by Roberta Kalechofsky
‘The body has a sense of honor as well as the soul.” – Thomas Mann
Metaphors about nature are mirrors which reflect the human disposition in its relation to mysteries about the cosmos, reflections about human sexuality and the human presence in the universe. Our attitude towards nature is a building block of our religions, often of our philosophies, and a determinant of social behavior. Such phrases as “dog eat dog”, “survival of the fittest”, “mother nature”, “the horn of plenty”, “the womb of nature”, reveal a spectrum of attitudes and philosophic positions, embracing the gnostic distrust of matter as essentially evil; the ambivalence of dualistic systems which separate matter from spirit in a hierarchical arrangement; and the view as expressed in Genesis, of nature as beneficent and good.
The most recurring model of nature in western thought is that of a predatory hierarchy. On this model Aristotle justified slavery, the presumption of the powerful over the weak, and even the hunting of weaker individuals by stronger individuals. It is from this model that man derives his justification as hunter, and that philosophies which see the human world as divided between the powerful and the weak receive their rationalization. The Marquis de Sade regarded nature “as a cruel mother”, crime as natural, and himself as a “natural man”, though there are no analogues in nature for his sexual practices.
It is into this frame, necessarily compressed here, that the mechanistic view of nature was born, Newton and Descartes contributing the most prominent reference points on the new metaphorical map of nature as machine, which transformed gnostic views of nature for scientific purposes. The value of mastery over one’s sexual nature and the distrust of emotions gained unprecedented significance under this metaphor of the world as machine. Involuntary behavior, such as blushing, sneezing, and particularly penile erection was suspected as evidence of the vitalism post-Newtonian scientists sought to dispel. Thus, penile erection was a central motif in the debate over free will and imagination. The Dutch physician and chemist, Hermann Boerhaave (1668-1738) wrote: “The mysteries of erection and impotence thus provide a focal point for the controversy … on the source of movement in the animal body.” We have here the origins of the fear of impotence and the hardened mask of masculinity of the 19th century.
In The Bourgeois Experience: Education Of The Senses, Peter Gay laments that “the persistent panic [in the 19th century] over masturbation is far easier to document than to explain”. The explanation lies in the growing pervasiveness of the machine as metaphor for nature.
As this view was pressed with greater persistence and technological reward, the endeavor to repress human sexuality increased with vitriolic force, so that by the 19th century girls and boys fell victim to an hysteria about masturbation which Gay has described as “a half century of terrorism”. Young girls were put into strait jackets to prevent their straying hands from reaching “their private parts”, and if this failed, were sometimes subjected to clitoral castration. Boys were outfitted with metal corsets around their penises, some with bells to warn their parents of impending danger; others, more vindictively, fitted with spikes.
In England, the attack on masturbation was symptomatic of a profound distrust of sex, and as the ungovernable betrayal of the machine. Peter Gay writes:
“To masturbate – is to expend energy. . . The ‘fabric of our machine’ is so constituted that essential body humors like milk or blood need to be continually restored.. . . The terroristic prophecies, the ingenious mechanical devices and barbarous operations inflicted on masturbators, look almost like acts of revenge.”
If much of this activity looked like “revenge” to Peter Gay, a good deal more of it, as practiced in the overwhelming numbers of overoptimistic, looked like specific revenge against women to Elizabeth Black well, one of the century’s first women doctors. She described this operation as castration and estimated that, in 1896, there were “500,000 castrated women in France and one in every 250 women throughout Europe.”
The 19th century saw the rise of the medical profession. Crucially for women, the development of gynecology and the creation of birth control methods transformed the century’s view of woman, and the metaphorical relationship of nature and woman.
Sexual intercourse was charged with metaphors of money, to have an orgasm was described as “to spend.” Whether energy or money, the driving concept is a utilitarian rationalism; the subliminal metaphor of the body is that of an efficient machine which wastes nothing and whose purpose it is to produce something. Again, the machine model built on Christian theology of the justification of sex in the maintenance of the human race, transforming a theological concept into a scientific model.
The 19th century saw the evolution of images regarding woman undergo a transformation from that of “household nun” at the beginning of the century to that of the female vampire who drains man of his vitality, the “vagina dentate” of the male nightmare, the woman whose sexuality is destructive and emasculating. The creation of effective birth control methods, far from liberating man’s sexual relationship to woman in the 19th century, threatened it.
Birth control gave women sovereignty over their reproductive lives and destroyed the rationalization of sexual utility; by implication, it gave women sexual rights equal to men; it also threatened basic models both men and women held about nature, and which men held about their sexual authority.
“Man’s fear of woman,” Gay writes, “is as old as time.” But its increasingly malevolent expression in the literature and art of the Victorian era, and in the growth of sadistic pornography, was new. “. . . no century depicted woman as vampire, as castrator, as killer, so consistently, so programmatically, and so markedly as the 19th.” Other views of woman in the 19th century included identification with nature, the animal world, irrationality and, importantly for the conjunction of vivisection and pornography, woman as the source of sentiment and emotion, the loci of the subjectivity which science felt compelled to expunge from its practice.
The medical profession, whose rise in the 19th century. Gay characterizes with irony, as a “flight from ignorance” to a “flight into knowledge”, sought respectability as a science. This century became decisive for the medical profession as it struggled for and won social and intellectual status. The battleground was fought in the laboratories, littered with the debris of animals.
Descartes’ dictum that animals are machines more somberly and fatefully augmented the mechanistic view of the world: a classical boundary, perhaps reaching into the pre-historic mental construct of the world, was erased with that fatal view of the animal world. Animistic man could imagine that the non-organic was organic, but not before had the organic been imagined as inorganic except by schizophrenic victims. By extension, animals and women became detrimentally imprisoned in Descartes’ view of nature. Critical of this, Elizabeth Black well noted that all good science – as well as moral knowledge – rests on the distinction between the organic and the inorganic.
The force behind vivisection was not the univocal hope, as many believe, of driving disease from the world, but of aligning medical practice with the dominant machine model of science, quantitative and experimental. Charles Richet, an eminent physiologist of the 19th century, wrote:
I do not believe that a single experimenter says to himself when he gives curare to a rabbit, or cuts the spinal marrow of a dog, or poisons a frog, ‘Here is an experiment that will relieve or cure the disease of some man.’ No, in truth, he does not think that. He says to himself, 7 shall clear up some obscure point; I will seek out a new fact’ And this scientific curiosity which alone animates him is explained by the high idea he has formed of science. This is why we pass our days in foetid laboratories, surrounded by groaning creatures, in the midst of blood and suffering, bent over palpitating entrails.”
Cruelty to animals has always existed, but it now had the approval of one of civilization’s most esteemed classes. It had an ideology of cruelty, governed by the criteria of scientific objectivity. The legacy of vivisection was a pattern of individual molded by what Susan Sontag has called “disciplined inhumanity”- what Rabbi Reuben Slovin has called “willful pitilessness”, what C. S. Lewis saw as “that hideous strength”. The physiologist was, as were the shaman, the priest, and philosopher in the past, a specialized human type, described thus by Claude Bernard, the father of vivisection:
“The physiologist is not an ordinary man: he is a scientist, possessed and absorbed by the scientific idea that he pursues. He does not hear the cries of animals, he does not see their flowing blood, he sees nothing but his idea, and is aware of nothing but an organism that conceals from him the problem he is seeking to resolve.”
His description prophesied a new type of human, indeed new patterns in crime, outrageously flung onto the stage of the modern world, for the first time, in the person of Jack the Ripper. As Colin Wilson, author of The Complete Jack the Ripper, remarks:
“One of the oddest aspects of the Ripper murders is that the Victorians did not recognize them as sex crimes (because nothing like it had happened before).. . . the Ripper killings were the first case of sex crime in the sense that we understand it today.” Like pornography and vivisection, the “pathological”, or “serial sex criminal” has a history, an origin, a path of development. Nearly all crime in the past, even violent crime, has a motive explicable by economic or political ambition, or by known psychological forces such as revenge. The “motive-less”, pathological crime is new. Dismemberment as a sexual act is a modern pathology. The victims of Jack the Ripper were not mutilated but neatly and correctly vivisected, a fact which has led criminologists to suspect that the murderer was, if not a doctor, someone medically knowledgeable. His obsession with female dismemberment was exercised in the neat excisions of their wombs.
This transition in criminal behavior, a significant social barometer, was observed by George Orwell in his essay, “Raffles and Miss Blandish”. “Since 1918… a detective story not containing a murder has been a great rarity, and the most disgusting details of dismemberment and exhumation are commonly exploited.” In No Orchids for Miss Blandish, a popular 1939 novel, the main character, Slim, derives his sole pleasure in life “in driving knives into other people’s bellies. In childhood he had graduated by cutting up living animals with a pair of rusty scissors.” Predictably, Slim is impotent. Nevertheless, he manages to rape Miss Blandish several times until she comes to enjoy it. She is also flogged, another woman is tortured with cigarettes, and a gangster has an orgasm while being knifed. Writes Orwell in his Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters: “Ultimately only one motive is at work throughout the whole story: the pursuit of power”, which squeezes from the human scene everything else recognizable as human, even “normal sexuality.”
Underground erotica and prostitution are normal reactions against sexual repression; dismemberment and death are not. Even libidinal energies can have rational social patterns. Human behavior is often a symbolic enactment; but it is also learned and imitative. Dismemberment, once learned, became a form of modern sexual crime. “What gave the Ripper murders their special morbidity”, writes Colin Wilson in his introduction to The Complete Jack the Ripper“… was the instinctive recognition that some basic change was being signaled … Slowly, very slowly, the 19th century was creating a new type of man.” And a new type of aesthetics, one in which sadomasochistic pornography, in its assault against flesh and its need to degrade and obliterate it, becomes a sexual expression.
As Susan Griffin, in Pornography and Silence, writes, the pornographic mind wishes “to deaden flesh which is not dead, but is alive and feeling. It is the body in its capacity to feel, to cry, to love itself, to suffer grief, desire, shame, or mortification. … which must be made to suffer.” It is the objectification of sexuality, the rendering of self into a machine. The identification of women with animals was a prevalent symbol in the 19th century, sometimes flattering, most often sinister.
The identification of women with the cause of antivivisection has profound roots both in the era and in her gender. Coral Lansbury, author of The Old Brown Dog: Women, Workers, and Vivisection in Edwardian England, saw in women’s identification with vivisection of animals their own subjection at the hands of men, and in the growing pornographic literature of the age.
“Lautenschlager’s Trade Catalogues of Vivisectional Apparatus were the major source of equipment for physiologists, and they showed photographs and drawings of animals fixed to boards with straps and cords, together with an array of scalpels and ovens, vices and saws. . . the animal is extended, its legs outstretched like one of the riding master’s victims, and it is bound by thin leather straps.”
Other trade catalogues for physicians and surgeons were replete with descriptions of the new gynecological operating chairs and tables, which showed women strapped and bound. The equipment and operating methods of vivisection and gynecology gave birth to a new lexicon in sexual imagery which entered the pornographic literature of the era.
For Elizabeth Blackwell, female abhorrence of vivisection lay in her maternal instinct. “The profound depth of maternity in women extends not only to the relations of marriage, but to all the weak or suffering wherever found.” She shared with Claude Bernard an admiration for the ingenious nature of the animal. Both also recognized the animal as a complicated, changeable, potentially unstable model because of its reactiveness. The preceptions about animals which determined Blackwell to denounce vivisection, motivated Bernard to master his antipathy.
The 19th century trembled with male fear of impotence and over-valuation of masculine stoicism. Conversely, the identification of women with feeling and sentiment drew the suspicion and derision of vivisectors in the 19th century. The physiologist, Ellie de Cyon exclaimed:
“It is necessary to repeat that women – or rather, old maids – form the most numerous contingent of this group. Let my adversaries contradict me, if they can show me among the leaders of the agitation one girl, rich, beautiful, and beloved, or some young wife, who had found in her home the full satisfaction of her affections.”
Karl Stern, in Flight Front Woman, equates hatred of nature with hatred of the female, fear of nature with fear of the feminine. Knowledge, he believes, is expressed through two processes: once process is by abstract logic; the other he describes as “connatural”, or “with nature”; with another creature, exemplified pertinently by the child in the womb where two creatures know each other as one: “The certainty of the flesh … is the foundation of all certainty …” An idea, expressed as biological wisdom in Terrence Des Pres’ book. The Survivor becomes, for this century, the necessary thread leading us out of the moral debauchery of experimental science as practiced in the concentration camps. It is this “biological wisdom” – “flesh” – “matter” which became, for Descartes, the reason for doubt. Matter is for him a Manichean* evil, deceptive and illusory.
The modern explosion of sadistic pornography is often traced to the classical Christian view of human sexuality. However, the eras of theological combat with sexuality in the Middle Ages witnessed the creation of courtly love, the elevation of woman, and the love songs of the troubadours, not sadistic pornography. Debauchery has existed before as over-indulgence by over-pampered classes; lewdness, bawdiness as in Chaucer, discomfort with sexuality, embarrassment at God’s folly (Erasmus), erotic wit as in The Decameron, erotic celebration as in “The Song of Songs”, but nothing like the literature of the Marquis de Sade has existed before; nor the steady transformation of eras into thanatos. Like Jack the Ripper, the Marquis de Sade is an index of a modern mental construct.
The triumph of total mastery, except for the institution of slavery, exists in few places. In the modern world, the vivisection laboratory is one place. “Here”, as Elizabeth Blackwell wrote, “The student becomes familiar with the use of gags, straps, screws, and all the paraphernalia of ingenious instruments invented for overpowering the the moral debauchery of experimental science as practiced in the concentration camps. It is this “biological wisdom” – “flesh” – “matter” which became, for Descartes, the reason for doubt. Matter is for him a Manichean* evil, deceptive and illusory. The modern explosion of sadistic pornography is often traced to the classical Christian view of human sexuality. However, the eras of theological combat with sexuality in the Middle Ages witnessed the creation of courtly love, the elevation of woman, and the love songs of the troubadours, not sadistic pornography. Debauchery has existed before as over-indulgence by over-pampered classes; lewdness, bawdiness as in Chaucer, discomfort with sexuality, embarrassment at God’s folly (Erasmus), erotic wit as in The Decameron, erotic celebration as in “The Song of Songs”, but nothing like the literature of the Marquis de Sade has existed before; nor the steady transformation of eras into thanatos. Like Jack the Ripper, the Marquis de Sade is an index of a modern mental construct.
The triumph of total mastery, except for the institution of slavery, exists in few places. In the modern world, the vivisection laboratory is one place. “Here”, as Elizabeth Blackwell wrote, “The student becomes familiar with the use of gags, straps, screws, and all the paraphernalia of ingenious instruments invented for overpowering the resistance of the living creature.” The world of “pornography” is another. This world, recreated by Stephen Marcus in The Other Victorians, describes the pornographic world of male fantasy, where women are totally compliant and resistance to the masculine will is unknown. There are also stereotaxic devices and rape racks for women.
De Sade believed that nature was vicious and exulted in crime, and that he received his obsessions from nature. Nature knows no such models as de Sade describes, but the modern world, in its admiration for objective cognition, does. De Sade was, at all times, even in the sexual act, the complete investigator, himself as object, objective, himself looking at himself as object looking at his partners as objects. Social space between himself and other did not exist. Flagellation was an expression of abhorrence; it was also a requirement for reification. De Sade whipped and harried flesh as the only means available to him to verify its existence.
“The male aggression of the Sadist hero is never softened by the usual transformation of the body into flesh. He never, for an instant, loses himself in his animal nature; he remains so lucid, so cerebral, that philosophic discourse, far from dampening his ardor, acts as an aphrodisiac.
The curse which weighed upon Sade. . . was this ‘autism’ which prevented him from ever forgetting himself or being genuinely aware of the reality of the other person.. . Sade needed deviations to give to his sexuality a meaning which lurked in it without ever managing to achieve fulfillment, an escape from consciousness in his flesh, an understanding of the other person as consciousness through the flesh.”
Empathy was harried from the stage of western cognition, derided as female, by the requirements of ideological cruelty and the dialectics of power and science. “The will to intellectuality” was, as Bachelard would describe it, “impure at its source.”
In The Psychoanalysis of Fire, he undertakes to psychoanalyze “objectivity”, to examine the “unconscious of the scientific mind”, a task which is far from quixotic. “The human mind,” he declares, “did not begin its development like a class in physics.” The human mind, even in the guise of objective scientist, is never free from primitive metaphors about life, force, power, sex, fertility.
There are now experiments concerning sadistic pornography in progress. In laboratories, nice young men are fitted with devices to their genitals to measure arousal while given videos depicting sadistic sex to watch. (Animals apparently are not used for these experiments.) Sometimes, the devices measure perceptible arousal, but no one yet seems to know what it means. A significant change in sexual sensibility has taken place, but we do not know how to know what it means except to strap our sex organs to a machine. We expect the machine to tell us.
*The belief that the soul, sprung from the Kingdom of Light, seeks escape from the Kingdom of Darkness, the body.