Luna Nájera’s com­ments on Gille Deleuze’s “Coldness and Cruelty” 

For Gilles Deleuze, the Marquis de Sade (1740–1814) and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1836–1895) were clin­i­cians of civ­i­lization. Writing in the aftermath of the French Rev­o­lution and the Rev­o­lu­tions of 1848, respec­tively, both writers addressed pol­itics and the problems of rev­o­lution, using counter-languages that involve vio­lence and sex­u­ality to describe a form of being (see chapters 1–2). The sig­nif­i­cance of this, says Deleuze, lies in the fact that: “In prin­ciple vio­lence is some­thing that does not speak, or speaks but little, while sex­u­ality is some­thing that is little spoken about” (16).

Coldness and Cruelty” (1967) rep­re­sents an early phase of Deleuze’s study of desire. Among the ques­tions he asks are: “What is the meaning of the meeting of vio­lence and sex­u­ality in such excessive and abundant lan­guage as that of Sade and Masoch? How are we to account for the violent lan­guage linked with eroticism?” (17). A response to these ques­tions is indi­cated in his com­ments on the function of lit­er­ature in the writings of Masoch and Sade, which “is not to describe the world, since this has already been done, but to define a coun­terpart of the world capable of con­taining its vio­lence and excesses” (37). Deleuze treats the dis­torted mirror reflec­tions pro­duced in the works of the two writers as the signs and symptoms of the social and political problems of the time. This approach is in sharp con­trast with the clinical approach of Krafft-Ebbing, Havelock Ellis, Féré, and Freud, according to which masochism and sadism are two poles of one per­version (known as sado­masochism). Deleuze rec­og­nized that the uni­verse of each of the two writers had nothing to do with that of the other. Com­menting on their dif­fer­ences, he declared that “Their tech­niques differ, and their problems, their con­cerns and their inten­tions are entirely dis­similar” (13).

For Deleuze, Sade and Masoch are “great anthro­pol­o­gists, of the type whose work suc­ceeds in embracing a whole con­ception of man, culture and nature; they are also great artists in that they dis­covered new forms of expression, new ways of thinking and feeling and an entirely original lan­guage” (16). As stated earlier, Sade and Masoch each create a counter-language that involves the function of erotic lan­guage and its effects on the senses. Deleuze shows that they deploy the lin­guistic func­tions of imper­a­tives and descrip­tions (fea­tures of porno­graphic lit­er­ature) in dis­tinctly dif­ferent ways to create counter-languages that “chal­lenge any attempt to think of pol­itics in legal­istic or con­tractual terms” (79). Thinking about the political through a modality that eschews morality and ratio­nality is in fact what makes a reading of “Coldness and Cruelty” a pos­sibly fruitful approach to Etienne de la Boétie’s question of why sub­jects desire their own repression.

In his account of the formal dif­fer­ences between the sadistic and masochistic ideals, Deleuze observes that one of the formal ele­ments of Masoch’s fic­tional art that has escaped critical attention is the form of the con­tract. The model of the con­tract, which the subject draws up with the tor­turer, is a juridical aspect of masochism that gen­erates law and that, along with the work of art, is instru­mental for the tran­sition from “a lower nature to the great Nature” (76). Deleuze explains that although it would appear that the masochistic subject submits to the law by entering into the con­tractual relation, the subject actually sub­verts the (moral) law: “The essence of masochistic humor lies in this, that the very law which forbids the sat­is­faction of a desire under threat of sub­se­quent pun­ishment is con­verted into one which demands the pun­ishment first and then orders that the sat­is­faction of the desire should nec­es­sarily follow upon the pun­ishment” (88–89). Deleuze traces the curious process by which the law gen­erated by the con­tract leads to ritual and myth (Chapter 8).

Just as the sub­version of the law is a feature of the masochistic ideal, in Sade’s fiction both con­tract and law are repu­diated in favor of insti­tu­tions. Deleuze observes that in the absence of a higher prin­ciple and a good that can no longer provide a basis for law and the jus­ti­fi­cation of power, Sade repu­diates con­tractual rela­tions and the law because he views natural, moral, and political laws as rep­re­senting “the rule of sec­ondary nature” (86). (In Sade’s work sec­ondary nature is bound by its own rules and its own laws.)

The most cutting and perhaps thought pro­voking obser­va­tions about law arising from Sade’s fiction raise ques­tions about whether con­tractual rela­tions and law nec­es­sarily entail a master/slave relation. He says: “It is irrel­evant whether we see the law as the expression of the rule of the strongest or as the product of the self-protective union of the weak. Masters and slaves, the strong and the weak, all are crea­tures of sec­ondary nature; the union of the weak merely favors the emer­gence of the tyrant; his exis­tence depends on it. In every case the law is a mys­ti­fi­cation; it is not a del­e­gated but a usurped power that depends on the infamous com­plicity of slaves and masters” (86).

While the con­sid­er­ation of the symptoms reg­is­tered in Sade’s and Masoch’s fiction does not imply an endorsement of the per­ver­sions to which their work gives voice, might what they say about the law and con­tractual alliances gen­erate new ques­tions in our approach to lit­er­ature and history? Here are some examples:

  • In thinking about the con­tract between sov­ereign and subject, how do we account for the role of desire?

  • What is the role of desire in the political fic­tions (e.g., social con­tract) that we study and how do we trace desire? Are desire and affect dis­tinct? Are they inter­re­lated and if so, how?

  • What might it mean to approach the notion of social con­tract as a fiction? Are con­tractual alliances by necessity con­ducive to repressive/ oppressive social structures?

  • At a time in which some world leaders are actively sub­verting law and under­mining gov­erning insti­tu­tions, as well as ques­tioning the validity of facts, how can we char­ac­terize the com­par­ative via­bility of laws and insti­tu­tions for modern democracy in the U.S.?

  • How do the symptoms described by Sade and Masoch help us explain the desire for subjection?

  • In the context of the 2020 elec­tions, how do we explain the desire of a major per­centage of the pop­u­lation for an author­i­tarian regime?

  • What con­tem­porary works of art and per­for­mances reflect (in however dis­torted forms) the symptoms of our times? (E.g., “Love­craft Country” and its deployment of the genre of horror to reflect on the legacy of slavery in America, or Sarah Cooper’s “Everything’s Fine.”)

  • Viewing Lucrecia Martel’s Zama as a mode of thought about the present, what does her film enable us to per­ceive about bureau­cracy, desire, and governance?

Deleuze, Gilles. “Coldness and Cruelty.” Masochism. New York: Zone Books, 1991.

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