Masoch and the Greek city

The Greek eyed me fiercely, like a tiger; his muscles swelled as he drew back his arm and the whip whistled through the air… And he began to whip me so mercilessly and with such dreadful force that I started at such blow[s] and began to shake all over with pain; the tears streamed down my cheeks. Meanwhile Wanda lay on the ottoman, her head in her hand, watching the scene with fiendish curiosity and amusement. The sensation of being whipped before the eyes of a woman one adores by a successful rival is quite indescribable; I was dying of shame and despair. What was most humiliating was that I felt a wild and super-sensual pleasure in my pitiful situation, lashed by Apollo’s whip and mocked by the cruel laughter of my Venus.


Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1870): ‘Venus in Furs’, reprinted in Masochism, Zone Books, 1991, p. 268.


Masoch was never interested in the Greek city although the figure of the Greek (in the person of his Grecian woman torturer, or of ‘the Greek’ male character disrupting his fantasy) holds a predominant place in his writing. Contemporary Greeks, on the other hand, might perhaps describe everyday life in their cities, and especially in Athens (the model-city upon which all other Greek cities were shaped from the 1960s onwards), as a masochistic experience.


It would be naive to suggest that there is a direct analogy between masochistic settings and the Greek city, or to attempt to establish ‘the architectural quality’ of masochistic features such as suspense, disavowal, fetishism, disguise, or fantasy.


We argue instead that if the life and work of Masoch were dominated by the quest for this third party whom he calls ‘the Greek’, Masoch’s afterlife and transformation into clinical symptomatology provides contemporary Greeks with a means to approach their cities. Masoch is the third party in the Greek ménage à trois with the city. In this sense, masochism occupies a prominent place in the contemporary Greek urban experience. This may or not be related to specific features of the Greek city.


If for Masoch the Greek ideal was an individual fantasy, for the Greeks masochism could well be a collective hallucination. They hallucinate the city as their torturer and voluntarily adopt the role of victim, as if the city were inflicted upon them. In the context of masochism, however, it is the victim who shapes his torturer and produces binding contractual relations. Accordingly, Greeks suffer from a city-torturer that they shape themselves. Building activity in Greece is not embedded in an institutional context, but is left mainly in the hands of individuals who practise it by signing bilateral contracts. Quite often they become themselves the contractors (ergolaboi). In vernacular Greek, the term ergolabos denotes not only ‘the contractor’, but also the ‘lover’. ‘Contractual work’ (ergolabeia) involves ‘filtration, coquetry, courtship’.1 Thus, the building contract might also evoke a kind of sexual contract, and in this sense, Greek building activity appears to have sexual reverberations.


Masochistic settings in Masoch novels are always staged interiors. For contemporary Greeks, on the other hand, the masochistic setting is an ‘outside’ that has to be shared. It is the leftover of the private that constitutes not the public, but the masochistic setting of everyday life. The experience of a masochistic order is produced by the interaction of people with the urban, which entails ‘the indefinite postponement of pleasure and the intense expectation of pain.’ The city’s half-finished buildings have the quality of suspense, and punishment takes the form of the built, as it is the city itself that becomes the punishment.


The masochist lives in the very depths of guilt in relation to his father and punishment is the condition that makes possible the forbidden pleasure. Do Greeks seek pleasure in punishing themselves by their father (ie their ideal past)2 or by punishing the father in themselves, as Deleuze would argue?3 Whatever the case may be, by relating to their cities through perversion, Greeks seem to seek pleasure outside reproduction. For perversion can be defined as sexual activity that does not lead to reproduction. Masochism thus becomes a ‘pleasurable’ Greek way of experiencing contemporary Greek cities, for it operates as the mechanism which assures that the ideal city won’t be reproduced.


Greeks – and not only Greeks – may crack a smile, reading this text. Such a reaction marks a change, for it makes it possible to think about the Greek city in terms of humour. Humour is rebellious and liberating, and in using it a person refuses to suffer, says Freud.4 However, for Deleuze humour is also a feature of the masochist.5



  • Stamatakos, I., Dictionary of Modern Greek Language, s.v. ergolabos, ergolabeia.

  • Both Le Corbusier and Freud upon their visit to Athens and the Acropolis experienced a feeling of the unreal that Freud connected ‘to a feeling of guilt on behalf of his father’. See Vidler, A., Warped Space: Art, Architecture, and Anxiety in Modern Culture, MIT Press, 2000, pp. 56-57. (This book is reviewed in this issue of Archis, see page XX.)

  • Deleuze, G., Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty, Zone Books, 1991, p. 101.

  • See Freud, S., ‘Humour’ (1927), reprinted in the Penguin Freud Library, Vol. 14, Art and Literature, pp. 425-433.

  • Deleuze, G., op. cit., p. 89.

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