David Lederer on William Reddy

Dr David Lederer is an historian of medicine, madness, sexuality, and religion, especially in the early modern period, at NUI Maynooth.  Here he reviews William Reddy’s new book, for the History of Emotions Blog.

During the Summer of Love in San Francisco, everything was political: simply making out on the campus lawn at UC Berkeley (in blatant violation of the do-not signs) signaled political activism.  Analogously, radical German communes organized by Rudi Dutschke and other student leaders adopted the free-love mantra, ‘Wer zweimal mit derselben pennt, gehört schon zum Establishment’ (Whoever sleeps with the same person twice already belongs to the establishment) during an era of violent street fighting in Berlin.  From chants of ‘Liberté, Egalité, Sexualité’ on the barricades of Paris to the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village, love was in the air. And despite the obvious paradox suggested in a related (and rather more vulgar) axiom about peace, people appeared willing to fight for love.

Some emotions have been more politicized than others. Fear is perhaps the emotion most easily instrumentalized for political propaganda, as evidenced in the fall-out from the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks, and historical interest in it, dating back at least to the work of Jean Delumeau in the 1970s, shows no signs of abating.  Two important collections resulting from the 2007/8 cycle on ‘Fear in History’ conducted at the Davis Centre in Princeton have only just been published: Facing Fear, edited by Michael Laffan and Max Weiss, and Fear Across Disciplines, edited by Jan Plamper and Benjamin Lazier.

Until recently, love received rather less attention from historians (although several posts on this blog show this is changing). William M. Reddy’s global comparison elevates the transcendental (rather than sexual) aspects of love as a political force to a serious level of strategic discussion. At first glance, his chosen subject is surprising for several reasons.  In his seminal Navigation of Feeling, Reddy developed a working theory of interdisciplinary praxis and applied it to the French Revolution, his primary area of chronological and geographic expertise.  In the first part of the Navigation, he engages cutting-edge developments in the neurosciences, cognitive psychology and cultural anthropology to develop an historical method somewhere between the universalist claims of hard-wired biology and the absolute cultural relativity of Foucault.  Emotions, he claims, are both innately human and socially learned, outfitting individuals with the tools for self-representation; emotives.  For the historian, emotives can be sourced in language and framed as ‘… a foundation for a politically useful reconception of the relation between individual and collectivity, that is, a reconception of liberty’. (Navigation, 113)  In part two, Reddy compellingly applies his method to the instrumentalization of sentimentality in the language of the French Revolution, particularly poignant during the Terror.

Reddy’s scholarly decision to move outside his comfort zone in Making Love is anything but arbitrary.  Rather than an attempt to rewrite medieval history from without, he marshals his test-tubes and beakers from the previous experiment to take his queries to the next logical level: to demonstrate the potential adaptability of his method by means of a global trans-cultural analysis.

Romantic or courtly love is the chief subject of Reddy’s new comparative experiment.  Reddy contrasts its medieval genesis in the trobairitz/troubadour ballads of Occitan tradition with similar poetic expressions in the bhakti puranas of twelfth-century South Asia (Bengal and Orissa) and waka incantations of Heian Japan and, both of which, he claims, lack the Western dualistic division between love and lust.  This time, his theoretical introduction is adumbrated; Making Love builds directly upon the foundations of Navigation and students might consult the Navigations first, as this is truly a continuation of the previous inquiry.  A brief foray into post-Kinsean sexology is followed by a cultural anthropology of romantic love, conceived as ‘longing for association’, in three different cultures.

Biologically, Reddy slots in with the current consensus on brain plasticity, which indicates that behaviors are reinforcing:  ‘We do not, inevitably, grow ever more “horny” if deprived of sex’ (p.10).  In fact, the opposite may be the case, as desires can be culturally activated and even ritualized through chronic accessibility and frequent repetition.  Therefore, longing for association is not only a product of the biological imperative, but also a structural aspect of human communities:  ‘Present day experimental evidence offers little support for the age-old Western doctrine that there is a sexual appetite that is comparable to hunger or thirst’ (p.16).  Once again, his introduction assumes familiarity with part one of the Navigation (e.g. conceptualization of ‘emotives’) and, therefore, the uninitiated might find it difficult.

The body of evidence is divided into two parts, with the first three chapters detailing the emergence of courtly love in Europe, admittedly Reddy’s primary focus.  It arises in the context of Gregorian Reforms to marriage and sexuality as an aristocratic reaction to the over-simplified conflation of a complex social longing for association into the sinfulness of lust.  Courtly love is isolated in aristocratic speech in relationship to property, office holding and violence in a flexible kinship-reckoning system.  Faced with religious limitations on their ability to forcibly assert claims, thereby undermining useful ambiguities of legitimacy, advocates of courtly love operated in a shadowy realm of honor, open secrets and spaces of silence.  Noble women, who operated capably within that realm to claim offices, titles or lands – albeit often through male intermediaries – embraced courtly love as a liberating ideal that extolled charismatic virtues of romance within an aristocratic/familial code of honor.  Courtly love offered channels to vent frustration with the simplistic Gregorian condemnation of concupiscence as a physical appetite and therefore did not encompass the complex aristocratic longing for association also based upon titles, land, honor, dress, manner and education.  As Reddy astutely concludes this section: ‘Listening to sermons… they must have sensed that marrying… a high-ranking peer… simply to satisfy a sex drive would have been like buying a farm because one was hungry’(219).

The final two chapters comprising part two synchronically compare twelfth-century Western dualism with longing for association in bhakti Vaishnavism and among the Heian elite; neither culture recognized a gulf between sublime emotional love and desire-as-appetite, exhibiting instead a more holistic view.  While Reddy is cautious that his results are in no way indicative of a monolithic view of ‘Hindu’ or ‘Buddhist’, he remains convinced that neither of his comparative test cases entertain notions of sexual ‘appetite’ as understood in the West.  In Bengal and Orissa, for example, there was an important distinction between coarse, this-worldly, particular desires (generally, bhava; sexually, rati) and universalist refined moods (rasa; shingara rasa).  However, both were equally acceptable, the latter simply sublime and worthy of pursuit (especially among social superiors), as they pointed toward more universalistic and transcendental values.  Chapter four focuses on kingship and worship at the temple of Purushottama in Puri, where bhakti spiritualism included ritualized enactments of sexual liaisons, songs full of the love-lust of shringara rasa and a twelfth-century outpouring of poetry and drama celebrating enobling romantic affairs.  The religious complexities of ‘puranic Hinduism’ and Tantric sectarianism are elaborated vis-à-vis the prevailing political hierarchy.  Still, despite the lack of duality in the political structure (i.e. an independent and competing religious organization like the papacy), Reddy is able to enumerate similarities in the elaboration of the spiritual code of practice at court in bhakta spiritualism in South Asia and the European ideal of courtly love.

From the perspective of many Western observers, Japanese eroticism found its ultimate expression in the shunga woodblocks of okiyo-e artists during the Edo period of the late-18th and early-19th centuries.  Not least among them, Katasushika Hokusai and Utamaro Kitigawa, subsequently influenced a whole generation of European painters from Eduard Degas, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin to Pablo Picasso.  However, the Japanese spiritual tradition of elegance and compassion inherent in longing for association was rooted more deeply in Buddhism and indigenous kami worship.  In twelfth-century Heian Japan, just as in Orissa, no distinction was made between elevated love and sexual desire.  However, as with all this-worldly desires, longing for association was fraught with the same inevitable disappointments and sorrows.  In the Heian context, the combination of sadness with possibilities for spiritual consolation from one’s partner is witnessed in a great range of emotional material.  Earlier forms of social, kinship and gender structure, especially those ushered in by the adoption of Chinese patriarchal virtues and a centralized ritsuryō state system in the eighth century, later broke down during the tenth, which saw an increase in localized patrimonial interests.

An accompanying revival of indigenous kami traditions is manifest in waka  poetry, a verse form of love incantation exploiting word associations and puns from human spirituality and nature.  One such verse, the anonymous Gossamer Years diaries a wife’s attempts wife to move her husband, a bureaucrat, to greater attentiveness vis-à-vis his other wives and lovers, lyrically mixing her tears with raindrops as pleas for consolation.  The Tale of Genji provides another view of Heian emotional subjectivity (controversially interpreted by some scholars as ‘modern’) in depictions of the amorous liaisons of an imperial chancellor.  Genji wanders through his life detached, while the fleeting and episodic nature of his love encounters are punctuated by spiritual longing for an unattainably fulfilling physical union.  Throughout, each individual experience is infused with a deeper spiritual experience, whether these be with elegant ladies of court or ardent courtesans; neither is elevated above the other, all being part of an almost dreamlike wandering through life’s frustrations.  Literature once again provides Reddy with a yardstick to compare values in the longing for association in Occitan lyric (e.g. William of Aquitaine), Sanskrit poetry (Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda) and waka verse.

Ultimately, to what extent does Making Love succeed in this comparative experiment?  Certainly, Reddy must be applauded for his courage in his attempt at a truly global culture analysis which incorporates sensitivity both to specific historical contexts and their linguistic expressions of love within the framework of a rigorous methodological and theoretical framework.  If his generalizations are based largely upon the culture of the ruling elite, then this is surely fair in terms of availability of sources and in an attempt to accentuate the political significance of love in three very different constellations.  It must be left to area specialists to verify the validity of his regional interpretations, though the presentation of the most recent secondary materials appears thorough and commendable.  In that sense, he succeeds in illustrating the unique dualist character of Western romantic love against the backdrop of two synchronic non-European cultures without recourse to a crude Euro-centric model of modernity.  Overall, Making Love is as finely crafted and enjoyable as the subject itself – the politics of love as a holistic social and cultural ideology, rather than a mere elemental force or universal biological appetite.

Nonetheless, after comparing notes with colleagues and, given the present forum, I find myself mulling over several questions which might be useful for discussion.  First is a simple question of interpretation: Is there really such a clear consensus among medievalists about the seminal role of William of Aquitaine as an anti-Gregorian troubadour?  Second is a request for a further elaboration of his analysis of Bengal society and the noble character of its more universalist courtly performances of rasa as a legitimizing force in caste structure.  Finally, there is a question of tone.  Reddy focuses on Church reform without reference to the language of desire in medieval Christian spirituality; one thinks here of the work of Caroline Walker Bynum, Jean Claude Schmitt or Bernard McGinn.  Asian spiritually certainly figures far more prominently throughout Making Love.  I couldn’t help coming away from the book with greater empathy for the harmonious image derived from his Asian case studies, which appeared less prone to dialectical struggle and the European aristocratic proclivity for violence.  If that is indeed so, perhaps a closer look at twelfth-century Khmer culture during the civil wars might provide another interesting contrast?

© David Lederer, National University of Ireland Maynooth

Return to the Introduction to the William Reddy Round-table

Read Katherine Clark’s review.

Read Hera Cook’s review.

Read William Reddy’s response.