Cold Baths and Common Sense

Review of Masochism in Modern Man. By Theodor Reik. Translated by Margaret H. Beigel and Gertrud M. Kurth. (Pp. 439.) New York: Farrar, Straus and Co. London: George Allen and Unwin.

British Medical Journal, 11 February 1950, p. 355

   It is one of the fundamental teachings of psycho-analysis that the organism is orientated towards nullifying the effects of stimulation. Many stimuli arise from within, such as those caused by hunger, and by them the organism is driven to assuage its appetites. This superficially attractive doctrine is the root cause of a great deal of theoretical superstructure which is, to the non-analyst, absurd. At no place is there any room in the theory for the causation of pleasurable emotions by stimulation itself. The pleasures one may derive from a cold shower, from a walk in a high wind, or from a bob-sleigh run are not intelligible, except by tortuous processes of reasoning, to the analyst. That toning-up of the system which can be experienced in strenuousengagements, in enduring discomforts, in facing perils, and in attacking difficult and disagreeable tasks are, the analyst says, forms of masochism and manifestations of the death instinct. What perversity is this! Surely one should say, this is life itself.

   It is not to be denied that there is a genuine masochism, commonly defined as the experiencing of sexual pleasure in suffering pain or humiliation. By psychological processes, some would say processes of conditioning, the sexual instinct may couple itself with objects and ideas of an apparently remote kind-with a woman's shoes or a headmaster's cane, with the experiencing of pain, or vertigo, or anxiety. It is when the author of this work, following in the steps of Freud, expands the sexual theory of psychodynamics to every sort of behaviour and psychological experience that one is conscious of a defect in a doctrine which might have seemed well enough confined to its natural field. Elementary aspects of normal psychology are distorted beyond recognition. If we enjoy a meal more keenly when it has been preceded by hunger, if the drinker says he would not sell his thirst for a five-pound note, if we get more pleasure out of what has been bought and paid for than out of what has come gratis, has it any meaning to call these things masochistic ? We would probably do better to call in the aid of Gestalt psychology, and to think of contrast phenomena.

  It is, however, a fundamental directive of psycho-analysis to disregard the promptings of common sense. In following this principle the analyst sometimes attains an insight which is not easily attainable by less fantastic means. If some of Reik's ideas strike the reader as bizarre, others will be welcomed as suggestive or illuminating. The translation is so good that the book may be read with pleasure. Those who hold psycho-analytic views will probably find it valuable, although the author takes a line which is, by psycho-analytic standards, at times heterodox.