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  • "Read Mr. Sacher-Masoch":The Literariness of Masochism in the Philosophy of Jacques Lacan and Giles Deleuze
  • David Sigler (bio)

Tim Dean has recently observed that "Lacanians have plenty to say about perversion, though often it remains unclear where they get their information."1 The obvious reply is that they tend to work through the theories of Jacques Lacan—they are Lacanians, after all. But where did Lacan get his information about perversion? His commentaries on sadism in "Kant with Sade" (1963) and Seminar VII (1959-60) are well known. Masochism is a topic much less associated with Lacan. He discusses it periodically, especially in his middle seminars, but these discussions are scattered and remain mostly unpublished. Still, Lacan considers masochism "the most radical of . . . perverse positions of desire" and recommends that it "serve us as a pole for [our] approach to perversion" generally.2

So where does Lacan get his information about masochism? Intriguingly, his work on masochism is never rooted in clinical practice, nor usually even in Freudian theory: instead, he refers us directly to the novels of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. "Read Mr. Sacher-Masoch," he promises in Seminar VII, "and you will see . . . [that] the perverse masochist [harbors] the desire to reduce himself to this nothing that is the good, to this thing that is treated like an object, to this slave whom one trades back and forth and whom one shares."3 Lacan particularly emphasizes the aesthetic dimension of Sacher-Masoch's work, praising "the true masochist, Sacher-Masoch himself" for "the florid, the beautiful" qualities of his writing.4 Lacan construes masochism as a phenomenon that can best be comprehended through the techniques of reading and interpretation. When asked about the subject's arrival into masochism, he elegantly notes that "desire is its interpretation."5

The notion that masochism can best be understood by a return to the novels of Sacher-Masoch is one more often associated with Lacan's sometime rival, Gilles Deleuze. In his landmark study Coldness and Cruelty (1967), Deleuze revisits the literary works of Sacher-Masoch and the [End Page 189] Marquis de Sade to contest Freudian orthodoxies regarding perversion. Deleuze asserts that "[w]hen Freud took up and reformulated the question of sadomasochism, he started with the consideration that sadomasochism operates within one and the same individual," such that sadism and masochism emerge as active and passive phases of a subject's perverse sexual development.6 Against this theoretical inheritance, Deleuze proffers "an entirely different approach, the literary approach," which would proceed through careful engagement with fictions rather than clinical observation.7 He finds that "literature takes the opposite path" from the clinical schema outlined in Freud's "A Child Is Being Beaten" (1919).8 He expresses reservations about the usefulness of psychoanalysis for understanding masochism, given that, in his view, "Freudian methodologies are appropriate mainly for young neurotics whose disorders are related to personal reminiscences."9 Accordingly, Deleuze works through Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Furs (1870) and Sade's Philosophy in the Bedroom (1795) to reveal the incompatibilities between masochism and sadism; in The Logic of Sense (1969), he construes perversion as "a world without Others" through an analysis of a novel by Michel Tournier (Friday; or, the Other Island, 1967).10

Reading Deleuze, one could easily forget the remarkable extent to which Freud's clinical observations on masochism are already well embroiled in "the literary approach." In Three Essays on Sexuality (1905), Freud supplies evidence from Goethe's Faust to clinch his argument against "medical men."11 His analysis of Tasso's "moving poetic picture" of repetition compulsion leads Freud to recognize repetition as a key to masochism.12 And he identifies Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1889) as a particular cause of masochism in its readers.13 For Freud, masochism does not stem from firsthand experience ("The individuals from whom the data for these analyses were derived were very seldom beaten in their childhood"), nor primarily from having watched children being beaten—the act of literary reading is a more significant contributing factor, he claims, having "replaced and more than replaced" spectacles of actual violence.14 Freud notes that "it was almost...


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