Thursday, October 2, 2008
"I have tried to disicpline my reactions to respect the historian's primary task of understanding historical figures in tthe context of their own circumstances and their own view of these."
~ from "Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground; Maryland during the Nineteenth Century", Barbara Jeanne Fields
(I do wish that I had a title for the new project - "The Imagination of Family History" might work as a subtitle, at least for now.)
I've reached the point where "why family history?" (as a subject for art) has been replaced with "why not?". I'm in the rather boggling phase of identifying categories and clarifying the relationships between individuals and time. Since my mind tends to the visual, this involves the invention of a new mapping system, one that allows my imagination to invent scenarios that can be tested against (and for) the artifacts and texts that my family generated and accumulated.
To add an extra layer of complication, there are books, some inscribed and given as gifts from one family member to another, which I think must be read not only for the text, and what I can imagine that it meant to those that read it, but also what the texts imply about how their world was imagined - how it could be imagined.
In the spirit of beginning at the beginnings, I've been searching like mad for the past few days in the old and new studio book stashes for a tome that I knew must be somewhere - "Know Thyself" (subtitled: Nature's Secrets Revealed -Scientific Knowledge of The Laws of Sex Life and Heredity or Know Thyself -vital Information for the Married and Marriageable of All Ages; a Word at the Right Time to the Boy, Girl, Young Man, Young Woman, Husband, Wife, Father and Mother; Also Timely Help, Counsel and Instruction for Every Member of Every Home -Together with Important Hints on Social Purity, Heredity, Physical Manhood and Womanhood By Noted Specialists Embracing the Story of Life and How to Tell It; Also a Department on Ethics of the Unmarried by Prof. T. W. Shannon, A. M. (profusely illustrated) & published in 1920.
This book is inscribed on the first page simply "Duttons" - I'm not sure yet, but I think it is in my grandmother's hand.
A good portion of this text is devoted to warning of the dangers of masturbation. In the U.S., this concern, in print, begins in the 1700s & swells, if you'll pardon the Proto-Indo-European allusion, to an obsession in the late 19th Century. Know Thyself was not to be taken too literally. At least one contemporary historian associates this phenomena with the "Age of Enlightenment" - the following quote is from Stephen Greenblatt's NYT review of Laqueur's "Solitary Sex":
"There were, Laqueur suggests, three reasons why the Enlightenment concluded that masturbation was perverse and unnatural. First, while all other forms of sexuality were reassuringly social, masturbation—even when it was done in a group or taught by wicked servants to children—seemed in its climactic moments deeply, irremediably private. Second, the masturbatory sexual encounter was not with a real, flesh-and-blood person but with a phantasm. And third, unlike other appetites, the addictive urge to masturbate could not be sated or moderated. "Every man, woman, and child suddenly seemed to have access to the boundless excesses of gratification that had once been the privilege of Roman emperors."
Privacy, fantasy, insatiability: each of these constitutive features of the act that the Enlightenment taught itself to fear and loathe is, Laqueur argues, a constitutive feature of the Enlightenment itself. Tissot and his colleagues had identified the shadow side of their own world: its interest in the private life of the individual, its cherishing of the imagination, its embrace of a seemingly limitless economy of production and consumption. Hammering away at the social, political, and religious structures that had traditionally defined human existence, the eighteenth century proudly brought forth a shining model of moral autonomy and market economy—only to discover that this model was subject to a destructive aberration. The aberration—the physical act of masturbating—was not in itself so obviously dreadful. When Diderot and his circle of sophisticated encyclopédistes offered their considered view of the subject, they acknowledged that moderate masturbation as a relief for urgent sexual desires that lacked a more satisfying outlet seemed natural enough. But the problem was that "moderate masturbation" was a contradiction in terms: the voluptuous, fiery imagination could never be so easily restrained.
Masturbation then became a sexual bugbear, Laqueur argues, because it epitomized all of the fears that lay just on the other side of the new sense of social, psychological, and moral independence. A dramatic increase in individual autonomy was bound up, as he convincingly documents, with an intensified anxiety about unsocialized, unreproductive pleasure, pleasure fueled by seductive chimeras ceaselessly generated by the vagrant mind:
The Enlightenment project of liberation—the coming into adulthood of humanity—made the most secret, private, seemingly harmless, and most difficult to detect of sexual acts the centerpiece of a program for policing the imagination, desire, and the self that modernity itself had unleashed.
The dangers of solitary sex were linked to one of the most telling modern innovations. "It was not an accident," Laqueur writes, in the careful phrase of a historian eager at once to establish a link and to sidestep the issue of causality, that Onania was published in the age of the first stock market crashes, the foundation of the Bank of England, and the eruption of tulip-mania. Masturbation is the vice of civil society, the culture of the marketplace, the world in which traditional barriers against luxury give way to philosophical justifications of excess. Adam Smith, David Hume, and Bernard Mandeville all found ways to celebrate the marvelous self-regulating quality of the market, by which individual acts of self-indulgence and greed were transformed into the general good. Masturbation might at first glance seem to be the logical emblem of the market: after all, the potentially limitless impulse to gratify desire is the motor that fuels the whole enormous enterprise. But in fact it was the only form of pleasure-seeking that escaped the self-regulating mechanism: it was, Mandeville saw with a shudder, unstoppable, unconstrained, unproductive, and absolutely free of charge. Far better, Mandeville wrote in his Defense of Public Stews (1724), that boys visit brothels than that they commit "rapes upon their own bodies."
There is a second modern innovation that similarly focused the anxieties attached to solitary sex: solitary reading. "It was not an accident" (Laqueur again) that Onania was published in the same decade as Defoe's first novels. For it was reading—and not just any reading, but reading the flood of books churned out by the literary marketplace—that seemed from the eighteenth century onward at once to reflect and to inspire the secret vice. The enabling mechanism here was the invention of domestic spaces in which people could be alone, coupled with a marked increase in private, solitary, silent reading. The great literary form that was crafted to fit these spaces and the reading practices they enabled was the novel. Certain novels were, of course, specifically written, as Rousseau put it, to be read with one hand. But it was not only through pornography that masturbation and the novel were closely linked. Reading novels—even high-minded, morally uplifting novels—generated a certain kind of absorption, a deep engagement of the imagination, a bodily intensity that could, it was feared, veer with terrifying ease toward the dangerous excesses of self-pleasure."
"Know Thyself" has much to say about these dangerous excesses - here's a bit concerning why "retention" is so important for The Young Man:
"Dr Acton's Statement: Dr. Acton says that it is the generally received impression that the semen, after having been secreted in the testes, can be reabsorbed into the circulation, giving bouyancy to the feelings, and the manly vigor which characterizes the male.
This powerful vital stimulant animates, warms the whole economy, places it in a state of exaltation and orgasm; renders it in some sort more capable of thinking and acting with ascendency.
It is not certain elements remaining in the blood and not eliminated from it, which produce manly vigor or virility; if so castration would produce it, instead of preventing its development."
And this admonition to women:
"Woman, Be Not Defiled. - How can a woman to consent to become a mother by a man physically and spiritually polluted by tobacco, alcohol or any foul, unnatural appetite and practice? How can a man receive as a wife, and become a father by, a woman whose body and soul are filled with enfeebling, polluting disease? Passion, gross sensualism, may bring such together to propagate; but pure, chaste, saving love, never. Pure, chaste love can not be attracted to unleanness and meanness of body or soul. The offspring of impure, unclean souls and bodies must of necessity be defiled. Insanity, idiocy, anger, revenge and diseases of various kinds and degrees appear in the children born of such unions."
One or both of my grandparents read "Know Thyself" - did they believe in it? It is easy to laugh at these seemingly old-fashioned ideas - not entirely banished by "modern" science - a little more unsettling to ponder how these ideas, albeit sublimated into the imagination as general principles, remain powerful in our thoughts today. Purity, an "umbrella value" as Bachelard pointed out, still hovers over all our imaginary constructions. That imaginary umbrella was much in use concerning the idea of "miscegnation", racial discrimination and the rationalization of slavery - and essential to Hitler's rise to power, itself built on a foundation of ancient "Anglo-Saxon" ideas about blood traceable back to the late Neolithic.
I have to decide now whether it is essential to read every word of "Know Thyself" - as well as the many texts that may be required to "understand ... the context of the circumstances" and my grandparents view.
From another angle, this post is the first one that gives me pause about blogging - these thoughts, barely developed and missing a bunch of footnotes, would, if not jotted here, have been handwritten in a notebook - I don't think typing embeds thought as well, and I'm not sure that the entrails of artwork are a good introduction - perhaps they subvert the work - or to put it another way, the art of entrail reading, once a type of scrying, may be the only kind of art that the internet supports.
Oh strange interior world which has such subsets in it!