Set in one’s ways
‘Getting stuck in a rut’ as one gets older is the theme of Guy de Maupassant’s story ‘Set in One’s Ways’ (‘La Rouille’), which describes how Monsieur and Madame de Courville finally fail to get the old Baron Hector Gontran de Coutelier to marry Berthe Vilers. To begin with the baron is very enthusiastic about the proposed bride-to-be, and she accompanies him on many hunting parties, but when after a while he is asked straight out if he wants to marry her, he appears dumbstruck. Weeks later he announces to Monsieur de Courville that he does not wish to pursue the proposed marriage and months later confesses once and for all that he is impotent. The baron had decided first to go to Paris and had visited several ladies of loose morals, none of whom had been able to provoke an erection. Next he tried all kinds of piquant dishes, which did nothing but upset his stomach. He draws his conclusions and makes his confession. As he listens, Monsieur de Courville has great difficulty in not bursting out laughing, and on his return home he tells the story to his wife. She doesn’t laugh, but listens attentively and when the story is over says the following: ‘The baron is an idiot, my dear; he was afraid, that’s all. I’ll write to Berthe and tell her to come back straightaway. . . when a man loves his wife, you know, those things. . . always sort themselves out.’
The psychoanalyst Wilhelm Stekel (1868-1940), a breakaway pupil of Sigmund Freud’s, takes the view that under certain circumstances the potency of older people can improve. According to Stekel, the peak of a man’s potency depends not on age, but on the sexual ‘object’ available to him. In one’s youth the sexual urge is generally stronger and more tempestuous. The man is less concerned about the soulmate who can satisfy him fully, than with ‘the bit of skirt’ that meets his taste and his daily needs. According to Stekel that is why many younger men may frequent prostitutes and as they grow older stop. In his view, in maturity, as desire becomes more refined, love becomes increasingly something ‘in the head’, which is why under certain circumstances potency can be even greater. Stekel believes that only in a sexually harmonious marriage, with mutual understanding between the partners, can the wife respond to the ‘refined taste’ and the ‘intellectual desire’. The man must show himself capable of bringing about a ‘spiritualization’ of the marriage. . .
He illustrates this with the story of an elderly painter. His considerably younger wife is described by Stekel as a strikingly intelligent, ‘Juno-esque’ lady of amazing beauty. The man has been impotent for twenty years. To begin with he still had erections, but these invariably disappeared the moment his wife approached. For the last ten years he has had no erections at all, not even in the mornings. In addition he suffers from nocturnal panic attacks, and is afraid of developing a heart complaint. The man’s behaviour is unpredictable and he often loses his self-control. These days his wife is only happy when he is away. He blames his wife:
Do you know, doctor, even when I was young I often couldn’t
perform normal intercourse. There always has to be an element
of danger for me to perform well. You may laugh! I’ve never really been potent in bed, only with my wife when we were first married. But if I could throw some girl into a corner, on the floor or onto the sofa, then it was always terrific.
His wife had fallen in love with him because she admired his paintings so much. She was his pupil, but gave up painting when they got married. When she took up painting again, he realized that he really didn’t care for her mediocre work. Subsequently his wife began criticizing his paintings, and took the side of an art critic who had attacked his work:
‘Was that before your impotence?’ asks Stekel.
‘Wait a moment, I remember the exact date of the exhibition. And the date of my first disgrace, it was my wife’s birthday, and we were in Semmering. . . Of course. The disgrace befell me a few months later.’
During the course of psychoanalysis his wife died. Two weeks later he raped his hunchbacked cook. A few months later he dismissed the cook and fell in love with a young pupil, who idolized him, and with whom he proves quite potent enough to be able to make love in the normal way in bed. . . .
Stekel regards this case as an example of the dichotomy between animal and ‘spiritualized’ love The man undoubtedly harboured brutal and possessive sexual desires from an early age, but his sexual potency failed him when his wife denied him her ‘spiritual’ admiration, thus turning into a ‘bit of skirt’, whom he would most like to fling onto the sofa.