A Defense of Masochism front cover

A Defense of Masochism front cover

by Anita Phillips
Published in 1998 by St. Martin’s Press

A scholarly survey of psychology, history, feminism, literature, and art, Anita Phillips attempts to rescue masochism from its negative popular understanding by asserting that masochism is a core component of the human experience.

While the dense and often tortured prose demonstrates that she worked very hard to prove to the reader how smart she is, she spends so much time doing so that she rarely manages to say anything of much substance.  Often after finishing a passage in the book, I found a line from a Dead Kennedys song reverberating in my head, “Brain death, blind desk, school damage…”

As a dedicated fan of what is sometimes maligned as low culture, some of my disappointment with this book is the author’s near obsessive dedication to high culture.  In discussing the relationship between art, expression, and masochism, Phillips frequently cites obscure canonical art and literature. Unfortunately, the appeal of such works is largely limited to the ivory tower inhabitants of academia. She then asserts that the “beauty” of the work stems from the creator’s keen understanding of masochism. If masochism truly is as universal as Phillips insists, one wonders why the she did not find its beauty in mainstream or popular art and literature? Curiously, when Phillips does stray from the classics she turns to then-current films of minimal cinematic, cultural, or artistic importance.

While I contemplated the prospect that a masochistic harmony with the world allowed for the creation of art and literature in touch with the essence of human experience, I wondered: do masochists create bad art?  My struggle to answer this question led me to another of the book’s faults: whatever masochism might be is never concisely defined. While there is much discussion about what is and what is not masochism, pinning down a concise, consistent definition in this tome is impossible.  My guess is that failing to truly pin down what a masochist is allows Phillips enough wiggle room to suggest that if one produced bad art they were not “truly” a masochist.  The trouble is that if you never meaningfully define what masochism is, how can you evaluate its defense?

Another annoyance was her analysis of the word masochism itself.  Tracing the term’s origin to Krafft-Ebing’s “Psychopathia Sexualis,” Phillips rightly takes issue with the earliest descriptions of masochism deftly pointing out Krafft-Ebing’s many misunderstandings.  Yet, she wholly supports his explanation of sadism wholesale.  The passage so thoroughly frustrated me that I wished Phillips were nearby so that I might throttle her and good (in a completely non-consensual, non-sensual way lest she enjoy it).

In the spirit of fairness, I lent this book to a masochistic friend.  I refrained from telling her my opinion of the book lest it influence hers. Given that my friend is not only a masochist, but also a student of psychology and fan of literature, I thought that she might see some virtue in the book that I overlooked. To my profound amusement, her comments about the book were far more vitriolic than my own. She went so far as to accuse me of meanness for passing the book along.

Masochists are among my favorite people.  While I don’t believe for a moment that they require any defense, they certainly deserve a much better one than Phillips provides.

Update: I wrote this review a while ago and is always the case in life things have changed. The aforementioned friend is now my slave and wife. She still thinks the book is crap.