The Dragon Tree

A recent episode of the radio programme ‘Desert Island Discs’, in which eminent guests choose their eight favourite records to take on an imaginary desert island, featured Susanna Walton, widow of the composer William Walton.

Argentinian born Susanna Walton has become well known for a stunning garden she has designed in her home in Italy. In discussing it she mentioned a plant I had never heard of before – the Dragon Tree.

The Dragon Tree has mystical associations and ritual attributes. “When a branch is cut off, the tree oozes blood” Lady Walton said, presumably referring to a discharge of red sap from the wound. With barely a glance in the direction of ordinary logic, she continued: “Of course, the tree has been used for centuries as an aphrodisiac”.

This association is at once obvious and surprising. Aphrodisiacs are frequently associated with dangerous animals – tiger, rhinocerous, crocodile, snake – but it is the symbolic rather than chemical properties of, say, a rhinocerous horn, which turns it into an aphrodisiac. So why should sexual desire seem so closely related to danger?

Usually Freud considers this question in relational terms. We might imagine the situation of a girl who only feels attracted to and excited by boys who already have a girlfriend, and vice versa. This is essentially the structure of the intense love relations depicted in the stories of ‘courtly love’ (see ‘Tristan and Isolde‘), or the raging passions that may underlay sexual jealousy, or the comic possibilities of many situation comedies. But althouth love has much to do with it (according to Freud), there is also the INTRApsychic dimension which relates directly to sensual experience.

One view of sexual desire is that it is the effervescent flowering of a putative sexual instinct. The feeling of ‘desire’ is the registering in consciousness of the pressing need of the instinct. Freud does not take this view. Even in his early Three Essays on Sexuality, sexuality and eroticism is intimately connected to other mental forces. In order to be expressed, the adult’s sexual feelings have to overcome emotions of “disgust, feelings of shame and the claims of aesthetic and moral ideals” which have been learnt in the course of growing up. Clearly these feelings of disgust and shame are inculcated in the child by education, although Freud also posits an evolutionary determination; we are predisposed to find something unsettling about sexuality.

For the ‘shame’ and ‘disgust’ in Freud’s early work, we find different kinds of ‘anxiety’ later on. The unsettling nature of sexuality is caused by anxiety arousing the dangerous consequences of ‘free’ sexual expression, and the imposition, as part of all human cultures, of the incest taboo. Sexual excitement arises from the negotiation and overcoming of these dangers, just as Freud earlier talked of the overcoming of shame and disgust. One might say that at the heart of heterosexual excitement (as at the heart of homosexual excitement), one finds the black hole of castration anxiety around which the dazzling explosions of sexual feelings are distributed.

Now we can see why the Dragon Tree, with its obvious symbolism of castration, is an appropriate object as an aphrodisiac.

That’s what sexual excitement is all about.

The argument may seem strange, but it has important practical consequences. If, for instance, a psychotherapist sees a child (or adult) who is a compulsive masturbator, the therapist would not think of the strength of the sexual drive, or the pleasure derived from this activity, as the important characteristic. Instead she would consider the behaviour to manifest deep anxiety linked to an unconscious fantasy.

The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott put it succinctly. Referring to inhibitions in children’s play, he notes: “when anxiety is relatively great sensuality becomes compulsive, and play becomes impossible.” (‘The Child, the Family and the Outside World’ p145).

At the other extreme, anxiety may obliterate all manifestations of sexual excitement, and the person becomes ‘impotent’.

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