Category Archives: About the Book

Discourses of suffering revisited: what was it all about?

I posted a reply to a question on Quora that has attracted quite a lot of attention. The question was, “Can you fail a Ph.D. thesis defence?” and, having failed mine twice, I felt I was in a good position to answer!

Several people posted comments asking what the thesis was about so, instead of explaining it afresh to everyone each time, I decided I’d post an answer here…

Off to a good start

In 1975, I registered at the University of Cambridge for a PhD on translations of Spanish literature into English during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

My supervisor was Professor Edmund Meryon Wilson, a fellow of Emmanuel College.

Edmund Meryon Wilson

I soon found out that Professor Wilson had a thesis in his head on early modern English translations of Spanish devotional literature and his plan was for me to write said thesis. All went well for the first year, but at some point during the second year he fell ill. The last time I spoke to him he was confident of making a full recovery, but in fact he died.

Professor Wilson was a very kind and generous-spirited man, but I knew there were topics I was interested in that didn’t fit with his ideas and approach. Recklessly, I started to stray from his straight and narrow path.

Eventually, I was reassigned to another advisor, Dr. Richard Luckett, at that time a junior research fellow at St. Catherine’s College, but soon to transfer to Magdalene – my own college – where he remained as Pepys Librarian for thirty years.

Richard Luckett

Again, Dr. Luckett was basically well-disposed, but he was not to know how far I had swerved – to my cost – from the well-laid plans of Professor Wilson. There were other things going on at that time, but I’m sure that played its part in what came next.

I won’t go into details. Suffice to say that I submitted the thesis, failed the viva, was given the chance to rewrite and resubmit, did so, and failed again. The title (both times) was “Translations of Spanish Devotional Literature into English, 1500-1700”.

The years in the wilderness

I won’t go into details of what came after that, either! My already somewhat chaotic and unconventional life now entered a phase of full-blown bohemianism – mostly in the south of Spain…

I kept tabs on the field, though, and found that my straying from the beaten path was not entirely without justification. It’s complicated, but my analysis of the impact of the Spanish devotional writers was partly dependent on recognition of Judaic and Islamic influences on the Spanish writers, thus making translations of their work a conduit for certain motifs and ideas that were otherwise unknown elsewhere in Europe.

My main source for these ideas was a Spanish scholar active mainly in the 1920s and 30s, by the name of Miguel Asín Palacios. My problem was that Asín Palacios’s work in this area was, at that time, considered discredited. To get that part of my thesis accepted I would need to convince the examiners that Asín Palacios was wrongly reviled and had a point. This was one hurdle too many. I’m not saying it’s the reason the thesis wasn’t accepted, but it certainly didn’t help.

Anyway, the turning point was a book by Luce López-Baralt entitled Huellas del Islam – exactly the same title as Asín Palacios had given his work in 1941! Obviously, I was fascinated, and completely bowled over when I read it. López-Baralt nailed it! There was no doubt about it; I wasn’t an expert in the Judaic/Islamic/Spanish side of the matter, but if I’d presented my thesis with the solid and irrefutable scholarship of López-Baralt to back it up, that component of my work would no doubt have been a very different story.

The prodigal returns

It wasn’t until a few years later that I decided to actually do something about it. I dug out the thesis and worked on a chapter on the English translation of a text by the Spanish mystic Juan de Ávila, dealing with the symbolic significance of aloes in Islam and showing how that aspect of the text was dealt with in translation, not just into English, but into French, Italian and Dutch. That paper is available on JSTOR (click here for an open-access version).

Around about the same time, I published a paper (also based on a chapter of the thesis) on James Mabbe’s translation of Mateo Alemán’s Guzmán de Alfarache (open-access version here).

I went on to publish a number of other papers and bits and bobs of that kind, somewhat switching my focus at that point to Protestant translations and adaptations of Catholic literature more generally, not just focusing on Spain. Most of those publications are listed on Google Scholar.

But it was that article on Juan de Ávila’s herbal terminology that led me on the path to “Discourses of Suffering”. The book is a collection of letters written by Ávila to various people, and there is a heavy emphasis throughout on the patient acceptance of suffering. It struck me as being very far from the kind of comforting bedside talk one might expect. To one lady on her sick-bed he wrote, “Madam, I have heard that you are sick, and am not sorry about it” – not from malevolence or ill-will, but because, as Ávila saw it, through suffering she had an opportunity to purify her soul.

I started to piece together other texts that had that kind of perspective, and somewhere along the line it hit me that these Catholic ascetics resembled nothing so much as the puritans who rejoiced to suffer for Christ’s sake, seeing in that a sure sign that they were among the saved.

But there was a crucial difference. Catholics did penance, and so could bring suffering upon themselves, whereas Protestants could only wait and hope to be chosen to suffer. I had read Bunyan’s Grace Abounding – and written a paper on it – as an undergraduate, so I was well aware of how angst-ridden he was until he was finally imprisoned and could deem himself worthy of being chosen in this way to be persecuted for his beliefs and so suffer for Christ. Happiness at last!

Putting it all together

At some point a Catholic bibliophile friend with an interest in the period asked me about an English edition of the life of Santa Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi. I wasn’t familiar with the work, so I looked it up and found that, contrary to what my friend believed, it was not a Catholic edition but a Protestant one.

What was particularly interesting, though, was that there was nothing to overtly indicate that it was a Protestant edition and very little had been changed from the original Catholic text.

It was quite simply reproduced verbatim, without comment, because it was patently obvious to the translator that the book itself, in its unadorned state, was, to a Protestant readership, the best possible argument against Catholicism that one could wish for.

And why? Well, partly because of the accounts of miracles, but also because of some pretty extraordinary descriptions of self-abasement, such as Pazzi pleading with her Mother Superior to be allowed to be tied up and placed in front of the altar for the other sisters to “vilify & laugh at her” (a request which the Mother Superior granted!).

This reminded me of some passages from an English translation of the Spanish Jesuit Baltasar Gracián, in which people are tied up and whipped by “‘a beautiful Woman” and her cohorts.

I went back to my original thesis and reviewed what I had wrotten about Gracián. The English text (which was published as a kind of early philosophical novel, rather than as a religious text) played up the sexual aspects quite a bit, and played down the religious ones. The Spanish can be read fairly straightforwardly as a metaphor for the beautiful-seeming but treacherous world, while the English translation was basically just lascivious.

This led me to the conclusion that (as I went on to write in the monograph) “it had quite simply become impossible for a narrative such as Gracián’s to work at the level of moral edification or as religious or philosophical discourse in English”. It belonged more in the realms of Nicolas Chorier’s Satyra Sotadica, an early pornographic text, in which (among other things) a Catholic priest whips a naked mother and her daughter before the altar.

I dug up a few more texts – lives of saints and so on – which basically confirmed my thesis. Protestant discourse had a radically different approach to suffering and texts which, in their Catholic context, were completely orthodox and “normal”, were taboo in a Protestant context.

Ultimately, this could be traced back to the idea of “penance” as it occurs in Saint Jerome’s Latin Bible, which the Protestant reformers insisted should be “repentance” – heartfelt regret for one’s sins, rather than flagellating yourself for them.

All’s well that ends well

Finally I got a sabbatical year from my university in Japan and went back to the University Library in Cambridge, where I had done the bulk of my research years before. This time, the thesis revolved around the theme of early modern attitudes to suffering. I dug up a range of other texts – from Catholic saints to ascetic puritans, from stoics to epicureans, exalted sufferers to “flogging cullies” (as proto-masochists were known in early modern England). I wanted to get a handle on the whole spectrum and I had a year to do it. The book – and this blog – was the result, and on the back of it (and the other papers) Cambridge finally gave me a PhD!

What’s wrong with Pain, Pleasure and Perversity?

To say I wrote it in 9 months flat, not much. Two years after publication I’ve had enough feedback and enough time to think about it to be able to reflect on it and, while one or two flaws have been pointed out to me, nothing particularly damaging to my basic argument has come to light.

Apart from a few typos, the most egregious factual error that has been brought to my attention so far is the misidentification of the religious affiliation of two individuals. Andrew Sall is wrongly listed as a Catholic writer on page 51 (he converted to the Church of England in 1674), and – somewhat more seriously – on page 153 I write about Stillingfleet attacking a ‘fellow Protestant’ by the name of John Sergeant. Despite his anti-Jesuit stance and his dealings with the Privy Council, Sergeant was, of course, not only a Catholic but a priest. I am indebted to Thomas Palmer for pointing out these oversights.

But so far it seems no one but myself has noticed the biggest gaffe of all, right there, to my humiliation, on the very first page of the introduction, which begins:

During the earlier part of the seventeenth century, religious flagellation still survived, even in Protestant England. John Gee (a Church of England clergyman who went through a period of dalliance with Catholicism) recounts how, during the reign of James I, Catholic flagellants marched in procession to Tyburn, and – despite his renewed commitment to the Protestant cause – partly endorses the practice, declaring himself ‘no enemy vnto austerity of life, and taming or chastening our bodily sinfull members’ … (To read the complete introduction, click here.)

The reference is to John Gee, The Foot out of the Snare (London, 1624), pp. 80-83 and, indeed, if you have an EEBO TCP log-in you can readily confirm that this is precisely what Gee says. To quote from his account:

Yesterday being Good-friday, this present yeere 1624. they made some of you [i.e., Catholics] in the Morning, before day, goe in Procession to Tiburne, in penitentiall manner; the forme of which is, for a man to walke naked from the girdle vp ward, and scourge himself with a whip. The same day twelue-month last past, at a place of your solemne meeting in London, you made one whip himself so long, till he swouned, and was thought to bee past hope of recouery, so that hot water was instantly fetched to reuiue him.(Page 81)

This, I felt, was a striking enough illustration of the persistence of Catholic practices of mortification in Protestant illustration to make a fitting opening to my magnum opus, and I would probably never have known that there was anything more to it than that had I not chanced to take a look at  a later edition of Gee’s book (also published in 1624), in which Gee has significantly emended what he wrote:

Screen Shot 2015-10-02 at 14.49.06
Screen Shot 2015-10-02 at 14.50.20 Pages 86-7 of the fourth edition (1624) of Gee's work

Here Gee corrects what he wrote in the first edition. In these times of ‘persecution’ the practice of ‘Whipping-cheere‘ is, he says, ‘not yet growne into that publike ostentation among vs, as to bee acted in the streets and high-wayes’.

In other words, Gee got it wrong! On hearing that there had been a penitential procession, he either assumed it had been ‘duly observed’ by scourging as the penitents made their way to Tyburn or had been assured it was so at second hand. As if to make up for this slip he adds further detail to the description of the Catholics making a man ‘whip himself so long, till he swouned’, saying, ‘This my selfe did then see, together with two or three hundred more spectators present at that meeting’ (p. 87).

Screen Shot 2015-10-02 at 15.06.30
In the revised edition, Gee inserts a sentence between his description of the whipping in London and the woman whipping herself to death in Brussels (both of which are in the original text), demonstrating that, while he slipped up in his description of the procession to Tyburn, he is not merely peddling gossip and hearsay.

So Gee got it wrong – and I, following Gee, got it wrong too.

This was at, or near, the top of the list of things making me nervous when I went for the viva for my PhD. As it turned out, though, all my worries were groundless; either the examiners hadn’t registered the mistakes in my work or they didn’t consider them worth making a fuss over!

Ironically, rather than detracting from my overall thesis, Gee’s emendation of his original account emphasizes the extent to which Protestant norms had grown apart from Catholic practices; the only time one would see a Catholic whipped in the streets of Jacobean England would be at the behest of a magistrate, not of a priest.

(Gee’s mistaken account of Catholics whipping themselves in the streets of Jacobean London is also cited on pages 72 and 91. If anyone should chance to notice any further inaccuracies in the work, please be so good as to let me know!)

Damned if we do! Using the EEBO TCP Database

Can we use the EEBO TCP database?

This looks like a no-brainer – what would be the use of the Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership if we can’t use it? – but it’s actually something of a minefield. How often, I wonder, has work citing the database been met with a response like the following?

I somewhat distrust the author’s generalizations because several of them appear to come from typing keywords into the Early English Books Online searchable database.

The starting point of any online database research  will  inevitably be typing keywords. If that is wrong in itself then all the money that has been spent on creating databases has clearly been misspent! And any research which does no more than type in keywords and simply report on results is hardly worthy of the name research.

Let’s start by taking a look at an example of a keyword search and the follow-up work it entails:

[This is the third in a series of three videos I posted a few weeks ago on the use of the EEBO and TCP databases. The complete series of videos is here.]

It should be clear from this that searches of this kind are pretty gruelling. Typing in keywords is the starting point, but after that a wide range of variables needs to be taken into account, from variant spellings to differences in the number of books published within a particular genre during a particular period. And, crucially, the process involves checking the results of the searches to ensure that the occurrences really are valid examples of the particular usage one is interested in.

For me, that’s just the starting point, the spadework before getting down to the job of analyzing usage in particular contexts, relating that to source texts (a lot of my work is with translations, so I want to know what the original text said), checking the background and views of authors, placing the usage in the context of other related texts and so on.

I’m a texty kind of guy, so I’m less interested in the statistical stuff than in seeing the results in context, but the raw figures can sometimes be of interest. EEBO TCP is still incomplete, but it nevertheless offers a much bigger – and more representative – sample than, say, a MORI poll, and it is unlikely that the general pattern of discourse usage picked out in the video above will alter very much once the gaps remaining in the database have been filled.

Last summer (2013) I attended a conference on early modern digital humanities. I could have done with that kind of input before embarking on Pain, Pleasure and Perversity; I might have escaped some of the more obvious pitfalls. I only cite the database eight times in 235 pages, and I don’t think the few claims I made based on it are wrong to any substantial degree, but even so I can see, in hindsight, ways I could have tightened up my approach/presentation.

What really interests me, though, is the discovery that, in acknowledging my use of the database, I appear very much to have stuck my neck out.  A search for “EEBO TCP” on Google Books currently purports to turn up some 450 results, though in fact it dries up after page 7, giving fewer than 70 results (does anyone know why this happens on Google?). Astonishingly (to me), my book appears on the first page (at the bottom)! Most of the other books on that first page are specifically on the use of online databases in early modern studies. Can I really be so unusual as a researcher working in the field and giving credit to the database?

Apparently, yes. I searched again, specifying publications since 2010, and there is only one page of results!

So what is actually happening here? Are scholars just not using the database? I don’t think so. The impression I get from talking to people at conferences, etc., is that early modernists are logging in at about the same rate as other people have hot breakfasts. Is this such a recent development that it is not yet fully reflected in print? Probably, to some extent. About three years ago, after I had been working solidly on the database for about three weeks in the Rare Books Room at Cambridge University Library, one of the librarians came up and asked me what I was working on. I showed him the database and he was astounded; Cambridge was affiliated to it, but none of the library staff even knew it existed! A couple of months later they held a seminar on it, but prior to that it seems not to have been on anyone’s radar; I certainly didn’t see anyone else using it.

American scholars appear to have been quicker off the mark. I would frequently notice a marked slowdown in download times in the middle of the afternoon, which would be about the time people in the US would be logging on.

I could be wrong about this, but what it looks like to me is that lots of people are using the database, but not many are acknowledging it. Top marks on that score to Bruce R. Smith (in Christie Carson and Peter Kirwan, eds, Shakespeare and the Digital World: Redefining Scholarship and Practice, CUP, 2014), who writes:

I didn’t even have to rely on my recollections of just where the passages I wanted were located. I could simply enter a keyword as a search term, and there the desired text would be on my computer screen, ready for cutting and pasting directly into my draft …  What effectively connected me to the texts I wanted was not just my possession of a computer but my university’s subscriptions to EEBO and EEBO-TCP. (Pp. 24-5)

Even then, though, Smith’s main point is how he was brought back to the reality of the printed book when one of the texts he wanted to access wasn’t on the database.

Many others, I suspect, are being less than candid about their use of the database. I could have done the same. How smart I would have looked, with all that intimate knowledge of such a wide range of texts!

I’m glad I was up-front about it, though. I would be the first to agree that there is nothing quite like the printed book, and uses of the database that took me away from reading and analyzing text just wouldn’t interest me but, like Smith, the database ‘connected me to the texts I wanted’ (or to many of them), and enabled me to find out things about the early modern printed corpus that simply would not have been discoverable by any other means.

Related posts:

The OED and EEBO TCP

Using the Early English Books Online and Text Creation Partnership Databases

Responding to criticism

To what extent should one respond to criticism of one’s work? Should one respond to it at all? Perhaps one should take a lofty attitude and simply let the critics make of one’s work what they will. Or perhaps one owes it to oneself and to scholarship to clarify things and explain oneself.

I accept, on the whole, the received wisdom on the intentional fallacy, one of the corollaries of which is that authors have only a limited right to assert what their work is about; in a very real sense it is about what readers think it is about. At the same time, there are wrong readings of texts; readers cannot say a text is about x, y or z unless the text in some way supports such a reading. I think that, in this particular case, there may be some benefit in examining specific criticisms of my work and exploring the basis of those criticisms.

So far, aside from reviews by readers left on Amazon, etc., there have been three academic reviews of Pain, Pleasure and Perversity. The first, by Jan Frans van Dijkhuizen, does not leave me with very much to comment on. He has clearly read the book thoroughly, enjoyed it and found the central thesis persuasive. Naturally, I am delighted. Van Dijkhuizen is the author of Pain and Compassion in Early Modern English Literature and Culture (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2012), and is perhaps the one person whose opinion on matters relating to early modern suffering I value above all others. The second, by Leah Marcus, raises a significant issue about what – if anything – we can legitimately expect textual analysis to tell us about the actual world outside the text. And the third, by Thomas Palmer, raises equally significant questions about the intentional fallacy; what can we legitimately infer about the author of a text, and to what extent does it matter?

Responding to reviews could, I realize, be seen as an expression of wounded dignity. I hope that readers will find something else in what I have to say here, something more generally pertinent to texts, the ways in which we engage with them and what we can expect to learn from them.

i) Text and Discourse vis-à-vis Real Life

Marcus begins her review with the words

Yamamoto-Wilson is particularly interested in masochistic elements of religiously induced psychic pain and self-inflicted mortification of the body, which he sees as increasing in seventeenth-century England until a paradigm shift around 1650 caused the language of bodily suffering to migrate to religious Nonconformists, while on the Continent it remained central to Catholic devotion.

I am uncomfortable with pretty much all of this. The statement that I am ‘particularly interested in masochistic elements of religiously induced … pain and … mortification’ contains the entailment that I think ‘religiously induced … pain and … mortification’ have ‘masochistic elements’. This entailment embodies two questionable assumptions, the first being that I think there is a masochistic component to religious suffering and the second being that I think my analysis of religious texts can reveal something about suffering in the world outside the text, in the lives and minds of actual people. I will deal with the second entailment in this section and come back to the first in the following section.

Marcus goes on to say that I see ‘psychic pain and self-inflicted mortification of the body’ as ‘increasing in seventeenth-century England’, but that is not at all what I argue in the book. On the contrary, I am pretty sure that self-inflicted mortification was not on the increase, at least in England, at that time. After all, one of the defining differences between Catholics and Protestants is the general eschewal of penances and mortifications by the latter. As for psychic pain, I really have no idea how much of it there was around, at that time or any other. All I know is that a number of texts, from Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy to Bunyan’s Grace Abounding, described such pain. The most I can say, on the basis of the textual evidence I examined, is that the urge to suffer did not end with the curtailing of Catholic-style penances, leading to the ‘psychic pain’ that Marcus mentions, and perhaps leading Nonconformists, consciously or unconsciously, to seek out persecution.

Nor do I argue, as Marcus asserts, that ‘a paradigm shift around 1650 caused the language of bodily suffering to migrate to religious Nonconformists, while on the Continent it remained central to Catholic devotion.’ What I actually claim is not that the Nonconformists appropriated ‘the language of bodily suffering’ in general, but that they discoursed more on the specific theme of rejoicing to suffer. I don’t have much to say at all about what was transpiring on the Continent, which is outside my remit.

In any case, all this is only a side issue. It’s not my central thesis, which is that to a considerable extent the eroticization of suffering develops discursively from Protestant reactions to Catholic representations of suffering. Marcus doesn’t mention this at any point in her review.

But my gripe is not just that Marcus gives a garbled version of one of my secondary points, rather than explaining the central thesis of my work. There’s something more fundamentally wrong with the way she is approaching my work. She represents me as quantifying actual levels of psychic pain and self-inflicted mortification, and then goes on to deny that any such inferences can result from textual analysis, saying that ‘print culture does not necessarily represent culture at large’. She’s certainly got that last part right; print culture does not have any necessary bearing on what is going on in the culture at large. But she’s quite wrong in assuming that I have anything very much to say about what is going on in the culture at large.

The subject matter of my book is not suffering but discourses of suffering. Discourse is discourse. Analysis of discourse is analysis of discourse. It may bear some relationship to the world outside the text. It may not. I make no claims that it does, at least when it comes to the extent to which objective suffering was going on in seventeenth-century English society. That is not my concern, by which I don’t mean that I’m not interested in it or don’t care about it, simply that it lies outside the scope of discourse/textual analysis. Of course, I sometimes find it appropriate to place texts in their cultural context, but anyone approaching the book expecting it to quantify levels of actual suffering during the seventeenth century is looking for something that just isn’t there.

ii) My Views vis-à-vis the Views Expressed in the Texts I Examine

Palmer gives a much better overview than Marcus of the aims of my book:

The author aims to demonstrate that, … in seventeenth-century England, a discursive space opened up in which sadism and masochism could be more fully articulated as ‘sexual identities’ (p. 6 f.). The Protestant reaction away from the perceived excesses of the Catholic penitential ethic … helped to establish two preconditions for the emergence of a ‘pornography of pain’. As the dimensions of legitimate and praiseworthy suffering were contracted, the sphere of the taboo and the titillating was enlarged; while the polemical association of penitential corporal chastisements with those from which the perceived sexual deviant derives gratification rendered explicit the connection between physical suffering and sexual pleasure. So sadism and masochism could emerge avant la lettre. But, argues the author, this was the result of a complex interaction between the two ‘discourse communities’ entrenched in Europe by the Reformation, Protestant writing in English being coloured by the material it sought to repudiate, and Catholic works translated for an English audience limited by the criteria of acceptability operative in English ‘discourse’.

Despite this very clear summary, Palmer doesn’t really have anything positive to say about my work, unless one counts his comment that it ‘composes a colourful impression of the violent and the visceral, the ribald and the salacious in the seventeenth-century mentality’ as being positive. At the end of the review he picks me up on a couple of matters of fact, saying these are ‘relatively venial sins’, the implication apparently being that I committed a mortal sin by writing the book at all!

Palmer makes it very clear why he feels like this; the main reason is because he takes my ‘major interpretative principle’ to be that ‘the ascetic value ascribed to suffering in Christian thought and practice may be understood as the expression of masochistic or sadistic tendencies’. So far, so good; certainly, Christian suffering ‘may be understood’ in that way. But when he moves from the passive into active mode and says that I personally ‘inevitably [see] the religious attitude to suffering and self-mortification as evidence of perversity’ then he crosses a line, the same line that Marcus crosses (though less definitively) when she represents me as saying that ‘religiously induced … pain and … mortification’ have ‘masochistic elements’.

Marcus does not develop this point, but Palmer makes it central to his analysis. As far as I am concerned it is quite wrong. When writing the book, I attempted to keep my own views out of it as far as possible and simply report on what emerged from an analysis of the texts. For the record, though, I spent a number of years living in Spain, and not only observed penitential practices at first hand (particularly, of course, at Easter) but counted a fair sprinkling of penitentes among my friends. I can categorically say that I never had the slightest suspicion that there was anything in the least bit ‘kinky’ in what they were doing; they approached the whole issue in an extraordinarily serious and heartfelt way, and I have no doubt of their sincerity. On the other hand, if anybody’s asking, yes, I do think there’s something a bit weird about the nun who was ‘wont to drawe herself along vpon the ground, holding by a rope which she put about her neck, and whipping herself with a chayne’, all the while chiding her ‘miserable body’ (Antonio Daza, The Historie of the Blessed Virgin, Sister Ioane, of the Crosse, 1625, cited in the book on page 67).

So I don’t ‘inevitably’ think that religious suffering is masochistic, although there are moments when I have to wonder. But this is all beside the point. The aim of the book is to trace the way in which masochistic readings of accounts of religious suffering developed, not to ascertain whether such suffering is or is not in itself masochistic. This is a vital distinction, and failure to make it is going to give any reader a distorted impression of what the book is all about.

The point is not that ‘the religious attitude to suffering and self-mortification [is] evidence of perversity’. The point is that sadomasochistic discourse arose, in part, because anti-Catholic discourse came, increasingly, to represent Catholic asceticism as the expression of perverse tendencies. The point is not whether Magdalena de Pazzi got a sexual kick out her practices. She may have done, she may not. I have no way of knowing. The point is that a Catholic owner of the 1619 translation of her biography wrote on the flyleaf ‘O that mine adversary had written a book!’ In other words, even an English Catholic could see that a work of this kind would merely reinforce the prejudices of the English Protestant reader. The point is not whether Jerome got an erection while writing about a Christian martyr who, tied to a bed, taunted and sexually aroused by a prostitute, bites off his tongue and spits it in her face just as she mounts him and bends down to kiss him. The point is that this passage is heavily censored in early modern Protestant translations, while Catholic translations retain far more of the erotic detail of the original. It’s a difference in discourse. It’s got nothing to do with what I personally believe or disbelieve.

Palmer takes particular exception to my discussion of Bunyan, much of which actually defends Bunyan against the charge of masochism, arguing that, within the terms of what he believes to be the nature of his life on earth, his response is perfectly sane and normal, but which I conclude by saying that there is an apparent obsession with suffering in Bunyan that goes beyond the exigencies of the religio-political context, and which ‘we can hardly scruple to call masochistic’. A summary of my comments on Bunyan is posted here.

I accept that I go further in commenting on Bunyan the person than is my usual practice in the book, but I am working in the context of modern critical responses. The observation that Bunyan has a ‘habit of expressing psychic states through images of bodily abuse’ is not mine. I cite it from John Knott, Discourses of Martyrdom in English Literature (1993). The designation of Bunyan’s propensity to take ‘revengement upon my self ’ as part of a ‘masochistic economy of … spirituality’ is not mine. I cite it from Lori Branch, Rituals of Spontaneity: Sentiment and Secularism from Free Prayer to Wordsworth (2006). And there are others.

I can hardly discuss perverse attitudes towards suffering in early modern England without taking on board reactions such as these. My point is not that suffering was what floated Bunyan’s boat, and if I were asked did I think Bunyan gained sexual satisfaction either through suffering or through writing about it I would have to say that I think it extremely unlikely. As ever, though, that line of questioning is irrelevant. What matters is that Bunyan is discursively obsessed with suffering, that there are aspects of his writings which closely correspond with the core sense of the word masochism as we use it today, and that therefore it seems not unreasonable that critics should apply that term.

Thoughts

There is a certain irony in all this; in accusing me of making false assumptions about the people behind hagiographic and devotional texts Palmer makes false assumptions about me.

I began by saying that authors have only a limited right to say what their work is about, and that, in a very real sense, texts are about what readers think they are about. If Protestant readers thought that Catholic hagiography was really about people getting sexual satisfaction from their suffering then that would be, to all intents and purposes, what it was about. But anti-Catholic polemic is not based on an assumption that the biographers of the saints were intentionally writing about people getting sexual satisfaction from suffering; they knew that by drawing that inference from the text they were interpreting the text in a way that the author of the text would not only have been unaware of but, if confronted with it, would have vigorously denied the validity of.

The anti-Catholic polemicists were acting mischievously, knowing that they were ascribing features to texts that the authors of those texts would have rejected. Palmer, by contrast, identifies what he plainly thinks are my true intentions. He thinks the whole book is an attempt to place religious experience on a par with sadomasochistic fantasy.

So what’s really going on here? Do I just think I wrote a book about how Protestant polemic recast Catholic accounts of suffering as thinly-veiled pornography, when what I in fact wrote was a book about how I personally think that Catholic suffering (or, indeed, Christian suffering in general) was thinly-veiled pornography all along, and all Protestants did was take off the veil?

I don’t think I can answer that question. Readers have to be left to make up their own minds about that sort of thing. Equally, it is readers, and not I, who must determine whether I only imagine that I wrote a book that says something significant about the discursive eroticization of suffering in seventeenth-century England, when what I in fact wrote was a book that fails to say anything persuasive about actual suffering in seventeenth-century England.

Marcus was faced with the unenviable task of reviewing all the full-length works in the field that had appeared over the previous year. It is only to be expected that there will be moments when it is apparent that she is not as intimate with the contents of all these works as one might ideally wish her to be. If she didn’t pick out my central thesis perhaps I was at fault for not sufficiently emphasizing it. Perhaps a similar reason lies at the root of her  supposition that I have written about actual levels of psychic suffering and self-inflicted mortification when to me it is clear that I am writing, not about these things themselves, but about the ways in which people discoursed on them. At least I know she appreciated some parts of my analysis; she cites my discussion of early modern translations of St. Jerome’s account of Saint Paul the Hermit as an example of one of the ‘fascinating tidbits’ she found in the work.

Palmer has clearly gone over my work sufficiently thoroughly to be able to summarize the main arguments. As a theologian he finds that my ‘confessional categories appear crude’, and he may be right about this. I know the book isn’t perfect, and I would certainly value some detailed commentary on this aspect of it. I think he has fallen prey doubly to a kind of intentional fallacy, firstly by attributing to me a belief that religious suffering is masochistic and secondly by thinking that my views on that point make any difference to the validity or otherwise of the analysis, but that is really a matter for others to judge. I do hope it is not the case that the entire concept is a mortal sin; I just wanted to write a book – I don’t want to burn in hell for it!

I knew when I wrote it that the book was likely to be controversial. Even if I feel Marcus and Palmer have got me wrong or that they are making the wrong kinds of assumptions about what can validly be inferred, not just from my work, but from texts in general, they have both taken the trouble to put some time into reading what I wrote and expressing their response to it, and I am grateful to them for that.

Review

Check out Jan Frans van Dijkhuisen’s review of Pain, Pleasure and Perversity here: You’ll need a JSTOR log-in to read the whole thing, but if anyone without one is particularly keen to read it, just e-mail me and I may be able to sort you out!

Anyway, here’s the first paragraph, just to give you a taster:

Pain, Pleasure and Perversity is a thoroughly researched and
highly original addition to the growing scholarly conversation on conceptions of suffering, embodiment, and sensory experience in early modern culture. Recent studies on these topics have focused at least in part on the impact that the religious upheavals of the Reformation period had on the way early modern Europeans understood the nature of embodiment and on the meanings they attached to bodily suffering. Yamamoto-Wilson’s study approaches the interplay between religious change and the cultural understanding of suffering more directly from the perspective of sexuality. His interest is partly in changing perceptions of self-inflicted religious suffering. He argues that during the seventeenth century self-inflicted pain, with self-flagellation as one of its more conspicuous manifestations, began to be seen as masochistic — as a species of sexual perversion, rather than as a form of imitatio Christi. Especially during the decades after the
Restoration, suffering seems to have lost much of the punitive and redemptive connotations that it carried in pre-Reformation culture. Pain, Pleasure and Perversity is divided into three parts that examine this development through the prisms of “the suffering self,” “the suffering of others,” and “suffering and gender.”

Van Dijkhuisen is the author of several works on the subject of early modern suffering, notably his recent monograph, Pain and Compassion in Early Modern English Literature and Culture.