The Mind, too, has its Erections


In “Swimming with Oliver,” a memoir/essay about my twenty-year friendship with Oliver Sacks (to be published this coming Spring in the Colorado Review), the following passage occurs:

On the way back from [a driving tour to] Canada, we discuss possible titles for Oliver’s nearly-finished memoir. He likes “The Garden of Mendeleev,” but worries that not enough people know who Mendeleev was. We come up with alternatives, including two inspired by Goethe, who wrote, “The mind, too, has its erections.” Sack’s Mental Erections. My Chemical Hard-Ons, by Oliver Sacks.

Questioned by intrepid C.R. editor Stephanie G’Schwind as to the original source of the supposed Goethe quote, I searched online. Apart from the German word “aufstählen (“to harden”; literally, “to make like steel”), Goethe’s neologism for “to make erect,” I found absolutely nothing (apart from the—erm—obvious) connecting Goethe with erections.

It occurred to me that possibly I’d gotten it wrong. Maybe it wasn’t Goethe but some other dead white male European author. But who? Into a Google search I typed the names of several 18th and 19th century authors, along with the words “erection” and “mind.” Having typed “Flaubert,” I found this:

I no longer seemed to get these sudden illuminations, these epiphanies, these excitements which Flaubert (whom I was now reading) called “erections of the mind.” Erections of the body, yes, this was a new, exotic part of life—but those sudden raptures of the mind, those sudden landscapes of glory and illumination, seemed to have deserted or abandoned me. Or had I, in fact, abandoned them?

The passage occurs in Oliver’s own memoir, Uncle Tungsten.

I found this, too, quoted in a book titled A Dream of Stone: Fame, Vision, and Monumentality in Nineteenth Century French Literary Culture, by Michael G. Garval:

“To lift my spirits, I’m going right into the heart of the capital, to indulge in monstrous debauchery, take my word for it! I want to. Maybe by shoving something in my a[ss], that’ll give my brain a h[hard-on].”

Garval goes on to say:

In his homoerotic fantasy of grandiose proportions, Flaubert imagines himself penetrated by a giant column or obelisk, and absorbing the virility of the monument, to achieve the “mental erection” he needs to write.

Further searching turned up this quote: “An erection of the mind—see my quote from Flaubert” in a book titled, Is There Life Without Mother?: Psychoanalysis, Biography, Creativity, by one Leonard Shengold. In the same book I read:

The sexual imagery [of a quoted passage]—again with stress on fantasy, solitude, and references to the hand—suggests unconscious masturbatory equivalence, evoking for me Flaubert’s descriptive remark about literary creativity; he noted that erections of the mind, like those of the body, do not always come at will. (I have been unable to find the source of this, which I think is somewhere in Flaubert’s marvelous but voluminous letters.) [Italics mine]

Shengold, it happens, was Oliver’s psychoanalyst.

As for “The mind, too, has its erections,” maybe Oliver imagined it, or maybe I did. Maybe Flaubert never said such a thing. If not, he damn well should have.

Interesting, n’est ce pas?

About Peter Selgin

Peter Selgin is the author of Drowning Lessons, winner of the 2007 Flannery O’Connor Award for Fiction, Life Goes to the Movies, a novel, two books on the craft of fiction, and several children’s books. His memoir, Confessions of a Left-Handed Man, was short-listed for the William Saroyan International Prize. His latest novel, The Water Master, won the William Faulkner Society Prize, selected by Random House Senior Editor Will Murphy. His work has won the Missouri Review Editors’ Prize, the Dana Award, six Best American Essay notable essay citations, and two selections for the Best American series. A second memoir, The Inventors, is forthcoming from Hawthorne Books in April of 2016. He teaches at Antioch University’s MFA program and is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia College & State University.
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