A DEFENSE OF MASOCHISM

With wit, grace, and theoretical rigor, Phillips ventures into the black vinyl depths of masochism and reclaims it. In Phillips’s view, the very concept of masochism has been misunderstood for some years now, stripped of import and culturally defused in a way that benefits no one. Her “project,” as she defines it, means rescuing masochism from —its identity as a sickness, as something pathological, and setting it back into the context of diverse human experience and artistic creativity.” To do so, Phillips, editor of the British journal Interstice, takes an erudite approach, reconsidering the literary history of the term and its gradual perversion by an army of psychiatrists. From her perspective, masochism cannot be equated only with the death drive—it has too much to do with life. Perhaps her most compelling argument focuses on the link between creativity and masochism, in which she connects the intricacies of creative sublimation to the complexities of masochistic desire. And all artists, Phillips dares to suggest, are masterful masochists. In her definition, the term doesn—t apply to sexual practice so much as to a desire for self-shattering experience, anything that tears down ego-boundaries and releases the individual into a kind of bliss, or jouissance. And masochists, she writes, are adept at seeking out such experiences, taking in the whole life-and-death cocktail: hardship, pain, pleasure, ambivalence, ecstasy. Phillips makes insightful connections, using her intelligent, conversational prose style to defuse complex ideas. Although Phillips does go so far as to explain the very stylized rituals of S/M exchanges, her purpose is merely to emphasize their symbolic import, not to reduce masochism to an acceptable form of kinkiness. Instead, she hopes to simply take the pejorative sting out of the word, and examine the way in which masochism can infuse a single individual with multiple possibilities. A fascinating argument for the power of masochism to integrate Eros and Thanatos, dark and light, desire and its inevitable loss.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-312-19258-4

Page Count: 224

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1998

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A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME

NOTES ON THE FIRST 150 YEARS IN AMERICA

The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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