Author Archives: Ancien Regime


It sounds not only disagreeable but also paradoxical, yet it must nevertheless be said that anyone who is to be really happy in love must have surmounted his respect for women and have come to terms with the idea of incest with his mother or sister.

Sigmund Freud, “On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love,” 1912

Evil Woman

Eve plays a particularly significant role on the doors [of Bishop Bernward]; in fact, the narrative begins with her formation, not with the creation of Adam, as might be expected. In the Temptation and Fall, Eve’s attitude and gesture parallel those of the serpent at the right, who, like Eve, offers an apple. This parallel makes explicit Eve’s role as seductive agent, accentuated by the way she holds the apple so closely to her chest that it almost appears as if she were grasping her breast rather than the fruit. With this gesture Eve’s guilt in humankind’s exile from Paradise is emphasized and her sexuality underscored.

While Early Christian writers had considered Eve responsible for the Original Sin, during the Ottonian period references to her guilt multiply and become more vigorous. This might be a result of efforts by Bishop Bernward and others to reform the morality of the clergy in an effort to restore the vow of celibacy to priests and monks, some of whom were known to allow their wives and children to cohabit monasteries. Thus, the burden of clerical immorality is in effect, assigned to Eve, the first woman and the first seductress.

H. W. Janson, Janson’s History of Art: The Western Tradition, 2007

Antique Hypergamy

Among the insular Celts, there is a greater amount of historic documentation to suggest warrior roles for women. In addition to commentary by Tacitus about Boudica, there are indications from later period histories that also suggest a more substantial role for “women as warriors”, in symbolic if not actual roles. Posidonius and Strabo described an island of women where men could not venture for fear of death, and where the women ripped each other apart. Other writers, such as Ammianus Marcellinus and Tacitus, mentioned Celtic women inciting, participating in, and leading battles. Posidonius’ anthropological comments on the Celts had common themes, primarily primitivism, extreme ferocity, cruel sacrificial practices, and the strength and courage of their women.

Under Brehon Law, which was written down in early Medieval Ireland after conversion to Christianity, a woman had the right to divorce her husband and gain his property if he was unable to perform his marital duties due to impotence, obesity, homosexual inclination or preference for other women.

Classical literature records the views of the Celts’ neighbours, though historians are not sure how much relation to reality these had. According to Aristotle, most “belligerent nations” were strongly influenced by their women, but the Celts were unusual because their men openly preferred male lovers (Politics II 1269b). H. D. Rankin in Celts and the Classical World notes that “Athenaeus echoes this comment (603a) and so does Ammianus (30.9). It seems to be the general opinion of antiquity.”  In book XIII of his Deipnosophists, the Roman Greek rhetorician and grammarian Athenaeus, repeating assertions made by Diodorus Siculus in the 1st century BC (Bibliotheca historica 5:32), wrote that Celtic women were beautiful but that the men preferred to sleep together. Diodorus went further, stating that “the young men will offer themselves to strangers and are insulted if the offer is refused”. Rankin argues that the ultimate source of these assertions is likely to be Posidonius and speculates that these authors may be recording male “bonding rituals”.

The sexual freedom of women in Britain was noted by Cassius Dio:

… a very witty remark is reported to have been made by the wife of Argentocoxus, a Caledonian, to Julia Augusta. When the empress was jesting with her, after the treaty, about the free intercourse of her sex with men in Britain, she replied: “We fulfill the demands of nature in a much better way than do you Roman women; for we consort openly with the best men, whereas you let yourselves be debauched in secret by the vilest.” Such was the retort of the British woman.

Wikipedia, Celts

Architecture and Pain

We should perhaps conceive of pain as a field which, in the realm of existence, opens precisely onto that limit where a living being has no possibility of escape.

Isn’t something of this suggested to us by the insight of the poets in that myth of Daphne transformed into a tree under the pressure of a pain from which she cannot flee? Isn’t it true that the living being who has no possibility of escape suggests in its very form the presence of what one might call petrified pain? Doesn’t what we do in the realm of stone suggest this? To the extent that we don’t let it roll, but erect it, and make of it something fixed, isn’t there in architecture itself an actualization of pain? What happened during the period of the Baroque … would support this idea. Something was attempted then to make architecture itself aim at pleasure, to give it a form of liberation, which, in effect, made it blaze up so as to constitute a paradox in the history of masonry and of building. And that goal of pleasure gave us forms which, in a metaphorical language that in itself takes us a long way, we call “tortured.”

Jacques Lacan, Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-60.

Virtue Signalling

Rich men of China, who are anxious for their welfare in the next world, were in the habit of giving great sums of money for the preservation of crocodiles, pigs, tortoises, and other animals at Buddhist monasteries. Special ponds and preserves were laid out for the animals, and the monks had no other work than to keep and feed them; woe to them if one of these endowed crocodiles were to come to any harm. A gentle and natural death was permitted even to the fattest pig and the reward for his good work would go to the noble benefactor. So much was left over for the monks that all of them could live on it. Should you visit a shrine in Japan, you will find children with imprisoned birds squatting all along the roadside, one small cage close against the next. The little creatures, which are trained to do it, beat their wings and utter loud chirpings. Buddhist pilgrims going that way take pity on them for their soul’s sake. For a small ransom, the children open the cage doors and let the birds go free. This ransoming of animals is a general practice there. What does it matter to the pilgrims as they go on their way that the tame birds are all lured back again into their cages by their owners? One and the same bird serves ten, a hundred or a thousand times during its life: captivity as an object for the mercy of pilgrims. And these know well enough—apart from a few peasants and extremely ignorant exceptions—just what happens to the birds as soon as their backs are turned. The real fate of the animals is indifferent to them.

Elias Canetti, Auto-Da-Fé, 1935


‘You see, Don Pietrino, the “nobles”, as you call them, aren’t so easy to understand. They live in a world of their own, created not directly by God but by themselves during centuries of highly specialised experiences, of their own worries and joys; they have a very strong collective memory, and so they’re put out or pleased by things which wouldn’t matter at all to you and me, but which to them seem vitally connected with their heritage of memories, hopes, caste fears. Divine Providence has willed that I should become a humble member of the most glorious Order in an Eternal Church whose eventual victory has been assured; you are at the other end of the scale, by which I don’t mean the lowest but the most different. When you find a thick bush of marjoram or a well-filled nest of Spanish flies (you look for those too, Don Pietrino, I know) you are in direct communication with the natural world which the Lord created with undifferentiated possibilities of good and evil until man could exercise his own free will on it; and when you’re consulted by evil old women and eager young girls, you are plunging back into the dark abyss of centuries that preceded the light from Golgotha.’

The old man looked at him in amazement; he had wanted to know if the Prince of Salina was satisfied or not with the latest changes, and the other was talking to him about aphrodisiacs and light from Golgotha. ‘All that reading’s driven him off his head, poor man.’

‘But the “nobles” aren’t like that; all they live by has been handled by others. They find us ecclesiastics useful to reassure them about eternal life, just as you herbalists are here to procure them soothing or stimulating drinks. And by that I don’t mean  they’re bad people; quite the contrary. They’re just different; perhaps they appear so strange to us because they have reached a stage towards which all those who are not saints are moving, that of indifference to earthly goods through surfeit. Perhaps it’s because of that they take so little notice of things that are of great importance to us; those on mountains don’t worry about mosquitoes in plains, nor do the people in Egypt about, umbrellas. Yet the former fear landslides, the latter crocodiles, which are no worry to us. For them new fears have appeared of which we’re ignorant; I’ve seen Don Fabrizio get quite testy, wise and serious though he is, because of a badly ironed collar to his shirt; and I know for certain that the Prince of Lascari didn’t sleep for a whole night from rage because he was wrongly placed at one of the Viceroy’s dinners. Now don’t you think that a human being who is put out only by bad washing or protocol must be happy, and thus superior?’

Don Pietrino could understand nothing at all now: all this was getting more and more nonsensical, what with shirt collars and crocodiles. He was still upheld, though, by a basis of good rustic commonsense. ‘But if that’s what they’re like, Father, they’ll all go to Hell.’

‘Why? Some will be lost, others saved, according to how they’ve lived in that conditioned world of theirs. Salina himself, for instance, might just scrape through; he plays his own game decently, follows the rules, doesn’t cheat. God punishes those who voluntarily contravene the Divine Laws which they know and turn voluntarily down a bad road; one who goes his own way, so long as he doesn’t misbehave along it, is always all right. If you, Don Pietrino, sold hemlock instead of mint, knowingly, you’d be for it; but if you thought you’d picked the right one, old Zana would die the noble death of Socrates and you’d go straight to Heaven with a cassock and wings of purest white.’

The death of Socrates was too much for the herbalist; he had given up and was fast asleep. Father Pirrone noticed this and was pleased, for now he would be able to talk freely without fear of being misunderstood; and he felt a need of talking, so as to fix into a pattern of phrases some ideas obscurely milling in his head.

‘And they do a lot of good, too. If you knew, for instance, the families otherwise homeless that find shelter in those palaces! And the owners ask for no return, not even immunity from petty theft. They do it not from ostentation but from a sort of obscure atavistic instinct which prevents them doing anything else. Although it may not seem so, they are in fact less selfish than many others; the splendour of their homes, the pomp of their receptions, have something impersonal about them, something not unlike the grandeur of churches and of liturgy, something which is in fact ad maiorem gentis gloriam, and that redeems a great deal: for every glass of champagne drunk by themselves they offer fifty to others; when they treat someone badly, as they do sometimes, it is not so much their personality sinning as their class affirming itself. Fata crescunt. For instance, Don Fabrizio has protected and educated his nephew Tancredi and so saved a poor orphan who would have otherwise been lost. You say that he did it because the young man is a noble too, and that he wouldn’t have lifted a finger for anyone else. That’s true, but why should he lift a finger if sincerely, in the deep roots of his heart, he considers all “others” to be botched attempts, china figurines come misshapen from the potter’s hands and not worth putting to the test of fire.

‘You, Don Pietrino, if you weren’t asleep at this moment, would be jumping up to tell me that the nobles are wrong to have this contempt of others, and that all of us, equally subject to the double slavery of love and death, are equal before the Creator; and I would have to agree with you. But I’d add that not only nobles are to be blamed for despising others, since that is quite a general vice. A university professor despises a parish schoolmaster even if he doesn’t show it, and since you’re asleep I can tell you without reticence that we clergy consider ourselves superior to the laity, we Jesuits superior to the other clergy, just as you herbalists despise tooth-pullers who in their turn deride you. Doctors on the other hand jeer at both tooth-pullers and herbalists, and are themselves treated as fools by their patients who expect to be kept alive with hearts or livers in a hopeless state; to magistrates lawyers are just bores who try to delay the course of law, and on the other hand literature is full of satires against the pomposity, indolence and often worse of those very judges. The only people who also despise themselves are labourers; when they’ve learnt to jeer at others the circle will be closed and we’ll start all over again.

‘Have you ever thought, Don Pietrino, how many names of jobs have become insults? From trooper and fishwife to reitre or pompier in French? People don’t think of the merits of troopers or fishwives; they just look at their marginal defects and call them all rough and profane; and as you can’t hear me, I may tell you that I’m perfectly aware of the exact current meaning of the word “Jesuit”.

‘Then these nobles put a good face on their own disasters: I’ve seen one who’d decided to kill himself next day, poor man, looking beaming and happy as a boy on the eve of his first Communion; while if you, Don Pietrino, had to drink one of your own herb drinks, you’d make the village ring with your laments. To rage and mock is gentlemanly; to grumble and whine is not. In fact I could give you a recipe: if you meet a “gentleman” who’s querulous, look up his family tree; you’ll soon find a dead branch.

‘It’s a class difficult to suppress because it’s in continual renewal and because if needs be it can die well, that is it can throw out a seed at the moment of death. Look at France; they let themselves be massacred with elegance there and now they’re back as before. I say as before, because it is differences of attitude, not estates and feudal rights, which make a noble.

‘They tell me that in Paris nowadays there are Polish counts who’ve been forced into exile and poverty by revolts and despotism; they drive cabs, but frown so at their middle-class customers that the poor things get into the cab, without knowing why, as humbly as dogs in church.

‘And I can tell you too, Don Pietrino, that if, as has often happened before, this class were to vanish, an equivalent one would be formed straight away with the same qualities and the same defects; it might not be based on blood any more, but possibly on … on, say, length of time in a place, or pretended knowledge of some text presumed sacred.’

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard, 1958.

Why I Like the Greeks

A conjunction of social and aesthetic concerns may account for the rarity of female nudes in the earlier periods of Greek art, as well as the particular form they took when they eventually appeared in the fourth century. Few civilized societies have been so completely male-dominated as that of ancient Greece. Laws make this abundantly clear: adultery, for example, was defined one-sidedly as intercourse between a married woman and a man who was not her husband, rape as an offence against a woman’s husband, father or guardian, not herself. Regarded and guarded as possessions, upper-class wives were kept at home and confined to childrearing and household maintenance, while their husbands sought emotional, physical and intellectual stimulus elsewhere, either with members of their own sex or among the hetairai or porne (common prostitutes). The latter were depicted naked, in a variety of seductive poses, on sixth and fifth-century vases, usually in brothel scenes, which are pornographic in the strictest meaning of the word. To have included a nude female among the statues of male athletes which crowded the sanctuaries would therefore have seemed extremely odd.

Hugh Honour and John Fleming, The Visual Arts: A History, 2002

Addiction and Onanism

What part of a gambler’s long-buried childhood is it that forces its way to repetition in his obsession for play? The answer may be divined without difficulty from a story by one of our younger writers. Stefan Zweig, who has incidentally devoted a study to Dostoevsky himself (1920), has included in his collection of three stories Die Verwirrung der Gefohle [Confusion of Feelings] (1927) one which he calls “Vierundzwanzig Stunden aus dem Leben einer Frau” [“Four-and-Twenty Hours in a Woman’s Life”]. This little masterpiece ostensibly sets out only to show what an irresponsible creature woman is, and to what excesses, surprising even to herself, an unexpected experience may drive her. But the story tells far more than this. If it is subjected to an analytical interpretation, it will be found to represent (without any apologetic intent) something quite different, something universally human, or rather something masculine. And such an interpretation is so extremely obvious that it cannot be resisted. It is characteristic of the nature of artistic creation that the author, who is a personal friend of mine, was able to assure me, when I asked him, that the interpretation which I put to him had been completely strange to his knowledge and intention, although some of the details woven into the narrative seemed expressly designed to give a clue to the hidden secret.

In this story, an elderly lady of distinction tells the author about an experience she has had more than twenty years earlier. She has been left a widow when still young and is the mother of two sons. who no longer need her. In her forty-second year, expecting nothing further of life, she happens, on one of her aimless journeyings, to visit the Rooms at Monte Carlo. There, among all the remarkable impressions which the place produces, she is soon fascinated by the sight of a pair of hands which seem to betray all the feeling of the unlucky gambler with terrifying sincerity and intensity. These hands belong to a handsome young man–the author, as though unintentionally, makes him of the same age as the narrator’s elder son–who, after losing everything, leaves the Rooms in the depth of despair, with the evident intention of ending his hopeless life in the Casino gardens. An inexplicable feeling of sympathy compels her to follow him and make every effort to save him. He takes her for one of the importunate women so common there and tries to shake her off; but she stays with him and finds herself obliged, in the most natural way possible, to join him in his apartment at the hotel, and finally to share his bed. After this improvised night of love, she exacts a most solemn vow from the young man, who has now apparently calmed down, that he will never play again, provides him with money for his journey home and promises to meet him at the station before the departure of his train. Now, however, she begins to feel a great tenderness for him, is ready to sacrifice all she has in order to keep him and makes up her mind to go with him instead of saying goodbye. Various mischances delay her, so that she misses the train. In her longing for the lost one she returns once more to the Rooms and there, to her horror, sees once more the hands which had first excited her sympathy: the faithless youth had gone back to his play. She reminds him of his promise, but, obsessed by his passion, he calls her a spoil-sport, tells her to go, and flings back the money with which she has tried to rescue him. She hurries away in deep mortification and learns later that she has not succeeded in saving him from suicide.

The brilliantly told, faultlessly motivated story is of course complete in itself and is certain to make a deep effect upon the reader. But analysis shows us that its invention is based fundamentally upon a wishful phantasy belonging to the period of puberty, which a number of people actually remember consciously. The phantasy embodies a boy’s wish that his mother should herself initiate him into sexual life in order to save him from the dreaded injuries caused by masturbation. (The numerous creative works that deal with the theme of redemption have the same origin.) The “vice” of masturbation is replaced by the addiction to gambling; and the emphasis laid upon the passionate activity of the hands betrays this derivation. Indeed, the passion for play is an equivalent of the old compulsion to masturbate; “playing” is the actual word used in the nursery to describe the activity of the hands upon the genitals. The irresistible nature of the temptation, the solemn resolutions, which are nevertheless invariably broken, never to do it again, the stupefying pleasure and the bad conscience which tells the subject that he is ruining himself (committing suicide)–all these elements remain unaltered in the process of substitution. It is true that Zweig’s story is told by the mother, not by the son. It must flatter the son to think: “if my mother only knew what dangers masturbation involves me in, she would certainly save me from them by allowing me to lavish all my tenderness on her own body.” The equation of the mother with a prostitute, which is made by the young man in the story, is linked up with the same phantasy. It brings the unattainable woman within easy reach. The bad conscience which accompanies the phantasy brings about the unhappy ending of the story. It is also interesting to notice how the façade given to the story by its author seeks to disguise its analytic meaning. For it is extremely questionable whether the erotic life of women is dominated by sudden and mysterious impulses. On the contrary, analysis reveals an adequate motivation for the surprising behaviour of this woman who had hitherto turned away from love. Faithful to the memory of her dead husband, she had armed herself against all similar attractions; but–and here the son’s phantasy is right–she did not, as a mother, escape her quite unconscious transference of love on to her son, and Fate was able to catch her at this undefended spot.

If the addiction to gambling, with the unsuccessful struggles to break the habit and the opportunities it affords for self-punishment, is a repetition of the compulsion to masturbate, we shall not be surprised to find that it occupied such a large space in Dostoevsky’s life. After all, we find no cases of severe neurosis in which the auto-erotic satisfaction of early childhood and of puberty has not played a part; and the relation between efforts to suppress it and fear of the father are too well known to need more than a mention.

Sigmund Freud, “Dostoevsky and Parricide,” 1928


Aesthetic Value

We need to teach more selectively, searching for the few who have the capacity to become highly individual readers and writers. The others, who are amenable to a politicized curriculum, can be abandoned to it. Pragmatically, aesthetic value can be recognized or experienced, but it cannot be conveyed to those who are incapable of grasping its sensations and perceptions. To quarrel on its behalf is always a blunder.

Harold Bloom, The Western Canon, 1994

Silent Running

Edvard Munch

The analysand’s demand is in fact a means of getting rid of this desire. Unconsciously, she wants to stop being unsatisfied and turns to a therapist in the hope that he will be able to heal her pain and remove the lack that torments her. The problem, however, is that in the long term this solution will not work. The analyst will never be able to give the analysand what she desires; all he can give her is desire as such. In other words, the analyst will only be able to help her to the extent that he leaves the analysand’s demand painfully unanswered. . . .

This strange therapeutic starting point of psychoanalysis has far-reaching implications for ethics. The “good” the analysand demands henceforth means a satisfaction of her desire. But since we are nothing other than our desire, since desire is our very being, our demand in fact aims at extinguishing desire, which is to say that it aims at our death. This is what Freud’s concept of the “death drive” already had its sights on. What we desire, whether we call it “well-being,” “good,” or the “highest good” is in fact, in the final analysis, nothing other than death, Lacan concludes. What an age-old and still valid tradition names the “good”—that is, something humankind is made for and at which our desire naturally aims—would really, were it to be realized, kill us. It would be pure evil. What one unconsciously demands in the psychoanalytic cure is in fact an “evil” that would destroy us, Lacan says, and one lives only by grace of the fact that one’s demand never gets fully answered. It is just as well that the “good” the analysand demandingly and desiringly searches for is an illusion. Complete satisfaction would simply be fatal.

Marc De Kesel,  Eros and Ethics, 2009