Here to introduce this post is Pinhead from Hellraiser:
From Beyond is worth revisiting for its ambitious themes-it takes the torch from Videodrome and passes it to Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, prompting sociopsychological musings on why exactly cosmic horror in the 80s was always yoked to sadomasochistic dress-up.
Naturally I thought, “Somebody need to write about that! I’m going to do it right now!” Several thousand words later I never really pinpointed why the 80s were especially conducive to the conjunction of sadomasochism and cosmic horror, or even if that’s really the case upon closer inspection. However, I do think Kim Newman’s on the money in as much as there remains a good case to be made for establishing a connection between cosmic horror and S and M. Both, I want to argue, offer ‘limit experiences’ that mirror one another as in the alchemical rule that the microcosm (human body) is a mirror of the macrocosm (universe). The bondage practitioner and the protagonist in cosmic horror are both taken to extremes of experience that open up new forms of consciousness. The article concludes by arguing that such “limit experiences” need not always end in evisceration as they do in many horror films. There are also narratives in which the iconography of fetish clubs (if not the practice) is adopted as a form of liberation from threats to reality, as in The Matrix and Return of the Living Dead 3.
Before reaching that final destination though we must embark upon a strange journey that takes in H.P. Lovecraft, Michel Foucault, Hellraiser, Nietzsche, Alisteir Crowley, and the X-Men and more along the way. It is also a companion piece of sorts to my previous post Posthuman Ecstasy: Long Live the New Sex which also dealt with new forms of posthuman sexuality in horror films.
To begin it is necessary, as ever, to define our terms. We’ll get to the politics of sadomasochism later (sorry, you’ll just have to wait), but first off let’s consider what it means to speak of ‘Cosmic Horror’. In an interesting article on the cosmic horrors of John Carpenter’s ‘Apocalypse Trilogy’ (The Thing (1982), Prince of Darkness (1987) and In the Mouth of Madness (1995)) Orrin Grey at Strange Horizons points out that:
Cosmic horror is mostly associated with H. P. Lovecraft, though his conception of it was in turn inspired by earlier writers like Algernon Blackwood and William Hope Hodgson, and can be summed up in a quote from his collected letters where he said, “Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large.” In short, cosmic horror is less the horror of some specific bogeyman, and more the horror of a cold, uncaring universe, in which humans are of no importance.
His protagonist is usually a reclusive bookish type, a scholar or artist who is or is known to the first-person narrator. Stumbling onto odd coincidences or beset with strange dreams, his intellectual curiosity drives him to pore through forbidden books or local folklore, his empirical turn of mind blinding him to the nightmarish scenario that the reader can see slowly building up around him. When the Mythos finally breaks through, it often shatters him, even though the invasion is generally more cognitive than physical.
More often than not this ‘shattering’ results from the protagonists inability to understand what they have uncovered. The terror of that which cannot be articulated. That which escapes language and representation and so cannot be known to us. These horrors are not supernatural and demonic but geometric and mathematical. It is the horror experienced when one is confronted with the unfathomable abyss that is infinity. As Heisenberg famously observed, “Not only is the Universe stranger than we think, it is stranger than we can think.” Lovecraft, and subsequent writers, simply gives this observation a genre twist. The universe can fill you with awe, certainly, but that feeling can be awful. Take the concept of hyperspace
… From the perspective of hyperspace, our normal, three-dimensional spaces are exhausted and insufficient constructs. But our incapacity to vividly imagine this new dimension in humanist terms creates a crisis of representation, a crisis which for Lovecraft calls up our most ancient fears of the unknown. “All the objects…were totally beyond description or even comprehension,” Lovecraft writes of Gilman’s seething nightmare before paradoxically proceeding to describe these horrible objects. In his descriptions, Lovecraft emphasizes the incommensurability of this space through almost non-sensical juxtapositions like “obscene angles” or “wrong” geometry
Perhaps the key to understanding cosmic horror is that there are really no heroes and villains. Protagonists and antagonists maybe but the idea that the human characters are ‘good’ people confronting some ‘evil’ alien intelligence or ancient demon at least provides a smidgen of comfort, of understanding. Such a view does not hold sway in the realm of cosmic horror. Instead the human is faced with entities whose motivations cannot be understood in human terms, like the fragile concept of ‘good and evil’. The horrors of the cosmic are simply just there, implacable and immovable. As the wikipedia article on Cosmicism describes them:
These beings (the Great Old Ones, Outer Gods and others)—though dangerous to humankind—are neither good nor evil, and human notions of morality have no meaning for these beings. Indeed, they exist in cosmic realms beyond human understanding. As a symbol, they represent the kind of universe that Lovecraft believed in, a universe in which humanity is an insignificant blot, fated to come and go, its appearance unnoticed and its passing unmourned.
NIETZSCHE’S UBERMENSCH AND THE GREAT OLD ONES
It is with this moral nihilism that our first links between philosophy, minoritarian sexual practices and the Outer Gods are found. The phrase ‘beyond good and evil’ was made famous (posthumously) by Nietzsche in his 1886 work of the same name. The wikipedia entry is as easy and concise a way to introduce this as possible:
In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche accuses past philosophers of lacking critical sense and blindly accepting dogmatic premises in their consideration of morality. Specifically, he accuses them of founding grand metaphysical systems upon the faith that the good man is the opposite of the evil man, rather than just a different expression of the same basic impulses that find more direct expression in the evil man. The work moves into the realm “beyond good and evil” in the sense of leaving behind the traditional morality which Nietzsche subjects to a destructive critique in favour of what he regards as an affirmative approach that fearlessly confronts the perspectival nature of knowledge and the perilous condition of the modern individual.
After critiquing the inadequate moral frameworks of previous philosophers Nietzsche goes on to identify
the qualities of the “new philosophers”: imagination, self-assertion, danger, originality, and the “creation of values”. He then contests some of the key presuppositions of the old philosophic tradition like “self-consciousness,” “knowledge,” “truth,” and “free will“, explaining them as inventions of the moral consciousness. In their place he offers the “will to power” as an explanation of all behavior; this ties into his “perspective of life”, which he regards as “beyond good and evil”, denying a universal morality for all human beings. Religion and the master and slave moralities feature prominently as Nietzsche re-evaluates deeply held humanistic beliefs, portraying even domination, appropriation and injury to the weak as not universally objectionable.
This new philosopher-poet is the Ubermensch/Overman/Superman introduced in Nietzsche’s previous book (and discussed in more detail here). The philosopher Michel Onfray has described the May 68 revolts as ”a Nietzschean revolt in order to put an end to the ‘One’ truth, revealed, and to put in evidence the diversity of truths, in order to make disappear ascetic Christian ideas and to help arise new possibilities of existence“, and this post will address the legacy of the ‘Class of 1968′, or at least Foucault, in due course. At this point however we might consider how the Nietzschean superman, who has moved beyond good and evil, and self-asserts their own values resembles Lovecraft’s fearful visions. In Call of Cthulu Lovecraft describes the world that the Great Old Ones would one day reclaim:
The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and reveling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom.
For Lovecraft the emergence of the Ubermensch-”free and wild and beyond good and evil”-is linked to the return of the Great old Ones. Clearly, one man’s “Nietzschean revolt to put an end to the ‘One’ truth” is another man’s “holocaust of ecstasy and freedom”. It doesn’t concern us here what familiarity Lovecraft had with Nietzsche. More pressing are the underground root systems that link Nietzsche to Lovecraft to Alisteir Crowley and thus lead us to our first synthesis of sexuality and cosmicism.
ALISTEIR CROWLEY, LOVECRAFT AND NIETZSCHE
For those not in the know, the short version is that Crowley was the Citizen Kane of occultism, variously described as ‘the wickedest man in the world’, ‘the greatest magician of the 20th century’, ‘a charlatan’, a ‘junkie’, and a ‘sexual deviant’, depending on who you are reading. Crowley’s religion, such as it is, was named Thelema and its laws dictated to him by an entity calling itself Aiwass that was using his wife as a vessell. This prophecy of a new Aeon was subsequently published as The Book of the Law and its ethos may be summed up in the maxim “do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”. Again, we recognise Nietzsche’s Ubermensch existing beyond good and evil, and may also imagine, according to your disposition, “laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and revelling in joy”.
Unsurprisingly there have been attempts to link Crowley and Lovecraft (for a fair-minded and well-written overview of this area there is an excellent essay here). Crowley’s former secretary Kenneth Grant played a large role in this with his book Alisteir Crowley and the Hidden God (quotes taken from Robert Anton Wilson’s Cosmic Trigger, pages 95-96):
Crowley was aware of the possibility of opening the spatial gateways and of admitting an extraterrestrial Current into the human life-wave . . . It is an occult tradition-and Lovecraft gave it persistent utterance in his writings—that some transfinite and superhuman power is marshalling its forces with intent to invade and take possession of this planet
Grant suggests that the arch-rationalist Lovecraft was subject to visions beyond his ken, but magical in origin, “The quality of evil with which Lovecraft invests the types of his Cthulu Cult and other mythoses is the result of a distortion in the subjective lense of his own awareness, and I have shown elsewhere how these images emerge when not so deformed, approximating sometimes to the point of actual identity with Crowley’s cult-types of Shaitan-Aiwass and The Book of the Law“. It’s important to remember that, despite the many who would like to dismiss old Uncle Alisteir as a pervy, druggy, selfish shit of a man (and not without reason)
Crowley dispels the aura of evil with which these authors (Lovecraft and Fort) invest the fact; he prefers to interpret it Thelemically, not as an attack upon human consciousness by an extra-terrestrial and alien entity but as an expansion of consciousness from within, to embrace other stars and to absorb their energies into a system that is thereby enriched and rendered truly cosmic by the process.
Importantly, the rituals Crowley utlised to contact these impersonal intelligences were heavily reliant on sex magick- the use of sexual energies to bring about changes in consciousness (to put it in material terms). These changes in consciousness can, it is suggested, allow the magician to engage with realms and beings normally beyond human perception. Such practices also place the magician in a position of control. The magician is active participant, while the rationalists of Lovecraft’s tales are driven mad by their accidental, but inevitable, encounters with the cosmos. In this regard it hardly seems coincidental that Lovecraft’s protagonists, even the man himself, were strangely sexless beings. The same cannot be said for the protagonists of Clive Barker’s stories in which cosmic horror is entwined with sexuality.
For Clive Barker the genre of horror and sadomasochism are implicitly linked. Even when it is not explicit sadomasochism is “subtextually part of horror fiction, and all I did was make [it] text. I mean, when the vampire bites the woman on the neck, there is a moment where the expression on the victim’s face hovers between pleasure and pain. There is something, even in our response to horror movies in the audience, that smacks of S&M. We like it, but we don’t like it. It’s scary but it’s fun. It makes us look away and wince, but then we look back at the screen with smiles on our faces. What does that remind you of?” In this interview with Mark Dery Barker is very open about his own experiences with S and M:
MARK DERY: In an Advocate interview, you talked about your involvement with S&M have you “investigated it thoroughly?” If so, what have you brought back, into the light of day?
CLIVE BARKER: I’ve brought back ritual, I’ve brought back the notion that this is an area where you can examine the limits of what you find sexual and maybe expand those limits. One of the things that happens as we are educated in childhood and adolescence is the range of things that we are allowed to find sexual narrows. This is Freud’s notion, the idea that the child is polymorphously perverse, looking at the world and seeing sexual possibilities everywhere, and that the series of taboos which are inculcated into the child gradually limit the number of sexual possibilities. It’s to do with sensations, with what our eyes and skin tell us, and it seems to me that one of the things S&M sexuality does is say, “Well, now, wait a second, maybe that isn’t the whole story, maybe we don’t have to live with certain sexual possibilities sewed up and kept from us, maybe we can re-open these doors, maybe we can look again at pure sensation, at what is beautiful and what is arousing. De Sade said that the greatest pleasures are aversions overcome, and aversions are taught.”
De Sade remains the most prominent literary figure to deal with sadomasochism (indeed, the term takes its name from him). For De Sade, limits are not defined by religion, as God has been decentered by the emergence of Enlightenment “man,” who now becomes the ‘raison d’etre’ of the universe. It is thus ”man’s” most profound, and ultimately inexplicable, Dionysian experience–sex–which marks the borderline of rationality, where thought and language break down into white noise on the threshold of life and death.” (taken from ??). Note that once more we find ourselves at the limits of “thought and language”.
Mark Dery also links the novel and film Hellraiser to the work of George Bataille, noting that:
Bataille favorably compares present-day slaughterhouses to the temples of antiquity and scorns our “flabby world in which nothing fearful remains”; even the killing of meat animals must take place out of sight, out of mind. Pinhead likewise invokes the notion of a return to a pre-civilized “animality” (Bataille) in his obvious resonances with the scarred and safety-pinned punks of the ’70s and the pierced, branded, and ritually scarred “modem primitives” of the ’90s.
FOUCAULT AND THE POLITICS OF SADOMASOCHISM
So far we have touched upon Nietzsche, Sade, and Bataille in relation to cosmic horror. These authors lead us inexorably to Micheal Focuault who said of them that, “It is this de-subjectifying undertaking, the idea of a ‘limit-experience’ that tears the subject from itself, which is the fundamental lesson I’ve learned from these authors” (cited in Walker). Locating, for instance, the initial stage of the transgressive movement in Sade’s total affirmation of nature as a Dionysian state of chaotic flux, a forever dissonant madness which affirms everything (and therefore nothing) at the same time. Again, we are not a million miles away from Lovecraft’s feared “holocaust of ecstasy and freedom”.
In his biography of Foucault, James Miller describes “all of Foucault’s work” as “an effort to issue a license for exploring…and also as a vehicle for expressing…this harrowing vision of a gnosis beyond good and evil, glimpsed at the limits of experience“ (459). Miller’s use of the term ‘gnosis’ is telling, as it positions Foucault’s philosophy (and praxis) within a context of mystical illumination or spiritual revelation. Walker takes this idea even further, arguing that
What we find, I believe, upon examination of some of Foucault’s key works, is that this “de-subjectifying” experience mirrors the processes of mystical schools such as Buddhism which pursue the breakdown of the ego through direct means such as meditation, resulting in the recognition that the material world and the ‘meanings’ we assume inhere within it (including the meaning of the “I,” the ego-self that operates within that world) are ‘maya’, or illusion. Foucault remarks in a 1978 interview that the whole problem of de-subjectification is directly related to the operations of “mysticism,”
The peculiar affinities between mysticism (I use that term broadly) and post-sturcturalist philosophy deserve an article of their own to be explored properly. Rest assured, dear reader, I will certainly write that some day. At this point however we only need to recognise that Focuault’s use of S and m in the pursuit of de-subjectification is not far removed from Crowley’s use of sex magick-the dissolution of the self. S and M, whether for the purposes of magick or de-subjectification, involves an encounter with what Camille Paglia calls ‘true nature’ or the ‘chthonian’. Cthonian is an adjective meaning “pertaining to deities dwelling under the earth”. As Walker elaborates“
“True nature, or the “chthonian,” is at base is nothing benign, but rather a “grueling erosion of natural force, flecking, dilapidating, grinding down, reducing all matter to fluid, the thick primal soup from which new forces bob, gasping for life” (_Sexual_ 30). This residue from which humanity springs poses a constant threat for a people who confuse societally constructed identities, or %personae%, constructed in defence, with Dionysian human “nature”: “We speak of falling apart, having a breakdown .. . getting it all together” Paglia says. “Only in the West is there such conviction of the Apollonian unity of personality. . . . But I say that there is neither person, thought, thing, nor art in the brutal chthonian” (104, 73)
Foucault agrees: this search for “the image of a primordial truth fully adequate to its nature” is burst asunder by the genealogist’s revelation that nature contains not “a timeless and essential secret, but the secret that (things) have no essence, or that their essence was fabricated . . .from alien forms” (78). For both Foucault and Paglia, it is this act of fabrication (the “ordering” process which becomes a Foucauldian buzzword: _The Order of Things_; “The Order of Discourse”) issuing forth not in an isomorphic relation, but in the line of defense and control versus the unknowable, which informs our problematic Western rationalism.
(Interestingly, the Chthonian has entered Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos by way of author Brian Lumley who introduced them as immense, burrowing squid-like creatures.)
What is the purpose of such de-subjectifying experiences though? For Crowley they were explicitly magickal, for others they are broadly political. As Paul Simpson writes in his essay Michel Foucault on Freedom and the Politics of Experience, “the kind of S & M that holds Foucault’s interest is not one characterized by cruelty or harm. If anything, S & M comes across as a practice of justice and a “way in” to developing an ethics and subjectivity appropriate to a non-disciplinary society. One way Foucault sees S & M changing one’s subjectivity to a non-disciplinary orientation is the way it makes power relations transparent when in one’s daily lives they are all too well hidden.” For Simpson, “Foucault’s use of S & M as an opposition to centering sexual pleasure on the orgasm serves as a useful analogy to his refusal to center our political hopes on revolution.”
For Walker, Foucault’s work and sexual practices are concerned with the relation between the Appolonian and Dionysian sides of human experience:
The Apollonian, in contrast to the timeless, immanent realm of the Dionysian, is a *historical* force, embedded within our culture in a tangled network of conflicting paths “crisscrossed by intrinsic dangers” (“Space” 249). Characterised by the use of “reason” in the post-Enlightenment era, it actively de-limits the chaotic flux of the Dionysian and produces both society, on the macrocosmic level, and personality, or ”the subject,” on the level of the individual… Within our current Western ‘episteme’ (or historical period), one characterized by a post-Enlightenment faith in reason and concomitant loss of belief in God, Foucault locates sexual experience as the final borderline lying between Apollonian rationality and the Dionysian realm of the unknown.
This philosophical, and practical, search for the limit experience brings us back to Erik Davis’ observation that in the cosmic horror of Lovecraft:
Lovecraft has a habit of labeling his horrors “indescribable,” “nameless, “unseen,” “unutterable,” “unknown” and “formless.” Though superficially weak, this move can also be seen a kind of macabre via negativa. Like the apophatic oppositions of negative theologians like Pseudo-Dionysus or St. John of the Cross, Lovecraft marks the limits of language, limits which paradoxically point to the Beyond. For the mystics, this ultimate is the ineffable One, Pseudo-Dionysus’ “superluminous gloom” or the Ain Soph of the Kabbalists. But there is no unity in Lovecraft’s Beyond. It is the omnivorous Outside, the screaming multiplicity of cosmic hyperspace opened up by reason.
Here, I think, is the philosophical link between cosmic horror and S and M. The experience of cosmic horror ‘marks the limits of language’, of representation, in much the same way that sadomasochistic practices helped Foucault dissolve the self (as the representation we make of and to ourselves):
You meet men [in fetish clubs] who are to you as you are to them: nothing but a body with which combinations and productions of pleasure are possible. You cease to be imprisoned in your own face, in your own past, in your own identity. ( Miller, 1993:264)
A theory that incorporates both Foucault’s ideas and horror fiction stirs in the shadows much of horror relies on a fear of the unknown, cosmic horror in particular works on just such a confrontation between Appolonian rationality and the Dinonysian realm of the unknown. And so we return to Kim Newman’s observation with which this discussion began-the apparent link between cosmic horror and S and M.
PINHEAD MEETS FOUCAULT
Why resist? You love this as much as I. After all, you made me. There is a world out there, waiting to yield to us. So much flesh, so many different pleasures. (Pinhead in HELLRAISER3)
As touched upon above, these concerns bleed (and/or ejaculate) into Clive Barker’s fictions. Not for nothing was Barker’s original title for “Hellraiser”, his most well-known work, ”Sadomasochists from Beyond the Grave”. Mark Dery’s pithy description of the Hellraiser mythos will suffice for now:
For those unfamiliar with the Hellraiser saga, the Cenobites are the heavily pierced sybarites from hell summoned, with the aid of a mysterious puzzle box called the Lament Configuration, by foolhardy humans. In an S&M rewrite of the Faust 1egend, they offer entree, for the usual fee of one mortal soul, to a realm of the senses where the envelope of sensation is pushed to the point where pleasure and torture meet. Punk-rock bondage freaks from the “outer darkness,” the Cenobites sport mutilated black leather and Boschian body modifications. Their leader, Pinhead, is an imposing vision in a black leather corset-cum-cassock, his pale, bald head studded with pins. He exudes seductive evil and glacial cool. De Sadean demigods for an age of extremes, the Cenobites are, in Pinhead’s words, “Explorers in the further regions of experience — demons to some, angels to others.”
From here Dery proceeds naturally to Foucault (himself an acolyte of Bataille), finding that,
the gay subtext just beneath the surface of a movie such as Hellraiser is undeniable, and suggests one last interpretation of Pinhead, perhaps the most obvious of all: that of the lead Cenobite as a gay devotee of S&M, modeled, possibly on one of the leatherbound denizens of New York’s notorious Hellfire club in its heyday. Needless to say any series about a “religious community” (the Cenobites and their human acolytes) devoted to the pursuit of what Michel Foucault— himself a habitu of San Francisco’s S&M scene— called “limit experiences,” where ecstasy and agony melt into one, is transparently a metaphor for the S&M underground. Naturally, S&M isn’t gay by definition, although its association with the gay “leatherstream” culture celebrated in Mapplethorpe photos and Drummer magazine, not to mention Pinhead’s leather-bar get-up, invite us to interpret the lead Cenobite as a butch “top”, cruising for a bruising.
Barker’s books and the best of his movies (Hellraiser, Nightbreed) can be seen as pop parallels to the Bataillean tradition that flowers in the post-structuralist philosophy of Foucault, who envisioned S&M as a means of “shattering the philosophical subject” – disintegrating the coherent, centered self of Western rationalism in an engulfing “animality.”
For Foucault, gay sadomasochism was a creative enterprise, the “real creation of new possibilities of pleasure” (Miller, 1993: 263). Certainly there is an affinity between Foucault’s statement that, “I think the kind of pleasure I would consider the real pleasure would be so deep, so overwhelming that I could not survive it”, and the words of Hellraiser’s Frank Cotton:
I thought I’d gone to the limits. I hadn’t. The Cenobites gave me an experience beyond limits… pain and pleasure, indivisible.
Max Renn, from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) is another 1980s horror protagonist taken beyond limits, although perhaps not quite as willingly as Hellriaser’s Frank Cotton. here’s a clip form the film:
In an earlier post I described Videodrome this way:
The film follows Max Renn (James Woods) the CEO of a small cable station who stumbles upon a broadcast signal featuring extreme violence and torture. Renn embarks on a sadomasochistic relationship with Debbie Harry, and their shared interest in sex and violence is facilitated by the videodrome transmissions. An apparent story about a mind-control conspiracy unfolds as Renn uncovers the signal’s source and loses touch with reality and begins suffering-or perhaps actually undergoing (?)- a series of increasingly bizarre and violent organic hallucinations/mutations. At one point developing a vaginal opening in his abdomen in which are placed a phallic gun but also videotapes which then take on a semblance of flesh. Traditional boundaries separating the organic from the technological become indistinct, giving way to the ‘new flesh’.
Videodrome’s cosmic horror is compounded by the film’s lack of center. It confounds linear interpretation. But strongly implied is the notion that Renn is drawn to s and M (despite his initial shock when lover Nickki Brand burns herself with a cigarette). This desire is what allows Max to become the ‘new flesh’, (as in the video above) and the film is ambiguous as to whether this transformation is positive or negative.
From Beyond (1988) is inspired by Lovecraft’s short story of the same name and tells the story of two scientists who build a ‘psychic resonator’; a kind of hyper-dimensional tuning fork that allows them to see creatures usually invisible to human eyes. Dr. Edward Pretorius appears to be killed by the creatures, leaving his assistant Dr. Crawford Tillinghast as a murder suspect. When the psychiatrist Dr. Katherine McMichaels (Barbara Crampton) suggests that Tillinghast return to the site and renew the experiments they discover not only that Pretorius had a predilection for sadomasochistic sex but also that he has not died. Instead his experience with the beyond has transformed into a grotesque monster. Again, experience of the cosmic results in ‘new flesh’ (the film is chockablock with satisfyingly sticky practical effects). Pretorious describes this metamorphosis in terms Foucault would surely have approved of:
Tillnghast: Edward, my god, what have you become?
Tillinghast and Pretorius’s machine allows the human to see beyond our world by stimulating the pineal gland, or ‘third eye’. At one point McMichaels speculates that Pretorius’s S and M fetish may have been because the pineal gland controls sexual impulses. Certainly for Pretorius knowledge of the cosmic and corporeal pleasures are combined: “I have to see more! feel more!” Under the influence of Pretorius and the beings from beyond McMicheals finds herself drawn to the fetish wear kept in the scientists’s home. (There’s a French review of the film featuring a video of Dr. Katherine McMichaels in S and M mode here if you need it. Ah, go ahead, who could blame you?)
Upon discovering her dressed up and astride a semi-conscious Tillinghast another character confronts her and forces her to look in a mirror, asking, “is that who you are?” To which McMicheals replies, “I don’t know. I don’t know who I am“. By the end of the film she, in typically Lovecraftian fashion, been driven quite mad by her confrontation with the cosmic forces that lie beyond and the sexual forces that lie within. Unlike Pretorius, she was unable to become herself.
The link between cosmic beings (becomings?) and S and M as corrupting influence can also be discerned in the classic X-Men story The Dark Phoenix Saga. Taking place over several issue Jean Grey/Marvel Girl is possessed by the Phoenix Force, a cosmic entity whose power begins to corrupt Jean Grey. This cosmic corruption is facilitated by a simultaneous psychic corruption by the nefarious mutant hellfire Club, who psychically manipulate goody-goody Jean Grey into becoming the leather-bound Black Queen. As in from beyond, S and M garb is presented as a signifier of a more profound cosmic sickness.
Where can we find meetings of sadomasochism and cosmicism that are transformative and positive rather than oppressive As sympathetic as Hellraiser, or Videodrome might be to the new flesh they are hardly advertisements for it. On some level this may simply be a matter of separating the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. Those with eyes to see, ears to listen, and arses to be paddled, will follow the invisible threads that lead beyond cosmic horror to cosmic consciousness. But there remain examples of a more positive representations sadomasochism.
In The Matrix the trappings of S and M are less explicit but no less important. As surely everyone knows by now, the protagonists in The Matrix have achieved gnosis and woken to the realisation that the 'real' world is simply a computer programme created by sentient machines (read higher-dimensional beings) as a virtual world for human minds while their bodies a are used as batteries in this higher reality. It is notable that in the visual language of the film those characters who have achieved this technological enlightenment choose to dress in fetishistic leather as a signifier of their expanded awareness. In contrast to X-Men or From Beyond where fetish-wear signified corruption by cosmic forces in The Matrix it signifies freedom from them. So too does the much-derided Zion rave scene from Matrix Revolutions express the same theme-freedom from cosmic control is expressed and experienced by and through the liberation of the body.
Grant Morrison’s epic The Invisibles (with which The Matrix shares several striking and controversial similarities) also links S and M to cosmic freedom. An absurdly reductive synopsis of the story might go like this: ontological anarchist freedom fighters The Invisibles have been engaged in a long war with the Archons, hyper-dimesnional forces of control working through human institutions to keep humanity enslaved and unaware of our true spiritual-evolutionary potential. As if to answer Foucault’s question, “Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?” The Invisibles says, “no, it isn’t”. Each of these state apparatus is not simply a tool of earthly power but of cosmic forces working through them. Among the tactics used by The Invisibles to free humanity from its psychic prison are an abundance fo fetish gear, the gender-bending shamanism of Lord Fanny and various acts of sex magick. Notably this sex magick is not only textual but extratetxual. As John Parker points out, “when it looked like the series might be cancelled early, Morrison used the letters column to teach readers the art of sigil magic and asked them to participate in a “wank-a-thon” to imbue the book with lasting power”. The series, by the way, never got cancelled, so make of that what you will.
Moreover, the S and M=cosmic freedom equation is highlighted by the inclusion of the Marquis de Sade himself as a character in the story. When brought forward to modern day San Francisco de Sade visits the same S and M clubs that Foucault would have frequented. Astonished, the Marquis de Sade exclaims, “oh brave new world, that has such people in it”. Moreover it can be suggested that the recurring theme in The Invisibles of the self as memeplex or fiction, and the personal, spiritual and politically tactical advantages of multiple identities over a single dysfunctional one would have appealed to both de Sade and Foucault, who once mused that, “From the idea that the self is not given to us, I think that there is only one practical consequence–we have to create ourselves as a work of art.”
Hellraiser creator Clive Barker has himself warned against decadence for its own sake, ”If we have nothing to do but service our own pleasure- because society has taught us that’s all we’re worth and were exiled from positions of authority from which we could actually shape society- then we just become hedonists,” he told an interviewer. “Eventually, despite how great it may look on Saturday night, come Monday morning there’s just purposelessness.” But does this mean we ought to retreat back to bourgeois moral values, family and work ethic? Hardly. It was these very sructures from which Foucault at least was trying to obliterate:
“I cannot give myself those middle range pleasures that make up everyday life.”
These middle-range pleasures are a good place to end, at least in as much as they point to a new reading of cosmic horror rooted not in transgressive sexual practices but in the grinding mundanity of the everyday. A possibility that one needn’t touch leather nor feel the lash of the whip to experience Paglia’s “brutal cthonian” or Lovecraftian terror at the abject futility of human endeavour in the face of an infinite, unmoved cosmos. As so many melodramas have correctly pointed out the very Appolonian order we built to escape our Dionysian yearnings exerts its own inexorable pull towards the abyss of being.
So it is that we find ourselves not at the cosmic rim, the ocean depths or hyperspace, but in a forest in 1950s America with a frustrated suburban couple and a mentally disturbed acquaintance in this clip from Revolutionary Road.
“Hopeless emptiness. Now you’ve said it. Plenty of people are onto the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness.”
A new genre: the suburban drama as cosmic nightmare. Bourgeois couples behind lace curtains crossing the abyss of hopeless emptiness by way of a bridge constructed of chains and leather into a higher realm of self-creation. In lieu of such a text the final film I want to consider instead is Brian Yuzna’s Return of the Living Dead Part 3. Ostensibly a zombie-flick rather than cosmic horror, Living Dead 3 still manages to allegorise several of the ideas discussed so far. The romantic of tale of teenagers lovers Curt and Julie, the film tells the story Curt’s effort to bring his girlfriend back to life after a motorcycle accident using the military’s experimental Trioxin gas (which has been developed in an attempt to create weaponized zombies). Needless to say, things don’t go smoothly. But among the zombie carnage is an interesting plot point concerning Julie’s desire to retain her humanity. In order to stave off her hunger for human flesh Julie begins mutilating herself instead. Not only does this make for some neat gore effects and striking visuals (see picture below) but it also ties in nicely with the idea of sadomasochism as an act of resistance.
In Lauro and Embry’s “A Zombie Manifesto: The Nonhuman Condition in the Era of Advanced Capitalism” (2008) the authors argue that contrary to Donna Haraway, it is the zombie and not the cyborg that provides the most appropriate metaphor for twenty-first century humanity:
“The zombie, we feel, is a more pessimistic but nonetheless more appropriate stand-in for our current moment, and specifically for America in the global economy, where we feed off the products of the rest of the planet, and, alienated from our humanity, stumble forward, groping for immortality even as we decompose. (ibid, p 93)…It consumes, and it makes more consumers.” (p 99).
Zombies then are those who have not escaped the “hopeless emptiness”, Foucault’s “middle range pleasures” of the bourgeois life. If zombies are metaphors for the contemporary subject then Return of the Living Dead 3 becomes a potent Foucauldian allegory (that’s right, I said it). Julie’s body is indeed inscribed with discourses of power/knowledge-state, technoscience, and military. This inscription fills her with the insatiable hunger of the capitalist consumer. But in the end it is her sadomasochistic practices-the self-laceration, the jagged piercings-that keep this hunger at bay, that allow her to (re)create herself.
So now then…
By way of conclusion, here is Holmes et al. (2006) offering one final definition of the limit experience:
The limit experience is an experience of the edge, of the margin, an experience that is actively involved in the becoming process (Deleuze and Guattari, 1980). These edges or margins could be defined in numerous ways: the boundary separating life from death and the line dividing pleasure from pain are examples. Limit experience or edge work practices(Lyng, 2005) are often located in the uncivilized spaces where actors ‘resistthe imperatives of emotional control, rational calculation, routinization, and reason in Modern society’ (Lyng, 2005, p.6)…Foucault maintained that sadomasochistic (S&M) practices embody the limit experience. S&M practices are an attempt to break down the boundaries that contain the body through the use of non-conventional methods, which transform the traditional definition of an act (in this case, the sex act) intosomething new, that is, sex as pain. When viewed from this perspective, bareback sex is yet another example of this limit experience. In the latter case,sex becomes danger or death. The body is pushed to a new limit where it isforced to re-define itself; it is the limit experience that forces the redefinition of the Self (de-subjectification)
The limit experience is an encounter with the unknown, “…an accomplishment of the self (through self-creation and perhaps self-destruction) but also a political maneuver to subvert the omnipresent hierarchies that govern everyday life” (ibid). Limit experiences don’t have to involve sexuality of course, sleep deprivation, drug trips and self-harm can take explorer to the limits of the self as well. Notably, all of these methods have a long and illustrious use in the history of magic as well. The link between limit experience and the cosmic has been in place long before the authors and texts discussed in this article. Foucault’s quest for de-subjectification, though framed in the language of resistance against state power, is effectively a shamanic death/rebirth, an ancient and deep-rooted human proclivity for unmaking and remaking the self (though it is true that the modern state generally prohibits such encounters with the cosmic self).
In the genre of cosmic horror the limits of the mind and the limits of the body are the same thing. For the puritanical and repressed Lovecraft encounters with the limit resulted in madness and/or despair. Lovecraft, the rationalist, balked at the irrational. For Bataille, Sade and Foucault, each in their own way seeking to escape the ‘despotism of reason’, that same breakdown was actually a breakthrough. A gateway to new forms of being. In cosmic horror these new ways of being are literalised-new flesh is granted; strange, new bodies for strange, new minds. At least for those who are willing t0 give way to the irrational.
But resisting the irrational? Clinging on to the comfort blanket of reason? That way madness lies.