This book tells how the diverting array of pleasures in eighteenth-century libertine fiction gave way, through a process of thematic drift and realignment, to a powerfully linear story that actually defined sex and the gender roles pertaining to it. Many of the key notions in modern talk about sex are in fact narrative ones: climax, foreplay, and the sex act are all said to lie at the heart of human sexuality. But 'The Telling of the Act' questions whether these notions deserve to be thought of as timeless, and in fact locates their emergence in the second half of the eighteenth century.
It has come to be widely accepted that "sexuality" as we know it took shape at the end of the nineteenth century, around the time that Havelock Ellis declared it the "central problem of life." Yet however self-evident Ellis's claim about sexuality might seem, the act of placing something at the center is the consequence of insistent cultural work that engages with competing views about bodies and indeed about the "life" of society. This volume explores how habits of thinking about the centrality of sex were articulated, how they engaged with pre-existing approaches to personal identity, and what competing discourses had to be displaced in order for sexuality to become as central as sexologists claimed it was. It shows that asserting the centrality of sexuality is not an innocent gesture, but one deeply implicated in a wide range of representations, practices, and experiences connected to discourses about race, gender, and other vectors of difference. Peter Cryle is Professor of French at the University of Queensland. Christopher E. Forth is the Jack and Shirley Howard Teaching Professor in Humanities & Western Civilization at the University of Kansas.