Love in a Dead Language: A Romance

Love in a Dead Language: A Romance

by Lee Siegel


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Love in a Dead Language: A Romance by Lee Siegel

Love in a Dead Language is a love story, a translation of an Indian sex manual, an erotic farce, and a murder mystery rolled into one. Enticing the reader to follow both victims and celebrants of romantic love on their hypertextual voyage of folly and lust-through movie posters, upside-down pages, the Kamasutra: Game of Love board game, and even a proposed CD-ROM, Love in a Dead Language exposes the complicities between the carnal and the intellectual, the erotic and the exotic and, in the end, is an outrageous operatic portrayal of romantic love.

"Rare is the book that makes one stop and wonder: Is this a literary masterpiece or do I need my head examined? But such is the alternately awe-inspiring and goofy thrall cast by Lee Siegel's Love in a Dead Language. . . . His work stands out as a book that is not simply a novel but its own genus of rollicking, narrative scholarship . . . it is just the cerebral aphrodisiac we need." —Carol Lloyd, Salon

"Immensely clever and libidinously hilarious. . . . [T]he most astonishing thing about Love in a Dead Language is its ingenious construction. Insofar as any printed volume can lay claim to being a multimedia work, this book earns that distinction." —Paul di Filippo, Washington Post Book World

"Now along comes Lee Siegel, who mixes a bit of Borges with some Nabokov and then adds an erotic gloss from the Kama Sutra to write Love in a Dead Language, a witty, bawdy, language-rich farce of academic life. . . . Whether it is post-modern or not, Love in a Dead Language is pulled off with such unhinged élan by Mr. Siegel that it is also plain good fun, a clever, literate satire in which almost everything is both travestied and, strangely, loved by its author." —Richard Bernstein, The New York Times

"Love in a Dead Language deserves space on the short, high shelf of literary wonders." —Tom LeClair, New York Times Book Review

1999 New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226756998
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/28/2000
Edition description: 1
Pages: 408
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Lee Siegelis professor of religious studies at the University of Hawaii. He is the author of many books, includingLove in a Dead Language,Who Wrote the Book of Love?, andLove and the Incredibly Old Man, all published by the University of Chicago Press.

Read an Excerpt

Love in a Dead Language

By Lee Siegel

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003

University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-226-75697-1

Chapter One



Some professors postulate that one shouldn't seek fulfillment or meaning
in love, that love is deleterious to the loftier ideals of religion and
money. They fancy that love leads to defilement and falsehood, that it
forces us into the company of worthless people and drives us mad, that it
causes a loss of dignity, judgment, and faith. But love, I maintain, is
the very fruit of religion, and it is the most precious thing that money
can buy.

According to Auddalaki:

The man who fulfills himself in terms
Of religion, money, and love,
Now and forever attains happiness,
Both in this world and up above.
Happiness comes from doing what you please,
Without worry, without care,
Without any concern about what might happen
Now or then, here or there.
Strive for the rewards of all three ideals,
All of them have something just for you:
If not all three, then settle for two, and if not two,
Then one, if it's love, will do.

I, Vatsyayana, shall expound the ways and means of obtaining all
fulfillment through the one, just one-LOVE.


"Lalita," She said cheerfully. "My name's Lalita-like Lolita but with an
a." And stunned by the vision, I muttered under my breath, "No, no, my
dear Lalita, not an a; no, it is rather like Lolita with an A+!" And I
meditated on the magic syllables, the manumitting mantic mantra, the
perfect name, the mellifluous adjective and noun from the verbal root
lal-"to loll, play, dally, fondle, caress, frolic, to behave loosely or
freely"; lalita-"artless, lusty, and languid, a lolling lady, charming
miss, and graceful girl." O my lalita Lalita!

"Lalita Gupta," the apparition said as She walked in and drove philology
crazy: gupta, "hidden, concealed, secret, private" (the past participle of
gup, "to guard, defend, protect, preserve"); my gupta Ms. Gupta, ravishing
descendent of the magnificent Gupta dynasty, the perfection of
civilization; Princess Gupta who enchanted the Buddha; a wanton "woman who
withdraws from her lover's endearments."

"At registration they said your class was full, but that I could get in if
you'd sign this admission form. Fuckin' bureaucracy!" She sighed and sat
down. "Will you sign me in?"

My heart lubdubbed itself into a gyroscopic spin. Oh, Her use of the
precious present participle, "fucking," from the Indo-European peik,
cognate with the Latin pungere, related to the Germanic ficken, purloined
from the Middle Dutch fokken, associated with the Zemblan fogu_,
universalized in the Esperanto fuga. Although She used the lexical
indecency unremittingly, there was nothing really vulgar about it-it was
rather like the use of eva in Sanskrit (the enclitic particle of emphasis
meaning "in fact, really, actually, exactly, just, only, quite, the very
same," a "meaningless intensifier," according to my Monier-Williams
dictionary). Uttered unselfconsciously, it was voiced metrically, just to
give lilt and play to a phrase, or phatically, not to express an idea but
to establish sociability like the quack of a duck, song of a swan, or purr
of a cat. She used it to modify and modulate, to stress and qualify, to
punctuate and irradiate. The way She enunciated it brought Her fulgurant
teeth to rest on Her lower lip as the upper lip rose slightly in the f;
and then, for the u, Her lips parted as if for a kiss, and they stretched
back into smiling as the lexeme culminated so regally in kin[g]. It was
stunning to witness Her mouth form and release it: "fuh-kin'." Two lips,
two syllables, and a smile that merged all twos into one.

"I mean if you can't let me in, it's okay with me. I don't really care,
but my parents want me to take courses on Indian culture. Fuckin' India,
India, India! They're from India, and that's all they care about; they're
pissed off that I don't know anything about it."

"Oh, I can teach You about India," I answered, trying to restrain the
regressive quaver in my voice, the adolescent trembling of my limbs; and
yes, yes, I told myself, I must teach Her all I know, all that She has
forgotten, the knowledge embedded in nucleic acids in the cells of Her
flesh. My glance luxuriated in the dark down on Her bare arms, and I
imagined the feel of the soft, sweetly sweat-scented, sable romavali
beneath fingertips and lingering lips.

"The other thing is that my boyfriend, Leroy-Leroy Lovelace, the famous
basketball player-is in the class," She continued. "And we like to take
the same courses so that we can study together. You know-if I can't make
it to class, he can take notes for me, or the other way around."

"I'm very strict about attendance," I interrupted.

"Oh, I don't mind coming; I'll come if it's important to you," She
laughed, and my mind played dirty tricks on me, amplifying, against my
will, the obscene resonances of Her verb.

"Have you ever been to India, Dr. Roth?" She asked without waiting for the
answer. "My parents want me to go. They're on some sort of roots kick. But
I don't want to. It's real dirty, isn't it?"

"Yes, I suppose so-that's one of India's charms actually," and my dirty
mind made the dirty meaning of "dirty" all that I heard.

"I don't like the food-I mean it tastes okay, but I don't like the way it
looks. My mother fixes it all the time, and my father plays the music and
rents the fuckin' videos-really terrible movies, unbelievably corny.
Yeah, I don't want to go to India-it's hot, and there are all those poor
people and lepers begging everywhere." She suddenly laughed. "Well, will
you let me in or not?"

I wanted to ask Her the same question. Kama's hook was lodged in my cheek,
and I knew that the harder I might try to resist Her, the harder I'd be
pulled back, the more the pain would tug me toward Her.

"Of course I'll let You in," I said as I signed the admission slip. "Of
course, Ms. Gupta, anything You want. Anything."

"Well, there is something else: one of the textbooks is already sold
out-the Kamasutra. I guess I can share my boyfriend's copy, but ..."

"No, no, don't share," I interrupted all too frantically. "I mean, it's
important to be able to underline, to write in the margins, to record Your
reactions to the text, to generate Your own commentary on it. We enter
into a relationship with any text we hear or read, like the relationship
with a friend, a lover, or an enemy. A relationship is the ultimate
meaning of the text. I have an extra copy. I get desk copies free. You can
have this one," I smiled, handing Her my own expensive copy of a Burton
translation lavishly illustrated with erotic miniatures and photographs of
temple sculptures of copulating couples from Khajuraho and Konarak.

"Isn't this the book about fucking?" She asked, and the sudden use of the
word "fucking," with the g back in place, to actually refer to fucking
made it lewd, arousingly and powerfully distasteful. She had obviously
meant to shock me, and it had worked. But I wanted Her to say it again and
again-"fuckin'" or "fucking"-to say it sweetly, crudely, lewdly, softly,
harshly, loudly, softly, to whisper it in my ear and shout it from the
parapets of a fantastic ancient Oriental city.

Struggling not to lose what little remained of my composure, I answered as
professorially as Vatsyayana might have done.

"The text is about the transformation of coitus into love, biology into
culture, instinct into consciousness. Professor Vatsyayana soberly
explains that he composed the book, informed as it is, and ought to be,
with dispassion, after strictly observing a vow of celibacy."

She interrupted me with a reading of the cover puff.

"'The complete and unexpurgated text of the famous Hindu study of physical
love.' Yeah, it's about fucking all right," She giggled childishly, as She
flipped the book over and continued: "'This famous Hindu manual of
physical love is one of the high points in all erotic literature. It is
frank and explicit in its descriptions.'"

"It's a classic of world literature, a key to Indian culture, and I
thought the students would enjoy it," I broke in; I was embarrassed,
self-conscious, rather pathetically unable to look the young girl in the

"I'm sure," She laughed in a condescending, supercilious way at, it
seemed, two professors-Vatsyayana and me.

We were interrupted by my graduate student and teaching assistant, Anang
Saighal, who entered without warning, toting yet another chapter of his
dreary dissertation on Sanskrit commentarial literature for me to read.
Before I could get rid of him, She had excused Herself and disappeared.

From the moment I handed Her the Burton version (in giving Her the book, I
was, I felt, offering Her Her own civilization), I wanted, as an act of
devotion and redemption, to transduce the great erotic breviary for Her,
to filter the text though my heart (making Vatsyayana's sentiments and
sensibilities my own), to make significant all that I had learned about
India, to whisper the ancient pandit's words to Her and scratch them on
Her back, breasts, and thighs. Translation is transmigration: I'd be
Vatsyayana reincarnated and She'd be the lover Mallanaga never names, some
exquisite hetaera of Varanasi. It is for this reason that I, L. A. Roth, am
beginning to translate the Kamasutra.

My predecessor, Captain Sir Richard Burton, in a foreword to his
translation of the Kamasutra, wrote: "All you who read this book shall
know how delicious an instrument is the Hindoo woman: when artfully played
upon, by an amorously educated man, she proves capable of producing the
most exquisite harmonies, of executing the most complicated variations,
and of giving the divinest pleasures. She is all but indispensable to the
student, and she teaches him not only Hindoostani grammar, but the
syntaxes of native life. She has infallible recipes to prevent maternity
and augment virility.... She is lover in health and nurse in sickness. And
as it is not good for a man to live alone, she makes him a fine manner of

Dr. Paul Planter, the chairman of my department (who teaches Asian Studies
150A: Introduction to Japanese Civilization) is married to a Japanese
woman who does the work for which he takes credit (for example, "his"
translation of the erotic Chin-chin Monogatori of Sensai Bobo). He
justifies and rationalizes this shamelessly: "With love we span the
cultures of the East and the West. She comes up with an explanation of the
Japanese, and then I lyrically English it; working together in harmony, in
love, we come up with a textual transubstantiation, true to the spirit and
flesh of the original." With both scorn and envy for this happy man, I
feel the inequity and injustice: I am a tenured full professor of Indian
studies, a Sanskrit scholar, and yet never, never in my life, have I made
love to an Indian woman. Is that just, right, or good? While I have had
the oral pleasure of eating Indian food and endured the gastrointestinal
torment of Indian dysentery, my psycho-sexo-Indological development has
been arrested; I yearn to move on to the phallic and then the genital
stages of Indology. Some sort of union, an erotic spanning of East and
West, had, before I met Lalita, already become a hope. And now aspiration
becomes obsession: I must possess Lalita Gupta for the sake of Sanskrit
and South Asian studies (not to mention knowledge and truth, let alone
pleasure or happiness). My relationship with India has, thus far, been
purely voyeuristic-looking at Her, stripped and spread open, from a
distance, through a window, with binoculars, only faintly hearing Her
sighs and moans. I have smelled Her heady scent, felt Her excruciating
heat, but never have I penetrated Her. Lalita is my opportunity to enter
India and hold Her in my arms, to be at once outside and inside. India is
my text, Lalita will be my data, and love will be my methodology.

Lalita Gupta seems so perfectly and unconsciously an incarnation of a
civilization; although She apparently knows nothing about India, one can
witness Indianness in Her gait, the long stride taken with arched feet
turned out. I have never really been attracted to younger women, and
perhaps as a result of that I have never felt old before. Now, for the
first time, having just briefly encountered the girl, my age (not the
death it brings, but the desexualization that young people attribute to
their elders) worries me. Will She consider me too patriarchal to hold Her
in my arms? I must show Her how an ancient text, in being reread, becomes
young and fresh. I decided to buy some tonic to darken my hair-not dye
it, just take away the new traces of gray.

I was standing in the supermarket aisle marked "Health and Beauty" when I
saw Her out of the corner of my eye. Yet again it was as if some yogic
power or constellationary fate was at work to bring us together once more
that day. I hastily put the hair coloring back and rushed to "Liquor" to
replace the symbol of anxiety in my basket with one of joy-an overpriced
bottle of 1987 Chateau d'Amour rose champagne. Like a hunter after prey, I
snuck down "Automotive Needs and Feminine Hygiene," up "Frozen Foods" and,
sighting her by "Bread," I pretended to be surprised.

"Oh, hello! Ms. ah, ah, Das Gupta, isn't it?"

"No, just Gupta," She smiled carelessly, hardly taking Her dark, scanning
eyes from the loaves, buns, and rolls.

"Remember me?" I asked. "Professor Roth."

"Oh yeah, sure-you're my astronomy teacher."

"No, no-Asian studies," I answered with a bruised heart. "Indian

"Oh yeah, of course-India," She mumbled, looking neither at me nor at my
festive wine.

"You're buying bagels," I stupidly observed the obvious; She nodded,
mumbled "'Bye," and left me by the bread to wallow in a terrible abyss of

I returned to "Liquor" to wait and watch, and when I saw Her approach a
checkout counter, I flew to Her. An old woman, no doubt some protean
demoness of Lanka, her overflowing cart a sudden barrier between me and
Lalita, beat me to the aisle. I yearned to shove ahead of the crone, to
sidle in next to Her, close enough to smell Her hair, perhaps bold enough
to ever so gently let some part of my body, seemingly by accident or
oversight, touch some part of Her, to look into Her purse when She opened
it, to make small talk, to joke about the story in the Mirror on the
checkout stand ("Sex Secrets of Teenage Girl's 101-Year-Old Lover Boy"),
to walk Her out of the store, and ... (oh, I don't know, I really don't
know where we might have gone, what we might have said). With only one
item (blueberry whole grain bagels) to buy, She vanished in an instant and
did not seem to notice me there.


Excerpted from Love in a Dead Language
by Lee Siegel
Copyright © 2003
by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Anang Saighal
I. Prolegomenon
A. Abstract and Epitome
B. Ideals and Fulfillment
C. Subjects and Objects
D. Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous
E. Paramours and Comrades
II. Fucking
A. Mix and Match
B. Squeeze and Squirm
C. Kiss and Tell
D-E. Tooth and Nail
F. Poses and Postures
G. Spanking and Moaning
H. Topsy-turvy and Vice Versa
I. The Oral Tradition
J. Alpha and Omega
III. Seduction
A. The Pick
B. The Trust
C. The Come-on
D. The Move
E. The Kill
IV. Wives and Mistresses
A. The Older Wife
B. The Younger Mistress
V-VI. Whores and Adulterers
A. The Stages of Love (Intentio Amatoris)
B. The Kamasutra (Intentio Auctoris)
C. Love in a Dead Language (Intentio Lectoris)
VII. Esoterica Erotica
A. Failure and Success
B. Secrets and Solutions

What People are Saying About This

Jeffery Paine

As a judge for the Pulitzer Prize and vice president of the National Book Critics Circle, I have, over the past decade, perhaps come as close as humanly possible to seeing every book published by a major press. During this decade I have encountered only a few books more original than [this] and possibly not one simultaneously so smart and playful. As a comic exploration of the multiple and varied ways that cultural languages create and distort romantic love, M.Siegel's book may be without parallel. It is both wildly innovative and an aesthetic pleasure to read

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