By way of introduction to this weird piece of ‘found poetry’ from the 1930s, its provenance, and the circumstances behind its writing: its rearrangement and resurrection rather, for I’ve not altered a word, playing only with punctuation and line-breaks – I must first turn back the clock to the 1970s…
Angela Carter (currently enjoying another of her periodic ‘revivals’ since her premature death in 1992) had invited me for a weekend in Bath, where she then lived. Great fun it proved, too. Sex, drugs and jazz, plus, so to speak, some hilarious tossing to-and-fro of assorted fantastical ideas, mostly directed towards a collaborative (let’s say joint) fiction. Our rambling colloquies led to the birth of a Nordic-cum-Central European phoney guru and ‘crazy doctor’ prototype, one Dr Önan, whose pedantically-placed umlaut over the O was, of course, both emblematic and postmodernly crucial.
Sadly, as with so many high-toned stoned fantasies, nothing other than a brief correspondence came of our projected literary-satirical collaboration. A year or so previously, Angela – who was to comment before her death “Sometimes when I read my back pages, I’m appalled at the violence of my imagination” – had published The Infernal Desire Machines Of Doctor Hoffman. This was a nod to some questionable Sixties guru-figures and the likes of Önan, MD. My own fifth novel The Stump appeared, around the same time, with its first-person narratrix and medico-mutilatory theme: this was also a fictive examination of what in those days were still controversial feminist-cum-sexpol notions. We had also both found genuinely fascinating the work of that wilfully neglected and vilified visionary, Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957).
Our horrorcomical invention the crazed mountebank Önan might, however, have had little in common with the great anti-fascist sexological pioneer Dr Reich, but for Önan’s own confrontational, ‘hands-on’ style of psychoanalysis and his knack of getting metaphorically up the noses of establishment medical practitioners and politicians worldwide. Then again, Önan’s various and not-so-vicarious obsessions were less concerned with ‘the beast with two backs’ than with wild speculation about the roots of what was once dubbed ‘the solitary vice’. Who could have guessed then, that this comically louche character had apparently been impersonated by Arthur Koestler, no less, forty-odd years earlier?
But only in the early 1980s did I ever lay hands on a rare, battered (though not actually very ‘well-thumbed’) Thirties edition of the Encyclopaedia of Sexual Knowledge. Koestler, it seemed, had here pseudonymously chronicled the wettest and wildest of dreams… At any rate, I set aside his opus for yet another decade, and then read as much of the book as I could usefully digest, with the poetic results that follow.
What of Robert Aickman’s comments though? Aickman’s ambiguously macabre stories I much admire. One can only surmise that his curious enthusiasm for Koestler-as-Costler, as exemplified by the epigraph taken from Aickman’s own highly eccentric and unrevealing autobiography, may have been tongue-in-cheek. Yet I somehow doubt it. Aickman’s former lover Elizabeth Jane Howard writes in her autobiography Slipstream (2002) that Aickman himself was “unprepossessing” and “paranoid”, and that he’d had “an extremely lonely and unhappy childhood”; she describes “neurotic fears” he tried to conceal, and his “black moods and scenes”. So is sexual repression and/or psychological dysfunction of some or other variety a sine qua non at least for the writer of weird tales? Who can tell?
What to make, finally, of the inexplicable indulgence of Koestler’s own biographer David Cesarani toward the wild grotesqueries of Koestlerian sexology? One wonders just how that last unfortunate scholar, himself maybe risking blindness and insanity, managed to plough through all that ineffable Koestlerian hackwork. Cesarani couldn’t and doesn’t claim them as classics, but I contend that in 2006 the books may be ripe for rereading – albeit very selectively, and rather in the vein of black humour, satirical fancy or grim subversion. Also, that Doc Costler’s clutch of once jolly lucrative, if never quite seminal, works, is neither better nor worse than many other self-serving, pseudo-authoritative volumes which peddle self-help tips, self-analysis and/or -abuse, self-improvement and all that sort of stuff: but Koestler and his old pals’ act is, it must be admitted, funnier by far.
We consider certain precautions and even treatment useful as a means of reducing this necessary evil to a minimum. [Encyclopaedia of Sexual Knowledge, 1934. Drs. A. Costler, A. Willy & others]
I read those two guides to ‘sexual knowledge’ which Mr Arthur Koestler wrote in the guise of Professor Costler. They are most excellent works… It is hard to imagine how the topic could be elucidated better. [Robert Aickman, The Attempted Rescue, 1966]
The Encyclopaedia of Sexual Knowledge… argues that an open and honest approach to sex has been submerged by hypocrisy… taking a very relaxed line towards masturbation. [David Cesarani, Arthur Koestler – The Homeless Mind, 1998]
The treatment of onanism
must be carried out
as follows: Absolute cleanliness of the whole body.
A bath, at first in tepid (30 C.) and later in cool (25 C.) water
is to be taken in the morning on rising. The sexual organs
are to be washed with mild soap or with pure cool water.
If any irritants, dirt, or hardened smegma are found
under the foreskin, they must be removed,
for irritation makes the cure of onanism
very difficult if not impossible.
The presence of worms is
of the contributing causes of onanism,
especially in girls, and their elimination
is an urgent necessity.
Constipation should be
relieved by an enema
at 30 C. A well-chosen diet with a daily ration
of sour milk will also be helpful.
All stimulants are also to be rigidly avoided.
Wine, beer, liqueurs, and even fermented fruit-wine
are equally harmful to the onanist, as are also
coffee and China or Russian tea.
Meat should be eaten only sparingly,
and pork, smoked meat, ripe cheese and caviar
should never be taken. Spices
such as cinnamon, pepper, and cayenne pepper
are also to be avoided.
Rice, maize, oats,
barley, green vegetables
and carrots (but not celery), green salads, fruit
stewed and in every form may be recommended
as most suitable and sufficiently nourishing.
Water is the best drink, and even when a palate
is spoilt, an apple, a pear, or a few strawberries
will satisfy thirst much better than a cool glass of beer.
Daily exercises and
games in the open air
played to the point of fatigue,
occasional sawing or wood-chopping,
rowing, gymnastics, swimming, running,
hard and tiring house-work
are splendid diversions. The onanist
should go to bed thoroughly tired,
and rise as soon as he wakens.
The patient (for so we must call him)
should not be allowed to lie in bed awake.
Before retiring it is
that the bowels should be emptied;
in any case the bladder should
be emptied. The hands should be placed
outside the blankets before sleep begins.
The bed should contain no soft lower portion.
The mattress is quite sufficient
in winter as in summer. Feather-beds
should be replaced by horse-hair cushions
and quilts or woollen blankets lined with linen.
The patient should lie,
if possible, on his side;
he should avoid lying on his back,
as this posture produces pressure
on the seminal vesicles, due
to the filling of the bladder,
and brings about an erection.
The bedroom should be
cool, and at least
one upper window may be left half open.
Tight clothes are forbidden.
Woollen underclothes should not be worn,
as they irritate the skin. The trouser pockets
should be at the back above the waist
and not at the sides or in front.
Girls should never wear
corsets as they
produce congestion in the lower abdomen
and favour onanism or hinder its cure.
For obvious reasons they should not use
a sewing machine during adolescence.
On the other hand, daily gymnastic exercises are
essential if onanism is to be
All reading matter
should be carefully chosen.
Humorous articles, sea stories, adventures
which awaken enthusiasm, are not only
strong incentives to activity, but also indispensable
as a source of recreation and diversion…
Obscene thoughts are most difficult to combat…
In difficult cases of onanism hypnotic suggestion
may be employed in conjunction with the precepts
given above and will be found to be
a sovereign remedy… As for drugs,
the doctor may sometimes recommend
bromide and other sedatives. In recent times,
certain practitioners have resorted
to puncturing the skin in order to reduce
the sensitiveness of the body.
At all events, the last
a doctor should do when faced
with a young masturbater
is to frighten him, or to threaten
castration or other
(Article/intro plus found poem first appeared in Strange Attractor Journal 2, 2006. The found poem, on its own, in Judging By Disappearances, 2007)