… in one 15-minute video!
[This is a reposting of a post from 2014 that seems to have spirited itself away. Fortunately I had a copy of the content tucked safely away…]
This post is inspired partly by a paper written in 1976, but which I have only just come across (Frank Paul Bowman, “Suffering,Madness and Literary Creation in Seventeenth-Century Spiritual Autobiography”, and partly by a tweet by Samantha Sandassie: Curiosity kills cats; 17C surgeons: Sam Smith “had a Curiosity to taste the juice, or matter” from a breast tumour. He did and died.
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.
What does it mean to talk of “masochism” prior to the publication, in 1870, of Sacher-Masoch’s Venus im Pelz [Venus in furs], or of Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s adoption of Masoch’s name to describe the condition of deriving pleasure from pain in Psychopathia Sexualis: eine Klinisch-Forensische Studie [Sexual psychopathy: a clinical / forensic study]? Rob Boddice’s Pain: A very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2016) talks of “the distinctly modern pursuit of pain for pleasure, from the charitable beneficence of the Victorian lady bountiful, luxuriating in pity (according to Herbert Spencer), to the erotic cultures of Sadism and Masochism” and Alison M. Moore appears slightly uncomfortable with what she calls my “use of terms like ‘perversion’ in … discussion of practices that were not conceived as such in their own time” (Sexual Myths of Modernity: Sadism, Masochism, and Historical Teleology, Lexington, 2016, p. 80, footnote).
Is it simply an anachronism, then, to talk of masochism (or, indeed, other sexual identities) prior to the nineteenth-century taxonomy of sexuality? Krafft-Ebing cites (among others) Maria Magdalena de Pazzi (1566-1607) as an example of “the significance of flagellation as a sexual excitant” and clearly saw masochism as a convenient label to hang on something that went back considerably earlier than the publication of Sacher-Masoch’s novel. Havelock Ellis, Studies in the Psychology of Sex, vol. 3: Analysis of the Sexual Impulse; Love and Pain; The Sexual Impulse in Women (2nd edn, Philadelphia, 1921), p. 132, notes that the first distinct reference to sexual flagellation occurs in the writings of Pico della Mirandola, who, in Disputationes … Aduersus Astrologiã Diuinatricem [Arguments against astrological divination] (Bologna, 1496), writes about “a man, known to me, with a prodigious and unheard-of sexual appetite, for he can never be sexually aroused unless he is beaten” (edition used, [Lyons, 1498?]), sig. h5r; my translation). As I write in a forthcoming publication:
If Krafft-Ebing had chosen to name the phenomenon of sexual arousal through pain after the first person to describe it, rather than after the first to write an extended narrative about it, we might be talking today of “mirandolism”, rather than masochism, and scholars might deem it quite normal to trace its development from the end of the fifteenth century, rather than the middle of the nineteenth or, at most, the early eighteenth.
As to whether or not early modernists regarded such practices as perversions, I argue quite forcefully that they did. Mirandola was quite possibly describing himself here, and the work in which the passage occurs was not published until after his death, a sensible precaution, given that he was fully aware that what he has written “is a harsh thing for liberal ears” (i.e., likely to give offence).
Other early modern accounts confirm that there was little tolerance for such proclivities. Johann Heinrich Meibom, author of the earliest known treatise on sexual flagellation, calls such practices “scelera ista perversæ Veneris, & puerorum contumeliæ” [crimes of perverse lust and assaults to our children] and rejoices that no such depravation is to be found in his native Germany or, if evidence of it should come to light, that the culprit would be burned (De Flagrorum Usu in Re Veneria [On the use of whips in sexual circumstances], Leyden, 1639; edition used, Leyden, 1643, p. 16; my translation; no online text available).
Early modern sexual identities tended to be couched in terms of actions and behaviour, rather than in terms of proclivities and tendencies, and during the seventeenth century in England there emerged the “flogging cully“, who could not be sexually aroused except through flogging. Several lampoons of such sexual flagellants were written, all expressing condemnation and disgust (the earliest of these, by John Davies, was published c. 1599). So my take on all this is that one can legitimately speak of a kind of masochism avant la lettre during the early modern period, and one can assume that such practices were viewed as perverse or aberrant by people at that time.
The idea that the early moderns would not have regarded such practices as perversions seems to stem largely from an uncritical acceptance of Michel Foucault’s dictum that “At the beginning of the seventeenth century there was still … a certain frankness. [Sexual] practices were hardly kept secret … people had a certain tolerant
familiarity with the illicit” (Histoire de la Sexualité 1: La Volonté de Savoir [History of sexuality 1: the wish to know], Paris, 1976, p. 9; my translation). One needs to bear in mind that Foucault is less concerned here with saying anything valid about the seventeenth century than with using Victorian values as a stick with which to beat the bourgeoisie of his own period. Certainly, there is little or nothing in the literature of the seventeenth century to substantiate his claim, at least as far as sexual flagellation is concerned.
The idea that suffering for pleasure – particularly sexual pleasure – is a comparatively recent phenomenon is harder to dismiss. Roy F. Baumeister is typical among historians of human psychology in his observation 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” (‘Masochism as Escape from Self ’). The Victorian and early twentieth-century taxonomists of sexuality (Charcot, Lombroso, Breuer, Freud, Krafft-Ebing, Lacan, etc.) tended to see masochism as being closely related to ascetic religious suffering, particularly self-flagellation, but Baumeister (rightly, I think), argues that “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” (ibid.), a position which echoes Georges Bataille, L’Érotisme (Paris, 1957), pp. 275–6, translated as Death and Sensuality: A Study of Eroticism and the Taboo by Mary Dalwood (New York, 1962), pp. 252–3.
However, Baumeister leaves an important problem unresolved. “The prevailing theoretical position since Freud”, he writes, “has been that masochism is derived from sadism”. However, he cites “abundant evidence” indicating, not only that masochism is apparently “far more common than sadism”, but that “behavioral evidence suggests that masochism comes first, and sadistic or dominant role-taking comes only later if at all”, concluding that “it is implausible to argue that masochism is derived from sadism. Rather, sadism must be the secondary, derivative pattern”. At the same time, he supposes that “sadism is historically older than masochism” (ibid.).
Clearly, this just doesn’t add up, or at least to make it add up a bit of juggling is required. One approach (the one I mainly suggest in PPP), is that masochism was hiding in plain sight:
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. (p. 12)
But there is another possible explanation. The sources Baumeister is citing are all analyses of sexual behaviour and the sex trade, and he equates “sadism” with the so-called “dominant” position in the sadomasochistic dynamic. However, true sadism – taking pleasure in strangling victims to death, crushing their bones and whatnot – doesn’t really form part of the sexual play that is the subject of the studies he cites. One is reminded of the old joke:
Masochist: Hit me.
Katherine Fowkes puts it a bit more eloquently:
The sadist would glean no pleasure from inflicting pain on someone who enjoys it… Likewise, the masochist does not take pleasure in being tortured by a sadist. On the contrary, although it is critical that the masochist’s suffering appear to stem from another, the pain is actually self-inflicted. To this end, the masochist needs to convince another to inflict the pain that he wishes heaped upon him. Thus in the sadistic scenario the tortured is by definition not a masochist and in the masochistic heterocosm, the torturer is likewise by definition not a sadist. (Katherine A. Fowkes, Giving up the Ghost: Spirits, Ghosts, and Angels in Mainstream Comedy Films, Detroit, MI, 1998, p. 35.)
In other words, the paradigm of sadism – sexual cruelty – being something with a long history, while masochism is a relative newcomer to the scene, can perhaps be maintained by arguing that those who inflict pain in sadomasochistic scenarios are not actually sadists.
Either way, the accepted wisdom is that overt accounts of sexual masochism do not date back any earlier than the early modern period. While there may be tales of cruelty, often with a sexual component, going back to classical antiquity, the victims generally do their best to avoid their fate and there is little suggestion of them colluding in their own suffering or inveigling others into inflicting suffering on them.
Phyllis and Aristotle For an account of Phyllis's apocryphal role as a dominatrix over Aristotle, click here.
At the same time, there are signs – faint as yet – that a paradigm shift may be on the way, and the roots of sexual masochism may be pushed back very much further. See, for example, Rachel A. Branch, Propertian Sado-Masochism in Augustan Rome and Today: Salvaging Power, a presentation given at a meeting of The Classical Association of the Middle West and South in 2010. Clearly, the relationship between Krafft-Ebing (or Sacher-Masoch) and masochism is not equivalent to that between, say, Edison and the light bulb (they are not bringing something into existence but rather creating the language with which to conceptualize something that already exists), but it is still very unclear just how far back into human history the concept of masochism can be traced.
A couple of weeks ago I posted in answer to a question on Quora about whether there was such a thing as necessary suffering. I began by saying that in an age before anaesthetics this question could hardly even have been asked. I then went on, in my wonted fashion, to discuss the issue in a rather abstract and philosophical way. This brings home the point rather more directly:
These surgical instruments from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are (left) lithotomy dilator; dental forceps; trepan; dental forceps;
(right) double-bladed bistoury; forceps for extracting arrow head; bullet extractor;
(below) surgical saw.
While I post all the really serious stuff right here on the blog, there are quite a lot of things I don’t feel quite fit here but make for a good post on Facebook. If you don’t already, check Discourses of Suffering on Facebook for tidbits and fun stuff!