Monday, 16 July 2012

50 Shades of Black and Blue or, A Brief History of Pain by Dan Holloway

Of course many of us wish it had been another book (by which, let’s face it, we writers, ever altruistic, mean our book), but no one can deny that the 50 Shades trilogy has given books their first watercooler moment since We Need To Talk About Kevin (in many ways a considerably more heinous book hidden behind some well-turned sentencecraft, but don’t get me started). And for me that can only be a good thing.

It’s also been great to see the issues that have been raised and discussed openly in public forums. Issues which provide a great opportunity for those of us who write books with less bestselling potential to talk about our books and their themes in a wide arena.

One of those issues is the question of subjectivity and submission. 50 Shades has been criticised, rightly, for its self-objectifying portrayal of female submission, for missing the nuances and possibilities of empowered, intelligent women who adopt a role of submission for the purpose of pleasure and from a position of power and subjectivity. I spent four years of doctoral study looking at subjectivity, gender, and Eros so this is a debate I am ready to dive into head first, and one we need to have and as loudly and publicly as possible.

(The Man Who Painted Agnieszka's Shoes - $3 or £1.71)

But it’s not the thing I want to look at here. I want to talk about pain. Pain is central to 50 Shades, and with its focus on bondage, the question arises of when pain is or whether it can be something that’s not entirely negative. And that’s *the* central theme of my novel The Man WhoPainted Agnieszka’s Shoes.

Western culture has a long history of ambivalence towards pain. It goes at least as far back as Plato and the thesis put forward in his dialogue Gorgias that if one commits a wrongdoing, it is better to undergo physical punishment so that one’s soul should be cleansed rather than to live a life of physical comfort, unpunished, and have one’s soul end in torment. This idea that not only is there something worse than physical pain but that physical pain can actually be a good, serving a higher purpose, resurfaces in Catholic theology, where suffering plays a key role in spirituality. A believer’s pain, among other things, enables them to identify with the suffering of Christ on the cross, and begins the transformation of the soul on its ascent to purity.

This idea resurfaces in medieval culture, where the religious and erotic concepts of suffering are often intertwined in tales of courtly love where a knight’s sufferings both purifies the soul, making it worthy to receive some spiritual prize (the Grail or otherwise), and make them worthy of a lady’s (who may or may not be a cipher for the Queen of Heaven) love.

The next time this idea bursts in on mainstream culture is with Romanticism, with its roots in Hegel whose framework of cultural progress is rooted in Plato. During the surge of Romanticism in the 19th Century we see, of course, a rediscovery of all those courtly tales and their knightly quests and the centrality of suffering and pain as the precursor to some concept of worthiness – often again confused between spiritual and erotic worthiness. The epitome of this is to be found, of course, in Wagner’s operas Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal, the retelling of the myth of Sir Percival whose suffering tentacles reach well into the 20th Century through Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and the Britten opera of the same name.

One of the reasons a book like 50 Shades causes unease is that it inverts this tradition in which the value of pain lies in the non-physical effects it can bring about. It celebrates the body and the totality of bodily sensation. As readers, we are happy talking about the soul, the human spirit. This is the place, after all, where we feel the battle between good and evil takes place. It’s heaven and hell, nobility and dastardliness, a place of simple opposites. The body, on the other hand, is a place of ambiguities, a porous territory of uneven surfaces, a quicksand through which a similar path can never be found twice. It is a place of unpredictable sensations any one of which can at any moment be laced with pleasure or pain and both pleasure and pain can revolt or delight us, though all too often what revolts us is the fact that we delight in the characteristics of sensations emerging from this unstable, fragile, wetland (to use a word from the title of one of the most brilliant books written about the body).

What I’ve chosen to look at in The Man Who Painted Agnieszka’s Shoes is how pain fits into a modern version of this old soul/body dichotomy. Most of the book takes place in unreal realities, be they the fictions of the cultural media through which we construct our reality, or the virtualities of a world in which all our thoughts are stored in a cloud from which we are fundamentally disconnected. The title character has become a universal icon thanks to a viral video of her absurd death in a gym accident. Seconds before her death she turns, looks over her shoulder, and mouths words that no lip reader has ever been able to decipher, words that say something different to everyone who sees them. She is utterly blank – the friend who uploads the video declares at one point “I am what you never had”; her parents haunt a shrine that may or may not be a portal to another world – a screen onto which we project ourselves. The protagonist is a man whose daughter went missing 10 years earlier and may now, a series of first person plural chapters reveal, may be held prisoner inside her own mobile phone, which manages to update itself whilst she remains ageless. The story takes in internet forums, an installation artist we never see who speaks only through a dominatrix hiding a terrible past, a far right extremist and her son who is a graffiti artist and a pacifist except for inflicting acts of ultraviolence on his mother’s racist colleagues, Shuji the hikikomori schoolboy, and a cosmologist who believes the laws of the universe can be tapped to keep his dying wife alive forever.

It is a world in which absolutely nothing is real. Except pain. The beads of sparsely but unflinchingly described violence that punctuate the novel hold it together like a barbed wire necklace. It is when experiencing pain that Dan, the protagonist, is able to connect across the ether to his daughter. It is pain that triggers every realisation or moment of clarity within the fuzz and numbness of the novel. Pain, the inflicting and experiencing of it, because it is the only thing that truly connects a person to their body and blocks out all other thoughts, is the only thing that’s real. This, of course, is the characteristic it shares with pleasure – it is ecstasy (literally ek-stasis, a standing outside oneself) in the same way as those ecstasies delivered sexually or narcotically, and it is this attribute of pain that makes it so addictive for many who self-harm, though it is also subject to the same exigencies of diminishing return, the entropy to which the physical is always subject.

I don’t want to give any answers in the book, but I do want to make people think. Is there a value to what is “real”? Is there a spirituality that lifts us out of our body or does our salvation come from lowering ourselves completely into our body? Why do we consider pleasure good and pain bad? Why are we so ambivalent about bodies? Are we actually best never questioning the things that leave us numb? I don’t have any answers to any of these, but I’m very grateful to 50 Shades for making them questions people may consider asking, and, of course, for giving my own book the chance of being a stopping off point for people who want to consider the questions in more depth.

(note, I know the notion of the Platonic influence on western culture is highly controversial, but I don’t think it’s too far wide of the mark. The classic account of this idea is Denis de Rougemont’s Love in the Western World)


CallyPhillips said...

I read the free sample for Agniesszka's Shoes and wanted more. I read it and reviewed it for IEBR because I found it both challenging and absorbing (yes I even started trying to find the video clip because I lost my sense of what was 'reality') and this post gives me eve more insight into areas of the book I 'struggled' with (struggled only because my life in the last 20 years has been a journey trying to move away from pain - and I think I've more or less achieved it, so I have real difficulty in understanding or appreciating the role of pain in a life - though I know how important it is to people, I'm not denigrating it in any way, simply saying I truly don't understand the relationship a lot of people have with pain, and so this book is great because it DOES make me think.) I read the free sample for 50 shades and was just bored rigid. So here's the thing - given that I'm not the 'target audience' for either of these books really, what is it that made me captivated and engrossed with Dan's and not with that other one? My personal opinion is that it's got something to do with the veracity and integrity of the writer! I don't want titillation I want to be made to think. All of Dan's work I've read does that. I don't agree, I don't understand a lot of the time but I don't think this is any failure on his part, and it's what keeps me coming back for more. This post has got me started thinking about how 'real' I think my mind is and how much more interested I am in it than the 'reality' of pain (for me) but this is just the knub of a thought that I need to work on - it's certainly not articulated enough in my mind to talk about it. But I know that when I'm ready and able to have such a discussion, Dan is someone I can have it with. And 9 months ago I knew as little about Dan Holloway as I do about E.L.James (if that's the shades author!) I made my choice of reading and I think I chose the right one! Horses for courses maybe, but I'm happy to recommend Dan's work to anyone who wants something that takes you out of your comfort zone into a place where you can really ask important questions of yourself and your place in the world! You can find reviews of Dan's work at and go to the virtual bookshelf/ contemporary fiction.

John A. A. Logan said...

You're reminding me, Dan, of the novel in which Milan Kundera stated that the only thing unique to an individual is their suffering. I can't remember which novel he said it in though, IMMORTALITY? And lately I've begun to suspect that he was only really paraphrasing the first sentence of his favourite novel, ANNA KARENINA, though substituting suffering for unhappiness (if that is a substitution at all).
Then I'm reminded of Dostoyevsky...a life of terrible suffering...transmuted into the novels...the opening pages of NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND where the narrator analyses pain, and seems to see it as a possible horror, that those subjected to abuse and pain might come to enjoy the abuse at some stage.
THE MISFITS; STUDY OF SEXUAL OUTSIDERS, Colin Wilson's non-fiction book, gives some insights into these areas too, and the influence of De Sade and Masoch's writings on the modern Western mind (or the modern Western world's influence on De Sade and Masoch).

Then I'm reminded of the yogis. Patanjali's aphorism "Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind". The avowed intent of the yogis to defeat suffering, and pain, believing them to be absolute obstacles to meditation and enlightenment.
Then again, the avowed intent of the yogi is to defeat Death itself (whatever the yogi means by this).
Of course, for the Christians, Christ makes the same promise.

John A. A. Logan said...

In China, the chi kung master will work with damaged bodies and minds, believing that the chi or life force (called prans by the yogis) can be aroused and made to flow again, to afford healing.

In Knut Hamsun's 1890 novel, HUNGER, largely autobiographical, the protagonist, according to an essay on the book by Isaac Bashevis Singer, seems to use pain as a purging tool chosen by the unconscious mind, in a search for identity.

Hamsun himself, like Dostoyevsky, had been condemned to death in his twenties.
Dostoyevsky, by a political death sentence and fake execution, commuted to 8 years of exile and penal servitude.
Hamsun by terminal tuberculosis, after which diagnosis at 25 the doctors gave him 6 months to live.
Hamsun responded by travelling cross country sitting on top of a locomotive, gulping in huge quantities of air, until he declared himself cured and lived until age 93.

Starvation almost stopped him reaching 30 though, and this is the period described in the novel, HUNGER.

From Robert Bly's intoduction to his own 1967 translation of HUNGER:

"One interesting faith runs through all of HUNGER - a curious, almost superstitious faith in the unconscious. The main character listens a great deal 'with his antennae'. He senses the woman in black under the street lamp is linked to him even before he talks to her. He is sure the word "Cisler" is a sign to him from 'higher powers". He obeys his impulses instantly, showing an unusually open avenue between his unconscious and his consciousness, no matter if it is an impulse to bite his own finger (which pulls him out of a serious daze), or the impulse to speak to strangers. He takes great delight in obeying these impulses.
The main character of HUNGER feels no pity for himself, and we do not, because there is a sense throughout the entire novel that his starvation was somehow planned by his unconscious - that somehow his unconscious has chosen this suffering as a way for some part of him to get well. The hero of HUNGER obeys the unconscious, and remains in hunger, despite suffering, until he has lived through what he must, or learned what he had to. What seems to us catastrophe, his spirit experiences as secret victory. His anarchic inability to support himself is experienced by his spirit as obedience. What seems to the careless observer a series of sordid collapses appears to his spirit as a series of ascetic exultations, in each of which some tiny filaments holding the personality to its past shell are separated. His obedience to the unconscious, even at the cost of physical suffering, is the right thing; it is the road of genius and of learning. His painful starvation has called up an immense reserve of healing power that had been lying concealed in the psyche. Blake wrote: 'The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.' 'Exuberance is beauty.' 'If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise'
When Hamsun's hero has lived through what he must, and has learned what he must, his unconscious loses interest in his hungering and allows him to take a job on the ship, and the book ends. By that time, he has been changed. The hero realises this on the ship at the end. As he looks back towards Christiania, 'where the windows shone with such brightness,' he understands that he is now set apart, that he will never be a part of the comfortable domestic life of Europe. Hamsun of course was not his character, and it cannot be said that he himself became wise."

John A. A. Logan said...

The novelist, John Gardner, also had an interesting point of view (again surely influenced by his own tragic early life experience) on what goes to make up the character of the novelist:
"No novelist is hurt (at least as an artist) by a natural inclination to go to extremes...a psychological wound is helpful, if it can be kept in partial control, to keep the novelist driven. Some fatal childhood accident for which one feels responsible and can never fully forgive oneself; a sense that one never quite earned one's parents' love...all these are promising signs. It may or may not be true that happy, well-adjusted children can become great novelists, but insofar as guilt or shame bend the soul inward they are likely, under the right conditions (neither too little discomfort nor too much), to serve the writer's project."

Dan Holloway said...

thank you, Cally! I think a lo of the reason I feel as I do about physical pain is that for sections of my life physical pain has been the only thing capable of blocking out the mental pain.

John, it sounds like Immortality. I know in The Unbearable Lightness of Being he talks about the one individual characteristic that defines a person, but I don't think he refers that to suffering (all I remember is in Sabina's case it was her hat)

sarahcards said...

This was really interesting to me, Dan, thanks for posting! I have many school-Mum associates who are raving about these books, and I have yet to see the attraction. I think my ambivalence about 50 shades is less to do with the portrayal of pain and more about what I considered to be unsympathetic characters and shoddy writing. I am not the expert, (and I have only read an excerpt) but I found the inevitability of the plot incredibly irritating! There seemed to be no back story, and there was so much ground-laying that I felt I knew where the story would go, so it didn't deserve my time. I found Grey thoroughly dislikeable and Ana 'drippy', at best. It annoyed me that in order to adopt a submissive role she became a shallow character, and I was frustrated that the author hadn't made more of the subject. Considering the attraction of the novel to many of my school-run peers, I find it unfortunate that the subject was not presented in a more challenging manner. The irony is that the success is likely due to just that - it's easily accessible and sensational titillation, but a bit of a no-brainer (sorry peers!). I can only liken it to a 'carry on porn' - where the lecherous window cleaner walks in on the predictable lonely housewife and his trousers have a sudden wardrobe malfunction! It may be flying off the shelves but I found it to be a sell-out; which I concede takes us back to the discussion of becoming diluted to hit a mass audience.....
Maintain author integrity and challenge the audience, I say!

Dan Holloway said...

Hi Sarah, I'll certainly try to keep on being challenging and unpredictable. The optimist in me says all the raving about such an unchalenging book that nonetheless deals with subject matter that should be challenging at least opens the door for other books.

CallyPhillips said...

yes Dan, I love the way you CAN be optimistic about this issue when all that the rest of us do is complain about it (or in my case ignore it as much as possible!) I mean the SHADES issue, not the physical/mental pain reality! I understand (intellectually) your situation. I can't relate to it very clearly (fortunately) though I do have a belief that physical and mental wellbeing are strongly connected - in my own case I believe my physical 'condition' was brought on and exacerbated as a defence mechanism to 'mental' trauma suffered -what's interesting to me about that is that these were things I felt imposed on me, not failings from within and without knowing it somehow my determination (necessity?) to stay mentally strong resulted in my physical deterioration - and I begin to wonder if it's a kind of subconscious 'self inflicted' pain.. I may not 'cut' myself, but my body does things to me my mind would rather it didn't! Again, seemingly outwith my control. Ah, epiphany moment, maybe this is why I'm so keen on 'making meaning.' To create some kind of control. I can appreciate the 'meaningless' of life and yet for me the importance is to create meaning for myself. Anyway, my personal 'journey' has been to find ways away from the pain and beyond any feelings of guilt. Everyone has their own journey. Each is unique, valuable, real and not to be scoffed at or interrogated or judged by others. but it's good for us to talk about such things. To learn and experience and try to understand 'other'. Me. I stick with Bronco Billy approach of re-creating life the way I wanted it to be for myself. I'm nearly there. I don't believe it's escapism. It's something more profound. For me, a way out of pain that works. But I'm still and seriously ongoingly thinking hard about the place/site/importance of pain as a vital part of life. And still thinking is how I like to be! Thanks for the post.

Jan Needle said...

i've found this post and the discussions entirely fascinating, and i suppose i'll have to at least have a look at fifty shades of doodah now. fortunately, the only 'chance' i had to experience real pain - being smashed over the head by thirty eight tons of volvo - was moderated by being unconscious for five days and not being able to comprehend the loss of a friend in the same accident until a full three months of being told it had finally sunk in. but the idea of sexual pain, given and received as part of the process, has always been a closed book to me (although i did use to work for a newspaper boss known as golden shower. i was astonished when they told me why!) the book i mentioned in my post yesterday, 'J', by Margaret McCann, is also about a form of extreme sex, but it examines, portrays and comments on it in a way that is grindingly unsensationalised. and whatever certain visitors to this site might think, it wasn't written to drum up some ready cash! my thanks to everyone for sharing their thoughts and insights.

Dan Holloway said...

Ooh, Jan, looks like I did a great marketing job - not tempting you to take a look at Aggie but at 50! I was very intrigued by the sound of J. Unsensationalised accounts can, I think, be even more powerful and shocking. One thing I tried to do when writing the violent scenes (there's a BDSM dominatrix but no actual sex in Aggie) was avoid the use of any adjectives, adverbs or parataxis

Jan Needle said...

you did tempt me to take a look at aggie, too, dan. don't be coy!

Lee said...

Dan, this is off-topic, but I'd be interested in your views of We Need To Talk About Kevin. And it might lead to some discussion (maybe elsewhere, if not here on this blog?) about sentencecraft in relationship to worldview/themes. This latter is an ongoing concern of mine - and whether novels built upon themes work in the same way or as effectively as other sorts of novels.

Though Gardner is alway interesting, I'm not sure the 'tragic wound' notion is any more illuminating than Emerson's view of creativity, for example - its source an excessive love of beauty which pours forth, can't be dammed, and always seeks new expression/form.

Dan holloway said...

That's an off-topic I'm always happy to talk about. I wrote quite a long article about We Need To Talk About Kevin (and why it is nowhere near as good on the subject of pain among other things as Veronique Olmi's Beside the Sea) a couple of years ago

And on novels and themes - I am very much a confessional artist by inclination ( - I tend to think that anything that tries to tackle general issues *as issues* will fail pretty much wholesale because it relies on the concept of generality, that it is possible to talk about universals. I don't think that is possible. I think all a writer can do is reach inside and bring out, in as much clarity and in whatever clothes, their own personal truth. I certainly attempted, when writing Aggie, not to try and generalise pain - that is one of the crassest, most insulting, not to mention impossible things we can do. Rather the specificity of pain is one of the things that makes it so powerful.

As for your second paragraph, like I said, I know the central thesis of the post is controversial and I am very happy with the superabundant model of creativity - I certainly don't think suffering and creativity are linked , neither madness and creativity. The act of creativity is an act of giving (I would hope it comes across on my other blogs that I think that) - but what one gives is rooted deep inside

Lee said...

Thanks for the link, I'll read the piece & get back to you. I do think I'm going to have a go at Agnieszka's Shoes, though it's probably going to take a while. I'm a slow reader, and it sounds as though this novel of yours will need rereading (which is a compliment). I was fascinated by the Amazon excerpt.

I'm not quite sure if Fifty Shades inverts the value of pain - I've read some chunks of the first novel - because we don't know yet how the trilogy (have I got that right?) will end, and I can at least imagine some sort of purification process or 'true love' resolution which would effect Grey's (and maybe even Ana's) soul. Then there's the vicarious element for readers - though I have no real idea what to make of it! And if we feel unease, is it really because the novel subverts the pain/gain model or because it exalts a cultural taboo? No answers, just questions.

You liked Wetlands that much?

Lee said...

First read-through of your We Need To Talk About Kevin piece: now that is what I call a review: I'm so envious that I'm going to shut down my PC, slope off to bed, and wallow with Fifty Shades - well maybe another couple of Dr. House episodes. I'll reread your review tomorrow when I'm not so tired and can give it its due.

Dan Holloway said...

I think "admires" is probably a more apt word than "like" for Wetlands - I'm very glad the book has been written is probably the most accurate thing to say.

The trilogy is all out there. I don't think there's a deliberate subversion - exalting a taboo is about right - what I've tried to look at here is why we consider pain to be a taboo.

And thank you - Aggie is an imperfect, sprawling, awkward book but I'm very proud of her