Saturday, 5 November 2016

Auden and auto-erotic asphyxiation

NOTE: This blog is about an unusual sexual practice and may not be your cup of tea. 

W. H. Auden's father, Dr John Auden, was the first person to publish a paper on the subject of auto-erotic asphyxiation, and I stumbled across it some years ago in the course of my researches into  the poet's career in documentary film.

As a boy W. H. Auden developed a precocious knowledge of human physiology thanks to a close study of his father’s manuals of anatomy. He passed on his knowledge to fellow schoolboys with the aid of crude blackboard drawings. In Lions and Shadows: an education in the twenties (London: Hogarth Press, 1938) Christopher Isherwood described a fellow pupil called Hugh Weston (a thinly-disguised Auden) thus:

To several of us, including myself, he confided the first naughty stupendous breath-taking hints about the facts of sex. I remember him chiefly for his naughtiness, his insolence, his smirking tantalising air of knowing disreputable and exciting secrets. With his hinted forbidden knowledge and stock of mispronounced scientific words, portentously uttered, he enjoyed among us, his semi-savage credulous schoolfellows, the status of a kind of witch-doctor. 

One wonders whether Wystan, aged twenty at the time of its publication, ever read his father's ground-breaking contribution to our understanding of a particular sexual transgression. Dr Auden’s paper was entitled An Unusual Form of Suicide and appeared in Journal of Mental Science, (1927; 73:428-431). Although still cited in specialist journals, this fascinating case study is not widely known. Here it is in full:


An unusual case of suicide
      
   From time to time cases of suicide occur in which the methods employed to bring about death have considerable psychological interest. The following case appears to fall within this category, and to be worthy of permanent record:
        X. Y. Z., aet. 24, carried on a fish business in conjunction with his father, who suffered from epilepsy. So far as is known he appeared to be perfectly normal in health, mental capacity and behaviour, belonged to a local football club, and possessed a motor bicycle. On the morning of February 4th, 1927, a police constable called at his house to verify his address in reference to an inquiry from the police of a neighbouring town, where he had been reported as driving a motor cycle without an efficient silencer. No summons was being issued, and “he appeared quite right and jovial.” Apart from this trivial incident no anxiety or trouble was known, and he was described as of a cheerful disposition.
        On the date above-mentioned his father left the shop early to go on his daily fish sale round, leaving the man in charge of the shop. He was there at 11 a.m., when he spoke to a charwoman from the cellar. On his return at 6.30 p..m. his father found him lying dead in the front bedroom. The body was on its back, with the feet extended away from the bed. Placed across the throat was a woman’s high-heeled suede outdoor shoe, which was laced on to a bootmaker’s iron boot-last. Upon this was resting a stout piece of wood which was packed into the shoe by means of a newspaper. Over the boot-last, and round the base of the wood, was a woman’s stocking. Upon the upper end of the wood was balanced the bottom end of a heavy double bedstead, in such a way that the whole weight of the bed was transmitted to the shoe, and so to the throat. The right foot of the bed was resting upon a chair which had fallen upon its side, the left foot being in the air; the chair on which it had rested was lying on its side, having evidently been pulled away. The body was stiff and cold, and the man had evidently been dead for some hours.
    Death had resulted from asphyxia due to compression. There were no fractures of the larynx or trachea. The bedstead was perfectly balanced upon the wood, and it would appear that this was the result of careful measurement if not of previous experiment, for to effect his object it is clear that the length of the wood, together with that of the boot-last and shoe when placed upon the neck, must necessarily have been adjusted so as to be slightly greater than the height of the cross-bar of the bed when resting upon the two chairs, in order that sufficient pressure could be exerted to keep the arrangement in position while he worked the two chairs away with his arms, until the whole weight of the bed was balanced upon it.
     The choice of these objects of a woman’s clothing for the purpose seems undoubtedly to point to a masochistic impulse, a view which is further borne out by the symbolism of subjection suggested by the shoe pressing upon the throat – a symbolism which is so clear and self-evident that it admits of no doubt as to its meaning. The whole apparatus appears to represent, through the shoe and stocking, a woman’s foot and leg, and the implications of the arrangement are indubitable. The evidence offered.by the care with which the apparatus was fitted together and the accuracy with which the bed was balanced upon it rather point to previous experiment or use to induce some pleasurable gratification. It is not known to whom the shoe and stocking belonged. These were not the property of anyone living in the house, nor to [sic] the young woman with whom he was “walking out.” So far as could be ascertained, the man’s habits were in every way regular, and socially satisfactory. The bedroom was not in general occupation and the bed-clothes were not disturbed.     
    Though the verdict returned at the inquest was “suicide during temporary insanity,” if the above surmise is correct, it is open to question whether death may not have been due to misadventure rather than to an impulse to self-destruction.



Takes all sorts. We shall presumably never know whether or not Auden read his father's paper, although I'm inclined to think he did. One can imagine Auden working the account of this motorcycling fishmonger with a shoe fetish into a darkly comic ballad of the kind he wrote in the mid-1930s - 'Victor' and 'Miss Gee' for example . . .

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