|Bernini’s Saint Teresa of Avila|
Anyone who has been dropping in to my fiction blog for the past six months has probably had a rough time of it. I’m not apologetic; my blog was always meant to be a place of experimentation and that has only intensified since I began my doctoral studies.
What has been intriguing me, maddeningly, in the last little while is the subject of ‘Feminine Jouissance’ and how to represent it in contemporary erotic fiction. The French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, identified three types of what he called jouissance. Originating from the French verb ‘jouir’ (to enjoy) but also translated as the slang for having an orgasm, Lacan began by interpreting the word in the vernacular sense: sexual enjoyment. His definition evolved over time, becoming more complex and nuanced until it came to mean a type pleasure that causes pain. One of the best, easiest ways to get one’s head around this is to think of what you feel like, both in body and in mind, about 10 seconds before you reach orgasm. At that point it is not an entirely pleasurable feeling. Inherent in it is both the anticipation of great pleasure, the frustration, discomfort, and sometimes even the agony of not having quite reached it yet and, finally, the sometimes wistful sadness of the knowledge that it is over so fleetingly even before it has arrived.
Lacan identified three types of jouissance: phallic jouissance, the only kind experienced by most men (the state of pursuing a desire which, once arrived at is never quite the absolute bliss one dreamed it would be, which can also be experienced by women); the jouissance of the other (a form of yearning, exiting, and bitter envy in which one believes that the other person’s pleasure is somehow more perfect than one’s own) and feminine jouissance (which Lacan said could only be experienced by females and mystical men). Interestingly enough, both Bataille and Lacan chose the image of Bernini’s Saint Teresa, being pierced through the heart by an angel, to illustrate what they conceived of as a type of bliss most often described as ecstatic experience. I’m simplifying the explanation of these types of jouissance and especially how they pertain to gender because when Lacan spoke of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ he is not referring to biological gender identifiers and, in my opinion, never did a very good job of explaining exactly what he meant. This is exacerbated by the fact that he kept insisting that it couldn’t be described in language. Perhaps because he himself was very much an unmystical man? Admittedly, as you read on, you’re going to notice that this IS very difficult to write about, but I think it can be written around. I think it is possible to call the inner knowledge of most readers into the service of a mutual understanding of what we are talking about.
This idea of feminine jouissance intrigues me greatly because I think it drives the deepest erotic desires of many more people than we think. And , again, I want to underscore that although ‘jouissance’ always contains an aspect of pain, I’m not not referring to traditional definitions of masochism (where the masochist enjoys the sensation of physical pain). My gut says that this jouissance is present in some erotic romance writing and a lot of D/s erotica – if there is any internalized thought or dialogue present in the text – and refers to what is often described in purple prose as a ‘sweet pain’ or ‘delicious agony’ or ‘surrender.’
Not always overtly sexual, it is always erotic. The stimulus might originate in the brain, but it has physical reverberations. The pain/pleasure involved cannot be situated only in the body or only in the mind; it must take place in both. One of the reasons why I think the statue of Saint Teresa was used as an illustration of female jouissance is because it so literally and radically exemplifies the ‘sacrifice’ of penetration.
At this point I don’t want to even contemplate how much politically correct shit I’m pulling down on my head, but before you start to throw bricks at me, let me explain.
In the first place, sacrifice, as it pertains to women, always does come with a lot of sexist historical baggage. However, the baseline concept of sacrifice has to do with relinquishing something (a fatted calf, the village virgin, Christ, one’s bodily integrity, one’s individuation) for a specific purpose. You’re giving something in anticipation of getting something more important back. So what I mean by the ‘sacrifice of penetration’ is not that something is given up altruistically, but that it is a sort of metaphysical trade.
Secondly, I am speaking about penetration in either the physical or metaphorical sense. To be penetrated physically is a breach of the boundaries of the body. But I want to underscore that metaphorical penetration is just as radical an infringement of the integrity of the self. I disagree with Lacan that only ‘mystical’ men experience feminine jouissance and I’m not implying that he was leaving out gay or bi or trans men who enjoy being penetrated or submissively kinky men who like it also, because he didn’t. But I have witnessed both dominant and sadist males experience ‘feminine jouissance.’ It occurs when they allow the erotic entanglement to transgress their own boundaries – whether physical or ethical or emotional. The ways in which we are penetrated metaphorically in the midst of eroticism are many but I think, it always entails the pain, the pleasure and the exhilaration of a radical change of state, an undoing of the zipper of the hermetically sealed self. To find yourself in a state of genuine instability is to find yourself penetrated, and in the clutches of feminine jouissance.
What makes writing about this type of jouissance in a contemporary setting so difficult is that it flies in the face of a lot of our post-modern understandings of what it means to be an erotic person. We exist in a culture that celebrates the auto-creation and social inviolability of personhood. The modern sexual woman, we are told, makes no sacrifice. She comes to the erotic moment fully individuated, knowing all her needs and ready to ensure they are met. So, although she is gets fucked in any number of orifices, she cannot be ‘penetrated.’ This phallic jouissance; she may experience disappointment, but never the destabilization or breach of her identity. So it is easier to set narratives that involve feminine jouissance in the past. Apparently we can female sacrifice if it’s set in earlier times. Those poor women, they didn’t know better. And, as readers, we can enjoy the nostalgia of their jouissance, their sacrifice, vicariously.
I hesitate to bring this up at all, but one of the reasons I think Fifty Shades of Grey was so popular was because, sexually at least, Anastasia Steel is almost the model of a Regency Romance virgin. And, as badly written and politically incorrect as it is, a lot of readers enjoyed the vicarious spectacle of her ‘penetration’ and her ‘sacrifice.’ For me, the problem with it is that was just such a cliched, hamfisted example of it.
Similarly, the idea of the ‘penetrated male’ as some lesser form of the gender has been around for thousands of years and, in the mainstream, continues to this day. It’s probably why so many male protagonists in both male and female-penned erotic fiction seem so rigid and cardboardish and – haha – impenetrable.
I’d like to make a plea for a reinstatement of feminine jouissance, of sacrifice, of metaphysical penetration in contemporary erotic writing. But please, let us not resort to the same old spectacles of sacrifice. Let us consider that this giving over, this destabilization, this surrender is not gendered. It is deeply human. It defies the material transaction and celebrates the metaphysical one. I believe there are new ones for us to explore.