Sunday, 25 March 2012

Book 1, Chapter 20: Of The Force Of Imagination (2 of 3)

In this essay, Montaigne discusses sexual problems, and how their roots may lie in the imagination. He tells of how he cured his friend's impotence on his wedding night.  

'Once the mind has played this trick on a man, and confounded him with the shame of it, he becomes so embarrassed and feverish about the accident that it is apt to continue upon following occasions'

There is an odd superstition of which I am not convinced. At a wedding, if someone ties knots on a strip of leather, cotton or silk and then passes it through a wedding-ring, this will have the magical effect of preventing the consummation of the wedding. The situation can only be reversed if the knots are untied. This same superstition is also recorded in English tradition. The results are actually due to a voluntary impression of apprehension and fear. Let me offer an example:

A friend of mine was told by his companion of an unusual frigidity that struck him at the most inconvenient time. Soon after, my friend was engaged in the same activity. The horror of the story possessed his imagination so strangely that he encountered the same fate as his companion had. From that time onwards, every time he remembered the distaster, he was subject to relapse into the same misfortune. He found some remedy, finally, for this fancy in another fancy: he frankly confessed and declared beforehand to the person who he was to do the act with this subjection of his. Through this, the agitation of his soul was appeased. It was as if his faculties, knowing that some misbehaviour was expected of them, grew less restrained. Afterwards, he had no apprehensions when having sex, his thoughts being disengaged and free and his body in its true and natural state. By sharing the issue with his partner, he was freed from this vexatious weakness. After a man has once done a woman right, he is never again in danger of not performing with that person, unless on account of some excusable weakness.

In situations where the soul is overextended with desire or respect, and especially when the opportunity is of an unforeseen and pressing nature, a man may find he is unable to defend himself from a sexual mistake. I know some who secure themselves from this mischance by coming half sated elsewhere, in order to abate the ardour of their fury. Others who have grown old find themselves less impotent by being less able; and one was reassured by a friend of his who told him he had a counter-charm of enchantments that would secure him from this disgrace.

A Count of a great family whom I know very well was married to a fair lady, who had been courted before by someone who was at the wedding. All his friends were in great fear, especially an old lady kinswoman of his in whose house the wedding was being held, that the rival would offer foul play by means of some magic spell. She communicated her fear to me and I told her, rely on me. I had, by chance, a flat piece of gold on me on which some celestial figures were engraved. This was presented to me by a silly cousin, and was supposed to be useful for sunstroke or for headaches. I wanted to make use of this little knack, and I told the Count, that if he were to run into the problem that bridegrooms sometimes find themselves in, especially when there was someone in the house who would be glad if this happened, then I would offer him a miracle, provided that he came to me if it occurred and that he kept it to himself. I told him that when we came to see him at mid-night, as is the custom in France, he should give me a sign if he was having any problems. Now, he had had his ears so battered with superstitious talk, and his mind so possessed with the tattle of this business, that when it came to it, he did indeed find himself tied with the trouble of his imagination, and so at the appointed time, he gave me a sign. Then I whispered in his ear that he should rise, pretending to kick us out of the room, and in jest he should pull my nightgown from my shoulders and throw it over his own. Then, he should leave the room, take a piss, repeat such and such words three times, and do some actions, also three times. Finally, he should tie a ribbon, upon which I had attached the gold medal, around his reins and confidently return to his business. And he should not forget to spread my gown upon the bed so that it might cover them both. All these ‘ape’s tricks’ were mainly for effect, because our fancy is so easily seduced into believing  that such strange means must, of necessity, proceed from some obscure science. Their very inanity gives them weight and reverence. And it certainly worked. My ‘magic’ proved to be potent and active.

 It was a sudden whimsy combined with a little curiosity that led me to do such a thing, so contrary to my nature, because normally I am an enemy to all kinds of subtly and counterfeit actions, and hate all manner of trickery, even if it be for sport and to an advantage, because though the action may not be vicious in itself, its mode is vicious.

Amasis, the king of Egypt, married a beautiful Greek virgin, Laodice. Although he was noted for his abilities elsewhere, Amasis found himself unable to perform in bed. He was so enraged at this that he threatened to kill her, suspecting her to be a witch. As is normal in things of the mind, she told him to pray to Venus, and he found himself divinely restored the very first night after his prayers and sacrifices.

Theano, the wife of Pythagoras, said, ‘The woman who goes to bed with a man must put off her modesty with her petticoat, and put it on again with the same.’ If a man is very alarmed, he may lose the power to perform. The mind plays this trick especially upon the first acquaintance, because men are more ardent and eager, and also more scared of miscarrying. Once the mind has played this trick on a man, and confounded him with the shame of it, he becomes so embarrassed and feverish about the accident that it is apt to continue upon following occasions.

Married people, who have much time before them, should never force or even offer ‘the feat’ if they do not find themselves quite ready. If a man finds that he is nervous and agitated, it is better to wait for another opportunity at more private and composed leisure, than to make himself perpetually miserable for having been baffled at the first assault. Until possession be taken, a man that knows he can be subject to this infirmity should slowly and by degrees make several little trials and light offers, without stubbornly trying to do it in one go and forcing a conquest over his own rebellious and confused faculties. Those who know their members to be naturally obedient don’t have to worry about anything but counterplotting their fantasies.

The undisciplined freedom of the member is remarkable. It is so persistently unruly in its swelling and its impatience when we don’t need it to be, and when we do require it, it can be so disobedient. It is so imperiously contesting in authority with the will, and so proud and stubborn, denying all solicitations, both of hand and mind. And yet, though his rebellion is so universally complained of, and that proof is used to condemn him, if he had, nevertheless, asked me to defend him, I would bring all his fellow-members into suspicion of plotting against him, out of pure envy at the importance and pleasure that only he provides, and I could accuse them of having malevolently charged him alone with their common offence.  Because, let us think for a moment, if there is any part of our body that doesn’t often refuse to perform its function according to our will, and that does not often insist on exercising its own function in defiance of our command. Each one of them have passions of their own, that rouse and awaken, stupefy and benumb them, without our permission. How often do the involuntary movements of our faces reveal our inner thoughts, and betray our secrets to bystanders? The same reason that animates our member, does also, without our knowledge, animate our lungs, pulse, and heart. The sight of a pleasing object, for instance, can diffuse a flame through all our parts. Is there nothing but these veins and muscles that swell and flag without our consent, not only of the will, but even of our knowledge? We don’t command our hairs to stand on end, nor our skin to shiver either with fear or desire. The hands often convey themselves to parts without our direction, the voice can become congealed. When we have nothing to eat, and don’t want to eat, the appetite does not agree to avoid stirring up the parts that are subject to it, no more nor less than any other appetite that we are speaking of, and in the same manner, it can leave us when it thinks fit, even at inconvenient times. The vessels that discharge the belly have their own dilations and compressions, without and beyond our agreement.

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