotic writers because of his pleasure in news, in gossip, in the whole personality of his mistresses", but the memoirs are a chronicle of conquests that would arouse outrage if they were not wearing the guise of history: Casanova had a self-confessed liking for very young girls and did not balk at a nine-year-old, nor even at his own illegitimate daughter. It is not simply a matter of the age at which female sexual activity was deemed acceptable in the 18th century: Casanova's feats of seduction were frequently characterised by exploitation of the weak and the poor, those unable to oppose him. If these records were not appearing under a learned imprint and in the guise of history, they would almost certainly cause an outcry comparable with that which greeted Lolita - a work with far greater literary stature. Isn't this the point where erotica, usually regarded as a venial indulgence to be accepted with a nod and a wink, would for some readers become offensive pornography? Or does pornography skulk only in lurid magazines in the back-rooms of seedy newsagents, never sallying forth between artistic covers under a learned imprint?

'Gustave Flaubert: Selected Letters', trans by Geoffrey Wall (Penguin Books, 1997), pounds 9.99; 'History of my Life', by Giacomo Casanova, trans by Willard R Trask, vols 1-12, bound in six parts (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), pounds 11 per vol; 'Prayer-Cushions of the Flesh', by Robert Irwin (Dedalus, 1997), pounds 6.99; 'The Libertine Reader, Eroticism and Enlightenment in Eighteenth- Century France', ed by Michel Feher (Zone Readers, 1997),pounds 49.95 cloth, pounds 24.95 paper.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
food + drinkFrom Mediterranean Tomato Tart to Raw Caramel Peanut Pie
Extras
Boys to men: there’s nothing wrong with traditional ‘manly’ things, until masculinity is used to exclude people
indybest13 best grooming essentials
Arts and Entertainment
Armstrong, left, and Bain's writing credits include Peep Show, Fresh Meat, and The Old Guys
TVThe pair have presented their view of 21st-century foibles in shows such as Peep Show and Fresh Meat
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch attends the London premiere of his new film The Imitation Game
people He's not as smart as his characters
Life and Style
healthMovember isn't about a moustache trend, it saves lives
Arts and Entertainment
Hand out press photograph/film still from the movie Mad Max Fury Road (Downloaded from the Warner Bro's media site/Jasin Boland/© 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
films'You have to try everything and it’s all a process of elimination, but ultimately you find your path'
Arts and Entertainment
Keys to success: Andrew and Julian Lloyd Webber
arts + entsMrs Bach had too many kids to write the great man's music, says Julian Lloyd Webber
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Mobile Developer (.NET / C# / Jason / Jquery / SOA)

    £40000 - £65000 per annum + bonus + benefits + OT: Ampersand Consulting LLP: M...

    Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

    £22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

    Design Technology Teacher

    £22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

    Foundation Teacher

    £100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

    Day In a Page

    Bryan Adams' heartstopping images of wounded British soldiers to go on show at Somerset House

    Bryan Adams' images of wounded soldiers

    Taken over the course of four years, Adams' portraits are an astonishing document of the aftermath of war
    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
    The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

    Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

    Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
    Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

    What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

    Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
    A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

    Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

    Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
    Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

    'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

    A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

    Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

    The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
    Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

    Paul Scholes column

    Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
    Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

    Frank Warren column

    Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
    Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

    Adrian Heath's American dream...

    Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
    Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities