Chapter 7 – The uses and abuses of children: Thinking infantile eroticism

Christopher Dare suggests that ‘the idea of the sexual abuse of children, usually by an adult or older child, is so assaulting that all of us want immediately to evacuate it and push it away so we don’t have to think about it.’ (Minsky 1998: 167). The extent of the trauma inflicted is literally ‘unthinkable’, in that for children and adults alike, it can neither be mentally contained nor symbolically processed. The concept of child pornography is equally abhorrent, equally emotive, and furthermore subject to stringent laws; its stigma in society is such that few would openly admit to a desire to see or read such material. And yet, thinking about the relationship between children and sexuality, often in shocking and graphic ways, is intrinsic to so many of the millennium crossover texts that were part of, or followed in the wake of, the nouveaux barbares. Time and again abuse to young children crops up in the texts of Houellebecq and Despentes, whilst early sexual fantasies and experiences are essential to the artworks of Nimier and Breillat. The question of infantile sexuality has recently provoked in France a whole range of fictional and life writing texts that explore the troubled, damaged past of the central protagonist, subject to bewildering abuse and still seeking some form of redemption or reconciliation, the works of Christine Angot offering something of a paradigm here. Many texts treat this issue sensitively and creatively, but some, in their use of graphic sexual detail (Angot once again exemplary) blur the borderlines between a detailed and provocative exposure of child abuse, and a collapse into the pornographic. On the furthest end of this scale, there have also been some notably controversial texts, such at Nicolas Jones-Gorlin’s unpalatable Rose Bonbon, whose supposedly sympathetic portrait of a pedophile provoked a huge outcry. Whether it be a question of premature sexual initiation, or the exploration of traumatic abuse, whether children are used as complicit accomplices or unwilling witnesses, whether art exploits adolescent fantasies or underage nightmares, contemporary French writing has displayed a fascination with infantile eroticism that is ambiguous, ethically uncertain, pervasive and utterly persistent.

What makes this fascination ever more complex is that since 2001, France has for the first time marshaled a significant anti-pornography campaign – focused on controlling the transmission of pornographic material on television – in the name of “protection de la jeunesse”. The need to protect children provides a persuasive standpoint from which to mount a campaign since, as Ruwen Ogien argues previous attempts had concentrated on the inherent degradation to women, or the offense dealt to certain religions, reasons that affected only a particular category of the population. In those circumstances, ‘il n’y avait pas de “scandale public”, pas de “problème de société”. L’attaque n’aurait eu d’impact qu’à partir du moment où elle se serait faite au nom de la “protection de la jeunesse”, c’est-à-dire d’une raison universelle.’ (Ogien 2003: 5).[1] But beyond this philosophical judgement, there exists also a more political reason; Ogien points out that ‘c’est, curieusement, la gauche dite “progressiste” qui s’est emparé du theme de la “protection de la jeunesse”, auquel l'”opinion publique” est manifestement très sensible.’ (2003: 6).[2] One evident manifestation of this current sensitivity was the scandal provoked by the appearance of Jones-Gorlin’s text. We can gauge the strength of public opinion in France by the widespread moral outrage that met the publication of Rose Bonbon, with two children’s rights groups, L’Enfant bleu and La Fondation pour l’enfance, calling for it to be removed from the shelves. Indeed, the publisher, Gallimard, did bow to legal threats, issuing the book with a warning on the jacket and then deciding not to re-supply bookstores. Jones-Gorlin protested his astonishment at the strength of the reaction his novel provoked, not in terms of the issues it raised, but in the personalized nature of the attack. In an interview he described his experience as one akin to persecution: ‘Je me suis terré chez moi … je pense qu’il y aurait eu un vrai lynchage médiatique si je m’étais montré … Les premiers jours ont vraiment tenu de l’hystérie.'(Bontour 2002).[3] The author received unexpected support, however, from the League of Human Rights, whose spokesperson for culture, Agnès Tricoire, argued that fact should be understood as separate from fiction, and that just as detective novels did not promote murder, so texts dealing with pedophilia did not equate to an apologia for child abuse. Beyond this defense of narrative, however, Tricoire added that the issue was particularly problematic because nowadays ‘L’enfant est le nouveau sacré, la nouvelle cause religieuse.’ (Joye 2002).[4] This curious remark, and the scandal from which it arose, shows how the cultural concept of the child is as conflicted as it has ever been, defended and idealised but simultaneously used and exploited, politically, culturally, and aesthetically.

The conflict seems to arise between a culture that demonstrates an intensely emotional response to protecting the idealised vulnerability of children, and cultural artworks that seek to represent with distanced accuracy, exactly what occurs at the heart of the traumatic and abusive encounter. Emma Wilson, writing on contemporary films that deal with sensitive issues surrounding children suggests that: ‘Their aim appears not to be to order or organize experience, to establish values or rules, but rather to represent and respond to its mess and pain. This leveling, and suspension of judgement, may be disturbing in a territory where views on right and wrong have tended to be entrenched and absolute.’ (Wilson 2003: 9). This is particularly the case with contemporary French texts and films that cite the pornographic. Whilst the images and scenarios portrayed are often direct quotations of those whose original purpose was to excite and arouse, they are repeatedly placed in contexts and perspectives that negate the possibility of arousal or else use it to trouble and disquiet the reader or spectator. These texts and films do not construct their own moral universes, preferring to allow disturbing images to speak for themselves. Inevitably, then, such works that use or focus on the sexual experiences of children tread on difficult ethical ground, raising the question of whether it is possible to represent children in this way without sliding into an aestheticisation of the horrific, or encroaching upon morally dubious territory.

Whilst there is a current trend in art towards an amoral consideration of sexual issues, there is also a quasi-obsession within popular culture, promoted essentially by the media, surrounding sexual crimes against children. It is not surprising that Jones-Gorlin’s text received such hostile attention when we consider the way that contemporary concerns about pedophilia in France are explored in Cathy Bernheim’s curiously hybrid text, Dors, ange amer. In this text the author’s fictionalisation of her own abused childhood and a dialogue with an eponymous fantasy child, Posthume, sit either side of an alarming collection of statistics and news reports. Bernheim produces a range of figures depicting the rapidly increased number of children at risk, as well as the mounting charges of rape and abuse.[5] Her récit is particularly interested in the case of a teacher, M.K., who abused his pupils throughout his career, but was only denounced when one committed suicide, releasing a deluge of over 60 further charges from fellow sufferers. This case, however, is only one among hundreds brought to prominence in a culture that is now highly sensitised to child abuse. The narrator claims that in one day’s paper alone, she reads ‘un article consacré aux “7 disparues de l’Yonne”. Dans la même page, “Les petits chanteurs accusent les responsables d’une chorale”, et un autre titre annonce: “Nice, prof de gym soupçonné de pédophilie.”‘ (Bernheim 2005: 125).[6] For Bernheim, it seems that this newly-acquired sexual conscience has come too late for the victims of M.K. ‘Qui parlait de pédophilie à l’époque?'(2005: 128)[7] one witness asks, and Bernheim finds this comment apt. Yet the excessive newspaper reportage seems to insist that nowadays no one stops talking about pedophilia, that the extent of the current media obsession with children at risk might itself be a suspicious response to the problem of child abuse. Bernheim’s book is a cautious if sentimental approach to the consequences of childhood trauma, but it embraces the brutality of the fait divers without critique, without wondering whether the journalistic appropriation of such trauma is not itself potentially conflicted. The paradoxical media display of violations to child privacy remains unquestioned. If artistic representations of child sexuality are perpetually threatened by a collapse into the exploitative, what are we to make of lurid and sensationalised accounts of sexual attacks on children that risk becoming as emotionally inflammatory as the pornography they would undoubtedly seek to censor. Where to draw a line, then, between healthy and unhealthy, responsible and irresponsible, accounts of child sexual abuse?

This is not germane to France alone, but seems instead to be pervasive throughout the contemporary Western world. James Kincaid, an American professor of literature, has produced controversial research on the media representations of child molestation cases, suggesting that whilst contemporary American society genuinely cares about the mental health of the children concerned, ‘we also care about maintaining the particular erotic vision of children that is putting them in this position in the first place.'(Kincaid 1998: 246). Kincaid details this particular erotic vision by explaining that from the nineteenth century onwards, children have been equated with a number of ‘negative attribute[s]’, such as liberty, purity and innocence, which have ‘become more and more firmly attached to what was characterized as sexually desirable’ (1998: 247). He suggests that, ‘[t]he physical makeup of the child has been translated into mainstream images of the sexually and materially alluring. We are told to look like children, if we can and for as long as we can’, with the result that, ‘we are instructed to crave that which is forbidden.’ (1998: 247-8). Nicolas Jones-Gorlin, too, claimed that one of the main targets of his novel was ‘l’obsession du jeunisme, la peur de vieillir’ (Bontour 2002).[8] Such a viewpoint remains, and perhaps not surprisingly, antipathetic to the current media climate, however. Kincaid’s book received very hostile reviews in the UK; The Sunday Times declared him to be ‘a passionate champion of pedophilia’ (Carey 1993) and the Daily Mail ran an article headed “Pedophile Book ‘Should Be Banned'” (Verity 1994).

There are, then, any number of conflicting perspectives on child sexuality that help to make the issue hopelessly entangled. On the one hand we have what would seem a perfectly reasonable and ethical desire to protect children from sexual abuse by their elders. Yet the excessive representation of the occurrences and experiences of sexual abuse risks promoting the exploitative climate it would seek to condemn. Furthermore, such representations collide with a culture that privileges youth as a desirable commodity. On the other hand, commentators like Ruwen Ogien have asked exactly what it is that we wish to protect children from, when they themselves must explore and understand their sexuality if they are to make a healthy transition to adulthood. Ogien points to a fundamental confusion in French society over the capabilities of the young adolescent: ‘À 13 ans, on n’est pas assez “responsible” pour voir des films porno, mais on l’est assez pour aller en prison’ (2003: 132),[9] and a lack of research to indicate that what amounts to fleeting glimpses of pornographic material will have any long term deleterious effects. In conclusion he proposes that the need to protect children from graphic images of sexuality arises from the internal and misplaced projections of adults onto children that do not in fact protect them so much as imply a criminality to their desire: ‘On présente les jeunes comme des victims, alors qu’en vérité on les traite comme des coupables.’ (2003: 140).[10] How then can we possible think the sexuality of children? How can we distinguish between acceptable sexual experience in the child and degrading abuse?

One way to approach this issue is via Adam Phillips’s original psychoanalytic perspective on the kind of sexuality that inhabits the child. Rather than constructing a retrospective fiction of sexual development, Phillips explores the mindset of the child ‘whom psychoanalysis has mislaid’, and this child possesses ‘an astonishing capacity for pleasure and, indeed, the pleasures of interest, with an unwilled relish of sensuous experience which often unsettles adults who like to call it affection… I would rather call it a kind of ecstasy of opportunity.’ (Phillips 1998: 21). Phillips draws on Freud here, recalling his understanding of children as hedonists whose immense curiosity is akin to a form of appetite. For Freud, this appetite required satisfaction via fantasies and stories, and arose once that child had been displaced by the birth of a sibling. In this sense, the curiosity inspired by such ungraspable acts of displacement is a sign of all that the child has lost; loss that has been transformed into a recognition of the necessity of knowledge. Phillips points out that subsequent theorists – Lacan, Klein, Winnicott – have focused almost exclusively on formative losses and the vulnerability and helplessness they imply. But for Freud, these earliest forays into curiosity and hypothesis creation also held their compensations: ‘It is the child’s always paradoxical resilience – the inventions born of apparent insufficiency, the refusal of common sense, of the facts of life – that Freud is taken by.’ (1998: 19). Phillips argues that the insistence on the child as longing to overcome in teleological and rational fashion the unknown that surrounds him is too easily co-opted into an overly adult perspective of progress: ‘The child – unlike the adult – is not merely compensating for not being an adult, or for not being self-sufficient. Because there is no purpose to the child’s life other than the pleasure of living it. It is not the child, in other words, who believes in something called development.’ (1998: 21). That childish curiosity, which is, Phillips suggests, always to do with bodies, is a form of intensely pleasurable interest. All subsequent education, in its insistence on telling the child that it really wishes to know about other things, provides a kind of overbearing and relentless distraction. ‘This was the real scandal of what Freud called infantile sexuality. Not that it is a (thwarted) warm-up for adult life – and therefore that children are prototypically sexual creatures – but that infantile sexuality with its sole aim of ‘the gaining of particular kinds of pleasure’ is the fundamental paradigm for erotic life.’ (1998: 26). In other words, children represent the scandal of erotic fecklessness, sexuality unfettered from procreation, released from the demands of community, explorative, inventive and amoral. Phillips is drawing specifically from Freud’s paper ‘Civilized Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness’, in which Freud details the cost of abandoning such creative sexual freedom and accepting the sublimations of civilization in its place. For Freud this development brought about ‘an increase of anxiety about life and a fear of death’, which leaves the subject in a condition that Phillips describes as ‘radically imperilled’ (1998: 25).

This alternative, and subversive, vision of expansive sexuality in childhood offers significant food for thought. We can see from this version how Oedipal (and legal) barriers protect both children and adults from succumbing to the dangers of free-floating interest. We can also see written into adult accounts of child development both a hopeless nostalgia for the loss of innocent sexual interest, and also, arguably, a directly proportional insistence on linear development to steer the child towards the uncertain compensations of sublimation. What might the outcome be if we were to speculate on the combination of envy and anxiety that might inhabit the adult’s retrospective perspective on infantile eroticism? We might at least identify in such a perspective the projection of overly grown-up responses to graphic sexuality, alongside the projection of nostalgic over-evaluations of childish forms of fulfillment. It is not surprising that protecting children from (their own) sexuality becomes such an emotive and fraught issue. However, we can usefully balance the picture given to us by Adam Phillips, with Leo Bersani’s rereading of infantile sexuality, again via a creative return to Freud.

Bersani reconsiders Freud’s Three Essays on Sexuality and Beyond the Pleasure Principle with particular attention to the will children manifest to repeat and even intensify certain unpleasurable experiences. What would it mean to say, Bersani asks, ‘that in sexuality, pleasure is somehow distinct from satisfaction, even identical to a kind of pain?’ Bersani’s answer is based on centralising masochism within the structure of sexuality. He explains that: ‘Freud appears to be moving towards the position that the pleasurable, unpleasurable tension of sexual excitement occurs when the body’s “normal” range of sensation is exceeded, and when the organization of the self is momentarily disturbed by sensations or affective processes somehow “beyond” those compatible with psychic organization.’ (1986: 38). Sexuality, in other words, is borne out of an excess of stimuli, out of an event that arouses the self intensely but cannot be understood within the usual frames of reference. Bersani goes on to say that ‘From this perspective, the distinguishing feature of infancy would be its susceptibility to the sexual. The polymorphously pervasive nature of infantile sexuality would be a function of the child’s vulnerability to being shattered into sexuality’ (1986: 38). Thought on these lines, Bersani can make his paradoxical claim that ‘masochism serves life’; it is an ‘evolutionary conquest’ whereby the developing self learns to tolerate a period of shattering stimuli for which we are defenseless by finding what we will go on to call sexual pleasure within it. Sexuality would therefore be, according to Bersani, ‘a condition of broken negotiations with the world, a condition in which others merely set off the self-shattering mechanisms of masochistic jouissance.’ (1986: 41). If we consider the theories of Bersani and Phillips alongside one another, it might be possible to identify two sexual currents within infantile eroticism; one an ‘innocent’ creative and explorative pleasure that is linked to the corporeal, and which is increasingly diminished and replaced by education; the other, a developmental tool that translates the possibility of corporeal pleasure into excessive experience, which must be increasingly incorporated into the child’s growing subjectivity. Infantile sexuality would thus be set on a trajectory from hedonistically-interested curiosity in the external world towards a learnt, defensive transformation of unbearable externality into internalised pleasure. In short, the child’s own experience of sexuality is one of outwardly engaged pleasure being met by brutalising and excessive external forces. From this perspective, we can see how the narrative of child abuse is so fascinating, as it can be seen to symbolise the cross-over point, from infantile eroticism to adult eroticism. It also indicates the extent of the gulf that divides the two. It seems that the difference between the sexuality of adults and that of children is perpetually underemphasized, and that it is indeed from their confusion that authentic abuse results.

We need to complicate this picture of infantile sexuality further by situating it within a highly particular contemporary culture. Since the 1960s Western civilization has become increasingly sexually permissive, with single mothers, contraception, abortion, homosexuality and gay marriage becoming commonplace events. Artistic representation has kept step, if not anticipated, such a revolution, with the graphically sexual aesthetic practices of the 1990s onwards presenting a kind of pinnacle of visibility and transparency. The disintegration of paternal authority, the constraining ‘no’ that instills the first, paradigmatic moral law, has resulted, according to Slavoj Žižek, in a postmodern sexuality that is not the erotic utopia anticipation might have projected; instead, the situation today is increasingly fragile and disillusioned: ‘What is undermined today, in our post-Oedipal permissive societies, is sexual jouissance as the foundational “passionate attachment”, as the desired/prohibited focal point around which our life revolves. (From this perspective, even the figure of the paternal “sexual harasser” looks like a nostalgic image of someone who is still fully able to enjoy “it”.) Once again the superego has accomplished its task successfully: the direct injunction “Enjoy!” is a much more effective way to hinder the subject’s access to enjoyment than the explicit Prohibition which sustains the space for transgression.’ (Žižek 1999: 367). It is intriguing that Žižek should draw attention to the narrative of abuse as providing, in these fraught contemporary times, a genuine family romance, or at least, a fable of sexual success. He goes on to say that ‘The utopia of a new post-psychoanalytic subjectivity engaged in the pursuit of new idiosyncratic bodily pleasures beyond sexuality has reverted to its opposite: what we are getting instead is disinterested boredom – and it seems that the direct intervention of pain (sado-masochistic sexual practices) is the only remaining path to the intense experience of pleasure.’ (1999: 367). Žižek’s remarks can be aligned here to the split between Phillips’s and Bersani’s theories which I outlined earlier. What is lost in modern society is precisely the sexual curiosity of childlike eroticism, defined and heightened by paternal prohibition, and all that can come to fill its place is excessively masochistic sexuality; the learnt, defensive transformation of overwhelming stimulation into something resembling pleasure.

We can see these dynamics in play in the contemporary texts that explore child sexuality. Narratives of child abuse, alongside a general cultural and aesthetic fascination for the intense experiences of childhood, tap into an ambivalent climate in which the exploitation of infantile sexuality is an ethical outrage, but also a rare experience of genuine, intense sexual excitement. We can see this ambivalence depicted and explored from varying perspectives across a number of texts published since 1990. One particularly clear example of this trend is Caroline Thivel’s Une Chambre après l’autre (2001). In this narrative, written from the child’s perspective in simple, limpid prose, Cécile is abducted from school one day by her estranged father and taken to spend several weeks with him in an isolated chalet in the mountains. This event is the realisation of a fantasy for Cécile who, uncomfortable with her mother’s bitterness and distress, longs for her idealised father. However, the time she spends with Richard is equally uncomfortable as the generation gap between them is bridged awkwardly by the romanticised love they have for each other. With nothing to do and nowhere to go, the relationship they both long for takes on inappropriate overtones. Richard does not know what to say to his child and Cécile is unable to formulate the questions she wants to ask. For Cécile is represented as consumed by a curiosity about her father that she does not know how to appease: ‘Elle a honte de sa curiosité parce qu’elle sais que Richard est incapable de la satisfaire’ (Thivel 2001: 51),[11] and which translates into the insidiously dangerous will to please the other. Richard, however, sees in his daughter the image of his wife when they first met, and transfers onto her the frustrated desires he has not managed to negotiate in the wake of their separation. Incest is the inevitable outcome, and is described in terms designed to inhabit the limited comprehension of the child. ‘Cécile a enfin eu le courage de le regarder lui, son père, puis le petit animal à l’ombre entre ses jambes. D’étonnement elle a lâché la chose dressée. La main de Richard a récupéré celle de Cécile et l’a ramenée docile au point crucial.’ (2001: 75-6).[12] We can see here how Cécile’s curiosity is rewarded with more than she bargained for, but this moment of transparent confusion at the heart of their sexual encounter is paradigmatic of their entire relationship, structured as it is around a disastrous collision between a child’s loving, seeking but unformulated curiosity, and an adult’s misplaced, projected erotic desires.

The rest of the narrative follows the trajectory of Cécile’s subsequent sexual development, which is oddly familiar within the context of postmodern erotic texts. Far from feeling horrified by what has occurred between herself and her father, ‘Cécile l’en aime d’autant plus.’ (2001: 89).[13] Richard, by contrast, is consumed with guilt and on the verge of breakdown. They end up in a car crash that has as its consequence their definitive separation. Abandoned and uncomprehending, unable to articulate what happened, still less to find comfort and reassurance in her mother, Cécile is forced to live on her own insufficient resources. Once old enough to be independent she shuns romantic love but embarks on a series of loveless and damaging sexual encounters that bring her no pleasure but express only her sense of guilt and self-disgust. The terms in which this shallow, self-abusing sexual life is described recall, with uncanny accuracy, the sexual encounters that structure the works of writers like Clothilde Escalle and filmmakers like Catherine Breillat. Male jouissance is observed detachedly as something bestial and displeasing: ‘Elle se sent ridicule, déteste le rictus de plaisir, le râle de l’autre’ (2001: 112),[14] whilst female pleasure is absented, the act provoked only by the compulsion to couple: ‘Elle a agi come un robot, une fille de joie, c’était plus fort qu’elle et maintenant elle regretted.'(2001: 115).[15] Divorced from any kind of sentimentalised context, the focus is entirely on the sexual act itself in true pornographic style. However, significant differences exist between Thiolet’s heroine and those in the works of Breillat, Escalle, et al. Not least that Cécile acknowledges, however hazily, that her behaviour is unhealthy and symptomatic of her own internal damage. She both seeks and fears a conventional romantic attachment in order to effect a cure, which is indeed the happy outcome of the novel. The protagonists of some of the nouveaux barbares, by contrast, revel in their masochistic, compulsive sexuality, exploring limit fantasies as a new form of transgression. We can read into both representations a cultural obsession with the erotic as something potentially traumatic. The privileging of (female) protagonists who explore a radical form of pornographic eroticism that focuses on the act and leaves their own subjectivity opaque and unknown, can be read through Hal Foster’s understanding of the contemporary subject of trauma as: ‘evacuated and elevated at once‘ (1996: 168). In psychoanalytic terms the subject of trauma is radically absent from the event, evacuated from their abilities to comprehend and register. In popular culture, however, Foster describes how ‘trauma is treated as an event that guarantees the subject, and in this psychologistic register the subject, however disturbed, rushes back as witness, testifier, survivor.’ (1996: 168). This definition seems entirely apt for these female protagonists who carry the narrative viewpoint in and through their own radical absence from the intense event. What are we to make, then, of Thivel’s novel, which recontextualises postmodern sexuality in the framework of child abuse? Does the novel suggest that contemporary images of female sexuality are simply unhealthy, derived from a cultural negativity that is pervasive if unacknowledged?

Rather than read the narrative as a form of cultural reproach (and there seems indeed to be no sign in the novel of such a critique) we could instead return productively here to Žižek’s recognition of ‘the growing collapse of symbolic efficiency’ in contemporary culture, the loss of a secure and defining sense of paternal limit and prohibition, that results in what Žižek terms ‘a big Other that actually exists, in the Real, not merely as a symbolic fiction.’ (1999: 362). The Oedipus complex traditionally stands for the supreme moment of transition from the Real (in terms of a symbiotic attachment to the maternal body) to the symbolic (a recognition that relations must now take place at the distancing level of words rather than corporeal interactions). Žižek draws our attention here to a contemporary transference of power away from the symbolic realm, thanks to a generalized weakening of the moral order, into a personalized Real; hence his term ‘big Other’, which stands for the belief that someone, somewhere is still ultimately in control, managing law and order in what might otherwise seem to be a chaotic universe, enhancing the lure of conspiracy theories among other things. For Žižek, one pertinent example of this return to the Real is False Memory Syndrome, where the figure of the father is seen as an actual seducer of his daughters, rather than ‘the embodiment of a symbolic fiction’. Žižek highlights the obstinacy with which the father is understood to have ‘really’ abused his children as indicative of a cultural need to construct an ‘obscene, invisible power structure’ (1999: 362) in the absence of a visible, dependable source of authority. In other words, perverse and haunting as such a thought may be, there is a paradoxical security in the belief that free-floating sexual anxiety can be tied down to the real experience of abuse. As such these texts can be understood as differing responses to the same problematic of uncertain, destabilized sexual relations in modern society, with Breillat and Escalle embracing that uncertainty and pushing it to the limit, whilst Thivel ‘solves’ it, constructing a narrative of psychic convalescence that romanticizes both the cause and the outcome of abuse.

For all its reconciliatory tone, however, we have to ask how healthy such a narrative may be in its representation of the sexual encounter between father and child as both formatively, overwhelmingly erotic and also an event which can be tamed and overcome. Far more disconcerting and uncomfortable is the work of Christine Angot, which constructs a series of structurally complex texts around the foundational motif of incest. Angot’s work belongs to the increasingly popular genre of autofiction, a hybrid practice of textuality that produces an excessive but internally troubled form of autobiography. Marion Sadoux claims that: ‘One of the great merits of Angot’s works is the way they question, albeit indirectly, the nature of literature in an age in which intimacy, privacy and personal histories are so relentlessly mediatised and exploited, and real lives are packaged, performed and televised for a mass audience.’ (Sadoux 2004: 174). Angot is working at the heart of contemporary culture’s desire for transparency and visibility, for the instant intimacy that can (even if fallaciously) seem to be on offer in the pornographic, and this by way of her own sexual scandals. Yet the incest that is so repeatedly evoked by Angot is never dealt with in a transparent way (although the sexual acts in her texts are often graphic in nature), nor can we make any simple equation between the events in the text and Angot’s own personal history, even though we are repeatedly and insistently invited to do so. The figure of incest becomes instead a lure, a trap into which the voyeuristic contemporary reader is encouraged to fall. As Cata and DalMolin argue, ‘Elle les appâte avec leur propre désir de faire l’expérience livresque de la violence du sexe…jusqu’au bout du roman où elle dévoile enfin ce qui n’était qu’un piège et une illusion créée par l’indéniable force du désir pornographique qui anime la culture, d’aujourd’hui.’ (Cata and DalMolin 2004: 90).[16] Much like Cécile in Une chamber après l’autre, however, the reader’s sexual curiosity is met within Angot’s text by more than he or she may have bargained for. Instead of a glimpse into an eroticised, transgressive sexual space, the reader is forced into a closer relationship with Angot’s damaged and aggressive psyche than is comfortable.

The damage is manifest in Angot’s extraordinary sentence structure, where excessive punctuation splits phrases into tiny segments, whilst the narrative thread leaps between different topics and concepts without explanation or connection. Angot’s writing practice in L’Inceste manages to be neither metaphoric nor metonymic; at best it may be described as palimpsestic, whereby each thought expressed textually by Angot’s stream of consciousness evokes others that lie beneath it in a way that suggests analogy without actually producing it. Angot herself has a more pertinent explanation for it: ‘J’atteins la limite, avec la structure mentale que j’ai, incestueuse, je mélange tout, ça a des avantages, les connexions, que les autres ne font pas, mais trop c’est trop comme on dit, c’est la limite’ (Angot 1999: 91).[17] Cata and DalMolin suggest that Angot’s works ‘calque de façon performative l’écriture de l’inceste sur l’expérience de l’inceste.’ (2004: 86).[18] The readerly struggle to follow Angot’s tortuous prose (watched over it would seem by the narrator herself) leads to a profound engagement with a damaged subjectivity that lacks any sense of pudeur, and which leaves the reader without the protection of formal symbolic restraint.

L’Inceste recounts the brief but intense homosexual relationship the narrator had, which was marked by profound ambivalence. It then returns to the past to recall her experience of incest, which lasted until her mid-twenties. Fundamentally, the text revolves around the criminalisation of desire. Whether it be Angot’s desire for her lesbian lover, or her desire to explain her sexuality to her young daughter, Léonore, or the reader’s desire to know the ‘truth’ of a text, desire is represented as excessive, damaging and misplaced, satisfied always at an unacceptable cost of violence, in one form or another, to others. We can read into this a formative experience of desire-as-destructive that recalls Adam Phillips’ quotation of Freud: ‘The sexual behaviour of a human being often lays down the pattern for all his other modes of reacting to life.’ (1998: 25). Furthermore, the consequences – the aggressive attacks the narrator launches into lovers and readers alike – can equally be explained by Christopher Dare’s understanding of certain patterns of behaviour instilled by underage sexual abuse. He suggests that ‘the child’s shame turns into blame and then may manifest itself in a life of living out the grudge in destructive retribution on others.’ (Minsky 1998: 167). Or as Angot’s lover, Marie-Christine expresses it, ‘tu massacres les autres, parce que tu as été massacré.’ (1999: 125).[19] Curiously, this text is not about drawing the reader to an understanding of the effects of child abuse; for all its structural opacity, it remains consistently lucid and insightful on Angot’s own psychological difficulties. Instead its aim is more concerned with disquieting the reader and troubling the always already intimate relationship between reader and narrator (encouraged to be indistinguishable from the author in modern, trauma-obsessed times). In its linguistic complexities and its claim to offer an unmediated experience of sexual violence, the text plays with the power relations between author and reader, performing the abuse of textual authority on its gullible, because curious, audience. Hence the readerly sense of disorientation when, after a lengthy passage detailing the painful aftermath of her affair, Angot writes that ‘Écrire, c’est peut-être ne faire que ça, montrer la grosse merde en soi. Bien sûr que non. Vous êtes prêts à croire n’importe quoi.’ (1999: 177).[20] The innocence of the reader is at stake here, the transaction with a text that promises the revelation of absolute truth. Of course, such a reader may well be naïve, if not disingenuous, but the point is to show that incest occurs in all manner of relationships. The eager curiosity of the reader, a curiosity that could easily cross the borderline into appropriative, unethical voyeurism, is repeatedly shown to be seeking an intimacy with the subject of the narrative that is both inappropriate and open to abuse. Angot turns the tables on the erotically questing desire of the reader to know sexual secrets, meeting the reader’s curiosity with painful brutality. For the reader who pruriently wishes to know about incest, Angot is ready to offer the textual equivalent.

Of all the paradoxical, conflicted erotic figures that structure postmodern pornographic texts, the figure of incest can be understood as one of the most excessive. Angot’s text is uncompromising in its flaunting of incestuous relationships; there can be nothing more intriguing at the heart of the sexual confession than illicit childhood seductions, and at the same time seduction equals abuse, the immeasurable, unthinkable damage wrought upon society’s most vulnerable members that can distort sexual experience for the remainder of a lifetime. The texts by Angot and Thivel, despite their differences, represent sexual abuse alongside its severe consequences, installing an ethical perspective within texts that are nevertheless ambivalent about the eroticism inherent in father-daughter relationships. Some of the texts that have been published recently are less coy about exploiting graphic scenarios of underage sex for their erotic power, however, notably the much reviled and highly controversial Rose Bonbon. Yet there have been other texts that have slipped beneath the radar of child protection, even though they contain material that might well be considered morally dubious or, even, from some points of view, provocative and offensive. The significant distinction between texts that emphasise an ethical dimension and those that quite blatantly exploit child sexuality would appear to be a couple of year’s difference in the age of the (girl) child protagonist. As soon as a child – and in these texts the child is always female – has entered what might be considered adolescence it is notable how the tone of the writing alters to become more salacious. It is also notable that the authors of such eroticised texts tend to be male, as opposed to the female-authored texts of child abuse.

One text of quite self-evident child pornography, first published in 1987, is Jean-Pierre Enard’s, Contes à faire rougir d’honte les petits chaperons. In this novel, again issuing from the respectable publishing house of Gallimard just as Rose Bonbon did, a male narrator describes a series of pornographic encounters between himself, his girlfriend, the maid and his niece, Alice, a nubile and sexually curious 13-year-old. Essentially this novel provides a kind of ‘What Alice Did Next’ after her adventures through the looking glass, with her penetrative sexual initiation as the finale. The text stages a series of sexual acts, each one delayed or interrupted by the narrator recounting a salacious rewrite of a fairy tale, and fairy tale characters provide metaphors throughout the text, with the narrator figuring himself as Sheherezade, the White Rabbit and even Cinderella at various moments. It offers a slick and humourous pornographic fantasy, yet this text could be considered a far more dangerous and subversive text than Rose Bonbon precisely because it is so subtly inoffensive. It is interesting that this novel should be quietly acclaimed whereas Rose Bonbon in its rather graceless and ludicrous offensiveness should produce such a violent and extreme response. Such distinctions raise questions that need to be considered about representations of a sexual nature concerning adolescents and children: what, for instance, constitutes the borderline between indecent and acceptable material? What are the cultural guidelines governing the reception of the obscene, and this when it involves underage girls in particular? Why is it that in some cases such representations are horrific, and in others, entertainingly titillating? These questions cannot be answered without an exploration of the cultural fantasies that surround the vulnerability and the desirability of children, both those fantasies produced by adults and projected onto children, and those that speak directly to the child in question.

In Contes à faire rougir d’honte les petits chaperons, the opening scenes of the narrative situate the action in a zone that rests uneasily between fantasy and reality: ‘Alice a changé depuis toutes ces histories au pays des Merveilles. Elle s’enferme dans la salle de bains. Elle se met nue et s’observe dans la glace. Elle voudrait bien voyager encore de l’autre côté du miroir. Passé douze ans, on ne sait plus comment faire.’ (Énard 1987: 7).[21] Alice is still a fantasy character, but her predicament is represented with explicit reality. The Wonderland at stake here, the text implies, is an erotic one, the only possibility left for adults who want to engage on a fantastic journey and emerge transformed. In this way the text indicates the degree of fantasy involved in adult sexuality, but it also keeps a wary distance from the idea of a real thirteen-year-old girl. Alice sets off in search of her sister’s boyfriend, the narrator, and once she finds him, lifts her t-shirt to show him her breasts, removes her knickers, sits on his lap and cannot restrain herself from masturbating. The narrator maintains a veneer of contented victimisation in the face of this sexual assault, wondering if a good spanking would solve the problem and then considering: ‘À la reflexion, ce n’est peut-être pas idéal pour la calmer.’ (1987: 11).[22] Repeatedly the text makes us aware of Alice’s strength of will, her unrelenting sexual curiosity, her knowing sexual manipulativeness. As the narrative progresses, Alice manages to become increasingly involved in the sexual games of the adults around her, until the eventual loss of her virginity at the end of the novel. The resolution of Alice’s sexual precociousness is presented as a very happy ending indeed. Her sexual education has been comprehensive and satisfactory and there is no shade of guilt, doubt or fear amongst the protagonists. This is undoubtedly a fairy tale in itself, one written for an audience of men, and whilst our teenage heroine is called Alice as an appeal to a certain type of humourously fantastic context, she could easily have been named Lolita instead.

We might pause here briefly to consider another text in which classic pornographic fantasies that involve children or at least adolescent girls are knowingly placed center stage. Roger des Roches’s La Jeune femme et la pornographie, discussed earlier for its relationship to the abject, features a lengthy and highly explicit scene in which the female protagonist recounts a fantasy of seducing her younger brother. The text provides a significant comparison with the Énard as its appropriation of pornographic clichés is expressly emphasized, as opposed to Contes à faire rougir which inhabits fantasy without signaling this context. Des Roches’s text highlights the erotic potential of the adolescent girl and exploits it with a clearly articulated gratuitousness. In this scene the protagonist, Hélène B. is recording a video that will be sent to the man she loves with the precise intent of stimulating him sexually. To that end she fixes upon: ‘L’inceste: c’est à tout prix qu’il faut raconter des episodes affreux ou tremblants.’ (des Roches 2005: 61).[23] The first scenario she fixes upon, although not the one she will subsequently elaborate, features herself as a young girl hiding in a wardrobe whilst watching her mother masturbate. This consciously evoked cliché is, intriguingly, closely related to the central scene in Clotilde Escalle’s Où est il cet amour? in which a child locked in a wardrobe witnesses incestuous sex between her father and grandmother. The self-reflexivity with which the cliché is produced in des Roches’s text asks us to consider retrospectively similar scenes in other texts that are represented in the absence of irony or distance. Des Roches’s text installs in the distance between his narrative and the scenes it recounts the recognition that such eroticism appeases the male erotogenic gaze. Similarly when the narrator reminds herself to ‘Dis que tu en avais treize, Hélène: des seins de femme sur le corps d’une fillette de treize ans!’ (2005: 67)[24] we find the template here for Énard’s sexually precocious Alice. Yet, des Roches’s text is troubling in its own way, as the sexual encounter detailed at length here between Hélène and her younger brother is one of eye-watering realism that does not trouble to hide the actualities of childhood. Hélène describes how ‘Je tenais ses fesses au creux de mes mains. Une petite fesse ronde dans chaque main. Son érection me chatouilla aussitôt le menton. Je levai les yeux: son regard croisa le mien, et j’y lus plaisir et affolement’ (2005: 64-5),[25] recognising the ambivalent drama of sexual initiation. At the same time it insists on the traumatised passivity of the younger brother ‘j’avais une poupée devant moi, consentante et fragile’ (2005: 66)[26] and on the overwhelming drive towards sexuality that inhabits the adolescent but which does not know how to be satisfied: ‘Quelqu’un qui était moi s’affairait aux commandes, et je n’avais plus, moi, aucun contrôle. Je m’étendis à côté de mon frère et l’avalai. Je le suçais, je l’aspirais – je levais mon cul afin d’y fourrer les doigts – , mais ce n’était pas assez.’ (2005: 68-9).[27] As such this fantasised scenario draws attention to the highly conflicted dimensions of graphic representations of child sexuality. It is a narrative that recognises the drama of sexual initiation but also its victims and its voyeuristic value. It hovers uncertainly between eroticism and the recognition of the damaging reality that early sexual experience potentially encompasses. It details the child’s self-shattering encounter with adult sexuality that lies on the borderline of its transformation into eroticism, and provides a lucid if disturbing contrast to Énard’s sugar coating of the sexual realities of adolescence.

Énard’s essential strategy for rendering the sexual enlightenment of children more palatable is to process the eroticism of his narrative through the medium of the fairy tale, which Contes à faire rougir les petits chaperons appeals to repeatedly, if in ironic and distorted fashion. The fairy tale is the traditional medium for transmitting the experience of adults to the naivety of children, and as such is put to use here to minimize the invidious nature of its context. The cunning cleverness of Énard’s text lies in its implication that Little Red Riding Hood was also a Lolita-in-waiting. Énard’s rewritten fairy tales emphasize an eroticism that is banal and vulgar and playful, but not entirely misplaced. His rewrites include Pinocchio (whose growing nose is clearly open to a bawdy interpretation), Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the Three Little Pigs and Tom Thumb. There is nothing dark and menacing about the sexuality at play in these tales, even though part of the entertainment involved comes from destroying their sugary tweeness. Instead, as Snow White figures out how to accommodate all seven dwarves at once, or as Tom Thumb pleasures the Ogre’s wife, a certain cheery innocence is maintained in tone and register and the sexualisation, whilst relentless, has a certain bizarre aptness. It is interesting to note that the story of Red Riding Hood is not offered as a rewrite, partly perhaps because its own sexual preoccupations are already intrinsic to its organization. Yet there are other possibilities why this story should be fundamental to the collection, but not retold. One of the earliest versions, that of Charles Perrault, is clearly a tale of sexual precociousness that ends in disaster, as Red Riding Hood is eaten and the story draws to a close with a morality verse. As Jack Zipes argues: ‘We tend to forget that Perrault implied that a young girl, who was irresponsible and naïve if not stupid, was responsible for a wolf’s behaviour and consequently caused her own rape.’ (Zipes 1995: 26). This harsh line has been softened by the time the tale is written by the Grimm brothers, who introduce the rescuing huntsman to save both child and grandmother and help outwit the wolf. This version offers an Oedipal drama for Bruno Bettelheim to interpret, in which the child’s premature sexuality is simply checked by the reinsertion of a sheltering, responsible father figure. Bettelheim suggests that it is, ‘much better, despite one’s ambivalent desires, to settle for a while longer for the protection the father provides when he is not seen in his seductive aspect.’ (1991: 181). The difference between the two tales seems essentially to be that Perrault considers the child old enough to be responsible for herself, whereas in Grimm she is not.

The question of responsibility becomes an urgent one, when we understand that at the heart of Red Riding Hood we find what Bettelheim calls ‘the fascination which sex, and everything surrounding it, exercises over the child’s mind’. Or put another way, Djuna Barnes’ allusion in Nightwood that ‘Children know something they can’t tell; they like Red Riding Hood and the wolf in bed!'(1961: 79). The tale of Red Riding Hood proposes that sexuality is nascent in all children, and that the fairy tale offers a medium through which this issue can be approached. Hence Énard’s saucy contes have a certain appropriateness that allows them to pass through cultural censors. Yet the question of Alice’s responsibility for her own sexuality is rigorously silenced throughout this novel, while the adults who might be expected to protect her involve her instead in their erotic play. Repeated references to Alice’s sexual voraciousness stand as proof of her maturity, and the context of eroticised fairy tales asks the reader’s indulgence for what is in any case latent in the child. The tale of little Red Riding Hood, along with the other fairy tales that lie palimpsestically under Énard’s text are used to provide an appeal to comfort, fantasy and security in a scenario that would otherwise be fraught with potential trauma; they defuse the demonic nature of the sexuality that would otherwise be apparent here.

Énard also employs another strategy in order to render Alice’s sexual initiation harmless and fulfilling. It is a striking feature of his rewritten tales that women feature abundantly as heroic, strong, demanding and sexually alluring. The magical, transformative power in these tales is always erotic, and that power is placed fully in the hands of the female characters. Males here are generally hesitant victims, or else resort to sexuality as a useful, self-protective strategy. This runs counter to the usual organization of gender roles in the fairy tales. Discussing the rather unfortunate lot of princesses in traditional tales, Jack Zipes points out that, ‘The young “heroines”, obviously ready for marriage, are humiliated, degraded and besmirched. Their major virtue is patience and, to a certain extent, opportunism. They must wait for the opportune time to make themselves available to a man. Without a man, they are nothing. Only when they find their prince, who comes from outside to rescue them, can their lives assume meaning, and the meaning is marriage and departure for another realm’ (1995: 39). Énard’s tales cast such humiliation aside and present women as sexually initiatory and powerful through their desirability.

This is not so much a rewrite as a simple, if exaggerated, appeal to a different kind of fictional myth, and one that is also aimed directly at girl children. Valerie Walkerdine points to the musicals of Gigi, My Fair Lady and Annie, in which otherwise disadvantaged working class girls call upon the transformative power of their innocent desirability. This ‘eroticised little girl’ as Walkerdine calls her, ‘is inscribed as one who can make a transformation, which is also a self-transformation, which is also a seductive allure.’ (Walkerdine 1998: 263). That image is not confined solely to the stage. Walkerdine points to the way that in contemporary culture it has become increasingly pervasive, so that ‘popular images of little girls as alluring and seductive, at once innocent and highly erotic, are contained in the most respectable and mundane of locations – broadsheet newspapers, women’s magazines, television adverts’ (1998: 257). Such images appeal to adults and children alike, informing little girls of the assets they must cultivate if they are to achieve recognition and power in their culture, and presenting children to adults as adorable and admirable in a way that seems entirely without victimisation. What seems to be most at stake here is the pervasiveness of such images throughout our culture, their ultimate invisibility and the unchallenged status of their innocence. Yet to present a child as adorable is to invest in its image either a misplaced sexuality or a misplaced spirituality, both of which are heavy symbolic constructions for a child’s narrow shoulders. Our current society, however, prefers to adore children, the message implicit in Agnès Tricoire’s remarks on the child as the new divine. Énard’s text offers, then, a highly palatable reconstruction of child sexuality because, although it is somewhat extreme, its foundations lie in a collusion with any number of fairy tales that pervade our culture concerning children, girl power, sexuality and happy endings. The way that culture has evolved the fairy tale to diminish the warning they encapsulate for children, to increase the power assigned to female figures, but this through the ever more significant power of their physical desirability, is entirely in keeping with the fantasies that support Énard’s profoundly pornographic representation of the adventures of a girl child. Énard’s tale must be involved in a work of such cultural legibility that it fails to arouse any dissonant echoes in its readership; it is difficult, otherwise, to understand how such a text could be published with so little outward signs of public concern.

However, we can view this text as extremely dangerous, precisely because of its collusion with some of culture’s less healthy fantasies. The idea of the girl child as a ‘Lolita’ is fraught with difficulty in the policing of relations between children and adults. In Judith Herman’s text, Father-Daughter Incest, Herman identifies some significantly pervasive myths that help to diminish the responsibility of the offender in sexual abuse cases, one of which is the ‘seductive daughter’. This seductive daughter is another appellation for the concept of Lolita, the sexually precocious child who assumes agency and asks for her abusive treatment.[28] The Lolita myth arises out of the uncomfortable but pervasive split between wicked children and innocent children, and perpetuates out of a misguided, over simplified cultural belief that children can be only one or the other. Such a split can be understood through adult projections of sexuality onto children, but in this collision of childish curiosity and adult eroticism, the guilt of the encounter leads the adult to a self-reassuring shift of blame. The image of Lolita is thus the perfect symbol of a culture confused over sexual and moral responsibility between the generations. Texts like Énard’s only glorify the Lolita role, rendering it highly erotic and titillating in a way that aims to disarm censure, but feeds dangerously into a culture’s bank of myths about sexualised children and victimized males.

Emma Wilson highlights another dimension to the sexually abusive relationship, which corresponds to the analysis of the eroticised princess discussed earlier. This is the recognition that in many contemporary films concerning child abuse, ‘the sexualisation of children [is seen] as an excessive, distorted image of normative processes of separation, initiation and the acquisition of sexual knowledge.’ (Wilson 2003: 9). In other words, incest is understood here as a vicious and brutal but ultimately accurate replica of the sexual power relations at large in contemporary society. Hence the fairy tale image of the princess becomes essential to gendered, sexual society for whether it be Jack Zipes’s model of the degraded, opportunistic princess who must win a man for her own safety, or the more contemporary model of the princess whose titillating allure offers her power, the outcome remains the same; female subordination to male sexual desire. This feminist argument suggests that whether girls are forced to offer themselves sexually to imposing men, or whether they choose to offer themselves is a matter of social nicety. If a society organizes its sexual power relations on unequal lines, if satisfying male desire still remains the imperative, then a patriarchal family with the father as traditional seat of power becomes a potentially dangerous place for a submissive girl child to be.

This may seem in itself an excessive argument, until we realize the extent to which a child lacks autonomous agency of its own. Children are born into an environment in which they are necessarily submissive because of their own utter helplessness and dependency. It is within such parameters that their sense of being is created. Jessica Benjamin in her psychoanalytic work on domination explores these earliest moments of subjectivity formation for the child, identifying a significant but fragile developmental stage in which a dialectic of reciprocal recognition is negotiated: ‘In order to exist for oneself, one has to exist for another. It would seem there is no way out of this dependency. If I destroy the other, there is no one to recognize me, for if I allow him no independent consciousness, I become enmeshed with a dead, not-conscious being. If the other denies me recognition, my acts have no meaning; if he is so far above me that nothing I do can alter his attitude toward me, I can only submit. My desire and agency can find no outlet, except in the form of obedience.’ (Benjamin 1988: 53). Benjamin’s analysis is intended to explain the reason why victims often collude in their own abuse, but it also explains why children battle so hard for recognition in the daily control struggles which they fight with their parents, and which they are regularly destined to lose. Children will always give in eventually because they must be loved in order to survive; there is no possibility of social or psychic space for them otherwise. It is all too easy to make a child submit, either to the whims of an individual, or to the validating gaze of its surrounding culture. The responsibility that adults bear towards children is thus enormous. The power they possess over the child is already weighted so heavily in their favour, that it takes very little to turn a child into a complicit victim.

From this perspective we could usefully reconsider the fairy tale through Jack Zipes’ alternative analysis. Zipes wonders why it is that we so resolutely focus on the happy ending rather than the terrible trials the child must endure in its quest. Neglect, abandonment, and abuse are all intrinsic to the child’s predicament, and we prefer to treat them in retrospect as didactic tools, rather than consider them as traumatic experiences. Zipes suggests we remember that fairy tales express an adult viewpoint on family relations, and not that of a child. ‘To a certain extent,’ he argues, ‘they were told and written down to reveal the shame and guilt that adults felt over the centuries or to redress wrongs. More than anything, I believe, they reveal what the psychiatrists Alice Miller and James Hoyne have identified as ambivalent feelings many parents have towards their children – their desire to abandon them, and the shame they feel when they actually abuse them.’ (1995: 219) Fairy tales, then, become part of the strategies adults have developed to assuage or sublimate these uncomfortable feelings, part of the structure of uneasy control that asks children to take responsibility for themselves, to mistrust the world, and to rationalise the trauma of abuse. Zipes proposes that: ‘We refuse to discuss the trauma in the tales based on children’s real experiences of maltreatment because we want to believe that such trauma did not and does not exist. We want desperately to forgive the parent in us and happily resolve what can never be completely resolved.’ (1995: 222). The happy ever after ending protects the adult every bit as much as it intends to protect the child. But what if a tale existed that shattered the coherency and the consistency of the fantasy world of the fairy tale, that exploited a culture’s self-contradictory stance on the eroticised child, and played openly to its fears and anxieties for its most vulnerable members? With these thoughts in mind, let us turn our attention to the much-reviled Rose Bonbon, by Nicolas Jones-Gorlin

The text opens in the cinema at a showing of Snow White, a regular haunt of Simon’s where he can watch children. On this occasion he spots a young girl and is overcome with desire. A foolhardy attack on the child in the toilets of a café afterwards leads to a conviction. Rather than be sent to prison, however, he is placed in a form of rehabilitation and given a small caravan in a deserted area. Here he meets Le Vieux, an elderly, wealthy man of influence who shares his feelings towards children. Le Vieux rationalises child abuse to Simon: ‘Les enfants sont très séducteurs; ils cherchent l’affection des adultes. Il n’y a rien d’anormal à leur répondre.’ (Jones-Gorlin 2002: 62),[29] accuses society of hypocrisy, and goes on to prove his power and prowess to Simon by approaching a child in a burger bar and buying an hour of his time from his ambiguously represented parents. Le Vieux takes Simon’s career development in hand, and together they decide to make a film (‘Un film pour dire que l’amour libre entre une enfant et un adulte, c’est bien.’ 2002: 83)[30] rejecting La Belle au bois dormant, and Le Petit Chaperon rouge in favour of a remake of Peter Pan. Needing an actor to play the lead part, le Vieux reinvents Simon as a star, Dany King, by placing him in a bizarre reality show in which contestants must survive in the (simulated) environment of outer space. Simon wins by playing to the audience’s need to see pain and suffering on their television screens, and goes on to star in the musical. So far, so ludicrous. He then commits an error by making an assault on a young niece of le Vieux, Rose. He has been warned off, but when he finds her in the bath, he cannot resist indulging in a sexualised rendition of The Three Little Pigs. Simon’s career suddenly falls apart as he is exposed as a paedophile by the press, and he is forced once again into hiding. He realises that his downfall has been manipulated by le Vieux, just as his success was manufactured by him. In consequence, he sets off on a mission of revenge. This involves trawling provincial France for three other paedophiles, whom he recognises without need of any formal communication, and who all instantly fall in with his plans. They kidnap a scout, Simon disposes of his companions, and he takes the scout to le Vieux, whose predilection for small boys he knows well. However, the child has been wired up as a suicide bomb, ready to explode once he is undressed. In the manner of cartoon heroes, Simon cannot leave well alone and returns to the hotel room because he has not heard the bomb go off; in the subsequent explosion Simon is paralysed as well.

This is clearly not a sensitive and insightful exploration of paedophilia. One of the most striking elements of the text is the increasing derangement of its fantasy frame. What is initially a story of some plausibility quickly veers off into the absurd and fantastic. Equally the focus shifts from Simon’s sexual feelings towards children, to his murderous feelings towards his one-time patron. This is, I would suggest, an indication of how alarmed the text is by its own material. The sheer ludicrousness of the novel, after the initial scene-setting of the first section, seems to imply a lack of responsibility towards the issues it raises, and a desire to distance itself from them through the realm of fantasy. Further evidence of this comes in the odd coda to the text, a tacked-on Note de la Rédactrice, which displaces the origin of the story from Simon to the journalist who comes to visit him in hospital, at his request, in order to write his life history. Having listened to a very particular, very immediate narrative voice throughout the novel, it is a shock to the reader to discover that this voice was ventriloquised through a woman, who then undermines what she has written: ‘l’état de santé de Simon, dès la moitié du livre, s’est profondément degradé. Il ne parvenait plus à prononcer l’ensemble des mots, ses idées semblaient plus confuses et leurs enchaînements sans lien evident. La chronologie et la structure réelle du récit, elles aussi, ont été malmenées.’ (2002: 169).[31] The reader is left uncertain how to interpret these remarks; does this therefore mean that the fantastic second part of the narrative did not occur at all? That it was an invalid’s delusion? Or that part of it occurred, but not in the order or the manner in which it was recounted? And if any of this were true, would it affect in any way the judgement the reader could carry out on the main protagonist? Having raised so many questions without offering answers, all we can know for sure is that this coda seeks to undermine further the plausibility of the narrative, to remove it ever farther from the field of mimesis and absolute moral interpretation.

This systematic disruption also occurs at the level of the discourse. Simon’s voice is highly stylised; a peculiar mishmash of street slang, idiom and English phrases, all combined in a high-octane, breathless dash along the sentences. According to the journalist’s coda, this discourse is one which she has attempted to tidy up, but it has not been possible to excavate an elegant French out of it: ‘Il a bien fallu que ma syntaxe se plie à son désordre mental’ (2002: 168)[32] she declares. The discordant, incoherent nature of the language is supposed to be an indication of Simon’s psychic disorder, and it is clearly under the banner of mental illness that this text wishes to place paedophilia. Yet if we examine closely the elements that compose Simon’s speech, we find a striking absence of emotion, and in its place, a cacophony of advertising slogans, idiom and cultural references. The intention is, I imagine, to make Simon seem inhuman, to displace him from any possibility of subjectivity. But the effect is to put the language of culture itself on trial, to uncouple it from its human origins, put it through the liquidiser and parody it as the source and the manifestation of society’s sickness. The text’s internal malaise, its ugliness and incoherence cannot truly be attributed to the viewpoint of the paedophile as this character and the world he inhabits are so implausibly represented. Instead this odd, discontinuous textual world presents us with a fractured subjectivity created out of the sordid flotsam and jetsam of popular culture. Simon’s narrative voice and the tale it tells become a discordant anthem of jarring notes, a staccato rap that threatens at all moments to descend into senselessness, where it might risk revealing the fundamental discontinuities of cultural ideology itself.

One of the reasons why this text feels so offensive is because it fails to create meaning out of the situations it represents. It wishes to maintain an intention to shock, but cannot quite bring itself to articulate the conclusions to its arguments. The exploitation of fairy tales, focusing on their demonic dimension but failing to link it to an understanding of their rationalisation of childhood trauma is an obvious case in point. The text abounds with disquieting representations of cultural failings whose dangers the narrative seems fearful of outwardly expressing. Instead it remains at the level of anxieties, veering off into implausible fantasy, or disowning its own insights. Yet it represents a sordid, degraded society that treats children as desirable commodities; it represents adults as possessing the causal powers to create reasons for abusing children alongside the moral bankruptcy to actually do so; it represents desire unleashed and catastrophic, lacking any possible framework of comprehension. Its own discontinuities provide, despite itself, a powerful critique of a culture that prefers to run away from its deepest fears and anxieties rather than take responsibility for the dangers it has created. Unable to cohere itself into a penetrating indictment of a culture’s malaise, Rose Bonbon remains a dislikeable, frustrating and unpleasant text, exploiting society’s weakest spots without offering the intellectual or emotional framework to assimilate and heal them. Like the crazy discourse that has rebelled against the journalist’s attempts to contain it, this narrative remains at the level of threatening fantasy, its jagged and uncomfortable discontinuities repeatedly erupting through its attempts at aesthetic resonance.

Most alarmingly of all, this is a text that contains no children. That is to say, the ones it features are little more than cardboard cut-outs, devoid of personality. Instead its focus is entirely upon the adults and the fantasies, desires and anxieties with which they invest their images of the child. It would seem that one of the most offensive messages that can be transmitted is that adults gain erotic pleasure from looking at children, and that this pleasure is potentially dangerous. Rose Bonbon makes adults solely responsible for the abuse of children, whilst Contes à faire rougir d’honte les petits chaperons goes to some pains to suppress and disarm such a thought, and this is perhaps a significant reason why their public receptions should have been so strikingly different. It is not surprising that such a message would receive a profoundly hostile response; it touches on some of the most powerful and disturbing emotions in adult subjectivity, such as unresolved Oedipal issues from childhood, the painful demands of desirability culture places on subjects who long to be validated within it, the blackest and most unacceptable aggressions we harbour towards our own offspring. As our society increasingly adores children, their desirability translating into a need to keep them safe at all times, so the responsibility parents bear towards children becomes ever more difficult to shoulder; it is simply too much to deal with. The hysteria that surrounds issues of paedophilia in the Western world, is bound up with the paradoxical knot of sexual relations within which we bind our children. It represents the intolerable responsibility we bear towards our much-prized children, but its form comes from the implicit eroticisation with which we surround their images. If our culture could find a way to love children less sexually, admire them less erotically, then perhaps it could be less excessively afraid of the threat of the pervert. This is in no way to condone any sexual abuse of children in any form whatsoever, but to propose instead that we reconsider the sexual power relations that structure our culture, and the myths of validation that our culture offers to children. However the outrage provoked by Rose Bonbon is excessive compared to its material; it is undoubtedly a terrible book, but not a really dangerous one, whilst Énard’s novel is more disturbing in its intentions and implications. But rather than attempting to censor such disturbing representations, we should perhaps consider them dispassionately and unflinchingly, as if we had nothing to hide.



[1] ‘there was no ‘public scandal’, no ‘social problem’. The campaign only had an impact once it was mounted in the name of ‘the protection of youth’, in other words, for a universal reason.’
[2] ‘curiously it’s the supposedly ‘progressive’ left which has taken hold of the theme of ‘the protection of youth’, towards which ‘public opinion’ is manifestly sensitive.’
[3] ‘I went to ground at my home… I think there would have been a real media lynching if I’d shown myself… The first few days it was like a kind of hysteria.’
[4] ‘The child is the new form of the sacred, the new religious cause.’
[5] ‘Ainsi en 1997, l’Observatoire national de l’action sociale décentralisée (ODAS) rappelle que “74 000 enfants [ont été] maltraités ou en risque de maltraitance en 1996, soit 14% de plus que l’année précédente”. Cette année-là (1997), “le nombre des signalements d’enfants maltraités augmente de 5%, alors que celui d’enfants en risque augmente, lui, de 18%, c’est aussi le taux d’augmentation du nombre d’enfants victims d’abus sexuels entre 1995 et 1996, date à laquelle ils sont 6 500 à être signalés.’ (Bernheim 2005: 120) ‘Thus in 1997, the ODAS recalled that “74,000 children [had been] mistreated or risked being mistreated in 1996, which represents 14% more than the previous year.” That year (1997), “the number of reported cases of mistreated children increased by 5%, whilst those of children at risk rose by 18%, which was also the rate of increase of the number of children who were victims of sexual abuse between 1995 and 1996, at which point 6,500 cases had been reported.”.’
[6] ‘an article on the “Seven missing in the Yonne”. On the same page: “Young singers accuse their choir leader” and another headline proclaims “In Nice, PE teacher suspected of pedophilia”.’
[7] ‘Who spoke about pedophilia at that time?’
[8] ‘the obsession with youth culture, the fear of growing old’
[9] ‘At 13 the child is not sufficiently ‘responsible’ to watch a porn film, but is considered responsible enough to go to prison.’
[10] ‘Young people are presented as victims, whilst in truth they are treated as criminals.’
[11] ‘She is ashamed of her curiosity because she knows that Richard is incapable of satisfying it.’
[12] ‘Cécile finally finds the courage to look at this man, her father, then at the small animal hiding in shadow between his legs. Surprised, she lets go of the erect thing. Then Richard’s hand has caught Cécile’s and brought it back to the crucial spot.’
[13] ‘Cécile loves him even more for it.’
[14] ‘She feels ridiculous, despising the rictus of pleasure, the other’s groans.’
[15] ‘She has acted like a robot, a tart; it was stronger than she was and now she regrets it.’
[16] ‘she entices her readers with their own desire to have a literary experience of sexual violence… right up to the end of the novel where she finally reveals that it was nothing but a trap and an illusion created by the irrevocable force of pornographic desire which animates contemporary culture.’
[17] ‘I reach the limit, with this mental structure that I have, incestuous, I mix everything up, but that has its advantages; I make connections that others don’t, but too much, it’s too much, as they say, it’s the limit.’
[18] ‘translate literally, in performative fashion, the writing of incest into the experience of incest.’
[19] ‘you massacre other people because you’ve been massacred.’
[20] ‘Writing is perhaps nothing other than that; showing the great pile of shit inside oneself. But of course it’s not. You’re ready to believe anything.’
[21] ‘Alice has changed since all those adventures in Wonderland. She locks herself in the bathroom. She undresses and looks at herself in the mirror. She would still very much like to travel to the other side. Once past twelve, it’s hard to know how to.’
[22] ‘On reflection it’s perhaps not the ideal way to calm her down.’
[23] ‘Incest: at all costs she must recount scenes of fear and trembling.’
[24] ‘Say that you were thirteen, Hélène: the breasts of a woman of the body of a thirteen year old girl!’
[25] ‘I held his buttocks in the palms of my hands. One small round buttock in each hand. His erection tickled my chin. I lifted my eyes and his gaze met mine; I read pleasure and panic there.’
[26] ‘I had a doll before me, consenting and fragile.’
[27] ‘Someone who was me dealt with the orders and I, myself, wasn’t in control any more. I laid down beside my brother. I sucked him and pumped him – I lifted my arse so as to stick my fingers in – but it wasn’t enough.’
[28] This relationship is explored in more detail, from a sociological perspective in Vicki Bell’s 1993 text Interrogating Incest (see bibliography for publication details).
[29] ‘Children are very seductive; they seek adult affection. There is nothing abnormal in responding to them.’
[30] ‘A film to tell people that free love between children and adults is good.’
[31] ‘Once past the midway point of the book, Simon’s health went severely downhill. He could no longer manage to pronounce words in their entirety, his ideas seemed muddled and the causal links between them were missing. The chronology and the structure of the tale were also messed up.’
[32] ‘In the end I was obliged to alter my syntax to fit the disorder of his mind.’

2 thoughts on “Chapter 7 – The uses and abuses of children: Thinking infantile eroticism

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