Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Limits of Language: The Metaphysics of Eroticism

Die Grenzen Meiner Sprache, K. Rakoll, limited edition digital print, 2007.
In his book "Erotism: Death and Sensuality," George Bataille admitted to an uneasy relationship with poetry. In fact, he bemoaned the poverty of language to express the experience of extreme eroticism. He begins the book with a long defense on why there is no objective way in which to examine or to discuss eroticism, because it is a wholly interior experience. And yet the Mexican poet and Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz said that eroticism was to sex what poetry was to language. It was Michel Foucault, in his essay valorizing Bataille, who postulated that, as in death and other extreme human experiences, eroticism is a space in which language falters. Very often, said Foucault, the language we use to discuss sex does violence to it.

Is this going to turn into another discussion of the pornography / erotic fiction divide? Well, in a way it is. Because as humans, we are peculiar creatures, and we often come to understand things by knowing what they are not. But I hope this will also be an essay of encouragement to erotica writers; A way to say that writing about the erotic experience in all its richness and complexity a very difficult but worthy endeavor.

Why?

Well, before the Enlightenment, humans had a very good sense of what they were and what the purpose of their life was. We were put here to serve God. To do His bidding. To repay Him for the gift of the sacrifice of His son, on the cross. As Jacques Derrida observed, as gifts go, it was one with horrific strings attached. But nonetheless, within the Judeo-Christian world, as humans, our nature and our purpose was given to us. How well or badly we stuck to that purpose was judged in reference to something external and beyond us. God was our judge. Of course, Descartes presaged the end of all that, Kant compounded it, and by the time Nietzsche was stinking up the slipcovers and declaring the Death of God, we were on our own. We were responsible for describing ourselves, for engineering our own purposes, and for judging ourselves.

And if that's the case, it should be easy to use language to do that, shouldn't it?

What a number of 20th Century thinkers found out, especially in Europe where they get the funding to lie around thinking about such things, is that there are parts of the human experience that simply stretch language (our ability to conceptualize and communicate them) to its limits. And, it turns out, this occurs in very interesting places. Usually, but not always, at the extremes of experience. It is not unreasonable to believe that there is something important to be learned about ourselves in these places where language fails us, if only because of the phenomenon of the fact that it does.  And it is not a coincidence that this European fetish for examining these limits of language is also the place where people feel that literature can contain a hefty dose of erotic writing and still be considered literature.

As unappetizing as their works might seem now, two writers really braved the frontier and lived (through the survival of their works) to tell about it. Sade and Sacher-Masoch. Ironic, isn't it, that both these writers were obsessed with the extremes of the erotic. So much so, that many people don't consider what they wrote as very erotic at all. But they eased the way for the many more palatable examples of the subject that came after them. And although a lot of 'naughty' writing emerged from Victorian England, and there was the mind-blowing anomaly that is James Joyce, it is not entirely unfair to lay the blame for why some of us take eroticism so seriously almost wholly on the French. Because even though they didn't write it all, they published a lot of it, critiqued it, and generally felt it to be important enough to discuss seriously and, more to the point, philosophically.

Anyone who has attempted to write the sensation of an orgasm, without resorting to the cliche bullshit that has emerged as the babyfood of erotica, knows how insanely frustrating it is. Just describing the physical reality is hard enough, but the minute one attempts to describe how it feels, how it affects our sense of space, time, our perceptions of the other, present in the moment, etc., well, it's a total bitch. All the very best textual examples of it have a suspiciously poetic quality to them.  Because Octavio Paz was right. It turns out that the tighter we hold onto empirical, analytical language, the more abject our failure. So, one way people go about it is to circumvent the problem by not describing it at all, and leaving it to the mind of the reader to fill in the slippery (pun intended) details. Another is to opt for a sort of pot-throwing approach: using language as the clay, but letting the subtle chaos of unconscious - a kind of potter's wheel - to do some of the work. Allowing the language to be slippery, lumpy, imprecise by using metaphor and surreality, rhythm, cadence, and semiotics to deliver an impressionist rendering of the event. This, of course, can result in some very nasty purple prose. But it can also result in something that approximates the sublime. It isn't a particularly economical method; you have to be prepared to consign a lot of your efforts to the garbage.

But I've only used the example of the orgasm. And I don't want you to think this even begins to describe the challenge of writing the erotic. Because, pulling out to a larger view of the challenge, erotic desire is even harder to get a handle on. And sure, you can use the image of a hard cock to symbolize erotic desire, but it's a piss poor symbol. It equates to how erotic desire plays out on the body, but it gives no hint at all as to what erotic desire does to the mind.

Pornography does a marvelous job of showing you the surface of what's going on when people get all up in each other's business. For the most part, it shows us sex. People going at it. And if we weren't such complete species bigots, a filmed sequence of dogs fucking should also do the trick for getting us in the mood to fuck.  But I'd ask you to accept the premise that to scratch the biological itch is not, in itself, erotic. If we're honest, we've all have experiences of getting off and shooting our respective wads, that were utilitarian rather than erotic. But if Bataille and Paz are right, and eroticism is not about copulation, reproduction, or simply physical sexual release or even the fleeting, purely physical pleasure of orgasm, but rather the strange excessive meaning we have piled onto the human sexual experience, the mental pleasure present in the erotic moment that often lingers afterwards or even rears its head when there's no prospect of an erotic encounter in sight, then pornography fails utterly. And, in all fairness, so does a lot of erotic fiction.

One of the reasons I think it fails these days is because we have come to mistake any form of sexual experience for an erotic one. I encounter this a lot, when someone on twitter DMs me and says: 'Wanna see my cock?' You may laugh. But think about it. This COULD be an erotic experience if I personally thought that there was something deliciously dirty and transgressive in gazing on a nameless, disembodied cock. If I was brought up to believe that such a symbol of decontextualized sex was inherently bad. Sadly, I wasn't. To me it's just a biological specimen out of its jar. Now, if the person offering to show me the cock is an exhibitionist who has some sense that showing his erect cock, while withholding the rest of his presence, is somehow dirty or bad or nasty, it might very well be erotic for him. But on the whole, it's just a matter of a very utilitarian urge to get off and a vain hope that a few words from me with make the process slightly easier. In a way, it's an attempt to complete the process more efficiently. The truth is, a lot of sex is just this. There's nothing wrong with it; its the human animal following his misguided and very confused instinct to spread seed. But its not necessarily erotic. This is why I feel Bataille is right. That eroticism requires some form of conflict, of personal transgression - even if that transgression doesn't seem particularly transgressive to anyone else. As Octavio Paz said: "Sexuality is general; eroticism, singular." This is why one person's porn is another person's eroticism. The mistake is in assuming we are going to always agree. The art is in judging when we do.

Another reason why we might fail is because we try to insert love as a central site of eroticism. It isn't that love cannot be present in eroticism. For some people, getting there without it is just not an option. It is simply that a lot work that straddles the erotica/romance divide ends up moving the focus by mistake. This phenomena of erotic transcendence is an admittedly emotionally, one might even say spiritually, dangerous place, if one reaches it at all. And for many people, going to that space with someone you don't trust is too frightening to contemplate. How many people can you honestly say you trust, but don't love? Of course, some of those people you can name are out of bounds, because of the taboo of incest, or because they happen not to be the right gender for your particular orientation. But on the whole, if you love someone, you trust them, and this allows you to go to that exhilarating, awe-inspiring, frightening place with them. So love may be a prerequisite for even attempting the journey, but not for the experience itself.

For me, some of the most successful erotic fiction involving romantic love occurs when one of the characters loves but does not trust the other, or trusts but does not love the other. Because either of these states are socially problematic and set the stages for some kind of transgression that enables the opening of the door to eroticism.

And this leads me to the last of the examples I'll offer of where writing the erotic can be difficult. There is a word that is used often in philosophy, critical studies and among those of us who count angels on the heads of pins: Alterity. It means 'otherness'. But what makes it a good word is that it encompasses the very strange dilemma we, as individuals, face every day of our lives. It is The Other. The one who is not us. Everyone but you. There's a lot of funny stuff that happens when you study how we relate to The Other. And it gets even weirder when we let that Other into our personal space. Weirder still when we touch the Other, or the Other touches us. Here, for instance, we get a strange and beautiful paradox, examined eloquently by another French guy by the name of Jean Luc Nancy. When someone kisses you, and your lips touch, are you kissing them, or are they kissing you? Are you feeling your lips being met, or meeting theirs? Yeah, it's a headfuck, I know. But when it comes to the realm of eroticism, you can see how we are getting into a place, with regard to this paradox, that gets freaky strange. When I thrust into you (just pretend I have a cock, because sometimes, I'm convinced I do and no one else can see it), am I penetrating you or are you consuming me? What is more aggressive, penetration or consummation? If you just want to look at this from a purely physical perspective, as happens in porn, there is no paradox. But once you start to examine the interior experience of this physicality, it's easy to get lost. It's why people, quite correctly say, they lose themselves in each other. At the point where this is occurring, we lose what Bataille called our 'discontinuity'.  We stop being discontinuous separate beings. We get to somewhere beyond that, where I don't know where my body begins and yours ends. And where sometimes, I don't know where I begin and you end. We are at that fleeting moment of ego death. And how can I speak when I am not me anymore.

This is where language fails us. At this, often momentary, point of transcendence. There is no air in the void. Nothing to inhale and use to enable us to speak. And it's over so fast. We fall back into our bodies, and our individualities, and it's over.

To me, all good erotic writing attempts, in some way or another, to represent those experiences, those eerie little miracles that occur, even though 'God is Dead'. My guess is that we are almost always going to fail to capture that state. But I believe that even getting close tells us immense things about who we are as humans and what we are meant to be, since it's our job to do it now.

On the other hand, it has been theorized that eroticism is simply one of the grand narratives perpetuated by modernism, and is already dead. But that's another post.

7 comments:

  1. A dizzyingly thought-provoking post as always! No joke, I'm finding it hard to put my reaction into words :-). However, one thing I can say is that your discussion of the encounter with Otherness sparked a nod of the familiar. My erotic stories always begin, in the inspiration phase, with a frisson of mystery or weirdness. Often it involves bridging a cultural gap between the lovers. The moment of union is fleeting and fascinating--and yes, I too have difficulty describing it. But maybe I keep writing in the hope that one day I'll get it just right!

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  2. You've quoted few words from Octavio Paz, but they all speak to me. Much to think on.

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  3. Brilliant as usual, RG. Yesterday I attended an evening of performance art with a "queer" theme. Several of the performers changed clothing or undressed to minimal underwear onstage while referring to sex or explaining a complex & fluid gender identity. They all seemed brave and talented,and the audience was supportive, but I had a sense that none of them quite nailed what they were trying to say, which might be impossible.

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  4. Hello Donna,

    I couldn't agree more! I think that initial mood of mystery, or weirdness, kind of destabilizes the order of the fictional world and reveals tipping points, and possibilities. And you know I have a deep fondness of the paradigm of the cultural gap. It allows you to really play with assumptions of how things are interpreted between the characters. Lovely!

    Hi Kathleen,
    I can't say enough about how useful Paz's book The Double Flame has been to me. His tiny book on Sade, consisting on a few essays on the topic is also well, well, worth the time to read. Plus, he's one of the few really optimistic, joyful essayists on the subject of eroticism. The others can be rather dour.

    Hello Jean Roberta!

    I'm really toying with the idea of writing a paper on the essential 'queerness' of eroticism. If one accepts the premise of the need for transgression, then all eroticism is non-normative, by design.

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  5. RG,

    Your mind is a laser. When you apply it to the erotic, everything sizzles.

    Having recently finished "Beautiful Losers", however, I would say that you've demonstrated one can use words as a tool to evoke the erotic, even though it's well nigh impossible to actually describe the experience.

    (But then, my experience in reading the book likely had only a passing resemblance to yours in writing it.)

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  6. Hi Lisabet,

    I think that's one of the most wonderful things about erotic fiction. Everyone's limits are slightly different, everyone's erotics are different. And it changes with time and experience. And I think that's what makes the genre such a potentially fertile one. For readers and writers.

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  7. Excellent post. I'm a fan of the cerebral orgasm. Love your wordcraft RG.

    Rose

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