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  • Selfish Passions and Artificial Desire: Rereading Clérambault’s Study of “Silk Erotomania”
  • Peta Allen Shera (bio)

In articles published in 1908 and 1910 the French psychiatrist Gaëtan Gatian de Clérambault (1872–1934) presented four cases of women who displayed an autoerotic passion for pieces of silk that they stole from department stores.1 Amidst the periods of depression that shaped these patients’ lives, their sexual use of stolen fabric gave them feelings of pleasure more intense and intoxicating than the response they elicited from alcohol, drugs, erotic fantasies, or sexual partners. This article examines Clérambault’s study of what can be called “silk erotomania,” which has been highly influential in the history of the criticism of his life and work. The literature on the psychiatrist is extensive and varied, yet a popular reading of his medicolegal study is that it reveals his own fabric fetishism. Rather than suggesting what his studies might reveal about the psychiatrist’s life and work, a line of enquiry that has become orthodox, the present work seeks an alternative understanding of his text and the challenges women’s erotic passion for fabric poses to established categories of sexual expression and deviant consumption.

Clérambault worked as a médecin certificateur (a medicolegal role in which he recorded patients’ symptoms and the reasons for their internment and/or treatment) at Paris’s Infirmerie spéciale (Special Clinic) from 1905 and then as the institution’s head psychiatrist from 1921 to 1934. In this role and as a psychiatric expert for the court of law he studied mental automatism (a theory of psychosis), delusions of love, and the hallucinations [End Page 158] caused by various toxins.2 He also produced photographs of North African drapery in 1915 and then between 1917 and 1920.3 Like his predecessor Jean-Martin Charcot, Clérambault observed and classified mental illness. He did not attempt to treat his patients because he believed they were incurable. Today psychiatric and judicial literature in English still employs the term “de Clérambault’s syndrome” for a particular type of stalking and deluded love. At the end of the twentieth century Clérambault was often mentioned as having been the teacher of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Clérambault’s own work was not psychoanalytical, and although he was Sigmund Freud’s contemporary and fluent in German, he never expressed an interest in Freud’s work. Clérambault’s project was principally to describe his patients’ behavior and document as much of their history as possible with the aim of suggesting the possible interrelated chemical, neurological, and social causes of their conditions. It was with this purpose that his studies of fetishism included notes about his patients’ fantasies and the symbolism of the fetish, and they remind us that the study of “fetishism” has a diverse history to which psychoanalytical accounts contribute but one part.4

Clérambault’s photographs and their relationship with his life and medicolegal work have inspired varied literature, ranging from excessively [End Page 159] complimentary interpretations to revisionist inquiries.5 A popular theory is that his photographic works betray a fabric fetishism that he caught from his fabric-obsessed patients or that he shared with them and recognized in their condition.6 While these theories are rich subjects for further investigation, this article focuses on Clérambault’s study of women’s erotic passion for fabric and draws attention to the medicolegal and medical-commercial traditions to which it speaks. This article makes no moral argument about the textural relations Clérambault described. Instead, the present work explores the view Clérambault offered of four women’s extreme reaction to the emerging domain of leisure consumerism.

The first case Clérambault presented in his first paper, entitled “Passion érotique des étoffes chez la femme” (Women’s Erotic Passion for Fabric), is of a woman identified only as “V.B.,” forty years of age and a former dressmaker who arrived at the Infirmerie spéciale in July 1906 after breaking objects and menacing people with a pair of scissors. Her first theft of silk occurred at the age of thirty-two, even though she had ready access to...


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pp. 158-178
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