Chthonic BDSM

by Edward Dain

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“This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine.”
— Prospero (The Tempest, Act V, Scene 1)

Geoff Mains, in his seminal work on Leather culture, Urban Aboriginals: A Celebration of Leathersexuality, uses the quote at right in his introduction to that work. Later, he frames the tribe of Leather (at that time, Gay Leather, the pansexual Leather/BDSM movement was in its infancy at the time) in terms of Apollonian and Dionysian structure. This dynamic has framed discussions of early SM and later BDSM culture since that period in much the same way that the terms had framed discourse regarding culture from Nietzsche to the present day.

Nietzsche himself, well-loved by many for his masculine Übermenschian ideals, took a pair of Greek gods to illustrate the tension between logos and pathos in The Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche discussed this in terms of Apollonian dream of beauty and Dionysian instinct to drunkenness, and wrote that it was in the union of inspiration and ecstasy that true art was found. Apollonian is a term often applied as a descriptor of the forces of reason, of structure, of logical process and civilization. Dionysian is used to describe the primal, the intuitive, the emotional, the wild and unrestrained — a primordial self. This primordial self was both integral and central to the unified self, the Apollonian consciousness being merely a veil that obscures the frightening Dionysian instinct.

Interestingly, Nietzsche leaned away from a fragile union of the two as the ultimate form of art and self in rejection of the structures of Apollonian reason as his philosophical thought progressed. The Übermensch is a unified figure unbound by the strictures of conventional morality that creates its own ethos through the power of its own will. The Apollonian veil is one of imposed civilization that creates a split in the primal self by its very nature, blinding the self to its instincts.

The Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy was clearly an attractive analogy to Mains, most likely for a number of reasons. The radical sexuality and pleasure-seeking behavior of Leathermen admixed with pain captured the vital, Dionysian essence of SM culture at that time. The defining terms, Apollonian/Dionysian, come from the social sciences. This is certainly what Mains was doing — looking at Leather as a scientist. From his application of anthropological terms and concepts to the subculture to his explanation of the physiology of SM, Mains was uniting those two strong, attractive and ultimately male role models, the Scientist (Apollonian) and the Leatherman (Dionysian) within himself.

However, if Dionysus was a deity of ecstatic, drunken orgies who symbolized rebirth who was primarily followed by the bloodthirsty woman known as Maenads (a fact which always seemed to be glossed over by gay male writers), then we should also mention Cybele. She was also identified with Rhea and Demeter, and was also a deity of ecstatic, bloodthirsty, drunken orgies and served by the castrated and transgendered followers of her son and consort Attis, the Gallai. Evidence suggests that the practices of the Dionysian cult were derived from that of Cybele. Some legends state that Dionysus was actually initiated by Cybele.

Castrated men ecstatically serving a female deity is a threatening concept to most men, regardless of sexual orientation. Castrated, transgendered men… This is not the Leather Ideal. The Christ-like, virile figure of Dionysus offering community, solace, and perhaps even redemption is much more palatable to the gay Leather soul. This is especially true if we ignore the troublesome details of the actual cult practice such as the powerful, and very female, Maenads.

This, of course, is the problem.

Towards the end of Urban Aboriginals Mains notes the rise of faerie (Neopagan) spirituality in the Leather community. In discussing the wide appeal and universal nature of SM and he also notes the existence of the lesbian Leather community as well as JANUS (aka the pansexual BDSM community). While the argument might be made that Leather is inherently masculine, there is nothing to support the notion that the practices of BDSM are.

Here I would suggest that the Dionysian steps aside for the Chthonic. This term is one of the Underworld, of darkness, of death. The Greeks didn’t divide their own gods into Apollonian and Dionysian, and modern scholars have developed a more nuanced division of the deities into Olympian and Chthonic: the younger deities of the Heavens and the older deities of the Earth. The Chthonic is a black female yin to the white male Apollonian yang. This is eminently and inherently unsettling to a dialectic formed of two male ideals, the philosopher-king and the wild man of the woods.

A darker, less noble truth is ignored.

The Erotic and the Thanatotic are closely linked to the Altsex community these days. The community — Leather, pansexual, transgender, and fetish — has been living and dying under the specter of AIDS for a quarter of a century. This community has been dying for other reasons as well: domestic violence, hate crimes, and the banalities of choking on food, car accidents, and slipping in the shower. This is the inescapable Darkness.

Writing in 1984, Mains himself noted that AIDS was changing the landscape of Leather. Now, more than twenty years later, I would suggest that Dionysian is only a portion of the dynamic that we see in the current Altsex community. While Apollonian is also descriptor of light, of the sky and heavens, Dionysian might be viewed as descriptor of darkness. But its connection to the earth is one of vitality and life, the vine and the grape, the passion that brings forth life in orgiastic frenzy. He is unconquerable life, the rebirth after death, not death itself.

Today, you practically cannot open a book on BDSM without a hip and often trite discussion of the Jungian Shadow in terms of BDSM. The Shadow is often equated with all the scary things about BDSM: the untamed sexuality, the ownership of desire, the passion of pain, the heady bouquet of blood, sweat, and tears. It is a Gothic ideal of a radical underground, a sensual aesthetic that provides psycho-spiritual justification for the sorcery of the dungeon.

But the Shadow, as closely linked as it is to darkness, is not in fact Darkness. It is merely what we pass through to get there at the end of one road and the beginning to another. The Shadow is that part of the Self that is formed by the fundamental struggle between the light of our own consciousness as it attempts to deal with its brushes with death. Not so much the death of the ego, though that is involved, but the death of the body, the final Darkness that will claim us all.

The Shadow has become so romanticized that its intrinsic nature, the battleground between Light and Darkness, has become lost. Instead of engaging in a dialogue with the Shadow about the Darkness, the discussion has become a self-absorbed dialectic with the Shadow about itself.

The question becomes: How do we retain the discussion with the Shadow and regain the dialogue about the Darkness?

To this day, despite the pansexual appeal of both BDSM and Leather, discussions of Jungian archetypes, and rise of the shaman-styled divine androgynes, there is continued homophobia in the “pansexual” BDSM community, a strong undercurrent of misogyny in gay Leather subculture, and Transfolk are still looking for a place to safely call home. Just as the mainstream gay and lesbian communities ostracized Leather out of disgust and fears of public-relations disasters, the Altsex community itself polices those who play on the edge for the very same reasons. Rather than a frank discussion of domestic abuse and mental illness within the Scene, the community engages in self-congratulatory discussions of how evolved and self-actualized it is to be kinky compared to “vanilla” folk.

These are the Shadows that should be dealt with.

Edward Dain is the pseudonym for a late thirty-something bisexual man who has been kinky, non-monogamous, and NeoPagan for long enough to be embarrassed when asked to give the amount of time. He’s been an avid gamer even longer than that and is highly opinionated on the subjects of the Kink community at large, NeoPagan spirituality, Sacred Sexuality, and Polyamory. A Certified Hypnotist, he currently he lives outside of Chicago with his wife and son and is pursuing his doctorate in clinical psychology. He welcomes questions and comments at edain@squirrelsnest ( ( (DOT!) ) ) oh-are-gee.