Comprehending the Fate of Women

Illustration from Jane Eyre by Edward A. Wilson

Comprehending the Fate of Women

Alfred de Muset, the romantic French writer, wrote a play with the title, On ne badine pas avec l’amour, or in English, One Doesn’t Kid Around with Love.  The heroine of this play speaks a line that’s since become classic:

Est-ce que vous ne plaignez pas

le sort des femmes?

Or, in English, do you not pity the lot of women?

With me, the lot of women is not a pity, but it is a concern.  My concern is not that our fates as women are pitiable.  It’s that our fates have not been successfully comprehended.  We don’t know when and what to pity, what the stakes are, how the losses and gains are to be reckoned.

Actual women make the private computations all the time, and share their accountings with trusted friends, most often other women.

But feminism, regarded as the theoretical account and proposed remedy for the plural predicaments of women, has neglected le sort des femmes – the lot of women – most especially the fate that concerns me as a friend to my own sex.

Charlotte Bronte’s novel, Jane Eyre portrays the situation I have in mind.  Jane, the book’s heroine, is employed by a certain Mr. Rochester, as governess to his ward.  They fall in love and are on the verge of marrying, when the disclosure of a mad wife now living saves her from bigamy.  So as not to be tempted to become his mistress, she flees, without resources or protections of any kind, to a far district where – in one of those coincidences of the 19th-century novel – the house on the moor that finally takes her in happens to contain three heretofore unknown cousins.  They are two pleasant young women and a handsome clergyman.  A lost legacy is found too and her life might attain safety at last, except that the clergyman, who plans to become a missionary in India, presses her – with all his personal force of will –to accompany him as his wife.

Jane describes his pressure:

I felt veneration for St. John [the clergyman]

 – veneration so strong that its impetus thrust me at once

to the point I had so long shunned.

I was tempted to cease struggling with him

—to rush down the torrent of his will

into the gulf of his existence

and there lose my own.

There are some women who have never had this experience, but I’ve not met too many.  There is a powerful feminine tendency to yield.  With sufficient force of will, or force of circumstance, or persuasive power, or power of groupthink, many a man can “have his way” with many a woman.

I don’t mean that any man can, with any woman.  Of course not.  But I do happen to know of more than one public feminist whose lover or husband beat her, browbeat her, or allowed her to be exposed to sustained insult.

Jane Eyre’s vulnerability, her temptation to yield to another’s aggressive and persistent will is — dare I say it? — natural.   I don’t care whether we attribute this naturalness to culture, evolution or providence.  It’s real and the default position in every culture I know of, from the stone age to our age.

In our age, refrigerators have allowed us to leave our cooking pots, contraceptives make it possible to pace our childbearing, contemporary clothes and gymnastic can give us more bodily self-command, armed constabulary can make it safer for us to take solitary walks, changes in legislation make it possible to vote, own property, acquire new capabilities and become financially self-supporting.

What has feminism contributed to the situation?  Hasn’t it changed what used to be the default position?  Yes, it certainly has, but one of the problems associated with this change is that women who still have to fight for recently acquired opportunities risk taking on a defensive aggressiveness that obliterates their underlying power of yielding.

On the other hand, if they yield imprudently to that very power of yielding, they can find themselves erased in the sense that threatens Jane Eyre as she resists the young clergyman’s force of will.

If she yields — to his egoistic willfulness — she may lose her own existence as a center of desire, thought and purpose.  And he, in conquering the woman he wants, will lose her just as much.

If she resists his power — with a brittleness originating out of fear — she may lose her own connection with the deep-based, feminine power-of-yielding.

The man who, out of egoistic weakness, abuses a woman backs her into this brittleness.  He thinks he is asserting his masculinity.  Rather, what he flaunts is an embarrassing unmanliness.  And yet, aggression belongs to the masculine nature.  It’s not per se toxic.  In many circumstances, it’s what real life requires.  Women don’t talk about that but they know it.

So here we are, in our advanced society, working on the precarious, ever-unstable ideal equilibrium between men and women.  The woman must preserve her power of judgment, her principles, her desires, her purposes – and with all these retain her power-of-yielding, which is the feminine power.  The man must preserve his mental and energetic forces together with sufficient self-command not to abuse but rather protect the dignity of women, and thus to be able to protect — in the singular woman he may find and love — her power of yielding.

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“Philosophy is Learning How to Die”

“The Death of Socrates”
Jacques- Louis David, 1787

“Philosophy is Learning How to Die” 

Socrates said that about philosophy, in front of his grieving student/disciples, at the hour when he was to down the lethal hemlock served him by the jailer.  Death was the sentence passed on him by the jury that had found him guilty of corrupting the youth of Athens.  Since Socrates was a man of noble character, who had certainly opposed the corruption of the youth, the offense for which they were condemning him was probably a different one: being a philosopher.

Philosophy was at that time (399 B.C.E.) a fairly new calling, but Socrates embodied it as much as anyone has, before or since.  What did he mean by calling it a study of how to die?  Was he just trying to console his students — apprentices in philosophy — assuring them that he was departing for a land they already knew?

If, on the other hand, he was not just offering a soothing placebo,

what did he think philosophers knew?

A few years ago, one of my colleagues was cut down suddenly, in the prime of his life, by an illness the doctors could not cure.  At the memorial service, his widow shared a comment he had made to her:

“Nothing in philosophy

prepared me for this.”

Of course, Socrates had in mind a way of life, not an academic discipline.

Lately, the urge has come upon me to get rid of a lot of things no longer needed in the life I live now.  Up to a certain time, I’d always made a point of traveling light.  In New York, I lived in a one-room apartment where every piece of furniture was in use; the paintings on the wall were by me; the closets held clothes I actually wore and I knew where, on my bookshelves, I could find any book I needed.  My motto was:

If I have to leave suddenly,

whatever I own should fit in a backpack.

Of course it didn’t quite, but that was the model.

It broke down after my parents died.  Though I gave away whatever I could, there were paintings, books and some heavy pieces of furniture that ended up in my space.  When I met and married Jerry, and we moved to our own place, the purgations were considerable but they didn’t keep up with the stuff that moved with each of us.  It was perhaps too soon for us to know what was really ours.

Then, a few weeks ago, I noticed in meditation that I felt “like a stranger” in our home.  Was this a case of the alienation that contemporary philosophers write about?

Further guidance came in these words:

Get rid of the baggage!

People write deep books on alienation.  It’s all the rage.  Instead of writing a deep book, I decided to go through my closets.  The effects were sudden and, to me, quite odd.  It was as if

the outer is the inner

and the inner is the outer.

With each bulging bag going to Goodwill, I felt more at home!

If the Existentialists had purged their closets, would they have written so eloquently about Thrownness, Angst and Alienation?

At around the same time, I had another thought – just as inspired.  Pardon my mentioning it, but some readers may remember that I survived a year-long struggle to get a predator who targeted women out of an institution that held great value to me.  It was by no means easy to do, nor was it clear that I would eventually succeed (which, however, I did, with the help of God and a few others).

Such “victories” are immensely costly.  Every day for about a year, feelings of outrage, anger, frustration, hurt and violation were mixed with my digestive juices.  The natural consequence was that a digestion I used jokingly to describe as “the best thing about me” became … well … certainly NOT the best thing about me.

Recently I discovered a facility, about a 40-minute drive from where I live, where highly competent staff know how to take a garden hose (so to speak) to one’s pipes, starting at the other end. “Hydrotherapy” is the genteel name they give to their treatment.  As the dysfunctional intestines gradually return to normal, interestingly, the corresponding emotions are also returning to their normal place in the present tense, with fewer involuntary revisits to a year of past suffering.

What’s all this got to do with learning how to die — or with philosophy, for that matter?

Well, when you die, you let go (perforce) of powers you won’t be needing anymore.  That way, you can travel lighter to your next appointment.

Something analogous happens when you disburden yourself of baggage no longer functional — including wounds left from bygone combats.  You get more accessible – to yourself and life’s still-undiscovered countries.

And philosophy?  It requires a disciplined commitment to love the truth and seek it – even at the cost of surrendering favorite beliefs when you discover them to be false.  If you live that way, whatever the pains — sooner or later, inevitably and naturally, you notice yourself —

meeting the life-adventure afresh.

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The Personal Meets the Political

Sartre, Boris and Michelle Vian, and Simone de Beauvoir at the Cafe Procope, 1951

The Personal Meets the Political

I’m still reading A Dangerous Liaison, the book by Carole Seymour-Jones, about the great twentieth-century power couple, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.  In my previous blog on them, I focused on the inconsistency between their philosophic claim that we invent ourselves, and the actual circumstances plus iron self-discipline that shaped the dazzling careers of these two writers.

Mine was a criticism from outside.  As I learn of the personal lives of these two shapers of the Zeitgeist, I want to know, what’s really in play here?

Seymour-Jones has read the letters, diaries, major philosophic and literary works, and she pairs their written words, private and public, with the real-life pathways of each writer.  Her take on these evidences seems to me intelligent and morally serious.  Of course, it’s not the last word but, for a human life, can there be a last word?  What we do have is relevant information on a question of wide concern: 

for these two opinion-shapers 

what was the connection 

 between the personal and the political

 and how did it influence the Zeitgeist?

First, let’s get into the evidence.  De Beauvoir and Sartre recruited favorite students as rotating sex partners for the two of them,  captivating young followers by their intellectual power and bohemian freedom.

When Nazi Germany conquered and occupied France, Jewish students and professionals they knew were under mortal threat, forced out of positions high and low, required to wear the yellow stars that made them easier to round up and kill, but also killed if they were discovered without the yellow stars.  Though their so-called “family” of students included one young Jewish woman named Bianca Bienenfeld, both Sartre and de Beauvoir maintained a tone of coolly satiric indifference to Bianca’s terror.

Sartre’s literary career continued and flourished under the Nazi Occupation.  He even took a post involuntarily “vacated” by a man named Dreyfus – the actual grandson of Alfonse Dreyfus, the Jewish officer falsely accused in France’s famous Dreyfus Case!

After the Liberation, Sartre managed, by his brilliance as a rhetorician and politician of ideas, to facilitate the confusion of his own border-line war-time record with that of a real resistant, the writer/philosopher Albert Camus.  Effectively, Sartre worked to create the myth of France as a nation that had collectively resisted the German Occupation — representing the existentialist as the archetypal hero of that resistance.  Sartre’s lifelong support for the Soviet Union may have been another instance of borrowed valor.  During the Occupation, communists had gained a special reputation for courage as resistants.

Is that all?  No, there is more.  In the waning days of the Occupation, Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus met other Parisian intellectual swells in sumptuous apartments, brimming with champagne and delectables for the palate — for orgies that pagan Rome might have envied!

What are we to make of all this?  Well, first of all, nobody’s life will bear microscopic examination under white light.  Second, after the War, when news of the death camps and returning skeletal survivors filtered into common awareness, de Beauvoir felt that she and Sartre had to turn their concept of existentialism in a more morally responsible direction.  Personal self-invention had implications for others, who ought henceforth to be included in the existentialist theories.

It’s likely that the whip-lash effect of the War played some part in de Beauvoir’s eventual resolve to write The Second Sexa book so consequential for women globally.

In the final romance of her womanly life, with Claude Lanzmann,  producer of the documentary “Shoah,” she wanted him to believe that she’d had but a very few previous intimate encounters and he could trust her true-heartedness as a woman.  The perennial man/woman asymmetries reasserted themselves for the last time.

How should we regard this much-too-complex story?  These two defined the contemporary world, as much as any literary pair ever did.  In order to surmount very particular social obstacles, they resorted to the extreme theoretical claim that we can invent our purposes and personal characteristics wholesale.

That claim was psychologically understandable, rhetorically dramatic and professionally attention-getting.  They stuck by it, though their personal lives were not an advertisement for their theories.

They did retain two theoretical constants not deemed self-invented:

consciousness v. nature

It was left to the post-moderns to take the further steps:

 doubting that we have access

to our own consciousness,

and doubting that our words refer

to anything objectively out there.

Skepticism is thereby carried to its limit.

Perhaps a philosopher of history, Hegel, can help us decipher this story.  Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit shows the human mind refusing – in epoch after epoch — to find repose in skepticism.

The more extreme the doubt, the more the doubter will secretly crave certainty.  The more absolute the freedom claimed, the more tyrannical will be the restraints to which the claimant will surrender, body and soul.

You can pick your own examples.

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Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

Dust Tracks on a Road

by Zora Neal Hurston

This is the autobiography of the great Zora Neal Hurston, whom I first learned of when Jerry started reading aloud from her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, at breakfast.  The novel was, to me, a totally astonishing book – perhaps the only book about romantic love written in English the 20th century that takes it entirely seriously and rings true.  With all the grit of the real thing.

If we want to know, who was this woman who wrote about that most enviable thing as if she knew it from the inside? — Dust Tracks on a Road gives some part of the answer.

Most of her childhood was passed in a Florida town inhabited and governed by black Americans, themselves a generation or two out of slavery.  So she grew up as free from internalized self-diminishment as it was possible to be in that era (or any era for a member of any group that the majority denigrates).

She rose to levels as high as a writer’s career can go: a peer of the best of her time (the 1930’s and 40’s) – recognized as an exciting, original talent.

Then she sank out of sight.  In my college days, I never heard of her.  Nobody I knew spoke of her.  The men were talked of – James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison.  They were torch-bearers for the politics of race with the sharpened awareness accompanying that.

For her, the grants dried up, fellowships dried up and royalties had never been that royal.  She – who could charm a roomful of New York talent and grab hold of any nearby lifeline – was suddenly out of style, out of order, out of line.

From the fine Afterward by Henry Louis Gates, one gathers that the men wrote her out of the writer’s public space.  Particularly Wright (whom I knew in Paris and was a positive influence in my life).  She was not race-conscious enough or politically combative enough, perhaps.  She had another calling.

When black women writers discovered her, it had to do with recovering and honoring their own voices.  Alice Walker made her way through waist-high weeds and snake-haunted ground to the abandoned Jim Crow cemetery in Florida where Zora Neal Hurston lay in a grave almost unmarked.  Walker had a stone placed there with the writer’s name and the line that rightly identifies her:

Genius of the South.

Hurston’s writing is incandescent.  If I quoted any of it, you’d have no trouble seeing what I mean.

Inevitably, one sees another woman in the terms one sees oneself.  When I ask myself why this strangling of the voice and public presence of a woman writer as important as any in our time, I don’t buy Henry Louis Gates’s answer: “Put simply, Hurston wrote well when she was comfortable, wrote poorly when she was not.”  Maybe, but I see it another way.

Chapter 14 of Dust Tracks is titled “Love.”  It concerns a romantic encounter, a love affair that she says she mined to its very depths in her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

In real life, Hurston married and divorced twice, ending as she began: solo.  So this singular true love, of whom she writes in Dust Tracks, must either be a distillate of the best qualities she found in both husbands – or else a glimpse into her encounter with some other man whose existence and name is unknown to her biographers.

What she does tell is that, in her prefeminist era, the man she loved wanted her to give up her work for the life of a full-time wife to a man who wanted to take care of her.  Her work, however, was a calling that she could not dodge.

It is at this point that, for the first time and very oddly, Hurston actually tells the reader that she won’t tell what happened. “What I do know, I have no intention of putting but so much in the public ears.”

Of all true writing, it can be said that the public doesn’t need to know.  A writer makes herself liable to be, as it were, flayed alive.  Not because the public “needs to know,” but because

writing that rings true

 comes from the truth.

From that very place in the memoir where she informs the reader that she’s not obliged to make her personal life public, her writing changes.  The two chapters that follow read like spin-offs from discoveries she made in earlier chapters where they had appeared new and freshly earned.  Despite Gates, it’s unlikely that her economic circumstances changed between writing chapter 14 and 15.

Here I think of the choice I faced when I fell in love with Jerry.  I had a position in the world, an apartment and neighborhood to live in that many would have (as the saying goes) “killed for.”

Suppose I left all that to make a joint life and it turned out a mistake?  Suppose, deprived of the position that had supported my work, I simply dwindled in self-approval and effectiveness?  Jerry might still love the remains of me, but the life I had fought so hard to achieve would be pretty much ruined.  The risks I saw were enormous, the outcome far from guaranteed.

But there were risks on the other side too.  As a carpenter works with wood, I worked with words.  I spoke and wrote from a record of saying what I actually thought and doing what I said I would do.  If, playing it safe, I refused a personal summons so large — one in line with my lifelong trust that true love is real — could I ever trust my own words again?

According to her own memoir, Zora Neal Hurston had lived a life where, despite incredible risks, she’d been thrown one lifeline after another, time after time.

Could it be that, finally, she refused to take life’s largest risk: to put her immense talent into the project of integrating love and work?

Even in those days, there were happy marriages between creative people.  If she declined to take that risk, could it be that the lifelines previously thrown her way as if by chance now recoiled instead and rolled back to the Source from whence they came?  Of course, I could be wrong.  The explanation for the unmarked grave could be more probable and ordinary.

 But that’s what I wonder.

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Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir

Talk about a Power Couple!  He is responsible for the 20th-century French Existentialist claims that

life is absurd,

God nonexistent,

we create our identities

and the values we give to our projects.

And she?  She is responsible for taking the fight for women’s liberation – earlier focused on the right to vote and own property – into the whole fabric of modern life with her book, The Second Sex.  What she used, to dig out a new basis for women’s lives, were Sartre’s tools: if human nature (here female nature) is not programmed genetically, psychologically or culturally, but is self-invented, then women can simply refuse the program and define themselves as they choose.

The world we live in is different because of Sartre and de Beauvoir.  How did this couple come to be?

I’ve been reading an intelligent and interesting book about them, by Carole Seymour-Jones, titled, A Dangerous Liaison.  Here’s what I’ve learned so far.

Simone was born to a French couple that married under several misconceptions.  He (the groom) thought she (the bride) was rich.  She thought he was aristocratic.  In fact, her inherited wealth was about to go down the drain and his marginal aristocracy to sink into dissolute womanizing.

If a girl in that social circle wanted to marry, she needed to bring a dowry to the altar.  Simone, as the child of this marital failure, would be unable to furnish that.  If she was to escape the twin burdens of dreary poverty and her mother’s grimly martyred piety, she had better study hard, get into the best schools and acquire the license to teach high school.  The bourgeois values of religion, chastity and feminine subordination would be useless baggage for a girl determined to make the dogged climb out of a hand-me-down existence.

And Jean-Paul?  How did he get to be the legendary Sartre?  He, unlike Simone, was born to safety in terms of social class and wealth.  In France however, there is one thing from which even these advantages cannot protect you:

ugliness.

As a small child, Jean-Paul had been wreathed by a halo of golden curls.  After his grandfather took the little boy for his first haircut, it turned out he was an ugly kid.  (There is more to his childhood than that, but I abridge.)

Until Jean-Paul learned that he could enchant boys and – more important – girls, with words, his peers made a target of him.

So-o—o … he “invented himself out” — out of this predicament — with the help of his verbal brilliance.  And eventually would translate this personal gift of self-invention into a philosophy.

How Jean-Paul and Simone met in Paris, at the Ecole Normale Superieur, France’s training ground for successful intellectuals, is the story that goes on from there.

But what do we make of these beginnings?  Had de Beauvoir been able to afford a dowry — had Sartre been good looking — would we have had the French Existentialism and Second Wave Feminism that we know?

What strikes me about this question is that it belies the premise – we can freely choose the kind of self to have that made their influence so enormous.

Each, with extraordinary talent, hard work and self-discipline, made the best of the circumstances they’d been given.  The readers who took their influence — and tried to pull invented identities magically out of very different hats — were at risk of misjudging talents and circumstances that were not Sartre’s or de Beauvoir’s. 

Do we invent ourselves?  Is a woman liberated merely by defining herself as free?

Well, these ARE the questions,

aren’t they.

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The Death of a Friend

Shirley and Little Red Music

The Death of a Friend

This week word came that my friend Shirley Kennedy had died.  On the one hand, I was relieved for her.  It was like hearing that a friend, unfairly imprisoned, had been set free.  On the other hand … such a sweep of memories!

When I first began to write this “Non-Advice Column” it was with the idea that there’s an art – or a skill – to being a woman.  One could be an expert on many things but a dope at the woman thing.

I had three models in mind, very different women: one Russian, one French and my mother, all born on other shores.  Whatever each of these women knew, it was not to be found in how-to books or political manifestos.  I didn’t know how they knew what they knew, but it was obviously worth knowing.  I admired them.

Shirley Kennedy was a completely different sort of woman, but one I also very much admired.  In her own sphere, she was a great woman and a great friend to me.

She was among the last of the breed of Old School Mainers.  Her babies had been born at home where the midwife didn’t like you to fuss about pain.  She had the home skills women used to have before you could buy butter and milk and soap at the store.  Back when people had fewer time-saving devices, it seemed that everyone had more time, Shirley said.

There wasn’t much that had happened in Milbridge for the last 75 years that she didn’t know.  In the memoir she had begun to script (which the local historical society might do well to acquire) she knew what to tell and what to gloss over.  She spoke with the accents of Washington County that the new generation is sloughing off.

She won many ribbons in rodeos across the nation but, more to the point, I never saw anyone sit a horse with more mastery than Shirley.  She understood horses and rode with grace and ease.

That wasn’t all she understood.  I had a woman friend in town who’d been born and raised in wartime Germany and came to the U.S. as a G.I. bride, after the War.  Over the time I knew her, Hilda began turning toward political extremism.  My efforts couldn’t stem the tide.  She could have chosen either extreme, Left or Right, but a final visit made clear that she’d become a Neo-Nazi.

The very afternoon of my last conversation with Hilda, I was to ride with Shirley.  As we went down Back Bay Road at a walk, I shared with Shirley what had just occurred, adding that I was less upset for myself (have I mentioned that I’m Jewish?) than for Hilda.

“I know,” Shirley said, not losing a beat.

She did know.  I didn’t have to explain — as I might have had to with a city friend.

When it was time to sell the antebellum home I’d inherited on Bayview Street, I learned that my parents hadn’t owned a saleable half-acre of the ground on which the house stood.  Only Shirley would have known who did own the shore strip and the right-of-way and how to find them.  I’d be tracking them down still if she hadn’t led me to them on horseback.

In the last years, when the body she had tuned to the highest level began to fail her, and she was caged in its crumbling functions, a gentler side emerged.  She seemed humbly grateful for the helps she needed and received.  I’m not saying that those virtues compensated for what she described as “existing, not living,” but they were not insignificant.

You could call it

part of the glory of her.

 As I realize that she has gone, one other awareness comes through now.  Improbably, considering the surface differences that might have been expected to separate us, she and I had been very close.  My blood sister and I have been thoroughly estranged for many years.  In consequence, I don’t usually think of friendship between women in terms of a feeling that’s specifically sisterly.

This week, quite unexpectedly, it’s come to me with sudden force that Shirley and I

had been sisters!

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It’s August and My Shrink is in the Hamptons!

Sigmund Freud in his study at Berggasse 19 in Vienna, 1934.
Freud Museum London

It’s August and My Shrink is in the Hamptons!

There was a time in Manhattan when virtually everyone I knew was in Freud-based therapy.  So people would have trouble getting through August, because that was when their shrinks were vacationing on the beaches of Long Island.  During the whole month, people couldn’t get their lives validated!

Though I’d read a little Freud in college, I shied away from deeper study because I knew I might find his portrayal of women demoralizing.

It was not till I was putting together the reading list for a course I introduced at Stony Brook, “Philosophic Foundations of Feminism,” that I first read one of Freud’s case studies.  Since I’d listed Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria as required reading, of course I had to read it too.

So what was Dora’s problem, and how was the great man going to cure it?  Dora was a young girl who confided to Sigmund Freud, her doctor, that one of her father’s bearded, middle-aged friends had tried to force a bristly kiss on her, from which she had felt nauseated.

Freud’s diagnosis?  He wrote that the displacement of sexual feeling from the genitals to the throat was a clear symptom of hysteria.

Of hysteria?  Holy moly!  It was a clear symptom of good taste, I thought, as I repressed my own impulse to toss my cookies.

This topic is on my mind because I’ve been reading Norman Lebrecht’s Genius and Anxiety, a book that includes the author’s candid summary of recent research on Freud’s life and work.  I’ll just mention a few of the items described by Lebrecht.

Early in his career, Freud was treating patients who had leaky bladders or difficulties in sexual performance by inserting a generator wire into their urethras, producing electric shocks there when he threw a switch.  It did not cure his hapless patients but … what the heck!  Worth a shot, he must have thought.

To relieve another patient’s premenstrual tension and tendency to masturbate overmuch, Freud referred her to a quack doctor in Berlin who treated this kind of thing by operating on the nose.  The doctor inadvertently left a piece of gauze in the patient’s nose.  It led to infection and permanently disfigured her face.  (Boy, that’ll cure the tendency to masturbate!)

Another of his patients (whom Freud nicknamed the “Wolf Man” in his report of the case) said, in after years: “If Freud was so great … why do I still feel so rotten?”

At that time, my colleague at Stony Brook, philosopher Edward Erwin, had already done a fair bit of investigating of the Freud claims.  He shared an essay with me, summarizing the rigorous studies of Freud’s results that were then available.  The summary claimed that the results of psychoanalysis were not superior to effects gained by other treatments or by no treatment at all.

It wasn’t August, so I could take Ed Erwin’s essay to my shrink right away, fully expecting him to expose the methodological flaws of that study.

As it turned out, my shrink was well aware of such objections and seemed quite prepared to counter them.

What he laid out by way of counter-argument was a pastiche of evasions.  It happens that I can tell a bad argument when I hear one.

Accordingly, I quit him.

Years later, Ed Erwin told me that I was one of the few philosophers he knew who had actually changed her assumptions  — and the actions based on them — when the evidence did not support them!

A few days before reading Ed’s article, I had dropped in on some friends from the counter-culture.  In the group was a long-haired poet named Peter who was totally laid back and nonjudgmental.  You could do your thing.  It didn’t matter.  Whatever.  He was like a man without bones.  That flexible.

On impulse, I described the sessions with my shrink to the poet.  Peter listened, nodding in his totally accepting way, till I mentioned one detail that shocked him visibly.  Just to make sure he’d heard me aright, he said, leaning forward with a look of disbelief,

You mean you’re PAYING him?”

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