Puritanism A Dignified Neurosis
( Originally Published 1920 )
Humorists very often express in a few lines what long-drawn psychological treatises based on many tests and experiments do not always make very clear. No better analysis of puritanism could be found than that contained in this rather ancient but very pointed story:
A puritanical woman telephoned to the police asking that small boys who were bathing naked in front of her house be arrested. An officer was sent to drive them a mile or so farther down the river.
A few minutes later she called up again: "I can still see them; from the roof of the house." Once more a policeman went forth to frighten the urchins away.
Half an hour later, the police station phone rang again: "I can still see them," the puritanical woman said, "through my field glasses."
In other words, a subject, sexually hypersensitive, discovers a sexual stimulus in an object which in a normal subject would not produce any stimulation of a sexual type. The subject resents the disturbance thus produced in his sexual life and, unable to resist the attraction of the stimulus, demands that the stimulus be removed by legal intervention.
The records of the New Haven courts dating back to the early days of the New England colonies pre-sent that picture over and over again. Many are the eases in which a whole community spied day and night for weeks or months upon some indiscrete pair of lovers and, after satisfying its voyeur instincts, finally delivered them to justice to be whipped for their sins.
The normal indignation of the witnesses was inextricably mixed with a sense of perverse gratification and resentment not entirely devoid of envy.
The puritan, taking the word in its modern acception, is a sexually abnormal person. According to whether its abnormality is anaesthesia or hyperaesthesia, we have two types, both negative socially, one of which, however, is seldom objectionable.
The sexually frigid person whose frigidity is organic, being due to undeveloped genitals or low vitality, cannot understand the influence exerted on normal individuals by sexual stimuli. That type links sexual activities with urinary or anal functions and for reasons of delicacy avoids any mention of them.
Such people lead what is generally considered as a "pure" life; suggestive literature, theatrical performances, pictorial art, etc., do not appeal to them, and they are likely to regard any one indulging in sexual pleasure as "low" or "animal."
They have their counterpart in every walk of life, where we meet people who do not care for cabbage, who do not smoke, who do not like to climb mountains and never go fishing, but who at the same time let others eat cabbage, smoke, climb mountains and go fishing.
The hyperaesthetic puritan, on the other hand, is not satisfied with abstaining from cabbage. He wishes to suppress cabbage wherever found and to jail those selling it and eating it.
Oversexed neurotics not only are profoundly disturbed by sexual thoughts and facts but place a sexual complexion on almost everything.
It was only last summer that a Massachusetts woman had her neighbour arrested for allowing his two infants to bathe in the sea without bathing suits. Every summer the sight of one-piece bathing suits for men produces a "brainstorm" in some oversensitive neurotic and bathers are fined by stupid judges. A few months ago a society was formed in New York City to prevent owners of department stores from showing "suggestive" lingerie in their windows.
When we remember that ten years ago or so, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice raided a perfectly legitimate art school and seized a catalogue containing reproductions of nude drawings made by the pupils of that school, that the same society has caused purely medical books to be excluded from the mails and is at present trying to censor articles appearing in medical publications, we must come to the conclusion that "organized puritanism" is not a constructive force but a neurotic symptom unjustly dignified by the police and the courts, a mere form of sexual hyperaesthesia.
Even the sacred books can furnish those neurotics with sexual stimulation. George Francis Train was jailed in the eighties for publishing the Bible serially in the Citizen and thus "debauching the young." . . . A group of puritans investigated Chicago's "vice" a few years ago and drew a sensational report of their findings. Thereupon an-other group of puritans found that report too fascinating and managed to have it excluded from the mails on the ground of obscenity.
The complexity of modern society makes a great them than sexual lies, and while puritans usually harp on the protection needed by immature minds, they never make any positive suggestion for making minds more mature.
The puritan himself is extremely immature and romantic. In all puritanical ways of thought-expression we find a large measure of sexual romance.
Scientific terms place upon human intelligence limits beyond which it must not go if it wishes to remain accurate. The words syphilis and gonorrhea not only present definite clinical pictures but strip the diseases they indicate of any romance.
The puritan, on the other hand, who designates them as "social diseases" or "diseases of vice" and fails to describe any of their symptoms, makes them mysterious and hence to certain minds infinitely attractive.
The word pregnancy is generally heard in respectful silence. The expression "an interesting condition" generally elicits a smile.
Likewise, the puritan shuns the words brothel, prostitute, sex, and prefers the more elastic and more suggestive expressions: house of ill fame, amount of sexual repression unavoidable and children, for instance, reaching the age of puberty must be protected against certain dangers. Sexual truths, however, would be a better protection or woman of questionable reputation, animal instincts.
Not only do we find in the puritan vocabulary the vagueness which promotes sexual dreaming but we observe also the inaccuracy and displacement which are characteristic of the neurotic escape from reality. Arms, even bare, are decent, but legs are tolerable only when renamed limbs, the belly becomes the stomach and a woman carries her unborn child "under her heart."
The puritan continually indulges in the disparagement of woman which is one of the most characteristic neurotic and negativist traits. The fear of the sexual partner is intense in the anaesthetic and hyperaesthetic alike. The undersexed is made through intercourse to realize his inferiority, the oversexed is loath to be dominated by his desire. Hence both resent woman and her attraction. The fear of woman, the impure, the temptress, fills the literature of puritanism.
A puritanical judge defined obscenity as "whatever might arouse a libidinous passion in the mind of a modest woman." John S. Sumner said of Dreiser's "The Genius," that he looked at it "from the standpoint of its harmful effects on female readers of immature minds."
The Rev. John Roach Straton discussing spiritualism stated that women are the associates of the devil, constantly in league with him to lead men to perdition and adduced as evidence the fact that the majority of mediums are women.
The puritan is not satisfied with suppressing obvious "evils"; he must uncover hidden evils and, at times, his eagerness to catch sinners gives the impression that he is somewhat of a voyeur.
Clergymen who could not as such attend "suggestive" shows, drink in "gin mills," consort with cabaret dancers or enter "houses of ill repute," can indulge in all those diversions provided they assume the character of moral crusaders.
The next day they gratify their sadism by denouncing and hauling into court the sinners they previously befriended.
In all sexual relations there is a survival of a primitive craving which drives one of the sexual partners to overpower the other. In mammals it is generally the male who overpowers the female. Civilization has repressed that craving in a large degree.
In neurotics, however, a regression takes place which enables the male to avenge himself, so to speak, upon the female, for her domination, by brutalizing her. It generally stops at disparagement, nagging or hatred, but in certain pervert cases there is actual violence offered. The savage persecution of prostitutes by vice-fighters (on one occasion driving them out of their houses and on the streets, without providing any shelter or planning any measures of rescue), points to primitive, barbaric savagery gratifying itself in a cowardly, neurotic way.
I say cowardly because such exhibitions of violence are always countenanced by the mob. Mil-lions of inferior persons without any ability in any direction, lacking in the self-assertion which wealth might give them, unable to force their way into "exclusive circles," are prone. to don the mantle of moral righteousness in order to acquire without physical or mental exertion some form of superiority.
Neurotic egotism is strong in puritans who are not satisfied with saving the world from a thousand imaginary dangers but use all the channels of publicity to proclaim their achievements.
Many of those traits were exemplified by Anthony Comstock's life and activities, as described by his official biographer C. G. Trumbull. He was the son of a rather brutal father who added to his cruelty a decided refinement of the perverse sort, sending the lad into the woods to cut the switches with which he was to beat him. Little Anthony was in the habit of nicking those switches so that they would break when his torturer applied them too energetically. The reasons for those beatings are not mentioned but another paragraph of the official biography enables us to venture a guess.
"Certain things that were brought into his life in those boyhood days started memories and lines of temptation that were harder for him to overcome than anything that ever came into his life in later years."
"He knows what an awful and lasting poison is the poison of impurity. Once gaining entry into a life, through book or story or picture, it stays. . . There the images stay to be called up freely and used at will by the Devil."
In other words he probably remained all his life the inflammable boy every human being is at the time of puberty and having lingered at that child-like level, was convinced that all mankind was as undeveloped, as easily tortured by temptation as he was, and exposed to all the dangers which frighten the hypererotic.
Fanaticism appeared in his behaviour at an early age. At eighteen he broke into a saloon and spilled all the "liquor" in the place. When he enlisted he would not only refuse to drink his ration of whiskey but throw it out on the ground in the presence of his fellow soldiers.
Mustered out from the army he became a dry goods clerk in New York City. He seems to have suffered at that time from the delusions and hallucinations which are frequently observed in the sexually abnormal who repress their cravings through a severe struggle.
"During those six years of varied business experience," his biographer writes, "he had come to know young business men, over and over again, whose lives were plainly ruined by their interest in the obscene pictures and literature and other devilish things that they had easy access to.
In his close contact with the young business men of the city, he saw them falling about him almost like autumn leaves, withered at the blighting touch of the obscenities that were the staple of so much commercialized traffic."
Every analyst has met the syphilophobiac who attributes everybody's sickness, misfortune or death to venereal disease, or the unconscious homosexual who in every gesture which another man makes, sees an improper advance.
Comstock's megalomania revealed itself in his constant reiteration of his belief that God was guiding every one of his actions; he even had auditory hallucinations in which a voice told him where to go to find obscene objects.
In other words, a pitiable type, fit to be treated by psychiatrists and not to be entrusted with the censorship of a nation's morals.
The society he founded displays on every occasion the neurotic craving for power which only annoys but never helps, which punishes but never offers a constructive suggestion for reclaiming culprits.
The desire for suprahuman powers, for the acquisition of a privileged situation in the community has always characterized sexual puritanism from its beginnings. In ancient religions, men or women mentally upset by sexual privation, priests and priestesses of various cults, were credited with superhuman wisdom and their hysterical ravings called oracles.
Several religions have imposed celibacy upon their priests in the belief that such a condition would enable them to rise to a higher spiritual plane. When certain churches began to lose their intellectual leadership they established puritanical restrictions in order to conquer some form of moral leadership.
In our days this procedure is very evident in the antics of a Billy Sunday or a John Roach Stratan who, lacking totally in any ideas, resort to vituperation and lavish anathemas on "sinners." If those neurotics could not rise in indignation at the thought of the low gowns and silk stockings worn by young women they would have to remain silent.
It goes without saying that the alliance of puritanism with religion is looked on favourably by those who prefer to see the masses interest them-selves in a future life. The exploiter of labour and the profiteer approve of Christianlike resignation and of the acceptance of our trials on this earth.
Thus puritanism secures the support of all the large business interests and becomes well nigh irresistible.
The shallow point of view of organized puritan-ism is revealed clearly in a letter from John S. Sumner to the writer, dated April 9, 1920. "The influence exerted by such publications, many moving pictures and many dramatic productions, directly harmfully affects family relations and the home which is the basis of our social order. We feel, therefore, that we are doing a fundamental service in seeking to suppress those things which would destroy the basis of our social order."
At a time when unpardonable increases in rentals, in the cost of food and clothing are making it impossible for family men to retain their homes, Mr. Sumner boasts of protecting them against vicious publications, lewd shows and movies. Sexual obsession could not be confessed more frankly.
Puritanism, be it of the undersexed or of the oversexed sort, kills all art manifestations. Art is expression, not repression, and curiously enough, even some of the freer minds among the art critics are yielding to the puritanical pressure and, now and then, praise an actor, a painter or a sculptor for his "power of repression."
Not only the pictorial arts and literature have been stifled in puritan-ridden lands but music even has been neglected.
Remember the absurd statements may by Tolstoy, who was tortured by sexual obsessions and discovered lewdness even in Beethoven's compositions. Few conductors and even fewer orchestra musicians hail from puritan lands. Whatever symphonic compositions such lands have produced could be all ignored in a survey of the world's musical achievements.
Puritans, however, are looking forward to con-quests in new territories, some of which had never before been invaded by lay authorities.
The March, 1920, issue of the report of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice contains two especially distressing items: an announcement that a medical publication has submitted an article for revision by the society; this would indicate that unless powerful opposition is raised against such attempts, science is to become "bowdlerized," which probably means that at some future time venereal clinics will be abolished and operations on the abdomen rechristened operations on the stomach.
Finally the society having hauled into court some offender who was let off with a suspended sentence, "warned the offender to leave town."
This is destructive persecution of the worst type, lacking in social intelligence, dumping perverts or criminals upon other communities, getting rid of a disease by trying to let the neighbour catch it, as savages, with the help of witches, are wont to do.
The puritan neurosis will probably pass away when the forces which support it have been fettered and made harmless and when the forces which carry out its decrees, courts and police, having been reformed, will no longer need to hide their moral and ethical inferiority under the mask of sexual austerity.