Adhesiveness (EoH)

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The concept of adhesiveness was introduced into English by the phrenologist Johann Gaspar Spurzheim (1 776-1832) in the meaning of "the faculty that causes human beings to be attached to one another." It derivedultimately from theLatin verb adhaerere, as in Genesis 2:24, where St. Jerome's equivalent of "Therefore shall a man. . . cleave unto his wife" is "Quam obrem . . .homo.. . adhaerebit uxorisuae." Diffusion of the concept of adhesiveness by the (pseudo-)science of phrenology enabled it to became part of the special vocabulary of the emerging homosexual subculture of the nineteenth century. Phrenologists themselves grounded this passionate friendship--which could exist between members of opposite sexes as well as between those of the same sex-in the brain, giving it a material base and a congenital origin. Walt Whitman selfconsciously narrowed the reference of the term "adhesive loveN-which he also named "comradeship"-to homosexual relationships, and in so doing coded his writings for the initiated reader.

Permutations of the Concept. George Combe (1784-1858), a middle-class lawyer from Edinburgh, met Spurzheim in 18 15, and soon thereafter became a leader of British phrenology. His Constitution of Man Considered in Relation to External Objects (1828) became the basis of orthodox phrenology. His major contribution to the understanding of adhesiveness was his complex sense of the working of the "organ" and his additions to the iconography. He also contrasted the selfish side of adhesiveness with the nobler ends that had to be directed "by enlightened intellect and moral sentiment." Excess of adhesiveness could, however, amount to a disease.

At least two of the European contributors to the definition of adhesiveness may themselves have been homosexual: Spurzheim himself, and his younger Scottish contemporary Robert Macnish (1802-1837). In discussing women with small amativeness and large adhesiveness, he said that they "prefer the society of their own sex to that of men." Amativeness thus applied to relations between the sexes, while the other term was discretely given the implicit meaning of "homoerotic attachment." Romantic passions between young people of the same sex Macnish deemed an "abuse of adhesiveness." He went so far as to describe a male couple whose mutual attachment was so excessive as to be "a disease."

There is no indication that Walt Whitman knew Macnish's writings. His own acquaintance with the phrenological tradition came from the Americans associated with "Fowler and Wells," the "phrenological cabinet" that distributed the first edition of Leaves of Grass and later hired Whitman to write for their publication Life Illustrated. Owen Squire Fowler 11 809-1887) took up phrenology with great gusto after hearing Spunheim's lectures duringhis student days at Arnherst College. In 1840 he published an Elemental Phrenology in which adhesiveness was defined as "Friendship; sociability; fondness for society; susceptibility of forming attachments; inclination to love, and desire to be loved. . . ." When he treated adhesiveness at length, as he did repeatedly in journal articles in the following years, he was strong on repetitious rhetoric but weak in analysis. Little of his sermonizing derived from exact observation or rigorous debate.

Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828), the founder of phrenology, had classified excessive adhesiveness as a "mania," which meant that it could fall within the scope of the physician's interest. However, in the middle of the nineteenth century medical science had not gone beyond defining quantitative (as opposed to qualitative) changes in the sexualdrive as pathological. Homosexual tendencies were either dismissed as "excesses of friendship" or relegated to the category of "revolting moral aberrations."

Walt Whitman. Under the influence of Fowlerian phrenology Whitman developed his own ideas on the role of adhesiveness in his universal scheme of things. Whitman's self-conception was powerfully shaped by the reading of his head done by Lorenzo Fowler, which showed him to have immense potential, and in the wake of this event Whitman underwent a self-transformation that made him the bold prophet of a new vision of democracy.

In the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass Whitman wrote:

Do you know what it is, as you pass, to be loved by strangers? Do you know the talk of those turning eye-balls? Here is adhesiveness-it is not previously fashioned-it is apropos.

The restriction to love between members of the same sex-which was not borrowed from the phrenologists-was Whitman's initial adaptation of the term. When later in Democratic Vistas he came to elaborate his new vision of society, he spoke of "the adhesive love, at least rivalling the amative love." For the phrenologists arnativeness and adhesiveness had been distinct, but had not been so polarized, simply because the opposition heterosexual: homosexual didnot yet exist in their minds, although they could recognize adhesiveness as "the fountain of another variety of mental symptoms." Whitman can be seen in this light as a forerunner of Hans Bliiher, who, in the second decade of the twentieth century, from an openly elitist and conservative standpoint exalted the role of homoeroticism and of male bonding in the maintenance of the state. For Whitman the core of social organization was same-sex cornradeship, which he set at least potentially on a par with heterosexual marriage. He could now celebrate the equalizing effects of his version of adhesiveness, developing it as the basis of social reform in Democratic Vistas (1871). His ideal of comradeship linked both his early enthusiasm for the promiscuous anonymity of Manhattan and his later, more or less serial monogamy with his hopes for the future of American democracy.

Aftermath. In the remaining decades of the century, the few surviving phrenologists became painfully aware of the moral dangers of adhesiveness and of theinjurious effects of the "excessive desire for friends." In 1898, three years after the disgrace of Oscar Wilde, the Phrenological Journal, now edited by Orson Fowler's younger sister, published a two-part article that dwelt as never before on the excesses of friendship, which "causes its possessor to seek company simply for the sake of being in it, whereby their time is wasted and they become a natural prey to the dishonest, tricky, unscrupulous, and vicious, who may take advantage of and link them into all sorts of obligatory concerns ruinous to their pockets and their morals."

Today discredited and forgotten, phrenology retains a historical interest as one of the disciplines that sought to analyze the causal factors in personality before a scientific psychology had emerged from philosophy. As such, it brought Whitman and perhaps others involved in the homosexual subculture of that day to a better understanding of themselves and of the potential of homoeroticurges for the positive task of nation-building. The notion of adhesiveness as related to male comradeship linked it to the paiderasteia of Greek antiquity, with its emphasis on loyalty to one's comrade in arms and on duty to the state of which one was a citizen- the latter being one of the sources of the modem democratic ideal.


Michael Lynch, "'Here Is Adhesiveness': From Friendship to Homosexuality," Victorian Studies, 29 (1985), 67-96.

Warren Johansson

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