confessor and healer

Interestingly, in the preface to the fourth edition of his treatise on onanism, Tissot makes a clear distinction between moral and medical approaches to masturbation and positions himself quite firmly within the medical camp. As he writes:

“Je me suis proposé d’écrire des maladies produites par la masturbation, & non point du crime de la masturbation; n’est-ce pas d’ailleurs assez en prouver le crime, que de démontrer qu’elle est un acte de suicide?”

“My design was to write upon the disorders occasioned by Masturbation, or self-pollution: besides, is not the crime sufficiently proved, when it is demonstrated to be an act of suicide?”

(L’onanisme. Dissertation sur les maladies produites par la masturbation, 4th edn. Lausanne: Marc Chapuis, 1770, p. iv; Onanism: or, a treatise upon the disorders produced by masturbation: or, the dangerous effects of secret and excessive venery. Trans. A. Hume. London, 1781. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. Memorial University of Newfoundland. 18 Feb. 2011, p. iii)

One might quibble, however, with his choice of wording: ‘crime’ and ‘suicide’ are not necessarily the most ‘value neutral’ descriptors available! Nor, I imagine, would his discussion of the irksome difficulties of writing about such an indecent topic be comforting for those seeking to assuage their feelings of guilt and shame.

However, despite Tissot’s conscious self-positioning as a medical doctor interested in the physical, rather than moral, manifestations of masturbation, it is obvious that some of his patients addressed precisely because of what they perceived as the beneficent union of medicine and morality. In the words of one anonymous onanist:

“… [je suis] Persuadé, Monsieur, que vous connoisses aussi bien les maux mauraux que les maux physiques ; [et] persuadé en meme tems que vous juges des uns et des autres comme Philosophe …” (Fonds Tissot, Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire de Lausanne  IS3784/II/

Tissot is seen here as a benefactor of humanity (another of the common titles bestowed by his patients) because of his ability to move beyond medicine – to treat both psyche and soma as a philosopher, not merely as a medical doctor. It is in the medical philosopher that they put their trust, and the philosopher to whom they turn in situations of profound moral disorder. Nevertheless, it is only the doctor, with his concern for the physical, who can cure them of the distressing fallout from their onanytic afflictions. Tissot, in this sense is both confessor and healer.


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