a philosophy blog

Love and sex: che poco spera e nulla chiede

Notes on:
Suzanne Raitt, “Sex, Love and the Homosexual Body in Early Sexology”

Love and its redemptive capacity were celebrated by early sexologists, Havelock Ellis and Edward Carpenter. Later thinkers in the field (also loosely classed as “sexologists” by Raitt), Weininger and Freud tended to denigrate it. Even though the latter two may have offered an “attenuated” defense of homosexuality, they did so at the expense of love, and by a certain logical extension, of women, generally. (Raitt, p. 156)

Raitt introduces her topic by citing two cases. One, from among Freud’s case histories, is that of “the beautiful and clever girl of eighteen,” whose romantic fixation with another woman occasioned her parents to send her to Freud for a cure (see below, pp. 160-1). The other is the famous story of Vita Sackville-West, privately plagued by a series of guilty but unstoppable pleasures with female lovers—including Virginia Woolf and Violet Trefusis—over the course of her life even as she remained married to Harold Nicolson, considering him somewhat her genuine better half, so to speak, and herself confused and irredeemably perverse (not that Nicolson was a slouch himself in the extra-marital affair department). The suggestion in Raitt’s article is that the disesteem for love and the emotional aspects of attachment, apparently evident in Freud and Weininger carried over in an unhealthy way to help produce Sackville-West’s perhaps histrionic confessions as revealed especially in her posthumously published manuscript, Portrait of a Marriage.

I shall be asking what role love plays in these systems. How do early twentieth century analyses of homosexual feeling represent the relationship between sex, the emotions and ethics.

In contrast, Freud’s young patient feels morally justified and seems to accede to the treatment as a kindness to her parents. She never had sexual contact with the object of her devotion—at least in the very narrow conception of “sexual contact” apparently harbored by Freud [and most men].

[The larger point here is that even if she had, what difference would that have made? Sexual contact, its definition and significance, is something quite different for a woman than it is for a man. As Weininger noted, sexuality permeates her entire body and envelope, perhaps even the air around her. A woman may “have sex” in this extended but significant sense by merely sharing the same air with her lover. Weininger could even speak of the feminine capacity for “sex at a distance” and impregnation by mere regard. (The story of the Virgin Mary has its roots in this ancient recognition.) By contrast, the shallowness of Freud’s artless conception of sexuality remained a major block to the development of his understanding of the subject. Freud did not sense that his patient was not so much morally self-justified, as he judged her to be, but, because of her location outside morality altogether in that much vaster, primeval amoral space, she had little cause for communication with the necessarily constricted male realm where morality must rule, the world Freud, the moralist, inhabited.

Or, as in the case of Sackville-West, a kind of twisted communication was deemed expedient. A “confession” with all that is implied in the term, making it different from mere expression, seemed demanded of her, the theatricality inherent in confession stemming from the fact that she was attempting a delicate ingratiation with an audience slightly wider than intimacies of the sort she wanted to reveal usually warrant (Raitt, p. 153-5); thus, the self-accusations of perversion in the face of unrepentant behavior.

It is more than polite, sometimes even moral in a clearly feminine conception of the term, to appear guilty in the eyes of others. It shows concern for their sensibilities. Here guilt has no necessary connection to redemption or even remorse. But it is a species of guilt, not mere theatre, in which responsibility precipitates over the situation, the relationship—not the individual.]

Victoria Glendinning, in her biography of Sackville-West, comments that on her bookshelves at the time of her death in 1962 were Havelock Ellis’s Sexual Inversion (1897), inscribed by Harold Nicolson, a copy of Edward Carpenter’s The Intermediate Sex (1908), and a heavily annotated copy of Otto Weininger’s Sex and Character (1903). [Weininger’s book, Geschlecht und Charakter, first appeared in German that year, but not in English until 1906.] Sackville-West apparently read Weininger during the very early days of her affair with Trefusis. [Raitt’s note here credits Glendinning’s biography, Vita: A Biography of Vita Sackville-West (Quill: New York, 1983), p. 405.]

Though Freud cited Ellis and Weininger in Three Essays on the Theory Sexuality (1905) [the latter in an added note in 1910 only to remind us that Weininger was not the originator of the idea of universal bisexuality or sexual intermediacy, as popular perception had it—not that Weininger claimed any such precedence: he generously credited Freud’s erstwhile friend, Wilhelm Fleiss, for this insight among others (Sex and Character, Ladislaus Löb translation, (Indiana University Press, 2005), p. 48, 344) and showed an ample awareness of its traces in the writings of others], he was primarily concerned to amend the theories of Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Albert Moll on the necessity of the connection between the sexual instinct and its choice of object. Freud wanted to make it more a matter of contingency. In Three Essays he appears to regard homosexuality “as a sexual rather than an emotional aberration”. He holds to this even in the case of the young lesbian discussed in the “Psychogenesis” article 15 years later, even though in that case there was no sexual contact whatever. Raitt’s implication here is that Freud, unlike Ellis and Carpenter, predicated explanatory force only of sexual instinct, leaving little room in his scheme for love, something she is at pains to make clear.

[It should be noted that Weininger did reserve a high place for the notion, even if only by divorcing it altogether from sexuality and, hence, from woman qua woman. But then he was extrapolating here from the male conception. His larger picture leaves logical space for an entirely separate species or conception of love, a feminine one, which would have to be quite different both from the male and from the asexual conception he thought theoretically possible (but, again, only as a desexualized extension of the masculine conception, the only one he dealt with explicitly). In any case, there is, he concluded, no lucid, coherent intersexual understanding of love. What often passed for it was murderous in its violation of the integrity of either sex’s conception. Thus, his famous line, “Love is murder.”

(It is a peculiarity of the discipline that the idea of “leaving logical space” is critical to understanding philosophy; this is so often forgotten by those unaccustomed to the idea that anyone ought to be responsible for unconscious as well as conscious understanding and articulation. Inferences unmade are no less inferences. Weininger, we argue, was more careful about this than he is typically given credit for.)

Love and sexual attraction were quite distinct for Weininger. They were distinct for Freud, too, but for him the former counted for little, probably because of his somewhat inconsistent deterministic tendencies. As a conscious act of will (or at least the choice to surrender to it) love would be difficult to clinically pathologize and so, as in the case of the lesbian girl, Freud is compelled to dismiss it as aberrational. Indeed, what he could not understand or interpret to fit his reductionist theory of the unconscious he was wont to dismiss in this way: much of what Weininger wrote falls to a similar assessment. Weininger’s work thus was “unbalanced” (Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, 3rd ed, James Strachey, trans., (Basic Books, 1962), p. 9n.), that is to say, “religious” in that transcendental sense of religion that Freud sought to free his patients of; the term served as a sort of catchall for what Freud could not begin to fathom from within his materialistic scheme. (In this he resembles Aristotle but without Aristotle’s clarity about his vocation.)

While it is certainly possible to conceive of Freud as a moralist (as Philip Rieff did and I, as well, have at times), to do so is to attempt to impose a coherence on his work that may not have been there from the start. Such an approach may have some hermeneutical justification—it may help us to partake with less embarrassment of Freud’s rich and evocative imagination. But Freud himself insisted the underpinning for what he was doing was science, not philosophy. His therapeutic motivation, however, not necessarily his method (as is more commonly thought), more fundamentally belies his scientific pretensions. To seek even indirectly to do others good by disabusing them of illusion is to impose value. It is, like it or not, to dabble in philosophy. Freud appears to have suffered from bad faith about this.

Freud’s disagreement with—and it is more enlightening to see it as such, not diagnosis of—Weininger is what interests us. Freud admirably, even heroically, tried to inscribe himself in that middle life Kierkegaard depicted as the moral sphere, distinguished from both the raptures of the aesthetic and the absurdities of the religious. He recalls for us the “author” of the second part of Either/Or. In sparing himself the trouble of exploring the other spheres, except as clinical observer, he relegated himself to a very temperate sexism. Ironically, in the end, he came to understand neither men nor women, succeeding in the end only in leaving us less helpless in the richly confused realm of the quietly desperate in which both sexes spend the better part of their time. In fearing to tread on all fours where the unbalanced live he barred from himself a view of the moral landscape which ensconced both him and his patients together. His chief lesson, that we are all sick but here is how we may deal with it, etc., though valuable in itself, leaves us no clue as to the ultimate origins of the sickness or why it is correct to call it “sickness” at all. What “picture of health” guided him, given his disqualification of all that smacked of philosophy? No amount of clinicality was going to teach him that. Perhaps, true to his mission as physician to the species, it was with, at best, coping mechanisms, not with understanding per se, that he left us. For the latter, I think we have to turn to the young ill-starred armchair philosopher whose work, as fate again would have it, Freud was among the first to read and which, for a time, would eclipse his own—and perhaps may again.

It has been suggested that Wittgenstein essentially extended Freud’s therapeuticism into philosophy itself by psychoanalyzing, after a fashion, not thinkers, but the instruments of thought: their words. But once again Weininger had a hand in this development too. Especially in his last writings, Weininger began to sketch a method of probing the signification of language and its symbolic power to structure the categories of understanding—a method with which Wittgenstein, we know, intimately familiarized himself.]

Raitt points out that Sackville-West was intending something more impersonally universal in her “confession”. She meant to leave behind a personal narrative more to contribute to the advance of sexological science than as testimony to her private shame. To see it as the latter “would be to miss the point of much contemporary sexology, and especially of that which Sackville-West was reading. For Carpenter, Ellis and Weininger rarely distinguished between sexual and emotional feelings.” [Actually, at least in the case of Weininger, the distinction was made but, more to the Raitt’s point, not in the way Freud did. See below, p. 159.]

Even as Freud intensified his stress on the libido as the motive force of psychic life, other eminent psychologists were elaborating a theory of the instincts that subordinated sexual feeling to the power of the emotions.

Raitt refers specifically here to William McDougall at Oxford and Morton Prince in America.

Ellis’s case histories stressed the emotional aspects of attachment sometimes to the exclusion of the physical. Consistently, he opposed Krafft-Ebing’s classification of homosexuality as pathological degeneration (as Freud was later to do as well).

For Carpenter, similarly, “the gay body in his texts is still primarily a phenomenon of the life of the feelings.” In his valuing of the sentimental life, Carpenter finds common cause with feminism, but “[t]his incipient consonance of gay and feminist interests in the discourse of sexology is in tension, however, with many of the assumptions of other contemporary sexual philosophers including–and perhaps especially–those of Weininger and, to a lesser extent, of the later Freud.” Raitt continues, “A politics that does not value love finds it hard to value women, so persistently associated with the capacity to love.”

Of Weininger, “This imbrication of misogyny with anti-semitism is linked to a bleakly nihilistic vision of the body which is incapable of bringing together sexual feeling and love:” Raitt proceeds to quote Sex and Character, (Heinemann, 1906) p. 239, where Weininger alludes to the mistake of conflating love with glorified or enhanced sexuality, an error even Kant and Schopenhauer fell into. Raitt:

In distinguishing between sex and love, Weininger places women squarely on the side of sex; and men, uncomfortably, on the side of the emotions, endlessly struggling and failing to reconcile their capacities to desire and love.

[Raitt hits the nail on the head here… (but maybe not the nail she intended). It is difficult to exaggerate how uncomfortable men are with sexuality of either the emotionally loaded kind or that under some mechanical or functional description. The former offends them at an aesthetic level, the latter ethically. There is no resting place in it for him as it is conceivable there may be for her. Men only make peace with love—or some variety of it—when they have neutered it.]

Freud, in Raitt’s view, follows Weininger in classing love as aberration, “defining it as a mode of ‘overvaluation’ of the love object.” (citing Three Essays, pp. 16-17) and again like Weininger “emphasizes the narcissistic dimension of the experience of love.”

Freud remarks on female moral inferiority in the 1933 essay, “Femininity”. Raitt quotes him:

In the absence of fear of castration the chief motive is lacking which leads boys to surmount the Oedipus complex. Girls remain in it for an indeterminate length of time; they demolish it late and, even so, incompletely. In these circumstances the formation of the super-ego must suffer; it cannot attain the strength and independence which give it its cultural significance. [Note 31: New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, tr. James Strachey, Penguin Freud Library, vol. II (Penguin Harmondsworth, 1973), p. 163.]

[The moral asymmetry was also noted by Jean Piaget and then again by Lawrence Kohlberg in the early 1970s who found that girls did not progress through his three moral stages with the same facility as boys. It fell to Carol Gilligan (In A Different Voice, 1982) to explain why, and, in the process, corroborating (as far as we can tell, unwittingly—but isn’t that the best kind of corroboration?) Weininger’s misunderstood insight from nearly a century before: that morality as men know it is not to be found in women—and, more importantly, has no special business there.]

Raitt attributes Freud’s relative non-judgmentalism on homosexuality, as in the case of the lesbian girl, less to any special appreciation of her genuine capacity to love than to the fact that any kind of love lacked redemptive capacity for him. The girl was merely perverse, that is, nonstandard in her expression of the same aberration afflicting a normal young man, for instance, in the throes of a passion. She was not sick, just odd.

Freud wrote (as quoted in Raitt),

I mentioned the fact that in her behaviour to her adored lady the girl had adopted the characteristic masculine type of love. Her humility and her lack of pretensions, ‘che poco spera e nulla chiede[hoping for little, wanting nothing], her bliss when she was allowed to accompany the lady a little way and to kiss her hand on parting, her joy when she heard her praised as beautiful […], her pilgrimages to places once visited by the loved one, the silence of all more sensuous wishes—all these little traits in her resembled the first passionate adoration of youth for a celebrated actress whom he regards as far above him, to whom he scarcely dares lift his bashful eyes. [“The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman,” Case Histories II, ed. Angela Richards, Penguin Freud Library, vol. IX (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1979), p. 387. Italian quote from Torquato Tasso, Gerusalemme Liberata, Canto Segondo, line 124.]

[The boundary between what is and is not sex for a woman is far from fixed or triangulable; it is—to borrow another image from physics—like the exact location of an electron in its orbit, a matter of probability.]

Certainly, Freud was not as benighted as many of his contemporaries. He did recognize the futility of the effort at rehabilitating the girl. He concluded the girl was not going to be “cured” because, first, she did not perceive herself as ill.

Raitt concludes with the thought that where Ellis and Carpenter elevated love, Freud and Weininger disparaged it, and, in doing so, women, too, for, we take it, they are exemplars of the capacity for it.

[Without taking anything away from Ellis and Carpenter, we think Freud and, especially, Weininger may have more to teach us about the nature of sexual being, however. The latter pair’s joint refusal to acknowledge a sexual love with transcendent powers is deeply revealing of a masculine liability. But Weininger, more prepared to ride out the consequences of his logic than Freud, did not disparage love, per se.]

Posted by luno in sexualities, Freud, sex differences, feminism, Weininger (Saturday January 7, 2006 at 4:16 pm)

No comments for Love and sex: che poco spera e nulla chiede»

No comments yet.

Leave a comment


(required but not published)

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Creative Commons License