“What are Perversions?”: A Loving Commentary – Aleksandra Wagner

How best to describe this book, a passionate discourse?

Possibly by saying that it invites, and then disrupts, enjoyment, by proposing its own contract: You will read me more than once.  This has all and nothing to do with the book’s seemingly central title, What Are Perversions?  If viewed through the lens of What-s, the book could be termed an inquiry into a genealogy of the word-act (perversion), once found descriptively useful as the marker of a sick Subject; later to be allotted a ‘dis-order’ shelf within psychiatric glossary.

However, the book is far more than that.

Sergio Benvenuto uses the printed page—all 208 of them, including the Introduction, Bibliography and an Index—to alter the “perplexing” (what/perversion?) question; to remind that the assignment of perversion is bound to convey an “essentially moral judgment”; to bring up unexpected cases, borrowed from the disciplinary ancestors and from his own practice; to point out the forms of an epistemological, but also less than clinically compassionate, compliance, brought about by the political correctness of American and other kinds of puritanisms.  Also, to argue that the constitutive (if not constitutional) documents of our time, such as DSM-5, “an artifact of universal consensus” yet still merely “astrological”, are invested—were always, mostly, only … invested—with legal power, functioning (or not functioning so well) at the brink of the most private world while thoroughly dependent on the public opinion.  Dependent, that is, on the idols of the square, then sold to the markets—some of which were and are, pharmaceutical (xxv).

Benvenuto writes as a clever baby who has read many other books, not all of them psychoanalytic; as someone who has seen many a great film.  More importantly, he writes as a man who spent his time with people—in his consulting room as well as in the Forum.  Some of those he encountered on his worldly travels may have been experienced as perverse.  With an educated modesty, he instructs that “analysts rarely … deal with pure perverts, since someone solely perverse would not be seeking a cure in the first place” (125): indeed, it may take a neurotic (or a compulsively narrative part of her), for a story to be told.  Yet, he does not miss a beat when insisting that “many sexologists accurately describe perversions, but theories, whether right or wrong, emerge … only from psychoanalysts” (xxxi).

He also writes the book, or so was my experience of it, as if it were his last.

There is, in the text, such a sense of urgency—to spell everything out—that makes reading a dizzying enterprise.  Perversely, or not, this is called a ‘French style’ of writing, in some circles, here and now.  The ‘French’ logic (of dizzy), as seen by a self-assured Anglophile, goes a bit like this: you throw a thesis on me, a vulnerable reader; then you say that a thesis ought to be not proven, but complexified; then you do the gently insistent work of complexifying misleading me to read all I don’t want to think about—for I would have never bought the book if only I knew of its strategy.

You duped me, Benvenuto! You hit my lazy spots! I will rebel by calling you ‘French.’

But, I am not an Anglophile, and, Sergio, you are not ‘French.’  You are an Italian, who “used to hang out in the rather sordid milieu of the poor youths of Naples”, a convert to communism who felt “the need to get dirty by coming into contact with those wretched environments, the redemption of which was glorified” (xxxiv).  You dedicated the book to Elvio Fachinelli (1928 – 1989), your friend and teacher: that is already more than most analysts can do, and have—a friend and a teacher, to whom to dedicate anything.  You dared say that “Fetishists are the socialists of Eros” (79).  You dared ask, “Why should we consider a pleasure of sucking a nipple as fundamental and regard instead a pleasure of playing chess as a derivative of some more fundamental desire?” (xxxiv).  You chose with freedom and ease—surely a bit shocking—to gather the forgotten or seldom read and seen: M. Masud R. Khan, Robert Stoller, Thomas Vinterberg, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Alberto Moravia … at the same table!  To be frank (I hope you don’t mind this disclosure), Freud and Lacan were already having the proverbial cigars there, and something more might have been served.

By Whom?

And, Why? – I ask even though I have been told in my first Technique class, that Why? is not a psychoanalytic question.  Let me shift: What are you serving?  I bought the Karnac Object with a hard to discern cover referring to Marquis de Sade.  There you wrote, “In this book I will not conform. I will continue to talk about perversions, and I will explain why.” (xviii)

Why again. Why?

I offer these questions as a heuristic device that may lead to an understanding of—possibly a conversation about—the subtitle: Sexuality, Ethics, Psychoanalysis.  Benvenuto, you have tried to dupe us again!  Your subtitle is your main title, with ethics at its core.  While, as you write, analysts are “amoral, and may even seem apathetic” … “their apathy is able to modify, over time, the pathos of the perverse analysand” (134).  A moment later you will say that “analysis is above all an ethical cure that aims at caring for the other” (136).

Do you mean caring, for whoever s-he might be? – You are a puzzling man.

Yet, your book has a Chapter, “Masochism: Ways to Power.”  The chapter third in order—sandwiched between “The Pervert’s Pain” and “Sadism: Punishing Women”—opens with a segment from Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s novel, Inhuman Chronicles.  For this occasion alone, I am adapting it to my own life’s measure, so that Imazato Masukichi—a masochistic hero of your page 57—can meet his mate.


I, Aleksandra Wagner, shall commit suicide.

Having gone through his papers, I now know that my late husband had no other lover.  Because I still love him, it is freely and willingly that I shall kill myself.  I doubt that I am guaranteeing his happiness—He is dead, isn’t he?  The dead cannot kill you. Or can they?

Precisely because such conjectures would cause his suffering, I have hence drawn up the following testament, with the aim in mind to do away with any such suspicions.

I affirm that I shall die by administering the toxic product to myself.  I demand that there be no doubts on the matter.  Because my suicide aims at assuring his happiness—Can dead be happy?  Am I repeating myself?—it is accompanied by a precise condition …

I absolutely want my late husband, for the full length of my sufferings and until the moment of my death, to be motionless.  Dead as he is … Am I repeating myself?—he  cannot help me.  The fact that he never agreed to any of this may seem to make the contract null.  Yet, let it be known that, had he not gone to that indifferent state, called death, he would have respected this clause.

Still of an intact mind, I ask for no signatures whatsoever.  There could be no pleasanter death.

Rather than speak to a catalogued necrophilia, I invoke a dis-order that may always come after a frank dialogue with a tradition—bound to be indifferent to the plight of the living; yet also a substance that the living coerce for their own purposes.

When my co-conspirators and I met over dinner and wine to discuss what we will do—we, the true utilitarian-s, did not give our pleasures up in order to be more productive; we assumed productivity could only come out of some pleasures—the first thing that came to my mind is that the title of the book we will be addressing itself demands a reflection.  The book’s explicit motivating force seems clear.  The author supplies his position, ever more valuable because it does not function as a narrative of certainty.  His self-assigned duty is not to answer questions—not even The Question, What Are Perversions?—but to modify them, by making us think about them.  At the end of the book the only thing one can safely say is that each of us can have a view of perversion we think we deserve.  Some of us may conclude that we can, finally, fully embrace the perversion we always ‘liked’.  The ‘end’—in this sense—is stated already in the Introduction: “Each psychoanalytic school ends up seeing the syndromes and paraphilias that it wants to see” (xxv).  By now, the disappearance of ‘hysterics’ has been taken for granted (I’ve heard in the 1990s that they all speak Spanish, and live in East Harlem), just as they have been increasingly brought back and normalized into a patient population, with some ‘borderlines’ expelled, or re-branded in turn.  A psychoanalytic space—cognitive, emotional, shyly or bluntly medicalized, theoretical—is limited.  One enters, but only after another goes.

Another goes? The Other goes? What goes?

Who, or what, will have to go, if perverts were to re-enter a psychoanalytic scene?  Whom will we abandon, in order to keep the homeostasis—our field always overshadowed by a singular Subject/Object: a hysteric; a narcissist; a borderline; a pervert; an-ever-disclosing analyst?  So writes Benvenuto: “Psychoanalysis is, despite of appearances, a folk theory: behind its technical and specialist language, its approach remains very close to everyday expressions and mentality, especially to those of the lower classes.  As a matter of fact, psychoanalysis has given a certain respectability to the knowledge of the common people” (xxxiii).

Respectability, to the knowledge of the common people.

Of the common people.  Of whom I am one.  A patient analyst; a somewhat analyzed patient; an absolutely impatient member of a political community, to which—while abhorring its spectacle—I contribute little. In short, a Pervert, masquerading as a Legitimate.  As such, I best love Benvenuto through what I think is his credo: “The Other is the Cause of My Being”—which possibly means that My Being will be measured, even identified, through my mode of relation to the Cause.  The Cause is where the ethics resides.  It is about the relation with the Other, for it is only through the structure and the affective content of that relation that a perversion can be viewed; is experienced; might be transformed.

If it feels itself in need to be, transformed, that is, and if I—a peculiar representative of some local Law—say so.

Speaking from my own peculiarity, Can I ever say so?

If I can say so, then I have a question for you, Sergio: Why were your best thoughts about the ethics of psychoanalysis—and on the illusion of the psychoanalytic neutrality and its seductive ‘non-prescriptiveness’—written up in the chapter on “Perverse Women”?  It is one of the loveliest chapters in your book: by now you know that I would have read it first.  It is also the most ethical; following M. Masud R. Khan, you do say that psychoanalysis is highly prescriptive, but that it prescribes, through its setting alone, “in a more refined, more ethically correct and somewhat hypocritical way” (122).

You must tell me more about this. You must also tell me why women cannot be perverse.

Truthfully, I am done with being a hysteric. So, this is the end of my story.

Publication Date:

June 28, 2017

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European Journal of Psychoanalysis