Masochism and Rebellion in Igino Ugo Tarchetti's Fosca

Article excerpt

Perversion in literature, explains Kaja Silverman, "turns aside from biology and the social order, and it does so through the improper deployment or negation of the binarisms upon which each regime depends--binarisms that reinforce each other in the case of gender, if not of class. The "'truth' or 'right,' which is thus subverted (in perversion) is the principle of hierarchy." (1) In this context, perversion in literature functions as a rhetorical device that undermines the dominant fiction in which it must operate. Two perversions that fall into this category are sadism and masochism. Although past research has mostly focused on sadism, this paper will address masochism, which, according to recent scholarship, was widespread and readily available for appropriation and exploitation by writers in the early and mid-nineteenth century. (2)

In this essay, I will trace some of the discourses that specifically shaped masochistic fantasies in the early nineteenth century and relate their importance to the work of the Scapigliato author, Igino Ugo Tarchetti, especially as they pertain to his last novel, Fosca.

We may recall that Freud described sadism as a perversion that stands directly opposite masochism; yet, it is sadism, Silverman points out, that has "commandeered" most of the literary theoretical attention and exuded immense intellectual prestige. Ironically, masochism, which is the "kindliest" of the perversions, has been neglected and only recently "rescued from oblivion" (Silverman 188). A recent political and cultural re-evaluation of masochism reveals that sadism, unlike masochism, is a perversion that compliments conventional heterosexuality. In the realm of sadism, the power is assigned to a patriarchal ensemble whereby the "mother becomes the victim par excellence." (3) Masochism, by contrast, represents a specifically female symbolic order through which the son aligns himself with the mother to literally expel the father, thus undermining a hierarchical system embodying the "fortified ego of the father" and a paternal universe that represents the law. Masochism, therefore, is a sexual perversion that directly challenges the authority and constraints of the law (Silverman 187). The pervert's aim in engaging in erotic language is to free itself from this paternal universe and to create a space in which God the Father can be "dethroned." In view of all this, it is not surprising that masochism has become a key concern for feminist theory. Masochism, Literature, and the Nineteenth Century

Richard Von Krafft-Ebing, who was inspired by Von Sacher-Masoch's novel Venus in Furs (1870), coined the term "masochism" long after it became a prevalent literary motif in early-nineteenth-century literature. Curiously, Masoch's novel was published approximately a year after Tarchetti's Fosca. In Psychopathia Sexualis, Krafft-Ebing defines masochism as:

   a peculiar perversion of the psychical sexual life in which the
   individual affected, in sexual feelings and thought, is controlled
   by the idea of being completely and unconditionally subject to the
   will of a person of the opposite sex: of being treated by this
   person as by a master, humiliated and abused. This idea is colored
   by lustful feelings; the masochist lives in fantasies, in which he
   creates situations of this kind and often attempts to realize
   them.... (4)

Mario Praz explains that this type of perversion, also called flagellation or algolagna (which, according to Freud, literally represents the physical enjoyment of pain), was practiced with great frequency in England. (5) According to Praz, this is substantiated by the fact that most of the literature on the subject comes from Anglo-Saxon sources (415). Recent research by Marianne Noble confirms Praz's claim. Noble draws attention to the fact that discourses that shaped masochism arose in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in England out of sentimentalism as a challenge to the belief that man was inherently sinful. …