The Use of Perversion: Secretary or The Piano Teacher?

Frances L. Restuccia


One can say that S&M is the eroticization of power, the eroticization of strategic relations. What strikes me with regard to S&M is how it differs from social power. . . .
[T]he S&M game is very interesting because it is a strategic relation, but it is always fluid. . . . Or, even when the roles are stabilized, you know very well that it is always a game. Either the rules are transgressed, or there is an agreement, either explicit or tacit, that makes them aware of certain boundaries. This strategic game as a source of bodily pleasure is very interesting. . . . It is an acting-out of power structures by a strategic game that is able to give sexual pleasure or bodily pleasure.

--Michel Foucault, Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth

Lesbian S/M has been touted as an effective means of coping with, if not curing, psychic trouble for some time now, especially by lesbian practitioners of the art.

Performance of power, lending the performers control, allows a certain grip on the traumas being reenacted, as Coming to Power: Writings and Graphics on Lesbian S/M testifies. In "If I Ask You to Tie Me Up, Will You Still Want to Love Me?" Juicy Lucy values sexual S/M as "a healing tool" (Coming to Power, 1987, 60). She was a battered woman for years and now claims "the right to release & transform the pain & fear of those experiences," any way she pleases (Coming to Power, 1987, 30). She describes S/M as "growthful," "trust building," "loving," "creative, spiritual, integrating, a development of inner power as strength" (Coming to Power, 1987, 61). Through lesbian S/M, Lucy faces what she calls her "inner side," rather than denying it as she had done, and thereby reclaims herself, defusing in the process the terror and powerlessness she had experienced through former rapes and beatings. Jayne, in "Improptu S/M," describes submitting to the whip with immense relief, and soaring, "like a bird in flight, freed of the earth's pull" (Coming to Power, 1987, 193). And Susan Farr, in "The Art of Discipline: Creating Erotic Dramas of Play and Power," after complaining about the hypocrisy of our society, which "accepts systematic violence" but "issues stringent taboos against consenting adults exploring the complexities of power and sexuality," sings the praises of S/M exploration as a way of finding an outlet for frustration, anger, jealousy, and guilt as well as producing the obligation to give comfort and love (Coming to Power, 1987, 185). Perversion, or the imitation of perverse acts, then, can have a therapeutic effect. I want to analyze two recent films that feature "perverse" acts not just to test this already fairly well-examined thesis but also to foreground two dominant ideas within the contemporary psychoanalytic community about the optimal way of handling psychic trouble.

Speaking generally, the aim of psychoanalysis until recently was thought to be to treat symptoms, to excavate them by unveiling repressed material that rendered them necessary. Ideally, symptoms were interpreted and thereby dissolved, paving the way for psychic health. A shift then took place, at least in Lacanian circles. As Lacan's later work gained prominence, in particular his sinthome seminar (1975-76) with its emphasis on Joyce, the focus slid from curing a symptom to producing a sinthome. The symptom acquired an ontological status upon being conceived as a "sinthome," as "our only substance, the only positive support of our being, the only point that gives consistency to the subject" (Zizek, 1989, 75). To stick with film: in a chapter called "Art as Prosthesis," Parveen Adams, for example, looks at Cronenberg's Crash as a work of art like Finnegans Wake insofar as it ties the knot of the Imaginary, Symbolic, and Real "in such a way that, as in the ecriture of Joyce, it bolts the subject in place" (Adams, 2003, 163). From this perspective, were the symptom to be dissolved, a psychotic catastrophe would ensue, which is just what Joyce's writing, according to Lacan, enabled him to bypass.

As I have suggested in my own piece on Cronenberg's Crash, it is probably no accident that perverse works of art turn out to be the very texts often taken up by psychoanalytic critics to illustrate the function of the sinthome.1 Clinicians too are now thinking in terms of both perversion and the sinthome rather than in terms of cure. Bruce Fink asserts that the aim of analysis is "to allow the analysand . . . to enjoy his or her enjoyment," even to permit the drives to "pursue their own course," even to permit "their perversion," insofar as the drives always seek satisfaction that might be considered perverse (Fink, 1997, 41). Likewise, Jacques-Alain Miller writes that the aim of the treatment is by no means normalization but "to give permission for perversion, permission for object a" (Miller, 1996, 314). And, in Enjoy Your Symptom!, Slavoj Zizek offers a kind of philosophical, psychoanalytic explanation for these clinical conclusions, by stressing that the Real inheres not only in death but in life as well. "In other words, the Freudian duality of life and death drives is not a symbolic opposition but a tension, an antagonism . . . the very notion of life is alien to the symbolic order. And the name of this life substance that proves a traumatic shock for the symbolic universe is of course enjoyment." The stain of enjoyment can never be expunged, since the very gesture of renouncing enjoyment produces a surplus enjoyment. One might as well, therefore, attach oneself to it or claim it, as opposed to attempting to eradicate it, since jouissance will inevitably resurface. Yet, in thinking about this dialectic of enjoyment and surplus enjoyment, Zizek is led to invoke "primal masochism" (Zizek, 1992/2001, 22). At this stage, then, we have surpassed Lacan's early work on Poe's purloined letter that produced "the materialized agency of the signifier," for now at issue is "an object in the strict sense of materialized enjoyment–the stain," an "uncanny excess" (Zizek, 1992/2001, 22).

But at the same time as the sinthome dominates the contemporary psychoanalytic scene, theoretically and clinically, the Lacanian notion of an "authentic act" is grabbing much attention. The authentic act is a way of effecting the original goal of psychoanalysis (to cure symptoms through an exposure of repressed material) by traversing the fundamental fantasy, to obtain distance from it, to open up the empty place in the Other. How? Through an intervention of some sort that causes the identity of the agent radically to transform via a total restructuring of the subject's symbolic coordinates. Zizek has raised this Lacanian concept to a high level of intensity. Whether or not Antigone, for example, commits an authentic act; whether or not an authentic act, insofar as it implies not ceding one's desire, is the Lacanian mode of being ethical; and where one ends up after such an act is committed are three key but unresolved issues now being hotly debated. Sinthome or authentic act–for which, if one even has a choice, should one strive?

A juxtaposition of Steven Shainberg's Secretary (2002, U.S.A) with Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher (2001, Austria/France) poses this same question. Both films present heroines whose self-mutilation occurs apropos psychic disturbances over a parental passionate attachment. In each case the heroine turns to a male sexual partner for an extension of the neglectful or abusive parent in the form of S/M relations. And in both films, a contract becomes part of the deal. In Secretary, the two members of the S/M couple go contractless at the start and for most of the duration of the film and then eventually bind themselves legally together; in The Piano Teacher, we have the reverse. Here hero and heroine more or less begin with a written S/M contract that they might be said subsequently to exceed. In one case (Secretary), an attempt is made to transform symptoms into enjoyment; in the other (The Piano Teacher) there is a move to revert to the very void whose formation sets up the heroine's pathology in the first place, a reversion toward the heroine's fundamental fantasy that is facilitated by the initial contractual S/M relations. While the marital contract in Secretary might be regarded as binding up the obsessional, sadistic symptoms of Mr. Gray as well as the hysterical, masochistic symptoms of Lee, it is only when the boundaries of the written contract in The Piano Teacher, represented by Professor Kohut's letter to her student, are surpassed–i.e., only when the piano professor loses control of her student's violence toward her–that she has a chance to overcome her psychic problems.


Secretary: A Binding of Enjoyment

Mr. Grey: "We can't do this twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week."

Lee: "Why not?"

In The Sublime Object of Ideology, Zizek elaborates on the view of Lacan's last pedagogical stage, in which the symptom was conceptualized as a "real kernel of enjoyment" that "persists as a surplus and returns through all attempts to domesticate it . . . to dissolve it by means of explication" (Zizek, 1989, 69). In his typical pop style, Zizek offers as an example of such "inert presence" the Titanic, "a Thing in the Lacanian sense: the material leftover, the materialization of the terrifying, impossible jouissance," "a sublime object" (Zizek, 1989, 71). This, Zizek proclaims, is the symptom, the symptom as Real, the symptom that refuses to vanish. As Zizek writes: "The symptom is not only a cyphered message, it is at the same time a way for the subject to organize his enjoyment — that is why, even after the completed interpretation, the subject is not prepared to renounce his symptom; that is why he ‘loves his symptom more than himself'" (Zizek, 1989, 74).

Lacan faced the challenge of this conception of the symptom with his neologism "sinthome," which Zizek defines perfectly as "a certain signifying formation penetrated with enjoyment: it is a signifier as bearer of jouis-sense, enjoyment-in-sense." This symptom/sinthome enables us to opt for something, the symptom-formation, rather than nothing, as we bind "our enjoyment to a certain signifying, symbolic formation" that "assures a minimum of consistency to our being-in-the-world." From this perspective, to lose the symptom/sinthome is to greet the end of the world, to yield to the death drive; and therefore identification with the symptom is considered to be desirable. The patient must recognize and embrace "the Real of his symptom, the only support of his being. That is how we must read Freud's wo es war, soll ich werden: you, the subject, must identify yourself with the place where your symptom already was; in its ‘pathological' particularity you must recognize the element which gives consistency to your being." Such a symptom/sinthome, Zizek states, is "a binding of enjoyment": a "positive condition" of a "stain" that "cannot be included in the circuit of discourse" (Zizek, 1989, 75).

A binding of enjoyment, a strategic situating of a "stain" (or two "stains": his and hers) that challenges the normal network of social bonds is what the film Secretary is all about. On this reading the odd s/m couple at the center of this film–Mr. Grey and Lee–might be regarded as "queer" and thus as resignifying marriage as queer by bringing their "abnormality" into the institution of marriage and thereby altering that legal arena in a way that Judith Butler typically imagines. For the sake of social transformation, Butler almost always favors the rearticulation of mundane social relations by deviant or subversive practices. In Secretary, we have just that: transformation through performativity, a perverse reiteration of a conventional and exclusionary norm, the S/M couple now married and living happily in the suburbs, soon no doubt to have kids. In the film Mr. Grey asks Lee twice, in relation to her application for the secretary job, "Are you pregnant?" While it is Lee's "normal" boyfriend Peter who explicitly characterizes himself as the kind of guy who wants to be married with kids, it is the meticulous, obsessional, sadistic Mr. Grey who, at the end of the film, is in the position to fulfill Peter's banal dream. Peter, baffled by Lee's bizarre behavior–her wish to have him spank her; the firm planting of her hands on Mr. Grey's desk; her determination to remain at Mr. Grey's desk until Mr. Grey returns (which requires urinating at his desk and becoming extremely hungry)–is displaced by Mr. Grey who at one point labels his own behavior "disgusting." It is not exactly that Peter loses and Mr. Grey wins Lee but that Mr. Grey usurps Peter's social place. At the end we are told that Mr. Grey and Lee "looked like any other couple you might see."

I might add parenthetically, though, that in Contingency, Hegemony, Universality Butler curiously singles out gay/queer marriage as one act of resignification she does not promote. Butler states unequivocally that, with regard to the issue of gay marriage, she refuses to argue for a "view of political performativity which holds that it is necessary to occupy the dominant norm in order to produce an internal subversion of its terms," because, as she also states in an uncharacteristically gothic style, "sometimes it is important to refuse its terms, to let the term itself wither, to starve it of its strength" (Butler, 2000, 177). Nevertheless–if we can accept a metonymic slide from "gay" to "queer" marriage here and then in turn embrace the idea that the couple formed by sadistic Mr. Gray and masochistic Lee is "queer"–then Butler's typical strategy (rejected in this single case) of occupying the dominant norm to resignify its terms is just what happens in Secretary.2

Resignification in the political realm might even be seen as analogous to the sinthome in the psychoanalytic realm, in that something in need of political change–the conventional, heterosexist attitude that excludes queerness–is transformed into "a certain signifying formation penetrated with enjoyment," i.e., with the queerness previously walled off in the periphery of the symbolic. This would be one way, then, of reading Secretary's ending–in which sadomasochistic acts, such as the husband tying his wife up to a tree and having sex with her on their "honeymoon" (after the June wedding) or the wife dropping a dead bug onto their impeccably made marital bed, as part of their new suburban lifestyle–as a sinthome or as a means of enjoying social symptoms (heterosexist marriage being symptomatic of an ill society). Again, politically speaking, the reiteration of such a new norm, S/M practitioners on the block, would have the benefit of maintaining the symptom–the institution of marriage–in a form that redeems it (sinthome).

To elaborate this idea now psychoanalytically, in terms of perversion: in Secretary, Mr. Gray and Lee would seem to be suffering from a pathological condition (even Mr. Grey at one point comes to the stark realization that their S/M routine must not persist), when in fact (especially at the end) they experience punishment (the reception and infliction of it) as though it justifies their satisfaction. By appropriating the legal system–the institution of marriage–by filling such a form with the perverse contents of their own S/M activities, Mr. Grey and Lee act on the Deleuzean model of masochism whereby the pervert, hardly a victim, is a shrewd manager scheming to usurp the power of the lawgiver by shifting his authority to punish onto someone whose enactment of it will result in satisfaction. Secretary performs a sadomasochistic caricature of symbolic prohibition. As Deleuze writes, "The element of contempt in the submission of the masochist has often been emphasized: his apparent obedience conceals a criticism and provocation. He simply attacks the law on a different flank" (Deleuze, 1971, 77). Obeying the law (getting married and so forth) in order to break it (continue S/M relations within this legal norm) is in perversion a way of generating jouissance: the pervert enjoys the law, and so necessarily requires it. Pseudo-limits that the pervert brings to bear on himself become something with which to play, because "the pervert gets off on the very attempt to draw the limits to his jouissance" (Fink, 1997, 193).

The film Secretary is completely self-conscious about its transmission of "illegal" pain to legal play. Midway through, Lee listens to a tape called How to Come Out as a Dominant/Submissive that dissuades its listener from running from pain and urges her instead to embrace the entire spectrum of feeling. Having internalized the lesson of the tape, Lee later pronounces that she has always suffered somehow, but now her fear of suffering is gone because she has found someone to feel with, to play with, in a way that feels "right" to her. Read along these lines, the marriage at the end serves as a kind of writing in the Real, where writing is represented by the institution of marriage. Just as Joyce in Finnegans Wake arrived at the sinthome as a way of having his jouissance through the letter, here we have, in other words, a marriage in the Real. Rather than being cured, or even needing to be cured, two symptoms–the institution of marriage in the political reading and sadomasochism in the psychoanalytic reading–are reconstructed. Marriage is queered; and S/M is legalized. But the legitimating of perversion only undermines the law.

The final shot in Secretary is of Lee staring penetratingly at the viewer. She seems to be issuing a message, as her stare lasts for a while. Given that Lee looks so long and hard, one might be tempted to interpret her stare as a Lacanian gaze, as located in the constitutive lack of the viewer's subjectivity. But the message that such a gaze would relay–"You, too, can traverse your fundamental fantasy leading to self-mutilation"–is inconsistent with the work of this film. Having illustrated a clear transferal of self-inflicted pain–done in response to an alcoholic, unemployed, domestically abusive, troubled and therefore neglectful father–to a lover's inflicted pain/enjoyment, Secretary through its final shot of Lee's stare seems to urge, rather than their dissolution, the enjoyment of symptoms.

Or, now to shift gears: does the specific contractual nature of the ending of Secretary eradicate the erotic tension of the film–tension that becomes excruciatingly pleasurable in the scenes of Mr. Grey spanking Lee and then perhaps most acute in the scene in which he has her bend over and lower her panty hose and panties, while he proceeds to masturbate? Are the S/M antics at the end, then, comparatively silly and senuously flat? (One critic refers to the "too tidy and ‘cutesy' coda.") Is the glaze of soft-porn that gets laid over the bath and bedroom scenes, too, part of the film's challenge to the idea that symptoms can metamorphose into daily doses of jouissance? Another way of putting this is to ask Zizek's question of Butler's idea of resignification: Is it not merely "cosmetic surgery"? In Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, Zizek charges Butler with limiting "the subject's intervention to multiple resignifications/displacements of the basic ‘passionate attachment', which therefore persists as the very limit/condition of subjectivity." He wonders how something new is produced through "performative displacements or resignifications" (Zizek, 2000b, 221). (Hence, if my analogy between resignification and the sinthome is acceptable, this puts Zizek in conflict, or at least in conversation, with himself.)

Extending this reasoning to my reading of Secretary thus far, we might ask how the substitution of Mr. Grey for Lee inflicting pain on herself really alters Lee's damaged passionate attachment to her distant father? Is not the S/M relation with Mr. Grey a veneer covering real wounds that are sustained by Lee's marriage as they were by her self-punishment? Does not preserving one's symptom, no matter what form it takes, keep alive one's pathology? And, again: does the film Secretary itself come to this realization by exposing at the end a certain dopey, saccharine quality to the now legalized S/M relationship?

The Piano Teacher: Radical Subjective Intervention

"Do they give a fig for the benefits of illness?"

--Walter Klemmer, The Piano Teacher

In Contingency, Hegemony, Universality (a series of electrifying debates among Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, and Slavoj Zizek), Zizek argues for radical transformation that exceeds "mere displacement/resignification of the symbolic coordinates that confer on the subject his or her identity" (Zizek, 2000b, 220). Here Zizek favors the Lacanian "act" in its capacity of, rather than enjoying, traversing the fundamental fantasy to disrupt the passionate attachment that serves, for Butler, as the finally ineluctable background of resignification. This Lacan, the "Lacan of the Real," correlates with the Lacanian devaluation of the paternal function, exposing paternal authority as "one among the possible ‘sinthoms' which allow us temporarily to stabilize and co-ordinate the inconsistent/nonexistent ‘big Other'" (Zizek, 2000b, 221). The sinthome now seems to be a provisional, if not flimsy, solution.

Following Lacan's idea that the purpose of psychoanalytic treatment is to touch the impossible Real, Zizek in Contingency, Hegemony, Universality places full emphasis on the psychoanalytic act. An act "redefines the very contours of what is possible," accomplishing what appears to be "impossible" (Zizek, 2000b, 121). For Zizek, the act is not tantamount to impotent self-directed aggression but involves striking at oneself, at what one deems most precious. "[T]he subject gains the space of free action" "by cutting himself loose from the precious object" (Zizek, 2000b, 122). An authentic act redefines the subject by changing the coordinates of the subject's "disavowed phantasmic foundation." The "spectral dimension" that constitutes us, the "undead ghosts" that haunt us–these are ultimately what get disturbed through an authentic act, since this is the stuff that fundamental fantasies are made of (Zizek, 2000b, 124).

Zizek sustains his emphasis on the authentic act in his recent, predominantly political text Welcome to the Desert of the Real. Here he reads the terrorism of September 11, especially the attack on the World Trade Center, as the entry of what had "existed (for us) as a spectral apparition on the (TV) screen" into our reality, thus shifting or having the potential to shift "the symbolic coordinates which determine what we experience as reality" (Zizek, 2002, 16). Zizek regards the terrorist attacks as the domain of psychoanalysis, since psychoanalysis is preoccupied with explaining why "nightmarish visions of catastrophes" erupt within well-being. September 11, to Zizek, demonstrates Lacan's notion of "traversing the fantasy" that entails first identifying with the fantasy that "structures the excess that resists our immersion in daily reality" (Zizek, 2002, 17). This is ultimately not to enjoy one's symptom, however, since the symptom is the clue and counter to the existence of the repressed level of our psyche that keeps us out of sync with reality. Symptoms defend against voids that an authentic act allows one to penetrate, for the sake of extinguishing the fundamental fantasy.

But unlike Antigone who "assumes the limit-position . . . of the impossible zero-level of symbolization" (Zizek, 2002, 99), the United States has missed the opportunity given to it on September 11 "to realize what kind of world it was part of" (Zizek, 2002, 47), refusing to participate in an authentic or ethical act, the spectacle of which the terrorists "openly displayed" (Zizek, 2002, 136). (Zizek appears to mean here that the terrorists displayed to us the possibility of our authentic act.) Realizing how "sacrilegious" it might sound, Zizek nevertheless sticks to his comparison between Antigone's act and the World Trade Center attacks: "they both undermine the ‘servicing of goods', the reign of the pleasure-reality principle" (Zizek, 2002, 142). They both open up the possibility of taking an invaluable risk that, in the case of the United States, would shatter "our liberal-democratic consensus" (Zizek, 2002, 154).

As a further illustration of the "passion for the Real" (which Alain Badiou has singled out as the primary feature of the twentieth century), and just prior to his discussion of the film The Piano Teacher, Zizek addresses the phenomenon of "'cutters' (people, mostly women, who experience an irresistible urge to cut themselves with razors or otherwise hurt themselves)." He speculates that such self-mutilation demonstrates a passion for the Real through a "desperate strategy to return to the Real of the body." Cutters are not suicidal, however, but in pursuit of "a hold on reality." Zizek's point, at least initially, seems to be that cutters attempt to access the Real in order to root themselves in reality, as opposed to "tattooers" who inscribe their bodies to guarantee their "inclusion in the (virtual) symbolic order" (Zizek, 2002, 10). But when Zizek returns a few pages later to this topic, he entertains a twist: that cutters are escaping from "not simply the feeling of unreality, of the artificial virtuality of our lifeworld, but the Real itself which explodes in the guise of uncontrolled hallucinations which start to haunt us once we lose our anchoring in reality" (Zizek, 2002, 20). Which is it? Do cutters access the Real of the Body to anchor a reality threatening to turn virtual? Do they flee the Real that threatens them when reality is lost? Zizek slides from these speculations directly into an analysis of Haneke's film The Piano Teacher–in which the piano teacher and cutter Erika has an S/M affair with the putatively normal piano student Walter–because Zizek reads the film as speaking to "this conundrum" (Zizek, 2002, 20).

However, when Zizek gets down to analyzing Erika's masochistic demands as well as Walter's "rape" of Erika, he misses the implications of their affair that Zizek's own emphasis on the notion of the authentic act driven by the Passion of the Real should have primed him to discern. Erika's letter to Walter Klemmer (her quite enamored piano student) requesting various sadomasochistic acts is to Zizek a laying bare of her fantasy. So far, so good. But Zizek concentrates on how repulsive such an unveiling of her desire is to Klemmer, as though Klemmer were "the Other" whose anxiety Erika's masochism provokes and therefore as though Klemmer were our main concern. The "rape" scene is to Zizek "performed in reality" nevertheless "deprived of its fantasmatic support" and hence "turns into a disgusting experience which leaves [Erika] completely cold, pushing her toward suicide" (Zizek, 2002, 21). I fail to see how this reading resolves the cutting conundrum; but my own sense of Erika's traversal of her fundamental fantasy certainly speaks to it.

The Piano Teacher is saturated with the blood of cutting. Early on, after the first fight between Erika and her mother (over an elegant dress that Erika has surreptitiously purchased), the mother says, to her brilliant pianist daughter, "I should cut off your hands." This line gets echoed later when the mother of one of Erika's students, Anna, comments that whoever cut her daughter's hands should have his hands chopped off. Since it was Erika herself who planted shards of glass in Anna's coat pocket, this line too pertains to Erika. It seems that, in cutting her student's hands, Erika is very indirectly fulfilling the threat/wish of her mother (although one can certainly point to other motives). Cutting appears to be a way of cooperating with the demanding mother. After Erika sits on the side of the bathtub slicing her genitals with a razor and blood trickles down the side of the tub, her mother calls her for dinner. Erika responds, "Coming Mama," as though her cutting serves as an orgasm. Up to the "rape" scene, then, cutting signifies intimacy with the mother, a form of self-punishment sustaining the mother's control, abuse, and punishment of Erika, a perverse way of offering herself as an object of her mOther's jouissance–that in turn brings bliss to Erika. In this way Erika exhibits a perverse psychic structure, constituting herself as the mother's objet a (cause of desire).

But rather than remaining the pathetic impulses of a victimized pervert, Erika's masochistic urges ultimately seem meant to supplant the mother, to put a partner (Walter Klemmer) in her place, to usurp her matriarchal power. Placing a woman in the role of the masochist and a man in the role of the dominatrix, and thereby effecting a gender role reversal, this plan (too) parallels the strategy of Deleuze's masochist, modeled on what transpires in Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Furs. The Masochian/Deleuzean masochist positions the mother to punish him, now pleasurably, to eliminate the threatening father from the symbolic order. As Theodor Reik states in Masochism in Modern Man, the masochist "submits voluntarily to punishment, suffering and humiliation, and thus has defiantly purchased the right to enjoy the gratification denied before" (Reik, 1941, 428).

Deleuze's masochist is essentially his own torturer. Based on his interpretation of Masoch's writings, Deleuze stresses a love affair often initiated by a letter and regulated by a contract: the masochist fashions his female tormentor into a despot, who must cooperate and "sign." As Deleuze elaborates: "[T]he masochistic hero appears to be educated and fashioned by the authoritarian woman whereas basically it is he who forms her, dresses her for the part and prompts the harsh words she addresses to him. It is the victim who speaks through the mouth of his torturer, without sparing himself" (Deleuze, 1971, 21). Through this scheme the Deleuzean masochist atones for his resemblance to the father and the father's likeness in him. The father is being beaten, cancelled out, abolished, through an idealization of the functions of the "bad mother" that are transferred onto the "good mother." Now the mother stands for the law under the newly prescribed conditions.

Deleuzean masochism is ultimately formal. It entails fantasy, delay, and provocation, in that the masochist demands punishment that alleviates his anxiety by allowing him to enjoy the forbidden fruit. In other words: incest is rendered possible. Whereas castration usually precludes incest, its enactment by the mother produces it. Hence the masochist can enjoy incest now assimilated by displacement "to a second birth which dispenses with the father's role" (Deleuze, 1971, 81). Fetishism (or disavowal) and suspension are the key psychic components of this process. Disavowal moves the ownership and privileges of the phallus to the mother; and suspense establishes the ideal, suspended "above" reality, that enables the masochist to be resexualized as a "new man."

In general, Deleuze insists on the difference between sadism and masochism, stressing that sadism provides roles for fathers and daughters and masochism for mothers and sons. However, he opens another theoretical possibility, in pointing out that in masochism the masculine impulse ("embodied in the role of the son") and the feminine impluse ("projected in the role of the mother") "constitute one single figure; femininity is posited as lacking in nothing and placed alongside a virility suspended in disavowal (just as the absence of a penis need not indicate lack of the phallus, its presence likewise need not indicate possession of the phallus)," so that, "in masochism a girl has no difficulty in assuming the role of son in relation to the beating mother who possesses the ideal phallus and on whom rebirth depends" (Deleuze, 1971, 59-60).

Yet we don't quite have that scenario in The Piano Teacher, either. Her mother being in the place of authority, Erika's pre-Oedipal union would appear to be with her father. (Father and daughter coalesce via parallels made between them throughout the film: Erika's mother pronounces her "mad," and Erika's father dies in the course of the film in an insane asylum; Erika tells Klemmer that she can relate to Schumann's focus on the twilight time just before we lose our selves, since her father died in an asylum.) It is Erika's mother (like the father in Deleuze's theory) who needs replacement, and her father whose pleasurable punishment might facilitate that circumvention. Ergo: Erika seizes on Walter Klemmer as the agent of the punishment she wants inflicted on her–as a substitute for the punishment formerly wielded by the mother. It is therefore no accident that when Walter links himself to Shubert and Schumann (associated with Erika's father through their troubled psyches) Erika falls in love with him. He thereby enters the place of her father, and subsequently she has the brainstorm that he can therefore be of supreme use to her.

Erika wants Klemmer to draw her blood–to slap and hit her–so that she, in cooperation with her mother, no longer has to. She also specifically requests that he tie her up and hurt her in the proximity of her mother, as if to stage a scene for her mother of Erika reaping the pleasure of such blows at the hands of another, as if to advertise to her mother that she has been usurped. "The urge to be beaten has been in me for years," Erika tells Klemmer. And then, she issues a paradoxical command, reflecting the paradoxical core of Deleuzean masochism: "From now on you give the orders." As we also read in Elfriede Jelinek's novel The Piano Teacher (on which the film was based), Erika Kohut deploys her love to make this boy her master: but "The more power he attains over her, the more he will become Erika's pliant creature. . . . Yet Klemmer will think of himself as Erika's master" (Jelinek, 1983/1989, 207). This paradox of the slave's control is spelled out again a few pages later in the novel: "He should be free, and she in fetters. But Erika will choose the fetters herself. She makes up her mind to become an object, a tool" (Jelinek, 1983/1989, 213). Klemmer's suspicion is that Erika is "sick"–in need of "treatment," he comments, failing to realize that the "sadism" he has been set up to perform constitutes the treatment.

Once Klemmer becomes frustrated and roused enough to enter Erika's S/M fantasy, in fact, he performs most effectively. (I have thus far put the term "rape" in quotation marks because whether or not Klemmer rapes or loves/cures Erika is unclear.) When Klemmer barges into Erika and her mother's flat utterly enraged and proceeds to violate Erika, he keeps reminding her of snippets from her letter. This late scene in which Klemmer slaps and punches and then has intercourse with Erika, just outside of her mother's bedroom door, drawing serious blood and planting serious bruises, would seem to be a real/Real fulfillment of Erika's initial masochistic script. Klemmer now gives the orders, as she had ordered him to do. It is by no means a frivolous game, as it would have been had Klemmer played the role immediately with none of his eventual fury. But neither is their final S/M scene unadulterated male violence against an unconsenting woman. As he rather viciously hurts Erika, Klemmer reminds her that she is partly responsible, and in response Erika speaks the word "yes" twice. In the course of the act, he asks, "Are you trying to tell me I should go?" No response. About to depart, his brutality completed, he asks if she is all right, and she nods. Injecting into the scene key fragments from Erika's letter, Klemmer repeats: "As for my mother, forget her." His injunction to Erika to "Forget your mother" foregrounds the point that Klemmer's role, as a father figure, is to assist Erika in bypassing the mother by now taking pleasure in what she had for so long to withstand from her. In the novel Klemmer is conscious that "Mother drove in the stakes. But Erika is not afraid to pull those stakes out . . . and to hammer new ones in. Klemmer is proud that she is making this effort with him of all men" (Jelinek, 1983/1989, 235). Klemmer serves as the Wanda, the dominatrix, in this Venus-in-Furs drama, only here the daughter uses fantasy to cancel the mother by staging her relation with the father, so that she can access her femininity.

To return to Zizek's cutting conundrum: early on, Erika's psychic ambition is to be an object of her mOther's jouissance. Even the supposed transgressive shopping was for a classically styled dress that reminded Erika of a dress her mother once owned. Cutting, too, as we have seen, initially signals Erika's wish to remain close to her mother, her willingness to meet her mother's demands. By positioning Klemmer to cut her, Erika attempts to shift out of her role as the mother's object into the feminine role of object of Klemmer's desire. She sets him up to offer this new object position in the Vienna Conservatory bathroom when she stimulates Klemmer but leaves him in his tumescent state, ordering him to face her. Cutting, or Klemmer's blood-drawing violence against Erika, now provides a way to escape the Imaginary confines of bondage to the mother. At this stage Erika moves from bearing a perverse psychic structure to using perversion strategically to effect a psychic transformation. The culminating scene of Klemmer's violence at the end of the film enables Erika to rupture her passionate attachment, giving her the chance to redefine the contours of her subjectivity. Through Klemmer, she strikes at herself not as she had in impotent acts of self-directed aggression but in an "authentic act" that cuts her loose from her most precious object–her loved/hated mother. The undead ghost of her mother who more than haunts Erika is exorcised through Erika's excursion into the Real (the excess of her former perverse identity). The "rape" is indeed "deprived of its fantasmatic support" (Zizek's words), since its very purpose is to desubjectify Erika by depositing her in the unsupported Real.

Just as the Islamic terrorists' September 11 attack in Zizek's conception gave the U.S. a chance to remake itself, Klemmer's rape of Erika gives her an opportunity to transform herself. A third type of cutting closes the film, a cutting that demonstrates the idea of striking at herself quite literally and dramatically, signaling Erika's desubjectivation. In the Vienna Conservatory lobby, Erika stabs herself, in her upper chest (above her heart). The former Erika is dead, her fundamental fantasy tying her to the demanding mother traversed. But, unlike Antigone, Erika walks steadfastly away; clutching her large leather bag, she almost seems "on the go." Whether or not the knife strikes a muscle that would impair Erika's piano playing is perhaps the question. In other words, we cannot be sure that Erika has also broken the union with her father. Has she, as a Deleuzean masochist, used Klemmer to secure pleasure in the realm of the father unhampered by the mother's interference? Or has her authentic act positioned her to start doubly anew?

That is: the Deleuzean masochist ends up giving primacy to idealization; he enjoys in the Imaginary. His resexualization proceeds as his narcissistic ego contemplates itself through an ideal ego effected by the agency of the oral mother. Although in the case of Erika strategic masochism serves as a progressive move beyond her earlier position as object of her mother's jouissance, insofar as she stays in the place of the object of her father's desire, she too is psychically stuck. Or does Deleuzean masochism work better for a woman than a man, who is left in an incestuous bath with the mother? Perhaps, through a masochistic authentic act (authentic acts being by definition masochistic), a woman suffering from maternal domination can achieve a desiring subjectivity.

My sense is that the outcome of The Piano Teacher is more promising than that of Secretary, that even Secretary has an inkling of the frailty of its own ending, and that an authentic act is an approach to desiring subjectivity preferable to the sinthome, since the sinthome is apt merely to be an extension of the trauma that makes it necessary. I also lean toward the merits of exceeding a contract rather than entering one; all the potentially transformative excesses of The Piano Teacher spring from a necessary contract that is equally necessary to surpass, paradoxically to fulfill. Nonetheless, both films lead us to acknowledge the value of masochistic acts especially for women negotiating damaged relations with parental passionate attachments.

While it seems wise to take into account Kaja Silverman's caveat, in "Masochism and Male Subjectivity," that because masochism tends to be regarded as constitutive of femininity its capacity to have an potency for women is radically reduced, Deleuzean masochism adjusted to suit women pulls women out of the Imaginary, instead of sucking them back into it, as it does in the case of men. Deleuzian masochism might be said to draw women into a Hegelian "night of the world," a "Clearing, the Void, the Frame," which subsequently can be "filled in by the object ‘elevated to the dignity of the Thing'" (Zizek, 2000a, 30). At least if Erika Kohut is the model, Deleuzean masochism enacted by a woman first positions her as an object of male violence/desire (and perhaps this is where Lee in Secretary ends up), then destroys that object, catapulting her into the Void/Real, and thereby primes her to take on desiring subjectivity of her own.

It is of course impossible to know at the end of The Piano Teacher where Erika is headed. But that ambiguity at least opens up the possibility that she means to reap the benefit of her provoked "rape," of the labor she performed to traverse her fantasy, having struck at herself more than once. The very indefiniteness of the ending of The Piano Teacher stands for the void that has raised the possibility of Erika's rebirth.



1.That is: possibly there is something about a perverse work of art that pressures the reader or viewer to produce a sinthome, to secure the Real, Symbolic, Imaginary knot. Perhaps the perverse aesthetic object, immersed in jouissance-in negotiating its own tense relation with the absent big Other, in its effort to construct an evasive big Other-threatens the viewer's illusion of Otherness enough to cause him/her to generate a remedy to such a deficiency. Perversion may loosen the relation to the law for the viewer, exposing its impotence. The pervert struggles to prop up the ineffectual law, in various forms as well as to different degrees and for different purposes, perhaps depending on the extent of the disavowal, while the viewer/reader of a work featuring that exquisitely agonizing negotiation may become psychically destabilized enough to take off on his/her own, forming and embracing a symptom, raised to the status of a sinthome, that leaves the (absent) Other behind. As Miller comments, although he may suffer over his ability to do so, "the pervert present[s] himself as able to reveal the truth of enjoyment to the non-pervert" (Miller, 1996, 306). The piece these ideas were originally written in is titled "Deadlocks: A Response to Parveen Adams," forthcoming in Psychoanalysis Under Construction: Writings from the American Lacanian Link, University of Minnesota Press, Ed. Ken Reinhard.

2.Butler presents her argument against gay marriage in Contingency, Hegemony, Universality. She suspects that gay marriage would contribute to "assimilationist politics" and that it would extend the power of the institution of marriage by exacerbating "the distinction between those forms of intimate alliance that are legitimated by the state, and those that are not" (Butler, 2000, 175). She also objects to reprivatizing sexuality, "removing it from the public sphere and from the market, domains where its politicization has been very intense." Butler supports, instead, asking for "a delinking of precisely those rights and entitlements from the institution of marriage itself," a "return to non-state-centred forms of alliance that augment the possibility for multiple forms on the level of culture and civil society" (Butler, 2000, 176).  


Works Cited

Adams, Parveen. 2003. "Art as Prosthesis: Cronenberg's Crash." In Art: Sublimation or Symptom. New York: Other Press.

Butler, Judith with Ernesto Laclau & Slavoj Zizek. 2000. Contingency, Hegemony, Universality. New York: Verso.

Coming to Power: Writings and Graphics on Lesbian S/M. 1987. Ed. members of Samois. Boston: Alyson Publications, Inc.

Deleuze, Gilles. 1971. Masochism: An Interpretation of Coldness and Cruelty. Trans. Jean McNeil. New York: George Brazillier.

Fink, Bruce. 1997. A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Theory and Technique. Cambridge: Harvard UP.

Foucault, Michel. 1994/1997. Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth. Trans. Robert Hurley and Others. New York: The New Press.

Jelinek, Elfriede. 1983/1989. The Piano Teacher. Trans. Joachim Neugroschel. London: Serpent's Tail.

Laclau, Ernesto with Judith Butler & Slavoj Zizek. 2000. Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left. New York: Verso.

La Pianiste. 2001. Written and directed by Michael Haneke

Miller, Jacques-Alain. 1996. "On Perversion." In Reading Seminars I and II: Lacan's Return to Freud. Edited by Richard Feldstein, Bruce Fink, Maire Jaanus. Albany: SUNY Press.

Reik, Theodor. 1941. Masochism in Modern Man. Trans. Margaret H. Eigel and Gertrud M. Kruth. New York: Farrar, Straus.

Secretary. 2002. Screenplay by Steven Shainberg and Erin Cressida Wilson. Directed by Steven Shainberg.

Silverman, Kaja. 1988. "Masochism and Male Subjectivity." Camera Obscura, 17:31-67.

Zizek, Slavoj. 2002. Welcome to the Desert of the Real. New York: Verso.

----------.2000a. The Fragile Absolute: or, why is the Christian legacy worth fighting for? New York: Verso.

---------- with Ernesto Laclau & Judith Butler. 2000b. Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left. New York: Verso.

----------. 1992/2001. Enjoy Your Symptom! Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and out. New York: Routledge.

----------. 1989. The Sublime Object of Ideology. New York: Verso.