Moving from the Garden of Eden to the carnivals of eighteenth-century Venice, and from the bawdy world of Georgian London to the saloons and speakeasies of the Jazz Age, this is an exploration of timeless themes of power, desire, and free will.
Knox takes us through the lives of memorable seducers and their critics, in sometimes academic and sometimes rococo prose dappled with doges, coups de foudre, rakes, bawds, coquettes, coxcombs and procuresses — with guest appearances by members of the Frankfurt School sunning themselves in La Jolla ... Knox’s dialectics follow us throughout: It turns out that we were just as conflicted about seduction centuries ago as we are now. Depending on whom you ask and when, the seducer is either a manipulative villain exploiting innocents or a heroic figure of sexual liberation ... There’s always a debate for reason versus passion, for valiance versus depravity, Knox argues.
Mr. Knox has written an ambitious book: part social commentary, part literary criticism, part legal history and populated with colorful (albeit shaggy) biographies of players big and small in the world of wooing over the past 300 years. Yet his fixation on the supposed binaries of seduction—the seducer as hero or villain, the conflict between passion and reason, women as agents or victims—is perplexing. Rather than reflecting any one template, his stories simply show how complicated courtship always was, in no small part because men and women bear the consequences of pleasure unequally ... for all the facts crammed into this impressively unsexy book, it is not always clear what Mr. Knox is trying to say, except perhaps that sex is tricky, the evolving rights of women make it trickier still, and efforts to regulate moral behavior often have unintended consequences ... It takes some lack of self-awareness for a male author to be wistful for a romantic era when women lacked the rights or resources to have real sexual choices, and stories of seduction were almost exclusively heterosexual. Mr. Knox never acknowledges the persistence of sexual double standards, whereby promiscuous men become lotharios while 'easy' women are slut-shamed. Nor does he notice the tenacity of seemingly anachronistic rules of courtship, such as the fact that many men still prefer to pursue than be pursued. Seduction is a terribly thorny business, maybe never more so than right now. Perhaps it is only natural to pine for a simpler time ('Make seduction great again!'), at least for those who might benefit from turning back the clock.
... an alluring and breathtaking history of enticement in the modern age ... These seduction narratives are captivating, and most of us are characters in one or the other in our own lives. Knox’s fascinating book illustrates the magnetism of these narratives as they draw us into their orbits and as we use them to offer explanations of individual and social behavior.