In the Victorian era, sex was the ultimate taboo.
As we have seen, the Victorian generations saw sexuality as “a hidden geyser of animality existing within everyone and capable of erupting with little or no warning at the slightest stimulus.” Nothing posed a greater threat to the Victorian ideal of self-control than human sexuality which “therefore had to be repressed at all cost.” Victorians repressed the sexual impulse and channeled it into marriage and even then frowned upon sexual pleasure. They saw it as a beast that had to be shackled.
In their rebellion against Victorianism, the Modern generations began to embrace self expression and sexual liberation in the 1910s and 1920s. They demolished the separate spheres that had previously separated men and women. As Malcolm Cowley put it, the Greenwich Village idea was that “the body is a temple in which there is nothing unclean, a shrine to be adorned for the ritual of love.” They learned from Sigmund Freud a new language of understanding human sexuality which taught them that sexual repression was the chief psychological problem ailing mankind and because psychoanalysis was “science” and “new” it was automatically better than tradition in the eyes of modernists. From Sigmund Freud, Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger, Havelock Ellis and H.G. Wells, Moderns learned to embrace free love and sexual liberation tentatively at first in the 1920s and later decisively in the 1960s.
The following excerpt comes from Nathan Miller’s book New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America:
“No one had a greater influence upon American writers of the postwar generation than Sigmund Freud. The Viennese psychiatrist’s theories about sexuality and the unconscious had already provoked considerable discussion in America before he visited the United States in the autumn of 1909 to present a series of lectures on psychoanalysis at Clark University in Worchester, Massachusetts. …
Nevertheless, Freud’s ideas had their greatest impact in the United States, and led to the revamping of virtually the entire cultural landscape. He became “the Darwin of the Mind” to the popular press and was credited with the creation of modern thinking in psychiatry, psychology, child rearing, criminology, and sexual attitudes. Freudian doctrine spread rapidly in its adopted homeland because it arrived in America at the right psychological moment. The nation was undergoing an upheaval in morality, and Freud’s teachings, with their emphasis on the importance of the subconscious as a guideline for the interpretation of human motivation, found a ready audience among the Moderns, who were leading the charge against Victorianism. Freudian psychology was an escape hatch from such inhibiting legacies of the past as sexual repression, unthinking patriotism, fundamentalist religion, and naive idealism …
Psychoanalysis became popular, friends and foes agreed, because it was part of the liberating process, especially sexual liberation. “In his analyses of his patients’ dreams and neuroses, [Freud] discovered what seemed to be an inherent conflict between the demands of human instinct, and the demands of society as a whole,” wrote the social historian Robert M. Crunden. “The individual said, ‘I want’ and society, from its broader experience, said, ‘You can’t.’ …”
Self expression, sexual liberation, antiracism and atheism are part of the same Modern culture package and have traveled together as values and beliefs in the 20th century.
If you could step into a time machine, you could go back in time and see the beginning of it in the bohemian neighborhoods that emerged in Chicago and New York City in the 1910s, travel a half century into the future to the Boomers at Berkeley in the 1960s which would be the half way point and from there to our time in 2020 when Modern values have reached full saturation with Millennials.
In the months ahead, we will be taking a close look at Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche and the impact of their ideas on Americans in the early 20th century.