We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Women's Art: sadistic masochism as effective exposure · 28 July 05

My dear Fanny,

I thought I’d record two more books I’ve read straight through.

I just finished Sophie Cottin’s Malvina (French, Paris, 1801). This is the first long text I’ve ever read on line. It’s strangely moving. it’s built on the masochistic aesthetic where the central victim character exposes the cruelties of society. I have to say strangely since to retell it would provoke laughter so much of the surface is absurd or would seem hopelessly creaky and over-done sentiment unless you were involved in the text. It has many threads which recall Austen’s fiction and types who look forward to George Sand’s. So here is an author which connects these two supposedly unlike authors. The despairing scenes are highly theatrical and continually move into the gothic. Much sublime scenery too.

I also finished The Consolation of Nature (American, 1988) by Valerie Martin. This slender book of short stories has been admired for their brilliance and originality. One is a story of a mermaid who is for once not the masochistic melancholy lonely sufferer but murderous antagonist—all the while is presented as the solitary, & also sheerly as a fish, tough, alienated, strange, nature "red" in tail and teeth. A biologically true-to-life Melusina. It’s called "Sea Lovers."

Hitherto all the stories of victims and sexual masochists by Martin I’ve read have not shown the heroine type to be herself sadistic.
Yes Mary Reilly (1990) is identified with and lives through Jekyll; but she very deliberately refuses to be active in life as activity she says is always aggressive, competitive, cruel. I know the inadequate (silly & resentful—see below) term "passive aggressive" that could be used for Martin’s characters, or "gothic heroine type," but the nonactive aggression of a victim is a joke, easily swept aside by anyone with the power to and determination.

What’s striking about The Consolation of Nature is Martin invents fables (like the one about the mermaid) where the masochistic not only invites punishment and turns the sadist into a sadist, but herself is sadistic, and Martin presents the stories in a way to show the two are one. Remarkable. This builds on her A Recent Martyr (1987). In one of the stories in The Consolation the woman whose husband has left her for a younger woman exposes him by herself presenting herself to the world as victim; it’s certainly realistic as it has all the petty meanness of people’s behavior. This woman gets back at a dog he inflicted on her and a cat for many years. How pathetic is our little reach :). You can’t get back without risking too much.

This reminds me of the explanation for how emotion pictures critique society & expose human nature. In my Adv Comp in the Natural Sciences we watched Wit (for me the umpteenth time) and once again saw how Vivian as victim, as masochistic, lays bare the power structure that exploits her. That she used as barrier and for power kicks herself. She is killed through her own helpless (it seems) and unacknowledged terrified complicity.

In art nowadays the masochistic character is sneered at and the masochistic aesthetic an embarrassment. The reader who enjoys, feels validated by the sympathy, identification, sheer recognition an author offered them through these characters is made ashamed. Silenced. Led to criticize and mock the Fanny Price, Malvinas. The word "masochist" is an embarrassment. Such characters are passive aggressives, which is a way of calling them cowardly hypocrites. Some of this lies at the heart of the dislike Austen’s Fanny Price is sometimes treated with. In Wit Margaret Edson makes her victim into someone who was a victimizer and who is herself witty and makes fun of herself at moments. In The Consolation of Nature Martin exploits Freud’s insight into melancholia as mourning: Freud argued the person who is depressed is violent and angry, and unable to hit back, turns the violence they would use against themselves against themselves. Hurts themselves. In The Consolation of Nature, Martin goes further: she gives the victims in life the enjoyment of seeing the masochistic type for once turn on the ruthless and powerful.

Fictions with victims at their center are nowadays also denigrated by the power-seekers as "teaching" self-destructive role models. Using society’s hypocrisies, it’s demanded we get an exemplary character who seeks power. Eve Sedgwick mocks the lessons we are told we are to learn and the heroine learns in Austen’s novels (vide "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl"). But she does not hit out at what in critics of the masochistic fiction we are asked to accept or admire as ethical and acceptably social and pro-self behavior.

I gave a paper at an 18th century conference where I defended Anne Finch’s and Mary Wortley Montagu’s "morbid angry" muse: "’I hate such parts as we have plaid today’." I don’t expect it to be published any time soon. I mean next to defend the masochistic aesthetic.

The relationship of this kind of character to people in real life is important here. We can do see it through looking at how readers respond to such fictions. Readers in themselves ambitious and power-hungry, or those who admire this and want to be so resent the masochistic aesthetic and victim-sensitive type characters. Exploitative successful characters in fiction represent (among other things) these sorts of power-seeking people. Such readers don’t mind sufferers at all if in life the sufferer hides what our culture defines as depression, but do very much mind fictions where the representative of suffering, the underdog is used to expose their inhumanity. The victim as melancholy-satiric site in a fiction outs them. Sometimes there’s mockery in the fiction of the victim type and that pleases them. I’m thinking of how Willoughby makes fun of Brandon. No one wants Brandon around. He’s no fun.

I think (not sure) I’ve just seen an instance on a cyberspace list where the kind of person the hard challenging (sadistic) or ruthless and wordly successful character represents expressed her irritation with real melancholics. In life seeking after power & all it brings in our society is usually accompanied by an incessant hypocrisy which admires it while denying the inflictions on others power actually seeks are inflictions. This had not been happening; quite the opposite. So this person wrote of depression in a stigmatizing way. How much trouble you are to others, expensive too (for drugs), absurd. This maneuver was conscious, but I’m not sure what were the person’s motives, partly because the person seems to have been using a pseudonym (& sought unaccountability in other ways, masked herself) and when challenged, threw out an insult at me (like all depressives you are a self-indulgent wallower) and quickly got off said list.

It may seem a trivial happening and is I suppose. The problem with a fiction like Malvina is it doesn’t distinguish the trivial from the crucial sufficiently. But I think Cottin, Martin, Edson and others present through their kind of art a serious moral question, one which takes us to the heart of what’s wrong with all societies: how devise an effective strategy in life to combat the kinds of humiliation which silences those who are hurt. We must struggle to live our lives freely and with fulfillment of what we are. This means exposing those who support the ruthless. This means in life offering recognition and support to those hurt by the ruthless. Saying what a terrible ordeal societies turn human existence into. Praising the masochistic aesthetic in art is one tiny step in this direction.

You, Fanny, knew about how dangerous and difficult it is to expose the powerful. You were careful to present yourself as complicit and obedient and ever so respectful of all conventions. In the early parts of your journals (Streatham) you also joined in the laughter at victims, you helped set them up. At court you became a victim yourself and almost died. Your prudery, silence, and obedience to convention is there exposed as no defense at all.


Posted by: Ellen

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