The East, the West, and Sex

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The East, the West, and Sex: A History of Erotic Encounters
By Richard Bernstein
Knopf, 2009

Sooner or later, tourists in Istanbul — having choked on cheap hookahs, priced the amenities of belly-dance clubs with skeptical asperity, and stared dully at the striped dome of the Hagia Sophia — all gravitate toward one place in particular: the sultan’s palace and its harem quarters. There, in the dowdy rooms and on the terraces where the ruler and his women dallied, the imagination, almost satiated by other sights, can still run a little wild. Male visitors in those quarters look fattened on dreams, fantasizing about that old extravagance as a reproach to their wives and locked-in lives.

Who lives like that anymore? The great lechers have aged, gone leather-faced — think Warren Beatty. Bill Clinton has settled into luxurious domesticity with a cabinet officer. Barack Obama exudes monogamy like catnip. The fine old faculty of lust is now the property of Republican politicians: as if Bach’s variegated oeuvre had been entrusted to an orchestra of kazoos.

The harem is at the center of Richard Bernstein’s odd new book, The East, the West, and Sex: A History of Erotic Encounters; and that tired sense of the West as drained of Eros, needing to borrow sexual energy from elsewhere, hangs over it. Johann Hari, reviewing the book in Slate, stoked controversy by accusing it of a “fetid attitude toward women.” This led to a correction by Slate’s editors that ought to add a zero or two to the volume’s sales:

This review originally included two phrases that could have given the incorrect impression that Richard Bernstein has attended, or approves of, brothels where women are coerced… We have amended these sentences to clarify that Bernstein does not approve of forced prostitution.

I would almost be relieved if Bernstein had written in defense of forced prostitution, as devil’s advocate if for no other reason. At least one could guess where he stood. The book seems paralyzed by caution, as if Bernstein had contracted lockjaw at the thought of all the people he would offend. Clear assertions emerge only toward the end, and no term is ever really defined. The result — peculiar in a work that flaunts geography in its very title — is to leave one wondering constantly, in a world of foggy concepts, where one is.

East is East, West is West, and where the hell are we? It’s all relative, and Bernstein’s failure to see that is the first, if least, of his problems. Historically, for Westerners, “the East” has meant whatever lies just beyond one’s longitude. Metternich said, “The Orient starts at the Landstrasse,” and a French visitor wrote of Bucharest in 1934 that the “European city disappears, and Asia begins… Without warning, the horizon opens towards Iran, the Gobi desert, Tibet.”

Bernstein needs no Tibet, though. He knows what makes his version of the East: “harem culture.” One value of the book, certainly, is to remind us how the seraglio haunted the European imagination for three hundred years. History, travel writing, and pornography were fixated on the cultural, political, and priapic peculiarity of a monarch provided with unlimited (hetero)sexual opportunity. “The Ottoman harem enchanted Europeans for centuries,” Bernstein writes, “tickled their imagination, inspired works of literature and art, all in appreciation of the existence of an alternative sexual world.”

But Bernstein is not content to tread the rose gardens of Topkapi, lamenting the wet dreams of yesteryear; his book ranges far beyond Turkey. It stitches together Africa and Asia as well as the Middle East, as places dominated by harem culture.

This is genuinely bizarre. The Ottoman harem was a singular institution, serving dynastic as well as hedonistic purposes; none of the sultan’s subjects enjoyed quite its like. There is no justification for using it to embrace such far-flung phenomena as polygamy in sub-Saharan Africa, Second World War “comfort women,” or what Bernstein calls the Chinese “practice of keeping concubines, whereby men of wealth and power expect as a perquisite of their status to enjoy the favors of at least one mistress.” (The latter is apparently a distinctive quirk of Chinese civilization, not at all comparable to the morals of the Bourbon court, the British cabinet, or the governor of South Carolina.)

Only toward the book’s end does Bernstein’s intended meaning of “harem culture” start to become clear. He doesn’t, in fact, suppose that every “Easterner” keeps a bevy of sex slaves locked in the basement, like one infamous Austrian father exponentially multiplied. By “culture” he means, rather, “an entire connoisseurship of refined pleasure,” a pursuit of sexuality as an end in itself rather than subordinate to respectability or reproduction.

Those Chinese mistresses, Japanese masseuses, and African wives embody this cultivation of the senses unique to the non-European world. The “Eastern” male needs a virtuous and closely controlled spouse at home and a large class of other women solely devoted to intensifying his pleasure. Bernstein is honest enough to admit that this is not a good thing for women. But at least, he suggests, it’s an Option B to the A of Christian civilization, with its disdain for the body and its rigid rules.

Of the innumerable problems with this formula, one is overriding: Bernstein shows no real interest in tracing how this supposed sexual connoisseurship was defined and voiced by the cultures he names. He doesn’t really care how the Chinese or Indians wrote about sex; he doesn’t have access to their literature. He identifies sensual refinement only through the accounts of other Westerners who saw it. Bernstein can’t and won’t deal with the Thousand and One Nights as an Arabic document, for example — he treats it only through the prism of Richard Burton’s life and translation.

So there is very little substance at all in Bernstein’s writing about the “East.” He can see his own three-continent construct only through a haze of Western fantasy and desire, and this also blinds Bernstein to the obvious conclusion that can be drawn from his examples. All these Westerners idealizing the intricate, precocious sensuality of the Orient were not really describing an Other over there. They were writing Western texts (in Bernstein’s geography) for the pleasure of Western readers; it was Western sexuality they defined and affected, by promoting orgasms and package tours. The very existence of these books and their legions of readers reveals a connoisseurship of the senses ingrained in Europe, not Asia — and hardly limited to French kings or Southern governors.

Where Bernstein takes three hundred pages, Lord Byron summed up the European mystique of the “East” in two lines: “What men call gallantry, and gods adultery / Is much more common where the climate’s sultry.” Byron’s rhyme, naturally, leaves out the other realities of that mystique — the racism and the narcissism, the armies and the exploitation. But Byron, humorist not journalist, knew what he was using the East for: to describe, and prick, Europe’s own desires and imagination. In Don Juan, his hero visits the celebrated seraglio, and finds it dull — bourgeois domesticity recapitulated thousandfold. Bernstein might have learned this lesson from him: what we find is what we bring. For the West, the harem began at home.