- Fiction as Evidence:On the Uses of Literature in Nineteenth-Century Sexological Discourse
On the Ramifications of Factualizing Fiction
It is well known that Freud mined the literary field for representations of what he considered symbolically potent universal and timeless human conflicts. He also modeled some of his most important theoretical constructions on findings from literary texts—the Oedipus complex, narcissism, and his conception of the uncanny are the most obvious examples. What is less frequently discussed, however, is that he also drew significantly on sexological writings by his predecessors in the field, most importantly Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Alfred Binet, Havelock Ellis, and Iwan Bloch. 1 Like Freud, these pioneers of the scientific study of sex also make extensive use of literary sources. There is thus an older and more pervasive tradition of resorting to products of the imagination when theorizing the sexual.
The ways in which many sexologists use literary sources differ substantially from the then-common practice of spicing up scientific studies with erudite references to classical literature. Not only do the early sexologists adopt terms and concepts from fictional sources, such as sadism and masochism, but literary texts frequently serve as evidence in their works and fictional representations are treated as case studies that are deemed just as valid as empirical observations. Surprisingly, this striking blending of discourses has received little critical attention. Vernon A. Rosario and Heike Bauer are among the few historians of sexuality who have commented [End Page 165] on the phenomenon in any detail. 2 In his investigation of the medical and cultural roots of the erotic imagination, Rosario repeatedly mentions the "promiscuous intercourse between doctors and novelists over the societal poison of 'sexual perversion.' " 3 He not only explores the cultural and sociopolitical contingencies of many newly constructed sexological categories but also demonstrates that these exchanges work in both directions, that is, that the sexologists draw on fictional sources and that novelists, in turn, traffic in medical and psychiatric conceptual models. Yet Rosario does not go into much detail on the exact nature and theoretical ramifications of these exchanges and focuses exclusively on French literature and French psychiatric, forensic, and medical sources. The few critics who have observed the overlap of medical and literary discourses in early sexological texts often simply state that this is the case. 4 However, the peculiar concoction of fact and fiction in these works raises a range of questions that need to be investigated more thoroughly. In what ways are fictional representations mobilized to "confirm" the existence of extratextual, empirical findings? Are authors turned into perverse case studies themselves, with fictional texts being treated as symptoms, as linguistic proof of the depraved desires of their creators? Do the sexologists reflect on the legitimacy of including fictional texts in purportedly empirical scientific studies, and which hermeneutic strategies do they apply when interpreting these sources? How distinct are their interpretations of oft-cited narratives, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions (1781), a staple reference in many sexological handbooks? Finally, to what extent do different sources, including literary ones, as well as different patient cohorts, shape the construction of culturally specific nosologies?
Of course, the very notion of "fact" and "fiction," particularly in the field of medical narratives, is contentious in itself. Rosario rightly wonders whether there is "truth" to either the fictional or the scientific imagination, "since both involve delicately embroidered narratives of fact, experience, and fantasy." 5 Most people would agree, however, that there is a difference between the artefacts that are the result of language used figuratively and for aesthetic ends and language used to describe and analyze empirical reality. In other words, few would deny that there is a difference between discourse that is presented as fact and discourse that is presented as fiction. Moreover, the division of knowledge into ever more specialized compartments and disciplines was taken to a hitherto unprecedented level in the twentieth century, which saw a solidification of the chasm between "hard" scientific facts and other areas of cultural production. This shift in the organization and conceptualization of information is also reflected in later sexological works. The Berlin-based sexologist Albert Moll, for example, already differentiates...