Love and Rage
A man, aroused, approached a young woman for sex. Hindered, he fatally stabbed her and both of her parents. From the murder scene, he went to a sex worker to vent his frustration. Still aroused, he murdered his father and slaughtered several oxen in his father’s stable, Richard von Krafft-Ebing tells that story in his seminal publication on sexual deviancy and perversions. Despite many outdated notions, his work still offers intriguing insights.
During the 1870s, Krafft-Ebing, Director of the Feldhof Asylum in Germany, served as a legal psychiatric consultant to the courts. This gave him access to a variety of cases, including those involving deranged sexual violence. He became fascinated with why people behave sexually the way they do, especially when the supposed love impulse fuels a fatal assault.
Krafft-Ebing sought to inject scientific rigour into the diagnostic process, so he devised a system. The first edition of Psychopathia Sexualis with Especial Reference to the Antipathic Sexual Instinct: A Medico-Forensic Study in 1886 detailed 42 cases. Clarifying such terms as necrophilia, masochism, and fetishism, and describing stunning cases of sexual aggression, the alienist set a precedent. By the time he published the 12th edition, he’d had 238 cases. He hoped the book would “assist in removing erroneous ideas and superannuated laws,” He’d preached the notion, derived from criminal anthropology, that criminality was the result of degeneration or a throwback to primitive times. Psychosis was a link in a genetic chain and it commonly affected the sex drive. The book’s final edition divided cases into such categories as the absence of sexual feeling, lust murder, mutilation of corpses, ideal sadism, beast fetishism, and psychic hermaphroditism. Today, we’d question the label of “sexual pathology” for some of the included behaviours, but quite a few would still be considered extreme or bizarre.
Reading these cases, I came across Krafft-Ebing’s theory about love and anger, and what can happen when they mingle. They’re “not only the most intense emotions but also the only two forms of robust emotion. Both seek their object, try to possess it, and naturally exhaust themselves in a physical effect on it; both throw the psychomotor sphere into the most intense excitement, and thus, by means of this excitation, reach their normal expression. From this standpoint, it is clear how lust impels acts that are otherwise expressed as anger. The one, like the other, is a state of exaltation, an intense excitement of the entire psychomotor sphere.”
He describes how a maniacal intensity can evolve into “raging destructiveness,” so that intense eroticism “often induces an impulse to spend itself in senseless and apparently harmful acts.” This derives from a desire to “exert the utmost possible effect” on the person that triggers the emotion. “The most intense means, however, is the infliction of pain.” In psychopathic individuals, he says, “the impulse to cruelty” is “unbounded.” That is, moral guidelines fail to hinder them. He then discusses sadism at length, including the dismantling of what was once a human.
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