Sexual Fables

This article accompanies the fable
The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Mormons, Muslims and Harems

Americans made connections early on between polygamists in the U.S. and the Ottoman rulers of Istanbul and their harems. The Mormons weren't the first polygamists, but after the revelations of the 1840's, they became the most prominent ones. What is rarely acknowledged, however, is that Mormon and anti-Mormon speakers could always guarantee a raucous crowd on the lecture circuit if they touched on the subject. In 19th century America, polygamy was exciting stuff and envy always cohabited with lust.

Perhaps the picture below is what many people had in mind? Of 19th century American painters, Frederick Arthur Bridgman is the one most identified as an Orientalist. He studied under Jean-Léon Gérôme before traveling to North Africa in the 1870's and his paintings always sold extremely well. This one is An Odalisque.


Harems of course could be found in many places. Herman Melville in Typee describes arriving in the South Seas and "swimming nymphs" materialize beside the boat and an orgy follows. It turns out that "Typee" in Marquesan means a lover of human flesh, and whether that refers to lust or cannibalism is not entirely clear. Melville's hero, Tommo, alternates between adoring the gorgeous Fayaway and being terrified of being eaten.

The novel foreshadows later European and American pilgrims such as Gauguin, who found his own harems in the Marquesas:


This is one of Gauguin's last paintings before his death from syphilis in 1903 and it's one of his best. Titled Contes barbares, this is inexplicably translated in Wikipedia as Cruel Tales (Exotic Saying), but "Exotic Tales" may be closer to the mark for Gauguin is satirizing European (and his own) fascination with these Polynesian women by crushing the man into the backside of the picture. Interestingly, the man resembles an incubus - is this a comment on colonialism too?

Feminist art criticism has swung wildly in recent decades from damning Gauguin as a chauvinist pig to an insightful commentator on Europe's fascination with other women, other cultures. The truth is likely in between: with his syphilitic sores and extravagant sexual appetite, he exasperated the locals and that is well captured in this painting. Maybe there is something to be said for that mocking title "Cruel Tales" after all?

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