The more a monster is written about, the more it becomes the hero. Jason Vorhees was a villain in the first Friday the 13th. By the sixth or seventh, he’d become an icon, an institution, a machete and hockey mask on a t-shirt, with millions of fans cheering when he kills a camper.

Any book on forbidden behavior has to walk the same line.  Psychopathia Sexualis: eine Klinisch-Forensische, Krafft-Ebing’s 1886 text on sexual pathology, is written with caution and asperity, clearly afraid that it will inspire as well as inform. It’s a catalog of deviant sexual behaviors, but doesn’t want to be a sales catalog. It hides delicate ideas behind a haze of Latin, and the reader will encounter terms like “paedicatio puellarum” (anal intercourse with girls), and “spuerent et faeceset urinas in ora explerent” (spitting, defecating, and urinating in the mouth).

The book is explicitly “addressed to earnest investigators in the domain of natural science and jurisprudence”. And “In order that unqualified persons should not become readers, the author saw himself compelled to choose a title understood only by the learned.”

These days, the telescope points the other way. Krafft-Ebing’s forbidden fantasies are all over the internet, and many aren’t even forbidden anymore. Now, it’s an interesting look at the 19th century man’s view.

Psychopathia Sexualis sees science shifting from the pre-modern view (where deviancy is caused by sin and moral failure), to the modernist view (deviancy is a pathology under the scope of medicine). There’s even parts where Krafft-Ebing seems to ancitipate the post-modern perspective of Thomas Szasz, where perversions don’t exist: just morally neutral preferences. This is seen in his discussions of “urnings”, or male homosexuals.

The observation of Westphal, that the consciousness of one congenitally defective in sexual desires toward the opposite sex is painfully affected by the impulse toward the same sex, is true in only a number of cases. Indeed, in many instances, the consciousness of the abnormality of the condition is want- ing. The majorityof urnings are happy in their perverse sexual feeling and impulse, and unhappy only in so far as social and legal barriers stand in the way of the satisfaction of their instinct toward their own sex.

There’s still premodernity to Krafft-Ebing’s thinking. Note the “jurisprudence” part of the intro – the book (in part) is meant to assist law enforcement in rendering swift and effective punishment to wrongdoers. He frequently refers to masturbators as “sinners”, and few modern medical textbooks would cite the book of Genesis as a source. But these might be more fig leaves against controversy. Krafft-Ebing is clearly fascinated by these people, and includes copious case notes on sadists, masochists, fetishists of feet and leather and furs, and exponents of rougher trade.

Case 42. A married man presented himself with numerous scars of cuts on his arms. He told their origin as follows : When he wished to approach his wife, who was young and somewhat “nervous,” he first had to make a cut in his arm. Then she would suck the wound, and during the act become violently excited sexually.

The literary work of Baron von Sacher Masoch and the Marquis de Sade are also mentioned. The latter’s works were banned at the time and very hard to find, so I wonder how Krafft-Ebing came to know of them.

Taxil (op.cit.)gives more detailed accounts of this sexual monster, which must have been a case of habitual satyriasis, accompanied by perverse sexual instinct. Sade was so cynical that he actually sought to idealize his cruel lasciviousness, and become the apostle of a theory based upon it. He became so bad (among other things he made an in- vited company of ladies and gentlemen erotic by causing to be served to them chocolate bon-s which contained cantharides)that he was committed to the insane asylum at Charenton. During the revolution of 1790, he escaped. Then he wrote obscene novels filled with lust, cruelty, and the most obscene scenes. When Bonaparte became Consul, Sade made him a present of his novels magnificently bound. The Consul had the works de- stroyed, and the author committed to Charenton again, where he died, at the age of sixty four.

(Is this historical tidbit true? Probably not. Sade published Justine and Juliette anonymously, he wouldn’t have drawn attention to himself with a personal gift of them to Napoleon. Sade was almost destitute at the time Napoleon became Consul anyway, and could ill have afforded expensive gifts. Napoleon committed Sade to Sainte-Pélagie Prison and then Bicêtre Asylum, it was his family that had him moved to Charenton. “Taxil” is likely the proven fraud Leo Taxil.)

Hiram Maxim and Mikhail Kalashnikov lent their names to guns. Sade and Sacher Masoch lent their names to diseases (or so Krafft-Ebing considers them). But that’s the issue at the heart of it all: what’s a disease?

Krafft-Ebing doesn’t seem to know of Darwin, but he gets basically to the same place. Basically, humans have a thing called fitness. We are supposed to survive, and make more of ourselves. Things that get in the way of doing either thing are diseases.

The state of liking blue over isn’t red is not a “disease”. Even if this preference was caused by a brain-controlling bacteria, we wouldn’t call it a disease, assuming that was all it did. It doesn’t impact our fitness.

But male homosexuality is clearly a disease, by a Darwinian standpoint. It reduces reproductive fitness by something like 50-80%. Most would object to calling, mostly because “disease” also has a lot of connotations (that it’s infectious, that it should be cured, etc). I don’t agree. Humans are partly reproduction machines, but also something more: we have a consciousness and a higher goals. There’s nothing inherently wrong with actions that clash with evolution’s “design”, which was largely shaped by chance anyway.

Krafft-Ebing notes that many gay men seem to have artistic gifts.

In the majority of cases, psychical anomalies (brilliant endowment in art, especially music, poetry, etc., by the side of bad intellectual powers or original eccentricity) are present

Suppose that’s true. Would that be a bad disease to have if you deeply desired to be an artist (and lived in a world of in-vitro fertilization?)

I regard homosexuality as a “wrong note” in Darwin’s musical score. Just because something’s technically wrong doesn’t mean we have to regard it as a thing to be fixed. No musician would call a piece of music flawed because it uses non-diatonic notes. Jazz musicians, for example, speak reverently of “blue notes”, which are pitched differently from standard. It all depends on the larger context. Technical deviancy doesn’t imply moral deviancy.

In some cases, the pre-modern viewpoint aligns more closely with the 21st century’s one than it does with Krafft-Ebing. A medieval bailiff would have viewed sodomy (for example) as a choice. An expression of preference. Contemporary culture thinks it’s the same. Krafft-Ebing seems the odd man out by calling it a degenerative pathology.

Here’s another interesting footnote:

I follow the usual terminology in describing bestiality and pederasty under the general term sodomy. In Genesis (chap,xix),whence this word comes, it signifies exclusively the vice of pederasty. Later, sodomy was often used synonymously with bestiality. The moral theologians, like St. Alphons of Liguori, Gury, and others, have always distinguished correctly, i.e., in the sense of Genesis, between sodomia, i.e.,concubittis cum persona ejusdem sexus, and bestialitas, i.e.,concubitus cum bestia (comp. Olfus, Pastoralmedicin, p. 78).

The premodern world actually understood well that bestiality and pederasty are distinct things. It with the Victorian world that blurred them into one undifferentiated sex act. A useful reminder that mankind can seem to progress scientifically, while in fact drawing blinds tighter around the truth.

Sade seems like a good place to end on. “It is a danger to love men, A crime to enlighten them.”