Gothic Bodies: The Politics of Pain in Romantic Fiction

By Steven Bruhm | Go to book overview

I. Pain, Politics, and Romantic Sensibility

I

Pain and danger, sickness and death -- these ideas, according to Edmund Burke's 1757 A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas on the Sublime and Beautiful, give rise to the strongest passions of which we are capable, and can be a source of pleasure leading to the sublime (39). Even stronger than pleasure itself, pain, when rightly experienced and contemplated, can produce an "elevation of the mind [that] ought to be the principal end of all our studies" (53). Burke's proclamation on the aesthetic pleasures of pain was part of a larger fascination with physical pain at the end of the eighteenth century, a fascination that, according to Mario Praz, underlies much of its literary production ( Agony27). Burke is echoed, nwittingly, by that other great master of pain, the Marquis de Sade, whose thesis in his 1795 Philosophy in the Bedroom is similar in some ways to Burke's:

there is no doubt that we are much more keenly affected by pain than by pleasure: the reverberations that result in us when the sensation of pain is produced in others will essentially be of a more vigorous character, more incisive, will more energetically resound in us, will put the animal spirits into circulation and these, directing themselves toward the nether regions by the retrograde motion essential to them, instantly will ignite the organs of voluptuousness and dispose them to pleasure. ( Justine252)

The location of pain in Sade differs from that in Burke: whereas pain stimulates Sade's "nether regions," it appeals in Burke to the mind, a mind capable of intense excitation. But the effects of pain are similar: both theorists attribute to pain the most intense experience they can imagine, an experience that both excites and exhausts.

The fascination that Burke and Sade articulate -- although on very different moral planes -- is part of a widespread concern of writers at the end of the eighteenth century, and goes to the very heart of England's understanding of the cult of sensibility. The concern as Burke and Sade

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Gothic Bodies: The Politics of Pain in Romantic Fiction
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents ix
  • Acknowledgments xi
  • Introduction xiii
  • 1. Pain, Politics, and Romantic Sensibility 1
  • 2 - Imagining Pain 30
  • 3. Spectacular Pain: Politics and the Romantic Theatre 59
  • Intermezzo 92
  • 4. The Epistemology of the Tortured Body 94
  • 5. Aesthetics and Anesthetics at the Revolution 120
  • Conclusion 146
  • Notes 151
  • Works Cited 165
  • Index 175
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