'Batter My [Flaming] Heart': Male Masochism in the Religious Lyrics of Donne and Crashaw

Lisa S. Starks

Enculturation, Vol. 1, No. 2, Fall 1997

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The impetus of my psychoanalytic exploration of male masochism in Donne and Crashaw occurs in Richard Rambuss's "Pleasure and Devotion: The Body of Jesus and Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric," in which he opens up possibilities for reading eroticism (especially homoeroticism) in early modern representations of Christ's body. In this analysis, Rambuss opposes Caroline Walker Bynum who, in response to Leo Steinberg's The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art, claims that depictions of Christ's genitalia (the focus of Steinberg's work) can only be regarded as erotic from a modern standpoint, for such representations in historical context, before the advent of modern sexuality, could not have rendered "sexual" meanings for their audiences but only those signifying reproduction. As Rambuss points out, Bynum's analysis denies the possibility of reading the erotic--especially the homoerotic--in medieval/Renaissance representation (268), for it works on the underlying assumption that such meanings are structured according to the false binary of "sexual/generative." Conversely, In Rambuss's view, "the body [is] at least potentially sexualized, as a truly polysemous surface where various significances and expressions--including a variety of erotic ones--compete and collude with each other in making the body meaningful" (268).

This is where my exploration begins. Rather than "delimit the erotic," I wish to investigate what is potentially sexual in seventeenth-century religious poetry (here that of Donne and Crashaw), tracing not only "same-sex" desire "spun out from and around Christ's body," as Rambuss has done but also examining libidinal economies that traverse object choice and extend the potentialities of desire into the terrains of identification and subjectivity. The main objection to such an analysis arises from assumptions underlying the rigid dichotomy of spiritual/erotic--the insistence that that which is spiritual cannot be erotic, especially when joined to physical or mental pain. Bynum's rationale for denying the possibilities of erotic meanings in medieval and Renaissance texts lies not only in the distinction of the sexual/generative, but also in this binary of spiritual/erotic. As Rambuss notes, Bynum refuses to acknowledge the erotic in medieval and Renaissance religious texts because it appears to be deeply implicated in morbid accounts of tortured "flesh," a characteristic she finds "extremely unerotic" (178), thus implying that spirituality cannot be "sexual" (267).

On the contrary, I would argue that the representation of spirituality in terms of physical and mental anguish does not preclude the erotic; indeed, it indicates its involvement in the erotic. Physical and mental torments lie at the heart of the erotic fantasies underlying Christian mysticism and, in varying degrees, the discourses of medieval and early modern Christianity, a belief system that revolves around the central sacrifice of Christ. As Julia Kristeva has commented, "a whole ascetic, martyrizing, and sacrificial Christian tradition has magnified the victimized aspect of that offering [Christ's death] by eroticizing both pain and suffering, physical as well as mental, as much as possible" (131).

Kaja Silverman has described this tradition of pain and suffering as "Christian masochism," [1] which she recognizes as a strain of masochism identified by Theodore Reik in Masochism in Modern Man (1941). [2] This masochism, Reik's brand of "moral" or non-erotic masochism [3] in which the subject tortures itself, Silverman sums up as an economy of desire in which "demonstrativeness," the gaze, revolutionary fervor, and "suspense" all come into play in fantasies that revolve around and emerge from the tortured body of Christ:

[In Christian masochistic fantasy,] the external audience is a structural necessity, although it may be either earthly or heavenly . . . the body is centrally on display, whether it is being consumed by ants or roasting over a fire . . . [and] behind all these 'scenes' or 'exhibits' is the master tableau or group fantasy--Christ nailed to the cross, head wreathed in thorns and blood dripping from his impaled sides. What is being beaten here is not so much the body as the "flesh," and beyond that sin itself, and the whole fallen world. (197)

Extending Silverman's definition, I would argue that Christian masochism works on both non-sexual and highly sexual levels, from the virtually non-erotic "moral" Christian masochism and Christian masochism combined with erotic (in this case) male masochism. The subject can move freely within this range, exhibiting various degrees of eroticism within the Christian masochist's network of fantasy. [4]

Donne and Crashaw, deeply implicated in the fantasies of Christian masochism in various degrees of sexualization, infuse the spiritual with the erotic and attempt to "remake themselves" in relation to the wounded body of Christ. Silverman ties this desire to become Christ and to suffer like Him into the Christian masochist's "revolutionary fervor," for he becomes a "rebel" who seeks to "remake the world . . . to forge a different cultural order" (198). This "new world" is necessarily at odds with values that constitute patriarchal cultures and extremely problematic for the construction of phallic male subjectivity, for "the suffering Christ," Silverman explains, exemplifies "the very picture of earthly divestiture and loss." In this sense, "Christian masochism has radically emasculating implications, and is in its purest forms intrinsically incompatible with the pretensions of masculinity" (198). This problem is amplified in that the castrated figure is a man rather than a woman. Hence, Christianity contains its own "check" of male masochism, the Oedipal narrative of Christ as son of God, which acts as a defense against the radical meanings Christ generates as both model of identification and object of desire. Silverman concludes that "Christianity . . . redefines the paternal legacy; it is after all through the assumptions of his place within the divine family that Christ comes to be installed in a suffering and castrated position" (198). It is here that Donne and Crashaw contrast in their strains of Christian and erotic masochism. Although both poets desire the body of Christ as a figure of identification and as an erotic object, they differ in how they deal with the ramifications of this desire and its subversive potential for phallic male subjectivity and patriarchal Christian culture in general. Donne's masochism checks itself by transforming into a sadistic mode of aggression (i.e., aggression turned inwards to the self), which then enables the poet to resituate himself in the Oedipal framework of Christianity; conversely, Crashaw's masochism transgresses these limits, exposing the "perversity" underlying dominant modes of human desire and Christian mysticism itself.

Donne's masochism has not gone unnoticed. Stanley Fish refers to the sexual aggression in Donne as "masochism" or "sado-masochism" (242), though he employs these terms in a general sense and situates his discussion within a rigidly heteroerotic framework. However, the interplay of aggression and desire in Donne's literary imagination extends beyond Fish's reading here. Donne's religious poetry spans both non-erotic and erotic forms of masochism--morbid obsession with death, homoerotic masochistic desire, and rape fantasy. In the context of Donne's divine poems, these obsessions revolve around the masochism that structures Christianity, in which death takes the primary role. As Kristeva puts it, "death--that of the old body making room for the new, death to oneself for the sake of glory, death of the old man for the sake of the spiritual body--lies at the center of the [Christian] experience" (134). Like the "Promethean male masochist" described by Reik (157, 216), Donne longs for and, simultaneously, dreads, fears, denies, and wages "war" against Death.

His ambivalent desire for and preoccupation with death is deeply implicated in his relationship with the dying Christ, as in Holy Sonnet 7 (XI), in which the poet engages in imaginary identification with the Son of God, a wish to exchange places with Him on the cross. The poet mentally projects himself (meditative tradition) into the crucifixion scene and begs the onlookers to "Spit in my face, you Jews, and pierce my side,/Buffet, and scoff, scourge, and crucify me" (ll. 1-2), a fantasy which involves the poet as spectator's gaze of the masochistic subject on display, as well as his own identification with the tortured figure. The poet does more than admire Christ, who sacrificed Himself without "gainfull intent" for human sins; he seeks to endure Christ's suffering and humiliation on the cross himself. Obviously central to the Christian masochist's network of fantasy is this identification with Christ, one which involves much more than a mere projection of sins onto the crucified body of Jesus; it involves the "total implication of the subject in Christ's suffering, in the hiatus he experiences, and of course in his hope of salvation" (134), as Kristeva puts it.

Donne's masochism moves beyond identification into homoerotic desire of God in Holy Sonnet 10 (XIV), "Batter My Heart," a poem in which strands of identification, erotic desire, masochism, and sadism interact and intertwine. The identification works in reverse: Donne projects his ego (as constructed in his secular poetry) onto his imaginary figure of God, with which he, on one level, identifies. This identification can be read only if the poem is addressed in its intertextual relationship to Donne's secular love poetry, a characteristic that Fish has noted (241). More explicitly, however, the poem's masochism is erotic--specifically homoerotic, as Rambuss has argued, as the poet longs to be "ravish[ed]" by God. But Donne's position here is not conventionally "feminine," except perhaps in Freud's definition of "feminine masochism" or the desire to be beaten. The poet longs to be forcefully "o'erthrow[n]" so that he "may rise, and stand" (ll.3), an obvious phallic reference, to be "free" from sin and made "new." Here Donne's masochism relates to the fervent desire of the Christian masochist to be remade, which hints at the role of masochism in the psychic "splitting" of subjectivity, as Bersani has theorized. Donne here does not fully endanger his phallic subjectivity, however, because he asks the "three-person'd God"--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit--to remake what has been unmade. Therefore, he will be beaten down until he submits to the Holy family, the patriarchy extraordinaire, the Oedipal fantasy on high.

In this sense, Donne never lets masochism get the "best" (or worst) of him. He feels compelled towards it (like Death), but counts on God to help him ultimately conquer it by giving in and submitting himself to the Father. Crashaw's poems, on the other hand, play with multiple positions of identification and erotic desire, as they fully intermingle moral Christian masochism with variations of erotic masochistic patterns, flagrantly valorizing the libidinal economy of masochism.

As Rambuss has observed, Crashaw's imagery is highly erotically charged. I would argue that Crashaw's most prevalent images--the "penetrable and penetrated" body of Christ and his "bleeding wounds"; the events of "circumcision . . . various physical tortures"; the implements of torture, including the "circumcising blade, the soldier's whip, the thorns, nails, and the Roman lance . . ." cited by Rambuss (254-5), along with Crashaw's phallic "Dart," vaginal "Heart," and orgasmic "Death"--are drawn from the network of erotic masochistic(homo-and heteroerotic) fantasy that, in the early modern era, figured to a large extent in the tradition of Christian martyrdom and mysticism.

This erotic martyrdom is no more vividly portrayed than in Crashaw's "Hymn to St. Teresa," a saint whom he credits with "masculine courage of performance/more than a woman." Teresa needs to be "more than a woman" in order to fulfill the multiple erotic roles in which the poet imagines her as both subject and object in a homo/heteroerotic male masochistic economy of desire. In this poem, Crashaw plays with his transformational "Dart" and "Death," as well as the malleable, reversible roles of "passivity" and "power," as he does in "Flaming Heart." This poem in particular plays with the apparent oxymoron of "pleasurable pain," the paradox of masochism itself, the "sweet and subtle PAIN./Of intolerable Joyes;/Of a DEATH, in which who dyes/Loves his death, and dyes again" (98-101). In this hymn the poet indulges in an imaginary identification with Teresa and her ecstasy in martyrdom, an identification that perhaps also involves desire of Teresa as erotic object. Crashaw's poems work like erotic fantasy, in which the subject can identify with multiple subjects and objects in imagining the erotic scene. Crashaw's identification and desire in his poems or "fantasies" become as fluid as his liquified images and his shifting "Darts" and "Hearts."

The multiplicity of Crashaw's erotic imagination is probably most pronounced in "The Flaming Heart," in which the poet as masochist brings in the reader as masochist in an identification with Teresa and her desire for Christ while, simultaneously, the poet positions himself as subject who desires Teresa as love object because of her own identification with Christ. In other words, he loves "all of HIM we have in THEE," Teresa. He longs to lose himself in the process, for he pleads, "Let me so read thy life, that I/Unto all life of mine may dy" (ll.105-8), in the closing lines of the poem. In these lines, Crashaw suggests the "shattering" effect of masochism in its extreme--the ultimate "splitting" or rupture of phallic subjectivity indicated above in the poetry of Donne. In contrast to Donne, however, Crashaw doesn't seek to remake himself within the paternal legacy of Christianity; instead, he hurls himself into the void that male subjectivity necessarily disavows--the unavoidable lack within human subjectivity, the nothingness which mysticism seeks to inhabit and remake into the "being" of spirit. On these splittings, ruptures, castration, and psychoanalysis, Kristeva explains that

psychoanalysis identifies and relates as an indispensable condition for autonomy a series of splittings (Hegel spoke of a "work of the negative"); birth,weaning, separation, frustration, castration. Real, imaginary, or symbolic, those processes necessarily structure our individuation. Their nonexecution or repudiation leads to psychotic confusion; their dramatization is, on the contrary, a source of exorbitant and destructive anguish. Because Christianity set that rupture at the very heart of the absolute subject--Christ; because it represented it as a Passion that was the solidary lining of his Resurrection, his glory, and his eternity, it brought to consciousness the essential dramas that are internal to the becoming of each and every subject. It thus endows itself with a tremendous cathartic power. (132)

Crashaw refigures this "Lack" in "The Flaming Heart," moving from a position of disavowal to one in which he seeks to redefine, reconceptualize, and embody "lack"--an impossible task within phallocentric language, but one which he valiantly endeavors to make by pushing the phallic signifiers to a heightened extreme. At first, the disavowal is obvious, even literal. The poet suggests that the painter of Teresa should "Give HIM [the seraphim] the vail, give her the dart" (l.42), the vail signifying the "veil" that disguises human lack projected onto the female body. The poet reiterates, "Give her the DART for it is she/(Fair youth) shootes both thy shaft and THEE" (ll. 47-8), indicating that if Teresa is the one with the power to transmit such desire, she should be granted the phallic signifier, for he urges, "Give then the dart to her who gives the flame;/Give him the veil, who kindly takes the shame" (ll. 57-8). As the poem progresses, however, he shifts to a new position, redefining where "power" lies.

In the second half of the poem he gives Teresa back her "Flaming Heart" (l.67); it is now the WOUND that serves as "A nobler weapon" in "love's feild" (ll. 71-2), for "Love's passives are his activ'st part," and therefore "The wounded is the wounding heart" (ll.73-4). Crashaw transgresses much more than the boundary of gender here. He destabilizes the dichotomies of activity/passivity or "top/bottom." Like the martyr, the WOUNDS become the repository of "power," both active and acted upon. Crashaw here attempts to refigure lack (wounds), but he can only do so within a phallocentric language in which lack becomes conceptualized as a "weapon" of "power." The subversive effect, I would argue, is not altogether lost, despite the ineluctable problem of language the poet faces, for he still performs a reversal and decentering of passivity/activity in his attempt to validate the "power" of submission, for the "HEART," with "aequall poise of love's both parts" which is "Bigge alike with wounds and darts," will "walk through all tongues one triumphant FLAME" to "love and dy and kill;/And bleed and wound; and yield and conquer still" (ll. 75-6, 78-80).

This flagrant valorization of masochistic desire, unlike that of Donne's, is not safely restrained or checked within the paternal legacy of the trinity. The Oedipal dynamic of "The Flaming Heart" fails to conform to the Father-son inheritance of Christianity. In Freud's pattern of masochistic identification via the Oedipal "dominant fiction" of Western Christianity, Teresa (and the poet) would take the mother's "feminine" position as one who desires to be beaten by the Father (God) in order to secure his love--a pattern of masochistic desire that seems out of joint with Crashaw's "The Flaming Heart." For the dynamics of identification in this poem, one may find more fruitful Gilles Deleuze's revised framework of the Oedipal fantasy in masochism, as outlined in his essay "Coldness and Cruelty." According to this pattern, Teresa (and poet) would play the son who desires the phallic mother (in this case, also Teresa) to beat the (disavowed) father out of him so that he may be remade as a new, "non-phallic" man.

Crashaw varies and develops this pattern further in "Santa Maria Dolorum," in which the poet oscillates between an identification with the Mother (similar to Freud's model) and one with the Son (Deleuze). Like Deleuze's model, in this poem the Father is disavowed, allowing the relationship between Mother and son (here, poet as well) to take center stage. The Mother perceives the Father, "GOD," in her son (stanza 4), but the shifting identities and relationships keep these positions fluid, unfixed by the Father. As in "The Flaming Heart," phallic "Nailes," "swords," and "SPEARES" wound the son and mother, for "son and mother/Discourse alternate wounds" (stanza 3); and the wounds have power, for "wounded bosomes their own weapons be" (stanza 8). As the wounds fly from one to the other, the poet hopes to "catch" one of them, projecting himself into the Masochistic pieta fantasy he has imagined: "And in these chast warres while the wing'd wounds flee/So fast 'twixt him and thee,/ My brest may catch the kisse of some kind dart, /Though as at second hand, from either heart" (stanza 7). Furthermore, the poet envisions himself as another son, one who could enter the erotic Mother/son scene not as a replacement for the son or mother but as a third party, a "younger-brother":

Come wounds! come darts!
Nail'd hands! and peirced hearts!
Come your whole selves, sorrow's great son and mother!
Nor grudge a yonger-Brother
Of greifes his portion, who (had all their due)
One single wound should not have left for you. (stanza 8)

At once identifying with the Mother of Sorrows, then with Christ, then with the imagined "younger brother," the poet becomes them all, for he will "bleed with him, fail not to weep with her" (stanza 9). Ultimately, these multiple identifications result in both an imaginary identification with Christ, a longing to "mix/Wounds; and become one crucifix" (stanza 10) and a desire for Him, as evident in the erotic overtones of these lines from the poem's final stanza: "O let me suck the wine/So long of the chast vine/Till drunk of the dear wounds" (stanza 11) of Christ.

Similar to Donne, Crashaw inhabits the Christian masochist's universe of martyrdom and identification with the crucified Christ--but with a difference. Crashaw's pains are true pleasures and his role as masochist dramatically refigures in an erotic economy that destabilizes conventional binaries structuring Western constructions of sexuality.


[1] I employ the anachronistic term masochism because, at present, no pre-modern term exists to refer to the connections, both erotic and otherwise, between the human subject's desire for pain and enjoyment of pleasure from suffering. I do not wish to imply that masochism has been experienced in the same way at all places and in all historical times. Nevertheless, masochism as defined above appears to have evolved along with the discourse of Christianity, undergoing variations and modifications along the way. In the seventeenth century, Christian masochism seems particularly evident in literary and visual texts.

[2] Silverman claims that Reik's disagreement with Freud over "moral masochism" resulted from Reik's discovery of a different strain of masochism than that which Freud labeled "moral"--"Christian masochism" (197).

[3] In "The Economic Problem of Masochism," Freud identifies three types of masochism: 1) Primary or erotogenic--the bodily association of pain and sexual excitement; 2) feminine--the desire to be beaten; and 3) moral--the self-inflicted torture of one's ego by the superego (161). My term, erotic masochism, would include the "erotogenic" and "feminine" in a Freudian framework.

[4] Jean Laplanche, in Life and Death in Psychoanalysis, has shown the role of such transition in the human subject's "sexualization," or movement from non-sexual to "sexualized" drives. In erotic forms of sadism and masochism, the subject transforms [via a "prop"] non-sexual aggression into a desire for sexual aggression, directed at others or against the self (85-102).

Works Cited

Bersani, Leo. The Freudian Body: Psychoanalysis and Art. New York: Columbia UP, 1986.

Bynum, Caroline Walker. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1987.

Crashaw, Richard. The Complete Poetry of Richard Crashaw. Ed. George Walton Williams. Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1970.

Deleuze, Gilles. "Coldness and Cruelty." Masochism. New York: Zone Books, 1991. 9-138.

Donne, John. John Donne's Poetry. Ed. A.L. Clements. Norton Critical Edition. New York: W.W. Norton, 1966.

Fish, Stanley. "Masculine Persuasive Force: Donne and Verbal Power." Soliciting Interpretation: Literary Theory and Seventeenth-Century English Poetry. Ed. Elizabeth D. Harvey and Katharine Eisaman Maus. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990. 223-52.

Freud, Sigmund. "The Economic Problem of Masochism." The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Trans. and ed. James Strachey. Vol. 19. London: Hogarth P, 1961. 157-70.

Kristeva, Julia. Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1989.

Laplanche, Jean. Life and Death in Psychoanalysis. Trans. Jeffrey Mehlman. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.

Rambuss, Richard. "Pleasure and Devotion: The Body of Jesus and Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric." Queering the Renaissance. Ed. Jonathan Goldberg. Durham and London: Duke UP, 1994. 253-79.

Reik, Theodor. Masochism in Sex and Society. Trans. Margaret H. Beigel and Gertrud M. Kurth. New York: Grove P, 1962.

Silverman, Kaja. Male Subjectivity at the Margins. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Steinberg, Leo. The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion. New York: Pantheon Books, 1983.

Copyright © Enculturation 1997

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