THE EROTIC EYE AND ITS NUDE
The Association thanks Stefan for his permission to reproduce this article.
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1.the erotic eye and the erotic senses
2.the erotic appearance of man
3.the eye's seizure of power: the visualisation of the erotic appearance
4.revealing and concealing
5.the nude clad
6.clothes and the metamorphosis of the erotic appearance
7.the taboo on exhibitionism and the orgy
8.the nude captured in the image
9.the transfiguration of the nude in the image
10.in the beast with two backs' den
11.the sacrifice of the nude
12.the taboo on erotic imagery
Judging from the massive production of erotic imagery in photo magazines, films, television, video and internet - not to mention the universal practice of 'girl-watching' - voyeurism and exhibitionism must occupy man's mind, if possible, far more than sexual commerce in the strict sense of the word.
That does not prevent people from invariably feeling embarrassed when the subject is mentioned. Even researchers, who otherwise do not refrain from exploring even the most remote corners of the human psyche, all too eagerly evade the study of the most practiced erotic pastime. I increasingly had the impression of entering an unexplored territory. It was extremely difficult to make a somewhat substantial bibliography. Most contributions are part of books on more encompassing subjects. The few books exclusively devoted to the subject are either purely (art)historical (Clark, Linda Williams) or moralising (feministic literature). As a rule, they restrict themselves either to the erotic eye (scopic drive), or to the (representation of) the nude that exhibits itself (phanic drive). Especially psychoanalytic literature excels in its silence on the subject. In the index of Freuds collected works, there are a mere five references to 'voyeurism'. Also the image is utterly neglected: in the ‘Interpretation of Dreams’ dream, images - that are anyway merely accessible through verbal rendering - are reduced to 'dream- thoughts'. Apparently, as a true heir of Moses, Freud was far more interested in the ear that listens than in the eye that indulges in relishing the (nude in) the image.
Reasons enough to write a book on the phanic and the scopic drive.
Whoever wants to write a book on the erotic eye and its nude cannot restrict himself to the written word: there is an abundance of often very beautiful images. But the existence of something like copyright is responsible for the fact that we cannot show the best examples from sculpture, painting, prints and photos. In this Internet version, we had to content ourselves with the photos of living photographers who gave us the permission to use their work. But this restriction is not the main responsible for the sometimes poor quality of the images in my selection: if we could have chosen freely, the number of high quality pictures would certainly have increased, but that would only have emphasized the surprisingly poor quality of the overall production of erotic imagery. Precisely the argument of this book will explain why.
Within these limits, the choice of the photos has been made according to two criteria. Our first concern has been to find a fitting illustration for each topic in the text. Only when we had the choice, we could select according to aesthetic criteria. For some topics, we could not find any fitting illustration at all, because it either simply does not exist, or because we could not find an image with the required aesthetic standards. That explains why high quality pictures often go side by side with minor works. It is our intention to gradually raise the artistic level, so that 'the erotic eye and its nude' will eventually become a kind of touchstone for erotic photography.
Suggestions are always welcome.
In this book, an entirely new theory is presented on what is traditionally referred to as 'voyeurism' and 'exhibitionism'. In our opinion, these isolated 'partial drives' are merely two particular forms of the more encompassing scopic and phanic drives that form in principle an undivided unity: both drives elicit each other. We will describe the manifold manifestations of the scopic and the phanic drive and explain how and why they develop. This theory on the scopic and the phanic drive is situated within the broader frame of a general theory on love, as it is unfolded in 'The ecstasies of Eros'.
In 'The erotic eye and its nude' I only present my own view on the subject. Discussion with other authors have deliberately been omitted. What is thus gained in clarity and accessibility, will be lost in academic charms. More than often, an unusual thesis will be advanced without further comment, while, conversely, seemingly obvious points of view are in fact rather controversial. But all these disadvantages do not measure up to the advantages: a concise and clear text. Other theories will be dealt with elsewhere on this site (section 'reviews').
The text of the book is written in a rather neutral tone. It was my intention to have the images play an important role in conveying the more 'emotional' freight of what is meant. No doubt, the eloquence of the images will seduce the reader to a cursory reading of the book. Needless to say that a close reading of the text is necessary to follow the development of the argument.
Chapter I of 'The erotic eye and its nude'
object de désir 2
THE EROTIC EYE AND THE EROTIC SENSES see also: 'the ecstasies of eros'
In this first chapter we want to dwell on the erotic eye itself. Fascinated as it is, it cannot refrain from looking at the ever changing – and often surprising – shapes in which the erotic nude appears. Why can lovers not stop looking at each other's body, hearing each other's voice, smelling each other's odours, feeling each other's skin, let alone enjoying each other's orgasm? Why are there so many erotic senses and how do they relate to each other?
(1) LOVE AND ENDURING PERCEPTION
‘Wo du hingehst, da will auch ich sein’.
B. Brecht, Dreigroschenoper.
The evolution of erotic senses is a side effect of the evolution of love.
The oldest form of love is love between parents and children. In order to secure the well-being of their offspring, it is important that parents and children are staying nearby each other, even when there are no immediate needs to be met. That is why they want to permanently perceive each other. This need is the primeval form and the kernel of love: loving partners are always looking for each other and trying to stay in each other's vicinity.
Parental love is extended to sexual love when male and female begin to cooperate in view of the bringing up of their offspring. To be able to help each other always and everywhere, also parents develop a need to always remain within each other's reach.
To satisfy this need, the ‘erotic appearance’ is developed which will interest us in the following chapters. The erotic appearance of humans consists of specific patterns for the diverse senses: form and colour, sound, odours, softness and warmth, orgasm. In contrast with the perception of needs and obstacles, which we want to get rid of as soon as possible, the perception of the erotic appearance is pleasurable. Rather than avoiding it, we are looking for it. And when we have found it, we want to enjoy it forever.
(2) THE EROTIC SENSES
Erotically sensitive senses develop through the transformation of existing senses or organs. Touch is predisposed for such adaptation: to be present is in the first place literally being nearby somebody. With humans, the naked skin as a whole is erotically sensitive, and parts of it are even more sensitive: the hands that touch, the lips that kiss and the sexual organs that penetrate and contain.
But lovers cannot always remain in physical contact with each other. To gratify their needs and to avoid dangers, they have to give up bodily contact. When all their needs are met and all the dangers have disappeared, they seek each other's presence again. In the meantime, they try to stay in contact at a distance. That is why also and foremost the distance senses – eye, ear and nose – are sensitive to the perception of an erotic appearance that can be perceived from a distance.
Since erotic congress wants to endure, two problems arise: how to warrant normal interaction with the outer world, and how to enable sleep? The most appropriate way to solve the first problem, is to suspend the need for erotic commerce until interaction with the outer world is no longer necessary. And falling asleep is made possible through the building in of a climax – the orgasm – which temporarily suspends the need for erotic commerce. After sleep, the need to perceive one’s partner and to interact with the world resurges. The whole cycle starts all over again.
(3) THE TENSION BETWEEN THE EYE AND THE GENITALS
As soon as interaction with the outer world is no longer necessary, the visual and auditory contact with the loved one is taken over by touching and embracing. When touch takes over and the lovers proceed to kissing and fondling, the eyes tend to close. When the genitals take over, touch gives up its contact with the skin: hands and arms are now merely holding and sustaining the loved body. One after another, the erotic senses give way to pure genital sensation. While in the beginning all the erotic pleasure was concentrated in the eye, the whole visual world now implodes in the orgasmic flight.
It is worth while to describe this implosion in some more detail. The everyday, non-erotic world is structured around the perceiving being, from which space radiates in its three dimensions. From within that centre, the eye scans space perspectivally.
The structure of erotic space is totally different. As soon as we are dealing with visual beauty, we are still moving in a visual space, but, provided our erotic interaction is reciprocal, that space is no longer centrifugal but symmetrical: it consists of two mirroring halves.
Sounds further corrodes the already symmetrically restructured space. Certainly, the voice still seems to emanate from a given point in space, but the space in which it resounds is no longer empty. It seems permeated with sound. In such ethereal space, the body no longer is a volume with a surface, rather a vibrating aura that emanates from a kernel. When the lovers echo each other, also this space becomes symmetrical. And when the voices are vibrating in consonance with each other or are merging in unison, the two symmetrical halves seem to permeate each other.
Space dissolves still further when we switch over to odour. Just like sound, odour emanates from the loved body, but the olfactory erotic appearance is no longer situated on a fixed point in space: rather is it an enchanting cloud that comes to envelope us and penetrates our body.
When switching over to touching, space is further reduced to a one-dimensional ‘against’. No longer are we moving between discrete objects, we are leaning against each other, embracing each other. To the eye, the ear and the nose, perceiving and perceived being are discrete. In the world of touch they begin to merge: feeling skin feels feeling skin. The last remnant of space - a dark awareness of something unattainable behind the skin - totally disappears when the radiation of warmth invades our body. Symmetry begins to dissolve into identity.
The involution is completed when the world finally implodes in the orgasmic experience. Seen from without and interpreted in terms of the three-dimensional space of the eye, the penis is filling the vagina that envelopes it, and their mutual embrace elicits the synchronised contractions of orgasm. To the inner sensation of the genitals themselves, this comes down to an implosion of the whole world into one single feeling sensation. Since there is no longer any feeling of confinement within the skin, the orgasmic feeling seems to permeate an infinite ethereal space. In that sense the idea of melting and dissolution – summoned up again and again to describe orgasm – is not a metaphor at all. It is founded in the process of the gradual sensitory reduction that we come to describe.
There are no illustrations of this sensation: it is simply not visible and situated in a dimensionless world at that. Which did not prevent artists from trying to visualise it nevertheless. They have a breeze gently blow around the lovers or have some radiance permeate their bodies. Wind nor radiance have a surface, and radiance knows no obstacles. Another method is letting a kind of streaming movement pervade the bodies or their draperies. Such are the methods to translate the dimensionless orgasmic feeling in a world where the bodies find themselves separated in visual space.
Only in music is it possible to render the orgasmic feeling in a more appropriate way. In contrast with visual bodies, audible bodies easily merge in consonance (Isoldes Liebestod, Wagner). Music is the medium par excellence for the representation of orgasmic merger - and of orgiastic communality as well.
Ordinary needs soon drag us back in the real world. There, we are soon confined again within the limits of our bodies from which we look at the objects surrounding us from all sides. Only in such world applies what Lacan (1981:72) after Merleau-Ponty asserts: that the things are gazing at us. Such experience is a transfer in non-erotic space of the way in which we experience erotic space, a space where not things are gazing at us, but lovers at each other.
Not seldom do we seek solace for the depressing experience that we have now become bodies again, orienting themselves in a perspectival space. We find it in the transparency of fire, in the abyss of the oceans or the fathomless depths of the skies.
Such ethereal worlds, in which we all too eagerly free ourselves from our bodies and the real world, derive their charms from a transfer of the orgasmic feeling in the three-dimensional space of the visible world.
(4) THE PERVERSE MOVE
During the centripetal move from hearing, over seeing and smelling, to touching and orgasm, the intensity of the erotic feeling is gradually increasing. The erotic sensitivity, spread over the entire body as long as it is dealing with the world, is eventually concentrated in the genitals. The erotic senses behave as runners in a relay-race, handing over the torch to each other, until at last the orgasmic fire can be lit. After having handed over the torch, they sit down at the border of the road, totally exhausted. The ear becomes deaf when the eyes begin to look. The eyes are closed when the hand begins to touch, and the hands stop touching when the genitals are getting ready for orgasm.
So heavily do the erotic senses cling to their appropriate erotic appearance, that they try to postpone the handing over of the torch. Loving eyes give up their reciprocal gaze only in exchange for the sight of the visual beauty of the face and the body. When they eventually switch over to touching, it is the hand that cannot stop from touching and stroking. When the lovers are finally about to merge in orgasm, they try to postpone the climax through slowing down the movements that will bring about the explosion, until, quasi motionless, they are pervaded with the ever increasing intensity of erotic sensation.
The irrevocable advent of the orgasm brings an end to the feelings of pleasure. Whence the endeavour to postpone it. Above all the distance senses – first and foremost the eye – are predestined for such postponement: they have been developed in view of the restoration of erotic contact when the bodies have to deal with the outer world. And since such commerce happens to take up practically the whole duration of our waking existence, seeing is the most common way of being erotically sensitive. The eye only gains when it refuses to hand over the torch: the increasing emotion of an ever more aroused body is an enchanting spectacle indeed. But such refusal initiates the ‘fall’ of the eye: the eye breaks the ban on looking, imposed by the sense of touch. In the end, the greedy eye threatens to prevent the unrolling of the whole process. But, since it is the more aroused the more the admired body becomes exalted, it eventually has to yield to the pull of orgasm.
The erotic senses’ aspiration to autonomy is traditionally – and rightly – called ‘perversion’: ‘pervertere’ means to deviate from an original goal. Inevitably, the term ‘perversion’ is charged with moral connotations. But is does not help to try to prevent this through coining a new term such as Money’s ‘paraphilia’: the problem will repeat itself. Rather than avoiding moral connotations and adopting a purely technical stance, we should acknowledge the moral implications of the phenomenon - the positive ones included: the perverse move reverts the natural unfolding of love only in view of tapping new sources of pleasure. From a positive point of view, then, the perverse move can be described as an endeavour to aestheticisation in the sense of 'becoming a goal in its own right'. The senses are freed from their subordination under the ‘primacy of genitality’. Aestheticisation is also an appropriate term, since it is derived from ‘perceiving’.
The perverse postponement and eventual cancellation of orgasm comes down to a visualisation of love - a subordination under the primacy of the scopic drive. The unfolding of love is transformed into a spectacle for the eye. For the time being, the pull of the orgasm is strong enough to counteract every endeavour to prevent the unfolding of love. In the following chapters we will describe the take-over of the eye and its eventual triumph over genitality.
Chapter II of 'The erotic eye and its nude'
THE EROTIC APPEARANCE OF MAN see also: 'the ecstasies of eros'
After having introduced the erotic eye in the first chapter, we should now concentrate on what that eye is so eager to see: the beautiful body. The beautiful body as such, though, will duly be dealt with in the following chapters. In this second chapter we first want to situate the erotic appearance in a broader – evolutionary, historic and social – context
(1) BEAUTY AS THE FOUNTAINHEAD OF LOVE
‘...toutes les hideurs de fécondité’
Charles Baudelaire (Les Fleurs du Mal).
The erotic appearance of man has everything to do with reproduction, but hardly anything with the strict act of copulation. Rather is it parental care that lies at the base of the erotic appearance of man: the eyes to look in, the warm and soft skin to touch, the soft rounding of the breast to hold, and not least the lips to kiss, are obviously derived from maternal care.
No doubt, also the reproductive organs play an important role as a kind of ‘sixth sense’: the act of copulation is not so much meant to fertilise, as rather to provide the pleasure of orgasm. But the genitals relate rather ambivalently to the erotic eye. With humans, the female reproductive organs no longer signal the fertile period. That is why the often impressive vaginal swellings of apes and primates shrink to the rather modest labia in the human female, that go hidden behind the pubic hair, and disappear between the legs as a consequence of bipedalism (walking upright) and neoteny (the persistence of foetal characteristics in the adult organism). The presence of a fertile cycle is only betrayed through menstrual blood. Also the smells that signal fertility are nearly perceptible with humans.
As a consequence, the erotic eye of man is sensitive to a wholly different kind of visual beauty: the optical qualities of the naked body replace the attraction of the vaginal swellings. The beauty of that naked body consists above all of qualities that allow to visually anticipate the pleasures of touching: the undulations of the body, the softness and flawlessness of the skin, the form and the colour of the eyes. And these qualities are totally different from the rather repellent wrinkles and folds on the genitals, or the heavy pink, red or purple of the vaginal swellings and the erect penis, which are slimy at that. Only the colour of the lips, nipples and fingernails, and of the blush, remind of the preliminary archaic phase. The human erotic eye, hence, is not out at seeing the reproductive organs, but at admiring the beauty of the naked body and its face. Only when the loving partners, attracted by each other’s visual beauty, begin to touch and kiss each other, does the arousal of the sense of touch elicit the readiness of the genital organs.
The whole shift from reproductive organs to naked skin is enhanced in that the sight of the reproductive organs reminds of rather negatively charged phenomena. With most mammals, the genital organs protrude from an opening or fissure in the fleece. That is why they remind of openings in the human skin, such as the inner side of the eyelids or the lips, if not of the threatening mouth of predators and the corollary wounds or raw meat. Not for nothing do children lower their eyelids or protrude their tongue when they want to show an abhorrent face. Not only the form, also the colour of the genitals reminds of a wound: red is the colour of blood. Menstrual blood only enhances that effect. That is why non-informed onlookers often interpret the vaginal swellings of primates as wounds, if not as cancers. The slimy surface also conjures up associations with the archaic skin of reptiles, molluscs or fish.
The whole shift in the array of forms and colours explains why we often recoil when unexpectedly exposed to the sight of genitals, and why a certain reluctance – the primeval form of shame? - compels us to hide them from view in one way or another. The opposition between the unabashed exposure of the vaginal swellings by a bonobo and the modest gesture with which the Venus of Urbino covers her genitals speaks volumes. There is some truth in da Vinci’s saying that the act of copulation and the reproductive organs are so repulsive, that mankind would have died out long ago, were it not for the beauty of the human face – think of his Mona Lisa. And not for nothing does Baudelaire refer to ‘the sheer ugliness of fertility’.
The deep-seated reluctance to lay eyes upon the genitals and the corollary propensity to hide them from view, only enhance the already mentioned efforts of nature to hide the signals of fertility. They equally explain the propensity to overlook the vagina and to read it as the sheer absence of a penis. The association with a wound provokes a further misreading of such absence as the result of castration, above all in children.
We take a similar stance when unexpectedly exposed to sexual smells. The reluctance can extend to bodily odours as such, which lies at the base of the use of perfumes. And the reluctance also comes to encompass the odours of secretion, as is apparent from the old dictum ‘inter urinas et faeces nascimur’ (‘We are born between piss and shit’).
That the visual appearance of our genitals is an avatar from our evolutionary prehistory, does not mean that they have become obsolete as means of seduction. Quite the contrary: the sight of the genitals exerts an often irresistible attraction on the devotees of the erect penis or the aroused vagina. But it is only when the beauty of the body has sufficiently aroused the eye, that it is prepared to value the beauty of the genitals. And the genitals only unfold in all their glory when they are sufficiently aroused by the activity of the eye. That is worlds apart from phrasing - with Bataille – that the essence of the erotic drive consists in desacralising the beauty of the face through the exposure of the repulsive genital organs.
(2) THE RECIPROCITY OF HUMAN SEXUAL SEDUCTION
‘Eiusdem libidinis est videri et videre’
‘The desire to see and to be seen is one and the same’
In the animal world, beauty is the privilege of the sex that has to compete for access to the other sex. Which sex has to compete, depends on the division of parental care. The sex that invests most in the offspring is the most selective: it does not waste its energy to the bearers of inferior genetic material. Apart from exceptions – such as the meanwhile legendary sticklebacks or sea horses – it is mostly females who invest most in their offspring. That is why they are far more selective than males. Males, conversely, only enhance their reproductive success by fertilising as much females as possible. That is why they are far less selective and far more competitive (Schopenhauer, Trivers). The increased competitiveness between males and the corollary selectivity of females makes that, in the animal world, it is predominantly males who are the beautiful sex.
Human males play a considerable role in parental care. The role of the father is no longer limited to fertilisation. It comes to encompass the feeding and the education of the children. Father and mother proceed to a division of tasks within the frame of the ‘sexual division of labour’. This only enhances the importance of the father: only from his father can a son learn his role as a male. Thus, the reproductive investment of the father shifts from unrestrained copulatory efforts to economic care and education. Henceforth, the female has to compete, not only for the best possible fertile partner, but also for an economic partner and a father that will be willing to educate his children. This leads to an increased competition between women and an increased selectivity of males. Whence the rather exceptional phenomenon of two equally beautiful sexes in humans, which already puzzled Darwin. The evolution of the beautiful woman is the counterpart of the evolution of a protecting, feeding and educating father.
As a consequence, human seduction is no longer one-sided: it has to be reciprocal. Seduction elicits seduction and admiration The enamoured eye only gets to see the beauty of the beloved body when it is looking from a body that emanates beauty itself. Or to put it more technically: the scopic drive in the lover is elicited by the phanic drive in his beloved, and it elicits the phanic drive in the lover that elicits the scopic drive drive in the beloved in a wholesome self-inducing circular dynamic.
And there is more. Also reciprocal help - ‘economic’ care - becomes an expression of love, to the extent that we can rightly speak of an ‘economical coitus’. Sexual and economical coitus elicit each other and become each other’s expression: humans have the irresistible propensity to sexually gratify their economic partner and, conversely, to also economically gratify a gratifying sexual partner. That is worlds apart from the so-called ‘sex for meat’, that governs the one-sided behaviour of many a primate (Symons)*
(3) THE EXCHANGE OF BEAUTY FOR BENEFITS
‘Donner son corps, garder son âme’
How is it, then, that human females pass for the beautiful sex tout court, while male beauty all too often seems to escape female attention?
As opposed to many other species, with humans, there are as much fertile males as females. But, until recently, fertile females used to be mothers that were either pregnant or lactating. This drastically reduces the number of available women. Only in principle is the number of available males equally reduced in that they become fathers: a father is not visibly affected by fatherhood. Since a woman that is pregnant or lactating is not precisely attractive to a man, except for the father of her children, the number of sexually attractive males is considerably larger than the number of available females. Moreover, female beauty is far more transient, and it decreases with the number of pregnancies. Such relative scarcity of female beauty explains why, from primeval times onward, female beauty is in the focus of attention. Since time immemorial, the beautiful woman is surrounded by a host of males that are busy competing for her favours.
Equally since time immemorial, males are out at breaking the power of the beautiful woman that tries to subjugate them through her sheer beauty. They did so by increasing their economic and political power. The rather egalitarian economy of the tribe has gradually been supplemented and finally been replaced with barter between partners who are no longer affiliate through marriage or descent. Through subordination of other men, the economic and political power of a minority increases, to the detriment of an ever growing majority. It suffices to compare a pharaoh and a peasant, a feudal lord and his serfs, or a capitalist and a proletarian.
This dramatically affects the nature of male beauty. In primeval times, sexual and economic prowess found their natural expression in pure physical beauty – muscle, length, agility and skill. But since the advent of the ‘social division of labour’, the importance of purely external signs of economic and political power goes increasing. Bodily beauty is pushed to the background.
This is the more so, since physical beauty only decreases with age, whereas economic or political power only increase with it. Hence, a fundamental asymmetry comes to govern sexual relations: the exchange of beauty for wealth - or benefits of all kinds. Reciprocal sexual attraction and economic cooperation are no longer the foundations of love. Only after such reduction is the complex and reciprocal relationship between lovers reduced to the sheer exchange of ‘sex for meat’, which in many parts of the world still determines the relation between the sexes. Only this development explains why so many a woman leaves the beautiful male in the cold - at least as far as marriage is concerned: male beauty and male sexual prowess are still appreciated, as long as no enduring relation is at stake.
(4) THE ADVENT OF VOYEURISM AND EXHIBITIONISM
"Here I am, bent over the keyhole; suddenly I hear a footstep.
I shudder as a wave of shame sweeps over me.
Somebody has seen me".
Jean-Paul Sarte in 'Being and Nothingness'
Let us introduce the terms ‘voyeurism’ and ‘exhibitionism’. Although these terms, introduced by Krafft-Ebing and popularised by Freud, suggest otherwise, we are merely dealing with the one-sided descendants of the originally mutually dependent scopic and phanic drives. As opposed to the lover who admires ànd seduces her lover, an exhibitionist is only out at being admired. She is not at all inclined to admire the beauty of her admirer – let alone to yield to his advances. Conversely, a voyeur is only out at admiring. He does not even consider the possibility that the admired might admire his beauty in her turn - let alone admit him within the confines of the temple.
The first lever that dislodges one-sided voyeurism and exhibitionism from their original reciprocity as mutally dependent scopic and phanic drives, is the exchange of beauty for benefits of all kinds. Under such regime, man only admires female beauty, while woman has only eyes for his economic power, not for his beauty. The display of female beauty is turned into a pure exhibition that only masks the reluctance to really surrender. Conversely, male admiration is reduced to pure voyeurism. Since not his physical, but only his economic and political power elicits female exhibitionism, he cannot make love with a sexually excited partner. It can be justifiably said that man reduces woman to her body, as long as the corollary reduction of man to his economic and political power is not overlooked. For centuries, women have been turned on by the sight of crowns, uniforms and titles or other attributes of male power, such as castles and villas, carriages and sport cars, parks and swimming pools. The reduction of man to purely external attributes is if possible worse than the reduction of woman to her body.
Not only the asymmetry of the exchange of beauty or benefits dislodges voyeurism and exhibitionism. Differences in beauty have a more devastating effect. Women are not equally beautiful. The more contacts between people are increasing, the more such differences catch the eye. Only the most prestigious man can get the most beautiful woman. The less mighty and less wealthy must be satisfied with lesser beauties. They can only dream of the most desirable women. In the real world, they have to content themselves with the purely visual enjoyment of their beauty. Which certainly lights the fire, but provides no firewood. The desired body does not desire, and the desiring body is not desired. In such soil is rooted a structural voyeurism: under the regime of the exchange of beauty for benefits and of differential beauty, a majority of men is doomed to only voyeuristically enjoy the beauty of a handful of scarce women, monopolised by a minority. They may find solace in the idea that this minority cannot consume the firewood either. Until recently, the keepers of a harem had to protect their treasure by an army of eunuchs, and in our era many a rich man is cuckolded by his gardener or porter. In the following chapters we will describe how the beautiful woman becomes still more unattainable when she appears in the image.
(5) MALE ORGAN VERSUS FEMALE BODY
‘But to the girdle do the gods inherit
Beneath is all the fiends;
There’s hell, there’s darkness,
there is the sulphurous pit -
Burning, scalding, stench, consumption,
Fie, fie fie! Pap, pah!
Shakespeare, King Lear.
With humans, the nude body comes to replace the seductive role of the genitals. Still, male genital organs remain visible, whereas female organs are by nature concealed. Thus, the shift from genital organs to body is far more completed in woman.
The beauty of the female body is further enhanced in that male beauty is in many respects the opposite of female beauty. The beard and the bald skull of the old man are the sheer negation of the beautiful mane and the naked chin and cheeks of the young girl. Where the female body shows its utmost treasures – the eyes, cheeks and lips in the face; the breast, womb and the buttock on the body – the male body only shows up a beard and hair, muscle and bone. Especially with white men, the haired male body strongly contrasts with the alluring beauty of a completely hairless - nude - female body. One can measure the effect of the hairless smoothness of the nude by imagining a woman with hair on her breasts, womb and buttocks….
From a purely optical point of view, hair, muscle and bones are mere equivalents of soft, nude undulations. But the eye also sees the delights of touching. And that makes the difference. A soft cheek is worlds apart from a unshaven male jaw, and not only children prefer nestling between warm breasts or in a soft womb, above hurting on hard muscle and bone. Since male beauty is in this sense not so much the opposite, as rather the negation of female beauty, many a female beauty prefers an ugly man: it only enhances her beauty by contrast. That is the truth in the story of the beauty and the beast. The rumour goes that Spanish queens delighted in being accompanied by apes in order to highlight the beauty of their faces. It comes as no surprise that male beauty is often modelled after the female model: the chin is shaved, the mane abundant, the skin hairless and the flesh soft, while the erect frontality is replaced with the charming slight deviations of the vertical and horizontal axe.
But this cannot prevent the penis from remaining exposed, especially when aroused. Even when the power of an erection cannot fail to elicit desire, the contrast of an organ that is not precisely the paragon of beauty, with the in essence female beauty of the body catches the eye all the more.
From the point of view of visual beauty, the opposition between male and female crystallises around two oppositions: the female genitals as negation of the penis, and the male body as negation of the female nude. These two oppositions are often condensed in the one fundamental opposition between the hard, veined penis of the male and the soft, nude body of the female.
The archaic nature of the penis makes it unsuitable for purely optical enjoyment. Even when the erect penis is not entirely devoid of aesthetic charms, many a woman prefers the muscled body, but above all the external signs of wealth and power – the sceptre in the first place: it never fails to stand upright and has a far but archaic appearance. The shift from penis to body to attributes is the more welcome, since many a woman prefers prestige to orgasm, let alone fertilisation, of which the penis is after all still the instrument…
(6) THE FACE AND THE TRUNK
‘Du bist eine Frau wie die andere.
Die Häupter sind verschieden. Die Knie sind alle schwach.
So gehft es bei den Tieren.
B. Brecht, Baal.
Ideally, sexual and economical coitus reinforce each other. Sexual attraction is an expression of the overall reciprocal dedication of the partners to each other. Where beauty is exchanged for wealth or prestige, and the lesser beauties are secretly longing for a better partner, an opposition between ‘homo economicus’ and ‘homo sexualis’ is installed. Soul and body are no longer two subsequent manifestations of one and the same being, they come to be opposed to each other as two irreconcilable antipodes. This becomes manifest in the opposition of the portrait in which the eyes as the mirrors of the soul are seated, and the nude.
Where body and soul are continuously transformed into each other as two manifestations of one and the same being, the eyes and the face are eventually submerging in the overall erotic appearance of the body. In Titian’s ‘Venus of Urbino’ above, the curves of cheeks, eyes and lips come to echo the curves of the exposed body. Only when the erotic incarnation is forced or faked do the eyes refuse to submerge in the erotic appearance. They continue to gaze at us: they question, accuse or defy the onlooker, or are turning away or hiding behind lowering eyelids (see chapter IX).
That is why, under the regime of the exchange of beauty for wealth and benefits, many an erotic eye prefers its nude to be faceless - a mere trunk. The incarnation has become an ‘embodiment’ in the literal sense of the word.
Compare four nudes. Titian’s ‘Venus of Urbino’ is willingly displaying herself before our gaze. The desiring expression of the face only confirms the willingness with which the body is displayed. With Giorgione, the body is unabashedly exposed, but the gaze goes hidden behind lowered eyelids – which enables the curves of the face to echo those of the body. Manet’s Olympia is looking at us with a gaze that forbids any undisturbed enjoyment of her body. And in Courbet’s ‘Origine du Monde’ we lay eyes only upon the trunk with its legs spread wide. The face, containing the gaze that does not want to become appearance, is bluntly zoomed out.
The inner counterpart of the appearance as a body without a face, is the experience of sexual surrender as a loss or a destruction of the soul or the person - genuine lovers only experience a thrill when, after having cared for each other economically, they can now finally sexually enjoy each other's body.
The echo of such opposition between face and trunk is the complaint of many a woman that she is only loved because of her body, not because of her personality; that she is reduced to a pure object, delivered to the leering look of a sovereign male subject. That complaint is justified as long as the complementary rape of the male being is not overlooked. The very woman that is reduced to a body conversely refuses to let the male body appear. Male embodiment is restricted to a pure descent into the eye: the ‘en-oculation’ of man as the counterpart of the ‘incarnation’ of woman. The entwining of the loving couple is transformed in the unhappy encounter of an eye without a body, that is doomed to gaze at a body without a face and that is directly connected to an erect penis desperately seeking a womb wherein it could come to rest.
Of such unhappy encounter, Hokusai’s octopus with its greedy eyes and voluptuous tentacles is an unsurpassed representation: it even has two eyes on the tentacle that kisses the mouth. And the woman, turning her face backwards, is supposed to enjoy the proceedings.
The decapitation of woman and the en-oculation of man are merely the prelude to the epiphany of the all-seeing eye of God. From heavenly heights it looks down to the en-oculated being that peeps through the Sartrean keyhole at a body without face lifting the eyes up to heaven. Of such God, Moses – with whom we will have to deal extensively in chapter XI - is merely the representative on earth.
Thus we have come full circle.
Chapter III of 'The erotic eye and its nude'
objet de désir 7
see also: 'the ecstasies of eros'
THE EYE’S SEIZURE OF POWER: THE VISUALISATION OF THE EROTIC APPEARANCE
The erotic appearance of man is far from unequivocal. Rather can it be compared with a text in which the words have more than one meaning. Thus, the lips often remind of the vagina, or a muscled and veined arm of the penis. The erotic charge of one element is often displaced to another. Purely visual similarities play a crucial role in this process, and it is often consolidated through language (think of the ‘labia’). But, in this chapter, we will show that the whole movement of displacement is above all the result of the coordinated effort of three forces: the attempt to aestheticise the archaic sight of the genitals, the attempt to soothe the anxiety provoked by the idea of the lurid wound, but foremost the eye’s attempt to take the place of touch and genital feeling. Especially the last move comes down to a veritable seizure of power: it leads to the utter visualisation of the tactile and genital appearance, which culminates in the emergence of the phallic woman and the vaginal man.
(1) THE AESTHETICISING OF ARCHAIC BEAUTY
In the previous chapter we have seen that the genitals appeal to a rather archaic sensitivity. That elicits the attempt to replace them with more aesthetic substitutes. There are many parts of the body that are apt to meet the aesthetic demands of the eye.
To begin with, there are the fingers and toes. The bones make these elongated members stiff, as does the blood in the erect penis, and they are crowned with nails, which have the colour in common with the glans, but not the slimy sight.
Sexual arousal makes the veins swell under the skin, the effect of which is visible foremost on the back of the hand or the foot. That is why the single finger is often replaced with the whole hand or foot. Also arms and legs are not only hard and veined, just like fingers and toes, but muscled as well, which can only endorse the evocation of the force of the erect penis. Also the nose reminds of the penis: it secretes slime, its back reminds of the shaft and the nostrils of the scrotum, while a moustache is an obvious substitute for the pubic hair. And, finally, there is the neck: the larynx moves back and forth under the skin just like the glans under the foreskin, especially when the head is thrown backwards and the neck is ‘erected’:
Not only the penis, also the vagina is substituted with more aesthetic parts of the body in the periphery. The most obvious substitutes are the lips. These have colour, shape and structure in common with the labia, without being slimy. With the eye, the eyelids remind of the labia, the eyelashes or the eyebrows remind of the pubic hair, the tear gland of the clitoris and the pupil of the vaginal opening. The auricle is a hollow surrounded by folds reminding of the labia. The armpits are a fold surrounded by hair, and they have the odour in common with the vagina. Also the parting of the hair on the head is often read as a vagina.
(2) THE HEALING OF THE WOUND
Not only the archaic sight of the vagina unleashes the centrifugal displacement to the peripheral parts of the body. Also the anxiety provoked through the interpretation of the vagina as a cut plays an important role. A healed wound on a more neutral part of the body soothes the anxiety and serves the aesthetic move as well. Foremost the navel is apt for such displacement. Even more appropriate to deny the idea of a wound are the hollows and folds that are formed when parts of the body are pressed against each other: the undamaged skin neutralises the slimy and gory sight of the labia. This holds especially true for the fold formed when the thighs are pressed together. But many other parts can serve the purpose. How much these folds, especially those of the pressed thighs, continue to remind of wounds, may appear from the fact that they are often wrapped with cloth. The healing move is completed when the seam grows together, as with a mermaid (see chapter VIII).
Especially the displacement of the vagina to the back is very appropriate to remove any reminder of a wound. The slimy and gory wound is replaced with the undamaged fold of the buttocks. Further backwards, the fold of the buttocks is dissolving into the even, undamaged surface of the back. Only its symmetry reminds of the wound. The spinal column is an extension of the anal cleft. On both sides are two bundles of muscles that function as substitutes for the labia, while the whole is covered with undamaged skin: hollow, but not cut. The effect is continued in the two bundles of muscles in the neck, where the little hairs cannot fail to remind of the pubic hair. The healing move comes to its apogee when the cut, opening up into the hole, is altogether replaced with the undamaged, convex womb that surrounds it, as in Brancusi’s ‘Torse de jeune fille’.
(3) THE VISUALISATION OF TACTILE AND GENITAL PROCEEDINGS
Under displaced form, the genitals are no longer bound to a sexually determined body. Also a woman has fingers, toes, arms, legs and a nose, and also a man has a mouth, folds and hollows, and a back. Worse still: the body of the other sex is often far more appropriate to attract the displacement. Think of the female nipples, which are larger than male ones, become erect like the penis and have the same colour, without being slimy.
But the displacement of the penis to the female body is not obvious. It goes counter the ineradicable propensity to conform all the characteristics of a body to its sex. A voice sounds differently when is it supposed to belong to a female or to a male person. There are lots of examples that evidence this rule.
When this compelling rule is so often broken, strong forces must be at work to counteract sexual stereotyping. Driving force is the ‘perverse move’, introduced in the first chapter. When lovers are kissing each other, they close their eyes. But the eyes want to continue enjoying visual beauty: the lovers want see the exalted face instead of feeling it with the lips. And when the hand begins to touch, the eye only grants it its pleasure because it elicits new signs of exaltation on the body. The greedy eye then scans the body, until it finally comes to rest at the sight of the erect penis or the aroused vagina, the ultimate signs of exaltation. Stubbornly clinging to its desire for visual pleasure, the eye would like to witness even the merger of the genitals. But when these are allowed to do as they please, the penis inevitably will disappear in the vagina. When the eye is not prepared to give up its pleasure, it will have to prevent such merger and the impending advent of orgasm (see chapter I)
Such seizure of power trough the eye comes down to a veritable ‘castration’: seeing forbids genital feeling. The blindness for the ‘castrating’ effect of the eye is so general, that it is not superfluous to remind of the difference between visual and genital perception of the orgasm. With the eye, we only see signs of the orgasm: the blush, the erection of diverse parts of the body, the grimacing of the face, the heavy breathing of the chest, the twisting of the body, male and female ejaculations. With the ear, we hear the heavy breathing, the voluptuous moaning and ecstatic crying, and with the nose we smell the often dizzying odours. How eloquent these expression may be, they are mere outer signs of orgasm, not orgasm itself. It is a mistake to assert – with Linda Williams – that one can see the male orgasm, especially when she holds that the female orgasm is invisible, because one cannot see the contractions of the vagina. As a sign, the female orgasm is all too visible – how else could women fake it so readily for the male gaze? Precisely because the eye depends on signs, it is so easily betrayed….
The perverse desire to continue looking runs up against a threshold that can never be crossed. Orgasm, the kernel of the erotic proceedings, will forever remain invisible, how deeply it might move us. Only the genitals can feel it. That holds not only of the orgasm, but also of the sense of touch. When the hands are exalting the body, the eye equally sees only the signs of that exaltation. We easily overlook this fact, because the hands continue feeling while the eye is looking: while the eye relishes the sight of the erect nipples, the hand feels the warm swelling of the breast. Only in the preliminary visual phase of seduction are seeing and feeling one and the same thing, because here ‘feeling’ is ‘seeing’. Visual exaltation is apparent in the pure fact of displaying one’s beauty. Only in its own domain can the eye witness exaltation. There is, hence, a real gap between being enchanted through the intrinsic visual beauty of a face, or becoming exalted by gazing at the signs of exaltation or of the invisible orgasm on that very same face.
We understand at the same time that the aestheticising and anxiety-soothing centrifugal move away from the genitals described above, is prepared by a far more fundamental move: the ‘perverse’ move from tactile and genital feeling to the visual signs of it. The eye is not only out at enjoying purely visual beauty, as it is displayed in the reciprocity of showing and looking. More often is it eager to lay eyes upon the visual signs of tactile and genital exaltation. Such visualising leads to a grandiose unfolding of the array of visual appearances of the body beautiful.
(4) THE HERMAPHRODITE BODY (1): THE PHALLIC WOMAN
The take over of the eye has an unexpected consequence: in that the greedy eye neutralises the penis, precisely the acme that it so dearly wants to see cannot take place.
In a first attempt at solving this problem, the greedy eye wants the desired body to bring itself to orgasm, or a third party to take over the role that it forbids its own body. Then, the erotic appearance is no longer a part of the more encompassing whole, in which the lovers reciprocally admire each other’s display. It is transformed into the spectacle of a loving couple or of a body exalting itself before the eye of a third onlooker. The vicissitudes of the eye and its nude along this path will occupy us in chapter X. Here, we are interested in a third possibility: how the eye that forbids the advent of the penis, has the desired body transformed into a hermaphrodite in the real sense of the word: a being that possesses both sexual organs.
It is not difficult to understand how a body that is no longer involved in a reciprocal process of displaying and admiring, is transformed into such a hermaphrodite body. The seizure of power of the eye, which comes down to an elimination of the genitals and the hands, transforms the eye into a pure voyeuristic eye: it merely looks and does no longer arouse the desired body through touching, let alone penetration. Inadvertently, the exalted beauty is turned into a frigid beauty. Which only fuels the desire to lay eyes upon the signs of arousal on the desired body. The signs of arousal par excellence are the erect genitals. Thus, the eye must have the erect penis, in which it refuses to metamorphose, resurrect in the desired body, to testify to its arousal. Such projection pays: the eye can see at the same glance desired and desiring body. Through such transformation of the desired body into a hermaphrodite, the castration of the desiring body is made undone.
There are many ways to work that miracle. Starting point of the projection is the very void that is created in that the eye forbids the penis to penetrate the vagina. What the eye gets to see then is the vagina as a mere void – sheer nothingness. It is obvious, then, to let the excluded penis protrude from within the void. The idea of a resurrection of the penis from the void is rooted in the presence of the cervix in the invisible hole. The reversal of the direction of the penis betrays that we are dealing here with the desiring penis. Such reversal makes the hermaphrodite body differ from the body that arouses itself, where the substitutes of the penis are turned inwards.
In second variant, the female genitals are so represented as to resemble the male ones. The labia maiora are the counterpart of the male scrotum, the labia minora of the shaft, and the clitoris of the glans. Protruding labia minora are an obvious substitute for the protruding penis. Also the pubic hair can serve the purpose when it has an appropriate shape.
In a second phase, the projected penis is displaced to the more aesthetic fingers and toes, arms and legs. Triumphantly, they radiate from the (implicit or emphasized) void. Rather than denying it, they enhance its effect through contrast. The emphasis may be on fingers or toes, fingers ànd toes, on arms or legs, on both arms and legs, or on fingers and toes, arms and legs. The desiring penis may also be displaced to erect breasts and nipples. The élan of the nipples may be joined by that of arms and legs, fingers and toes or by the overall erect stature of the body. Also braids and locks can embody the desiring penis when radiating centrifugally from the trunk enclosing the desired void. And the head, finally, can be read as the glans on the shaft of the neck.
As a result of this process, the female body is eventually turned into its very opposite: erect protrusions have taken the place of hole, hollows and undulations. In fact, the female body is from the beginning constructed around the contrast between hole/rounding and protrusion: the long legs and arms lend the female body an additional charm. But the opposition only becomes manifest when it is additionally charged with the phallic desire of the castrated voyeur.
And the phallic charge of the body is anything but completed. For, in a third phase, the hermaphrodite only appears after the displacement of both penis and vagina. When the vagina is displaced to the lips of the mouth, the elusive penis resurfaces in the protrusion of the tongue. The vagina can also be displaced to the hand(s), where fingers and thumb come to be opposed to the void contained within the palms of the hand. A good example is Rodin’s ‘La cathédrale’. When this artist retired himself with his models, he used to hang a leaflet on the door with the words ‘L’artiste visite la cathédrale’. In the representation of the Medusa the vagina is displaced to the mouth and the multiplied penis to the locks turned into wriggling snakes.
Both motives – the replacement of the archaic mucous membranes with undamaged skin and the soothing of anxieties about the cut – often work together. The vagina is then replaced with the undamaged skin of the womb that contains it. The phallic charge is further opposed to the confining womb to the protrusion of arms, legs and head. A fascinating version is Ingres’ ‘Grande odalisque’. The armpit reminds of the fold between the legs, but the cut is denied through the emphasis on the convex breast. From this centre the elongated arms and legs radiate and end up in a profusion of fingers and toes.
We cannot but expect the phallic body to yield to the temptation of penetrating itself. We are then witnessing all the forms of masturbation, which will be dealt with in chapter X, together with the arousal of the body through a third party.
(5) THE HERMAPHRODITE BODY (2): THE VAGINAL MAN
In principle, the desiring eye of the female (or of a feminine man) can equally project the excluded vagina on a man. Also the male body provides many an appropriate substitute for the vagina: anus, mouth, eye, folds. This holds especially for the mouth, which reminds of a hungry child that must be satisfied by introducing the nipple of the breast. Excessive eating leads to a fat belly, which provides, besides a multitude of folds, also a new opening: the navel, as in the statue of the dwarf Morgante in the gardens of Boboli, where the emphasis on the open mouth and the navel is accentuated by the eyes and the mouth of the tortoise, whose shield only echoes the rounding of the belly.
But the male body offers far less possibilities to oppose the hollow to the penis. Add to this that the expression of an aroused vagina is far less speaking than that of an erect penis. And, finally, we should not forget that, under the regime of the exchange of beauty for benefits, only the male is the desiring party. All this makes the projection of the desiring vagina on the male body far more scarce than the converse projection of the penis on the female body. But the feminine investment of the male body is not altogether absent.
The male organ provides practically no clues for the projection of labia or vaginal opening. Only the mouth of the penis and the opening of the foreskin are candidates. In the immediate vicinity of the penis is the anus. But the point of view from which the anus is seen hides the shaft of the penis from view. There are more possibilities when not only the vagina, but also the penis is displaced to more peripheral parts. The anus may be opposed to a tail, as with the devil. Far more appropriate is the displacement of the vagina to the mouth, especially when there is a beard and a moustache. The role of the penis can be played by the tongue, the nose, the points of the moustache, the beard, locks or horns that centrifugally radiate from the opening of the mouth.
Thus, the eye conjures up the excluded genitals on male and female body alike. Next to the ‘phallic women’, there is also a ‘vaginal man’ or – to account for the displacements – the ‘vagoral’ or ‘vaganal’ or ‘wounded’ man. But it is probably better to speak of the (male or female) hermaphrodite: this term has the advantage that it emphasizes the process of projection and displacement, which is essentially the same in both sexes, and that it can be applied to the displaced forms.
A remarkable encounter of male and female hermaphrodite has been painted by Ingres in his ‘Jupiter and Thetis’. With Thetis, the emphasis is on the protrusions, while the vagina is concealed. With Jupiter, the mighty limbs and the staff frame the mouth surrounded with a moustache, the fold of the navel and the hollow between the toes. The reversal comes to its apogee when the male ‘vagina’ is fingered through female ‘penises’:
(6) THE HERMAPHRODITE BODY(3)
Not only the perverse move is responsible for the transformation of the erotic appearance into a hermaphrodite. Also the scarcity of female beauty plays an important role. As we have seen, it leads to an indifference towards male beauty, which is only increased through the exchange of beauty for benefits. In the end, the isolated scopic drive in the male comes to be opposed to the isolated phanic drive in the female, or - to put it somewhat more graphically: the greedy eye and the erect penis of the male are confronting the beautiful body of the (frigid) women, as in Hokusai's print.
That cannot but stir the desire to restore reciprocity. The desiring male wants to be desired, and since he cannot but conceive of desirability as of a female beauty, he fills the empty space between desiring eye and desiring penis with the corresponding parts of a desirable female body. Conversely, the desired female wants to desire, and since she cannot but conceive of desire as of male desire, she completes her desirable body with a desiring penis. In both cases, the restorative move results in the construction of the desired female body with the desiring penis.
A good example is Donatelo's David. The beautiful young boy enjoys the beauty of his own body that makes him independent from the unattainable woman. The entwining of the bodies is replaced with the closed circle of the eye admiring the beauty of its own body. This image - as if it were the sequel to Hokusai's octopus - embodies the complete visualisation of genitality: the penis that was out a penetrating the vagina is replaced with the eye admiring its own body.
The counterpart of such 'feminine' self-sufficient retirement in itself is the aggressive triumph of the 'phallic woman': desirability and desire in one and the same body. Here, the emphasis is on the desiring penis.
In both cases, the eye enjoys its own body, or to be more precise the part of its body that belongs to the other sex. The eye can look directly to its body (David), but more often it prefers to resort to a mirror or an image. Or the enjoyment is mediated through the eye of a third party, as is the case with the transvestite (see chapter V). In all cases the voyeur tries to restore the broken reciprocity of showing and looking, the entwining of scopic and phanic drive, through projecting its own showing and looking: from within his own body, he looks at the aroused appearance in the mirror, from where his own gaze is summoning up the transport of his own body.
Also the merger of desiring penis and desired body can be described as a hermaphrodite body. Unjustifiably though, since a real hermaphrodite has the sexual organs of both sexes, whereas our 'hermaphrodite' has only that desirable body of one sex, and the desiring organ of the other. Real hermaphrodites are the representations described above.
The visualisation is completed when the identification of desiring body and desired body eventually leads to the replacement of the desiring organ itself. That is the case when the male wants to be transformed in the desired female, and the desired female in the desired male. An illustration is the self-portrait of Schiele: a gory seam runs over the scrotum, no member is to be seen, the abdomen is transformed into a womb, the upper part of the body is adorned with female breast, the arms hold their own head and the legs are cut off, not otherwise than the penis. Only the angularity of the skinny body are the last testimonies to the dissolved masculinity.
The preliminary stages to such transformation can be seen in the painting where Schiele is looking into a mirror over the shoulder of his model, not by accident a pubertal girl that nearly shows the signs of feminists.
(7) THE EYE AND ITS FETISHES
So strong is the ‘perverse’ desire to witness the tactile and genital exaltation, that the erotic eye all too easily overlooks that it is merely enjoying signs: to maintain its position, the eye should above all not remember that those signs only refer to what is doomed to remain invisible forever. Therein, the eye resembles the devotees of the golden calf: they take the representation for the invisible original. They are worshipping an idol - a fetish.
Through forbidding precisely what it wants to see, the erotic eye creates the very void that is doomed to remain empty forever. What is supposed to disappear in it, resurfaces from within. Out of this move is born the primeval fetish. The propensity to aestheticise the genitals and the attempts to soothe the anxiety about the wound, make the original representation move centrifugally to the periphery. Thus, the primeval fetish becomes unrecognisable. It goes hidden behind ever new fetishes of the second generation: fetishes of the fetish. Again like with the golden calf, also these fetishes of the second generation use to be worshipped with a devotion that is meant for the original that goes hidden behind an aesthetic veil.
Thus, voyeurism is the mother of fetishism. The further vicissitudes of fetishism will be dealt with in chapter VI.
Chapter IV of 'The erotic eye and its nude'
objet de désir 5
see also: 'the ecstasies of eros'
THE DISPLAY OF BEAUTY: REVEALING AND CONCEALING
The body is not always flaunting its attractiveness. Even when it openly seduces, it shows only its one side to hide the other from view, and many an attractive part covers another one: as when the arms are crossed over the chest, when one leg is crossed over the other, when the hair covers the neck. That is why a whole range of erotic gestures and poses haven been developed to display erotic charms that are normally hidden or perhaps even non-existent. Natural display can be involuntary, as is the case with the widening of the pupil, blushing, erections of various parts of the body, or the secretion of various smells and fluids. But it can also be voluntary. Such is the case with smiling, presenting the breasts, stretching the body, not to mention adopting a supine or prostrate position and widening the thighs. Let us have a closer look at these manifold manifestations of the phanic drive.
Seduction begins with the gaze. It no longer idly flutters around, but tries to catch the gaze of the beloved. It can look straightforward from a frontal face, but more often, the face is gently inclined, forward and/or sideward. In all cases, the mouth is relaxed and the lips are somewhat parted. When the face is gently thrown backward, that expression often unfolds to a nearly concealed kiss.
Hypnotising with the gaze is merely an advance to mesmerising with body. The move is inaugurated by a subtle shift from the face to the breasts until finally the whole body is put on display.
(2) THE ALLURE OF THE GESTURE OF DISPLAYING
Putting one's attractiveness to display becomes an erotic gesture in its own right, the relish of which only adds to the charms of the beauty displayed. Pulling the hair up is even more enchanting than the sight of the uncovered neck. The act of presenting the breasts or the buttocks is even more seducing than the sight of what is put on display. Splaying the thighs wide only enhances the appeal of the body exposed. Things come to their apogee when the nude fully reclines, with its arms lifted up and its legs spread wide.
(3) THE CHARMS OF CONCEALING
Add to this that the effect of displaying can be heightened by teasingly concealing erotic charms before eventually unravelling them. That is why erotic display has come to include an endless array of tantalising manoeuvres. These range from inclining the head and lowering the eyes, over folding the hands across the chest, lifting the legs or turning the back, to withdrawing, running away and pushing back - not to mention slowing down and restraining when eventually the two bodies are entwined. In lingering over the display of erotic charms, the nude comes to endorse the erotic eye's complementary desire to linger over the relish of visual beauty.
To begin with, a gaze from a gently turned away face looks even more inviting, especially when one eye goes hidden behind the hair. Or the expression of the lips is all the more promising when their intentions are concealed by hands that cannot refrain from grasping themselves. Even more tantalising is the lowering of the eyelids in a turned away face, especially when the half-parted lips cannot but betray the readiness to kiss. But even when the face does not at all conceal its intentions, the tension may be heightened by crossing the arms over the breast, especially when also the knees are lifted up or when the nude turns its back on us at that.
The effect of concealing is even further enhanced when it is combined with putting other alluring parts on display. That holds especially true for a dorsal display. The sight of the back cannot but all the more stir the desire to see the hidden beauty of the front.
Displaying one's beauty, then, is not a matter of simply exposing oneself before the gaze of the seduced. It is of necessity always a process unfolding in time.
Needless to say that the game of concealing and revealing only folly unfolds when clothes are allowed to enter the picture. Time has come, then, to examine their influence on the development of voyeurism and exhibitionism.
Chapter V of 'The erotic eye and its nude'
objet de désir 4
see also: 'the ecstasies of eros'
THE NUDE CLAD
Erotic display is far but restricted to natural ways of concealing and revealing the body's appeal. Humans have always been trying to artificially increase their erotic attractiveness through a whole array of artificial means: clothes, make-up, tattoos, jewellery, prostheses, not to mention chirurgical, hormonal or genetic interventions.
Dress is the most conspicuous of these techniques, and at the same time the most intriguing, because it seems to be counterproductive through hiding the beauty of the nude from view. That does not prevent dressing from being a very effective and sophisticated device for widening the range of erotic display and intensifying the pleasure of natural erotic charms.
To begin with, clothes tend to stir a yearning to uncover what lies beneath. In real life, the impulse to bluntly denudate a dressed body is repressed through the presence of a gaze: the gaze not only spiritualises or forbids any erotic relation, it can also teasingly postpone it.
Clothes not only stir the desire to uncover, they also make all the more desirable what they conceal - as in the very paradigm of clothing: the half-clad, half-naked bosom. That is why dressing enriches the natural range of erotic display with that most alluring of all seductive procedures: stripping. There are countless variants. Very fascinating is the uncovering of the breasts. But also the taking off of shoes, the undoing of stockings or the lifting up of a smock exert an often irresistible spell. Especially the uncovering of the back is most exciting, since what we get to see is only an advance to the splendours on the front.
It is apparent, then, that clothes are not originally meant to conceal nakedness; they are intended to cover nudity - which is quite a different matter. There is no point in stripping if what is revealed is merely an indifferent, sheer naked body. On the other hand, people do not depend on clothing to hide their nudity - it suffices to be naked. Nudity only appears in an exalted body. Neither does the body lose its appeal when it is always naked. On the contrary, sheer nakedness - in much the same way as the body clad - only ignites the desire for nudity to appear.
(2) CLAD AND NUDE
Since no garment can possibly cover the entire body, covering of necessity equals leaving uncovered. The lustful eye can't help regarding the parts left uncovered as all the more valuable delights. Clothing, therefore, not only stirs the desire to uncover, it enhances above all the nudity of the parts left uncovered. In this sense, the state of dress is always a state of undress. That is most poignantly exemplified in the low neckline, that leaves the breasts half-covered, half-exposed.
Due to habituation, the body has to yield ever more nudity, as when the skirts are becoming shorter or the neckline is lowering. The formerly covered parts now seem all the more desirable. In the downward sense, first the eyes and the face are exposed, then the hair and the neck, then the shoulders and the bosom. In the sideward sense, first the hands are exposed, then the forearm, the upper arm and eventually the shoulders. In the upward sense, first the feet are left uncovered, than the ankles and the lower legs, then the thighs. The movement can also proceed from the waist until only the breasts and the genitals are covered. The neckline on the back may be lowered until the whole back is exposed.
The same process affects also single parts of the body: the veil covers only the hair instead of the whole face, the fingers show up through a glove that merely covers the palm of the hand, the shoe leaves ever more parts of the foot uncovered, or the cups of the bra are reduced to a mere strip over the nipples. The covering of the waist may be reduced to a mere ribbon, or the pants to a mere string that all the more accentuates the nudity of the buttocks.
So does the erotic eye regain the paradise lost to garment. But at the same time, the charms of concealing are lost. What is allowed to be naked, loses its additional charms, and a whole array of seductive gestures irrevocably evaporates: the removal of the veil, the taking off of gloves, the denudation of a leg. That cannot but elicit up a countermove: the tendency to cover what has previously been allowed to remain nude. Eventually, an ever extending array of possibilities is developed, ranging from the utter concealment of the body leaving only the eyes and the hands uncovered, and sheer nudity, leaving only the genitals covered (Kroeber).
In accordance with the natural propensity to conceal the genitalia, mostly the peripheral parts are left uncovered. A tantalising effect is derived from a complete reversal of this scheme, when the body is nude where it would normally be covered, and covered where it is normally nude. It is obvious that the splendour of the habitually covered areas of the body is heightened by contrast with the clothes on the habitually exposed parts. The latter regain their appeal precisely because they are now concealed. Which only increases the desire to eventually restore the body in its full glory.
There are several variations on the theme of reversal. Everything is left uncovered, except for the head and the feet; everything is left uncovered, except for the hands and feet, or arms and legs; everything is left uncovered, except for the waist; everything is left uncovered, except for a necklace or a bracelet; everything is covered, except for the vagina; only the upper or lower part of the body are covered; only the left of right side of the body is covered; the front is covered and the back left nude, or vice versa. The reversal is also most cherished in the parts. The bra may be reduced to a mere frame around the breasts left nude; or the sleeves and/or legs are reduced to a cover around the elbows and knees. Very exciting is also the contrast between a body naked and a body clad, as when the completely dressed lover holds his utterly nude beloved, as has been customary in the many pietas and Manet's well-known 'Déjeuner sur l'herbe'.
When the reversal is too drastic, it resorts a reverse effect, especially when the onlooker is suddenly confronted with uncovered genitals in an otherwise completely clad body. Only when the onlooker has been previously turned on by the sight of more peripheral parts is the eye prepared to enjoy the sight of the genitals. That is why blunt exposure cannot fail to provoke revulsion - in which resides the secret charm of the performance of the exhibitionist (in the strict sense of the word). Also when nude breasts are isolated, they often exert a threatening effect - as with Ingres, where the effect is obtained through letting the body submerge in shadowy areas.
A new impetus for playing the game of concealing and revealing is given when the body is covered with more than one layer. Salomé had herself wrapped in seven veils in order to prolong her unveiling.
Even more effective than adding up identical layers is the heightening of the contrast between the layers. The introduction of a layer of underwear ensues a kind of reciprocal specialisation: the more transparent and intimating the underwear, the more concealing the outerwear. Such specialisation also affects texture - the softer the undergarment, the rougher the outerwear. Fabric itself comes to be reallocated. Whereas hand-made lace used to be an outer adornment, machine-made lace has become a favourite for underwear (Hollander). The same is true for lace and satin. Furthermore, where the task of revealing the body's contours is relegated to underwear, every other layer has to hint at the presence and reveal the nature of the next. Preferably, underwear peeks out from beneath an outer layer, such as the cuffs of sleeves, or the ribbons or the edges of the bra. In the same vein, the outline of the underwear may appear through semi-transparent fabric, or its relief may show through a tight-fitting dress.
The more specialised the layers, the greater their propensity to become an autonomous component with increasing internal specialisation and organisation. The chemise, for centuries the sole basic undergarment for all European women (Hollander) has been gradually replaced with lingerie consisting of many parts: underpants, garter belts, corsets and bras. The more specialised a layer, the greater its specific appeal and the greater its autonomy. Undressing develops into a continuous metamorphosis. In every stage of its unfolding, a new erotic appearance with its own merits is revealed. Far from merely referring to the next stage of undressing, every intermediate appearance tries to substitute its own splendour to the detriment of the next stage. That is most apparent in the appeal of that new kind of intermediary stage between clad and nude: the body clad in a swimsuit or lingerie.
The habitual presence of underwear also allows for more sophistication in the techniques of unveiling. To begin with, new forms of undressing emerge: the revealing of the underwear under the outerwear, and the revealing of the body under the lingerie. But also other refined ways of heightening the erotic tension emerge. A kind of shortcut can be achieved when a naked body shows up where an intermediate of underclothing was expected. This type of shortcut not only pleases the erotic eye, but foremost its nude. There is a special thrill in wearing a garment over naked breasts or walking around in a skirt without a slip underneath, or - in sharpening the contrast even further - appearing completely naked underneath a thick fur coat, formal attire, or heavy working apparel.
(4) DRAPED, CUT, STRETCHED 0R TRANSPARENT
But there is more. Although clothes hide nudity from view, they cannot but court the shapes of the body. Here is another way in which concealing can be transformed into a refined way of revealing. Already draped dress produces a contrast between the fall of the folds and the undulations that show through. To accentuate such contrast, the wearer my have the wind blow against his body or water make the fabric cling to it. More efficient is cutting up the fabric so that it comes to court more intimately the shape of the body.
The desire to lay eyes upon what is concealed can become so urgent that even cutting up does not suffice. Additional elasticity makes the dress perfectly court the undulations of the body that was supposed to conceal, as with tight-knitted dresses, nylon stockings and latex. The covering is shortcut altogether when the fabric itself is transparent, or when the surface shrinks into a mere ribbon or strings. A most alluring effect is achieved when the body is naked but nevertheless covered with paint.
Finally, a pure reminder of clothes has to suffice: think of the white imprints of articles of clothing on a body that has been exposed to the sun.
(5) LINGERING OVER SEDUCTION
‘Puis, elle faisait d’un seul geste tomber l’ensemble de ses vêtements’
Flaubert, Emma Bovary.
Exciting though garments can be, dressing cannot be an end in itself. There is no purpose in heightening the appeal of the body when it is no longer revealed. Getting dressed is only a prelude to, if not a means of postponing the forthcoming denudation. The ultimate destiny of clothes is to be laid off.
That becomes all too obvious when we compare clothes with the whole array of other artificial means to enhance the erotic appeal, such as make-up, epilating and shaving, cosmetic surgery, the use of all kind of prostheses, wigs, false eyelashes, and what have you. Although these devices are often put on the same footing as clothing, we are dealing with totally different phenomena. To be sure, some of these artifices can be laid off like clothes: think of make-up, a set of dentures or a wig. But their removal only lays bare hidden shortcomings instead of hidden charms. The difference is between objectively adding to the beauty or concealing shortcomings on the one hand, and subjectively increasing the erotic appeal on the other hand. That is already apparent from the structure of clothes itself, which is determined by the ease with which they are laid off. The charm of well-fitting trousers resides in opening the zipper, the charm of a blouse in its unbuttoning, the secret of the corset in its unlacing, the appeal of the bra in its undoing. One could write a whole erotica on zippers, buttons, hooks, ribbons and laces. And there is a whole array of refined, nearly concealed tricks of seduction, from unawares letting glide a ribbon over the shoulder, over leaving one or more buttons undone or a zipper open, to leaving the collar unbuttoned to show some chest, and what have you. Such seeming dishevelment betrays an overall readiness or helps to conjure it up.
However much al these refinements may stir the erotic eye, nothing compares to the beauty of its nude when finally uncovered.
(6) CLOTHES AND THE ECLIPSE OF THE NUDE
‘L’homme nu est un mollusque’
Although clothing is a sophisticated method of seduction, it often serves the opposite goal of creating deceit, by suggesting that there is something more or better than what actually exists. Worse still, clothing can even compensate for, or mask an inability - if not an unconscious unwillingness - of the body to display itself in the nude. In fact, garments can be disposed of at will, whereas a genuine willingness arises only where there is a reciprocal attraction and a readiness to engage in a more encompassing relationship. Erotic attire may only advertise an apparent readiness, as opposed to a complete willingness. This attitude is quite common under the regime of differential beauty, where many a beauty flaunts her appeal, without being prepared to disappear in the marital bed, let alone the childbed. Such purely exhibitionistic attitude is epitomised in the model with whom an increasing number of women identify themselves. The model specialises in displaying her body before a host of admirers, whose very number structurally prevents them from ever gaining access to her body. Inevitably, the staging of seduction is transformed into a mere performance of exhibitionism on the catwalk.
Even accomplished stripping may be diverted from its true destiny. This occurs when it becomes a mere substitute for complete seduction by the eventually denudated body. In granting the nude, stripping withholds intercourse. Unveiling - and solely unveiling - has become the crux of its pleasure, and the spell is broken when the last veil has fallen. This attitude is quite common in every day life - on beaches and at parties - but it comes to its apogee in staged performances such as the belly dance and the strip tease, not to mention photographic images of a nude. Just as in the performance of the model on the catwalk, the performance of the stripper is doomed to be reduced to mere exhibitionism. This is evident in the highly ritualised, theatrical quality of the performance in which touching - and in classic striptease: showing the genitalia - is excluded.
Thus, voyeurism and exhibitionism are further isolated from the tactile and genital sequel of visual seduction. Their increasing autonomy finds its counterpart in the gradual shift form body to clothes. Not for nothing does many a man prefer a half-clad body or a body in full erotic attire - it might utterly fail when it finally surrenders. Genuine display as the expression of an unlimited willingness to surrender, may be just as rare as a perfect body.
No wonder that it is often proclaimed that erotic appeal derives not from the body, but from the body clad or from its unveiling. The contention is only justified when the nude is not able or prepared to hold its promise. We cannot escape the impression that the emphasis on the envelope is merely a new manifestation of the age-old contempt for the body: from Tertullianus' 'templum aedificatum super cloacam’, over Baudelaire's make-up, Merleau-Ponty's 'chair', Clark's 'sack of potatoes' to Lacan's body as a mollusc.
That does not prevent that matters can be looked at more positively. Clothes maintain the illusion that it is they that make the man or the woman. In expectance of a generalised genetic manipulation of bodily beauty - they may thus serve the egalitarian purpose (Alain). They help to flatten the differences in beauty and help to tip the balance in favour of the lesser beauties, as in the story of Cinderella - even when this fairy-tale learns that real beauty will always win at last.....
Chapter VI of 'The erotic eye and its nude'
objet de désir 1
see also: 'the ecstasies of eros'
CLOTHES AND THE METAMORPHOSIS OF THE EROTIC APPEARANCE
(1) DIVERSIFICATION OF THE EROTIC APPEARANCE
'J'aime le souvenir de ces époques nues''
Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du mal,Correspondances,V.
Dress not only widens the repertoire of concealing and revealing, it also changes the overall appearance of the erotic appearance itself. Draped clothes synthesise the body into one whole, from which only the head and the arms protrude. Tailored clothing shows all the separate parts, although a skirt might synthesise the thighs and the legs into one single whole. The cut may change the shape of the parts: trousers and sleeves, shirts and jackets may be wide or tight-cut. The cut has also its impact on the mutual relation of the parts: the girdle may be under the breast, over the middle or over the thighs. Just like a close-up, clothes draw the attention on different parts of the body. So does men exchange his natural appearance with an increasing diversity of often totally opposed profiles. It suffices to have the typical silhouettes from diverse places and different periods pass the review, to become aware of that phenomenon.
That goes not only for the shape of the body, but equally for its movements. The movements of the body are totally different when it is clothed in draped or tailored clothing, a tight-fitting dress or trousers, wearing high heels (or having bound feet) or slippers. An attribute like a plume or a cigarette mouthpiece drastically changes the overall attitude and dictates new movements (P. Schilder).
Precisely because clothes tend to confine the natural agility of the body, their removal often leads to an outburst of energy: the liberated body frolics around or stretches its limbs triumphantly.
(2) THE HERMAPHRODITE BODY (4): TRANSVESTISM
There is a natural ‘transsexuality’ in the sense that characteristics which, in a given culture, are supposed to be male or female, tend to be rather randomly distributed over genetically male of female beings. Far from harming the appeal of the body, such natural ambivalence often only heightens its charms. A rigid opposition between male and female dress (and other means of adorning the body, such as make-up and jewellery) helps to remove the ambivalence. An impressive example is the strong opposition of male nudity and the richly draped female body in ancient Greece. Nowadays, we are still familiar with the opposition of trousers and skirts. Up to the nineteenth century, the opposition extended to underwear: women used to wear long smocks, and it is only from the middle of the nineteenth century onward that specialised underwear was introduced. Today, make-up is still a female privilege, in strong contrast to the eighteenth century. There are countless other examples …
Garments can also enhance the natural ambivalence. As women have always known, male garment only comes to enhance female attractiveness. This is all the more so when what seemed to be a man turns out to be a woman. This leads to a continuous reciprocal annexation of the privileges of the opposite sex. Eventually, the surplus gained from the annexation dwindles: women wearing trousers have become so common, that we no longer notice the anomaly.
Especially when there is a sufficient initial natural ambivalence, the wearing of clothes of the opposite sex can become a means of acquiring a new body. Male transvestism is foremost fuelled by exhibitionistic motives. Under the regime of the exchange of beauty for benefits, man is doomed to forever admire female beauty, while his own body is left in the cold, how beautiful it might be.
Female transvestism is not restricted to clothes and attributes and is not exclusively fuelled by erotic motives. The body is increasingly masculinised. As a consequence of diets and the avoidance of pregnancy and breastfeeding, the slender, muscled body of the girl is gradually replacing the mature female or maternal body. In opposition to the maternal body, the girlish look can also be read as ‘male’ (‘boyish’). Conversely, the body of the young boy shows up many female characteristics. In the limit, both genders meet each other in the quasi hermaphrodite body of the adolescent. Increasingly, the desired effects are obtained through surgical, hormonal and genetic manipulation. Up to now, they are quite impressive with the male, who can acquire often magnificent breasts. But there is no doubt: in the future we surely will witness still more amazing miracles.
Finally, clothes and other artificial interventions remove every sexual difference: we get to see a sexless being, like the angels of olden times (Claude Cahun).
(3) THE BODY AND ITS DOUBLE: THE EYE AND THE PERVERSE MOVE
Clothes deprive the erotic eye of the sight of its nude. No wonder that it wants to regain that paradise lost. We already mentioned how changes in the scheme of denudation tend to surrender the zones previously covered with garment, and how the covering of the nude is short-circuited through transparency.
But there is more. The whole scheme of concealing and revealing is centred around the genitals. In that centre originates the centrifugal quest for more aesthetic and less anxiety-arousing substitutes. In progressively covering the body, clothes come to endorse that move: in hiding the centre from view, they all the more feed the desire to find the becoming substitutes. And since clothes come to cover not only the genitals, but other, more attractive parts of the body as well, also these begin to displace themselves.
In the first place the parts left nude are obvious magnets for the hidden treasures. In chapter III we already provided ample illustration of centrifugal displacement of the genitals. Here, we only have to add that the characteristics of the host parts are often read as indicators of the characteristics of the originals: as when the length of the nose is supposed to indicate the length of the penis, or the shape of the foot that of vagina (China).
But also the clothes themselves are eager to welcome the banned genitals. They show up many formal or functional similarities or analogies, and where these are missing, they are often introduced in view of that function. The most important substitute is underwear. Due to the reciprocal specialisation between the layers, underwear preferably takes the function of intimating nudity. That is why it often imitates the evenness of the skin and why it preferably courts the shapes of the body. Not seldom does it also take the colour of the skin or enhance it through contrast. That goes especially for the more archaic parts, which can easily be aestheticised by clothing. Thus, the shape of the (slip, panties) echoes the triangle of the mound of Venus, while at the same does replacing the pubic hair and the mucous skin through shining cloth.
Also and especially the outer layers imitate the body. The more they refer their intimating function to the inner layers, the more the eyes feel deprived, and the stronger the outer layers are invited to resemble what they are supposed to conceal. It is not difficult to understand why the disappearance of the vulva celebrates its resurrection in the folds of drapery, in collars or cuts in sleeves, stockings, jackets and coats; why the pubic hair resurges as fur, preferably at the fringe of collars, cuts and openings; why the breasts reappear as cups and the nipples as buttons, why the thighs or the hips are accentuated in crinolines; why the hidden skin resurfaces as silk, leather or latex.
Also with the male do hats enlarge the head, puff sleeves intimate the volume of muscle, and epaulettes augment the width of the chest. The hidden beauty resurfaces even in the armour destined to protect it in battle, as in the muscled cuirass, cherished from the Greeks onward. Especially shoes are destined to embody the penis. In that capacity they have not failed to play their secret game under many a table (Think of the ‘poulaines’, introduced by Fulk Rechin of Anjou in the eleventh century).
The effect of displacement is often so drastic, that the central parts are more easily denudated than the displaced ones: think of the Chinese, who have rather denudate the breasts or the vagina than the feet, or of the stripper and her high-heeled shoes.
(4) THE HERMAPHRODITE BODY (5): FETISHISM
In the previous chapter, we already described how the body is wrapped in ever more layers. The intermediate layers can take the place of the ultimate goal: the nude. The erotic eye’s quest is then diverted to a new goal: laying eyes upon the underwear. The corresponding change in display of beauty is the exhibition of underwear. A stylised form of this new kind of display appears as soon as the French can-can. Thus is born one of the most elementary forms of a new kind of fetishism.
This new form of fetishism is further developed in that clothes postpone the transition to tactile and genital contact and thus tend to reinforce a voyeuristic stand. Since clothes also happen to offer more aesthetic substitutes (in the clothes themselves, as well in the parts of the body left nude) they threaten to turn postponement into cancellation. The admired body is no longer tactilely or genitally aroused: the potential lover is reduced to a voyeur. And that is all the more true, since the admired body has become a body dressed. The display of the body is increasingly replaced with the display of clothes, especially since dress tends to offer fascinating substitutes for the sense of touch and the genitalia. This culminates in the catwalk and its less profane counterpart in the church: the wedding dress in which the bride appears before the altar.
The eyes’ seizure of power leads to an increasing desire to lay eyes upon the nude body that goes hidden behind the clothes. More often though, the eye’s seizure of power leads to the disappearance of signs of tactile and genital arousal, that the eye wants so eagerly to see. That cannot but reinforce the propensity to project the excluded organ of the voyeur on the body of the exhibitionist, a phenomenon that is already familiar to us from chapter III. Also for this projection does the body dressed offer the required clues. In a first phase clothes intensify the appeal of the parts left nude. The attention is not restricted to the face, which, in an uncovered body, is the natural entrance gate to the sanctuary of the body As soon as the hem reaches to the ground, toes, feet, ankles, knees and thighs impose themselves as new stops on the path leading to the centre. Sleeves and gloves disclose a new sideward entranceway: the removal of – especially long – gloves, or of sleeves lays bare the charms of fingers, hands, wrists, arms and shoulders (Emma Bovary). And, finally, there is also the dorsal approach of the back, which naturally hides the charms on the front from view, and thus can be denudated at lesser risks. In a second phase, the new entranceways offer new clues for the centrifugal movement and the projection of the genitals. Whereas, on the downward path, only natural fetishes of an obvious female nature are to be found, on the sideward and upward pathways, we find an abundance of phallic forms: arms and legs, fingers and toes. Such phallic profusion asks for female envelopes: stockings, gloves, and shoes.
But also the clothes themselves offer plenty of clues for the staging of the hermaphrodite drama. In general, the wearing of clothes accentuates one or another part of the body. The exclusive focus on the one part among countless others, betrays the central origin of such a fetish. The displacement to the parts left uncovered goes often hand in hand with the displacement to dress. The most obvious example is the point of the foot penetrating the hollow of the shoe, which ends itself in a point and is armed with a high heel at that. The movement is continued when the high-heeled shoe develops into a boot with bootlaces or a fur collar. A veritable escalation, whereby male and female genitals unleash each other as in a chain reaction!
Also the body of the male, which in its natural state provides only scarce clues, is turned into a playground for displacement and projection when dressed. At last, the vagina can nestle in the male body at random. Especially collars and splits play an important role. Things come to their apogee in the fly from which the penis protrudes.
Also the tactile qualities and smells of clothes offer many a clue for the game of displacement and projection. Not seldom does the fabric of clothes surpass not only the evenness, but also other qualities of the skin: think of the feel of silk, satin, fur or the sight of latex. In the end, the ‘second skin’ is turned into the ‘first skin’. Optic and tactile qualities are often intertwined. Thus, silk not seldom shares its colour with the labia minora, and reminds in any case of its evenness, without being slimy. Therefore, silk is equally an example of displacement for aesthetics sake, just like fingernails. The same goes for fur, which cannot fail to remind of the pubic hair. Also smells join the fetishist feast. Leather, which is hairless like the female body, is also cherished for its smell (not to mention its sadistic overtones). And that goes especially for shoes, which combine the smell of leather with those of the foot.
The sometimes subtle displacements from diverse sources are often intertwined in an eventually inextricable jumble. Here originates the very fascination of many a fetish, and the mystery as well. It is not difficult to understand why one should be aroused by the sight of half-parted lips. Already more difficult is it to understand why one might be mesmerised by the sight of a leg. But it is only when one is rapt in ecstasy when touching a piece of silk, or at the sight of a body laced up, that we have to summon up all our interpretative powers. Things are further complicated in that pieces of cloth may be isolated from the body from which they derive their appeal. Especially in such cases do the displacements of erotic appearance take the shape of a veritable ‘fetish’. Which does not prevent that the phenomenon can only be understood when we take the more obvious preparatory stages into account.
Through their propensity to usurp the erotic appeal of the body, clothes come to play an increasingly important role in erotic life. Since clothes can be disposed of at will, any desiring body can adorn itself with the charms of the desired body – also the less desirable body, or the body that is not prepared to surrender. In the end, the desired body itself becomes obsolete. Such depersonalisation and objectification of original the erotic appearance is all the more welcome under the regime of differential beauty and the exchange of beauty for benefits. Under such regime, many a real person is no longer prepared to engage in a more encompassing personal relationship, whereas a fetish can be bought and possessed at will. At the same time, the objectification and the visualisation allow for an unlimited enjoyment. Unlike genital intercourse, the relation with a fetish has no inbuilt end. A fetishist can denudate and wash the feet of his beloved, perfume it and kiss it for hours. And that holds all the more true for shoes. And such enjoyment is not only unlimited, no obstacles whatsoever can spoil the fun: a shoe cannot possibly be a source of troubles….
(6) THE FETISH AND THE NUDE
The fetishist displacement comes to its apogee when it courts the reversal of the normal scheme of denudation (see previous chapter): when the erotic charge is displaced to garment in the periphery, its appeal can be contrasted with the nudity of the body, especially of its central parts. In a first phase the central opening in the nude is covered by other parts of the body itself.
But, in a second phase, the centrifugally displaced fetish is directed against the central origin which it negates.
‘There is more to sex than intercourse…’
Also erotically neutral objects become entangled in the game of concealing and revealing. Originally, most jewellery serves the function of indicating rank, status, functions and other distinctions. Just like clothes, they divert the attention from the erotic appearance. Also flowers, textiles and jewellery worn for purely aesthetic reasons, compete with the beauty of the body. But precisely their erotic neutrality makes them function as an excuse: as when the expensive or splendid fabric of a dress becomes a pretext for admiring the wearer. The expensive jewel not only diverts the attention from the beautiful breasts between which it is hanging, it is also a pretext to catch a glimpse of those other treasures. However erotically neutral it might be, through functioning as an advance, it becomes entangled in the game of concealing and revealing. Also tattoos or piercings have the same effect, especially when they are made on a part of the body that otherwise is not allowed to be uncovered in public.
But also - if not: especially - on the naked body, all kinds of props serve the purpose of aestheticisation (the aesthetic move). They spare the erotic eye the non-aesthetic and anxiety-provoking sight of the genitals and other unappetising parts such as the nipples, the openings in the nose and the ear, or the mouth; or they divert the attention from the navel, which is already an aestheticised displacement of the vagina. The attention may be diverted directly from the vagina through jewels or peircings in its immediate vicinity. Already in chapter V, we mentioned the fact that the fingernail is a negation of the slimy and wrinkled flesh.
THE DIVINE HERMAPHRODITE
Garments are not only meant to give the onlooker an advance to the splendour of the nude, they can also give the wearer an advance to impending sexual gratification. Many a women enjoys the feel of loose, soft cloth working against their skin. Often this enjoyment can lead to overt self-caressing which is a theme often developed in erotic imagery. Conversely, tight-fitting clothes may be the source of a pleasure akin to bonding: in this case, clothes are replacing a lover in flesh and blood. Also the wearing of lingerie may produce a special sensation, even when – or precisely because – the wearer has no intention to unravel them before the eyes of strangers. The sheer awareness of being attractive, or the pure idea of seduction may suffice. In these cases, pleasure is derived from looking at oneself – either through a kind of spiritual eye, through the real eye in the mirror, or through the vicarious gaze of a third party.
Such self-satisfaction is further developed when the fetishist uses clothes charged with the erotic appeal of the desired body. In wearing the clothes of the desired body, the desiring body is released from the task of projecting itself on the desired body. The understanding of this process is obscured by the fact that fetishism tends to obliterate the origin of the fetish in the desired body. The plumes, with which women are fond to adorn themselves, are derived from male birds. Fur - of old a male prerogative (Emberley) – not only reminds of the pubis, but above all of the haired male body. Conversely hairless leather derives its charms foremost from the nudity of the female body. If we take the origins in the desired body into account, the differences between fetishism and transvestism tend to be blurred: while the fetishist originally projected his own desiring body on the desired body, he now can wrap himself in the very envelopes in which the desired body has incarnated itself. The fetishist, who wraps himself in silk underwear or in nude leather, tactilely enjoys the skin taken from the desired body. He thus becomes a transvestite who – with his mind’s eye, in the mirror, or through the eye of a third onlooker - enjoys the sight the desired body in his own. This move is completed when he also masturbates himself with the fetish or with a hand replacing the vagina or a finger replacing the penis – even when lingering in the visual and tactile preliminary stages is far more becoming to both in essence visual perversions. We will come back to this in chapter X.
Thus, the desired body, denied to the voyeur by the perverse eye, is eventually reconstructed on the desiring body itself through a reversal in the mirror (transvestism), and through wrapping itself in the desired skin detached from the desired body (fetishism). In the end, the perverse eye, that in a first phase turned the poor mortal into a sexually individuated being – a being that refuses to let itself submerge into the animal with the two backs – eventually transforms that very sexually individuated being into the self-sufficient, divine hermaphrodite.
Chapter VII of 'the erotic eye and its nude'
objet de désir 6
see also: 'the ecstasies of eros'
THE TABOO ON EXHIBITIONISM AND THE ORGY
It will be superfluous to remind of the many other factors that lead to the introduction of clothes. To begin with, there is the necessity to protect the body against extreme temperatures. Also increasing wealth induces men to cover his body with ever more layers of fabric, or to wear jewellery and attributes testifying to his wealth. Thus, social stratification is often expressed in erotic terms: infringement of all kinds of rules and the adoption of an appearance that is irreconcilable with hard labour (long nails, white skin...) are often signs of power or wealth. And the flaunting of wealth is only a special case of the general propensity to adorn the body with signs of all kinds of identity. In this book we should focus, however, on clothes as an expression of modesty.
(1)THE TABOO ON SEXUAL DISPLAY
‘Sous aucun tropique ne persiste la nudité intégrale offerte par la naissance’
When stumbling on a loving couple, most people have the feeling of having crossed a threshold. Conversely, many lovers feel disturbed when they know they are being observed. The concomitant feeling in the lovers as well as in the onlookers is shame. Shame is the feeling of having exhibited or witnessed something that is not meant to be exhibited or witnessed.
Shameful is not sexual behaviour as such, but the fact that it has been witnessed by outsiders. The same lovers that indulge in relishing each others beauty, feel inhibited when strangers are around. And the same witnesses that feel embarrassed when stumbling on a loving couple, feel completely at ease when they admire the beauty of their beloved in the private sphere.
Since shame is an unpleasant feeling, we avoid behaving sexually in the presence of others. The feeling of shame elicits an attitude: modesty and reserve. Such attitude induces lovers to withdraw in private and outsiders to grant them their privacy. Thus, a natural feeling of shame is not a hindrance, but rather a guarantee for the undisturbed unfolding of reciprocal seduction and the surrender of lovers, as parents with children know all too well.
Other factors come to endorse such natural modesty. Just like we stop working and talking when proceeding to intercourse, just so do we stop making love when proceeding to every day business: we neutralise our appeal and avoid looking at the erotically charged parts of the body. Conversely, with the most kinds of work or with non-erotic commerce, we only need the eyes and the hands. That is why work attire or apparel for normal commerce mostly leave only the hand and the face uncovered.
Add to this that sexual seduction is a process that unfolds in many phases: the strongest assets are only played off when first the tip of the veil has been lifted, and precisely such postponement makes the whole process exciting. Such unfolding is unthinkable if modesty were not the starting point. Conversely, we already mentioned the deterring effect of unexpected exposure, not only of the genitals, but also of the breasts. That is why, also in milder climates, the genitals are always somehow covered or neutralised. That holds also true of sculpture: the Greeks provided their sculptures of males with a rather minute penis, which especially catches the eye with the giant Hercules. In erotic pictures, conversely, the emphasis is on an often oversized penis.
The archaic sight of the genitals only enhances the propensity to hide them from view. Clothes, or other props like penis-shafts or bows around the foreskin, help to spare the eye this repulsive sight. That holds by extension also for other parts of the body: the lips, the nipples. Even the completely nude Greek boys in the palaestra wore a bow around their foreskin, and they retired when they proceeded to making love.
Finally, sexual seduction is selective. When lovers engage in an enduring bond, they only proceed to seduction when they want to renew their bond. As long as they love each other, they do not flaunt their charms before the eyes of strangers.
Thus, the natural taboo on sexual display is not so much the enemy of pleasure, as a guarantee for its uninhibited unfolding. A furtive glance on sexual behaviour all over the world and throughout history suffices to convince oneself of the fact that shame is a universal phenomenon that does not at all increase with the degree of civilisation (Duerr). No doubt, religious or political authorities may enhance and generalise the feeling of shame, to the extent that sexuality itself comes to be considered as shameful. But that does not prevent the original shame from being a natural and useful feeling. Although there is a considerable variability as to the extent in which sexual seduction is experienced as shameful, the feeling that sexual commerce has somehow to be hidden is nowhere totally absent. And it is not because in many cultures people unabashedly walk around in the nude, that they do not have a feeling of shame. The feeling often appears only when they proceed to kissing, embracing or copulating. They do not hide their body, but sexual intercourse itself (Lévi-Strauss). There is, finally, a difference between leaving parts of the body uncovered - being naked - and seductively exhibiting the body - being nude. The reports of anthropologists are often biased in both directions, and many a photographer arranged his photos to please the Westerner (Duerr).
(2) EXTENSION OF THE TABOO
To assert that shame is a universal phenomenon does not mean that beauty is never displayed in public, quite the contrary. Already with animals, potential partners are meeting on a common 'arena' or 'lek' so that all the possible partners are within reach and easily comparable. Also man has special places and times when foremost younger people are meeting: the village square, dance halls, beaches and baths. Comparison rather than seduction is the aim of the performance. And, in so far as seduction comes into play, it is not really public, but aimed at a specific addressee: stealthy looks and the initial phases of seduction are only meant for a chosen partner.
When the partners have selected each other, they withdraw from the public sphere, although things might change sooner or later. For, as a consequence of the differences in beauty, not all the partners can obtain the partner of their choice. A majority has to content themselves with a less appropriate candidate. Or the position of the partner might change in the course of the relation, so that many a partner begins to look out for a better partner and resumes his seductive efforts. That cannot fail to provoke a corresponding reaction. The excluded partner might try to deter his competitors. But it is far more effective to curtail one's partner: to claim rights of ownership or to impose modesty. Here originates the widespread ambivalent attitude towards sexual display. Everybody is inclined to enjoy the erotic display not only of his own partner, but equally of strangers. At the same time one objects to the display of one's beloved before strangers, and tries to prevent strangers from enjoying it. That can amount to imposing the wearing of a veil or enclosure in a harem.
The less attractive partners are caught in a further ambivalence. On the one hand they are all too eager to relish the beauty of the chosen ones. But, since they themselves are not attractive enough, their admiration will never be reciprocated. They are doomed to merely admire. Such reduction to pure voyeur hurts their feelings of self-esteem. That calls forth feelings of revenge against beauty, in the rejected men as well as in the eclipsed women. The widespread indifference of woman for male beauty only enhances the feeling of rejection in men.
The rejected men can retire in the hermaphrodite opposition and become indifferent to female beauty. Another common reaction, with males as well with females, is the rejection of erotic beauty as mere titillation of the senses, which is supposed to reduce the loving partnership to a mere sexual relation. Or the rejected majority can turn its back on love as such and devote itself to some ascetic ideal - making a career or earning as much money as possible. In chapter XI we will demonstrate how it can also lead to an urge to destroy the beauty of the other sex. Religious and political authorities can easily capitalise on such widespread feelings of resentment.
(3) THE AMBIVALENCE OF CLOTHES
The very behaviour that is meant to teasingly conceal the charms for the eyes of the beloved can also serve to not raise false hope with strangers. That is why every natural or artificial gesture of withdrawing is from the beginning ambivalent. With natural gestures, the ambivalence is rather low. When the beloved runs away, the stealthy looks over the shoulder betray the intention of teasing. Clothes, on the other hand, cannot be disposed of at will. When the mistress is getting ready for receiving her lover, she cannot help strangers to join in the feast, how discouraging the accompanying behaviour might be.
A solution is a strict separation of the public and the private sphere. Men can forbid access to the outer world through enclosure, the imposition of ascetic dress or a veil. This method is rather contra-productive because of the unintended, but therefore no less considerable increase in the attractiveness of the hidden treasures. It also bereaves the lovers of their natural pride. A better compromise is using one and the same concealing dress, now as a means to be reticent, and then as a means of stirring desire.
Such compromise paves the way for a new kind of deception: instead of displaying readiness masking insufficient or absent arousal, clothes can also hide real arousal or seduction behind a seemingly modest appearance. Under the regime of difference in beauty and wealth - the regime of erotic scarcity - such is the rule rather than the exception. Modesty is merely imposed, and the concomitant feeling of modesty is only pretended. The whole undertaking cannot but shortcut itself. Every encounter with a potential lover suffices to make it clear that the seeming modesty is only feigned. Whence the rather ridiculous effect of fascinating eyes looking from behind the fissure of a veil, or the shimmering through of seductive devices under seemingly decent apparel.
In the end, the whole system collapses. Enters the free market of love, where everybody is everybody's supply and demand. It is as if modesty has disappeared and has become obsolete altogether, since nobody belongs to somebody and everybody to everybody. In the meantime, the justified rejection of artificially imposed modesty tends to the denouncement of modesty as artificial. That only prevents a right understanding of the universality of natural shame.
(4) MODESTY PERVERTED INTO A MEANS OF NEUTRALISING SEDUCTION
Of course, the covering of the body can also serve to ban eroticism as such. In principle, it suffices to be merely naked. But, since even a naked body reminds of a possibly aroused body, every ascetic project resorts to clothes, or, as in Hinduism, to the destruction of bodily beauty as such. Henceforth, clothes have to completely hide the body from view, to utterly desexualise bodily appearance, to eradicate every reminder of what goes hidden beneath the clothes, and the clothes themselves are made of textile that is utterly anti-erotic (rough surface and erotically neutral or repellent colours). That explains the sight of the habits of priests and monks, nuns, aged or married women.
Neutralising the erotic spell, though, is not an easy task. The contrast between the repellent attire and the beautiful body that goes hidden behind it, only enhances the tension between revealing and concealing, as is apparent from the theme of Joan the Baptist and Salomé, or of the sexy sister.
And, in chapter VIII, we will see how even a body smeared with dirt can exert an unusual attraction.
(5) THE UNIVERSAL ABSENCE OF SHAME IN THE ORGY
‘Niet om in de armen van een enkeling te verwelken, heeft de natuur de vrouw met al haar charmes getooid’ (Bachofen)
Sexual love is not the only form of love. There is also love between parents and children and especially 'communal love': love between members of the same community (tribe, village, state, language, religion...). Just as sexual love expresses itself in copulation, just so is the community celebrated in some form of communal activity: collectively indulging in excessive eating, drinking, fighting, but foremost in behaviour borrowed from sexual love: from collectively singing, over displaying beauty, to dancing, and even collective copulation in all its forms. While lovers withdraw from the group in the private sphere, members of the community gather in a public place. The intention is that everybody gets involved. The desire to engage in sexual behaviour is contagious and involves every member of the community.
Not every form of sexual behaviour is equally appropriate for the sexual feast. Copulation has some inbuilt shortcomings. To begin with, only the preparatory stages can be collectively performed. As soon as the couples proceed to copulation, they threaten to dissolve into single pairs and to lose the - foremost visual - contact with the group. A solution is to collectively make love to one single partner. Either all the members of the community perform the same action successively, as with group rape, or the emphasis is on simultaneity, which means that all the partners have to perform a different kind of behaviour, so that are no longer identical. By far the most important handicap is the rather poor orgasmic potential of men: male orgies tend to be rather short.
For all these reasons, most orgies join the perverse move. The collective indulging in masturbation can be communicated on a rather large scale, especially with women. Also dancing provides ample opportunities for diverse forms of tactile and visual contact within a broad array of social patterns. Most appropriate for orgiastic purposes, though, are voyeurism and exhibitionism: the erotic appearance is public by nature. A most cherished form is 'girl watching': the visual orgy on beaches, market places, theatres, operas, churches, boulevards, terraces, stations and metros.
Although all the members of the community may flaunt their charms, more often only the most beautiful ones who exhibit themselves before the eyes of the lesser endowed. These adopt a voyeuristic stance and communicate their collective enjoyment. The transformation of erotic seduction in a purely exhibitionistic performance guarantees an enduring arousal, which is channelled in communal love. It suffices to refer to the mannequin and the stripper, not to mention the belly-dancers, bayaderes and actresses.
But it is above all the nude in the image that is predestined to bring the visual orgy to its apogee. An early example is Praxiteles' Aphrodite in Knido, which was painted and modelled after the widely admired hetaire Phryne. Not only the seductive body is relished collectively, but also the body entwined. For a long time it has been a good custom to collectively peep through secret peep-holes. Nowadays, the secret peep-holes of olden times are replaced with peep-shows.
Foremost the fetishised body lends itself for orgiastic purposes. In the Japanese whorehouse, members of the 'community of the Lotus' used to uncover the feet of their chosen concubine. While one shoe was going around as a goblet, the other was placed in the middle of a circle. With the thumb and the index, lotus seeds were propelled in the shoe. The winner was rewarded by the concubine. Granted: that lasts longer than a mere orgasm.
This kind of profane community gradually replaces the religious and ritual orgies. Today, the orgy is above all performed in mega-dancings. Increasingly, the partners communicate their erotic pleasures privately. Images tend to replace real partners: think of the pin-ups in barracks and workshops, and above all of the collective enjoyment of performances of films, videos and images on the internet.
We should remind that the collective enjoyment of the image often goes hidden in the guise of sexual education: it suffices to refer to the amply illustrated erotic manuals of the East.
Only against such orgiastic background are we able to understand the often irresistible urge to share erotic transport with the whole world, and the equally irresistible urge of many a beauty to display her charms before the eyes of the entire community.
A heavy taboo weighs on the orgy. That is why it often resurfaces under a repressed form: the irresistible urge to denudate oneself on desolate places, where one is in principle visible for many secret eyes. The desolation is the reversal of the countless onlookers for whose eye the exhibition is meant: that betrays itself in the nearly contained anxiety that someone might look on nevertheless (see the dream of nakedness with Freud). Most cherished are desolate places in nature or the ruins of public places - churches or cloisters, where the kick of the orgy is joined with the kick of transgression. The sensation increases in proportion with the chance of being caught, which is above all the case in an urban context.
The potential onlookers are often represented by houses in the distance or by windows through which they might peep.
In essence, the orgy is not a sexual happening. Sexuality is only a means of communicating each other's pleasure. Also banquets and drinking bouts are not meant to satiate hunger or to quench thirst. The theoretical confusion of orgy and sexuality mirrors the generalised confusion - if not replacement - of the collective enjoyment of communal behaviour through the enjoyment of the sexual act itself and of what, precisely as a consequence thereof, is turned into a transgression. That holds in the first place of the already mentioned pleasure with which the body frees itself from the fetters of clothing. In a culture of exaggerated shame, the joy of exhibitionism regained is joined by the pleasure in the transgression of the taboo on exhibitionism. And under the regime of differential beauty and wealth, orgiastic contagiousness all too often serves the purpose of summoning up the energies that fails with waning love, if not to escape from the confines of loveless relations. The transgression of the taboo on infidelity can also be reinforced with the transgression of the taboo on forbidden forms of sexual intercourse.
The sexualisation of the orgy is probably responsible for the often vehement rejection of public sexual behaviour, foremost the production and exhibition of erotic images: not entirely unjustified, the excluded often regard the orgy as a kind of infidelity and depravity. That does not prevent the genuine communion of sexual arousal to enhance and maintain the sexual receptiveness and to effectively check every endeavour to bereave life of its real - erotic - charms.
Chapter VIII of The erotic eye and its nude'
see also: 'the ecstasies of eros'
THE NUDE CAPTURED IN THE IMAGE
After having examined the influence of clothes on the erotic appearance, we should now concentrate on the way in which the image transforms the whole process of looking and showing.
Before tackling the more obvious and better known effects, we want to draw the attention on a less familiar, but therefore not less important phenomenon: the way in which the image lays bare the inner shortcomings of seeing, and how, precisely therefore, it also feels called to make them undone.
For, on a closer look, the eye’s approach of the nude turns out to be rather frustrating: the eye can never really come to grips with it. To begin with, seeing has its inherent shortcomings: the eye gets to see merely one side of the body; it cannot catch the whole body and its beautiful parts in one glimpse; it only sees that aspect on which it focuses; and it cannot but enjoy merely a single moment of the process of the unfolding of beauty. The insufficiency of seeing is further enhanced through the eye’s seizure of power: in that it is out at taking the place of the hand and the genitals, it all the more painfully becomes aware how much it must resign from enjoying the surface of the body and what it contains. In short: the erotic eye not only deprives itself from the tactile and genital interaction with the body, precisely by doing so, it lays bare its own inherent blindness.
To remedy such blindness, the erotic eye is doomed to circle around the body, to approach it from ever changing distances, to look at it from ever different angles. The desired body has to display itself in an endless succession of ever new facets: erotic eye and nude are doomed to dance and endless pas de deux. How dearly would the eye want to multiply itself to be able to admire the desired body from all sides, from all distances and at all moments! How dearly would it equal the thousand-eyed Argus, let alone the all-seeing God! And on top of that: how dearly would it become a hand, to be granted the pleasures of touching, if not the penis or the vagina, to be able to expand in the endless space of orgasm. How dearly would it want to be not only all-seeing, but omnipresent as well!
The image is a most powerful means to achieve this goals.
(1) THE FRONT AND THE BACK
In the visible world, bodies have a front and a back. What is more: they show their front only by hiding their back. Certainly, by turning around the body, we lay eyes upon the hidden side, but the problem repeats itself. The reverse side only becomes visible by hiding what was previously visible. That has an often unnoticed effect on the structure of living beings. They are out at concentrating all the relevant information in one single surface that can be scanned in one glimpse: think of the calyx of a flower, the vaginal swellings of apes and primates, a face. Since animals have mostly more than one kind of interaction, they have to show more than one surface. A solution is to change one and the same surface: through opening the mouth, a formerly friendly face can be changed into a threatening one. Or different surfaces may be allocated on different parts of the body: the front, the back, the flanks, the belly. Dependent on the kind of interaction, the animal can display one of its many surfaces. When fighting, the baboon displays its face, when copulating its rear, when lactating, its breast.
With humans, most expressions are displayed on the front, especially on the face. Also the sides provide some information: think of the profile of the head and the body. No relevant information is visible on the back - with the striking exception of the cross formed by the cut between the buttocks and the fold that separates them from the thighs.
During sexual encounter, the human body may be approached from the back or from the front. From an evolutionary point of view, the dorsal approach is the older one. Most apes and primates - with the exception of the meanwhile legendary bonobos – approach the female from the back side. To seduce her partner, the female displays her vaginal swellings. As soon as man began to walk upright, the vagina disappeared between the legs. The buttocks had to take over the function of seducing the male. Henceforth, the sign of the cross indicated where the vaginal opening had to be found. The four arms of the cross are like arrows pointing to the opening in the centre, not otherwise than the concentric stripes in many a calyx.
That does not prevent the vagina from being more accessible from the front. Add to this that all the relevant information about the partner is visible on the front, foremost on the face. And, what is perhaps even more important, that a frontal approach allows the whole complex of maternal interaction to be integrated in sexual intercourse: think of the sight of the eyes and the feel of the breasts. A series of secondary adaptations comes to cement the shift to the front. As a counterpart to the cross on the back, a hairy triangle indicates the place of the hidden vagina on the front.
Through such complex adaptation, the human body is no longer a single surface that can be overlooked in one glimpse. It has become a real body again: a three-dimensional object with a front and a rear that hide each other from view. The female has to display her beauty by turning around or being turned around, always revealing one side by hiding the other from view. Or it is the male that has to circle around his beloved, always paying the gain of the one beautiful sight with the loss of another. When the lovers proceed to copulation, it is no longer possible to set eyes upon the various sides one after another: the intertwining of the bodies confines the erotic appearance within the limits of a - mostly frontal - view.
The abortive frontalisation of the human erotic body is responsible for the fundamental ambivalence of the back. While, with the male, the cross can only refer to the anus, with the female also the vagina can be meant. A second ambivalence comes to join the uncertainty about the genital or anal nature of the solicitation. Seen from the back, it is not always easy to tell a male from a female. Only the proportion between shoulders, buttocks and waist or the proportion between fat and flesh can make the difference. But, in real bodies, the difference is not always sufficiently outspoken. Technical difficulties in the rendering of hairs, especially in sculpture, can only enhance the ambivalence. Whence the importance of strong secondary clues for sexual identity, such as long hair or plaits, sexually unequivocal clothes (a bra, lingerie) or props. Conversely, artists prefer the view from the back when rendering a hermaphrodite. The back side of the body does not show up expressions or clues for individual identity. That is why the dorsal approach is often experienced as bestial as opposed to the more human frontal approach. This leads to a final ambivalence: the dorsal approach of a body easily paves the way for dominant behaviour. Thus, the back does not show up an unequivocal opposition between male and female, genital and anal, individual and collective, spiritual and physical, human and bestial, love and dominance. Which only confirms the importance of the shift of the whole proceedings to the front.
Be that as it may, the erotic appearance tries to remedy the inability of the eye to overlook it from all points of view at the same time. A solution consists in so turning the body that it shows up as many treasures as possible, as if the diverse phases of the erotic display are condensed in one single posture. Another method consists in giving an advance to the treasures on the front. This is the more efficient, since the turning of the back is often not so much a means of displaying the beauty of the buttocks, as to hide the front from view. This leads to a reverse shift to the back: the sight of the buttocks comes to compensate the invisibility of the breasts. Also the upper side of the back gains in appeal when the shoulder blades or the shoulders are read as breasts.
The erotic eye may also resort to the mirror. By placing a mirror behind his beloved, the lover can set eyes upon the front and the back at the same time. There are two versions: either the front or the back are turned to the mirror.
Only the image provides more satisfying solutions. The artist can so twist the body that many beautiful elements can be overlooked from a single point of view. A classic procedure – already recommended by Alberti – is to show the body from three different perspectives, as in the ordeal of Paris. The artist may extend this method into summoning up an entire harem with nudes in the most diverse postures, as in a veritable erotic panoptikon. In photography, the same effect can be achieved through series of photos, collage, or multiple exposure. Since there are two breasts, the artist need not resort to repetition, especially since breasts have only a front side and a profile. The classical procedure here is to display the breasts so that one breast is seen from the front, and the other from the side. Such dispositions exerts an often irresistible spell, since it is the view of the breastfed infant.
The body has not only a front, a back and a side, but also an underside: the palms of the hand, the soles of the feet, the armpits, the genital fold and foremost the anus. The soles of the feet have the wrinkled skin in common with the genitals - a sure sign that they are not meant for eyesight. They belong to the ‘pudenda’ and are banned from the image (think of the well known stories about Van Eyck and Carravagio) – unless they are explicitly brought in the foreground to enhance the effect of the original.
That the body has no upper side does not prevent it from often being photographed from above. The intention then is rather to stress the profile of breasts and buttocks.
Perspectival sight not only deprives us of the sight of the hidden side, it hides our own body from view in the first place. Only in reciprocal erotic display can we reconstruct our own attractiveness in the arousal of our partner. More willingly do we resort to the mirror, a device that is older than the image – at least as the surface of the water in Narcissus’ pond. Not for nothing has the mirror been declared the very paradigm of the image. Not only technical restrictions are responsible for the fact that above all the face is admired in the image: apart from our back, we can see all the other parts of the body without a mirror, although from a rather unusual perspective. From the nineteenth century onward, man-sized mirrors move from the mirror-hall to the private sphere, where one can see his own body as the others do. The hermaphrodite gaze uses the mirror to project his own image in the other.
(2) THE PART AND THE WHOLE
Living beings isolate the relevant objects in their field of vision as separate wholes: as figures against a background. Since the field of vision has the form of a cone, the eye can only see the object as a whole when it is sufficiently remote. But especially loving bodies tend to approach each other. Parts of the body have to be delineated as new figures against the background of the body: think of the face, but also of the breast, the buttocks, the genitals. The process repeats itself: also the face becomes a background against which the eyes, the mouth, the nose and the ear are delineated.
Such layered structure of the visual appearance delineates new forbidden zones. From a distance, we see the whole and lose sight of the parts. From nearby, we lose sight of the whole and the other parts. Whence a second form blindness inherent in erotic seeing.
The image traditionally solves the problem by showing a whole in which the parts are clearly discernable. For a long time, the nude used to appear as a hole body – and that is still the case in standard photography (think of the centrefolds). Only clothed bodies were allowed to appear as busts or mere faces. Isolated parts of the body can only be found in studies. Courbet’s ‘Origine du Monde’ is perhaps the first nude showing only a fragment of the body other than the face or the bust. Foremost from Stieglitz onward, the ‘close-up’ is a most cherished device in erotic photography. In a first phase, the traditional reduction of the body to the bust is extend to the headless trunk and the pair of legs. In an second phase, the camera focuses on ever smaller parts of the body.
However much the eye might enjoy an isolated part, it is not ready to give up the relish of the other parts. It may flutter about from one image to another. Another possibility is capture the various parts in one single image. A first method consists in condensing various parts, or a part and the whole. When this method joins the centrifugal move away from the genitals (chapter III), it is turned into the desire to see the central part in the whole: the phallic torso. When this method joins the desire of the eye to see the desiring organ in the desired body (chapter III), it is the phallic woman that appears in the guise of the phallic torso. There is also the phallic bust, whereby the head plays the role of the glans, the neck of the shaft and the breasts of the testicles. In a variant of the phallic torso, the reversed back embodies the shaft, and the buttocks the two lobes of the glans. Also other parts of the body can be condensed with the whole, as when the torso is read as a face. And, finally, the whole may be condensed in the part, as when the labia are read as the body and the clitoris as a head, or when the torso is condensed with the face. And, of course, there are the numerous cases of displacement we dealt with in chapter III.
(3) THE CENTRE AND THE PERIPHERY
‘Details are always vulgar'
Oscar Wilde, ‘The Portrait of Dorian Gray’.
All too readily is the visible world conceived as a photo on which everything is sharply defined. In fact, it only reveals itself through focusing eyes converging towards a given point in space. A single aspect of the visual world is grasped at the expense of the surrounding zone, which becomes blurred as the eyes focus on the target. To clear up the mist, the eye must shift its focus, but wherever it moves, it drags its hazy aura with it. Because of this, the eye is destined to desperately flutter about, relishing one flower after another - utterly deprived of a global perspective on the whole meadow. This is another form of the blindness inherent in vision.
Many images adhere strictly to the principle of binocular vision, bringing into sharp focus only what is supposed to stand at the centre of attention. The most obvious way of achieving this is to omit irrelevant details or objects in the foreground, the background, and the periphery, as in an icon. Alternatively, when the environment is allowed to enter the picture, it tends to be blurred. A well know procedure is the ‘colour-perspective’ which was introduced in painting by the Flemish school. Since the introduction of the camera, the layering of an image can be achieved through approximating the real range of sharpness (in depth) or on the contrary, by shortening or widening the range of blurring. Blurring the periphery is done by preparing the lens. A contrast between parts of the picture rendered in sharp focus and areas which remain in soft focus, may centre the attention on the most relevant parts of the image, or, conversely, submerge them in a promising ‘flou’:
There is also the reverse strive to clear up the entire field of vision. In paintings and drawings, it is simply the natural propensity of the eye to focus on what it is doing, that causes the painter to render everything in sharp focus. As soon as the techniques of representation became aware of the unrealistic effect of this procedure, it was counteracted by a deliberate blurring of peripheral and distant objects. Nevertheless, the urge for overall high-definition has not subsided. The erotic eye is reluctant to confine itself to a single vantage point, it eagerly wants to penetrate even the remotest corner of the image. In meeting the demands of the greedy eye, overall sharp focus gives the impression that the nude is utterly disposable.
Not only does an overall sharp focus look artificial, it is often appalling. It hurts the sensible eye, let alone the loving one. It is well known how the pupil of the enchanted eye tends to widen, which culminates in the typical loving gaze. Such loving gaze is no longer able to discern sharply delineated shapes. It is as if the world is wrapped in a kind of mist. No surprise then, that many a photographer chooses to dismiss sharp focus altogether and gently wraps the image in the gauze of a ‘flou érotique’. Blurring can be achieved through moving the camera or the nude, through immersing the nude in water, through wrapping the nude in transparent cloth, through resorting to grain, or to diverse forms of manipulation, digital or other.
But the overall blurring of an image must run counter the cravings of the eye. In every real erotic encounter the emergence of natural ‘flou erotique’ preludes the eye’s imminent closure and the advent of tactile and genital interaction. The image, however, cannot keep that promise. Thus the eye is doomed to continue looking. That is why it soon demands that the mist be cleared up. Whence the overwhelming predominance of high-definition nudity in erotic photography. One cannot escape the impression that the unrelenting urge to uncover the nude and its proceedings in its minutest detail simply compensates for, and witnesses, the forever impossible unfolding of love in the image.
The soft focus congenial to painting has the additional advantage of concealing the minor imperfections of the body. Similarly, despite the broad range of techniques available for rendering details in the sharpness of an image, photography has developed its own devices to get rid of too much focus. But it is worth noting that some painters and photographers make a virtue out of need, by discovering a new range of erotic imagery that lays bare the smallest details of the body. If the skin is flawless, this may lend an unknown appeal to the virginal body (see Wantuch's close up above).
(4) THE TRANSIENT MOMENT
So spoiled are we by the abundance of images, that we all too easily forget that, in the real world, the erotic appearance has to unfold as a book, page after page - while we nearly have the time to read. Here originates the conflict between the desire to linger over transient splendours and the yearning to discover the nude’s entire range of ever-changing erotic delights.
There are natural ways of disrupting the course of time. The nude obviously does this when resting. But, also when moving, the movements of the body often come to a standstill in some expressive gesture, posture or position. These furtive movements can be prolonged by ‘adopting a pose’, like in a tableau vivant – or in Fourier’s ‘musée imaginaire’, where the most beautiful men and women were supposed to display their charms before the whole community. Also postures that are a culmination of movements, or movements that are beautiful within themselves, can be made enduring through repetition: think of the wiggling of hips, or the patterns of movement in dance.
But such natural procedures are only a poor substitute for the image’s unrivalled ability to transform the moment into eternity. Only the image has the capacity to meet the erotic eye’s deep-rooted longing to encapsulate the fleeting glimpse into an everlasting immobility. However, it is one thing to catch positions of repose or naturally immobile expressions and postures. It is quite another to catch the culminating points of movements or the beauty of the movement itself. For a long time artists were forced to rely on memory and intuition, if not to resort to convention. And only in the society of slaves could an artist like Parrhasios have a slave killed for the sole purpose of being able to catch the anguish of the moment of death. Such shortcomings of memory have driven the unrelenting human quest for techniques to overcome them. And this is precisely why there was such triumphant welcome for photographic techniques which shortened exposure times and made it possible to obtain fixed and clearly defined images of moving objects. With this development, photography could at last decompose the passing of time in its constituent movements. The same impulse is at work when people watching erotic videos slow down the motion of the film to catch the supreme moment. We must surmise that the explorations of Muybridge and Marey were fuelled above all by the desire to catch, amidst the proliferation of meaningless shots, the one and holy cherished moment. It has to be plainly admitted that the immobile image is the medium of voyeurism ‘par excellence’, the veritable ether of the erotic eye.
How much the immobile image might satisfy the desire to submerge in the eternal moment, it cannot satiate the craving of the erotic eye. Precisely by disclosing the enchantment of the transient moment, the immobile image only stirs the desire for the other splendours to be admired. The eye soon feels deprived by one single image and implores time to resume its course, even it is only for as long as it takes before another supreme moment can be frozen. Ever new facets of beauty’s unfolding are fixed, one after the other, until, eventually, the steady natural flow of the erotic display breaks up in the accumulation of its highlights, which can be combined in one and the same image through various photographic and artistic techniques. A composition like the dance of the three Graces might well be read as the simultaneous display of three successive phases of one and the same woman. Marey introduced the technique of multiple exposure. Duchamp and the Futurists adopted this technique in painting. It continues to be a popular technique in contemporary photography, where it is refined through variations in the number and the timing of the exposures:
However, freezing a phase in a process or a movement conveys a certain feeling of immobility. To dispose of this macabre flavour, artists and photographers often resort to a more convincing means of suggesting the elusive moment. Rodin maintained that the only solution was to combine two different phases of the same continuous movement in one pose. According to Clark, this was also the solution adopted by Miron in his discobolus. Painters also made the dynamics of the rectangle endorse the feeling of movement. Velasquez marks the introduction of the technique of blurring the contour - as if a limb was dragging a kind of veil. In photography, this effect can be easily achieved by reintroducing a prolonged exposure time.
It is not only the nude that moves before the eye, also the eye moves around the nude. Also the way in which the eyes zooms in on the centre of the proceedings can be rendered.
(5) THE SURFACE AND THE INSIDE
‘Templum aedificatum super cloacam’
The eye reveals only the surface of objects, never their inside. And this gives birth to the final type of blindness inherent in vision.
Only to the genitals is the inside of the body naturally revealed. Genitals, however, do not see: they feel. And what is more, they disclose a dimensionless world which is quite different from the three-dimensional world of the eye (see Chapter I). And it is only in this discrete and vectored world that the vaginal cave appears as an inside that the eye wants to penetrate. There it stumbles on the sight of the mucous membrane which appeals only to an archaic erotic sensibility. Only when a preliminary level of erotic arousal has been achieved do the splendours of the vaginal cave appeal to the eye.
Instead of being fuelled by the genital urge to penetrate the body, the desire to overcome the limitation of the surface and enter the forbidden zone of the interior can be directly ignited at the visual perception of the skin itself. It suffices to conceive the body as a layered structure, as though it was an onion. By peeling the onion, the desire to see what is hidden behind the surface can be satisfied, again and again. Because it is mostly covered with several layers of clothing, the body perfectly fits this idea. With the only exception that the peeling cannot go on endlessly. When veil after veil is lifted, as in Salomé dance, eventually the skin appears. The passion of unveiling runs up against the barrier of the skin. To the craving eye, the skin may appear to be just another cover that can be removed. Alphonse Allais has the story of the pasha who sent for a virgin. The guards cut off her dress, to the pasha’s ordering: “More”! “More”! Finally the virgin stood naked before the pasha. “More”! he ordered. And the guards set about skinning her.
In crossing the threshold of the skin, however, a heavy toll has to be paid: the realm of pure ugliness has been entered. Not another delightful surface is laid bare, only muscles and intestines. These organs have a surface too, but it is not destined for eyesight, in much the same way as the mucous membrane of the genitalia.
What promised to be the ultimate satisfaction of the voyeur, proves to be its ultimate frustration. The luxurious eye destroys the splendour by its own greed. With hindsight, it dearly deplores the sacrifice of the precious beauty of the skin, which is now all the more enhanced against the sight of the repulsive flesh and intestines. Unless the greedy eye starts to savour a new relish: the enchantment of the beautiful surface is broken and the sojourn of the intestines forever cures the eye’s insatiable appetite. This may explain the obsession of da Vinci and other men with exploring the intestines. We will further examine the close relationship between voyeurism and sadism in chapter XI.
Just as the eye may try to penetrate the vaginal cave as though it were a penis, so the genital urge can court the eye’s endeavour in desiring to lay bare the interior of the body. Skinning is then transformed into ripping (as in the famous cases of Bertrand and Jack the Ripper). Since the moist gleam of the intestines is a compelling reminder of the mucous membrane of the genitalia, which are equally concealed by the foreskin or the labia, ripping the belly open with a sharp knife might become an elevated form of opening the labial crease, particularly when it uncovers a foetus in the womb as shown by the famous drawings of da Vinci.
The substitution of the intestines through the vagina is endorsed by the interpretation of the vagina as a cut or of the cleft between the buttocks as the result of previous splitting. In the same vein, the various folds and axes of symmetry in the body (belly and back) are often conceived as cutting lines. They provoke the desire to cut them open, as we do when preparing to eat animals. Here lie the roots of Aristophanes’ idea that people originated from the splitting of a four-legged and four-armed double-being. Or of the idea that the body can be opened and closed at will with a zipper, as though skin were another garment. The obsession with scars on the skin, first and foremost on the soft belly, or the fascination with seams (in nylon stockings for example) may hint at such kinds of obsessions.
Conceiving the surface as being transparent is another way of trespassing on the forbidden zone imposed by it. Many people dream of possessing a device that could make clothes transparent. Transparent clothes make this fantasy real. But only x-rays and scanners fully realise such fantasies. Yet again, the transparency does not stop at the threshold of the skin: the entire body is affected. This time we do not hurt on the ugly surfaces of the internal organs. We discover a range of delightful contours which outline soft, undulating surfaces instead. The contrast with the harsh structure of the skeleton only adds to the enjoyment of the softness of the transparent flesh, as does the transposition of the all-pervading orgasmic feeling in three-dimensional space, which only adds to the charm of transparency. Therefore, as much as the mirror compensates for the invisibility of the rear, x-rays compensate for the invisibility of the inside. But also here can the fun be spoiled by the sheer ugliness of what we get to see, or the emphasis on the skeleton reminds of the transience of beauty.
In photography, the idea of transparency and ghost-like permeability may be conveyed through the superposition of negatives or multiple exposure.
(6) SEEING AND TOUCHING:
Visual beauty consists in essence of clues for originally tactile qualities. When love can develop undisturbed, those clues function as a promise for the impending tactile delights. If the eye wants to continue enjoying visually, a last and more fundamental paradox ensues: the more we indulge in pure visual enjoyment, the more we have we to resign from the promised tactile delights. The more the lover loses himself in the relish of the blush, the more he has to resign from feeling the warmth of the cheek. Thus, not only is there an inherent blindness in seeing, seeing itself comes down to a more fundamental tactile - and, as we have seen also genital - resignation.
To remedy such fundamental shortcoming, the eye may try to read the clues no longer as promises of impending tactile delights, but as visual beauties in their own right. Such not only increases the pleasure of the eye, it also compensates for the resignation of the promised tactile delights. To fully appreciate such transformation, it is important to further analyse the structure of visual appearance.
From a distance, we first catch the contours of the body, not so much its volume or its undulations. The female body appears as an amphora-like figure or as a silhouette from which breasts and buttocks protrude in opposite directions. When approaching the body, the attention shifts to the tactile qualities of the body: volume, texture, colour. Volume - or to phrase it more precisely: the feeling of rounding and undulation - is revealed to the eye through variations in light and dark (tone), evenness or roughness through the continuity or discontinuity of these transitions, softness through the gentle transition from light to dark. Colour betrays the temperature of the skin. When the body is sexually aroused, blood is spreading over its entire surface. The blush not only signals sexual readiness, it also allows to visually enjoy the warmth of the body aroused. Next, there are the countless variations of a more or less pronounced red - from pink to purple - appearing on lips and tongue, glans and labia minora, but also on nails and nipples. Through contrast with the white of teeth and eyeballs and the black in the throat, they tend to be perceived as pure red. They come to be part of what we could call the fundamental erotic chord: white-red-black. A predominance of red lends the chord a strong erotic freight. When the emphasis shifts to the opposition between black and white, the effect is more aggressive. In the basic chord, the colour of the white skin can be replaced with that of a sun-burnt skin.
Of a more purely optic - non-tactile - nature is the colour of eyes and hair. The hair on the head, in the armpits and on the pubis is a purely visual sign. The same goes for the colour of the eyes, which varies from brown, over green, to blue. If it is blue, it acquires additional charm through reminding of the colour of the eyes of a newborn baby. Even if these colours are purely visual, they cannot but be integrated in the fundamental erotic chord. Green eyes enhance the red of the lips and the blush. Brown eyes tend to submerge in the black of the basic chord, especially when the pupil is widened, and come to resonate with the red of the lips and the white of the teeth and the eyeball. The effect is the more pronounced when the hair is dark and contrasts with the white of the skin and the red of the lips. Blue eyes contrast with the pink and red of the basic chord. As a consequence of the similarity of tone, they also attract the yellow of blond hair. These colours join to a new chord of red, yellow and blue. Alongside such coordinates, a veritable erotic theory of colours could be developed.
The pink blush on an exalted skin is enhanced through the contrast with the blue of the blood in the veins. Since the veins are seldom depicted in the image, the blue can be integrated in various other ways.
Against the background of the duality of optically detected tactile qualities and purely optic qualities, we understand the transition that takes places when we approach our beloved. The pure outline seen from the distance asks for being filled in with colour and tone. In real life the eye can realise the shift is realised through the naked eye. Clothes, but foremost the image objectivate such subjective stance: one and the same figure may be rendered through outline our through colour and tone. The emphasis on colour and tone compensates for the postponement of tactile contact when the erotic eye wants to prolong the relish of the purely visual appearance.
Tone and colour are far more difficult to render than mere outline. For a long time, an outlined surface used to be filled in with one single colour in one and the same tone. This conjures up celestial and ethereal figures or the austere beings in black and white. From the Renaissance onward, the technique of the ciaroscuro was introduced and methods were developed to get rid of the outline through rendering volume through tone rather than outline. But only in photography can the rendering of colour and tone easily be combined. We would have expected that the force of tone and colour would now compensate for the resignation of tactile contact. But, in practice, it turns out that the possibilities to manipulate colour turn out to be far more reduced in photography as compared with hand-made painting.
Once these techniques have been widely accepted, the possibilities created through the elimination of variations in colour and tone were rediscovered. Only now could the merits of these seemingly archaic techniques - line-drawing, silhouette and cloisonné - be appreciated for their own merits (Manet, Gauguin etc.).
Also photography kept its end up. By eliminating colour, the artist bereaves the body of its erotic temperature. That was from the beginning the case in most prints and photos until the introduction of colour-photography. From the Renaissance onward, sculptors deliberately resigned from rendering colour. They referred to ancient sculpture. Unjustifiably so: of the Cnidian Venus, sculpted by Praxiteles after the model of the desirable Phryne, no cast has come to us, since it was painted, which made it impossible to mould a cast.
Sometimes outline as well as volume are emphasised. Since outline is in the first place a quality perceived from a distance, this mostly induces a cool, merely optic effect, especially when the background is white. For the same reason, an outline tends to reduce the feeling of volume (Botticelli versus Titian). The effect can be neutralised through introducing stronger shadows. In an endeavour to eliminate the feeling of distance, many an artist has the nude emerge from the dark, which produces a convincing effect of intimacy. The alluring curves of the contour can be combined with the feeling of intimacy by outlining only one side of the body and letting the other submerge in the dark. That does not prevent many an image in black and white from being very suggestive, especially if the subject-matter is erotically charged and when other tactile qualities such as the softness of the skin are emphasised.
The elimination of colour can be completed with the elimination of tone. While tone and colour suggest nearness and intimacy, a desire to touch and to merge, their elimination signals a distancing, a withdrawal in the austerity of a purely optical approach. In a first phase the transition from light to dark is divided in three steps: light, dark and some intermediate tone. The silhouette further abstracts from tactile qualities. Reduction to one and the same tone and colour, as in Matisse's papier-collé’s, eventually flattens the surface altogether. In photography, a more subtle variant can be found: the use of a limited scale of light and dark tones. In photography, even the silhouette can go hand in hand with an all the more stronger suggestion of rounding. A more sophisticated version concentrates not so much on the contour of the body as rather on the borderlines between light and dark on its surface, which can be heightened to a crude opposition of black and white. A particular effect is obtained through the projection of the silhouette on a transparent cloth. The appeal resides in the contrast between the feeling of nearness and the simultaneous absence of tactile clues. A sophisticated variant is high-key of low-key photography and related procedures. The (scaling) of the transition from light to dark leads to a neutralisation of the feeling of volume and eventually to an utter flatness. In the pure line-drawing, finally, the outline is rendered in black lines on a white background and vice versa. The effect can also be achieved through digital manipulation. Through emphasizing the suggestive rather than its discriminatory characteristics of the outline, it is possible to obtain a strong feeling of rounding nevertheless.
However much the eye may be fond of enjoying the tactile qualities of the body, it remains a mere advance. In real life, the optical delight paves the way for the feast of touching, kissing and embracing. The image is doomed to forever postpone such unfolding (see chapter VIII). Whence the propensity to touch it nevertheless, to devour the nude with the eyes. Here originates the phantasm of touching the body with rays of light. Plato fancies that rays of light are moving not only from the object to the eye, but emanate from the eye to the object as well. Descartes and Diderot compare seeing with touching with a stick. Such paradigm survives in the speculations about the relation between seeing and the sense of touch (Freud in 'Drei Abhandlungen'). The phantasm is transformed into reality when the painter conjures up the image with a brush - or, better still, with the fingers (Chardin); or when the photographer lights his model, especially with a flash or infra-red, especially since such light produces warmth and hence seems to affect the body. think also of the idea of rays ending in hands, as with the Egyptian god of the sun Ra. Also a telescopic objective that zooms in on the nude reminds of an erection and penetration.
Although the eye can read and enjoy the tactile qualities of the body, it forever will be excluded from the realm of fragrance. Here originates the natural antipathy of the eye for hair and clothes.
Chapter IX of 'The erotic eye and its nude'
objet de désir 8
see also: 'the ecstasies of eros'
THE TRANSFIGURATION OF THE NUDE IN THE IMAGE
In the preceding chapter, we have seen how the image lays bare the intrinsic blindness of the eye while at the same time being a remedy for it. In this chapter we will describe how the image succeeds in heightening - idealising - the beauty of the nude. The artist can change its colour, texture, form, posture and behaviour so that it can better meet the demands of the erotic eye. Also the characteristics of the image itself - its immobility, the frame, the inner structure of its surface - provide new possibilities.
(1) THE SKIN
An even and flawless skin is a powerful erotic stimulus. That is why, in handmade images, all kind of irregularities are simply omitted. A photo can be retouched. More sophisticated is the use of the natural 'low definition' of a painted, sculpted or printed surface. In photography, the same effect can be achieved through the choice of the right grain or through digital correction. As a reaction, many photographers reveal the minor wrinkles, the little hairs or the minuscule knobs on the skin. Through rendering the little knobs, a remarkable sense of tactile sensuality can be achieved.
Formerly, the soft female skin used to be opposed to the sweaty or oiled skin of the male (Greeks, Nuba). Since the use of sun oil and the culture of bathing, an oily sheen is also appreciated on the female body. It homogenises the skin and creates the illusion that there are no wrinkles or pores. It also reminds of the sweat that often appears during sexual arousal during and after intercourse.
A caressing hand appreciates above all the unbroken extension of the skin. While holding a breast is a rather local pleasure, over a back, the buttocks or the thighs, the hand can freely move back and forward. The gaze joins this movement and wants to equally move undisturbed over the expansion of an endless surface. Clefts (eyes, mouth, vagina), openings (nostrils, penis), skin with a different texture (nipples, lips and fingernails), protrusions (nose, penis) and foremost hair, come to disturb the unbroken extension of the body, especially on the face and the front. A natural way of solving the problem is to concentrate on the side of the body. The only cleft that is to be seen there - the fold of the armpit - can be made undone by lifting the arms.
More appealing is the sight of a back, the object to be caressed par excellence. The integrity of the surface is slightly broken where the back dissolves into the anal cleft, which hides the openings of anus and vagina. But such minor disturbance only comes to enhance the effect of the unbroken extension of the back. That does not prevent the surface on the front from also having its charms: the inner side of the arms, the breasts, and above all the belly. The pleasure for the eye is heightened through shaving the hair of armpits and pubis, as used to be the rule in painting and sculpting. That threatens to contrast too strongly with the slimy skin of the genitals to the skin. That is why a shaved vagina tends to anxiously be closed, as opposed to an aroused one that tends to stand open like the calyx of a flower. Through the removal of the pubic hair the cleft of the vagina catches the eye all the more. Wherefore the cleft is often omitted altogether (reduction of the pubis to a Y, see Chapter VIII), as has been obligatory in classic painting and sculpture - when the vagina was not covered otherwise. Some artists proceed to eliminating not only the cleft, but also the folds surrounding it. A similar strive for homogeneity is apparent in the tendency to remove the nipples. Other artists even eliminated the lips. The homogenising is completed when also the hair on the skull is removed. The move towards homogeneity comes to its apogee in Brancusi's ' Sculpture for the blind', where the head is reduced to an egg, over the surface of which the hand can go its caressing course, undisturbed by protrusions and unevenness of all kinds. A comparison with 'Torse de jeune fille' analysed in Chapter III, reminds us of the fact that the removal of all obstacles to the caressing hand is at the same time the ultimate fulfilment of the strive to eradicate every reminiscence of the wound.
The qualities of the skin can also be heightened through opposition. The skin may be contrasted with dried paint, sand or stone. The effect is further strengthened in that skin is the organ that is kept clean par excellence. Soiling it tends to convey a sense of accessibility. Also the structure of foam sharply contrasts with the smoothness of the skin, especially since soap makes the hands slide over its surface. In other cases, the naked skin of the body is contrasted with objects or an environment. The warmth and the softness of the skin can be opposed to the rough surface of hard metal. The woods or the grasslands provide many a contrast to the nude skin. Most cherished is the opposition between the flawless even skin and the rough angularity of rocks that could hurt it. And of course, the most dramatic contrast is with unhealthy, diseased or aged skin.
Ever since Cranach, the vulnerable nude is often contrasted with the roughness of bark. It is remarkable that in most cases the phallic as well as the vaginal characteristics of the tree are stressed. The most dramatic way of showing off the even skin of youth is to contrast it with the wrinkled skin of an aged body. And, finally, an echo of the contrast between the archaic slimy skin of the genitals and the nude is to be found in the opposition of the skin with the wet vegetation on the rocks.
Unforgettable is the opposition of the white nudity of the female body with those rosy nipples to the dark gleam of the slimy serpent wound around its belly and shoulders in Von Stuck's 'Sünde'.
Lettings one's fingers glide through a voluptuous mane of hair is an altogether different tactile sensation than caressing a back or holding a breast. Both kinds of tactility are often opposed, so that their difference is only stressed and enhanced. Single hairs, on the other hand, cannot be caressed at all. They rather come to disturb the contact between hand and skin, especially when they cling to a wet or sweaty skin. Which does not prevent that the linearity of such hair only stresses the tactile qualities of the skin for an eye that merely looks. Also wisps or dark hair may be contrasted with the white undulations of the body. Especially an abundant mane of hair may serve as a natural way of concealing not only a sideward glance, but also shoulders, the back, the breast or the whole body.
Totally different from the mane of hair on the skull is the pubic hair. The contrast is often endorsed by that between skin and mucous membrane. The contrast between skin and hair may also be transposed to the contrast between the nude and fur.:
(3) THE SKELETON
As a rule, bones play a role only in the male body. In the female nude, the bony structure is covered by a layer of fat. But precisely the softness of that layer may be enhanced through contrast with the bony skeleton. Especially the ribs make the breasts above them appear all the more soft. The ribs on the back heighten the softness of the thighs. Also the bones in the fingers may accentuate the softness of the breast of the buttocks.
(4) COLOUR, BLACK AND WHITE
In chapter VIII(b), we have demonstrated how sophisticated techniques of lighting can heighten or diminish the feeling of rounding. Here, we have only to mention how all kinds of props may intensify the colour of eyes, hair and skin by making them resound in a more encompassing chord of colours.
(5) LINE AND SHAPE
Echoes in the body itself can intensify the feeling of roundness. An example is the lowest rib that echoes the undulation of the breast, effect which is only emphasized through appropriate framing. The undulation of the flesh can also be emphasized by props or the environment.
Most effective is also the use of contrast. Smooth skin looks all the more sensual when it is contrasted the delicate texture of textile and leaves. More obvious is the opposition to angular attributes.
Things come to their apogee when the vulnerable nude body is contrasted with cold metal, especially when it wears a suit of armour and brandishes a sword.
The artist need not confine himself to the natural echoes or the use of props. More often, he proceeds to sometimes drastic changes of the shape of the body. A well know example is Ingres' ‘La grande Odalisque’. Here, the emphasis is on the elongated arms and legs, fingers and toes, and above all on the elongated neck. The whole body appears as one endless, undisturbed object of touch. Even the surface of the breast that appears through the armpit is not broken by the presence of a nipple (see Chapter III). In Brancusi's 'Kiss' the confinement of the figures within the limits of a cube emphasizes the intimacy of the kissing couple (see Chapter I)
Also the photographer is not submitted to the limitations of reality. Intelligent lighting and the choice of an appropriate posture, may lead to often unexpected effects. The photographers disposes of still other techniques. Parts of the body that approach the lens appear to be larger. This effect may be used to enhance the expressiveness of a gesture or a posture. An unusual perspective may lead to a more drastic metamorphosis. The majority of the examples of the phallic woman and the vaginal man in Chapter III are only conceivable through the intervention of the image. Also a deforming mirror may produce estranging effects. Louis Duclos used the method for obtaining the anamorfosis of portraits in 1889, but it is above all André Kertész who produced the most surrealistic erotic beings with this method in 1933. They inspired Salvador Dali to his 'melting forms'.
The transformation can amount to the creation of new erotic beings. Kertész shows multiple bodies, joined to each other like Siamese twins.
The image allows for even more radical transformations.
To begin with, there is the recombination of photographed parts of the nude. The desirable parts can be multiplied. Foremost the breast seem to be predestined for such multiplication from the ancient Egyptians onward. The theme is further developed by Bellmer, Lachaise and Louise Bourgeois. Not only breasts, but also halves of bodies can be recombined to a new erotic being. The oldest examples are perhaps the surrealistic bodies of Bellmer. The transformation can proceed to hybridisation with animals. In most cases, it is only (parts of) the body which are replaced. As when the human being is lent the body of a leopard or a bird. Fur or plumes invite the caressing hand, a tendency which is strongly counteracted by the presence of threatening sharp teeth or claws. In other cases, the upper part of the body remains human: sphinx, centaur, mermaid, angel. Such metamorphoses often play with the contrast between human control and unbridled animal sexuality or aggressiveness. Hybridisation often goes hand in hand with the creation of a hermaphrodite: plumes, with which woman like to adorn themselves, are in essence male props. Fur - of old a prerogative of male power (Emberly) - reminds not only of the pubis, but foremost of the hairy male body.
(8) NEW WAYS OF CONCEALING AND REVEALING
Since the representation in an image is no longer limited by reality, the artist need no longer confine himself to clothes to play the game of revealing and concealing as described in Chapter V. He can resort to the most diverse materials to obtain an even stronger effect.
The artist can proceed to colour the body in unusual colours, using unconventional pigments and creating the most inventive patterns (for example through solarisation).
But the image has also inherent means of attracting the attention. To begin with, there are points on the surface of the rectangle that naturally focus the gaze (Theodor Lipps). Convention only endorses such natural propensity. In Titian's ‘Venus of Urbino’ the vagina is situated at the intersection of the middle of the long side and the golden section on the short side. The attention can also be focussed through appropriate lighting.
But the image possesses above all intrinsic means of concealing. That seems strange, since the image rather conjures up the idea of showing, revealing, laying bare. In fact, the image only shows merely one moment out the whole process of the unfolding of beauty, without any hope that we soon will lay eyes upon the other moments, as in the real world. To be sure, the image can solve the problem as we have seen in Chapter VIII. But it can also make a virtue of necessity. Just like clothes, the image only stirs the desire to lay bare the concealed parts and moments. This is especially true of images that only show the back side, especially when the gesture with which the nude lifts up its arms, cannot but teasingly remind of the treasures hidden on the front. The same goes for images that imitate the blur around the focus of the eyes and then only stir the desire to penetrate the areas that go hidden in the 'flou' (see Chapter VIII). Even more efficient is the use of shadow. In the image, the gradation of light and shadow is given once and for all. The eye cannot accommodate and subsequently penetrate the formerly dark areas. The artist can use this effect to fuel the erotic tension: how long we might stare at the shadowy parts of the image, we never shall be able to penetrate its darkness. The effect is further enhanced when the light falls on the clothes that have to be laid off:
The most efficient means of concealing is, finally, the frame. The artist can stage the whole body, so that we can admire one part after another. But more often does he restrict himself to showing only one part of the body, revealing us one beauty by bereaving us of the sight of another.
(9) THE IMAGINARY WORLD
Not only can the qualities of the nude be idealised in the image, the nude itself can be staged in all kind of imaginary settings.
But the image is first and foremost the place where relations with less fantastic, but therefore not less imaginary partners is staged. That shall be the subject of our next two chapters.
Chapter X of ‘The erotic eye and its nude’
see also: 'the ecstasies of eros'
IN THE BEAST WITH TWO BACKS' DEN
'I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter
and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.'
Shakespeare, Othello (I,i)
In chapter III we described how the eye’s seizure of power transformed the nude into a hermaphrodite. In chapter VI, we saw how clothes completed this movement. Time has come to describe a second series of transformations, whereby the nude is transformed into the beast with two backs that excludes the third onlooker. This transformation is above all elicited by the capture of the nude in the image, which consolidates the eye’s seizure of power: the image only renders the visual aspect of the appearance and forbids any tactile or genital contact. Such double prohibition has far-reaching consequences for the relation of the erotic eye to its nude.
(1) THE LOVER AND HIS BELOVED
How, to begin with, does the introduction of an image influence the relation of the lover to his beloved?
Beauty is but a furtive moment in the ever changing unfolding of erotic display; we are only granted to enjoy it as long as our beloved is with us and as long as she loves us; and it resides in a body that is subject to an irreversible decay (Dorian Gray). Not surprising that the eye wants to capture the furtive erotic appearance in an image to be able to permanently enjoy it, especially since clothes bereave us of free access to the nude.
The most obvious subject matter for such an image is the overall appearance of the body, especially the beauty of the face. Given the purely visual nature of these two subjects, their - equally purely visual - depiction in an image will perfectly do. Granted, the making of an image - especially the intervention of a camera - might disturb the spontaneity of erotic display, but this obstacle can easily be circumvented with some skill and devotion.
Encouraged by the splendour he managed to catch in the image, the lover may feel inclined to catch further stages of seduction, if not the beauty of an exalted body. But this time his endeavour cannot fail to run up against technical boundaries. As soon as the lover proceeds to making an image – as soon as he starts manipulating the brush, the chisel or the camera – he inevitably has to suspend precisely the seduction that caused the exaltation of his beloved. Worse still, the vantage point from where the delight of the exaltation happens to be relished, does not necessarily coincide with the optimal vantage point from where the camera can shoot it.
The only way to solve this problem is to stage the whole proceedings. The lover might ask his beloved to adopt the required pose. He then has to retire to a technical vantage point. He thereby not only leaves himself out of the image, but outmanoeuvres himself as a lover as well. No longer in a position to exalt his beloved, he might even ask her to touch and stroke herself, if not to masturbate. Unawares, lovemaking is transformed into the making of an image, the lover into an artist and his beloved into a posing model. No doubt, the lover can afterwards all the more indulge in the plain voyeuristic delight of the spectacle that otherwise would have escaped him. At a great cost however: the gratification of looking replaces the gratification of doing. Again – and especially here – visual appearance is transformed into a fetish. Susan Sonntag’s contention that photographing is in essence an act of non-intervention – a step further than Benjamin’s contention that photographing equals taking in possession – reflects the estranged awareness of this more fundamental change.
(2) THE ARTIST AND HIS MODEL
Ironically, the reverse is supposed to happen in the relation between the artist and his model. Ever since Antiquity, the wildest fantasies are conjured up when the layman imagines what is going on between those allegedly privileged mortals. It is apparent, however, that the artist as such has no intention of approaching his model erotically, quite the contrary. He is out at making and image: he is looking for his brush, his chisel or his camera. To be sure, when he starts working, he has to look at the model. But his looking is not so much the gazing of the voyeur, as the scrutinising of a technician. He has to decide which pose the model has to adopt, how he will frame it, what colours or what kind of films have to be used, and so on. In traditional painting, moreover, the whole procedure was often a two-tier affair: Leonardo de Vinci recommends observing people in action and using models as a reminder later on.
This is not to say that the artist might not relish the charms of his model, or that he never would proceed to sexual intercourse, quite the contrary. It is well known how Rodin used to go offstage with his models, leaving the message: 'The artist is visiting the cathedral'. And the dancer Isadora Duncan has the story how Rodin, who was modelling her while dancing naked, suddenly approached her body and began to mould its flesh with hands aglow as if it were wax. Similar stories are legion. They date back at least to the Ancient Greeks, who told the story of Praxiteles and Pharynx. They turn up again in the Renaissance and come to their apogee in the second half of the nineteenth century in Parisian Bohemia (Bordello). They continue flourishing, although painters had to leave the scene in favour of photographers, filmmakers and couturiers. Anyway, it is obvious that, as a voyeur or a lover, the artist has given up his creative stance: the fire that should have fuelled his endeavour is burning out.
Neither does the model take an erotic stance. She merely prepares for being converted in an image. She has to know how to display herself in an appropriate way to be painted or photographed. To seduce a lover is quite a different matter. The model merely adopts a pose. Real seduction is transformed into the mere staging of it. The model only has to provide the necessary clues, the appearance, and her inner state does not necessarily correspond with her appearance.
Certainly, adopting a seductive pose - if not already the sheer state of undress - might induce erotic feelings in the model. Also the model can use her excitement either to make her exhibition more convincing or to seduce the artist. It can justifiably be asked whether it was Rodin who - while inviting Diaspora Duncan to dance in the nude - or Isadora Duncan herself, who - while willingly putting her charms on display - created the opportunity of which both took advantage. Either way, when posing is transformed into seduction, the artistic procedure is broken, and love triumphs over art instead of serving it.
In the real world, things are far more prosaic. Mostly, the model is not excited at all. After all, model and artist have met for technical reasons. But even when the model is excited, the technical setting will prevent, if not the arousal, then at least its continuation, as was also the case with lovers. The artist has to explain which pose the model has to take. If the model succeeds, she often fails to feign the corresponding transport. For painters, this is not much of a problem: they can fill the gaps themselves. In most photographs, however, the failure to feign the corresponding transport is all too apparent in the absence of involuntary signs of excitement, such as the erection of the nipples (or the penis), the widening of the pupil, not to mention a general artificiality of the demeanour, of the facial expression in particular. The models can remedy this by adopting a whole range of conventional poses. She may throw her head backwards: this posture suggests transport, while at the same time hiding from view the very face that might betray her lack of transport.
Or the model intimidates the photographer with her gaze (like on Manet’s ‘Olympia’). Or she feels the irresistible urge to caricature the pose she is supposed to take, if not the gaze of the photographer: The photographer can solve the problem by choosing a situation in which the model is allowed to closes her eyes. Or the model can try to solve the problem by hiding her face and eyes: the face is covered or diverted, the eyelids are lowered or closed. A popular solution is to let the model sleep. In that pose, the body exposes itself without any overt defence. And, ever since Fuessli, this development is completed through letting the model have a dream. Also death is an obvious solution.
In still other cases, the artist hides the reluctant face behind a mask, a cloth, a piece of garment, or the hands or the arms. If he does not altogether frame it out (the headless trunk), or resorts to all kinds of subterfuges, like having the nude perform some neutral activity.
When the model is excited nevertheless, it is not always the artist who elicits the transport. On the contrary: precisely the artist’s technical stance might induce the model to anticipate her being admired as an image, or she might imagine herself seducing some imaginary lover. In that case, the model displays all signs of excitement indeed, but her gaze is vacant or her eyes are closed (see above). Or a third party might join the nude. This may be a voyeur: or a lover who proceeds to overt lovemaking. A transitional stage between the reluctant exhibition before the photographer and overt intercourse with a lover in the image, is the model admiring or kissing herself in the mirror, if not abandoning herself to masturbation. A variant on this intermediary phase is the popular theme of the twin, which, in the image below is incestuous at that, or the equally most cherished lesbian scene. Also the couple making love before the camera cannot but stage sexual intercourse.
And the fate of the photographer is, if possible, still worse. How much the photographer resents his expulsion from the image is apparent from the many endeavours to introduce himself in the image again.
There is no way out: the very making of an image reduces the potential seducer to a technician, handling paint and brush or a camera instead of cherishing a body, and transforms the potential seductress in a merely posing model. In order to feign her arousal, the model has to avert the eyes, if not to close them, or to plainly offer herself to her own or a third party's gaze or embrace.
Admittedly, this is worlds apart of what is usually imagined. What presents itself as a sophisticated form of lovemaking, turns out to be a mere caricature of it. Not lust, but resignation presides over the creation of the image.
(3) THE ADMIRER AND THE IMAGE
We can only hope that the sacrifice of artist and model alike will be justified by the production of an image. After all, the image, apart from the fact that it is always at our disposal, and that it permanently makes present what is otherwise doomed to transience, has the invaluable merit to exhibit before the eyes of the onlooker a heightened beauty, which surpasses a beauty that is perhaps already unparalleled in the real world.
That does not prevent that an image is only there for the eyes of the beholder, which is all the more regrettable, since the nude displayed in the image is not an end in itself. It is only the spark that ignites the fire of desire. The nude displays itself precisely because it is driven by the desire to be kissed, touched, embraced and eventually possessed. But, what is generously granted by a real body, must forever be refused by its image. Not unlike Narcissus' mirror image in the water, beauty in the image is doomed to be merely admired. What you see is what you don’t get at all. Here originates the desire to breathe life into the nude depicted: that it may come to life, as in the story of Pygmalion.
But such desire can never been fulfilled. Precisely because the image transforms the nude in to a mere appearance, the admirer is transformed into a mere eye. Together with his tangible body, he is also bereft of his hands, his skin and his genitals. Thus, resorting to an image equals castration! That is why especially the admirer wants to see a third party appear in the image: that spares him the pain of eternally having to gaze at seduction. At the same time, however, castration is now really completed.
The very merit of the image thus proves to be its deathblow: it shows only to withhold. Whereas the lover taking pictures of his beloved might find solace in the arms of his mistress, and whereas, in the studio, the artist and the model in principle could proceed to sexual intercourse, this is from the beginning excluded by the admirer's looking at an image. In showing what it withholds, the image unequivocally speaks out the ban that was merely whispered in the studio: Noli me tangere! Don’t touch me! Thus, the image inherently partakes of the forbidden. That is all too apparent from the fact that the image inevitably transforms the nude that was originally meant for the onlooker, in the beast with two backs. The forbidding image comes to stage the forbidden: a beauty that turns away from the admirer to offer itself to a third party in the image - or its counterpart: the self-sufficient divine hermaphrodite.
That is not to say that the reduction of the model to a mere image to be contemplated does not have its secret charms. Apart from transfiguring the nude, the image allows the eye to freely wander over every detail of the body, without fear of rejection or ridicule. But a heavy toll has to be paid for this privilege: the beauty in the image cannot possibly reciprocate the advances of her admirer.
Precisely therefore, a new problem arises: the image equally leaves the poor voyeur abandoned to himself. It ignites the fire, without providing the firewood. In order to keep the fire burning, the voyeur, not hampered by the chilly stone of a statue, might proceed to masturbation as did Pygmalion and many a Greek. Worse still: he might lend to the appearance in the image his hands as a substitute body. Which comes down to a betrayal of the image: it served as merely a bridgehead to a sheer substitute reality. Thus, the image not only annihilates itself, but also the real world.
Thus is articulated the fourfold progression of castration by the image: the production of the image, the subject it was supposed to depict, the very structure of the image and, finally, its consumption, they all partake of one and the same refusal.
(4) THE IMAGE AND THE VOYEURISTIC PRIMEVAL SCENE
The staging of the nude in the image inevitably leads to its transformation in the self-sufficient hermaphrodite or the beast with two backs. We cannot help being reminded of what has been called ‘the primeval scene’. Freud introduced the term to indicate the spectacle of the parents entwining before the eyes of the very child that imagined being loved by one of them. This is merely the prelude to a far more ‘primeval’ scene: the ideal couple showing off its beauty and sexual prowess before the eyes of the poor average mortal - male and female alike - that cannot but feel utterly excluded. Do they not - just as the helpless child looking up to its all-mighty parents - feel compelled to enviously disturb their entwining? Also the hermaphrodite is experienced as an embodiment of the primeval scene: it is as if the desired body is already possessed by another phallus.
Our contention that the logic of voyeurism culminates in the depiction of the primeval scene may be obscured by the fact that the primeval scene is not always depicted in all its clarity. We need only recall that even when the nude is exalted - the precursor of the completed primeval scene - the exalting male is mostly merely hinted at. This is from the beginning so when the nude is shown fantasizing, dreaming, writing letters, phoning, making her toilet or washing herself or being engaged in other supposedly neutral activities: these only betray that the nude is preparing herself for someone else.
This sheds a new light on still more obscured shapes in which the primeval scene may go disguised. Take the - ever since Fuesli - very popular position of the voyeur standing at the head of a nude lying prostrate before his eyes. Is this not a most marvellous erotic landscape? Why, however, adopt such a position, if not to witness the imminent embracing of the lover for whom the thighs are splayed wide? When the nude is bent down before the voyeur, she is ready to receive her lover from the back. And is not every position where not only the eyes and the face, but first and foremost the place to be is directed away from us - sidelong or backwards - meant for some third party? Veil after veil on the primeval scene falls dawn. Perhaps we finally understand why in many a picture the frontal approach, especially with the thighs splayed wide before us, is deliberately stressed, while at the same time failing to really make us feel invited. Could it be that this overemphasizing merely has to help us repress our innermost feeling of rejection?
A merely implicit or hinted at presence of the nude’s real lover is by no means an exception. On the contrary, I guess it is the most favourite way of depicting the (voyeuristic) primeval scene. This formula owes its charms to the fact that the nude is not shown while fully surrendering, which makes it plausible that everything is still possible, and precisely such possibility may stir the desire of a presumed conqueror. The obliteration of the competitor has the additional advantage of soothing the pain of exclusion and rejection, of being reduced to the status of mere onlooker: at least for the moment, only the voyeur enjoys the privilege of being able to lay eyes upon the desired beauty.
An interesting reversal of the primeval scène is when the third party is as it were presenting the nude to the onlooker.
(5) THE BEAST WITH TWO BACKS (1)
The attentive reader may have wondered why we did not yet mention the most popular and most controversial way of depicting the primeval scene: the image of the penis in the vagina. Although the theme is not altogether absent in the still image, it is rather the main dish of many a film. The reason might be that, in a film, the upward and downward movement rather obscures the fact that, in fact, the penis is disappearing in the vagina. Therefore, in the film, the ‘fort-da’ can function as a visual fetish for the invisible orgasm (whether or not culminating in the ejaculation out of the vagina). More congenial to the image is the rendering of copulation after displacement to the mouth.
But, of course, the disappearance of the penis is not the main reason why the primeval scene is more often depicted as the intertwining of entire bodies than as the merger of organs. The shift to the body spares the voyeur the painful sight of the ultimate proof of his exclusion. And there are aesthetic motives as well: the spectacle of the united genitals is, if possible, still more repellent than that of the separate genitals. No wonder that the eye recoils in horror and prefers the far more appetising sight of bodies entwined. But the erotic eye now runs up against new problems. Not for nothing is the couple entwined called the beast with two backs: the enticing fronts of the body are hidden from view. When the couple lies down, the situation is even more problematic. The legs are entwined in an often inextricable tangle, and that is not precisely an enchanting spectacle. With hindsight, we understand why the loving couple is often rendered with the male in dorsal approach or with the upper parts of the bodies separated, as when a woman rides the man. A more obvious solution is replacing genital intercourse with cunnilingus of fellatio and the like. There are still more possibilities when only the preliminary stages to intercourse are rendered. That goes especially for caressing. Also in real intercourse, the erotic eye often joins the hand that is caressing the body. But the artist can also maintain the entwining and try to arrange the bodies in a surveyable symmetry. The focus on the genitals between the symmetrical pair of legs can be avoided through replacing the merger of genitals with that of more peripheral organs.
(6) THE BEAST WITH TWO BACKS (2): SELF-CARESSING AND MASTURBATION
A second solution is found when the voyeur no longer projects his own desire into the desired object (see chapter III), but nestles himself in the appropriate organs of the desired body instead.
This move begins with the hand. The hand feels, but does not see. When the lover does not want to resign from looking, he can let the hand of the desired body stroke the desired body in his stead. The caressing can be delegated to the hair of the beloved. As soon as the arousal approaches the genital phase, the merger of the genitals itself can be staged on the scene of the desired body. We already described the onset of this move in chapter III. This movement is completed when the desiring organ want to merge with the desired one. In a first phase, the displaced penis is moving toward the vagina, or it penetrates the vagina.
The merger can also be staged after the displacement of desiring and desired organ alike.
(7) VOYEURISM’S AND EXHIBITIONISM’S COMING OF AGE.
We have already seen how, in humans, sexual display is reciprocal in principle: it is essentially the simultaneity of the displayer’s admiration and the admirer’s display. We have also seen that differential beauty and the exchange of beauty for power made reciprocal display and admiration fall apart in two opposite offshoots: voyeurism and exhibitionism. We now can add that the introduction of the image only cements the one-sidedness of these offshoots and decisively cuts them off from the further phases of love’s unfolding.
In real life, the generalised one-sidedness of erotic display on exhibitionistic meeting grounds such as beaches or parties, can be restored to full reciprocity at any moment. In utterly forbidding love’s unfolding, though, the image drives a final wedge between the admirer and the object of his desire. It thereby inevitably paves the way for the representational fetishising of the object of voyeurism: the self-defeating desire to lay eyes upon what can only be felt, as epitomised in the witnessing of the primeval scene.
The devotion of the voyeur to the alienating image is only stirred by the dramatic extension of the range of a henceforth purely fictional meeting ground: only the most beautiful women, selected from all over the world, are allowed to appear in the image, which comes to display their transfigured beauty before the eyes of millions. Since, moreover, no restraints whatsoever forbid the access to the image, the voyeur is forever released of the task of seducing, be it through the display of power or bodily beauty. Isolated voyeurism thus becomes the main preoccupation of an ever-increasing majority of males, since the image is first and foremost cheap, and allows even the most abject male to enter the exhibitionistic amphitheatre of the image. Isolated exhibitionistic display, on the other hand, becomes a female privilege, albeit it the privilege of the ever diminishing minority that is allowed to appear on the scene, and that thereby eclipses an ever increasing majority or henceforth lesser beauties.
The birth of the image thus seals exhibitionism’s and voyeurism’s coming of age. Only by being cast in an image is the former seductress transformed in an epitome of the intangible Venus - or, to phrase it with Angela Carter ’a whore dispensed with the obligation of delivering the merchandise, virgin though raped by billions of eyes’. And only by yielding to the spell of a mere image finds the potential seducer himself seated in Plato’s cave - which has become crowded indeed - where he is immobilised and doomed to stare at the mere shadows of beautiful woman exhibitionistically parading out of reach behind his back.
The combined effect of increasing differential beauty, the exchange of beauty for benefits, the introduction of clothes and foremost the development of the image, is that exhibitionism and voyeurism become the dominating forms of seduction, to the extent that they come to pass for their primeval forms.
Granted, as long as it takes the shape of voyeurism, the visualisation of love’s unfolding remains precarious: beauty does not stop stirring the desire for a complete unfolding of love. Only when we proceed to the analysis of sadomasochism will be revealed a this time more stable form of visualisation of love.
Chapter XI of ‘The erotic eye and its nude’
objet de désir
see also: 'the ecstasies of eros'
THE SACRIFICE OF THE NUDE
‘With lovers like men, who needs torturers?' (Kappeler).
(1) SADISM AND MASOCHISM
Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell
The image does not always show the nude – or the metamorphosis of the nude into the hermaphrodite or the animal with the two backs. More often does it stage the maltreatment of the nude. Already the eye of the little child transforms the loving interaction of its parents into the enactment of rape, if not some ritual murder, since the child wants to save the mother. But especially the image seems to be fond of such transformation. It matters to understand why.
Sadomasochism is often understood in terms of a sudden change of love in aggression - or of pain in pleasure. No doubt, such sudden change is facilitated through to the morphological proximity, if not the considerable overlap between sexual and aggressive behaviour. In love as well as in aggression, the distance normally kept between interacting organisms is given up to enable erotic or aggressive entwining. Not for nothing does the child often confuse its parent’s loving embrace with fighting. There is also an undeniable affinity between the expressions of love and aggression themselves. It is difficult to distinguish panting with anguish from heaving with pleasure, to discern cries out of pleasure from cries out of pain, and it might sometimes very difficult to tell orgasm from death-anguish. That goes especially for the images of these expressions: artistic conventions – or the inability to catch the precise differences between nearly related expressions such as crying and weeping – obscure the often nearly discernable real differences. Moreover, it is but a short leap from intensely kissing to biting, from intensely stroking to pinching, scratching, slapping or spanking, from eagerly embracing to strangling, from penetrating to ramming. And it is known all too well how the outer signs of sexual arousal may be produced by non-sexual causes. Spanking makes the skin 'blush and suffocation makes the victim gasp for breath, which reminds of the voluptuous moaning and heaving of orgasm. No wonder that Gilles de Rais timed his orgasm with the last breath of his young victims. Which also provided him with the orgasmic sight of the empty gaze or rolling eyes. And suffocation, just like hanging, not only makes palpable the enticing movement of exalted breathing, but also calls forth a rampant erection: hence the desire of the insatiable mistress in ‘The empire of the senses’ to strangle her lover. The same effect is achieved through inspiring fear, exposure to cold, and so on. Further, many a form of teasingly pretending to withdraw or resist, naturally calls forth the corollary, equally mock-aggressive coercion. This only heightens the effect of the posture of surrender.
This does not suffice, however, to explain sadomasochism. The similarities can only explain why love may suddenly change in aggression, not why the ‘aggression’ is continued or is from the beginning intended. It is not difficult to understand why many an ardent lover suddenly feels compelled to bite, to pinch or to spank, not why he continues to do so or why he is from the beginning out at such maltreatment of his beloved.
Furthermore, it is rather inaccurate to understand sadomasochism in terms of aggression: that would come down to a confusion of morphology and function. Genuine aggression, in animals as well as in men, stops short of mutilation or killing. It is merely a ‘symbolic’ threat that subsides as soon the threatened adopts an - equally symbolic - attitude of submission or really yields to the demands. Sadomasochism, on the other hand, not only threatens without obvious reason, it also deliberately carries out the threat. In that sense, it may be considered as a ‘desymbolisation’ of aggression. It is as if the animal that would like to deter a competitor, would proceed to real biting instead of merely showing its threatening teeth. In sadomasochism, things are put upside down. Aggression is elicited through staging refusal, rather than prevented through showing submission, let alone seducing! And since the ultimate goal is the implementation of the threat, sadomasochism also distinguishes itself from mock-rape, where the staged refusal is not an aim in itself, but merely a means of heightening the erotic attractiveness. When the arousal has reached its acme, feigning is replaced with unbridled sexual surrender.
The morphological similarities, though, are the key to a genuine understanding of sadomasochism: failing genuine and reciprocal sexual arousal, at least the outer appearance of it – the expression – is obtained through the infliction of pain. The sight of the expression elicits the urge to heighten it, just like with a real expression. That can only be realised through further infliction of pain. So, there is no transformation of love in aggression. Rather do morphologic similarities enable the integration of elements from the aggressive repertoire (fight/flight) in a sexual context: the ‘subordination under the sexual primacy', to paraphrase Freud. During this process, the aggressive components undergo the required changes: think of the ‘de-symbolisation’ of threat.
This approach makes clear why the overlap comprises not only the expressions, but the corollary actions as well. Precisely because the expressions of love and aggression are not always clearly discernable, kissing, stroking and embracing can be replaced with biting, pinching, spanking or suffocating. Even when in both cases the same organs are used, the behaviour is totally different from a functional point of view. It is possible that their appearance is motivated through aggressive feelings, caused by the inability to produce the desired reaction. But once they turn out to produce the desired effect, the motivation is no longer aggressive, but sexual. Compare with the impatient baby that bites in the nipple of his absent-minded mother, and continues biting when it finds out that mama is finally looking and talking at him.
The integration of elements borrowed from the aggressive repertoire in an erotic context is provoked by the inability to be aroused in a genuine sexual way or by the refusal to surrender sexually. Such refusal or inability is found not only in many marriages, where one ought to love but no longer does, but also in extra-marital relations, where one is inclined to love, but ought not to surrender. This situation is the rule under the regime of the exchange of beauty for benefits and differential beauty, under which a majority has to content itself with a second-hand partner. And these factor are in their turn responsible for a more fundamental disturbance of the mechanism of arousal: the falling apart of reciprocal seduction in one-sided voyeurism and exhibitionism.
(2) THE SACRIFICE OF LOVE THROUGH THE DESTRUCTION OF BEAUTY
"Je n'ai pu aimer que là où la mort mêlait son souffle à celui de la beauté."
Edgar Allan Poe.
Sadomasochism is not confined to natural behaviour like biting, pinching, spanking and suffocating. It has a remarkable predilection for instruments that enhance the effect of natural behaviour or that enable the sadistic version in the first place. Pinching is relegated to stickers, pincers or nipple clamps, if not heightened to piercing or pricking with pins,
the effect of moulding is obtained through the binding up of breasts or buttocks, slapping or spanking is heightened to whipping or flogging, keeping in check is relegated ropes and belts, heaving is enhanced through gasmasks, which have the additional charm of covering the face that could betray the reluctance to surrender (see Chapter II) and accentuates the take over of the impersonal drive, penetrating is heightened to stabbing and the release of sperm substituted with the sprinkling with hot wax.
Once the instruments have been introduced, their advent seems to have become unstoppable. Ever more spectacular versions are introduced, until even the penis is instrumentalised. Instruments also allow for the combination of diverse sadistic impulses in one and the same action: pinching and penetrating are combined in pricking with needles or pins: cutting and containing are joined in bonding with cutting wire.
The introduction of instruments paves the way for a further development of sadomasochism. Piercing - as is already apparent in Proust’s piercing live rats with hatpins until they died - is the mitigated form of stabbing; the tamer’s whipping of the butcher’s cutting or chopping up; and the handling of cigarettes and candles of the burning of the entire body altogether (Die Flambierte Frau). This dormant or repressed proclivity to mutilation is betrayed not only in the appearance of knife, dagger and sword and the suggestive bandages or trails of blood, but first and foremost in the pegging out of the body on a metal frame or a cross in many a sadomasochistic setting.
The shift from merely suggested to overt mutilation is fed by the displacement of the vagina to the virginal surface of the skin or to the folds and axes of symmetry on the body, that are readily read as cutting lines or seams. Or, to phrase it with Angela Carter: even when the body has many openings where the penis might penetrate, the relation of the knife with the flesh is far more arbitrary: it can penetrate everywhere. Nude warriors fighting with knives or swords – think of the Celts or gladiators – only fuel such fantasies.
But not always does it get so bad. The majority of sadomasochistic procedures stop short of genuine mutilation and content themselves with the mere flirting with the anxiety-provoking idea of torture. Not surprisingly, these soon subside to some form of forced intercourse (mock-rape), if they are not reduced to some sophisticated form of foreplay to habitual intercourse altogether. In the image, this is reflected in the presence of a kind of aesthetic veil over the proceedings.
In completed sadomasochism, however, the ultimate release of both pain and the tension caused by its alluring expression, is brought about not so much by ‘la petite mort’ of the orgasm, but by genuine ‘grand death’ - exemplified in Gilles de Rais' timing of his orgasm with the death of his victims. The destruction of the masochist at the same time releases the tension caused by the expression of pain and the experience of pain that caused the expression. The paradigm of such primeval sadism is Sade’s outburst on Easter Sunday 1768, when he tied up Rose Keller, whipped her, cut her with a knife and dropped candle wax into her wounds. Such drama on Easter is surely an echo of that other drama on Good Friday in 1759, when two women let themselves crucify in public, in the wake of the Jansenist craze of the flagellants (Zanker 58ff).
Thus, the transformation of pain in sexual arousal turns out to be a mere foreplay for the sacrifice of love on the altar of aggression.
The substitution of pain for sexual arousal merely initiates the move toward the utter destruction of the beautiful body - the fountainhead of love - by which the sadomasochistic frenzy is appeased at last. We need only recall how, in an effort to bring the voyeuristic endeavour to its acme, the arousal of the skinner or ripper is released by being plunged into sheer vaporous ugliness.
Sadomasochism is essentially the sacrifice of love through the sacrifice of beauty. Such sacrifice is far more effective than castration. Castration only bereaves of the instrument of love and leaves the potential lover hopelessly at the mercy of inexorable beauty, that continues stirring the desire. It would be a mistake to consider the sadomasochistic sacrifice as some derivative of castration: castration, on the contrary, is a mitigated form of the sacrifice, of which it nevertheless may be an adequate symbol. The sacrifice is the veritable mortification of the ‘will’, as propagated by Schopenhauer and depicted in Wagner’s Parsifal.
(3) THE DESTRUCTION OF BEAUTY AND CASTRATION
Ich will deinen Mund küssen, Jokanaan!
(Oscar Wilde, Richard Strauss)
Also the female can resort to the techniques described above to remedy failing arousal. But we should not overlook the specific accents of female sadism.
Under the regime of differential beauty and the exchange of beauty for benefits, only the male is addicted to female beauty, while the female remains rather indifferent. She is rather out at enjoying the male’s arousal, while remaining cool herself. With her, no tension has to be discharged. The problem is rather how to prevent the discharge of tension in the male: orgasm temporarily suspends desire and breaks the spell of female beauty.
This form of female sadism is rather out at keeping the male at a distance – at fixating him in his status of a mere eye. As long as he merely looks, she can enjoy his eager eye as well as his erect penis. Ideally, she heightens the tension to the point when the man ejaculates without touching himself or her body. Thus, Keyes lets his dominatrix complain: “If I tease you enough, will your dick squirt without playing with it?” (Money). And that explains why the behaviour of the genuine ‘femina dominatrix’: in the full possession of her beauty the spell of her gaze dissuades from approaching. Noli me tangere! Don’t dare to touch me!
Another version of the femina dominatrix stages rather the economic foreplay to this sexual interaction: the female who lets the male slave, while refusing to sexually gratify him accordingly: the Venus Frigida, whose blessing we amply described in ‘The ecstasies of Eros’.
The femina dominatrix may endorse her dominating gaze with whips or other attributes. However much this version might stir deep-rooted male anxieties, it has something hilarious about it. Whereas the beautiful woman naturally enslaves the male with her mere beauty, an armed woman cannot but stir male aggression. The threat of an armed woman may only be effective when beauty first disarmed the poor male. Far more convincing are teeth and claw: when the male throws himself in the arms of the female, he is vulnerable by those weapons indeed. Furthermore, they stir deep-rooted oral anxieties (cat-woman, being devoured by a shark of a whale, the swallowing black of the vagina).
The counterpart of the woman that reciprocates male dominance with a whip of her claws is the tied up male: his eyes are allowed to see and his penis can stand up, but he himself cannot move. A variant is the male torso bereaved of the legs allowing him to approach the female and of the arms that threaten to embrace her.
Female sadism could suffice with these variant. The erect penis, however, contains a double danger. On the one hand, it threatens to ignite the frigid beauty of the female, and it is all the more out at releasing the tension, the more the beauty of the ‘femina dominatrix’ arouses it, on the other hand. To maintain her power – and to block the unfolding of love with herself as well as with the male – the female might feel tempted to castrate the man. The heightened beauty of the female can only survive in destroying that of the male.
As opposed to the male, who with the destruction of female beauty also annihilates his own desire, the female is utterly left in the cold after having castrated with her beauty. Castration would have turned the male in a mere gazing eye (Dahl), were it not for the pain, that would have him lose all attention for female beauty. There is nobody left, then, to admire female beauty. That is why female sadism often comprises a final phase in which the femina castratrix incorporates the penis. She is thereby transformed into a female hermaphrodite. That is why the destruction of the penis is rather a removal leaving the penis intact in view of its impending incorporation, and not so much the release of the sadistic urge.
While representations of male sadism preferably stage beauty destroyed, representations of female sadism accentuate the castrating female rather then the castrated male. Representations of castration itself are rather scarce. The reason is that Salomé prefers to relegate the job to an executioner. Already the use of weapons reduces the sovereignty of her pure beauty. The most refined version of the castrating woman is embodied in the Salomé of Oscar Wilde and Richard Strauss: as the price for the denudation of her beauty, Salomé demands that the one man castrates another. She is a mere onlooker on the proceedings: the triumph of female beauty as the prime mover. Even stronger is the power of beauty when the male is castrating himself for the sake of woman (Kybele)
That does not prevent that, over the course of history, the figure of Salomé has gradually condensed with that of Judith, who decapitates Holophernes with her own hands (Panowksy). Such condensation allows the artist to depict Salomé with the sward in her hand (Caravaggio).
There is also a form of ‘lesbian’ sadism that complies to the male scenario: generally an older and mostly not so beautiful, if not ugly, woman takes the place of the male and destroys the beauty of her victim. She is driven by the revenge of a minor beauty that feels eclipsed through the splendour of her victim. This variant of female sadism perfectly fits in the conception of sadomasochism as the sacrifice of beauty, although this time, the aim is the destruction of the object of jealousy.
(4) THE ELUSIVE SADIST
Sadomasochism originates not so much in some mysterious transformation of pain in pleasure, but rather in the integration of elements of aggressive behaviour in the repertoire of love: the expression of pain as a substitute for the expression of erotic transport. In the ideal case, it leads to the destruction of beauty as a means of releasing the sexual tension, or as a means of blocking the arousal as well as the approach of the male.
The paradigm of sadomasochism is the infliction of physical pain and the enactment of physical destruction. Nevertheless, it is not always physical maltreatment that fuels the sadomasochistic enterprise. Not seldom, the adepts of sadomasochism have a bad conscience about their proceedings. Already the predilection of instruments betrays a propensity to transfer the execution of the sadistic impulses to instruments. But it is only when the sadist transfers the handling of the instruments to an ‘instrumental sadist’, as Salomé to the executioner, that he can have clean hands.
Another way out is to switch to less painful substitutes, which are expressions of love nevertheless. There are lots of possibilities.
Lovers not only are looking for sexual gratification with each other, but also for reciprocal help. Thus, asking for help can be a way of asking for love. Here originates the classic ‘masochistic’ attitude of the helpless, poor or ill woman (‘La traviata’). That explains why, paradoxically enough, a lover can feel driven to harm his beloved: in a second phase, he can pose as the one who comes to the rescue. He thus can regain the love of his beloved. Parents are using the same trick, when they frighten their children by telling fairy tales, to all the more enjoy the ensuing intensity with which their children come to seek security in their arms.
Add to that the willingness to make sacrifices or to suffer deprivation for the sake of each other’s gratification, which is an unmistakable sign of love. Not for nothing do lovers endlessly repeat that they would go through hell for each other. That is why they not seldom are conjuring up the most diverse evils from Pandora’s box in the name of love. Very efficient is threatening to withhold love or to give it to a third party. The ultimate symbolic proof of love is the devotion to the most repellent excrements of the beloved one (Last Tango in Paris). But these are merely extreme manifestations, even when the emphasis on food and drink betrays that this behaviour is derived from loving behaviour: lovers are supposed to feed, clothe and shelter each other. That is obvious from the less drastic performances where the partner has to behave like a dog eating dog food.
That sheds a new light on some secondary aspects of the original sadomasochistic procedure. The amount of pain inflicted or endured can be a measure for reciprocal dedication. It can also call forth the desire to come to the rescue. When the executioner afterwards comes to take pity on his victim, he covers up the traces of the initially sadistic enterprise.
Also the pleasure in the act of submitting, inherent in the infliction of pain, is only seemingly of an aggressive nature. It only appears when the power of sexual attractiveness is waning and leaves room for artificial forms of domination or submission.
There is also a non-sexual version of the femina dominatrix, the most subtle version of which is of a purely spiritual nature. The dominatrix then revels in seemingly aggressive, non-sexual forms of exercising power, and she does so because she is not or no longer able to exert real sexual power over her lovers. Conversely, the non-sexual submission of the masochist can compensate for the lack of real sexual slavery. In either case, we are dealing with a sexual relationship, and not with an enactment of power relations in society, as many an author – from Bloch, over Gebhardt and Fromm, to Foucault and Carter – will have it. In their urge to fathom the darkness of the sadomasochistic universe, they involuntarily are turned into the accomplices of the elusive sadist, who is only interested in obfuscating the sexual origin of his proceedings.
And, finally, the elusive sadist also summons up disobedience – or to phrase it more philosophically: transgression – in the service of love.
(5) BEAUTY BORN OUT OF PAIN
‘N’ajustez jamais la robe au corps, mais disciplinez le corps pour qu’il s’accorde à la robe’.
Elsa Schiaparelli,’la grande dame de la couture surréaliste’
Many interventions meant to heighten erotic attractiveness have an unmistaken sadistic overtone: carvings, tattoos, bound feet, plastic surgery. That the infliction of pain is only a means of heightening beauty, seems to clear such sadistic intervention of any suspicion: beauty must suffer.
But things are more complicated. The question remains whether carvings or tattoos really heighten the beauty of the skin. For they only come to break the evenness, the smoothness and the extension of the skin, and replace its sensuous appeal with its very opposite: signs. Also the ‘horror vacui’ speaks volumes: in the end, the skin is overgrown by tattoos - horror of the void as horror of sensuous luxury. Also the continued use of make up can deteriorate the condition of the skin, to the extent that only the disease can be the remedy. And many an uplifted breast has lost its natural suppleness, which makes already its mere sight to a painful experience. What presents itself as heightened beauty, turns out to be its mere negation:
Thus, it appears that the heightening of beauty has merely to avert the attention from its destruction. The heightening of beauty is in many cases a mere pretext to indulge in sadistic pleasures: the destruction of beauty in the guise of its construction. For it cannot be denied that tattoos are in essence marks. Where there is a mark, there has been a wound. The construction of seeming beauty is preceded by an overt destruction. This time, the sadist eludes us in time: in the past that has merely leaves its marks – not otherwise than the executioner that afterwards come his victim to the rescue.
Carving the skin and tattooing are a gory spectacle. The screams are often shouted down with a the beat of drums. Far more refined is the sexual justification of the screams, as when the master has his disciple have intercourse in view of making the skin even more sensitive to his sadistic intervention. At the same time, such staging allows for letting the pain pass for a surplus of sexual tension that has to be released in orgasm. Also the assistant can enjoy the expression of pain that he at the same helps to mask as an expression of sexual pleasure. A further stride is the so-called tattooed without tattooing. These have their partner tattooed by an ‘instrumental sadist’ in order to be able to fully enjoy her suffering.
That also explains why the repressed resurfaces, again and again. Many a scarf is re-opened and many tattoo is renewed (Kafka). Tattooing is a form a sadism that wraps itself in honourable veils, just like the ‘spiritual’ versions of sadism. The bad conscience about tattooing is betrayed even in the contention that the marks would heighten the pleasure when stroked (compare with the justifications of circumcision). The unvarnished versions of tattooing are the application of burning cigarettes or hot candle wax.
Piercing stems from the sm-scene and has become an innocent prop. Its sadistic origin is also betrayed in that its in essence abhorrent effect is heightened through a kind of negative exhibitionism: making grimaces is obligatory in the corollary magazines. Also frightening and deterring, just like pain, have in common with the beauty they negate, that they exert an irresistible effect on the onlooker.
This sheds a new light on the contemporary aesthetic surgery and the fitness-culture. Not only fitness-centres, but also the operating table of the aesthetic surgeon – not to mention the apparatus for deforming skulls, elongating necks, lips, earlobes and labia minora – cannot but remind of the torture chambers and sm-cabinets, the dark prototypes of the white hospitals. Also the heavy efforts, the intense pains and deprivations imposed to become beautiful, take an auto-sadistic (’masochistic’) overtone in this context. Especially with fitness, the heavy and often compulsive efforts are not seldom supposed to release sexual tension. The same goes probably for the endless making oneself up, combing, dressing and sunbathing. Auto-castration precedes the destruction of beauty. Many endure the pain because it equally alleviates the feeling of guilt. By putting themselves in the spotlights, the competitors are driven off the scene. Suffering for beauty can thus come to function as a kind of self-punishment for the seizure of power and as a kind of means of transferring the guilt to the eclipsed: they should have been prepared to do some effort for it.
This time, the real destructive nature of the undertaking becomes only visible afterwards. Even when it cannot be denied that many an effort pays in the short term, in the long rung high heels deform the feet and corsets the chest, dieting degenerates into anorexia or bulimia and excessive sun-bathing leads to premature ageing of the skin, if not to cancers. And that goes equally for the danger of infection with tattooing and piercing, in which seldom the secret appeal of the whole proceedings resides.
(6) VOYEURISM/EXHIBITIONISM AND SADISM/MASOCHISM
Only seemingly is sadism a question of muscle and instruments causing pain. The kernel of sadistic pleasure is in essence voyeuristic: the sovereign contemplation of the destruction of the fountainhead of love – the beauty of woman reduced to her body or man reduced to his penis. And only seemingly is masochism a question of pain. From the sadist’s point of view it suffices that the masochist provides the necessary expression. The real pain and the actions through which it is inflicted, are of no further concern. Granted, to the masochist the pain is all the more real. But we shall soon understand how sadomasochism knows to eliminate also this last obstacle.
It begins to dawn on us that there might be a near relationship between sadomasochism and voyeurism/exhibitionism. The crux of the sadistic pleasure is the voyeuristic enjoyment of the exhibitionistic performance of the masochist. The visual aspect is fundamental. Sexual interaction can easily be performed in the dark. But a sadomasochistic relation is unthinkable without the visual aspect – or, what amounts to the same, the audible aspect. What is more: sadism can only come to its apogee when the contemplation of the suffering of the masochist becomes really sovereign. The elusive sadist already transferred the infliction of pain, first to instruments, and then to the manipulator of the instruments. That is not only a mechanism to obtain clean hands, but foremost to free the hands of any activity that might disturb the contemplation of suffering. Only as a pure voyeur can the sadist contemplate the proceedings of the instrumental sadist in all sovereignty. That leads to the sadomasochistic triangle: the master commanding the executioner or the dominatrix having the castration of her lover executed through a third admirer. That reminds us of the lover that had his beloved make love to her lover, to be able to contemplate undisturbed. In both cases, the greedy eye provokes the transformation of a dual relation in a triangle: the animal with the two backs or the sacrifice of beauty. Thus, sadism is unfolding to a variant of voyeurism. To give account of this profound affinity between these two perversions, it would be a good idea to coin the term ‘sadovoyeurism’ and ‘maso-exhibitionism’.
On the other hand, voyeurism can only fully develop into a fully gratifying – and no lo longer a castrating – experience through its transformation in sadovoyeurism. In its most primitive form, voyeurism came down to a de facto castration: the voyeur as well as the exhibitionist resigned from every sexual gratification through confining themselves to a pure visual relation. The sadist, on the other hand, can fully be gratified, precisely because he visually witnesses the destruction of the source of sexual arousal. Granted, he pays a heavy price for such privilege: his gratification comes down to the ultimate resignation from beauty, the sexual arousal it ignites, and the genital release of it. The same goes for the sadomasochist. He no longer is consumed by a desire that cannot be satisfied: in the end, it is dead that releases him from the pain (Schopenhauer).
We have already seen how sadomasochism is fundamentally the sacrifice of love through the destruction of beauty, the fountainhead of love. We now can add that this is precisely the reason why voyeurism and exhibitionism of necessity have to develop into completed sadovoyeurism and maso-exhibitionism. By joining the already mentioned tendency to a generalised visualisation of love and through completing it, sadovoyeurism is fulfilling the real destiny of the perverse move: the self-annihilation of love. While beauty initially was the spark that made the fire of love ignite, the destruction of beauty is the black hole that swallows the orgasmic expansion of love, not otherwise than Kronos devouring his children.
Not for nothing does sadism feast its triumph in the two cultures that most resigned from real love through the development of a high culture of the image: Europe and Japan.
(7) THE IMAGE AND SADOMASOCHISM’S COMING OF AGE
The image is the main catalyst in sadomasochism’s coming of age.
The mere adoption of a voyeuristic stance as such already comes down to a kind of destruction of the object: the reduction to a mere visual appearance equals the obliteration of the tangible body. That is only sealed in the image: since it merely renders the visual appearance of the nude, it only enhances the exclusion contained in the primeval scene depicted in it. This double frustration may be the main catalyst in the transformation of the representation of intangible beauty (or the primeval scene) in the staging of the sacrifice of beauty. Furthermore, the image has an outspoken predilection of the literal sadism of pain and wounds: the more concealed spiritual forms are invisible. Therein, the image counteracts the elusive sadist’s endeavour to render his undertakings more respectable.
But there is more. Reality exercises severe restraints on the sadomasochistic enterprise. The sacrifice must not be seriously injured, let alone be tortured to death. In every sadomasochistic setting, there is set in place a whole system of signals indicating which thresholds should not be crossed. Since this will not suffice, the aggressive frenzy, triggered through erotic releasers, has to be additionally contained through a compulsory ritualisation of the sadomasochistic performance (cfr compulsory neurosis). Such restraints are imposed by culture. In former times, nobody objected nearly related phenomena: all kinds of torture, cruel punishments (crucifixion), ritual cruelties (Azteks, Roman gladiators) and milder forms of cruelty like bullfights. More and more, the destructive frenzy that otherwise would culminate in a fully-fledged sacrifice, is mitigated to a ritually contained sadomasochistic performance, that eventually culminates in the sexual release it was meant to eradicate. ‘La petite mort’ triumph over ‘la grande mort’.
Things are totally different in the image. Since, in the image, the proceedings are merely staged and faked, nothing can prevent the mitigated real performance from culminating in staged outright sacrifice (Titian’s Martias).
Finally, the image disposes of purely intrinsic means of gratifying sadistic impulses. Greek sculptures are often mutilated: arms or legs are failing. Secret charms emanate from such mutilated sculptures. Ever since Rodin was struck by the sight of his study for Saint John the Baptist - a decapitated torso without arms and with deep marks – the decapitated torso without arms and legs has become a cherished subject in modern sculpture (Rodin’s ‘Iris messagère des dieux’ as the counterpart of Courbet’s ‘L’origine du monde’). Also in a two-dimensional image, the artist can use the frame or digital manipulation as a means of mutilating the body. The destruction of the body often goes hand in hand with a destruction of the image as such.
The obstacles to an unhindered development of the sadomasochistic enterprise are only totally removed when an animal replaces the human sacrifice, as in the Nitsch’ ‘Orgien-Mysterien-theater’, where animals are cut open instead of naked women:
For the same reason, the image enables the full visualisation of sadism to pure sadovoyeurism. The pleasure of torturing originates not so much in the activity itself, as in the expressions it produces. The required expression can directly be conjured up by the image, and at its highest intensity at that: as the orgasmic frenzy of death-anguish. The sadist can confine himself to a purely voyeuristic stance and dispense with mere instrumental sadism.
The full sadomasochistic triangle can be replaced with the dyad of sadovoyeuristic onlooker and his victim. Also the masochist is transformed into a pure exhibitionist, a mere appearance. We already mentioned how the suffering did not concern the sadist, but was all the more real to the masochist. But since, for the sadovoyeur the victim has only to produce the necessary expressions, the image can easily get rid of the feelings of the masochist, as it did of the actions of the instrumental sadist. While the sadist is transformed in the sovereign sadovoyeur, the masochist evaporates into a mere appearance.
The same image, then, that forbids the orgasmic unfolding of the very beauty it reveals, utterly gratifies the purified sadomasochistic greed without any restraint. It is the natural habitat of the sadomasochistic endeavour. Only in the image can the inbuilt trend of love to dissolve itself in a pure visual experience come to its apogee. This is the truth in Steiner’s contention that there is a secret affinity between the total freedom on uncensored erotic imagination and the total freedom of the sadist.
Not only exhibitionism and voyeurism, but foremost sadomasochism completed to sadovoyeurism owe their completion to the image. Only the image enables the full development of ‘la grande mort’ in making abstraction of the merciless pain that will forever be felt because the desire to be released by ‘la petite mort’ cannot be satisfied.
That does not prevent that – apart from snuff-movies and real murder – the examples are rather scarce and foremost male. We soon will understand why.
(8) MODES OF THE SADOMASOCHISTIC SACRIFICE
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters...
Just as there is a voyeuristic triangle, there is also a sadomasochistic triangle. The completed sadomasochistic sacrifice is enacted through the sinister triad of the sovereign voyeur, the instrumental sadist(s) and the masochist. Under the guise of a punishing torture, the triangle is depicted in the flagellation of Piero della Franscesca.
The ordinary voyeuristic triangle is often obfuscated in an attempt to mitigate the pain of having to relegate one's role as a lover to a third party. Ideally, the sadomasochistic triangle is shortened into the dyad of the sovereign sadovoyeur contemplating the masochistic appearance. A bad conscience about the sadomasochistic proceedings can be an additional motive to expel also the instrumental sadist from the image, and staging merely beauty destroyed. This is a cherished procedure, not only in male, but also in female masochism. But the triangle is often emphatically restored. The staging of the instrumental sadist allows the projection of the sadism of the sadovoyeur. The projection is masked in that the role of the instrumental sadist is relegated to an animal or a monster. The next step in the process of projection is that the sadovoyeur poses as the one who comes to the rescue. Here, the triangle unfolds to a quadrangle: the onlooker is split over two protagonists in the image.
Just as the display of beauty can go hidden after some seemingly neutral action, just so can the ritual sacrifice of beauty be disguised – and justified - as the implementation of a punishment (to be distinguished from the scenario where the sinner is punished for his real sexual sins). The similarity of the techniques, should not make us overlook the distinction between the sacrifice of beauty and the diverse forms of punishment by political or parental authorities. With punishment, pain is inflicted as retaliation for the real of symbolical pain inflicted by the punished one. The punishment may range from an innocent smack in the face to the sovereign contemplation of two prisoners killing each other, as with the gladiators in Rome. All these forms of inflicting pain or killing are intended to gratify the feeling of power and retaliation, not to elicit sexual tension, as in the genuine sadomasochistic torture. That is not to say that the more sophisticated forms or punishment cannot stir sadistic impulses. All kinds of torture have been real midwifes of sadomasochism and, conversely, sadomasochistic impulses have undoubtedly stimulated the refinement of the methods used.
The reverse is equally true: also erotic feelings can conjure up the need for punishment. Under the regime of compulsory marriage a passionate relation is always forbidden. Transgression cannot fail to conjure up the corresponding fear for punishment. The transgressor can try to get rid of his feelings of guilt through ascribing them to the machinations of a seductress and then relieve his feelings of guilt by punishing her. The sacrifice of beauty can then be justified as a punishment for an indecent provocation. The punishment is a mere justification, since it does not apply to the sexual arousal in the punisher, but to the provocation of the punished. The executioner of the punishment can only get rid of his arousal by destroying the beauty that provoked it. Thus, the threat with punishment, that initiated the displacement of sexuality to sadomasochism, comes to serve as the justification of sadomasochism: the sadist as well as his victim do not longer feel involved in a dark destructive undertaking. (This element can add to the charms of transgression as described above). Guilt can also be alleviated through transforming the desired woman in the punishing – castrating – woman. The ‘femina castratrix’ has the castration performed by an executioner or the sinful man itself.
The disguise as punishment explains the introduction of many a form of torture in the sadomasochistic universe. A speaking example is the crucifixion of Christ. Although crucifixion has become obsolete as a form of punishment, it remains a most cherished sadomasochistic procedure, as well in male as in female sadism. This is reinforced by the fact that not only the surrendering body, but also the raped body naturally takes the form of an X, the Andreas cross: on the cross, the nude is as defenceless as in the image. The association of crucifixion and copulation is strengthened through the fact that Jesus Christ has been penetrated with a lance. The same goes for the flagellation of Christ – imitated by many a monk or nun castigating themselves for their sins of the flesh – a practice that survived in many a brothel of the eighteenth century and the secret sm-room in many a modern house.
The propensity of sadomasochism to disguise itself as the infliction of punishment also facilitates the enjoyment of real punishments as a displaced sacrifice of beauty. Here originate the secret charms of the torture of Jesus Christ and the countless Christian martyrs like the Holy Sebastian. Victims of torture and punishment are even predestined to such displacement, since they cannot but summon up feelings of sympathy, which pave the way for a genuine sexual transport. Especially the fact that the martyr sacrifices himself for a higher cause and that he rejects the indecent proposals of his torturers, makes martyrdom resemble the sadomasochistic triangle. Not for nothing are religious, but also political martyrs a most cherished subject in painting, and not only in Western art.
The sacrifice of the nude can also go disguised in medical attire.
It begins to dawn on us why the open depiction of the sadomasochistic primal scene is so scarce. It remains to be understood why the beauty destroyed is predominantly male. The obvious answer is that the same woman, that seems to have her problems with the overt enjoyment of an erotic male nude, does not object to be aroused by the sacrifice of a male under the guise of punishment or martyrdom, exemplary in the crucifixion of Christ, or by the sight of man that have been deformed or disfigured by blind fate. The theme is the more cherished since it allows sadism to go hidden behind the veils of motherly care. This is all too obvious with Maria and the nude maltreated body of her son on her lap, as in Michelangelo’s very suggestive Pietà. As soon as, under the auguries of feminism, women begin to produce erotic images, they soon proceed to overt depictions of the mutilated male body.
All this – apart from the fact that women are more interested in the signs of wealth and power than in the nude body - has to be taken into account when the female attitude towards erotic imagery is compared with the male.
(9) THE TRIUMPH OF SADOMASOCHISM AND THE END OF ART
At first glance, the completion of sadism is sadovoyeurism saves the image. Merely contemplating the seductive nude is a castrating experience, which makes the voyeur turn eventually his back on the image. The sadovoyeuristic contemplation of the sacrifice of beauty, on the other hand, is, especially for man, a completely satisfying experience and its depiction in the image does justice to the image as a purely visual medium. It comes as no surprise, then, that the inherent logic of the image leads to the transformation of the representation of the nude in that of the sacrifice of beauty (with the hermaphrodite and the beast with two backs as intermediary stages). The unfolding of perversion thus comes to join the unfolding of the image. The image is no longer the forbidding forbidden, but the gratifying gratification.
But the simultaneous unfolding of perversion and image is at the same time their ultimate self-annihilation. The unfolding of love is reversed and swallowed up in the pure visual experience of sadovoyeurism, the negation of precisely beauty that is the spark that ignites the passion of love. And the image turns out to be precisely the contrary of what it intended to be: to reveal a heightened beauty. In a first phase it revealed a heightened beauty, that it at the same time made inaccessible by bereaving it of its tangibility. In a second phase it staged a fully accessible perfection, but a perfection that only contains the destruction of the initially promised ideal. Through enabling and enacting the destruction of what it originally was meant to reveal, the image comes to resemble what it represents: from a means of revelation it is turned into a catalyst of destruction. In that sense the shroud of Turin – Magdalene’s veil – may pose as the paradigm of such development. The void of love in the image as a void: truly, this is the veritable black hole, of which Malewitch’s black square on black background, meant to seal the end of figurative are and to herald the advent of abstract art, is only the faint afterglow.
Through such sinister a diabolic dialectics, the image speaks out a ban against itself. In the end, it has become the forbidding forbidden again, but now in a far more profound sense: by forbidding love, it finally also forbids itself. Time has come to tackle the mimetic taboo.
Chapter XII of ‘the erotic eye and its nude’
see also: 'the ecstasies of eros'
THE TABOO ON THE EROTIC IMAGE
We should finally concentrate on a far more mitigated form of the destruction of beauty: the resistance against the erotic image.
Of old, erotic images have been subject to often fierce taboos. It is an illusion to think that those taboos have been gradually overcome over the course of history. Quite the contrary: the forces opposing the ‘frenzy of the visible’ (Williams) are growing stronger with the introduction of every new technique of production or reproduction of images. From Moses, Plato, Buddha and Confucius, over Mohammed, Savanarola, Luther and Calvin, to Dworkin and Khomeini, an ever increasing choir of iconoclasts have been fulminating against the growing tidal wave of erotic imagery. It is not our intention to write the history of that opposition. Rather are we interested in the attitude of the artists and the art lovers themselves. For, their stance on erotic imagery is not always positive. In the silence of their workshops, they often wage a fierce battle against the allure of erotic beauty and the fascination of its destruction, just like Saint Anthony in the desert. Long before iconoclasts engage in their destructive undertakings, they often have expelled themselves the devil from many an image with their own hands.
(1) THE TABOO ON EROTIC IMAGERY
Cet homme (Boucher) ne prend le pinceau que pour me montrer des tétons et des fesses.
Je suis bien aise d’en voir, mais je ne puis souffrir qu’on me les montre’
The taboo on erotic imagery is an extension of the natural and culturally enforced taboo on the display of the erotic beauty of real bodies, which we already examined in chapter VIII. There we described the natural propensity to hide the genitals from view, the propensity of lovers to retire, and the avoidance of seduction in everyday commerce.
The image only makes things worse. It elevates beauty to unknown heights. That induces many a lover to look for an afterglow in the real world. There, he has often to conclude that he does not qualify. He then resumes his commerce with the image. Which is not difficult, since the beauty in the image surpasses the beauty of real bodies. This cannot but strengthen the feelings of inferiority and the frustration in the poor onlooker, and therewith also his resentment, not only of the beauty in the image, but also of the image itself. The same feelings are stirred in the lesser beauties, who feel eclipsed by the heightened beauty in the image and feel utterly excluded.
That does not prevent the image from providing a visual pleasure which the real world cannot but withhold. In real life, voyeurism is by nature confined to the contemplation of the face and those parts of the body left uncovered or intimated through the clothes. In the image, the voyeur can lay eyes upon the whole body, excited genitals included. That makes it all the more difficult to resist. This turns out to be a poisoned gift: it is impossible to have intercourse with an image. The image transforms the onlooker into a castrated voyeur, looking at the hermaphrodite body (chapter III) or the beast with two backs (chapter X and XI). That cannot fail to stir feelings of resentment against the image and what it depicts (Kappeler). As we have seen, that leads to the ultimate destruction of beauty and the image alike.
(2) THE AESTHETICISING OF THE EROTIC IMAGE
There is, however, another way out, which we deliberately left out of the picture in our description of the erotic themes in the preceding chapters.
What has to appear in the image, has to adapt itself to the nature of the image. The image forbids tactile and genital commerce and hence is only appropriate to the pure visual initial phase of erotic commerce. It is all too well that Titian’s Venus hides her treasures with a subtle gesture of the hand – a reminder of the ‘noli me tangere’ of the immaculate virgin. Were she to splay her legs wide, like the headless trunk in Courbet’s ‘Origine du Monde’, she would no longer so graciously balance on the rope between revealed visual beauty and merely promised tactile or genital gratification.
Thus, there is also a taboo on the erotic representation emanating from the very nature of the image itself. And that taboo is in line with the natural taboo inherent in vision itself: senses of the distance cannot feel, let alone genitally consume. The subtle gesture of Titian’s Venus saves the erotic eye from the traps of the visualisation of the genital. No longer has it to look on sadly how the erotic appearance is dissolving into the hermaphrodite or the beast with two backs. The curtain before Courbet’s picture in Khalil Bey’s palace cannot conceal that the image has become a fetish and has thereby betrayed its true destiny.
It becomes the image to be somewhat reserved about the allure of what it conjures up. In order to remain faithful to its destiny, it should rather use sexual arousal to create a kind of visual perpetuum mobile in focussing on the formal beauty of the erotic appearance – the proportions and the composition of forms and lines, black and white, colours and materials. The erotic appearance is then the starting point of another kind of pleasure: the ease with which the appearance can be comprehended. This is a purely sensual – aesthetic – pleasure, whereby the pleasure in the ease is in relation with the complexity of the task. Such pleasure can join the erotic allure and at the same time propels the erotic arousal along aesthetic pathways. Therein, formal beauty resembles clothes that heighten the erotic tension in prolonging denudation. It is as if an invisible veil is woven over the erotic charms. Instead of being the spark that ignites the erotic fire, formally aestheticised erotic appearance invites us to submerge in it. Formally contained erotic beauty is the highest form of visual beauty. Not for nothing have artists of old been obsessed by the challenge of catching erotic beauty in the image. Not for nothing are the highest achievements of the visual arts to be found in the domain of erotic imagery. And not for nothing are the most beautiful examples in this book often hand-made pictures: not only do they warrant a continuous heightening of beauty, they also enable a far more severe formal containment of that heightened beauty as well.
As soon as the image formally contains the erotic appearance, it is no longer the embodiment of a fourfold taboo. It no longer forbids tactile or genital pleasure, but generously grants full visual pleasure. And it is no longer doomed to enact the forbidden: no longer does it stage the arousal through a third party – the primal scene – but an erotic appearance that is freely allowed to capture us. At the same time, the formal containment of erotic beauty transforms voyeurism into an aesthetic attitude. Sexual arousal is consumed in the creating or discovering of formal beauty. Such completion of the perverse move effectively checks the transformation of voyeurism into sadovoyeurism. Only then is the voyeur transformed in an artist or an art lover, and the exhibitionist in an erotic performer. The marriage of erotic and formal beauty not only seals voyeurism’s coming of age as an accomplished aesthetic pleasure, it also enables the image to fulfil its true destiny: the revelation of beauty.
The same image that asks for the formal containment of erotic beauty, lifts the ban on the completion of the full sadomasochistic sacrifice. As opposed to the enactment of erotic beauty, the destruction of beauty does not require formal containment: the source of arousal is drying up. Only the mitigated versions of the sadomasochistic performance ask for formal – ritual – containment, although it is not the unfolding of love that has to be checked here, but the urge to destroy its fountainhead: beauty. That is betrayed in the often meticulous composition of the mise-en-scène. Sadomasochistic literature obtains the same effect by providing elaborated and often endless details about what, where, when and why: this diverts the attention from what is really happening.
It will not have escaped the attention of the reader, though, that, precisely when the destructive impulses are given free rein, an often breathtaking beauty is coaxed from the in essence repulsive sight of what we get to see then. To the effect that we no longer avert our eyes in disgust, but, on the contrary, continue looking with fascination. In that sense, beauty saves the image also when it stages the destruction of the nude. Although such beauty is isolated from what has been a beautiful body, it cannot but stir the homesickness for the immaculate nude. But, since the nude is now destroyed, that desire is neutralised, at least for as long as we continue looking. What has been a means of destroying the sexual urge is thus transformed into an effective means of letting the pleasure in beauty remain purely aesthetic – a purely visual enjoyment that no longer asks for its completion in an act. Such aestheticising is often far more effective than that of bodily beauty: with the latter, the goal is within reach, while, with the former, any attempt at proceeding to touching is checked by the ugliness of what then looms up. That is probably why beauty in art so often goes hand in hand with ugliness.
(3) THE DE-EROTISATION OF THE EROTIC IMAGE
Conversely, it seems far more difficult to maintain a proper balance between aesthetic and erotic beauty. Time and again, the erotic image capitulates for the call of genital release. It is not difficult to see why. So urgent is sexual scarcity – not least as a consequence of the fact that beauty in the image eclipses real beauty – that many a potential lover prefers to let him castrate by the image, rather then being disillusioned or rejected in the real world. When the image has to titillate, formal beauty only diverts the attention. The focus is on purely erotic releasers. The most beautiful women display themselves in the most alluring poses. It is these images that call forth the anti-erotic resentment. It will be superfluous to insert that kind of images in our text.
That is why many an artist tries to ban the erotic image from the image, rather then to destroy it.
An obvious solution is to play off the medium. The artist can replace the softness of the skin with strokes or grain, break the magic of colour through resorting to black and white (or white marble) of neutralise the undulations of the body through reducing the body to a sheer circumference or a surface. We have illustrated this in chapter VIII, 6.
The artist can also devaluate the nude. He then stages mere naked, if not non-ideal nudes: from the pre-pubertal girls of Shiele, over modal bodies with all their natural shortcomings, to deformed or mutilated bodies, if not corpses. Such anti-idealistic trend can already be observed in Hellenism, it was overwhelming in the official Christian art of the Middle Ages, got new impulse after the restoration of the rights of the body in the Renaissance, after the advent of erotic photos in the middle of the nineteenth century and in the wake of feminism in the twentieth century. Thus, Neads – inspired by Derrida’s predilection for what is outside the frame – pleads for the depiction of what has hitherto been excluded from the image: the vagina and her menstruation.
(4) CIRCLING AROUND THE NUDE
"The nude is for the artist what love is for the poet"
Far less obvious is the replacement of the nude with subjects that centrifugally orbit around it.
To begin with, there is the portrait. At the hinge between non-erotic - political and economic - and erotic commerce, it is predestined to initiate the move away from the nude. Instead of being the prelude to the submerging of the face in the overall erotic appearance, it comes to express the political and economic import of the person.
In other images, the focus is shifting from reciprocal seduction to competitive or productive action. In the beginning we are dealing with religious or historical scenes. Gradually, when cheaper forms of images were introduced, we see ever more profane subjects replace the heroic feats of rulers and saints. The focus is shifting to transient, peripheral events, culminating in the snapshots of photography. Although it cannot be denied that many of these images exert the necessary charms, they nevertheless are peripheral subjects. After all, men as well women are economically and politically active only in view of acquiring sexual gratification. That goes especially for the flaunting of power and wealth: the Trojan War was in fact a war for Helen.
Such mediated, competitive or productive action is performed in an environment: an interior or a landscape as the scene on which human action unfolds. Initially, the focus is more on the action than on the environment, but gradually the environment takes over, to finally push the action aside. In a first phase, man is only represented through signs: the buildings or products testifying to his wealth or his poverty, if not to the idleness of human endeavour:
And that reminds us of the fact that it is precisely political and economical relations which are responsible for the fact that loving relations cannot develop properly. Not surprising, hence, that every depiction of sexual relations cannot fail to leave a nasty aftertaste. And that cannot but lend an additional charm to the centrifugal movement away from the nude: a sojourn in the distant realms where the human fate is shaped has at least the advantage that it can keep the fire of hope burning.
Unless we prefer to resign in the sight of unspoilt nature, which is totally indifferent for human strivings or which immeasurably rises above it. In all these cases, the landscape negates the competition that used to appear in the centre of attention.
Human action can also be replaced with the depiction of man’s weapons and tools or the products of his labour. But, just like the painters themselves, also the theoreticians seem not to be aware of a more fundamental negation. Beyond the opposition between human action and instruments and products, the more fundamental opposition between erotic and non-erotic escapes the attention. The still life is not so much the negation of human action, as rather of the goal of any action. After all, instruments and products of labour are destined to enter the economic exchange between man and woman, who feed each other and their children.
Bryson is right in arguing that, in the still life, the apogee of the Albertian painting is missing: the vanishing point (69) While, in the geometric centre of Titian’s Venus of Urbino the vagina is shown, in Cotan, the logarithmic spiral is rotating around a black void – the counterpart of the black square on white background of Malewitch, who not for nothing also placed a black cross in the centre:
Such genealogy of iconography – Hegel somewhat on his head – demonstrates that the nude is the real vanishing point of all subject matter. Although we should remind that – just like the spirit in the eye – also the erotic appearance disappears in the hole.
(5) FROM THE TABOO ON EROTIC IMAGERY TO THE TABOO ON MIMESIS
There are also more formal solutions of the problem. In an endeavour to ban the nude from the image, many an artist focuses on formal beauty, which originally was meant to merely contain erotic beauty. They submit the body and its parts to some formal pattern: they reduce the organic forms to geometrical schemes or translate them in purely formal compositions of black and white, colour, or texture. The body becomes increasingly unrecognisable, if it is not reduced to a pure abstract scheme.
Also the bodies entwined do not escape that fate. In real life, they are often mingled up in an inextricable knot. We already described how that called forth the propensity to arrange the bodies in often rigid symmetries that, for real bodies, are rather uncomfortable straitjackets.
Sometimes the artists go so far that they reject the importance of the – in essence erotic - subject matter altogether, and try to get rid of mimesis as such. The anti-erotic impulse is the extended to an all-encompassing anti-mimetic crusade. In a first phase, this move results in the development of abstract art in the first half of the twentieth century. ‘Figuration’ as such is rejected and the artists resort to a purely formal play with geometrical forms. In fact, these are merely the double negation of the nude: they are monolithic objects, as opposed to the body that is a harmonious whole of diverse parts. And they are flat and angular, as opposed to the round and undulating surface of the body. Through such negation, abstract art unwillingly betrays its real origin. The anti-erotic character of the early abstract painting has hardly been recognised (see also 'Mimesis and abstraction'). Only Steiner (1965) negatively asks the question: ‘Would not one of the definitions of abstract, non-objective art be that it cannot be pornographic’. Far more consequent has been the complete rejection of mimesis as such; the feat of ‘conceptual’ art in all its variants. Instead of transfiguration the world – in essence: erotic beauty – in the image, it is banned from the image through hanging signs on the wall, that only refer to a world outside the picture. Mimesis is transformed into semiosis (See: About the realtion between philosophy and art). This seals the end of art. The taboo on the image in the traditional art of the past century is only the most recent of a long series of anti-mimetic upsurges that of old are wreaking havoc in the world of the image. The same impulse will have laid on the roots of the imposing of a generalised taboo on representation by Moses that has been taken over in the Islam and led to the bloom of abstract art in all those religions.
Needless to say that a heavy toll has been paid for such anti-erotic trend that extends into a veritable anti-mimetic crusade. What art gains in formal beauty – and the artist in respectability – it loses in appeal.
(6) THE RETURN OF THE REPRESSED
The erotic devil does not let himself expell so easily. There is something like the return of the repressed.
The corrosion of erotic appeal through grain, black and white or the silhouette discloses often unexpected charms. The staging of repellent nudes feeds the resentment against the unattainable beauty, or satisfies a whole array of ‘paraphilias’ such as paedophilia, efebephilia or gerontophilia, if not necrophilia, zoophilia and the like. And in the previous chapter, we have described the secret charms of the destruction of beauty.
The erotic devil also joins the centrifugal move away from the nude. We already mentioned how the depiction of scenes of torture is often a nearly concealed alibi to satisfy sadistic impulses. Also the many ‘historic scenes’ are mostly a mere alibi to stage nude bodies in all kinds of poses. That is foremost the case with scenes of battle, that often acquire an erotic freight as a consequence of the similarity between fighting and copulating.
Also more prosaic activities often allow for indirect sexual gratification. Most cherished is the theme of the individual or collective bath: from the countless Bethesda’s in the bath, over the Turkish Bath of Ingres, to the many ‘bathers’ in modern art. Also photography developed countless, rather modest variants: the visit of the doctor, the secretary on the ladder, the nurse and so on.
The erotic devil even knows how to provoke the elusive erotic beauty out of the landscape or the still life. Human action is negated in the representation of nature as a lost paradise, where everything can be found in plenty, wherefore man has to labour hard. But the fruits in paradise are the nearly concealed substitutes for the real fruits that can be harvested after hard work. And these often shimmer through in the contours of many a landscape.
And of course above all the objects on the still life can all too easily be read symbolically: the image is then debased to a mere sign that has to conjure up erotic associations in the dark chamber of the skull. Elsewhere, things take the shape of the repressed nude or engage in often nearly concealed orgies.
In general, the repressed erotic pleasure resurfaces in the often obsessive realism and the fascination through transparency, reflection and the like, that characterises many a landscape or still life from the Romans onward;
All these trends converge in Duchamp’s ‘La marièe mise à nu par ses célibataires même’. At first glance, it is only a heap of meaningless objects – a kind of synthesis of historic scene, landscape and still life. After interpretation, however, it cannot but conjure up rather obscene representations in the mind. It is no accident that this prelude to ‘conceptual art’ is the product of an artist who was known for his rejection of mere sensual titillation of the retina.
Also the geometrical straitjacket, in which the nude has been contorted, often only enhances its secret erotic charms. A voluptuous pose may lend its momentum or its justification from it. Or the symmetry of the composition betrays the nearly concealed desire of the bodies to entwine: geometry is turned into a symbol of bodily interaction. Or it is transformed into a symbolic comment on what it contains, as when Brancusi catches his lovers within the confines of a cube. Often precisely those parts of the nude, that have become unrecognisable through abstraction, begin to resemble other objects, that in their turn symbolically refer back to what has been hidden from view. And geometric discipline necessarily reminds of the frames in which sadists use to hang their victims.
And, last but not least, even the most consequent abstraction, or even the most fervent conceptualising of art cannot clean art from its erotic stains. Already in Klimt do the clothes, that are meant to hide the nudity of the models, brim over with abstract motives with overt erotic connotations, when they do not engage in sexual life altogether. With Eva Hesse, the geometric volume of the cube is suddenly turned in what it negates: the smooth, round, organic hole of the womb.
Often the repressed returns only in the mind of the beholder, who descries an erotic charge in even the most abstract representations. Thus, Lucy-Smith does not hesitate to read Mondriaan’s crosses in terms of copulation. As if abstract art would be one gigantic orgy.
Conceptual art, finally, continues to speak of art notwithstanding all its anti-mimetic fervour. That betrays how strong the appeal of what has been condemned continues to be. Also the predilection of iconic signs instead of purely abstract verbal signs, testifies to the repression.
(7) ETERNAL BEAUTY
Needless to say that there is a big difference between the return of the repressed and the cautious balancing on the chord between erotic containment of erotic appeal. It suffices to compare the images.
The reach and the impact of the ant-erotic impulse, which extends to a general anti-mimetic crusade, can shed a new light on the production of artistic images as such. Consecutive tidal waves of erotic imagery have flooded the world on an ever increasing scale and in ever more broad layers of the population. The discoveries in Pompeii may give us an idea of the huge quantities of erotic imagery that may have been destroyed in the course of the centuries. It is apparent then, that these tidal waves are not some undercurrent that has not connexion whatsoever with 'genuine' art. For it is not by accident that the anti-mimetic fervour of modern art originates at precisely the moment when, in the middle of the nineteenth century, erotic photos have been exported by the shipload to every corner of the world. The anti-mimetic impulse in modern art is only a particular example of the increasing anti-mimetic fervour that, from the very beginning of the production of images has been opposing the profusion of erotic imagery. Many a commentator either looks back with home-sickness to the freedom of times bygone or places far away, or sketches a history where ever new taboos are lifted. We think that, from the beginning, opposite forces have been at work: on the one hand the frenzy of the visible, the propensity to catch everything in the image, as opposed to the tendency to centrifugally move away form the erotic beauty.
How such dynamics unfolds historically, is determined by the development of mimetic techniques. Labour-intensive mimetic techniques are predestined for prestigious centrifugal subject-matter: erotic themes are more easily depicted in a print than in a marble sculpture. In addition, techniques that are not so labour-intensive, and hence cheaper, more easily lend themselves for private use. A fresco or a marble sculpture are more suitable for public use, a print or a photo for private use. And, since the development of mimetic techniques is characterised by increasing productivity, the development of subject matter seems to steadily move towards the erotic centre. With every increase in productivity, the image seems to push toward the centre an on ever increasing scale, which calls forth ever new and ever more drastic anti-mimetic reactions, in the image in the first place.
On the other hand another characteristic of production is responsible for the fact that ever more eccentric subject matter is dealt with. Images last. While musicians have always to reinterpret existing scores, visual artists and writers are compelled to tackle ever new subject-matter. As soon as the handling of the most obvious subject matter is saturated, more centrifugal themes explored, which also produces the illusion of an ever increasing freedom.
(8) THE CULT OF THE IMAGE AS AN ORGY
Up to now, we took only sexual - voyeuristic - motives into account. Time has come to introduce another factor that fuels the development of the image: communal - orgiastic - motives (see also: 'The orgy'. Also the desire to meet collective standards and the desire to share beauty lie at the roots of the production of erotic imagery.
In view of the relentless and often fierce opposition against the ‘increasing’ sexual freedom, the benevolent effect of the communal enjoyment must be stressed. A common sexual standard is imposed on the whole community and stimulates every member to cultivate his beauty and his sexual prowess. How benevolent this effect is, can be measured by the overall appearance of members of ascetic cultures condemning every orgiastic feeling in view of some spiritual mission. Just like erotic clothes eroticise the body, ascetic clothes induce a general degeneration of bodily beauty. The same goes for the sexual habits.
It cannot be denied, however, that erotic imagery eclipses the beauty of real bodies and real sexual behaviour. On the other hand, it must be granted that the quasi omnipresence of erotic imagery has furthered the diversity of sexual commerce and has made short work of the negative effects of centuries of sexual repression, in the first place due to the material conditions of the masses that had to produce the wealth of a minority that was allowed to enjoy full sexual freedom. What Foucault considers to be an increasing control, is in the long run only a superficial and transient reaction, due to the vehemence of the erotic earthquake caused by the increasing wealth of ever new layers of the population in the industrialised world. This explains the spread of a refined sexual culture in ever more layers of society.
It has to be admitted, however, that not everybody can meet the standards of the universally acclaimed embodiments of beauty and the athletes of sexual prowess. Precisely therefore, the communal consecration of beauty threatens to restrict itself to the chosen few. The solution has not to be found in forbidding the display of beauty (especially when a proper distinction is made between communal seduction and sexual seduction, which may be asking too much). As opposed to material conditions, that can be improved and more fairly distributed, bodily beauty is unequally distributed over a given population. Although many techniques allow for some correction, the ideal of erotic egalitarianism will certainly remain an illusion forever. In the meantime, those who feel eclipsed, should rather develop other qualities – as the minor beauties have done of old – instead of hindering the happier ones to enjoy their beauty and to display their charms.
© Stefan Beyst 2000-2003 http://d-sites net