Brissenden, R.F. Virtue in Distress MacMillan, 1974
My readings on slavery and sympathy brought me to the concept of sensibility. This is a key concept in how we think about human nature, and I think will prove to be a key issue in the history of BDSM.
We’re used to thinking of reason and emotion as being opposing forces in the human mind. In the late 18th century, however, thinkers like Rousseau and Locke developed the idea of sensibility, which is part of a related cluster of related words with shifting meanings, including “sense” (both as in “the five senses” and as in “common sense”), “sentient”, “sensation”, “sentiment” and “sentimentality.”
Sensibility is based on the belief that people are basically good. If a person is in touch with their natural emotions, they will naturally experience sympathy for people in distress. Also in accord with nature, that person will be moved to take action, and they will naturally employ reason to do good things. Thus, people with sensibility would be as incapable of doing wrong instead of right as they would be mistaking red for green.
The corollary of this principle is that evil occurs because society is flawed and turns us away from our better selves. This can lead to social restructuring by any means necessary (e.g. the French Revolution) or abandoning civilization and withdrawing to nature (e.g. Thoreau). It was a beautiful theory, and it didn’t last long. The bloody aftermath of the French Revolution pretty much consigned sensibility to the dust heap of history.
What emerged from the decay of sensibility was actually more lasting, particularly for the history of BDSM.
First, there’s the valorization of sympathy. The idea was that by observing emotionally stirring scenes, one would exercise one’s sensibility. A largely forgotten French book called Le Voyageur sentimental by Francois Vernes (pub. 1786) is a series of vignettes in which a traveler observes scenes of great emotion, generally suffering, and weeps tears of sympathy. He doesn’t do anything to help those people he sees. The tears are enough, demonstrating the traveler’s sensibility. The book functions as a kind of sensibility porn, showing decontextualized tableaus of stock scenarios for the entertainment of others. This is how sensibility decayed into what we would call sentimentality today.
But what really gets into what would eventually become BDSM is virtue in distress. This was, at least according to Brissenden, the key theme of writers as diverse as Jane Austen and our old friend the Marquis de Sade. Both wrote about what happens when people who believe in sensibility actually encounter the real world. In Austen, it’s a necessary and probably beneficial disillusionment, part of growing up. In Sade, innocents are either ripped to shreds (e.g. Justine) or enlightened/debased to libertinism (e.g. Juliette).
The archetypal “virtue in distress” novel is Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, published 1748 (making it a rough contemporary of Fanny Hill by John Cleland). Clarissa is a classic sensible heroine, smart and good-natured yet innocent and unworldly. Her depraved family schemes to marry her to a repulsive man, and effectively hold her prisoner when she refuses. Clarissa’s apparent rescue comes in Lovelace, who takes her away from her family.
However, Lovelace is actually a rake determined to seduce Clarissa, and sets her up in a prison-like brothel, surrounded by prostitutes and other sketchy characters. Lovelace doesn’t just want her body, he wants her soul, for her to give up her principals, particularly chastity. Clarissa, however, refuses to stop believing in the basic goodness of people, and believes she can reform Lovelace. Her growing physical attraction to Lovelace despite herself complicates matters.
The situation ends badly, with Lovelace raping a drugged Clarissa. However, this climax brings about Lovelace’s realization of his failure as a lover, and Clarissa’s disillusionment. True sensibility does potentially exist in both Lovelace and Clarissa, but it is not enough to prevent a catastrophic collision of innocence and experience that destroys both parties. It’s a tragedy.
There’s a lot of psychological complexity in Clarissa, but the scenario of Richardson’s highly popular novel was simplified and vulgarized in many inferior imitators. We have a young woman held prisoner, threatened with the loss of her virtue by hypermasculine forces. This is a classic scenario of maledom/femsub BDSM fantasy.
Observing people suffering was an opportunity for the exercise of sensibility. Men and women could both empathize and sympathize with the scenario. Men could fantasize being Clarissa’s seducer or rescuer, or both. Women could fantasize being Lovelace’s conquerer or redeemer. Many women readers wrote to Richardson about how they wanted a happy ending, for Clarissa to reform Lovelace’s character. According to another book, G.J. Barker-Benfield’s The Culture of Sensibility, women went to costume balls dressed as Clarissa (pg. 183).
Late 18th century sensibility coincided with the origins of pornography as a distinct genre of entertainment, and the slavery abolitionist movement (see Wood’s Blind Memory.) Slaves became the perfect figures for sensibility porn, which abolitionist tracts couldn’t help shading into.
The novel of sensibility could also be seen as a prose account of an initiation ritual, which I suspect is the genesis of BDSM. The innocent heroine is initiated into the larger world of sexuality or power dynamics, or both. This is supposed to produce an aware person who can reconcile the two opposing forces of virtue and power, a permanent transformation of status that marks a liminal ritual. However, the scenario was repeated over and over again with only temporary changes in status for the initiates (the readers), making it a liminoid ritual. Just as the slasher killer always comes back for a sequel, there’s always another innocent lass ready to fall into the clutches of another rake. And we’re always ready to read about them.
This is the point Sade put his finger on, if unwittingly. Sensibility held that if a person looked deep within themselves, they would see good things, a natural source of compassion, generosity, reason and piety. Sade said, look within human nature and you will see rape, murder, crime and sacreligious thought. People who claim otherwise are fooling themselves, and any effort to educate people only leads to false consciousness.
I side with Sade on this point, if nothing else. People become kinky without requiring any personal experience of corporal punishment, slavery, humiliation, &c. The imagination is already there inside people, ready to take cues from the intrinsic pressures and conflicts in society. Even in some hypothetical utopia, completely lacking in violence or coercion, there will be people who seek out personal transformation via catharsis. (Rousseau should have known this, given his masochistic tendencies so clearly described in his Confessions, but he insisted that people could be raised properly and become good.)
This is why BDSM matters in a larger historical/philosophical sense, IMHO. It offers the possibility that we can accept the sadistic or masochistic aspects of human nature and express them instead of repressing them. We can give them a way to run free and yet not have society disintegrate into total chaos. It’s the marriage of Rousseau and Sade, heaven and hell, to borrow a phrase from William Blake.