The Erotic Self

Erotica is primarily a character-driven genre; narratives usually focus on the inner experience of characters to offer the reader an immersive encounter with the story. In this chapter, I reflect on Bataille’s concept of a decentred self, able to transcend the discontinuity of the socially intelligible subject and emerge as a continuous being in the context of the erotic experience. I interrogate this concept via Lacan’s theories of how language and desire constitute the subject within the Symbolic Order, and how jouissance and the Real can disrupt that sense of wholeness, individuality or social intelligibility. I examine contemporary notions of the erotic self, how our culture informs it, and how this is echoed or resisted in erotic fiction. Finally, I discuss how these understandings of the erotic self are reflected in some of the writing that forms the creative writing part of this project.

Bataille’s Continuous Self

According to Bataille, we are on a trajectory towards death and continuity as we die, decompose and join with the matter around us. But the possibility of reproduction interrupts this continuity, forcing an individuation and separation; we must be a separate entity in order to join with another separate entity and then make offspring that, in some sense, defeats mortality (Bataille Erotism 12-14). He proposes that “the transitions from this continuity to continuity in eroticism are what they are because of the knowledge of death that from the word go connects the rupture of discontinuity and the consequent glide towards a potential continuity with death” (104). For Bataille, one of the functions of eroticism “is to strike to the inmost core of the living being, so that the heart stands still. The transition from the normal state to that of erotic desire pre-supposes a partial dissolution of the person as he exists in the realm of discontinuity” (17). We are able to fleetingly achieve transition between these states through physical, emotional or religious eroticism (15). This experience enables a temporary destruction of “self-contained character of the participators as they are in their normal lives” (16), and necessitates the  “breaking down of established patterns […] of the regulated social order basic to our discontinuous mode of existence as defined and separate individuals” (18). So, via the act of negating our mortality through reproduction, or in contemplation of the abjection of our own finitude, “we can experience its dizziness together” (13).  This disruption of the discontinuous state takes us, via transgression, to a languageless ecstasy where “[b]odies open out to a state of continuity through secret channels that give us a feeling of obscenity. Obscenity is our name for the uneasiness which upsets the physical state associated with self-possession, with the possession of a recognised and stable individuality” (18).

Bataille’s eroticism, as mentioned elsewhere, is not limited to the specifically sexual; continuity can be achieved through various subsets of eroticism: sensuality, love or religious transcendence (15). Extremes of pain or pleasure force us to confront the limits of our bodies, as do rapturous mystical experiences, but extreme emotion—most notably love— also evokes this transitory sense of continuity by the “full and limitless being unconfined within the trammels of separate personalities, continuity of being, glimpsed as a deliverance through the person of the beloved” since “the beloved being is indeed equated for the lover […] with the truth of existence” (21).  Or, as Žižek explains, “[b]eing loved makes me feel directly the gap between what I am as a determinate being and the unfathomable X in me which causes love” (Žižek Psychoanalysis 217). This continuous erotic self challenges normative images of comfortable or commodified enjoyment.

Lacan’s Brittle Subject

Lacanian theory also challenges the widely held notion of the inviolate, totalised individual. It proposes that our self-perception begins as a fragmented body, undifferentiated from the world surrounding us (Evans 67). However, according to Lacan, our passage through the mirror stage:

…manufactures for the subject, caught up in the lure of spatial identification, the succession of phantasies that extends from a fragmented body-image to a form of its totality that I shall call orthopaedic – and, lastly, to the assumption of the armour of an alienating identity, which will mark with its rigid structure the subject’s entire mental development (Lacan Ecrits 3).

Far from growing into any fundamentally ‘true’ self, our passage through the Mirror Stage enables us to develop a fantasy of ourselves as whole and separate from others. This phantasmatic but socially intelligible concept of the self, which Lacan calls The Subject, is neither native nor particularly robust, but entered into fully via the Symbolic Order and constantly negotiated through language, laws, social structure and our interaction with others. This ‘rigid structure’ is brittle, and can be destabilized by trauma and, as Žižek points out, “the name of this life substance that proves a traumatic shock for the symbolic universe is of course enjoyment” (Žižek Enjoy 26). In other words, jouissance.

Amy Hollywood observes that, in Bataille’s creative writing, he “…continually attempts to elicit the real through the shattering of subjectivity, both literally and psychically” (Hollywood 14). Indeed all of Bataille’s various modes for attaining this state of continuity might be conceived of as traumatising experiences of jouissance that Mari Ruti determines to be irruptions of the Lacanian Real, creating tears “in the fabric of the symbolic […] through which the sublime enters the domain of everyday life in ways that engender intimations of immortality” and can dissolve “the coordinates of our socially intelligible identity” (Ruti 26). Framed this way, many popular contemporary portrayals of characters experiencing eroticism might be said to lack verisimilitude, nuance or depth.  In his review of Fifty Shades of Grey, Andrew O’Hagan acknowledges this lack, noting that “there’s no mess on the carpet and there are hot showers afterwards. Everybody is comfortable and everybody is clean: they travel first-class, the rich give presents, the man uses condoms, and everything dark is resolved in a miasma of cuddles” (O’Hagan).

The Commodified Erotic Self

Humans have often been encouraged to present themselves as erotic entities with a view to attracting someone to be erotic with. This is especially true for women who, for centuries, have been encouraged to see and present themselves as sexual commodities. However, contemporary society has placed an even greater emphasis on conceiving of and situating oneself as a product to be marketed to employers, friends, and lovers. Simultaneously, the evolution of the internet into a multi-media publishing platform for the masses has opened up ways for humans to express many things, including their identities as erotic beings. Social media—blogs, image and video archives and ebooks—depend on user-generated content and we are encouraged to expose ourselves as objects of desire.  On the positive side, Elizabeth Wood proposes the explosion of women’s sex-blogs constitutes a feminist emancipation of sexual discourse, which makes information accessible to women (Wood 480). In his rather prescient essay on Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised, Jack Abecassis summarises what he sees as the more negative impact of postmodernity on the erotic individual. He calls it the érotico-publicitaire:

The individual self, which in modernity has always been distinct from the collective, becomes here generic and serial, oscillating exclusively between eroticism and money. No longer in opposition to the world, it is continuous with it since the dialectic between the interior and the exterior, between the individual and the collective, slowly disappears. As if dialed into the ruthless digital economy, to the érotico-publicitaire machine which devours him, the self has once and for all lost the tension between being and appearance. The fate of the subject in the érotico-publicitaire society is to identify with the ideal that devours him. Once capitalism and globalization have done away with religion, family and nation, there no longer remains a space where counter- practices could successfully survive. (Abecassis 812-813)

Beckmann agrees, noting that “[t]he ‘consuming self’ of contemporary society is a representational being, permanently engaged in the ‘body/self’-project” (Beckmann 21). So, while Wood views this freedom to speak of female sexuality as emancipatory, what has emerged, Benhabib argues, is a demand to speak where “the act of objectification in which desire is transformed into a product is not an act of self-actualization, but an act of fear which leads to control of the nature within oneself. Objectification is not self-actualization but self-denial disguised as self-affirmation” (Benhabib 77).  Dymock describes this as an economy: “[t]he possibility of self-transformation is marketed to women as the foundation upon which this process of empowerment takes place, and nowhere is this more effective than in the marketing of sexuality” (Dymock 890).

Concurrently, the collapse of boundaries between interior and exterior achieved through technology, and the pressure to construct and observe oneself as a desirable and enjoying product, is, I would suggest, antithetical to eroticism as Bataille described it. Boodakian concurs, noting that, “[i]n the case of auto-surveillance it becomes more complex since there is an insistence on discontinuity while the Other either remains irrelevant, or rather treats oneself as the Other; the end result is that continuity is still not possible, thereby reducing chances for the erotic” (Boodakian 69).

The Continuous Self in Contemporary Erotica

While erotica narratives often seek to convey characters immersed in fleeting states of continuity, the nature of Bataille’s experience of continuity or the Lacanian subject, fractured and rendered socially unintelligible with its encounter with the Real, poses a tremendous challenge for writers. It is a state that resists language utterly, so any attempt to represent it will always necessarily fall short. As with the textual representation of the ecstatic experience, describing the continuous or the fragmented self at the edge of the Real depends on an acknowledgement between the writer, the text, and the reader that an attempt at the impossible is being made. Very often the writer simply makes no attempt at it. For those who do, this state must be gestured to in a variety of ways. A common method is blatant romantic cliché:   “I can’t help myself when I lean in and kiss him, giving him every piece of my heart for this gift he’s giving me. My fairytale, rescuing me from the evil monster that lurks in the dungeon” (Blair 170). Here romantic love and the signifier of ‘fairytale’ stand in for what resists description.

Another approach frames the continuous self as a cohesive, alternate personality: “Do it! my inner goddess pleads with me. My subconscious is as paralyzed as I am” (James 273), or takes up Michelson’s hard-core ‘myth of animality’ (Michelson 41): “I lost my mind somewhere along the way, primitive instinct taking over” (Day 93).

A more surreal approach, hints at the Bataillean spectre of death: “I collapsed on my elbows, too blissed out to move. The grass could eat me alive and I wouldn’t care” (Halle 153).

Yet others underscore the character’s sense of temporal and spatial unmooring: “Maybe she was stuck here in what would seem like forever, the last firing of a neuron an event that set a soul loose from time and space, a prisoner of whatever the last thought or fragment of a thought was. Maybe you couldn’t control what those last thoughts were, or maybe she had chosen poorly” (Harlen 2013).

More effective, in my estimation, is Paula Bomer’s almost heterodiegetic approach, signalling continuity from a distance:

He had the girl no one else could have and no one wanted because she was such used trash but he had her in a way no one had ever had her. He broke her shell and what was inside was so pink and so vulnerable it scared him at first. Then he liked it. Then he loved it. Then he knew what it was he had. He had her (Bomer 176).

Jonathan Kemp’s approach is equally effective and perhaps more immersive, triangulating what defies description between the surreal, the cliché, and the concrete: “I hang like a cage between heaven and earth, inside which, perched on a swing, my big red heart is singing. The taste of twenty men bruises my lips” (Kemp 93).

Failures in the Text

A survey of my own accompanying creative writing reveals that I tend to avoid direct attempts to write about the continuity of self in my characters, and focus, instead on the consequences of that experience. However, what I have attempted to keep in mind while bringing new characters to textual life is to imbue them with a yearning for and a sense of the possibility of experiencing Bataille’s state of continuity or Ruti’s singularity. I have tried to apply Lacanian concepts of the phantasmatic ego and the subject’s self-obliviousness to afford my characters more complexity. Plot-wise, I’ve allowed jouissance and the Real to inform the fictional circumstances in which that might occur. A passage like “[w]hat have I done? What has he let me do? I’m tumbling through the high atmosphere, falling from grace, suffocating in the airless joy of the moment” in the short story “Eversharp” serves to capture this approach of the affective fallout of the experience. In “Filthy Wound” I take that more distanced approach of framing jouissance from the POV of another: “In that one quotidian moment, he had pushed her past being a sentient human who took care of her own requirements with any semblance of dignity.” In other stories, such as “The Perfect Foreigner”, I use memory in a fictional autobiographical context, situating the continuity of self in the deep past, where time and reflection have made some form of encapsulation of experience possible. “He taught me the beauty of a compromised existence. The saintliness of shadow.”

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