Is pain a pleasure through ‘some strange alchemy’?

Ever bitten into a tiny raw chilli? Or ordered a twice-hot curry for dinner? What was your experience? And, importantly, how can you bring that experience into the best lights through your personal form of writing?

In A Defence of Masochism, Phillips says ‘…if pain can become pleasure through some strange alchemy, perhaps pleasure itself it not so easily understood” (p35).

Putting the straw-person aside (i.e. who ever said pleasure was easily understood?) there is a glaring deficiency in Phillips’ argument; namely the use of the phrase “through some strange alchemy.” I see this deficiency repeated in many philosophical explorations. Furthermore, rather than pausing to do the hard work to resolve or account for the deficiency, Phillips skips to the next premise, hoping that the wilful act of writing down the words will be sufficient for advancing the argument. But, of course, it is not sufficient.

If you, in your own work, are struggling to express or understand a problem, such as pain, consciousness, symbolism, culture, life, etc., you will reach for grout that permits you to lay the next tile in your thought and development. In Phillips, “through some strange alchemy” is that grout, gap-filler. These pseudo-claims are a useful tool and should be used in early draft work. They keep an argument in motion.

Published texts, however, such as A Defence of Masochism, are devalued as a whole when lazy, magical, hand-wavy putty work is not replaced with a sincere struggle towards candid articulation.

Pain and pleasure are so deeply embedded in our narrative and cultural structures that is it indisputably difficult to experience these phenomena as they appear. The accepted homilies that pass for knowledge, e.g. we are adverse to pain and seek pleasure, dominate pain studies in philosophy. A potentially disruptive text, such as A Defence of Masochism, cannot afford to accept “some strange alchemy” as a satisfactory contribution if it is to challenge orthodoxy with effect.

Pain and pleasure are refreshingly complex experiences. When we describe them as they appear, we may first notice the many discrepancies. Holes appear, for example, between accepted narratives such as pain being painful, pain being undesirable, when contrasted with the experienced pleasure of burning and sweating from a painfully hot meal. The experience of pain and pleasure do not align with our accepted knowledge.

In The Crisis of the European Sciences Husserl said, “I seek not to instruct but only to lead, to point out and describe what I see. I claim no other right than that of speaking according to my best lights, principally before myself but in the same manner also before others…” If we commit and follow through our right to speak out the experience of the world for our own self, in our best lights, we will find the stamina to write past lame “alchemy” claims into productive description. Pain studies, from the clinical to the erotic, are in need of quality first person experiential description.


Phillips, A. 1998. A Defence of Masochism. London: Faber and Faber


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**Hats off to a treasured reader for the Phillips text.

15 thoughts on “Is pain a pleasure through ‘some strange alchemy’?”

  1. The masochism of of endurance sport is one example. Running often involves great discomfort, especially over longer distances. Yet runners sustain and even embrace that pain in a marathon that they wouldn’t wish for in other situations. Not would they wish these feelings on loved ones, even though they might cheer them on in a race, for example.

    I read a quote from a gold medal Kenyan marathoner, (the provenance escapes me) that he couldn’t fathom why amateur marathoners do it. He said he was in total, physical suffering for two hours, but then he’s finished, possibly with a gold medal. Amateurs run more slowly, but suffer as much for 4, 5 or even 6 hours. And get no medal.

    But there is an exultancy in overcoming that pain that runners often talk about. I’ve run two slow, brutal marathons, myself, and have encountered that, in myself.

    Emotional, and sexual pain are more complex, and often reduced to pathologies, rather than respected as other ways of being. But how we individually respond to stimuli, and what meaning we draw from our own specific experience, is still shrouded by pre-judging of our choices and experiences.

    Perhaps some of the ersatz gap-filler you wrote about comes from that prejudging.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bravo for getting to the finish line! Voluntary masochistic experiences appear throughout life, don’t they? Child-birth, elite sports (as you have mentioned), body modification, military training come to mind. These are terribly difficult to discuss without performing that reductive move you mention. Is prejuding the anonymous force of an invisible cultural context in which we act? A felt constraint?

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thanks!

        I think it is very much a matter of cultural context. The problematics that phenomenologies address really become critical where culture meets the body. Physical pain is celebrated, excused, derogated or condemned on cultural basis. Sports—with its strong connection to notins of masculinity—make overcoming pain a “good”. But such actions would be innappropriate in say an office. The meaning changes. I think how the meaning changes, the “through” meanings begin to touch on how we individually interpret sensations as painful or pleasurable.


  2. Using “through some strange alchemy.” as an explanation is strange. It sounds like it came from those pseudoscience texts that were greatly popular during the 19th century (in fairness though, there are still a lot pseudoscience these days…),

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think I would like to add psychological dimension to it, if you see both pain and pleasure (bodily) are dependent on nerves, so if nerves get tickled then it gives pleasure or pain. I think it’s subjective, some experiences give pleasure to some people and similar experience gives pain. I think man’s inherent fantasies or fears determine if he perceives something as pleasure or pain.


    1. Thank you for adding to the debate. The subjective nature of experience is at the heart of phenomenology. Often when we say ‘that is subjective’ there is an implicit claim that the subjective, or first-person experience, is weakened by its subjective nature. That is, claims from subjective experience, such as pain, are less valid than claims from a third-person stance such as an MRI scan of brain activity inferring a pain experience.

      When making knowledge claims, some people tend to feel a bit at sea with what appears to be an endless tide of diverse subjective experience. How can we say anything about pain if we leave it at the level of experience, for example, because we all experience our own experience? How can we describe that? That is the project of phenomenology because, like language, subjective experience is something we all share; it does not divide us from knowledge, it connects us. For some things, describing subjective experience leads to knowledge that is much higher quality than that from traditional empirical and scientific methods.


      1. Could you support your above hypothesis, with some real life examples.


      2. Well, it’s not that abstract. I could understand. But, I just wanted to have few examples, so I can imagine. Now, from what I read, you’re right that subjective experience is not really that valid, because there’s no independent variable. For example, if you have seen stanford prison experiment you could relate. But don’t you think, that all humans have more or less similar subjective experience just because our bodies are same, we’ll, yes there are differences but if you reach the core then there are certain subjective experiences which are true for all, maybe all these wisdom quotes would fail, and all religions would end, if there is no last subjective experience which is also the truth same for all. What do you think?

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I think subjective experience is much more collective than it is private, yes. While we all experience the world for ourselves, those experiences are quite diverse. People do all sorts of things that I cannot even imagine. Our common point is the fact of us each being in the stream of a subjective experience. We can overlook this quality as significant but imagine if our experience switched around all the time; imagine if sometimes we experienced the consciousness of a rock, then sometimes of a taxi driver, then sometimes of air. But we don’t. We all stay quite stable in our own experience, our consciousness. That is something we can work with in phenomenology by attempting to openly describe first-person experience.


      4. Oh, well. Consciousness of Rock, air? That’s very strange thing I’ve heard. Do phenomenology also studies consciousness of inanimate subjects? I totally agree with your point that we’re stable with our consciousness, but how about consciousness of something who is half fish and half woman or like early man who were half human and half apes, certainly these are mythological and ancient beings respectively, but certainly this is interesting thing you’re talking about and you know what, in India there’s is a religion called jainism so these beings believe that even plants and inanimate things have soul, I thing you may connect with them.


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