Power play: beyond the erotics of masochism in nineteenth-century German literature and philosophy Public Deposited

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  • March 22, 2019
  • Schreiber-Byers, Elizabeth Anne
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages and Literatures
  • Power Play: Beyond the Erotics of Masochism in Nineteenth-Century German Literature and Philosophy investigates the genealogy of masochism avant la lettre. Scholarship on masochism has identified it as symptomatic of a late-century crisis of masculinity, synonymous with the erotic and semi-autobiographical writings of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the Austrian writer for whom masochism is named. Using a Foucauldian approach to analyzing matrices of power, this project exposes the crucial prehistory of masochism in nineteenth-century German literature and thought, exploring how canonical works of German literature offer alternate genealogies located in discourses on subjectivity, pedagogy, aesthetics, and religion. Calling into question the gender discourses surrounding women in the masochistic dynamic, I compare the submission of Kleist’s titular character in Das Käthchen von Heilbronn with the female dominant in Sacher-Masoch’s Venus im Pelz, showing how both characters subvert social constructions of their identities counter the masculine discourse. The power of self-cultivation found in the German ideology of Bildung and the Bildungsroman genre are explored vis-à-vis the mode of reading and acculturation employed in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre via counter-readings of Novalis’ Heinrich von Ofterdingen and Adalbert Stifter’s Der Nachsommer. Within discourses on the aesthetic, particularly the trope of the suffering artist and the inspiration he derives from suffering, I compare the German artist in Venus im Pelz with artists in Heinrich Wackenroder’s Herzensergiessungen eines kunstliebenden Klosterbruders, and Gottfried Keller’s Der grüne Heinrich, to consider the connection between masochistic suffering and the transcendence of the suprasensual in the sublime. Finally, I engage with two religious discourses in Sacher-Masoch’s text. First, the hagiography, providing inspiration through descriptions of suffering and transcendence, is critiqued through secular texts like Büchner’s Lenz. Second, I look at the confession, identified by Foucault as critical to the nineteenth-century production of knowledge, and how it is critiqued and subverted through anonymous pornographic texts, sepecifically Lina’s aufrichtige Bekenntnisse, Schwester Monika, and Bekenntnisse einer Giftmischerin, which appropriate and oppose the confessional form. At stake is an analysis of power that directs our attention away from a purely erotic understanding of masochism to something that simultaneously participates in and critiques these discourses of power.
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  • Hess, Jonathan
  • Doctor of Philosophy
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  • 2013

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