The Family Protoplasm

. . . continued from Monday’s post:

Freud’s anxieties concerning Dora‘s reception may seem strange given some of the prevailing medical treatments of the age, but sexologist Iwan Bloch’s provocative writings undermining the very concept of sexual degeneration were no more likely to please.

More importantly, for decades, Bloch’s findings fell mostly on deaf ears. As reported in Sex at Dawn, hysteria would only be excised from the list of medically recognized diagnoses in 1952, homosexuality not until 1973.

As for the present day, according to The Kinsey Institute, “the goal envisioned by Ellis, Freud, Bloch, Hirschfeld, Moll, Marcuse and other sexological pioneers has not nearly been approached, much less reached everywhere.”

Bloch’s research-supported campaign, not to mention Freud’s own body of work, seems to suggest a more general principle: When it comes to sexuality, history does not so much chronicle dramatic changes in human behavior as it does a gradual and still ongoing, erosion of hypocrisy and an expansion of awareness as to what’s normal for our own mystifying selves i.e. far more than we’re yet willing to accept as a global community.

In other words, we’ve all been doing it since the beginning of time; we just haven’t been openly talking about it or feeling very good about it.

The strong connection drawn at the time between sexual deviancy and hereditary degeneration does much to illumine the agonizing transition between 19th and 20th century ways of thinking – a struggle nicely summarized by Sir Ken Robinson in a recent TED talk.

Diagnoses of “nervous” disorders in women and men had become so common at the turn of the century that, as John Kerr writes in A Most Dangerous Method, “it was generally conceded, even if the specific causes were disputed, that there was something about the pace of modern civilization that regularly resulted in a pathologically overtaxed nervous system.”

Shortly after, Kerr puts the theory of hereditary degeneration in context:

The theory of hereditary degeneration was a kind of speculative psychiatric attempt to align the discipline with the new concepts of Darwinian evolution. Specifically, it was contended that in certain families hereditary taint would manifest itself in progressively more severe conditions over successive generations. Thus, in the first generation, one might find only such mild disorders as nervousness and a general psychological eccentricity (perhaps manifest in unusual religious ideas or else in an artistic bent). In the next generation, more severe illnesses would emerge, such as epilepsy or severe hysteria. In the third generation, these in turn would be replaced by psychosis and overt criminality. And so on, until the line died out.

The theory strikes the modern reader as quite odd, even if upon a moment’s reflection he or she will realize that it is based on a true-enough observation, namely that mental illness does indeed seem to run in families, with increasing pathology seen at least in some of them.

Where we differ in the nineteenth-century view is to our predilection for attributing any progressive deterioration to psychological causes, and for seeing in bad parenting the causes of pathology in the next generation. At the turn of the century, however, it seemed equally reasonable to assume that such psychological causes were supplemented by physical ones, that the familial protoplasm was deteriorating along with its mental health. And though sharper minds were beginning to object to this theory, too, its day was not yet done.

Kerr goes on to attest that ideas about hereditary degeneration played the role of handmaiden to rife theories of racial inferiority. In and after the publication of Bloch’s sexology tome in late 1906, just across the Atlantic, Booker T. Washington tirelessly campaigned for the advancement of his race; the string of political defeats that would define his career came at the time when blacks represented the ground floor in the school of inevitable hereditary degeneration.

In Up from History, biographer Robert Norrell delineates whites’ presumption that differences in pigment spelled doom:

By the 1890s Darwinian thought fostered the widespread belief that competition among races would inevitably bring the demise of blacks. Most white intellectuals were certain that the black population was on the road to extinction. Joseph Le Conte, a nationally respected scientist, insisted that blacks’ fate was either disappearance or mixture, and he quickly added that mixing races yielded offspring who were weak physically and mentally and therefore doomed demographically…The predictions of disappearance were bolstered by the widespread belief that blacks were degenerating into beasts. “The Negro has not progressed,” [Virginia novelist Thomas Nelson] Page wrote in 1892, “not because he was a slave, but because he does not possess the faculties to raise himself above slavery.”

In order to transcend the preceding theories, we’ve needed the tools that Freud and his colleagues passed down to us. Primitive as they still are, they offer a starting point if not a guide book to the vast microcosm within, a vehicle with which we’ve been burning the rubber of the mind’s intercontinental highway for more than 100 years.

Image: Kiera Knightly portraying Sabina Spielrein in the 2011 film A Dangerous Method.

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