15th Century erotica! Oh my. This looks to be very interesting, and I do plan on reading it. Unfortunately I can’t do that right away, the day before chemo is always a busy one.
A decade or so after the famed Orientalist Richard Burton translated Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Nafzawi’s The Perfumed Garden of Sensual Delight (1886), an anonymous translator became the first to critically assess and introduce for Anglophone audiences another of the Middle East’s more controversial and enigmatic texts — Kitab al-Izah Fi’ilm al-Nikah b-it-Tamam w-al-Kamal, or The Book of Exposition — a collection of fifteenth-century erotica. Despite there being much dispute over the authorship of the work, from both Western and Middle Eastern scholars over the centuries, The Book of Exposition is nowadays credited to a fifteenth-century Egyptian polymath called Jalal ad’Din al-Suyuti (1445-1505). Although perhaps best known for his co-authorship of Tafsir al-Jalalayn (Tafsir of the Two Jalals), a classical Sunni exegesis of the Quran, al-Suyuti was also a prolific erotologist, writing at least twenty-three treatises on various aspects of the sexual arts.
The two dozen stories he presents in The Book of Exposition are an exploration of promiscuity and sexual taboos under the societal constraints of the Arab-Islamic world. In “The Strange Transformation that Befell a Certain Believer’s Prickle” a man is granted a “Night of Power” in which he is given three wishes to be fulfilled by Allah.
In his opening essay and commentary, An English Bohemian sets out to dispel Victorian attitudes to sexuality through the idolisation of the Oriental — setting up “Oriental Sexuology” as a mystical alternative for aspiring libertines/hedonists. He doesn’t just limit himself to the Orient in his examination of sexuality. He offers an insight into the sexual customs of other lands he claims to have travelled and researched extensively as a former practitioner of medicine: from Loango to the Aztecs, Paraguay to Samoa, Europe to Arabia. Despite his intentions, we perhaps end up learning more about Western attitudes to sex than the those of the non-European cultures he examines. His assertions, in their elevation of Orient over the Occident, appear to be motivated more by a desire to rebel against the prevailing establishment of his own culture than offering a nuanced picture of a foreign culture’s attitudes to sex.