The Truth, Mainly - 03/24/1997

Twain and other authorities: Onanism not for public exhibition
by Leon Satterfield

I see on the pages of this very newspaper that one of our local performance artists was fined $1,000 a week or so ago for distributing obscene material. In clown makeup.

I'm shocked.

Not out of any ACLU concerns about free speech. So far as I know, the guy didn't say anything. The obscene material he distributed was, in the indelicate language of the news story, "a videotape of himself mastur_ating that aired on Lincoln's public access channel in September, 1995."

You note my squeamishness: I can't repeat the M-word unless I disguised it by leaving out a letter. And I'm not the only one who's squeamish about it.

We all still remember, don't we, the last time the word was bandied about in public. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders lost her job for suggesting that discussion of mastur_ation shouldn't be ruled out of sex education classes.

She was still talking about it when she came to Lincoln a year ago.

"We should teach our young people about all phases of sex," she told a college audience. "That they'll get hair on their hands, go blind, go crazy—all of those things are lies. Seventy percent of women and 90 percent of men mastur_ate—and the others lie."

Well. Did you ever? No wonder she got fired.

Even the dirty rotten pinko secular humanist National Public Radio's news program, "All Things Considered"—the emphasis on the "All"—warned listeners that the upcoming segment on Elders contained the M-word.

But I stray from my subject. Our local artist in clown makeup didn't speak the forbidden word. He acted it out on television, following the advice of English teachers everywhere to show us instead of telling us.

It wasn't good judgment.

I'm convinced that his trouble stemmed from poor reading habits.

Had he focused less on, say, Philip Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint," and more on the classical literature concerning mastur_ation, he'd be $1,000 richer today.

And as a teacher of literature, an Envoy of Sweetness and Light, I'm also convinced that Percy Bysshe Shelley was right when he argued that literature has a moralizing effect on the reader.

For example:

•Genesis 38:9-10 wherein Onan spills his seed on the ground, "and the thing which he did displeased the Lord: wherefore he slew him. . . ."

•S.A.D. Tissot's 1714 pamphlet, "Onanism, or a Treatise on the Disorders of Mastur_ation," which informs readers that the practice drains the body of vital fluids, causes tuberculosis, neuroses, and damage to the nervous system.

•Sylvester Graham's 1834 book, "A Lecture to a Young Man," which advocates eating Mr. Graham's graham crackers instead of indulging in the self-abuse which turns a healthy young man into "a confirmed and degraded idiot" distinguished by "a premature old age, a blighted body, and a ruined soul!"

•J. H. Kellogg's 1888 book, "Plain Facts for Young and Old Embracing the Natural History and Hygiene of Organic Life," which advocates eating Mr. Kellogg's corn flakes as a preventative of the wicked self-pleasuring that produces 39 different results, including acne, bashfulness, boldness, nail biting, and bed wetting.

There. Didn't you feel a moralizing effect?

But, some of you are saying, you're not interested in moral arguments about the subject. You want to know how it fits into social etiquette.

I refer you then to Mark Twain—who established himself as an etiquette guru to be reckoned with when he concluded his rules for attending funerals with the stunningly helpful dictum: "Do not bring your dog."

He also set down "Some Thoughts on the Science of Onanism."

After carefully considering all the pros and cons, he finally takes the position that it is not a practice to be performed in public. Of all the forms of sexual activity, he stoutly maintains, onanism "has least to recommend it."

"As an amusement it is too fleeting; as an occupation it is too wearing; as a public exhibition there is no money in it. It is unsuited to the drawing room, and in the most cultured society it has long since been banished from the social board. It has at last, in our day of progress and improvement, been degraded to brotherhood with flatulence—among the best bred these two arts are now indulged only in private."

Those immortal words still inspire. Think of the heartache and shock, to say nothing of the $1,000, that could have been saved had our local clown read them.

And surely the observation on flatulence wouldn't have given him an idea for his next public access television production.


Surely not.

You think?


Lincoln English Professor Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

©Copyright Lincoln Journal Star