The Edge of Language

Erotic experience will commit us to silence (Bataille Erotism 252).

In his essay “A Preface to Transgression” on Bataille’s L’Erotisme, Foucault writes that, in all our attempts to liberate sexuality by speaking and writing about it, we have not failed, but done something worse: we’ve described its limits (Foucault 30). Now that science has laid bare its anatomy and pornography has shown us, at the click of a mouse, that everything is possible for one human body to do to another, what more is left? But Bataille makes a distinction since “eroticism, unlike simple sexual activity, is a psychological quest independent of the natural goal” (Bataille II), and Foucault acknowledges this. The quandary for a writer who sets out to write the erotic, not the sexual, is that, while it is possible to write about the yearning the erotic engenders, all the theatre that surrounds it, the physical (which may be explicitly sexual) that accompanies it, the core of the experience is resistant to language. What lies past the boundaries of taboo or prohibition —in the experience of the ecstatic or transcendent, and the being we become in that place— is a languageless being. We must reconcile ourselves to the fact that “to speak of this experience and in making it speak from the depths where its language fails, from precisely the place where words escape it, where the subject who speaks has just vanished” (Foucault 40), we can only write “that line of foam showing just how far speech may advance upon the sands of silence” (30).

One of the most uncomfortable aspects of Bataille’s treatise on eroticism is the extent to which he associates it with violence and this is significant in terms of how it resists language:

…since language is by definition the expression of civilised man, violence is silent. Many consequences result from that bias of language. Not only does “civilised” usually mean “us”, and barbarous “them”, but also civilisation and language grew as though violence was something outside, foreign not only to civilisation but also to man, man being the same thing as language. […] If language is to be extricated from this impasse, we must declare that violence belongs to humanity as a whole and is speechless, and that thus humanity as a whole lies by omission and language itself is founded upon this lie (Bataille 186).

The violence of eroticism is, I think, not Bataille’s alone to define. While violence is indisputably part of eroticism, it does not need to be physical. It can take many forms: dislocation, sorrow, absurdity, delirium, perfection, cruelty, courage. All that is needed is that the violence shocks us into silence. The challenge of writing eroticism is not only that the experience resists language but that our own propensity for finding the intersection of sex and violence erotic may well disturb us into self-censorship. While many sexual taboos have gone by the wayside, we condemn acts of sexual violence more than ever before. Yet many people still find fictionalised portrayals of sexual violence thrilling and erotic, perhaps even moreso as we condemn it more loudly. While it is beyond the scope of this thesis to examine the cause and effect of this phenomenon, it would be disingenuous to leave it unacknowledged or deny that there is a moral dimension to the decision to write about eroticism and all that it entails.

Lacan tells us it is impossible to write about this jouissance, this brush with the Real, because it doesn’t exist. But, as Bruce Fink notes, Lacan’s use of the term ‘existence’ requires elucidation: “existence is a product of language: language brings things into existence (makes them part of human reality)” (Fink 25). Yet this experience, whether identified as eroticism or as an irruption of the Real does exist—in the sense that we want it to exist, or perhaps in the sense that, like a black hole, it is known to be there by the way it curves the space around it and bends the light nearby. Similarly, Lacan said that the Real is impossible to imagine, to speak about, to write about, and yet he did and we do (McGowan 81). Many inner experiences are impossible to write about, and yet writers try and sometimes succeed in describing the curvature of the space around the experience.

For many writers, the prospect of writing the impossible simply isn’t worth the trouble. While they feel confident to chronicle their characters’ most harrowing experiences, when it comes to the bedroom, the narrative often ends at the door. Martin Amis, who has not stopped at the door, famously said:

Good sex is impossible to write about. Lawrence and Updike have given it their all, and the result is still uneasy and unsure. It may be that good sex is something fiction just can’t do—like dreams. Most of the sex in my novels is absolutely disastrous. Sex can be funny, but not very sexy (Burns).

Perhaps the problem is that ‘good’ sex isn’t just ‘sex’? Perhaps what makes it ‘good’ is that it is more than just sex. However, to make too much of it is also problematic; we are caught in a difficult place between the liberationist demand to write frankly about erotic experiences and the marketing hyperbole of commodification. In our determination to reject the prudish censorship, veiling, poetics and allusions of the past, we are exhorted to represent the concrete reality of sex. But describing the mechanics of sex in minute detail is not the same as representing the reality of the experience. Meanwhile, to resist reducing the erotic to a commodity and gilding it with the impossible sheen of a shiny new product, we must avoid presenting it as desirable. Perhaps in refusing to allow eroticism the complexity it requires, we have denied ourselves the tools with which to write about ‘good sex’.

Advancing Upon the Sands of Silence

Offering proscriptive suggestions for how to write what cannot be written seems not only absurd, but limiting. As trite as it rings, honesty is the best policy, and it is always brave and effective to lead by example, so I offer a passage from Jonathan Kemp’s Twentysix:

Forgive me for not having the words to describe it, this place in which I dwell. I have tried, I have tried. I have drenched myself in words and sensations, seeking a way to make them speak to one another. This is all I have to offer. The body wants what it wants. The chaos of the body’s wants – as we know – will never surrender itself to language, can never succumb to reason, even if, even if, even if it wanted to – which it never will. Words will help you to live, as your body will help you to die. When the body lets go, the mind lets go too. And fear is the least part, that’s what I learnt first (Kemp 89).

In my view, what makes Kemp’s passage so effective is its acknowledgement that sensations and words cannot be forced to speak to one another. This “chaos of the body’s wants” deftly describes the capacity for jouissance to break language, destabilise Symbolic order, and render ourselves unintelligible even to ourselves. Kemp’s admonition that “[w]ords will help you to live, as your body will help you to die” encapsulates, for me, the inherent conflict always present in narratives of eroticism: the intersection between the Symbolic order with its potential for meaning making and the Lacanian Real of the bodily drive.

Leave a Reply

Post Navigation