Wentworth’s path from Lord Deputy of Ireland to the executioner’s axe is well enough known in its broad outlines, but with so many twists and nuances that it is hard to evaluate.
The decisive change in his fortunes came when the king, Charles I, recalled him from Ireland and charged him with putting down the revolt in Scotland (the Bishops’ Wars), along with making him Earl of Strafford.
He soon found himself the target of both sides in the dispute, but was persuaded to hang on in there by Charles, who promised him protection and then threw him to the wolves when Parliament impeached him.
If you want something a bit more meaty than the usual potted biographies there’s a chapter in Alan Orr, Treason and the State that’s worth taking a look at.
But the reason I’m posting this is because I’ve just finished scanning two thick volumes of Stafford’s collected letters, edited by William Knowler from the originals held by Strafford’s great grandson and published in 1739.
I did post a little tidbit a while back about Laud supposedly eating the puritan William Prynne’s ears, but the twist of fate that subsequently led Prynne to be the gaoler and prosecutor of his persecutor is one of the darkest tales of the seventeenth century and deserves a more prominent place on these pages.
Although this work was published many years after the events it describes, and its main content is reprinted, it also contains the first printing of a number of letters relating to the plot.
It is not a scarce work, and there is at least one other online copy (in the HathiTrust digital collection), but the margins are frustratingly narrow, making it difficult to scan.
I’ve done my best to scan each page fully, and the book can be viewed HERE. As with my other text-searchable PDF scans, the page may take some time to load. If it refuses to load at all on one browser, try opening it on another. I’m working on dividing these PDFs into smaller, more easily loaded, sections, but it all takes time!
Click HERE for a bit more detail about the book and its contents.
This full-page frontispiece is prefaced by the following poem:
These lines speak for themselves, describing “Albion” as “Three Nations doom’d t’eternal slavery”, symbolized by the figures crushed under the wheels of the hellish chariot that represents the Interregnum and Cromwell’s Protectorate.
That gives a pretty clear idea of where this book is coming from. The proceedings of the trial are taken from the official records, but accompanied by a lengthy introduction and copious commentary, leaving the reader in doubt but that the whole thing was nothing short of a heinous murder.
For a text-searchable scan of the whole book, click HERE.
For related texts and further details, click HERE.
This week’s book scan is a bit different from my usual fare. It’s a manuscript, it’s from the 15th century, it’s not primarily related to suffering and – because of the limitations of OCR (optical character reader) software – it’s not text-searchable.
But if you have any interest in this kind of thing I think you’ll find it’s worth taking a look! Here are a few sample pages, just to whet your appetite…
For a “guided tour” of this Book of Hours, click here. To see scans of the entire book, click here.
It’s a common enough tale, I suppose. Young man goes to Cambridge, studies law, goes to the inner Temple to complete his training, gets converted to Catholicism and ends up being hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn.
Maurus Scott was one of some 355 Catholics who were either put to death or died in prison during the early modern period, 40 of whom were subsequently canonized, while a further 242, of whom Scott was one, were beatified.
I don’t have anything in particular to say about him. The little that is known can be gleaned easily enough from Wikipedia or other sources, and I created a short entry for him on the Discourses of Suffering website.
I’d like to say dive over there, everyone, and get the lowdown on Maurus Scott, but Narratio mortis in odium fidei Londini in Anglia illatæ R.A.P. Mauro Scotto is in Latin, which limits its readership somewhat. I made a start on translating it, and I uploaded that too, but I haven’t got very far and (let’s be honest!) I probably won’t have the stamina to work right through it.
The OCR works reasonably well, though – in addition to the problems of early modern spelling conventions – there are occasional misreadings (“o” and “e” sometimes get misread as “c”, for example).
There’s already a copy of this available in Google Books (with many of the same problems when it comes to scanning), but the more online copies the merrier!
I finally splashed out on a CZUR overhead scanner, which I picked up at a substantial discount from the regular market price.
I strongly recommend anyyone to get one of these. Forget that dishwasher you were saving up for, or the new hairdryer you’ve been promising yourself; for real consumer satori nothing beats an overhead scanner!
Finally I am able to scan my early modern books and upload high quality text-searchable PDF files. I’ve made a modest start with half a dozen works (bound together) on “the horrid Popish Plot”. The collection focuses on martyrs and relgious controversies, and I’m planning to add one book a week, so if that kind of thing floats your boat stay tuned for updates!
Samuel Smith’s story is told in An Account of the Causes of some Particular Rebellious Distempers viz. the Scurvey, Cancers in Women’s Breasts, &c… (pp. 24-5), an anonymous work, published in London in 1670, and in William Salmon’s Ars Chirurgica (London, 1698), which repeats the 1670 account verbatim (p. 695). Immediately after dipping his finger into a gland of the woman’s severed breast and touching it to his lip, he experienced an insurmountable revulsion which he was unable to shake off:
…although he presently spit out and wash’d his Mouth with Water…and also with Wine…yet could not get rid of the Taste thereof, but it continued…and brought him…into a Consumption…which in a few Months after killed him, the Taste thereof never going off from his Tongue to his dying Hour… (An Account, p. 25.)
Bowman’s article examines five late seventeenth-century French autobiographies – by Marguerite-Marie Alacoque, Jeanne Bouvier de La Mothe Guyon, Antoinette Bourignon, Soeur Jeanne des Anges and Joseph Surin – and notes four recurrent themes running through all of them: ‘the consumption of disgusting matter and vomiting; the rejection of sexual activity and especially horror at sexual penetration; the fear of a fall through space; the refusal of the edenic myth of childhood’. He further points out that:
If all four have a spiritual context (Christ was given vinegar to drink, chastity is prized by the Church, the fall through space is a symbol of Adam’s fall and the fall from grace, and children are not innocent in a world of original sin), they also indicate a tension between the self and the world, about penetration by or movement in that world, about the links between past and present, family and self. (P. 26)
Bowman has a number of significant points to make, among them the links between spiritual biography and sadomasochistic discourse. There are sadomasochistic overtones in Alacoque’s relationship with her ‘harsh’ Superior and, Surin’ – whose autobiography Bowman considers ‘one of the most remarkable … ever written’ (p. 26), ‘Damned by God, forbidden to be good … knew the full consequences of deifying evil and makes one feel that such later writers as Sade or Lautréamont only play with the idea’ (p. 34).
There are also some interesting issues arising from the account of Smith’s demise; it is perhaps no accident that it is a poison emanating from a woman’s breast that leads to his downfall. For now, though, I will focus on just one issue – the light that these accounts shed on the way in which these accounts throw into relief changing attitudes towards feelings of repugnance, in particular the rejection of Stoic principles of inuring the impulses of the flesh and the shift towards the perception that natural revulsion is not there to be overcome but to be heeded as a matter of common sense.
To begin with, let me cite Bowman at greater length on the subject of eating nasty things. He notes traits which perhaps resemble what today we would call anorexia in Surin, and continues:
Jeanne had a predilection for eating vile food: «I used wormwood and gall to sprinkle what I ate in order to kill off in myself all kinds of taste» (p. 153). One of her devil’s tricks was to make her spit the Host out at the priest’s face once she had received it, and eating and vomiting were activities the demons inspired in her … Mme Guyon was something of a gourmet, … [but] this did not prevent her from learning how to consume others’ spit: «One day when I saw some spittle, the ugliest I’ve ever seen, I was obliged to put my mouth and tongue on it; the effort I made was so strange that I could not recover from it, and I had such violent retchings that I thought a vein was going to burst and I would vomit blood. I continued doing so as long as my stomach found it repugnant, which was quite a while» (p. 39). Alacoque exceeds the others. Her demons attacked her with «this abominable temptation of gourmandizing» (p. 351), so the Superior mortified her every time she asked for food. Moreover,
I was so very delicate that the least filthiness upset my stomach. He [i.e., God] corrected me so strenuously about this that once, wanting to clean the vomit of a sick person, I could not restrain myself from doing it with my own tongue and eating it, saying to him [i.e., God]: «If I had a thousand bodies, a thousand loves, a thousand lives, I would immolate them all to be enslaved to you.» I found so many delights in this act, that I would have liked to discover similar ones every day.
Once, on having an attack of dysentery, Alacoque consumed something so vile that her editor – and Bowman – forebear to give the details (p. 27).
Stoic attempts to overcome disgust by mortifying the taste buds were a feature of Catholic practice, and are echoed in Protestant attacks on absurd Catholic practices, such as Pierre de Moulin’s Le Capucin (1641), which (in the English translation of 1665) mocks the Capuchin monks for such penances as ‘eat[ing] with a Cat in the same dish’, or ‘lick[ing] up the others spittle’ (The Capucin Treated, pp. 21 & 22). And, while Bowman (rightly) emphasizes the differences between hagiography and spiritual autobiography – ‘Spiritual autobiographies do not always aim to describe exemplary conduct and, if only because of Christian humility, neglect the good deeds and signs of holiness which are the staple of hagiography’ (p. 24) – there are, nevertheless, close parallels between these accounts and the lives of saints. Catherine of Siena and Francisco Xavier are among those saints who sucked the pus out of the ulcerous sores of diseased people, though this was presumably done at least partly with the intention of benefiting others, and not simply out of an impulse to self-abasement (though that may have played a part, particularly in Xavier’s case). It is no accident that ‘Mme Guyon knows Catherine of Siena’ (p. 36), or that Surin justifies his spiritual crises by drawing parallels with figures like Ignatius, Suso and Magdalena de Pazzi (p. 37).
Loth as I am to play the amateur psychiatrist, one cannot but be struck by the confluence of eating foul things, feelings of guilt, unhappy childhoods and aversion to sex in the writers Bowman examines. If they knocked on the door with money in their pockets they would give any modern psychoanalyst a field day.
It is possible to see Smith, too, as suffering from a perverse compulsion, but the rationale behind his action is completely different. Smith is acting, supposedly, out of curiosity (whether idle or scientific), whereas the autobiographers are motivated by the underlying assumption is that it is right for the spirit to attempt to overcome the predilections and aversions of the flesh. This difference in intent is underlined by the very great difference in outcome.
So far, I have not been able to find any independent verification of this account of Samuel Smith’s death, but the fact that Salmon finds it worth repeating in a work published 28 years later indicates that it was accepted as true at the time. It is only the account of Smith’s death itself that Salmon borrows verbatim; though he takes it as proof of the same general principle as the author of the 1670 account (i.e., that there are certain very rare cancers of a particularly toxic nature), Salmon differs considerably in his explanation of the details.
But (for me at least) it is not the literal truth of the story that matters so much as what it represents – a rejection of Stoic principles that were widely accepted, at least until the later part of the seventeenth century, a mockery of Christian injunctions to ‘rejoice to suffer’ for the sake of one’s Lord. It is not just its staunch secularity that makes the juxtaposition of the account of how curiosity killed the surgeon with the spiritual accounts so remarkable. The moral of Smith’s fate is that one cannot simply overcome one’s natural repugnance, that, in fact, repugnance is so powerful that it can kill.
On the one hand, the juxtaposition of these scientific and spiritual accounts illustrates the way in which the one was emerging as an objective, rational discourse that has all but replaced religion in many people’s lives, while the other, insofar as it survives at all, has morphed into the realms of psychological analysis and attempts to rationalize the subjective impulses and perceptions of the individual. At the same time, though, it is notable that the scientific account is in the context of Protestant culture, with its rejection of the belief in mortification, while the spiritual conflict of the autobiographies takes place within the context of Catholic culture.
I am not trying to argue that either type of discourse is superior to the other, nor am I saying that scientific discourse is more essentially the property of a Protestant society than a Catholic one. What I am pointing out here is a basic incompatibility between these discourses, that the scientific perception leads inevitably to the marginalization of the worldview expressed by the autobiographers, culminating in the characterization of the impulses and sufferings of the tortured soul as madness, as the title of Bowman’s paper makes clear.
I’ll no doubt be back in gear with more insights into early modern suffering sometime during 2021, but for now I’m working on a series of videos on “Shakespeare the man”. Here’s the first one, just giving a general overview.
This next one is the first of several I’ll be doing on Shakespeare’s Stratford friends. Following Kate Pogue, I’m starting with Richard Quiney:
And here’s the third one, on Thomas Greene, which is as far as I’ve got so far:
I’m working on placing Shakespeare in his social context, showing the kinds of people he mixed with and the circles he moved in. The unspoken subtext of the videos is that, despite the claims of those who, for some reason, desperately need for Shakespeare to have been a country bumpkin who could never have written the plays published in his name, he was closely connected to people like Quiney and Greene, who were highly literate and well-educated.
In addition to my own series on Shakespeare, I’ve been editing and producing a series of interviews for a series of interviews by Thomas Dabbs, of Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, called “Speaking of Shakespeare”. These are a kaken-funded project, originally intended to finance a number of “live” appearances of visiting lecturers, but adapted because … well, because!
Here they are:
Both series are growing, so if you want to follow them check them out on YouTube and subscribe to the respective channels!
Here it is! Something tangible and irrefutable, something that makes 2021 better than 2020 (not that that would be hard!), something to cheer the spirit and warm the cocckles of the heart. Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership Phase 2 is now in the public domain, bringing 60,331 early modern works in text-searchable form within reach of anyone with access to the internet.
The Centre for the Study of Medicine and the Body in the Renaissance (CSMBR) is starting a new series of digital material. The first video in the series, Vegetable Harmonies, a short video with the Illuminations by Gherardo Cybo (1512-1600) on Mattioli’s Discorsi sopra la Materia Medica di Dioscoride Pedacio (BL Ms Additional 22333) accompanied by Monteverdi’s madrigal La Giovinetta Pianta (1592), was published just a few days ago:
This is my first post for a while, partly because I’ve been focusing on other things, and partly because, when I did turn my attention in this direction and tried to post, the blog had disappeared!
It took a while, but eventually I managed to sort out the problems and get it back, so here I am – three quarters of a year late, posting details of a paper I presented at the European Association for Japanese Studies Annual Conference at Tsukuba University on September 15, 2019.
The purpose of the presentation was to view the persecution of Catholics in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Japan in the context of the religious controversies between Catholics and Protestants in early modern England.
Here are the notes I used for the presentation:
I’d like to start by discussing the role and nature of characterizations of Japan in polemical literature prior to the martyrdoms of 1597 … and to do that I need to focus on a Jesuit mission very different from that in Japan – the mission to England of 1580-81, which basically hinges on two individuals, the controversialist Robert Parsons and his fellow missionary Edmund Campion, who came to England secretly in 1580 – a pretty risky venture, the penalty for which was death, a price which Campion paid, while Parsons escaped.
The following year, 1581, while the two priests were still in hiding in England. Parsons wrote a work – ostensibly printed in Douai but, like many Catholic texts of this period, actually printed secretly in England – entitled A brief censure vppon two books written in answere to M. Edmonde Campions offer of disputation.
Campion’s offer – dubbed by his enemies “Campion’s brag” – was to discuss the Jesuit – or, more broadly, the Catholic – position with the English authorities. The offer was roundly rejected in two publications by Meredith Hanmer and William Charke.
So … Campion requests an audience with the English authorities, Hanmer and Charke publish their rejections of the offer and Parsons publishes his response to their rejections.
And what does any of this have to do with Japan? Well, Parsons is at pains to reassure the English authorities that the Jesuit presence in England is not political but religious in intent, and he says, “… to retourne to M. Campion againe, whose coming into Englande you wil needs enforce … that it is for practise against the state …” – that is, in response to the charge that the Jesuits are plotting to overthrow the government and return the country to Catholicism by force – he argues that “the Indies Japon can geue example, where they haue dealt so many yeares for the bringing of men to the Christian religion, disallowed by the states of those countries, and yet are no medlers against those estates, nor euer caused subiectes to leaue their obedience to those infidel Princes.”
He says much the same thing in another work published the following year: “The king of Bungo in Japan, being a heathen, hath permitted & protected the Catholic religion in his countries these 28 years only for the commodity he feeleth his commonwealth to receive thereof…”, he says, concluding that the Catholic faith is essential to the “maintenance, continuance, well doing, and secure establishment of a commonwealth”.
The Protestants, as we might expect, put a very different complexion on things. In May 1581, just a couple of months before Campion was seized by the English authorities, one John Keltridge preached a couple of sermons to a captive audience of Jesuits and other “aduersaries to the Gospell of Christ” in the Tower of London: “What presumption was it for you to come to vs” he says; “Wee sought you not. what arrogancie to teach vs? We are not destitute of such as can instruct. What? was it because you would sowe your damnable errors here, as you did of late amongst the Iaponians? a people that might haue beene conuerted, nowe they are infected by you : that might haue seene the light, nowe they are blinded thorowe you …”
He continues his tirade, saying “there be Idols Amida and Zaca, which the men of that countrie worshippe, as they were taught by you. Think you that it is vnknowne to vs? are we ignorant of your dealings? No, I tell you no”. Which I think is a rather nice illustration of a recurring theme in early modern discourse; when in doubt – blame it on the Jesuits!
Keltridge winds up this part of his diatribe with the words, “And come you hither, and haue you hope to preuaile here with vs … come you hither into Englande?” underlining the point that the real focus is on matters close to home, and Japan comes in merely by way of illustration.
So, let’s turn now to the events of 1597. As Dr. Rappo has explained, the Franciscans claimed the crucifixions as martyrdoms, with attendant miracles, as evidence of the importance of the work they were doing in Japan, while the Jesuits denied that there had been either martyrdoms or miracles, and argued that the crucifixions were essentially political, resulting from the Franciscans’ failure to observe the legal restraints the Japanese had placed them under.
News of the crucifixions spread quickly in Europe. The Franciscan version was told in the Relación of Francisco de Tello de Guzmán, published in Granada and Seville in 1598, and translated in short order into Italian, French and German. Juan de Santa María’s account was published in Madrid in 1599 and, with revisions and additions, in 1601, and Marcelo de Ribadeneira – perhaps the most influential of the Franciscan writers – published his Historia in 1601.
The Jesuits were equally prolific; Luis Froís, José de Ribera and Luis de Guzmán were among those who published accounts, and there were others, on both sides of the debate, which continued to rage until the pope sanctioned the Franciscan mission in 1608, with the two sides largely burying their differences when the persecution of Christians in Japan intensified in 1614.
But what I want to focus on here is the fact that the debate is being played out in what is very much a European theatre. What impact, if any, did all of this have on little England?
The signs are not encouraging. Robert Parsons speaks of the Jesuits’ “voluntarie sufferinges tortures & martirdomes in the Indies, in Ethiopia, in Iapone, in Englād, Frace & other places” (A temperate vvard-vvord, 1599). That’s right! Blink and you’d miss it; it’s just a passing mention and he doesn’t give any details. Fróis’s letters were translated into English circa 1605, but they were never published. And, so far, I’ve not been able to locate any copies of texts related to the events of 1597 in the Private Libraries in Renaissance England database.
A 1598 translation of Jan Huygen [“haifun”] van Linschoten states that the Jesuits “likewise obtained of the Pope and the king of Spaine, that no mã might dwell in Iapan; either Portingale or Christian, without their licence and consent, so that in all Iapan there are no other orders of Munkes, Fryers, Priests, nor any other religious persons remaining or resident there, but Jesuites alone.”
The text is based on the author’s experience some years previously, so it’s only to be expected that it doesn’t refer to the Franciscan presence or to the crucifixions of 1597. However, it is curious that it appears to be the main source of information about Japan in England for a number of years afterwards. William Clark, writing in 1603, says, “it is reported of Iapona … where they [i.e., the Jesuits] keepe to themselues the sole dominion, and will admit no other Clergie, but play Bishop, priest, and Munck themselues”, citing Jan Huygen as his source.
And in 1604 George Abbot notes that “In Iaponia, of the Portingale, no man hath any authority or power besids the Iesuits … These Iesuits do also diligently take heed, that no mõk of any other order be receiued into those lads”, also based on Jan Huygen’s account.
So, yes, I think it’s fairly clear by now that we’re not really talking about the response in Protestant England, but the lack of it!
Essentially, it’s business as usual; it’s almost as if the crucifixions had never happened. Japan continues to figure as a rhetorical device in anti-Jesuit discourse and accusations of a Jesuit plot to take over England. For example, Andreas Philalethes (i.e., Robert Charnock) writes of “the great hopes [the Jesuits] haue of making England a Iaponian Island” (An ansvvere made by one of our brethren, 1602). Such accusations persist even after the Jesuits have been driven out of Japan. William Prynne, for example, writing in 1655, complains that the Jesuits seek to “make these Northern Islands a Iaponian Island of Iesuites, and one Iesuitical Monarchy” (, A seasonable, legal, and historicall vindication).
John Donne refers disparagingly to “the Iesuites Letters of Iapan” (Ignatius his conclaue, 1611), and Samuel Purchas makes leave to “borrow of them” in his account of Japan (Purchas his pilgrimage, 1613). Purchas even gives muted praise to the Jesuits’ work in Japan, saying “a mixed Truth” is better than “a totall errour” and “the Labours of the Iesuites … breed shame to our negligence”. Overall, though, there appears to be very little significant discussion in Protestant England of martyrdoms and miracles among the Christians in Japan.
The apparent lack of information about Japan in England at this time is all the more curious given that, from 1600, the English had, of course, boots on the ground – Will Adams, an Englishman in Japan (with apologies to Sting) or (if you prefer the Graham Greene version) our man in Nagasaki.
According to John Nelson, Adams’s “Protestant descriptions of a new world view portrayed the Spaniards and Portuguese as ‘papist pirates,’ the Pope as ‘a thief,’ and warned in no uncertain terms that the Spaniards were set on nothing less than world conquest based first on the conversion of subjects of foreign princes … It all sounded very familiar to threats heard during the San Felipe incident in 1597”. And, no doubt, it had some effect on Japanese perceptions of the Catholic presence.
And, from 1613 to 1623 the East India Company was active in Japan, headed by Richard Cocks, a former anti-Catholic spy.
Timon Screech, basing his analysis largely on letters written by Cocks to the Company during this period, makes a compelling case for the role of Cocks and the English in turning the Japanese authorities against the Catholics (The English and the control of Christianity in the early Edo period, 2012).
Some of Cocks’s letters found their way into later editions of Purchas his pilgrimage and, together with more of the Jesuits’ letters coming from Japan, they helped to flesh out the picture.
Slowly but surely, the news that Japan had “persecuted the Christians, and banished the Iesuites” started to filter into Protestant England.
Meanwhile, Catholic accounts of the crucifixions of 1597 and related events were beginning to appear in English. As Alexandra Walsham observes, “These books were expected to fall into the hands, not just of committed adherents of the Church of Rome, but also of lukewarm waverers and convinced Calvinists”. The Anglican clergy, of course, were exempt from the prohibition on reading Catholic literature and were, indeed, expected to do so, in order to be in a position to confound the adversary. It took a surprising amount of time, but by about 1630 Protestant England was reasonably up to date regarding the persecution of Christians in Japan.
However, it is not until the later part of the seventeenth century that the threads of historical detail and religious polemic start to weave themselves into a coherent Protestant narrative. John Evelyn’s 1670 translation of de Pontchâteau and Arnauld is a good example: “… for a mark of the Jesuites blinded self-love, he says, that no Fryar of any other order must be permitted to pass into England” – “he” here being our old friend Robert Parsons – concluding “thus they make nothing of ruining the Church, providing it may conduce to make them Masters of all”.
And in that context of hostile relations between Jesuits and other orders he introduces Japan, where “the Jesuites were Cheats and Impostures who made pretence of preaching, came to raise the people, and plot some treason against him [i.e., the emperor], and the kings of Japan”, where they were seen as seditious, as “dispos[ing] the people to war”, and where they were “persecuted and chased away as Cheats and Impostors”. He then goes on to argue that “It cannot be said that the Emperour did this out of hatred to the Christian Faith, who gave permission in writing in 1593 to the Order of St. Francis to enter his Empire, to found there Churches, Hospitals and Convents, and appear publickly in their poor habit : All which notwithstanding the persecution continued against the Society, who had but one Church left at Nangazaqui…”
In the following year, 1671, the Dutch account of Arnoldus Montanus appeared in English, noting that in 1596 (by the Julian calendar) the Emperor “proceeded cruelly against the Christians” ordering the “Governor of Nangesaque, to take five Franciscans, and three Jesuits, and having Crucified, run them through with Spears”. Montanus goes on to pour scorn on the accounts of miracles surrounding this event – “concerning the Miracles wrought by these Priests, let him believe, who according to St. Augustine, desired and depends upon now Miracles for establishment of Religion, already confirm’d by Wonders”, but goes on to list them nevertheless.
Montanus also comments, interestingly, that “These Examples manifest sufficiently, that the Japanners are not only of Noble Hearts, but constant Resolutions, enduring the greatest Tortures in their Infancy with inexpressible Valour, for a Religion, the first beginning whereof they scarce understood: For besides reading the Pater Noster, Ave Maria, and some Prayers to the Saints, they have little or no knowledge of either the Old or New Testament: Therefore we may judge the Japan Martyrs to be very Zealous and Constant.”
This line of thought is also found in the works of the puritan Richard Baxter, who in 1692 argues that Christianity may exist independently of the scriptures, saying, “a man may be a true Christian who knoweth not that there is any Scripture which is Gods Infallible word”, and in that context goes on to say that “in Japan, Congo, China, and other countries of the East, they [i.e., the Jesuits] did teach them onely by Creeds, Catechismes, and preachings: And I remember no knowledge that they gave to most of them of the Scriptures : And yet the most cruel torments and martyrdoms never before heard of, which the Christians in Japan endured … doth put all sober readers past doubt, that there were many excellent Christians”.
So, let’s try to get some kind of gestalt on all of this. What does it all add up to? Essentially, we’re dealing, especially in the early stages, with an anti-Jesuit narrative, in which Japan is cast as “Jesuitized” and perceived negatively, while England is “Jesuit-free” and perceived positively. Japan is held up as the epitome of all the harm the Jesuits do.
The martyrdoms of 1597 and the ensuing persecution of Christians in Japan are recounted from the varying perspectives of the Franciscans, the Jesuits, the Dutch and the English themselves, and as these accounts slowly filter into English discourse the focus begins to shift gradually away from Jesuit conspiracy and towards greater historical accuracy, the question of the veracity of miracles, and a recognition of the commonality of suffering. Obviously, the diagram is a simplification. Anti-Jesuit polemic doesn’t just die out at this time, and Protestant attacks on the Catholic belief in miracles go right back to the early days of the Reformation. But there does seem to be a general shift of perspective, away from the early modern worldview and anticipating the more rational discourses of the Enlightenment.
A few months ago I commented on Jeremy Carrette’s essay, ‘Intense Exchange: Sadomasochism, Theology and the Politics of Late Capitalism’, expressing frustration at the way in which the author speaks of the need to ‘free our gendered bodies from the market of global exploitation’, but refuses to commit himself to identifying sadomasochism either as part of the problem or as part of the solution. It might be supposed, then, that I would feel much more comfortable with Filip Kovacevic, ‘Masochism in Political Behavior: A Lacanian Perspective’ (2011). And yet, despite the fact that Kovacevic makes it perfectly explicit that, in his view, ‘masochism is a part of the problem and not the solution’, I found his thesis so unsatisfactory that, by the end, I felt positively well-disposed towards Carrette, whose ambivalence at least gives tacit recognition to the imperfectness of the fit between masochistic tendencies and political achievement. By contrast, Kavacevic’s equation of any kind of voluntary-undertaken suffering – from the sufferings of Christ to hunger strikers and suicide bombers – with masochism seems to me to be a distorted oversimplification.
Not that Kavacevic doesn’t hit the nail on the head now and again. Some of what he says about the vicious cycle of political protest and reform rings true, as when he says of a miners’ strike in Montenegro that the miners’ intention ‘was not to effect permanent and lasting changes in their position toward the Other who confronted them, but only to create “enough” anxiety in the Other so that [Prime Minister Djukanovic´] would resolve this particular situation’. A few weeks later, when Djukanovic´ ‘did not fulfill all that he promised’, the cycle repeated itself, and ‘the miners took it out on themselves again’. In this way, through a process of, on the one hand, gratifying and on the other of producing anxiety in the ‘Other’, ‘the masochistic relation will be reasserted, condemning the masochist to constant repetition and the Other’s enjoyment is re-established as a trap from which the masochist can never (quite) escape’.
The way out of this endless cycle, Kavacevic argues, is for the oppressed to ‘move from being the objects of the Other’s enjoyment to being the objects of the Other’s desire’. He sees a neurotic / hysteric response as being superior to a masochistic one; ‘hysterics, positioning themselves as objects of the Other’s desire, reveal the fact that the dominating Other is lacking and this is exactly what allows them to push for the construction of less oppressive, tolerant Others’.
Having made it clear that he regards Christ and Christianity as doing more harm than good, Kavacevic holds up Socrates as a positive role model, homing in on Socrates’s ironic call on the state of Athens ‘to provide him with life-long honors, while he was being condemned to death’. ‘Masochists’, he says, ‘cannot be ironic’, concluding:
conveying the irony of their situation to hunger-strikers (and suicide bombers) is the only way to help them begin their subjective transformation. Stated in Lacanian terms, masochists position themselves to serve as instruments of enjoyment to a non-existent Other. What could be more absurd and open to ironic interpretation than that?
This does, I admit, give me food for thought, but I am really not sure that there is any real way to distinguish between the ironic sufferer and the masochistic one. I can see that appealing to the Other through self-inflicted suffering is a weaker option than working through the Other’s desire/need for approval, but I’m not even quite sure that this is what Kavacevic is saying.
In short, yet another thought-provoking article that ultimately fails to completely satisfy!
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 torejoiceto 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 inBeing Protestant in Reformation Britain, though, since his interest is in showing the life of everyday Protestants, he largely overlooks Robert Burton’sThe 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.
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, hisGrace 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 isnecessaryto 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.
Oliver contrasts the suffering of Christian martyrs with that of victims of the Rwanda genocide. She takes as her starting point Gentille’s assertion that she is ‘a body that’s decomposing, an ugly thing I don’t want you to see’, in Gil Courtemanche’s novel Un
dimanche à la piscine à Kigali (2000), translated into English as A
Sunday by the Pool in Kigali (2003), p. 257. Oliver starts from the
observation that ‘while Gentille’s story as she tells it attests to the loss of her human subjectivity, to her sub-humanity, stories of Christian sufferers bear witness to a sacred humanity attained through suffering, in particular corporeal suffering’.
She then makes the point that the outcome of suffering – the sacramentality or dehumanizing of the disfigured body – depends largely on how it is perceived by others. She cites Primo Levi’s Se questo è un uomo (1947), translated in 1957 as If this is a Man,
as evidence of how the eyes of others have ‘a crucial and active role to play in providing psychological and emotional restitution for victims of atrocity’. Without the audience, without ‘the pagan spectators who convert to Christianity’ and ‘the medieval layperson who reveres relics and images of exotic martyred flesh’ – without these, ‘the saint would quite simply not be a saint’:
The apparently passive observer is always also an actor, performing – consciously or unconsciously – a specific symbolic function within the logic of the spectacle of violence and oppression enacted by the perpetrator.
Kyriakidou summarizes research suggesting that dehumanization of the victim is only one of a range of responses:
Oliver effectively conflates these different responses, asserting that ‘Abject embodied sufferers…almost always fall into the perceived character of (subhuman) other in the minds of even the most humanitarian long-distance spectators of atrocity’. Kyriakidou cites Cohen (States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering, 2001, p. 194) on ‘a general sociology of “denial and bystanding”, the essence of which is the “the active looking away, a sense of a situation so utterly hopeless and incomprehensible that we cannot
bear to think about it”’, which Oliver echoes in her characterization of the body as ‘a symbol of the inhumanity of the act of cruelty perpetrated against it’, leading to ‘The desire to look away, the wish never to have seen’.
Oliver emphasizes the semantic origins of the word ‘martyr’, noting its original sense of ‘witness’, and makes the point that ‘The Christian narrative of sacred (non) humanity, like the universalising gaze of the western, humanitarian spectator of suffering, fails, precisely, to witness, and thus deprives suffering subjects of their individual, specific experiences of pain, and the knowledge that these imply’. She wraps up her argument with the observation that ‘representations of atrocity…run the risk of symbolically repeating the dehumanising violence enacted upon the body of the victim’, and emphasizes the need for recognition of this risk; ‘an ethical reception of embodied witnessing implies…in the first instance, a self-conscious acknowledgement of the potential for dehumanisation in our own perception’, so that, instead of – consciously or unconsciously – denying the humanity of the victim, the witnesses acknowledge ‘the particularity of real experiences of suffering’ and so recognize, in its ‘terrifying specificity’, the ‘universal’ humanity of the victim of atrocity.
The victim in a beheading video, of course, has not given their consent either to their own murder or the filming and circulation of it, a dynamic of helplessness that applies equally to child pornography. Yet we do not circulate child pornography on the understanding that decent people will need to watch it and think “isn’t that dreadful?” (‘Facebook beheading: Some videos should never be watched‘, Telegraph, November 03, 2013.)
The outcry in the present case, however, was enough to force Facebook to rethink its policy, though the portrayal of suffering and mutilated victims in the media continues to be a thorny issue. Oliver’s comparison of such portrayal with the representation of the sufferings of martyred saints throws into relief some important points, but it is – as she herself recognizes – an imperfect analogy. The martyr is a witness in the sense of bearing testimony to her faith
(rather than, as Oliver seems to understand it, as a testimony to her suffering), whereas the victims of atrocity are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and not setting out to bear testimony to anything. Thich Quang Duc’s act of self-martyrdom remains very much what martyrdom always has been. Even in the modern world, the martyr is exalted by suffering.
The debate, then, would appear to centre on three types of depiction – the voluntary suffering of the martyr, the involuntary suffering of the victim of atrocity, and the staging of involuntary suffering as spectacle. There are further distinctions to be made based on who actually inflicts the suffering; Quang Duc lit the match to burn him to death himself, the anonymous Mexican woman in the Facebook video was murdered by a criminal, and other victims may be the result of the handiwork of governments (including one’s own), dissidents, accidents and so forth.
Like the stagings of martyrdom, videos of beheadings have been orchestrated as media events, whereas cameras which capture scenes of violence and cruelty simply happen to be there. Unlike the martyr, however, the unwilling victim of cruelty is a cipher, with no choice and no voice. But there is more to it than that. The victim whose suffering is incidentally recorded can be given a voice, of sorts, by making that suffering public, by letting the world know. By contrast, the victim whose suffering is orchestrated as a media event is being mocked for her helplessness; her lack of choice and of voice is part of her humiliation.
Jenny McCartney is writing for the Telegraph, which – like most of the major media – publishes videos of people being stoned to death, being publicly hanged, or receiving other gory punishments. What is the rationale for broadcasting this kind of material if not that ‘decent
people will need to watch it and think “isn’t that dreadful?”’ – the very rationale that McCartney condemns? McCartney begins her article with the words, ‘The question of our time is not “what am I allowed to see?” but “what do I have the right to see?”’ – but what useful purpose would be served by removing such material from the eyes of the world? Ultimately, as Oliver points out, ‘the pagan torturer’s power…is undermined’, partly by the martyr’s heroic resistance, but also by the very act of making the demonstration of power into a spectacle. The public enactment of corporal punishment during the early modern period is a closer parallel to videos of public stonings than the burning or dismembering of martyrs, and the lesson we can learn from the past here would seem to be that such spectacles carry the seeds of their own destruction; the stocks, the whipping post and the gallows are no longer features of our urban landscapes. As Foucault observes, the horror of the spectacle of such punishments was not only ‘apt to transform the shame that was inflicted on the sufferer into pity or glory’, but also ‘often recast the executioner’s legalized violence as an atrocity’ (Michel Foucault, Surveiller et Punir: Naissance de la Prison, 1975, p. 15; my translation).
The recent flare-up over Facebook’s policies shows clearly where the line between acceptable and unacceptable portrayals of cruelty is drawn in today’s (western) world. There is a need to give those who suffer a kind of voice, the chance to cry out and perhaps be heard by others who will respond with horror, with outrage, with determination to stamp out the root causes of such suffering. There is even some justification for cameras recording public executions, which would have taken place whether or not the camera was present. But viewing atrocities orchestrated for the camera is, as Oliver says, ‘symbolically repeating the dehumanising violence enacted upon the body of the victim’; the viewer is almost inevitably drawn into perpetuating the intent of the perpetrators, particularly when – as in the case of the Facebook video – the violence takes the form of coldblooded murder by criminals.
An atavistic response to cruelty lies at the animal roots of the human psyche, but it is not the only response. Acknowledging that, at some level, the spectacle of cruelty satisfies an instinctual capacity for cruelty that lies within everyone is, as Oliver says, a first step towards an ethical response.
UPDATE: June 2020; The Telegraph is behind a pay wall these days, but it appears that the videos of stoning and hanging have been removed. The video of Thich Quang Duc‘s immolation is still on Facebook
A full list of Newlands’ papers can be found here.
Although I cite both papers, there is quite a lot of content that is common to both of them (the second is perhaps an early draft of the first). I won’t bother with page references, since quotes from these papers can be located by a text search in the relevant document. For more detailed discussion of the seventeenth-century reception of Stoic and Epicurean ideas, see Pain, Pleasure and Perversity, chapter 1, section 1.
NEWLANDS APPROACHES the question of evil via the Scholastic philosophers of the Middle Ages and the development of philosophical thought on the subject as represented by (mainly) Descartes, Spinoza, Malebranche, and Leibnitz, and takes as his starting point the idea that ‘evil was a privation of goodness’. This, which he calls ‘traditional privation theory’, is predicated on the premise that ‘evils are absences or lacks of appropriate perfections, perfections that things ought to have’ (‘Evils’):
In Scholastic Aristotelianism, the nature of a thing was given by its intrinsic telos: the end towards which a thing tended determined the perfections or excellences it ought to have. A subject was evil, therefore, insofar as it lacked perfections that, by its telic nature, it ought to have. Among other things, this meant that the lack of sight would be an evil for a goat but not an evil for a rock. (‘Leibnitz’)
Perfections, by their nature, are good, so the Scholastic position, largely laid down by Aquinas, is that evil is the absence of good. However, it is not simply that. Aquinas took exception to the Neoplatonic idea that ‘evils are just a lack of being, goodness, perfection, and reality’, which Newlands calls the ‘evil as negation’ theory. By this theory, Aquinas argues, ‘a man would be evil who had not the swiftness of the roe, or the strength of a lion’ (‘Leibnitz’). Therefore, there is an important distinction between the idea of evil as an absence of good in a negative sense and in a privative sense.
Nevertheless, both the negative and the privative views of evil share in common the idea that evil does not exist in itself, but only as the absence of its opposite. At this point, I would like to stand back a moment from what Newlands is saying and introduce another, completely contradictory point of view, the Epicurean postulation of pleasure as merely the absence of pain. To understand just how categorically opposed the two positions are we need to recognize that, from an Epicurean point of view, pleasure is essentially equatable with good, and pain with evil. Therefore, the assertion that pleasure is the absence of pain is tantamount to an assertion that good is the absence of evil.
From a Christian point of view, the Epicurean position is theologically very suspect. If God made everything, and everything that God made was good (Genesis 1:31), then evil could not be a ‘thing’; it could only be a lack, an absence. The Epicurean notion that good is the absence of evil is a direct reversal of this notion, and it follows from such reasoning that evil must exist as an objective entity. The idea that evil existed in its own right was ‘traditionally associated with Manichaeism and Zoroastrianism’, and could not be consistently combined with two other central Scholastic doctrines. First, goodness and being are convertible, which meant that to the degree to which a thing or any of its properties are real or have being (esse), to that degree the thing or its properties are also good – and vice versa. Second, God is the primary source of all and only goodness, which, by the convertibility of goodness and being, entails that God is also the primary source of all and only reality or being. (‘Leibnitz’)
By denying that evil had an independent, objective existence, God could be exonerated from being the cause of evil. Evil was not part of God’s creation, but came about only through ‘the privative failure to act as one ought’, or, as Descartes has it, ‘error is not a pure negation, but rather a privation or lack of some knowledge which should be in me’ (‘Evils’).
Descartes’ reiteration of the theory of evil as privation suggests its survival beyond medieval times. However, as Newlands shows, it is under threat from ‘The growing belief in the triumph of 17th century mechanism, according to which the motion and impact of bodies sufficed to explain all physical events’ (‘Evils’). While accepting privation in the abstract domains of mental and moral worlds, Descartes challenged it in the physical world; a clock that failed to keep proper time, or a person who suffered from a sickness was not merely the result of a lack, but could be ascribed to a physical cause (‘Evils’).
As the seventeenth century got under way, the privation theory of evil came under attack from both philosophers and theologians (‘Evils’). Newlands devotes considerable attention to Malebranche, saying:
Malebranche focuses on one of the toughest cases for privation theory: pain. Malebranche argues that the experience of pain is not just the deprivation of an appropriate good such as pleasure. Rather, ‘pain is a real and true evil…thus not every evil is an evil just because it deprives us of good,’ adding later that pain ‘is always a real evil to those who suffer it, as long as they suffer it.’ Malebranche implies that at least some physical evils like pain and suffering are not merely absences of an appropriate good. The evil of pain is sometimes quite positive and real, suggesting that the evil of pains has a positive nature that is opposed to the good, pace privation theory. According to Malebranche, some pains are intrinsically evil.
Newlands does not bring Epicurus into the picture, but the association is clear and significant; ‘Malebranche[’s] verdict on the intrinsic evil of some pains is now the dominant and mostly unquestioned view in most contemporary discussions of evil’. The Epicurean approach has, in effect, largely ousted the Scholastic view.
Stoicism (which also lies outside the scope of Newlands’ paper) is more easily reconcilable with the privation theory of evil. Pain, as Newlands has pointed out, is one of the biggest problems for the privation theory, and the Epicurean idea that pain is intrinsically evil undermines it from several points of view. The Stoic approach, which denies that pain and suffering are in themselves evil, or that pleasure is in itself good, fits more closely with the perspective of the Scholastics. Stoic philosophers themselves were divided over the issue of how to respond to pain and pleasure, with some asserting that the wise man will avoid the one and embrace the other insofar as this is not incompatible with the practice of virtue, and others pursuing the aim of inuring the self to both pain and pleasure, and attempting to rise above them. The first approach is suitable for the average Christian, while the second one is the posture of the ascetic saint and the martyr. In Pain, Pleasure and Perversity, I trace the steady tendency towards the rejection of Stoic principles over the course of the seventeenth century, and the trend towards seeing pain as an evil to be avoided, laying down the foundations of the taboo on suffering that largely prevails in modern Western society. Newlands takes a different path, through the Scholastics and the reception of their ideas by the philosophers of the seventeenth century, but comes to a very similar conclusion.
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
Pelz), 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 blog of the book, Pain, Pleasure and Perversity: Discourses of Suffering in Seventeenth-Century England