Thomas Laqueur: The Allure of the Whip

Roundup: Talking About History

[Thomas Laqueur: teaches European cultural history at the University of California-Berkeley.]

In 1700, the abbé Jacques Boileau published a book called Historia flagellantium that would forever change its subject. He argued that whipping as a form of penance had no biblical authority, that it was of pagan origin, and that, at best, it belonged to an earlier, more spiritually heroic age. That had all been said before. What got him on the Catholic Church's Index of Prohibited Books by 1703 was a story about Father Cornelius Adriaensen, a 16th-century priest who, after striking his young female acolytes with knotted cords, went on to tenderly touch their naked buttocks and thighs with his rods of willow and birch. More shockingly, Boileau claimed that Adriaenson's evident pleasure was not an exception but the rule—that flagellation was, by its nature, erotically ambivalent and deliberately so. His book signals the great divide: From 1700 forward, the whip would be identified less with piety or penance than with sexual arousal.

In In Praise of the Whip, Niklaus Largier, a professor of German at the University of California-Berkeley, uneasily straddles this watershed. On the one hand, he insists that accounts of the scourging and bleeding of medieval men and women, expressive of their deepest spiritual longings, should not be read through the lens of Marquis de Sade's Philosophy in the Bedroom or Richard von Krafft-Ebing's 19th-century classic, Psychopathia Sexualis. The story he wants to tell is one of discontinuity: The first half of this book is about ascesis and explores the rigorous pursuit of self-denial; the second is about erotics, and examines the equally rigorous quest for pleasure.

On the other hand, Largier recognizes that Boileau had a point: Whipping, and the literature about whipping—with its repetitiveness that mimics the repeated strokes of the lash—is arousing. And of course the body, which is the site of the theater of self-flagellation, is also the site of arousal. But arousal does not necessarily mean sexual arousal. Largier's central insight is that both before and after 1700, the purpose of the lash, and of reading about the experiences of others being beaten, has been to excite passion, desire, and fantasy—to arouse the imagination. It is a challenge to the confines of flesh, a mobilization of the body in the interests of transcending ordinary space and time, whether it is God or a more sensual self that the flagellant finds there. After Largier, the lash can no longer be identified as merely a tool of either piety or pornography. ...

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