The Genealogy of Masochism

Krafft-Ebing’s derivation of sadism and masochism from the names of Sade and Sacher-Masoch (Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia Sexualis: eine Klinisch-Forensische Studie, 1886; edition used, 1894, p. 11) may not be fully analogous to Freud’s appropriation of the name of Oedipus, but still less can the relationship between Sade and Sacher-Masoch and their creations be compared to that of, say, Faraday to the light bulb; on the spectrum between creating something that simply did not exist before and giving a name to something which has always existed in the human psyche, it makes more sense to see Sade and Sacher-Masoch as weaving into a sustained discourse strands of narrative and impulse that reflect something intrinsic to human nature.

As Deleuze puts it, ‘The Middle ages, with profound insight, distinguished two sorts of diabolism; the one by possession, the second by a pact of alliance’ (Gilles Deleuze, Présentation de Sacher-Masoch, Paris, 1967, p. 20; my translation)]; sadism, Deleuze suggests, is a development from, or form of, the first, as masochism is from/of the second. The seventeenth century, with its belief in witchcraft, retains elements of the medieval Weltanschauung, while at the same time highlighting prurience in discourses on suffering – sometimes with the frankness that Foucault speaks of, but sometimes through censorship or proto-pornographic narrative – in a way that foreshadows the cataloguing of sadism and masochism in nineteenth-century sexual taxonomy.

From a socio-psychological point of view, Baumeister sums up the broad consensus that ‘most sexual practices have been known and enjoyed throughout history, but masochism is a rare exception … which spread through Western society during the early modern period.’ He cites a number of sources confirming the apparent
absence of masochism in the ancient and medieval worlds, noting that during the Middle Ages the Church pronounced its views on ‘homosexuality, bestiality, masturbation, abortion, contraception, adultery, coprophilia, prostitution, anal sex, transvestism, and a variety of other practices … but apparently there was no mention of masochism’, from which he concludes that there was ‘a lack of
masochistic sexual activity’.

Baumeister contrasts the ‘abundant evidence of masochistic
activity beginning in the eighteenth century’ with the ‘lack of any such activities prior to the renaissance’, and notes that, while prostitutes through the ages are on record as catering for a variety of sexual appetites, there is no reference to ‘prostitutes providing sadomasochistic services’ in the ancient and medieval worlds, concluding ‘there is no disputing the contrast between the abundant
evidence of masochism after 1700 and the paucity of such evidence before 1600 … sexual masochism underwent a dramatic increase in Western culture late in the early modern period’ (Roy F. Baumeister, ‘Masochism as Escape from Self ’, in Baumeister, ed., Social Psychology and Human Sexuality: Essential Readings, Philadelphia, 2001, pp. 296–313; pp. 308–9).

The one area in which there is some doubt in this seemingly iron-clad argument is the suffering people have undergone over the ages in the name of religion. Baumeister is more tentative about this, but tends to see it as unrelated to masochism: ‘Probably it is a mistake to regard those activities as masochistic … sex and religion provide radically different contexts, and it seems unwarranted to assume that activities have the same meaning in religious ritual
as they have in sexual play’ (p. 308). Baumeister finds broad support for this view in the work of Bullough and Tannahill, but ignores the fact that the architects of the concept of masochism – Charcot, Lombroso, Breuer, Freud, Krafft-Ebing and Lacan – all saw it as closely related to religion, particularly to ascetic flagellation.

Part of the complexity and sensitivity of this issue arises from the difficulty of defining the limits of what masochism actually is. Initially a simple enough idea (the deriving of sexual pleasure from suffering, as Severin apparently does in Sacher-Masoch’s Venus im
), it is complicated by many factors, among them Freud’s postulation of three types of masochism – erotic, feminine and moral – and Dingwall and Bell’s addition of ascetic masochism. The spread of the semantic range of the word ‘masochism’ – particularly into contexts where there is only the concept of some underlying displacement of sexuality and no actual overt sexual activity – leaves
it open to such a wide range of interpretation that it begins to lose its value as a conceptual tool.

Bersani compounds the difficulties, extending the word in the
opposite direction and attempting (developing from Bataille) to see sexuality as ‘self-shattering’ and consequently masochistic; ‘sexuality … could be thought of as a tautology for masochism’. As he himself recognizes, this kind of ‘breakdown of conceptual distinctions’ leads to ‘logical incoherence’ and, while for him such
incoherence may have value in so far as it ‘accurately represents the overdetermined mind prescribed by psychoanalysis’, it presents huge practical problems (Leo Bersani, Is the Rectum a Grave?: And Other Essays, Chicago, 2010, pp. 25, 109 and 100).

At the same time – as Baumeister observes – it is precisely the concept of masochism which pinpoints the seventeenth century as pivotal in the history of suffering. One cannot simply discard it, nor can one wholly reject the accretion of meanings which have grown up around the original impulse to be dominated of Sacher-Masoch’s Severin, but at the same time, if one is to explore ‘the relationship between asceticism and sadomasochistic eroticism’ (Virginia Burrus, Sex Lives of Saints, Philadelphia, 2004, p. 9), one needs to heed Bataille’s basic caveat; although ‘both experiences have an
extreme intensity’, Bataille does not intend to imply that ‘eroticism and sanctity are of the same nature.’ On the contrary, while sanctity ‘brings us closer to other men’ (that is, other people), eroticism (which ‘is defined by secrecy and taboo’) ‘cuts us off from them and leaves us in solitude’ (Georges Bataille, Death and Sensuality: A Study of Eroticism and the Taboo, New York, 1962, pp. 252–3).

Sadomasochistic discourse arises ‘from the ruins of politicoreligious means for achieving submission or shattering of the self’ (Cynthia Marshall, The Shattering of the Self: Violence, Subjectivity, and Early Modern Texts, Baltimore, 2002, p. 103). It is, at least in part, a
consequence of the early modern transition from the ‘inclusive-existential’ or sub specie æternitatis world-view, with its hermits, its monastic orders, its martyrs, to ‘positional-existential’ ideologies, with their emphasis on personal identity in the social context. As the individual’s inner relationship with God starts to give way to societal relationships, the sense of division between the public sphere and private identity grows. The communion of recognition that all are sinners isreplaced by the isolation of inner shame:

In one way it is easier to be receptive to de Sade’s eroticism than to the religious demands of old. No-one today could deny that the impulses connecting sexuality and the desire to hurt and to kill do exist. Hence the so-called sadistic instincts enable the ordinary man to account for certain acts of cruelty, while religious impulses are explained away as aberrations. (Bataille, Death and Sensuality, p. 183)

Bersani’s apparent descent into conceptual chaos may actually provide constructive insights here. The big problem with Baumeister’s analysis is that, at the same time as supposing that ‘sadism is historically older than masochism’, he seeks to turn on its head the ‘prevailing theoretical position … that masochism is [psychologically] derived from sadism’, arguing that ‘it is implausible to argue that masochism is derived from sadism. Rather, sadism must be the secondary, derivative pattern’ (‘Masochism as Escape from Self ’, pp. 308, footnote, and 208). It is hard to understand how masochism can be psychologically more fundamental yet historically younger than sadism, but Bersani hints at an explanation. In his interpretation, the first reality the infant is faced with is an outside world of tremendous power. it cannot possibly fight or protect itself against such power, and gains reassurance by surrendering itself to it. Sex, in adult life, is, by Bersani’s analysis, simply a re-enactment of that early masochistic surrender (The Freudian Body, p. 39). If Bersani is right, masochism is not discussed prior to the early modern period, not because it is nowhere, but because it is everywhere. One’s life is not one’s own, but held in trust; sexual congress is an act of naked, defenceless self-exposure; those who ‘take the sword’ are merely preparing to ‘perish with the sword’, and man’s only hope is to place himself abjectly under the heel of his God and cast himself at his mercy. It is only as society moves away from the ‘inclusive-existential’ preoccupation with the meaning and purpose of a transient and uncertain life towards the ‘positional-existential’ drive to identify oneself in terms of one’s relationships with others that the impulse to surrender starts to become deprived of legitimate contexts, manifesting itself in that particular nexus of neuroses and anxieties and compulsive self-destructive behaviour that modern psychopathology terms ‘masochistic’.

(Adapted from the introduction to the book. Download the complete introduction here.)

The Dominatrix in Early Modern Times


Saint Jerome tells a queer story of a Christian captured by the Romans. To destroy his soul, rather than his body he was (as the Catholic translation of 1630 has it) taken and

… led aside into a most delicious garden & there in the middest of pure lyllies, and blushing roses, (where also a streame of water was creeping on with a soft bubling noise, and the wind gently whistling checkt the leaues of the trees) to be spred with his face vpward vpon a bed fluffed with downe, and to be left tyed there with silken bandes to the end that so he might not be able to deliuer himselfe from thence. Now vpon the retiring of all them who were present, a beautifull Curtesan came to make her approach, and began with her delicate armes, to embrace his necke; and (which cannot be modestly related) did also impurely touch him otherwise, to the end that his body being altered, and inflamed by lust the lasciuious conquerors might ouerspred him. This souldier of the band of Christ, knew not what to do, nor which way to turne himself, whome torments had not subdued, delight was beginning to ouercome, when at length (inspired from heauen) he bit of his own tongue, & spitting it into the face of her, who kissed him, the sense of lust, was subdued, by the sharpenes of that payne which succeeded. (Jerome, ‘The Life of Saint Pavl the Hermite’, in Certaine Selected Epistles of Saint Hierome, Saint Omer, 1630, p. 9.)

Graphic as this description is, there is a certain amount of periphrasis and alteration of the original.

1. Where the translation tells us that she ‘began with her delicate armes, to embrace his necke’, the Ltin reads ‘coepit delicatis stringere colla complexibus’ (Jerome, ‘Vita Pauli Eremitæ’, in Catalogus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum , Frankfurt, 1549, Part 2, Libellus Variorum Exemplorum, fols 89r–96r; fol. 90r). Literally translated, this reads, ‘she began, while delicately embracing him, to squeeze his neck’.

2. The expression translated as ‘which cannot be modestly related’ is, in the original Latin, ‘quod dictu quoque scelus est’ (ibid.), literally, ‘which it is wicked even to speak of’.

3. The expression ‘impurely touch him otherwise’ is, in Latin, ‘manibus attrectare virilia’ (ibid.), ‘caress his member with her hands’.

4. The expression ‘that…the lasciuious conquerors might ouerspred him’ comes from the Latin ‘se victrix impudica superiaceret’ (ibid., ‘that the lascivious conqueress might mount him’).

The English translation (probably made by Hawkins) fails to convey the full sense of the Latin, toning down Jerome’s language to exclude what seems fairly clearly to be a reference to erotic strangulation, omitting the direct reference to the young man’s member, and turning the ‘victrix impudica’ (lascivious conqueress) into ‘lascivious conquerors’. He also softens the ‘scelus’ (wicked) of the Latin to ‘immodest’, apparently in recognition of the fact that a holy text which recounts wickedness runs the risk of subverting itself.

Hawkins’s modifications to the text indicate that he is uncomfortably aware of its potential performativity at the level of actively reproducing the arousal – and subsequent flaccidity – of the young man’s member in the response of the reader. But there is more to it than that. The Latin text is remarkable, not simply for its explicit sexuality, but for the themes of dominance and subservience which run through it. The most likely interpretation of the expression ‘coepit delicatis stringere colla complexibus’ is that, as she embraces him, the prostitute squeezes the young man’s neck. This is the sense in which the Spanish translation of 1553 interprets the passage – ‘comẽço cõ dulces abraços apretarle el cuello’ (‘she began, with sweet embraces, to squeeze his neck’: Jerome, Libro de las Vidas de los Sanctos Padres del Yermo, Toledo, 1553, fol. 19v.) – a reading which introduces another dimension to the text; the woman does not seek merely to arouse the man, but does so by means of erotic strangulation, with the implication that she is not simply a harlot sent – by men – to offer her standard services, if in rather unusual circumstances, but, in effect, a dominatrix, exercising and rejoicing in her power over her victim.

That this is the intended sense of the Latin text is indicated by the description of the prostitute as a ‘victrix impudica’, an expression which Hawkins renders, curiously, as ‘lasciuious conquerors’. The Latin ‘victrix’ is simple enough and is clearly both feminine and singular. Hawkins can hardly have mistranslated it by mistake, and yet the result is signally inapposite; the word ‘lascivious’ applies more appropriately to the courtesan and collocates rather oddly with the male conquerors, who have set this situation up only to retire from the scene.Furthermore, the implication, as it stands, is that it is they who will ‘ouerspred’ the bound youth, but this is surely not the reading that the translator intends.

The transformation of ‘conqueress’ into ‘conquerors’ requires only the substitution of two letters, and it may be that the word was a hastily contrived compromise arrived at after the manuscript had been typeset and before it went to press. However it came about, Hawkins’s rendering of ‘stringere’ as ‘embrace’, together with the hash he makes of ‘victrix impudica’, combine to produce a much tamer picture of the prostitute than that painted in the Latin text.

(The remainder of this section of Pain, Pleasure and Perversity examines a variety of early modern translations and retellings of this tale in French, Spanish, Italian, German, Dutch and English, and finds that, while they all edit out at least some of the more salacious details of the story, the Southern/Catholic translations are far more explicit than the Northern/Protestant ones, indicating a greater sense of unease in the Protestant North, and a more exuberant eroticism in the Catholic South.)

(Adapted from Part 3, ‘Suffering and Gender’, Chapter 8, ‘The Emergence of the Dominatrix.)

Homoeroticism in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs


Unlike Catholic suffering, which (at least in its monastic context, where penance went hand in hand with chastity) was frequently overtly linked with sexuality, Protestant suffering generally relates to sex only obliquely. Whereas, for example, Anthony of Padua’s biographer explicitly traces the saint’s determination to eradicate sexual desire by means of ever more severe mortification of the flesh (Luca Assarino, The Life of St. Anthony of Padoua,, Paris, 1660, pp. 10–21.), the ‘eroticized violence’ in Foxe’s Actes and Monuments ‘haunts the margins of the text’ (James C.W. Truman, ‘John Foxe and the Desires of Reformation Martyrology’, English Literary History, 70.1, 2003: 35–66; p. 40) – except, of course, in passages where the papists are excoriated as ‘sodomites’, and their acts of violence imbued with overtones of sexual perversity (vividly illustrated by the graphic woodcut of Bonner scourging a Protestant in the 1563 edition). Rather than drawing conclusions from what Foxe says, one is forced to surmise from what he skirts around; for example, despite his attacks on Catholic sodomites, Foxe is much more circumspect in his condemnation of homosexual activity than his predecessor and mentor John Bale had been, and Betteridge surmises that this is because ‘in Acts and Monuments close and potentially homo erotic relationships between Protestant men are often held up as exemplary and commendable’, concluding, ‘A distinction is implicitly drawn in Acts and Monuments between a homoeroticism that is humanist and ordered and a sodomy that is represented as disordered and bodily’ (Tom Betteridge, ‘The Place of Sodomy in the Historical Writings of John Bale and John Foxe’, in Betteridg, ed, Sodomy in Early Modern Europe, Manchester, 2002, pp. 11–26; pp. 17 and 23).

Betteridge’s language is – rightly – circumspect (‘potentially’, ‘implicitly’); he holds the line between reading from the text and reading into it, a line that Truman dares to cross in his reading of sexual (frequently homoerotic) implications in Foxe, among them the woodcut of Thomas Bilney and Dr Call (Actes and Monuments, p. 467) which, Truman says, ‘exposes the interplay between the suffering of martyrdom … and the physical intimacy of early modern male friendship’ (Truman, p. 52) – an assertion to which Freeman and Evenden respond with the wry comment, ‘Truman does not explain why Foxe would have chosen to depict Bilney in this way or why no one, including generations of Foxe’s Catholic critics, seemed to have understood, or commented on, the homoerotic dimensions of this picture’(Thomas S. Freeman and Elizabeth Evenden, Religion and the Book in Early Modern England: The Making of John Foxe’s ‘Book of Martyrs’, Cambridge, 2011, p. 214, footnote).

The first of these questions scarcely matters; the author, as Roland Barthes reminds us, is dead. As to the second, Severin’s words, in Sacher-Masoch’s Venus im Pelz, may be illuminative:

I was prematurely developed and impressionable when, at the age of ten, the legends of the martyrs came into my hands. I remember reading with a kind of horror, which was really delight, how they languished in prison, were put to the rack, shot through with arrows, boiled in pitch, thrown to wild animals, nailed to the cross, and suffered the most horrible things with a kind of joy. (Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch, Venus im Pelz, in Sacher-Masoch, Das Vermächtnis Kains, Stuttgart, 1870, part 2, pp. 121–367; p. 191.)

It matters little whether the legends the young Severin read were Catholic, Protestant, of the early Christian martyrs under the Romans, or something else entirely. Nor does it matter that Severin is basically heterosexual in his orientation. The point is that, if Severin was unique, Venus im Pelz would never have made it beyond a first printing; he is not unique, and it is reasonable to suppose that other readers over the centuries will have turned the pages of Foxe’s book with a similar horrified rapture, engaging with the text – and its illustrations – in ways that have little to do with Foxe’s overt intent: ‘Religious warfare and persecutions created [a] public sphere of torturer and tortured; when those ceased, compendia like Butler’s Lives of the Saints and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs kept the imagery of punisher and punished available for edification and/or fantasy’ (Bonnie Shullenberger, ‘Much Affliction and Anguish of Heart: “Story of O” and Spirituality’, Massachusetts Review, 46.2, 2005: 249–72; p. 25.).

Marshall, too, accepts that ‘Foxe’s text offers a form of sadism avant la lettre – a pleasure derived from three interlocking dialectics of (de)valuing the flesh, promoting/erasing individuality, and strategically collapsing the domains of word and deed’ and recognizes that, while ‘neither he nor his martyrs were sadistic or masochistic’, ‘readers … could respond more variously and transgressively, in ways we can identify as sadistic or masochistic’ (Cynthia Marshall, The Shattering of the Self: Violence, Subjectivity, and Early Modern Texts, Baltimore, MD, 2002, pp. 102 and 103). It would be surprising if Truman was the first to find homoerotic implications in the depiction of an imprisoned man burning his hand with a candle in an attempt to prepare himself for being burned at the stake, while being watched intently by another man who is curled up in bed (the only bed), but it would hardly be surprising that others did so furtively and in secret.

(Adapted from Part 2, “The Suffering of Others”, Chapter 5, “The Spectacle of suffering”.)

Germans as Victims


I must admit, I haven’t read this yet, but I find the concept interesting. As the promotional blurb has it, ‘The focus of this interdisciplinary volume is both on the historical roots of the “Germans as victims” narratives and the forms of their continuing existence in contemporary public memory and culture’. So far, I don’t know much about this. I have read that, at the end of the war, the people in charge of some of the extermination camps fled, leaving the camps in the hands of fresh guards who were bewildered and shocked by what was going on, and then, ironically, held responsible when the Allied troops arrived a few days, or even hours, later, so for me, the subject sits alongside narratives of German ignorance of the concentration camps and the holocaust. So, no opinion as yet, but I’ll post again after I’ve read it!