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.
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.