Ecstasy: Transcendence, Feminine Jouissance and the Lacanian Real

If transgression is a crossing of a boundary, then what lies beyond it? Bataille’s answer is ecstasy. While in everyday contemporary parlance we understand ecstasy as a wholly positive experience often associated with intense physical pleasure, the origin of the word reveals more complex and ambivalent connotations of insanity, dislocation, fragmentation, or a “feeling which engrosses the mind to the exclusion of thought; rapture, transport” (“Ecstasy” OED). In this chapter, I set out to examine how erotic writing might represent the experience of ecstasy or transcendence as an aspect of Bataillean eroticism, taking note of the religious exemplars, language and associations employed to discuss it by both Bataille and Lacan. I consider Lacan’s concept of feminine jouissance and the Real as a mode by which to understand post-theistic notions of transcendence and make some suggestions for contemporary sites where these kinds of experiences might occur. I offer examples of the use and, I argue, the abuse, of transcendent or ecstatic experiences in contemporary erotic fiction and point out places where I employ it in the creative portion of this project.

Of the four aspects of eroticism I examine in this project, transcendence is perhaps the most challenging; to address it in a contemporary erotic context is to try to squeeze in the gap between religious practitioners who often limit access to transcendence to a purely spiritual, unphysical path and science, which views it as neurological phenomena or a dissociative state. McGowan points out that, within the field of analytic philosophy, “since no moments of transcendence exist within the structure of language (or logic), philosophy must be practical and devote itself to concerns immanent to language” (McGowan 83). Thinkers as diverse as Georges Bataille (Erotism 31) and Abraham Maslow (6) emphasized how difficult any positivist, objective study of the phenomenon of transcendence remains. The plethora of terms we have for this experience—mystical experience, ecstasy, trance, sublimity, bliss, rapture, hysteria, fugue state, peak or limit experience, just to name a few—might be a reflection of how tenaciously it resists definition.

Bataille’s Ecstasy

Bataille equates mystical transcendence with erotic ecstasy (Bataille Inner 3), noting that “[t]here are staggering similarities and even corresponding or interchangeable characteristics in the two systems, erotic and mystical” (Bataille Erotism 226).

He argues that many of the distinctions made between the two don’t survive close scrutiny. The primary distinction—the presence or absence of erotic arousal—can be discounted, he claims. Despite the Catholic Church’s emphasis on the chaste nature of the mystical experience, Bataille quotes the priest and psychoanalyst Louis Beirnaert: “mystics are perfectly aware of the physical sensations accompanying their experience” (225), not only finding themselves “sullied with the liquid of the carnal flux” often, but also noting that this may be “intrinsic to their experience” (247). While many examples of Christian mystical experience occur to those practicing celibacy, Bataille points out that they happen just as often in religious traditions, like Hinduism and Sufism, where celibacy is neither required nor even encouraged. Images of obscenity associated with erotic ecstasy are also responsible for the distinction between religious and erotic transcendence (247) despite the fact that there are visual representations of ecstatic experience in both Eastern and Western traditions that combine the two. Bataille emphasises the evidence of eroticism in the accounts of religious ecstasy from both St. Theresa and St. John (225), and chooses a photograph of Bernini’s L’Estasi di Santa Teresa d’Avila as one of the illustrations that accompanies his text on the subject.

Photo: Joaquim Alves Gaspar via Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 4.0

Photo: Joaquim Alves Gaspar via Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 4.0

For Bataille the traumatic experience of transcendence, how it unmoors us from the everyday world by producing feelings of “non-attachment to ordinary life, indifference to its needs, anguish felt in the midst of this until the being reels, and the way left open to a spontaneous surge of life” (247) is exactly the limit experience of eroticism. However, this is a surge of life in all senses, including the trajectory towards death. Bataille quotes Saint Theresa of Avila’s description of her own experience of transcendence: “I die because I cannot die”:

But the death of not dying is precisely not death; it is the ultimate stage of life; if I die because I cannot die it is on condition that I live on; because of the death I feel though still alive and still live on. St. Theresa’s being reeled, but did not actually die of her desire actually to experience that sensation. She lost her footing but all she did was to live more violently, so violently that she could say she was on the threshold of dying, but such a death as tried her to the utmost though it did not make her cease to live. (240).

Saint Theresa’s ‘loss of footing’ (240) and ‘dying to oneself’ (227) is what Bataille elsewhere calls ‘continuity’—his term for ego-death or the temporary destruction of the socially intelligible subject —which he also identifies as a “dominant element in eroticism” (13). I explore this particular feature in greater depth in my chapter on identity. Nonetheless, this ecstatic experience has its darker, violent elements: a point of emergence between life and death, a temporary disavowal of the social order which demands some level subjective self-annihilation as an integral part of the ecstatic experience. In The Sunday of the Negative: Reading Bataille Reading Hegel, Christopher Gemerchak expands on this, underscoring the currency of sacrifice and violence (whether physical or metaphorical) that must be paid for the passage to a transcendent state:

Bataille affirms that beings communicate with their beyond through wounds alone, that they communicate with one another through the ruptures inflicted upon individual integrity. This is the path to (divine) intimacy, the annulment of the type of transcendence conceived as the separation between merely opposed—and thus reconcilable—individual/things, and the expansion of transcendence into a mutual absence where God is experienced (Gemerchak 165).

What is striking is how powerfully this aligns with notions of the Death Drive, formulated by Freud and much expanded upon by Lacan. Bataille’s attempt to associate this kind of ecstasy with the relentlessness of the drone’s “fatal impulse that drives him through the light towards the queen” (Erotism 234) has resonance with Lacan’s lamella and the “ambivalent status of jouissance as what at once animates the subject’s being and carries the destructive momentum of the death drive (Ruti 22).

Lacanian Transcendence: Feminine Jouissance and the Real

Lacan seldom uses the word transcendence but I argue that his notion of feminine jouissance—most fully explained in Seminar XX—is a description of Bataillean ecstasy reframed. In Antigone, in her Unbearable Splendor, Charles Freeland encapsulates the experience of feminine jouissance:

Lacan evoked another love, another domain, and another possibility of love. He called it a limitless love, a love that has renounced its object, a love outside the limits of the law. A love linked to jouissance, but not the jouissance of the sexual body, where jouissance is limited to being one’s own, but to a pure jouissance at the limit of both the ego and the imaginary as well the subject and the symbolic, a jouissance—a “love”—that arises from the limit-experience, from the very impasse of the impossibility of the sexual relation, a jouissance that surges from the “impenetrable void,” “the kernel” of “our being” (S8: 13), a love that begins as an encounter with the ab-sens of the real, and that surges in this place of non-relation as an address to the other, a jouissance, a love that, beyond all narcissism, addresses the other not in a fantasmatic and narcissistic search for unity with the other, but that addresses the being of the other in its inviolable difference and from the ab-sens of the real (Freeland 278).

I quote this in full because in it, Freeland not only highlights the poetic imagery Lacan employs to discuss the relationship between feminine jouissance and the Real, but because it contains familiar echoes of Bataille’s description of erotic transcendence detailed above. Freeland underscores how feminine jouissance reformulates Lacan’s understanding of jouissance and the Real: “Feminine jouissance, through the masquerade, is a newly articulated ‘encounter with the real.’ But this encounter is no longer carried on the back of transgression” (Freeland 217). However, I would question Freeland’s definition of transgression, because it does not seem to take into account the interdependent relationship between the sacred and the profane, or the departure from the social order that occurs in any transcendent experience—including religious or erotic ecstasy (Bataille 36). Additionally, Freeland’s claim that feminine jouissance is not of the sexual body deserves closer examination. My understanding is that since, according to Lacan, sexuation is always a function of the Symbolic Order and feminine jouissance is an experience “outside the limits of the law” and “at the limit of both the ego and the imaginary as well the subject and the symbolic” (Freeland 278), then we are brought back to making a distinction between normative sexuality and Bataille’s eroticism. For this reason, I argue that while it might be said that feminine jouissance is not ‘of the sexual body’ it is of the erotic one.

When Lacan finds need of a concrete, visual example of feminine jouissance, he, like Bataille, directs our attention to Bernini’s statue of the ecstasy of Saint Theresa (Lacan, Encore 76-77). Dylan Evans expands on this:

The ineffable nature of feminine jouissance leads Lacan to characterise it in terms of mystical experience, of which ineffability has always been one of the hallmarks. The image which he points to in his discussion is that of Bernini’s Saint Theresa, about to be pierced by the golden spear of the angel. As is clear from Saint Theresa’s own description of the event, this moment of mystical ecstasy is strongly suggestive of orgasmic enjoyment, and Lacan remarks in Seminar XX that one has only to look at the statue to realise that Saint Theresa is coming… (Evans 10)

Most men, Lacan contends, don’t have access to this form of jouissance because their enjoyment is so completely bound up with the phallus: “There are men who are just as good as women. It happens. And who also feel just fine about it. Despite—I won’t say their phallus—despite what encumbers them that goes by that name, they get the idea or sense that there must be a jouissance that is beyond. Those are the ones we call mystics” (Encore 76). It is important to note that he does not suggest that possession of a penis is the problem but rather that the socio-symbolic phallus—the imaginary object of desire possessed by the father and, later, by anyone who has the power to steal the beloved’s affection—makes it very hard to imagine any alternate configuration of love.

“I believe,” says Lacan, “in the jouissance of woman insofar as it is extra (en plus), as long as you put a screen in front of this ‘extra’ until I have been able to properly explain it,” (Lacan Encore 77). I feel it is reasonable to claim he never does. Not only does he exile it to the place where nothing may be said about it but “[i]t is clear that the essential testimony of the mystics consists in saying that they experience it, but know nothing about it” (76). I am struck by the curious closure of this statement; transcendent experiences are known inasmuch as the experience is remembered and life altering and, whilst they are clearly a challenge to speak or write about, creditable attempts have been made. Elizabeth Grosz, elaborating on Irigaray, argues the case:

If Lacan ‘s interrogation is directed to a man’s stone representation of a woman, i.e., to Bernini’s representation of St Teresa, it is not surprising ‘she’ has nothing to say! But if Lacan had looked at her own words (she was a prolific diarist and writer), he may have heard something quite different- the ‘corporeal’ language of hysteria, not the jouissant experience of unspeakable intensity (Grosz 146).

While attempts to write the ecstatic experience may always be imperfect and incomplete, what purpose is served by these declarations that the ecstatic experience is unknowable and impossible to say or write? Are writers to be warned off, or put on notice of their inevitable failure? Why does Lacan chose to highlight the impossibility of saying anything about feminine jouissance but not other experiences that also fall beyond the realms of social intelligibility, like dying? While an examination of this issue falls beyond the scope of this thesis, these determinations of what is impossible to say or write and the motives and agendas that underpin them deserve further interrogation.

The Real and Ecstasy

As a way of understanding the Real, Lacan offers the idea of the lamella: “[i]t is the libido, qua pure life instinct, that is to say, immortal life, or irrepressible life, life that has need of no organ, simplified, indestructible life” (Lacan Four Fundamental Concepts 198). This idea resonates profoundly with Bataille’s image of the drone bee: mindless, relentless, driven towards death, and yet at the same time glorying in the full, unmediated, scorching fire of life. In describing the Lacanian Real, Lionel Bailly offers: “[t]he character of the Real, being unsymbolisable, is that of absolute terror or absolute enjoyment – both impossible states. Its existence can be postulated by its manifestations. It appears in hallucinations and delusions, when the stitch-points between signifiers and signifieds come apart” (Bailly 135). As one can see, Bataille’s account of ecstasy, where “[t]here is no longer any difference between one thing and another in any respect; no distances can be located; the subject lost in the indistinct and illimitable presence of the universe and himself ceases to belong to the passing of time. He is absorbed in the everlasting instant, irrevocably as it seems, with no roots in the past or hopes in the future, and the instant itself is eternity” (Bataille Erotism 249), is startlingly similar.

In The Singularity of Being, Ruti describes transcendence as an experience of the irruption of the Lacanian Real through which “the sublime enters the domain of everyday life in ways that engender intimations of immortality” (26). This understanding of transcendence or ecstasy brings it out of the historic realm of religious mystics and Bataille’s brothels and into the present. Far from being an escape from the world, Ruti argues that these experiences are “a way to enter more completely into its folds” and make it possible for us to be “open to moments of sublimity that punctuate our daily existence” (27-28). She offers the Heideggerian argument that the quotidian and the mundane don’t ground us in reality, but distance us from it, and she further suggests that these ecstatic moments are enlivening rebellions against the quotidian and the mundane. Not practical, or even always wholly positive, nevertheless they “summon us to what is ‘immortal’ within our being” (28). This ‘immortality,’ Ruti takes pains to point out, is not literal; “the real, like the unconscious, does not register time” (25).

Echoing Lacan’s exemplar of Antigone and Bataille’s association of the limit experience of ecstasy with violence and death, Ruti cautions us that this experience of jouissance and irruption of the Real “at once animates the subject’s being and carries the destructive momentum of the death drive; in the same way that jouissance breathes life into the subject even as it contorts and torments its being” (22). Ellie Ragland concurs, noting that, diverging from “Freud about the nature of the death drive, Lacan said that humans are not driven toward death as entropy. Rather, we are driven by ‘death’ in the form of excesses in jouissance” (59).

Writing Ecstasy in Erotica

In contemplating erotic transcendence as a writer, in attempting to incorporate it into contemporary erotic fiction, it must be acknowledged that the genre has long been ridiculed for exaggerating a simple orgasm into a meeting with the divine. The genre has often been criticized for its purple prose and nowhere so much as when it offers up descriptions of the female orgasm. If some male erotica writers can be accused of exaggerating the size and robustness of their character’s penises, many female erotica writers might be similarly accused of turning every female character’s climax into a face-to-face meeting with the secrets of the universe. What most of these passages have in common is that, unlike Bataillean ecstasy or the experience of Lacanian jouissance where “pleasure and pain are presented as a single packet” (Lacan Ethics 189), these idealized portraits of the orgasm-as-transcendent-experiences are wholly pleasurable, life-affirming and ego-enhancing. Far from offering a site in which the Real breaks through to disrupt the Symbolic order and offer an opportunity for respite or rebellion, these idealized moments of transcendent pleasure serve, much like the promise of heaven, to reinforce prevailing cultural norms and conservative role models of female enjoyment. They often perpetuate normative values: of how only the presence of romantic love can elevate base physical pleasure onto a spiritual plane; or how ‘good women’ only lose their critical faculties when they encounter the ‘right’ partner; or how wealth provides the appropriate setting for ecstasy. Examples of this sort of representation of pseudo-transcendent eroticism are ubiquitous in works within the erotic romance genre. Most notably and contemporaneously in E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey:

He moves his finger in a wide circle, stretching me, pulling at me, his tongue mirroring his actions, round and round, I groan. It is too much… My body begs for relief, and I can no longer deny it. I let go, losing all cogent thought as my orgasm seizes me, wringing my insides again and again. Holy fuck. I cry out, and the world dips and disappears from view as the force of my climax renders everything null and void (James 142).

This is a passage describing a woman being brought to orgasm. While momentary disorientation is common during climax, this description suggests an ecstatic, life-altering, pseudo-religious experience that might reverberate beyond the end of the orgasm. And yet this experience that renders everything ‘null and void’ seems to have no lasting psychic consequence at all. In this sense, Fifty Shades of Grey is typical of the erotica genre. Even when this portrait of unproblematic erotic ecstasy is intended as emancipatory celebrations of female pleasure, commended by feminist critics as examples of sex-positive sites of resistance against the patriarchy, their hyperbole suggests something more troubling. For if these texts serve as didactic examples of the emancipation of female pleasure, is the quality of those fictional orgasms not also didactic? Will they not leave the reader feeling like their own orgasms don’t measure up? Might this sort of passage act as an inducement to seek, through the purchase of aids, self-help guides, sex toys or courses, an orgasm that more closely resembles that of the fictional protagonist? This textual practice of raising every orgasm to the status of unproblematic, consequentless transcendent experience serves as an illustration of what Žižek has described as “the superego injunction ‘Enjoy!’” (Žižek 304) where the values of a consumerist society become internalised and enjoyment becomes proscribed and compulsory.

In contrast, the practice of incorporating the dislocation, alienation, pain, horror and sublimity of the ecstatic moment in fiction opens the text up for singular, writerly readings of experiences that resist language and which invite the reader’s reflection of their own lived transcendences, bringing a remediation of that experience into a far closer alignment with a Bataillean notion of eroticism and a Lacanian irruption of the Real. Kij Johnson’s short story “Spar” offers an example of this approach. The space-bound protagonist, adrift in an alien lifeboat, finds herself in the company of a creature so utterly alien that no communication is possible. They can only interact physically, sexually, but with no notion of what the acts mean to the other. Johnson offers up a glimpse of the ecstatic Real:

After a time, the taste of bread becomes “the taste of bread” and then the words become mere sounds and stop meaning anything. On the off-chance that this will change things, she drives her tongue though its cilia, pulls them into her mouth and sucks them clean. She has no idea whether it makes a difference. She has lived forever in the endless reeking fucking now (Johnson 225).

Jonathan Kemp’s Twenty-Six offers numerous examples of ecstatic experiences of dislocation, timelessness, and abjection that resist language. From “M”:

The present no longer has any meaning. I am merely a sensation suspended between them, an excuse for a commonality each, perhaps, in his own silent way, craves – but could never, except now, with my flesh shared like a meal between them, even begin to articulate. These visions of excess burn brightest (Kemp).

Contemporary Sites of Ecstasy

With a solid understanding of transcendence in the context of Bataillean eroticism, and the sense of it offered by Ruti’s formulation of singularity as both immanent and accessible, it is possible to identify more immediate possibilities for ecstatic experiences in the present. The fictional imagination has often presented us with transcendent possibilities, from Sade’s transgressive excesses, to Burrough’s drug-fuelled Naked Lunch and the ecstatic and dystopic violence of J.G. Ballard’s Crash. If we eschew contemporary, consumerist notions of ecstasy as limited to the sexual and purely pleasurable, we can expand the possibilities for transcendent eroticism to accounts of experiences that, while temporary, traumatic and disorienting, can also challenge the stifling hegemony of the social order.

Virtual digital worlds offer ways to transport us beyond our everyday mode of being, suspending our sense of space, time, and disrupting our socially constructed identities. Jeffrey Fisher contends, “the postmodern will to virtuality parallels the medieval religious will to transcendence. The individual leaves behind history with the body because transcendence in cyberspace is essentially the transcendence of memory. In this sense, the will to virtuality and the will to immortality or incorruptibility or ahistoricity, is fundamentally a will to oblivion” (Fisher 122). Although I would argue, from a Lacanian viewpoint, that this social construction of a virtual paradise is as much a phantasmatic desire firmly rooted in the Symbolic world as any other, the ability to cognitively immerse so completely and, moreover, to experience a complete loss of control, does offer the possibility of transcendent experiences.

On perhaps a more subtle level, our refusal to acquiesce to contemporary social pressures to present ourselves as marketable products, or to tolerate the almost ubiquitous presence of mass surveillance can also transport us to what, essentially, are other planes of consciousness. To revel in nameless anonymity, to intentionally drop off the radar of the world, embrace abjection or seek out beauty in what our culture finds abhorrent can all be framed as opportunities for ecstatic experience.

In my own writing practice, I have attempted to represent the transcendence of limit experiences and examine intersection between violence and the erotic. The advantage of fictional representation over philosophical writing is the ability to narrativise the simultaneous experience of both. I have attempted to depict the experience of female jouissance, with its transformative brushes with the Lacanian Real in the certain knowledge that any efforts will be imperfect and attenuated. The Death Drive is always there, haunting the moment. Not as a threat, or a presentiment, but as a reminder of what must be resisted and defied. In the transcendent moment, death is the enemy we must love and know intimately enough to resist with something other than our intellect. And so in the transcendent erotic moment, there is always a voluptuous violence and rupture. I cannot take the view, as some do, that the jouissance and the undeadness of the drive is a wholly negative influence upon us, or that our proximity to the Lacanian Real is always a headlong and permanent leap to a state of subjective destitution. For me, within the narrative space, they represent vitality, a possibility for chaotic creativity, an engine beyond our subjective selves that powers our occasional brush with the Real.

Not all the stories in the creative writing portion of this project include attempts to represent ecstatic experiences. I have, on the whole, avoided conflating orgasm with intimations transcendence except in cases where the moment is weighted with ambivalence. But, on the whole, I situate my fictional moments of transcendence at the intersection between trauma and intimacy and often, following the tradition religious mystics, as muted, distant recollections. “Eversharp” and “Nathalie’s Tailor” are both stories in this mode. “Eversharp” employs blatantly religious imagery—sacrifice, martyrdom, and sacred ritual—to frame the climb towards transgression and transcendence of cutting:

The dusting of hair, the flat, taupe nipple that quells at my touch, the hilly landscape of his ribs. My Adam. My lovely meat man. My sacrificial lamb. “Where Christ took the Roman spear. This is where I want to cut you.”

He laughs again, but, beneath my fingers, his muscles tense. “Okay. Don’t go all religious on me, now.”

It’s too late. He is an altar between my thighs. An altar and an offering united. Flesh and more, a human animal. And here, in this moment, I am the god and the priest who serves. (‘Eversharp”)

In contrast, “Nathalie’s Tailor” frames the same practice—of BDSM cutting—as a temporary escape from the Symbolic Order of “the world’s pernicious grasp”, allowing the Real in via physical cuts in the flesh:

I’m a tailor, not a butcher. I take pleasure in my work.

I make my careful cuts, and when I’m done, I cover her with my body, slide my cock into her moist, fluttering cunt, and fuck her free of the world’s pernicious grasp (“Nathalie’s Tailor”).

Prosthetic” and “If In Some Distant Place” portray a transcendence not shared, but witnessed by the narrator. In “Prosthetic” a sculptress witnesses as her art is used as transport in her lover’s transcendent moment:

Without warning, he wrapped his arms around me, pivoted, and pressed his back flat against the searing steel.

I knew, as I heard the hiss, as he began to shake, that, in part, he was using my weight to keep himself there. Making me even more complicit than I already was. Sharing out the burden of this small act of self-immolation (“Prosthetic”).

Whereas, in my story, “If In Some Distant Place” the two main characters, and the reader, are situated at a questionably safe distance, as voyeurs while a man masturbates on a busy street intersection.

Remapped” situates ecstasy in a virtual world, where a couple use Google Maps to escape their everyday worlds and engage in extreme fantasies until the narratives of the fantasies become too personal for comfort. Finally, as I go on to discuss in much greater depth in the chapter of resistance to language as an aspect of eroticism, the experience of transcendence is often not written at all, but evidenced in the way a character has been changed by the experience. For example, in my story “A Little Prick”, the medicalised moment with its unequal power dynamic, contributes to an orgasm triggered by an injection, which forms the protagonist’s erotic inner life.

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