Sexual dealing

The Erotic Imagination
February 27, 1998

Invited some years ago to give a talk on the idea of perversion, I was surprised to discover how little scholarship had been devoted to that subject's history. Vernon Rosario, an American academic who combines a career in psychiatry with the pursuit of cultural studies and a declared "historical paraphiliac", deserves our thanks for the new light he has shed.

Without labouring its allegiance to Foucault, this study bears out one of the main contentions of La volonte de savoir: what characterised the pre-Freudian sexual economy was not relentless silencing but irrepressible erotic garrulity. On page after page one catches sexual personae of all stripes boiling over with desire to tell all, and their voluntary emissions are no less eagerly solicited and savoured by professional listeners, just so long as they remain titillating - that is, in that new fin de siecle shop talk, perverse.

With this in mind, Rosario organises his work around significant dialogic pairings - deviants and doctors or, more broadly, participants and observers. Astutely, he kicks off with that arch-confessor of modern times, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who not only shocked the world with his own masturbatory and masochistic bent but - just as crucially for Rosario's reading - condemned elite eroticism for being utterly unnatural and hence inherently perverse. In this initial coupling, Rousseau is rightly drawn against his alter ego, Samuel-Auguste Tissot, the physician who, from the medico-psychiatric viewpoint, endorsed the Genevan's indictment of the sexual pathology of civilisation.

This bipolar model structures the succeeding chapters. Moving into the 19th century, an impressive analysis of "Erotomaniacs" mines the rich French quarry of confessions proffered by those accused of sex offences and the linked commentaries upon them provided by the great tradition of psychiatrists from Esquirol, the minter of the monomanias, up to Charcot. Thereafter Rosario branches out to explore the symbiotic relations between clinical writings on fetishism and "inversion" (homosexuality), and the "auto-outing" of poets and novelists from Gustave Flaubert (a self-acknowledged hysteric) down to the soi disant decadents.

One classic instance, perfect grist to Rosario's mill, involves an effusive Italian invert who bombarded Emile Zola with letters, pleading to have his own vita sexualis turned into a novel. In the end the somewhat embarrassed writer handed the material over to a psychiatrist to publish - for which dubious honour the exhibitionist was pathetically grateful. Indeed by the 1880s, as is here richly documented, it was common for French psychiatrists specialising in sexual pathology to trawl fiction for their cases, while novelists in their turn would rifle psychiatry textbooks for the more recondite perversions. The distinguished psychologist, Alfred Binet, to whom we owe IQ testing, himself wrote dramas, while Max Nordau - Rosario makes him a German - notoriously accused Zola of being as degenerate as the characters he created.

Overall, Rosario's account conveys the high intensity of the collusion - verging even on folie a trois - between perverse "patients", those psychiatrists who conferred upon them their equivocal medical identity, and authors who wrote them into their discourses of degeneracy. Yet it is when addressing such wider social ramifications that The Erotic Imagination occasionally loses its way. That is largely because Rosario has an unnerving habit of deploying vignettes from belle epoque France so as to highlight the plight of gays in the military and other sexual minorities in the United States today.

However sincere, the leap from past to polemics is too abrupt and crude to be illuminating. Indeed, on this matter, Rosario sometimes sounds at odds with himself. While condemning the medical discourses of paraphilia for creating stigma and control, he evidently feels respect for the integrity of the professionals involved, for their sensitive reception of the scandalous narratives they elicited, and even for the part they played in turning a scientia sexualis into an ars erotica. Maybe this equivocation captures the inescapable paradox of the perverse.

Yet, oddly, Rosario does not in the end directly answer his initial question: whence did the modern notion of the perverse arise? He provides a succession of frames freezing different species of perversion - gentlemen who stuffed billiard balls up their anus, ladies driven to masturbate in the lingerie departments of the chic new Parisian department stores - and various theories of its cause (nerves, heredity, and so forth). But only in his "conclusion" does he begin to grapple with the key problem, namely: what was generally held to be sexually natural and normative?

Close observation of the perverse narratives embedded in psychiatric texts leaves Rosario little opportunity to contextualise these in terms of the culture at large, be that the influential formulations about love and femininity provided by the likes of Stendhal and Michelet, or Robert Darnton's modern analysis of the social history of pornography. Nevertheless, despite such occasional myopia, Rosario's retrieval of such a wealth of extraordinary erotic confessions, recorded decades prior to Krafft-Ebing or Freud, makes this book not just original but moving as well.

Roy Porter is professor in the social history of medicine, Wellcome Institute.

The Erotic Imagination: French Histories of Perversity

Author - Vernon A. Rosario
ISBN - 0 19 510483 8
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £20.00
Pages - 244

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