The Daily Agenda for Thursday, October 24
October 24th, 2013
TODAY IN HISTORY:
A Doctor Looks At Love and Life: 1926. The October 24, 1926 edition of The New York Times reviewed a book by Dr. Joseph Collins, a physician and neurologist for the New York Neurological Institute, and also something of a polyglot. Collins himself was the first to review James Joyce’s Ulysses for the Times, and his earlier books included Sleep and the Sleepless (1912), My Italian Year (1919), The Doctor Looks at Literature (1923) and The Doctor Looks at Biography (1925). His latest endeavor, The Doctor Looks at Love and Life, was rather groundbreaking on several fronts, not the least of which in the way it prompted the venerable Times to print the word “homosexual” for the first time in its history.
The Doctor Looks at Love and Life had a clear division between the first part, “Love” which was specific to the issues of sex and matrimony, and the second part, “Life,” in which Collins took a literary view of psychology and education. Our interest lies in the first part, particularly in chapter IV, titled simply “Homosexuality,” which marked Collins as something of transitional figure in in how homosexuality was treated in the popular literature during the first decades of the twentieth century:
It will probably be difficult to convince the generation succeeding ours that, when this country was at the zenith of her commercial prosperity, it was improper to utter the word homosexuality, prurient to admit its existence and pornographic to discuss the subject. It was proper to read novels in which it was treated more or less openly if the setting was European: decadent people in decadent countries. Here, if it existed at all, it could not flourish; our soil is unfavorable, our climate prejudicial, our people, too primitive, too pure.
…It is impossible to make the average American believe that homosexuality is not necessarily a vice, or that its possessor is not what is called a degenerate. It may be a vice and the possessor of it may be immoral or unmoral, but the majority of homosexuals, male and female, are not degenerates, to use that word in its colloquial sense. Genuine homosexuality is not a vice, it is an endowment. …I have known many well-balanced homosexuals of both sexes. Some of them have made distinctive positions for themselves in various fields of activity from arms to the pulpit. … As a rule, they are persons of taste, refinement and sensibility. Many of them seek aid to be relieved of a burden which they find intolerable; if they attempt to deliver it in the way nature suggests to them, the State puts them into prison.
It is important to say that while Collins was a transitional figure, he was not a transformative one. And as a result, his chapter on homosexuality is, at times, self-contradictory. He criticized much of what had been written before about homosexuality: that it was a viscous crime, a sign of madness, or the result (or cause) of hereditary degeneracy of a race whose evolution was being adversely disrupted by the modern world (see Sept 3 for a brief discussion of degeneracy theory). Compared to those arguments, Collins’s view that homosexuality was in some way constitutional and that society needed to adjust its judgments accordingly can be seen as a kind of progress. But when he suggested that homosexuality was an endowment, he did not mean to say that homosexuality was normal: “They are not nature’s elect, but deviates who will one day disappear from the world when we shall have guessed the last riddle of the sympathetic nervous system and the ductless glands.” His opimism was typical in virtually the entire medical profession of his day. But while he believed that nature gave gay people a raw deal, society also had its share of guilt:
There are many potential and actual homosexuals whose intercourse with persons of their own sex is confined to emotional and intellectual contact, to establishing romantic friendships with them and seeking relief from tedium vitae in their society. They are not degenerates. There are others in which intercourse is physical as well. The rank and file of the world considers them degenerates, a blot on its escutcheon, a bar sinister in its pedigree. The world may do them an injustice, but nature has done them a far graver one. They are victims of Fate, the only ones that do not excite our compassion: and all because we cannot or will not distinguish between the work of God and Satan. … We are shorter of tolerance in this country than of any other virtue.
While he argued strongly that society should break from the past in how it regarded gay people, he could not accept the views coming out of Europe which held that homosexuality was just another variation of human sexuality. Those views he considered “pornographic” and dangerous, and on this point Collins suddenly becomes positively Victorian, if not Puritan:
Moreover, there has grown up around it an enormous literature, some of which may have been begotten in the interest of science, but most of which has been claimed by pornography. Strangely enough, this literature has come largely out of the country that precipitated the World War and that was decimated by the war. Ulrichs, Krafft-Ebing, Freud, Stekel and dozens of their countrymen have flooded the Western world with it. Their writings were promptly translated and published in this country, and though it has been claimed that their sale is restricted to clergymen, physicians, lawyers, social workers, etc., the books have been sold to high grade imbeciles, esthetes and flappers, pruriency mongers and potential perverts, to their great injury. To those for whom it is said they were intended they have been a fountain of misinformation, a flood of misrepresentation. One might readily gather from reading the latest one from Vienna that there were no normal people left in the world.
Unlike other books by Karl Ulrich’s (see Aug 28), Richard von Krafft-Ebing (see Aug 14), or Havelock Ellis (see Feb 2) — the sales of which were (ostensibly) restricted to professionals to avoid running afoul of obscenity laws — Collins’s book was marketed directly to the average lay reader in homes across America. And like many those other mass market books, Collins upheld the hetersexual ideal, although by portraying homosexuality as a kind of a naturally-occuring defect, he was quite progressive in comparison. And unlike most of those other mass market books, Collins refrained from demonizing gay people as moral defects. But through the rest of his chapter, he emphasized that it was science’s duty to figure out how to cure and prevent homosexuality’s development (and he optimistically believed, in 1926, that science stood at the threshold of that very accomplishment). And yet it would take many more years before other books on sexuality and relationships targeting the mass market readership would begin to provide this kind of outlook:
I have but small hope that I shall be able to convince the majority of my readers that urnings are not monsters in human form whose salutations should be met with sneers and overtures to friendship with a kick; nevertheless, in view of the fact that my experience has taught me that they are not necessarily morbid or mad, and that many of them suffer through their sex-allotment, I construe it to be my duty to interpret them as it is society’s duty to understand them.
[Source: Joseph Collins. The Doctor Looks at Love and Life (Garden City, NY: Garden City Publishing Co., 1926): 64-103.]
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