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  • The Mastery of Submission: Inventions of Masochism
  • Vern L. Bullough
John K. Noyes. The Mastery of Submission: Inventions of Masochism. Cornell Studies in the History of Psychiatry. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997. viii + 265 pp. Ill. $29.95; £23.50.

The term masochism was coined by Richard von Krafft-Ebing in 1890 from the name of the Austrian historian and novelist Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. In his best-selling novel Venus in Furs, Sacher-Masoch had told the story of Severin, a passionate and idealistic nobleman caught between the dictates of reason, domination, and control—everything that society told a man he should be—and his own peculiar passion for submitting to the cruelty of dominant women. As the widow Wanda von Dunajew punishes him ever-more-severely, his unrequited love continues to grow, until he finally receives a beating at the hands of Wanda’s lover that causes him to turn his back on his masochistic pleasure and to become a dominant male instead.

Noyes argues in The Mastery of Submission that modern masochism was invented as a response to a specific problem in modern society—namely, that of [End Page 801] individuals in whom the economy of reward and punishment had not only broken down but failed, because it was not clear what were the correct and incorrect uses of aggression. The solution to this crisis in masculinity was to adopt a mode of conceptualization and a technology that allowed incorrect aggressivity to be identified and circumscribed within the body and dealt with according to a definite set of rules. The masochist’s body in effect becomes a machine that can either reduce nonproductive aggressivity to an individual pathology, or transform social control into sexual pleasure.

In a wide-ranging examination of recent European intellectual history, Noyes, a professor of German in South Africa, gives particular attention to many of the German-language writers—from Iwan Bloch to Magnus Hirschfeld to Sigmund Freud, as well as many of Freud’s disciples, particularly Wilhelm Reich, Theodor Reik, and Karen Horney. He also looks at some of the current generation of theorists, from Michel Foucault to Jacques Lacan, and to specific writers on masochism such as Pat Califa and Tom Weinberg, to support his arguments.

Although Noyes pays some attention to the earlier history of masochism, as did Krafft-Ebing, he does not emphasize, at least in my opinion, just how deeply masochism is embodied in the Western conscience in the Christian emphasis on suffering. Even the very techniques of masochistic suffering remain the same. It was through such suffering that the submissive and dedicated believer achieved the ecstacy of feeling at one with God, having undergone the suffering, at least as much as an ordinary human could experience it, so associated with Jesus.

Because Krafft-Ebing defined and described masochism in the nineteenth century, however, it becomes for Noyes a modern technology of the erotics of subjective disappearance. Modern masochism focuses on technologies of submissiveness, on machines and instruments that connect the desiring subject to his or her own disappearance. Just as struggles for political power in our age have increasingly become struggles for the technology that grants access to the world of virtual reality, Noyes holds that the problem of masochism demonstrates that struggles for subjectivity are increasingly becoming struggles for access to and control of the technologies in which subjects are constructed and subjects disappear. My question, after reading this well-constructed and deeply analytical essay, is whether this desire for subjective disappearance is really new or particularly unique. Have we simply used modern terms to reexplain and define what has long been a “pathology” inherent in societies with a Western Christian tradition? Noyes points out that although there is a tradition of masochism, it is the modern crisis in masculinity that has caused the twentieth-century version. I remain unconvinced. Still, Noyes raises important questions, and there are plenty of footnotes and a ten-page bibliography to help interested readers trace the path whereby he has arrived at his conclusion.

Vern L. Bullough
University of Southern California