The Difference Between Sadism and Masochism as the Difference Between Irony and Humor


One of the most interesting distinctions I have come across, regarding comedy, deals with the distinction made by Gilles Deleuze (a French philosopher) between humor and irony.  According to Deleuze, in his book entitled Masochism, we find irony in Sadism and humor in Masochism (I am capitalizing these words for the sake of emphasis).  As a thinker who is interested in “leaving metaphysics behind,” Deleuze makes the interesting claim that Sadism simply reinstates metaphysics even through it purports to destroy it.   In contrast, Deleuze thinks that Masochism does leave it behind.  Evidence of this distinction can be found in the irony and humor we find in the work of Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, respectively.

The reason this distinction is of such interest to me is not simply that it is unexpected; rather, it is also of interest because, as Ruth Wisse notes in The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, the psychologist Theodor Reik and the cultural critic Albert Goldman both “psychologize” the schlemiel by claiming that he is a masochistic character or, quite simply, a person who, in fear of reality, finds excuses and “rationalizes” inaction:

‘Psychoanalysis,’ writes Theodor Reik, ‘would characterize the schlemihl as a masochistic character who has strong unconscious will to fail and spoil his chances.’  Explaining the popularity of the schlemiel pose in modern culture, Albert Goldman calls it an excuse, an apology, and a rationalization.  (68)

To be sure, the basis of her reading of the schlemiel – in major part – is based on challenging the claim that the schlemiel is a masochistic character.  She argues against the psychoanalyst who “treats the schlemiel concept as a neurotic symptom and tries to determine the causes of a patient’s failure in actual situations.”    In contrast, while the author “may or may not be aware of the ‘masochistic need to fail’ that dominates the subconscious of his (schlemiel) character,” such “knowledge may be irrelevant to the story.”  Wisse claims that, in a story like “Gimpel the Fool,” the “irony…rests on our ability to perceive his failure as a success”(68).  And Gimpel’s “antipragmatic philosophy mocks the need for classification and rationalization of which the tendency to define Gimpel as a masochist is a good example”(68).  This mockery of psychological explanations – namely, the claim that the schlemiel is a masochistic character – affirms, by way of irony, goodness:

Since the schlemiel is above all a reaction against the evil surrounding him, he must reject more and more as the evil increases; Gimpel is prepared to walk into eternity in pursuit of personal goodness. (69).

Read against Wisse’s take on Masochism, Deleuze’s reading offers another way of addressing the claim that the schlemiel is a masochistic character.  I’d like to break his reading down and test Wisse’s reading against it so as to see how or whether Deleuze’s reading has any relevance to schlemiel theory.

Cutting right to the chase, Deleuze writes that “in modern thought irony and humor take on a new form: they are now directed at a subversion of the law”(86).   Both Sade and Masoch (respectively, the founders of what, today, is called Sadism and Masochism), “represent the two main attempts at subversion, at turning the law upside down.”  But the ways they went about doing this and the success in doing so differ radically.

In view of his claim, Deleuze offers definitions of irony and humor in terms of law.  Writing on irony, he states:

Irony is still in the process or movement which bypasses the law as a merely secondary power and aims at transcending it toward a higher principle. (86)

Deleuze’s reading speaks directly to the Socratic practice of irony where “Good” is a principle toward which one transcends one’s “secondary nature” in the name of one’s “primary nature.”   Through irony, one “discovers” one’s “primary nature.”   Sade, like Nietzsche after him, took the Good as their target.  And, as Deleuze notes, they used irony to “overturn” it; or rather reveal that the Good no longer exists and can no longer be used as the basis of law:

But what is the higher principle no longer exists, and if the Good can no longer provide the basis for the law or a justification of its power?  Sade’s answer is that in all its forms – natural, moral, and political – the law represents the rule of secondary nature which is always geared toward conservation; it is a usurpation of true sovereignty.  (86)

Sade sees the law as the basis of all of societies problems.  It is the basis of tyranny.  Deleuze paraphrases Sade as saying: “Tyrants are created by the law alone: they flourish by virtue of the law”(86).  Sade’s hatred of tyranny is the “essence of his thinking.”  And the heroes of his novels speak the “counter-language of tyranny.”

Sade looks to transcend the law, but not toward the Good (as Socrates would do); rather, he transcends the law toward the “direction of its opposite, the Idea of Evil, the supreme principle of wickedness, which subverts the law and turns Platonism upside down”(87).  (Note: The notion or rather language of inverting Platonism was stressed in a several aphorisms by Friedrich Nietzsche.)  By way of such a process, one will discover his or her “primary nature,” which, in Sade’s view is the opposite of tyranny.  Citing Sade, Deleuze notes that, for Sade, law is “inferior” to “anarchy”:

The law can only be transcended by virtue of a principle that subverts it and denies its power.  

This principle is, according to Deleuze, at the basis of the Sadean irony which destroys the law in order to transcend the law.  But, as Deleuze notes, we are still in the realm of metaphysics since one principle (the Idea of Evil) replaces another (the Idea of the Good).

Deleuze contrasts Sade’s ironic challenge to the law to the Masochist’s challenge, which is based, instead, on what Deleuze calls humor.  Although they both take the law as their “target,” the ironist and the humorist, like the Masochist and the Sadist, are fundamentally different.  However, this assertion may rightfully meet with a puzzled look since, to be sure, the Masochist is one who submits (and here, one would say, submits to the law). Deleuze, nonetheless, claims the opposite: a “masochist would not by contrast be regarded as gladly submitting to it (the law)”(88).

So, what is humor as opposed to irony?  And how does it relate to Masochism?

Deleuze uses a spatial metaphor to illustrate:

What we call humor –in contradistinction to the upward movement of irony toward a transcendent higher principle – is a downward movement from the law to its consequences.  (88)

This downward movement of humor is accomplished by “twisting the law by excess of zeal.”  In other words, one mocks the law by way of being “too zealous.”  And this is what Masochism-as-humor does:

By scrupulously applying the law we are able to demonstrate its absurdity and provoke the very disorder that it is intended to prevent or to conjure.  By observing the letter of the law, we refrain from questioning its ultimate or primary character; we then behave as if the supreme sovereignty of the law conferred upon it the enjoyment of all those pleasures it denies us; hence, by the closest adherence to it, and by zealously embracing it, we may hope to partake of its pleasures. (88)

This speaks directly to the Masochist since:

A close examination of masochistic fantasies or rites reveals that while they bring into play the very strictest applications of the law, the result in every case is the opposite of what might be expected (thus whipping, far from punishing or preventing an erection, provokes and ensures it).  It is a demonstration of the law’s absurdity. (88)

How can we, based on this reading, address the schlemiel?  While for Reik and Goodman, Masochism vis-à-vis the schlemiel has a negative value, for Deleuze, Masochism (and its essence: humor) has a positive value: it challenges the law in ways that Sadism cannot.   By over-observing the law one makes it absurd.

A good example of this is evoked by the film theorist and critic Steve Shaviro.  In his book Cinematic Bodies, he writes on Jerry Lewis as a figure of Masochism.  By being over-zealous and through intense mimicry, Shaviro tells us, Jerry Lewis masochistically inverts the law (or the norm).

In the next blog entry, we will continue on this thread and look into how or whether this reading of Masochism and humor relates to the schlemiel.  After all, Jerry Lewis does play a schlemiel.  But this reading is focused less on the psychologizations that Ruth Wisse criticized than on a different way of understanding one’s relation to “the law.”

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