Masochism. A Challenge for Ethics
Andrea Nicolini

Il testo che segue è un estratto dal volume di Andrea Nicolini, Masochism. A Challenge for Ethics, edito da Mimesis

Pain is a privileged experience that reminds us, with sharp clarity, that we are composed of parts which do not always agree with each other, parts that may or may not work in the way we want, parts that can become so painful that we would rather remove them than keep them. The parts that constitute our body – the parts of the body that we are – can in fact become estranged and even dangerous, to the point that we have to cut them off1. For this reason, even if it is probably true that pain is not the only experience that reminds us we have a body2, it is nonetheless true that pain is one of the most significant moments in which we realize that this body that we are is also a foreign matter that sometimes, and for different reasons3, reclaims its structural difference from ourselves. Indeed we can say that this body – that is, our “véhicule de l'être-au-monde”4 – does not coincide perfectly with our self and does not always lets itself be dominated and controlled by our will.

In order to give an account to the intrinsic difference between the body and the “self,” phenomenology coins the term Leib distinguishing it from Körper. If in fact the term Körper indicates only the body-machine studied by physics, chemistry, and biology, the term Leib refers to the complicated difference that unites the self to the “extraneous matter” that is its body. Phenomenology wants to underline the co-implication of body and mind (that allows an escape from the classical metaphysics of the soul5) without falling into the scientistic perspective offered by all organicist Reductionisms6. Although phenomenology considers the body the conditio sine qua non of the self, it maintains that the self could never be reduced to its body.

In this way phenomenology proposes what has been called the embodied cogito, namely a cogito that, emerging from the body, has constantly to deal with its intrinsic difference. In so doing, phenomenology makes an interesting theoretical move that, escaping from the dualism of body and soul, puts the universal claims of the traditional cogito at risk. If the subject of the cogito offered by the Cartesian tradition cannot deal with the insecurities of the body – with its structural difference – and for this reason presupposes a clear separation between the mind and body, the notion of Leib blends them together in a single substance. Assuming that the body is the condition of thought, instead of dividing sharply the res cogitans from the res extensa7, phenomenology affirms their union in Leib: the living body that perceives itself and is able to think. In this way, the body, instead of being other than cogito, becomes its support and its structure, in a word, it becomes its condition of possibility. As is evident, by making the uncertainties of the body the condition of any cogitationes, phenomenology compromises the cogito with the particularity of a single body, preventing in this way the cogito from joining the universal truth. Indeed, to incarnate the cogito in a living body means to acknowledge the fact that the cogito is bound to the universal truth in a way that makes a complete conjunction of the two impossible. The theoretical foundation that makes the cogito the direct expression of the truth is in this way undermined. The body, although it is the condition of possibility for any thought of the truth, reveals itself to be also what obstructs the achievement of the truth. Located between the cogito and the truth, the body becomes at the same time the point of their union and of their separation. Stranded in the body, the cogito must give up its universal claims.

Despite this fundamental theoretical move, the phenomenological approach itself encounters a basic problem. Even if phenomenology understands the implications that, through the body, undermine the all-encompassing claim of the cogito, it still affirms – with the notion of Leib – an existential unity that does not consider the divisive power of the death drive. The self of phenomenology, despite being ousted by the body to which it is linked, remains always thought of as a strong unity. But as psychoanalysis points out, the self is always already constituted as a division. Indeed, although it is true, as phenomenology affirms, that while we exist we perceive ourselves as a living unity, it is also true that we perceive the estranging and overwhelming power of the drives that resist any unity of the self and, on the contrary, erupt to undermine any fantasy of sovereignty. The death drive is structurally implicated in the constitution of the subject and, although – since it works unconsciously – we may remain ignorant of its operation, it cannot be avoided. Ignoring (or pretending to ignore) the death drive, phenomenology8 ends up relapsing into a strong subjectivity very close to the Cartesian one that it challenges. The subject of phenomenology, even if it cannot have access to the universal truth, is a strong entity that does not perceive any other division except the one with its own body. But the division that constitutes our being in the world does not inhere just in the difference between the body and the self and cannot be solved through a theoretical concept that purports to overcome that difference. Like the all-encompassing cogito, the unity of the subject is just a Symbolic fantasy produced to protect against the Real. But the drive as the expression of the Real erupts, reminding us of the division by which we are subjects of language.

Reducing the problem of the division of the subject to a body/mind problem, phenomenology is therefore unable to grasp the ontological status of pain – the one that is linked with the negativity that constitutes the Real and that emerges any time we get in touch with pain. In order to understand the connection between pain and the division of the subject beyond the phenomenological perspective, it is useful first to trace the etymology of the word “pain” and then to analyze it through the lens of psychoanalysis. To indicate what we call in English “pain,” the Latins used the word dolere, a word whose etymological root – dar = dal, dol – means to break, to break up. It is interesting to notice that this root that binds pain to breakage is not present just in the Ancient Latin but also in the Sanskrit dalati, darmati that means to burst, to break, to cleave; in the Ancient Greek, dèro (δέρω) means to flay; in the Ancient Slavic, dera means to lacerate; and in the Gothic, tair-an provides the root from which we derive the English verb “to tear”. Furthermore, even if we change the semantic strain, we find a different root but with the same meaning. Indeed, the Ancient Greek word λύπη (pain) derives from the Sanskrit lûmp-ati that means to break and the Sanskrit rug’â (pain) comes from rug’ that means “to break” as well.9

At first sight this etymology reveals nothing more than the simple fact that pain is always perceived as the thing able to break the subject apart. What is pain if not something that breaks us? What is pain if not something that impedes the subject’s freedom of movement or thought, jeopardizing the subject’s sovereignty over his body and his ability to interact with the world? Nihil sub sole novum then? On the contrary, from a psychoanalytic perspective this etymology reveals something much more interesting linked to the root of human subjectivity. Indeed, if we acknowledge that being broken is the only possibility for a subject to be a subject, that the structure of the subject itself is a breakage, then we understand that pain, instead of being what breaks the supposed unit of the subject, is what reveals its intrinsic division. From this perspective, pain reveals nothing but the occasion in which we experience the unavoidable negativity that structures us as subjects always lacerated by the drives. Indeed, just as the Symbolic cannot escape the negativity that emerges through the drives, so it cannot remove the pain that these drives inscribe in the subject. To interpret with a psychoanalytic lens the etymology that I traced back from different semantic strains is to understand that pain, far more than simply what breaks the subject apart, is what makes him feel the breakage that he has always been.

What I am trying to describe is of course not a particular kind of pain that afflicts either the body or the mind, but, on the contrary, what I have called the ontological side of pain. Using the term “ontological”, I refer to the side of pain that, although it is present in any empirical reifications of pain, cannot be reduced to any of them, and that, for this reason, cannot be cured or redeemed. Indeed, although we can try to cure this or repair that pain, we cannot avoid the encounter with pain. As an expression of negativity, pain “speaks to the fact that life, in some sense, doesn’t ‘work’”10. This is the reason why, regardless of any political and ethical measures that try to erase pain, its inevitable persistence shows with sharp clarity the inability of the Symbolic to suture the wound of the Real. From this perspective it becomes clear that to grasp the ontological status of pain means neither to focus on the particular pain that afflicts our life and that of others, nor to feel the difference that separates our body from us, but rather to insist on the negativity that structures us as subjects; it means to track down the wound that was produced with our coming into existence and that hurts any time we get in touch with pain.

1 See Jean-Luc Nancy, l’intrus, 2000.
2 For instance, when in the stimulation of any erogenous zone one becomes aware of that part of the body. 
3 Reasons that are related to the sexual, to identity, to illness, and so on. For a more detailed phenomenological analysis of the body-mind problem in relation to pain, illness, and sexual arousal, see A. Nicolini, Riconoscimento di sé e genesi della coscienza, Insedicesimo, Savona 2018.
4 M. Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la perception, Gallimard, Paris 1976, p. 97.
5 In the Iliad and the Odyssey, the body and soul are the same. In fact, in Homeric language there is no trace of any term that designates the living body as a separate thing from the soul. With the Orphic tradition, on the other hand, in particular with Pythagoras, and later with Plato, there is born a conception of the soul not only understood as a vital breath that gives life to the body, but as something separate and ontologically distinct from the body. There are many passages in which Plato plays semantically with equating the body - σώμα - with a tomb - σεμα - thus identifying the body as the prison of the soul (see Cratylus, 400c; Gorgias, 493a; Phaedo 62b, 82e). Certainly Plato does not debase the body as such. For example, the beauty of the body is enhanced in the Symposium, but takes in scala amoris, the lowest level of the ascent that leads to contemplation of the good (The Symposium, 210a, 210b, 210c). Therefore, although Plato does not affirm that the body is something bad in itself, he constantly insists on a clear ontological distinction between the soul and the body that leads to the consideration where the former is superior to the latter at a metaphysical and, consequently, ethical level.
6 As an eminent example of this way of thinking, see F. Crick and C. Koch “A frame work for consciousness” in «Nature Neuroscience» February 6th, 2003, p. 126; F. Crick, Visual perception: Rivalry and consciousness in «Nature» 376, 1996, p. 486.
7 As indeed Descartes understood perfectly, if we do not fully separate the res cogitans from the res extensa, we would never accede to a cogito as the truth of the subject. See R. Descartes, Meditationes de prima philosophia, 1641.
8 Mutatis mutandis the same thing can be said for existentialism.
9 Dizionario etimologico comparato delle lingue classiche indoeuropee (Sanscrito, Greco, Latino), a cura di F. Rendich, Palombi editore, Roma 2010; The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, Edited by C.T. Onions, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1966; Il vocabolario etimologico della lingua italiana, a cura di O. Pianigiani, Albrighi e Segati, Roma 1907.
10 L. Berlant and L. Edelman, Sex or the Unbearable, Duke University Press, Durham 2014, p. 11.

© Andrea Nicolini, Masochism. A Challenge for Ethics, Meltemi 2022