Anna Katharina Schaffner, Modernism and Perversion

Anna Katharina Schaffner, Modernism and Perversion: Sexual Deviance in Sexology and Literature, 1850-1930 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). 315pp. £18.99 Pb. ISBN 9780230231634.

Modernism and Perversion explores what happened after '[t]he pervert ceased to be a sinner and instead became a patient' (5). This shift was connected to 'the emergence of sexology' (5). Drawing on the work of Michel Foucault, Schaffner identifies this emergence as an aspect of 'a historic shift towards secular modernity' (5) and uses literary and sexological texts to argue that the newly medicalised sexual perversions were a key part of, and reaction to, this blossoming of secular modernity. The book is extremely clear and well-written. This, combined with the engaging and succinctly presented subject matter, makes the experience of reading it a great pleasure. The book is split into two distinct parts: 'The five chapters in Part I [...] trace the intellectual history of perversion theories' (19) in sexology, and '[t]he chapters in Part II of this study investigate the extent to which representations of the perversions in early twentieth-century literature are haunted by scientific conceptions' (24). Although, given the intellectual agency of the writers examined, and the knowledge many of them had of the sexological sciences, this was a perverse haunting of the most volitional and surprisingly non-terrifying kind.

The chapters of part one, which focus on sexologists, are largely concerned with the ways in which these sexologists drew on literary texts as evidence. Schaffner uses this aspect of the sexologists' work to theorise about the implications of such a mode of so-called scientific enquiry. Chapter one focuses on Richard von Krafft-Ebing and masturbation. Here, Schaffner describes Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis (1886) as the first and most influential classification of sexual perversions. In this influential text, 'examples from literary texts feature alongside material from forensic and medical archives' (49). This technique, as Schaffner so clearly demonstrates, was also used by subsequent sexologists of the era. Krafft-Ebing diagnosed writers based on readings from their autobiographies, which, as Schaffner notes, raises important questions about the nature of textuality and literary evidence. In sections with titles such as 'On the Ramifications of Factualizing Fiction' (57) Schaffner explains that '[t]he way in which many sexologists utilize literary sources goes far beyond the then common practice of spicing up scientific studies with erudite references to classical literature' (58). She asks '[i]n what ways are fictional representations mobilized to "confirm" the existence of extra-textual, empirical findings?' (59) and '[d]o the sexologists reflect on the legitimacy of including fictional texts in purportedly scientific studies?' (59). These questions resound throughout her book, forming the core of the remaining chapters on sexologists, which deal with the likes of Alfred Binet, Havelock Ellis, Magnus Hirschfeld, Albert Moll, Iwan Bloch and Sigmund Freud (as well as, interestingly, writers who are normally considered as primarily literary: D. H. Lawrence and Edward Carpenter).

As '[t]he early sexologists depended almost entirely on oral or written linguistic meditations, most notably in the form of the stories their patients were willing to tell them' (60-1), the nature of language, what it can and cannot do and say, is at the heart of this book. This brings Schaffner to part two of her study, which examines literary writers and their relationship with ideas of perversion as manifested in sexology from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The writers examined by Schaffner are all male; the question of gender in relation the perversions is mentioned many times in the book without forming its core or central focus.

In considering the relationship which the writers in question had with sexology, Schaffner considers both 'cases of direct and indirect influence' (24). In doing so she takes a highly productive and fruitful approach to intellectual history within the study of literature and science. In allowing indirect influence to exist alongside the more straightforwardly historicist direct and apparently provable influence, Schaffner opens the way for important intellectual resonances and textual affinities which may otherwise not have been considered.

In chapters on Thomas Mann and homosexuality, D. H. Lawrence and anal sex, Marcel Proust and Sadism, Franz Kafka and Masochism and George Bataille and Fetishism, Schaffner explores perversion in relation to both form and content. She analyses the portrayals of the perversions offered to us by these writers in their books. She also argues that the modernist distortion of language can be seen as perverse, and raises the question of whether literature itself might not be a deviant use of language: 'the festishization of the signifier, a hallmark feature of so many modernist works, may itself be seen as a performative enactment of the perverse turn'(166). For example, in the chapter on Bataille and fetishism Schaffner compelling reads fetishism into both the content and form of The Story of the Eye (1928), arguing that in this 'most extreme example of a modernist revalorization of perversion' (251), 'sexual and linguistic transgression converge' (253).

Schaffner ends the book as concisely and convincingly as she has been throughout. She concludes that the way in which the sexologists and the modernists approached perversion points 'both backwards and forwards' (256), identifying this as an in-between time for the cultural understanding of many sexual perversions: 'They point backwards in that a vestige of the conceptions of the perversions as 'bad' and 'unnatural' still haunts almost all their representations, often in insidious ways. They point forwards in that they pave the way from a conception of sexual 'deviance' towards one of sexual 'difference'' (256). The conclusion nods towards recent gender and queer theory, and touches upon contemporary notions of perversion (such as paedophilia), before reminding the reader that literature both was and continues to be central to our understanding of the perversions. Sexuality and perversions are personal, often private, matters which are ambiguous and may not be reducible to the logical rhetoric of proof. This is where literature (and especially modernist literature - itself perverting logical realism) and the perversions converge:

It is in literature that we can genuinely engage with the unique 'inner experience' of a fictional, semi- or non-fictional other, and participate in their fantasies and desires [...] Literature, however, is also the domain of language and stylization, of manipulation for effect and affect, and of formal quests, which on the one hand render its scientific use-value problematic, and on the other hand are what make it the space in which one can experience those ambiguities that are an integral part of ethical complexity. (267)

Modernism and Perversion is a book about literature and science which combines detailed historical readings with a deep scrutiny of the nature of textuality and the value of linguistic evidence, forming an excellent and readable study of this topic.

Susie Christensen (King's College London)

 

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