Eschatology and Orgasm
by Jason DeBoer
essay first appeared in ALR.)
The moment of orgasm, despite its intensity within the human experience, has been summarily neglected by most philosophers over the centuries. Other forms or instances of ecstasy have been thoroughly dissected (such as drunkenness or Dionysian euphoria, drug-induced visions, religious ecstasy, etc.), yet whenever eroticism is broached as a topic it seems that the particularities of its culmination, orgasm, are usually missing from the discourse. Orgasm, much like the actual moment of death, has inhabited a strange place in human knowledge, in that it has often been alluded to but rarely spoken of directly. If these subjects are so perennially taboo, does this arise from ignorance of their mechanisms, or fear? Both of these intense events, sexual climax and the act of dying, seem to cast an eschatological shadow over the human mind, which mires us in feelings of fear and loss. While it is certainly understandable that humans fear death, with its inescapable and incomprehensible termination, it is less clear why a moment of physical joy like orgasm also carries with it certain psychological associations of anxiety or sorrow. Is there a correlation between the finality of orgasm in the sexual act and the finality of death in the life cycle? I would like to examine this question through the writings of those courageous few that have braved the subject.
Michel Foucault, in The Use of Pleasure, examined the framework through which ancient philosophers such as Aristotle, Plato, Hippocrates, and Galen viewed the significance of the sexual act. Thinkers determined rather early in human history that there was a decidedly negative side to the pleasure of sex. For the Greeks, "[sexual] anxiety revolved around three focal points: the very form of the act, the cost it entailed, and the death to which it was linked. It would be a mistake to see in Greek thought only a positive valuation of the sexual act. Medical and philosophical reflection describes it as posing a threat, through its violence, to the control and mastery that one ought to exercise over oneself; as sapping the strength the individual should conserve and maintain, through the exhaustion it caused; and as prefiguring the death of the individual while assuring the survival of the species."
Ejaculation held the prominent place in how the ancients perceived the sexual act: "By focusing entirely on this moment of emission-of foamy excretion, seen as the essential part of the act--one placed at the core of sexual activity a process that was characterized by its violence, an all but irrepressible mechanics, and a force that escaped control. But one also raised--as an important problem in the use of pleasures--a question of economy and expenditure." Indeed, even the term "orgasm" implies maleness and has evolved directly from the Greek, meaning "to foam or boil over in ecstasy." Because they had no real understanding of where semen originated from in the body, the Greeks guessed that it must come from deep inside the chest, abdomen, or marrow. Thus, sperm had an exaggerated physiological importance and the loss of semen during male orgasm signified a dangerous blow to the constitution. Foucault explained: "Whether the semen is drawn from the whole organism, or originates where the body and the soul are joined to one another, or is formed at the end of a lengthy internal processing of food, the sexual act that expels it constitutes a costly expenditure for the human being. Pleasure may well accompany it, as nature intended, so that men would think of providing themselves with descendants; it nonetheless constitutes a hard jolt for the being itself, involving as it does the relinquishing of a whole portion of that which contains a 'being itself.'. . . One sees how in certain instances . . . the misuse of sexual pleasure might lead to death." Foucault continued: "It was not just the fear of excessive expenditure that caused medical and philosophical reflection to associate sexual activity with death. This reflection also linked them together in the very principle of reproduction, by holding that the purpose of reproduction was to compensate for the passing away of living beings and to provide the species as a whole with the eternity that could not be given to each individual. . . . This was its way of cheating death . . . For Aristotle and Plato alike, the sexual act was at the point of junction of an individual life that was bound to perish--and from which, moreover, it drew off a portion of its most precious resources--and an immortality that assumed the concrete form of a survival of the species."
The Greeks knew that there was a link between ejaculation and pregnancy, even though their theories of reproduction often seem incomplete or ludicrous today. Evidence has been gathered that suggests that even the ancient Egyptians developed primitive forms of birth control based on absorption of released sperm. So, from the dawn of civilization, sperm was forever seen as seed, a valuable resource used to beget future generations. This serious reproductive result of orgasm was countered with the ecstatic joy and potential wastefulness of the same act. Both of these aspects of orgasm reverberate strongly in the human psyche: anxiety or tension arises, if not from the physical exhaustion that reminds of death, then from the social repercussions of leaving or not leaving heirs. Orgasm becomes an intense locus point, highly charged with physical, social, and eschatological consequences. As Foucault stated: "The sexual act ["which was always perceived in terms of a male, ejaculatory, 'paroxystic' schema"] did not occasion anxiety because it was associated with evil but because it disturbed and threatened the individual's relationship with himself and his integrity as an ethical subject in the making; if it was not properly measured and distributed, it carried the threat of a breaking forth of involuntary forces, a lessening of energy, and death without honorable descendants." Thus, the ecstatic moment of orgasm is a disturbance from which the person may not recover, whether physically, psychologically, or even ethically. There remains within sexual climax the possibility for a transgression of the social code: this was seen as one of its most significant dangers. A jolt of erotic ecstasy may serve as a sort of escape portal through which one may want to exit, never to return to the everyday world of work and other non-erotic activity. Much like drunkenness or hallucinogenic drug use, orgasm carries with it the germ of transcendence, which could lead one to desire to opt out of social responsibility. Simply put, one might not want to go back. Every significant world culture usually contained an example of an orgiastic cult for whom the temporary erotic and transgressive moments of festival were not enough, and who then supplanted the normal, ethical world with one of endless eroticism or libertinism. In a sense, sexual climax became privileged as a religious moment. The ancient Greeks deemed most events religious in which a person lost control of his or her senses. In fact, the swoon of orgasm was often likened to an epileptic seizure, another dangerously transgressive instance in time. Democritus himself once wrote that "coition is a brief epilepsy." Thus, the Greeks held that all moments of ecstasy (whether orgasm, epilepsy, or drunkenness) somehow risked death, yet held the ability to impart wisdom or knowledge.
Psychoanalysis confirmed in a clinical setting some of the Greek theories of sexual anxiety. Wilhelm Reich, in his groundbreaking book, The Function of the Orgasm, wrote that "fear of death and dying is identical with unconscious orgasm anxiety, and the alleged death instinct, the longing for disintegration, for nothingness, is the unconscious longing for the orgastic resolution of tension." For Reich, a healthy sex life (which includes the regular occurrence of orgasms) played a major role in the general mental health of an individual: in fact, he claimed very encouraging results when his patients participated in "orgasm therapy." Reich also believed that the experience of orgasm for women was even more traumatic than for men, since ejaculation was easier to bear than the more encompassing intensity of the clitoral or vaginal orgasm. Women seemed to experience a greater loss of control physically: many of Reich's female subjects expressed a fear of shitting themselves or even dying during orgasm. Obviously, such anxiety could often eclipse the pleasure of the sexual act: the greater the intensity, the greater the fear. Reich surmised: "Orgasm anxiety is often experienced as a fear of death or fear of dying. . . . The loss of consciousness in the sexual experience, instead of being pleasurable, is fraught with anxiety."
For Reich, orgasm anxiety and the related fear of death were obstacles that could (and should) be overcome with conscious effort and therapy. Georges Bataille, on the other hand, believed that death was inevitably linked to the sexual act: in fact, death followed in orgasm's wake. Sexual climax was a severe moment of crisis for humans, one that reverberated with the threat of mortality. In Eroticism, Bataille wrote: "As a general rule, the sexual individual survives the super-abundance and even the excesses into which it leads him. Death is the result of the sexual crisis only in exceptional cases, but the significance of these [rare instances] is admittedly striking, so much so that the exhaustion following the final paroxysm is thought of as a 'little death.'"
Bataille always distinguished eroticism from sexuality: the latter was primarily considered animal biological reproduction, while the former was human non-reproductive useless pleasure. Sexual or orgasm anxiety, for Bataille, was connected to the reproductive nature of animal sexuality, rather than the distinctly human pleasures of eroticism. Such ties to animal sexuality were seen as something that should be transcended with new forms of eroticism. As Bataille wrote, one of the unique traits of erotic pleasure was that it ignored the life-giving aspects of sexuality and consequently the death-giving aspects: "Particularly, in eroticism, our feeling . . . is not connected with the consciousness of engendering life. One might even say that the fuller the erotic pleasure, the less conscious we are of the children who may result from it [note: this fits with Reich's and to a lesser extent Freud's tenet that procreation is part of erotic sexuality, rather than vice versa]. On the other hand, the depression following upon the final spasm may give a foretaste of death, but the anguish of death and death itself are at the antipodes of pleasure."
Another set in Bataille's erotic terminology was "continuity/discontinuity," a strange ontological distinction only understandable within the context of sex and death. Bataille believed that all beings were somehow discontinuous, meaning that they experience an incompleteness, a set of limits, which serves to separate them from other beings. For a being to have continuity, it would have to be dead, when it is in an unchangeable state of sameness. Nevertheless, Bataille presumed that all discontinuous beings strove to be in a continuous state, and although this achievement was only possible in death, sexual climax provided a temporary moment of apparent continuity. Orgasm was a moment when two separate beings seemed to risk their discontinuity in an apparent flash of unity: the limits between beings seemed to be transgressed. However, although Bataille believed the instinctive drive toward such a feeling of continuity was undeniable, in the end this final goal was futile and impossible: "There is a meeting between two beings projected beyond their limits by the sexual orgasm . . . At the moment of conjunction the animal couple is not made up of two discontinuous beings drawing close together uniting in a current of momentary continuity: there is no real union; two individuals in the grip of violence brought together by the preordained reflexes of sexual intercourse share in a state of crisis in which both are beside themselves. Both creatures are simultaneously open to continuity. But nothing persists in their imperfect awareness. The crisis over, the discontinuity is intact. This crisis is simultaneously the most intense and the least significant." The human desire to experience a taste of continuity without death is by necessity a failure: the ephemeral union soon dissolves back again into two beings marooned in their own discontinuity. Still, couples will invariably strive again for the finality of the impossible: that is the movement of erotic desire.
Once removed from the shackles of reproduction, eroticism can revel in its uselessness and thus serve as a transgressive act of expenditure opposed to the profane working world, which always seeks to save or accumulate. This antisocial wastefulness is the sociological importance of eroticism: "Erotic conduct is the opposite of normal conduct as spending is the opposite of getting. If we follow the dictates of reason we try to acquire all kinds of goods, we work in order to increase the sum of our possessions or of our knowledge, we use all means to get richer and to possess more. Our status in the social order is based on this sort of behavior. But when the fever of sex seizes us we behave in the opposite way. We recklessly draw on our strength and sometimes in the violence of passion we squander considerable resources to no real purpose. Pleasure is so close to ruinous waste that we refer to the moment of climax as a 'little death.' Consequently anything that suggests erotic excess always implies disorder." Bataille believed the modern world was dangerously obsessed with production and accumulation, and that eroticism was one of the few recourses left with which to combat it. Orgasm was one of the only activities that involved useless expenditure (i.e., squandered seed); hence, it served as a release of energy for a society that no longer understands the value or need for such a release. For Bataille, orgasm served the paradoxical function of being important precisely because of its very uselessness and waste. He wrote: "Our only real pleasure is to squander our resources to no purpose, just as if a wound were bleeding away inside us; we always want to be sure of the uselessness or the ruinousness of our extravagance. We want to feel as remote from the world where thrift is the rule as we can. . . . we want a world turned upside down and inside out. The truth of eroticism is treason." His analogy of erotic activity as a bleeding wound serves again to show the correlation between the finality of orgasm as waste and death as waste.
After examining the ideas of Foucault and the Greeks, Reich, and Bataille, it is apparent that the relationship between orgasm and death can be interpreted in different ways, but there remains one constant: the end of the sexual act mirrors the end of life, and many of the same judgments, anxieties, and fears that surround death also surround orgasm. This fact has interesting and significant effects on human thought and sexuality, and its importance to our understanding of both relationships and dying cannot be underestimated. In the future, I hope that other thinkers will take up this very taboo subject and explore it.
BROKEN NEWS || CRITIQUES & REVIEWS || CYBER BAG || CYB FI || EC CHAIR
FAREWELL, GREGORY: A POESY BURST FOR CORSO || FICCIONES || THE FOREIGN DESK
GALLERY || LETTERS || POESY || SERIALS || STAGE & SCREEN || ZOUNDS
©1999-2002 Exquisite Corpse - If you experience difficulties with this site, please contact the webmistress.