Georges Bataille 1897–1962: intellectual, pornographer, qualified-librarian, attempted founder of a secret society devoted to human sacrifice. Clearly a man of diverse achievements, whether you consider them praise-worthy or not. But sadly, he is unlikely to ever have an article written about him in Cosmopolitan.
This however is Cosmo’s loss. Bataille’s writings seem to capture something often missing from so many kinds writings on sex and the erotic, including those as ordinary as the afore-mentioned publication. Leafing through its pages, you’ll find yourself bombarded with ingenious sex tips (“Give him oral through his underwear!”) and coy stories (“What really goes on in men’s locker rooms!”). But there is, in short, a total lack of bite in any of it. Setting aside the problems of its focus on women providing pleasure for men. There is little mention of anything deviant, anything unsettling, anything at all exciting. Sex comes across as rather like a fairly mechanistic kind of massage – a vapid exchange of pleasure from one person to another.
But say Cosmopolitan’s readership tails off. The publication falls on hard times. The general editor becomes desperate, begins to go off the rails. One day, finding herself yet again, drunk in a public library, she chances across a misplaced back-issue of Acephale or La Révolution Surréaliste; an unhealthy interest is kindled…
1. Cogito Ergo Futuo
“Eroticism, unlike simple sexual activity, is a psychological quest, independent of the natural.”
We should draw a line between the physical act of sex and the erotic, the state of mind needed to make it in any way stimulating, because the former cannot explain the latter. If it could, then you might think that what is erotic, is what is concerned with reproduction, or perhaps the pursuit of the pleasure resulting from the firing of nerve endings. But we know that the truth is more complex than than this – the erotic eludes an account of the interactions of two persons’ bodies.
This seems like an obvious thing to state, but we encounter people everyday who act to the contrary. People pursue sex as though it is defined by a particular set of positions. Sex approached with no concern for its psychological content, approached just as the meeting of two bodies animalistically, cannot be considered erotic, and is deficient. This is not to say when two people “rut like animals” they are not being erotic, but that such apparently bestial abandon is significant because of what it means for the minds of the people involved.
So reflect on your desires, fantasies and fetishes. Where is your sexual quest taking you? How is it developing you as a person? What do you want out of sex? Sexuality is a vast spectrum of ways of interacting, so you owe to yourself to explore where this can take you. Perhaps the best place to start is with pornography and erotica.
Gorge yourself on erotic novels, read them out loud, especially to a partner. In so doing you replenishes your fantasies and expand your horizons. There’s little filthier than “The Story of the Eye” by Bataille himself.
2. La Petite Mort
“What we desire is to bring into a world founded on discontinuity all the continuity such a world can contain.”
On all sides, we feel ourselves bounded: in time, space, by our bodies, by other people, by nature. In ordinary experience, we find ourselves in so many ways separated from what is other to us; this is what it means to be, in Bataille’s words, “discontinuous beings”. But sex is one way in which we can escape this burden, and become, if only momentarily, achieve a death-like continuity, one with the world, a wave lost in a turbulent sea. This is, he thinks, the general form of the “psychological quest” that characterises the erotic. The paradigm example of continuity is of course in orgasm, but all of sex is supposed to manifest this mystical edge.
Whether or not he is right, we can appreciate the importance of losing yourself in the sex. The concerns of experience fade into the background; temporality dissipates; distinctions of who is who blur. The intensity of experience becomes all. Even the way our memories form changes, becomes hazily indistinct, as though in drunkenness.
3. The Erotic in Everything
“The saint turns from the voluptuary in alarm; she does not know that his unacknowledgeable passions and her own are really one.”
In realising the importance of “continuity” in sexuality, we come to appreciate how the erotic is not confined to the realm of sex; instead the quest for continuity and elements of the erotic pervades other parts of life. Bataille for instance, a little like Aristophanes in The Symposium, sees our frequent, emotional aim in romantic love as a version of the erotic quest for continuity, in that we hope to become entirely one with our beloved.
This search for a kind of “annihilation of the self” is important in the mindset for drug-taking, dancing, or sport. We should not isolate it to a darkened room, curtains closed, regarding it with shameful eyes, because it reaches out to all elements of our lives. We ought to feel the depth of this passion as much as possible, accept it as a crucial part of ourselves. Whether you feel ecstasy through music, painting or writing, you should recognize its erotic potential.
4. Get Rough
“What does physical eroticism signify if not a violation of the very being of its practitioners? – A violation bordering on death, bordering on murder?”
But pursuing continuity is not an altogether simple or sanitized process. We must accept it will always contain an element of violence, both against ourselves and our sexual partners. In aiming to jolt us out of ordinary experience, erotic sex must to some extent destroy things on which ordinary experience is founded. This, Bataille thinks, is the connection between sex and death: the temporary jolt of ordinary discontinuity in sex is analogous to the total ripping out of discontinuity death amounts to.
This violence can be seen as the act of penetration alone, a violation of the boundaries of the body. It is not frequently enough acknowledged that penetration can be unsettling or scary for this reason. But the violence might be more explicitly fetishized, as in sado-masochism. Here pain, but also immersion in trust tie together to create an erotic construct that forces out the worries of ordinary life. Whatever form the violence takes, whether we accept it or not, it will be there in some form; erotic sex must comes with an edge that at least unsettles us.
5. Push Your Boundaries
“Eroticism always entails a breaking down… of the regulated social order.”
Violence is associated with the breaking down of taboos. In order to successfully shake our sense of self, sex must always push at the boundaries of our conventional self, the social rules we ordinarily tacitly accept as structuring our lives. The erotic always tends towards perversion and obscenity; must always ceaselessly turn what we accept for the good of ourselves and society on its head, even if only in symbolic form for the sake of straying into the unethical. It is probably for reasons like these that in The Story of the Eye, despite the protagonists having a vast amount of heterosexual sex, the majority of it is anal, and forays into the vaginal are portrayed as pretty unsatisfying. However the rejection of convention need not be shocking; the act of stripping naked before your partner is a good example of turning away from public convention in favour of a private, intimate way of being. Being naked is generally not a pragmatical expedient for the physical act of sex, but we do it out of an erotic need to transgress, to commit sins.
In sex we find ourselves slipping into a different way of interacting with the world; we are increasingly hypnotised by what would usually disgust or horrify us. And frequently the realisation of this fact gives rise to feelings of guilt and turmoil in the cold light of orgasm. But this does not mean we ought to reject these ways in favour of a more sanitized conception of how sex ought to be. For one thing, this would be unhealthily repressive. Perhaps more importantly, it fails to recognise the way in which transgressive sexual activity can help us be better attuned to our place in the world. In breaking these boundaries, we succeed in working something over, in seeing things differently. We become better aware of them, and better able to question their rightness or wrongness in ordinary life.
So what’s the point of this journalistic fantasy? I’m not mistaking Cosmopolitan for an attempt at an in-depth account of how human sexuality ought to be conducted; but its potential influence on sexuality, for example through its teenage readership, cannot be ignored. Not only is it disingenuous, but deeply unimpassioned; the only potential “heat” derivable from such publications is an embarrassed blushing when you’ve accidentally deviated from this month’s sex positions. It is one that is sadly lacking in this aspect of darkness which true sexuality embraces. Bataille’s description of sexuality is obviously not perfect, but at least it gives some recognition to its darker side, not founded on love or the pursuit of pure pleasure, but pervaded by disgust, guilt and transgression.
Epigram taken from Aleister Crowley’s The Book of the Law. All other quotes taken from George Bataille’s Eroticism, translated by Mary Dalwood