see also: 'the ecstasies of eros'

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Chapter One of ‘The erotic eye and its nude'

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 the erotic nude takes. 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?


‘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.


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.


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, contact with the skin is given up: 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 symmetric: it consists of two mirroring halves.

Sounds further corrodes the already symmetricly 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 symmetric. And when the voices are vibrating in consonance with each other or are merging in unison, the two symmetric halves seem to permeate one another.

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:

filip naudts

Click on the name of the photographer or the thumbnail for a larger view.

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.



Klimt’s and Brancusi's ‘Kiss’ are an attempt to render such tactile experience visually. The eyes are closed. Around the lovers, secluded within themselves, the visual world has disappeared: articulated space has dissolved into an empty sphere devoid of any point of reference. The lovers seem to merge into one single being.

In Shiver's photo below, the lovers seem no longer content with leaning against each other. It is as if they would like to acquire a ghost-like transparency, in a vain effort to cross the threshold of the skin:


With Marité Malaspina, the bodies seem to share the dark zone from which their surfaces emerge. And, with Eduardo Segura, the hands seem to feel from within bodies that have already merged themselves:

marité malaspina

eduardo segura

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.


In Bernini’s ‘Ecstasy of Saint Theresa’ we see the divine radiation, the ‘wind’ in the clothes of the angel, but foremost the inner movement in Theresa’s mantle. Very impressive is also the way in which Oskar Kokoschka succeeds in rendering the passionate merger of the lovers through a kind of stream of forms that pervades the entwining bodies.

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.

brill virgil

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.


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 eventuallyconcentrated in the genitals. The erotic senses behave as runners in a relay-race, handing over the torch to one another, 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


when the lips are about to kiss,

william ropp

when the lovers yield to kissing,

norm edwards

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:

klimt, liebe (detail)

This can be seen on another version of ‘The kiss’ by Klimt. Whereas, in this version, the woman is closing her eyes, the man does not blindly yield to the kiss, as did the lovers on the photos above. His eye prefers to relish the sight of surrender. And that is also what, by now for centuries, the angel is doing, that, gently balancing that arrow in his hand, cannot stop enjoying the enchanting spectacle of Theresa' ecstasy:

It speaks volumes that so much has been written about the ecstasy of Saint Theresa, while the corollary ecstasy of the angel seems to have escaped everybody's attention. Anyway, we are witnessing here 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 subsumption 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 - of the scopic drive - and its eventual triumph over genitality.

© Stefan Beyst, September 2003

From the same author:
'the ecstasies of eros'

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