THE FAR END OF THE CIRCLE
A Review of SM Classics, edited by Susan Wright. New York: Masquerade Books, 1996.
Review by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.
Copyright © 1999 by William A. Henkin
Zen teachers like to draw circles. Sometimes they draw them around from right to left, sometimes around from left to right. These circles can represent emptiness, fullness, or the moon. Or they can represent the practice. The circle that goes around from right to left -- against the path of the sun on the sundial -- represents the hard way of practice before any glimmer of understanding appears. When it goes around from left to right, following the path of the sun, it represents the easier way of practice after a glimmer opens the Way. But both before and after the glimmer, the practice requires investment and conscientious diligence.
-- Robert Aitkin, "Diligence," Encouraging Words
Over the past few years I've heard from various friends, acquaintances, clients, and colleagues about SM players who barely know a quirt from a crop or a boy from a bottom, who've nonetheless been touting their expertise as Masters and Mistresses, and even claiming they can teach the fine and delicate arts of dominance, submission, bondage, and SM to others. Some days, when I hear about what sounds to me like the blind leading the blind, I get incensed, puffed-up, and exercised, and I'm prone to fulminate like some rotund tycoon in a 19th Century newspaper cartoon who's a-huffing and a-puffing his cigar with such intensity he doesn't even know he's blowing smoke.
Mea culpa, mea culpa, my apologies.
On other days I feel more humble: thankful that there is SM to teach, thankful that there is a community of people who want to learn, to play, to even start to try to find out what all the ruckus is about. In these calmer times I see that times have changed since I was a nubie, and then I see how much times had already changed by the time I became a nubie, given what they once had been. And then I blush to think what an upstart popinjay I must have seemed to some of those men and women already deeply wizened with experience when I first showed up, and then sometimes I remember how as a young man I heard that famously creaky-voiced old man who was young then too, singing about how the times they were a-changing, and then with one of those Russian sighs I inherited with my genes I say Ah! Change is in the nature of time.
Time. When I came out of my own private closet and into a visible SM world, there was almost nothing a boy could read by way of introduction to the scene that was written by anyone who'd actually been there and knew whereof he spoke. Sybil Holiday was one of a tiny handful of really crackerjack pro-doms in town and she was my Mistress, lover, partner, and SM mentor. She gave me Larry Townsend's The Leatherman's Handbook and Geoff Mains' Urban Aboriginals to read, which were the standard texts for gay men, and Samois's Coming to Power, which was the leatherdyke bible. Guy Baldwin had just started writing his "Ties That Bind" column for Drummer, and in the pages of Growing Pains some thoughtful members of what was then the very pansexual gaylesbihetrans Society of Janus were seeking to define the nature of an SM community. Through and because of my relationship with Sybil I had the great good fortune to meet some of the most charming, thoughtful, articulate, and hands-on-educated SM people in the world -- literally.
Today I am abashed, I am humbled, I am honored as I could not then have imagined I would ever be, because a section of the book I later wrote with Sybil is included in SM Classics right alongside the works of some of those men and women who were heroes, teachers, and worthy icons to me.
I know it's a little odd to review a book that includes the reviewer's writing, but it is not at all unheard of; and in any case it gives me this little chance to acknowledge that there is a history here that needs to be remembered: that there were passionate explorers who blazed trails people later took for granted; who, by dint of talent, desire, hard work, and experience became genuine Masters and Mistresses 10, 15, 20, 30 years ago and more -- who became Masters and Mistresses of themselves, and of their crafts, and of the energies and spirit and deeply intimate human grace that informs SM at its very best, long before they imagined -- if they ever did --- that anyone else should call them by such honorifics. And while it is true they need not be slavishly worshipped, nor their protocols rigidly obeyed today -- certainly the communities have changed, the players have changed, our needs have changed, and times themselves have changed irrevocably -- still, they addressed, wrestled with, and resolved some difficult questions in ways that future players could always benefit from knowing about, in the same sort of way that anyone who wants to write even the most free-form poetry in contemporary American English can stand to learn some critical lessons in prosody from the technical expertise of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne, Frost, and Yeats.
In her Introduction, Susan Wright says "What makes an essay on SM a classic'? At first I intended to include an essay on every aspect of SM, but I quickly discovered that would be impossible in one book. Gathering the materials for this book reminded me that, in contrast to several decades ago, there is available today a wealth of information about SM." It has been her enormous editorial task and privilege to sift through that wealth, and to cull a mere 18 essays and three pieces of fiction to answer her own question. She has been so successful that the only proper way to review this book is to list the entire Table of Contents. Instead, beside Sybil and me and Wright herself, I will simply list the authors -- alphabetically only, not as she juxtaposes them by their essays in the book with consummate editorial panache -- because I feel it's a role call of an SM honor guard: Laura Antoniou; Guy Baldwin; Race Bannon; Joseph Bean; Pat Califia; Ivo Dominguez, Jr.; Dossie Easton and Catherine Liszt; Trevor Jacques; Geoffrey Mains; Philip Miller and Molly Devon; Charles Moser; Fakir Musafar; John Preston; david stein; Cecilia Tan; Mark Thompson; Larry Townsend; John Warren; Jay Wiseman.
Certainly everyone will have her favorites among this list, or feel that someone here should have been excluded or someone else added. For my part, I feel most deeply the absence of Gayle Rubin, many of whose essays, including "Elegy for the Valley of the Kings: AIDS and the Leather Community in San Francisco, 1991 - 1996" and "Visions of Paradise: SM Communities and Their Limitations," are on my list of SM classics; and I miss Tony DeBlase, who was one of the pleasantly meanest tops I ever watched and who, as Fledermaus, wrote some of the great, enduring masterworks of gay male electrical and genitorture; and I miss Gloria Brame, Will Brame, and Jon Jacobs, whose Different Loving is one of the few books about SM I recommend to civilians as well as to players; and I miss some representation from Samois's Coming to Power, such as Juicy Lucy's "If I Ask You to Tie Me Up, Will You Still Want to Love Me?" or "Being Weird is Not Enough: How to Stay Healthy and Play Safe," by Cynthia Astuto and Pat Califia, or Gayle Rubin's "The Leather Menace: Comments on Politics and SM"; and I miss some of Dorothy Allison's hotter stories from Trash and elsewhere. But I do not intend my longings to criticize Wright or to nitpick her selections. I am only stating by example that I might have made some variant choices as, truly, who would not, given any selection of this scope? But I think Wright has shown by her example very clearly, accurately, and honorably exactly what makes an essay on SM a classic; and in doing so she has answered an extremely problematic question, and composed an absolutely first-rate book at the same time.
First, she shows, an SM classic is written by someone who's actually been there: it's a piece that's written from the vitality of the author's first-hand experience. Second, the piece is broadly applicable in the world of SM: whether it teaches a technique, or documents a history, or provides a warning, or serves as an example, or points out one more road an inveterate explorer might pass down, it's a piece that matters beyond the author's first-hand, and therefore limited, experience. Third, it is passionate: it is written from a sufficiently thorough position of knowledge that it can afford to be judgmental about behaviors, activities, structures, and events, without ever stooping to pass judgment on the trials of individual human beings seeking to know the truth about themselves. Fourth, it is articulate: a surprising number of the pieces in this book are good enough pieces of writing to read alone in bed or aloud to one's Master or Mistress or slave in training, simply for the pleasures of their gracious use of language. Fifth, like any classic, its truth has stood the test of time: whether one looks backward into the years before the piece was written, or forward into the dimly foreseeable times to come, the essay's message speaks clear and true, and so it can be relied upon. Sixth, it is definitive: it is complete in itself, as it stands, and even if someone, somewhere, someday, finds something to add to the piece, there is nothing substantial that can be taken away from it without diluting the essay itself.
As I said, everyone will have favorites on this list, and I am no exception. But since I cannot write about all my favorites I will mention just a few. I hope it will not surprise or offend my friends and associates that the essays I choose today are all by authors who are not among our local experts. The reason is not that the locals are not fully up to the book's high standards -- indeed, more than twice they set those standards. No: instead it is only that I know them personally, that I've played with them, or lunched with them, or that I've spoken about them in these pages before or soon will. It's sort of like doing a lot of SM scenes in the local community: after I've played with someone a dozen times I hope I may be excused for wanting to play with the visiting dignitary when opportunity affords.
Mark Thompson, whose 1991 anthology Leatherfolk I regard as one of the half-dozen books about SM I would require in any full-length SM course I taught, is a man of profound spirituality. Perhaps because of my own spiritual bent, I am bound to bend my knee to his essay, "Suffering as Grace." Here he takes observations I have also made about the similarities and differences between humiliation and humility into the deepest reaches of his own masochism: "A journey to selfhood always exacts a return to one's original humiliation, for therein lies the source of humility, without which we cannot find the key to that back room known as the shadow. It is there, in the psyche's basement, at the level where masochism lives, that we suffer and die so that we may be reborn anew. Perhaps, in the final analysis, masochism is about the soul's need to properly mourn."
Guy Baldwin's essay on "Old Guard': Its Origins, Traditions, Mystique, and Rules" was deep history when it appeared in Drummer in 1991, it was a highlight of his book, Ties That Bind, published in 1993, and it remains the clearest explanation I've ever seen about how and where and why the SM community's traditions started. Guy's knowledge and compassion are legendary, and here they are on full display.
In Guy's essay he notes that among the Old Guard, bottoms with experience and seniority outranked new tops, which only makes sense to anyone who's had the blessing to learn any rudiment of topping under the tutelage of a master or a mistress bottom, as I did on a few occasions. In this context it is hard to imagine the top who could outrank david stein. In all the works I've ever read on SM, his is the single most succinct and potent explication of "What Slaves Need" -- essential reading not just for would-be slaves, but, even more importantly, for anyone who fancies the idea of owning human property.
Perhaps the top who matches stein as a bottom is Joseph Bean, now Executive Director of the Leather Archive and Museum in Chicago. He has written about the spiritual dimensions of bondage more than most players have handled a rope, and his essay on "Bondage in General," from his book Leathersex: A Guide for the Curious Outsider and the Serious Player remains a model explication -- not just of a whole technique but of a whole discipline -- as it is employed and enjoyed from the vantage of a top who also understands both bottoms and bottoming.
Race Bannon's "SM as Erotic Theatre," from his book Learning the Ropes: A Basic Guide to Safe and Fun SM Lovemaking, is arguably the gentlest, most light-hearted introduction to the scene anyone has ever written, and one of two hand-outs worth giving to someone who knows he wants to play and knows no more.
Susan Wright should undertake an SM Classics of Fiction, since she has started with the core right here. John Preston's Mr. Benson and Laura Antoniou's Marketplace trilogy have defined the boundaries of the form so far, and nothing has defined the form outside those boundaries better than Cecilia Tan's "Telepaths Don't need Safewords."
Forgive me, my esteemed colleagues, both mentors and peers, for not mentioning every one of your essays and setting laurels at each of your feet. You are most deserving. But you are included in Susan Wright's book, which is more laurel than I could provide, and in this instance the biggest laurel really belongs to her.
William A. Henkin, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and a Board Certified Sex Therapist, is co-author, with Sybil Holiday, of Consensual Sadomasochism: How to Talk About It and How to Do It Safely. He conducts his private psychotherapy practice in San Francisco.
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