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Lecture notes: On the Kamasutra – II

Having discussed the “discovery” and publication of the Kamasutra, I will now examine some aspects of its history and influence beyond the confines of Burton’s closed circle of gentleman erotophiles. For this post, I will discuss the some of changes in representation of the Kamasutra in the West throughout the twentieth century.

Pirate Editions
The second edition of the Kamasutra was published in 1884. This was a much more ambitious and sumptuous presentation. Bound in white vellum, with a gold border on the covers and the words “The Kamasutra of Vatsyayana” and “Benares, 1883” appearing in gold on the spine. It was priced at £2 10s. The place of printing was given as “Cosmopoli” which was, according to James McConnachie (2007), something of an in-joke, being both a standard device resorted to pornographers, and an oblique reference to the presiding chief of a club known as the ‘Cosmopolitan’ – Richard Monckton Milnes. Whilst publishing the Kamasutra under the imprint”The Kama Shastra Society” gave Burton and Arbuthnot a degree of anonymity against prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act (as privately-circulated books were exempted from prosecution), it also prevented them from registering copyright on the book. McConnachie comments that the “second printing was hardly off the presses before the first pirated editions were being sold on Holywell Street.” It was the underground editions of the Kamasutra which started it on its long journey to infamy. One London bookseller who produced a pirate edition of the Kamasutra was Edward Avery, a London bookseller based in Greek Street, and was associated with Leonard Smithers and Harry S. Nichols’ “Erotika Biblion Society” (which was probably modelled on the Kama Shastra Society) which published books such as the Priapeia (1890, translated by Burton) and Oriental Stories (1893). Pirate editions were also issued from Brussels and Paris, and later, America. By the mid-twentieth century, as Deborah Lutz notes, “it became arguably the most widely published book in history. This trend of underground publishing continued up until the early 1960s, when the Kamasutra was openly published for the first time.

Havelock Ellis
the Kamasutra and Sexology
It was during the Kamasutra’s “underground” period that it was first noticed by the emerging discipline of sexology, and early sexologists such as Iwan Bloch (1872-1922) and Havelock Ellis (1859-1939) both used the book as an authoratitive text. I shall say more about sexology in the next article in this series, but I think that one of the reasons that, by the 1960s, the Kamasutra came to be viewed as a “liberatory” text was its association with sexology (via which it came to be viewed as a “scientific” work).

Early sexological efforts were concerned with the cataloguing, classification and definition of various abnormalities and perversions, as can be seen in Kraft-Ebbing’s monumental “medico-forensic study of the abnormal” – Psychopathia Sexualis (1886). It’s easy to see how the Kamasutra, with its descriptions of different forms of congress, biting and kissing would have appealed to early sexologists, and Ellis (who quotes the Kamasutra repeatedly in his Studies in the Psychology of Sex) proclaimed that Vatsyayana was “one of the greatest authorities on sexology”. Similarly, Bloch, in his enticingly-titled Anthropological Studies in the Strange Sexual Practices of All Races in All Ages draws on the Kamasutra in his discussion of sexual practices in India, asserting that India’s Kama texts

“are for the great masses of the people; they are simply the literary expression of nation customs which are considered so natural as to require no reticence, indeed are regarded as religious practices. It is obvious what must have resulted from these principles, and a qualified English observer was undoubtedly right when he asserted, “Even the most debauched European is a pattern of modesty compared with the Indians themselves.”(Anthropological Studies, p35)

The early sexologists viewed themselves as scientific pioneers, bringing enlightenment to a subject which had been shrouded in ignorance, but they were not necessarily “rebels” in the way that Burton represented himself, and had more in common with those he referred to as “Mrs. Grundy” (see previous post). Sexology emerged out of the concerns of the nineteenth century, such as the worries over sexual health and the nation, the social purity movements, racial eugenics, etc. Havelock Ellis, whilst advocating liberalisation of the laws against homosexuality, was also a firm believer in eugenics, and was on the committee for the British National Council for Public Morality (Weeks, 1985, p76). Early sexology – particularly in Britain, came to be seen as a legitimate area of study when it aligned itself with the medical and legal professions, reifying the majoritarian discourses on sexuality. Weeks notes (p79) that “Commentators observed that nineteenth-century medicine created women as no more than wombs on legs, as little more than the mechanism by which life was transmitted. Ellis’s comment that women’s brains were in some sense ‘in their wombs’ or Otto Weininger’s that ‘Man possesses sexual organs; her sexual organs possess women’ called upon, reaffirmed, and recirculated such assumptions of medical discourse.”

The 1960s and beyond
The Kamasutra finally made it out the underground in the early 1960s. In 1959, Grove Press, in the USA, published an unexpurgated edition of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. There was a trial, and the book was judged not to be obscene. Penguin Books in the UK followed with their own edition in 1960. Again there was a trial, and the jury ruled again in the book’s favour. From 1962 onwards, several editions of the Kamasutra were published in both America and the UK. One of the most significant editions was the version published by EP Dutton in 1962. This edition was introduced by a New York-based travel writer Santha Rama Rau, who gave the impression that the Kamasutra was an accurate portrayal of the sex lives of people in India. Her foreward was accompanied by an essay by John W Spellman, a prominent Indologist, which discussed the sexual aspects of tantric practice as a means of providing a wider cultural context to the Kamasutra. It was this essay, according to James McConnochie (2007), which led to the the idea that the Kamasutra was a tantric text.

The first edition of the Kamasutra to be accompanied by illustrations was an Indian edition in 1961, which was illustrated by black & white photographs of erotic temple sculptures from Khajuraho (in 1957, a Delhi magistrate had ruled that a book which published images of the erotic Khajuraho statuary was “obscene”). In 1980, The Love Teachings of the Kama Sutra was the first version to have the text “illustrated” by Indian erotic miniature paintings – and set the tone for successive editions. McConnochie cites an instance of a customer complaining in an review (2001) that “this book is not a Kama Sutra. There are no illustrations.” Successive editions of the Kamasutra cut the text – and the images used, to foster the belief that the book was largely about sexual positions favouring the acrobatic and the extravagant.

the Kamasutra and The Joy of Sex
Dr. Alex Comfort (1920-2000) is best-known for his book The Joy of Sex: A Gourmet Guide to Lovemaking which sold more than 12 million copies worldwide. By all accounts, he would have preferred not to be remembered as “Doctor Sex” but for his novels, poetry, and his anarchist political thought. He was a conscientious objector during the Second World War, and was briefly imprisoned in 1961 for refusing to be bound over ahead of a planned demonstration in Trafalgar Square.

A passionate anarcho-pacifist, Comfort wrote several tracts in the late 1940s and early 1950s which were critical of any kind of state authority, and was a frequent contributor to anarchist journals such as Freedom and Anarchy.. In Barbarism and Sexual Freedom (1948) for example, he argues that the basis of sexual freedom is the “responsibility of the individual for his own acts and their consequences, absence of interference of coercive institutions, economic freedom and security, and social order orientated towards life rather than death.” He believed that “the desire to govern by coercion, to control or rely upon the state machinery, which Western political thought has traditionally regarded as the basis of social order, is in itself an abnormal impulse, an outcome of personality deviation.”

In the 1950s Comfort produced several medical texts dealing with gerontology – including The Biology of Senescence (1956). He also published several novels, such as Come out to Play (1961) which shows traces of his interest in Indian erotics. The earlier Barbarism and Sexual Freedom became the basis for Sex in Society, published in 1963.

In a manner reminiscent of Wilhelm Reich, Comfort expounded the view that a revolution in individual sexuality would entail an equally radical social revolution, and in his later works, argued that the frustration of sexual desire led to their expression as destructive urges directed at controlling others. Authoritarian society was the outcome of repressive sexual morality and argues in both Joy of Sex and The New Joy of Sex (1991) that “sexual hangups” directly produce events such as “sadistic mutilation, purity crusading, Belsen or Vietnam”.

Comfort believed that “no form of sexual behaviour can be regarded as inacceptable, sinful or deserving of censure unless it has demonstratable ill effects on the individual who practices it, or on others.” By the beginning of the 1960s, Comfort was was of the UK’s most prolific advocates for “free love” and he proposed, amongst other things, the legalisation of prostitution and the recognition that children had sexual identities. (Honeywell, 2011). He caused a minor scandal by suggesting, in a television interview in 1963, that 15-year-old boys should carry condoms. This was at a time when the contraceptive pill was only available to married women, and to engaged women only at the discretion of family planning clinic’s and only when women could supply a supportive letter from their family vicar.

In 1962 he visited India for the first time, and in 1965, produced a translation of the Koka Shastra: Being the Ratirahasya of Kokkoka and Other Medieval Indian Writings on Love. (although it is not actually known whether he did the translation himself, or, in a Burtonesque fashion, paid an unacknowledged Indian to do the job). In the introduction, Comfort writes: “The Sanskrit textbooks on the art of love form a continuous sequence from remote antiquity to the sixteenth century AD. or later, and on to the present time in vernacular versions and inspirations. Most great cultures, as well as many tribal societies, have had a literature of this kind — our own Judaeo-Christian tradition is almost unique in lacking one.”

In 1972, Comfort produced his own “update” to the KamasutraThe Joy of Sex. His original idea for a title was “Cordon Bleu Sex” – but the brand owners threatened legal action. But the association between sex and food remained in the chapter headings: Starters, Main Courses, Sauces and Pickles.

Alain Danielou's Kama Sutra
“queering” the Kamasutra
In 1995, Alain Danielou (1907-1994) produced a gay-inflected translation of the Kamasutra. Translated into English as The Complete Kama Sutra: The First Unabridged Modern Translation of the Classical Indian Text. Danielou presented India as the wellspring of sexual liberation. A Traditionalist, he believed that India existed in a Roussea-like state of perfection (he was opposed to the modernisation of India and hated Gandhi) and claimed that “In traditional India, a six-year-old schoolboy has already studied texts of the Kamasutra which explain all the secrets of loveplay and its variations” (although he does not say how he arrived at this assertion). Danielou’s translations include changing all the pronouns in the chapter on oral sex from “she” to “he”, and the sanskrit term auparistaka – usually translated as “oral sex” into “homophile relations”. A sentence which in the Burton edition reads: “There exist two kinds of eunuchs or hermaphrodites; those who choose the role of men, and those who disguise themselves as women.” became, for Danielou: “People of the third sex are of two kinds, according to whether their appearance is masculine or feminine.” He also translated the term svairini – a self-willed, sexually unrestrained woman – as “lesbian” and even found evidence for gay marriage: “there are also citizens, sometimes greatly attached to each other with complete faith in one another, who get married to each other” (Sweet, 2001, p80).

Danielou shared the views of Comfort and other advocates of sexual (and social) liberation: “Chastity, when it is not a disguise, is a form of masochism. It is obvious that it leads to a sort of sadism and to a perverse disorientation in values.” Unlike the anarchist Comfort however, Danielou approved heartily of “traditional” Hindu values and thought that the West could learn a thing or two from the Hindu ordering of society. In Virtue, Success, Pleasure & Liberation he states that problems associated with India’s caste system have been “greatly exaggerated” and that for the most part, it has always been “a harmonious whole in which each is satisfied with his social lot” (p45). Later in the same book, in extolling the virtues of Hindu attitudes to women over those of “repressive Christianity” he explains that: ““a woman who has had a lover or has been raped is no longer fit for her role as mother because the heredity of her children is believed to be affected … Henceforth she will belong to the corporation of women who have had relations with several men, i.e. prostitutes, and her duties will be those of that group.”

The discontents of modernity
As McConnochie points out (2007, 195-197) Western liberals and reformers seized on the Kamasutra as the foundational text of a sexually liberated tradition, and used it both as a benchmark of sexual freedom to emulate, but also a counterpoint against which Western attitudes to sexuality could be judged – and found wanting. Both Alex Comfort and Alain Danielou presented their Kamasutra-inspired texts on the basis that western society had, until the present, repressed sexuality, and both found a corrective in the Kamasutra (and, in varying degrees) a romantic-orientalist view of India.

This perspective, now often referred to as the “Repressive Hypothesis” – the notion that the central theme of western history (and in particular, the previous century) is that of the repression and denial of “natural” sexual desires; and that this repression can only be countered by the widest possible embracing of inner drives and instincts. Foucault is famously critical of this perspective, arguing that:

Sexuality must not be thought of as a kind of natural given which power tries to hold in check, or as an obscure domain which knowledge tries gradually to uncover. It is the name that can be given to a historical construct: not a furtive reality that is difficult to grasp, but a great surface network in which the stimulation of bodies, the intensification of pleasures, the incitement to discourse, the formation of special knowledges, the strengthening of controls and resistances, are linked to one another, in accordance with a few major strategies of knowledge and power.
The History of Sexuality: Volume One

In the next part of this article I will examine responses to the popularity of the Kamasutra in twentieth-century India.

John James Clarke, Oriental Enlightment: The Encounter Between Asian and Western Thought (Routledge, 1997)
Colette Colligan The Traffic in Obscenity from Byron to Beardsley: Sexuality and Exoticism in Nineteenth-Century Print Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006)
Michel Foucault The History of Sexuality Volume One: An Introduction (Vintage Books, 1990)
Jay Gertzman Bookleggers and Smuthounds: The Trade in Erotica, 1920-1940 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002)
Carrisa Honeywell, A British Anarchist Tradition: Herbert Read, Alex Comfort and Colin Ward (Continuum, 2011)
Janice Irvine, Disorders Of Desire: Sexuality And Gender In Modern American Sexology (Temple University Press, 2005)
Deborah Lutz, Pleasure Bound: Victorian Sex Rebels and the New Eroticism (W.W. Norton & Company, 2011)
Andrew & Harriet Lyons, Irregular Connections: A History of Anthropology and Sexuality (University of Nebraska Press, 2004)
James McConnachie The Book of Love: In search of the Kamasutra (Atlantic Books, 2007)
Michael J Sweet Eunuchs, Lesbians, and Other Mythical Beasts: Queering and Dequeering the Kama Sutra in Ruth Vanita, (ed) Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society (Routledge, 2001)
Jeffrey Weeks Sexuality and its Discontents: Meanings, Myths, and Modern Sexualities (Routledge Kegan & Paul, 1985)