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.

2 Thoughts on “The Limits of Language: The Metaphysics of Eroticism

  1. I’ve been thinking about this post for a few days. I don’t have any theories on anything, really, just these tendrils of thought that keep growing.

    You focus on the limits of language to express the erotic experience. Language is always limited (as you also point out) when we try to express any extreme emotion. Or maybe when we express ANY emotion. As readers, we’re not so aware of this limitation in reading because the more moderate emotions have acquired contexts and descriptions that have already been codified over the centuries. Those symbols are starting to happen in what was once transgressive (again as you point out) with “sex = erotic desire” — more mundanely with the hard cock or ejaculating cock.

    What is it some readers seek in language that others don’t? Why would most erotic stories leave me bored but the same ones satisfy so many other readers? This reminds me of my love of horror movies. My children were far more frightened by the 1960s movie The Blob than any recent zombie movie. It was weird. I discovered why. In The Blob there was no gore or actual violence but there were screaming, scared people running. The camera isolated the horrified faces, not the physical damage. Perhaps as children, my kids had not yet learned to link the “horror movie” symbols and therefore couldn’t supply their own fear to having an arm eaten by the undead. But they saw other people’s fear and could appropriate that. As mimetic creatures, what moves us more than seeing the emotions of others–seeing their fear or pleasure. Not effects but affects. This is keenly missing from modern art of all kinds, especially anything transgressive because not enough cultural traffic has created roads there yet.

    As a reader, I’ve learned I get off more on my own writing. It is that difference you mention between sex being general and eroticism being specific. And that brings me to the big question of what the Erotic really is. Reading and quoting Bataille as you do, I wonder if you would see Death in that erotic transcendence. Erotic fiction without trust is dangerous and transgressive. It’s danger, death, ne plus ultra. (And of course this is not about a sort of “risky sex” but about ego death.)

    I liked your ERWA post about the difference between romance and erotica being the difference between order and chaos. Audrey Lorde uses the same sort of dichotomy in talking about the erotic. She has my favorite definition of the erotic as being the assertion of the lifeforce of women. I don’t doubt there would be objections from many quarters to identifying the erotic as feminine. It is the patriarchal appropriation of a feminine power that has twisted it into a strictly sexual thing that is then controlled and used for profit. The erotic is the feminine power that is found everywhere–at least where we allow it to live.

  2. I realize I left a thought hanging there. I wanted to contrast a patriarchal view of the erotic with a feminist view. I’m a big fan of Bataille, but it seems patriarchy is always equating sex with death. Yes, I can identify with that, but the feminist idea via Lorde always has me thinking.

    I’ve incorporated gendered perception in a religion I created for my erotic fiction. In my story, the ancient religion is generalized as “blood flows”. It was a natural, earthy, feminine sort of religion that celebrated life and birth through woman’s body and cycles. Centuries later, empires corrupted this religion. Men who ran the world interpreted “blood flows” as war. Blood to women is life. To men it means death. Is it not the same for eros, that men maybe see it as losing something and women as gaining something?

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