Off the beaten track

<strong>In Praise of the Whip: a Cultural History of Arousal</strong>
Niklaus Largier <em>Zone Book

In a suburban Dublin school in the late 1970s, I caught the tail end, so to speak, of corporal punishment. Not that the good brothers made us bend over for our punishment, by then: we went home instead with hot, welted hands. But we had our suspicions about the more fervid among the floggers, not least the sweaty charmer who liked to warm the cane with a brisk rub of his crotch before he let fly. Something, we surmised, was up with this lot. Such at least, as Niklaus Largier's gripping history of flagellation confirms, is the easy modern assumption with regard to the switch, the rod and the birch. Flagellation is surely a sign of misdirected or repressed desire: its adherents (givers or receivers) must be, at best, just a little bit sad. But In Praise of the Whip tells another story: of ascetic and perverse imaginations that were liberated by a taste for the whip.

Largier begins with the practice of self-mortification that flourished in the monasteries of the Middle Ages. The idea that monkish beatings were simple proxies for suppressed urges only took hold, he notes, in the anticlerical 18th century. The concept of repressed sexuality cannot account for the symbolic vigour of the historical act, nor for the sincere belief on the part of pious self-flagellants that they were re-enacting the passion of Christ. "What a joyful, unique spectacle," wrote Peter Damian in the late 11th century, "if the heavenly judge looks down and man flogs himself to his depths for his shameful deeds." Flagellation was a kind of theatre, a drama with, quite possibly, only one spectator: the voyeur god whose unblurred vision took in the whole amazing and affecting scene. Performances were characterised with almost culinary care: beatings were served sec or sanglant.

Which is not to say that the elaborate whipping rituals concocted in Europe's cloisters were uncontroversial. Largier details the habits of celebrated flagellants such as Theresa of Avila, who rolled naked among thorns and beat herself with stinging nettles in a devotional practice known as urticatio. Rosa of Lima must have bristled with penitent paraphernalia: she stuck quills in her head, wore a crown of thorns and sewed needles into her hair shirt. But while such singular figures served to promulgate the notion of individual atonement, the vast processions of plague-fearing flagellants that turned up across the Continent in 1349 were a different matter. Church and civil authorities seem to have discerned that they were dealing with some unruly desires on the part of the faithful, and so began to legislate against the cowled, chanting, half-flayed enthusiasts of public flogging.

By the end of the 18th century, thanks to scurrilous legends of nymphomaniac nuns and priapic clergy, the medieval history of the whip was established as a stock trope of European pornography: the Marquis de Sade was only the most thorough in this regard. At the same time, the English had managed to acquire a reputation as Europe's most energetic algolagniacs, a celebrity too easily explained by the misty-red memory of public-school thrashings. In a bravura reading of the rod-loving writings of Swinburne, Largier argues that the muscular whacking the poet received regularly from a pair of prostitutes (to the point where it almost ruined him financially) was less a reminder of delicious schoolboy agonies and more an image of the rigours and rewards of literature itself. What is a whipping, asks Largier, if not precisely a rhythm, a particularly heightened experience of time?

Roland Barthes once wrote that what conventional moralists always miss about so-called perversions is a simple, not very furtive fact: they make people happy. In Praise of the Whip ends with Proust's Baron de Charlus getting himself whipped by sailors: "his desire to be chained and beaten betrayed, in its ugliness, a dream just as poetic as other men's desire to go to Venice or to keep a mistress". Largier's point, in this sedulously researched and (unsurprisingly) colourful volume, is that despite the supposed liberation of western sexuality in the last half-century, we still conceive of sex as split between its natural and unnatural impulses: a "healthy" sex life has simply supplanted a "normal" one. Worse, we see that very modern invention, sexuality, where it never was in the first place, thus radically reducing the repertoire of human fantasy to a few easily explicable compulsions. Which is in turn a way of stripping sex itself of all the odd dreams and desires it might contain.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Israel, Gaza and a summer of war?