The Allure of the Whip
The long and curious history of arousal.
The practice did not stay cloistered for long. First in the 1260s and then again after the Black Death in the late 1340s, flagellation also moved out of doors. Bands of laymen and even laywomen roamed the country, stopping off in towns and prostrating themselves on the ground in the form of the cross, whipping each other as they walked or lay down. Some of this was within the bounds of orthodoxy. But the Inquisition periodically unearthed crypto-flagellants with strange views; the church was not happy with the lay leadership of perambulating groups whose authority seemed to question the necessity of priests. And the church, as Largier points out, understood that ecstatic flagellation comes very close to the heterodox claim that one can have an unmediated encounter with the Godhead.
Yet clerical authorities could not suppress the practice. The Reformers, opposed to flagellation for different reasons, had more success. Luther, like Largier, appreciated that the whole point of the rite was "the arousal of the emotions and the imagination," which Luther condemned as a distraction from direct engagement with the word of God; like Catholic images, flagellation led believers toward an idolatrous emotionalism. The ritual, however, returned with renewed vigor in the spiritual exercises of the most militant of the new orders born of the Counter-Reformation: the Jesuits, who thought they could have it all—arousal and reason.
Here we arrive at Voltaire, who famously mocked the perversions of his Jesuit teachers, and at Sade: We are on the other side of the divide. Even if Boileau was right that there was more sexual arousal lurking in religious flagellation than Largier acknowledges, something new and different is plainly happening in the 18th- and 19th-century pictures and texts discussed in the second half of In Praise of the Whip. (Suddenly, it's clear why Catholic Europe produced all the great early classics of pornography: Here was a culture well-versed in mobilizing the body in the interests of the imagination and arousal.) The pictures that accompany Enlightenment texts are the first clue that eschatology has become pornography: In place of pious-looking people with pained expressions, there are erections, fellatio, hands everywhere. An underground best seller like Thérèse Philosophe is not just an explicit account of the sexual awakening of a girl through the exertions of an older man, through whipping and watching whippings; it is also explicitly designed to awaken desire in the reader. The many works in this genre come to be seen as self-consciously literary works about a self-consciously theatrical practice—as porn, the crack cocaine of the imagination in the service of erotic arousal. The great 19th-century collectors of flagellation literature, whom Largier discusses, got all this.
But Largier himself is only half-heartedly interested in explaining the change, because his real commitment is to a deep continuity in the history of arousal. After 1700, as before, flagellation is about getting beyond the body by means of the body. In other words, for the nun as for Sade, flagellation was a way to go beyond human finitude through pain, through an arousal of the flesh inseparable from the imagination's intense engagement. Somehow the nun got a glimpse into salvation, a time beyond time; somehow Sade imagined the dissolution of a self in death and unbearable pleasure. And in the 20th century, the story is still fundamentally the same. When Monsieur de Charlus is whipped in Proust's Le Temps Retrouvé (Finding Time Again), we are once more given a model for how the senses—the smell of the madeleine in the most famous case—and the imagination transcend time through memory.
If there is a great divide around 1700, it is in the purposes of arousal, in the goal of the transcendent impulse. In our era, the medieval singularity of purpose is gone. People whip themselves or each other in the service of self-creation, as a route to a more authentic self, as a rejection of norms, as a tribute to the power of theatricality and performance in making a life. And people read about it for all the same reasons—the reasons we seek arousal, which Largier helps us understand as an awakening of our senses in the service of escaping our sensory limitations. The history of arousal that Largier offers is thus very near the heart of the history of being human, that is, the history of being creatures who are both profoundly embodied and inextricably caught up in imagining ourselves capable of transcending mere matter through giving meaning to what we do.
Thomas Laqueur is a professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (1990).