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Life Arts    H4'ed 6/17/09

On Masochism

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When you hear the word masochism, you probably think of whips and chains and the like. I wish to speak to you, however, not of physical masochism but of spiritual masochism. While physical pain may be a component of masochism, its essence lies not in suffering, but in the desire for self-annihilation, and more specifically, for the absorption of the self into another.1 Why?

Human life is fragile. Human beings are aware of their own limitations. Theologian Paul Tillich describes different components of this in his book The Courage to Be. Individuals, feeling their own limitations, experience anxiety at the threat of nonbeing. There is the anxiety of fate and death—I may be harmed, I may be killed, I may cease to exist. There is the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness—what is the point of any of this, does anything I do matter? And there is the anxiety of guilt and condemnation—have I done something wrong, am I impure, will anyone love me? Tillich spells each of these out in his book. A consequence of this, however, is that many individuals, feeling this insecurity, seek to escape it, paradoxically, through self-destruction—as an individual I am flawed, therefore I wish no longer to be an individual. Sociologist Peter Berger describes this desire for self-destruction and its rationale in his book The Sacred Canopy:

“Man cannot accept aloneness and he cannot accept meaninglessness. The masochistic surrender is an attempt to escape aloneness by absorption in another, who at the same time is posited as the only and absolute meaning, at least in the instant in which the surrender occurs. Masochism thus constitutes a curious convulsion both of man’s sociality and of his need for meaning. Not being able to stand aloneness, man denies his separateness, and not being able to stand meaninglessness, he finds a paradoxical meaning in self-annihilation. “I am nothing—and therefore nothing can hurt me,” or even more sharply: “I have died—and therefore I shall not die,” and then: “Come, sweet pain; come, sweet death”—these are the formulas of masochistic liberation” (The Sacred Canopy, Berger, 56).

But this is, in a sense at least, highly irrational. The individual, seeking to escape destruction—destroys itself! Master morality may be incomplete in that a master may sometimes fail to recognize its interconnectedness with others and the rest of life. As a result, its will to power may include sadistic tendencies. But slave morality is self-contradictory, in that its will to power results in denying that power is a virtue. Another way to say this is that master morality is fundamentally creative, although it may be stupid—in which case it will cause problems. But slave morality is fundamentally reactive (and if it also happens to be stupid, watch out!). Seeking to derive values from sources other than itself, slave morality leads to one undercutting one’s own functioning as an autonomous organism. It engages in war upon itself. This project is doomed to failure. The individual, as a whole organism, from bottom to top, resents the imposition of the values of others undercutting its autonomous functioning, and so it hates the others that it sees as imposing such values. This is done not even necessarily consciously, but as an organism—a body with intention. Yet because it relies on these others, because they have power over it, and it has taken them as the source of its values, its hatred is directed inward, towards itself. Its rage at them is directed at itself, and the fact that it has rage for them compounds its feelings of guilt—again, not necessarily consciously. “I am a sinner!” it proclaims. “I am wretched, evil, bad, wrong. I hate myself. Everything other than me is good—but I am the blemish on the world. Please forgive me! Please cleanse me! I am vile!”

And yet, the masochistic individual may be compelled to engage in just that behavior that it considers evil—both to justify its assessments of itself as evil, confirming its beliefs and reducing cognitive dissonance, as well as to unconsciously rebel against its oppressors as part of its trend towards autonomy. The individual seeks to destroy itself to end this tension and as the final confirmation—the final proof—to its masters and itself that what it knows to be a lie is actually true: that it does not care about itself, and that it is good by their standards—that is to say, a good servant.

This, by the way, is one of the primary reasons why telling suicidal individuals that suicide is selfish is particularly cruel and probably even counterproductive for the purpose of preserving those individuals. The masochistic state and the inversion of psychic energy that it entails makes everything hurt. This may result in a situation in which the individual either experiences acute suffering—in which little pains are excruciating, great pleasures are empty, and life may be unbearable—or an emotional withdrawal—in which nothing is felt, life seems a pointless routine, and one loses interest in once enjoyed activities. No wonder you think that life is suffering! No wonder you think that we live in a fallen world! Of course when you are sick and dying the world seems terrible—but why should humanity as a whole base its values off the sick and dying? Why should that be our gold standard?

Even though it is self-contradictory in this sense, this impulse—to abandon the self and to abandon life—is strong. The organism wishes to experience itself as powerful and positive, and if the strongest influence it feels it can have is through self-annihilation, this is precisely what it will turn to. “We would rather will nothingness than not will” (Nietzsche). Not all spiritual traditions exploit this impulse, but many do. In Buddhism, the existence of a self is denied, and the goal of Buddhism is to snuff out the flame of consciousness and cease reincarnation. In Yogic philosophy, the individual seeks to abandon the world of the senses, to retreat inward, and to dissolve the individual (Atman) into the ground of being (Braman). The word Islam means submission, and Islam is marked by a categorical submission to Allah. For Christians, this same impulse is represented in submission to Christ—I will be cleansed of my sins, I will escape death. Even in Judaism we find this, and the primary example is that of Job. God destroys everything that Job has, and when Job asks why, God responds that it is not Job’s place to ask. Submission. Self-renunciation. “The sadistic fellowman may refuse or forget to be properly all-powerful…The sadistic god is not handicapped by these empirical imperfections” (Berger, 57).

This is not to say that the cultivation of mystical experiences is without merit. On the contrary, a great deal can be gained from this. But the perspective is one sided. Categorical happiness irrespective of one’s circumstances is not conducive to the survival and increase of an organism—and more than a few have sought out mystical experiences not for the purpose of integrating their insights into a stronger more autonomous self, but in an attempt to escape. While transcendence without immanence is an empty rush towards an end that never comes, in which one is never living for oneself but eternally seeking to justify oneself to others, immanence without the transcendence of a growing self is an empty aversion to life. Dewey was right in saying that future plans should be a means to rendering one’s current actions meaningful—the future as a means to the present rather than the present as a means to the future.2

One must also consider, however, that encouraging masochism is also highly practical for the state. “Every society entails a certain denial of the individual self and its needs, anxieties, and problems” (Berger, 55). Society does not fundamentally care about you. It wants to exploit you. It wants you to die happily for its purposes, or live as a cog in its machines. Of course society wants you to be unselfish—that is merely the selfishness of society! If you care about people, you want them to be selfish to a certain extent. You want them to live for their own happiness, because you regard them as ends in themselves and not merely as means to some other end. But masochism, as the individual expression of nihilism, exists in many worldviews in order to prevent this. It seeks to make the self merely a thing, a component, an object. Say no to this. Don’t give up.

Let's consider how our ADPAS insights help us address the existential anxieties Tillich describes: the anxiety of fate and death, the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness, and the anxiety of guilt and condemnation. Each of these are problems that result mainly from the pattern of vicarious living—though in the order that they are presented, each mounts in the degree to which it is psychological and not physical. We will start with the last one first. The anxiety of guilt and condemnation is born out of internalizing the values of others as if they were objective facts to which one is subject rather than tools created by organisms to serve in their functioning. Many a depressive state may be the result of the client suffering delusions of good and evil (directed at oneself). To overcome this, one must come to understand that morality is a human production and that values are posited by subjects. One must then come to posit values that are in line with one’s own functioning and self-actualization. This is not to say that you should only care about yourself—there is nothing you should do in any objective (externally imposed) sense. If you came to me and said, “I didn't want to die, but I loved the person in question, and I preferred ending my existence to allowing that person's existence to end,” I would say, “You have done what you wanted.” If, however, you came to me and said, “I didn't want to do it, I hated it, and I resent it, but I had to because it was my duty and otherwise I would be wrong,” I would say, “My friend, you are confused.”

The anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness is similarly based in confusing values as being the same as facts. Meaning is not the sort of thing that exists objectively (imposed from the outside)—the subject itself, with its particular position and interests, is key. One must learn to reorient oneself to participating in activities that one finds meaningful, that make one feel alive and happy. Nevertheless, integration with one’s environment (other people, nature, God, etc) is often a source of experiences that individuals find meaningful, and so the ability to engage in this sort of activity readily should be cultivated. Spiritual pursuits can be very useful in this venture. To a certain extent it would seem that meaning is a sort of middle ground between the individual and the outer world—we want our actions to have significant impact in a larger (and ideally ultimate) sphere. All organisms seek homonomy, and as a communal species it makes particular sense that we would seek out a “common meaning.” Nevertheless the subjective aspect of meaning is made apparent by the following observation: Either you find a given thing to be meaningful or you do not. If it is meaningful to you, who cares whether it is meaningful to anyone else? And if it is not meaningful to you, who cares whether it is meaningful to anyone else? Meaning is something that happens when the significant is in line with the fundamental, and thus the experience of meaning cannot occur in the presence of either alienation or anomie. I’ve been told that the key to happiness is doing one’s duty. Maybe so, as long as you understand that if you don’t want to do something, it’s not really your duty.3

Lastly, or firstly, there is the anxiety of fate and death. The sting of death is felt most strongly by individuals that are not living for their own joy. The existential revolt of the individual throwing itself into the attainment of its goals against all odds can itself do much to give the individual a sense of peace—because its actions are freed, it is doing its best regardless of what happens. Psychologically, one must come to understand that values are not properly derived from the external world, but rather from the self. If one fails, at least one gave it one’s all. As Nietzsche says, what could be greater than perishing in the pursuit of an impossible ideal? In remedy to this, practically, one can alleviate one’s existential fear of death through actively pursuing personal extraphysical experiences. Studying about past lives may be useful in this, when done properly. More effective, learning how to actively communicate with extraphysical consciousnesses—especially “ancestors,” other human beings that are no longer physically alive—can bring one feelings of security. And most effective of all, one can learn to achieve the out-of-body experience and verify, personally, that one’s own consciousness can indeed exist independently of a physical incarnation. One should not rely merely on the subjective experience of this, but should confirm the separate presence of one’s consciousness from one's physical body through observing and interacting with things in the physical world that can be confirmed by other individuals. None of this should be taken on faith, but should be actively pursued and confirmed through experience—personally, empirically, scientifically. Why would you rely on faith when you can know? While the mainstream scientific community tends to assume a strictly materialist perspective and to regard spiritualist matters as beyond its scope, where testable, hypotheses concerning extraphysical phenomena should be regarded as being as much the realm of science and systematic empirical inquiry in general as any other observable phenomenon. To regard them as otherwise would be to cling to dogma rather than pursue knowledge—a stance to which science, to borrow a phrase from Sam Harris, when working properly, should be the antithesis.

Love is self-extension. Masochism is self-renunciation. In this sense, they are opposites. If you sacrifice yourself for something you love, it is because doing so is an affirmation of your will. That thing is an object of your will. When you destroy yourself because you think you have to, a similar process occurs (since you are still doing what you want, in the broadest sense), but it is tied up in knots (since you think values exist as externally imposed rules, which they do not). You are reacting instead of creating. The former is the result of direct and genuine desire. The latter is the result of confusion and lies.

There is a difference between being selfishly unselfish and unselfishly selfish. The selfishly unselfish are primarily selfish. They start out by saying, “I am good. I like myself. I want to be happy and powerful and obtain the things that I want.” But in the process of being selfish, they come to realize that they are interconnected with their environment, in general, and other people, since human beings are a colonial species, specifically. They come to realize that in general, it is to their benefit for others to be happy and prosperous, and to work with other individuals cooperatively. And it is pleasing to do this. If other people are happy, it makes me happy. And other people are useful to me—not only in some gross instrumental sense, but fundamentally. Each person represents a wealth of power, en potentia, for me. Their love, their talent, their minds, their bodies, their personality, their spirits—all of these things enhance my world. The more each individual is actualized and able to achieve their full potential, in general, the better things are for me. But as I come to appreciate my interconnectedness with things more, I come to appreciate these other individuals as ends in themselves as well. As I feel their life essence interpenetrate my own, as I feel kinship with them, as my heart opens, I take joy in them as ends in themselves. But when I act, I act primarily for my own happiness. They are a part of this happiness—they are a part of me—and so I act in ways as to enhance them. And I find that enhancing them is a very pleasurable outlet for my own power—that in growing with them and co-creating with them I experience myself as powerful through the act of creating and enhancing. I take them as ends in themselves, and I want them to be selfish, because I want them to survive and prosper and be as happy as they can be.4

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Ben Dench graduated valedictorian of his class from The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in the Spring Semester of 2007 with a B.A. in philosophy (his graduation speech, which received high praise, is available on YouTube). He is currently (more...)
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