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by Marilyn Yalom

Pub Date: Feb. 10th, 1997
ISBN: 0-679-43459-3
Publisher: Knopf

 Sacred, erotic, domestic, even civic incarnations of the breast from Paleolithic times to the present in an ambitious catalogue of necessarily selective cultural history. ``I intend to make you think about women's breasts as you never have before,'' asserts Yalom, senior scholar at Stanford's Institute of Women and Gender (Blood Sisters: The French Revolution in Women's Memory, 1993, etc.). The late Middle Ages glorified the nursing Madonna, one in a long line of deities symbolizing female nurturance; Renaissance art exalted the erotic breast, to preserve which the upper classes turned to wet nurses; Enlightenment France endorsed Rousseau's campaign to restore breast-feeding, and (apotheosizing what Yalom calls the ``political breast''), represented the republic as a woman ``opening her breasts to all her citizens.'' Credit for coming up with the paradigm that united the maternal and erotic breasts goes of course to Freud--target, for the usual feminist reasons, of Yalom's considerable vitriol (up to this point, her text is underinflected). Some passion surfaces again on the subject of pornography (for Yalom the linkage of violence with sex), which appears in a chapter on the commercial breast merging women as buyers (of corsetry throughout the ages) and sellers (Monroe to Madonna and beyond, in what seems like an obligatory litany). In context, perhaps the most original contribution concerns breast cancer, which Yalom sees as affirming women's ownership of what has been variously claimed by and for others: She surveys treatments of today and yesterday, and buoyantly makes room for ``the medical breast'' again in her upbeat celebration of ``the liberated breast'' (in politics, poetry, pictures). The conclusion echoes the opening: Attitudes toward breasts have changed variously and radically over time depending on who was observing what, where, and when. Yalom trains her own lenses--telescopic, microscopic, or just idiosyncratic--on those variables, with uneven results. The bibliography, however, is a gem for any starting student. (98 illustrations) (Author tour)