Sep 142011

While I’ve already read Sigmund Frued’s essays on sadomasochism, notably “A Child is Being Beaten”, I’ve been putting off reading his daughter, Anna Freud’s 1922 essay, “Beating Fantasies and Daydreams” (possibly based on her own life).

What’s interesting about this essay is its explanation of how sadomasochistic fantasy operates in relation to conscious daydreams and print media. Our subject, an adolescent girl, has both beating fantasies and what she called “nice stories”:

In her fifth or sixth year — the exact date could not be established, but it was certainly before she entered school — this girl formed a beating fantasy of the type described by Freud. In the beginning its content was quite monotonous: “A boy is being beaten by a grownup.” Somewhat later it changed to: “Many boys are being beaten by many grownups.” The identity of the boys as well as that of the grownups, however, remained unknown, as did in almost all instances the misdeed for which the castigation was administered. We can assume that the various scenes were quite vivid in the child’s imagination, but her references to them during the analysis were quite scanty and vague. Each one of the scenes she fantasied, frequently only very briefly, was accompanied by strong sexual excitement and terminated in a masturbatory act.

For a number of years,[…] the fantasy itself was subjected to a great variety of alterations and elaborations. In the attempt to enjoy the permissible pleasure as long as possible and to put off the forbidden conclusion indefinitely, she added all sorts of accessory details that in themselves were quite indifferent but copiously described. The child invented complicated organizations and complete institutions, schools, and reformatories in which the beating scenes were to take place, and established definite rules and regulations which determined the conditions of gaining pleasure.

So, the beating fantasy evolves from a very basic scenario to something much more elaborate, driven by guilt.

The girl later moved into a different phase of fantasizing:

At about the same time-probably between her eighth and tenth year (the exact age again could not be ascertained)-the girl initiated a new kind of fantasy activity which she herself called “nice stories” in contrast to the ugly beating fantasy. These “nice stories” seemed at first sight at least to depict nothing but pleasant, cheery scenes that all exemplify instances of kind, considerate, and affectionate behavior.

However, the beating fantasies crept back into the “nice stories.”

In her fourteenth or fifteenth year, after having formed a number of continued daydreams which she maintained side by side, the girl accidentally came upon a boy’s storybook; it contained among others a short story set in the Middle Ages. She read through it once or twice with lively interest; when she had finished, she returned the book to its owner and did not see it again. Her imagination, however, was immediately captured by the various figures arid their external circumstances which were described in the book. Taking possession of them, she further spun out the tale, just as if it had been her own spontaneous fantasy product, and henceforth accorded this daydream a not insignificant place in the series of her nice stories.

In spite of several attempts that were made during the analysis, it was not possible to establish even approximately the content of the story she had read. The original story had been so cut up into separate pieces, drained of their content, and overlaid by new fantasy material that it was impossible to distinguish between the borrowed and the spontaneously produced elements. All we can do therefore — and that was also what the analyst had to do — is to drop this distinction, which in any event has no practical significance, and deal with the entire content of the fantasied episodes regardless of their sources.

The material she used in this story was as follows: A medieval knight has been engaged in a long feud with a number of nobles who are in league against him. In the course of a battle a fifteen-year-old noble youth (i.e., the age of the daydreamer) is captured by the knight’s henchmen. He is taken to the knight’s castle where he is held prisoner for a longtime. Finally, he is released.

That’s the basic structure, based on a snipped of historically-based story she glimpsed once and probably didn’t think much of at the time, but she seems to have fastened onto it and used it as a framework.

In this daydream, which was the simplest of them all, there were only two figures that were really important; all the others can be disregarded as incidental and subordinate by-players. One of these main figures is the noble youth whom the daydreamer has endowed with all possible good and attractive characteristics; the other one is the knight of the castle who is depicted as sinister and violent. The opposition between the two is further intensified by the addition of several incidents from their past family histories-so that the whole setting is one of apparently irreconcilable antagonism between one who is strong and mighty and another who is weak and in the power of the former.

A great introductory scene describes their first meeting during which the knight threatens to put the prisoner on the rack to force him to betray his secrets. The youth’s conviction of his helplessness is thereby confirmed and his dread of the knight awakened. These two elements are the basis of all subsequent situations. For example, the knight in fact threatens the youth and makes ready to torture him, but at the last moment the knight desists. He nearly kills the youth through the long imprisonment, but just before it is too late the knight has him nursed back to health. As soon as the prisoner has recovered the knight threatens him again, but faced by the youth’s fortitude the knight spares him again. And every time the knight is just about to inflict great harm, he grants the youth one favor after another.

Or let us take another example from a later phase of the story. The prisoner has strayed beyond the limits of his confine and meets the knight, but the latter does not as expected punish the youth with renewed imprisonment. Another time the knight surprises the youth in the very act of transgressing a specific prohibition, but lie himself spares the youth the public humiliation which was to be the punishment for this crime. The knight imposes all sorts of deprivations and the prisoner then doubly savors the delights of what is granted again.

All this takes place in vividly animated and dramatically moving scenes. In each the daydreamer experiences the full excitement of the threatened youth’s anxiety and fortitude. At the moment when the wrath and rage of the torturer are transformed into pity and benevolence-that is to say, at the climax of each scene-the excitement resolves itself into a feeling of happiness.

Both the beating fantasies and the nice stories fulfill their functions, and each can shade into the other and influence each other. One is socially acceptable, the other isn’t, but they are not opposed. They’re more like a Mobius strip or a Necker cube.

There is a further stage of the evolution of the girl’s fantasy.

Several years after the story of the knight first emerged [i.e. around age 20], the girl put it in writing. She produced an absorbing short story which covers the period of the youth’s imprisonment. It began with the prisoner’s torture and ended with his refusal to escape. One suspects that his voluntary choice to remain at the castle is motivated by positive feelings for the knight. All events are depicted as having occurred in the past, the story being presented in the frame of a conversation between the knight and the prisoner’s father.

When the girl was asked what had induced her to write down the story, she herself could give only one reason of which she was aware. She believed that she had turned to writing at a time when the daydream of the knight was especially obtrusive — that is to say, as a defense against excessive preoccupation with it. She had sought to create a kind of independent existence for the protagonists that had become all too vivid, in her hope that they then would no longer dominate her fantasy life. The daydream of the knight was in fact finished, as far as she was concerned, after it had been written down.

But this account of her motivation still leaves many things unexplained: the very situations that owing to their over vividness are supposed to have impelled her to write down the story are not included in it, whereas others that were not part of the daydream (e.g., the actual torturing) are dwelt on extensively.

While Anna Freud sees the girl writing the fantasy down as a positive step towards mental health and reality, I wonder if the girl would have a similar dissatisfaction with enacting her fantasy with another person. “By renouncing her private pleasure in favor of making an impression on others, the author has accomplished an important developmental step: the transformation of an autistic into a social activity.”

I wonder if this is the root of sadomasochistic fantasy, the torturer who is moved to compassion, the beast killed and/or redeemed by beauty, the steelhard man who is revealed as squishy and tender on the inside.

You can see this process in other examples: people see a scene or story from antebellum American slavery or Nazi Germany or somebody’s idea of a Turkish harem, and use that as framework for pre-existing desires and fantasies. Hannah Cullwick saw a play based on Lord Byron’s The Death of Sardanapalus. Leopold von Sacher-Masoch heard childhood stories of peasant uprisings. I’m certain Arthur Munby read books on American slavery. It needn’t be based on anything real either, but drawn from fantasy or science fiction. The fantasy was there first, and absorbs whatever it happens to fit as window-dressing. I believe this process occurs on both an individual level and a social level.

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