Apropos of my earlier post on the death of David Carradine in somewhat ambiguous circumstances in Bangkok comes today’s NYT book review: It is on “The East, the West, and Sex: A history of Erotic Encounters” by Richard Bernstein, a fine writer and veteran journo. (“Provocative and intriguing,” writes the reviewer, the estimable Simon Winchester, no mean author himself, his books are favorites of mine, and the public.)
In the review, Winchester opens with an anecdote about butterflies and the pleasures endured by a female friend–which I’ll spare you–but that sets up his, and Bernstein’s, point about the corruption or exploitation of this East by a mythologizing West:
Things like this just don’t seem to happen in Dubuque or Stow-on-the-Wold. And as Richard Bernstein suggests in his provocative and intriguing book “The East, the West, and Sex,” it is tales like this that over the years have helped construct today’s notion of the East as a sensual and sexual paradise. Tales of the odalisque, the harem, the seraglio, the concubine, the geisha and the Kama Sutra have all become combined in the past century or so into a sweetly perfumed mélange of exoticism and eroticism, presenting “the Orient” as a realm of languor and loucheness, where concupiscent curds run in the streets and nostalgie de la boue is perfectly de rigueur.
This idea — of the East as the center of a “harem culture” so enticingly different from what is parodied as our own Judeo-Calvinist dreariness — has captivated Westerners since the first imperialists planted their flags in the heat and dust of far away. In recent years, however, it is a notion that has spiraled frighteningly out of control. Nowadays there is precious little that passes for romance about the picture: the charming 19th-century image of Kipling’s temple girl at the old pagoda in Moulmein, the “neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land,” has been replaced by today’s obese American pederast trolling for catamites in the bars of Zamboanga, or of middle-aged sex tourists buying infants in Phnom Penh or on the beaches outside Colombo.
Alas, there don’t seem to be insights on the overlay (ahem) of sexuality and spirituality, though they may simply not have been indicated by Winchester’s review.
Yoga has certainly been commodified almost as much as the Kama Sutra (see illustration above, e.g.).
But as Winchester writes, are Westerners really doing anything different than the indigenous powerful have been doing all along?
For something that doesn’t make your ears burn to read, but gets at the same Eastern infatuation and its consequences, I’d also highly recommend Orville Schell’s “Virtual Tibet: Searching for Shangri-La from the Himalayas to Hollywood.”