Masochism’s Gem-Like Flames

March 5, 2017   •   By Len Gutkin

Exquisite Masochism

Claire Jarvis

ALTHOUGH WALTER PATER’S famous description of the Mona Lisa is not explicitly invoked in Claire Jarvis’s illuminating and original Exquisite Masochism: Marriage, Sex, and the Novel Form, its echoes are everywhere felt, beginning with the title. For Pater, the Mona Lisa’s is “a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions.” This is from The Renaissance (1873), the most important document in the history of British aestheticism, whose prescriptions for heightened sensitivity — for a susceptibility to the exquisite — enchanted and scandalized the Victorians. As Jarvis observes, “In all of its meanings, ‘exquisite’ develops precision and cultivation so extremely that they can tip from pleasure into pain, from beauty into fastidiousness into horror.” Pater evoked the horror, too. His Mona Lisa “is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave.”

The most exquisite of Pater’s passions might be the desire to submit to the arcane forces the Mona Lisa — or her Victorian sisters — was made to represent. The cover of Exquisite Masochism features one such sister, the ice-eyed female nude from Edward Burne-Jones’s 1878 painting The Soul Attains, gazing coldly down at her kneeling male suitor. Although Jarvis’s focus is not on Pre-Raphaelite painting or on aestheticist art criticism, her attention to novelistic scene-setting makes the Burne-Jones cover work especially well — it almost feels like part of the book’s argument.

Reading across novels from Emily Brontë to D. H. Lawrence, Jarvis tracks the career of what she calls “the exquisitely masochistic scene”: “a decadent, descriptive scene of sexual refusal.” The plots of novels from Wuthering Heights to Jude the Obscure, she shows, are wound around erotic tableaux in which women perpetually withhold their erotic favors, while men perpetually enjoy the agony of suspense. Jarvis sees such scenes of refusal as permitting the novelist to talk about sex while “still maintain[ing] a decent distance from pornography.” “Withholding sex, in the Victorian novel, is a perverse way of having it,” she claims.

All of the readings in Exquisite Masochism are variations on Jarvis’s opening case, Catherine’s power over Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. In a scenario that serves as the paradigm for the rest of Jarvis’s book, Catherine reduces Heathcliff to a condition of palpitating anticipation:

Heathcliff had knelt on one knee to embrace her; he attempted to rise, but she seized his hair, and kept him down.

“I wish I could hold you,” she continued, bitterly, “till we both were dead! I shouldn’t care what you suffered. I care nothing for your sufferings. Why shouldn’t you suffer? I do! Will you forget me — will you be happy when I am in the earth?”

Against critics who read Catherine as masochist and Heathcliff as sadist, Jarvis emphasizes the power of Catherine’s imperious grasp to turn Heathcliff to jelly.

“Exquisite masochism” involves literary set pieces in which a powerful woman’s “tightly controlled — exquisite — physical displays” subordinate a man. The arrangement always has the effect of isolating the couple from their social surroundings and from such public and legal institutions as marriage. At their most extreme, such cordoned-off relationships dissolve into illegibility: Heathcliff and Catherine’s “internal accord” is, “by its nature, mysterious to outsiders, even within the world of the novel.” Like the glacial gaze of the Burne-Jones nude on the cover, masochism tends toward immobility, stasis, even death. For Jarvis, “frozenness” is masochism’s master emblem.

But in what Brontë calls the “strange and fearful picture” of Catherine and Heathcliff’s charged encounter, Heathcliff proves able to return icy grasp for icy grasp: “[S]o inadequate was his stock of gentleness […] that on his letting her go, I saw four distinct impressions left blue in the colourless skin.” While masculine submission is a prerequisite, it is not the whole story, since on Jarvis’s account exquisite masochism allows for an “[o]ngoing negotiation” of exchanges of power and erotic energy. If Catherine is Jarvis’s prototypical figure of female control, these scenes suggest that Heathcliff and Catherine take turns turning one another into marble.

“For Brontë,” Jarvis writes, “the masochistic contract is so forceful that it eventually drains people of blood […] While their eventual union is promised, the only way for Catherine and Heathcliff to reach it is to become statues, to die.” Sexy statuary was something of a trend in the late Romantic and early Victorian period, appearing most uncannily in E. T. A. Hoffman’s “The Sandman” (1816). In Théophile Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835), published about 10 years before Wuthering Heights, the hero opines, “Sculpture differs from your veritable mistress only in this, that she is a little harder and does not speak — two very trifling defects!” By showing Wuthering Heights’s yearning to make people into erotic statuary, Jarvis helps us see some aesthetic and erotic preoccupations running from Romanticism all the way to the rise of “sexology” at the end of the 19th century, the period conventionally associated with “masochism” as a social and sexual phenomenon.

From exquisite masochism’s emergence in Wuthering Heights, Jarvis tracks its permutations in Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? (1865) and The Way We Live Now (1875). Hoping to explain Can You Forgive Her?’s unpopularity with both 19th-century and contemporary readers, Jarvis suggests that it loses its entertainment value by swapping out narrative suspense for the detail-rich set pieces characteristic of exquisite masochism. It gets bogged down in tableaux. Suspense is central to the scenes Jarvis focuses on, since “[s]ex and desire make the experience of anticipation pleasurable, even if it’s uncomfortable.” Yet she is at pains to distinguish masochism’s attendant “tension” from our more usual understanding of plot-based suspense. As Jarvis says generally of exquisite-masochistic set pieces, “There is tension in these scenes, but it is a tension marked off by and experienced by characters […] [W]hat they often produce in readers is more closely akin to boredom.” Scenes of exquisite masochism might describe characters in states of suspense, but they elicit something like the opposite in readers.

I am not sure why Jarvis insists on this. Many of the scenes she describes, from Wuthering Heights on, do indeed elicit sensations akin to suspense, rather than sleepiness, in readers. (Does anyone get bored reading about Catherine and Heathcliff?) I think Jarvis is correct to draw a distinction between “suspense” as a question of “what comes next?” and “tension” — the “frozen, suspended” quality — of exquisite masochism, but it does not follow that such passages are soporific rather than gripping. Tension is compelling, even when it promises not to go anywhere. It’s true that Trollope is boring, but all of Jarvis’s other examples disconfirm her suggestion that the tediousness of Can You Forgive Her? tells us anything general about the poetics of the exquisite masochistic genre.


That we can now talk about exquisite masochistic set pieces as a “genre” is a measure of Jarvis’s achievement. If the genre begins with Wuthering Heights, it seems to me that it reaches its British apogee in Pater’s ekphrastic depiction of the Mona Lisa. Its detours onto the continent include, of course, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs (1870) and Joris-Karl Huysmans’s À Rebours (1884), in which the male protagonist tries to enter into a masochistic relationship with an acrobat named Miss Urania, “an American girl with a supple figure, sinewy legs, muscles of steel, arms of iron.” Then, via the later work of Henry James, it makes its way into high modernism, where its peculiar form of libidinally charged, verbally dense stasis becomes almost the norm. Isn’t T. S. Eliot’s prose poem “Hysteria” (1920), for instance, a kind of late, neurotic variation on exquisite masochism? “I was drawn in by short gasps, inhaled at each momentary recovery, lost finally in the dark caverns of her throat, bruised by the ripple of unseen muscles.” Here, precisely, is the slide from “fastidiousness into horror” that Jarvis describes.

Jarvis does track exquisite masochism’s march into modernism, although she charts a somewhat different course from the one I’ve just suggested. (James appears only as a reviewer of Trollope, an omission that feels conspicuous to me but that can perhaps be explained by Jarvis’s British focus.) In Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Jarvis finds in Sue not the New Woman she has often been taken for but rather a force of pagan control, of atavistic masochism. “I am more ancient than medievalism,” Sue tells Jude, correcting his impression that she is “modern,” “if you only knew.” Like Pater’s Mona Lisa, she is older than the rocks among which she sits. While Jarvis passes over the Paterian echo here, she does remark Sue’s fondness for Swinburne, which, she says, “seems to link her to an obsession with classicism and its decadent nineteenth-century iteration.” As what Jarvis calls “a living statue,” Sue is unfit for the institutions of marriage and childbearing — and Jude likes her this way. In this reading, Little Father Time’s murder-suicide (“because we are too menny”) has the potential, perversely, to restore Sue and Jude’s earlier felicity. “Reading Jude this way,” Jarvis says, “allows us to see the children for what they are, a site of unearned, pathetic cathexis within a novel that imagines its major loss as that of the close compact between Jude and Sue.”

I have been suggesting that Pater is something like exquisite masochism’s unacknowledged sponsor. But in her final chapter, on D. H. Lawrence, Jarvis finally brings him into the story. In a truly revelatory analysis of changes Lawrence made to a crucial passage in Women in Love (1920), Jarvis shows us Lawrence deliberately subtracting allusions to Pater from portions of his manuscript describing Hermione Roddice, a sort of New Woman who earns Birkin’s (and presumably Lawrence’s) scorn. In the earliest typescript version, Hermione is described as having “gained so slowly and with such effort her hard and gem-like conclusions of knowledge.” In handwritten revisions, Lawrence has emended this to “her hard and dead conclusions of knowledge[.]” By the time of publication, the line had been further transformed to read “her final and barren conclusions of knowledge.” In substituting “final and barren” for “hard and gem-like,” a substitution that could suggest an equivalency, Lawrence seems to confirm Jarvis’s impression that the exquisite and the reproductive are at odds.

Why did both “hard” and “gem-like” disappear? “Gem-like,” as Jarvis observes, “is an especially loaded word.” Appearing in the Victorian poetic lexicon in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (1859), its most famous iteration occurs in the conclusion to The Renaissance, in which (as in the earliest version of the Lawrence sentence above) it is attached to “hard.” Pater’s ringing imperative to “burn always with a hard, gem-like flame — this only is success in life” was widely suspected to endorse an amoral, hedonistic approach to life and to aesthetic sensation.

Perhaps Lawrence’s sense of Hermione changed such that he no longer wanted her to appear too neatly to be a figure of an increasingly dated-seeming Victorian aestheticism. Perhaps he simply hoped to avoid the easy cliché that “hard and gem-like” had become. In Jarvis’s reading, the earlier versions confirm an association of Hermione with Paterianism, which Lawrence opposes, she says, because it “appears to center on decadence’s apparent desire to fix experience in preserving amber.” For Lawrence, this species of frozen, decadent fixity has outlasted its usefulness.

Jarvis’s reading of Lawrence presents a useful addition to the renewed interest in modernism’s sometimes occluded relationship to aestheticism and decadence. While Lawrence may hope to reject the “gem-like” tableau, his habit of composing his novels out of instances of “reverie that move neither plot nor character forward” signals his debt to the Victorian antecedents that are the main subject of Jarvis’s study. “For all their maddening detail,” Jarvis observes, “Lawrentian scenes feel portable, as though he constructs a plot by stitching together various iterations: scene with a horse, scene with art, scene with a picnic, and so on.” These scenes feel portable not despite, but because of, their maddening detail — they are psychologically intense prose poems aspiring to self-sufficiency. Exquisite masochism thus provides modernism with a major template: novels should draw energy not from narrative “suspense” but, rather, from linked patterns of what Jarvis earlier calls “tension.”

This formal imperative survives the transformation of the ideological and sexual formations undergirding “exquisite masochism” in its Victorian phase. “Decadence,” Jarvis says in her conclusion, “signals the material, sensual frames upon which masochistic scenes play out — descriptions of clothing, furniture, ambient light, scent, and physical sensation all contribute to the overwhelming atmosphere that such scenes demand.” What her work on Lawrence shows us, though, is that “decadence” continues to provide the scaffolding for the post-Victorian novel even as its period features, its familiar gems and languid longueurs, evaporate from the scene. Lawrence himself never sounds so Paterian as when he is repudiating the poetry of “exquisite finality” in favor of a poetry of flux, in which “[t]he living plasma vibrates unspeakably, it inhales the future, it exhales the past, it is the quick of both, and yet it is neither.” On this model, the modernist novel will present a series of interlocked tableaux rendering such “living plasma” in, for instance, experiments with epiphanic stream-of-consciousness by novelists like Dorothy Richardson, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce. Exquisite Masochism makes a major contribution to the story of modernism’s emergence out of Victorian aesthetic and psychosexual obsessions.


Len Gutkin is a Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows. He has written for TLS, Boston Review, and elsewhere.