Twenty five pages into his Introduction to Imperial Masochism, John Kucich provides us with his working definition of the term “masochism,” which stands at the center of his analysis of late nineteenth-century literature by Robert Louis Stevenson, Olive Schreiner, Rudyard Kipling, and Joseph Conrad: “From a relational perspective, masochism includes any pursuit of physical pain, suffering, or humiliation that generates phantasmic, omnipotent compensations for narcissistic trauma” (25). Broadening the definition of masochism beyond its usual associations with sex and sexuality, he is able to find it everywhere, and yet he delimits its boundaries to make it and his book manageable, cautioning: “Only the conjunction of voluntarily chosen pain, suffering, or humiliation with omnipotent delusion…. signals the presence of masochistic fantasy” (26). This immensely complex and closely argued study of British class, religion, imperialist politics and fiction thus becomes both broadly ambitious and tightly focused as it pursues its ultimate aim of providing “a more accurate reading of Victorian affective experience and a more nuanced analysis of the ideological conditions of Victorian subjectivity” (30).
Drawing heavily on, but also revising, psychoanalytic theories of masochism, Kucich de-emphasizes the sexual connotations of the term that have been essential to its meaning since Havelock Ellis’s Studies in the Psychology of Sex (1900) and instead stresses the element of fantasy, thereby expanding the concept and making it available in a less reductive form to the analysis of imaginative literature, specifically to fiction. For his purposes, masochism is a “psychosocial language” (2) and a “fantasy structure” in which, crucially, “individual and social experience is entwined” (3). This insistence that individual and social experience is entwined via the language and fantasy structure of masochism justifies his identification of it both in the lives of the authors he studies and in broader discourses of imperialism. While he does not presume to contribute to psychoanalytic discourse per se, he is bold in his desire to establish masochism as a concept useful to the analysis of Victorian literature, scolding literary critics for abandoning the study of literature in an attempt to prove their interdisciplinarity (14) and insisting that studying masochistic fantasy has “formal payoffs” for critics (249).
Beyond his recognition that masochism was first identified during the period in which his authors wrote, Kucich’s application of the concept is universalized, or at least ahistorical, in the sense that it relies on the Freudian concepts of pre-Oedipal and Oedipal trauma, and in his conclusion he confesses that masochistic fantasy is “not specific to colonial fiction” nor does it have a “special affinity for late-nineteenth century culture” (249). Yet, being universal, it is to be found there, and the book shows definitively that masochistic fantasy as Kucich defines it does pervade Victorian culture and colonial fiction from General Gordon’s death at Khartoum in 1885 through the broad selection of fictional and non-fictional writings he examines.
Kucich’s methodological project here is an important contribution to literary criticism’s current attempt to integrate theory and historical contextualization. His goal to show “new ways in which psychoanalysis can contribute to historicism” (17) is admirable, and he is consistent in his balance of theoretical inquiry and historical explication of, for example, the Evangelical movement and the class and racial politics of the Boer War both in South Africa and in England. He is further ambitious in his insistence on the concept of class as “an analytical tool” (13) that intersects with the psychoanalytic category of masochism and with our understanding of the complex dynamics of British imperial culture both at home and in the colonies. In this respect he engages important works such as David Cannadine’s Ornamentalism (2001) and with Cannadine he insists that class has been slighted in studies of the British empire that are preoccupied with race. He also argues that class has been neglected in psychoanalytic considerations of masochism. The emphasis on social class links his interventions in colonial studies, post-colonial studies, and what he only names in his book’s conclusion, “masochism studies.” His analysis of class is solidly historical and focuses mainly on the ways in which these authors imagine, re-imagine and “rewrite” middle-class subjectivity depending on their personal encounters with colonial cultures and political persuasions.
The proof of his method’s success is measured by the persuasiveness of his readings of works such as Stevenson’s The Beach at Falesá (1892), Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm (1883), Kipling’s Stalky & Co. (1899), and Conrad’s Almayer’s Folly (1895). And his readings are persuasive; at least they are interesting both individually and to the extent that they are linked to his larger claims. Masochism and omnipotent fantasy unify these readings at the level of theoretical analysis, while the authors’ psychic involvements in colonial politics and in evangelical Christianity unify them historically. Kucich convincingly shows the co-existence and intersections of all these elements in the works he examines. He tracks changes in Stevenson’s writing from the articulation of psychic and social incoherencies in his early writing (for example the figure of the double in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde ) to his works of the 1890s, written while living in the South Pacific, in which there was “a particular kind of anti-imperialism, whose extravagantly self-martyring moralism reconstituted the melancholic/magical economy that his earlier work tended to break apart” (33). The colonial locale is what effected this transformation, and Kucich succeeds in showing a transformation in Schreiner’s writing when she moved from England back to South Africa and began to launch the feminist critique of British society (for which she has been celebrated) and the defense of the Boers (for which she has been criticized). Kucich’s insistence that we shift our focus from race to class is particularly interesting as he attempts to redeem Schreiner from those who condemn her eugenic rhetoric. Like Stevenson, Schreiner harnessed the “omnipotent phantasmagorics of evangelicalism” (104), but in her case to envision a political identity for women and to reinvent middle-class subjectivity in South Africa.
A consistent theme is that the neglect of masochism and of class has led to misunderstandings of all these authors’ colonial politics. Kucich takes on the myth that Kipling’s writing transcended class and argues rather that the poet of imperialism wanted to “steal imperial ideology away from the Tory upper class and to identify it instead with the middle-class conception of imperial subjectivity” (160). In contrast, Conrad recovered aristocratic values from the commercial middle class, reinscribing professional ideology according to idealized “chivalric codes of honor” (230).
Kucich is successful in his attempt to provide a nuanced account of his authors’ colonial politics, contending that progressive political stands of any kind are “the product of complex class dynamics as well as the efflorescence of masochistic identifications that are complexly mediated by ideologies of class or by religious discourse” (84). All of these authors were, in different ways, dissatisfied with the English middle class, and because of their intense experiences in colonial lands responded with powerful re-imaginings of the status quo. That Kucich chooses to explain this in terms of masochism and fantasies of omnipotence allows him to argue for the “inevitable relationship between politics and the perverse” (135), a sub-theme that emerges again cryptically at the end of the book when Kucich announces, “there is no political idealism free of perversity” (251).
Imperial Masochism is extremely self-conscious about the multiplicity of its arguments and the potential objections to its methodology. Toward the beginning of his last chapter, Kucich announces that he will “survey the principal forms of omnipotent delusion in Conrad’s work and their implication in masochistic fantasy….” (199). But if readers are “familiar with this kind of typology from previous chapters, or impatient with the relatively decontextualized psychological schema,” they may “skip to the last three sections” (199). He anticipates the impatience of his readers, as he anticipates the disappointment of “partisans of masochism studies” for his refusal to “take a political stand either for against masochism” (251). This authorial self-awareness and anxiety about readers’ responses suggests just how difficult is the task he has assumed.
That fact that I have been seeing masochism everywhere in Victorian literature since reading this book is a testament to its success in heightening our awareness of a pervasive individual and collective phenomenon. Accepting the enormity of the book’s claims, however, may require a greater leap of faith in the ideological, as opposed to the material, conditions of subjectivity. The claim that class has been neglected in the analysis of British imperialism can only be made by overlooking the extensive literature on the economics of imperialism, for example, the strenuously classed assessment of “gentlemanly capitalism” in P. J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins’s British Imperialism: Innovation and Expansion 1688-1914 (1993). But then, Kucich’s intention is to shift our focus to fantasy and to the powerful ways in which the imperialist structure of late Victorian culture permeated the imaginations of the period’s most interesting and influential novelists.
Nancy Henry is Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York (Binghamton). She is the author of George Eliot and the British Empire (2002) and co-editor (with Cannon Schmitt) of Victorian Investments: New Perspectives on Finance and Culture (forthcoming).