Our Dark Side: A History of Perversion (Book Review)

Author:  Roudinesco, Elisabeth
Publisher: Cambridge and Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2009 
Reviewed By: Jean-Michel Rabaté, Summer 2012, 188 pp.
Translated By: David Macey

How can one write a history of perversion? Is it possible to detail the successive incarnations of a notion that calls up both delirium and delight, sadistic crimes and more delicate transgressions? Can one eschew voyeuristic enjoyment and moralistic condemnation? I keep an amused memory of how, while in high school, I would share with friends the pleasures of dipping at random into Krafft-Ebing’s thick volume Psychopathia Sexualis, focusing, of course, on the forbidden passages in Latin.1 Our nervous laughter barely concealed our embarrassment facing apparently absurd vignettes of sexual perversions. We had a fondness for the Parisian coupeurs de nattes who would snatch and cut locks from little girls out of school and were disgusted by the unfortunates who would eat soggy bread full of urine left in public urinoirs… all in all, we were baffl ed by the weird tricks human desire invents to reach satisfaction.

Today, when it seems that culture has become more relativistic, although perhaps less tolerant, we imagine either a collection of social stigmata or a history of the conceptions of perversion. Perversion would be considered in an evolutionary way, as varied ideological projections, each sending us back to norms of social reprobation, a nomenclature of practices deemed to be deviating from set standards. For instance, Aquinas’s hierarchy of perversions entailed that masturbation was worse than “sodomy,” which is not the case today in most US states. For Aquinas, Onan’s sin was condemned as a refusal of the act leading to the propagation of species, whereas sodomy was an error as to the proper aim of sex, when people miss the right orifi ce or do not recognize preordained sexual partners. Thus each culture will establish different gradations, opposing what is supposed to be “natural” to what is not. The “perversion” invoked by the French judges who condemned Joan of Arc to the stake had little to do with the medical ideas that underpinned Oscar Wilde’s notorious condemnation to jail, to take two examples analyzed by Elisabeth Roudinesco in her excellent book. One thesis of her book is that, in order to study perversion, one should go beyond moralizing rejection without falling into the trap of culturalist equanimity. What must be avoided is losing the conceptual rigor of the term, which is why her book blends theory and history so as to reconcile structure and genealogy.

Theoretically, Roudinesco’s point of departure is a psychoanalytic definition of perversion. Trying to remain scientifi c, it tends to avoid the baroque catalogues of human idiosyncrasies. The old litany of deviance is unifi ed by a governing principle. Freud and Lacan talk about perversion as a subjective structure. This structure fi nds its place in a specifi c nosology, to be situated next to psychosis and neurosis. What is, then, perversion as a structure? Psychoanalysis approaches the perverse structure in a genetic sense. Perversion is a disposition that goes back to the evolution of young men and women. For Freud, perversion is “natural,” as one can speak of children as “polymorphous perverse.” For the male, fetishism, the negation of a castration glimpsed and then immediately rejected, replaces the unseen organ with substitute objects, shiny leather, deep furs, high-heeled shoes, gloves, and so on. Such a simple pattern helps understand the Freudian approach to perversion. Going further, Lacanian scholars stress the idea of a missed confrontation with the law; any perverse subject illustrates, whether in a creative or stereotyped manner, the fundamentally transgressive nature of the sexual drive. Thus, contemporary libertinism, bisexual experimentations, fetishism, voyeurism, and exhibitionism are constitutive features of today’s deployment of eroticism in popular magazines and films.

Lacan durably shifted the angle of analysis when he tackled the case of the Marquis de Sade. His essay “Kant with Sade” stresses that the rejected norms remain active principles for Sade. A proof would be the ending of the “Philosophy in the Bedroom,” (1795) when the mother, Madame de Mistival, who has tried to bring back her debauched daughter Eugénie, leaves the castle with her sex sewn up by her daughter. This last outrage confi rms that the Mother has to remain untouchable, forever forbidden. We see here how the perverse structure depends upon the law that it negates, just as the tortures imagined by Sade call up the absolute and limitless enjoyment of an evil god. This supreme being becomes a mere parody of the divine law.

Roudinesco’s book is not a dry analysis of perverse structures. It is replete with vignettes and portraits and gives a body to the abstract synthesis. We fi nd entire fi les on Flaubert and Madame Bovary’s trial, on Victor Hugo and notable perverse characters of Les Misérables. This is a primer for students who need to understand more rigorously what is at stake in terms like sodomy, fetishism, and fl agellation. Roudinesco follows the example of Freud, who would remind his friend the pastor Pfi ster that one has to call things by their names. Roudinesco does not hesitate to plunge into the catalogue of perverse eroticism, from the homicidal madness of the guardians of Auschwitz to the more entertaining aberrations of zoophilia. She asserts that an explicit description is the best antidote to the imaginary glue in which perverts hope to catch our imaginations. The point is to reach a transcendental point of view and to ask, as Kant did, what are the conditions of possibility of such practices. If one begins at the beginning, we fi nd narratives; Roudinesco focuses at fi rst on two types of perversions that have been documented in history: the excesses of Christian mysticism and the crimes of homicidal sadists. In the middle ages, one fi nds characters like Catherina of Siena, who loved to suck the pus of cancerous breasts, or Marguerite Mary Alacoque, still revered in Ireland, who would eat the feces left by dysenteric men in a hospice. Such practices were justifi ed if they brought about an ecstatic merging with the suffering body of Christ. The second half of the diptych coming from roughly the same period is condensed by the case history of Gilles de Rais, who was burned at the stake. The army general who had saved France several times was exposed as a sodomite who had tortured and killed more than three hundred children and young men whom he had seduced. This is just one part of this general chronicle of historical perversions. Such historiography is fully documented by legal and psychiatric extracts. The broad historical sketch is made more vivid by close-ups. As in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, we pass through portrait galleries, and encounter Lydwina of Schiedam, Gilles de Rais, the Marquis de Sade, and Rudolf Höss, the Nazi torturer.

Freud is presented justly as having no illusion about human nature: “Freud never read much of Sade, but without realizing it, he shared Sade’s idea that human life was characterized not so much by an aspiration to the good and virtue, as by a permanent quest for the enjoyment of evil: the death drive, the desire for cruelty, a love of hatred, and an aspiration to unhappiness and suffering…Being a thinker of the dark Enlightenment…and not of the counter- Enlightenment, he rehabilitated the idea that perversion is an essential part of civilization to the extent that it is society’s accursed share and our own dark side. But rather than grounding evil in the natural world order or seeing man’s animal nature as the sign of an inferiority that can never be overcome, he preferred to argue that access to culture is the only thing that can save humanity from its own self-destructive drives” (pp.70–71). Freud wanted to elaborate a theory of the deepest springs of our being leading to unconscious knowledge at the cusp of our bodies and our speech. Hence, humanity’s nightmarish history from which we are trying to awake, which is both the history of humanity (in us) and the history of inhumanity (in us too).

After having been entertained or awed by the historical narrative of extreme practices, we are ready to follow Roudinesco when she intervenes forcefully in recent debates. For instance, she notes that the term of “paraphilia” offi cially replaced the term of perversion in the recent DSM. The term fl aunts its neutrality, limits its scope to observable behavior, and never touches upon issues of subjectivity. A so-called permissive culture refuses to call “perversion” the masturbatory practices sponsored by Internet pornography. Transsexualism and zoophilia also appear as acceptable, if not recommended to all. Roudinesco decides not to follow the admonitions dispensed by Peter Singer, currently professor at Princeton and a thinker of ethics, when he defends animals’ lives (he is a strict vegetarian) and sexuality (he condones bestiality and zoophilia). On the other hand, Roudinesco gives a positive portrait of Robert Stoller, a pioneer for gender theory and queer theory. For her brand of Lacanian psychoanalysis as well as for Freud, homosexuality is not defi ned as a perversion. Above all, Roudinesco insists that we should stick to the concept and retain all its theoretical valence and purchase.

It is a matter of the relevance of psychoanalytic discourse today: “While the psychoanalytic movement has, over the last hundred years, developed a coherent clinical approach to psychosis and has succeeded in developing new approaches to neurosis… its almost exclusive concentration on structure in the clinical sense of the term has led it to overlook the historical, political, cultural, and anthropological question of perversion” (pp.158–159). Roudinesco adds that if one avoids talking about the cultural side of perversion, “perverse” effects are generated in culture. It is as if our late capitalism could only recognize the results (often perverse) but denied the causes (i.e., perversion), precisely because the cause is linked with capitalism itself. This, no doubt, is a huge program, but it is well sketched in this short book. Freud saw psychoanalysis as capable of tackling a broad history of culture, which includes its many aberrations. This would go further than the mapping of a “discontent” in culture, the Unbehagen in der Kultur described by Freud at the end of his life. Our current Unbehagen derives often from a naïve belief in science, whereas there is a perversion of science. Science covers up our infantile fantasies, which leads to more intolerance and exclusion. A sound knowledge of history is indispensable to psychoanalysis, especially if one means to plumb humanity’s darkest recesses.

One of the recurrent dreams of psychoanalysis has been to elaborate a long-term history, which is why Freud ended his career with his notorious “historical novel,” whose hero was Moses. Freud has also enlisted the help of Senator Bullitt to write a similar historical novel, an antinovel rather, in which the antihero was none other than the American president Wilson. Roudinesco shares this proactive view, and believes we ought to learn from history’s mistakes. Psychoanalysis should not only complete Borges’s History of Infamy, but promote a new rationalism, an enlightenment that will not turn a blind eye to the obscure or “accursed” share in ourselves. A historiography of perversion should thus give access to Bataille’s famous principle of “heterology,” a principle that hesitates between the sublime and abjection in our culture. Hence, it is fi tting that the French version of La Part Obscure…(surprisingly not included in Our Dark Side) should have an epigraph by Georges Bataille: “The greater the beauty, the deeper the stain.” 

1. Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia Sexualis; mit besonderer Berücksichung der conträre Sexualempfi ndung, Stuttgart, Ferdinand Enke Verlag, 1887.


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