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What are perversions?

A Fortnightly Review of

What Are Perversions? Sexuality, Ethics, Psychoanalysis

by Sergio Benvenuto
Karnak Books | 240pps | $42.95 £24.99


THIS IS THE QUESTION posed in a new book by the Italian psychoanalyst Sergio Benvenuto, founder and editor of the European Journal of Psychoanalysis, whose perceptions are as popular in Italy as those of Adam Phillips are here.

“”The question is another of those enigmatic probes that his field delights in, such as Freud’s celebrated, “What do women want?” Freud’s query is answered amusingly enough by the film of that title, directed by Nancy Meyers in 2000, and starring Mel Gibson – who gets electrocuted while using a hair-dryer. From then on he can read women’s minds. These turn out to be as full of shallow thoughts as the minds of men. What women want most, it seems, are compliments.

Benvenuto’s question is hard to answer because, as he points out, it’s one which keeps changing as customs and opinions change. Noting this, I thought it might be an idea to read another book on perversions, written in a previous century – to provide myself with a comparison. I settled on Là-Bas by J.-K. Huysmans (in English here). The contrast might enable me to keep a perspective on what I was taking in regarding contemporary sexuality, ethics and psychoanalysis. I confess that I find it difficult to maintain an impartial view when taking in any of Karnac’s head-shrinking publications as I can’t help relating whatever I read about the psyche to my own experience.

Benvenuto’s question is hard to answer because, as he points out, it’s one which keeps changing as customs and opinions change.

Almost before I had turned the first page I was at it: for me, I thought, a perversion is a fixation. One could have a fixation on slugs, as a doctor might have a fixation on applying leeches. Could there be such a thing as an approved fixation – getting your nails “done”, for instance? Benvenuto points out that the term ‘perversion’ has largely been done away with:

TODAY ONE NO LONGER speaks of perversion but rather of paraphilia, a term first proposed in 1903 by the German psychiatrist S. F. Krauss. Paranoia is to believe in the wrong things, paraphilia is to covet the wrong objects. But even this reference to para, literally “aside”, to the strange, tends to be deleted from more libertarian formulations.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) regards perversions as disorders: exhibitionism, voyeurism, frotteurism (groping), paedophilia, masochism, sadism, transvestism, making obscene phone calls, necrophilia, partialism (erotic interest in certain parts of the body), zoophilia, coprophilia, klismaphilia (a passion for enemas) and “watersports”. For myself, I would add arms-dealing and dentistry, especially of the amateur variety in the latter case. Surely it was perverse of Peter the Great to extract the tooth of any courtier so stupid as to profess an ache – and to keep the teeth extracted in rows in a velvet box on view in the Kunstkamera in Leningrad?

Huysmans might have appended the actions of a frôleuse (a woman who rubs herself against a man), together with certain manifestations of heresy (the contamination of the host, for instance, with bodily fluids, faeces and the blood of murdered mice or children). Since the main character of Là-Bas, Durtal, is researching a book on Gilles de Rais (the supposed “Bluebeard of the fifteenth century), he might have appended several perversions fashionable in the middle ages – copulation in the entrails of a disembowelled child, for instance.

It has all been very much watered down in our own day. Even incest,” Benvenuto writes, “can now be seen in “not a bad light, with many novels and films showing the good side of the incestuous adults” and he supplies an IMDB list to prove it. The salient admonition might be to wear a condom! Benvenuto points out that the DSM says nothing about why “we should consider these paraphilias as mental disorders, as behaviour that upsets the order.”

INSTEAD A CHARITABLE VIEW is adopted. Anything is permissible so long as the perpetrator is mindful of the enjoyment of the other with whom the paraphilia is being practised. Benvenuto distinguishes between the other with a small o and the Other, a notional abstraction. Where the central actor is the paraphiliac alone, paying attention only to the Other – a mother or father figure perhaps but not a real person – and where the feelings of the real other are discounted and abused, a perversion has taken place. Thus it is “perverse” to treat the other as an object (a common enough received opinion) unless the other positively wants to be treated like an object.

Benvenuto goes on to analyse possible causes for certain behaviours that might be labelled perverse, which is fair enough. Whether you call something a perversion or not, it is still of some interest to ask why one may be compelled to do what one does – and why society may disapprove. However, it appears that both motivation and social response are in a state of flux. Homosexuality was a despicable offense that got Oscar Wilde sent to jail back in the nineteenth century (though it would not have happened in antiquity), however sending off a child to a school where he was likely to be interfered with by a schoolteacher or a cleric evinced little more than a shrug – even when I was growing up in the fifties – “these things do go on,” might have been the response – the tampering seen as a learning experience, part of education.

As Benvenuto points out:

…paedophilia today is regarded by public opinion not as one perversion among many, but as a horror. Today, in the West, one is criminalised if one looks at pictures of naked children on the internet: it is not only the act but also the desire of the paedophile which tends to be punished.

True, but I note that the ever-ingenious Japanese, who seem to have a vested interest in a romantic notion of the schoolgirl – and romantic it is, surely? The hordes of ungainly, ill-dressed, uncouth examples pouring onto the streets at four o’clock testify to that – have come up with a solution: dolls for the paedophile – beautifully formed female ephebes in the appropriate uniform, guaranteed to keep potential offenders from applying for jobs as lollipop men at the relevant zebra crossings.

According to the DSM, an act is perverse if it takes place with a non-consenting adult. But Benvenuto throws doubt on this ruling:

Not all paraphilic acts take place with a non-consenting person. Masochistic and fetishist games usually take place with an indifferent or participating person, often with prostitutes. Even paedophilic prac­tices do not exclude the other’s consent since, as we know, children are often seduced by adults showing tenderness (and some adults even say that they were pushed to paedophilia by a child who once “seduced” them). As a matter of fact, the “Paedophilic Disorder” chap­ter of the DSM-5 does not add non-consent to criterion B in the case of the “prepubescent child”. Hence violence on the other is not a distin­guishing characteristic of paraphilic pathology in general, only of cer­tain paraphilias.

Benvenuto maintains that, in order to achieve respectability, today’s Freudians may have overcooked Freud, and that “over time the references to erotic and bodily functions have more and more been assumed as pure metaphors.” He suggests that contemporary psychoanalysis has become “spiritualised”, its practitioners – liberal libertarians who wish to distance themselves from the redneck vulgarities of the working class without seeming to do so – tend to feel “almost ashamed” of Freud’s vision of sexuality which included pleasures connected with defecation, urination, flatulence and gluttony. Thus the penis becomes the “signifier phallus” – a species of spiritual symbol.

I CONCUR, BUT EVEN Benvenuto maintains that anorexia concerns a distorted denigration of one’s body image, which mentalizes the issue, whereas I have met anorexics who know perfectly well that they are beautiful; however, they have a horror of shitting, and try to avoid it for as long as they can.

As Benvenuto points out:

Freud simply gave libido, in a register that at the time had the lustre of scientificity, the relevance that people had already given it. Psychoanalysis is, in spite of appearances, a folk theory: behind its technical and specialist language, its approach remains very close to everyday expressions and mentality, especially to those of the lower classes. As a matter of fact, psychoanalysis in the twentieth century has given a certain respectability to the knowledge of the common people.

Benvenuto suggests a variety of analyses for some of the more common aberrations, happy to provide readings from rival schools of psycho-analysis but focussing ultimately on interpretations by Freud, Masud Khan, Jacques Lacan and Robert Stoller. He sees jealousy of the mother (who has rejected the child to enjoy intercourse with the father) as a root cause – of masochism, for example, where “I, as a subject, take the stage as a humiliated object, discarded by the woman.”

“Remember that a mom is a woman!” he points out. And he suggests that we dodge the rage and jealousy of our frustrated love by turning what we perceive as rejection into the “pleasure” of being chosen as the rejected one – it’s a language trick, an oxymoronic figure.

While I can understand the reversal that… turns what is a pain into pleasure, I have a problem with the Oedipal back-story.

Here my own subjective view kicks in again. While I can understand the reversal that, like some Moebius strip, renders what is inside outside, and turns what is a pain into pleasure, I have a problem with the Oedipal back-story. Psychoanalysis relies far too much on assumption – that there was a father, for instance. Perhaps the “nuclear” model of the family was true for Freud’s Vienna, though I doubt that it was ubiquitous. As an only child, the son of a widow, I never witnessed a primal scene, though I watched plenty of animals being mated, without much envy on my part. I suffered from parental claustrophobia, rather than jealousy, and I feel that there are far too many varieties of upbringing to be accounted for by the catch-all of the aforementioned complex. Children are orphaned, abandoned, looked after by a single parent, by homosexuals, religious maniacs and divorcees, so the Oedipal triangle only applies to a section of the populace – if it applies at all in an age where incest is no longer quite the taboo that it once was.

Elaborating on the notion of “dodging the pain”, Benvenuto suggests that “the masterpiece of perversity consists in transforming the trauma of jealousy into an exclusive way of sexual enjoyment.”

Even American psychiatrist Robert Stoller (Perversion, 1975) notes that the perverse person is usually convinced of having himself created his perversion, as though it were a work of art. He even “considers his perversion his highest accomplishment”.

This holds true for the version of Gilles de Rais imagined by Huysmans:

One of the unfortunate children is brought into his chamber and hanged by Bricqueville, Prelati and de Sille on a hook fixed into the wall; but just as the child is suffocating, Gilles orders him to be taken down and the rope untied. With some precaution, he balances the child on his knee, revives him, strokes him, dandles him, dries his tears and, pointing to the accomplices, says, “These men are wicked, but they obey me. Do not be afraid; I will save your life and give you back to your mother.” But just as the boy, overcome with joy, hugs him, reaches out with love towards him, Gilles makes a gentle incision in the back of the neck, makes him “languish”, to use his own expression, and as the half-severed head nods forward, Gilles, in a torrent of blood, kneads the body, turns it over, and, with a bellow, violates it.

‘In the light of these abominable pastimes he could truly vaunt that in his hands the art of human butchery has yielded the last globule of fat, sweated out the last bead of pus. As he proudly proclaims to his circle of parasites, “There is not a man on earth who would dare do as I have done!”

This is a fine example of a pervert being proud of his art, though I hasten to remind my readers that it’s purely a literary conception (as Huysmans may or may not have realised). Margot K. Juby has pointed out that far more research has been completed on de Rais since the eighteen-nineties, when the first instalment of Là-Bas appeared. She is currently writing a book to clear his name. As she says on her website:

It is now widely accepted that the trial of Gilles de Rais was a miscarriage of justice. He was a great war hero on the French side (who fought by the side of the Maid of Orleans – my italics); his judges were pro-English and had an interest in blackening his name and, possibly, by association, that of Jehanne d’Arc. His confession was obtained under threat of torture and also excommunication, which he dreaded. A close examination of the testimony of his associates, in particular that of Poitou and Henriet, reveals that they are almost identical and were clearly extracted by means of torture. Even the statements of outsiders, alleging the disappearance of children, mostly boil down to hearsay; the very few cases where named children have vanished can be traced back to the testimony of just eight witnesses. There was no physical evidence to back up this testimony, not a body or even a fragment of bone. His judges also stood to gain from his death: in fact, Jean V Duke of Brittany, who enabled his prosecution, disposed of his share of the loot before de Rais was even arrested.

‘In France, the subject of his probable innocence is far more freely discussed than it is in the English-speaking world. In 1992 a Vendéen author named Gilbert Prouteau was hired by the Breton tourist board to write a new biography. Prouteau was not quite the tame biographer that was wanted and his book, Gilles de Rais ou la gueule du loup, argued that Gilles de Rais was not guilty. Moreover, he summoned a Court of Cassation to re-try the case, which sensationally resulted in an acquittal. As of 1992, Gilles de Rais is officially an innocent man.

In the mid-1920s he was even put forward for beatification, by persons unknown. He was certainly not the basis for Bluebeard, this is a very old story which appears all over the world in different forms.

SO, HERE WE HAVE a prime example of “fake news” – promoted and promulgated by the authorities, as is customary, even today. However the quote from Huysmans does bring to the surface the baroque nature of perversion, its elaborate sense of decorum almost, of procedure, which Benvenuto points out. I find the Italian author at his most illuminating when he discusses the notion of the law and what might be termed “anti-law” in relation to perversion. He observes that Lacan “brings to light the truly ethical dimension of perversions.”

In short, the perverse are not animals who get up to all sorts of things with no laws; on the contrary, they take pleasure in submitting to the law. The sadist does not break the law in the same way a petty thief would, just to make a living. Indeed, we recognise a perversion in sadism but not in stealing (except in the case of kleptomania, where a perverse pleasure does emerge). In a non-psychologistic perspective, the torturer enjoys pleasure because he interprets the law sadistically: to him the law is the Other’s enjoyment.

The law is the large Other’s prerogative, amounting to whatever domineering concept has mastery over the pervert. The law is not ethics. “Of course, the managers of Nazi concentration camps acted legally,” notes Benvenuto,  “but could anyone say they were ethical?”

ELSEWHERE, BENVENUTO SAYS, “For the rapist, the woman is guilty of innocence.” This is clearly borne out by the sufferings of the innocent Justine, at the hands of sadistic libertines – in the eponymous novel by de Sade – in contrast to the riches and success lavished upon her depraved, and far more alluring, sister, Juliette – alluring from a reader’s point of view, that is. For there is an ethical dimension effecting the law here. I am mindful of Wittgenstein’s notion that “ethics is aesthetics” – as he states in the Tractatus. It’s a statement I take as an article of faith, since I interpret aesthetics as the discipline of doing the best possible job – so the poet does the best possible job on the poem he is writing, just as the brain surgeon does the best possible job with the operation he is performing; the same obligation applying to care workers, tank commanders and politicians. Now the cardinal “sin” of aesthetics, overriding sloppiness of style or bombast, is for a work to be a cliché. So if ethics is synonymous with aesthetics, Justine’s decency, her innocence, can be vilified as just that, a dull conformism to the platitudes of her day – so unlike the lion-hearted individuality of her violently promiscuous sibling. Justine deserves what she gets.

“Sin” seems a far-off word these days, and perversion appears to have evaporated into clubs for consenting adults to show off their leathers.

There I go, getting subjective again about psychoanalysis. “Sin” seems a far-off word these days, and perversion appears to have evaporated into clubs for consenting adults to show off their leathers. It’s refreshing to turn back to Là-Bas, where case histories not dissimilar to those of psycho-analysis abound. Doctor Johannès, for instance, who “formulates his own treatment for illnesses which are the result of sorcery.”

‘What exactly does he do?’

‘He claims that whenever a particular stone is placed in the hand or on the affected limb of someone who has been bewitched, a fluid escapes from the stone into his hands which he can then examine. On this subject, he once told me that a woman whom he had never met came to see him for a consultation about a malady, claimed to be incurable, from which she had suffered since childhood. He could not get any precise answers to his questions but, in any event, he could find no signs of venefice. After trying out his entire array of stones, he placed in her hand the lapis lazuli, which, he claims, corresponds to the sin of incest. He then felt the stone.

“Your sickness,” he told her, “is the consequence of an act of incest.”

“I did not come here in search of a confessor,” she replied. But she finally admitted that her father had raped her before she reached the age of puberty. All this, of course, is completely contrary to good sense, almost insane; but there is no getting around the fact that this priest cures patients whom we doctors have given up for lost!’

The same doctor is reported to have cured paralytic hysteria by deducing that the patient is the victim of “consanguineous sorcery.”

Poor Marie had been unjustly accused of the theft of a watch which was an heirloom belonging to an aunt of hers. The aunt had sworn vengeance on her

‘”Does your aunt live in Lyons?”

‘She nodded.

‘”Nothing astonishing about that,” continued the priest. “There is no shortage of bone-setters in Lyons among the common people who know something of how witchcraft is practised in the countryside. Don’t lose heart; such people are not very proficient. They know little more than the rudiments. So, Mademoiselle, would you like to be cured?”

‘And after she replied that she did, he said gently: “That is all. You may go.

‘He did not touch her, did not prescribe any remedy. I came away convinced that he was either a charlatan or a madman; but when, three days later, the girl was able to raise her arms, and she no longer felt any pain, and when, at the end of a week, she could walk, I had to take note of the evidence.”

Which would go to show that “talking cures” may work on occasion whatever the doctrine behind them. Call it the power of suggestion. Really it is a shame that the Lamarckian credo that acquired characteristics can also be passed on to descendants has been abandoned by today’s biologists, though Benvenuto points out that Lamarck was “useful to Freud to keep his scientific-universalistic cake and eat the historicist one too.” A Lamarckian interpretation would very neatly append psycho-analysis to previous necromantic practices.

WHEN IT COMES TO these arts, Huysmans is a delightful tease, and being an absolute sorcerer when it comes to fiction, he can turn this body of invocations and enchantments into the purest comedy. For while Là-Bas purports to delve into black magic and horror, it is in no way supernatural and more a compendium of the ridiculous (as might be said for psychoanalysis). Huysmans “applies” his rich vocabulary as an impressionist painter applies paint, there is a matière to his writing, a surface texture – he wrote probably the first essay on “Modern Art” – championing the innovative painters of his time. As capricious as it is grotesque, it is writing for writing’s sake, and he understands contrast as well as any painter, very often with tongue in cheek results. Unsavoury details of atrocities and heretical practices are recounted over the dinner table, punctuated with offers of a little more salad or a brief dissertation on how to eat gingerbread. Là-Bas is as discursive and conversational in its own way as A Nest of Ninnies by John Ashbery and James Schuyler. Both works are masterpieces of modernism, though nearly a century lies between their publication.

Literary merit aside, this novel by Huysmans does look at phenomena such as fetishes in what reads as a refreshing way; as when Durtal discusses “the abominations of Ségarelli of Parma, who, under the pretext of becoming a child so as to better symbolise the simple, naïve love of the Paraclete, had himself swathed in nappies, slept by the side of the nurse who breast-fed him and wallowed in all the evil the underworld had to offer.”

But getting back to the law, and the emphasis that Benvenuto places on it, rightly I feel, it appears that there is a piety to perversion, which one senses in Huysmans also. Sade, the Divine Marquis, “identifies nature with the obligation of enjoyment.” Benvenuto elaborates:

 …above all in the sense that it is the enjoy­ment by Nature (subjective genitive: Nature enjoys something): it needs to destroy living beings, preferably humans, in order to recre­ate living beings. But also in the sense that Nature obliges us to enjoy­ment even if it means the destruction of the other. Sadist enjoyment is a “categorical imperative” in the Kantian sense: it does not aim at the well-being or comfort of subjects, it does not tend to preserve their life, but forces anyone to unconditionally become the object of the other’s enjoyment. Is the sadist then the agent performer of the ruth­less law of Nature? Today we would say that for Sade, nature is Nazi: yet, to submit to the law of Nature is the only true freedom that is worth something.

For Huysmans, the pervert is a believer turned inside out.

To feel this, however, you have to have faith in it, and perhaps (in a splitting of one’s personality where the halves are kept hermetically sealed), aspire to believe in its opposite at the same time. For Huysmans, the pervert is a believer turned inside out (and as Benvenuto points out, turn a glove inside-out and there is still an inside). In order to complete his research into his “Bluebeard”, Durtal attends a Black Mass – which turns out to be a distinctly shoddy affair – Durtal is appalled by its seediness as much as anything. The mass is described in forensic detail, with soiled communion wafers and with the image of Christ above the altar, naked and equipped with a massive erection (which is fairly common in certain mystical representations which compare physical with spiritual ecstasy, just as images of Saint Theresa may appear to show her at the height of some masturbatory orgasm). What is clear throughout the scene is that the worshippers are in a Catholic sense devout. It is only a believer who is going to get anything out of a mass, whether it’s black or white. So this bears out the feeling that I get from Benvenuto’s observations concerning perversion that one would need to believe in charity in order to be resolutely uncharitable.

I HAVE ALWAYS FELT that if we were to accept the perfidy of Gilles de Rais, we would have to admit his absolute zeal for Jeanne d’Arc and her cause. I sense that to have witnessed her burn could upset all one’s aspirations to be a warrior for what is right. In a similar way, Richard Lovelace witnessed the complete inversion of his world. From wearing cloth of gold and silver as a Royalist colonel he was obliged to eat the soles of his shoes, and, in order to “dodge” the pain of being thrown from the Cavalier saddle, he became the poetic master of the oxymoron, as is shown, for example, by these images of sowing:

Thus scattering to hoard, ‘ gainst a dull day,
Thinking to save all, we cast all away.

—The Ant, Richard Lovelace, from Lucasta Posthume Poems 1659-1660

The pervert is a living oxymoron, and this is grasped by Benvenuto, who explains it well.

Apart from occasions where the syntax seems involuted, perhaps as a result of there being more than a single translator involved in the project of getting it into English, his book is written in an almost racy style that renders it devourable by the non-specialist. The text is appropriately supplied with examples from films, and Benvenuto makes interesting points about our propensity to seek out and happily identify with the perverse vicariously via fiction – drama and film enabling a catharsis similar to a positive outcome from analysis, though it appears that analysis has no obligation to come to a conclusion: one can go on seeing one’s analyst as one might any confessor. The devil ensures that temptation is an ongoing affair.

Freud considers normal sexual behaviour a bricolage of inclinations, several in all likelihood perverse…

Freud considers normal sexual behaviour a bricolage of inclinations, several in all likelihood perverse; and just as it is a commonplace to consider that our sexual identity is always partly composed of the gender we consider ourselves not to be, so the perversions accompany our vaunted normality, suggesting that we are all freakier than we think we are, especially when we find our mouths watering, as mine did, I confess, on reading the details of some of the seriously juicy case histories included in this book – those captivating fairy tales of our time.

Anthony HowellAnthony Howell, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement. He is a contributing editor of  The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice. Details about his collaborative project, Grey Suit Online, are here.


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