Workshop: ‘Biological Discourses: Science, Sexuality, and the Novel around 1900’

This was a multi-disciplinary workshop held in February 2018.

Dr Charlotte Woodford (Cambridge) spoke on “Sexology and women’s sexual emancipation: Lou Andreas-Salome’s theories of female sexuality and her novella ‘Deviations’ (1898) as literary case study”

Abstract: This presentation examines Lou Andreas-Salome’s exploration of female masochism in her short story ‘Deviations’ (Eine Ausschweifung, 1898), focusing its literary engagement with the relationship between normal and abnormal female sexuality as a site of resistance against patriarchal norms. Against the background of contemporary sexual theories, this paper will examine how the author complicates the association of masochism in women with passivity – and hence normal sexual desire in women – through its engagement with fantasy and performance as a source of female sexual agency. The paper will show how Andreas-Salomé in this story attempts to shift the engagement with female sexuality away from the procreative norm and towards an understanding of sexuality as a source of self-fulfilment or self-exploration.

Dr Godela Weiss-Sussex (Cambridge) gave a paper on “Monism, Eugenics, and (the Limits of) Female Agency: Grete Meisel-Hess’s Novel Die Intellektuellen [The Intellectuals] (1911).”

Abstract: This paper discusses the German-Jewish author Grete Meisel-Hess’s 1911 novel Die Intellektuellen (The Intellectuals) in the context of post-Darwinian biologistic ethics and Wilhelm Bölsche’s literary aesthetics. Embracing Monist philosophy and following a didactic programme of providing positive models of behaviour in literature, Meisel-Hess endows her female protagonists with remarkable social and sexual agency and reproductive responsibility. An ambivalent picture emerges, however, as her Jewish characters’ life choices also reflect the restrictive aspect of biologistic ¬— and eugenic — thinking.

This seminar was hosted by the University of Exeter’s Centre for Medical History and the  Rethinking Sexology project, and was part of the Medical History and Humanities seminar series (details of which can be found here)

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