'the ecstasies of eros'
THE EROTIC APPEARANCE OF MAN
Chapter two of
The erotic eye and its nude'
introduced the erotic eye in the first chapter, we
should now concentrate on what that eye is so eager to see: the
beautiful body - its nude. The beautiful body as such,
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, historical and social – context
Pictures of nudity can be seen on the following pages. Should you be
under 18, or feel disturbed when watching pictures of the naked body,
please refrain from reading this page further.
Click on the name of the
photographer or the thumbnail for a larger view.
Click on the name of the artist below the larger view to be referred to
(1) BEAUTY AS THE FOUNTAINHEAD OF LOVE
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 (see
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
or the heavy
pink, red or purple of the vaginal swellings and the
erect penis, which are slimy at that:
Only the colour ofthe
lips, nipples and fingernails, and of the blush,
remind of the preliminary archaic phase.
The human erotic eye, hence, is not so much out at seeing the
reproductive organs, but rather at admiring the beauty of the naked body
and its face, as in that most beautiful picture of
Titian - a very exceptional case in which the beauty of face and body
are in perfect harmony:
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
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 (see Tsukioka Settei’s print below). 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
‘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 distribution 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
andeducation. 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 her 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 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 one another and
become one another'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 - as it is widely enjoyed during
the activity of athletes and sportsmen:
A remainder of such beauty can be seen on the David of Michelangelo,
where the male is portrayed as a nude warrior.
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
(4) THE ADVENT OF VOYEURISM AND
"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
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.
In Dürer’s print above, the reciprocal seducing and admiring is replaced
with the one-sided gazing at someone who only displays his beauty. The
symmetric space of love (see chapter
I) is replaced with a one-sided - perspectivic
- space. Therein, a body appears that displays
its beauty solely for the eye of an onlooker, who
gazes at it from outside the picture, as in the image below:
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
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 merely
the counterparts 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. Nowhere is the opposition –
enhanced through the opposition between the old man and the young girl –
so manifest as in the drawing of Luis Royo below.
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, as in David’s Napoleon above, 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 female
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. In its crudest form, the opposition is shown in
Settei’s print – whereby it is interesting to know
that the ‘female’ is in fact a male transvestite.
With Thomas Kreyn
Kreyn, a man-sized penis is opposed to the beauty of
the female body:
Michelangelo, a swan – the only bird who
has something that begins to resemble a penis - replaces the male,
reduced to his penis. That allows the artist to replace the glans with
the far more aesthetic horn of the beak, and the veined shaft through
the equally more aesthetic white feathers.
same aestheticising trend - which will be dealt with extensively in
chapter III - is already apparent in the photo of Shakhabalov in the
beginning of this chapter: it suffices to
compare his photo whith the off-screen photo of the bonobo, to see how
the artist is here completing the evolutionary trend.
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 (see
David’s Napoleon above). 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
(6) THE FACE AND THE TRUNK
‘Du bist eine Frau wie die andere.
Die Häupter sind verschieden. Die Knie sind alle schwach.
So geht es bei den Tieren.
B. Brecht, Baal.
Ideally, sexual and economical coitus reinforce one another. 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 oppose one another 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
Where body and soul are continuously transformed into one another 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
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’ (above) 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 below, 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,
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
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.
From the same author:
'the ecstasies of eros'
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