Bob Flanagan and Monsieur M.: Notes On Two Supermasochists

Uncertain if this functions strictly as a “paper,” I describe the following as a series of observations on the conjunctive and disjunctive relation between self-styled “supermasochist,” Bob Flanagan in the posthumous documentary Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (Kirby Dick, 1997), and of “Monsieur M.” in Michel de M’Uzan’s 1972 essay, “A Case of Masochistic Perversion and an Outline of a Theory.”

There is no ambiguity during Sick that Bob Flanagan considers his masochistic practices to be entirely indicative of an immense strength on his part. Certainly, we see great parallels here with Monsieur M. of M’Uzan’s analysis, whose own allusions and accounts of “the terrible tortures he had endured” were ultimately descriptions of his own seeming “omnipotence [told with] an immense pride.” (461)

Assuredly, M’Uzan’s interpretation of M.’s masochism feels not too dissimilar from such a case as Venus in Furs, in which “the sadistic partner [is] a person destined to be held in contempt, someone who is devalued as he is reduced to the role of being a specific instrument.” (461) However, there is an ambivalent, albeit extant, relation here to Deleuze’s introduction to the same. For Deleuze, the masochist aims, in being beaten, to embody his father, thus presenting his domineering super-ego avatar to be beaten and accordingly castrated. According to M’Uzan, M.’s desire to be beaten appears to be a desire to be beaten by his father, although also makes clear to us that M did discover his father’s own masochistic desire, whilst also, it seems, denigrating his male sadists all the while. Thus, although we may well surmise the performative embodiment of the father in the masochistic role in the case of M. just as much as in Deleuze’s own speculation, it is difficult to suggest that the function of castrating disavowal of the father is as active in the fantasy.  It is for similar reasons that M’Uzan proposes the category of masochistic perversion, contrasted to moral masochism and/or feminine masochism, due to a lack of concern regarding the super-ego in the case of M.’s desire. Nevertheless, M’Uzan and Deleuze would disagree on the form of concern the moral and/or feminine masochist show in their desire toward the super-ego, suggesting more an identification with the mother, rather than an invocation of her. (462) Accordingly, M’Uzan ultimately concludes that M.’s psychological domain of familial relation is an entirely other landscape:

 

He is like his wife, his wife is like him, she is his parent, he is like his parents, etc. These are not identifications in the active and differentiated sense in which we find them in neurotics, but are purely “duplications.” Under these conditions one must consider his personality as being essentially structured outside the Oedipal situation. (463)

 

Interestingly, when director Kirby Dick interviews Flanagan’s parents about his predilections, his father expresses a certain sympatico with his logic, if nothing else, whilst Flanagan’s mother repeats over and over that she asks herself “where was I?” Flanagan and his dominant long-time partner Sheree Rose express no doubt at all regarding the maternal associations with the dominatrix. Rose is entirely forthcoming in her assertion that to be a dominatrix is in many ways to be a strict mother, one whose consistent, if not constant, giving of punishment and care is reflective of the idealised oral mother. Flanagan’s statement that “I don’t get turned on by slamming my hand in a car door; I don’t get turned on by being treated badly… but I’d ask Sheree to be mean to me.” In this statement we conceive of a triangle, at its points: a hand slammed in a car door, “bad” treatment, and “mean” treatment. We may surmise from this triangle, that each point is roughly reflective of the three women of Masoch: the slamming of the car door is the untameably unpredictable hetaeric, with no regard for context; the potential for “bad” treatment is the castrating Oedipal, actively sadistic and dehumanising; “meanness,” by contrast, is indicative of a role that can be negotiated, even scripted: the oral ideal. The script becomes apparent, as we see a comedic video of Flanagan and Rose, the overhead narration being a letter written to a fictionalised Flanagan’s mother:

“Dear Mom…I fell in love. In some ways, she sort of reminds me of you. I don’t know if it was the clothes she wore, the sound in her voice, or the look in her eye, but I knew I was hooked for life.”

 

Of course, just as we understand the reaching toward the ideal oral mother as not simply being a stationary locus toward which the subject can journey and at which the subject can finally reside, but instead the median point in the perennial oscillation of the subject-as-pendulum, the harmony of Flanagan and Rose’s dynamic as a couple is likewise portrayed at points in flux. The masochist may indeed often operate as the one in control, but here we move from Venus in Furs’ representation of the sullen, aggrieved and resentful masochism of Severin, to seeing outtakes from Flanagan and Rose’s video art, in which he becomes the angry director. Contract signing away all agency of action, decision and sensation of Flanagan’s over to Rose or no, Flanagan expresses his discomfort and displeasure freely and forcefully, if hurt when unprepared, or beaten inaccurately. Flanagan asserts whilst interviewed for his MOMA installation Visiting Hours, “I’m more the mad scientist than the guinea pig.”

As the film chronologically progresses, and Flanagan’s struggles with cystic fibrosis become harder for him to endure, his receptiveness to Rose’s expressed desire to engage in BDSM severely wanes. Rose says to the camera, “I don’t think he’s even a masochist anymore; I think life has beaten him down too much.” Whilst there was no doubt that Flanagan’s masochistic practice was always connected to a sense of battle against his ultimately fatal disease, we now have it presented as him being in the middle between two “beatings.” A submission to one is a disavowal of the other and, accordingly, his ambivalence about his own longevity appears reflected by his portrayed ultimate ambivalence about his lifestyle.

Contrary to the more consistent consideration of heterosexual male masochism presented by Freud and Deleuze, in the case of Monsieur M., his wife was a fellow masochist, and they both relied on male lovers (the ones so contemptuously considered). Instrumentalising these seemingly nameless and faceless others, both masochists were able to dominate and be dominated by each other by proxy, whilst M. certainly also was able to construct and affirm a masochistic identity on the basis of the maleness of these proxies that allowed for nuanced if pragmatic negotiations of gender performance and expression (consider in particular the tattoos Je suis une putain, servez-vous de moi comme d’une femelle, vous jouirez bien and the more non-binary assertion Je ne suis ni homme ni femme, mais une salope, mais une putain, mais une chair à plaisir). Indeed, one possible reason for the contemptuous treatment of male lovers ostensibly afforded so much power as to be able to instruct M. to amputate body parts, is that – outside of the masochistic scene – M. expressed no particular homosexual desire. in fact, the ultimate waning of his masochistic inclinations appears directly connected to heterosexual loss and desire.

We know from M’Uzan’s account that, although it did start up again for some time later, M.’s relationship to masochistic perversion halted abruptly at the death of his wife, who succumbed to pulmonary tuberculosis – reportedly, “she endured such extreme torture and was dominated by such intense perverse needs that she wasted all her strength, dying at the age of 23.” (457) The chronology of M.’s sadomasochistic rituals and encounters is ambiguous (as it is, to some extent, with Flanagan – to this we shall return), but we can determine that M. initially disengaged from the masochistic lifestyle for a period of at least two years, following his wife’s death, thus presumably restarting at about age 35, and having ten years of somewhat less successful encounters and relationships, before his interest officially started to diminish, seemingly concurrent to a stark increase in vanilla heterosexual dreams about a “voluptuous woman with whom sexual relationships approached normal love making.” (458) Thus, the cessations to M.’s masochistic inclinations appear instigated by the death of one masochistic woman, and the spectral appearance of another, hetaeric figure. That the first cessation appears marked by a period of sympathetic contraction of the same disease that claimed the life of his young wife should not, I suggest, be considered insignificant. As with Freud’s description of the question of life’s prolongation arisen within the conflict between Eros and the death-drive, the question of death in this case functions as a unifying principle between masochistic parties that appears at once to be in conflict with masochistic desire, but also its ultimate apotheosis of expression.

As with so many other analyses of masochism, the function of suspension, as much as the act, appears central to these examples of masochistic practice. Flanagan recounts to an audience about his early childhood indulgences:

 

Every Friday night… I’d wait ‘til everybody went to sleep, and I’d start to play… I’d pour white glue over my body… Trussed up by these plant hooks… All these ropes, suspending me off the floor.

 

As much as we may interpret the masochistic scene’s close association with binding and suspension as the particular attempt to freeze a particular moment – namely the moment the dominating female partner reaches the apex of cold, oral ideal – we cannot help but first and foremost associate Flanagan’s suspension of time as being directly linked to a desire to prolong a life marked for early death. Indeed, Flanagan credited his masochistic practice for having just such a result, living far beyond his original prognosis. Nevertheless, he also sardonically announces, “I was promised an early death, but here I am forty years later, still waiting.”

As with M’Uzan’s case of M., Dick’s documentary of Flanagan can only be considered approximately chronological, so it is hard to determine what was the “last” masochistic ritual of Flanagan’s before his demise. However, the final we see in Sick, before his deterioration of health is as such that Rose posits that he is “no longer a masochist,” is the infamous video of him, hammering a nail through his penis, into a block of wood. There are perhaps three elements worthy of note when regarding this video: first – just as with those early experimentations – Flanagan is performing independent of Rose or any other dominatrix. Second, nailing his penis to a block of wood likely represents for the majority of us the logical conclusion to the masochistic emphasis on being tightly bound and constricted. Third, the undoing of this act, with the resultant blood streaming from Flanagan’s penis, operates as the final ejaculation, the suspension now lifted.

Given that we see Flanagan describing the scene to an audience just before the video itself (unless, of course, it was a repeated act), we may assume later modes of play. Nevertheless, the narratological effect of this portrayed as the final masochistic act before Bob’s ultimate succumbing to his cystic fibrosis speaks, I believe, to the enmeshment of the illness with his play: not simply as something disavowed by Bob’s assertion of his own corporeal agency through his choice to go through such extreme feats, but perhaps as the ultimate super-ego who may be bested through the ritualistic process, but in the Deleuzian sense that depends upon its participation. The bloody release represents not simply a willingness to let go of the suspension and accept death, but indicates the end of a session in which the illness itself may be embodied as the anal-sadistic father to be defensively castrated by the oral mother. Perhaps the spectrality of this illness with which Flanagan parodically aligns himself for this act dictates the necessity for such genital mutilation, but we as an audience to the film do see it work. Following his death, Rose shows the camera the fatal phlegm that was in his lungs: now trapped in a plastic container. In choosing to let go, in choosing to die (rhetoric employed both by the nurses and Rose at Flanagan’s deathbed), that ultimate super-ego is made manifest that it may be castrated and, indeed, bound.

 

The dominant narrative within Venus in Furs – Severin’s autobiographical text-within-the-text – in its opening scene, presents Severin’s journey within a few pages from a devoted and seemingly public worship of the “cold, cruel” statue of Venus, to the far more clandestine fascination with a procured photograph of Titian’s Venus with a Mirror, to the immediately horrified response to seeing first the statue adorned with furs, and then Wanda, similarly attired. Certainly, the synthetic operation at play here is on one level an entirely uncomplicated function of the Hegelian dialectic that so influences Masoch’s personal philosophy. However, the intermingling of Severin’s horror and desire is what catalyses the parameters of this text’s analysis, from both a Freudian and Deleuzian perspective.

There is a stark immediacy in the fetishistic function within this scene, such that the instigating stimulus for the horrified reaction to the revelation of maternal castration is, in fact, the erotic object of the realisation’s disavowal, which is to say the furs. Accordingly, I am reminded in this encounter yet again of the “dangerous” supplementation of the Symbolic order, that which – through its imposition of language upon the Real which itself lacks nothing, establishes an absence that must now be healed. This horrific encounter soon follows Severin’s rumination, first on Samson and Delilah, and then on the Book of Judith. Interestingly enough, the two editions of Venus in Furs I possess have divertingly distinct translations regarding the beheading of Holofernes: one reads “The Lord hath smitten him by the hand of a woman,” whilst the other: “The almighty Lord hath struck him, and hath delivered him into the hands of a woman.” Accordingly, the uncertainty between these two positions of smiting and deliverance feel entirely borne out in the ambivalence of the encounter, and indeed the novel’s resolution.

Nevertheless, we can interpret in both accounts, a degree to which the role of woman can supplant the classically considered punishing patriarch and, in so doing, can render even capital punishment a source of jouissance for the masochist. From such a perspective, Deleuze’s assertion that the masochistic route toward pleasure is to portray his patriarchal superego, so that it may be castrated by the figure of the oral mother, having both defeated and acquired attributes of the hetaeric and oedipal mothers (whom we might understand as the overtly deistic / Titian-painted Venus, and the marble statue Venus, respectively), is affirmed. Indeed, Severin, speaking to himself so harshly during his flight response indicates the splitting mechanism upon which so much of this process is dependent.

Freud’s “The Theme of the Three Caskets,” which seems so overtly to influence Deleuze’s commentary, in all its cultural critique, makes central two plays of Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice, and King Lear. Assuredly, this scene in Venus in Furs is also highly indicative of a third: The Winter’s Tale. Freud tells us that, ultimately, the third mother is above all “the Mother Earth who receives [the subject] once more…the silent Goddess of Death will take him into her arms.” Yet again, smiting and deliverance are inextricably married. And yet, just as with The Winter’s Tale, here we see a statue come to life. Severin’s demanding fantasy necessitates that a figure of death become a figure of life. Within the vain folly of this prerequisite lies the source of the frustrated resentment that so permeates the relationship between Severin and Wanda.