“Necessary” suffering

I posted this on Quora, in answer to someone who wanted to know if there is such a thing as necessary suffering. To see the complete thread, click here (you’ll need to create a log-in ID if you want to add comments).

In an age before anaesthetics this question could hardly even have been asked. Suffering was unavoidable, inevitable, inescapable, and therefore, given the belief in a benign deity, it had to serve a purpose, to be necessary in some way. Today the assumption is often that suffering is avoidable and should be avoided wherever possible, but in terms of the history of ideas, belief in the necessity of suffering is actually fairly close behind us.

During the early modern period people were trying to reconcile classical ideas like Stoicism with Christianity, and at the beginning of the 17th century there were still people who held up Stoic practices as an inducement to Christian virtue. The message was something like, “If those pagans could suffer so much, could you not suffer for Christ, who also suffered so much for you?”.
Unlike Catholics, Protestants did not on the whole go in for self-imposed penances, but they nevertheless believed that, as a rule, if you wanted to get to heaven you had to suffer. Not only that, but you had to rejoice to suffer “for Christ’s sake”. This was slightly different from the aim of the Stoics, which was to inure oneself equally to pleasure and pain, but it was clearly related.
Suffering was of two types, punitive and redemptive. If one was merely suffering, one was probably simply getting a foretaste of the suffering one would endure after death and damnation. If one gladly bore the burden of one’s sufferings one was thereby purified and made suitable for entry into heaven.

The belief in the necessity of suffering in these terms put an incredible psychological strain on people. If you weren’t suffering, well, you were very likely going to go to hell, but if you were suffering and not rejoicing in it, then you were also probably going to go to hell!
It’s perhaps not surprising that this way of thinking, which was particularly widespread among puritans, resulted in fairly widespread depression. Alec Ryrie writes well about this in Being Protestant in Reformation Britain, though, since his interest is in showing the life of everyday Protestants, he largely overlooks Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy.

As Gowland puts it, ‘Burton’s medicalisation of the moral and theological traditions of melancholy gave them a conceptual coherence which they had previously lacked’ (Burton’s Anatomy and the Intellectual Traditions of Melancholy). Burton opens up the debate on the whole issue of whether we have to suffer and be miserable in this world, or whether we have a right to be happy. He’s not the only one, of course, but his is a coherent and influential voice. 

By the end of the 17th century, attempts to incorporate or adapt Stoic attitudes in a Christian context were more or less routinely rejected (Yamamoto-Wilson, Pain, Pleasure and Perversity: Discourses of Suffering in Seventeenth-Century England, p. 32) and the idea gained ground rapidly that, yes, it is OK to be happy, and if you pursue a path of suffering you are being perverse.

In our modern world suffering has become something of a taboo. We don’t (thankfully) whip, hang and disembowel convicted criminals on the street, as they did in those days. People don’t flagellate themselves for the good of their souls, as many Catholics routinely did even into the 20th century. We don’t see lepers dying on street corners (though, in many cities, we see junkies and the homeless). 

Most crucially of all, though, perhaps, most of us don’t go through the kind of mental agonies of people like John Bunyan (see, in particular, his Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners) about whether we are or are not chosen of God or predestined to eternal torment. Except in a very few spheres (notably training for sports, swotting for exams, etc., with a clear goal in this world, or news stories that, in part, satisfy some morbid atavistic curiosity in the suffering of others), suffering is mostly swept under the carpet.

But this comfortable, anaesthetized world has its own weaknesses. OK, it might seem unduly heavy to say that we should spend our days anticipating and preparing for our inevitable death, instead of frittering our lives away in pursuit of shallow pleasures, but there must be many, many people who spend their final days and hours – or even weeks, months or years – in terrible physical pain, totally unequipped, mentally or emotionally, to deal with it, because they have never given this prospect a moment’s serious thought in their lives.

Equally, there are many many people who have no insight at all into what others are going through, no empathy, no ability or even wish to care about the pain of others. This is a difficult one; even back in the 17th century, people like Hobbes were of the opinion that to be pitied is to be looked down on and dishonoured ( Leviathan, page 43). He was also pretty clear – like many others of his period – that there were occasions when to be kind was actually a form of cruelty in itself. For example, if you deal with a murderer with compassion and let him/her go free then you are responsible for the consequences when that murderer maims and kills others. From the 17th-century point of view, there are times when it is necessary to impose suffering, a view that modern society still reflects in its penal system.

At the same time, compassion, in particular loving one’s enemies, formed a very important part of 17th-century discourse, especially among Protestants. The ability to put oneself in another’s shoes, to imagine their plight and do what one could to alleviate it was extolled as one of the highest virtues. One of the functions of suffering was to awaken sympathy in others.

On the whole, I’m glad we’ve left the 17th century behind, with its plagues, its massacres, its public spectacles of brutality and so forth. At the same time, I think we have a lot to learn from the past. We can avoid suffering for a while, with money to cushion us and medicines to salve us, but we are fooling ourselves if we think that suffering can ever finally be done away with. And if we think we can routinely turn our backs on the suffering of others with impunity we make the world a worse, not a better place.

For all its faults, 17th century society knew this, whereas today there are a lot of people who are in danger of forgetting or ignoring it.

Researching the Seventeenth Century Online: Tools of the Trade

[I posted this in 2014, but since so much of the EEBO TCP database came into the public domain in January 2015 I thought it worth updating.]

For those who come to this blog from academia, this is probably a post you can skip, but for people in other walks of life I thought it might be worth submitting a short piece on some of the basic tools of the trade.

When I first started researching the early modern period, in the 1970s, I spent nearly all my time in the Rare Books Room at Cambridge University Library with several ancient tomes in front of me, something like this:

Mumby Rare Books RoomThe room has been completely redesigned since my postgraduate days, but it’s the same basic process. These days, I still do a lot of my real research in the same room, but a lot of the time I’m working on one of the computers in a glass-partitioned area at the back of the room. This is because much of the corpus of early modern books in English (which is what I mostly work on) is available online at  Early English Books Online (EEBO). Yes, you need a password and log-in before you can actually access the database, and subscription is through institutions, not issued on an individual basis, which effectively locks the average person out, but there is some good news for Joe public, which I’ll come to later. Basically, what  subscribers get from EEBO is a PDF image of the original text. When it first started going online (in phases, during the 1990s) it was a radical improvement on microfilm, which was fiddly to use, gave you headache and came a poor second to having the actual book in your hand. EEBO PDFs can be viewed page by page online or downloaded as a single PDF file, making it an acceptable – even, sometimes, a preferred – alternative to reading the actual printed book.Now, though, even that’s been superseded. EEBO PDFs, with all their advantages, were not text-searchable, meaning you had to – gasp! – read stuff to know whether it was relevant to what you were researching or not. The Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership changed all that. Until January 2015, it too was only accessible via subscription, but these days some 25,000 texts are in the public domain. Yes, you read that right – 25,000! Go to one of the search pages (I usually use the Boolean search) and enter some search terms. For example, if you search for Shakespeare or Shaksper and plays you get these results. Even without logging in you can find out that (at the last count) there are 75 publications prior to 1700 which contain these terms. If you can log in, you’d be able to read the exact pages on which the search terms occur, as well as being able to search for other terms in any of the 75 search results. Even if you can’t log in you will still  be able to see the full text of the public domain items and search for other lexical terms within those texts. When you realize that you can do this for any search terms you can envisage you see that this is a very powerful research tool. Something which would have taken a lifetime of research a couple of generations ago can now be clinched with a few mouse-clicks. For example, one can do a proximity search to find out something like this:

A search of EEBO TCP indicates that (including variant spellings) cruel/cruelty is closely collocated with unjust/injustice or iniquity – normally conveying the idea that an act is cruel if the intention behind it is unjust – in only about 80 texts during the whole of the sixteenth century. However, during the seventeenth century, there are over 1,500 such collocations, more than a third of which were published between 1680 and 1700. (Pain, Pleasure and Perversity, introduction, page 14; you can download the complete introduction here).

That makes it sound a bit easier than it actually is. Firstly, it would be a mistake to assume that all the results are necessarily relevant; you have to go through and check them to see whether the contexts in which the search terms are used really do support the point you are making. One would want to know, too, the genres in which these terms were used; a term or expression that was used in, let’s say, romance poetry in the sixteenth century might resurface in legal tracts in the seventeenth.And to know how significant it is that the words justice and cruelty were increasingly being used in the same breath one would also want to know how often they were used independently of each other. Suppose one of your search terms was a word or expression coined in the late sixteenth century that only caught on slowly; its overall use would have been low in the sixteenth century, so an increase in its collocation with another expression might only reflect the general pattern of increase as it came into wider usage.Then there’s the problem of multiple editions of the same work. EEBO TCP is patchy in this respect, with multiple editions of some works but not of others, so you’d need to think about how multiple editions of a work might affect the results. The example given is a fairly large sample, which would be less affected by, say, the inclusion or omission of a glut of editions of a single work during the space of a few years, but it could make a big difference to a smaller sample.There’s the slow increase of books published over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to take into account as well; one needs to consider not just the raw numbers, but what those numbers represent in terms of the percentage of the total number of books published at that time. And information about the size of editions is often unavailable. A particularly large – or small – print run could make a significant difference, especially to a small sample.Issues like these make it a far from straightforward matter to interpret the insights one can gain from the EEBO TCP database. Even so, the insights one can gain are startling. Twenty years ago, if anyone had speculated about a link developing between the concepts of injustice and cruelty during the early modern period, it would have mostly been just that – speculation, backed up perhaps by a few examples that would have had little more than anecdotal significance. Now we can identify patterns of usage with a much higher degree of accuracy, and there are spin-offs from the EEBO TCP database that are enabling highly specialized work of a kind unimaginable just a few years ago.
Did you find this article informative or useful? Post a comment or vote on it!
Further reading: Heather Froehlich, Richard J. Whitt and Jonathan Hope, ‘EEBO-TCP as a Tool for Integrating Teaching and Research’.

Gender and Heroism in Early Modern English Literature

Mary Beth Rose, Gender and Heroism in Early Modern English Literature (University of Chicago Press, 2002), makes the important point that ‘the terms which constitute the heroics of endurance are precisely those terms used to construct the early modern idealization of women: patient suffering, mildness, humility, chastity, loyalty and obedience. Contending that the heroics of endurance ultimately takes precedence over the heroics of action, I am also claiming that, by the end of the seventeenth century, the terms in which heroism is constructed and performed as the endurance of suffering is predominantly gendered female’ (pp. xv-xvi). Her central conclusion is that ‘the powerful, dominant mode of literary heroism at the end of the seventeenth century is the endurance of suffering, represented in female terms’ (p. xxii).

This is closely related to the thesis of female gendering of the male politic subject which Melissa Sanchez develops so eloquently in Erotic Subjects (OUP, 2011), and which I build on in ‘Suffering and Gender’, the final part of Pain, Pleasure and Perversity, and anyone interested in the subject matter of those works should take a look at Rose’s book. She notes that, as opposed to the heroics of action, ‘the heroics of endurance often commends to our attention rape, self-mutation, solipsistic desire, slavery and unwanted death’ (p. xxii). She illustrates her thesis through an examination of (mostly) non-religious texts, ranging from plays by Shakespeare, Marlowe and Jonson to the speeches of Queen Elizabeth and Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko. I could have wished for her to discuss the subject in relation to religious ideas about suffering, in particular, the imitation of Christ’s suffering, which is, after all, the central paradigm of the period, but I nevertheless found plenty to interest and engage me.

Sadomasochism, Theology and Capitalism

There is a frustrating ambiguity to Jeremy R. Carrette, ‘Intense Exchange: Sadomasochism, Theology and the Politics of Late Capitalism’ (theotherjournal.com, An Intersection of Theology and Culture, April 2, 2006).  To some extent this is deliberate; Carrette wants to ‘refuse the either/or mentality of Christian binary epistemology and to recognise that in complex worlds we can at times both simultaneously abuse and liberate in the same action’. Ultimately, though, he is working within the framework of logical discussion, which is rooted in either/or distinctions; if sadomasochism and Christianity are connected, then ‘either Christianity was distorted and needs correcting, or … power lies at the heart of all intimacies, or … God is at [the] heart of all affliction’. Since he poses these alternatives the reader has some right to expect him to choose among them, or synthesize them in some way, but this he refuses to do.

The conclusion of Carrette’s paper is a rallying call to action; ‘our pleasures are all we have to free ourselves from the modes of alienation so prevalent in our world’, and Christian communities have for so long read sexual exchange as the surplus commodities of transcendence, to be claimed in another world, it is now time to realize the redemption of our pleasures in this world and free our gendered bodies from the market of global exploitation.

In order to understand what kind of action Carrette is talking about we need a clear statement of whether, in his view, sadomasochism is part of the problem or part of the solution, but this is where he refuses to commit; he is prepared to go no further than saying that S&M ‘can be both oppressive and liberating’, which doesn’t really make it clear whether it is a help or a hindrance in redeeming pleasures or freeing gendered bodies from global exploitation.

Part of the problem lies in the subject matter itself and in the tools Carrette chooses to work with. A set of practices that codifies personal relationships so absolutely in terms of power may reasonably be assumed to have a political dimension, but in his exploration of the issues Carrette goes a step further and asserts that, in order to understand the role of S&M in relation to Christianity, it is necessary to understand ‘the political ideology behind its varied manifestations’. To say that S&M has a political dimension and to say that it has a political ideology are very different things, and if Carrette fails to find a coherent underlying political ideology it is probably because there isn’t one.

On the one hand, S&M is right wing and conservative, rooted in contractual power arrangements that mirror all that Carrette feels is wrong with modern capitalist society; ‘S&M subcultures take images [from] WW2 Germany and flourish in the market economy of the USA’ and maintain ‘the power structures of hegemonic patriarchal sexuality’. On the other hand, S&M has a subversive side, seen in ‘the surrealist films of Artaud’, ‘the avant-garde novels of Klossowski and Bataille’, in ‘its forms of political resistance in the gay leather scene’, and (although he downplays the significance of this) ‘in the subversive and sensual tactics of theologians and writers delighting in the connection between S&M and the history of Christianity’.

A set of practices that is at once conservative and subversive is necessarily resistant to binary classification, and to that extent Carrette has little option but to conclude that S&M ‘functions … as both a site of resistance [to] and compliance with global capitalism’. But this leaves him in something of a quandary.

Similarly irreconcilable opposites pervade Carrette’s discussion of ‘The obvious links between the history of Christianity and S&M’. On the one hand, ‘at some level religious suffering and S&M may constitute a parallel event’, but on the other, ‘we must be wary of the association made between the erotic and spiritual, which more often than not turns to a kind of New Age fluff’, and ‘there are huge epistemological quandaries in understanding the erotic experience of S&M as religious or theological’. At the same time as asserting, following Mark Jordan, The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism (University of Chicago, 2000), that ‘Christian theology can learn from the contemporary site of S&M practice’, and S&M is ‘powerfully illuminating to theology’, he makes it plain that he has little time for so-called Christian sadomasochists ‘bizarrely sanctioning S&M through the biblical texts on submission’. If there is, as he insists, stable ground on which a spiritual understanding of the world may learn from and build on sadomasochistic practices, where is it to be found?

Part of the reason why Carrette appears unable to resolve the paradoxes he so cogently describes may lie in his refusal to see S&M as anything other than ‘a recent discourse’, a ‘modern invention’, dating back no further than Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis (1886). I would query this on two counts. The first is that sadomasochism is both a discourse and a set of practices. The second is that it is much older, both as discourse and as a practice, than its codification in the nineteenth century. We know that, in the seventeenth century, there were ‘flogging cullies’ who achieved sexual arousal by being beaten, and Krafft-Ebing is building on earlier discourses, from Sacher-Masoch (1870) to Pico della Mirandola (1496). References to biting, scratching and slapping as ways of heightening sexual pleasure in the 2000-year-old Karma Sutra, and Jerome’s fourth-century tale (complete with erotic strangulation) of a Christian bound and aroused by a prostitute is just one of a number of texts suggesting that, while the term sadomasochism may date from the late nineteenth century, it defines something that has roots going back much further than that.

By denying or ignoring the historical (and, though it lies outside my scope, psychological) roots of sadomasochism Carrette allows no other context for it than that of late modern capitalist society. His insistence that it is a product of modern society forces the conclusion that it is susceptible to analysis only within the framework of that society. Would he apply this reasoning more generally, and insist that all discussion of sexual identities should begin with their taxonomy in the nineteenth century and be seen only in the context of late modern capitalism? This seems to me an unwarranted limitation of the subject matter, imposing a concomitant limitation on the kinds of enquiry that he considers legitimate, and leading to what, to me, feels like an unnecessary and rather unhelpful narrowness of interpretation.

Carrette’s other works – notably Religion and Culture, 1999, in which he critiques Foucault, and Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion, 2004, coauthored with Richard King – make it clear that he is pursuing a radical agenda, seeing religion primarily as prostituted in the service of capitalism by the political right, and his paper needs to be seen in the context of his general approach. He disparages Christian apologists for sadomasochism (he does not mention the infamous ‘Christian Domestic Discipline’ and ‘spanking for Jesus’ directly, but this is clearly the kind of thing he has in mind), because, in Gordon’s words, S&M is a ‘commodification of bodies and selves’, isolating ‘sacrifice, self-sacrifice and expressions of humility’ from their true roles as ‘part of veneration and worship of God, the Spirit’ (Bridges: Metaphor for Psychic Processes, Karnac Books, 1993, p. 274) – in other words, at this level, S&M is a part of the hijacking of religion by capitalism. At the same time, ‘Even in its sub-cultural commercialisation S&M can still be a site/sight of politic resistance’.

The emergence of proto-pornographic discourse in the seventeenth century is inextricably bound up with anti-religious polemic, not necessarily from an atheistic perspective, but as an attack on the supposed hypocrisy of particular denominations; the puritan minister who flagellates his maid – ‘he told me he must chastise me for the good of my soul’ – in Francis Kirkman’s The Presbyterian Lash (London, 1661, sig. B2v), or the Catholic priest for whom a mother and daughter strip and prostrate themselves in front of the altar in order for him to whip them – ‘She herself removes her underclothes to [bare] her loins, and goes down on her knees before the altar. Do not spare my impure flesh, holy man, she says’ – in Nicolas Chorier’s Satyra Sotadica (s.l., c. 1660, p. 202; my translation from the Latin) are satirical creations, specifically designed to ridicule a hypocritical asceticism. In order for them to work, there has to be recognition of the phenomenon of inflicting and undergoing pain for sexual pleasure.

Equally, as Melissa Sanchez ably demonstrates, the seventeenth century abounds in texts which discursively feminize the male political subject, and, of course, hagiography and the Petrarchan sonnet ‘both see suffering, not joy, as evidence of true love’ (Erotic Subjects, Oxford, 2011, p. 5). We can go back several hundred years and find proto-sadomasochistic discourse being used,
on the one hand, to subvert religious models and, on the other, to reinforce political ones, while, at the same time, the early modern flagellant who engages the services of a prostitute or maid to beat him into a state of sexual arousal (depicted a number of times in seventeenth-century prose and verse) is no more making a statement about religion or politics than his counterpart today.

Once one accepts that sadomasochistic practices and discourse both have a considerably longer pedigree than Carrette acknowledges, the need to separate the discursive functions of sadomasochism from the actual practices of the sadomasochist becomes much clearer. That, at least, is my take. Carrette’s might be different, but I feel his analysis could only be helped by a greater awareness of the genealogy of sadomasochistic practices and discourse.