Students are talking about harlots, rakes and libertines a little bit more than usual this semester, thanks to two Enlightenment era literature courses.
“Naturally I was intrigued by the course,” said Sonia Gawda ’13, a student enrolled in ENGL 217: Harlots, Rakes, and Libertines, taught by English Professor Joseph Drury. “When you first read that title, how could you not be interested immediately? It’s edgy, it’s sexy, and it’s provocative. It’s exciting, it’s fun to talk about, and there are a lot of parallels between the attitudes of that time and the attitudes of now.”
Along with Drury, whose course is cross-listed in the Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program, French Professor Andrew Curran is teaching a course titled FREN 390: Libertines and Libertinage.
A student forum offered this semester in the Sociology Department, titled “Pornocopia,” has turned campus attention toward sexual topics in the curriculum. Drury acknowledged that courses dealing with sexual topics hold a certain appeal for students.
“I try to provide classes that are interesting for my students and interesting to me,” Drury said. “Sex is one of the most interesting things there is. It’s something we think about a lot. Students at Wesleyan are interested in studying the history of sexuality.”
However, Drury isn’t teaching the course for its sex appeal.
“The reason that there might be more classes on the history of sexuality at the moment is that it is a relatively new area of study in the humanities where a lot of exciting, new work is being done,” Drury said. “I created this course after I spent some time doing research on libertinism for my book project. I found it to be a very fascinating topic and I wanted to share my enthusiasm with my students.”
Despite the subject matter, both classes are markedly serious in their approach to the literature and philosophy of the Enlightenment era.
“It’s college, courses are going to use a title that presents the subject in a way that interests you because it deals with sexuality, even though that’s just one element of a larger ideological issue,” explained Cassandra Celestin ’13, a student of Curran’s.
Both classes go far beyond the harlot and the libertine, using these literary concepts as a window into the thoughts and attitudes of the enlightenment and the philosophical development of Western culture.
Students in Drury’s classes initially strove to define the libertine.
“Libertine is a political term, and it has a philosophical aspect to it, as well,” Gawda explained. “A harlot is a woman of little virtue, a rake is a man who seduces many woman, and libertinism refers to the sexual liberties that were being explored at the times and the philosophies behind them.”
According to Curran, the word ‘libertine’ did not always hold its modern connotation.
“The definition changed dramatically over time,” he said. “In the 17th century, a libertine is either someone who doesn’t believe in God or who doesn’t believe in the Judeo-Christian tradition and sacred texts. It could be somebody who is profoundly moral, lives like a monk, maybe, but is theologically scandalous.”
The word came to its modern meaning at the time of Moliere.
“[Moliere’s] Don Juan is a libertine who is both impious and literally incredulous, not believing in God,” Curran said. “He also, as you know, runs around with his this philosophy of pleasure. His worldview is profoundly egotistical, and he rejects all sorts of moral authorities and takes pleasure in doing so.”
Students were certainly drawn to the courses by their subject matter, and the courses have lived up to their expectations.
Reading from her notes, Gawda listed a few of the topics discussed in Drury’s course:
“The materialist quality of the orgasm, sex as a commodity, how sex is described, sex as a sweet violence, the body politic, the description of the penis as a machine, [and] comparing science and the body.”
Gawda was eager to explain the content of the course, but equally eager to defend the course attitude and approach.
“It’s an English class,” she said. “You analyze literature, analyze poetry, relate it to the time period. We talk about scandalous things, but the discussion itself isn’t scandalous. It’s structured, it’s analytical, it’s from a very academic standpoint.”
Professors Drury and Curran became friends because of their similar literary interests, but they had no idea that they were teaching such similar courses.
“It’s pure coincidence,” Drury said. “No one is in both classes, which is a shame.”
Both professors were excited to learn of the drastic overlap during their interviews for this article.
“I know Drury would be totally at home talking about the texts I’m teaching, given that he knows a lot about eighteenth century materialism,” Curran said. “I think we should get our classes together at some point.”
Both professors have pushed students to understand the ideas that emerged during the enlightenment though the literary study of the libertine. In both classes, professor and student alike remarked upon a particularly high level of discussion. Curran was especially impressed with his class, many member of which have studied abroad, because of their ability to wrestle with complex ideas in French.
“We read philosophical texts, and more lurid texts as well, read against the philosophical backdrop,” said Curran. “This is not a class on pornography, not even a class on eroticism. It is a brilliant group of students, really engaged, grappling with the philosophy, really interested in figuring out something we take for granted: the right of the person to act without consequence.”