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 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1998

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

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

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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. 29, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

GOOD ECONOMICS FOR HARD TIMES

Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

“Quality of life means more than just consumption”: Two MIT economists urge that a smarter, more politically aware economics be brought to bear on social issues.

It’s no secret, write Banerjee and Duflo (co-authors: Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way To Fight Global Poverty, 2011), that “we seem to have fallen on hard times.” Immigration, trade, inequality, and taxation problems present themselves daily, and they seem to be intractable. Economics can be put to use in figuring out these big-issue questions. Data can be adduced, for example, to answer the question of whether immigration tends to suppress wages. The answer: “There is no evidence low-skilled migration to rich countries drives wage and employment down for the natives.” In fact, it opens up opportunities for those natives by freeing them to look for better work. The problem becomes thornier when it comes to the matter of free trade; as the authors observe, “left-behind people live in left-behind places,” which explains why regional poverty descended on Appalachia when so many manufacturing jobs left for China in the age of globalism, leaving behind not just left-behind people but also people ripe for exploitation by nationalist politicians. The authors add, interestingly, that the same thing occurred in parts of Germany, Spain, and Norway that fell victim to the “China shock.” In what they call a “slightly technical aside,” they build a case for addressing trade issues not with trade wars but with consumption taxes: “It makes no sense to ask agricultural workers to lose their jobs just so steelworkers can keep theirs, which is what tariffs accomplish.” Policymakers might want to consider such counsel, especially when it is coupled with the observation that free trade benefits workers in poor countries but punishes workers in rich ones.

Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-61039-950-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: Aug. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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