The author challenges some of the traditional views regarding perverse masochism, drawing on a case of a male subject who had carried out perverse practices for much of his life only to eventually abandon them. While some conventional conceptions note common elements to perverse masochism, such as castration anxiety and rich fantasy, the author shows that it’s instead characterized by limited oneiric activity, the absence of anxiety, and suggests that the masochist not only does not fear castration, but even desires it. In contrast to Freud, for whom masochism would be the trace of the combination between Eros and the death drive, the author does not refer to the latter, speaking rather in terms of the constancy principle and constitutional elements. The author argues that perverse masochism could be considered as one tool (among others) for dealing with the excess quantity of drives that a subject is unable to manage through mental mechanisms.
I will discuss here only perverse masochism, distinguishing between the different forms of masochism; notably, feminine masochism (not masochism of women!) and moral masochism.
At one time I wrote on perverse masochism (de M’Uzan, 1972): by chance I came across an exceptional case whose essential “clinical” aspects I’ll describe. This case led me to reconsider the question of perverse masochism and to interpret the subject in a manner completely different from the traditional view. This new interpretation turned out to have important theoretical consequences regarding the way the relationship between perverse masochism and psychosomatics is conceived. Finally, the study of this form of masochism makes it possible to imagine a kind of unification of the different paths open to the psychic apparatus for handling its relation to its own universe of drives. Freud himself thought that perverse masochism was at the basis of the two other types of masochism (feminine and moral).
This case occurred a few decades ago. A man was referred to me by a doctor he had seen following a haemoptysis that, although there were no further implications, required careful examination since he had previously had tuberculosis. My colleague had conducted a complete physical examination of the patient. She must have “fallen off her chair” since what she found exceeded all imagination. She referred him to me during my hospital rounds, thinking that I’d be interested in this case. She thought that the patient himself would be interested in such a meeting; although his perverse practices were by then a thing of the past, he remained puzzled by his strange condition. The patient, a very intelligent man, a once highly skilled worker specialized in electronics, but by then retired, readily agreed to meet with me, hoping to better understand the perverse masochism that had dominated his life for such a long time. Although he had read widely on the topic, he had never found anything that was convincing.
The subject, whom we’ll call M., M. the Maso, as he referred to himself, was able to obtain, while he was still active, exceptional working conditions as a result of his high qualifications, which showed that in life (outside of the perverse sphere) he didn’t manifest any moral masochism. But what a contrast when one saw his body. The reading of the list alone that the doctor who referred him to me had written, raises questions about all the traditional conceptions of erotogenic masochism.
To start, the list notes the tattoos covering practically his entire body, except for his face. A posterior tattoo reading, “Awaiting handsome cocks”; laterally, another with an arrow, “Entry for beautiful dicks”. On the front side, in addition to penises tattooed on his thighs, an impressive list: “I’m a bitch”; “I’m an asshole”; “Long live masochism”; “I’m neither a man nor a woman, but a bitch, a whore, a piece of flesh for pleasure”; “I’m a living shit hole”; “Piss and shit in my mouth, I’ll swallow it all with pleasure”; “I like to be hit all over my body, hit me hard”; “I’m a bitch, fuck me in the ass”; “I’m a whore, use me like a woman, you’ll come hard”; “I’m the king of assholes, my mouth and ass are open for handsome dicks”.
The scars and traces of abuse are no less astonishing. The right breast had literally disappeared: it was burned with a red-hot iron, pierced with needles and ripped off. The navel was transformed into a kind of crater, molten lead was placed inside and, because of spattering from sweat, kept scalding with a red-hot rod. Strips were cut into his back for attaching hooks from which Mr. M. could be suspended while another man penetrated him. The small toe of the right foot was missing; it was apparently amputated by the subject himself with a metal saw, under his partner’s orders. The surface of the bone was irregular, and apparently leveled with a grater. He had been punctured with needles everywhere, even in the thorax. The rectum had been enlarged “to make it seem like a vagina”. Photographs had been taken during this operation. No suppuration occurred after these abuses, even when foreign objects—needles, screws, pieces of glass, etc.—were inserted into his body. Likewise, years of ingesting urine and excrement on a daily basis had no ill effects. Upon the internist’s request, M. had shown her different instruments of torture: planks studded with hundreds of spikes; a small wheel embedded with record needles and mounted on a handle, used to hit him. Nor, in the end, were the genitals spared.
Several record needles had been inserted inside the testicles themselves, as shown by x-rays. The penis was entirely blue, the result, perhaps, of having injected India ink into a vessel. The tip of the penis had been slit with a razorblade in order to make the opening larger. A steel ring, several centimeters in diameter, had been permanently attached to the end of the penis, after having created a sort of paraffin wax-filled pouch from the foreskin. A magnetic needle had been embedded into the head of the penis. This was, if I dare say so, a form of black humor, since the penis, in manifesting its power, was able to deflect a compass needle. A second, detachable ring was fit tightly around the top of the scrotum and the base of the penis.
Everything I have just detailed was verifiable. The signs of abuse unambiguously supported the truth of the subject’s claims. This being the case—a defensive attitude on my part?—I couldn’t avoid doubting the veracity of certain instances of aggression and what he said regarding his wife: a cousin, whom he later discovered was also a masochist. Although she died at a young age from pulmonary tuberculosis, most likely weakened from unimaginable masochistic practices, she took part in various encounters involving the participation of a third person who played the role of the sadist.
This is how I came to meet this friendly, very intelligent man, who spoke to me unreservedly and without provocation, though with an attitude of superiority that let me understand that he probably regarded me with disdain. One can’t remain indifferent in the face of such “material”, even if its nature is so extraordinary that it leaves you not wanting to have anything to do with it. We only had two long meetings: he didn’t count on having any more and neither did I. He made no request for therapy, especially since the perverse practices had completely disappeared; he was 65 years old, the needs of libido had become much less pressing, the demand of “quantity” had become less imperious.
An initial remark: the conventional view regarding the preservation of genital organs is shown to be completely false, as was just seen.
We are thus a long way from all that has been written on the topic of perverse masochism. It’s worth recalling, however, one of Freud’s essays, “The economic problem of masochism” (Freud 1924), written several years after Beyond the Pleasure Principle, after the introduction of the notion of the death drive. I want to draw attention to the distinction between perverse masochism, feminine masochism and moral masochism. Freud, in making perverse masochism the foundation of the other two, implicitly refers to the role of biological factors. Torture, i.e. physical suffering, is a means, a way of reaching jouissance or, more precisely, orgasmic explosion, which is even stronger when torture reaches its apex. It’s a peculiarity of the case that the subject enjoyed moments of, let’s say, “normal” sexuality, especially at the beginning of his marriage.
The second type of masochism, so-called feminine masochism, which is in no way women’s masochism since one finds it in men as well, is defined as the need to draw on fantasies similar to certain practices of M. the Maso in order to reach jouissance. For example, rape fantasies called up by subjects—men or women—who would never accept such practices in real life.
As for moral masochism, it’s expressed in how a person carries out their life: the constant search for failure; moral suffering; a painful relationship to a particularly severe superego; the extensive development of more or less paralyzing feelings of guilt, etc. Moral masochism constitutes the end of an evolution, of a masochistic trajectory that’s either partially or fully completed. Moral masochism constitutes the end of this trajectory, in which the work of mentalization is richest and most accomplished.
Freud took care to highlight what he called the phenomenon of libidinal co-excitation, according to which everything that happens to the body, the experience of pain, for example, brings with it an additional element of libidinal excitation.
Another point in Freud’s thesis concerns the role of the death drive in masochism. Returning to the notion of libidinal co-excitation, Freud thought that it did not sufficiently clarify the “mystery” of perverse masochism. This would explain, according to Freud, the need to maintain a role for the death drive, sometimes called the destructive drive: a drive that remains encapsulated within the body and that’s supposed to be used by the sexual function in forming erotogenic primary masochism. Masochism, in this case perverse, would be the trace of this combination between Eros and the death drive. Secondary masochism, on the other hand, would probably come about by the introjection of sadism.
Although I agree with a number of points of the Freudian thesis, I do not here refer to the death drive. I prefer instead to refer to principles of functioning: the inertia principle and constancy principle. The inertia principle intervenes in the total discharge of excitation, while the constancy principle maintains excitation at its lowest, though constant, level. I agree with Freud, however, regarding the role of the “constitutional”. As analysts, we’re hardly amenable to having to grapple with material belonging to a domain other than meaning. This is something that needs to be overcome, since throughout his work Freud refers to the constitutional. This argument has considerable consequences regarding the case of M. the Maso: his wife was his cousin, whom he had met rather late in life and who, for her part, had performed masochistic acts since childhood, when she would stick pins under her fingernails. What’s more, M. discovered, from reading one of his father’s letters after his death, that his father had also taken part in perverse practices. M. the Maso was himself convinced that the constitutional elements had a decisive role.
I want now to comment on the place of the quantitative factor, that is to say, the drive’s force, the quantity, to use the time-honored term. When the quantity (the drive’s excess) surpasses a certain level, it can no longer be managed by mentalization (neurotic, among others) and, subject to the inertia principle, seeks discharge through various forms, perverse ones in particular, or even by way of somatic symptoms. There is in fact a connection between masochistic perversion and serious somatic pathologies, which amounts to bringing forward the position of the economic point of view in Freudian metapsychology—a position so often ignored.
The need for unlimited jouissance, with which M. was confronted, was to be understood as the expression of a certain inevitability itself: that of having to subject oneself to a totalizing demand of discharge. I don’t disagree with Theodor Reik’s thesis according to which, in these cases, the superego is deceived, but take exception with his view that in such a context the superego is literally “on the sidelines”.
The fourth term of my thesis concerns castration. The reference to castration is by now classic. In fact, in the case of perverse masochism, castration no longer has any currency, or ought to be considered apart from anxiety. This has led me to propose the following: the masochist doesn’t fear anything, not even castration; he desires everything, including castration. This is so even to the point of wanting to make the mutilation a reality, that is, to amputate the penis: an idea M. had abandoned as much for the medical-legal risks as for potential hemorrhaging that would have been too difficult to stem.
Erotogenic primary masochism, in addition to being an archaic premature physiological mechanism, also has a function. Since it occurs as if pain intervened directly upon the emergence of identity, perverse masochism could thus be integrated into the framework of a normal course of development that had surpassed its objective.
In his well-known book on masochism, Theodor Reik (1953) addresses the fantasies of the subjects in question—perverse scenarios described as being extremely rich. Instead, they’re characterized by an extraordinary lack of imagination, of stereotypy, which my subject confirmed in complaining of always having difficulty in finding new tortures, of having to rely on reading about other people’s ideas, which he wasn’t able to think up himself. The situation is similar to what one observes among certain patients suffering from serious psychosomatic disorders, and who are also affected by this deficiency involving oneiric activities. What’s at issue is precisely the limitation of the place occupied by oneiric activities and fantasy in responding to drives or, better yet, their charge.
Another point has been underlined by various authors: pride along with disdain for others. What remains of the representational activities perhaps seeks refuge here. Regarding disdain, M. took particular aim at the sadistic partner, saying: “The sadist, in the end, always loses his nerve.” At the same time, anxiety, which has been made into a real engine of perversion due to the importance of expectation, is practically missing.
Pointing out the role of constitution, the importance of “quantity”, i.e. force, the drive’s energy, amounts to highlighting the role of fate. Freud thought that fate, orchestrated by the “economic”, had a particular impact upon artists whom he considered to be endowed with abnormally strong drives. Starting from the same intrinsic status—a powerful drive-based need—some subjects are able to manage the excess quantity at the mental level through sublimation: a measure that’s not always sufficient and must be supplemented with perverse, for example masochistic, activities. Moreover, as soon as sublimation is achieved, it gives way to aggressive tendencies, which can take a perverse turn.
Each of us, in order to manage the tensions resulting as much from our relation to the external world as from our relation to the internal world of drives, has at our disposal a range of “tools” from which we “choose”, based on the circumstances and on the intensity of the forces at work (once again quantity), the one that’s most suited. The ideal would be to choose as often as possible the mental course, including its neurotic forms. It can happen that such a course is insufficient and it’s then that, while remaining within the mental domain, one can “opt” for the psychotic route: not for a psychotic organization, but for limited access to a moment of hallucination. This can possibly turn out to be a better solution than the one represented by a somatic event: a somatic event that in other circumstances can be “adopted” for the same reasons, in particular when the subject experiences fear. Such was the case in England of the so-called blitz ulcers, gastric ulcers that formed and perforated almost immediately during periods of bombardment. In all honesty, to speak here of “choice” is clearly provocative, since it’s made unbeknownst to the subject.
It’s on this basis that I introduce perverse masochism into the framework of coping instruments that I just discussed. I’m aware of the ideological implications of my way of considering perverse masochism when I assert that no one could be thrown into any kind of hell. M. the Maso’s fate was completely different from what one would have imagined. As I said, M. did not remain a lifelong masochist. After the death of his wife, when he was still young, he tried, with other partners, to continue with his masochistic practices that, little by little, lost their meaning. As he grew older, he felt less and less this demand for an unavoidable discharge and he came to notice that he was able to have “normal” sexual relations, as he had with his wife at the beginning of their marriage. Moreover, his dreams, which during his “active masochism” were of a perverse nature, became what he considered to be normal dreams, in which he found himself among “beautiful voluptuous women”. This being the case, and recalling the depression that followed the death of his wife, he thought it possible to establish a stable relationship with a prostitute, imagining that he could continue his perverse practices with her. This turned out to be impossible: she seemed to him to be completely immoral, something he couldn’t tolerate.
He eventually had to take on a young housekeeper—the relationship with his own daughter having fallen apart many years earlier. Towards her and her future husband, he established a relationship of an “old dad”. He was especially careful to make sure that his new family didn’t discover anything about his previous perverse sexuality. He thus erected an impenetrable barrier, made a complete break, between the perverse domain and the rest of his normal and well-adjusted existence, characterized by an uncompromising ethics which, though free of moral masochism, was somewhat rigid all the same.
Looking back on the progress he had made, we parted ways. I wasn’t to receive any more news of him.
Translated from the French by Marcel Sima Lieberman
de M’Uzan, M. (1972) “Un cas de masochisme pervers” La sexualité perverse (Paris: Payot); republished in De l’art à la mort (Paris: Gallimard, 1977).
Freud, S. (1924) “The Economic Problem of Masochism”, SE, 19, pp. 159-170.
Reik, T. (1953) Masochism in Modern Man (New York : Farrar, Straus); (New York : Grove Press, 1958).