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Arousal: Bodies & Pleasures
by Martha Roth
Milkweed Editions, 1998

“In Arousal, Martha Roth skillfully mixes feminist theory of sexuality with her own embodied experience. The result is an artful and philosophical memoir—thoughtful, brave and surprising.”
- Lewis Hyde, author of Trickster Makes This Work

“Arousal describes an array of strong feelings connected to one another in such a way that when one wakes, others stir—lust and anger, jealousy and fear, joy and despair.” In Arousal Bodies and Pleasures, Martha Roth intensely examines exactly what sexual arousal means, both to herself and to us all. Far from an isolated feeling, arousal is commonly connected with not only love and trust, but shame, rage, and even cruelty: links that echo through our culture in surprising and often disturbing ways.

By examining traditional psychology, religion, feminist theory, and contemporary culture as well as the perspective of thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Luce Irigaray, and Audre Lorde, Roth reflects seriously on her own experiences with arousal and on how we can create a new, better world by cutting the ties that have bound arousal to violence and shame.

Absorbing, intimate, thoughtful, and provocative, Arousal is a plea for a future in which our conflicts about sex could be resolved, leaving us with more of what matters: in Foucault’s terms, “bodies and pleasures.”

 


 

Excerpt from Arousal
From chapter 2, “Learning to Read, pp. 21-22:

When my mother tucked me in, she read to me until she suspected that I could do it for myself. I protested, but she was firm.

A favorite book eased the weaning: Greek Myths, a telling of Bullfinch’s Tales from the Greek Anthology. I fought the loss of my mother’s sofa, the warmth of her body, the stories unrolling in her low voice; I stumbled over long words and proper names. But Greek Myths had simple words and line drawings that I found beautiful, of curvy girls and angular boys all dressed in pleated chitons and with statuesque blank eyes. I loved the stories of sex and violence - especially Proserpina, wildflowers spilling from her hands as she was caught around the waist by the god of the underworld, and Narcissus, who fell in love with his reflection in a clear, still pool. Leaning forward to kiss the beautiful reflected mouth, he fell into the pool and drowned.

I could find some words - the ones I knew by heart - in the printing on the page and so fell into the pool myself, drowning in the fluid of text and story. If the pool had been a mirror, or a page, Narcissus might have entered it and met his other self. The page yielded to my eye, opening into wonders that quickened my blood while leaving me safe in my chair. Its surface seemed to me a permeable zone, something like the invisible membrane that separated this world from Hades. Pluto and Proserpina - and I - traveled back and forth; why not Narcissus?

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