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  • The Revolutionary Unconscious:Deleuze and Masoch
  • Edward P. Kazarian (bio)

I ask in every instance, "is it hunger or superabundance that has here become creative?" At first glance, another distinction may seempreferable—it is far more obvious—namely the question of whether the desire to fix, to immortalize, the desire for being prompted creation, or the desire for destruction, for change, for future, for becoming. But both of these kinds of desire are seen to be ambiguous when one considers them more closely [...].

Nietzsche, The Gay Science, ¶ 370

I hope that my whip has cured you, that the treatment, cruel though it was, has proved effective.

Masoch, Venus in Furs, p. 270

I. Literature and Symptomatology

Both of Gilles Deleuze's texts on masochism, 1961's "From Sacher-Masoch to Masochism" and 1967's "Coldness and Cruelty," reflect a certain ambiguity—or at least the appearance of one. They emphasize the distinction between Masoch's writings, as the literary elaboration of a fantasy, and the clinical entity, the "disorder or disease" ("Sacher-Masoch" 125) that Krafft-Ebing and Freud called "masochism." As one would expect, Deleuze was critical of the constitution of this clinical entity, and his criticisms were often based on the divergence between "masochism" and Masoch's works. However, the significance of this distinction, and these criticisms, is perhaps not what one might initially expect—at least insofar as one expects to find Deleuze using Masoch to oppose the clinical construction of masochism in principle.1 Indeed, one does not have to read far into "From Sacher-Masoch to Masochism" to find evidence that such an expectation is likely to be disappointed. Immediately following the text's short biographical introduction, Deleuze remarks that "[w]hen one's name is given, whether one likes it or not, to a disorder or a disease," it is because "one has 'isolated' the disease, distinguished it from cases with which it had until then been confused, by determining and grouping the symptoms in a new and decisive manner" (125). The clear implication of this is that, Masoch's own displeasure notwithstanding, his clinical readers in fact recognized a key aspect of his literary achievement.2 [End Page 91]

But if Deleuze, even in 1961, was not reading Masoch in opposition to masochism, he was still attempting to retrieve something from Masoch's texts, an operation based on the principle that, as he put it in "Coldness and Cruelty," "[s]ymptomatology is always a question of art" (14). On its own, this might account for the privilege Deleuze accords Masoch in relation to the clinicians, reflected in his insistence that clinical studies of masochism not be allowed to obscure the value of Masoch's texts as "original definitions" (14). But this privilege is also justified by Deleuze's critique of the clinical "specialists on masochism" (SM 126), in the course of which he both claims and demonstrates that the full sophistication and subtlety of Masoch's symptomatology has yet to be appreciated (ibid. 125-6; "Coldness" 15-16). Specifically, Deleuze sees these (Freudian) clinical specialists to be mistaken on three points: 1) they do not recognize "the impossibility of any encounter between a sadist and a masochist" (SM 126); 2) they do not give the contract its proper place among the "formal characteristics" of masochism, nor do they consider these formal characteristics as being of equal importance to masochism's "dolorogenous content" (126-127); and 3) they disregard the "strange historical perspectives" that inform the fantasies elaborated in Masoch's texts (127-128).3 Beyond their corrective value, these criticisms give structure to a symptomatological account that focuses on retrieving what is to be found at these points of exclusion: the aesthetic origins of the masochistic fantasy; the juridical forms through which it is "realized" or put into practice; and the overarching ethnographic, historical and mythological context in which the first two find their consistency and their purpose—a consistency and a purpose that are explicitly revolutionary.

If this completes the symptomatology of masochism and pays off the debt that any clinical reflection owes to Masoch, it also sets the stage for a more profound criticism of Freudian theories of the aetiology of...


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pp. 91-106
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