ANATOMY AND DESTINY: A Cultural History of the Human Body by Stephen Kern

ANATOMY AND DESTINY: A Cultural History of the Human Body

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The title is a good deal more grand than the book. You might expect a history of the social attitudes toward Man's corporeality from Greek times; in fact Kern confines himself to the post-1850 challenge to Victorian morality, especially sexual values. Victorian repression was undermined from a number of different directions including the ""sartorial"" revolution which, by WW I had emancipated women from corsets, tight-fitting stays and stockings which imprisoned and deformed the female body. The medical assault on contagious diseases, especially syphilis, the daring break with convention in painting the nude (""the problem of how to deal with pubic hair"" plagued painters from Delacroix to Courbet to Manet), even the ""materialism"" of Marx and Darwin which emphasized the primacy of the biological imperatives in human history, contributed to the shift away from perceptions of the body as a thing to be despised and/or ignored. Puritanism and asceticism slowly gave way to the celebrations of human sensuality penned by D. H. Lawrence and Henry Miller. More unsavory was the exaltation of bodily fitness which came with the Nazi physical culture movement. Freud, whom Kern hails as the discoverer of the ""meaning of the body,"" marks the apogee of the break with Victorian values. Despite the title there's nothing very new here--just a hodgepodge of 19th century social and intellectual history--and in Kern's flat prose it comes across about as excitingly as a cold omelet. But then, the rise, and especially the fall of Victorian sexual morality, is such a hot subject that you can hardly miss.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1975
Publisher: Bobbs-Merrill