Read Our Dark Side Online

Authors: Elisabeth Roudinesco

Our Dark Side

BOOK: Our Dark Side
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First published in French as
La Part obscure de nous-mêmes: une histoire des pervers
© Editions Albin Michel S. A. – Paris 2007

This English edition © Polity Press, 2009

Polity Press

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Cambridge CB2 1UR, UK

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All rights reserved. Except for the quotation of short passages for the purpose of criticism and review, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.

ISBN-13: 978-0-7456-4592-6 (hardback)

ISBN-13: 978-0-7456-4593-3 (paperback)

ISBN-13: 978-0-7456-8371-3 (epub)

ISBN-13: 978-0-7456-8370-6 (mobi)

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

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This book is supported by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as part of the Burgess programme run by the Cultural Department of the French Embassy in London. (

Ouvrage publié avec le concours du Ministère Français de la Culture – Centre national du livre

Published with the assistance of the French Ministry of Culture – National Centre for the Book


This book began life as a lecture given on 25 August 2004 at the opening session of the annual symposium of the International Federation of Psychoanalytic Societies in Belo Horizonte. The symposium was devoted to the many faces of perversion. The lecture was given in French (with simultaneous translation into several languages) at the request of the organizers, who wished to honour the French language at an event attended by members of the French Society, founded in 1962 and made up of the Psychoanalytic Societies of several countries, with the exception of France. My thanks are due to them for having asked me to discuss this subject on that day, which marked, as they knew, the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Paris.

I then returned to the same theme in the academic year 2005–6 in my seminar at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, which was devoted to the history of the perversions.

My thanks are due to all those who, in one way or another, helped with the writing of this book: Stéphane Bou, Didier Cromphout, Elisabeth de Fontenay, Sylvère Lotringer, Michael Molnar, François Ost, Michel Rotfus, Catherine Simon, Philippe Val.

And, of course, my editor Olivier Bétourné.


Many books, including learned dictionaries of sexology, eroticism and pornography have been devoted to the sexual perversions, but there is no history of the perverse. As for the word, structure or term ‘perversion', it has been studied only by psychoanalysts.

Taking his inspiration from Georges Bataille, Michel Foucault planned to include in his
History of Sexuality
a chapter on ‘perverse people', or in other words those who are so designated by human societies that are anxious not to be confused with their accursed share. He said in substance that, because of the inverted symmetry between them and the exemplary lives of famous men, the lives of the perverse are unnameable: they are infamous, minuscule, anonymous and wretched (Foucault 1981; 1980; cf. Michon 1984).

As we know, these parallel, abnormal lives are not talked about and, as a rule, are mentioned only to be condemned. And when they do acquire a certain notoriety, it is because of the power of their exceptional criminality, which is deemed to be bestial, monstrous or inhuman, and seen as something alien to the very humanity of human beings. Witness the constant reworking of the stories of great perverse criminals, with their terrible nicknames: Gilles de Rais (Bluebeard), George Chapman (Jack the Ripper), Erzebet Bathory (the Bloody Countess) and Peter Kürten (the Vampire of Dusseldorf).
These accursed creatures have inspired plays, novels, stories and films because of our continued fascination with their strange, half-human, half-animal status.

That is why we will enter here into both the world of perversion and the parallel lives of the perverse via the universal themes of metaphor and animality. We will enter them not so much via the epic poems that relate how men were transformed into animals, fountains or plants as by plunging into the nightmare of a never-ending infinite reassignment that reveals, in all its cruelty, what human beings try to disguise. Two characters in European literature created in 1890 and 1914 respectively – Dorian Gray and Gregor Samsa – exemplify perversion; one in order to challenge mental medicine by revealing the sparkling grandeur of the perverse desire that lay at the heart of an old-fashioned aristocracy that would rather serve art than power, and the other in order to unmask the abject nudity that lay at the heart of bourgeois normality.

Identified with his dazzlingly beautiful portrait, Dorian Gray indulges in vice and crime while living a life of luxury. Although he still has the features of his eternal youth, the metamorphoses undergone by his subjectivity are transcribed in the painting, like the emblems of some accursed race. As for Gregor Samsa, his drastic mutation into a giant insect reveals, in contrast, the grandeur of his soul as it thirsts after affection. But, because the sight of his disgusting body makes his family hate him, he lets himself rot, be stoned by his father and then be thrown out like some piece of rubbish.

Where does perversion begin, and who are the perverse?
That is the question we will be attempting to answer in this book, which brings together hitherto distinct approaches by combining an analysis of the notion of perversion not only with portraits of the perverse and an account of the main sexual perversions, but also with a critique of the theories and practices that have been developed, mostly from the nineteenth century onwards, to theorize perversion and to name the perverse.

The course of this history will be traced in five chapters dealing, successively, with the Middle Ages (Gilles de Rais, the mystical saints and the flagellants), the eighteenth century (the life and work of the Marquis de Sade), the nineteenth century (mental medicine, its descriptions of the sexual perversions, and its obsession with the masturbating child, the homosexual and the hysterical woman), and, finally, the twentieth century that saw, thanks to the rise of Nazism – and especially Rudolf Hoess's Auschwitz confessions, the most abject metamorphosis of perversion. ‘Perversion' is currently used, finally, to describe a personality disorder, a state of delinquency or a deviation, but it still has multiple facets, including zoophilia, paedophilia, terrorism, transsexuality.

Often confused with perversity, perversion was once – especially from the Middle Ages to the end of the classical age
– seen as a particular way of upsetting the natural order of the world and converting men to vice,
both in order to lead them astray and to corrupt them, and to avoid any confrontation with the sovereignty of good and truth.

The act of perverting presupposed the existence of a divine authority. And the only destiny of someone who set himself the task of leading the whole of humanity to self-destruction was to see in the face of the Law he transgressed a reflection of the singular challenge he had thrown down to a god. He was both demonic and damned. He was a depraved criminal and torturer, a debauchee, a falsificator, a charlatan, a wrong-doer, but he was above all a Jeckyll and Hyde figure who was at once tormented by a figure of the Devil, and obsessed with an ideal of good which he constantly profaned in order to offer up to God, who was both his master and his executioner, the spectacle of his own body, which had been reduced to filth.

Although we live in a world in which science has taken the place of divine authority, the body that of the soul, and deviancy that of sin, perversion is still, whether we like it or not, synonymous with perversity. And whatever form it takes and whatever metamorphoses it has undergone, it still relates, as it always has done, to a sort of negative image of freedom: annihilation, dehumanization, hatred, destruction, domination, cruelty and

Yet perversion also means creativity, self-transcendence and greatness. In that sense, it can also be understood as giving access to the highest form of freedom, as it allows the person who embodies it to be both executioner and victim, master and slave, barbarian and civilized man. Perversion fascinates us precisely because it can sometimes be sublime, and sometimes abject. It is sublime when it inspires the Promethean rebels who refuse to submit to the law of men, even if it means their exclusion from society (cf. Rey-Flaud 2002), and it is abject when, as under the most savage dictatorships, it becomes the sovereign expression of the cold destruction of all genealogical bonds.

Be it a delight in evil or a passion for the sovereign good, perversion is the defining characteristic of the human species: the animal world is excluded from it, just as it is excluded from crime. Not only is it a human phenomenon that is present in all cultures; it presupposes the existence of speech, language, art, or even a discourse on art and sex. As Roland Barthes (1997: 156–7) writes: ‘Let us (if we can) imagine a society without language. Here is a man copulating with a woman
a tergo
, and using in the act a bit of wheat paste. On this level, no perversion.'

Perversion exists, in other words, only to the extent that being is wrenched away from the order of nature. It uses the speech of the subject, but only to mimic the nature from which it has been extirpated so as to parody it all the more. That is why perverse discourse is always based upon a Manichaeism that appears to exclude the dark side to which it owes its existence. Absolute good, or the madness or evil, vice or virtue, damnation or salvation: such is the closed world in which the criminally perverse move, fascinated with the idea that they can escape time and death (cf. Millot 1996).

While no perversion is thinkable without the establishment of the basic taboos – religious or secular – that govern societies, no human sexual practice is possible without the support of a rhetoric. And it is precisely because perversion is, like murder, incest or excess, desirable that it has to be designated not only as a transgression or anomaly, but also as a nocturnal discourse that always utters, in its self-hatred or in its fascination with death, the great curse of boundless
. That is why – and Freud was the first to take theoretical stock of this – it is present, obviously to different degrees, in all forms of human sexuality.

Perversion is, as the reader will have realized, a sexual, political, social, psychic, transhistorical and structural phenomenon that is present in all human societies. And while every culture has its coherent divisions – the prohibition of incest, the definition of madness, terms to describe the monstrous or the abnormal – perversion naturally has its place in that combinatory. But, because of its psychic status, which pertains to the essence of splitting, it is also a social necessity. It preserves norms, while ensuring the human species of the permanence of its pleasures and transgressions. What would we do without Sade, Mishima, Jean Genet, Pasolini, Hitchcock, and the many others who have given us the most refined works imaginable? What would we do if we could no longer scapegoat, or in other words pervert, those who agree to translate into strange acts the inadmissible tendencies that haunt us and that we repress?

No matter whether the perverse are sublime because they turn to art, creation or mysticism, or abject because they surrender to their murderous impulses, they are part of us and part of our humanity because they exhibit something that we always conceal: our own negativity and our dark side.

BOOK: Our Dark Side
10.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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