Jan 212008

Bruhm, Steven. Gothic Bodies: The Politics of Pain in Romantic Fiction University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994

You’d think a book with a title like Gothic Bodies would have entries for “sadism” or “masochism” in the index, but it doesn’t. Sade is name checked a few times, but Sacher-Masoch isn’t. Then again, Bruhm is interested in the English Romantic/Gothic period of the late 18th and early 19th century. It starts out with Eugene Delacroix’ Orientalist painting The Death of Sardanapalus, based on the myth which was the inspiration for Byron’s play, which in turn was a profound influence on Hannah Cullwick before she met Arthur Munby.

I’m still trying to wrap my mind around sensibility, trying to sum it up, but it’s a complex and slippery idea. The Romantic English poets got the idea of sensibility from scientists. The problems that obsessed them were: How could one truly enter the subjectivity of another and truly experience what they feel? And did observed pain in others bring people together, motivate them into progressive social action, or does it instead lock people within themselves, encouraging solipsism? Romantics tried to believe the former, while those who doubted it and believed the latter became Gothics.

A few points that stayed with me: English Romantics disliked the (fake) blood and guts of stage melodrama and tried to put violence and death offstage. A character would enter and describe something in a monologue, such as a bloodied corpse at the bottom of a ravine, instead of having a corpse covered with fake blood present. This conflict between “show everything” and “keep things implicit” is still going on today, the conflict of low and high culture.

The early forms of BDSM coincided with two other major social changes in Western society: The first is the judicial reform, abolishing corporal punishment and public humiliation in favor of prison reformatories. The second point is the arrival of practical anesthetics, such as nitrous oxide and ether, and hiding away the ill in clinics. Suffering bodies were hidden away.

BDSM depends on accepting subjectivity. The top has to take the bottom’s subjectivity into account. Indeed, BDSM requires that the bottom say, “I am enjoying this and consenting to it (and not other things),” both of these things only exist in the bottom’s subjectivity, and the other person must accept that. If the person says to the bottom, “No, you don’t, I don’t care what you say, and you shouldn’t be doing that,” they are denying their subjectivity.

So, BDSM requires that other people have subjectivities and those subjectivities may be very different, that the same physical event may produce a very different experience in the persons involved. A caning in a Singapore jail is a very different experience for all involved compared to a caning in a Vancouver play party.

That’s a relatively new idea in human history, that everyone has a subjectivity and those subjectivities can be different. As Lovelace puts it in Clarissa (Volume 8, Letter XIX): “Some people are as sensible of a scratch from a pin’s point, as others from a push of a sword: and who can say any thing for the sensibility of such fellows?” Lovelace says this, referring to Metcalfe a man who feels he has to defend his sister’s honor, even though she wouldn’t want it defended, and this leads to a duel with Lovelace’s associate Belford. Belford defeats Metcalfe and leave him with a scratch, which becomes infected and kills him. Lovelace’s quote refers to the physical wound and to the insult to honor, both of which are experienced differently. Feeling too much results in pointless suffering, at least for Lovelace, who is very much the modern detached ironist/cynic, much like the king in the painting above, who lounges back and contemplates the savagery around him.

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