The Limits of Language: The Metaphysics of Eroticism

Die Grenzen Meiner Sprache, K. Rakoll, limited edition digital print, 2007.

In his book “Erotism: Death and Sensuality,” George Bataille admitted to an uneasy relationship with poetry. In fact, he bemoaned the poverty of language to express the experience of extreme eroticism. He begins the book with a long defense on why there is no objective way in which to examine or to discuss eroticism, because it is a wholly interior experience. And yet the Mexican poet and Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz said that eroticism was to sex what poetry was to language. It was Michel Foucault, in his essay valorizing Bataille, who postulated that, as in death and other extreme human experiences, eroticism is a space in which language falters. Very often, said Foucault, the language we use to discuss sex does violence to it.

Is this going to turn into another discussion of the pornography / erotic fiction divide? Well, in a way it is. Because as humans, we are peculiar creatures, and we often come to understand things by knowing what they are not. But I hope this will also be an essay of encouragement to erotica writers; A way to say that writing about the erotic experience in all its richness and complexity a very difficult but worthy endeavor.


Well, before the Enlightenment, humans had a very good sense of what they were and what the purpose of their life was. We were put here to serve God. To do His bidding. To repay Him for the gift of the sacrifice of His son, on the cross. As Jacques Derrida observed, as gifts go, it was one with horrific strings attached. But nonetheless, within the Judeo-Christian world, as humans, our nature and our purpose was given to us. How well or badly we stuck to that purpose was judged in reference to something external and beyond us. God was our judge. Of course, Descartes presaged the end of all that, Kant compounded it, and by the time Nietzsche was stinking up the slipcovers and declaring the Death of God, we were on our own. We were responsible for describing ourselves, for engineering our own purposes, and for judging ourselves.

And if that’s the case, it should be easy to use language to do that, shouldn’t it?

What a number of 20th Century thinkers found out, especially in Europe where they get the funding to lie around thinking about such things, is that there are parts of the human experience that simply stretch language (our ability to conceptualize and communicate them) to its limits. And, it turns out, this occurs in very interesting places. Usually, but not always, at the extremes of experience. It is not unreasonable to believe that there is something important to be learned about ourselves in these places where language fails us, if only because of the phenomenon of the fact that it does.  And it is not a coincidence that this European fetish for examining these limits of language is also the place where people feel that literature can contain a hefty dose of erotic writing and still be considered literature.

As unappetizing as their works might seem now, two writers really braved the frontier and lived (through the survival of their works) to tell about it. Sade and Sacher-Masoch. Ironic, isn’t it, that both these writers were obsessed with the extremes of the erotic. So much so, that many people don’t consider what they wrote as very erotic at all. But they eased the way for the many more palatable examples of the subject that came after them. And although a lot of ‘naughty’ writing emerged from Victorian England, and there was the mind-blowing anomaly that is James Joyce, it is not entirely unfair to lay the blame for why some of us take eroticism so seriously almost wholly on the French. Because even though they didn’t write it all, they published a lot of it, critiqued it, and generally felt it to be important enough to discuss seriously and, more to the point, philosophically.

Anyone who has attempted to write the sensation of an orgasm, without resorting to the cliche bullshit that has emerged as the babyfood of erotica, knows how insanely frustrating it is. Just describing the physical reality is hard enough, but the minute one attempts to describe how it feels, how it affects our sense of space, time, our perceptions of the other, present in the moment, etc., well, it’s a total bitch. All the very best textual examples of it have a suspiciously poetic quality to them.  Because Octavio Paz was right. It turns out that the tighter we hold onto empirical, analytical language, the more abject our failure. So, one way people go about it is to circumvent the problem by not describing it at all, and leaving it to the mind of the reader to fill in the slippery (pun intended) details. Another is to opt for a sort of pot-throwing approach: using language as the clay, but letting the subtle chaos of unconscious – a kind of potter’s wheel – to do some of the work. Allowing the language to be slippery, lumpy, imprecise by using metaphor and surreality, rhythm, cadence, and semiotics to deliver an impressionist rendering of the event. This, of course, can result in some very nasty purple prose. But it can also result in something that approximates the sublime. It isn’t a particularly economical method; you have to be prepared to consign a lot of your efforts to the garbage.

But I’ve only used the example of the orgasm. And I don’t want you to think this even begins to describe the challenge of writing the erotic. Because, pulling out to a larger view of the challenge, erotic desire is even harder to get a handle on. And sure, you can use the image of a hard cock to symbolize erotic desire, but it’s a piss poor symbol. It equates to how erotic desire plays out on the body, but it gives no hint at all as to what erotic desire does to the mind.

Pornography does a marvelous job of showing you the surface of what’s going on when people get all up in each other’s business. For the most part, it shows us sex. People going at it. And if we weren’t such complete species bigots, a filmed sequence of dogs fucking should also do the trick for getting us in the mood to fuck.  But I’d ask you to accept the premise that to scratch the biological itch is not, in itself, erotic. If we’re honest, we’ve all have experiences of getting off and shooting our respective wads, that were utilitarian rather than erotic. But if Bataille and Paz are right, and eroticism is not about copulation, reproduction, or simply physical sexual release or even the fleeting, purely physical pleasure of orgasm, but rather the strange excessive meaning we have piled onto the human sexual experience, the mental pleasure present in the erotic moment that often lingers afterwards or even rears its head when there’s no prospect of an erotic encounter in sight, then pornography fails utterly. And, in all fairness, so does a lot of erotic fiction.

One of the reasons I think it fails these days is because we have come to mistake any form of sexual experience for an erotic one. I encounter this a lot, when someone on twitter DMs me and says: ‘Wanna see my cock?’ You may laugh. But think about it. This COULD be an erotic experience if I personally thought that there was something deliciously dirty and transgressive in gazing on a nameless, disembodied cock. If I was brought up to believe that such a symbol of decontextualized sex was inherently bad. Sadly, I wasn’t. To me it’s just a biological specimen out of its jar. Now, if the person offering to show me the cock is an exhibitionist who has some sense that showing his erect cock, while withholding the rest of his presence, is somehow dirty or bad or nasty, it might very well be erotic for him. But on the whole, it’s just a matter of a very utilitarian urge to get off and a vain hope that a few words from me with make the process slightly easier. In a way, it’s an attempt to complete the process more efficiently. The truth is, a lot of sex is just this. There’s nothing wrong with it; its the human animal following his misguided and very confused instinct to spread seed. But its not necessarily erotic. This is why I feel Bataille is right. That eroticism requires some form of conflict, of personal transgression – even if that transgression doesn’t seem particularly transgressive to anyone else. As Octavio Paz said: “Sexuality is general; eroticism, singular.” This is why one person’s porn is another person’s eroticism. The mistake is in assuming we are going to always agree. The art is in judging when we do.

Another reason why we might fail is because we try to insert love as a central site of eroticism. It isn’t that love cannot be present in eroticism. For some people, getting there without it is just not an option. It is simply that a lot work that straddles the erotica/romance divide ends up moving the focus by mistake. This phenomena of erotic transcendence is an admittedly emotionally, one might even say spiritually, dangerous place, if one reaches it at all. And for many people, going to that space with someone you don’t trust is too frightening to contemplate. How many people can you honestly say you trust, but don’t love? Of course, some of those people you can name are out of bounds, because of the taboo of incest, or because they happen not to be the right gender for your particular orientation. But on the whole, if you love someone, you trust them, and this allows you to go to that exhilarating, awe-inspiring, frightening place with them. So love may be a prerequisite for even attempting the journey, but not for the experience itself.

For me, some of the most successful erotic fiction involving romantic love occurs when one of the characters loves but does not trust the other, or trusts but does not love the other. Because either of these states are socially problematic and set the stages for some kind of transgression that enables the opening of the door to eroticism.

And this leads me to the last of the examples I’ll offer of where writing the erotic can be difficult. There is a word that is used often in philosophy, critical studies and among those of us who count angels on the heads of pins: Alterity. It means ‘otherness’. But what makes it a good word is that it encompasses the very strange dilemma we, as individuals, face every day of our lives. It is The Other. The one who is not us. Everyone but you. There’s a lot of funny stuff that happens when you study how we relate to The Other. And it gets even weirder when we let that Other into our personal space. Weirder still when we touch the Other, or the Other touches us. Here, for instance, we get a strange and beautiful paradox, examined eloquently by another French guy by the name of Jean Luc Nancy. When someone kisses you, and your lips touch, are you kissing them, or are they kissing you? Are you feeling your lips being met, or meeting theirs? Yeah, it’s a headfuck, I know. But when it comes to the realm of eroticism, you can see how we are getting into a place, with regard to this paradox, that gets freaky strange. When I thrust into you (just pretend I have a cock, because sometimes, I’m convinced I do and no one else can see it), am I penetrating you or are you consuming me? What is more aggressive, penetration or consummation? If you just want to look at this from a purely physical perspective, as happens in porn, there is no paradox. But once you start to examine the interior experience of this physicality, it’s easy to get lost. It’s why people, quite correctly say, they lose themselves in each other. At the point where this is occurring, we lose what Bataille called our ‘discontinuity’.  We stop being discontinuous separate beings. We get to somewhere beyond that, where I don’t know where my body begins and yours ends. And where sometimes, I don’t know where I begin and you end. We are at that fleeting moment of ego death. And how can I speak when I am not me anymore.

This is where language fails us. At this, often momentary, point of transcendence. There is no air in the void. Nothing to inhale and use to enable us to speak. And it’s over so fast. We fall back into our bodies, and our individualities, and it’s over.

To me, all good erotic writing attempts, in some way or another, to represent those experiences, those eerie little miracles that occur, even though ‘God is Dead’. My guess is that we are almost always going to fail to capture that state. But I believe that even getting close tells us immense things about who we are as humans and what we are meant to be, since it’s our job to do it now.

On the other hand, it has been theorized that eroticism is simply one of the grand narratives perpetuated by modernism, and is already dead. But that’s another post.

Erotic Romance vs Erotica: Order vs Chaos

Hans Bellmer, The Brick Cell

There are probably a number of outstanding erotica writers out there who have written delicious novels full of BDSM kinkiness wondering why their royalty checks don’t look anything like those of E.L. James. This post is an attempt to explore why that is, and how the Erotic Romance genre is, philosophically and politically, almost the binary opposite of Erotica.

You would think that genres which predominantly focus on the nasty things two or more people get up to in bed would be closely related. Superficially, and commercially, they look very similar, but readers know they are not. Underneath the hood, ideologically, they stand almost in opposition to each other, despite the subject matter they share.

Modern erotic romance novels conform to the mythic structure of a classical comedy described by Northrop Frye. People meet, they become lovers, chaos ensues, but social order is finally restored in the form of a wedding. Although most erotic romances no longer end with a wedding, the ‘Happily Ever After’ convention is maintained through the explicit culmination of the romance in some sort mutually agreed upon serious and long-term emotional commitment to each other. By the end of the story, we are left with a stable ‘family-like’ unit. We go from order to chaos to order.

Even when the pairings in an erotic romance are non-normative, i.e. gay, lesbian, bi or trans romances, they still ultimately pay obeisance to the prevailing cultural dominance of a ‘normative’ relationship structure: two people, together forever. Even when the story revolves around a menage, it either ends with a pair at the end, and the third party neutralized somehow, or an hermetically sealed threesome that, for all intents and purposes, results in a place of domestic order.

No amount of wild, kinky or transgressive sex in the middle can mitigate the final conservative outcome of a neat, socially recognizable and culturally settled bond. The outcome of all these stories is essentially a conservative one. One that supports and perpetuates the prevailing social order.

I cannot recall who said it, but one very famous murder mystery writer once said that her readers were people who had a very passionate love of justice. No matter how gruesome the murders or thrillingly evil the murderer, he or she is inevitably caught and made to answer for the crimes.  The convention of the genre demands it. The readers expect it and are left disgruntled and unsatisfied when the implicit promise of the narrative is not delivered.

I would echo this by suggesting that, no matter how explicit, licentious or debauched the  sex, erotic romances promise something similar. These two individual characters with their chaotic taste for erotic adventure find each other and this perfect matching up of desires neutralizes whatever destabilizing influences they might have on society. The inevitable pairing at the end guarantees the reader a return to emotional and sexual order. Erotic Romance lovers are essentially ideologically conservative in their appreciation of a restoration of the social order.

But, according to Georges Bataille (the French writer and thinker who spent more time considering eroticism that almost anyone else on the planet) this conservative social order and eroticism are almost mutually exclusive.  Eroticism, said Bataille, is a uniquely human phenomenon that results from an excess of sexual energy. (Unlike almost all other animals, humans indulge in sex far more than the continuation of the species demands. Our instinct to have sex might be procreative, but our desire to have it far outstrips the needs of nature.)  This excess, this eroticism, is a dangerous and destabilizing force, he said. Which is exactly why all cultures, in one way or another, have attempted to control the effects of this energy and why so many of our religions, taboos and customs are especially focused on matters of sexuality and violence. Foremost amongst the mechanisms used to control these desires is the institution of marriage and the promotion of monogamous, procreative relationships.

Bataille, Lacan, Zizek, Deleuze, and others have made interesting observations on how one of the most effective ways to control humans within society is through work. Work occupies us, distracts us, commits us to the social order.  Spouses, mortgages, and 2.3 children turn out to be a very good way to keep us occupied, working to support them. So the myth of the romantic ideal of the permanent single partner whom we lust after in perpetuity and love eternally serves that hegemonic structure well. Perpetuating that myth through erotic romances encourages us to aspire to that myth in reality, make it our loftiest of all goals, and ultimately to internalize and validate that authority and its rules of social order with enthusiasm.

But the reality is that eroticism is a fleeting, liminal human experience. It does not – cannot – last long. And it would not be so attractive or precious to us if it could. Erotic heights are by their nature impermanent, chaotic, and fundamentally transgressive. Our greatest erotic experiences occur right at the edges of the limits imposed not only from without (in the form of prohibitions, taboos and religious interdictions) but more importantly, at our inner limits of the rules of behaviour we have internalized. Erotic ecstasy is the place where we lose ourselves, not just to another, but to the structured world. This, of course, cannot be sustained.  Or rather, it can only be sustained in death.

A person who gives themselves permission to enter this state of erotic rebellion is an anathema to the fabric of social order, since none of the rewards that society can offer them have any value in that moment. They are in a state of revolution against the stable, against categorization, against limitation, against even language itself. And this is what lies at the heart of all the best erotica. This essentially transgressive, anarchic, unconstrained state of being.

It took me a fairly long time to fathom why I, as a writer and reader, had such a deep antipathy toward the narrative structure of erotic romance. What’s wrong with me? Why don’t I like a good love story? Why can’t my characters end up blissfully happy and together forever? I have come to feel that the underlying text of the story-form of the erotic romance is a type of conservative social propaganda. Not ‘unfeminist’ as some feminists have claimed, but simply reflective and supportive of the status quo as regards all our positions as productive, functioning and controllable members of the current social structure.

I am, at heart, deeply anti-authoritarian.  And although in my everyday life, I am a quite a law-abiding, acquiescent citizen, I am not interested in taking that part of my world into my fictional writing.

The eroticism that does interest me lies in the opposite direction: that place of impermanence, transgression, and dangerous erotic experience. Its very instability is what I find so blindingly beautiful, intriguing and exciting.

So it is really not so very surprising that, despite the veneer of transgressiveness, Fifty Shades of Grey has done so much better than well-written, more erotic, more informed pieces of erotic fiction. Because beneath all the surface naughtiness, E.L. James’ ‘global shocker’ strongly reinforces a very stable and conservative social order. And, the truth is, most readers are far more comfortable with that.

(And before anyone jumps all over me, I would like to underscore that I’ve used the word ‘conservative’ to mean ideologically at home with the status quo and traditional social structures. I haven’t accused anyone here of voting Republican.)

Hot Chilli Erotica

Hot Chilli Erotica


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