Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Low at the knee that bore her once unto [royal] wordless rest [now] Daisy [stoops] kneels a culprit--tell her her [offence] fault--Master--if it is [not so] small eno' to cancel with her life, [Daisy] she is satisfied--but punish [do not] dont banish her--shut her in prison, Sir--only pledge that you will forgive--sometime--before the grave, and Daisy will not mind--she will awaken in [his] your likeness.

You send the water over the Dam in my brown eyes--

I've got a Tomahawk in my side but that dont hurt me much.
[If you] Her master stabs her more--

Master--open your life wide, and take me in forever, I will never be tired--I will never be noisy when you want to be still. I will be [glad] [as the] your best little girl--nobody else will see me, but you--that is enough--I shall not want any more--and all that Heaven only will disappoint me--will be because it's not so dear.

Excerpts from Emily Dickinson's Master Letters


I thank Clavdia for making me remember these letters, which I had come across at the end of last year. I immediately knew I wanted to post them, but Clavdia made more than this, she started a wonderful series of inquiries on the secret women who wrote about their love in such and similar terms. Clavdia explains: 'I wrote recently about certain secret Women -- the women valorized, glamorized in literature -- the women who lay down in front of a man, who sacrifice, who submit, who are more beautiful and stronger and greater and nobler for their submission. I wrote, earlier, that this rhetoric frightened me -- that it was too beautiful to be dismissed, too pervasive to be ignored, and too terrible to hold in my mind for very long. But I've been thinking about this -- about this rhetoric -- wondering if it is in fact rhetoric, wondering if there is some truth to it, if there is truth, what that truth might be'.

And she also asks the right questions:
'How can this be real? That's what I wonder most -- how is this love? How is this good?'

My post is a small mirror of her search (the women in the pictures she selects for her posts never show their faces, I have chosen mine to look straight into the eyes). And a sign of my gratitude for her fascinating world. Also, last but not least, a gift for her
three-year web-writing anniversary :-)


  1. Oh Roxana, thank you so much for these images, for your excerpts, and also for your own words.

    It is different to see the words matched up with women who stare straight ahead, not challenging, not inviting, not any of that sort of eye-beholding-woman commentary, just a gaze.

    I think that one of the most frightening comments in this vein was something from Kundera's Unbearable Lightness of Being -- the line about every woman wanting nothing more than to feel the weight of a man on top of her -- I don't quite remember it now.

    It's good to make this inquiry with so many other people -- and also good to have the questions asked and reformulated and pushed forward.

    Thank you!

  2. liking that forst portrait. can;t put my finger on it. directness?

    that lasr dickinson quote tho, that's just disturbing no matter who the master is!

  3. Clavdia, I think you have been very courageous to start posting on this subject, normally people just look away, either disregarding or mocking, or terrified and disgusted. It seems to be very hard to make a calm and deep analysis of this phenomenon, there are so many misconceptions and assumptions and emotions surrounding this topic.

  4. How interesting, I'd never come across the Master Letters before.
    Reminds me of the line from Plath's Daddy poem: "Every woman adores a fascist".

  5. yes, swiss, directness, I thought that too.
    I think all of the quotes are 'disturbing', not just the last one. but should we disregard them just for that? and is this 'disturbing' compared to what? it is again a question of defining what we assume to be 'normal' and what not, and feeling troubled or threatened by what we perceive as 'impossible otherness'.

  6. Sorlil, I guess that this line, taken out of the context, is exactly that type of general assumption about which Antonia has angrily written on her blog, the one that misinterpretes a very specific psychological state (usually labelled as 'masochism') and uses it to justify women oppresion and violence against women. the usual superficial and horrible idea that 'all women like to raped, so let's rape them', etc. that is also why it is so difficult to address such topics, because the discourses get immediately mixed up (like equaling masichists with victims of violence, for ex).

    I have to point out again that 'masochism' (broadly understood as 'longing for submission') is not restricted to women, even if Clavdia's inquiry has been limited to women in literature (until now).

  7. I forget: there is a very interesting essay by the French philosopher Jean Paulhan addressing this 'disturbing' question: how can it be that there are people who want to be slaves, and find their fulfilment in that? 'people', not only women. Should the fact that slavery is a horrible and sad fact of the real world make us ignore those people and not try to understand them, transforming them into another shameful minority?

  8. From the context of the poem I would guess the line is intended to be ironic. I think in post-feminist theory there is a potency in thinking in terms of power in willing submission or 'longing for submission' as you put it that traditional feminist theory fails to adequately deal with.

  9. oh, of course it is ironic, I have no doubts here. that is why I said: 'taken out of the context'. I agree with you about this latest development, it is avery good observation. I think this book: The Masochistic Pleasures of Sentimental Literature by Marianne Noble (2000), dealing with masochism and subverting masochism in american women writers of the 19th century is a good example of that. Btw, Clavdia, this is the book I told you about. She gives a detailed analysis of Dickinson, too, and the way she uses the topoi of masochism discourse for her own purposes and thus subverts them.

  10. I'm with Swiss: I like the first portrait - but can't put my finger on it.

  11. thank you, Dave! it is sometimes a good feeling this one, not able to put the finger on why we like something :-)

  12. The photo at the top of this post is nothing less than a few poems. i dream of this, i dig it.

    re the quotes from Dickinson, esp. the last...well, i think it is love. there is nothing disturbing about it. the disturbance would be to find it disturbing.

    re women at the receiving end....i add......there are many many men who live in a sacrificial way in relationships too. men remain unsung at times. in a relationship i guess, only one person can love, the other lets himself/herself be loved.i think Camus wrote that.

    the photos are sublime.

  13. Love it all. It works on every level, and that is a hard thing to achieve.

  14. thank you, kubla. your praise of my pictures makes me humble, as always.

    yes, I think it is even more difficult for a man to write about his longing for submission and sacrifice, because this contradicts the wide-held beliefs about what constitutes masculinity.
    I don't think that such feminine and male characters have to be placed under an evaluation judgement in the sense of being sung and praised, or, on the contrary, being condemned or ignored. it is a fact that such texts exist, that these feminine and male writers have chosen to show characters who express their feelings this way. I think we should be able to read or analyse them without involving such judgements.

  15. thank you, merc. it means a lot to me. I wanted to tell you how much I was touched by your last post. the image and the poem. If you hadn't commented today, I should have written to you anyway, just to say this.

    This is so wonderful:

    Masked feelings
    my heart.

    I take down
    mirrored wall.

  16. "I have to point out again that 'masochism' (broadly understood as 'longing for submission') is not restricted to women, even if Clavdia's inquiry has been limited to women in literature (until now)."

    Absolutely, in Sacher-Masoch's book Venus in Furs, the protagonistlonging for torture and humiliation for sexual pleasure is in fact a man. But the think in these days there's more publicity in erotica for the submissive feelings of women; probably targeted to the feelings of not only masochistic women but also sadistic men.
    i think also that evolutionary psychology plays a big role as to whyone reads and hears about more women longing for submission than men.

  17. Thank you for your photos, Roxana - as usual they are windows into a mysterious world.

    And thank you's for these comments, they got me thinking of the difference between masochism and internalized misogyny - the first one has awareness and choice, which the second one lacks, I'm thinking.

    And also whether any such conversation can be had without making reference to men and misogyny, how is that any different from using quotes out of context, and how does it help contain the problem with the women.

  18. hi, zuma

    yes, you are right. there is a whole industry manipulating such cliches and this would be another question worth addressing too. and even if we started the discussion from literary texts written by women writers, this is only one possible entry into a huge labyrinth including many other aspects: there are not only submissive men, but also submissive women-to-women relationships and submissive man-to-man relationships. It is a huge oversimplification to think about masochism only in terms of a power discourse involving dominant men and submissive women. I remember I posted once a poem by Carol Ann Duffy, 'Warming her pearls', which was about a servant adoring her mistress, addressing the topic of submissive lesbian love, and this is such a big taboo. Interesting enough, nobody commented on that one. I got only one letter from a blog reader telling me that my post was intriguing and asking whether the women I photograph are my friends or my lovers!

  19. Manuela, are you back? I am so happy to hear from you!!!

    yes, all these are such intricate questions, and stretching over so many fields, overlapping so many areas... I think it is a good thing that we can talk about it overtly. I hope it is. thank you for confirming that.

    re your questions, I can only say that yes, it is a big problem that misogynous men use such cliches to justify their violence against women and forcing them into submission. masochism supposes the free will of both partners, whatever gender they have. and the texts that we have discussed here are written by women who express their love in terms of submission and sacrifice. not the case of Sade's novels, for ex, that would be a different discussion.

  20. roxana, in response to your 00:03 comment:

    what does it mean (or add) to say that it is a *fact* that the texts exist? I mean, are you really saying that it is a fact that masochism exists and that we don't *have* to make a judgement on that?
    Or are you saying something else: that we *shouldn't* do so?

    is it a fact that such texts/attitudes can also be the result of entrenched preferences (a reflection of the times and circumstances people live in..for example: women are 'trained' or at least encouraged to be passive, subservient)?

    And can one ignore the very real possibility that such ideas or attitudes can help re-inforce stereotypes and hierarchies with serious consequences?

    I don't know, Roxana, I feel somewhat uneasy about your comments here , but can't say exactly why unless I read them with a clear head. I hope you excuse my fuzziness.

    take care,


  21. hi b, I don't have anything against fuzziness :-)

    I am not sure I get your first question: yes, I do think that making a judgement (which has to be moral one, what other kind of judgement could we talk about?) on masochism as such (but not only masochism, homosexuality as well, for ex.) would be of course wrong. and because we are talking now of literary texts dealing with that, I think that making this kind of judgment about them is not acceptable. I am not confortable with the notion of the 'moral responsability' of the artist. I know you will disagree. as I have already said in a similar discussion with a friend, being disturbed about the possibility of literature to influence people's behaviour (negatively) amounts to the same position of, let's say, the jury who condemned madame Bovary for immorality because the book could make the women become adulterous. I think that any kind of ideology trying to limit the freedom of the artistic art (be it out of religious or other kind of reasons, political correctness, feminist issues etc) should be opposed.

    re your other questions, I think that if you read my comments carefully, you will see that I have also touched your points: that it is a problem that the language of submission is used to reinforce and justify violence against women (or children). I have already said that many times, in my answer to Sorlil and in that to Manuela, for ex. My only problem is that we can't look at such texts only from this one point of view, or condemn people who address this topic from different points of view. Clavdia's posts were not meant to be an encyclopedia essay about masochism-related aspects, she only wanted to inquire about the psychological mechanism that underlies a 'masochistic' relationship. doesn't she have the right to do that, concentrate on just that part of the problem? and my question is: what do we do with those women and men who feel like this and want to write about it? condemn them to silence? I believe that we can't reduce 'masochism' as a form of behaviour or psychological reality to this power related aspect. I don't think that human psyche is so simple, ot that the complexe biology of human life can be explained only in terms of social determinism (especially in the field of sexuality, it cannot). (my interest for this topic comes from my interest for the texts of christian women saints who display a similar language, I think I have mentioned that once to you).

    but this discussion has become too long and this is not the way of this blog. too many words, suddenly. I think I have to make many posts with only images from now on to make up for that :-)

  22. Roxana, thanks for the clarification. No, let's carry on discussing this (as friends). Theek hai?

    You make a lot of good points.I'm just sceptical when you say things like : "...at such texts only from this one point of view, " I don't think anyone is saying that. I think the question is not whether masochism exists or not (or is a "fact") or whether anyone has the "right" to discuss it ...already by using such words we're setting up confrontations)...

    I think it's more about that we can (stress: "can") focus on one aspect to the detriment of more important ones.

    And here judgement does come in to play: which facts one chooses to emphasise and which to ignore. What counts as important.

    Even if masochism or submission are "psychological facts" -and I don't doubt that there is a sadistic tendency or masochistic tendency in all of us, I think there are substantive questions about the way in which it is (partly) a social construct, the way in which we talk about these things, and the way in which that 'talk' may reinforce the dominant structure.

    Okay, so it's a bit like: we could-and some people do-discuss whether black people have a low iq because of some genetic factors. My point is that in itself is a poor question. Whether it's true or not seems -to me at least-to be unimportant from a liberal political view ( Iris M: the importance of "political fictions"). The same could be said (stress: "could") about 'submission' and the 'natural' inferiority of women (does a "psychological fact" imply an essence or nature?)

  23. You don't mind if I continue do you?

    Well, I don't know how you "know" what I think, roxana.

    I think you're wrong when you conflate people's concern about texts (in this case it's not the contents of the texts or their "factual" accurateness per se but the emphasis on one particular slant or set of 'facts')and the role of courts and political power to censor.

    Of course, I agree with you in that one doesn't have to dislike a novel -as a novel-because it has an odd view of colonialism or fails to mention it (for example).

    But I do cringe when you say 'impossible otherness' ( I know this a just a reflection of my own simplicity). But it seems to me, r, that the "normal" is being reinforced by the notion of submission, not challenged by it.

    I don't know what's it like there, but over here-and I suspect in many other muslim countries and the sub-continent in general- the whole notion of submission (to one's "superiors", to the husband etc) is so prevalent that one can hardly innocently talk that way (I know you weren't talking about here..I'm just trying (clumsily) to explain why I feel like reacting to your comments).

    And when you say:
    "how can it be that there are people who want to be slaves, and find their fulfilment in that? "

    I have to say: what are you talking about? Who wants to be a slave? Are you serious?

    Even in the religious context-where 'submission' is supposed to be the thing-and yes, I know there's a whole diatribe against the Jews (and muslims) as being slaves of the law or fatalistic- I have difficulty with that notion.

    anyways, let me have some tea and a cinnamon roll and get back to you.

  24. b, I am afraid I can't address all these topics because I am very busy today, preparing for a trip. thank you for your detailed and very pertinent comments. I really appreciate that.
    just to clarify some aspects, quickly (such an illusion, that one could 'clarify' things this way):
    1. it was my guess that you would not agree with the concept of art devoid of moral responsability and it was based on other discussions that we had in the past, it seemed to me that you were very concerned with a humanist content of the works. if this assumption of mine has offended you, I apologize.

    2. of course that there are many aspects related to this topic (and others too) and that one can focus on them differently. but I feel it is wrong if Clavdia or me get under attack for concentrating only upon some aspects that were important for us at that point (I don't mean that you have attacked us, not at all :-). I really don't see the problem here. If somebody wants to post about the social problems of subission and violence, I would be more that happy that this is said and done. but I don't think that, let's say, somebody writes a book about the psychology of masochism, he or she should make footnotes about the dangers of submission or the victims of abuse. or if I choose to quote Oscar Wilde or write about his work, should I make an explanatory note saying that the misogyny he displays is wrong and his works could reinforce the dominant power discourse? I think this would be a very poor way of dealing with intellectual and artistic freedom and freedom of thought in any way. it is another dictatorship, but the other way round.

    3. yes, there are people who want to be slaves, no matter how absurd this seems. in this sense I talked about 'impossible otherness', one cannot even grasp how this could be, but it is, nevertheless, real. you should read that Paulhan essay.

    4. I agree that literature or discussions about submission have a different meaning in muslim countries. I can't say anything to this respect. only that I think (maybe it is me being idealistic) that at least in europe nowadays the 'normality' in a relationship implies the equality of roles. violence and dominance as abuse of women, one one side, or accepted submission as part of a masochistic relationship, on the other, are not seen as the norm. it is a tragic horror that this kind of abuse still happens, and it happens on such a large scale. but masochistic relationship or what is labelled as such implies the free will of both partners, so it is a different case.

    I have just seen the Iranian film Dayereh, about the treatment of women in Iran, and it is horrible. Not that I haven't known that already, but still it has left me shattered.

    be well

  25. and I forget, re literature or art being held responsible for shaping people's behaviour, I am very much with Wilde here: 'There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written.'

  26. There are people who want to be slaves..it is *real*

    Well, don't know if there are or not. Sounds suspicious. Even if it *is* a fact that there are such people:

    1) have they been socially conditioned that way ("entrenched preferences")? Sen makes this point with regard poverty.

    2) we can, possibly, still form a judgement on them or their situation(it is not just a fact).

    3) why should we choose to focus on such alleged "facts" ?

    4) does the emphasis on such people in any way lead to the possibility that this can be 'essentialized' and to what consequences?

    Yes, I think "in Europe" there is greater emphasis on equality in many different spheres. But lest we get carried away I still think there is a terrible 'race consciousness', a tribalism that thinks in terms of so-called "facts" of differences.

    Sorry, Roxana, after the Trenches, the Bomb, the Gulags, and the Camps I'm not so sure that 'Europe' has that much to say about equality in many other fundamental respects.