Recently, I went to a secondhand book shop in Copenhagen, the one closest to where I live. On the floor, there was a pile of books by Michel Houellebecq. I had heard the name before, of course, but never took the time to read anything by him. I asked the owner about the books, and he said he disliked them and didn’t even want to sell them, since Houellebecq was a “reactionary and potentially extremely dangerous to a progressive society”[i]. This piqued my interest, so I went to the library and borrowed some of the books I saw in the pile.
When you google Houellebecq, it often says, somewhat along the lines of the bookstore owner, that he is a provocateur and a scandalous character, not really in good taste among progressives and those of finer literary taste. Even Slate Magazine sums it up thus: “Few would call Houellebecq, who holds the Prix Goncourt, France’s highest literary honor, a “bad writer,” but in France he is known for his narrative inventiveness while his style is generally accepted as second-rate: something readers put up with in order to get to his ideas.” So, what are these ideas, and why are they scandalous?
It seems that merely have to “put up” with the style to get at ideas, which we then, as in case of the bookstore owner, find repulsive. Maybe the following can serve as an example: In the novel Serotonin (2019), the narrator Florent-Claude Labrouste, visits his friend’s bungalow resort in winter. While the house is generally vacant, a German ornithologist stays in another bungalow. It turns out the man has regular visits from a little girl. When Florent-Claude breaks into the man’s bungalow he discovers, as we anticipated, that the man is a pedophile and finds a tape. The little girl is dressed up and the ornithologist compliments her and calls her “my darling”:
“The girl waited calmly, arms dangling. I had trouble recognizing the song when it got going — it sounded like a disco thing from the late seventies or early eighties, maybe something by Corona — but the girl reacted well and immediately started spinning around and dancing and it was then that really started feeling sick to my stomach, not because of the content but because of the filming; he must have crouched down to get her in a. low-angle shot, he must have been hopping around her like an old toad. The girl danced with real enthusiasm, carried away by the rhythm, every now again she threw up her mini skirt, enabling the birdwatcher to get some very good angles of her little bum.”[ii]
There is no moral outrage on the narrator’s part, although he feels sick to his stomach. What is disturbing, I think, is the way that the text complicates the usual relationship between perpetrator and victim. What if the girl “enjoys it”—can one be a victim and enjoy it at the same time? Is one really victim to one’s own enjoyment? Florent-Claude describes, for example, the way, the girl exits the German’s bungalow: “she came out almost two hours later and consulted the messages on her mobile phone before getting back on her bike.”[iii] This is not the usual image of victim of pedophilia, who can nonchalantly check her phone. When Florent-Claude breaks into the bungalow and forces the German too flee, the girl comes back the next day, but obviously finds the bungalow empty. “She knocked on the door for a long time, walked over to look through the curtains, then went back to the door and knocked again for a long time before giving up. Her expression was difficult to decipher; she didn’t really seem truly sad (or at least not yet?), but rather surprised and disappointed. At that moment, I wondered if he paid her; there was no way of knowing, but the answer in my view was probably yes.”[iv]
What, I think, is scandalous or at least provocative for most readers about such passages is the way they complicate the predominant view. The girl does not seem traumatized; she seems to enjoy being with the German 40-plus-year-old man and he is tender towards her. But the reason for our sensitivity to such notions is because they re-open the difficult field of childhood sexuality, first discovered by Freud and laid out in Three Essays on Sexuality. What is particularly problematic about infantile sexuality—and this as the root of human sexuality in general—compared to animal preprogrammed instinct is that it serves no biological function, nor does it serve a cultural function we could easily identify.
In fact, Freud’s Three Essays on Sexuality has suffered a rather strange fate. While it first caused a scandal because of offense to heterosexual couples, today, this seems hardly to offend anyone. Most people can accept “polymorphous perversity” and that, as Freud says, “from the point of view of psycho-analysis the exclusive sexual interest felt by men for women is also a problem that needs elucidating and is not a self-evident fact based upon an attraction that is ultimately of a chemical nature.”[v] Freud describes human sexuality as having neither a natural object nor a natural goal. This is why he focuses first on homosexuality and other “perversions” as an entry point into all human sexuality. Today, this does not seem to make much of a stir. But only on one condition: children are left alone. In most versions of gender studies that follow Foucault’s notion of power relations, we hear a lot about non-binary identities but very little about children’s polymorphous sexuality. Freud himself never, to my knowledge, uses the word identity, but instead identification. This shows the difference between the subject and any kind of ego-formation. Identities belong to the realm of the signifier. They make sense, whereas sexuality in the Freudian conceptualization is the opposite of sense. The paradox of human sexuality, what is inherently troubling in polymorphous perversion, does not gain a say.
In this sense, we, in our otherwise permissive western societies, perform a classical compromise formation, where parts of Freud’s book are accepted, including even obvious and outdated insights into “perversion,” whereas others are completely repressed, especially children’s sexuality. As Freud defines it, repression is never total; it is always of only certain parts. We can, for example, accept polymorphous perversion, but on condition that it emerges as a free choice, a performance when we reach puberty and not before, during the periods of our lives when we are supposed to be innocent and angelic beings.
Even the followers of Foucault, often very tolerant for the uses of pleasure, never take into account infantile sexuality and rarely mention Foucault’s own scandal, such as the petition to challenge the age of consent, where he claims that consent as such is a “trap” of “contractual notion”. The trap of consent is a normative pressure that dams up uses of pleasure. Can we imagine the Foucaultian hold of such a position in relation to minors today?[vi]
More importantly, while most people today would more readily identify as polymorphously perverse, this perversion is not supposed to be present in (ourselves as) children. This is the cause of the continued scandal of Freud: the paradoxical nature of human sexuality. Lacan puts it like this, already in Seminar IV:
“Analysis partakes of a sort of scandalous notion of man’s affective relations. I think I have already underscored several occasions what at the start gave rise to so much outrage in analysis. It was not so much that it highlighted the role of sexuality, and that it played its part in the fact that this has become commonplace – in any case no one dreams of taking offence at it – rather it was precisely that at the same time as introducing this notion, and far in excess of this, it introduced the notion of a paradox, of an essential difficulty, that is inherent, so to speak, in the approach to the sexual object.”[vii]
As Lacan points out, Freud’s true scandal is not that he highlights the role of sexuality. Such a view fits, on the contrary, the popular conception of Freud, the ‘pansexual’ Viennese, who finds sexual meanings behind all of our cultural manifestation, no matter what they are “really about.” Contrary to this view, what is scandalous is not sex, but the way Freud formulates sexuality as itself meaningless and paradoxical. It refers to a zone, which is neither culture nor nature and, as such, is particularly troubling for us.
This is also the cause of moralization that is itself libidinally charged. Why? Our problem with children’s sexuality is not simply that it shouldn’t exist, that it does not serve any biological or cultural purpose. The problem is, as Freud points out, that this infantile sexuality is never really overcome. We are not simply protecting children, when we refuse to witness their sexuality. We are really trying to repress this aspect also in supposedly adult sexuality.
If we stick to the example above, Houellebecq is scandalous and provocative for the same reason, no matter what we may otherwise think of his “second-rate” writing. The problem is not so much that the narrator does not show moral outrage at this scene, but children’s sexuality pointing to a paradox of human sexuality as such. It is a paradigm of this useless jouissance[viii]: it has no reproductive purpose and no cultural parameters, within which we could make sense of it.
Obviously, this does not mean, as Foucault in his petition seems to suggest, that there should be no limit, or the girl in the scene is not a victim[ix], because she enjoys it. On the contrary—and this is the problem—she is all the more a victim, precisely because she “enjoys,” and this is why children’s sexuality should be protected, for them to have it for themselves, so to speak, precisely because it is not simply an identity. The observation does not condone the German ornithologist in the slightest, but it renders problematic the notion that children are angelic beings until they reach puberty. This is perhaps the true scandal of the scene above. It is not that Houellebecq should simply not depict such obscene things, but that they become repulsive, in order to screen us off from the paradox of all human sexuality. Yet, as Freud often says, psychoanalysis is governed not by moral concerns of what is proper or improper, but by Wahrheitsliebe, a love of truth.[x]
[i] I was of course fascinated by this otherwise mild-mannered and ‘progressive’ man, suddenly finding no qualms about venting his disgust for Houellebecq’s books. It was the very excessive nature of his comment that attracted my attention. In Danish, he even used the term “samfundsskadelig,” which traditionally connotes an element dangerous for and parasitic on the wholeness and cohesiveness of society, while the language of medicine, rats and vermin refers to “sundhedsskadelig” – a term that has connotations to the third Reich. The bookstore owner suddenly slipped into a kind of language he would be horrified to pursue the origins of, were he to think of it. My experience of his repulsion toward Houellebecq was somewhat similar to what Freud says of the so-called Rat-Man, Ernst Lanzer: “I could only interpret it as one of horror at pleasure of his own of which he himself was unaware.” In other words, jouissance. I could also not fail to hear in the man’s words about the ruination of progressive society an echo of Lacan’s words on Freud’s discovery as terrorist. “The intolerable scandal when Freudian sexuality was not yet holy was that it was so “intellectual”. It was in this respect that it showed itself to be the worthy stooge of all those terrorists whose plots were going to ruin society.” (Jacques Lacan, “The instance of the Letter in the Unconscious” in Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink (London/New York, 2006), 435.
[ii] Michel Houellebecq, Serotonin (London. Penguin Random House), 188.
[iii] Ibid. 185.
[v] Sigmund Freud, “Three Essays on Sexuality” (1905), SE, Vol. (1953): 146.[vi] We could compile a whole list of such things, that followers ‘forget’ about Foucault. We could even re-formulate the title of Jean Baudrillard’s book: it is not about forgetting Foucault, but about remembering rather ‘scandalous aspects’ of Foucault. Most notable is his support for sexual relations between minors and adults, the support for Khomeini and the Iranian Revolution, and, for left-leaning Foucaultians, the fact that Foucault continued to be a Gaullist throughout his life.
[vii] Jacques Lacan, The Object Relation: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book IV,ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. A.R. Price (Cambridge: Polity, 2020), 51-52.
[viii] Lacan says in the recently published seminar XIV: “Il ne m’est pas donné ni donnable d’autre jouissance que celle de mon corps. Ça ne s’impose pas de tout suite, mais on s’en doute. Dés lors, cette jouissance est mon seul bien, et pour la protéger, on instaure autour d’elle la grille d’une loi dite universelle, qui s’appelle le droits de l’homme. Personne ne saurait m’empêcher de disposer à mon gré de corps. Le résultat de la limite, nous le touchons de doigt, du pied, nous autres psychanalystes, c’est que la jouissance est tarie pour tout le monde.” (Jacques Lacan, Le Séminaire, livre xiv, la logique due fantasme (Paris : Champ freudien, Seuil, 2023), 198). We see this isolation of everyone to their own jouissance very well in Houellebecq’s description of each man to his ‘own’ bungalow. What is disturbing about the pedophile is precisely also that his jouissance transgresses ‘rights of man’: the little girl is visually also on the public street, going on her bike to his bungalow. This is what first strikes Claude, the narrator, and why he decides to break into the ornithologist’s bungalow. There is a whole poetics of space and jouissance in Houellebecq. We see in his work a privatization and limitation of jouissance, often confined to hotel rooms, bungalows… The result is, as Lacan says, that it ‘dries up for everyone’.
[ix] Lacanian philosopher, Alenka Zupančič, formulates this problem very well in an interview. She says: “What distinguishes children from adults is not that the latter are sexual beings whereas the former are not. What distinguishes them is that adults are supposed to be basically able to understand and handle intersubjective situations that involve sexuality. This means above all that the fact that children are, as Freud argued, very much sexual beings does not absolve adults when they want to involve them in their own sexual gratification. On the contrary, it makes their endeavors worse. There is a limit. To some extent, this limit is arbitrarily set — one could always say, why not two months earlier or later than the so-called “age of consent”? What is important is that there is a limit. This limit does not protect children against sexuality; rather, it protects their sexuality, making it so to say theirs and nobody else’s.” (https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/too-much-of-not-enough-an-interview-with-alenka-zupancic/).
[x] The English translation is: “And finally we must not forget that the analytical relationship is based on a love of truth, that is on a recognition of a reality – and that it precludes any kind of sham or deceit.” Sigmund Freud, “Analysis terminable and interminable“ (1937), SE, Vol xxiii. (1964): 248. The German is more precise: Und endlich ist nicht zu vergessen, daß die analytische Beziehung auf Wahrheitsliebe, d. h. auf Anerkennung der Realität gegründet ist und jeden Schein und Trug ausschließt.” (my emphasis).