Freud’s Breakthrough

AMIEL Gérard
Date publication : 08/11/2021


Freud’s Breakthrough

I’d first like to give a warm thank you to Helen Sheehan and all of your team for inviting me here to work with you on Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, by Freud. You all know how tremendously I appreciate these opportunities to meet together: they are such precious occasions for me, but also for psychoanalysis as a whole, and every year they mark a key event in the calendar.  The health crisis dealt us a severe blow last year in that it disrupted the momentum of these discussions, which are so vital to keeping psychoanalysis alive. 

The issue that I’ll be focusing on with you today will be an attempt to shed light on the definition and nature of ‘perversion’, in the psychoanalytical sense of the word. The word perversion is very often misused, bandied about left, right and centre, and as you know, sometimes even used as an insult. Now, generally speaking, insults certainly do not feature in the vocabulary of psychoanalysts. And should it ever be the case, then it would be a grave cause for concern.

I have sometimes heard certain colleagues suggest that perversion arises when an object starts taking command and giving the orders. Put this way, it seems plain obvious. But in fact, it’s not as obvious as all that. Let’s take the example of a gun held up against someone’s head: this is, without a doubt, a clear case of an object commanding; being in charge. Yet, however effective it may be in causing panic, it does not nonetheless constitute an example of perversion. Another example: in the case of brutal, savage relationships that neglect the manners and social skills that mark a certain degree of civilization, if there is one thing in command here, causing the other to tremble with fear at all costs, it is not a concrete, objectifiable object in the classic or usual sense of the word. So, you can see that there is a certain degree of complexity in the issues raised here today.

So, how can we try to dig a little bit deeper? Well, despite the fact that we have an entire language at our disposal to cover all the different objects in today’s world, it is still not enough to specify and label a relationship, a connection, that is considered to be ‘perverse’. Note here that the very fact of talking in terms of a connection is an interesting shift in perspective, because in this instance, there is no substantiation of anyone or anything. So, what exactly is the precise nature of the relationship in that case?

Freud begins his book by referring to the work which firstly produced the detailed breakdown listing all the different examples of perversion, as defined by the medical discourse of the 19th century. With the arrival of clinical diagnostic classification systems at the time, thanks to what was named nosology, a new norm was formally established, meaning that clinical categories considered to be ‘pathological’, could be distinguished. What we want to focus on here is understanding how Freud went about working through this diverse inventory to introduce a new, and slightly more interesting order compared to the list system, albeit comprehensive, developed by his predecessors. His predecessors had issued a catalogue, whereas Freud sought to focus on the structure, which meant sweeping to one side preconceived notions. It is extremely enlightening for us to stop for a moment and look at the way in which he tackled this new approach, in terms of the way in which he stepped outside the framework of medical discourse - which by definition is the discourse of the master - in order to establish something wholly new, and something which from Freud’s day onwards was to be called a purely psychoanalytical interpretation.

This is how Freud begins to demonstrate and teach us how the type and value of the sexual object are not the most important considerations for explaining perversion. He shows us that we can therefore push these two methods of approach into the background, because the mechanics of sexuality are generally rooted in something wholly different. So, let’s now try to define and clarify what is the dominant factor in the sexual equation. The determining factor, the factor in charge, giving the orders here, lies in a form of overestimation. Those of you who have read Stendhal will know that he identifies a particular form of love that he calls “amour d’estime”. How could we translate that? As a form of love made up purely of admiration, like the esteem one holds for a lover's beauty, or for the work of a great poet. He also coined a term still used today, namely the concept of crystallization. Therefore here, the commanding factor in the sexual sphere of perversion is related to over appreciation. So, perversion here lies in ‘overrating’, but this, as it were, is established independently of the object, through a purely psychological process, an operation that mainly involves the person who values it as such. Another way of approaching this is to look at what Freud characterized as sublimation. This is a fate based on the drive mechanism, and possibly different to neurotic repression, which alters nothing as regards the drive itself, but simply leads to a different end point from a sexual aim. Such examples lie in certain artistic works.

Here we should add that when dealing with perversion, the psychological estimation that the sexual object is subjected to could take the form of any old basic daily object, which may seem totally trivial at face value. To be as clear as possible here, let’s simply say that with perversion the chosen object is never simply limited to the genitals, but can extend to include any part of the human body (the feet, hands or legs for example), and also stretch to include more bizarre and unusual examples (plaits, spots, squints, and any other features not usually considered to be an alluring asset). Similarly, it could also stretch to include any sensations connected to or produced by a particular part of the body (such as a smell, colour, shape, type of clothing used to cover up an area of the body, or uncover it). Perversion therefore focuses first and foremost on the qualities that an object is endowed with, and then goes on to magnify and augment those qualities, and this demonstrates the precise type of blindness at play.

Almost in the same vein, any subject with a passion will tell you that as soon as he is just slightly removed from the source of that passion, out of the grips of that trigger which sparked such an emotion, however intense, he can clearly see that it wasn’t worth it. We cannot hope to gain a deep and full understanding of the notion that Freud called perversion if we don’t use as our starting point the essential hypothesis which is that the object itself is never at issue here. Indeed, there is no difference between neurosis and perversion in relation to the object: the objects involved in both cases are exactly the same. At the end of the day, it all depends on the degree of fervour felt and invested by the admirer on the one hand, and on the other hand it depends on the symbolic value that the object carries for him. Even if in certain cases the level of appreciation is only reluctant and vague, this angle of approach still gives us a different understanding of the notions of the master, the little master, the little master in the case of perversion - need I say more? It is food for thought.

If you listen attentively, for example, to when fetishists describe their experiences – have you already had the opportunity? – they will never tell you that they are commanded or controlled by an object, nor that they feel subjected to an object. You’d never hear a fetishist say that. When they talk about their experiences, they speak about their fetish in other terms. For example, they maintain that their fetish is extremely accommodating. That it is an object which gives them a certain sense of security, and reassurance. That they need it there as a source of comfort. So, the first question that jumps to mind here is what is it that the fetishist so urgently needs to be protected from? And here, all the greatest credit goes to Freud for asserting that a fetish - the ultimate embodiment of perversion, the perversion of perversions – in his view, first and foremost inherently carries within it the capacity to alleviate anxiety. But not just any old anxiety. Freud maintained that it could ease castration anxiety in particular. This helps us to understand how such objects can be hidden under the bed, and yet partners can live together with fetishists for some thirty years without having the slightest idea about what is right under their noses! The subject has a tender, affectionate relationship with regard to its fetish, or indeed a hateful relationship, depending on the precise context and circumstances that held sway when the fetish first emerged. Each case is loaded with unique historical connotations, anchored in a specific life experience.

When Freud talks about the libido having a fixation on an object, the important thing to grasp here is that this essentially means that the subject is attached to a quality which the subject himself has cultivated with regard to that object. So, given the profoundly significant and invaluable role played by the object as a calming source of relief, the subject will love that object to an exceptional degree, and remain permanently attached to it. What we see happening here is a very particular type of psychological development occurring, which in turn brings about a form of idealization that is close to fanatic. In most cases here, the drive is diminished, even reduced to nothing, hidden behind the magnificence of the object, only to then sporadically jump out from the shadows in a fluctuating manner and move to the forefront, before disappearing again into the shadows. This generally sums up the infernal cycle of perversion.

In any event, it is important to understand that this object, by definition, is involved in the act of sexual arousal. And I am not referring to desire here - I’m talking about arousal, which is not exactly the same thing. Without the object, no form of stimulation is conceivable, and the notion of performing a sexual act is left hanging. This is why we can confidently maintain that the object is conditional. It is the ultimate and non-negotiable prerequisite for a sexual act to take place. The drive remains hidden behind the object, dependent upon it, in the background, while the object is the star of the show. The object is glorified and adulated, leaving the drive to sweep up the crumbs and do the dirty work.  It is important to know that this whole mechanism can work in a very subtle way. If you pay close attention, you will see that there are certain prominent figures in your own entourage who extol their fame on the one hand, while on the other hand they indulge in pillow talk maliciously imparting intimate secrets about their patients, and this, no doubt, to provide some form of aphrodisiac effect. Even the object of psychoanalysis can be turned into a fetish. But let’s not labour that point.

Let’s now turn to some slightly more contentious examples, as Freud himself refers to in his text (Freud who indeed never sought to hide or push aside his own difficult predicaments). If you take the example of necrophilia, which represents a major case of sexual deviation, and if you approach it purely in terms of drives – the oral, anal, scopic or invocatory drive, in other words drives that we all know well – the concept of necrophilia remains nonetheless impossible to decipher in any intelligible way. So, the great challenge that Freud set up for himself here, was to find a form of sequencing for that equation, that was both thorough and accurate. Admittedly, he began his career as a doctor, which was an excellent starting point for developing an understanding of the patterns and norms of the human body. Yet nevertheless, there are some cases of perversion that are unclassifiable, that don’t fall neatly into those patterns and norms. What I’m trying to show you here is the flaw in Freud’s approach, not to criticize or belittle it, but to remind you that it is always interesting to look at the gaps left by our predecessors, since it is precisely where we find our chance and duty to invent anew in turn. So, to really hammer the point home, here is a question: what type of drive do both sadism and masochism hinge on? Well Freud had to really start from scratch to explain these as both being cases of the sadistic drive, which he named the death drive.

The classification systems developed by Richard von Krafft-Ebing and cited by Freud are lacking and deficient because they are based on wholly inadequate criteria. The content is purely forensic. Still today, throughout the history of conventional psychiatry, von Krafft-Ebing’s approach has never been replaced and updated by any new system. To give you an idea, homosexuals were recognized as being homosexuals in 19th-century Germany, but the question back then was whether homosexuality was rooted in mental degeneration or some other trigger. A decision had to be reached, and the whole debate surrounding this question was of key importance. Freud, through his work that we are studying together here today, made a tremendous leap forward in that respect, offering a very different framework to the accepted approach of his time. Krafft-Ebing clearly revelled in describing every detail of each type of perversion. Yet this pleasure of his brought nothing of significance to psychoanalysts. Whereas Krafft-Ebing held forth for a mammoth 400 pages only to offer the mere wishful thinking of his classifications, Freud succinctly structured and prioritized in just 20 pages what he considered to be the essential points to remember.

Now I’m not saying that Freud’s approach solved everything. Not all the questions have been answered: indeed many remain open-ended, and certain elements are still yet to be established. What I am saying is that however horrific sadistic torture can be, and however far the extremes of masochism can stretch, in no instance can these examples be easily considered as perversion. So, what exactly are we dealing with here? As it stands today, we still don’t know. We regularly come across subjects who are engaged in major cases of sadism or masochism, but even so, we would be mistaken to suggest that they are particularly exposed to perversion. So, what can we conclude?

The imposing figure of Sade, the man, the individual – and here I refer to what Lacan wrote on the subject in his Essays – Kant with Sade – never lived above the law. Let’s not forget he spent half of his life locked up! In all likelihood, everything Sade wrote about in his work was just pure fiction, and the refined, attentive and considerate nature of the correspondence he maintained with his wife throughout his life strongly serves to suggest as much. Obviously, one would need to check the facts, but I am very confident that this is a solid and sensible assumption.

What is Freud aiming at here in his Essays? What was the fundamental wish behind what he wrote? Why did he choose to argue his case in the ways that he did? What is certain, is that we should no longer read his work from the same angle as back when it was published, more than a century ago. The barriers have shifted since then, and so there are certain signs which Freud ascribed to perversion back in his era, but which today we wouldn’t bat an eyelid at, since they are no longer considered as ‘extraordinary’ by modern standards. Within the scope of psychoanalysis, we have seen a shift in social barriers in that we don’t draw the line of ‘forbidden’ in the same place as before, to the point where some practices now seem banal. You must keep in mind that we are inscribed in the sexual sphere in relation to the captation at play in the discourse of the Other. In other words, we are all strongly dependent upon social repression. And as such, thanks to psychoanalysis, we discover that that we don’t have a scientific notion of sex, but rather an ethical one. Freud’s concept of sex was anchored in the social mindset of his time. His starting point may have been taking anatomical classification as an approach, broken down into a set of drives, but this doesn’t constitute a definitive interpretation. The debate doesn’t end there. Lacan then entered the equation and triggered a shift, by switching the focus from issues such as mucus to that of edges, corners and slits, which are none other than the effects of the gap connected to the speaking being and language.

We cannot therefore count on the object as being perverse or neurotic. That would be utterly absurd! And I hear you say - “But orality can also be a form of perversion too!” Yes, of course it can, but nonetheless it is not the same thing, since it’s not necessarily a perversion in the sexual sense of the word. Perversion that affects object little a is not the same as the perversion concerning the function of the phallus. Freud stands firm in his conviction on the question of the phallus when referring to perversion. Let’s take the key example of bulimia, which is yes, I agree, an example of oral perversion, but that doesn’t prevent patients suffering from bulimia from also being neurotic. Where is the notion of overestimation here? Take the case, for example, of the patient who can’t do anything with his day until, each morning, he has given an excremental gift to the Other. You could argue that obsessional neurosis and perversion are standing close rubbing shoulders here, but it is not in the least bit a case of perversion, because even if there is a form of overestimation blatantly at play, there is clearly no transgression here on the part of the subject, because the subject himself loyally abides by this merciless law. This spot of humour is to give you an idea of the scale of complexity we are dealing with here. When it comes to bulimia, a nuanced approach needs to be taken. In psychoanalysis there is no clear, unambiguous take on this question, as bulimia comes in many different forms. Some who suffer from it eat to fill themselves up, and only vomit as a reflex because they have eaten too much. Others go on a rampage raiding the cupboards and fridge, and the vomiting part is clearly an act of enjoyment, like a form of orgasm. Generally speaking, these types of people have a markedly sparing sex life, as if not wanting to lose their beloved, or quite the opposite, they tend to indulge in sex in an orgiastic frenzy. The two are not the same.

Therefore, we must remain scrupulously faithful to Freud’s concept of perversion. The interpretation of perversion which he refers to in his essays is conclusively tied up in in the notion of sexuality. And these are issues that need to be addressed in psychoanalysis, in a way that forces aside the moral and critical machine that unfortunately is still so integrally bound up in the roots of this word. Originally used by the Church to label any form of sexual activity that wasn’t for the purposes of reproduction, the word then lost impact, before re-emerging in the hands and mouth of science, which tried to give it a definition and pigeon-hole it into a logical norm. Freud takes a wholly different stance to the notion of perversion, paving the way for us to realize that such subjects could indeed be possibly treated through psychoanalysis.  

These were the points I wanted to raise with you today in relation to the ground-breaking text that you have chosen to focus on this year.

Gérard Amiel 
July 2021

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