Thursday, May 11, 2006


“Beware, I might grow to enjoy it,” says Wanda to Severin in Masoch’s Venus in Furs.

This is the paradox within masochism. The recipient of violence in a masochistic situation is also its instigator; he sets its parameters and directs its action. Its conditions are set out in a contract to which both masochist and torturer agree: the masochist will educate his mistress, and will stage-direct the relationship. But the torturer will inevitably fail in her role; she cannot learn by the masochist’s rules. She will either be insufficiently cruel, or she will be too cruel and turn sadistic. Hence Wanda’s warning to Severin.

I get a thrill from punishment – I’ve always been that way

It seems de trop to state that power structures dictate the course of the sadistic or masochistic relationship, but it is prescient to describe how language distorts and refracts power.

Violence does not speak and sexuality is not spoken about. Since neither is verbalised, they must necessarily belong in the realm of the Real. Here lies a further paradox: how do we speak of the sort of sex whose rapture is beyond words? James Joyce uses a vocabulary of 30,000 words in Ulysses, yet even he cannot find the words to describe his sexuality. In his letters to his wife Nora, he suggests that she insert the letters inside her. Not knowing how to make his love and desire for her speak, he literally wants his erotic words to enter Nora’s body.

Letters are all important in Masoch’s fiction. The masochist’s situation is essentially a lonely one: it is his words that do the talking in his relationship, but he needs to hear them from the mouth of another human being, a surrogate mother figure.

But, as Gilles Deleuze states in his essay Coldness and Cruelty, the sadist wishes to demonstrate “that reasoning itself is a form of violence, and that he is on the side of violence, however calm and logical he may be.” His violence is impersonal, yet requires a person or persons to receive it. The imperative and descriptive elements of his language express his individual tastes, but there are also obsessive aspects to his language which appeal to this idea – repetition, accumulation, acceleration.

This is why sadism and masochism are incompatible, despite their intersections. Whereas the masochistic relationship is based on a pact, for the sadist, total possession is the essential component – accord is the last thing he wants. The masochist would not tolerate the sadist (because the masochistic theatre must always be directed by the masochist himself), and the sadist would not tolerate the masochist (because he is a willing recipient of punishment); the sadist wants a non-compliant victim.

Cut the stallion at his mount – and stuff it in his mouth

Lacan’s theory of the structure of psychosis suggests that the psychotic patient is one who has not passed through the Oedipal channel from Imaginary to Symbolic: he has not acknowledged the Name of the Father. Indeed, he sees the Law as a charade, and supposes there must be an Other of the Big Other which actually pulls the strings.

The sadist is trapped in the Real, and is working within aberrant registers of nature and negation. Indeed, for the sadist the application of negativity is almost arbitrary since in the symbolic realm the negative can only be defined in relation to accepted positives; it is precisely these positives to which the psychotic cannot submit himself.

Absolute negativity is impossible, “hence the rage and despair of the sadistic hero when he realises how paltry his own crimes are in relation to the idea which he can only reach through the omnipotence of reasoning.” Though aspects of it will pervade reality, primary nature can only exist in the Real. Pure negation is absolute – it has no benchmarks. “But in point of fact this original nature cannot be given: secondary nature alone makes up the world of experience, and negation is only ever given in the partial processes of the negative. Therefore, original nature is necessarily the object of an idea, and pure negation is a delusion.”

The sadist is essentially a loner whose frustration is that he needs people on which to commit his violence. His particular brand of evil is determined by laws and dictates, and is thus immoral rather than amoral. He cannot act in cold blood.

Spit upon his face and scream – there is no Oedipus today

The masochist’s preference also arises from an interruption in the Oedipal process. But whereas the sadist wishes to vanquish the symbolic Father, Deleuze suggests that the masochist does not aim for absolute negation or destruction. Instead he works through a capricious cycle of denial – distortion – disavowal (Freud’s verneinung – verwerfung – verleugnung). Rather than wiping out reality, the masochist disavows it so that he can create an alternative ideal. Zizek notes that “masochism confronts us with the paradox of the symbolic order qua the order of ‘fictions’: there is more truth in the mask we wear, in the game we play, in the ‘fiction’ we obey and follow, that in what is concealed beneath the mask.”

The masochist’s flexible, playful dialectic contrasts with the sadist’s brutality as he oscillates between actual and idealised reality. Postponement and suspension of sexual pleasure is thus a key component of masochism – it is, in short, a waiting game. In Masoch, repetition is dramatic and “frozen”; in Sade it is accelerating and mechanical. This – repeated, fruitless negation on the one hand, suspension and disavowal on the other – is the key distinction between the two forms.
Masoch’s ideal woman is, Deleuze says, a synthesis of the sensual (uterine) and the sadistic (Oedipal) woman. Her qualities are a combination of both: “cold / maternal – severe – icy – sentimental – cruel.” Deleuze argues with Lacan that entry into the symbolic world is not necessarily dependent on the Name of the Father. In a masochistic situation, the Name of the Mother is the determining factor. Secondary, rather than primary, nature wins. The Oedipal complex thus works in an entirely different way to normal – the oral mother, having contained everything else, becomes a Spinozistic single matter.

In masochism, if the beater is the father, the beaten is the self-as-father – therefore, there is somehow a desire to humiliate the father through oneself. The properties of the father in both functions is thus transferred to the self and the mother figure; the father is no longer necessary.

Make the sacrifice – mutilate my face

Sado-masochism is, therefore, an empty umbrella term for violent sexual behaviour.
Sadism and masochism may cross over, but only at the end of each act. At the end of Venus in Furs, Wanda turns, at the behest of her somewhat absurd male lover, into a genuine sadist (as opposed to a torturer in the masochistic context). Severin is unable to maintain control, and loses her. To regain command, he also turns sadistic. So the masochist has, through the penance of pain, purged himself of the masochistic instinct so that he may become sadistic; the sadist, as an ultimate sign of power, performs his sadism against himself. But this latter conversion is not the same as masochism: it is more like the tough guy who demands that others punch him as hard as possible in the stomach to prove his resilience, or like the violence-directed-towards-the-self by Edward Norton in the film Fight Club. In either case, a conversion is not an inevitable part of the process: it is a “paradoxical by-product.”

As a coda, it is worth asking what the significance is of ‘sado-masochism’ in its softest form whereby, for example, a couple will spice up their sex life by exploring light bondage, uniforms etc. This form of ‘sado-masochism,’ being neither sadistic nor masochistic, adds further levels of fiction and reality to the game. Its uncomfortable archness and forced sniggering is like a repressed repression, but it nevertheless hints at a space which modern, raunch-culture sexuality (where sex is de-sexed, where even naked flesh is a cover-up, where the gap between what is desired and what can actually be given yawns ever wider) cannot reach: a suspension within the Real. Or, in short, a glimpse of ecstacy.


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