The diagnostic category of perversion, even in Lacanian circles, is often used with neither clarity nor rigor. In an attempt to remedy this situation, I will explicate the following thesis which I take as definitional:
The pervert can only say yes.
1. The desires of the pervert are perfectly aligned with the desires of the Other. The mother offers her breast to the infant. The infant feeds. Desires of mother and infant are perfectly aligned: mother fulfills infant's desire, infant fulfills mother's desire. The pervert remains in this circuit of desire as the mother becomes the Other. In Sade, where this circuit expands to cover the world, each individual has the right to enjoy the body of every other individual. The pervert thinks he must fulfill the desires of the mother or her substitutes whenever they arise: If the Other has a desire, the pervert must fulfill it. "The whole problem of the perversions consists in conceiving how the child, in its relationship with its mother - a relationship that is constituted in analysis not by the child's biological dependence, but by its dependence on her love, that is, by its desire for her desire - identifies with the imaginary object of her desire." (Écrits 554)
Outside of Sade's world, the circuit of desire with the mother becomes a restricted space, an exceptional space outside of the regime of the normal. The pervert's partner may take the role of the mother and the pervert may strive to fulfill all of his or her desires. Or, as Slavoj Zizek has suggested, Sade's world may become the church or mosque - as in the cases of George Bush and Osama bin Laden. In those spaces, the pervert believes he directly accesses the desires of the Other - and always responds with a "yes."
The pervert is sustained by the circuit of desire with the Other even when the circuit only operates in a restricted space. The (anti)hero of Houellebecq's Platform is sustained, even constituted, by the circuit of desire between himself and Valerie, his perverted love. When Valerie is taken away from him, is killed, there is nothing left of him. He does not kill himself; rather, he becomes numb and slowly withers away until there is nothing of him left.
2. The pervert acknowledges the Law. According to an easy misreading of Freud, the pervert is simply the individual who never lost his or her original polymorphous desire. On this reading, perversion is the non-formation of the superego, the inability to prohibit, to say "no". But Lacan rightly shows that alienation does occur: the pervert, unlike the psychotic, is initiated into the symbolic order. As usual, initiation into the symbolic takes place by means of the father's threat of castration. To borrow examples from Bruce Fink, in one case, an analysand noticed his father holding his recently excised appendix; in another, an analysand encountered a rat guillotine that his scientist father had given to his mother for "sharpening."
The Law is constituted by decisions. In circumstances such as this, how is the court to rule? What is the subject to do? In simplistic terms: does the judge say yes or no? There are right and wrong answers. If the judge makes a wrong decision, it will be overturned on appeal; if a subject acts wrongly, he will be corrected by his peers. He will be told what is proper to do, the substance of the Symbolic.
While the pervert acknowledges the Law - acknowledges that there is a correct decision of the court, that there is something proper to do - he cannot himself articulate that decision. He cannot choose. Within the circuit of desire of the mother and child, there was never any need for choice. Confronted with a set of circumstances demanding a response, the pervert can only answer with a constant "yes" (or "no"). As Simone Weil writes in her "Spiritual Autobiography," "The most beautiful life possible has always seemed to me to be the one ... where there is never any room for choice."
3. Whereas the neurotic is in analysis because she does not know what she wants, the pervert knows precisely what she wants. She wants to be with the Other, to please the Other and to be pleasing to the Other. The neurotic is Harold; the pervert is Maude. Harold has a well developed fantasy: he wants to kill himself. And this is a proper fantasy: it always stays at a safe distance from the subject. Harold stages his death over and over again, but it is always just a show. Maude says yes to life and to everyone and everything in it. When Harold and Maude speak of their love, they are speaking in two different languages: Maude loves Harold like she loves everyone, like she says yes to everyone; Harold's love is his fantasy redirected towards Maude and only Maude, Maude as objet a. At the end of Harold and Maude, it is Maude who actually kills herself (a final "no"), Harold just continues his fantasies.
The many modalities of perversion (from exhibitionism to sadism, fetishism to masochism) correspond to the variety of transformations of the exceptional space that originated in the relationship with the mother. In most cases, the transformation results in the space existing exceptionally, only in the sexual life of the pervert. The exhibitionist, after an average day at work, shows himself to the Other personified next to him on the subway, trying to reestablish the lost circuit of filial desire with her. But in some cases, the perverted relationship permeates the whole life of the pervert. Jacques-Alain Miller cites the examples of the criminal and the righteous politician; a crucial example to add is the saint.
Bill Clinton says yes to everyone - it is up to his subordinates to grapple with the realities of the Law (if we say "yes" to welfare reform, and "yes" to poverty relief, how do we legislate?). The hardened criminal does not simply break the law but disregards the law, affirming all of his desires. St. Francis was saintly because he said yes to everyone, from the pope to the pauper to the birds. He was not a representative of God's Law; he was a representative of God's grace, of God's perpetual affirmation.
4. Lars von Trier's film Dogville presents an example of a pervert whose perversion pervades her entire life - within the town of Dogville. Grace (!), the heroine, says "yes" to everyone in town. A wealthy outsider, she finds herself hiding out from seemingly menacing Mafiosi in the small, insular community. She enters the life of the town with high hopes, trying to help out the locals however she can. As time progresses, their demands increase. She works harder and harder and eventually descends into a physical - and sexual - slavery. All of this is entirely the result of Grace saying yes to everyone. Any doubt about how voluntary Grace's affirmations are is taken away in the final sequence when Grace's pursuer is revealed to be her father (the father figure who is always the greatest fear of the pervert, the father who intrudes into the primal harmony of the infant-mOther relationship...).
There is one space in which Grace does not say yes" In her interaction with Tom, the man who she fancies, and who fancies her, she always says no to the ultimate question - they will never have sex. They talk and sleep next to each other in bed, but when he wants more, she always says no. The pervert can never alternate, never decide, this time yes, this time no. Decisions are in the jurisdiction of Law. The pervert must have rigid boundaries. In Grace's case, there are two spaces, the space of interaction with everyone except Tom, and the space of interaction with Tom. In the former, it is always "yes;" in the latter, it is always "no." At one point, Tom is particularly persistent. Grace says that he is welcome to have his way with her, but if he does she will consider him like all of the other townspeople.
For the pervert to only say "no" is structurally identical to only saying "yes." In both cases, the law is disregarded and there is no longer a choice made. The coupling of a "yes" domain and a "no" domain is common. Consider the ascetic saint, saying "no" to the world and "yes" to God (or, rather, to His earthly representatives: the poor, the ill, the downtrodden). Or the vegan, saying "no" to every food except those few foods which she eats without restraint - and these according to a rigid formula, a list, a Bible. The domains are rigidly set once and for all. Within their bounds there is no choice.
5. There are but few saints. In most cases of perversion, the space in which the primal relationship with the mother is repeated does not cover the whole world. Classically, it is limited to the bedroom. At work, at school, at the grocery store, the pervert subjects herself to the regime of the Law. She does not always answer "yes" or "no," she makes choices, she looks at the world and makes judgments. Within the domain subject to Law, the only thing that distinguishes the pervert is its bounds. Mark Foley appeared to be a very ordinary Congressman except that he constructed a brick wall between his public and is private life.
Consider Bunuel's Belle de Jour. Like Grace, Bunuel's protagonist Severine loves a man (her husband) but refuses to consummate their marriage. With him, Severine always says no, she always remains at a distance. At the same time, she fantasizes about having (sadomasochistic) sex. But this is a perverse fantasy, not a neurotic fantasy: Severine actualizes it: she goes to work at a brothel. There she must accept every client who comes in, she must say yes to each - even the Korean with his mysterious and frightening little box. Yet Severine continues to subject herself to the Law most of the time. She acts the part of an upper middle class Parisian, dressing properly, going on the proper outings with her husband, speaking with a refined tongue. She rigidly separates the space in which she can only say yes and the space in which she is subject to the Law. In the former, she accepts her new name, Belle. She only works during the day and insists on leaving by 5pm so that she can meet her husband when he comes home from work and play the part of the average housewife. When her husband's friend, Pierre, makes advances towards her, they are decisively rejected. Pierre is part of her social network, part of the regime of the normal - she must follow the Law, must choose what is proper; she cannot say yes.
6. Masochism is perhaps the paradigmatic example of perversion (Whether or not we consider homosexuality perverse, it is certainly not the paradigmatic case of perversion, if only because of its complexity). Simone Weil aspires to be the total masochist: "I am always ready to obey every order, whatever it may be." But the worldly masochist delimits the space between the normal and the exceptional, perverse space with her command: tell me what to do. It is ultimately the masochist who is carving out a space, authorizing the Other to speak - to speak words to which the masochist will inevitably respond with "yes."
The rigidity of the domain defined by the masochist is nicely illustrated in Elfriede Jelinek's The Piano Teacher. The protagonist, Erika, takes a liking to one of her students, Walter. She refuses to verbalize her desire but instead writes a letter (lengthily repeated in the text of the novel) describing all of the punishments and degradations that she would like him to inflict on her. But when Walter, disgusted (or at least ambivalent) with Erika's request, first demurs and then ultimately beats and rapes her, Erika is faced with the collision of the regime of the normal and the exceptional - causing her great trauma.
This sort of trauma is entirely different than the trauma of the neurotic analysand encountering the real about which she or he fantasizes. Erika actually does enjoy being hurt: she cuts herself, revels in the blood, and otherwise causes herself harm. She would want to be beaten and degraded by Walter, she just wants to be in control of the bounds of the exception, of the limits of the space in which she says "yes." This is a repetition of Erika's childhood relationship with her mother which continues into her adulthood (she lives with her mother). Although Erika follows the Law in her daily life - she is a professional music instructor and performer - her mother still lurks nearby, making controlling demands on her. 7. Is not false consciousness necessarily associated with perversion? Jacques-Alain Miller: "He who pretends to incarnate the moral law is the true sadist." False consciousness is thinking that you are doing one thing when in fact you are doing something else: i.e., thinking you are participating in the democratic process while in fact you are perpetuating hegemony of the capitalist class. The pervert thinks he can escape the Law, can live in an exception - but is this not obviously false? Are we not always already subject to the Law, thrown into the world?
This question is posed by both Bunuel (through satire) and von Trier (through pedantry). Bunuel exposes the absurdities and banalities of bourgeois life in contrast to the common sense of the working man. As Severine rides in a taxi carrying large gift parcels, the taxi driver tells shares his worldly knowledge of brothels and volunteers that he has been "robbed twice, if you care to ask." The class conflict (or, rather, contrast) in Belle de Jour functions metonymically with the conflict between Severine and Belle (where Belle is not only Severine in the brothel, but also Severine in bed with her husband). The one is committed to the following the Law in all its seriousness, the committed to impossible escape. Both are absurd, and false.
Von Trier has made a career out of telling the stories of saintly women. But the saintliness of Grace is undermined in Dogville (and Manderlay). The protagonist aspires to be Grace, but she fails. She must be rescued by the return of her father, the return of the Law. There is no Kingdom of God on earth. The pervert's false belief that there is such a Kingdom leads to destruction - Grace in Dogville, Jim Jones in Jonestown, George Bush in Iraq. But is this not, perhaps, a question of the felicity of the perversion? Was not Christ simply the successful pervert, the pervert whose perversion was transformed into a new Law?
© lacan.com 1997/2006
Copyright Notice. Please respect the fact that this material in LACAN.COM is copyright.
Available only through EBSCO Publishing. Inc.
It is made available here without charge for personal use only. It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose.