According to archetypal psychologist James Hillman, masturbation is a universal practice which is legitimate as a form of sexual behaviour in its own right and not to be considered a poor substitute for coition. What's more, masturbation is not for Hillman merely a simple pleasure; it exemplifies rather the important relationship between mythology and pathology and is divinely sanctioned by the great god Pan whom it invokes and enacts within the flesh.
It would, of course, be easy to laugh at this line of thinking - a line that I know all too well and followed all too closely in my youth - but where I think Hillman is to be commended is in his insistence that masturbation is not an eruptive sexual urge and that the association with Pan is therefore not merely a means of dressing up the old idea of the uncontrollable beast in man.
Despite the language used, Hillman's analysis is sophisticated enough to allow for the fact that both the will to masturbation and the will to inhibition which accompanies and diverts it, belong to the same instinctual matrix; i.e. that the latter is not merely socially constructed in order to frustrate a more primal desire.
Just as moralists mistakenly branded masturbation an evil because it seemed to serve no biological or social purpose, so too have sex radicals confused the shame which accompanies masturbation with an internalised authority in need of overthrowing. Hillman recognises the traditional moral standpoint to be misguided, but so too does he interrogate the attempt to liberate masturbation from the restraining prohibition which is such a crucial element of the compulsion itself. For Hillman, sex radicalism and secular humanism ultimately risk making masturbation meaningless:
"Deprived of its fantasy, shame and conflict, masturbation becomes nothing but physiology, an inborn release mechanism without significance for the soul".
In other words, in seeking to make masturbation a harmless activity, we reduce the mystery of Pan - and for Hillman this is a bad thing. For Hillman wishes to re-enchant the world via a "re-education of the citizen in relation to nature". However, he's keen to stress that this re-education "goes deeper than the nymph consciousness of awe and gentleness" and that a Romantic love of the countryside is not enough:
"The re-education of the citizen would have to begin at least partly from Pan’s point of view … But Pan’s world includes masturbation, rape, panic, convulsions, and nightmares. The re-education of the citizen in relation to nature means nothing less than a new relationship with these ‘horrors’, ‘moral depravities’, and ‘madnesses’ which are part of the instinctual life …"
Rightly or wrongly, Hillman insists that by intensifying interiority with a complex mix of joy and shame, masturbation “brings genital pleasure, fantasy, and conflict to the individual as psychic subject" and ultimately opens the way towards a neo-pagan future ...
See: James Hillman, Pan and the Nightmare, (Continuum, 2000).
Note: this post is a revised and edited extract from an essay on masturbation in The Treadwell's Papers 1: Sex/Magic (Blind Cupid Press, 2010). Readers interested in two related posts, also extracted from the above essay, should click here and here.