The laughable basis of the revolution

I’m leading an independent study on the Theology of the Body and was digging around in  the source texts for the sexual revolution. Freud is the obvious first choice, but most of his thought on sex gets distilled, focused, and disseminated by his disciple Wilhelm Reich, so I spent the morning reading him. O the texts! The dated claims! They fall off every page, but this howler from his Collected Works scores the hat trick with Reich quoting Freud quoting (the father of modern neurology, Jean-Marie) Charcot:

Freud tells about the time he heard Charcot relating to a colleague the case history of a young woman who was suffering from acute symptoms. Her husband was impotent or very clumsy in the sexual act. Seeing that the colleague did not grasp the connection, Charcot suddenly exclaimed with great vivacity, “Mais, dans des cas pareils, c’est toujours la chose genitale, toujours! toujours! toujours! (in these cases, it’s always a sexual problem: always! -ed.)” “I know,” Freud writes, “that for a moment I was paralyzed with astonishment, and I said to myself, ‘Yes, but if he knows this, why does he never say so?”…

…It is banal and sounds rather hackneyed, but I maintain that every person who has succeeded in preserving a certain amount of naturalness knows that those who are psychically ill need but one thing — complete and repeated sexual gratification.

In other words, sexual freedom was once the obvious and unquestioned panacea for all mental illness. Set the libido loose and all sadness, confusion, anxiety, lassitude, disgust with life and self-destructive behavior will vanish into oblivion (hope you weren’t drinking anything while you read that). The hesitancy that Reich detects in Freud is real: Freud  was too careful and deep a thinker to treat sexual freedom in these messianic terms. Still, he is clearly entranced by the idea of sexual messianism, and Reich takes this hesitancy as lukewarmness to the god.

But like all panaceas and one-size-fits all hypotheses, its history is a long story of failure outside of a very limited domain. What’s odd is that we’re still sold on the liberation narrative after its original therapeutic basis vanished.  The concrete and biological reality that was once liberated has been spiritualized or at least politicized: it is liberation of… what again? Self-expression? A class oppressed by the disapproval of others? This might be an explanation of part of the sexual revolution, but all of it? What does it explain about Hugh Hefner?


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