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Ross, J.M. (1993). Sexuality: An Illustrated History: By Sander L. Gillman. New York: Wiley, 1989, 376 pp., $49.95.. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 41:266-270.
(1993). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 41:266-270
Sexuality: An Illustrated History: By Sander L. Gillman. New York: Wiley, 1989, 376 pp., $49.95.
Review by: John Munder Ross, Ph.D.
Gillman is Professor of Human Studies at Cornell University's Ithaca campus and of The History of Psychiatry at its New York Medical Center. In this "coffee table" volume, he draws on both areas of expertise to present and explicate the evolving "icons of sexuality" from the middle ages to the present time. His data include depictions of sexuality in anatomical texts, first of all, along with the pornographic, commercial, and fine arts. His focus is on sex in the Western world, and so Asian and Oriental erotica (the Kama Sutra, for instance, or the wedding-night manuals once fashionable in Japan) elude this book's attention. And while he does allude to the narratives and exposition of writers as diverse as E. Zola, Freud, and Nietzsche, Gillman concentrates mostly on the visual arts and other pictures of sexual activity. Finally, perhaps in the medieval tradition where his chronicle begins, the author seems mostly to divorce sex from love, further stressing our culture's abiding emphasis on the deleterious consequences of libidinal excesses—diseases like syphilis before the era of penicillin and, after a brief respite, the modern-day spectre of AIDS. Because of these constraints, the book might better be entitled "Lust in the Western World: An Evolving Iconography."
Professor Gillman's is an encyclopedic lore, and, within the parameters just noted, Sexuality is an exhaustive study. Yet the central thesis is really quite simple. Commenting that our sexual appetites and pleasures throw our "egos" into disarray, the author argues that we in the West have long sought to escape the sins of the flesh by way of externalization. Sexuality and the conflicts and dangers associated with it have long been projected into scientific and artistic representations of curiosities that reflect the creator's and the viewer's efforts to ascribe their desires to others—to women, "fallen women," other races, "Hottentots," for instance. In these renderings, disease and demoralization are seen to derive from the sort of indulgences civilized men and women abjure. Yet the scientism of the anatomists and the Christian moralizing hidden behind this, a judgmentalism that becomes explicit in religious art, articulate attempts to tame and order our more primal images of inner pollution and chaos.
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