Monday, April 18, 2011

"A permanent hermeneutics of oneself"

Was much taken with Foucault's part of this LRB "seminar" on sexuality and solitude. (The LRB twitter feed dredged it up as a conversation about wanking, though Foucault's essay is really about the changing relationship between desire and action.)

On Artemidorus as interpreter of dreams:
Artemidorus wrote a book about the interpretation of dreams in the third century after the death of Christ, but he was a pagan. Three chapters of this book are devoted to sexual dreams. What is the meaning, or, more precisely, what is the prognostic value, of a sexual dream? It is significant that Artemidorus interpreted dreams in a way contrary to Freud, and gives an interpretation of sexual dreams in terms of economics, social relations, success and reverses in political activity and everyday life. For instance, if you dream that you have sex with your mother, that means that you will succeed as a magistrate, since your mother is obviously the symbol of your city or country... The only act he knows or recognises as sexual is penetration. Penetration is for him not only a sexual act, but is part of the social role of a man in a city. For Artemidorus sexuality is relational, and that sexual relations cannot be dissociated from social relations.

Whereas, for Augustine, involuntary desire is a reenactment within the individual's body of the Fall:
As a punishment of this revolt and as a consequence of this will to will independently from God, Adam lost control of himself. He wanted to acquire an autonomous will, and lost the ontological support for that will. That then became mixed in an indissociable way with involuntary movements, and this weakening of Adam’s will had a disastrous effect. His body, and parts of his body, stopped obeying his commands, revolted against him, and the sexual parts of his body were the first to rise up in this disobedience.

[...] The spiritual struggle consists, on the contrary, in turning our eyes continuously downwards or inwards in order to decipher, among the movements of the soul, which ones come from the libido. The task is at first indefinite, since libido and will can never be substantially dissociated from one another. And this task is not only an issue of mastership but also a question of the diagnosis of truth and illusion. It requires a permanent hermeneutics of oneself. [...] The main question of sexual ethics has moved from relations to people, and from the penetration model to the relation to oneself and to the erection problem: I mean to the set of internal movements which develop from the first and nearly imperceptible thought to the final but still solitary pollution.

All of this is supposed to hook up somehow with Richard Sennett's ideas about solitude in the early 19th cent.; it does, but not really in the way that Sennett wants, I think; his facts suggest that censorious, practical people -- like the Victorians -- inheriting the relevant Christian views, would take this notion of a "hermeneutics of oneself" and transform it into a hermeneutics of other people. Sennett: "Truthfulness with other people will depend on how a person has managed his or her own sexuality." And obviously, just as the monks could gauge their cleanliness by counting erections, the Victorians developed an obsession with the outward manifestations of sexual habits -- masturbation chief amongst these:
We are all aware of the bizarre symptoms Victorian medicine had to invent for the masturbator: hair suddenly growing on the palms of the masturbating hand, the tongue swelling up, the eyes distending, or, in the case of women, the radically distended clitoris. Victorian doctors had a reason for inventing these symptoms: since sexual desire itself was secret, hidden within the individual, the doctor or other authority could get control over the individual only by creating symptoms which would give sexual desire away. The extreme of this fantasy-invention appeared in 1876 in a text by Pouillet on female masturbation, one of the first texts in the medical literature on the subject. The diagnosis of female masturbation was peevishness, surliness towards strangers, and lying. These are the invariable signs that a woman has been masturbating.
I don't really buy Sennett's belief in the 18th century as a sane one in this context. Besides it is quite unclear on his account why attitudes changed when and as they did. I do however like the notion that auto-eroticism was used as a "model" of eroticism in general; it is a very "physics-y" attitude, to start off with a one-body problem and work outwards: also cf. Woody Allen on masturbation as "sex with someone I love."

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