What do you do when your patient refuses to listen?
That’s the question posed by a young surgery student named Martin. The letter begins as follows: “Dear Sir, Even though I do not have the honour of knowing you, I am taking the liberty to communicate to you the frightening portrait of a victim of onanism.” Martin goes on to the case of a 30 year old man who began masturbating at 14 or 15, suffered from the ravages of excessive masturbation but refused to see the light. Instead, he consulted numerous “doctors, surgeons, charlatans and magicians” about his sufferings, without actually revealing their cause. He knew the source of his infirmities, but he didn’t stop: on the contrary, he continued.
The letters concerning masturbation fall into three categories (generally speaking). In the first category are the epistles penned by (mostly) young men desperate to stave off (or reverse) the inevitable corporeal decrepitude resulting from their immoderate engagement with the pleasures of the flesh. Pain, guilt, shame, and horror mark these letters as the correspondents attempt to detail their masturbatory history and inclinations. Some, like a young philosophy student named Gauteron, write numerous letters, each a mirror of the others.
In the second category, masturbation is just glossed over as patients attempt to position themselves as morally sound individuals. Thus, we read of individuals who appear to suffer from ailments that might be caused by excessive masturbation (nervous disorders, for example), but who take great pains to assure the doctor that they have not engaged in this practice (or in any other related practice, like excessive ‘usage des femmes’). For such correspondents, proof is offered in the form of family health, and their arguments go something like this:
I appear to be suffering from some form of nervous disorder, but it’s not due to masturbation/ sexual pleasure outside of marriage/excessive ‘pollutions’/ STD, because … if my wife has no symptoms of gonorrhoea (or any other sexually transmitted disease) and my children are healthy, then how could my own suffering be due to immoderate sexual pleasure? Their health, indeed, is proof that my actions have been morally sound. My illness must, therefore, have another cause.
Methinks that some of these men do protest too much. (As an aside, however, it is clear that many correspondent positioned their moral health carefully vis-à-vis the good doctor and that the performance of morality was a key component in their presentation of self.)
The letter that begins this post falls into Category #3. In these letters the individuals are fully aware that they are engaging in activities that Tissot (and others) have deemed harmful to their physical and moral health, but they apparently don’t care. Some refuse to listen to doctors. Others just gloss over it and deal with other issues that concerning them. The masturbating man in this particular letter offers one of the strongest challenges to Tissot’s anti-masturbation campaign (and campaign it must be seen to be, given the geographic and linguistic reach of his work). This man, Claude Joseph Démeunier de Chaunneuve, now apparently close to death, is quite clearly suffering from what Tissot himself has diagnosed as the ills resulting from onanism, but until now he has refused a. to accept this and b. to stop.
What’s a young apprentice surgeon and friend to do?