I am currently researching the parallels between masochism and narratives of religious suffering for my English Honors thesis. This portion of my project engages with the late 14th century English mystic Julian of Norwich, whose first-person account of her prayer for illness is narrated as drawing her closer to God. I have been invited to present my findings and further questions at “Philosophy at the Margins,” the Uehiro Graduate Philosophy Conference at the University of Hawai’i.
Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novella Venus in Furs, published in 1870, is credited for introducing what is known today as “masochism”—detailing the contracted submission of the title character’s body to the will and whims of a despotic woman. Over the last century, scholars have disputed over the significance of the Biblical allusions and mystic language integrated into the novella’s masochistic relationship. While many critics have posited that the text primarily romanticizes Christian martyrdom, I propose that Masoch is equally inspired by the narratives of early Christian ascetics. These individuals were not martyred, but chose to live in prolonged states of isolated destitution as a means of attaining bodily transcendence and spiritual clarity. Additionally, a large number of these figures are thought to have been poor or ill during their most rigorous devotional periods. I engage with the mystical accounts in Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love as entry points for considering the structural and psychic parallels between asceticism and masochism. Her longing for God to impart her with bodily illness is of immense interest to this project, as this element of her surrender threatens not only her physical state of being, but her emotional and mental stability as well. I consider the grey-areas of consent which are inherent to such a request, and examine the changes in Julian’s willfulness which occur during her most painful bodily and spiritual visions. I build upon Gilles Deleuze’s observation that the laws of the masochistic contract “always tends to forget its own origins,” and posit that the act of requesting extreme mental and physical domination threatens to negate the original parameters of consent—in both the mystic/God dynamic, as well as in the two-party masochistic relationship theorized by Deleuze.
This project considers the gendered and bodily disadvantages which faced Julian of Norwich and similar ascetic figures. In drawing these historical distinctions, I consider the potential influence of poor, sick-bodied mystic narratives on our contemporary and literary notions of masochism.