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.
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
the Britten opera of the same name. Venice
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)