Immanent Masochism



“Masochism is an enigma for Freud and for us in the more radical sense of an umbilicus for both theory and practice.  The two dimensions cannot be dissociated, and consequently masochism can no longer be isolated either as an object which theory must comprehend, or as an obstacle to be overcome.  Perhaps the most active and insoluble part of the enigma is the result of the analytical experience itself: the «negative therapeutic reaction»“. 

“Here we are once more confronted with the accursed problem of masochism!”  Ferenczi’s heartfelt cry was heard at 1931, when psychoanalysis—having reached its maturity—could contemplate at leisure that stumbling block: masochism…  And there is enough there to upset theory and lead analysts to say anything:  pleasure in displeasure, for example.  The pitfalls to practice are no less daunting, and the trap becomes unavoidable, if (psychic) suffering, instead of acting as the motor to any progress in the treatment, become its desired end.

Masochism is an enigma for Freud and for us in the more radical sense of an umbilicus for both theory and practice.  The two dimensions cannot be dissociated, and consequently masochism can no longer be isolated either as an object which theory must comprehend, or as an obstacle to be overcome.  Perhaps the most active and insoluble part of the enigma is the result of the analytical experience itself: the “negative therapeutic reaction”.  What is the desire of one who has no wish to be cured, or to change, one who is as attached to his neurosis as a dog is to its bone?  Suffering from pleasure?  What an odd yoke!

But all of masochism is not concentrated at this point, as obscure as it is enigmatic.  As a component of eroticism, masochism does not conceal mystery any more or less than the other “isms” of sexual life, such as sadism, voyeurism, etc.  One of the prominent sources of our “knowledge” on the subject is Freud’s (1919) article, “A Child is Being Beaten”.  This text, with its sub-title “the genesis of sexual perversions”, leans somewhat towards the feminine side of perversion, while his (1927) article on fetishism concerns male sexuality.  We are adequately familiar with the movement which leads to the construction of feminine fantasy—being beaten/ copulated by the father.  Let us recall the wealth of ingredients in the constructed formula: the genital reinterpretation of anal eroticism, which makes nates, as Freud so aptly put it in Latin, the exquisite point of the application of masochism to the body; the sexualization of guilt and of morality which transforms the punishment into the most delightful sort of gratification; and, against the backdrop of the original scene, the genesis of femininity in the women’s identification with the father, whether the agent of the fantasy be male or female.

This wealth cannot be found at all in the restricted description of what Freud calls “feminine masochism” in his (1924) article on masochism.  Bound, gagged, whipped and so on, the eruption of fantasy and instruments is associated with men only and to the idea of castration.  How can this gap between one text and another be interpreted?   Is it a limited approach or should we credit Freud with a minimum of coherence and suppose that he is simply referring to something else?  Between 1919 and 1924, the primacy of the phallus assumed a new position in theory.  In fact, the description of 1924 of “feminine masochism” evokes instead the masochistic components of a problem which is first of all fetishist, and in this sense in fact masculine.  The words of 1919 which conjugate in particular femininity and passivity (“enter into a passive, feminine relationship with the father”) will only be found again in 1924, particularly in the theoretical development of moral masochism, that brother of negative reaction to the therapy.  The sexualizing of morality is also its feminization.

In the context of the sexual life of adult men and women, our representation of masochist eroticism has been modified since Freud’s time.  It would be impossible today to cling to the image of the “little spanking” when we know that the perverse scenario can push physical violence to the point of the unbearable—except for the one being submitted to it.  In this sense, Michel de M’Uzan’s article (1972), “A Case of Perverse Masochism”, constitutes a milestone.  Because of their excessiveness, violence and pain render masochism once more obscure, in so far as Eros here appears not to be the only god worshipped by these “slaves of quantity”.  In an astonishing article, Robert Stoller (1991, p. 239-40) gives a voice to certain members of the S&M community in Los Angeles.  But let us leave this “master/slave” scenario, where humiliation, more than pain, is the desired effect.  Putting aside the more horrible scenarios, one reads confessions such as: “I read about a woman who nailed the tip of a man’s penis to a board.  I said to myself: ‘No problem.’  I did the same thing at home, but I made a mistake.  I banged the nail once and it went in.  But, as I wanted to feel that it was really driven well into the wood, I banged it again.  I missed the nail and struck the tip of the penis with all my strength.  Swelling, it turned into a big black knot and I really got scared.  I pulled the nail out of the board, but it was still stuck in my penis, and I knew then that it would bleed a lot, so I got into the bathtub and took out the nail.  There was blood everywhere.”  The story goes on, but let’s stop here.  Should we exclaim that this is sheer madness?  No, because  Eros intervenes here.  All of Stoller’s interviewees, although “mad for pain”, say:  no one loves pain as such, not even them.  What they love—or rather what they need—is that particular pain, that exquisite pain which puts into action a script of which they are the authors.  The fantasy is at the origin of the experience, and the orgasm most often happens afterwards, not during the torture scene, but when recalling it.  The presence of the fantasy marks the infantilism of these sexually perverse modalities.  What then could be the source of such a violent scenario?

There is probably no clear answer to that question.  Stoller notes nevertheless one recurring circumstance in the childhoods of the four serious masochists he met, those most oriented towards bodily pain: “During childhood, they were all afflicted with serious illnesses which caused great suffering, impossible to relieve at the onset and necessitating terrifying medical intervention.  These individuals were consequently obliged to remain confined for long periods without any possibility of expressing openly and appropriately their frustration, despair, and anger.”  One woman suffered from a vertebral disorder so serious that the pain involved prevented her from sitting down for days; going to school was for her pure torture.  One man, suffering in childhood from a cystic fibrosis, was submitted to an unending series of medical penetrations (injections, incisions, bloodletting) which involved long weeks of hospitalization.

One might say that the passage from medical obstinacy to masochistic barbarity is at once the simplest of short cuts and the most complex of detours.  It is a big jump to interpret medical violence, to which the child was the object, as a terrifying scene of seduction.  Eros needs a good dose of genius to derive from so much pain and hatred some margin of libidinal co-excitation that the senses might displace and invest, and that the fantasy might re-write in its own way.  Nevertheless, from the childhood scene to the perverse script requires but a slight sidestep.  This minimalist elaboration evokes the rudimentary forms of repetition in psychosis, but since these individuals are not psychotic (their lives show no trace of it), we must look elsewhere.  It is as though in them perversion had triumphed over the risk of traumatic neurosis, as though it eroticized, even cured, this neurosis.  The perversion repeats the “actual” bodily attack, it conserves the tight and monotonous rhythm of the traumatic neurosis, yet the fact that the pain is staged and sexualized marks the distance the subject has taken.

The originality of Stoller’s article lies primarily in his descriptions of extreme practices and his reportage—rather than in his arguments, which remain very faithful to the model of traumatic elaboration taken up by Freud after 1920 (and later by Ferenczi).  In Freud’s famous pages on the “wooden reel game”, one finds moreover a short remark which could be an “innocent” prelude to Stoller’s article: “If the doctor looks down a child’s throat or carries out some small operation on him, we may be quite sure that these frightening experiences will be the subject of the next game; but we must not in that connection overlook the fact that there is a yield of pleasure

from another source” (Freud 1920, p. 17).


Freud’s conclusions drawn from observing his grandson’s variation of the play fortsein, “go away”, are well known.  To the question: “How can the pleasure principle concord with the fact that the child repeats as a game (tossing the bobbin and pulling it back by its thread) a painful experience (the mother has gone)?”  Freud’s response goes in two distinct directions.  One leads, via the repetition compulsion, beyond the pleasure principle, outside the sexual field.  The other, which we will examine here, does not abandon the reference to sexuality and goes in search of  the “pleasure gain”.  An extremely complex pleasure, originating from distinct sources: the pleasure of delightful rediscoveries (da!) of the maternal bobbin or reel, the sadistic pleasure which throws away (or spits, hates, and “objects” at the same time that it destroys), and then the masochist pleasure, less evident because it is the opposite of good sense, which assumes the sad and painful form of a repeated departure.

A short comment on that probably never absent (even in the “Los Angeles example” cited above) combination of sadistic and masochistic effects: fixing the eyes on the penis into which the nail is hammered results in forgetting the hand hammering the nail.

The abreaction of the trauma and the transformation of passivity into activity are the very processes of psychic elaboration of psychosexuality, which Freud emphasizes in the game of fort-da.  Complicating things even further, Freud refers to the mastering drive (the child master of the reel), an equivocal notion as it confusedly mixes the vital with the sexual.  We are interested in that mastering drive because the question of power is central to the masochist problem.  That power, always paradoxical, takes forms as varied as masochism itself: from the torture to which the perverse subject submits the agent of his suffering, to that of the mother with her children, for whom she never ceases to “sacrifice herself”.  We should differentiate the kinds of  power, up to the point of mastering, that masochism can exert on the analytical process, since the obstacle varies in weight as well as perhaps in nature.  However, before coming to that point, and in order to identify at its source the conjugation of masochism and power, one should not move too hastily away from the child with the reel.

With his game, the child expresses, with few gestures and words, the tragic nature of the human experience, which Freud initially formulated  in 1905: “Finding the object is never other than finding it once more “.  The encounter with the object (of love) masks and erases what truly constitutes the object in itself: its loss.  The object is lost, not by misfortune or chance, but by its essence.

From here on, one can simply identify two different, important “solutions”.  One solution could modestly merge with the human opus, i.e. the work of symbolization.  Symbolization not only places on center stage the tragic aspect of Racine (“Of an useless love a too constant victim…”, the love of the object is a lost love) or a Proustian search for lost time, but more radically it “invents” language itself, entirely stretched between the two poles of fort-da, of the gone-found again: not only is the word not the thing but it signs the thing’s absence.  A mother lost, ten reels found, so goes life when it doesn’t go too badly, even if one is resigned to think that symbolic (or substitutive) overabundance is more the sign of repeated failures in the quest than success.

And then, there is another “solution”, at once more artful and more terrible– even more inspired–than that of symbolic reparation in any case, which makes the loss fall into its own trap.  This solution belongs basically to that same spirit of the extreme which inspires the child tortured by medicine to turn pain into its contrary.   Love is held by a thread, something at the very heart of the drive opposes its full satisfaction, the experience of the loss constitutes the object…and so be it!  We cure evil with evil, poke a painful tooth with the tip of our tongue, derive pleasure from the loss if that is what love means [cultivons à plaisir la perte si c’est ce qu’amour veut dire].  In this primary, immanent or radical form, masochism is wed to the generic form of melancholy.  Sexuality takes it revenge and invests, at the very heart of that which gives it birth, its own limit.  The impossibility of satisfaction, the deferred fulfillment of desire, in short, disappointed love, cease to contravene the desired aim to become the aim itself.  The preliminary (dis)pleasure has become definitive pleasure, and masochism a “damn problem” for the analysis.

The relationship between masochism and the analytical cure is as intimate as it is equivocal.  The patient lying on the couch maintains from the beginning of the session an unusual and protracted silence.  Finally, he concedes a few words, saying: “I have nothing to say today, the only things I have in my head give me pleasure”.  It is true, the only true analysis is moved by psychic suffering, even when the latter is more latent than actual.  What other than suffering can we rely on here, when we have to unearth the unacceptable within us and displace the dams we have built against it?  Certainly not only on the desire to understand.

Talking many times every week, even for years, about unpleasant, painful, and irreconcilable things; submitting oneself not just to the analyst as a person (a similar variant of transference already presupposes that masochistic, erotic fantasies would take over) but to a process whose end one cannot see, and to a speech whose meaning is unknown…. could lending oneself to such an undertaking even be possible without a minimal masochistic contribution?  What matters here is not so much the particularities of masochism in each and everyone of us, but rather the immanent general masochism–brother of guilt–which constitutes our interior world and our psychic life.   Masochism, as the guardian of the secret (as Karl Abraham called it), contributes to giving a form to one’s interiority, to one’s returning to oneself, marking out that territory which will eventually become the analytical one.  Before becoming one of analysis’ roughest adversaries, masochism is its indispensable auxiliary.

But things need to go wrong.  And when they really do go wrong, when the bond with infantile sexuality and its fantasies loosens to the point of dissolving, one will speak–as did Freud–of “negative reaction to the therapy”.  However, masochism can complicate the analysis’ progress without necessarily leading to this dead-end.  In Freud, an exemplary figure of this is provided by The Rat Man–in which the word “masochism” is as absent as the thing is present.

“Paul”, as Freud calls him, recounts.  “Recounts” perhaps is going too, he drops a few hints; the jar, the rat, the buttocks of the condemned man… To learn more about this torture, it would be better to read Octave Mirbeau’s original story: take a naked man tightly bound, and a rat (all the more ferocious since it is starving).  Put the opening of the jar against the man’s anus, and make a small hole in the jar, just large enough to allow a piece of red-hot iron to enter in order to excite the rat.  What would be the only exit for the maddened rodent?  “The anus”– Freud, the analyst, pronounces that word which “Paul” holds back!  Because the patient—a terribly fit term here–cannot say it, or is it because, much more secretly for the two men, naming the thing is the same as doing it?  If one were to attempt to make the layman understand what transference means, one should refer to this “historic” scene.  Paul, after the (narration of the) torture had barely begun, can stand it no longer; he rises from the sofa and paces the room.  The torture–a real event upsetting the ritual positions of both, and not just of the analysand–has taken place.  It is not “as if”, no distance separates the spoken word from the done thing.  “Describing the details” is to enact them; the unconscious is there, actively–momento de la verdad, as one says at the corrida, before the working through seizes, shifts and re-presents it.

This episode with The Rat Man is exemplary of how the masochist fantasy can settle into the analytic scene as if it were at home.  One is reclining, condemned to speak.  The other is there, behind, leaning over, silent and demanding.  Assailed by the horror of an enjoyment [jouissance] unknown to himself, The Rat Man can no longer bear it, he stands up and begs his tormenter to put an end to the torture: “Don’t force me to tell everything.”  Stop manipulating the red-hot wire of the basic analytic rule!  No cruelty on my part, Freud defends himself, I am not the captain.  But as for “telling everything”, that’s the rule, I can do nothing.

There could be other less spectacular ways to illustrate, starting from this treatment, the complicity of the analytical and masochistic constraints.  The injunction to “tell everything” is correlative of a theory of repression.  It suffices that the patient, submitted to this analytic demand, holds the guilty thought, just as a child holds its bowels, to enjoy in passing an unseen and unknown masochistic pleasure.  When Freud presented his fee, Paul instantly translated the sum into the language of the fantasy: “So many florins, so many rats.”  He would turn this self-torturing thought over and over in his head, until finally letting it go…  six months later.

Guilt is usually considered the agent which transforms sadism, by turning it back onto the subject himself, into masochism.  But this idea misses a more radical aspect which makes of masochism the inventor of the sense of guilt, in the secrecy of its greatest pleasure.  It is incredible how a rereading of the great monotheisms, notably Christianity, could open a similar inversion of perspective.  One barely dares say it—constrained as we are by a remaining fear of blasphemy—but Jesus nailed to his cross, as the Angelino to his board, is a figure whose millennial success cannot be considered extraneous to that, at once intimate and unknown, communion of pain and pleasure; and of which the mater dolorosa proposes a complicit symbolization.

Let’s return to analysis, to the Rat Man or his brothers.  One can understand why any psychoanalyst, following here Freud’s example (with the Wolf Man, on that occasion), might be tempted to establish a deadline for these “obsessional” treatments.  A limit to the torture, that is, to the satisfaction (at least for the patient).  But this limit is also the avowal of a failure to interpret, to unbind that which has surreptitiously slipped into the mould.

There is no element of the analytical setting, aimed at favoring the dynamics of the treatment, which cannot be turned to profit by the adversary–and not only the masochist one.  Evoking the rule, one could say the same thing of the analyst’s position of “refusal”.  The March 9, 1910 Minutes (Freud et al. 1962) contain an absolutely unintentional moment of humor.  Freud sustains that (the newly discovered) counter-transference must be completely overcome, as that alone guarantees mastery of the psychoanalytical situation.  He adds that a similar mastery makes of the analyst a “perfectly cold object which the other person must court lovingly”–a scenario which Sacher Masoch himself would have unhesitatingly countersigned.

Anyway, the greatest difficulty associated today with the idea of masochism is not found in some particularly twisted capacity of the Rat Man and his counterparts to turn the analytical situation to the profit of the realization of their fantasy, quite simply because such patients, while they render the analytic process delicate, in any case maintain the stakes in the field of infantile sexuality, a field which is controlled by psychoanalytic competence.  However, when the ties of what we recognize as sexual come loose—to use Freud’s words in his article of 1924–then the difficulty becomes overwhelming to the point of seeming insurmountable.  The expression “negative reaction to the therapy” is for psychoanalysts a nightmare from which one would like to awaken, but from which one is never able to extirpate oneself.  An expression of regret also for having accepted into analysis a patient who, as it should have been clear from the preliminary sessions, would have embarked you on an interminable voyage.  And perhaps it is a polite expression to avoid using the word hatred, “the hatred in the counter-transference”, as Winnicott would later with lucidity label it.

“Negative reaction to the therapy” and “moral masochism”.  The latter attempts to capture a way of being (façon d’être)–or rather of non-wellbeing (de mal-être): specialists in unhappiness and in the loss of love in some way, always ready to offer their cheek to a threatened slap, ready to abandon their chronic psychic suffering only for something more intense—a serious somatic illness, for example.

The negative reaction to the therapy is an expression internal to the analytical experience.  This idea became commonplace after 1920, but it had already begun to make inroads much earlier.  With Stekel, for example.  Writing to Wittels, Freud confessed to having committed two errors in his life: one, of having boasted of the benefits of cocaine, and the other, of  having initiated Stekel to psychoanalysis!  Yet, Stekel, in 1910, remarked: “Neurosis on the whole is nothing other than an expression of masochism.  The neurotic punishes himself for his guilt by means of neurosis; it should not be surprising then that he is attached to his illness.”  All the concepts for the idea of negative reaction to the therapy are here: the need of the illness, the threat of being healed and the illogic process which follows: the patients who become worse and worse, and the going-against-the-grain process of the treatment.  This cure of the soul turns like a knife in a wound, hoping to become infinite, interminable.  One tends too often to forget this interminable aspect as the sign of masochism’s triumph over analysis (of the transference), that is, over untying the psychic conflict through interpretation.

The two expressions “moral masochism” and “negative reaction to the therapy” certainly belong to different orders–the one defining a psychic disposition and the other referring to a practical failure—but they are nevertheless almost synonymous.  This confusion is an index, not that the only “moral masochists” are those lying on a sofa, but that the posed enigma is inseparable from an historic moment of psychoanalysis: when analysis begins to doubt both its theoretic basis (is sexuality really the last word?) and its practical capacity to heal, to change a life.  Freud was certainly right on deck to confront these new difficulties; however, at that time his clinical activity had become practically exclusively didactic.  Rather, it would be with those close to him (starting with Ferenczi) and his successors that the question would arise regarding the (new) indications, the evolution of the technical paradigm, the role to confer to counter-transference, to narcissism, etc.

Confronted with this true obstacle, the range of solutions—or one might say of difficulties–is too vast to go into here, so they will simply be introduced here.

No matter how many times the analyst explains what is at stake, wrote Freud, “the patients do not readily believe us.”  You complain that no one loves you, that nothing goes right in your lives, that all your projects fall short, that your daily existence becomes progressively more unbearable and that analysis serves nothing, if not to worsen the situation…  And somewhere behind all this lies your implacable need to be punished, your torturing and unconscious sense of guilt, and therefore a (unknown) crime, because nobody can “feel” guilty (albeit it unknowingly) without good reason.  Your illness is moral and your moral is sexual, that is to say fantasy ridden and infantile!  Only by detecting sexuality there, even if everything nevertheless seems to deny its presence, can the psychoanalyst remain faithful to himself and his program.  With the hope, of course, that it is not simply one more version of the too familiar story of the man who searches for his keys under a lamppost, not because he thinks he has lost them there, but because at least there he can see.

Freud does not limit himself to saying “sexual”; he configures the masochistic scene, finding behind the grief over a disaster the infantile delights of a chastised passivity (Chabert 1999).  In so doing, he finds once more the feminine patient (whatever the sex) of “A child is beaten,” and drafts the conception of a masochist, primitive femininity, irreducible to phallic logic.  Passivity, femininity, masochism almost appear as the preferred representations of a more general repressed scene, the primal scene.

Translating his hypothesis into the dialect of the second topography (Ego-SuperEgo-Id), Freud evokes a sadistic Superego, a Superego very close to the power of the Id in this circumstance, very avid of punitive satisfaction.  Up to this point, we are on familiar terrain.  Despite unraveling the tie to the object, one discovers the trace of this tie on the internal scene at the moment when the suffering once again finds its erotic colors.  However, is this really the last word?  Are the “enigmatic masochistic tendencies of the ego” dissipated by such a scenario?  The moment it is resolved, the enigma rises again from its own ashes.   Reading the final pages of Freud’s 1924 article, one has the feeling that he has some sort of reserve towards resolving those very difficulties he himself emphasizes.  Not that he decides purely and simply to remain in a position of not knowing, but he opens onto a perspective here that goes beyond the capacity of sexuality to translate.  What is evoked is the “hard” version of the death drive, not what Civilization and Its Discontent later defined as the “residue of Eros”, but that of Beyond the Pleasure Principle: i.e., the decomposition of the cellular being and the return to inorganic stability.  In this perspective, masochism is nothing but a more or less desperate attempt to preserve a part of libidinal co-excitation (minus fantasy? in an almost autistic manner?) from inexorable destructiveness.

Rereading these pages today, after the many post-Freudian developments on the subject, one notes that what is missing is a word—narcissism—which the “enigmatic masochistic tendencies of the ego” necessarily call up.   A paradox of Freudian theory is that he introduced with narcissism an element (via the homosexuality of Leonardo da Vinci and the psychosis of Schreber) which would completely upset the structure and the topography of his theory, but without ever finding its place.

Working against his own interests, destroying his own perspectives and indeed his own existence…  Freud’s words describing the extremes of masochism can be understood by today’s psychoanalysts only by conjuring up an echo of narcissism–a wounded, pathological narcissism.  When the words and suffering of guilt prevail, the unconscious “statement” can be formulated approximately as: I suffer endlessly, therefore I expiate (and thus enjoy).  There where the narcissistic constraint prevails, we might paraphrase the words of Fritz Zorn, the author of Mars: wherever it hurts, it is me; I suffer therefore I exist!  The narcissistic exigencies of power–which we find once more here—exert themselves ever more assuredly, in giving suffering rather than giving pleasure to oneself.  In fact, losing the object is easier than finding it again.  Philippe Jeammet (2000) presents striking clinical variations of this terrible problem, when only suffering is the proof of one’s existence.  Suffering… or death: as Ferenczi wrote, “compared to waiting for a death not chosen, suicide is a relative pleasure”.

Masochism and narcissism conjugate more willingly their effects because they derive, as it were, from the same cinematic: the turning back onto oneself, the movement toward oneself or the self-movement or reflected movement.  The closure of the loop (and, in analysis, inaccessibility) threatens both masochism and narcissism.  Is the enigma of masochism the enigma of narcissism?  Does this psychic immobility called “negative reaction to the therapy” become confused with the withdrawal of all investments in the ego?  Introducing this question dispenses us, luckily, from having to go beyond this question.


Translated from the French by Claudia Vaughn




André, J. :

- (1995) Aux origines féminines de la sexualité (Paris: PUF) .

- (2000) ed., L’énigme du masochisme (Paris: PUF).


Chabert, C. (1999) “Les voies intérieures”, Revue Française de Psychanalyse, LXIII, 5.


de M’Uzan, M. :

- (1972) « Un cas de masochisme pervers », La sexualité perverse (Paris: Payot); reprinted in de M’Uzan (1977).

- (1977) De l’art  à la mort (Paris: Gallimard).



Freud, S:

- (1919) “A child is being beaten”, SE, 17, pp. 179-204.


- (1920) “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”, SE, 18, pp. 7-60.


- (1924) “The Economic Problem of Masochism”, SE, 19, pp. 159-170.


- (1927) “Fetishism”, SE, 21, pp. 152-156.


Freud, S. et al. (1962) Minutes of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, Vols. I-IV; ed. by Herman Nunberg and Ernst Federn (New York, N.Y.: International University Press).


Jammet, P. (2000) « L’énigme du masochisme », in André (2000), pp. 31-68.


Stoller, R. (1991) « XSM », Nouvelle Revue de Psychanalyse, 43.


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