Review: Retina Barreca [ed ], Desire and Imagination: Classic Essays in Sexuality

ISBN 0-452-01150-7

The essays in this collection were written between 1837 and 1929, so they are
 really of historical interest, but they do give some very valuable insights into the 
background of early psychotherapeutic theories and techniques. The most recent
 essay in the book is an extract on ‘Femininity’ from Freud’s New Introductory
 Lectures of 1929, so in a way all the other pieces in the book could be seen as 
forming a background to his work, but I feel that this would be to ignore the 
intrinsic interest of many of the papers themselves.

The collection contains essays by writers whose names are probably familiar but 
whose works I for one had never read – for example, there are essays by Havelock 
Ellis and Richard von Krafft-Ebing, who are acknowledged as founders of
 sexology but very little read or even quoted nowadays. In quite a lengthy section 
from Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, a Medico-Forensic Study (1871), there 
is an early attempt to analyse such ‘pathologies’ as fetishism and masochism from
 a ‘scientific’ viewpoint. Understandably, Krafft-Ebing has some difficulty in 
distinguishing pathological fetishism from the quite ordinary attachment to 
symbols or qualities which are associated with the beloved. He works himself into 
very deep waters on finding that “the fetishism of body and mind is of importance 
in progeneration” and that it even “favours the selection of the fittest and the 
transmission of physical and mental virtues. Generally speaking,” he goes on, “the 
following masculine qualities impose on woman, viz. physical strength, courage,
 nobility of mind, chivalry, self-confidence, even self-assertion, insolence, bravado 
and a conscious show of mastery over the weaker sex.” This list of virtues which
 ‘fetishism’ in love might foster gives even Krafft-Ebing pause for reflection: he
 feels duty-bound to warn ‘the weaker sex’ about the dangers of this fine figure of a 
man which they may lovingly fetishize:

“A Don Juan impresses many women and elicits admiration, for he
 establishes the proof of his virile powers, although the inexperienced maiden 
can in no wise suspect the many risks of lues and chronic urethritis she runs 
from a marital union with this otherwise interesting rake.”

A favourite obsession with the nineteenth century doctors represented in these 
essays was, unsurprisingly, masturbation. In general, they seem to believe that 
masturbation was the primary cause of ‘inversion’ or homosexuality in both men 
and women. For example, in the essay by Dr Benjamin Tarnowsky (a follower of
 Krafft-Ebing’s) from his book: The Sexual Instinct and its Morbid Manifestations,
 from the Double Standpoint of Jurisprudence and Psychiatry (1898) he warns his
 reader that “The more intense the morbid manifestation, the longer has the subject 
been addicted to masturbation, and the sooner has he become a pederast, and the
 sooner also does he lose the possibility of normal coition.”

His method of correcting the boy at the earliest opportunity is as follows:

“When a boy has been repressed in time, and laughed at on the first feminine 
imitations, he involuntarily begins to pull himself together. If he is then
 carefully kept away from female society, occupied as much as possible with
 athletic exercises, always severely reproved and punished for the slightest
 appearance of coquetry, graceful manner, extravagant delicacy and in 
general for every external feminine manifestation, by such strictly conducted
 education the youth attains to the normal state of puberty.”

Other doctors, like Isaac Baker Brown (1866) believe that masturbation is the
 cause of “Certain Forms of Insanity, Epilepsy, Catalepsy and Hysteria in Females.”
His tried and tested treatment is cliteridectomy, which he assures us, in case after 
case has brought peace of mind and propriety of behaviour to the poor tormented
 women who came to him for help. It is perhaps not surprising that the ‘treatment’ 
offered for female masturbators is so much more drastic than the ‘repression’
 recommended for boys.
 A little less scarifying to read about is the original “Rest Cure” which was 
”invented” by Dr S. Weir Mitchell of Philadelphia in the 1880s. His account of the 
workings of this ‘cure’ for “Certain Forms of Neurasthenia and Hysteria (especially 
in Women)” is fascinating. He literally required his patients to take to their beds,
 where they were kept completely quiet (by an experienced nurse, day and night), 
fed copiously but not allowed to leave the bed for any reason, at first not even read
 to, let alone allowed to read or write or – most severely – not allowed to sew! It
 was as if they were being returned to a state of earliest infancy. Permission to read
 a little or write the odd letter, or embroider a cloth, was only granted after several 
weeks of this intense “Rest”. He distinguishes this “rest” fiercely from the mere 
idleness of “women who mimic fatigue, who indulge themselves in rest at the least 
pretence, and who have no symptoms so truly honest that we need care to regard
 them. These are they who spoil their own nervous systems as they spoil their 
children when they have them, by yielding to the least desire and teaching them to
 dwell on little pains.” It may be hard, he admits, to tell which women are just idle 
and which are genuinely sick – but he is sure that, when subjected to the iron rule 
of his “Rest Cure”, the lazy mimics will soon show their true colours and the 
genuinely sick women will be restored, through fine nutrition to a state of good “fat 
and blood”. At this distance in time, it might be easy to laugh at these ideas if it
 weren’t for the knowledge that anorexic people are still being force-fed and their 
day-time clothes taken away in some hospitals.
 It is particularly interesting also to read the selected passage from Charles Darwin’s 
Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1874) as a precursor of Freud’s
 theories in Totem and Taboo, including the Oedipus theory, because they both seem
 to be drawing on a very similar set of early anthropological hypotheses. The 
Freudian ‘primal horde’ is clearly derivative from the ‘communal marriage’ which 
Darwin discusses, though Darwin’s expression is coloured with moral ideas in a
way which is very different from Freud’s:

“It seems probable that the habit of marriage, in any strict sense of the word, has 
been gradually developed; and that almost promiscuous or very loose intercourse 
was once extremely common throughout the world. Nevertheless from the strength 
of the feeling of jealousy all through the animal kingdom… I cannot believe that 
absolutely promiscuous intercourse prevailed in times past shortly before man 
attained to his present rank in the zoological scale.” I found it very interesting that 
Darwin isolated sexual jealousy as a motive for monogamous marriage, not so very 
differently from the Freudian hypothesis.

The collection of essays has been assembled with the overt intention of whipping
 up feminist fervour against the political incorrectnesses of the past, but there is no
 need to confine one’s reading to that. It includes essays by Marie Stopes and 
Margaret Sanger which should certainly be read by everyone, not just by feminists.
 And among the later essays in the book, mostly by women, there is a little gem of
 slapstick satire called ‘An Anti-Suffrage Monologue’ by Marie Jenney Howe, an 
American suffragist (1913), which opens with:

“Please do not think of me as old-fashioned. I pride myself on being a modern, up-
to-date woman. I believe in all kinds of broad-mindedness, only I do not believe 
in woman suffrage because to do that would be to deny my sex.” It seems to have
 nothing to do with the other essays in the book, but it’s wonderful anyway. For 
sheer enjoyment, I quote her conclusion:

”I don’t want to be misunderstood in my reference to woman’s inability to 
vote. Of course, she could get herself to the polls and lift a piece of paper.
 What I refer to is the pressure on the brain, the effect of this mental strain on
 woman’s delicate nervous organization and on her highly wrought sensitive 
nature. Have you ever pictured to yourself Election Day with women 
voting? Can you imagine how women, having undergone this terrible 
ordeal, with their delicate systems all upset, will come out of the voting 
booths and be led away by policemen, and put into ambulances, while they
 are fainting and weeping, half laughing, half crying, and having fits upon the 
public highway? Don’t you think that if a woman is going to have a fit, it is 
far better for her to have it in the privacy of her own home?

And how shall I picture to you the terrors of the day after election? Divorce
 and death will rage unchecked, crime and contagious disease will stalk 
unbridled through the land. Oh, friends, on this subject I feel – I feel so
 strongly that I can – not think!”

Mary Montaut