Sado-Masochism and the Self.

There is a story about a poor  peasant who was so down on his luck that he did not even have a pair of shoes to wear.

Then, one day, he miraculously came into some money.  He walked all the way into town and bought the finest pair of shoes he could find. There was even some money left over, so he bought a jug of wine and drank it on the way home.

The wine got the better of him before he could get back and he fell into a ditch where he passed out. In the small hours of the morning a coach came by. The coachman saw the peasant’s legs dangling out of the ditch across the road and he called out loudly lest they be run over. The peasant raised a bleary eye, looked carefully at his newly shod feet and shouted back, ‘they’re not mine, drive on!’

What is the moral of this story? What can we make of the peasant’s masochistic invitation?

Whilst Sado-Masochistic traits can be derived from developmental dysfunction rooted in inadequate bonding, it’s also true that there are aspects of S/M that can be addressed from both existential and archetypal points of veiw.

The reputation of Sado-Masochism as a sexual perversion seems easily consolidated by its costumery and paraphanalia which readily convince that this is primarily an erotic phenomena. But a great majority of S/M enactments are common or garden varieties to be found in the psychopathology of everyday life.

Since S/M is about what happens between people it would be better to say that S/M is a perversion of the Principle of Relatedness, of which sexual relatedness is only a part.

You could also say that the Principle of Relatedness, traditionally the preserve of the sacred feminine, has been eroded by the patriarchal to the point that dysfunctional expressions of relatedness are only to be expected. As such they are not ‘deviant’ at all, but the inevitable underbelly of a puritanical culture that values the cultivation of persona over and above a healthy ego wherein some of the aspects of S/M might be better contained.

It might also be added that a culture deprived of the divine feminine, personified by the Great Mother, is going to bleed mothering per se of its sacred context. The ramifications of this for mother/infant bonding and the impact it has on the quality of early life is something we can infer from comparative ethnography which does indeed suggest that the loss of the Goddess has greater consequences for us as inheritors of Western Civilization than we have previously considered.

The child of any epoch or culture instinctively maintains the conditions in which it has learned to be at home. If deprivation and loss of a sacred context is the world we are born into then even that…

”will be maintained indescriminantly as part of development.” Jean Liedloff

This gives rise to our culture’s ‘divine homesickness’, a striving for the experience of Paradise which creates,

”a nostalgia the intensity of which is inversely proportional to the amount of fulfillment encountered in the earliest phase of life.” Mario Jacoby

Longing for the archetypal mother is important says Jacoby because,

” it harbours within it the yearning for confidence in some solid, nourishing ground.” ibid

So, there is something of a false dichotomy between early developmental theory and archetypal psychology. Having said that we can still tease out some specifically existential aspects of S/M and the more obvious psychopathology of ego’s encounter with the Self symbolised by the peasant’s predicament in having to re-invent himself.

One of the most common places we find S/M enactments in ordinary life is in the interactive patterns of narcissists and empaths. I’ve yet to meet a narcissist who didn’t exhibit strong sadistic tendencies, nor an empath who didn’t have masochistic features.

This relational dysfunction is much bigger than the sexual issues they might encompass.

Narcissistic sadism has, as its prime objective, the eradication of the other’s subjective reality. Its purpose is depersonalisation, humiliation, witholding and the refusal to value or accomodate. His doing-unto-others consolidates a fragile identity. I wound therefore I am.

Empathic masochism dovetails this with low self worth, poor boundaries and an unconscious victim mentality that colludes with and allows the sadist’s  ‘bad behaviour’. Identity is rooted in the persona of being done to.

”They are not my legs, ride on!”

Working with these issues from a developmental point of veiw is not enough. If the dysfunction constitutes a nucleus of identity, a core of self-construct, the resolution of it will precipitate existential crisis. Resolving ‘the problem’, is therefor out of the frying pan…

and into the fire.

”Once you have identified with some form of negativity you do not want to let it go and on a deeply unconscious level, do not want positive change. It would threaten your identity as a depressed, angry or hard done-by person. Eckhart Tolle.

So we resist what we want most because it costs us what we know of ourselves to have it.

”For someone who’s natural habitat is the brink of disaster, a giant step into security is as intolerable as the realisation of all he fears most.” Jean Liedloff.

Our poor peasant’s new shoes threaten his entire weltanshauung, his whole veiw of life. He cannot afford to identify with his own good fortune. Having his legs run over would reaquaint him with his familiar bad luck upon which identity has been constructed.

Moreover, in having a taste of his potential, the peasant encounters something of the numinosity of the Self. The miracle of his good fortune, leaving home and his creative adventure into town has the quality of a hero’s quest, part of which is invariably the motif of death/rebirth. If this is not realised in the inner world it will be enacted in the outer.

”Creativity… expresses itself in the ambivalent experience of rebirth through death (or) in sado-masochistic fantasies.” Erich Neumann.

To be more succinct,

”What is not brought to consciousness, comes to us as fate.” CG Jung

The process of self-realisation involves some painful archetypal processes over and above the unearthing of childhood trauma.

”The integration of contents that were always unconscious and projected involves a serious lession of the ego.” CG Jung

Why? Because it involves the recognition that we are not masters of our own houses. This leads either to a positive inflation in which ego identifies with the Self and becomes cruel, inconsiderate and puffed up with power, or a negative inflation in which we feel lower than a worm and deserving of nothing.

Its easier to act this out in our relationships than it is to contain the violent forces that can swing us back and forth between such extremes.

The alchemical tradition, which offers us a metaphor  for the process of individuation, is full of grisly symbolism. The ‘mortificatio’ and ‘putrefacto’ are stages of the journey in which the old sense of identity dies and rots as a result of the encounter with the Self. These ‘torments’ are described as…

”cutting up the limbs, dividing them into smaller and smaller pieces and mortifying the parts.” Rosarium.

This painful process is amplified in Solomon’s ‘Song of Songs’, in which the bride and bridegroom represent ego and Self.

”The coniunctio is both desired and dreaded. From a distance it is the source of all yearning, but knocking at our door it is an object of terror.” E. Edinger.

In Solomon’s song the bridegroom is wounded..

”You ravish my heart with a single one of your glances…”

This acknowledgement between self and ego….

”has a wounding or violating effect.” Edinger.

In Christian iconography this is represented by Jesus on the cross.

‘thou didst wound my heart with one of thine eyes when, hanging upon the cross, I was wounded for love of thee that I might make thee my bride.” ibid

In the Bahavad Gita, Arjuna asks to see Krishna’s true form and quickly regrets it.

”when I see you touching the sky, blazing with many colours, with mouths open wide, with large fiery eyes, my heart trembles in fear and I find neither courage nor peace. Devouring all the worlds on every side, you lick your lips. I implore you, as a lover to the beloved, show me a gentler form.”

We are perhaps used to the idea of sublimation, that ‘lower’, instinctive drives can find artistic, creative expression. So, too, can our potential and the dynamics of the individuation process be lived out in a less evolved, enacted fashion.

”Unlived life does not sit idly on the shelf, it will turn round and bite you.” ML Von Franz

And so we would do well, rather than falling into judgement or inveterate fixing, to ask what step on our path it is we turn aside from and allow compassion for our own faltering that has us live on the outside what belongs in our inner worlds.