Imperial Masochism: British Fiction, Fantasy, and Social Class.

Author:Robinson, Michelle
Position:Book review

Imperial Masochism: British Fiction, Fantasy, and Social Class. By John Kucich. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2007. Pp.

In this study of colonial fiction, John Kucich moves away from psychoanalytic theories of masochism anchored in oedipal drama. Generally speaking, such theories feature either a male masochist who valiantly flouts the oedipal rulebook or one of a less noble variety who takes the part of the charlatan and, by some sleight of hand, converts his suffering into moral clout. Recent relational psychoanalysis, however, supplies what Kucich is convinced is a more useful grammar of preoedipal masochism: masochism that is chiefly of a narcissistic rather than sexual character and thus linked to fantasies of omnipotence. Kucich's appeal to relational psychoanalysis as a principal but not exclusive or intractable interpretive method bears fruit. Moreover, his findings are a welcome alternative to the now-conventional discovery that writers such as Rudyard Kipling and Joseph Conrad were casualties of ambivalence, authors whose approbation of imperial tactics is at least as demonstrable as their frustration with it. Rather than hedging his bets, the literary critic might discover a method to colonial fiction's mixed messages in structures of preoedipal masochism. In Imperial Masochism, Kucich contends that these structures provided a "psychosocial language" that fashioned imperial and class subjectivities both abroad and domestically (2).

In the introduction to his book, Kucich scrupulously delineates non-identical but often overlapping varieties of preoedipal masochistic fantasy. For instance, "fantasies of total control over others" might take the form of "magical reinterpretation of events", or bestowing upon oneself the power to "lie, cheat, or use guile" with impunity, while exaggerated suffering that props up the parental figure is aligned with "fantasies that maintain the omnipotence of others" (23-24). Schlepping through this painstaking (but far from tedious) catalog is essential.The trouble with late-Victorian masochistic fantasy, Kucich explains, is that it "exploits a disarticulated middleclass social consciousness" and gives it new form; it is not a fixed expression of social relations so much as equipment designed to generate social discourse (84). Consequently, masochistic fantasy as a literary device is available to the champions of British Imperialism, among them Kipling and Conrad, as well as its...

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