The Book of Exposition and the Enigmatic English Bohemian
Though this title may make many an aspiring writer think it to be instructional for forbidding the writing of on the nose dialogue, The Book of Exposition is far from the case. The Kitab al-Izah Fi'ilm al-Kikah b-it-Tatam w-al-Kamal or The Book of Exposition , is a collection of 15 th century Arabic erotica. It’ a compilation of medieval short stories and colonial critiques of erotica throughout the Near East and what was initially considered the orient.
Its intrigue was fueled by the desire to explore how other cultures wrote about the lustful nature of the non-European world, especially in its first release sometime in the 1880s. During this time in 19 th century England, sex was a taboo subject. Yet, in its perception of the sexual depravity , its provocative allure drove wealthy intellectual European explorers to the most exotic of erotic places .
Though there has been much speculation about the actual authors of this translation and compilation, most scholars give credit to the actual writing to the 15 th century scholar known as Jalal ad'Din al-Suyuti (1445-1505) given his prolific reputation as a historian, historical physician, and erotologist. But, the most puzzling mystery of The Book of Exposition is - who translated it into English? The translator is listed as ‘the English Bohemian’. And then nothing more is mentioned about him.
However, there are also passages in the book which give insight and credit to the eccentric Sir Richard F. Burton, whose life and reputation was just as whimsical and enigmatic as The Book of Exposition itself. Could Sir Richard Burton have been the mysterious ‘English Bohemian’?
About The Book of Exposition
The Book of Exposition appeared sometime between the ending of the Franco-Prussian war in 1871 and the beginning of the Great War in 1914. The work became popular shortly after the success of Sir Richard Burton’s translation of ‘ The Perfumed Garden of Sensual Delight’ in 1886.
The Book of Exposition. (Google Books / Public Domain )
When the book was first published, the scholar Sharif Dhaimish mentioned that it had a run of only 300 copies intending to critically assess the compiled works on its historical and literary context. According to Dhaimish, the English Bohemian was drawn to the alluring texts of Arabia and the Middle East. It propelled him to translate a majority of The Book of Exposition , despite it being nothing more than a collection of medieval risqué stories.
Among its collection, The Book of Exposition presents an elegant, yet ethnocentrically oriented, tapestry of stories interwoven with the analysis and opinions of 19 th century minds. There is a collection of Arabic stories ranging from the 12th to the 15th centuries, as well as a bizarre essay written by Sir Richard Francis Burton on the subject of pederasty (the sexual act of sodomy between a man and a boy) and its spread due to warm, temporal climates nearing the equator. The Book of Exposition also presents appendices of other short erotica, European notes and observations in the critique of the medieval erotic stories, and an overall engagement reflecting both the sexual humor as well as parallels of rigid virtue of the medieval Arabic world concerning the rigidity of the 19 th century European sexual ideals.
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Sir Richard Francis Burton in 1864. (Scewing / Public Domain )
Such stories ripe with erotic charm is ‘the story of the youth who would futter his father’s wives’ which spoke of the troubles a husband had when attaining new wives due to the spoiled lustful nature of his eldest son. This son would use his cunning to bed the wives and force his father to divorce them soon after.
This story appears as a medieval version of incest stepmother erotica to which no real resolution occurs except for the sexual satisfaction of the eldest son. The powerful lines are mentioned by the son after bedding his father’s newest wife:
“… ‘Thou hast now done thy best, and thy belly is filled full of the warm breeze. In this wise he continued every day, enjoying the wife of his father for some time during his journey...” (The Book of Exposition, The story of the youth who would futter his father’s wives, p. 35)
The book is also no stranger in sharing its bias opinions about foreign women prostitutes and their abilities for sexual ravaging. As if written in a military report, the English Bohemian briefs a situation regarding a Colonel Pol and an incident regarding a prostitute who was kidnapped by 30 soldiers and carried off to be raped.
"…She put on their mettle the thirty men there stationed on duty, without in the least appearing to suffer fatigue…the doctor sagely concludes that, from facts such as these, it results that the woman is capable of resisting for a longer time than the men the wear and tear of these erotic combats…" (The Book of Exposition. The prostitute and the soldiers, p.122)
Arabic erotic illustrations appeared around the same time The Book of Exposition. (Ivonna Nowicka / Public Domain )
Rather than being aggrieved by the act, the English Bohemian appears to admire the sexual endurance of the woman. The chapter also gave a testament to Sir Richard Francis Burton’s translation on ‘the tale of Kamar Al-Zaman’ as an example of the prostitute's endurance.
He related to the story, which described how the princess Budur revealing that Al-Zaman’s little finger had entered her and broken her ‘vaginal seal’. Instead of screaming in agony, the princess moaned with lust:
"…Alack by Allah, thou art my beloved and thou lovest me! Yet thou seemest to turn thee away from me out of coquetry, for all, o my darling, thou comest to me while I was asleep and knew not what thou didst with me, and tookest my seal ring; and yet I will not pull it off thy finger…"(The Book of Exposition. The prostitute and the soldiers. P.123)
Though it may appear one-sided in the first reading of The Book of Exposition , the English Bohemian at times seems to critique European culture and sexual ideals more so than placing judgments on the obscurities of the medieval writings. For the 19th century, the book appears to be somewhat balanced in its examination, both favoring and distaining certain concepts and ideals equally.
The writings also offer insight into the sexual customs of other lands allegedly explored and researched by the English Bohemian. Some of the aside notes and summaries reveal that the English Bohemian explored the diversity of meanings attached to a woman’s loss of virginity.
Regardless that its information appears outdated, and the suspicious methods of obtaining such data might be significantly opinionated and controversial, The Book of Exposition remains one of the most excellent literary examples of both medieval as well as 19th-century representations of erotica. However, one should note the hints which the English Bohemian continues to address, which is his praise and admiration for Sir Richard Burton. Could this be because the translator may have indeed been him?
The Contribution of Sir Richard Francis Burton
If Sir Richard Francis Burton is indeed the English Bohemian, it would explain the eccentric nature of how it is written as well as to why the book gives immense recognition to his work. After all, The Book of Exposition only became popular 10 years after Burton’s translation of Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Nefzawi's The Perfumed Garden of Sensual Delight in 1886.
And by this time, Burton had already gained fame and recognition for other scholarly work such as the unabridged English translation of One Thousand and One Nights , or better known as The Arabian Nights ; the publication and translation of the Kama Sutra ; the Arab Kama Sutra ; and his documented journey to Mecca in disguise as an Arab. Please take note that the accomplishments mentioned above were only a summary of the many achievements and controversies in this individual's life.
Burton in Persian disguise as ‘Mirza Abdullah the Bushri’ (ca.1849–50). (Opencooper / Public Domain )
Burton was a character straight out of a Victorian adventure novel. Though his life spanned from March 19, 1821, to October 20, 1890, if only he had been born 10 years later, his life would line up precisely with the Victorian era itself. Burton was a British explorer, geographer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, falconer, sexual observer, cartographer, ethnologist, spy, linguist, poet, fencer, and diplomat.
He had traveled on expeditions in Asia, Africa, and the Americas and he had an impeccable knowledge of languages and cultures. Burton spoke 29 distinct languages from around the world.
It was even noted that while he served in the British Army, he kept a menagerie of monkeys in the hopes of learning their language. This was a man who was high functioning and most possibly an early anthropologist before anthropology existed.
Along with all his overwhelming traits, his scholarly work was most noted for his copious footnotes and appendices containing his personal, sometimes controversial, but conclusively remarkable observations and information regarding whatever he was translating or writing about.
In The Book of Exposition , there is an entire chapter dedicated to his work called A Bypath of Human Passion . Which Burton explored the origins of pederasty, to which Burton disclaims in the opening of this chapter:
“…Before entering into topographical details concerning pederasty, which I hold to be geographical and climatic, not racial, I must offer a few considerations of its cause and origin…”(The Book of Exposition. A Bypath of Human Passion. P. 174)
The chapter furthered his beliefs of the 'Sotadic Zone’, asserting the geographic zone in which pederasty was allegedly most prevalent and celebrated among indigenous inhabitants. His coordinates roughly were considered to be just north of the Equator. (N. Lat. 43 degrees to N. Lat. 30 degrees).
Burton's Sotadic Zone encompassed only small areas of Europe and North Africa, larger areas of Asia, and all of North and South America. (Maphobbyist / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
However, even though Burton had shown great intellect and competency in almost all his endeavors, his rambunctiousness did bestow him with an ill reputation. A majority of his work did criticize the colonial practices of the British Empire, which became a severe detriment to his career. Despite his fascination with non-European cultures, there are other scholars who have portrayed Burton as an unrepentant imperialist who was adamant about proving the historical and intellectual superiority of the white race.
In a sense, Sir Richard Francis Burton appeared to be the friend of no one, but the scholar, adventurer, and intellectual ideal of everyone. However, could one truly judge his actions or supposed translations, which made it into The Book of Exposition , and could the reason for his previous scandals be the reason for publishing it anonymously as 'the English Bohemian’?
Brief History of Gender in Victorian England
The Victorian era emphasized the roles of defined separate social spheres for both men and women. Though in earlier times, women were expected to assist in the family business, keeping accounts, and attending to domestic duties, during the 19 th century women were expected to entirely refrain from work except to oversee the domestic duties that became increasingly labored by servants. In the sense of marriage and sexuality, as scholar Katheryn Hughes discusses, that for women, their only option was to find a suitable young man to marry but remain chaste until that time.
‘Woman’s Rights’ was an ephemeral card representing traditional ideas about women whose role is defined within the domestic sphere and in relation to men as husbands, fathers, and sons. (MCMR / Public Domain )
Dhaimish additionally mentions that sexuality in the 19th century was associated with shame and guilt. The act of masturbation was believed to harm the lifeforce of an individual. A very prominent belief was that male ejaculation outside the confines of marital sex was due to ‘spermatorrhea’, and whoever was diagnosed with such a disease was either sentenced to circumcision, castration, or wearing a male chastity belt in order to prevent self-harm further.
But the reality versus the ideology revealed that most respectable young men discretely partook in using prostitutes to satisfy their sexual urges. Unfortunately, during this time, sexual diseases such as syphilis were rampant, and many honorable and discrete young men unknowingly brought such diseases into their marital bedrooms and passed them onto their wives. This resulted in many married women dying a slow, painful, lingering death in their mid-40’s.
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The New Swell’s Night Guide, a guide to finding and approaching actresses and prostitutes, estimated 1840. (British Library / Public Domain )
Edward Said , author of the seminal book Orientalism (1979), believed that Europe suffered from “increasing embourgeoisement”, which he expressed as the institutionalization of sex, while an outsider view of the Near East, Middle East, and Asia began to appear as a place where immense exotic sexual pleasures existed. Like the drive of explorers searching for the cities of gold in the Americas, wealthy European intellectual explorers and adventurers were driven to foreign countries in search of foreign sexual practices and erotica.
Final Thoughts About The Book of Exposition
Given the time the book of exposition was released, as well as the writing styles of the copious notes and annotations, these works appear convincingly close to that of Sir Richard Francis Burton.
Similar to other works from Burton, the book of exposition does, in fact, criticize European culture and does show an appreciation and understanding of the medieval Arabic texts. The author also speaks of traveling the world and meeting the same people, which Burton even met. Regardless of the mysteries of who officially translated the literary works of Jalal ad’Din al-Syuti, it will probably never be known who translated the work, and the book's translator would forever be known as the English Bohemian. If it was Sir Richard Burton, then we should nod our heads and toast to him as appropriately as one could to a rambunctious adventurer. If it was not, then we can sit back and enjoy the translated works with a guilty pleasurable smile.
Top image: Painting by Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant, Orientalism genre, representation of The Book of Exposition. Source: Jeangagnon / Public Domain .
By B.B. Wagner
Bohemian, E., and ad’Din al-Suyuti, J. 2018. The Book of Exposition: Secrets of Oriental Sexuology . Captain Moonlight Press.
Burton, R. Date Unknown. A Bypath of Human Passion . [Online] Available at: https://books.google.com.ec/books?id=8mqHDAAAQBAJ&pg=PA91&lpg=PA91&dq=A+bypath+of+Human+passion&source=bl&ots=Najw_P6UFY&sig=ACfU3U0vWG-dC2mSj_dceF_jcwd_St8R3g&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiC77mP8-XlAhVEi1kKHb4UAMsQ6AEwAHoECAkQAQ#v=onepage&q=A%20bypath%20of%20Human%20passion&f=false
Eddin Al-Suyuti, J. 2015. The role of the country of the Two Holy Mosques in the scientific life of Jalal Eddin Al-Suyuti . [Online] Available at: https://ust.edu/ojs/index.php/JSS/article/view/902
Dhaimish, S. 2018. An archaeology of erotica. The Book of Exposition . Qantara. [Online] Available at: https://en.qantara.de/content/the-book-of-exposition-an-archaeology-of-erotica?nopaging=1
Dhaimish, S. Date Unknown. The Book of Exposition: A Collection of 15 th-Century Erotica from the Middle East (1900) . The Public Domain Review. [Online] Available at: https://publicdomainreview.org/collections/the-book-of-exposition/
Hameen-Anttila, J. 2016. Al-Suyuti and Erotic Literature . The University of Edinburgh. [Online] Available at: https://www.research.ed.ac.uk/portal/files/29127749/SuyutiErotics.pdf
Hughes, K. 2014. Gender roles in the 19th century . [Online] Available at: https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/gender-roles-in-the-19th-century