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.)