|Falling in love Center|
I adjure you, daughters of Jerusalem
if you find my lover
What shall you tell him?
that I am faint with love.
Song of Songs 5,8
THE COMPLEX NATURE OF EROTICISM
Sexuality and Love
Think of all the contrasting inner impulses we have, how they generate doubts, create dilemmas, and lead us to act in contradictory ways. Now think of the two which clash and merge most dramatically over the course of most of our lives: the sex urge and the love urge. Probably it happens to most of us to forget, or simply not to understand, that sexuality and love are really two separate strands of experience. We get confused because in our personal case sexuality and love seem utterly fused together, or—as often is the case—because sex leads so smoothly and effortlessly to love that we don’t notice any boundary being crossed. But there’s yet another major factor accounting for our confusion, and that is simply the modern discipline of psychoanalysis and its obsessive concern with pleasure, love, and sex.
The pleasure an infant takes in sucking at the breast is sexual; the pleasure taken in defecation is likewise sexual. (Later, in adult life, though genital sexuality dominates, these pre-genital forms remain.) What’s more, according to Freud, the very feelings that an infant has for his mother are sexual by nature. The joy and happiness a child experiences when after a long wait his mother reappears and he runs into her arms, where he feels such bliss as to little by little doze off at her breast—all this is sexual.
And so, what’s wrong with that?
The problem lies in this: as a person goes through life, so many other sensations get labelled as sexual, too. The desire I feel as I watch a dancer, the arousal generated by a prostitute, the passion I feel for my beloved, the pangs of desire I have to see her when I am away on a trip, the joy of hearing her say “I love you”—everything is sexual! Too many things tossed together. While we must give Freud credit for his landmark understanding of the importance of sexuality to human existence, the time has come—after a century of nearly unanimous acceptance of Freudian theory—to re-establish a few basic distinctions. Even if we limit ourselves to a consideration of what Freud termed “genital sexuality” in adults, there is nevertheless a difference between a having a quick lay, going from bed to bed out of curiosity’s sake, being overwhelmed with desperate desire for the man or woman we love, and feeling sweet tenderness for our son or daughter.
There is one sort of sexuality infused with love and another sort that has nothing to do with love at all—and may even be completely antithetical to it, such as is the case with rape, especially mass rape in time of war. During ancient times, conquered cities were sacked, the children and men of the population killed, and the women raped. Similarly, as recently as last century, Nazi SS guards in concentration camps in Germany made their female Jewish prisoners into prostitutes before killing them, and the Russian soldiers advancing on Berlin raped hundreds of thousands of fleeing German women. Naturally, however, there are also non-violent forms of sexuality completely separate from love. There’s the impersonal variety of copulation with numerous partners, commonly termed “an orgy,” but also the sort of non-violent sexuality that arises as a problem inside a couple where one partner’s innate sexual desire far exceeds that of the other.
As Georges Bataille reminds us, sexuality means wild abandon, means the violation of rules and taboos. It exists in the present. It means capriciousness, dissipation, the shrugging off of responsibilities and worries. For an adult, it is the ultimate form of play, requiring all-out strenuous effort. Sport is a different thing entirely; it requires discipline and rules. The only form of activity that is sometimes as spontaneous as sex is dance—but the wildest dance can’t match the excesses of eroticism. Though sex may be more likely to rupture ties rather than create or enhance them, it is precisely the total, passionate love of a man or woman who is falling in love, the sort of love which establishes immensely strong emotional ties and new rules for living, that regularly evolves from the sexual and is in a sense its crowning achievement.
In my book, I Love You, I distinguish between weak, average, and strong emotional ties. We have weak ties not only with colleagues, acquaintances, and neighbours, but also with the casual partner or prostitute we chose to have sex with. (The sex act in itself does not create a strong emotional tie between two people.) Principal among our average emotional ties is the one we forge with friends. We are happy to have them there; we confide in them, trust them, rely on them in time of need. However, differently from a mother who continues to love her wayward son, we are liable to break off relations with a friend who lies to us or betrays us. A further example of an average emotional tie is the sort of erotic relationship that lasts as long as the pleasure lasts and vanishes at the first sign of difficulty.
Strong emotional ties are, in the first place, those between parents and children—bonds that are resilient to pain, bitterness, and disappointment—followed by those created by the eruptive process of falling in love, whereby we will continue to feel love even when the other makes us suffer. Last but not least, there is the strong bond created by a consolidated love relationship spanning a lifetime, in which each person has become indispensable for the other---so much so that the death of one is often followed shortly by the death of the other.
Given this range of emotional ties, we can say that human beings demonstrate two tendencies—two basic, ever-present and conflicting desires for, on the one hand, exclusive and, on the other, exploratory relationships. Countless anthropological studies of the sexual and marriage practices of hundreds of societies and cultures testify to this. There is a strong tendency in our species towards monogamy, towards sexual and emotive exclusivity, at the same time that there is in all societies a certain degree of martial infidelity among men as among women. In short, we are driven both by a need to establish a lasting love relationship with one special person (whom we are jealously possessive of), and by the powerful explorative urge which causes us all, men and women, to seek erotic adventures with new and various people.
These two drives coincide during the phase of our falling in love in that this is the only time in life when we are simultaneously reaching out towards a new person and cementing a strong exclusive bond. This intriguing singularity has caused me to study this phase closely for many years. After Stendhal, in fact, all interest in these dynamics declined, and this lack of concern continues to be the case. The field of psychoanalysis has failed to provide an explanation of the process of falling in love, and the dominant Anglo-Saxon school of scientific thought has actually ignored the subject, treating it as a temporary cultural phenomenon. This is so much the case that there is no scientific term for it and it is necessary to make do with the nineteenth-century category of “romantic love,” as if the experience became a social fact only in the 1800s and not already in ancient times, as any reading of the Bible indicates.
The process of falling in love exults—only to then blur all differences between—the ultimate sexual experience and the most powerful love bond. And while there is breathtaking wild abandonment going on, this ignition stage of falling in love never reduces down to a mere bit of great sex. Rather, it spells rebirth, youth, excess, ecstasy. It destroys previous ties, suspends the laws of everyday existence, and imposes its own sovereign rule. The world is transfigured, and we feel suddenly connected to the most profound sources of wellbeing. The bond that is created is strong, lasting, and challenging. A woman in love, for instance, puts her beloved ahead of her mother, father, and the favourite male star of her fantasy life. A man in love sees in his beloved the most seductive of all hetaerae, the most erotic of all courtesans.
If we put too much stress on this falling-in-love process, however, we risk underrating the importance of other erotic experiences and of our sexuality in general. Those two impulses that I mentioned previously, which is to say our need to bond exclusively with one lover versus our desire to do the opposite, never disappear; the duality is eternal. And though for a while the first may prevail, the second may come to prevail in turn, or, for that matter, both impulses may manifest themselves at once.
It is on the basis of these considerations that I have come to feel that the time is ripe for examining and systematically analysing the great variety of links between sexuality and love.
I’m going to begin with a look at violent forms of sexuality, followed by the impersonal sort that refuses to acknowledge the other wholly as a person. Then I’ll look at sexuality where the other is present as an full and unique individual but where there is no love. After this will come those sexual relationships where there are more or less lasting ties, then the ignition stage of falling in love, and the lasting love relationship itself. Finally, I’ll address the issue of how and why a relationship which developed out of the falling-in-love process becomes de-eroticized. It’s enough to say here that it has everything to do with the fact that after some time has passed, the fusion between love and sexuality weakens or is destroyed. The two eternal but now-separated impulses tend to enter into conflict once again, the result being that even husbands who still love their wives will be easily attracted sexually to other women. And the wives who continue to love their husbands will be similarly tempted to indulge in their own extra-martial adventure.
Vulgar versus Scientific Language
In his book Smut: Erotic reality/obscene ideology, American sociologist Murray S. Davis underscores how two completely different sorts of language exist for naming sexual organs and activities. On the one hand, there is popular slang, almost always crude and obscene, while on the other, there is the roster of official terms, all very educated, and refined. There is an immense gulf between the two, and either you speak one language or you speak the other—there’s no mixing. Granted, ever so often a slang term or two gets absorbed into standard language, and there are even official terms that creep into slang; that said, once this transfer takes place, it is permanent. It doesn’t allow for indiscriminate code-switching. Any attempt to go back and forth from one register to the other always seems comic or grotesque.
Davis observes that although in the Middle Ages the Church strongly condemned sex, it nevertheless referred to sexual acts and organs in the common language of the time. It was only later in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that these common expressions came to be considered as obscene and unutterable; they even disappeared from the dictionary.
This drastic change was the result of two cultural processes that took place in the 1700s and 1800s. The first was initiated by the libertines and their sympathizers, who in order to give free rein to eroticism and erotic literature eliminated all references to vulgar slang, thus avoiding censure. In their place, they introduced images and metaphors which evoked the erotic experience in a new way. Later, during the Victorian Age, this libertine tradition gave way to a concerted societal effort to eliminate all references to sex in any conceivable form. Even indirectly related subjects were avoided or else alluded to with increasingly remote metaphors. One said, for instance, not that a woman was pregnant but rather that she was “in the family way.”
The second cultural process in question, which also took place in the nineteenth century, involved the “medicalization”—or, if you like, the doctoring up—of sex. Whereas in popular slang the genitals were referred to in broad terms, anatomy gave a very precise name to sex organs and their specific parts. In the case of women, a distinction could now be made between the mons veneris, the vulva with its labia, mons pubis, clitoris, and the vaginal orifice, the vagina, the cervix, and so on. As for men, terms like the scrotum, the testicles, the prostate, the seminal vesicles, the penis, the glans, the fraenum, and sperm, came into use. At the same time, sexology developed into a distinct scientific discipline, and careful accurate descriptions were made of various sexual practices including those labelled as “perversions.” Dating from this era are such terms as coitus, cunnilingus, fellatio, voyeurism, coprophilia, onanism, sadism, masochism, fetishism, urophilia, asphyxiophilia, etc. From ethnologists came studies highlighting the differences in sexual customs and sexual morality among the populations of the world. All of this contributed to the establishment of an internationally recognized scientific language which makes it possible to name, describe, and analyse sexual behaviour in a totally ascetic way, without churning up the intense emotions that are always aroused by crude explicit language, be it excitement, disgust, or revulsion.
Why exactly does this radical dichotomy exist? How can vulgar popular slang, which sounds so obscene, nevertheless arouse the sort of sexual excitement normally associated with pornography, while, conversely, the official medical terminology which is so precise and detailed unfailingly has no impact on Eros?
As the psychiatrist Eric Berne explains in his famous work, Sex in Human Loving, classical psychoanalytic theory holds that foul language is rooted in childhood and in the disgusting sensations that have either been experienced directly or else verbally engrained by parents. “A word becomes obscene when the image accompanying it is primary (from earliest childhood) and repugnant.” And since each new generation undergoes revolting childhood experiences that are uniquely its own, “even if adults were to rid their speech of all foul terms, they would still crop up again with the next generation.”
In response to this observation by Berne, I would like to begin by pointing out that if children learn foul language from older girls and boys and from adults themselves it is because it refers to the parts of the body and sex acts that adults refuse to hear mentioned. Having understood that these words and things are prohibited, they use them to break the taboo and rebel against adult rules, first in secret and then openly. In a parallel way, during the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s, the young people who explicitly adopted this crude language were aiming at making their rebellion as offensive as possible; likewise they made ample use of swear words, curses, and religious blasphemy. I remember how during my two years as Chancellor at the University of Trent, at the time a hotbed of Italian student unrest, many students (but not their leaders, who stuck to Marxist jargon) were simply unable to say three words without interjecting an obscenity. The obscene sexual language being used in this case had nothing to do with the erotic but only with pure and simple transgression, together with an attack on religion, the State, and institutional order.
Differently from Berne, Bataille maintains that obscenity is an integral part of eroticism, which in its essence involves transgression, excess, and the break-up of both the social order and the dictates of the work world. The socialized self evaporates; one’s conscience likewise dissolves. The body is left free and at the mercy of its own convulsive excitement. A person overtaken by erotic frenzy is no longer human; he or she gives blind free rein to excess, like an animal. This is why, Bataille explains, even those lovers who respect taboos, will, in order to live their erotic passion fully, use obscene language between them, in violation of their own respectability. In short, eroticism is always a lashing out against and shattering of taboos, customs, and the constricts of language. It follows that the language of eroticism—of erotic arousal—will be inevitably vulgar and obscene.
Citing statistics from the Kinsey Report, Bataille observes that a minimum amount of sexual activity is engaged in by individuals with regular jobs, whereas the maximum amount is indulged in by members of the underworld who control the nightclub circuit, organized gambling, and prostitution-in other words, by those who have little to do with monotonous, daily routine or the discipline of a real job and instead are quite familiar with violence and chance-taking. In this world of crime and prostitution, obscenities are commonplace, a way to express hatred and desecration.
It is clear beyond doubt that obscene language incorporates and accommodates the transgressive violence of youthful rebellion, the murderous violence of the underworld, and the revolutionary violence of mass movements and uprisings. A famous example of the latter comes immediately to mind: how after the Battle of Carberry Hill, Mary Stuart, who was taken prisoner by the Scottish Lords and led off to Edinburgh, was incessantly taunted by the crowd yelling obscene insults, the mildest of which was “Catholic whore.” Similarly, the trials, sentencing, and trips to the guillotine during the French Revolution were always accompanied by horrible choruses of obscenities. And the scenario doesn’t change by much when members of respectable society are the ones doing the attacking. Over the centuries, many a fanatically religious and chaste old biddy has displayed extraordinary knowledge about the possibilities of obscene language when writing an anonymous derogatory letter to a woman whose name they’ve wanted to blacken.
While obscene language and violence are undeniably linked, it is at the same time as certain that eroticism doesn’t usually have to do with violence. The works by Sade are an exception, as are some novels by Bataille himself-but normally the rule holds true. If violence were inherent to all eroticism, what need would we have of the word “sadism”?
To put it another way, if in the case of crime or revolution, an obscenity signifies hatred, insult, and vented aggression, an obscenity uttered in most erotic relationships does not express any sort of hatred or violence; it is merely used to heighten arousal between two lovers. Neither is there any violence or harm meant in the crude language used in pornography. At the same time, this vulgarity is admittedly transgressive, because it moves us away from normal life, with its rigid rules of propriety as regards the body and ways of dressing, and transports us into a separate sphere devoid of duties and responsibilities, where bodies come together and there is no limit to sensations, shudders, spasms, cries, or secret pleasures.
It’s clear, then, that the same obscene word or foul expression can be used to two very different ends in the two completely different contexts of aggression and eroticism. The first expresses and incites anger and hatred, as well as the desire to do someone harm, and, socially- and morally-speaking, to eliminate that person. The purpose of this aggression is to expel one’s enemy from society and to condemn him or her—figuratively or oftentimes literally—to death. The second type of erotic context, on the other hand, never expels nor eliminates the other. Rather it fosters in the two people involved the desire to isolate themselves off from society and indulge in their frenzied play. This second situation is a vacation from daily life---consented time off to do freely as we like. We forget all about civilization and its rules in our stark naked state, enjoying every minute of our re-found animal nature, knowing that this same civilized society doesn’t prohibit or condemn our attitude or experience; it just asks us to do it discretely in private and not in public where there are rules about communal living.
There is one form of sexuality that has nothing to do with what I’ve just said. It is the intrinsically violent and brutal variety. The “eroticism” of the rapist, of men who find their sexual fulfilment in acts that make another suffer and who vomit up obscenities; it is the perverse enjoyment of the ring leaders of organized crime, who not only rob, torture, and kill, but also control the officially non-existent sex of the world of prostitution and pornography; this controlled array of sexual activity exists for the enjoyment of the underworld itself and as a way of making money off normal types “playing hooky” from their job and family. Those exercising power in this criminal world have the most violent conception of sexuality; they treat their women—oftentimes brutally—as a mere means to an end, and they despise the customers that they are exploiting as well.
The Erotic World
Basing his work on Alfred Schutz’s exploration of the “phenomenological psychology” of “inner experience,” Murray Davis has formulated the concept of vital reality, distinguishing between the usual reality of daily life and the erotic reality which we necessarily enter into when we live our eroticism. And even though it takes very little to slip from one world (that of work or sports or absorbing labor in general) into the other (when we read an erotic book, watch an erotic film, initiate erotic relations), it is a radical shift phenomenologically-speaking.
There is a special language and set of sensations specific to the erotic world; not only, but everything in it takes on a different meaning and tonality. Our attention is limited to the body, or to certain erotic aspects of the body, in which we are so engrossed that we become oblivious to our cares, pains or ailments. Murray Davis mentions how prisoners oftentimes try to remain immersed in their sexual fantasies as long as possible, finding that this helps reduce their anguish at being behind bars and having to suffer the slow passing of time.
While Bataille’s account of eroticism is one of an aggressive, brutal explosion beyond the limits of everyday existence in violation of a taboo, Murray Davis maintains that it is merely a shift from one phenomenological state to another—and a peaceful one at that. Probably they are both right. There are some cases where the shift is brusque and traumatic. Think of the impact of seeing a hard-core porn film for the first time and feeling tremendously aroused and shaken by the experience. Think of a man who gets taken to his first brothel. Now contrast that to the everyday experience of a husband and wife, or of two lovers, who pass from a non-erotic activity to an erotic one and back again as if it were the most natural thing in the world. One minute they’re conversing with friends and a few minutes later they’re in bed headed towards sexual ecstasy. There is , however, also a third possibility, a sort of middle-ground scenario---which is to say, situations where the entrance into the erotic world is less a violation of a taboo and more a departure from everyday life, not brutal or traumatic but always a bit drastic and transgressive. Perhaps it is this intrinsic characteristic that explains why erotic literature, though recognized and critiqued in studies and at conferences, remains a genre onto itself. What a strange effect it makes to hear passages read aloud in erotic language at a conference, only then to be commented on in scientific or literary terms. Yet it can’t be otherwise; erotic literature makes no attempt to explain or analyze the erotic world but simply immerses the reader in the experience. The reader feels excitement, yearning, vibrancy inside this other reality which transgresses the rules of aseptic everyday life. The time spent in this separate universe is never long, however; all too soon we return to normal reality, from where we analyze and talk about where we have been—perhaps in ecstatic terms.
There is simply no way around this, no way of fusing the two realities and their languages. Murray Davis, who uses both languages in his book, goes so far as to apologize to the reader on the first page for having to “jump from one register to the other.” He acknowledges the grating and unpleasant impact this is bound to have on the reader, and confesses that this shifting makes him feel like an adolescent whose voice is changing and who sounds like a tenor one minute, then suddenly like a bass, and then again like a boy soprano.
Berne the psychologist is more embarrassed and a conformist than Murray Davis. Finding sexual obscenities infantile, he replaces them in his writings on sexuality with respectable, adult terms. To avoid sounding unscientific, furthermore, he stays away from all and any figurative expressions. As a result, his work is very accurate but also flat and boring. His prose doesn’t set into motion the emotions and desires that it is supposedly analyzing and explaining.
The fact is this: anyone writing about eroticism must decide ahead of time whether he or she is going to evoke erotic emotions in the reader or do everything possible to avoid this (by using scientific or respectable language). The decision to evoke them, in order to make a phenomenological study of their range and variety, means that the writer must necessarily at some point stop using scientific or medical terms and make use of the most common and vulgar words that make the erotic experience recountable.
I found myself faced with a similar language dilemma while I was writing my books, Falling in Love and Loving and Friendship.
In the first case, I decided on an approach that ended up being decidedly different from that of my friend Roland Barthes, who was at around the same time also writing a book about love. Realizing that he wouldn’t be communicating much if he used sterile language, Barthes grouped together citations by poets, writers, and artists to address various themes in his work, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. By contrast, I first constructed a scientific theory about the process of falling in love, only to explain it then in the language that lovers use. The theoretical framework or “skeleton” remained the same as the one I’d first developed in Movement and Institution, only the muscles, nerves, meat, and blood were provided by this language of love. The book’s success spurred me to use the same procedure in Friendship. In fact, there is similarly a profound, unchanging structure to all friendships, and the language of friendship is likewise a constant, the same in Cicero as in Montaigne or Voltaire.
Many people have assumed that my decision to use what might be termed “vivid language” must have to do with wanting to write a popular book with mass-appeal. Actually, that wasn’t the case at all. The real reason is that this choice alone allowed me to formulate a phenomenology of feelings with a scientific basis to it; in other words, the theoretical blueprint had to incorporate the language that is specific to friendship and to the experience of falling in love.
The problem represented itself on a larger scale, however, when I began studying the ins and outs of eroticism (in Eroticism). If the language of falling in love and of friendship can be said to be unified and coherent, that of eroticism is structurally-speaking duplicitous. It can even be termed “bipolar”, for it is forever swinging back and forth between obscene language and that of love and poetry. I was able to keep things under control in the book by avoiding explicit sexual references and by making ample use of love images and metaphors. The book’s subject, the differences in sensibility between men and women, was conducive to this. And seeing that sex and love are much more closely connected for women, I was able to give the book a certain tone simply by focussing more on them than on men.
In this new work of mine, however, there is no longer any way around the problem of language. It’s time to take on the entire vast range of erotic words and try to find in them some ordering principle.
The Principle of Obscene-Sublime Polarity
What is the ordering principle that I just mentioned? Is there really some criterion that can help us to understand when obscene and vulgar language is used in erotic relationships and when it is not?
The hypothesis that I want to advance is that all erotic experiences vacillate between two opposite poles: at one extreme there is the violent, loveless sort of sexuality that gets described in obscene language, while at the other extreme there is the sort of overpowering erotic love which gives rise to a wealth of poetic metaphors and imagines. Of course, we have to be careful not to think that this polarity exists between sex and love. It is essential to keep straight the fact that sex is always present, as is Eros. It is just that at one extreme there is violence or the absence of love in this sex, while at the other extreme there is an abundance of love.
The neutral, medicalized language of science does not embrace this polarity. After all, its aim is not to evoke feelings and emotions but to keep them out of the picture. As a third language, it is completely extraneous to the true polarity of eroticism. This explains why psychology and sociology have as disciplines given up on interpreting erotic and love experiences. They have left it to art, which however doesn’t by nature try to analyze or classify experiences according to any conceptual system. The challenge we are facing here, therefore, is how to bridge these two separate continents—and how to produce a scientific work that transmits the experiences and emotions that it is examining.
Let’s go back to our two opposite poles of violent and brutal (or impersonal) sexuality versus that which is present in loving personal relationships. Let’s begin by considering the first more in depth. Where there is hatred, aggression, rape, or evilness of another sort, the sexual language used is exclusively obscene. Clearly, a rapist who derives sexual pleasure from violation and harm uses only foul, aggressive words.
Turning from reality to pure fantasy, the eroticism of the Marquis de Sade comes to mind; in these books can be found a wide variety of sexual perversions, in which others are beaten, tortured or killed so that the protagonist can work himself into a state of sexual arousal, such that he reaches what would be called today a sadistic form of orgasm. Since the 1800s Sade’s influence on the French conception of eroticism has been enormous, and accounts of violent fantasies can be found in the works of many French authors. Guillaume Apollinaire’s The Eleven Thousand Rods clearly merits mention, as do the works by Georges Bataille, for whom eroticism (with its elements of transgression and violence) was the re-manifestation of animal cruelty in civilized humankind. To grasp what Bataille means by transgression means reading not only his essays but also—especially—his novels. Take, for instance, The Story of the Eye, which Bataille wrote under the pseudonym Lord Auch, in 1928. At one point, the young couple, Simone and the narrator, are at a bullfight in Spain. We are told that “Simone preferred three moments during the bullfight: the first, when the animal came charging into the arena like an enormous rat; the second, when the bull’s horns sink completely into the mare’s flank; the third, when the mare gallops sideways through the arena, with a glob of inner guts, ignobly obscene in color, hanging between its legs.” A bit later, the bullfighter Graniero makes his entrance and kills the bull, presenting the animal’s testicles to Simone. Tremendously aroused by this, the lusty Simone (in the words of the narrator) “took me by the hand without saying a word and led me out of the arena to a courtyard, where the smell of urine reigned supreme. We ducked into a foul-smelling latrine in which a disgusting cloud of gnats blotted out the little bit of sunlight. As I grabbed Simone by the ass, she pulled out my penis in a fury. […] I sunk my hard barrel into her creaming-wet flesh, penetrating that orifice of love, while at the same time savagely kneading her anus…”. After having sex, they return to the arena, where the ever lusty Simone bites into one of the (raw) bull testicles that Graniero has given her. This time, however, the bull does the torero in, putting out his right eye and gorging his head with one of its horns. The enucleated eye hangs from the crushed skull. “Red in the face, almost with sexual excitement, Simone “inserts the other testicle into her open sex.” Later on, the couple enters a church, where their sexual fantasies become more blasphemous. Simone masturbates in the confessional, after which the pair forces the priest to urinate into the chalice. In the end they strangle him, forcing sexual arousal on the priest and causing him, in his throes of agony, to ejaculate inside Simone. They gouge out one of his eyes, which Simone slips into her vagina.
So much for the violent fantasies of Sade, Apollinaire and Bataille. Now let’s take a look at the obscene language of current male-oriented pornography, which hypes the excitement of brutal sex, vulgar and loveless, as in this passage from a book published by Olimpia Press: “Open your mouth! Open it!, he shouted, and as she parted her beautiful big lips, he stuck his prick in her mouth, then grabbed her by the hair, and started fucking her, squirting all his sperm immediately into her mouth and shouting, “You’re mine! Mine! I’m coming in your mouth. Feel how much come! Feel it! You like it hard, you whore!...Drool, bitch, drool and wet my prick.”
Similarly, though without making rampant use of masculine expressions like “whore and bitch,” Catherine Millet uses equally strong vulgar language in her frank account of her own sexual experiences. She especially resorts to this style in descriptions of impersonal, promiscuous, or orgiastic situations, as here: “My place was in one of the back rooms, sprawled out on a table […] I might stay there for two or even three hours. And there was always the same configuration: hands would be moving over my body, I would be grabbing penises and turning my head here and there to suck them, while other penises pushed against my belly. This meant that something like twenty men might participate in turn over the course of an evening […] I hardly ever sweat, but sometimes I was completely covered in the sweat of my partners. On top of that, there were always trickles of sperm drying on my upper inner thighs and at certain times even on my breasts and face and hair, and what the men who were participating in these orgies really liked was pumping their sperm into a cunt that was already creaming with come.”
Moving away from this sort of impersonal and promiscuous sexuality and turning to a consideration of personalized, love-related sexuality, we immediately notice how much tamer and gentle the erotic language becomes. In place of vulgar expressions we find poetic metaphors. These, however, are not to be confused with the rhetoric of disguise and sublimation typical of the Victorian Age; rather, they constitute the natural and necessary form of expression for this sort of eroticism, thanks to which it takes on shape and substance. Here is an example in which Anaïs Nin describes the incestuous sexual relations between herself and her father: “That night […] he climbed on top of me, and it was an orgy; he penetrated me three or four times without hesitation and without withdrawing—his new strength, his desire, his emissions that followed one upon another like waves. I sank into the darkness, dim joy without orgasm, into a haze of caresses and sighs, in a constant state of arousal, feeling in the end profound passion […] I was brimming over with love, adoration, full awareness.”
When the component of love becomes pre-dominant, the language of eroticism changes completely. By way of illustration, Murray Davis compares two excerpts from D.H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover. In the first, the woman is making love without yet being in love, and so not only not feeling anything but also finding comical the movements of the man’s loins and the immense effort he puts into what in the end concludes with a tiny spurt of sperm. In the second excerpt, on the other hand, she is making love as a woman in love, and as she watches and touches her lover’s buttocks, which are pulsing rhythmically as he penetrates her, she is suddenly overwhelmed by an impression of extraordinary beauty—of beauty in its pure state. There is nothing comic about his movements now; on the contrary, there is something of the sublime: “And now she touched him, and it was the sons of god with the daughters of men.” There is no passing from vulgarity to scientific asceticism in the language here; Lawrence is taking us into a different realm entirely. The first situation is simply not erotic. The second one is—but the eroticism is not of the impersonal type. Connie Chatterley is in love with Mellors, the keeper, and the sexual act described here transcends everyday reality and becomes something extraordinary and sacred. “The sons of god with the daughters of men” is a direct allusion to Plato’s “The Banquet”, in which Love is described as a god whose nature lies halfway between that of the mightiest gods on Mount Olympus and that of humanity on earth. Thanks to this dual nature, Love can be on one extreme pure sex and vulgarity and on the other extreme, “divine folly” (i.e. love).
The description of a beloved is often grounded in erotically poetic imagery. This famous passage from The Song of Songs, 7 provides a splendid example: “How beautiful are your feet in sandals,/ O prince’s daughter!/ Your rounded thighs are like jewels, the handiwork of an artist./ Your navel is a round bowl that should never lack for mixed wine./ Your body is a heap of wheat encircled with lilies./ Your breasts are like twin fawns, the young of a gazelle./ Your neck is like a tower of ivory./ Your eyes are like the pools in Heshbon […]”. And the woman replies to the line, “And your mouth like an excellent wine” with “—that flows smoothly for my lover, spreading over the lips and the teeth.”
In real life, when people who are deeply in love make mention of their lover’s genitals they often use made-up, pet names or an assortment of poetic metaphors. The vulva becomes a flower about to bloom, a rose, a delicate orchid. The pubes is a soft hill; vaginal secretion is scented dew; and sperm figures as a sprinkling of pearls or a vital nutriment. Language transforms and fuses together the body with Nature and the soul. “Soft hills in green sunsets welcome the one I love. She who is the rose bearer now approaches. Take me into you, my darling, let me enter your house. You are the softest of dwellings. Your door opens for me. Rose petals show me the way. Walls of jasper, wet with dew, welcome me; their kiss carries the smell of spring. Your body is like a great river pulling me along. I don’t want to get out, I want to stay inside you forever, be only one of its waves kissed by the sun.”
Even when love is madly and savagely sexual, an account of the experience tends to extend beyond bodily sensations. The language veers towards the spiritual in an explosion of transcending images. That is clearly the case in this poem by Neruda: “It’s like a tide when she rivets her sad eyes on me,/ when I feel her body of white, mobile clay/ stretch and throb next to mine;/ it’s like a tide, when she’s by my side […] It’s something inside that sweeps me away and grows immensely close by, when she’s by my side,/ it’s like a tide breaking in her eyes/ and kissing her mouth, breasts, and hands./ Tenderness of pain and pain of the impossible,/ wing of tremendous desires, which moves in the night of my flesh and of hers/ with the soaring force of arrows in the sky.”
And then there are accounts of love where no reference to the body is made at all, as in Giovanni Pascoli’s famous poem, “Solon”: “To vanish! I want nothing else: I want/ as mine its spreading radiance./ Final obstacle to the great light,/ obstacle to the great wave,/ how sweet to descend from you to peace:/ the sun descends into the endless sea;/ trembling and fading follower, descends the radiance.”
But at this point we are starting to lose all sense of an erotic experience. Sublime love of this purity is no longer erotic. Eroticism necessarily operates between those two extremes that we’ve talked about: on the one hand, pure hate and a desire to destroy, and on the other hand, sublime love and sacredness.
Erotic Language in the Far East
The dichotomy between the two forms of erotic language is especially marked in the West; it was already present in Ancient Greece as well as in the Judo-Christian times that followed. By contrast, it has been nearly non-existent in the East, especially in India and China, with their centuries-old tradition of learned and refined erotic literature. In India, the Kamasutra has always been widely known and read, whereas in China there is a wide array of erotic classics. The official archives of the Han dynasty initially listed eight erotic manuals, to which numerous others were later added. There were quite a few literary works as well. And in all of these texts there aren’t discernable distinctions between vulgar versus medical language, or vulgar versus poetic language, as in the West. Instead, eroticism has for centuries been expressed by means of delicate poetic metaphors. The penis is termed Jade Rod, Coral Rod, or Pillar of the Celestial Dragon. The female genitals are referred to as Cinnabar Gate, Peony Blossom, Golden Lotus, Enticing Amphora, etc. One Taoist priest advises, for instance, that “the Jade Rod […] should gently caress the precious entrance to the Cinnabar Gate, while the man kisses the woman tenderly, his eyes taking in her body and contemplating the Golden Lotus [the vulva]. He should then run his hand over her torso and breasts and caress her Precious Terrace [the clitoris]. [After this] he should move his Steadfast Peak [erect penis] [toward] her Jade Veins [labia minora].”
In the classic novel Skin Prayer Rug by Li Yü, the young male protagonist marries a beautiful girl whose strict upbringing has prevented her from knowing anything about the art of lovemaking. Her husband, therefore, gives her an illustrated book of all the various sexual positions and accompanying explanations on how to assume them and what they signify. The names of these positions are extremely poetic. The first is called “The Free Butterfly Flutters about in Search of a Flower Scent;” it is a position in which the woman sits with her thighs spread while the man comes toward her with his erect penis. The second is that of the “Bee Making its Hive.” The explanation of how to assume this position is made in this poetic fashion: “She lies on her back on the cushions with her legs apart and raised upwards […], her hands pressing on her offered fruit and guiding his jade trunk towards the entrance of the flower calyx, so that he stays on course and doesn’t lose his way.” In the fourth position described, which is to say “The Hungry Horse Gallops towards the Trough,” the woman lies with her back flat against the cushions, with her arms wrapped around the man’s body[…] He lifts her feet up on his shoulders and inserts his yak tail all the way into her calyx.”
The first time the young couple has sex, the husband, not wanting to frighten his wife, doesn’t move her from the armchair where they have been looking at the book, but simply and gently lifts her thighs up on his shoulders, without removing her clothes. Then he “carefully guided his forceful herd-driver through the gate of the little pleasure palace […]and now his herd-driver was in, inside the little pleasure palace, was trying to grope and rub his way along the walls in order to get to the secret room containing the heart of the flower, its pistil.” These are all poetic metaphors.
In this sort of literature, therefore, there is a clear distinction made between the crude language of sex and that of intense and exclusive love. Like Western culture, Eastern culture (especially in India) recognizes the passionate experience of falling in love, to the extent that Vatsyayana in the Kamasutra says that those truly in love have no need of his sexual instructions, as they know it all by instinct. Yet, Vatsyayana and others such as Kalidasa, who includes a marvellous account of falling in love in The Recognition of Šakuntala , do not treat the subject on its own. The reason stems from the observed practice of polygamy, which renders impossible the element of exclusivity (which, by contrast, is an integral part of the falling-in-love experience in Western culture). In The Recognition of Šakuntala, the king is head-over-heels in love with Šakuntala, yet conducts her to his harem (where, admittedly, she is first among many).
In China, even more so than in India, there is no separation between the emotional states expressed in “I like you and want you intensely” and in “I am in love with you.” By consequence there is only one sort of language, one employing erotic metaphors, which shifts gradually (so as to be almost imperceptible) from sweet, affectionate words of passion—like darling, love, my sweetheart, my soul mate, I want to die here in your arms—to those which refer to sexual parts—the two twin hills, the valley of pleasure, the moon’s hill, the pleasure ditch, the secret cabinet—and finally to those which allude to specifically sexual experiences, like the cloudburst, etc.
In the book by Li Yü mentioned previously, the young male protagonist goes to a temple of love to look for beautiful women. He jots down notes, and next to each listing makes an annotation. Here is an example: “Ah, how to describe her beauty in words? She is a jewel, yet scented; a flower, yet able to speak. Her mouth is a split cherry; the way she positions her small feet when she walks recalls the elegant gliding of airborne swallows and brings to mind the beautiful Hsi Shi mentioned in history books, who once during a royal banquet danced so gracefully around the gold plates on the prince’s table as to enchant his soul and turn him into her puppet. [This was Prince Fu Chai of the State of Wu, in the fifth century B.C.] She always knits her eyebrows, like His Shi even in this, but not only when she is in a bad mood—even when she is gay and cheerful. She opens her eyes indolently, like a second Yang Kuei-fei [famous for being the favourite of Emperor T’ang Ming-huang, eighth century A.D.]”…Overall, this resembles the sort of gushing that a Westerner in love would do today, with references not to the great lovers of the past but rather to famous movie stars.
Texts of this sort in China and India were written by the well-educated for a reading public of expert pleasure seekers who regarded eroticism positively. The Kamasutra was drawn up not by someone spying on the goings on in brothels but by a cultured observer of the sexual practices of his own social class. It was not a book to read in secret and in solitude but a learning manual about the pleasures of love intended both for well-to-do males and (especially) for young women who were about to marry or simply preparing to become the wife, concubine, or member of a harem kept by a rich man on whom they would depend all their lives. This book, which Vatsyayana probably wrote in the third century A.D., also instructs readers on 64 other subjects, ranging from music, literature, poetry, dance, singing, hygiene, cooking, architecture, and furniture to the art of pleasant conversation. Lest we forget, it was fundamentally considered a religious text—this, because erotic love, or Kama, was an essential part of Hindu religious practice. One might reasonably guess that during the era in which it was written, as well as in following centuries, it was popular also among the lower classes; the innumerable erotic figurations in temples all over India (and not just in the famous ones in Khajuraho) bear witness to this.
To understand just how great a gap there is between this conception of eroticism and those of Judo-Christianity and Islam, it’s enough to consider the figure of Krišna, the incarnation of Visnù and the second figure of the Trimurti—hence the absolute deity, who lives a happy life, mating with hundreds of beautiful young shepherdesses , the Gopi. In all Tantric art, moreover, the state of ultimate bliss is represented either by the sexual coupling of Šiva with Parvati, or by the figure of a deity—be it Šiva or Buddha—who penetrates the small naked daykini who is sitting on his lap and embracing him tenderly.
This erotic component in the Hindu religion began to decline as of 1000 A.D., probably as a result of the spread of Islam, which allowed for eroticism only within marriage. This concept of marriage embraced, however, the founding of harems, where the man chose which wife to have sex with, in the presence of the concubines who assisted the couple with their promiscuous arts.
Nothing could be more extraneous to all this than what was going on in the Western world. Even though there was a goddess of love, Aphrodite-Venus, in the Greek-Roman pantheon of deities, the sexuality she inspired was always considered adulterous, for the underlying structure of all relationships couldn’t be anything other than monogamous. Mighty Zeus-Jupiter copulates with many mortal women, yet it is sex-on-the-sly, which he hopes will elude the jealous eye of his wife Hera-Juno. With the advent of Christianity, eroticism was literally banded from religion. What came of this was the establishment of a alternating pattern of monogamy interrupted periodically by adultery (and occasionally by the promiscuous chaos of orgies). Obviously within the confines of this tradition it occurred to no one to inform young men and women about the ways to give and receive sexual pleasure from each other. Sexuality, thoroughly condemned by religion, was placed on the same level as other vile animal needs, such as defecating. It bears repeating that this vision of sexuality as a form of guilt and transgression, as the violation of a taboo, is at the center of Bataille’s study of eroticism. The conclusion reached is that the degradation and debasing of women and of beauty comes with the re-emergence of the animal in man.
And yet. Because Western civilization has always been at the mercy of frenetic social dynamics of the sort which foster the formation of collective utopian movements aiming to redo and regenerate the world, some of this dynamism has also generated changes in the area of love and Eros. Over the course of the Middle Ages, the increase in personal liberty brought with it a shift from the incipit vita nova of Christianity to the Vita nova of Dante and then to the dolce stil novo. Eroticism began to command attention, especially the nascent state of falling in love; recognition was given not only to its powers of physical and spiritual reawakening but also its infraction of the most sacred rules of family and liege (extending even to one’s allegiance to the king, as in the case of Tristam and Isolde, or Lancelot and Guinevere), which constituted proof of its subversive and revolutionary nature. That said, this experience also took the institutionalized form of courtly love, of knightly aspiration and endless devotion. Sex, filtered through the experience of falling in love, became a refined art and was rendered poetic and even sacred. The price paid, however, was that this refinement process dramatically separated the hitherto united extremes of the obscene and the sublime.
Erotic Art Forms in the West
As of the Renaissance, European painting began to make use of numerous settings and figures from the pagan Classical Era, in order to represent erotic scenes. We can take as an example Poussin’s rendition of Acis and Galatea, one of numerous variations on the theme. In the foreground the two lovers are embracing, while in the background Polyphemus is playing a large flute, and over to the right there are tritons erotically at play with some nymphs. The erotic embrace of the couple in love takes place in public in front of others who, like them, are engrossed in making love. A decidedly promiscuous situation, in other words, but without anything vulgar or obscene about it. Likewise erotic but not vulgar is Diana and Callisto by Rubens, where the viewer is entranced by so many languid, nude, shapely woman with such sensual flesh. It is a literal rending of “the temptation of the flesh” as it is termed in ascetic Christian doctrine. Of course, the same goes for hundreds of paintings of this sort painted between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Granted, in Eastern painting, there were more explicitly sexual details, at times overtly pornographic and in any case often didactic—openly depicting genitals, penetration, and innumerable sexual positions. Yet there was none of the evocative splendour of Western painting, which did not show sexual organs or the act of copulation, but which exulted the human body in a way that was unimaginable in Eastern art.
In addition to painting, there are two other art forms in the West which have at times been profoundly erotic—dance and singing. Obviously both have always been present in Eastern civilizations as well. Girls preparing to become concubines or wives of important men once received instruction in music, dance, and singing. Moreover, the singers who performed at every banquet were concubines. There must have been a similar overlap of roles at the gatherings of wealthy Greeks and Romans. The figures of dancers on ancient Greek vases are tremendously erotic, for example. As regards ancient Rome, we know that after the civil wars the wealthy classes began to require female slaves and dancers at their dinners and celebrations. Later, in the long interval of the Christian Middle Ages, followed by the Reformation, and then the Counter Reformation, any public manifestation of this pagan spirit (which managed to make a brief re-emergence in Rome under Papal rule in the 1500s) was strictly forbidden. Erotic practices continued, but on the sly.
Dance went public again in the 1800s, and the first place it reappeared was in France, the country that had witnessed the most devastating, anti-Christian revolution less than a century before. In Paris there were the same wild dances and hybrid dancer-concubine figures of ancient times. The Moulin Rouge and the paintings by Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec epitomized the atmosphere and ambiance. From that time onwards, Western dance has expressed the exaltation and jubilancy of female eroticism, raising the sexual appeal of women to a maximum level, at which it can not fail to arouse men. Dance does not reflect the nascent state of falling in love; dance is a sexual medium. Consider the tutu and leotard worn by any Classical ballerina. Whirling round, the short little shirt reveals her long legs, made all the longer-seeming because of her toe-shoes. Equally erotic is the way that the male ballet dancer, lifting his partner into the air, opens his legs wide, his stocking-covered groin area in plain view of the audience. Still more erotic is the high-kicking routine, followed by the bottom flashing, of a line of can-can dancers.
Italian writer Dino Buzzati puts it very well in his novel, Un amore, (A Love). “Seeing them [the ballerinas at La Scala] so close-up and absorbed in their work, without makeup or peacock feathers but simply their unadorned selves—more naked than if they had been naked, Dorigo suddenly understood their secret, the reason why for countless centuries ballerinas have been the very symbol of womanhood, the female body, and love. Dance—he understood—was a marvellous symbolic representation of the sex act. The rules and discipline, the rigid and often punitive positioning of limbs to execute difficult and painful movements, the forcing of those young virginal bodies to provide as many usually-hidden prospectives as possible in extremely stretched and open positions, the freeing of legs, the chest, and arms so that they might give their all—all of this was to satisfy the male.”
In modern dance, the movements of the two dancers symbolize even more clearly a sexual coupling, in all its possible variations. In many dances on television, even those intended for families and children, beautiful female dancers appear dressed in little more than nipple-covers and G-strings which draw attention to their buttocks. They proceed to dance around and amidst people who are dressed normally, in a way that symbolizes an orgy.
The sight of a half-naked ballerina dancing with a male partner has an overpoweringly seductive effect on men, which is often even greater than that of the so-called model of erotic seduction—the strip tease, where the woman is alone and almost immobile. It takes a female body in movement to recount, in the very special artistic language of dance, the frenzy of the sex act and the process of inviting, exciting, and abandoning. No man could ever doubt that Herod Antipas could go so far as to promise to Herodias’ daughter, Salomé, “anything she wanted.” The effect of a man dancing on women is far less. And when it does arouse a woman, it is because she identifies with the woman who is dancing with him.
The art form which has by far the most erotic impact on woman is singing. Teen-aged girls today continue to go crazy for the singing idol of the moment, and millions of women, young or old, have over the years felt spasms and thrills while listening to a crooner like Frank Sinatra. The lyrics—the words—count a great deal in these songs, and since they are about love, they are perceived, from a feminine point of view, as a declaration of love—if not a genuine act of seduction.
Eroticism first appeared in the West in written form in medieval Europe; the works of Boccaccio and Chaucer, especially, are full of the simple crudity of everyday Eros. This changed in the eighteenth century with the advent in France of what for simplicity’s sake we will term libertine literature. It was produced by a rich noble class which did no work and, having shrugged off all traditional moral and religious ethics, lived a dissolute life of luxury dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure in any form. Two prime examples are No Tomorrow (Point de lendemain) by Vivant Denon38, in which Madame de T. deceives both her husband and her lover by inviting a young inexperienced chevalier for a night of carefully arranged love-making, and The Little House (La petite maison) by Jean-François de Bastide, in which a libertine seduces a young woman by conducting her through his house of pleasure. In both small books, erotic tension and sexual vibrancy are maintained thanks to intimate settings, images, symbols, allusions, and the sort of register and language that lovers use.
It was left to Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin in the 1930s to break the taboo of sex in literature and describe erotic reality in frank terms. Henry Miller’s descriptions are arid and hard. Albeit with a conscious desire to exaggerate, he expresses in his work the sort of male eroticism, which coolly if not aggressively separates sex from love and considers a sexual relationship to be an erotic process soon followed upon by indifference.
Anaïs Nin in her diaries, on the other hand, records her overflowing feminine sexuality—as it emerges during her love-making experiences, noting down even the indecencies or particulars considered taboo. Earlier in this chapter we took a look at an excerpt from her account of her incestuous sex with her father. Here is another passage: “ ‘We must avoid going all the way,’ my father said, ‘but let me kiss you.’ He caressed my breasts and my nipples hardened. When his hand caressed me—oh, what technique in that hand—I melted completely […] Ecstatic his face, and I was suddenly overcome by a frenzied desire to join my body with his. His spasm was tremendous, throughout his entire being. He emptied all of himself inside me….And my yielding was immense, throughout my entire being, except for that nucleus of fear that blocked in me the supreme spasm […] That evening, more caresses. He asked me to undress and lie next to him. His accommodating caresses and mine, sensations running from head to foot, the vibration of all senses […] A new uniting, matching delicateness, subtleties, exaltation, awareness, perceptions, hard grips. A joy that expanded in wide circles.
In Little Birds and The Delta of Venus , however, Anaïs Nin no longer brings love into things; on the contrary, she seems to want to keep sexual desire completely separate from love. Never vulgar, she tells about a series of joyous sexual trysts with one or two partners, in language that is brimming with feeling and sensations. The same can be said of Emmanuelle Arsan, who in Emmanuelle gives us an outstanding description of feminine sexual sensations. In the opening chapter, Emmanuelle is on an airplane. Once the stewardess has helped her to her seat, she stretches out her legs and thoroughly relaxes. She begins to feel the vibrations made by the plane: “These seemed to adjust their frequency in relation to Emmanuelle, in harmony with her body’s rhythm. A wave rose up her legs from her knees (chimerical epicentres of these broad quivering sensations), ending inevitably on the surface of her thighs, higher and higher, making Emmanuelle shudder all over.” Then she gets engrossed in erotic fantasies, imagining “phalluses urgently trying to touch her, to find a way in between her knees, to force her legs and part her sex […]. Their motion was that of a continuous thrust forward […]. Through that narrow passageway, they penetrated into the dark depths of Emmanuelle’s body.” Soon the man sitting next to her, to whom she’s attracted, places a hand on her leg, and her immediate response is to slip her own hand between her thighs. “With bated breath, Emmanuelle feels her muscles and nerves knot up as if a splash of ice water had struck her in the stomach.”
In recent years, in the aftermath of the sexual revolution, women too have begun to separate sex from love. During the 1960s and 1970s Lidia Ravera did so in her book, Porci con le ali (Pigs with Wings: the sexual-political diary of two adolescents), followed by Erica Jong and her first novel, Fear of Flying, and then a few decades later by Catherine Millet, who published The Sex Life of Catherine M. in 2000. (Incidentally, the same split between sex and love can be found in almost all modern novels, be them by men or women, which either deal directly with erotic experiences, such as Platform by Michel Houellebecq, or which attach much more importance to drugs or existential emptiness than to sex, as in the works of Irvine Welsh.) There is also a rising number of novels by women which are so full of obscene words as to blur the distinction between erotic and pornographic literature. One of the reasons for this choice is the desire to recreate the reality of everyday sex, where instead of the word “penis” people say cock; instead of “sperm”, come; instead of “vulva” and “vagina”, cunt; instead of “buttocks” or “anus”, ass ; and instead of “mate”, fuck. This sends the message that everything goes today, and it’s all natural; there is no more transgression or illicit behaviour. When it comes down to it, isn’t this the way young people talk today? Isn’t this the language we hear on TV reality shows? The unfazed among us claim that it is absurd to try to distinguish anymore between vulgar and non-vulgar language. There is—or will be shortly—a standard and end-all way of referring to things by their common name, and the rest of us are well advised to take stock of the situation and get over our traditional inhibitions and hang-ups.
But does this really reflect reality? I don’t think so. In fact, I would argue that despite the advent of the sexual revolution, despite the fact that movies contain nude scenes of lovemaking, despite all the magazines full of nudes and the Internet with its numerous pornographic sites, and even though many modern novels are full of obscene language, in reality the distinction remains intact in art as well as in life. Equally intact is the genre of erotic literature, distinctive from other literary genres (adventure books, thrillers, romantic comedies, war stories, etc.) And undoubtedly unchanged is our steadfast norm of referring to the erotic in the neutral language of medicine and sexology when speaking in public.
Oscillations in the Sexuality-Love Dichotomy Throughout History
The dominance of sex over love and vice versa has varied from era to era. It is nevertheless possible to identify those historical periods that were prevalently sexually promiscuous and those which on the contrary attached great value to personal love.
Let’s return for a moment to our “libertines of the 1700s.” These men and women considered love, and the experience of falling in love, to be a form of slavery that they themselves did not want be submitted to, yet found rather fun to impose on others. In his famous book, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Choderlos de Laclos describes the competition between Madame Merteuil and her old friend Valmont to conquer and seek vengeance on those who still believe in love. The French Revolution did nothing to change this general picture, and if anything, Thermidor (the name imposed for the summer period that would spell the end of the Revolution) exploded with even more frenzied joie de vivre than before. Out on the streets of Paris, members of the Jeunesse doreé and the merveilleuses began to appear. The Directoire dictated fashions; promiscuity became rampant. Lovers went from bed to bed. In the salons where men of power met, M.me Tallien and Josephine Beauharnais circulated semi-nude and draped in veils.
This wild epoch ended when Napoleon married Josephine. What followed was a Romantic era which gave great importance to exclusive, monogamous relationships and to the experience of falling in love. We can say that this period began around the time of the publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe and of Stendhal’s essay On Love and extended to the era of Tolstoy’s epic love dramas and of novels by Emily Brontë and Gustave Flaubert.
The next promiscuous era began towards the end of the First World War, with the decline of aristocratic society and traditional mores. Just how dark and deprived this period seemed can be seen in Joseph Roth’s novel The Emperor’s Tomb. The capital of all this wildness up to the 1930s was Berlin. Luchino Visconti’s film, The Fall of the Gods, vividly re-evokes those times. In the rest of Europe and in America, the Roaring Twenties were in full swing. The promiscuous bent of American society was epitomized by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, an era that ended with the advent of Prohibitionism and the Great Depression. Young Americans flocked to Europe in groves, headed to London and above all to Paris. Outstanding representatives of this generation in Paris were Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, and Anaïs Nin. In London, meanwhile, high society was dominated by the carefree members of upper classes known as the Bright Young Things—superficial and out to enjoy themselves to the point of transgression. To give an idea of the times, here is an excerpt from Amori crudeli (Cruel Loves) by Cinzia Tani. In her description of Elvira Barney, the protagonist of a notorious trial, she writes: “She began to sniff cocaine and frequent pubs and night clubs, becoming the mistress of a series of deadbeats and sexual perverts. […] They invented absurdly perverse games and amused themselves with promiscuous sex.” Describing the way in which they lived, Tani adds, “Disorder was part of the interior decorating—clothes and shoes abandoned on the floor, lines of bottles and dirty dishes in the kitchen, candles that had been lit and extinguished innumerable times on the windowsills.[…] They partied through very long nights, during which first alcohol masked their fatigue, then stimulants erased it all together; nights where the dramas and comedies lasted till dawn, at which time the light began to bother eyes and minds.”
After the promiscuous phase of the Twenties and Thirties, the world crisis that led to the Second World War was accompanied by a return to romantic love, which pervaded the literature and film of the Forties and Fifties; movies like Waterloo Bridge, Casablanca, Notorius, and Love is a Many Splendid Thing come to mind. It was a time of high hopes for the future, and thanks to the reconstruction efforts in full swing in Europe, such values as marriage and family life with children took centre-stage once again; in demographic terms, of course, this resulted in the now infamous ‘Baby Boom.’
A new swing in the opposite direction was in the offing by the early 1960s; the rock music by Elvis (“the Pelvis”) Presley signalled the way, as did, in the book world, The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. The new generation launched the sexual revolution, and as a result personal freedom and sexual promiscuity became part of the ideology of the masses. Familiar figures and objects from this era included Playboy magazine, the research of Masters and Johnson, Alex Comfort and his book, The Joy of Sex, Phyllis and Eberhard Kronhausen and their Museum of Erotic Art, the erotic painter Betty Dodson, and the pornographer Marvin Miller. The times also spawned the first pornographic films and the use of drugs like marijuana and LSD, followed successively by heroin.
In Europe, the advocacy of sexual promiscuity among student groups took on Marxist overtones, whereas in the USA it was bound up with the radical feminist movement. Works by Erica Jong, for instance, was very much in vogue. By the end of the decade, however, such sexual freedom had taken on a more tantric form, with the immergence of Osho (Bhagwan Rajneesh) and his Orange People, followed by that of the New Age. The increasingly wide-scale use of drugs contributed greatly to the prevalence of sexual promiscuity. Which drug it was little mattered in the end, for there was always a shedding of one’s inhibitions, whether this in turn led to a state of indifference, a heightened sense of unlimited power, or the blurring of the confines of self-identity.
The curbing of drug use, thanks both to government efforts and to the increasing practice of self-control and self-limitation, began only towards the end of the 1970s, when the experiment of hippy communes was declared a failure and the decline of Marxist doctrine gave way once again to the values of individualism. Where the emphasis had once been on community , now the focus of attention became the couple and their love relationship. The publication of such works as Fragments d’un discours amoureux (A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments) by Roland Barthes and my own Innamoramento e amore (Falling in Love and Loving) signalled the start of a phase which, in part due to the AIDS epidemic, would last throughout the 1980s and into the first part of the 1990s.
Today we are once again in a phase where eroticism is kept separate from love. This is clear in such TV reality shows as (in Italy) “Il grande fratello” (“Big Brother”). And then there are the countless books penned by prostitutes, porno-stars, laptop dances, models, and showgirls, full of impersonal or indifferent accounts of various sex acts. Or the same acts, this time presented as casual, passionless experiences had in a drugged state of stupor—and therefore anything but erotic, in books by Hanif Kureishi. Or else, as in the case of Irvine Welsh’s novels, sex for sex’s sake, which is meant to be representative of life’s lack of meaning and the collapse of values. An example: “Fuck it, last night I slept like shit. Fuck, I didn’t even feel like it. I just sat there with my eyes open, gazing at the walls and thinking, Tomorrow I’m going out, out of here, fuck. And no fucking conversation. I said to that fuck-head, Get your rocks off while you can, asshole… I tell him everything, damn it, the low-down on all the chicks I’m going to screw […]”.
Lately there has been a considerable increase in comparable works by women. Again, the language tends to towards the vulgar, as is the case when eroticism and love are kept separate. In a novel by Florence Dugas we read: “The Black Man bent over her and abruptly parted her buttocks—his prick, dripping with saliva, penetrated her ass with ease, and she would never have imagined that it could go so deeply—literally impaled, she felt the unmerciful bar thrust upwards towards her heart—then retract and thrust again—she had never been butt-fucked in that way by a penis so hard, ivory stick, iron stick, pure hell.” Also, in various essays by women, there has been a tendency to separate sexuality from love, at the expense of the latter (which is by consequence undervalued), as shown by the success of such books as Against Love: A Polemic by Laura Kipnis.
Why the Dichotomy?
Why is it that despite the fact that this sort of freely open, indifferent eroticism is becoming ever more wide-spread and that obscene language is now a constant in television and film, sex in real life continues to be regarded as a separate, private, fundamentally secret realm? By secret, I mean in the sense that even those individuals with the foulest of mouths, or who write about sex all the time, never recount their own sex or love life except to their lover, analyst, or select friends. There can only be one explanation for this, I believe, and that is that obscene language arouses the sort of sensations, emotions, and sexual excitement which alter, upset, or shake up social relationships, and so we carefully select who we are going to make privy to our use of it.
An obscenely-worded account of one’s own sex/love life to a concrete individual constitutes (unless obviously a joke or a verbal attack) a blatantly sexual overture. If the other person is willing to listen to it, without getting indignant or laughing it off, he or she is in some way accepting an advance. Imagine, for instance, that a woman tells a man, whom she’s just met, all about her sexual encounters with former lovers, and in particular about what exactly they did together and how it made her feel. The man is bound to read this as a sexual proposition. As she is bound to, too, if it is the man telling the story. Understandably, neither can help imagining the situation or actively reliving the story as a fantasy. If this dialogue continues, the two will find themselves automatically in a compromising situation of promiscuity, easily leading to the moment where the protective conventions of everyday life break down. At that point, a gesture, a furtive touch of hands, or an exchange of glances will be enough to spark the beginning of a sexual relationship. That such a consequence is so certain explains our reticence to talk too intimately with others and our eagerness to appear at all cost restrained and modest in public.
All told, this is an indication of how sex—whether effused with or devoid of love—constitutes a permanent mortal threat to the social order, precisely for its being based on primordial interactions which are millions of years older than any human economic or political system. Bataille believes that sexuality is always a form of transgression, and that it unleashes the innate pleasure found in violating rules and taboos, but in reality the transgressive power of sexuality and love is enormously greater, and does not depend at all on the conscious will to transgress nor on the pleasure taken in doing so. Civilized society is built on the division of labour and the separation of powers, on regulated family and blood ties, on recognized levels of hierarchy, and on precise rules of access and exclusion as well as of promotion and retribution. The rules for becoming a professor, magistrate, physician, or politician are all different, as are the standards of professional behaviour set by law or professional associations. Eroticism, however, takes no heed of such rules and tends to violate them. Let’s take as an example a company where there are set career tracks. If the company owner falls in love with some lowly administrative assistant, the entire power structure of that business begins to tremble. Because it is assumed that the woman can suggest all sorts of things to the man in bed—from praise or criticism of co-workers to ideas on which managers to promote or fire—most people working at that company have the sensation that the company has suddenly acquired a co-owner. It’s actually worse than that in reality, in that this “new co-owner” (the owner’s mistress) already knows the company inside out and has fixed likes, dislikes, and possibly grudges. The manager who used to take her to task for being late, or gave her a hard time for not giving in to his advances, had best lay low or change jobs. History reminds us over and over again of how much power may be wielded by a king’s favourite mistress, and how she might make or destroy a minister or advisor. One stellar example is Cleopatra, whose influence on Caesar’s thinking and his conception of the State aroused the hatred of the members of the Roman Senate.
In short, mutual sexual attraction does not respect the pre-constituted order and hierarchy of the world, violates the attitude of neutrality required in various social roles, and unites what should officially remain separate—this, in the most unforeseeable and capricious way possible. For this reason, sexuality has always been used as an arm in politics, counted on as a means for obtaining information by secret agents, and brought into play in scandals designed to eliminate troublesome opponents. At a more mundane level, sexual attraction may have an impact on relationships between bank clerk and customer, judge and defendant, teacher and student, investigator and investigated, master and servant, as well as between neighbours, friends, and even enemies. All this is augmented, furthermore, when sexual attraction leads to the experience of falling in love and to the passion of authentic love. The scenarios leading up to this are numerous today, and the relationships in question are not necessarily heterosexual ones—we shouldn’t, in other words, assume that it is always the case of an older man with power and prestige who lets himself be seduced and guided by a much younger, beautiful woman. That both male and female homosexuality have become more commonplace means that certain situations and rituals of seduction, once rarely experienced, now occur far more regularly.
The power that sex has to dissolve the rigid boundaries of social hierarchy is not limited to the Western world. In India, for instance, the Tantric sects that attribute great religious importance to sex have always encountered strong opposition from the Brahmanic elite, which has tried to make the Tantra out to be only an ascetic practice. The importance of Kama, or erotic love, as the central focus of religious life, can be seen in the number of erotic sculptures scattered just about everywhere on the Indian continent. There has been, however, only one historical period when eroticism was completely integrated into religion and hence into the social structure, and that was in Nanda Pradesh under the Chandella dynasty towards 1000 A.D. This was the period when the famous temples of Khajuraho were built, and their construction marked the moment of greatest synthesis between religion and eroticism ever achieved in human history. (Subsequently, however, certain hostile forces in Hinduism and Islam prevailed, and these marvellous temples were submersed by the jungle and utterly forgotten by humanity until their rediscovery by Sir Richard Burton.)
We must never forget that sexuality is the basis for reproduction and so for life. At any level of the animal or the plant kingdom, furthermore, there are regular cycles and set rituals, the violation of which will keep life from continuing. In her unsettling book (written with Dorion Sagan), Mystery Dance: On the Evolution of Human Sexuality, evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis outlines the many extraordinary forms that sex takes in Nature, which constitutes proof of its uniqueness among all other activities. Think of the complicated mix of flower shapes, colours, and scents, the interaction of which with the instinctive behaviour of certain insects results in pollination. Or think of the complex courting rituals, first of the same insects, and then proceeding upwards along the evolutionary ladder, of all animals. There is no sex and no life if these rituals are not respected; to ignore them means certain death. The processes regulating sexuality are genetically encoded and firmly rooted in the nervous system; they are super-protected and utterly set. In human beings, the processes that we are conscious of include impulses, sensations of attraction and repulsion, desires, emotions, and passions---and all of these within a context of complex social structures. No human society has ever existed without a set of taboos, prohibitions, forms of courtship, marriage rituals, systems of kinship, and so on. The existence of these rules and practices has an effect on the simplest and most casual of sex acts. Sex is never neutral. Sex always has the deepest of implications.
I think that we can all agree that these implications stand to be erased by the exhibitionism and commercialization of the modern world, or by its ideological simplifications and lack of purpose or ideals, if not in the final analysis by the fear and sense of emptiness that so many experience today. We may have this impression, and yet in reality we shouldn’t be so anxious and afraid. The cover-up and cancellation of the importance of eroticism will be shown to be purely cosmetic. There are titanic forces at work under the surface, as there have been since the start of time. It will re-emerge that there is something inevitably violent about the process of falling in love, which makes the other person seem so indispensable that we are ready to die for her or him. Just as there something violent about the immense love we feel for our children, or for that matter, about the pain and sense of laceration generated inside those going through a separation or divorce (not to mention the violence in the fierce conflicts and clashes that often arise). In addition to the violence of love, there are also the envy or resentment that may arise from sex. As for jealousy, it is not supposed to exist, seeing that sex is abundantly available to all and that we are rational beings, and yet it explodes in murderous fashion every day.
There is something so profound and terrible about the power of sex that every human society is forced to keep it separate from all other spheres of existence. Sexuality is capricious, irreverent, and seemingly (and authentically) a game, yet it provokes reactions that range from all to nothing, from life to death. A simple glance is enough to unleash unrestrained desire, love, hate, or a thirst for revenge. All of classical European antiquity has at its heart, does it not?, the Trojan War, which took place on account of a woman. The slightest of things occurs, and suddenly the game turns into tragedy.