Published in The Polish Review, 37:2 (1992), 217-27. Minor corrections in this version.
Copyright (c) The Polish Review, 1992.
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The helpless surrendering of oneself to a foreign power--that alone is the climax!
"Helpless surrender to a foreign power" as the "only climax," carries a prophetic resonance in the context of interwar Poland. Since Polish Romanticism, political subjugation has substantially defined Polish national identity. Yet my epigraph is not taken from a political tract, but from Genezyp Kapen's "virginity-strangulation" or "rozdlawdziewiczenie," by the Princess di Ticonderoga in Witkiewicz's novel, Insatiability. In this setting the passage functions as a statement about Genezyp's individual psychology. Erotic pleasure as a consequence of surrender to a dominant partner fits a traditional definition of masochism. The problem here is to reconcile the social implications of the novel with the psychological. An easy way out would be to argue that society and individual consciousness are at odds, and that when individual consciousness is lost, society becomes a leviathan. Though such a reading might accurately describe a political catastrophe, it simplifies the problematic of the political, psychological, and aesthetic in the novel, and diminishes the poignancy of the "metaphysical crisis" of the interwar period, by mapping Insatiability onto the narrative of the Anglo-american Liberal antiutopia. Masochism, I will argue, is an important key to this problematic, while the resolution of the tensions in the novel suggests a means for negotiating among three modern, compelling theories of masochism: Gilles Deleuze's structuralist psychoanalytic analysis, a "narcissistic" model considering masochism as an affirmation of self, and an "addiction" model seeing masochism as an escape from self.
The narrative of Insatiability traces Genezyp's primary relationships with three of Witkiewicz's "demonic women." The Princess is the seductress who strangles Genezyp's virginity; Persy is Genezyp's "torturer;" and Eliza an exaggeration of a caring mother who can "cure" Genezyp of his insanity. These three liaisons are in tension with two relationships to male authority figures: the elder Kapen and Kocmoluchowicz, either of whom, it turns out, may have been Genezyp's biological father. The symbolic and narrative structure delineated by these connections fits the psychoanalytic aspect3 of Deleuze's characterization of masochism better than the structure of any single work of Sacher-Masoch himself.
Deleuze defines masochism by its symbolic structure and sharply distinguishes it from sadism, in contrast to the traditional view that sadism and masochism are complimentary.4 Sadism, he argues, is driven by the desire for possession; whereas, masochistic relationships are constituted by pact and mutual initiation, and this formal difference is reflected in the prose of Sade and Sacher-Masoch.5 Where Sade is demonstrative and descriptive, Sacher-Masoch is dialectical and persuasive.6
Deleuze outlines three manifestations of the mother across Sacher-Masoch's texts.7 The first he calls, adapting Freudian terminology, the "uterine," "haeteric" or the "generator of disorder," a seductress like the Princess. Genezyp's encounter with the Princess is the commencement of his demise:
His first dose of demonism had been too strong. Something had snapped forever in that realm of eternal wonder which he somehow associated with his afternoon awakening.8Moreover, Genezyp comes to this realization during a classical Masochian scene as cuckold-voyeur.9 In Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Furs, Severin, the submissive, not only observes Wanda, the dominant, with a third male character, "the Greek," but the whole encounter is culminated when the Greek beats him while Wanda, bedecked in furs,10 "lay on the ottoman, her head in her hand, watching the scene with fiendish curiosity and amusement," ultimately packing her bags to abandon him.11 The cruel gaze is typical of the Princess:
Over her shoulder the princess threw Zipcio one of those tearful, searing, prickly glances that seem to communicate everything and at the same time nothing and which left him with the feeling of being stranded on some uninhabited island, abandoned by everyone.12The traditional Masochian dominant is not simply violent toward the submissive but is cold.13 Genezyp responds appropriately, "steeped in the rapture of the self-consciousness of complete debasement, wheezing and snorting at the very bottom of depravity," and as Iribarne fittingly inserts in his translation, "with all the delight of a masochist."14
Sacher-Masoch's other "bad" woman is the "Oedipal" or sadistic woman. The episode with Persy, Witkacy's metaphysical torturess,15 traces in miniature the Masochian narrative of initiation, torture, and conversion of the masochist. After indoctrination, Persy
had succeeded in taming him and entangling him [Genezyp] in a web of the most wretched, chronic tortures. The acute stage had passed. Persy had brought him to the profound conviction that she was an angel and that he was a sinner unworthy of being caressed.16Toward the end of the exchange, we begin to see transformation from submissive to dominant, which Masoch regarded as an ideal conclusion of a masochistic relationship, as when Severin proves his manhood to Wanda by threatening to kill her.17 For Genezyp, the transformation begins as "[m]ore than ever he was seized with an urge to commit murder--only he couldn't decide whom to murder."18 The urge returns as he gazes at Persy with "lustmord" in his eyes, and their roles are reversed.19 Like Wanda, Persy "opened her eyes and tearfully gazed at the product of her manipulations,"20 as Genezyp threatens to kill her. As in Masoch's final conversion scene described above, "the Greek" then enters in the form of Colonel Weborek, who is there to teach Genezyp a lesson. But by then "the normal Zipcio no longer existed," i.e. the submissive Zipcio; thus, the converted Zipcio bludgeons the Colonel with an upholstery hammer.
Genezyp is still amazed at this point by his actions, asking "Gawd! Who am I?"21 attesting to the incompleteness of the transformation. The "Final Metamorphosis" will come as he meets Masoch's ideal woman, Deleuze's "Oral," nurturing mother who brings about the masochist's "healing," Eliza, the nurse with whom Genezyp comes to rest and recover. She finally convinces him to take the pills of Djevani and to succumb to the "mass hypnosis"22 of Murti Bing. Exceeding Severin's conversion in Venus in Furs, Genezyp ultimately completes with Eliza the act which he could not complete with Persy in a necrophilic strangling, after which "[t]here was not a single trace of the former person left in him."23
This conversion from "anvil" to "hammer" as Masoch called it,24 coincides with a coming to terms with the father. As Deleuze reads Venus in Furs, Severin's conversion "consists in obliterating [the father's] role and his likeness in order to generate the new man."25 When the submissive is beaten, it is the father who is beaten, "in preparation for a rebirth in which the father will have no part."26 For Genezyp, the father is synonymous with the superego, or the "gosc z dna." Persy, the sadist, not only beats the metaphorical father in the superego of Genezyp, but also physically beats Kocmoluchowicz,27 who is Genezyp's surrogate if not biological father. Genezyp's conversion is signaled by his ability to murder without compunction; hence, he subdues the superego, or his personality, having become "thoroughly homogeneous."28
"Masochism," on the Deleuzean reading, is in certain ways synonymous with "insatiability." For Witkiewicz, "insatiability" might be the constant state of the "metaphysical feeling of the strangeness of existence," or the sensation of fear and inability to achieve closure in the encounter with the Other:
Once again, the same mystery had revealed its masked face to him. . . . The immensity of the world, his own metaphysical isolation (a unity could only be forged with someone else), minus the possibility of any sort of comprehension (what were ideas, after all, before the horror of the immediately given?!): still, there was something painfully pleasant in this sensation of loneliness.29Witkiewicz emphasizes "painfully pleasant," by placing "bolesna rozkosz" at the end of the sentence. The result of the paradoxical desire to cling to tension and to achieve pleasure, according to Theodor Reik, is that "[t]he striving for pleasure tapers off into displeasure, into a pleasureless ejaculation or a dissipation of tension without ejaculation"30--precisely the result of Genezyp's first encounter with the Princess. As Deleuze describes masochism:
Formally speaking, masochism is a state of waiting; the masochist experiences waiting in its pure form. . . . The anxiety of the masochist divides . . . into an indefinite awaiting of pleasure and an intense expectation of pain.31"Pure waiting" is Genezyp's recurrent state of insatiability. For Deleuze, it is the recurrence of this state which gives it its symbolic significance as masochism.32
This structuralist analysis, while facilitating an intertextual reading of Insatiability with Masoch, does not encompass the whole problematic of masochism within the novel, as "masochism" has come to have a life independent of Masoch. I will consider two psychological functions of masochism that relate to the sense of self, which in the Witkiewiczean context will pertain to the encounter with the Other, or the "metaphysical feeling of the strangeness of existence."
Reik's "demonstrative feature,"33 or the "narcissistic function" of masochism is the ego boost resulting from the publicization of one's suffering. It is masochistic insofar as one desires suffering in order to make it public. More recent analysis suggests that this affirmation of the ego through suffering is even more fundamental. As the pain and pleasure of orgasm are purely subjective experiences, they serve to demonstrate the existence of a subject "with a diffuse or dissolving self-representation" on the most basic level, even before announcing the suffering to the world.34
Genezyp accurately experiences a crisis of self-representation. Psychiatrist Robert Stolorow provides a familiar looking case:
Whenever a severely masochistic and narcissistically disordered patient of my own in reality or in fantasy approached a woman in the hope of a liaison, he would begin to feel himself to be overwhelmed both with the excitement of possibly having his wishes realized and a terror of losing his precarious sense of self-cohesion and self-bondedness through merger with the powerful object of his wishes. Most catastrophically, he would experience terrifying states of depersonalization and derealization as he felt his fragmenting self-representation dissipate into thin air.35At Genezyp's first encounter with the Princess Irina,
The very existence of female sexual organs was becoming something dubious for him, if not altogether irrelevant. Little by little he was congealing into some amorphous, indecisive mass and was desperately afraid that unless she said something to him or touched him at once, then immediately, he, Genezip Kapen, would explode right then and there on the princess's pastel blue settee and be blown to kingdom come.36Witkiewicz emphasizes "he, Genezyp Kapen" here to stress the fragility of personal identity and the danger of the self's disintegration. We might read this as another expression of the "metaphysical feeling of the strangeness of existence," or as Witkiewicz calls it elsewhere, the "experience of unity with everything in existence," which would be synonymous with a loss of personal identity.37 Witkiewicz even couches Genezyp's struggle with the Princess in these terms: "Zipcio fought back with the sheer instinct of personality against the herd and against the multiplicity of existence that personality engenders out of metaphysical necessity."38 In the end, though, Genezyp loses his identity, as his new identity becomes "thoroughly homogeneous," and Genezyp "for the time being ceased to exist."39
On the other hand, because personality is usually considered to be more complex than the mere fact of existence, masochism might be taken not as an affirmation of self, but as a denial of self. In this sense, masochism is a form of escapism, much like an addiction.40 Addiction is by nature insatiability. An addict is dependent and must constantly overcome ever increasing tolerance, sometimes to the point of death. Pain in masochism might produce pleasure by an "opponent process" much like a drug:41 "The masochist gets a temporary, bad experience, followed by a strong 'high' from the opponent process."42
This account of masochism also fits with our reading of Insatiability, as Genezyp's conversion from submissive to dominant occurs when Eliza replaces the sexual means of producing the "metaphysical sensation of the strangeness of existence" with a chemical means, i.e. Davamesque B2. It is interesting that Witkiewicz, having experimented with many drugs, chooses what is presumably a form of mescaline,43 which, according to a clinical description, may cause "a partial or complete loss of recognized boundaries between self and the environment, reactions to which may range from intense pleasure to terror."44 This certainly jibes with Genezyp's Davamesque hallucination:
He lay there scarcely conscious of who he was; he had transcended himself, gazing down at himself as though into some sort of mysterious caverns where something unknown was being fashioned. . . . Here distance was not distance but rather the sensation of a spiraling point into which his head had been transformed in an attempt to reach the ceiling of the world located beyond infinity. . . . the scrambling of all possible planes to the point that the feeling of space all but disappeared in the normal sense.45Fitting the pattern of addiction, Genezyp's conversion is really a "graduation" from masochism to mescaline, as more and more frightening forms of masochism could no longer produce the desired sensation.46
There are three plausible explanations of masochism in Insatiability here: in the first, the biography of Genezyp corresponds to the structural/formal features of masochism outlined in Deleuze; in the second, the masochistic scene is an attempt to affirm the self through a confrontation of the sensation of the strangeness of existence; and in the third, masochism functions as an addiction, coincident with Genezip's loss of identity through the course of the novel. The last two explanations seem paradoxical, because the psychological view of masochism as an addiction depends on the argument that masochism is a form of escapism, hence a denial of self. Masochism could not produce a cathartic sensation as opponent process to pain and humiliation if it were not an escape from self. Conversely, masochism seems to be an affirmation of self on the most basic level. Roy Baumeister attempts to resolve the conflict, by suggesting that masochism is an affirmation of self for the mad and the marginalized and a denial of self for the sane and centered.47
On a metatheoretical level, the fact that masochism in Insatiability can be analyzed from such a variety of theoretical viewpoints affirms the connection between the novel's content and what psychologists call "masochism;" but with a view toward resolving the conflict, let us consider how this functions in Witkiewicz's world of metaphysical crisis and the struggle for Pure Form. For Witkiewicz, Pure Form is basic. As applied to persons, it may be said to define the self in the most substantial way. The encounter with Pure Form, Witkacy argues, produces the sensation of "unity in plurality," by which he seems to mean "the apperception of the Other producing the recognition of the self, both as distinct from and as part of everything else." Anything beyond Pure Form is a distortion or a mask of the self. Therefore, a "regression" to Pure Form, which for most people would be a denial of self, or a form of escapism, would for Witkacy be an affirmation of self, resulting in a cathartic experience or "opponent process", i.e. the feeling of unity in plurality. Thus we can have cathartic experience from an affirmation of self, in the context of Witkiewicz's metaphysical crisis, which forms the basis for the addictive function of masochism.
So how may we integrate the view that Insatiability is about the seemingly individual, subjective phenomenon of masochism with the view that it is about social catastrophe? Again, there is a parallel between this conflict in Insatiability and in psychological theory. A traditional view (of which Deleuze's argument is a product) is that masochism is associated with the loss of the father, therefore instinctual, while Baumeister argues that masochism is strictly a modern Western pheonomenon,48 therefore socially constructed. These views are not so contradictory as they seem, once we question how accurate the founders of psychoanalysis could have been about instinct, before any substantial cross-cultural analysis was done, or was theoretically possible. Indeed, there are certainly socially dependent features of the relationship between parent and child, and they could likely account for masochism; therefore, an explanation like that of Deleuze could hold if we stick to modern Western subjects.
In resolving the seemingly conflicting features of masochism in Insatiability, we must ask what was actually the cause of the "individual" metaphysical crisis of this era of catastrophic literature to begin with? Gombrowicz describes the spirit of the interwar period thus:
In the pre-war days something odd was happening to people. I saw with amazement how, with the war, Europe, particularly central and eastern Europe, entered a demoniacal period of formal mobilization. The Nazis and the Communists fashioned menacing fanatical masks for themselves; the fabrication of faiths, enthusiasms and ideals resembled the fabrication of canons [sic] and bombs. Blind obedience and blind faith had become essential, and not only in the barracks. People were artificially putting themselves into artificial states, and everything--even, and above all, reality--had to be sacrificed in order to obtain strength. What was all that? Glaring idiocies, cynical falsifications, the most obvious distortions of reality, a nightmarish atmosphere. . . . Monstrous horror. . . .Given such conditions, Genezyp's metaphysical crisis does not seem to be a universal phenomenon as much as a particular historical, political and geographical one. This ethos comes through in Insatiability:
These pre-war years were possibly more damaging than the war itself.49
Life was rocking back and forth on a crest like a seesaw. On one side one could see sunny valleys of normality and great numbers of delightful little nooks to curl up in; on the other, there loomed the murky gorges and chasms of madness, smoking with thick gases and glowing with molten lava--a valle inferno, a kingdom of eternal tortures and insufferable pangs of conscience.50This "crest" is a temporal one, with normal life on one side and attack by "Chinese communists" from the East and "communist-fascists" from the West, while on that crest "something was beginning to tear" and society was descending into absurdity.51
The resolution of the novel, i.e. the transition from masochist addiction to Davamesque B2 addiction, describes the transformation of the individual necessary for the transformation of society into technocracy. In "choosing madness"52 Witkiewicz was choosing in light of alternatives. Choosing masochism, if that is what "madness" is, is chosing fantasy and imagination, i.e. subjective experience, or submission in fantasy over objective totalitarian submission. Masochism affirms the subjectivity of the individual when it is most threatened. Catastrophe happens when the individual loses control over that subjectivity. When addiction to pain is replaced by addiction to Davamesque B2, control and the ability to choose madness are lost to technocracy. The insatiation or suspense in the face of the Strangeness of Existence is maintained chemically, by external stimulus, rather than through personal fantasy, and Genezyp becomes a monster.
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