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Modern Views of Sexual Emotion - Henry Finck

( Originally Published 1957 )



Finck has several times been mentioned before. His two large volumes of some thirteen hundred pages doubtless merit for him the title of most voluminous of American writers on premarital sex behavior of the amorous variety. (12) His description of sexual love is a further example of the "omnibus" type, since it includes, as part of "that very composite mental state," almost every experience that might accompany it. He proposed, in his earlier study, eleven different ingredients, several of which may be dismissed at once as not peculiar to the sex relationship. No one would deny that pride and jealousy, sympathy and self-sacrifice, hope and fear, are frequent incidents of the amorous state, but they do not aid us in a distinctive description of it. Obviously, some of its features overlap those of other experiences.

Finck also includes in his list exclusive preference, and "admiration of personal beauty." It was in the latter of these that he found the outstanding and truly essential factor in the sexual emotion, "by far the strongest of all ingredients." (13) Finck did not include the sexual impulse among these factors, being concerned solely with the amorous emotion. This he de-fined as an "aesthetic sentiment," and devoted nearly half a volume to detailed analysis of the aesthetically attractive features of the human body. While admitting the great importance of character traits in the growth of attraction, he put his stress on surface qualities. The most profound amorous arousal might be born, he thought, of a "flash of aesthetic admiration" for some facet of physical charm. Like Havelock Ellis, he believed the aesthetic factor to be less vital in the erotic experience of woman than in that of man. The amorous episode is far from universal, however, even among men. He thought most men "quite devoid of aesthetic taste" and so not able to have amorous feeling in the modern romantic form; this is for few rather than many. It was in Dante, a "genius in the emotional as well as in the intellectual world," that Finck saw the prototype of pure "supersensual, aesthetic" sexual emotion, but Dante was far in advance of his time, a pioneer of modernity in the sphere of erotic experience.

In his second and much later volume, Finck markedly changed his view of the make-up of sexual emotion. While keeping the aesthetic factor, he now brought the "altruistic" impulses into the foreground; the vital contents of amorous experience, he thought, were sympathy, solicitude, and self-sacrifice. No one could be regarded as really "in love," he felt, unless unselfish impulses were present. He dismissed a great number of evidences of apparently "romantic" behavior among primitive, oriental, and ancient peoples because he found them lacking in this quality. Fink's central purpose in his study of amorous experience was to show that it is something new, so he believed, in human emotional history; that it has arisen in fairly recent times, and that it was absent among primitive societies. He was, or regarded himself as, the "originator of [the] theory that romantic love is a modern sentiment unknown to savages and the ancient civilized nations." (14) The theory, "original, if not altogether scholarly," (8) was rather sharply attacked, the psychologist William James being among its critics. It is probable that Finck discovered he could not prove his point about the modernity of amorous emotion as an aesthetic experience, and that he was forced to shift his ground and to lay leading stress upon altruistic feeling as the touch-stone of sexual love.

Whatever the truth may be concerning the place of the amorous experience in the history of the sex relationship, it appears that Finck greatly weakened the value of his conclusions by choosing, as the distinguishing mark of this experience, a feeling which is not peculiar to it, and which could not, therefore, provide a satisfactory basis for describing it. His early view of the amorous state as an "aesthetic sentiment" was an advance toward such a distinctive description.



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