The Origins of the Torturous Pleasures in Gothic Masochism

Mathilde Christensen

Mathilde Christensen

What is the essence of masochism, and how it is applicable to literature? In the book ‘Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty’ (originally published in 1967), french philosopher and author Gilles Deleuze investigates this exact question as he explores the body of work that has made its author the eponym of masochism, namely Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch’s authorship.

He compares the coining of masochism with the naming of diseases; often a disease is named either after the patient who displayed its symptoms or after the doctor who monitored and mapped its symptoms.

When Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing coined masochism in 1894, he chose not to name it after himself or any of his case studies, but after the man who had made an artistic representation of the “symptoms.” In the same way, Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing coined the term “sadism,” inspired by the (anti-)heroes of Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade’s authorship who take pleasure in committing sexual and non-sexual acts of violence on their subjects.

Gilles Deleuze, however, takes issue with these eponyms because in ‘Psychopathia Sexualis’ (1886) by Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing, presents masochism and sadism as two connected and counter-opposite “perversions” — in other words, not only does Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing “pathologise” Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch’s work, by creating these eponyms and describing them as co-depending opposites, he simultaneously binds Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch’s work to that of Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade.

This connection was in the years following ‘Psychopathia Sexualis’ taken further by other clinicians, such as Sigmund Freud, and eventually merged into the term sadomasochism.

This, Gilles Deleuze states, is a “crude and ill-differentiated” way of looking at the two, in their original artistic form, very different concepts. Gilles Deleuze argues that by looking at the language, the literary effects, and themes applied respectively by Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade and Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch, it is evident that the two authors’ works “present unparalleled configurations of symptoms and signs,” and that they exist independently of each other.

Gilles Deleuze’s exploration of “Sadean” sadism and “Masochean” masochism shows how the two concepts share certain characteristics, yet these characteristics manifest differently and without mirroring each other.

For instance, Gilles Deleuze emphasises that the Masochean relationship is based on a contract set up by the masochist and enforced by the dominant partner. The Masochean subject is “educational” and wants to know and understand the relationship or the “alliance,” as Frida Beckman and Charlie Blake describe it, between himself and the dominant female.

The Sadean protagonist, on the other hand, is “instructional;” he wants to dictate the relationship between himself and his subject, uncommitted and unaffected by the subject’s needs and feedback.

As Gilles Deleuze states: “the masochist draws up contracts while the sadist abominates and destroys them.”

Another major difference between the two concepts, Gille Deleuze points out, is their artistic representation by the respective authors. Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch’s novels are permeated by grand aestheticism, loaded descriptions, and references to decadent myths. There is a lingering “coldness,” made apparent in ‘Venus by Wanda,’ as well as the woman in the narrator’s dream, “the goddess of Love,” who both sneeze and shudder. They are both of a “marble pallor” and wear furs to stay warm, all as an analogy for the cold air with which they treat their submissive partners.

The women are, however, also passionate and emotional, and their irrationality, especially their temper is celebrated as something particularly feminine and devilish. This polarisation is crucial for the understanding of the Masochean masochistic fantasy, and will be discussed further later in this chapter.

In Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade’s novels, on the other hand, there is a sense of bleak “apathy,” a lack of or even deficit amount of emotion, that manifests in atheism and detachedness between the Sadists and the subjects, as displayed by the Libertines in ‘120 Days of Sodom’ (1991).

The point Gille Deleuze is making is that, in a literary sense, sadism and masochism are not opposites, they are two different notions that exist independently and not as parts of the clinical unity “sadomasochism.” They do not fulfil each other either.

A masochist would not have his need for contractual submission met by being subjugated to the whims of the anarchistic sadist who, in turn, would find no satisfaction in hurting and humiliating a subject who took pleasure in it or tried to bind the Sadean sadist within a contractual relationship (1991).

So in what ways are sadism and masochism related, if they are related at all? Some theorists argue that every masochist has a sadistic streak and vice versa; Sigmund Freud, for instance, states in his ‘Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex’ (1905) that a “sadist is simultaneously a masochist” although one of the streaks might be more strongly developed in the subject than the other.

René Noël Théophile Girard has a similar perspective on sadism and masochism, arguing that when one desire is exhausted it merges into the other. But what Gilles Deleuze aims to show is that the “cruelty” as he calls it, that is present in Masoch is artistically different from Sadean sadism, because the two concepts are founded upon two different bodies of work written by two different authors.

In ‘Venus,’ Severin von Kuziemski eventually ends up disavowing his submissiveness and starts seeing himself “no longer as the ‘anvil’ but as the ‘hammer,’” but this does not turn him into a Sadean anti-hero, just a slain or perhaps embittered masochist who has realised his actualised fantasy has come to an end.

This means that when reading a narrative with a Masochean masochistic tendency, the cruelty that is present should not be mistaken for Sadean sadism, but seen as a natural part of the Masochean fantasy; the cruelty that the Masochean masochist desires is of a kind that he himself fuels and shapes to fit a romantic idea he has in his mind. Where the Sadean sadist stands for apathy and negated feelings, the cruel female torturers found in Masoch display a range of emotions and can best be described with the terms “cold – maternal – severe, icy – sentimental – cruel.”

This creates a dilemma for it means that a Masochean narrative, while being indulgently masochistic, or feminised as Rita Felski puts it, it has to, at the same time, take on the disposition of the cruel torturer. Gille Deleuze touches upon the issue of narrating from either a masochistic or sadistic point of view by referring to Georges Albert Maurice Victor Bataille, who, in his book ‘Erotism,’ (1962) argues that Marquis de Sade paradoxically uses the language of the victim when he describes scenes of torture. Gilles Deleuze explains: “Only the victim can describe torture; the torturer necessarily uses the hypocritical language of established order and power.”

This argument is not a straightforward one; what Georges Albert Maurice Victor Bataille seems to argue is that Marquis de Sade, while endeavouring to describe scenes of torture, needs to adopt the victim’s voice because the torturer would never be able to describe what it is like to be tortured. At the same time, the torturer would naturally justify and rationalise their actions in accordance with the institution they belong to.

This is debatable considering that Marquis de Sade makes a point out of negating any emotions connected to the torture apart from the conceptualised “libertinian” pleasure the Sadean heroes take in it which is, perhaps, exactly a way of institutionalising it. Still, Georges Albert Maurice Victor Bataille’s argument is an interesting point to consider because it, in turn, makes Gilles Deleuze ask the question if Masoch’s language is “equally paradoxical […] because the victim speaks the language of the torturer he is to himself, with all the hypocrisy of the torturer.”

To unpack this question, let us ask another: will a Masochean masochistic narrative not always necessarily be torturous towards itself at the same time?

The answer to this question leads back to the notion of the Masochean subject setting up his own contract of enslavement.

The author of a Masochean masochistic narrative will, all the while indulging in the masochistic fantasy, naturally, have to produce a literary situation in which this fantasy can be fulfilled — ergo the author needs to assume both the role of the victim as well as the enforcer.

This reflects in the Masochean narrator, for, as a part of forming his own contract, he puts into words what kind of torturer he wishes the woman to be. Severin von Kuziemski explains to Wanda exactly what he wants from her, as when he states: “I am only truly able to love a woman who dominates me, who overpowers me with her beauty, her temperament, her intelligence and her will-power, a woman who rules over me.”

In this way, what Georges Albert Maurice Victor Bataille calls “the language of the torturer” with its propaganda-esque qualities, is already a natural part of the Masochean masochistic narrative. The language of Masoch glorifies, even sublimates, the torturous acts.

In ‘Venus,’ the abuse of Severin has represented as a sort of romantic dream; a revival of boyhood feelings and fancies. Wanda’s sadistic and hedonistic qualities are romanticised as she is referred to as “a child” who “needs playthings” — and in the same way, Wanda dominating Severin von Kuziemski is likened to a parental scenario in which Severin von Kuziemski describes how, after bringing Wanda her lost slipper, he stands in the corner “like a child waiting to be punished.”

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