The Underground Tree: Why masochists operate across time & culture September 13 2021
As some of you reading my blog will know, I've had a fascinating period of stimulation and frustration in equal measures, being part of a US academic reading group who begin masochism in the 19th Century. Some of them refusing to really look at anything earlier materials - believing it to be a different "thing". (eg Flagellation as "merely mechanical irritation of the spinal centre" versus 19th Century masochism and into modern-day BDSM.)
I know this to not be the case, because of my research into primary sources, gathered for 'The History & Arts of the Dominatrix' as an assemblage, from which there is a consistency of:
1) Time-travel roleplays to childhood with roleplaying or rather embodying the Governess / School Mistress / Step-Mother / Aunt etc. Whether 16th Century or 17th Century or 18th Century or 19th Century or 20th Century - same themes and roleplays ad infinitum.
c1761 Fashionable Lectures Delivered with Birch Discipline... (ideas for roleplays with corporal punishment birch discipline in roles of Step-Mother, Governess etc)
2) Cold Venus with whip / Goddess Kali Creator-Destroyer / demon-God / Lion-Woman or Human Tigress / Gigantess / etc, being invoked by masochists across time and culture. They keep landing on the same "kinds" of figures. These include accounts pre-dating Masoch, include Masoch himself, and those who came after him but in many cases were "in ignorance" of his work and were doing this at a young age before they stepped into BDSM scene or knowledge (in the pre-internet days).
3) Second skin / pelt / leather / fur / hair / membrane / toile / lace / silk fabrications coming up again and again, through time. Whether fur, leather, cashmere, hoisery stockings, latex, something strange was going on with this and how repetitive it was coming up. Yes this can be culturally codified and become fashion and identity-signalling, but its origins and consistency speak to something additional at its roots and going on as to why these fabrications / skins / toiles keep coming up as fetishised second skin.
4) Consistency of equipment for impact play / punishment predominant, authentic childhood school and domestic home discipline implements, bondage and suspension frames, clamps and screws, punctuation piercing or penetrating devices, cross-dressing and so forth, across periods and time eras. (I will go into this in further detail in my new book)
5) Linguistic form of particular words and verbs, with a consistency over time and place, and there is an energy transfer to them. I began spread-sheeting them and their etymology:
The "thewen" verbs (þēowan, þȳwan ) to press, impress, force, press on, urge on, drive, press with a weapon, thrust, pierce, stab, threaten, rebuke, subjugate, crush, push, oppress, check. (As already mentioned in earlier post)
Root * wer verbs to wrangle / wrestle / bend; Root * ttrkw verbs to torquere, torture, torment, twist; *ghend words to pry, prey, predator, prison; Root *(s)teu- (1) verbs "to push, stick, knock, beat" - used in toil, strive after, press forward, pressing forward, thrusting toward," "strive after; Root *peuk words to prick, to pierce, to punctuate; Root *klam to clamp, cleat; Root *fang / fāhanan for seizing, taking spoils, plunder; Root *sed- (1) use in equivalent Latin obsessus, past participle of obsidere "obsess, watch closely; besiege, occupy; stay, remain, abide" literally "sit opposite to," from ob "against" (see ob-) + sedere "to sit, etc.
Words that invoke a magical / supernatural / religiosity / Otherworld effect; spine-tingling / hair-raising etc, with a shift in perception of light glow and shine / halo- like effect, etc. (Related to fight-flight-freeze-fawn activation with awe and arousal driving trance effect, as also a feature in Venus in Furs' novella by Leopold von Sacher Masoch.)
Temperature and energy / electrical words - cold, hot, electricity, etc, and use in proximity to absence / ignoring / denial = COLD, and to presence / contact / proximity = WARM. (Structurally related in my view to a "Fort/da" operation from Freud, 1920)
WHY THESE ELEMENTS OCCUR & RECUR?
None of these above phenomenon 1-2-3-4-5 seemed "explainable" by historical-cultural specific phenomenon. I work with for example culturally-historically specific pottery and artwork in archaeology, with specific forms, materiality, functional use, production, names, iconography, style and fashions, status and consumer / audience, and I identify from looted artifacts and those lacking provenance from my encyclopedic knowledge across quite an array of cultures.
So for me, what I was finding in my search of primary historic sources of the Dominatrix craft profession through time, was perplexing and fascinating.
"What is this - the cause of the SAME THINGS and practices popping up again and again, across cultures and time?, I wanted to know. I didn't attempt an explanation in 'The History & Arts of the Dominatrix' because I knew it would take me years, decades, perhaps a lifetime to land on an explanation, and my lecturer advised me and reminded me what happens on archaeological sites when publication of digs is put off waiting on the perfect explanation final site report. Answer: It often never gets published years on, and the Head / Lead of the excavation team dies, with no-one other than those on the dig knowing clearly what was found.
I'd expected joining the CARAS group that we'd be bouncing around ideas to solve this.
I knew the cultural-historical model and Arnoldson's argument didn't adequately "fit" or "work" for masochism from my primary sources assemblage.
A few options / explanations seemed most likely:
Less likely - Option 1) Cross-cultural transmission, revival and fashion (alone). I didn't believe it was this, as an archaeologist specialising in Comparative Art and Archaeology (which is what my Masters degree is in). I would never shut down the possibility absolutely on such scant evidence of fragments from forbidden books, ephemera, sex worker advertising. While one can transmit culturally, as do Senior Dominatrices teaching young apprentices, and get ideas out by books and things becoming "fashion". I absolutely acknowledge and in my book showed evidence of where this has occurred, such as Fanny Hill, Fashionable Lectures and more modern-day 50 Shades of Grey.) To me this was only colouring the tips of something which went much deeper and my gut instinct was this wasn't the fully story "why" the above keep happening across time and culture with such consistency, and breaks, and sprout up again in the same essential form listed above of 1,2,3,4,5.
More likely but still unsatisfactory to me - Option 2) Jungian ? Question mark. I'm not myself yet totally convinced by Jung's "Collective Unconscious" claims.
Or some other explanation so far unknown.
Finally I feel like I have got there, and have come up with a theory of what I think is going on. The answer combines childhood development, adaptational survival strategies, a conversion of beating-down force energy into components (used for ego, esteem and emotional warmth energy) formed like a pendulum operation "fort da" play. And it's the "emissary effect" throwing up of transfigured Venuses from the subconscious / unconscious, and cast forward into life.
The Underground Tree, Kinky Roots, Magical Conversion & Throwing Up Venus
With huge thanks and acknowledgment to Gayle Rubin in my CARAS group, who I must have driven crazy with my incessant emails while I was juicing my thoughts out, (sorry Gayle!), and who is an amazing academic with whom I hold in highest esteem.
Her cultural-historical specialization which I understand in my own framework and head as a "talea" (twig) approach - she is a "splitter", helped me in bouncing emails back-and-forth to get "there" where needed to go.
My brain works in a bit of a nuanced way, sifting through huge volume of cross-cultural comparative artifacts and production methodologies, artifact types.
THE UNDERGROUND TREE
In trying to get to "why" this phenomenon was not sitting as one would expect as a cultural-historical phenomenon, based on my artifact assemblage, I was trying to scan through everything I know of the world across cultures, and I kept coming back to an "Underground Tree".
I was trying to communicate to Gayle Rubin - that the closest I could relate masochism to was something like pigmented tips of pyrogenic geoxylic suffrutices. (Poor Gayle and she must have thought I'm crazy.)
The pigmented tips of the plant - are shooting up and in the sunshine and cultural-historically contingent factors can act on them. However around 90 something percent of the tree is below the ground, with this vast and kinky (appropriately - wink) root system.
But why do you think masochism is like an "Underground Tree" shoots Anne? Why is your brain going to this image / plant system and its shoots?
Image: Parinari capensis Bart Wursten https://www.gardendesign.com/plants/notables/underground-forest.html
Answer 1: Because the masochist psychology appear to form predominantly in babyhood, toddlerhood, an age of brain development, attachment relations and "milestones" (of crawling, etc). These are not strongly contingent on any particular culture or time at the age we're speaking. The "sprout" hasn't come up far enough to be strongly affected by cultural forces yet. (Is not far off the ground, metaphorically and literally.)
Answer 2: Because the masochists appear to have a parental / primary attachment figure who runs hot and cold, and have to develop a coping mechanism / survival strategy. I speculate that the parental authority figure may be narcissistic Cluster B in today's available language psychology terms. They are alternating between hot and cold from the infant's perspective and experience. By which I mean they are getting "cold" emotional inattention and neglect. And "hot" spotlight shining on them suddenly when they are inadvertently or intentionally fulfilling the desires or offer "supply" for the narcissist figure, OR, when they inadvertently (or later intentionally) vex or annoy the narcissist figure and all of a sudden receive negative attention; are rebuked, put down, punished, beaten, reminded of their place.
KINKY ROOTS: SURVIVAL STRATEGY FOR EGO & EMOTIONAL SUSTENANCE
Why does my masochist have such a complex root system growing? The root system is growing so big is analogus to grape vines growing in shitty old riverbed soil full of stones from where the river used to run, so the plant has to work really hard to put down roots to get nourishment. The roots grow thicker than normal, go down deeper than normal, and have to navigate with kinks (an appropriate metaphor) around all the stones.
These are trying conditions. The plants are strained in fight for survival, to get nourishment. They are also needing to work out and around the stones - their shape, feel their way around them. And potentially other plants nearby vying for nourishment in terms of siblings, and uneveness of conditions / position.
And it in the case of Underground Tree varietals, they grow the way they do in challenging soil, and being regularly grazed and razed - pressed on from forces from above, that makes survival challenging.
Image: Xylopodium resprouter detail from: from https://jgpausas.blogs.uv.es/2018/02/02/types-of-resprouters/
In my "BDSM bottoms" large range data surveys, many masochists (and other identities) describe a childhood of "walking on eggshells" or feeling as if they are "treading through a minefield". Other masochists report a parent is so rarely "there" metaphorically (emotionally) or literally (present), and report that the parental figure is off getting their needs met outside the home, or locked off in their office or other space.
We have a poverty of emotional responsiveness to the child's emotional needs, and a lack of emotional warmth from the primary parental figure being reported. I'm seeing playing out also in Self-Interest indices. On a part of my data I asked people to rate themselves from 0-100 on Selflessness to Selfish slider bar scale; and 0-100 on a Giver to Taker slider bar, the masochists tended to have a higher rating of selfish-taker scores added together, by a significant margin.
I would argue that what tends to bump masochists up the Self-interest scoreboard favours a survivalist "I have to look after my own needs" because no-one else is / or will, or within a poverty of limited emotional sustenance availability. They have to "grab" what they can for their own self-interests and needs.
Image: Hands grabbing for the bread basket: get in while you can!
So what is the cause of this emotional poverty within the child's environment growing up? And an apparent regular triggering of the fight-flight-freeze-fawn activation system in their early childhood?
The question is beyond my specialization and lies in the realm of psychology. As an archaologist and art specialist, Dominatrix author and teacher, I see only the impression left behind from this - in masochist psychology, writings, and art, and how they operate "in play", and what they seek.
However I feel relatively comfortable to take a speculative stab at this topic given this is only my blog and not a formal academic paper, to shine a flashlight in the direction I think this trench or root system runs to - for others with greater expertise in this department to look into.
I think it is highly suggestive that the iconography of 'Venus in Furs' by Leopold von Sacher Masoch was based on a figure of a woman in furs looking in a mirror. (Titian 'Venus with a Mirror'). You'll recall that the term "narcissism" is based on the Greek figure of Narcissus who falls in love with his own reflection. If I lay those images side-by-side, the theme perhaps become clearer to readers.
Left: Titian 'Venus with a Mirror'. Right: Caravaggio 'Narcissus' (1594-96)
I think we are often seeing the after-effects of a childhood with a parental figure with narcissistic tendencies or even NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder) under current conception terms. There are of course other possibilities - such as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) as it's presently conceived of, or Complex PTSD effects - whereby the parent is self-absorbed in dealing with their own issues and lacks capacity dealing with their own internal challenges to extend themselves to dealing with the child. Perhaps alcoholism and addictions may also be a factor in the poverty of emotional attentiveness and warmth.
However, I think it is also highly suggestive that masochist writings and emails requesting a specific dynamic or roleplay often invoke themes of the Mistress is to be:
Beautiful, callous, arrogant, vain, exhibit supreme confidence, callous laugh, wicked smile, magnificent, gloating, mocking, delightful, selfish, aggressive, brutal, dominant, pretty, sexy, evil, cruel, Goddess, cold bitch, angel-and-devil in one.
The parental figure feels hot-and-cold from the child's perspective. The child is struggling to get their emotional needs consistently met and attended to: to get metaphorical "warmth".
If there are siblings within the family system, there may too also be a reported unevenness of treatment. I would speculate that in some instances this is due to what the narcissistic parent wants and demands and gains "narcissistic supply" from, responds positively or negatively to, with attention or inattention, and explodes in rage from and directs it towards, who they see as an extension of themselves, and who they view as a rival, within the family system. Much has been written in popular "Pop" psychology on narcissistic family triangles and roles which commonly may emerge reported by therapists such as Golden Child, Scapegoat, Invisible (ignored) Child, Brainwashed Enabler Child, and so on.
I'm not even going to begin to get into any discussion of the validity or accuracy of any such terms, which is far beyond my specialization and pay grade.
However where it gets really interesting is how the masochist child emerging develops in relation to these challenges, various coping mechanisms to deal with the hot-cold effect, emotional survival strategies, and what I describe as a "magical conversion" method that distinguishes the masochist strategy to others.
MASOCHIST CHILD "DEFLECT" STRATEGY & THE MAGICAL CONVERSION (HOW TO SPIN STRAW INTO GOLD, OR HOT-&-COLD INTO WARM)
The masochist child in development is as discussed having to employ a higher level of survival strategies to their needs met in the childhood situation.
Masochist children gradually acquire a range of tools, and use whatever one "works" with trial-and-error, observing cause-and-effect.
However one of their chief modes - tends to be in the art of deflecting.
They take the energy coming at them and bounce it, return-serve, using the momentum to their advantage.
They may also start playing, tinkering, bumping, experimenting with the dynamic they're in, testing its limits, and what works to get the desired effect they want. They do this not only with the original Object-Other (parental figure), but others in the family system, and at school with Schoolteacher, or historically the Governess, sister's friends, or whoever makes a suitable target for such experiments.
The masochist tendencies flexibly employed as appropriate are:
i) carefully observing the other person (looking for chinks in armour, weaknesses, noting the person's routine, values how they operate pattern, in order to use this knowledge to gain an advantage etc)
ii) experimenting with spurring the other, bumping them, or being bratty or provocative, or deliberately naughty to get the desired-for attention, or indeed calculated attentiveness and offer of assistance, to gain proximity privilege.
iii) multi-play dynamic of others within system (family system) and outside the family system looking for other alternative sources of supply, and / or they may seek to "sure up" a source of supply if they find a good one.
Of course such strategies employed are familiar to those captives use to survive.
The dance of the two needs to be "right" for it to work to proper effect for the masochist. For example, if the impact / punctuation is to too quick-coming or too intense for adjustment to the sensation intensity level, it will be experienced as "too much". There needs to be enough time / recovery to adjust and/or process the pain or sensation at the level administered.
However, if the gap and absence is too long or not enough play intensity or passionate / invested engagement, then it will be experienced as unsatisfying, too boring, or tepid / lukewarm in effect by the masochist.
Adding to the recipe is the delicious rush of adrenaline and endorphins, the sensation play impact, the psychological high, and emotional intimacy built with a play-partner.
THE BODY WORK OF BDSM
I want to add in, and this is a very unscientific claim (and I realize I'm now risking getting into the land of "woo-woo"), but I also think there is something going on with the particular bodily "beats", "hits", "punctuations", "piercing", "twisting", to do something energetically within them. It's roiling their internal waters, breaking up the stagnant settled and separated components. It's drawing particular things to the surface. I believe that the masochist in particular has a tendency to have opposites separating out within them, and there is some "body work" going on with these processes; whether one thinks of beating out dough, yeast rising, for example. I don't think it's for nothing that Meibom was considering activation of spinal column and blood flow to the loins - or however he worded it. (I'm stuck in a Level 4 Melbourne Covid lockdown away from my office and original texts to quote from, I'm sorry.)
However what I'm trying to say is I believe there's something also in the Bodywork component, and proponents of texts such as 'The Body Keeps the Score'. That the physicality of BDSM and its techniques and words I keep finding in the etymological roots, are "doing something" in particular, and there's a reason they keep cropping up time and time again in different places and locations.
The "thewen" category terms of pressing and impressing, beating, piercing, crushing, etc, after whom I am indeed naming the masochists; the *ghend root pry; the *peuk root prick / pierce; the *(s)teu root push on, stick, knock, beat, the *klam root to clamp, cleat.
The preferences some have for particular types of pain, mixing with their own body energetics. I believe in the future one day there will be a better language and framework understanding of this.
I also believe it is why Dominatrices have different types of equipment - like thuddy and stingy sensation beating implements, twisting items, clamping items, piercing items, stretching items, penetrating items, doing different things in sensation play and energetically.
THE CURE - TURNS OUT TO BE CARE
I know some psychologists and others reading my blog end up potentially concerned that masochists and BDSM-ers are re-visiting and playing at sites of what might arguably been interpreted as compulsion repetition to prior trauma or (narcissistic or other) abuse. To them, I would ask them to open their mind, and expand their heart. And I would thereafter say...
They are not merely revisiting the site (compulsion repetition) - but alchemising and finding jewels of self-knowledge, and finding the antidote - that the “cure” is care (from Latin). The masochist chooses a beautiful evil but caring Mistress.
They do so in order that they may safely visit places of magnificence and beauty and fear, play and dive and experiment, find pools of wonder, and where their pleasure bubbles. They ride waves of pleasure and pain, submit, surrender, find deep acceptance of Self and others, find corporeal ecstasy, or their soul’s deepest need, psychological release from social pressures, and resurface and be rebirthed with care.
It's interesting that indeed care and compassion are built into the BDSM language vernacular; we speak of afterCARE, and many use "Mercy" as their safeword or a system of Green, Orange and Red to know and symbolise when their limits are reached and set boundaries in that knowledge of those limits, which they inevitably begin to apply beyond session play and into their life.
Lastly, back to those complex underground root systems. It might be an appropriate time to mention to readers that grape vines putting down deep thick kinky roots in shitty stony soil in order that they survive and get nutrients, also grow grapes with great complexity and depth of flavour and which make the best wine. As any winemaker will tell you, good fertile soil makes abundant but watery grapes.
FOR ANYONE TRIGGERED
If anyone reading this blog post has been inadvertently triggered by its contents, I encourage you to reach out. You can call Lifeline or similar service offered in your country, there are Sexual and Domestic Abuse hotlines, counselling services and psychologists that you can seek out where you live.
I initially published this blog post as a piece of writing speculating on why BDSM to my interpretation is so frequently popping up with similar elements, and speculating on what I thought was going on, and I didn't realize at the time how on the dot so many of you have found this - that it has "hit" home. (Quite literally in terms of your childhood and household experience.)
I send you love and light. I ask that you take a deep breath, full of Mercy. And let her travel with your breath down into your lungs, and oxygenate your blood. From there to travel in your bloodstream, all the way down your limbs, into every cell, and into your heart. Everywhere deep compassion and Mercy. You are held and supported by the Universe.
x Anne O Nomis
The knowledge chain from this blog post will continue in:
Part II "The Emissary: Throwing up / Vomiting up Cruel Venus figures".
and I welcome your feedback to these blog posts as I refine the arc trajectory and information within for publishing eventually in the next book. My email is: firstname.lastname@example.org