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 Psychopathia 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.
At sixteen I was bookish and lonely, one of a few women on my debate team. When I was crowned top speaker at one of the year’s biggest tournaments I called my then-boyfriend, the Gershwin lover’s successor, who’d skipped the awards ceremony to prepare for his semi-final debate. “You were first?” he asked. “What was I?” He was fourth: I said I was sorry. In the bathroom back at school, I partitioned myself against the crinkle of tampon wrappers and the anguished squeaking of sneakers against linoleum. Beneath the door loomed pairs of foreign feet. “Hurry up,” said someone in loafers, and I hitched my skirt up to glimpse down at the filigree of welts. My nail polish was chipping. There was no one I could ask. My best friends, the men on my debate team, would only have turned my confidences into fodder for raucous jokes. So I ceded the stall to the loafers and went in search of books that could explain me to myself.
By then I was accustomed to inserting myself into men’s arguments, to finding myself in thrall to the violence of male words, brutal in their content no less than in their prevalence. I was very nearly gratified by the darkness that gathered around the edges of my reading, though none of it was written for anyone like me. William Carlos William’s “The Use of Force” was tensed with resigned savagery, and Pierre Chaderlos de Laclos’s Dangerous Liaisons was so fraught with cruelties that it frosted me. I read it in the bathtub, carefully barricaded against my parents’ prying. “Your orders are charming; your manner of giving them still more delightful; you would make tyranny itself adored,” wrote the scheming Vicomte de Valmont to the vengeful Marquise de Merteuil. “What are you doing in there?” screamed my mom.
But the question of happy hurting remained at best penumbral, and even Laclos’s homage to libertinism condemns its opulence in a repentant appendix. The Vicomte dies in a duel and the Marquise is punished for her defiance by a bout of smallpox that deforms her face. The moral, I guess, is that male excess merits dignified censure, but female appetites yield only disfigurements. I was tempted to conclude that masochism, at least in Freud’s strict sense, is mythic—that there can be no pleasure in pain, no wanting stitched into the substance of wounding. What I wanted was nonsensical, so I concluded that I couldn’t want it after all.
Years later, in England, I was hungry: the British diet of small talk was too small for my tastes. I was doing a master’s in the philosophy of science at Cambridge, and the university’s cold refinements, discharged with bland formality in colleges with names like “Corpus Christi” or “Trinity” or “Jesus”—mine was Saint Catharine’s, its crest the wheel on which she was to be spiked to death—were anathema to my brash Jewishness. In the formal halls I sat, restless and East Coastal amid the clatter of dishes and well-bred chatter. The fare was amorphous, ever-flavorless permutations of potatoes: I awaited the timid passing of the salt. In the winter, I shuffled from the library to my room and back. It was dark all day and navy at night. I smoked damp cigarettes out my window until they fizzled out. Then I read until bedtime, when I lay awake and watched the edges of the headlights flit across my ceiling.
My thesis was on illness and self-injury. I scoured the literature on voluntary amputations and body modifications, surgeries and sutures. All the theories I read about were third-personal, more like clinicians’ reports than philosophical inquiries: they defined malady in terms of biological dysfunction, skirting the puzzle of agency and pain. But I was fascinated by the inhabited experiences of people who maimed themselves, lacerating their lips or needling their skin. Their “illnesses” seemed to me to originate in a sense of tension between the bodies they wanted and the bodies they had. What the medical establishment dismissed as self-indulgence, even insanity, I understood as creativity: for me, too, pain was a prelude to transformation.
By the time I went to England, I had two tattoos already. I knew how much the third, scrawled into the nape of my neck, would hurt. I opted for a line of poetry, “What will survive of us is love,” and bowed my head prayerfully, squeezing my friend’s hand as the needle scraped away. While the gun hummed, it occurred to me that the man administering the tattoo was a kind of instrument, merely the executor of the revisions I had ordered for myself. But I dreamed of more complex dramas than this one, dutifully enacted by the tattoo artist who tenderly wiped blue-inked blood off my neck when he was finished. I wanted to expand the sphere of my control, to direct a whole choreography of hurting. But this would require a more interesting partner.
That spring, when it was still raining, I trekked to what Cambridge students call “the Other Place,” as if there were only two in the world. I met him in the library there. He was doing a master’s in something called “Internet Studies.” When I told him about my project, he invited me to his parents’ house in West Kensington, the part of London where financiers raise children destined for garden parties. It was unclear to me whether anyone actually lived there: his parents were on a perpetual “holiday,” most often in the south of “Fraaance.” It is difficult to extract him, mentally, from that house, where we most frequently met and where I still always picture him. It was like a photograph of itself, big and white and vine-draped, crowded with tweedy tomes about imperial history that practically held monocles up to their own covers. There were rosebushes in the garden, where we sometimes withdrew for 5 a.m. cigarettes. In the living room was a marmoreal bust of someone he could not identify: “Just some guy,” he said, without curiosity. He called the French press in the kitchen a “cafetière.” He spoke like he was sharpening something to cut me with.
All I ever said while he hit and punched was please. I didn’t know what I was pleading for, if it was more or less. He tore into my shoulders with his teeth and slashed at my legs with his belt. Or he squeezed my throat closed until I felt drunk and dizzy. I don’t know if I wanted him to stop or if I wanted to want him to stop. Certainly I didn’t want to stop wanting him to stop, because I wanted my want to continue in one iteration or another. I think this is why they call it “coming”: because arrival initiates eviction. If you’re always coming, then approach is asymptotic. If approach is asymptotic, then you’ll never have to leave.
But I came, so I went. I would return to Cambridge with gashes carved into my lip, and it would hurt to sit. In the train I stood and in bed I lay on my belly. I wound scarves over the blue that blotched my throat. When the barista at the coffee shop asked about my shoulder, I told him that I’d fallen off of my bike. (In fact, I don’t know how to ride one.) Still, I kept returning, maybe hoping that with enough practice I could locate the moment when departure and arrival were perfectly counterpoised, when I was nowhere but there.
Bafflement has a way of becoming as ubiquitous as a stone in your shoe. But if the questions weren’t so uncomfortable, I wouldn’t care to answer them. Back at Cambridge, where analytic philosophy was first established, I was disappointed to discover that my chosen tradition was a squeamish one. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has entries on “Zombies,” “Folk Psychology as a Theory,” and “The Historical Controversies Surrounding Innateness,” but not “Sex,” even the vanilla kind. (“Causal Decision Theory” is the first search result for “vanilla.” For “blue,” “Nonexistent Objects.”) There were tomes about the ontology of empty sets, but next to nothing about the intimate calisthenics that we spend hours dreaming about, the appetites that entire industries are designed to satisfy.
In his monograph On Being Blue, as much a meditation on sex and a paean to language as it is a treatise on color, William H. Gass writes that “what we need … is a language which will allow us to distinguish the normal or routine fuck from the glorious, the rare, or the lousy one—a fack from a fick, a fick from a fock—but we have more names for parts of horses than we have for kinds of kisses.” Gass was trained as an analytic philosopher, but he turned to his fiction (or, more aptly, his ficktion) to devise the lexicon he calls for in On Being Blue.
He was savvy to defect, for the clinical origin of sadomasochism is literary. The father of sexual psychiatry, that philiaphile Krafft-Ebing, named his pathology for two novelists: the Marquis de Sade, an eighteenth-century French aristocrat with a penchant for sexual violence, and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, a nineteenth-century Austrian bellelettrist with a submission fetish. The former spent most of his life in prisons and asylums for the criminally insane, where he indulged his perversions by crafting works of erotica-cum-philosophy: tomes that brim with shit-smearing, necrophilia, cannibalism and “frigging,” a quaint word for masturbation. Masoch was a journalist and professor in the then-Austrian city of Lemberg, now the Ukrainian city of Lviv. He was a forward-thinker who championed women’s rights, opposed anti-Semitism, and consigned himself to bouts of voluntary slavery. “If I revel in luxury while keeping you deprived and kicking you, you must unprotestingly kiss the foot that has kicked you,” reads one of his contracts with his wife.
Neither Sade nor Masoch is much of a stylist. Sade’s clause-clotted diatribes against Judeo-Christian morality are sadistic only insofar as they’re torturous to read, and Masoch is didactic in the other direction. His iconic 1870 novella, Venus in Furs, follows sycophantic Severin, who relishes his abuse at the hands of imperious Wanda von Dunajew. In a well-meaning but flat-footed monologue, Severin identifies the “moral” of the story, which is that sexism is to blame for his aberrations:
That woman, as nature has created her, and man at present is educating her, is man’s enemy. She can only be his slave or his despot, but never his companion. This she can become only when she has the same rights as he and is his equal in education and work.
For the first time, my reading was failing me. Masoch was right in a roundabout way. I had to imagine that any woman writing about the charms of submission would reject such dry sanctimony in favor of something much wetter. She would recognize, at least, that despotism is not opposed to slavery—that a woman can be both a torturer and a victim at once, indeed that all masochism is a feat of ambitious authorship.
It was not until almost a century later, in the mid-1950s, that there emerged a literature able to acknowledge that domination and submission can be intimate bedfellows. In the notorious 1954 novel The Story of O, someone writing under the pseudonym “Pauline Réage” differentiated between facks and ficks with unprecedented sophistication. At first glance, Réage’s tormented female protagonist seems dually subjugated, both by her savage lover and by the dilemma of her own masochism. Réage depicts a woman riven by conflicting desires:
She liked the idea of torture, but when she was being tortured herself she would have betrayed the whole world to escape it. And yet when it was over she was happy to have gone through it, happier still if it had been especially cruel and prolonged.
Unlike Masoch, Réage makes no effort to render her protagonist’s suffering bearable. Her book is an exercise in experiential alchemy, yoking desire to disaster without deflating either opposing extreme. Its tone is soft: it’s hard to read.
The French literary community doubted that Réage could be female—that a woman could write such convincing erotica—but the prominent critic Jean Paulhan insisted that Réage must be a woman, adducing the maternal quality of the protagonist’s devotion to her boyfriend. Years later, it emerged that Réage was actually Paulhan’s longtime lover, the editor and writer Anne Desclos. Paulhan anticipates this revelation in his preface, where he coyly calls the novel “the most ardent love letter any man has ever received.” Did Paulhan mean to suggest that ardency is unilateral, available only to the women who yield and not to the men who wound them? If The Story of O is a document of a consummate ardency, then love must be measured in capitulation. Paulhan regards Réage’s novel as a feat of devotion because it’s consecrated so wholly to him.
On the face of it, his reading is plausible. The book begins when its heroine, O, is forcibly transported by her lover, René, to a château in the Roissy district north of Paris. In the car, René removes O’s bra and underwear and directs her to sit with her lips parted and her legs spread. At Roissy, a manor out of a perverse fairy tale, O is trained to serve an elite sadistic order. She prods fires with ornate pokers and suffers to be whipped and sodomized by a host of unnamed men. At the end of her ordeal, she’s returned to René, sans undergarments, outfitted with a custom collar and handcuffs.
But René does not wait long to hand his prize over to Sir Stephen, the gray-eyed English nobleman who is to be her ultimate master. To each of Sir Stephen’s increasingly violent requests, O replies simply, “I’m yours,” and her body changes to reflect his ownership. He has her branded with his crest and pierces her labia so he can hang heavy tags engraved with his initials off the ring. Dutifully, O dons corsets that whittle away at her waist. In the final scene, her metamorphosis is total: she enters a party on a leash, wearing an owl mask over her face, disfigured and refigured beyond the other guests’ recognition.
Just as O rewrites her body to bear her lover’s name, Réage crafts an entire landscape out of pliant fantasy. Real-world geographies resist reformulation—so the ultimate pornography must dispense with bodies altogether. Of the beachside villa where O completes her transformation, Réage writes, “There was nothing real about this country, which night had turned into make-believe.” The Story of O exerts similar magic, delivering reality back over to dreaming. Réage wrote it in bed at night “the way you speak in the dark to the person you love when you’ve held back the words of love too long and they flow at last.” For the first time in her life, “she was writing without hesitation, without stopping, rewriting or discarding, she was writing the way one breathes.”
Was she speaking to Paulhan, or herself? The “most ardent love letter any man has ever received” was explicitly addressed to Paulhan, whose interest in Desclos was waning, and its composition was in some sense an act of pandering to its male audience—yet another woman’s attempt to appear attractive in the eyes of an indifferent man. What could not be sustained in reality had to be resuscitated in fiction. But the book was also Desclos’s rejoinder to Paulhan’s comment that a woman could never write an erotic work as compelling as Sade’s. Although O is degraded—even her name is a vacancy and a hole—her pleasure is always the point. Her interchangeable male lovers remain indistinguishable: René is supplanted by Sir Stephen, and O’s assailants at Roissy are anonymously male.
Paulhan was right that the novel’s author had to be a woman, but his reasoning was distorted by his self-serving interpretation. Only a woman could have written O because only a woman could stand to disguise the authority implicit in her authorship, the agency implicit in her willed passivity. Sir Stephen forced O and she acquiesced, but Desclos did something more difficult: she seduced Paulhan so thoroughly that he didn’t even realize he was the one obeying. How much more satisfying for her to dominate a man who believed he was dominating her. True submission consists in willingness so eager it becomes invisible, in surrender so subtle it seems like a choice. The letter “o” is self-contained. It tantalizes with the brazen promise of openness, but in vain we seek any opening into its guarded center. Desclos’s book rings around O and circles back to its origin, a love letter to itself.
It’s hard to see where, in life, we can be both the authors and the recipients of our own love letters—where we can be both pained and pleased at once. Nowhere we can stay, as I recalled each time I left London and took the train back to the other Other Place, where my bruises faded from cobalt to cyan before they disappeared. And nowhere in reality, as the case studies in Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis emphasize. Almost without exception, the patients Krafft-Ebing interviews recognize the futility of seeking out real-life fulfillments. The “essential element in masochism,” the famous sexologist writes, is “the mental element.” Freud also concludes that the enactment of masochism is secondary to its pristine conception. “The performances are, after all, only a carrying-out of the phantasies in play,” he writes in his essay on masochistic economics.
It’s no accident that Freud employs the language of theatricality, which anticipates the fetish’s contemporary vocabulary. Practitioners of BDSM—bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism—speak not of facking and ficking but of “role play” and “scenes.” They must divest themselves of fact, for it’s only in fictions that contradictions can be consummated.
In On Being Blue, Gass writes a different kind of love letter, one in which medium dotes on the message: he writes about writing, eulogizing his work as Réage eulogizes herself. Specifically, he writes about how to write about sex—a challenging task because sex, like pain, is often regarded as too physical to admit of any description. Gass concedes that a writer who hopes to capture the sublimity of monumental sex cannot describe it anatomically. “At least on the face of it a stroke by stroke story of a copulation is exactly as absurd as a chew-by-chew account of the consumption of a chicken’s wing,” he writes. Good writing about sex is erotic because it euphemizes—because it mystifies—but Gass goes one step further. All good writing is erotic, he claims, because if it’s good enough, it grips us. We submit to its irresistible narrative and lyrical momentum, to the rhythmic deprivations that make up a total poem or the local uncertainties that constitute a global plot. Narrative is a uniquely painful pleasure, and when tensions are defused, dramas resolved and denouements discharged, there remains nothing left to say: no reason to read on. Yet the alleviation of a plot’s pangs—the end of a beloved book or story—is far from straightforwardly happy. Fiction itself is the greatest fiction of all: it’s a source of satiation that’s impossibly premised on a thousand minute denials. Gass advocates “the use of language like a lover,” which is “not the language of love, but the love of language, not matter, but meaning, not what the tongue touches, but what it forms, not lips and nipples, but nouns and verbs.” We succumb to it without even choosing it: we choose it so absolutely that it seems to be choosing us.
And the link goes both ways. It’s not just that language is good when it’s sexual, or that language about sex is good when it’s lyrical, but that sex is good when it’s linguistic. If pain ever manages to please us—and pain does manage to please some of us, however inconceivably—it’s because we rewrite our suffering even as it happens. A fuck or a fick is only as good as its attendant fiction: an orifice is only as good as its artifice.
I went back to England once more after I finished at Cambridge. The disciple of Internet Studies had moved to a flat in East London, an hour and several Underground transfers from West Kensington. His new room was mostly unfurnished: just a mattress on the floor and a reproduction of a Renaissance-era painting tilted lazily against the wall. There was no bust, almost no books. He was reading Dave Eggers’s The Circle, which I regarded as a structurally impoverished rebuke to The Story of O. But for me he still carried the residual charms of our West Kensington exploits. We made cocktails with cayenne and lime, and the next day I lay on his bed and waited for him to return from the kitchen. In the silence his absence surged, and I repeated my pleas, my please, until I had drained them of meaning, until they were just mounds of sound in my mouth.
When he came back he had a knife. I clenched motionless as he threaded it up my stomach and along my collarbone, up my neck and against my ear. It was abruptly cold, a shock of silver. With the long edge tensed against my throat he raised my chin towards him and shortened my swallowing. He told me not to move, a command I found superfluous. How could I have moved? I was so still I thrummed with the effort of it. When he told me to lick the knife it tasted of yesterday’s cayenne and lime, a sting that bit into my tongue. Even breathing felt monumental. He traced red threads along the inside of my thighs, up towards their intersection. When he finally inserted the tip of the knife into me I held my legs apart stuttering please to myself and meaning whatever it meant. The cayenne fizzled on my lips and his image was huge in the bulge of my tears, just a blurring, a blue rhapsody.
When he slipped the knife out of me, he raised it over my chest and plunged it downwards. I shut my eyes and waited for it to descend. The space between the blade and my chest gaped eternal, hung suspended as if weightless in water or dreaming. But the knife was so close I could feel its shadow. Between myself and my destruction was a sliver as slight as grace, so narrow it barely took place. My body still ablaze with spices, still scuffed with scratching, was thinned into a sheet. My body no longer mattered: it was beside the point. Please, I was saying, meaninglessly. I was coming and going, trusting and terrified beneath the glint of my own impossible knives.
Art credit: Alison Potsma