Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

12 MARCH, 2014

Mary Roach on the Science of Masturbation and the Outrageous Vintage Pseudoscientific Techniques for Controlling It


A cautionary tale of what happens when religious dogmatism attempts to subvert science.

Human sexuality has a long history of intellectual fascination, from the first ejaculation on Earth to Malcolm Cowley’s parodic vintage prediction for sex in the techno-future to Susan Sontag’s poignant meditation on the gap between love and sex. But the recent perusal of Mark Twain’s entertaining treatise on masturbation brought to mind the most intensely interesting and illuminating account ever published on the subject: Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (public library) by science writer extraordinaire Mary Roach. Among a wealth of other phenomena, Roach examines the subject of Twain’s fascination, particularly the outrageous pseudoscientific techniques physicians, parents, and disciplinarians in the 18th and 19th centuries used to control the religiously abominable human urge — a tragicomic testament to society’s long and rather futile quest to judge and punish pleasure without understanding the underlying biology or the psychological repercussions of such misguided “treatments.”

Roach outlines the inhumane devices invented to abate the urge:

On the simple side, there was the Penile Pricking Ring. Invented in the 1850s, this was an adjustable, expandable metal ring slipped onto the penis at bedtime. If the sleeper’s penis begins to expand, it forces the ring open wider, exposing metal spikes….

Many of these devices included an option for daytime use, along with a lock-and-key mechanism. For the true target customer was not the penitent masturbator, but the worried parent and, even more so, the insane asylum caretaker. . . .

Happily, parents of K-through-8 masturbators were encouraged to try less drastic preventive measures. Little hands were tied to headboards, and trousers fashioned without pockets. Hobbyhorses were taken away, and climbing ropes removed from school gymnasiums. One of the biggest spoilsports in the antimasturbation crusade was American physician William Robinson. His 1916 Practical Treatise on the Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment of Sexual Impotence and Other Sexual Disorders in Men and Women includes a long chapter on preventing the premature awakening of the sexual instinct in children. “I strongly urge parents to keep their boys away from sensuous musical comedies and obscene vaudeville acts,” tutted Robinson … “Many of my patients told me that their first masturbatory act took place while witnessing some musical show.”

Jazz hands were not mentioned.

Illustration from Pixar's 'The Ancient Book of Sex and Science.' Click image for details.

Another antimasturbation crusader, a Dr. Crommelinck, prescribed “memorizing difficult passages on philosophy or history when overcome by the desire to masturbate.” And a book admonished citizens that masturbation could cause impotence, blindness, heart disease, insanity, stupidity, and “suppurating pustules on the face.” Even “mental masturbation” was strictly discouraged. Roach marvels at the pseudoscientific absurdity of it:

Truly it seemed that any activity undertaken — sleeping, thinking, eating spiced food, taking in a matinee of Mame — led the heedless male down the path to self-pollution. A man couldn’t even relieve himself without having to worry. Crommelinck urged gentlemen to avoid touching their genitals at all times, lest they inadvertently arouse themselves — even at the urinal. “Urinate quickly, do not shake your penis, even if means having several drops of urine drip into your pants.”

Those who could not manage to curb their impulses with philosophical tracts and antimasturbation gadgetry faced a withering assortment of brutal treatments. Robinson casually states that in two or three cases he applied “a red hotwire” to a child’s genitals.

In those days, masturbation was termed onanism — after the Bible’s Onan, who spilled his semen on the ground and was slain by God for this sinful transgression — and condemned as “self-abuse.” Applying hot iron to a child’s body was, evidently, not abuse but the cure for “self-abuse.” But beyond this gobsmacking moral irony lies a biological one. Roach circles back to science:

The bitter irony here is that regularly spilling one’s seed serves a valuable biological function. [S]perm which sit around the factory a week or more start to develop abnormalities; missing heads, extra heads, shriveled heads, tapered and bent heads. All of which render them less effective and headbanging their way into an egg. [Sex psychologist Rob] Levin speculates that that’s why men masturbate so much: It’s an evolutionary strategy.

The point, of course, isn’t that evolution explains everything or that our ancestors were ignorant brutes, but that the true power of science lies in illuminating, rather than controlling or punishing, the human condition so that we can live more intelligently and more freely, driven by a desire to understand rather than a blind righteousness.

Bonk is a fascinating read in its entirety. Complement it with Dorion Sagan’s scientific history of sex and see Roach’s most recent book, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal.

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11 MARCH, 2014

Orgasm Without Release: Alan Watts Presages Our Modern Media Gluttony in 1951


A prescient admonition from the pioneer of Eastern philosophy in the West.

“If the remission of pain is happiness, then the emergence from distraction is aesthetic bliss,” Saul Bellow wrote in his poignant 1990 essay “The Distracted Public.” Nearly a century earlier, in his funny and wise reflection on feeding the mind, Lewis Carroll admonished that “mental gluttony, or over-reading, is a dangerous propensity, tending to weakness of digestive power, and in some cases to loss of appetite.” And yet, cut off from both our bodies and our brains, we constantly oscillate between distraction and mental gluttony, seething in a cauldron of our own making, unwilling or unable to still our minds long enough for the truly meaningful to settle and coalesce.

This, of course, is far from a modern concern. In his altogether superb 1951 book The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety (public library), which gave us his invaluable meditation on happiness and how to live with presence, pioneering British Zen philosopher Alan Watts considers how our perilous compulsion for planning the future, coupled with our voracious appetite for distraction and escapism from the present, stifles our capacity to truly live.

Alan Watts, early 1970s (Image courtesy of Everett Collection)

Watts writes:

The root of [our] frustration is that we live for the future, and the future is an abstraction… The “primary consciousness,” the basic mind which knows reality rather than ideas about it, does not know the future. It lives completely in the present, and perceives nothing more than what is at this moment. The ingenious brain, however, looks at that part of present experience called memory, and by studying it is able to make predictions. These predictions are, relatively, so accurate and reliable (e.g., “everyone will die”) that the future assumes a high degree of reality — so high that the present loses its value.

But the future is still not here, and cannot become a part of experienced reality until it is present. Since what we know of the future is made up of purely abstract and logical elements — inferences, guesses, deductions — it cannot be eaten, felt, smelled, seen, heard, or otherwise enjoyed. To pursue it is to pursue a constantly retreating phantom, and the faster you chase it, the faster it runs ahead. This is why all the affairs of civilization are rushed, why hardly anyone enjoys what he has, and is forever seeking more and more. Happiness, then, will consist, not of solid and substantial realities, but of such abstract and superficial things as promises, hopes, and assurances.

In language reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s admonition about the moving image, Watts — who, ironically, had a cameo in Spike Jonze’s Siri-centric movie Her — presages the modern mesmerism of screens, devices, and feeds, which, when used mindlessly, take us away from the present moment and become a “moronic inferno.” More than half a century before the technologies that most entice and entrance us today — especially the tyranny of perpetually flashing videos and animated GIFs — Watts observes the same worrisome effect in their then-modern predecessors:

The “brainy” economy designed to produce this happiness is a fantastic vicious circle which must either manufacture more and more pleasures or collapse –providing a constant titillation of the ears, eyes, and nerve ends with incessant streams of almost inescapable noise and visual distractions. The perfect “subject” for the aims of this economy is the person who continuously itches his ears with the radio, preferably using the portable kind which can go with him at all hours and in all places. His eyes flit without rest from television screen, to newspaper, to magazine, keeping him in a sort of orgasm-without-release through a series of teasing glimpses of shiny automobiles, shiny female bodies, and other sensuous surfaces, interspersed with such restorers of sensitivity — shock treatments — as “human interest” shots of criminals, mangled bodies, wrecked airplanes, prize fights, and burning buildings. The literature or discourse that goes along with this is similarly manufactured to tease without satisfaction, to replace every partial gratification with a new desire.

And as if to seal the deal on his remarkable prescience, he adds a remark that applies with striking precision to our age of screens, data, and the quantified self:

The brainy modern loves not matter but measures, no solids but surfaces.

Watts, of course, was the opposite of a techno-dystopian — he was a champion of the human spirit and its capacity for freedom. His lament, all the timelier today, was thus not a curmudgeonly complaint but an expression of honest concern about the choices we’re making daily, and a gentle reminder that, as Annie Dillard put it, “how we spend our days … is how we spend our lives.” The rest of The Wisdom of Insecurity, which remains a must-read, explores how we can transcend our futile strategies for controlling life and surrender to its living essence. Sample some of it here, then see Watts on the ego and the universe.

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07 MARCH, 2014

Stewart Brand’s Reading List: 76 Books to Sustain and Rebuild Humanity


From Homer to home health, by way of Shakespeare, conceptual physics, and a gender-imbalance lament.

UPDATE: The folks at the Long Now kindly invited me to contribute my own reading list — see it here.

On the heels of Brian Eno’s reading list comes another installment in the Long Now Foundation’s effort to assemble 3,500 books most essential for sustaining or rebuilding humanity, as part of their collaboratively curated library for long-term thinking, the Manual for Civilization. Here, futurist, environmentalist, and Long Now co-founder Stewart Brand — best-known for authoring the era-defining Whole Earth Catalog and originating the commonly (mis-)quoted aphorism that “information wants to be free” — offers his 76-book contribution to the cumulative library of 3,500, including Brain Pickings favorites like Nobel-winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, Bill Bryson’s magnificent illustrated edition of A Short History of Nearly Everything, and Lewis Hyde’s modern manifesto for the creative life, The Gift.

  1. Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations by David R. Montgomery
  2. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
  3. The Odyssey by Homer translated by Robert Fagles
  4. The Iliad by Homer translated by Robert Fagles
  5. The Memory of the World: The Treasures That Record Our History from 1700 BC to the Present Day by UNESCO
  6. The History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor
  7. The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories edited by Robert B. Strassler
  8. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War edited by Robert B. Strassler
  9. The Complete Greek Tragedies, Volumes 1-4 edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore
  10. The Prince by Machiavelli, translated by George Bull, published by Folio Society
  11. The Nature of Things by Lucretius
  12. The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World by Peter Schwartz
  13. The Way Life Works: The Science Lover’s Illustrated Guide to How Life Grows, Develops, Reproduces, and Gets Along by Mahlon Hoagland and Bert Dodson
  14. Venice, A Maritime Republic by Frederic Chapin Lane
  15. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages by Harold Bloom
  16. The Map Book by Peter Barber
  17. Conceptual Physics by Paul G. Hewitt
  18. The Encyclopedia of Earth: A Complete Visual Guide by Michael Allaby and Dr. Robert Coenraads
  19. The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov
  20. Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon
  21. The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property by Lewis Hyde
  22. Powers of Ten: About the Relative Size of Things in the Universe by Philip Morrison and Phylis Morrison
  23. The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe by Theodore Gray
  24. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (6 Volumes) by Edward Gibbon
  25. The Complete Guide to Trail Building and Maintenance by Carl Demrow and David Salisbury
  26. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond
  27. A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein
  28. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
  29. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker
  30. Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier by Edward L. Glaeser
  31. The Causes of War by Geoffrey Blainey
  32. Military Misfortunes: The Anatomy of Failure in War by Eliot A. Cohen and John Gooch
  33. A Short History of Nearly Everything: Special Illustrated Edition by Bill Bryson
  34. The Past From Above: Aerial Photographs of Archaeological Sites edited by Charlotte Trümpler
  35. Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson
  36. Why the West Rules–for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future by Ian Morris
  37. The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community by William H. Mcneill
  38. A History of Civilizations by Fernand Braudel
  39. The Pattern on the Stone: The Simple Ideas that Make Computers Work by Daniel Hillis
  40. Imagined Worlds by Freeman Dyson
  41. The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs & Pictograms by Andrew Robinson
  42. Brave New World (The Folio Society) by Aldous Huxley and illustrated by Leonard Rosoman
  43. Dune by Frank Herbert
  44. The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil
  45. Infinite in All Directions: Gifford Lectures Given at Aberdeen, Scotland April–November 1985 by Freeman J. Dyson
  46. What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly
  47. The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks
  48. Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
  49. Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks
  50. State of the Art by Iain M. Banks
  51. Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks
  52. Excession by Iain M. Banks
  53. Across Realtime by Vernor Vinge
  54. The Discoverers: Volumes I and II Deluxe Illustrated Set by Daniel J. Boorstin
  55. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action by Elinor Ostrom
  56. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel P. Huntington
  57. The Idea of Decline in Western History by Arthur Herman
  58. Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers by Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May
  59. Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility by James P. Carse
  60. One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism by Rodney Stark
  61. The Future of Life by Edward O. Wilson
  62. The Coming Population Crash: And Our Planet’s Surprising Future by Fred Pearce
  63. Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth by James Lovelock
  64. The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization by Brian Fagan
  65. Medieval Civilization by Jacques Le Goff
  66. The Civilization of the Middle Ages: A Completely Revised and Expanded Edition of Medieval History by Norman F. Cantor
  67. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond
  68. The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples by Tim Flannery
  69. The Epic of Gilgamesh translated by Andrew George
  70. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation by Seamus Heaney
  71. How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built by Stewart Brand
  72. Grand Design: The Earth from Above by Georg Gerster
  73. The Complete Oxford Shakespeare: Histories, Comedies, Tragedies (Three volume set)
  74. The Merck Manual Home Health Handbook by Robert Porter
  75. Lao Tzu’s Te-Tao Ching — A New Translation Based on the Recently Discovered Ma-wang-tui Texts by Lao Tzu and translated by Robert G. Henricks
  76. The King and the Corpse: Tales of the Soul’s Conquest of Evil by Heinrich Zimmer edited by Joseph Campbell

Only one lament: One would’ve hoped that a lens on rebuilding human civilization would transcend the hegemony of the white male slant and would, at minimum, include a more equal gender balance of perspectives — of Brand’s 76 books, only one is written by a woman, one features a female co-author, and one is edited by a woman. It’s rather heartbreaking to see that someone as visionary as Brand doesn’t consider literature by women worthy of representing humanity in the long run. Let’s hope the Long Now balances the equation a bit more fairly as they move forward with the remaining entries in their 3,500-book collaborative library.

Complement with the reading lists of Carl Sagan, Alan Turing, Nick Cave, and David Bowie,* then join me in supporting the Manual for Civilization.

* I realize these are all male reading lists. I have been unable to find a published reading list by a prominent female public figure — if you know of one, please do get in touch.

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06 MARCH, 2014

Wondrous Beauty: How Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte Pioneered the Ideal of the Independent Woman


How an American who married into the most powerful family in Europe became a model of empowered womanhood in the nineteenth century.

Nineteen-year-old naval officer Jerome Bonaparte was on the run. During a minor skirmish in the Caribbean, he had fired a warning shot over a British ship but accidentally hit the rigging. To avoid an international incident, he had to lay low for a few months. Under a pseudonym, he made his way to America, where a friend said that if Jerome liked women, the most beautiful women lived in Baltimore.

But this is not simply the story of a beautiful woman, explains historian Carol Berkin in Wondrous Beauty: The Life and Adventures of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte (public library) — this is the story of Elizabeth Patterson, a Baltimore belle who turned three years of marriage to the youngest brother of Napoleon Bonaparte into an extraordinary life of independence that would characterize the new American woman of the nineteenth century. For one thing, it was highly unusual at the time for a woman to leave her father’s house, let alone travel to Europe alone several times over the course of her life. Berkin writes:

What prompted her to cross the Atlantic Ocean was the promise of opportunities an American woman could not hope to enjoy if she remained in her native land: intellectual freedom, the chance to establish an individual identity, and the right to exist not as a bundle of female duties or behaviors, but as a unique person.

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte in 1804, the year she married Jerome Bonaparte. A year later, he left to visit his brother and never returned. Triple portrait by Gilbert Stuart, 1804. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

It is unknown where Jerome and Betsy met — some say a ball or a social call — but the intensity of their affair was rooted in the baser instincts of two teenagers. Betsy was seventeen, ambitious, and eager to leave Baltimore. Jerome was flirtatious, flighty, charming, and desired the most beautiful possessions. An unknown admirer of Betsy would later describe her:

She possessed the pure Grecian contour; her head was exquisitely formed, her forehead fair and shapely, her eyes large and dark, with an expression of tenderness that did not belong to her character; and the delicate loveliness of her mouth and chin, the soft bloom of her complexion, together with her beautifully rounded shoulders and tapering arms, combined to form one of the loveliest of women.

While Betsy may have appealed to Jerome as a delicious American bon-bon, Jerome for Betsy was a way out of a dreary American marriage. “I would rather be the wife of Jerome Bonaparte for an hour than the wife of any other man for a lifetime.”

Portrait of Jerome Bonaparte by Sophie Lienard

The American Revolution had hardly been a revolution for women. The United States that Betsy was born into remained a conservative place for its daughters, housed by fathers who expected obedience. If America was a new country of self-sufficiency, it was for men alone, tended to by their wives. (While Benjamin Franklin turned an apprenticeship into a business, and a business into a political career, he wrote often to his younger sister Jane, who apologized for her erratically spelled letters — she had not been taught any better. Only one Franklin had the opportunity to transform his American life.)

Betsy’s father, William Patterson, was part of the generation of American merchants who bet their capital on independence and won. During the Napoleonic Wars at the turn of the nineteenth century, America still may not have been able to define who it was on the world stage, but instead the country was able to define itself by what it was not: the aristocratic “Old World” of Europe.

Elizabeth Patterson’s wedding dress when she married Jerome Bonaparte in 1804. The dress was the height of European fashion, but Americans called her 'an almost naked woman.' (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The marriage was an international incident, a suggestion that America and France might be allied. Betsy and Jerome instantly became the most famous couple in America, and their news began to spread. As the pair began their honeymoon in Washington D.C., tended to by Dolly Madison, Napoleon first heard of his brother’s elopement and immediately declared it null and void. The emperor had passed a law requiring anyone under the age of twenty-five to have parental consent to marry, and he declared the pair “no more man and wife than any other couple of lovers who united themselves in a garden, pledging their vows at the altar of love, in the presence of a witnessing moon and stars.”

It was a lovely scene, but legally invalid. Napoleon had built his empire by installing his brothers and sisters in the courts of the newly-conquered: His older brother Joseph was made King of Naples and Sicily, his brother Louis the king of Holland. Only brother Lucien would stand firm, marrying his housekeeper’s sister rather than a Bourbon Spanish Princess. “When we marry we are to consult our own happiness and not that of another,” he wrote. “It matters not who else is or is not to be displeased.”

Jerome was far more easily swayed, especially when threatened with disinheritance. As the newlyweds embarked in Lisbon to meet the family, Jerome would travel ahead to meet his brother. Betsy would not see him again for at least thirty years. She gave birth to their child, Jerome “Bo” Bonaparte, and after waiting a year for news, heard that Jerome was to be made King of Westphalia and married to a local princess.

Marriage of Prince Je?ro?me Bonaparte and the Princess Fre?de?rique Catherine of Württemberg, by Jean-Baptiste Regnault, 1810.

In spirit, Betsy was far more like Benjamin Franklin than his his sister, using a marriage and a misadventure to propel her into the world she desired, rather than sink back into a life that was expected. Now the mother of a Bonaparte, she petitioned Napoleon for a pension: “Tell him that Madame Bonaparte is ambitious and demands her rights as a member of the imperial family.”

Divorced from Jerome, Betsy vowed never to marry again. Over the next five years she would negotiate with Napoleon’s ambassadors about a place for her son in the succession as well as a monthly pension. In 1810, she received the second request, but not the first. Recognition would become one of the furious goals of her life. One of the most famous and beautiful women in America would not remarry and she would not deny her name.

Daguerreotype of Jerome 'Bo' Bonaparte, son of Betsy and Jerome, nephew of Napoleon. The exiled Bonapartes were curious about this American relative who resembled his uncle.

The American attitude towards single women at the turn of the nineteenth century was hardly forgiving, but the woman who could live independently was now at least the subject of debate. A young Massachusetts woman wrote to her cousin in 1800:

I do not esteem marriage absolutely essential to happiness, and that it always does not bring happiness we must every day witness in our acquaintances.

Betsy recognized what could be achieved outside of marriage. She would invest her small pension in stocks and real estate, forgoing a household, and spending the interest on her son’s education, first in Geneva, and then at Harvard. She would live for long stretches in London, Paris, and Switzerland among women that she admired as peers, such as Madame de Stael.

The European woman, Betsy found, was assessed for her conversation, her charm, and her wit. (Qualities Voltaire prized in the Marquise du Châtelet, along with her mathematical genius.) The American woman, Betsy amended, was only prized for her obedience. She would remain herself among these women, a beautiful and essential member of society into her fifties and sixties. It broke Betsy’s heart when her son, and later her two grandsons, married Americans. She had raised them to love European women, whom she found superior in education. The American women they chose, she felt, as pocketbooks. It was an affront to her very existence.

Betsy Bonaparte around age thirty-two in 1817, by François Kinsoen, formerly the court painter for her former husband Jerome, King of Westphalia.

Gradually independent women like Betsy would become more visible in the nineteenth century: astronomer Maria Mitchell, writer Margaret Fuller, suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, journalists Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland, the women who fought as men during the Civil War. Betsy Bonaparte would live for 94 years between two worlds that didn’t quite know what to make of her equal talents for American commerce and European civility. At her death in 1879, she had grown her small pension from Napoleon into $10 million in today’s currency.

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte was a self-made American who refused to dim her love for the old world. Wondrous Beauty is the story of a woman who entered the nineteenth century far before her time — it was America that would have to catch up.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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