Masochism’s Gem-Like Flames


Len Gutkin in LA Review of Books:

ALTHOUGH WALTER PATER’S famous description of the Mona Lisa is not explicitly invoked in Claire Jarvis’s illuminating and original Exquisite Masochism: Marriage, Sex, and the Novel Form, its echoes are everywhere felt, beginning with the title. For Pater, the Mona Lisa’s is “a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions.” This is from The Renaissance (1873), the most important document in the history of British aestheticism, whose prescriptions for heightened sensitivity — for a susceptibility to the exquisite — enchanted and scandalized the Victorians. As Jarvis observes, “In all of its meanings, ‘exquisite’ develops precision and cultivation so extremely that they can tip from pleasure into pain, from beauty into fastidiousness into horror.” Pater evoked the horror, too. His Mona Lisa “is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave.”

The most exquisite of Pater’s passions might be the desire to submit to the arcane forces the Mona Lisa — or her Victorian sisters — was made to represent. The cover of Exquisite Masochism features one such sister, the ice-eyed female nude from Edward Burne-Jones’s 1878 painting The Soul Attains, gazing coldly down at her kneeling male suitor. Although Jarvis’s focus is not on Pre-Raphaelite painting or on aestheticist art criticism, her attention to novelistic scene-setting makes the Burne-Jones cover work especially well — it almost feels like part of the book’s argument.

Reading across novels from Emily Brontë to D. H. Lawrence, Jarvis tracks the career of what she calls “the exquisitely masochistic scene”: “a decadent, descriptive scene of sexual refusal.” The plots of novels from Wuthering Heightsto Jude the Obscure, she shows, are wound around erotic tableaux in which women perpetually withhold their erotic favors, while men perpetually enjoy the agony of suspense. Jarvis sees such scenes of refusal as permitting the novelist to talk about sex while “still maintain[ing] a decent distance from pornography.” “Withholding sex, in the Victorian novel, is a perverse way of having it,” she claims.

All of the readings in Exquisite Masochism are variations on Jarvis’s opening case, Catherine’s power over Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights.

More here.