Lawrence, Freud and Masturbation

Article excerpt

D H. Lawrence thought of himself as a sexual liberator, and for several generations he was known as such; but he was a creature of his time in proclaiming the harmful consequences of masturbation. Sigmund Freud and others in the early psychoanalytic movement were also opposed to masturbation, although their views were not monolithic and were stated in scientific rather than moralistic terms. Lawrence saw masturbation as a personal and cultural vice that functionally hampered the development of dynamic, relational sexuality, and that led to self-absorbed, mental analysis. Freud saw masturbation as a widespread childhood habit that, if not given up, became the etiology of neurasthenia as well as contributing to other pathological conditions. Their perspectives on the subject - Lawrence's cultural, Freud's scientific - intersect at a transitional point in social and cultural history when Victorian attitudes were changing but had not yet fully given way to modern ones. Taylor Stoehr comments that "Lawrence's attitude toward masturbation, although in one sense an attack on nineteenth-century practice, is also very much indebted to official Victorian opinion on the subject. It is not surprising therefore that Lawrence sometimes sounds like the generation of prigs he despised for their anti-sexuality" (111).

In the following essay, I will first examine Lawrence's discursive statements on masturbation in comparison with those of Freud and other early psychoanalytic theorists. Second, I will discuss Lawrence's own masturbatory experience and fantasies - insofar as these can be reconstructed from his poetic and discursive statements - in the light of Freud's theories of ego defenses and masochism.

For a writer who had endured so much censure for his sexual themes, Lawrence, in Fantasia of the Unconscious, is surprisingly moralistic in his recommendations on sex education: "After puberty, a child may as well be told the simple and necessary facts of sex," he says grudgingly; "As things stand, the parent may as well do it. But briefly, coldly, and with as cold a dismissal as possible." The stated purpose of this strategy is to avoid dragging the subject into consciousness, as if the urgency of the drive had not driven it there already. He recommends that the father tell the boy that the change he is experiencing means that he is "going to be a man" and later marry a woman and get children. "But in the meantime, leave yourself alone....I know what is happening to you. And I know you get excited about it. But you needn't. Other men have all gone through it. So don't you go creeping off by yourself and doing things on the sly. It won't do you any good" (146). The strong implication is that it will do him considerable harm.

As Lawrence's model sex-education lecture continues, the father ostensibly encourages the boy's masculine identification with him, but in a manner so prohibitive and so lacking in empathic attunement that he emerges less as a viable role model than as an omniscient Old Testament God whose prohibition only makes the forbidden fruit more enticing:

I know what you'll do, because we've all been through it. I know the thing will keep coming on you at night. But remember that I know. Remember. And remember that I want you to leave yourself alone. I know what it is, I tell you. I've been through it myself. You've got to go through these years, before you find a woman you want to marry, and whom you can marry. I went through them myself, and got myself worked up a good deal more than was good for me. (146)

The uncharacteristically cold, judgmental attitude that the childless Lawrence recommends here, with its view of the child as a "sly," "secretive," and "unmanly" miscreant and the repeated formula "Remember that I know," is akin to the kind of "Poisonous Pedagogy" on masturbation that Alice Miller found to be so damaging to children in 19th-century Germany. Even so, Lawrence's proposed method of sex education gives the son greater access to the father than Freud's practice of sending his sons to another doctor for an explanation of the facts of life. …