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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Department of English


Embodied Disease: Femininity, Domination, and De Sade


This thesis offers a new reading of a libertine tradition that is continuously producing a poetics of the body, organizing itself around sexuality and disease. Previous scholarship has acknowledged the eighteenth-century trope of the diseased and sexualized woman as an effect of corruption, an effect of indulgence, and so on. However, I attend to the diseased woman as a formation by and through the material, as an effect of disease. I ask: what does it mean when disease becomes a vector between the hyper-sexualized female form and Enlightenment thought? In what follows, I connect the physical human body to Enlightenment philosophy via a materialist framework that compels an interdisciplinary focus on organic and inorganic embodiment. Through the works of John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, Marquis de Sade, and William Blake, I show how women are animated by the physical energy of disease. Namely, that this material matter, its persistence and vitality, becomes a way for women to participate in and pass along a form of violence typically enacted against them. Ultimately, by tying people together in nonproductive ways, I propose that venereal disease is a form of collective power that challenges Enlightenment attitudes about progress and self-preservation.

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