Friday, January 23, 2009

The English Vice

Minutes before he’d started throwing up over the fabulous Persian carpet in his Manhattan penthouse, my banker-friend K. had promised to take to exercise and clean living in 2009. I’d marvelled at his low cunning—the ability, even when blind drunk, find the words needed to contain his khoti’s righteous morning-after wrath.

It was with some surprise, therefore, that I heard the Bitch-in-Chief, as he fondly calls her, bragging that she’d got him to deliver on his word. B-in-C had the smug air of a woman who has finally beaten a good man into submission. I knew better. Based on the certain knowledge that K. wouldn’t work up sweat on account of anything other than a platoon of naked Uzbek Houris, I asked the B-in-C for his the address of his “gym”—and off I went.

Miss Victoria wasn’t Uzbek—but the minute I laid eyes on her, it was clear just why K. was there. Beautiful, blonde and blessed with a body built for Oriental Contortions no Uzbek Houri could ever have imagined, Miss Victoria cooed in delight at the prospect of having a fine gentleman as myself “exercise” at her establishment. Having relieved me of my credit cards, she signed me in—and swung open the doors to Paradise.

What I saw froze my blood, and shrank my killi to the size of a pea. K., trussed up in a black leather gimp suit, was performing push ups. Each time he failed to drag himself off the floor, one of Miss Victoria’s stunning assistants would, with a languid flick of her arm, horse whip him within an inch of his life. All around, there were men screaming with pain—or was it pleasure? “I ache for the brush of her lips”, K. said, with the helpless air of a man who has crossed the frontiers of all reason, “but I ache for the crack of her whip”.

For the first time, I looked at the name on the registration form Miss Victoria had handed me: Slavercise.

Now, it isn’t as the idea of tying up people and whipping them is alien to my watan. My dear friend, the Maharani of B., took no small small pleasure from flogging the peasants at last year’s mango-harvest time, when the uppity so-and-sos demanded money, will you believe it, to pluck the fruit.

And there’s Muharram, of course. Back in the Pind, they take the whipping stuff seriously. The flagellants would march down the street to the Masjid, each determined to demonstrate their neighbourhood’s abiding grief about the unfortunate events of 680, A.D.

Ya Ali! Ya Husain!, they would rhythmically cry.
Ya Ali, Ya Husain
Jor Sey Kutto Behan Dey Lodon [Hit harder, you sister-fuckers], the flogger-in-chief would shout out periodically, to the shirkers
Ya Ali, Ya Husain
etc. you get the idea.

At first, I thought the existence of Slavercise was a symptom of the Protestant distaste for sloth which runs through Jesustan—a distaste which manifests itself in a veneration of exercise, cold showers and outdoor discomfort that is just as unhealthy as the fat-fetishism I have earlier written on. But on closer inquiry, it turned out that this was a facile analysis.

In my watan, the infliction of pain is what god intended it to be: an instrument of punishment; a means of control. Its experience, be it in the mango orchards or at Muharram, is merely a dress-rehearsal for the larger agony we call life. In Jesustan, though, pain is a choice—an aesthetic of profound spiritual significance.

From Piety to Pornography
We desis have long known that White Master enjoys a strange relationship with the whip: its not for naught, after all, that the urchins on Janpath run after goras with enormous leather hunters in their hands.

Like all good stories, the story of White Master’s and the whip begins a long, long time ago. During the tenth century, historians tell us, flagellation was as core a part of monastic practice as prayer. Indeed, psalms and prayers were often recited as monks and nuns were flogged.

Processions of flagellants also travelled Europe for periods of thirty-three days, enacting the years of Christ’s life. Prophecies of the coming apocalypse were in vogue then, as they are now; the flagellants hoped to reduce their time in Purgatory and to ward off ailments like the plague.

Through whipping the body, one attacked the home of the devil, and thus drove out Lucificer—to the delight of god, the angels, and any deviants who happened to be watching. From various thirteenth century accounts, we learn that the flagellant was often naked, in a ritual remembrance of Adam and Eve in the state of nature. As such, flagellation was a means atoning for Original Sin, and of seeking the intercession of the Virgin through sharing in the pain of Christ’s Passion.

From around the fifteenth century, though, flagellation began into fall out of fashion—in no small part because the Spanish Inquisition deemed the practice heretical and began executing its practitioners. Flagellation was thus driven underground. But this pious act was kept alive by underground orders of gynopygian clerics, mainly Jesuit, who saw it as an essential tool for exorcisms.

Two hundred years later, whipping would have a magnificent revival in that glorious media for society’s most secret secrets—pornography. Much of this revival was inspired by the famous scandal of Catherine Cadiére. In September, 1731, Cadiére was sentenced to death for witchcraft—and then released, to public applause, a month later. Cadiére’s health had been ruined by the plague of 1728, and she began to suffer from what she believed to be possession by the devil. The Jesuit priest Jean-Baptiste Girard, whom she met in 1728, undertook to deliver her from evil—using a whip and his penis. He was later investigated for abuse. In an effort to protect the church in general and the Jesuits in particular, though, Cadiére was tried as a witch.

Divine ecstasy and profane ecstasy—the spiritual experience and the orgasm—were shown to be intimately entwined in the course of this revival. Pornographers of the eighteenth century added the whip to the iconography of the nymphomaniac nun and the debauched Priest—all well known, the English-medium types among you will know, from the time of Geoffrey Chaucer onwards—thus tying together pleasure and desire with pain and punishment. It was, it takes little to see, a uniquely Christian pornography. In popular imagination, the Marquis de Sade is seen as a libertine; his sexuality was, in fact, that of a Christian ascetic.

The English Vice
It was among the Angrez, though, that the tender art of flagellation reached its finest flowering.

In his 2007 work, In Praise of the Whip, Niklaus Largier notes that the widespread upper class embrace of whipping made England the “homeland of flagellant tendencies”. He notes that brothels in continental Europe labelled their flagellation services an “English education”. Flagellation was, the historian Ian Gibson noted in his 1978 classic on sex, shame and beatings in Victorian England, “The English Vice”.

Unique to British flagellation was its very public practice: this was not practice secreted away in the brothel. The author Algernon Charles Swinburne, who wrote at great length of his fond memories of being whipped at Eton. Eighteenth century English doctors recommended whipping as a therapeutic instrument to treat melancholy, epilepsy, mania, and increase blood flow—which it indisputably does. Whipping, Largier reminds us, was also recommended in nineteenth-century martial guides as an instrument of conjugal intimacy: six of the best, it was widely held, was just what was needed to get the Khoti all hot and sweaty.

Gibson, in the noble cause of seeking to end corporal punishment in British schools, railed against flagellation, arguing in White Master’s whip fetish “as with all sexual perversions, we are dealing with a form of arrested development, with a prephallic fixation that puberty and subsequent experience have been unable to dislodge”.

But is it? Its entirely possible, for example, to argue that many normal heterosexual marriages far exceeded in their pain that so far inflicted by the most hard-wielded whip. Yet, no one characterises marriage as a prephallic fixation.

Khair, we often see whips-and-leather masochism as a furtive activity, hidden away in sordid brothels. In Jesustan, though, it is increasingly occupying its rightful place, sanctioned by history and culture. Slavercise isn’t the only service offering the sweet touch of the whip to enhance your workout; establishments like Stiletto Heel Workout offer competing services. There are clubs and associations like flagellants; one site even offers them the opportunity to put up happy photographs of their holiday flogging experiences.

In Jesustan, it is clear, the pursuit of pain is taken as seriously as the pursuit of happiness (or what passes for it). We have much to learn from White Master in this, as in other things.