Jan 092008

Noyes, John K. The Mastery of Submission: Inventions of Masochism Cornell University Press, 1997. Amazon

The following images came from Noyes’ book on masochism. It became apparent early in reading that I was in the hands of an inveterate Foucauldian. It was part of a spate of inter-library loan requests, brought on by Google Books, which all arrived within a week or so. I had a thick stack of academic texts to read over the holidays, and there were no renewals either.

Apart from other issues, I know what kind of book I don’t want to write: a dry academic text full of French critical theory. Most of those books will rarely be read by anybody outside of academia, and only rarely then. Some of the books were years old yet looked and felt like nobody had ever read them. Beauty in Darkness will be an accessible work.

Regardless, Noyes at least does Sacher-Masoch the courtesy of taking Venus in Furs seriously as a literary work. Noyes suggests that masochism was discovered/invented/pathologized in the late 19th century because it was a symptom of a society in crisis. Victorians viewed women as the angel in the house, the civilizing force to which men had to submit for their own good, and as a depraved, uncontrollable, primitive, corrupting influence. Sacher-Masoch’s fantasies were a way of resolving this paradox: he would submit to women, in all their perversity. (Anne McClintock covered similar ideas when she looked at the domestic sphere in Imperial Leather.)

Masochistic fantasies arose from other paradoxes, such as colonialism, which was supposed to civilize the world and instead brought degradation and savagery to the civilized man. (Think Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness.) Europe looked out at the colonized world and saw rampant cruelty, injustice, bodies in pain, gender roles inverted, a carnivalesque world upside down.

Boss 1902

woman chariot 1910

Conjugal yoke c1900

Slave Carriage c1860

Factory Owner 1912

Unfortunately, there’s very little contextual information in these images in Noyes’ work, but it’s interesting that these images were produced long after the abolitionist period of the late 18th to early 19th century.

I see a parallel between these colonial images and some of the work of the great John Willie, himself a Singapore-born Englishman. Notice the colonial setting suggested in this ponygirl image: the man’s beard, loose shirt and rolled up sleeve, the flower in the hair of the dark-haired woman, her vaguely Asian feature and the lush foliage in the background.

john willie ponygirl image035

Willie was born in 1902, the twilight of empire. Perhaps he and/or whoever wrote the story he was illustrating, saw the images of colonialism as a funhouse mirror reflection of his world, where wasp-waisted women could rule or serve, and everything was possible.

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