Proust and the Sex Rats

Many folks have requested me, since the publication of my long review of new books on Proust, about what appeared a maybe too-casual reference to Proust’s paraphilia—a flowery however trendy phrase for a sexual fetish—one way or the other involving the use, or quite abuse, of caged rats. I had danced previous this rapidly in the essay, not out of delicacy however out of an unwillingness to linger too lengthy on a controversial level in the Proust biographical literature, and additionally as a result of to enter it in depth would have required not merely a parenthesis however one thing extra like a relentless footnote, or what was once referred to as, in the heyday of shiny magazines, a sidebar. Herewith although, in response, is that sidebar, with an try to make sense of the anecdote, true or false.

The story of Proust and the intercourse rats is available in a number of distinct variations, in itself a marker both of a number of affirmation or of the processes of fable-making. It appears to have made its first public look, no less than in the English-speaking world, in George Painter’s as soon as “definitive” biography. It happens on this kind: “The wretched creatures were pierced with hatpins or beaten with sticks, while Proust looked on,” in keeping with André Gide, due to his “desire to conjoin the most disparate sensations and emotions for the purposes of orgasm.” Painter sources the story to a number of totally different, although not essentially impartial, informants, together with, along with Gide, the author Maurice Sachs, who was stated to have heard it from Albert Le Cuziat, the proprietor of a brothel Proust was identified to frequent.

In the newer biography by William C. Carter, and then in higher element in Carter’s 2006 guide, “Proust in Love,” the story is repeated in additional ugly kind, beginning once more with Proust in a brothel: “If Proust failed to achieve orgasm [from gazing at a male sex worker] ‘he would make a gesture for me to leave’ and Albert would bring in two cages,’ each of which contained a famished rat. Le Cuziat would set the cages together and open the door. The two starving beasts would attack each other, making piercing squeaks as they clawed and bit each other, a spectacle that allowed Proust to achieve orgasm.”

This model of the story is sourced to Henri Bonnet’s 1985 quantity, “Les amours et la sexualité de Marcel Proust,” wherein it’s stated to be reaffirmed by an nameless prostitute—the quoted speaker in the passage—whose reminiscences had been recorded by the author Marcel Jouhandeau. The, uh, story, is additional confirmed by Carter with an merchandise in Jean Cocteau’s diaries—although Cocteau’s model, in flip, is sophisticated by an accompanying and not terribly clear account that Proust additionally one way or the other, inside this ritual, profaned {a photograph} of his mom.

The story then appears to have entered the cultural mainstream when it was considerably amplified in two unbelievable locations—stranger bedfellows in the dissemination of literary gossip are laborious to think about. The first is Nabokov’s immense, weird 1969 novel, “Ada, or Ardor,” wherein, amongst a lot different materials, there’s a reference to Proust decapitating rats: “crusty Proust who liked to decapitate rats when he did not feel like sleeping”—the decapitation being a neat, Nabokovian twist not beforehand encountered in the literature.

Meanwhile, in Albert Goldman’s best-selling, and as soon as infamous, 1981 biography of Elvis Presley, the story happens once more, as a factor extensively identified, in the course of Goldman’s dialogue of Elvis’s paraphilia—reported presumably by Elvis’s personal André Gide, his assistant Lamar Fike, who appears to have been Goldman’s informant on Elvis’s erotic life—which allegedly tended towards motion pictures displaying “cat fights,” i.e., half-dressed girls wrestling. Goldman—a former professor at Columbia, whose descent into gossipy pop bios shouldn’t detract from the intelligence or the excellence of his biography of Lenny Bruce—used the Proust story to make the level that “mama’s boys,” as they had been then identified (a category that included each Proust and Elvis), may work out their ambivalent emotions about their beloved moms in sexual play-acting. Proust’s rats had been an oddly recherché literary reference for a mass-market pop biography—however that, after all, was quite the level.

From this spillover, the story will be discovered in all places, with variants. So, to the core concern: Is it true? As with so many tales of the form, it’s laborious to make certain. In doing the spadework a decade in the past on the controversy about whether or not Edwin Stanton stated, at Abraham Lincoln’s deathbed, “Now he belongs to the ages” or “Now he belongs to the angels,” I adopted the path of this extensively circulated and poorly sourced story again to a single disseminating supply—and a really doubtful one, Otto Eisenschiml, a conspiracy theorist. (He believed that Stanton had conspired to have Lincoln killed.)

The supply of the Proust story appears as particular, and to be primarily Gide, together with the prostitute whom Jouhandeau quotes (discounting Cocteau’s reference, maybe unfairly however cautiously, as possible spinoff of Gide). Gide actually knew Proust, however he additionally had causes to gossip maliciously a couple of author whom he had, at first, patronized from a top and ignored—and then needed to watch turn out to be extra revered than he himself had been. And Gide presumably had a purpose to deliver Proust into his personal orbit of ostentatious sexual experimentation, involving what we might now characterize as intercourse tourism and open pedophilia. (Cocteau’s diary, once more, is thirty years after Proust’s demise, and the nameless prostitute’s recollection, secondhand, is just not by itself definitive.)

And, then, although the combating rats don’t sound like the sort of factor one simply makes up, Proust’s supposed paraphilia does appear suspiciously singular, inasmuch as it’s not one which, no less than to the maybe too innocent-minded search of this author, has some other contributors. (The well-known fetishes, though odd, are usually surprisingly widespread; Elvis had no bother getting motion pictures dedicated to his predilection.) There are actually sexual fetishes horribly related to animal torture—Google, or quite, don’t, “crush videos.” But that such issues exist now doesn’t, after all, show that they did then, and they have an inclination now, apparently, to be related to extremely theatricalized bondage rituals.

It appears unlikely that the rat scene may fairly have taken place as described. Who would hold starved rats on the premises in case a consumer so disposed got here in? (Even a well-liked one, as Proust presumably would have been.) Who cared for the rats whereas ready for Proust, or another rat fetishist, to point out up? Though discovering rats in Paris then was no tougher than it’s now, the thought of caging fierce and ravenous rats for an indefinite interval in anticipation of a consumer with this brutal style appears unbelievable. The improbability of the enterprise doesn’t make it unattainable, after all—nevertheless it does remind one in every of how simply we droop regular skepticism about occasions after they contact on venomous gossip about the well-known. (And, as Benjamin Taylor suggests in his Proust book, one’s sympathies should prolong first to the rats who would certainly have needed to be excluded from this narrative.)

One want hardly point out right here—but one will—the as soon as well-known and not fully dissimilar rumor that had a film star going to a Los Angeles hospital to have a gerbil faraway from his anatomy, the place it had been lodged for erotic pleasure. The inherent absurdity of this story didn’t hold it from turning into surprisingly widespread and, if not universally credited, then, no less than, as the Web website Snopes tells us, main “countless doctors and nurses [to] claim to have participated in, been on hand during, or heard from a reliable colleague about, the procedure.” Not solely is the story false however the complete “practice” of gerbil stuffing appears wholly invented, a deliberate try to recommend the most unbelievable potential exercise with the intention to shock and titillate readers. Indeed, the rodent-sex nexus is itself a telltale signal of fabrication: What’s the most surprising factor you may think about somebody doing? Make certain it features a hamster.

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