July 05, 2007


In Praise of the Whip: A Cultural History of Arousal. By Niklaus Largier. Translated by Graham Harman. Zone Books. $37.

      Zone Books’ forays into some of the more outr√© aspects of human sexuality tend to find ways to be interesting without being prurient. In Praise of the Whip is a particularly intriguing example of this sort of exploration, because it involves not only sexuality but also religion – and one of the places where the two intersect. For that matter, as Niklaus Largier shows, literature and sexuality intersect in the same place.

      Largier is Professor of German Literature and Director of the Religious Studies Program at the University of California, Berkeley. He here tackles a subject that encompasses both his academic fields – and illustrates it with art dating back to antiquity and, in the case of religious works, the 14th century. Indeed, he writes, “The highly ritualized performance of flagellation, which follows the basic features of the churchly penance ritual, complementing it solely through gestural action and bodily pain, also provided the model for private practice.” But the “correlation between prayer and the whip” intersects with earthier human desires as well, and it is not difficult to see why the church became concerned with this element of the ritual, and worried about flagellation supplanting rather than supplementing more traditional means of moving toward salvation. In Graham Harman’s rather slow-moving translation, Largier (perhaps simply a pedantic stylist) writes of one church critic “thinking especially of scenes and narratives (which were already stock scenarios as early as the Middle Ages) in which the priest uses his pictorial-affective rhetoric to seduce the pious sinner or the nun, playing with flagellation in a kind of double game behind which we catch a glimpse of concealed diabolical shadows that first come fully to light with the libertines of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.”

      Largier’s exploration of the church’s mixed reception of flagellation is just one element of In Praise of the Whip, and not necessarily even the most intriguing (except perhaps to religious scholars interested in, among others, “the Cryptoflagellants of Thuringia”). The later “libertines,” for whom the whip was an overt pleasure generator, have an even greater fascination, not only through the doling out of pain (by such as the Marquis de Sade) and its reception (Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and others), but also through overt flagellation literature that began to spread in the 17th and 18th centuries and reached a pinnacle of sorts in the midst of Victorian times. Largier devotes considerable time to the bibliographical endeavors of “Pisanus Fraxi” (Henry Spencer Ashbee), the well-known Victorian author of Index librorum prohibitorum (1877), a guide to many of the then-extant pornographic works – including ones celebrating flagellation. Quoting from some of these works, whose purpose is pleasure alone, Largier also points out that flagellation was used (even in nonreligious treatises) as a supposed source of bodily improvement (for example, Flagellum salutis – “The Healing Whip” – dates to 1698). He also discusses flagellation in the work of such authors as James Joyce and Marcel Proust, and in both the work and life of “the most infamous flagellant in the history of literature,” Algernon Charles Swinburne.

      In Praise of the Whip is finally more encyclopedic than explanatory. There is a lot about the uses of flagellation here – for good or ill, however either term is defined – but little insight into the psychological rewards of its use (although Largier repeatedly asserts or assumes that they are there). There is very little provocative in this book, except for the subject matter itself; there is also very little sense of verve in the exploration of a somewhat non-mainstream vice (or is it a virtue?). After more than 500 pages of examples of whip usage for reasons of religion, personal pleasure or both, one is left knowing a great deal about the physical hows of flagellation but rather less about the emotional whys.

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