QOTD (2011-04-06); or, Why I Will Not Be Using the Word “Hermeneutic” in My Thesis

Twenty years before Freud published his famous analysis of the Schreber case, arguing that Schreber’s extraordinary fantasies were a result of paranoia stemming from repressed homosexuality, John Addington Symonds published his A Problem in Modern Ethics. Therein, he highlights these lines from a case study of an anonymous “Urning” in Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis:

… when he first becomes aware of the sexual stirrings in his nature, and innocently speaks about them to his comrades, soon finds that he is unintelligible. So he wraps himself within his own thoughts…. He imagines that he alone of all the people in the world is the subject of emotions so eccentric…. How many unexplained cases of suicide in young men ought to be ascribed to this cause!

Those who have studied Freud in his historical context will be aware that, although his role in the formation of modern psychoanalysis was pivotal, he wasn’t the only person at the turn of the twentieth century thinking about the mind and mental health in relation to desire. Scientists like Krafft-Ebing who collected and edited personal narratives about individuals’ sexual histories (something which Symonds was himself very actively involved in in later life, though thanks to Edmund Gosse none of his research has survived) no doubt had specific pathological narratives in mind which they sought to highlight through their selection and organization of the case studies. The case study Symonds presents us with in Modern Ethics is no exception, but what’s striking is how this narrative maps onto the model of homosexual desire that Freud (in)famously gives us in Schreber. In the Krafft-Ebing case study, a severe mental-health risk (suicide) is instigated by the idea that someone would “wrap himself within his own thoughts”—in modern psychoanalytic terms, repress his sexual identification, covering it over with conscious thoughts—and that this coping mechanism would cause him to believe—as the paranoiac does—that he is the only person who feels as he does, and that therefore he is at risk of persecution from everyone. It’s the link between repression and paranoia that emerges in the Krafft-Ebing case study (and, in particular, in the bits Symonds highlights from it, performing his own editorial work!) that seems so strikingly to prefigure Freud. For we historians, this is an interesting muddling of the timeline: we whose scholarly duty seems to be to warn other critics against applying critical frameworks to historical moments prior to their invention need to keep in mind that critical frameworks do not suddenly come into being with the jolt of electric current that accompanies the flipping of an “on/off” switch. Rather, they develop—as all ideas and paradigms do—gradually over time, thanks to the contributions of many individuals. Freud may loom large in the history of psychoanalysis and indeed of sexology, but to a certain extent he is also affected by the way that people think and express their thoughts in the period at which he starts to think and write about the mechanisms of sexual desire. I haven’t done the reading to be able to do more than speculate, but I wonder in what ways Freud’s immersion in the genre of the case study, which has its narrative conventions just like any other genre, affected the nature of the frameworks he extrapolated from his own case studies!

These all may seem like very elementary points to be making, and I don’t need to do the JSTOR search to make an educated guess that they’ve been made before by readers of Freud more sophisticated than I. But the bottom line that any given intellectual figure is both shaped by his or her historical context and yet exists as an individual apart from it seems too often forgotten by scholars of all stripes. Every day I read secondary literature about Symonds and his circle which believes it appropriate to refer to Symonds as a gay liberationist (in the framing of one ’90s queer theorist I was reading yesterday, a sort of Foucault avant-la-personne) or for that matter to dismiss him as a “minor man of letters” whose form somehow camouflages into the prized Morris wallpaper of his drawing-room. For scholars whose discipline is all about questioning categories, I find that queer theorists aren’t always as perfect as they might be at distancing themselves for the categories they in turn have created, and the world-historical figures—the Freuds and the Foucaults—they have elevated. Of course, no one is perfect, nor should they be. It is rather the lack of interest in trying to see the world from their subjects’ point of view that irritates me.

But then, I suppose, that’s why I’m a historian, not a queer theorist. From each according to her abilities, to each according to her needs.

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