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The East, the West, and Sex: A History of…
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The East, the West, and Sex: A History of Erotic Encounters

by Richard Bernstein

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    This Earth of Mankind by Pramoedya Ananta Toer (mercure)
    mercure: In Earth of Mankind and Child of All Nations, Pramoedya Ananta Toer describes the down side of concubine life during colonial days.
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    Sultry Climates by Ian Littlewood (Anonymous user)
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    De njai by Reggie Baaij (mercure)
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The Occident is from Mars, the Orient is from Venus

Less than a week into my first trip east of Vienna I was on a houseboat on Srinagar’s Dal Lake, sometimes admiring the graciously moving daughter of the Indian family on the boat next to mine. After two days the son of the family wanted to invite me over to get more acquainted. I kindly declined. It was my first experience that the lure between West and East went beyond temples and democratic institutions.

The images that the West holds of the East dates back from Antiquity. After Titus’ victory over the Israelis, coins were minted showing a victorious male in Roman military uniform standing against a palm tree, and a weeping female, sitting in a gesture of submission. It is the oldest image of the East as weak and feminine and the West as strong and masculine. That image has pertained well into the the third millennium, not in the least because it matched nicely with the developing political and economic disparities between the two sides of the Eurasian landmass.

Exoticism, as much as power and money, has a sexual component. In this book Mr. Bernstein chronicles the “history of erotic encounters” between West and East. As a definition for the East, he takes the Orient, an area that ranges from Morocco to Japan; countries that the West managed to colonise almost completely since the 15th century. And whereas monogamy was the norm in the West since the rise of Christianity, in the East polygamy, the “culture of the harem”, reigned for whoever had the means to enjoy it. The East set aside a group of women for men’s sexual enjoyment, and Western traders and colonisers had few qualms about enjoying that privilege also.

The author concentrates on this “culture of the harem”, and therefore mainly on relationships between Western man and Asian women. As a reason Mr. Bernstein claims that this is the most common form. This may be right, but if you look a bit more carefully, you can find plenty of examples of relationships between Western women and Asian men. Lady Ellenborough comes to mind, who lived with a Syrian sheikh for 30 years. Marguerite Duras wrote about her own relationship as a young woman in colonial Vietnam with a Chinese in her novel l’Amant. Or Indonesia’s first prime minister Soetan Sjahrir, who was married to Maria Duchateau. She was one of the (few) women that supported their husbands in the anti-colonial struggle. Most Indonesian men that went to live in the Netherlands married local women, creating a largely multi-racial offspring.

Mr. Bernstein shows only limited interest for the female side of the relationship. In Thailand, he rates that interest as mainly financial. Nowhere does he mention the Southeast Asian fascination for mixed-racial babies, as mixed-racial people are considered so much more pretty than white or Asian people. In his book about concubinage in the Dutch East Indies De Njai Reggie Baaij’s does look at this subject from a female side. He concludes that the relationships were very often asymmetric. The men were in charge, leaving their concubines and often their children whenever it suited him. The former concubines and their children then often led a marginal life in the native society. The level of understanding between the man and the often illiterate woman could be too limited to develop any real level of intimacy. And if the men did not take concubines but visited prostitutes, the treatment for shanker with mercury was painful and expensive.

Although flawed, the book contains a good description of sexuality in British India, and how Richard Burton’s discovery of an ancient sexual culture greatly influenced the West in a time that India was copying the West, as well as a chapter about how Japan handled the influx of American soldiers after its defeat in the Second World War. ( )
1 vote mercure | Aug 28, 2010 |
Although Bernstein’s coverage is wide-ranging, he doesn’t provide enough detail to make the work exemplary to someone already familiar with these figures. But for your average layperson picking it up at Borders because of the naked lady reclining on the cover, the first half of the book is fun.
Unfortunately, the second half is a bit harder to swallow.... Bernstein seems very intent on making sure readers don’t judge the Americans too harshly for partaking in a little female flesh during their foreign tours.
 
As an epigraph to his depressing mishmash, Bernstein quotes from Rudyard Kipling's poem "Mandalay"...Bernstein writes.. that this poem "is all you need to understand the heart-racing allure that the East had for tens of thousands of adventurous Europeans, eager to hear the temple bell at dawn (which 'comes up like thunder') and see the nut-brown girl who's waitin'." By the end, the main message is that he agrees with Kipling.
 
To his credit, Bernstein has managed to carry out this sober examination while still evoking the romance and adventure inherent in his subject. Occasionally, though, he comes off as just a bit too enchanted, rhapsodizing about Asian women’s “nut-brown skin” at least three times, confessing that he finds it “impossible not to feel the pull of fantasy” in Bangkok’s red light district, etc.
 
Bernstein comes to our aid with his accessible, much-researched and far-reaching book — though his subject is so complex that he provides only a bare introduction, a kind of hybrid of history, interview and anecdote.
 
Bernstein deserves credit for raising a tortured subject from which it is easy to avert our gaze. And yet, and yet … there is something deeply uncomfortable about a book that seems at times so complicit in the very exploitation it aims to scrutinize. It's not just the tone...It is the fetid attitude toward women.
added by Shortride | editSlate, Johann Hari (Jun 20, 2009)
 
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0375414096, Hardcover)

A rich and seductive narrative of the powerful erotic pull the East has always had for the West—a pervasive yet often ignored aspect of their long historical relationship—and a deep exploration of the intimate connection between sex and power.

Richard Bernstein defines the East widely—northern Africa, the Middle East, Asia, the Pacific Islands—and frames it as a place where sexual pleasure was not commonly associated with sin, as it was in the West, and where a different sexual culture offered the Western men who came as conquerers and traders thrilling but morally ambiguous opportunities that were mostly unavailable at home. Bernstein maps this erotic history through a chronology of notable personalities. Here are some of Europe’s greatest literary personalities and explorers: Marco Polo, writing on the harem of Kublai Khan; Gustave Flaubert, describing his dalliances with Egyptian prostitutes (and the diseases he picked up along the way); and Richard Francis Burton, adventurer, lothario, anthropologist—and translator of The Arabian Nights.

Here also are those figures less well-known but with stories no less captivating or surprising: Europeans whose “temporary marriages” to Japanese women might have inspired Puccini’s Madama Butterfly; rare visitors to the boudoirs of Chinese emperors in the Forbidden City; American G.I.s and journalists in Vietnam discovering the sexual emoluments of postcolonial power; men attracted to the sex bazaars of yesterday’s North Africa and the Thailand of today. And throughout, Bernstein explores the lives of those women who suffered for or profited from the fantasies of Western men.

A remarkable work of history: as unexpected as it is lucid, and as provocative as it is brilliantly illuminating.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:25:13 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"Richard Bernstein defines the East widely - northern Africa, the Middle East, Asia, the Pacific Islands - and frames it as a place where sexual pleasure was not commonly associated with sin, as it was in the West, and where a different sexual culture offered the Western men who came as conquerors and traders thrilling but morally ambiguous opportunities that were mostly unavailable at home. Bernstein maps this erotic history through a chronology of notable personalities. Here are some of Europe's greatest literary personalities and explorers: Marco Polo, writing on the harem of Kublai Khan; Gustave Flaubert, describing his dalliances with Egyptian prostitutes (and the diseases he picked up along the way); and Richard Francis Burton, adventurer, lothario, anthropologist and translator of The Arabian Nights." "Here also are those figures less well-known but with stories no less captivating or surprising: Europeans whose "temporary marriages" to Japanese women might have inspired Puccini's Madama Butterfly; rare visitors to the boudoirs of Chinese emperors in the Forbidden City; American G.I.s and journalists in Vietnam discovering the sexual emoluments of postcolonial power; men attracted to the sex bazaars of yesterday's North Africa and the Thailand of today. And throughout, Bernstein explores the lives of those women who suffered for or profited from the fantasies of Western men."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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