Five Questions: David Sigler on Sexual Enjoyment in British Romanticism

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David Sigler - Sexual Enjoyment in British Romanticism

David Sigler is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Calgary.  After completing his doctorate at the University of Virginia in 2008, he taught at the University of Idaho between 2008 and 2014.  His principal fields of study are British Romanticism and cultural and psychoanalytic theory, but in the course of his research thus far he has produced a wide-ranging series of publications focusing on works by figures including William Wordsworth, Georges Bataille, Charlotte Caroline Richardson, Helen Maria Williams, Madonna, Jacques Lacan, Snoop Dogg, Gilles Deleuze, Joanna Southcott and Mary Robinson.  His first monograph, Sexual Enjoyment in British Romanticism: Gender and Psychoanalysis, 1753-1835, which we discuss below, was published in February by McGill-Queen’s University Press.

1) How did you come to decide that you wanted to produce a monograph examining sexual enjoyment in British Romanticism? 

Sexual enjoyment and British Romanticism are probably the things I think most about anyway, so it only made sense that I would become interested in the combination.  I had written a doctoral dissertation on gender in British Romanticism.  As I developed the project further, I needed to start reading the wider set of Romantic-era cultural debates about gender, so I could see if and how literary texts were critically responding to those debates.  I was surprised at the extent to which the period’s debates about gender were really debates about sexual enjoyment.  I had already been studying Freud and Lacan, and so was intrigued to find that sexual enjoyment was as important to the Romantics as it was to twentieth-century psychoanalysis.  Yet the concept of sexual enjoyment as it was developed in these gender debates was also a bit different than the way that modern psychoanalysis thinks about jouissance.  I began to wonder why the Romantic-era gender debates so often revolved around sexual enjoyment, and when this might have began, and if perhaps it reflected a changing ideology of gender in the period.

2) In your introduction, you describe part of the book’s project as an attempt ‘to read Romantic-era psychoanalysis as a form of psychoanalytic thought in its own right’.  What do you see as the principal tenets or common reference points of this predisciplinary psychoanalytic discourse?

Romantic-era psychoanalysis was somewhat wider ranging and more ambivalent than psychoanalysis is today.  It hadn’t yet arrived into a clinical context, so it didn’t have any impulse to cure anyone or categorize them; it hadn’t yet received its lexicon, so it had to find new and often metaphorical ways to describe what it was encountering.  What it was encountering was the unconscious.  The tenets of Romantic-era psychoanalysis were really strikingly Freudian: indeed, they are the very things one would point to if called upon to explain why Freud was so destabilizing in the early twentieth century.  The Romantics, for instance, theorized a gap in the psyche and in discourse, which was supposedly determinative for the subject; they saw maleness and femaleness as strategies for deflecting sexual enjoyment; they internalized an unremitting demand to forfeit sexual enjoyment; they saw children as sexual creatures; they saw that dreams, when considered as clusters of images, fulfill repressed wishes, as happens, for instance, in Charlotte Dacre’s Zofloya.  These assumptions were taken as matters of course during the Romantic-era gender debates in Britain, and in the literary texts that responded to those debates; yet such ideas were so obviously controversial in the twentieth century that Freud’s tone was often one of transgression and defiance.  I became fascinated with the way that what was normal in the early nineteenth century could be outrageous in the twentieth, and how a wider range of applications for these concepts made experimental forms of gender identity thinkable and publishable.

3) What events do the dates in your chronological range (1753-1835) denote, and why did you choose this expansive chronological lens?

I don’t at all mean to assert that the discourse of sexual enjoyment, or of Romanticism, was created one day in 1753.  The book mostly focuses on the early nineteenth century, but I am trying to indicate where some of this ideology was coming from, and much of it seems to have been carried over from the mid-eighteenth century. 1753 is the year of the Marriage Act, which sought to bring conjugal sexuality into official state ledgers.  The regulation of sexual enjoyment also came to be at issue in mid-eighteenth century literary texts such as Richardson’s Clarissa, which would be foundational, a half-century later, for writers like Wollstonecraft and Austen.  Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry of 1757 determined so much of the aesthetic and political discussion of the 1790s and was incorporated and challenged by writers like Wollstonecraft, Helen Maria Williams, and Ann Radcliffe.  William Kenrick wrote a conduct book in 1753 called The Whole Duty of Woman, which was influential into the early nineteenth century; in it, you can see all of the characteristically Romantic-era assumptions about desire and the unconscious already at work.  The Romantic-era gender ideologies were germinating in literary, legislative, aesthetic, and moral touchstones like these.

The date 1835 marks the publication of the anonymous book-length essay Woman: As She Is and As She Should Be, which takes a kind of retrospective look at the changes in gender ideology since the mid-eighteenth century, especially as they were expressed in literature.  By concluding the book with a discussion of that text, I try to take stock of the transitions, cultural and sexual and literary, that had occurred since sexual enjoyment became a determinative factor for gender.

4) Your chapters which focus principally on particular figures take Jane Austen, Joanna Southcott, Mary Robinson, Charlotte Dacre and Percy Shelley as their subjects.  How did you select this cast, and were there other figures who you’d have liked to have examined in more depth if space had allowed?

I tried to strike a balance between studies of particular texts and a broader survey of the cultural discourse of sexual enjoyment.  The first 50 pages of the book survey the scene broadly, because I think that close readings of individual texts make more sense if they are discussed as part of the broader trajectory of the overall ideological transformation.  For the individual case studies, I was seeking authors who were influential in thinking about gender in the period (Burke, Austen, Wollstonecraft, Radcliffe, Robinson); authors who were controversial for their excessive or inadequate sexual enjoyment (Robinson, Shelley, Southcott); and authors who have become central to recent scholarly discussions of gender and Romanticism (Dacre, Robinson, Blake).  The most glaring absence here is Byron, who gets discussed only in passing: a book like this really should have a chapter on Byron, but page limits and time constraints did not allow for it, to my sorrow.

5) What new projects are you currently working on? 

I’m excited to be starting a new project about Romantic-era woman writers and their tendency to write about politics as if they were visitors from the future.  Specifically, I am thinking of writers like Catherine Macaulay, Charlotte Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Hays, Helen Maria Williams, Hannah Cowley, Anna Letitia Barbauld, Charlotte Caroline Richardson, Mary Shelley, Felicia Hemans, and Charlotte Bronte.  The future, in this tradition of writing, is an impossible but necessary perspective on politics, and so the project is finding its footing in deconstructive, rather than psychoanalytic, logics: I am suddenly and happily immersed in theorists like Derrida, Spivak, Johnson, and Bloch.  Freud and Lacan will make cameos as needed, though, so never to fear.  I’ve also been writing about poetry—I’ve recently written an essay on William Wordsworth for Romantic Circles Pedagogy Commons and another on Charlotte Caroline Richardson for Women’s Writing—which has enabled me to do some of the close reading work that I really enjoy.  I’ve also, in my hubris, been trying to write about film for the first time, specifically John Huston’s biopic of Freud, which has been a valuable challenge for me.  I’m in the early stages of a new article about Lacan, too.  I’m excited for all of these next steps, just as I’ve been so pleased with the publication of the Sexual Enjoyment book.  McGill-Queen’s University Press has been really wonderful to work with at every stage of the process.