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!”