Imperial Masochism: British Fiction, Fantasy, and Social Class

By John Kucich | Go to book overview

CONCLUSION

IMPERIAL MASOCHISM emerged out of a nested set of ambitions: to demonstrate the continued relevance of psychoanalysis to historicism; to elucidate the role masochistic fantasy plays in identity formation well beyond the field of sexuality; to illuminate the social function of such fantasy in British culture, especially its organization of imperial and class ideology; and to provide an accurate understanding of the relationship between the psyche and the social in several influential writers of colonial fiction.

Crucial to these ambitions has been a conception of masochism derived from relational psychoanalysis, which emphasizes the role—both as origin and goal—of narcissistic fantasies of omnipotence. The relational paradigm assumes that any form of voluntary pain, suffering, or humiliation that sustains omnipotence may activate the transformational symbolic potentials of masochistic fantasy. This conception has made it possible to reexamine a form of experience generally regarded as a private sexual oddity and to construe it much more broadly as a vehicle for social action. I also hope it demonstrates that psychoanalytic theory did not abruptly end a half century ago, as one might conclude on reading much contemporary psychoanalytic literary criticism.

A critical tradition that might be called “masochism studies” has long been engaged in analyzing the politics of masochism. As I have suggested, though, the Freudian terms that tradition uses to define masochism, which it sees as a drama of sexualized domination and submission, obscure the more extensive political significance of fantasy structures that can mediate a great variety of social pressures. Such mediation links psychological dynamics to ideological processes of many different kinds, not just to those that represent the social order as a binary opposition of power and subjection.

I hope to have shown how this broadened conception of masochistic fantasy sheds new light on a host of seemingly unrelated or contradictory tendencies in British colonial texts. It explains, for example, how the disparate patterns of psychological obsession in Conrad's work—solipsistic selflove, vindictive rage, idealization of others, and megalomaniacal control— collaborate in a class-coded affirmation of imperial culture. It explains why

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