'the ecstasies of eros'
CHAPTER TEN: IN THE
BEAST WITH TWO BACKS' DEN
Chapter IX of ‘The erotic eye and its nude’
'I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter
and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.'
Shakespeare, Othello (I,i)
In chapter III we described how the eye’s seizure of power transformed
the nude into a hermaphrodite. In chapter VI,
we saw how clothes completed this movement. Time has come to describe a
second series of transformations, whereby the nude is transformed into
the beast with two backs that excludes the third onlooker. This
transformation is above all elicited by the capture of the nude in the
image, which consolidates the eye’s seizure of power: the image only
renders the visual aspect of the appearance and forbids any tactile or
genital contact. Such double prohibition has far-reaching consequences
for the relation of the erotic eye to its nude.
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
Click on the name of the artist below the larger view to be referred to
(1) THE LOVER AND HIS BELOVED
How, to begin with, does the introduction of an image influence the
relation of the lover to his beloved?
Beauty is but a furtive moment in the ever changing unfolding of erotic
display; we are only granted to enjoy it as long as our beloved is with
us and as long as she loves us; and it resides in a body that is subject
to an irreversible decay (Dorian Gray). Not surprising that the eye
wants to capture the furtive erotic appearance in an image to be able to
permanently enjoy it, especially since clothes bereave us of free access
to the nude.
The most obvious subject matter for such an image is the overall
appearance of the body, especially the beauty of the face. Given the
purely visual nature of these two subjects, their - equally purely
visual - depiction in an image will perfectly do. Granted, the making of
an image - especially the intervention of a camera - might disturb the
spontaneity of erotic display, but this obstacle can easily be
circumvented with some skill and devotion.
Encouraged by the splendour he managed to catch in the image, the lover
may feel inclined to catch further stages of seduction, if not the
beauty of an exalted body. But this time his endeavour cannot fail to
run up against technical boundaries. As soon as the lover proceeds to
making an image – as soon as he starts manipulating the brush, the
chisel or the camera – he inevitably has to
suspend precisely the seduction that caused
the exaltation of his beloved. Worse still, the vantage point from where
the delight of the exaltation happens to be relished, does not
necessarily coincide with the optimal vantage point from where the
camera can shoot it.
The only way to solve this problem is to stage the whole proceedings.
The lover might ask his beloved to adopt the required pose. He then has
to retire to a technical vantage point. He thereby not only leaves
himself out of the image, but outmanoeuvres himself as a lover as well.
No longer in a position to exalt his beloved, he might even ask her to
touch and stroke herself, if not to masturbate. Unawares, lovemaking is
transformed into the making of an image, the lover into an artist and
his beloved into a posing model. No doubt, the lover can afterwards all
the more indulge in the plain voyeuristic delight of the spectacle that
otherwise would have escaped him. At a great cost however: the
gratification of looking replaces the gratification of doing. Again –
and especially here – is visual appearance transformed into a fetish.
Susan Sonntag’s contention that photographing is in essence an act of
non-intervention – a step further than Benjamin’s contention that
photographing equals taking in possession – reflects the estranged
awareness of this more fundamental change.
(2) THE ARTIST AND HIS MODEL
Ironically, the reverse is supposed to happen in the relation between
the artist and his model. Ever since Antiquity, the wildest fantasies
are conjured up when the layman imagines what is going on between those
allegedly privileged mortals. It is apparent, however, that the artist
as such has no intention of approaching his model erotically, quite the
contrary. He is out at making and image: he is looking for his brush,
his chisel or his camera. To be sure, when he starts working, he has to
look at the model. But his looking is not so much the gazing of the
voyeur, as the scrutinising of a technician. He has to decide which pose
the model has to adopt, how he will frame it, what colours or what kind
of films have to be used, and so on. In traditional painting, moreover,
the whole procedure was often a two-tier affair: Leonardo de Vinci
recommends observing people in action and using models as a reminder
This is not to say that the artist might not relish the charms of his
model, or that he never would proceed to sexual intercourse, quite the
contrary. It is well known how Rodin used to go offstage with his
models, leaving the message: 'The artist is visiting the cathedral'. And
the dancer Isadora Duncan has the story how Rodin, who was modelling her
while dancing naked, suddenly approached her body and began to mould its
flesh with hands aglow as if it were wax. Similar stories are legion.
They date back at least to the Ancient Greeks, who told the story of
Praxiteles and Pharynx. They turn up again in the Renaissance and come
to their apogee in the second half of the nineteenth century in Parisian
Bohemia (Bordello). They continue flourishing, although painters had to
leave the scene in favour of photographers, filmmakers and couturiers.
Anyway, it is obvious that, as a voyeur or a lover, the artist has given
up his creative stance: the fire that should have fuelled his endeavour
is burning out.
Neither does the model take an erotic stance. She merely prepares for
being converted in an image. She has to know how to display herself in
an appropriate way to be painted or photographed. To seduce a lover is
quite a different matter. The model merely adopts a pose. Real seduction
is transformed into the mere staging of it. The model only has to
provide the necessary clues, the appearance, and her inner state does
not necessarily correspond with her appearance.
Certainly, adopting a seductive pose - if not already the sheer state of
undress - might induce erotic feelings in the model. Also the model can
use her excitement either to make her exhibition more convincing or to
seduce the artist. It can justifiably be asked whether it was Rodin who
- while inviting Diaspora Duncan to dance in the nude - or Isadora
Duncan herself, who - while willingly putting her charms on display -
created the opportunity of which both took advantage. Either way, when
posing is transformed into seduction, the artistic procedure is broken,
and love triumphs over art instead of serving it.
In the real world, things are far more prosaic. Mostly, the model is not
excited at all. After all, model and artist have met for technical
reasons. But even when the model is excited, the technical setting will
prevent, if not the arousal, then at least its continuation, as was also
the case with lovers. The artist has to explain which pose the model has
to take. If the model succeeds, she often fails to feign the
corresponding transport. For painters, this is not much of a problem:
they can fill the gaps themselves. In most photographs, however, the
failure to feign the corresponding transport is all too apparent in the
absence of involuntary signs of excitement, such as the erection of the
nipples (or the penis), the widening of the pupil, not to mention a
general artificiality of the demeanour, of the facial expression in
particular. The models can
remedy this by adopting a whole range of conventional poses. She may
throw her head backwards: this posture suggests transport, while at the
same time hiding from view the very face that might betray
her lack of transport:
Or the model intimidates the photographer with her gaze (like on Manet’s
‘Olympia’). Or she feels the irresistible urge to caricature the pose
she is supposed to take, if not the
gaze of the photographer:
The photographer can solve the problem by choosing a situation in which
the model is allowed to closes her eyes. On the photo of
Filip Naudts below, the gaze is turned
inwards, although the half-parted lips continue to betray what it might
Or the model can try to solve the problem by hiding
her face and eyes: the face is covered or diverted, the eyelids are
lowered or closed:
A popular solution is to let the model sleep. In
that pose, the body exposes itself without any overt defence:
Barreau dramatises this situation in exhibiting a dreaming body on an
altar in the
And, ever since Fuessli's
Nightmare, this development is completed through letting the
model have a dream.
Also death is an obvious solution, as in the photo below, where
the charm of denudation is subtly adding to the accessibility of
Rossbach’s dead ‘Ophelia’:
In still other cases, the artist hides the reluctant face behind a
mask, a cloth, a piece of garment, or the hands or
If he does not altogether frame it out (the
Or resorts to all kinds of subterfuges, like having the nude perform
some neutral activity:
When the model is excited nevertheless, it is not always the artist who
elicits the transport. On the contrary: precisely the artist’s technical
stance might induce the model to anticipate her being admired as an
image, or she might imagine herself seducing some imaginary lover. In
that case, the model displays all signs of excitement indeed, but her
gaze is vacant or her eyes are closed (see above). Or a third party
might join the nude. This may be a
voyeur: or a lover who
proceeds to overt lovemaking:
A transitional stage between the reluctant exhibition before the
photographer and overt intercourse with a lover in the image, is the
model admiring or kissing herself in the
or admiring and touching
if not abandoning herself to masturbation:
A variant on this intermediary phase is the popular theme of the twin,
which, in the image below is incestuous at that:
Or the equally
A new version of
this theme can be realised with digital manipulation:
Also the couple making love before the camera cannot but stage sexual
And the fate of the photographer is, if possible, still worse.
In Antioni's 'Blow Up' his position is still
But that is no longer the case in the following
How much the photographer resents his expulsion from the image is apparent
from the many endeavours to introduce himself in the image again. In
Goudal's photo below, the photographer is manoeuvring himself in the
image through his reflexion, which does not prevent that he remains a
mere onlooker on the fingers that are doing their job in his stead:
There is no way out: the very making of an image reduces the potential
seducer to a technician, handling paint and brush or a camera instead of
cherishing a body, and transforms the potential seductress in a merely
posing model. In order to feign her arousal, the model has to avert the
eyes, if not to close them, or to plainly offer herself to her own or a
third party's gaze or embrace.
Admittedly, this is worlds apart of what is usually imagined. What
presents itself as a sophisticated form of lovemaking, turns out to be a
mere caricature of it. Not lust, but resignation presides over the
creation of the image.
(3) THE ADMIRER AND THE IMAGE
We can only hope that the sacrifice of artist and model alike will be
justified by the production of an image. After all, the image, apart
from the fact that it is always at our disposal,
and that it permanently makes present what is otherwise doomed to
transience, has the invaluable merit to exhibit before the eyes of the
onlooker a heightened beauty, which surpasses a
beauty that is perhaps already unparalleled in the real world.
That does not prevent that an image is only there for the eyes of the
beholder, which is all the more regrettable,
since the nude displayed in the image is not an end in itself. It is
only the spark that ignites the fire of desire. The nude displays itself
precisely because it is driven by the desire to be kissed, touched,
embraced and eventually possessed. But, what is generously granted by a
real body, must forever be refused by its image. Not unlike Narcissus'
mirror image in the water, beauty in the image is doomed to be merely
admired. What you see is what you don’t get at all. Here originates the
desire to breathe life into the nude depicted: that it may come to life,
as in the story of Pygmalion (Jean-Louis Gérôme).
But such desire can never been
fulfilled. Precisely because the image transforms the nude in to a mere
appearance, the admirer is transformed into a mere eye. Together with
his tangible body, he
is also bereft of his
his skin and his
genitals. Thus, resorting to an image equals castration! That is why
especially the admirer wants to see a third party appear in the image:
that spares him the pain of eternally having to gaze at seduction. At
the same time, however, castration is now really completed.
The very merit of the image thus proves to be its deathblow: it shows
only to withhold. Whereas the lover taking pictures of his beloved might
find solace in the arms of his mistress, and whereas, in the studio, the
artist and the model in principle could proceed to sexual intercourse,
this is from the beginning excluded by the admirer's looking at an
image. In showing what it withholds, the image unequivocally speaks out
the ban that was merely whispered in the studio: Noli me tangere! Don’t
touch me! Thus, the image inherently partakes of the forbidden. That is
all too apparent from the fact that the image inevitably
transforms the nude that was originally meant
for the onlooker, in the beast with two backs. The forbidding image
comes to stage the forbidden: a beauty that turns away from the
admirer to offer itself to a third party in the image - or its
counterpart: the self-sufficient divine hermaphrodite.
That is not to say that the reduction of the model to a mere image to be
contemplated does not have its secret charms. Apart from transfiguring
the nude, the image allows the eye to freely wander over every detail of
the body, without fear of rejection or ridicule. But a heavy toll has to
be paid for this privilege: the beauty in the image cannot possibly
reciprocate the advances of her admirer.
Precisely therefore, a new problem arises: the image equally leaves the
poor voyeur abandoned to himself. It ignites the fire, without providing
the firewood. In order to keep the fire burning, the
voyeur, not hampered by the chilly stone of a statue, might proceed to
masturbation as did
Pygmalion and many a Greek (Rops):
In a more modern version, and with the sexual
Worse still: he might lend to the appearance in the image his hands as a
substitute body. Which comes down to a betrayal of the image: it served
as merely a bridgehead to a sheer substitute reality. Thus, the image
not only annihilates itself, but also
the real world.
Thus is articulated the fourfold progression of castration by the image:
the production of the image, the subject it
was supposed to depict, the very structure of
the image and, finally,
its consumption, they all partake of one and the same refusal.
(4) THE IMAGE AND THE VOYEURISTIC
The staging of the nude in the image inevitably leads to its
transformation in the self-sufficient hermaphrodite or the beast with
two backs. We cannot help being reminded of what has been called ‘the
primeval scene’. Freud introduced the term to indicate the spectacle of
the parents entwining before the eyes of the very child that imagined
being loved by one of them. This is merely the prelude to a far more
‘primeval’ scene: the ideal couple showing off its beauty and sexual
prowess before the eyes of the poor average mortal - male and female
alike - that cannot but feel utterly excluded. Do they not - just as the
helpless child looking up to its all-mighty parents - feel compelled to
enviously disturb their entwining? Also the hermaphrodite is experienced
as an embodiment of the primeval scene: it is as if the desired body is
already possessed by another phallus.
Our contention that the logic of voyeurism culminates in the depiction
of the primeval scene may be obscured by the fact that the primeval
scene is not always depicted in all its clarity. We need only recall
that even when the nude is exalted - the precursor of the
completed primeval scene - the exalting male
is mostly merely hinted at. This is from the beginning so when the nude
is shown fantasizing, dreaming, writing letters, phoning, making her
toilet or washing herself or being engaged in other supposedly neutral
activities: these only betray that the nude is preparing herself for
This sheds a new light on still more obscured shapes in which the
primeval scene may
go disguised. Take the - ever since Fuesli -
very popular position of the voyeur standing at the head of a nude lying
prostrate before his eyes. Is this not a most marvellous erotic
landscape? Why, however, adopt such a position, if not to witness the
imminent embracing of the lover for whom the thighs are
When the nude is bent down before the voyeur, she is ready to receive
her lover from the back.
And is not every position where not only
the eyes and the face, but first and foremost the place to be is
directed away from us - sidelong or backwards - meant for some third
Veil after veil on the primeval scene falls dawn. Perhaps we finally
understand why in many a picture the frontal approach, especially with
the thighs splayed wide before us, is deliberately stressed, while at
the same time failing to really make us feel invited. Could it be that
this overemphasizing merely has to help us repress our innermost feeling
A merely implicit or hinted at presence of the
nude’s real lover is by no means an exception. On the contrary, I guess
it is the most favourite way of depicting the (voyeuristic) primeval
scene. This formula owes its charms to the fact that the nude is not
shown while fully surrendering, which makes it plausible that everything
is still possible, and precisely such
possibility may stir the desire of a presumed conqueror. The
obliteration of the competitor has the additional advantage of soothing
the pain of exclusion and rejection, of being reduced to the status of
mere onlooker: at least for the moment, only the voyeur enjoys the
privilege of being able to lay eyes upon the
An interesting reversal of the primeval scène is when
the third party is as it were presenting the nude to the onlooker:
(5) THE BEAST WITHTWO BACKS
The attentive reader may have wondered why we did not yet mention the
most popular and most controversial way of depicting the primeval scene:
the image of the penis in the vagina. Although the theme is not
altogether absent in the still image, it is rather the main dishof many
a film. The reason might be that, in a film, the upward and downward
movement rather obscures the fact that, in fact, the penis is
disappearing in the vagina. Therefore, in the film, the ‘fort-da’ can
function as a visual
fetish for the invisible orgasm (whether or not
culminating in the ejaculation out of the vagina).
More congenial to the image is the rendering of
copulation after displacement to the
But, of course, the disappearance of the penis is
not the main reason why the primeval scene is more often depicted as the
entire bodies than as the
merger of organs. The shift to the body spares the voyeur the painful
sight of the ultimate proof of his exclusion. And
there are aesthetic motives as well: the spectacle of the united
genitals is, if possible,
still more repellent than that of the separate
genitals. No wonder that the eye recoils in horror and prefers the far
more appetising sight of bodies entwined.
But the erotic eye now runs up against new problems. Not for nothing is
the couple entwined called the beast with two
backs: the enticing fronts of the body are hidden from view.
When the couple lies down, the situation is even more problematic. The
legs are entwined in an often inextricable tangle, and that is not
precisely an enchanting
succeeds in transforming the inextricable tangle into
the intriguing image of the enigmatic entwining:
With hindsight, we understand why the loving couple is often rendered
with the male in
dorsal approach or with the upper parts of the
bodies separated, as when a woman rides the man:
more obvious solution is replacing genital intercourse with cunnilingus of fellatio
and the like.
There are still more possibilities when only the preliminary stages to intercourse are rendered, although the
solution of Vance is a little bit extreme:
That goes especially for caressing. Also in real intercourse, the erotic eye often
joins the hand that is caressing the
But the artist can also maintain the entwining and
try to arrange the bodies in a surveyable
The focus on the genitals between the symmetric
pair of legs can
be avoided through replacing the merger of genitals with that of more
(6) THE BEAST WITH TWO BACKS (2):
SELF-CARESSING AND MASTURBATION
A second solution is found when the voyeur no longer
projects his own desire into the
desired object (see chapter III), but nestles himself in the appropriate organs of the desired body instead.
This move begins with the hand. The hand feels, but does not see. When the lover does not want to resign from looking, he can let the hand of the
desired body stroke the desired body in his stead:
As soon as the arousal approaches the genital phase, the merger of the genitals itself can be staged on the scene of the desired body. We already described the onset of this move in chapter III. This movement is completed when the desiring organ want to merge with the desired one.
In a first phase, the displaced penis is moving toward the vagina:
penetrates the vagina:
The merger can also be staged after the displacement of desiring and desired organ alike,
as in that masterly photo of Markus Richter:
In a series of reliefs of Matisse,
a plait is penetrating the cleft in the back.
(7) VOYEURISM’S AND EXHIBITIONISM’S COMING OF AGE.
We have already seen how, in humans, sexual display is reciprocal in principle: it is essentially the simultaneity of the displayer’s admiration and the admirer’s display. We have also seen that differential beauty and the exchange of beauty for power made reciprocal display and admiration fall apart in two opposite offshoots: voyeurism and exhibitionism.
We now can add that the introduction of the image only cements the one-sidedness of these offshoots and decisively cuts them off from the further phases of love’s unfolding.
In real life, the generalised one-sidedness of erotic display on exhibitionistic meeting grounds such as beaches or parties, can be restored to full reciprocity at any moment. In utterly forbidding love’s unfolding, though, the image drives a final wedge between the admirer and the object of his desire. It thereby inevitably paves the way for the representational fetishising of the object of voyeurism: the self-defeating desire to lay eyes upon what can only be felt, as epitomised in the witnessing of the primeval scene.
The devotion of the voyeur to the alienating image is only stirred by the dramatic extension of the range of
a henceforth purely fictional meeting ground: only the most beautiful women, selected from all over the world, are allowed to appear in the image,
which comes to display their transfigured beauty before the eyes of millions. Since, moreover, no restraints whatsoever forbid the access to the image, the voyeur is forever released of the task of seducing, be it through the display of power or bodily beauty.
Isolated voyeurism thus becomes the main preoccupation of an ever-increasing majority of males, since the image is first and foremost cheap, and allows even the most abject male to enter the exhibitionistic amphitheatre of the image.
Isolated exhibitionistic display, on the other hand, becomes a female privilege, albeit it the privilege of the ever diminishing minority that is allowed to appear on the scene, and that thereby eclipses an ever increasing majority or henceforth lesser beauties.
The birth of the image thus seals exhibitionism’s and voyeurism’s coming of age. Only by being cast in an image is the former seductress transformed in an epitome of the intangible Venus - or, to phrase it with Angela Carter
’a whore dispensed with the obligation of delivering the merchandise, virgin though raped by billions of eyes’. And only by yielding to the spell of a mere image finds the potential seducer himself seated in Plato’s cave - which has become crowded indeed - where he is immobilised and doomed to stare at the mere shadows of beautiful woman exhibitionistically parading out of reach behind his back.
The combined effect of increasing differential beauty, the exchange of beauty for benefits, the introduction of clothes and foremost the development of the image, is that exhibitionism and voyeurism become the dominating forms of seduction, to the extent that they come to pass for their primeval forms.
Granted, as long as it takes the shape of voyeurism, the visualisation of love’s unfolding remains precarious: beauty does not stop stirring the desire for a complete unfolding of love. Only when we proceed to the analysis of sadomasochism will be revealed a this time
more stable form of visualisation of love.
From the same author:
'the ecstasies of eros'
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