Melancholy magic: Masochism, Stevenson, anti-imperialism

John Kucich

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9 Scopus citations


Contemporary cultural theory limits the political analysis of masochism by seeing it exclusively as a problem of oedipal sexuality, drawing on Freudian and post-Freudian models. Eliding masochism with oedipal sexuality, however, obscures the relevance of class to masochism (privileging questions of gender and sexual orientation instead). It also overlooks the preoedipal fantasy structures underlying masochism. Contemporary psychoanalytic theory restores the importance of preoedipal fantasies of omnipotence in masochism. The economic relationship between suffering and omnipotence in masochism turns out to have been central to evangelicalism, which became a crucial reference point for various British middle-class identities in the 1830s and 1840s. The unraveling of a coherent conception of middle-class identity later in the century underlies the efforts of late-century novelists to rearticulate the relationship between masochism and middle-class identity. Before 1890, Robert Louis Stevenson uses the device of the double to explore disruptions to the masochistic economy of suffering and omnipotence - disruptions that are correlated with confusion about middle-class identity. After 1890, Stevenson uses his experience in the South Seas to create characters who reunify masochistic psychological economies, but he places those characters, problematically, in non-middle-class positions. In his nonfictional writing Stevenson experiments with masochistic psychological economies in various ways, and he succeeds in harnessing masochistic psychological power to an evangelically inflected anti-imperialist crusade, thus harnessing the respectability of a bourgeois masochistic style for oppositional political purposes. The political valence of masochistic psychic economies, however, remains unstable.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)364-400
Number of pages37
JournalNineteenth-Century Literature
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2001
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Literature and Literary Theory


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