THE POISONED EMBRACE by Lawrence Osborne


A Brief History of Sexual Pessimism
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 A vivid but quirky survey of what Osborne (Paris Dreambook, 1991; Ania Malina, 1987) calls ``sexual pessimism''--the association between sexual pleasure and death--which he traces to the Gnostics, the pre-Christian sect that gave creative power to evil and held carnal pleasure in contempt. Osborne offers a series of archetypes that represent sexual pessimism, beginning with the ``Virgin.'' In discussing the Virgin, he offers a learned survey of medieval and ancient theories of female anatomy, and shows his command of medical history--a mastery that comes into play when he considers other archetypes such as the Leper, the Syphilitic, and Don Juan, whose sexual excess was usually attributed to his physical inadequacy. Osborne's chapter on the Witches considers their erotic associations and traces them to the Talmudic tradition, speculating on what need they answered in the society that called them into being and that then destroyed them. The Jew is also an archetype, Osborne says, with a special sexual burden as a predator, as the originator of onanism and homosexuality: an overcivilized neurasthenic who invented psychoanalysis to explain himself. The Noble Savage, here referring to the American Indian, is the very opposite--a representative of an ``apocalyptic counter-culture'' whose sexual practices were considered degenerate even as they represented lost Eden. The Oriental archetype refers to stereotypes relating to harems, the degradation of women, and a taste for violence. Osborne's final archetype is the Androgyne, including hermaphrodites. He concludes with a discussion of sexual optimism, the belief in the therapeutic value of sex--an attitude promoted by psychoanalysis and advocated in secular radical political that deromanticized sexuality and encouraged free love. An assertive, odd, reductive reading of a familiar and complex cultural phenomenon that the Greeks identified as eros and thanatos.

Pub Date: Oct. 25th, 1993
ISBN: 0-679-42723-6
Page count: 192pp
Publisher: Pantheon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 1993


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