Art, like light, needs distance, and anyone who attempts to render sexual experience directly must face the fact that the writhings which comprise it are ludicrous without their subjective content, that the intensity of that content quickly outruns its apparent cause.
—William H. Gass, On Being Blue
It couldn’t have happened the way I remember, because pain ought to contradict pleasure. But I think that it hurt, it really hurt, and yet it still felt good. That first time was in a Marriott or a Hyatt, somewhere so generic it was anywhere, with the ice machine whirring as always. I was sixteen and my high school boyfriend was fiddling with his computer. He settled on Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and ordered me to bend over. The desk was looped with phone cord, and the air conditioner panted. While I waited, I stared: at the desk, at the pen, at the pen on the desk, at the floor. Outside it was hot. The carpet was teal. In the chill of that room, he hurt me. So I sputtered on the spiced metal of my lip-bitten blood and gave in to—what? To the rift between Gershwin’s chatter and the urgent surging of pain? Or to the pain itself? Was it the hurting that I liked, or the expectation of its memory? Already I anticipated that today’s beating would resolve into tomorrow’s bruising, and I wondered if there would be any route from the indices back to the act.
I am still trying to reconcile pain with pleasure, but the negotiation remains impossible. The most popular academic definition of pain, from the International Association for the Study of Pain, specifies that it’s disagreeable: “Pain is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience that is associated with actual or potential tissue damage or described in such terms” (emphasis mine). In other words, physical damage doesn’t qualify as painful unless we come to dislike it: “Experiences which resemble pain but are not unpleasant, e.g. pricking, should not be called pain.” So it would seem that masochism—defined by Freud as “pleasure in pain”—is hopelessly paradoxical. As soon as a feeling shades into pleasure, it quits the domain of the painful; but a pleasure too painful negates itself. Freud acknowledges this apparent difficulty in a 1924 essay, “The Economic Problem of Masochism.” “If mental processes are governed by the pleasure principle in such a way that their first aim is the avoidance of unpleasure and the obtaining of pleasure,” he writes, “masochism is incomprehensible.” Echoes of a similar confusion run through the case studies in Pyschopathia Sexualis, the seminal 1886 treatise in which the German psychiatrist Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing coined the terms “masochism” and “sadism” (and, less eloquently, “homosexual”). “Case 57,” a 35-year-old masochist, recounts in familiar perplexity, “I say to myself: What! You busy your mind with things which not only the aesthetic sense of others, but also your own, disapproves? You regard that as beautiful and desirable which, in your own judgment, is at once ugly, coarse, silly and impossible?” In that icy hotel room, with the Gershwin chirping its sky-bright blue, I suspected I must be mistaken: that I could not feel what I felt I was feeling, that something was wrong with me.