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.