THIS MONTH IN HISTORY:
“Some Queer Folk” in Greenwich Village: 1919. Esthesiomania was defined as “a form of insanity marked by perverted moral feeling and by purposeless eccentricities.” If you’ve never heard the term, you can be forgiven. The Austrian-born New York physician Ignatz Leo Nascher was something of a wordsmith, having coined the word “geriatrics” to describe the particular branch of medicine he pioneered. He didn’t coin “Esthesiomania” though, but he apparently thought it was a handy word when he began his article in the March 1919 edition of the American Journal of Urology and Sexology with this definition and a complaint that while the condition was “quite prevalent little has been written about it, many textbooks omitting it altogether.” A lot of people were eccentric — “the artist, the poet, the novelist, the composer” — but some took those eccentricities a bit farther than he considered healthy. Admitting that there was no set demarcation between eccentrics and esthesiomaniacs, he felt that a “close number of the erratic, unconventional class called bohemians, in the Latin quarter of New York City” might help to provide an illustration. The Latin quarter, which then was also known as Greenwich Village, was home to
…many men and women presenting marked peculiarities and eccentricities, departures from the customs, styles or ethics of the day, yet they possessed an idealistic sense of morality. Others possessed an inherent sense of justice but they cannot adapt themselves to the restrictions upon behavior imposed by society. Some deliberately adopt eccentricities in a spirit of bravado, others in a spirit of egotism to attract attention and secure notoriety, some for a commercial or mercenary p~rpose. It was possible in some cases to determine an aberrant, perverted moral feeling and trace from this the obvious eccentricities.
Nascher recognized that there was a very relative quality to morality: “We must remember that what is considered moral in one place or at one time may be considered unmoral in another place or at another time, that the styles, customs and ethics of one community or in one stratum of society will be looked upon as queer and abnormal in another community or in another stratum of society.” By way of example, he pointed out that wearing sandals, common attire in the neighborhood, was highly unorthodox but healthier than “the high-heeled, narrow-pointed shoe.” In this case, one convention was merely sacrificed for another ideal, with no real moral lines crossed. Nascher also recognized that some of the eccentricities for which the Village was known were little more than affectations by poseurs:
Many of the so-called bohemians are merely shamboes, sham bohemians, who imitate and exaggerate the eccentricities of well known characters to attract attention to th~selves. They are egotists, extravagant in their eccentricities, loud in talk, radical in their expressed views but shallow and weak when pinned down to discussion. They are readily swayed by argument or threat, are not inherently vicious or immoral, but, like the high-grade moron, they lack a sense of responsibility and obligation to society. They are studiously negligent in their appearance, talk art, music, literature apparently erudite to the uninformed but banal to the person familiar with the subject. They fit up their rooms in a bizarre fashion and make a display of them as they do of themselves to secure notoriety. Their whole life is a sham.
It is hardly necessary to speak of those who deliberately affect eccentricities in dress and surroundings for commercial purposes, to attract visitors to their shops. Most of them lead at home quiet, regular, conventional lives. Others affect eccentricities in dress and conduct in a spirit of bravado, women especially adopting them to show that they are “emancipated” and can do anything a man can do. Greenwich village has received an unenviable reputation through its exploitation for commercial purposes, by a few tradespeople who play upon the morbid curiosity of sightseers.
No, those aren’t the ethesiomaniacs he wanted to study. The subjects Nascher sought were the “true bohemians” who “do not advertise the fact that they are bohemians, nor do they deliberately violate the dictates of society. They ignore them as though unconscious of any social restrictions.” They were often artists, writers, musucians or actors:
They lack ambition and if they seek fame at all, it is only as an aid in securing a livelihood or for a momentary gratification. They are usually improvident, unpractical, indolent and lack the sense of responsibility and obligation. Wanderlust, procrastination and a lack of neatness and order are common failings and the pursuit of pleasure is a more important factor in their lives than their future welfare. While most of the men belong to the intellectual class and many are college graduates, and many of the women are college or convent bred, the belief in palmistry, phrenology, clairvoyance, astrology, fortune telling by cards and other methods, is very prevalent and they readily adopt peculiar cults and fads especially such as have something of the mystic or mysterious about them.
The lack of the sense of responsibility and obligation extends to their social relations. There is a spirit of good fellowship not found in conventional society and entirely different from the spirit of friendship. At social gatherings there is no thought of sex differences, women smoking, drinking and often paying their own bills, taking part in discussions and unabashed if the conversation takes a turn which would exclude them in conventional gatherings. There is no deep or lasting affection in this good fellowship and the “hail fellow, well met” feeling disappear at the parting. There are seldom deep, lasting friendships except in the “pal” relations between couples of opposite sex. In some of these cases there is true platonic love, couples sometimes living together as though they were of the same sex. In other cases marital relations are maintained without civil or religious bonds, in some the relations are frankly those of man and mistress, and sometimes couples live together as pals and occasional sex mates. but each retains absolute independence. I have reason to believe that in some of the “pal” relations, between individuals of the same sex as well as between individuals of opposite sex, the couples are perverts.
…I found in the village a number of sex perverts, male and female, including saddists and masochists, and a few inverts, masculine women with female perverts as mates and effeminate men with male perverts as mates.
All in all, it looks as though very little has changed in the Village after nearly a century.
[Source: I.L. Nascher. "Esthesiomania: A study of some queer folk of New York's Latin Quarter." American Journal of Urology and Sexology 15, 3 (March 1919): 121-132. Available online via Google Books here.]
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