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Everything About Epublishing
by Angela James
Epublishing: A Different Way
Choosing an Epublisher
Your Milage May Vary
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by Louisa Burton
The Publishing Biz
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Interview with Fantagraphics


On Writing Erotica

The Accidental Pornographer
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The End of Innocence
by Lisabet Sarai

Get Them Off in High Style
Helena Settimana

So, You Want To Write Erotica?
by Hanne Blank


Web Gems
Hot Movies For Her

The Book of Love:

The Story of the Kamasutra
by James McConnachie

Book Review by Rob Hardy

 

The Book of LoveThe Kamasutra is a misunderstood book, and it has been misunderstood largely because of the censors who have given it a reputation for naughty depictions of sexual variety and athleticism. Not only was the original book without illustrations, it describes only eighteen positions for lovemaking, most of them quite within the realm of execution by non-gymnasts. It has nothing to do with tantric sex and much to do with civilized behavior. It describes an idealized way of life rather than being a practical sex manual for its time or for our own (the excellent The Guide to Getting It On! is much more fun and informative for current purposes). The wild sex that the word “kamasutra” now promises (courtesy of those, especially the censors, who have enabled its sensationalizing) isn’t a theme in the book itself. According to James McConnachie in The Book Of Love: The Story of the Kamasutra (Metropolitan Books), the sex in the book is mannered and moral. How the book got the reputation as a repository for sensational sex secrets is McConnachie’s elegantly-told tale, and it is fascinating, reaching back to the third century and all the way up into our own.

The author of the Kamasutra was one Vatsyayana, who described himself as a white-haired scholar and thus long past sexual distractions. It’s not possible to know much about him (he never mentions dates or settings), or to know if he was really a figurehead for a group of anonymous collaborators. He was interested in rescuing a sexual tradition from an increasingly ascetic third-century India. “Kama” (incompletely translated as “sexual desire”) was one of the three paths of Hinduism, along with dharma (religious duties) and artha (worldly power). In Vatsyayana’s time, the Bhagavadgita could be read as fulminating against kama, and the Buddhism and Jainism of the time were rejecting the delights of the physical world. McConnachie reminds us that the puritan tradition in India reaches way back and continues today, so that the reputation given to the region by the Kamasutra for exotic sexual practices fits no better then than it does now. Vatsyayana’s “sutra” (a sutra is “a scholarly treatise designed to compress knowledge into a series of pithy maxims”) was meant to be an authoritative study of a particular part of human behavior.

Vatsyayana describes the life and surroundings of a smart, young urbanite with plenty of money and leisure. Such lucky fellows lived in houses that had orchards and servant quarters, and had two bedrooms (one for sleeping, one for sex). The account of such an establishment is so detailed that Vatsyayana mentions that the bedroom should come equipped with a special ivory tusk for the owner to hang his lute on. These descriptions of interior design, as well as personal grooming, are in the first of seven books of the Kamasutra. The second book has to do with the surprisingly moderate bedroom acrobatics. McConnachie explains that there are few ancient books that so well describe the social and sexual lives of women, and sexual enjoyment of women is addressed, but still, this is a man’s world and a man’s book. In fact, despite dipping into anatomy, Vatsyayana never mentions the clitoris, nor of course contraception or even conception. Books three to six tell a gentleman how to deal with a virgin, with the wife, with the wives of other men, and with courtesans. A final book gives advice on aphrodisiacs, potions of such things as honey, gooseberry, and pulverized buzzard, applied just in the right place, more for magical seductive power than as a primitive Viagra.

The Kamasutra went dormant for centuries. The miniatures that adorn it in modern versions usually don’t have anything to do with the text, and date from the fifteenth century onward. Indian princes were fond of having themselves portrayed as the skillful lovers in the pictures. When eighteenth century translators were eager to go to work on the text, it was surprisingly hard to find a full text to work with. When the text was discovered and gathered, the job was done under the inspiration of Sir Richard Burton, who was quite interested in shocking his fellow Britons into what he felt was a more open discussion of sex. His previous attempt at printing another manual, Kama Shastra, was going fine until the printers took a look at what they were actually printing, and stopped after making no more than six copies. Burton, one of the most colorful characters ever, was a famous swordsman, explorer, linguist, diplomat, and pornographer. He belonged to the Kama Shastra Society, mostly English aristocrats who enjoyed such hobbies as pornography and flagellation, and it was this society that worked on bringing out the Kamasutra. Finding the full original text was hard, and the translation was tortuous, Indian translators working the Sanskrit text into a bridge language Gujarati, before it was turned into English, to be polished by Burton’s friend Foster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot. Burton was not, as many assume, the translator, although he was the guiding genius of the project. He provided notes, and his notoriety guaranteed that the text would not be printed in some obscure academic journal. McConnachie writes that not only did Burton ensure the text would be well circulated within his erotomaniac circle, it was his “status as a great explorer and Orientalist that lent the Kamasutra authenticity as a piece of anthropological archaeology, offering a fig-leaf cover of at least semi-respectability.” When it was published in 1883, it was in an expensive edition, to avoid charges of corrupting the working classes while it had a good run among their betters.

Pirate publishers, however, had a field day with the text immediately after it was issued, and were especially interested in leaving out everything but the “good” bits, and putting in pictures. With attempts of suppression, it lead a shadowy life as a forbidden book and has been associated in most people’s minds with pornography. When the ban against Lady Chatterley collapsed in 1960, it became an over-the-counter commodity. Burton and company had wanted to strike a blow against prudery; Alain Daniélou translated it in 1994, deliberately making it a text promoting homosexuality. The book does mention “lady-boys”, but Daniélou changed, for instance, the section on fellatio so that all the pronouns for the performer were “he” rather than “she”. There have been other translations, and in an excellent bibliography McConnachie praises a scholarly one from 2002, although the Burton edition will always be a landmark, and will always be in print and timely. Furthermore, we have The Bedside Kama Sutra or Red-Hot Sex the Kama Sutra Way, or Deepak Chopra’s version (I’m no prude, but I am too inhibited to think of even looking into that one), not to mention a couple of examples of pop-up book versions (“even if the bits that pop up are not necessarily those you’d expect”, McConnachie jokes). The book has escaped from grubby, clandestine shelves in dark bookshops, but usually in ways that transformed it from its original content and purpose. McConnachie has written an amusing and instructive history of an important text and its sometimes preposterous interpretations and social effects.

Rob Hardy
August 2008


The Book Of Love: The Story of the Kamasutra

(Metropolitan Books; May 27, 2008; ISBN-10: 0805088180)
Available at: Amazon.com  / Amazon UK  / Powell's Books


_______
© 2008 Rob Hardy. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.



About the Reviewer:†
Rob Hardy is a psychiatrist who lives in Columbus, Mississippi, with his wife, two terriers, five cats, and goldfish.

He reviews nonfiction for The Times of Acadiana, but has been reviewing books as a hobby for years before that.
WebBio: Rob Hardy



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