The Relevance of Castration and Circumcision to the Origins of Psychoanalysis: 1. the Medical Context1

By Bonomi, Carlo | International Journal of Psychoanalysis, June 2009 | Go to article overview

The Relevance of Castration and Circumcision to the Origins of Psychoanalysis: 1. the Medical Context1


Bonomi, Carlo, International Journal of Psychoanalysis


In this paper the author outlines and discusses the origins and the decline of castration and circumcision as a cure for the nervous and psychic disturbances in women and little girls between 1875 and 1905. The author argues that the opposition to this medical practice affected the conception of hysteria, promoting a distinction between sexuality and the genital organs, and the emergence of an enlarged notion of sexuality, during the period from Freud's medical education to the publication of the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. The hypothesis is put forward that Freud came directly in contact with the genital theory of the neurosis at the time of his training on the nervous disturbances in children with the paediatrician, Adolf Baginsky, in Berlin, in March 1886. It is hypothesized that this experience provoked in Freud an abhorrence of circumcision 'as a cure or punishment for masturbation', prompting an inner confrontation which resulted in a radical reorganization of the way of thinking about sexuality. It is also suggested that this contributed to Freud developing a capacity to stay with contradictions, something which would become a central quality of the psychoanalytic attitude.

Keywords: castration, circumcision, eugenics, masturbation, reflex neurosis theory, seduction, sexuality

The vain sacrifice

In the 'Self-dissection of the pelvis' - one of the most enigmatic dreams of Freud's self-analysis - looking at his own eviscerated pelvis, Freud (1900, p. 413) saw something which was associated to "Stannius, the author of a dissertation on the nervous system of fish", greatly admired in his youth. He then recalled that the study of the nervous system of a fish had been the first scientific task he was set by his teacher of medicine, Ernst Brücke. He could have further associated the dream to an earlier scientific task, which was fulfilled at the Marine Zoological Station in Trieste: locating the testes of the eel. Indeed, the associative chain could have gone even further because, starting from 1876, when Freud spent the summer dissecting eels, to 1896, when he coined the term 'psychoanalysis', castration had been the ruling treatment for many nervous and psychic disturbances associated with hysteria.

Keywords: castration, circumcision, eugenics, masturbation, reflex neurosis theory, seduction, sexuality

The vain sacrifice

In the 'Self-dissection of the pelvis' - one of the most enigmatic dreams of Freud's self-analysis - looking at his own eviscerated pelvis, Freud (1900, p. 413) saw something which was associated to "Stannius, the author of a dissertation on the nervous system of fish", greatly admired in his youth. He then recalled that the study of the nervous system of a fish had been the first scientific task he was set by his teacher of medicine, Ernst Brücke. He could have further associated the dream to an earlier scientific task, which was fulfilled at the Marine Zoological Station in Trieste: locating the testes of the eel. Indeed, the associative chain could have gone even further because, starting from 1876, when Freud spent the summer dissecting eels, to 1896, when he coined the term 'psychoanalysis', castration had been the ruling treatment for many nervous and psychic disturbances associated with hysteria.

Precise figures are not available, but if we compare the low number of patients treated with some form of psychotherapy (sudden shocks, hypnotic suggestion and catharsis, 'mental orthopaedics', and so on), with the number of castrations reviewed by Krömer (1896) in the 74 pages of his article Beitrag zur Castrationsfrage [Contribution to the problem of castration], the latter appears much more rooted in everyday medical practice. The issue was in any case a controversial one - the paper begins with the following statement:

The question of whether morbid states and processes in the genital organs have an influence on the nervous system and on mental illness has been for 20 years at the midst of psychiatric and medical controversies. …

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