Judging from the massive production of erotic imagery in photo magazines,
films, television, video and internet - not to mention the universal
practice of 'girl-watching' - voyeurism and exhibitionism must occupy
man's mind, if possible, far more than sexual commerce in the strict
sense of the word.
That does not prevent people from invariably feeling embarrassed when
the subject is mentioned. Even researchers, who otherwise do not refrain
from exploring even the most remote corners of the human psyche,
all too eagerly evade the study of the most practiced erotic pastime.
I increasingly had the impression of entering an unexplored territory.
It was extremely difficult to make a somewhat substantial bibliography.
Most contributions are part of books on more encompassing subjects. The
few books exclusively devoted to the subject are either purely
(art)historical (Clark, Linda
Williams) or moralising (feministic literature). As a rule, they
restrict themselves either to the erotic eye (scopic drive), or to the
(representation of) the nude that exhibits itself (phanic drive). Especially psychoanalytic
literature excels in its silence on the subject. In the index of Freuds
a mere five references to 'voyeurism'. Also the
image is utterly neglected: in the ‘Interpretation of Dreams’ dream,
images - that are anyway merely
accessible through verbal rendering - are
reduced to 'dream- thoughts'. Apparently, as
heir of Moses, Freud was far more
interested in the ear that listens than in the eye that indulges in
relishing the (nude in) the image.
Reasons enough to write a book on the phanic and the scopic drive.
Whoever wants to write a book on the erotic eye and its nude cannot
restrict himself to the written word: there is an abundance of often
very beautiful images. But the existence of something like copyright is
responsible for the fact that we cannot show the best examples from
sculpture, painting, prints and photos. In this Internet version, we had
to content ourselves with the photos of living photographers who gave us
the permission to use their work. But this restriction is not the
responsible for the sometimes poor
quality of the images in my
selection: if we could have chosen freely, the number of high quality
pictures would certainly have increased, but that would only have
emphasized the surprisingly poor
quality of the overall production of erotic imagery. Precisely the
argument of this book will explain why.
Within these limits, the choice of the photos has been made according to
two criteria. Our first concern has been to find a fitting illustration
for each topic in the text. Only when we had the choice, we could select
according to aesthetic criteria. For some topics, we could not find any
fitting illustration at all, because it either simply does not exist, or
because we could not find an image with the required aesthetic
standards. That explains why high
quality pictures often go side by side with minor works. It is our intention to gradually raise the artistic level,
so that 'the erotic eye and its nude'
become a kind of touchstone for erotic photography.
Suggestions are always welcome.
In this book, an entirely new theory is presented on what is
referred to as 'voyeurism' and 'exhibitionism'. In our opinion, these
'partial drives' are merely two particular forms of the more
encompassing scopic and phanic drives that form in principle an
undivided unity: both drives elicit each other. We will describe the manifold
manifestations of the scopic and the phanic drive and explain how and
why they develop. This theory on the scopic and the phanic drive is
situated within the broader frame of a general theory on love, as it is
unfolded in 'The ecstasies of Eros'.
In 'The erotic eye and its nude' I only present my own view on the
subject. Discussion with other authors have deliberately been omitted.
What is thus
in clarity and accessibility, will be lost in academic
charms. More than often, an unusual thesis will be advanced without
further comment, while, conversely, seemingly obvious points of view are
rather controversial. But all these disadvantages do not measure up to
the advantages: a concise and clear text. Other theories will be dealt
with elsewhere on this site (section 'reviews').
The text of the book is written in a rather neutral tone. It was my
intention to have the images play an important role in conveying the
more 'emotional' freight of what is meant. No doubt, the eloquence of the images
will seduce the reader to a cursory reading of the book. Needless to say
that a close reading
of the text is necessary to follow the development of the
Chapter I of 'The erotic eye and its nude'
object de désir 2
THE EROTIC EYE AND THE EROTIC SENSES
'the ecstasies of eros'
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 in which the erotic nude appears. 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?
(1) LOVE AND ENDURING
‘Wo du hingehst, da will auch ich sein’.
B. Brecht, Dreigroschenoper.
The evolution of erotic senses is a side effect of the evolution of
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.
(2) THE EROTIC SENSES
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
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.
(3) THE TENSION
BETWEEN THE EYE AND THE GENITALS
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, touch
gives up its contact with the skin: 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 each other.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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
(4) THE PERVERSE
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 eventually concentrated in the
genitals. The erotic senses behave as runners in a relay-race, handing
over the torch to each other, 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, 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. But such refusal
initiates 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 subordination 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 and its
eventual triumph over genitality.
Chapter II of 'The erotic eye and its
THE EROTIC APPEARANCE OF MAN
'the ecstasies of eros'
After having introduced the erotic eye in the first chapter, we should
now concentrate on what that eye is so eager to see: the beautiful body.
The beautiful body as such, though, 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, historic and social –
(1) BEAUTY AS THE
FOUNTAINHEAD OF LOVE
‘...toutes les 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 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 the genitals, or the heavy pink, red or purple of the vaginal
swellings and the erect penis, which are slimy at that. Only the colour of the
lips, nipples and fingernails, and of the blush, remind of the
preliminary archaic phase. The human erotic eye, hence, is not out at
seeing the reproductive organs, but at admiring the beauty of the naked
body and its face. 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
raw meat. 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. 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
‘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 division 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
and education. 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 his 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 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 each other and
become each other’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.
time immemorial, the
beautiful woman is surrounded by a host of males that are busy competing
for her favours.
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. 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 stake.
(4) THE ADVENT OF
VOYEURISM AND EXHIBITIONISM
"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 and Nothingness'
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.
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
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
‘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 young girl. 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 mere
equivalents 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. 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 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
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.
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. 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 instrument…
(6) THE FACE AND THE TRUNK
‘Du bist eine Frau wie die andere.
Die Häupter sind verschieden. Die Knie sind alle schwach.
So gehft es bei den Tieren.
B. Brecht, Baal.
Ideally, sexual and economical coitus reinforce each other. 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 be opposed
to each other 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 each other 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 IX).
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’ 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, 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, is 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 now 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.
Chapter III of 'The erotic eye and its nude'
objet de désir 7
'the ecstasies of eros'
THE EYE’S SEIZURE OF POWER: THE VISUALISATION OF THE EROTIC APPEARANCE
The erotic appearance of man is far from unequivocal. Rather can it be
compared with a text in which the words have more than one meaning.
Thus, the lips often remind of the vagina, or a muscled and veined arm
of the penis. The erotic charge of one element is often displaced to
another. Purely visual similarities play a crucial role in this process,
and it is often consolidated through language (think of the ‘labia’).
But, in this chapter, we will show that the whole movement of
displacement is above all the result of the coordinated effort of three
forces: the attempt to aestheticise the archaic sight of the genitals,
the attempt to soothe the anxiety provoked by the idea of the
wound, but foremost the eye’s attempt to take the place of touch and
genital feeling. Especially the last move comes down to a veritable
seizure of power: it leads to the utter visualisation of the tactile and
genital appearance, which culminates in the emergence of the phallic
woman and the vaginal man.
(1) THE AESTHETICISING
OF ARCHAIC BEAUTY
In the previous chapter we have seen that the genitals appeal to a
rather archaic sensitivity. That elicits the attempt to replace them
with more aesthetic substitutes. There are many parts of the body that
are apt to meet the aesthetic demands of the eye.
To begin with, there are the fingers and toes. The bones make these
elongated members stiff, as does the blood in the erect penis, and they
are crowned with nails, which have the colour in common with the glans,
but not the slimy sight.
Sexual arousal makes the veins swell under the skin, the effect of which
is visible foremost on the back of the hand or the foot. That is why the
single finger is often replaced with the whole hand or foot. Also
arms and legs are not only hard and veined, just like fingers and toes,
but muscled as well, which can only endorse the evocation of the force
of the erect penis. Also the nose reminds of
the penis: it secretes slime, its back reminds of the shaft and the
nostrils of the scrotum, while a moustache is an obvious substitute for
the pubic hair. And, finally, there is the neck: the larynx moves back
and forth under the skin just like the glans under the foreskin,
especially when the head is thrown backwards and the neck is ‘erected’:
Not only the penis, also the vagina is substituted with more aesthetic
parts of the body in the periphery. The most obvious substitutes are the
lips. These have colour, shape and structure in common with the labia,
without being slimy. With the eye, the eyelids remind of the labia, the
eyelashes or the eyebrows remind of the pubic hair, the tear gland of
the clitoris and the pupil of the vaginal opening. The auricle is a hollow surrounded by folds reminding
of the labia. The armpits are a fold
surrounded by hair, and they have the odour in common with the vagina.
Also the parting of the hair on the head is often read as a vagina.
(2) THE HEALING OF THE WOUND
Not only the archaic sight of the vagina unleashes the centrifugal
displacement to the peripheral parts of the body. Also the anxiety
provoked through the interpretation of the vagina as a cut plays an
important role. A healed wound on a more neutral part of the body
soothes the anxiety and serves the aesthetic move as well. Foremost the
navel is apt for such displacement. Even more appropriate to deny the idea of a wound are
the hollows and folds that are formed when parts of the body are pressed
against each other: the undamaged skin neutralises the slimy and gory
sight of the labia. This holds especially true for the fold formed when
the thighs are pressed together. But many other parts can serve the
purpose. How much these folds, especially
those of the pressed thighs, continue to remind of wounds, may appear
from the fact that they are often wrapped with cloth. The healing move is completed when the seam grows
together, as with a mermaid (see chapter VIII).
Especially the displacement of the vagina to the back is very
appropriate to remove any reminder of a wound. The slimy and gory wound
is replaced with the undamaged fold of the buttocks. Further backwards, the fold of the buttocks is
dissolving into the even, undamaged surface of the back. Only its
symmetry reminds of the wound. The spinal
column is an extension of the anal cleft. On both sides are two bundles
of muscles that function as substitutes for the labia, while the whole
is covered with undamaged skin: hollow, but not cut. The effect is continued in the two bundles of muscles
in the neck, where the little hairs cannot fail to remind of the pubic
hair. The healing move comes to its apogee
when the cut, opening up into the hole, is altogether replaced with the
undamaged, convex womb that surrounds it, as in Brancusi’s ‘Torse de
(3) THE VISUALISATION OF
TACTILE AND GENITAL PROCEEDINGS
Under displaced form, the genitals are no longer bound to a sexually
determined body. Also a woman has fingers, toes, arms, legs and a nose,
and also a man has a mouth, folds and hollows, and a back. Worse still:
the body of the other sex is often far more appropriate to attract the
displacement. Think of the female nipples, which are larger than male
ones, become erect like the penis and have the same colour, without
But the displacement of the penis to the female body is not obvious. It
goes counter the ineradicable propensity to conform all the
characteristics of a body to its sex. A voice sounds differently when is
it supposed to belong to a female or to a male person. There are lots of
examples that evidence this rule.
When this compelling rule is so often broken, strong forces must be at
work to counteract sexual stereotyping. Driving force is the ‘perverse
move’, introduced in the first chapter. When lovers are kissing each
other, they close their eyes. But the eyes want to continue enjoying
visual beauty: the lovers want see the exalted face instead of feeling
it with the lips. And when the hand begins to touch, the eye only grants
it its pleasure because it elicits new signs of exaltation on the body. The greedy eye then scans the body, until it finally comes to
rest at the sight of the erect penis or the aroused vagina, the ultimate
signs of exaltation. Stubbornly clinging to its desire for visual
pleasure, the eye would like to witness even the merger of the genitals.
But when these are allowed to do as they please, the penis inevitably
will disappear in the vagina. When the eye is not prepared to give up
its pleasure, it will have to prevent such merger and the impending
advent of orgasm (see chapter I)
Such seizure of power trough the eye comes down to a veritable
‘castration’: seeing forbids genital feeling. The blindness for the
‘castrating’ effect of the eye is so general, that it is not superfluous
to remind of the difference between visual and genital perception of the
orgasm. With the eye, we only see signs of the orgasm: the blush, the
erection of diverse parts of the body, the grimacing of the face, the
heavy breathing of the chest, the twisting of the body, male and female
ejaculations. With the ear, we hear the heavy breathing, the voluptuous
moaning and ecstatic crying, and with the nose we smell the often
dizzying odours. How eloquent these expression may be, they are mere
outer signs of orgasm, not orgasm itself. It is a mistake to assert –
with Linda Williams – that one can see the male orgasm, especially when
she holds that the female orgasm is invisible, because one cannot see
the contractions of the vagina. As a sign, the female orgasm is all too
visible – how else could women fake it so readily for the male gaze?
Precisely because the eye depends on signs, it is so easily betrayed….
The perverse desire to continue looking runs up against a threshold that can
never be crossed. Orgasm, the kernel of the erotic proceedings, will
forever remain invisible, how deeply it might move us. Only the genitals
can feel it. That holds not only of the orgasm, but also of the sense of
touch. When the hands are exalting the body, the eye equally sees only
the signs of that exaltation. We easily overlook this fact, because the
hands continue feeling while the eye is looking: while the eye relishes
the sight of the erect nipples, the hand feels the warm swelling of the
breast. Only in the preliminary visual phase of seduction are seeing and
feeling one and the same thing, because here ‘feeling’ is ‘seeing’.
Visual exaltation is apparent in the pure fact of displaying one’s
beauty. Only in its own domain can the eye witness exaltation. There is,
hence, a real gap between being enchanted through the intrinsic visual
beauty of a face, or becoming exalted by gazing at the signs of
exaltation or of the invisible orgasm on that very same face.
We understand at the same time that the aestheticising and
anxiety-soothing centrifugal move away from the genitals described
above, is prepared by a far more fundamental move: the ‘perverse’ move
from tactile and genital feeling to the visual signs of it. The eye is
not only out at enjoying purely visual beauty, as it is displayed in the
reciprocity of showing and looking. More often is it eager to lay eyes
upon the visual signs of tactile and genital exaltation. Such visualising leads
to a grandiose unfolding of the array of visual appearances of the body
(4) THE HERMAPHRODITE BODY
(1): THE PHALLIC WOMAN
The take over of the eye has an unexpected consequence:
the greedy eye neutralises the penis, precisely the acme that it
so dearly wants to see cannot take place.
In a first attempt at solving this problem, the greedy eye wants the
desired body to bring itself to orgasm, or a third party to take over
the role that it forbids its own body. Then, the erotic appearance is no
longer a part of the more encompassing whole, in which the lovers
reciprocally admire each other’s display. It is transformed into the
spectacle of a loving couple or of a body exalting itself before the eye
of a third onlooker. The vicissitudes of the eye and its nude along this
path will occupy us in chapter X. Here, we are interested in a third
possibility: how the eye that forbids the advent of the penis, has the
desired body transformed into a hermaphrodite in the real sense of the
word: a being that possesses both sexual organs.
It is not difficult to understand how a body that is no longer involved
reciprocal process of displaying and admiring, is transformed into such
a hermaphrodite body. The seizure of power of the eye, which comes down
to an elimination of the genitals and the hands, transforms the eye into
a pure voyeuristic eye: it merely looks and does no longer arouse the
desired body through touching, let alone penetration. Inadvertently, the
exalted beauty is turned into a frigid beauty. Which only fuels the
desire to lay eyes upon the signs of arousal on the desired body. The
signs of arousal par excellence are the erect genitals. Thus, the eye
must have the erect penis, in which it refuses to metamorphose,
resurrect in the desired body, to testify to
its arousal. Such projection pays: the eye can see at the same glance
desired and desiring body. Through such transformation of the desired
body into a hermaphrodite, the castration of the desiring body is made
There are many ways to work that miracle. Starting point of the
projection is the very void that is created in that the eye forbids the
penis to penetrate the vagina. What the eye gets to see then is the
vagina as a mere void – sheer nothingness. It is obvious, then, to let
the excluded penis protrude from within the void. The idea of a resurrection of the penis from the void
is rooted in the presence of the cervix in the invisible hole. The
reversal of the direction of the penis betrays that we are dealing here
with the desiring penis. Such reversal makes the hermaphrodite body
differ from the body that arouses itself, where the substitutes of the
penis are turned inwards.
In second variant, the female genitals are so represented as to resemble
the male ones. The labia maiora are the counterpart of the male scrotum,
the labia minora of the shaft, and the clitoris of the glans. Protruding
labia minora are an obvious substitute for the protruding penis. Also the pubic hair can serve the purpose when it has
an appropriate shape.
In a second phase, the projected penis is displaced to the more
aesthetic fingers and toes, arms and legs. Triumphantly, they radiate
from the (implicit or emphasized) void. Rather than denying it, they
enhance its effect through contrast. The emphasis may be on fingers or
toes, fingers ànd toes, on arms or legs, on both arms and legs, or on
fingers and toes, arms and legs. The desiring penis may also be
displaced to erect breasts and nipples.
The élan of the nipples may be joined by that of arms and legs, fingers
and toes or by the overall erect stature of
the body. Also braids and locks can embody the
desiring penis when radiating centrifugally from the trunk enclosing the
desired void. And the head, finally, can be
read as the glans on the shaft of the neck.
As a result of this process, the female body is eventually turned into
its very opposite: erect protrusions have taken the place of hole,
hollows and undulations. In fact, the female body is from the beginning
constructed around the contrast between hole/rounding and protrusion:
the long legs and arms lend the female body an additional charm. But the
opposition only becomes manifest when it is additionally charged with
the phallic desire of the castrated voyeur.
And the phallic charge of the body is anything but completed. For, in a
third phase, the hermaphrodite only appears after the displacement of
both penis and vagina. When the vagina is displaced to the lips of the
mouth, the elusive penis resurfaces in the protrusion of the tongue. The vagina can also be displaced to the hand(s),
where fingers and thumb come to be opposed to the void contained within
the palms of the hand. A good example is Rodin’s ‘La cathédrale’. When
this artist retired himself with his models, he used to hang a leaflet
on the door with the words ‘L’artiste visite la cathédrale’. In the representation of the Medusa the vagina is
displaced to the mouth and the multiplied penis to the locks turned into
Both motives – the replacement of the archaic mucous membranes with undamaged skin and the soothing of
anxieties about the cut – often work together. The vagina is then
replaced with the undamaged skin of the womb that contains it. The
is further opposed to the confining womb to the protrusion of
arms, legs and head. A fascinating version is Ingres’ ‘Grande
odalisque’. The armpit reminds of the fold between the legs, but the cut
is denied through the emphasis on the convex breast. From this centre
the elongated arms and legs radiate and end up in a profusion of fingers
We cannot but expect the phallic body to yield to the temptation of
penetrating itself. We are then witnessing all the forms of
masturbation, which will be dealt with in chapter X, together with the
arousal of the body through a third party.
(5) THE HERMAPHRODITE BODY
(2): THE VAGINAL MAN
In principle, the desiring eye of the female (or of a feminine man) can
equally project the excluded vagina on a man. Also the male body
provides many an appropriate substitute for the vagina: anus, mouth,
eye, folds. This holds especially for the mouth, which reminds of
a hungry child that must be satisfied by introducing the nipple of the
breast. Excessive eating leads to a fat belly, which provides, besides a
multitude of folds, also a new opening: the navel, as in the statue of
the dwarf Morgante in the gardens of Boboli, where the emphasis
on the open mouth and the navel is accentuated by the eyes and the
mouth of the tortoise, whose shield only echoes the rounding of the
But the male body offers far less possibilities to oppose
the hollow to the penis.
Add to this that the expression of an aroused vagina is far less speaking
than that of an erect penis. And, finally, we should not forget that,
under the regime of the exchange of beauty for benefits, only the male
is the desiring party. All this makes the projection of the desiring
vagina on the male body far more scarce than the converse projection of
the penis on the female body. But the feminine investment of the male
body is not altogether absent.
The male organ provides practically no clues for the projection of labia
or vaginal opening. Only the mouth of the penis and the opening of the
foreskin are candidates. In the immediate vicinity of the penis is the
anus. But the point of view from which the anus is seen hides the shaft
of the penis from view. There are more possibilities when not only the
vagina, but also the penis is displaced to more peripheral parts. The
anus may be opposed to a tail, as with the devil. Far more appropriate is the displacement of the
vagina to the mouth, especially when there is a beard and a moustache.
The role of the penis can be played by the tongue, the nose, the points
of the moustache, the beard, locks or horns that centrifugally radiate
from the opening of the mouth.
Thus, the eye conjures up the excluded genitals on male and female body
alike. Next to the ‘phallic women’, there is also a ‘vaginal man’ or –
to account for the displacements – the ‘vagoral’ or ‘vaganal’ or
‘wounded’ man. But it is probably better to speak of the (male or
female) hermaphrodite: this term has the advantage that it emphasizes
the process of projection and displacement, which is essentially the
same in both sexes, and that it can be applied to the displaced forms.
A remarkable encounter of male and female hermaphrodite has been painted
by Ingres in his ‘Jupiter and Thetis’. With Thetis, the emphasis is on
the protrusions, while the vagina is concealed. With Jupiter, the mighty
limbs and the staff frame the mouth surrounded with a moustache, the
fold of the navel and the hollow between the toes. The reversal comes to
its apogee when the male ‘vagina’ is fingered through female ‘penises’:
THE HERMAPHRODITE BODY(3)
Not only the perverse move is responsible for the transformation of the
erotic appearance into a hermaphrodite. Also the scarcity of female
beauty plays an important role. As we have seen, it leads to an
indifference towards male beauty, which is only increased through the
exchange of beauty for benefits. In the end, the isolated scopic drive
in the male comes to be opposed to the isolated phanic drive in the
female, or - to put it somewhat more graphically: the greedy eye and the
erect penis of the male are confronting the beautiful body of the
(frigid) women, as in Hokusai's print.
That cannot but stir the desire to restore reciprocity. The desiring
male wants to be desired, and since he cannot but conceive of
desirability as of a
female beauty, he fills the empty space
between desiring eye and desiring penis with the corresponding parts of
a desirable female body. Conversely, the desired female wants to desire,
and since she cannot but conceive of desire as of
male desire, she
completes her desirable body with a desiring penis. In both cases, the
restorative move results in the construction of the desired female body
with the desiring penis.
A good example is Donatelo's David. The beautiful young boy enjoys the
beauty of his own body that makes him independent from the unattainable
woman. The entwining of the bodies is replaced with the closed circle of
the eye admiring the beauty of its own body. This image - as if it were the
sequel to Hokusai's octopus - embodies the complete visualisation of
genitality: the penis that was out a penetrating the vagina is replaced
with the eye admiring its own body.
The counterpart of such 'feminine' self-sufficient retirement in itself
is the aggressive triumph of the 'phallic woman': desirability and
desire in one and the same body. Here, the emphasis is on the desiring
In both cases, the eye enjoys its own body, or to be more precise the
part of its body that belongs to the other sex. The eye can look
directly to its body (David), but more often it prefers to resort to a
mirror or an image. Or the enjoyment is mediated through the eye of a
third party, as is the case with the transvestite (see chapter V). In
all cases the voyeur tries to restore the broken reciprocity of showing
and looking, the entwining of scopic and phanic drive, through
projecting its own showing and looking: from within his own body, he
looks at the aroused appearance in the mirror, from where his own gaze
is summoning up the transport of his own body.
Also the merger of desiring penis and desired body can be described as a
hermaphrodite body. Unjustifiably though, since a real hermaphrodite has
the sexual organs of both sexes, whereas our 'hermaphrodite' has only
that desirable body of one sex, and the desiring organ of the other.
Real hermaphrodites are the representations described above.
The visualisation is completed when the identification of desiring body
and desired body eventually leads to the replacement of the desiring
organ itself. That is the case when the male wants to be transformed in
the desired female, and the desired female in the desired male. An
illustration is the self-portrait of Schiele: a gory seam runs over the
scrotum, no member is to be seen, the abdomen is transformed into a
womb, the upper part of the body is adorned with female breast, the arms
hold their own head and the legs are cut off, not otherwise than the
penis. Only the angularity of the skinny body are the last testimonies
to the dissolved masculinity.
The preliminary stages to such transformation can be seen in the
painting where Schiele is looking into a mirror over the shoulder of his
model, not by accident a pubertal girl that nearly shows the signs of
THE EYE AND ITS FETISHES
So strong is the ‘perverse’ desire to witness the tactile and genital
exaltation, that the erotic eye all too easily overlooks that it is
merely enjoying signs: to maintain its position, the eye should above
all not remember that those signs only refer to what is doomed to remain
invisible forever. Therein, the eye resembles the devotees of the golden
calf: they take the representation for the invisible original. They are
worshipping an idol - a fetish.
Through forbidding precisely what it wants to see, the erotic eye
creates the very void that is doomed to remain empty forever. What is
supposed to disappear in it, resurfaces from within. Out of this move is
born the primeval fetish. The propensity to aestheticise the genitals
and the attempts to soothe the anxiety about the wound, make the
original representation move centrifugally to the periphery. Thus, the
primeval fetish becomes unrecognisable. It goes hidden behind ever new
fetishes of the second generation: fetishes of the fetish. Again like with
the golden calf, also these fetishes of the second generation use to be
worshipped with a devotion that is meant for the original that goes
hidden behind an aesthetic veil.
Thus, voyeurism is the mother of fetishism. The further vicissitudes of
fetishism will be dealt with in chapter VI.
Chapter IV of 'The erotic eye and its nude'
objet de désir 5
'the ecstasies of eros'
THE DISPLAY OF
BEAUTY: REVEALING AND CONCEALING
The body is
not always flaunting its attractiveness. Even when it openly seduces, it
shows only its one side to hide the
other from view, and many an attractive part covers another one: as when
the arms are crossed over the chest, when one leg is crossed over the
other, when the hair covers the neck. That is why a whole range of
erotic gestures and poses haven been developed to display erotic charms
that are normally hidden or perhaps even non-existent. Natural display
can be involuntary, as is the case with the widening of the pupil,
blushing, erections of various parts of the body, or the secretion of
various smells and fluids. But it can also be voluntary. Such is the
case with smiling, presenting the breasts, stretching the body, not to
mention adopting a supine or prostrate position and widening the thighs.
Let us have a closer look at these manifold manifestations of the phanic
Seduction begins with the gaze. It no longer idly flutters around, but
tries to catch the gaze of the beloved. It can look straightforward from
a frontal face,
but more often, the face is gently inclined, forward
and/or sideward. In all cases, the mouth is
relaxed and the lips are somewhat parted. When the face is gently thrown
backward, that expression often unfolds to a nearly concealed kiss.
Hypnotising with the gaze is merely an advance to mesmerising with body. The move is inaugurated by a subtle shift from the
face to the breasts until finally the whole
body is put on display.
(2) THE ALLURE OF THE
GESTURE OF DISPLAYING
Putting one's attractiveness to display becomes an erotic gesture in its
own right, the relish of which only adds to the charms of the beauty
displayed. Pulling the hair up is even more enchanting than the sight of
the uncovered neck. The act of presenting the breasts or the buttocks is
even more seducing than the sight of what is put on display. Splaying the thighs wide only enhances the appeal of
the body exposed. Things come to their apogee
when the nude fully reclines, with its arms lifted up and its legs
(3) THE CHARMS OF CONCEALING
Add to this that the effect of displaying can be heightened by teasingly
concealing erotic charms before eventually unravelling them. That is why
erotic display has come to include an endless array of tantalising
manoeuvres. These range from inclining the head and lowering the eyes,
over folding the hands across the chest, lifting the legs or turning the
back, to withdrawing, running away and pushing back - not to mention
slowing down and restraining when eventually the two bodies are
entwined. In lingering over the display of erotic charms, the nude comes
to endorse the erotic eye's complementary desire to linger over the relish
of visual beauty.
To begin with, a gaze from a gently turned away face looks even more
inviting, especially when one eye goes hidden behind the hair. Or the expression of the lips is all the more
promising when their intentions are concealed by hands that cannot
refrain from grasping themselves. Even more
tantalising is the lowering of the eyelids in a turned away face,
especially when the half-parted lips cannot but betray the readiness to
kiss. But even when the face does not at all
conceal its intentions, the tension may be heightened by crossing the
arms over the breast, especially when also the
knees are lifted up or when the nude turns its
back on us at that.
The effect of concealing is even further enhanced when it is combined
with putting other alluring parts on display. That holds especially true
for a dorsal display. The sight of the back cannot but all the more stir
the desire to see the hidden beauty of the front.
Displaying one's beauty, then, is not a matter of simply exposing
oneself before the gaze of the seduced. It is of necessity always a
process unfolding in time.
Needless to say that the game of concealing and revealing only folly
unfolds when clothes are allowed to enter the picture. Time has come,
then, to examine their influence on the development of voyeurism
Chapter V of 'The erotic eye and its nude'
objet de désir 4
'the ecstasies of eros'
THE NUDE CLAD
Erotic display is far but restricted to natural ways of concealing and
revealing the body's appeal. Humans have always been trying to
artificially increase their erotic attractiveness through a whole array
of artificial means: clothes, make-up, tattoos, jewellery, prostheses,
not to mention chirurgical, hormonal or genetic interventions.
Dress is the most conspicuous of these techniques, and at the same time
the most intriguing, because it seems to be counterproductive through
hiding the beauty of the nude from view. That does not prevent dressing
from being a very effective and sophisticated device for widening the
range of erotic display and intensifying the pleasure of natural erotic
To begin with, clothes tend to stir a yearning to uncover what lies
beneath. In real life, the impulse to bluntly denudate a dressed body is
repressed through the presence of a gaze: the gaze not only
spiritualises or forbids any erotic relation, it can also teasingly
Clothes not only stir the desire to uncover, they also make all the more
desirable what they conceal - as in the very paradigm of clothing: the
half-clad, half-naked bosom. That is why dressing enriches the natural
range of erotic display with that most alluring of all seductive
procedures: stripping. There are countless variants. Very fascinating is the uncovering of the breasts. But also the taking off of shoes, the undoing of
stockings or the lifting up of a smock exert an often irresistible spell. Especially the uncovering of the back is most
exciting, since what we get to see is only an advance to the splendours
on the front.
It is apparent, then, that clothes are not originally meant to conceal
nakedness; they are intended to cover nudity - which is quite a
different matter. There is no point in stripping if what is revealed is
merely an indifferent, sheer naked body. On the other hand, people do
not depend on clothing to hide their nudity - it suffices to be naked.
Nudity only appears in an exalted body. Neither does the body lose its
appeal when it is always naked. On the contrary, sheer nakedness - in
much the same way as the body clad - only ignites the desire for nudity
(2) CLAD AND NUDE
Since no garment can possibly cover the entire body, covering of
necessity equals leaving uncovered. The lustful eye can't help regarding
the parts left uncovered as all the more valuable delights. Clothing,
therefore, not only stirs the desire to uncover, it enhances above
all the nudity
of the parts left uncovered. In this sense, the state
of dress is always a state of undress. That is most poignantly
exemplified in the low neckline, that leaves the breasts half-covered,
Due to habituation, the body has to yield ever more nudity, as when the
skirts are becoming shorter or the neckline is lowering. The formerly
covered parts now seem all the more desirable. In the downward sense,
first the eyes and the face are exposed, then the hair and the neck,
then the shoulders and the bosom. In the
sideward sense, first the hands are exposed, then the forearm, the upper
arm and eventually the shoulders. In the upward sense, first the feet
are left uncovered, than the ankles and the lower legs, then the
thighs. The movement can also proceed from the waist until only the
breasts and the genitals are covered. The
neckline on the back may be lowered until the whole back is exposed.
The same process affects also single parts of the body: the veil covers
only the hair instead of the whole face, the fingers show up through a
glove that merely covers the palm of the hand, the shoe leaves ever more
parts of the foot uncovered, or the cups of the bra are reduced to a
mere strip over the nipples. The covering of
the waist may be reduced to a mere ribbon, or the pants to a mere string
that all the more accentuates the nudity of the buttocks.
So does the erotic eye regain the paradise lost to garment. But at the
same time, the charms of concealing are lost. What is allowed to be
naked, loses its additional charms, and a whole array of seductive
gestures irrevocably evaporates: the removal of the veil, the taking off
of gloves, the denudation of a leg. That cannot but elicit up a
countermove: the tendency to cover what has previously been allowed to
remain nude. Eventually, an ever extending array of possibilities is
developed, ranging from the utter concealment of the body leaving only
the eyes and the hands uncovered, and sheer nudity, leaving only the
genitals covered (Kroeber).
In accordance with the natural propensity to conceal the genitalia,
mostly the peripheral parts are left uncovered. A tantalising effect is
derived from a complete reversal of this scheme, when the body is nude
where it would normally be covered, and covered where it is normally
nude. It is obvious that the splendour of the habitually covered areas
of the body is heightened by contrast with the clothes on the habitually
exposed parts. The latter regain their appeal precisely because they are
now concealed. Which only increases the desire to eventually restore the
body in its full glory.
There are several variations on the theme of reversal. Everything is
left uncovered, except for the head and the feet; everything
is left uncovered, except for the hands and feet,
or arms and legs; everything is left
uncovered, except for the waist; everything is
left uncovered, except for a necklace or a bracelet; everything
is covered, except for the vagina; only the
upper or lower part of the body are covered; only
the left of right side of the body is covered;
the front is covered and the back left nude,
or vice versa. The reversal is also most
cherished in the parts. The bra may be reduced to a mere frame around
the breasts left nude; or the sleeves and/or
legs are reduced to a cover around the elbows and knees. Very exciting
is also the contrast between a body naked and a body clad, as when the
completely dressed lover holds his utterly nude beloved, as has been
customary in the many pietas and Manet's well-known 'Déjeuner sur
When the reversal is too drastic, it resorts a reverse effect,
especially when the onlooker is suddenly confronted with uncovered
genitals in an otherwise completely clad body. Only when the onlooker
has been previously turned on by the sight of more peripheral parts is
the eye prepared to enjoy the sight of the genitals. That is why blunt
exposure cannot fail to provoke revulsion - in which resides the secret
charm of the performance of the exhibitionist (in the strict sense of
the word). Also when nude breasts are isolated, they often exert a
threatening effect - as with Ingres, where the effect is obtained
through letting the body submerge in shadowy areas.
A new impetus for playing the game of concealing and revealing is given
when the body is covered with more than one layer. Salomé had herself
wrapped in seven veils in order to prolong her unveiling.
Even more effective than adding up identical layers is the heightening
of the contrast between the layers. The introduction of a layer of
underwear ensues a kind of reciprocal specialisation: the more
transparent and intimating the underwear, the more concealing the
outerwear. Such specialisation also affects texture - the softer the
undergarment, the rougher the outerwear. Fabric itself comes to be
reallocated. Whereas hand-made lace used to be an outer adornment,
machine-made lace has become a favourite for underwear (Hollander). The
same is true for lace and satin. Furthermore, where the task of
revealing the body's contours is relegated to underwear, every other
layer has to hint at the presence and reveal the nature of the next.
Preferably, underwear peeks out from beneath an outer layer, such as the
cuffs of sleeves, or the ribbons or the edges of the bra. In the same
vein, the outline of the underwear may appear through semi-transparent
fabric, or its relief may show through a tight-fitting dress.
The more specialised the layers, the greater their propensity to become
an autonomous component with increasing internal specialisation and
organisation. The chemise, for centuries the sole basic undergarment for
all European women (Hollander) has been gradually replaced with lingerie
consisting of many parts: underpants, garter belts, corsets and bras.
The more specialised a layer, the greater its specific appeal and the
greater its autonomy. Undressing develops into a continuous
metamorphosis. In every stage of its unfolding, a new erotic appearance
with its own merits is revealed. Far from merely referring to the next
stage of undressing, every intermediate appearance tries to substitute
its own splendour to the detriment of the next stage. That is most
apparent in the appeal of that new kind of intermediary stage between
clad and nude: the body clad in a swimsuit or lingerie.
The habitual presence of underwear also allows for more sophistication
in the techniques of unveiling. To begin with, new forms of undressing
emerge: the revealing of the underwear under the outerwear, and the
revealing of the body under the lingerie. But
also other refined ways of heightening the erotic tension emerge. A kind
of shortcut can be achieved when a naked body shows up where an
intermediate of underclothing was expected.
This type of shortcut not only pleases the erotic eye, but foremost its
nude. There is a special thrill in wearing a garment over naked breasts
or walking around in a skirt without a slip underneath, or - in
sharpening the contrast even further - appearing completely naked
underneath a thick fur coat, formal attire, or heavy working apparel.
(4) DRAPED, CUT, STRETCHED
But there is more. Although clothes hide nudity from view, they cannot
but court the shapes of the body. Here is another way in which
concealing can be transformed into a refined way of revealing. Already
draped dress produces a contrast between the fall of the folds and the
undulations that show through. To accentuate such contrast, the wearer
my have the wind blow against his body or water make the fabric cling to
it. More efficient is cutting up the fabric so that it comes to court
more intimately the shape of the body.
The desire to lay eyes upon what is concealed can become so urgent that
even cutting up does not suffice. Additional elasticity makes the dress
perfectly court the undulations of the body that was supposed to
conceal, as with tight-knitted dresses, nylon stockings and latex.
The covering is shortcut altogether when the fabric itself is
transparent, or when the surface shrinks into
a mere ribbon or strings. A most alluring
effect is achieved when the body is naked but nevertheless covered with paint.
Finally, a pure reminder of clothes has to suffice: think of the white
imprints of articles of clothing on a body that has been exposed to the
(5) LINGERING OVER SEDUCTION
‘Puis, elle faisait d’un
seul geste tomber l’ensemble de ses vêtements’
Flaubert, Emma Bovary.
Exciting though garments can be, dressing cannot be an end in itself.
There is no purpose in heightening the appeal of the body when it is no
longer revealed. Getting dressed is only a prelude to, if not a means of
postponing the forthcoming denudation. The ultimate destiny of clothes
is to be laid off.
That becomes all too obvious when we compare clothes with the whole
array of other artificial means to enhance the erotic appeal, such as
make-up, epilating and shaving, cosmetic surgery, the use of all kind of
prostheses, wigs, false eyelashes, and what have you. Although these
devices are often put on the same footing as
clothing, we are dealing with totally different phenomena. To be sure,
some of these artifices can be laid off like clothes: think of make-up,
a set of dentures or a wig. But their removal only lays bare hidden
shortcomings instead of hidden charms. The difference is between
objectively adding to the beauty or concealing shortcomings on the one
hand, and subjectively increasing the erotic appeal on the other hand. That is already apparent from the structure of
clothes itself, which is determined by the ease with which they are laid
off. The charm of well-fitting trousers resides in opening the zipper,
the charm of a blouse in its unbuttoning, the secret of the corset in
its unlacing, the appeal of the bra in its undoing. One could write a
whole erotica on zippers, buttons, hooks, ribbons and laces. And there is a whole array of refined, nearly
concealed tricks of seduction, from unawares letting glide a ribbon over
the shoulder, over leaving one or more buttons undone or a zipper open,
to leaving the collar unbuttoned to show some chest, and what have you.
Such seeming dishevelment betrays an overall readiness or helps to
conjure it up.
However much al these refinements may stir the erotic eye, nothing
compares to the beauty of its nude when finally uncovered.
(6) CLOTHES AND THE ECLIPSE
OF THE NUDE
‘L’homme nu est un mollusque’
Although clothing is a sophisticated method of seduction, it often
serves the opposite goal of creating deceit, by suggesting that there is
something more or better than what actually exists. Worse still,
clothing can even compensate for, or mask an inability - if not an
unconscious unwillingness - of the body to display itself in the nude.
In fact, garments can be disposed of at will, whereas a genuine
willingness arises only where there is a reciprocal attraction and a
readiness to engage in a more encompassing relationship. Erotic attire
may only advertise an apparent readiness, as opposed to a complete
willingness. This attitude is quite common under the regime of
differential beauty, where many a beauty flaunts her appeal, without
being prepared to disappear in the marital bed, let alone the childbed.
Such purely exhibitionistic attitude is epitomised in the model with
whom an increasing number of women identify themselves. The model
specialises in displaying her body before a host of admirers,
whose very number structurally prevents them from ever gaining access to
her body. Inevitably, the staging of seduction is transformed into a
mere performance of exhibitionism on the catwalk.
Even accomplished stripping may be diverted from its true destiny. This
occurs when it becomes a mere substitute for complete seduction by the
eventually denudated body. In granting the nude, stripping withholds
intercourse. Unveiling - and solely unveiling - has become the crux of
its pleasure, and the spell is broken when the last veil has fallen.
This attitude is quite common in every day life - on beaches and at
parties - but it comes to its apogee in staged performances such as the
belly dance and the strip tease, not to mention photographic images of a
nude. Just as in the performance of the model on the catwalk, the
performance of the stripper is doomed to be reduced to mere
exhibitionism. This is evident in the highly ritualised, theatrical
quality of the performance in which touching - and in classic striptease:
showing the genitalia - is excluded.
Thus, voyeurism and exhibitionism are further isolated from the tactile
and genital sequel of visual seduction. Their increasing autonomy finds
its counterpart in the gradual shift form body to clothes. Not for
nothing does many a man prefer a half-clad body or a body in full
erotic attire - it might utterly fail when it finally surrenders.
Genuine display as the expression of an unlimited willingness to
surrender, may be just as rare as a perfect body.
No wonder that it is often proclaimed that erotic appeal derives not from
the body, but from the body clad or from its unveiling. The contention
is only justified when the nude is not able or prepared to hold its
promise. We cannot escape the impression that the emphasis on the
envelope is merely a new manifestation of the age-old contempt for the
body: from Tertullianus' 'templum aedificatum super cloacam’, over
Baudelaire's make-up, Merleau-Ponty's 'chair', Clark's 'sack of
potatoes' to Lacan's body as a mollusc.
That does not prevent that matters can be looked at more positively.
Clothes maintain the illusion that it is they that make the man or the
woman. In expectance of a generalised genetic manipulation of bodily
beauty - they may thus serve the egalitarian purpose (Alain). They help
to flatten the differences in beauty and help to tip the balance in
favour of the lesser beauties, as in the story of Cinderella - even when
this fairy-tale learns that real beauty will always win at last.....
Chapter VI of 'The erotic eye and its nude'
objet de désir 1
'the ecstasies of eros'
CLOTHES AND THE METAMORPHOSIS OF THE EROTIC APPEARANCE
(1) DIVERSIFICATION OF THE EROTIC APPEARANCE
'J'aime le souvenir de ces époques nues''
Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du mal,Correspondances,V.
Dress not only widens the repertoire of concealing and revealing, it
also changes the overall appearance of the erotic appearance itself.
Draped clothes synthesise the body into one whole, from which only the
head and the arms protrude. Tailored clothing shows all the separate
parts, although a skirt might synthesise the thighs and the legs into
one single whole. The cut may change the shape
of the parts: trousers and sleeves, shirts and jackets may be wide or
tight-cut. The cut has also its impact on the mutual relation of the
parts: the girdle may be under the breast, over the middle or over the
thighs. Just like a close-up, clothes draw the attention on different
parts of the body. So does men exchange his natural appearance with an
increasing diversity of often totally opposed profiles. It suffices to
have the typical silhouettes from diverse places and different periods
pass the review, to become aware of that phenomenon.
That goes not only for the shape of the body, but equally for its
movements. The movements of the body are totally different when it is
clothed in draped or tailored clothing, a tight-fitting dress or
trousers, wearing high heels (or having bound feet) or slippers. An
attribute like a plume or a cigarette mouthpiece drastically changes the overall
attitude and dictates new movements (P. Schilder).
Precisely because clothes tend to confine the natural agility of the
body, their removal often leads to an outburst of energy: the liberated
body frolics around or stretches its limbs triumphantly.
(2) THE HERMAPHRODITE BODY
There is a natural ‘transsexuality’ in the sense that characteristics
which, in a given culture, are supposed to be male or female, tend to be
rather randomly distributed over genetically male of female beings. Far
from harming the appeal of the body, such natural ambivalence often only
heightens its charms. A rigid opposition
between male and female dress (and other means of adorning the body,
such as make-up and jewellery) helps to remove the ambivalence. An
impressive example is the strong opposition of male nudity and the
richly draped female body in ancient Greece.
Nowadays, we are still familiar with the opposition of trousers and
skirts. Up to the nineteenth century, the
opposition extended to underwear: women used to wear long smocks, and it
is only from the middle of the nineteenth century onward that
specialised underwear was introduced. Today, make-up is still a female
privilege, in strong contrast to the eighteenth century. There are
countless other examples …
Garments can also enhance the natural ambivalence. As women have always
male garment only comes to enhance female attractiveness. This is all the more so when what seemed to be a man
turns out to be a woman. This leads to a
continuous reciprocal annexation of the privileges of the opposite sex.
Eventually, the surplus gained from the annexation dwindles: women
wearing trousers have become so common, that we no longer notice the
Especially when there is a sufficient initial natural ambivalence, the
wearing of clothes of the opposite sex can become a means of acquiring a
new body. Male transvestism is foremost fuelled by exhibitionistic
motives. Under the regime of the exchange of beauty for benefits, man is
doomed to forever admire female beauty, while his own body is left in
the cold, how beautiful it might be.
Female transvestism is not restricted to clothes and attributes and is
not exclusively fuelled by erotic motives. The body is increasingly
masculinised. As a consequence of diets and the avoidance of pregnancy
and breastfeeding, the slender, muscled body of the girl is gradually
replacing the mature female or maternal body. In opposition to the
maternal body, the girlish look can also be read as ‘male’ (‘boyish’).
Conversely, the body of the young boy shows up many female
characteristics. In the limit, both genders meet each other in the quasi
hermaphrodite body of the adolescent.
Increasingly, the desired effects are obtained through surgical,
hormonal and genetic manipulation. Up to now, they are quite impressive
with the male, who can acquire often magnificent breasts. But there is
no doubt: in the future we surely will witness still more amazing
Finally, clothes and other artificial interventions remove every sexual
difference: we get to see a sexless being, like the angels of olden
times (Claude Cahun).
(3) THE BODY AND ITS DOUBLE:
THE EYE AND THE PERVERSE MOVE
Clothes deprive the erotic eye of the sight of its nude. No wonder that
it wants to regain that paradise lost. We already mentioned how changes
in the scheme of denudation tend to surrender the zones previously
covered with garment, and how the covering of the nude is
short-circuited through transparency.
But there is more. The whole scheme of concealing and revealing is
centred around the genitals. In that centre originates the centrifugal
quest for more aesthetic and less anxiety-arousing substitutes. In
progressively covering the body, clothes come to endorse that move: in
hiding the centre from view, they all the more feed the desire to find
the becoming substitutes. And since clothes come to cover not only the
genitals, but other, more attractive parts of the body as well, also
these begin to displace themselves.
In the first place the parts left nude are obvious magnets for the
hidden treasures. In chapter III we already provided ample illustration
of centrifugal displacement of the genitals. Here, we only have to add
that the characteristics of the host parts are often read as indicators
of the characteristics of the originals: as when the length of the nose
is supposed to indicate the length of the penis, or the shape of the
foot that of vagina (China).
But also the clothes themselves are eager to welcome the banned
genitals. They show up many formal or
functional similarities or analogies, and where these are missing, they
are often introduced in view of that function. The most important
substitute is underwear. Due to the reciprocal specialisation between
the layers, underwear preferably takes the function of intimating
nudity. That is why it often imitates the evenness of the skin and why
it preferably courts the shapes of the body. Not seldom does it also
take the colour of the skin or enhance it through contrast. That goes
especially for the more archaic parts, which can easily be aestheticised
by clothing. Thus, the shape of the (slip, panties) echoes the triangle
of the mound of Venus, while at the same does replacing the pubic hair
and the mucous skin through shining cloth.
Also and especially the outer layers imitate the body. The more they
refer their intimating function to the inner layers, the more the
eyes feel deprived, and the stronger the outer layers are invited to
resemble what they are supposed to conceal. It is not difficult to
understand why the disappearance of the vulva celebrates its
resurrection in the folds of drapery, in collars or cuts in sleeves,
stockings, jackets and coats; why the pubic
hair resurges as fur, preferably at the fringe of collars, cuts and
openings; why the breasts reappear as cups and
the nipples as buttons, why the thighs or the hips are accentuated in
crinolines; why the hidden skin resurfaces as
silk, leather or latex.
Also with the male do hats enlarge the head, puff sleeves intimate
the volume of muscle, and epaulettes augment the width of the chest. The hidden beauty resurfaces even in the armour
destined to protect it in battle, as in the muscled cuirass, cherished
from the Greeks onward. Especially shoes are
destined to embody the penis. In that capacity they have not failed to
play their secret game under many a table (Think of the ‘poulaines’,
introduced by Fulk Rechin of Anjou in the eleventh century).
The effect of displacement is often so drastic, that the central parts
are more easily denudated than the displaced ones: think of the Chinese,
who have rather denudate the breasts or the vagina than the feet, or of
the stripper and her high-heeled shoes.
(4) THE HERMAPHRODITE BODY
In the previous chapter, we already described how the body is wrapped in
ever more layers. The intermediate layers can take the place of the
ultimate goal: the nude. The erotic eye’s quest is then diverted to a
new goal: laying eyes upon the underwear. The corresponding change in
display of beauty is the exhibition of underwear. A stylised form of
this new kind of display appears as soon as the French can-can. Thus is
born one of the most elementary forms of a new kind of fetishism.
This new form of fetishism is further developed in that clothes postpone
the transition to tactile and genital contact and thus tend to reinforce
a voyeuristic stand. Since clothes also happen to offer more aesthetic
substitutes (in the clothes themselves, as well in the parts of the body
left nude) they threaten to turn postponement into cancellation.
The admired body is no longer tactilely or genitally aroused: the
potential lover is reduced to a voyeur. And that is all the more true,
since the admired body has become a body dressed. The display of the
body is increasingly replaced with the display of clothes, especially
since dress tends to offer fascinating substitutes for the sense of
touch and the genitalia. This culminates in the catwalk and its less
profane counterpart in the church: the wedding dress in which the bride
appears before the altar.
The eyes’ seizure of power leads to an increasing desire to lay eyes
upon the nude body that goes hidden behind the clothes. More often though, the eye’s seizure of power leads
to the disappearance of signs of tactile and genital arousal, that the
eye wants so eagerly to see. That cannot but reinforce the propensity to
project the excluded organ of the voyeur on the body of the
exhibitionist, a phenomenon that is already familiar to us from chapter III. Also for this
projection does the body dressed offer the required clues. In a first phase clothes intensify the appeal of the
parts left nude. The attention is not restricted to the face, which, in
an uncovered body, is the natural entrance gate to the sanctuary of the
soon as the hem reaches to the ground, toes, feet, ankles, knees and
thighs impose themselves as new stops on the path leading to the centre.
Sleeves and gloves disclose a new sideward entranceway: the removal of –
especially long – gloves, or of sleeves lays bare the charms of fingers,
hands, wrists, arms and shoulders (Emma Bovary). And, finally, there is
also the dorsal approach of the back, which naturally hides the charms
on the front from view, and thus can be denudated at lesser risks. In
a second phase, the new entranceways offer new clues for the centrifugal
movement and the projection of the genitals. Whereas, on the downward
path, only natural fetishes of an obvious female nature are to be found,
on the sideward and upward pathways, we find an abundance of phallic
forms: arms and legs, fingers and toes. Such phallic profusion asks for
female envelopes: stockings, gloves, and shoes.
But also the clothes themselves offer plenty of clues for the staging of
the hermaphrodite drama. In general, the
wearing of clothes accentuates one or another part of the body. The
exclusive focus on the one part among countless others, betrays the
central origin of such a fetish. The
displacement to the parts left uncovered goes often hand in hand with the
displacement to dress. The most obvious example is the point of the foot
penetrating the hollow of the shoe, which ends itself in a point and is
armed with a high heel at that. The movement is continued when the
high-heeled shoe develops into a boot with bootlaces or a fur collar. A
veritable escalation, whereby male and female genitals unleash each
other as in a chain reaction!
Also the body of the male, which in its natural state provides only
scarce clues, is turned into a playground for displacement and
projection when dressed. At last, the vagina can nestle in the male body
at random. Especially collars and splits play an important role.
Things come to their apogee in the fly from which the penis protrudes.
Also the tactile qualities and smells of clothes offer many a clue for
the game of displacement and projection. Not seldom does the fabric of
clothes surpass not only the evenness, but also other qualities of the
skin: think of the feel of silk, satin, fur or the sight of latex. In
the end, the ‘second skin’ is turned into the ‘first skin’. Optic and tactile qualities are often intertwined.
Thus, silk not seldom shares its colour with the labia minora, and
reminds in any case of its evenness, without being slimy. Therefore,
silk is equally an example of displacement for aesthetics sake, just
like fingernails. The same goes for fur, which cannot fail to remind of
the pubic hair. Also smells join the fetishist feast. Leather, which is
hairless like the female body, is also cherished for its smell (not to
mention its sadistic overtones). And that goes especially for shoes,
which combine the smell of leather with those of the foot.
The sometimes subtle displacements from diverse sources are often
intertwined in an eventually inextricable jumble. Here originates the
very fascination of many a fetish, and the mystery as well. It is not
difficult to understand why one should be aroused by the sight of
half-parted lips. Already more difficult is it to understand why one
might be mesmerised by the sight of a leg. But it is only when one is
rapt in ecstasy when touching a piece of silk, or at the sight of a body
laced up, that we have to summon up all our interpretative powers.
Things are further complicated in that pieces of cloth may be isolated
from the body from which they derive their appeal. Especially in such
cases do the displacements of erotic appearance take the shape of a
veritable ‘fetish’. Which does not prevent that the phenomenon can only
be understood when we take the more obvious preparatory stages into
Through their propensity to usurp the erotic appeal of the body, clothes
come to play an increasingly important role in erotic life. Since
clothes can be disposed of at will, any desiring body can adorn itself
with the charms of the desired body – also the less desirable body, or
the body that is not prepared to surrender. In the end, the desired body
itself becomes obsolete. Such depersonalisation and objectification of
original the erotic appearance is all the more welcome under the regime
of differential beauty and the exchange of beauty for benefits. Under
such regime, many a real person is no longer prepared to engage in a
more encompassing personal relationship, whereas a fetish can be bought
and possessed at will. At the same time, the objectification and the
visualisation allow for an unlimited enjoyment. Unlike genital
intercourse, the relation with a fetish has no inbuilt end. A fetishist
can denudate and wash the feet of his beloved, perfume it and kiss it
for hours. And that holds all the more true for shoes. And such
enjoyment is not only unlimited, no obstacles whatsoever can spoil the
fun: a shoe cannot possibly be a source of troubles….
(6) THE FETISH AND THE NUDE
The fetishist displacement comes to its apogee when it courts the
reversal of the normal scheme of denudation (see previous chapter): when
the erotic charge is displaced to garment in the periphery, its appeal
can be contrasted with the nudity of the body, especially of its central
In a first phase the central opening in the nude is covered by other
parts of the body itself.
But, in a second phase, the centrifugally displaced fetish is directed
against the central origin which it negates.
‘There is more to sex than intercourse…’
Also erotically neutral objects become entangled in the game of
concealing and revealing. Originally, most jewellery serves the function
of indicating rank, status, functions and other distinctions. Just like
clothes, they divert the attention from the erotic appearance. Also
flowers, textiles and jewellery worn for purely aesthetic reasons,
compete with the beauty of the body. But precisely their erotic
neutrality makes them function as an excuse: as when the expensive or
splendid fabric of a dress becomes a pretext for admiring the wearer.
The expensive jewel not only diverts the attention from the beautiful
breasts between which it is hanging, it is also a pretext to catch a
glimpse of those other treasures. However erotically neutral it might
be, through functioning as an advance, it becomes entangled in the game
of concealing and revealing. Also tattoos or piercings have the same
effect, especially when they are made on a part of the body that
otherwise is not allowed to be uncovered in public.
But also - if not: especially - on the naked body, all kinds of props
serve the purpose of aestheticisation (the aesthetic move). They spare
the erotic eye the non-aesthetic and anxiety-provoking sight of the
genitals and other unappetising parts such as the nipples, the openings
in the nose and the ear, or the mouth; or they divert the attention from
the navel, which is already an aestheticised displacement of the vagina. The
attention may be diverted directly from the vagina through jewels
or peircings in its immediate vicinity. Already in
chapter V, we mentioned the fact that the fingernail is a negation of
the slimy and wrinkled flesh.
THE DIVINE HERMAPHRODITE
Garments are not only meant to give the onlooker an advance to the
splendour of the nude, they can also give the wearer an advance to
impending sexual gratification. Many a women enjoys the feel of loose,
soft cloth working against their skin. Often this enjoyment can lead to
overt self-caressing which is a theme often developed in erotic imagery. Conversely, tight-fitting clothes may be the source of a pleasure akin
to bonding: in this case, clothes are replacing a lover in flesh and
blood. Also the wearing of lingerie may
produce a special sensation, even when – or precisely because – the
wearer has no intention to unravel them before the eyes of strangers.
The sheer awareness of being attractive, or the pure idea of seduction
may suffice. In these cases, pleasure is derived from looking at oneself
– either through a kind of spiritual eye, through the real eye in the
mirror, or through the vicarious gaze of a third party.
Such self-satisfaction is further developed when the fetishist uses
clothes charged with the erotic appeal of the desired body. In wearing
the clothes of the desired body, the desiring body is released from the
task of projecting itself on the desired body. The understanding of this
process is obscured by the fact that fetishism tends to obliterate the
origin of the fetish in the desired body. The plumes, with which women
are fond to adorn themselves, are derived from male birds. Fur - from
a male prerogative (Emberley) – not only reminds of the pubis, but above
all of the haired male body. Conversely hairless leather derives its
charms foremost from the nudity of the female body. If we take the
origins in the desired body into account, the differences between
fetishism and transvestism tend to be blurred: while the fetishist originally
projected his own desiring body on the desired body, he now can wrap
himself in the very envelopes in which the desired body has incarnated
itself. The fetishist, who wraps himself in silk underwear or in nude
leather, tactilely enjoys the skin taken from the desired body. He thus
becomes a transvestite who – with his mind’s eye, in the mirror, or
through the eye of a third onlooker - enjoys the sight the desired body
in his own. This move is completed when he
also masturbates himself with the fetish or with a hand replacing the
vagina or a finger replacing the penis – even when lingering in the
visual and tactile preliminary stages is far more becoming to both in
essence visual perversions. We will come back to this in chapter X.
Thus, the desired body, denied to the voyeur by the perverse eye, is
eventually reconstructed on the desiring body itself through a reversal
in the mirror (transvestism), and through wrapping itself in the desired
skin detached from the desired body (fetishism). In the end, the
perverse eye, that in a first phase turned the poor mortal into a
sexually individuated being – a being that refuses to let itself
submerge into the animal with the two backs – eventually transforms that
very sexually individuated being into the self-sufficient, divine
Chapter VII of 'the erotic eye and its nude'
objet de désir 6
'the ecstasies of eros'
THE TABOO ON EXHIBITIONISM
AND THE ORGY
It will be superfluous to remind of the many other factors that lead to
the introduction of clothes. To begin with, there is the necessity to
protect the body against extreme temperatures. Also increasing wealth
induces men to cover his body with ever more layers of fabric, or to
wear jewellery and attributes testifying to his wealth. Thus, social
stratification is often expressed in erotic terms: infringement of all
kinds of rules and the adoption of an appearance that is irreconcilable
with hard labour (long nails, white skin...) are often signs of power or
wealth. And the flaunting of wealth is only a special case of the
general propensity to adorn the body with signs of all kinds of
identity. In this book we should focus, however, on clothes as an
expression of modesty.
(1)THE TABOO ON SEXUAL
‘Sous aucun tropique ne persiste la nudité intégrale offerte par la
When stumbling on a loving couple, most people have the feeling of
having crossed a threshold. Conversely, many lovers feel disturbed when
they know they are being observed. The concomitant feeling in the lovers
as well as in the onlookers is shame. Shame is the feeling of having
exhibited or witnessed something that is not meant to be exhibited or
Shameful is not sexual behaviour as such, but the fact that it has been
witnessed by outsiders. The same lovers that indulge in relishing each
others beauty, feel inhibited when strangers are around. And the same
witnesses that feel embarrassed when stumbling on a loving couple, feel
completely at ease when they admire the beauty of their beloved in the
Since shame is an unpleasant feeling, we avoid behaving sexually in the
presence of others. The feeling of shame elicits an attitude: modesty
and reserve. Such attitude induces lovers to withdraw in private
and outsiders to grant them their privacy. Thus, a natural feeling of
shame is not a hindrance, but rather a guarantee for the undisturbed
unfolding of reciprocal seduction and the surrender of lovers, as
parents with children know all too well.
Other factors come to endorse such natural modesty. Just like we stop
working and talking when proceeding to intercourse, just so do we stop
making love when proceeding to every day business: we neutralise our
appeal and avoid looking at the erotically charged parts of the body.
Conversely, with the most kinds of work or with non-erotic commerce, we
only need the eyes and the hands. That is why work attire or apparel for
normal commerce mostly leave only the hand and the face uncovered.
Add to this that sexual seduction is a process that unfolds in many
phases: the strongest assets are only played off when first the tip of
the veil has been lifted, and precisely such postponement makes the
whole process exciting. Such unfolding is unthinkable if modesty were not
the starting point. Conversely, we already mentioned the deterring
effect of unexpected exposure, not only of the genitals, but also of the
breasts. That is why, also in milder climates, the genitals are always
somehow covered or neutralised. That holds
also true of sculpture: the Greeks provided their sculptures of males
with a rather minute penis, which especially catches the eye with the
giant Hercules. In erotic pictures, conversely, the emphasis is on an
often oversized penis.
The archaic sight of the genitals only enhances the propensity to hide
them from view. Clothes, or other props like penis-shafts or bows around
the foreskin, help to spare the eye this repulsive sight. That holds by
extension also for other parts of the body: the lips, the nipples. Even
the completely nude Greek boys in the palaestra wore a bow around their
foreskin, and they retired when they proceeded to making love.
Finally, sexual seduction is selective. When lovers engage in an
enduring bond, they only proceed to seduction when they want to renew
their bond. As long as they love each other, they do not flaunt their
charms before the eyes of strangers.
Thus, the natural taboo on sexual display is not so much the enemy of
pleasure, as a guarantee for its uninhibited unfolding. A furtive glance
on sexual behaviour all over the world and throughout history suffices
to convince oneself of the fact that shame is a universal phenomenon
that does not at all increase with the degree of civilisation (Duerr).
No doubt, religious or political authorities may enhance and generalise
the feeling of shame, to the extent that sexuality itself comes to be
considered as shameful. But that does not prevent the original shame
from being a natural and useful feeling. Although there is a
considerable variability as to the extent in which sexual seduction is
experienced as shameful, the feeling that sexual commerce has somehow to
be hidden is nowhere totally absent. And it is not because in many
cultures people unabashedly walk around in the nude, that they do not
have a feeling of shame. The feeling often appears only when they
proceed to kissing, embracing or copulating. They do not hide their
body, but sexual intercourse itself (Lévi-Strauss). There is, finally, a
difference between leaving parts of the body uncovered - being naked -
and seductively exhibiting the body - being nude. The reports of
anthropologists are often biased in both directions, and many a
photographer arranged his photos to please the Westerner (Duerr).
(2) EXTENSION OF THE TABOO
To assert that shame is a universal phenomenon does not mean that beauty
is never displayed in public, quite the contrary. Already with animals,
potential partners are meeting on a common 'arena' or 'lek' so that all
the possible partners are within reach and easily comparable. Also man
has special places and times when foremost younger people are meeting:
the village square, dance halls, beaches and baths. Comparison rather
than seduction is the aim of the performance. And, in so far as
seduction comes into play, it is not really public, but aimed at a
specific addressee: stealthy looks and the initial phases of seduction
are only meant for a chosen partner.
When the partners have selected each other, they withdraw from the public
sphere, although things might change sooner or later. For, as a
consequence of the differences in beauty, not all the partners can
obtain the partner of their choice. A majority has to content themselves
with a less appropriate candidate. Or the position of the partner might
change in the course of the relation, so that many a partner begins to
look out for a better partner and resumes his seductive efforts. That
cannot fail to provoke a corresponding reaction. The excluded partner
might try to deter his competitors. But it is far more effective to
curtail one's partner: to claim rights of ownership or to impose
modesty. Here originates the widespread ambivalent attitude towards
sexual display. Everybody is inclined to enjoy the erotic display not
only of his own partner, but equally of strangers. At the same time one
objects to the display of one's beloved before strangers, and tries to
prevent strangers from enjoying it. That can amount to imposing the
wearing of a veil or enclosure in a harem.
The less attractive partners are caught in a further ambivalence. On the
one hand they are all too eager to relish the beauty of the chosen ones.
But, since they themselves are not attractive enough, their admiration
will never be reciprocated. They are doomed to merely admire. Such
reduction to pure voyeur hurts their feelings of self-esteem. That calls
forth feelings of revenge against beauty, in the rejected men as well as
in the eclipsed women. The widespread indifference of woman for male
beauty only enhances the feeling of rejection in men.
The rejected men can retire in the hermaphrodite opposition and become
indifferent to female beauty. Another common reaction, with males as
well with females, is the rejection of erotic beauty as mere titillation
of the senses, which is supposed to reduce the loving partnership to a
mere sexual relation. Or the rejected majority can turn its back on love
as such and devote itself to some ascetic ideal - making a career or
earning as much money as possible. In chapter XI we will demonstrate how
it can also lead to an urge to destroy the beauty of the other sex.
Religious and political authorities can easily capitalise on such
widespread feelings of resentment.
(3) THE AMBIVALENCE OF
The very behaviour that is meant to teasingly conceal the charms for the
eyes of the beloved can also serve to not raise false hope with
strangers. That is why every natural or artificial gesture of
withdrawing is from the beginning ambivalent. With natural gestures, the
ambivalence is rather low. When the beloved runs away, the stealthy
looks over the shoulder betray the intention of teasing. Clothes, on the
other hand, cannot be disposed of at will. When the mistress is getting
ready for receiving her lover, she cannot help strangers to join in the
feast, how discouraging the accompanying behaviour might be.
A solution is a strict separation of the public and the private sphere.
Men can forbid access to the outer world through enclosure, the
imposition of ascetic dress or a veil. This method is rather
contra-productive because of the unintended, but therefore no less
considerable increase in the attractiveness of the hidden treasures. It
also bereaves the lovers of their natural pride. A better compromise is
using one and the same concealing dress, now as a means to be reticent,
and then as a means of stirring desire.
Such compromise paves the way for a new kind of deception: instead of
displaying readiness masking insufficient or absent arousal, clothes can
also hide real arousal or seduction behind a seemingly modest
appearance. Under the regime of difference in beauty and wealth - the
regime of erotic scarcity - such is the rule rather than the exception.
Modesty is merely imposed, and the concomitant feeling of modesty is
only pretended. The whole undertaking cannot but shortcut itself. Every
encounter with a potential lover suffices to make it clear that the
seeming modesty is only feigned. Whence the rather ridiculous effect of
fascinating eyes looking from behind the fissure of a veil, or the
shimmering through of seductive devices under seemingly decent apparel.
In the end, the whole system collapses. Enters the free market of love,
where everybody is everybody's supply and demand. It is as if modesty
has disappeared and has become obsolete altogether, since nobody belongs
to somebody and everybody to everybody. In the meantime, the justified
rejection of artificially imposed modesty tends to the denouncement of
modesty as artificial. That only prevents a right understanding of the
universality of natural shame.
(4) MODESTY PERVERTED INTO A
MEANS OF NEUTRALISING SEDUCTION
Of course, the covering of the body can also serve to ban eroticism as
such. In principle, it suffices to be merely naked. But, since even a
naked body reminds of a possibly aroused body, every ascetic project
resorts to clothes, or, as in Hinduism, to the destruction of bodily
beauty as such. Henceforth, clothes have to completely hide the body
from view, to utterly desexualise bodily appearance, to eradicate every
reminder of what goes hidden beneath the clothes, and the clothes
themselves are made of textile that is utterly anti-erotic (rough
surface and erotically neutral or repellent colours). That explains the
sight of the habits of priests and monks, nuns, aged or married women.
Neutralising the erotic spell, though, is not an easy task. The contrast
between the repellent attire and the beautiful body that goes hidden
behind it, only enhances the tension between revealing and concealing,
as is apparent from the theme of Joan the Baptist and Salomé, or of the
And, in chapter VIII, we will see how even a body smeared with dirt can
exert an unusual attraction.
(5) THE UNIVERSAL ABSENCE OF
SHAME IN THE ORGY
‘Niet om in de armen van een enkeling te verwelken, heeft de natuur de
vrouw met al haar charmes getooid’ (Bachofen)
Sexual love is not the only form of love. There is also love between
parents and children and especially 'communal love': love between
members of the same community (tribe, village, state, language,
religion...). Just as sexual love expresses itself in copulation, just
so is the community celebrated in some form of communal activity:
collectively indulging in excessive eating, drinking, fighting, but
foremost in behaviour borrowed from sexual love: from collectively
singing, over displaying beauty, to dancing, and even collective
copulation in all its forms. While lovers withdraw from the group in the
private sphere, members of the community gather in a public place. The
intention is that everybody gets involved. The desire to engage in
sexual behaviour is contagious and involves every member of the
Not every form of sexual behaviour is equally appropriate for the sexual
feast. Copulation has some inbuilt shortcomings. To begin with, only the
preparatory stages can be collectively performed. As soon as the couples
proceed to copulation, they threaten to dissolve into single pairs and
to lose the - foremost visual - contact with the group. A solution is to collectively make love to one single
partner. Either all the members of the community perform the same action
successively, as with group rape, or the
emphasis is on simultaneity, which means that all the partners have to
perform a different kind of behaviour, so that are no longer identical. By far the most important handicap is the rather poor
orgasmic potential of men: male orgies tend to be rather short.
For all these reasons, most orgies join the perverse move. The
collective indulging in masturbation can be communicated on a rather
large scale, especially with women. Also dancing provides ample
opportunities for diverse forms of tactile and visual contact within a
broad array of social patterns. Most appropriate for orgiastic purposes,
though, are voyeurism and exhibitionism: the erotic appearance is public by
nature. A most cherished form is 'girl watching': the visual orgy
on beaches, market places, theatres, operas, churches, boulevards,
terraces, stations and metros.
Although all the members of the community may flaunt their charms, more
often only the most beautiful ones who exhibit themselves before
the eyes of the lesser endowed. These adopt a voyeuristic stance and
communicate their collective enjoyment. The transformation of erotic
seduction in a purely exhibitionistic performance guarantees an enduring
arousal, which is channelled in communal love. It suffices to refer to
the mannequin and the stripper, not to mention the belly-dancers, bayaderes and actresses.
But it is above all the nude in the image that is predestined to bring
the visual orgy to its apogee. An early example is Praxiteles' Aphrodite
in Knido, which was painted and modelled after the widely admired
hetaire Phryne. Not only the seductive body is
relished collectively, but also the body entwined. For a long time it
has been a good custom to collectively peep through secret peep-holes.
Nowadays, the secret peep-holes of olden times are replaced with
Foremost the fetishised body lends itself for orgiastic purposes. In
the Japanese whorehouse, members of the 'community of the Lotus' used to
uncover the feet of their chosen concubine. While one shoe was going
around as a goblet, the other was placed in the middle of a circle. With
the thumb and the index, lotus seeds were propelled in the shoe. The
winner was rewarded by the concubine. Granted: that lasts longer than a
This kind of profane community gradually replaces the religious and
ritual orgies. Today, the orgy is above all performed in mega-dancings.
Increasingly, the partners communicate their erotic pleasures privately.
Images tend to replace real partners: think of the pin-ups in barracks
and workshops, and above all of the collective enjoyment of performances
of films, videos and images on the internet.
We should remind that the collective enjoyment of the image often goes
hidden in the guise of sexual education: it suffices to refer to the
amply illustrated erotic manuals of the East.
Only against such orgiastic background are we able to understand the
often irresistible urge to share erotic transport with the whole world,
and the equally irresistible urge of many a beauty to display her charms
before the eyes of the entire community.
A heavy taboo weighs on the orgy. That is why it often resurfaces under
a repressed form: the irresistible urge to denudate oneself on desolate
places, where one is in principle visible for many secret eyes. The
desolation is the reversal of the countless onlookers for whose eye the
exhibition is meant: that betrays itself in the nearly contained anxiety
that someone might look on nevertheless (see the dream of nakedness with
Freud). Most cherished are desolate places in nature or the ruins of public places - churches or
cloisters, where the kick of the orgy is joined with the kick of
transgression. The sensation increases in
proportion with the chance of being caught, which is above all the case
in an urban context.
The potential onlookers are often represented by houses in the distance or by windows through which they might peep.
In essence, the orgy is not a sexual happening. Sexuality is only a
means of communicating each other's pleasure. Also banquets and drinking
bouts are not meant to satiate hunger or to quench thirst. The
theoretical confusion of orgy and sexuality mirrors the generalised
confusion - if not replacement - of the collective enjoyment of communal
behaviour through the enjoyment of the sexual act itself and of what,
precisely as a consequence thereof, is turned into a transgression. That
holds in the first place of the already mentioned pleasure with which
the body frees itself from the fetters of clothing. In a
culture of exaggerated shame, the joy of exhibitionism regained is joined by the
pleasure in the transgression of the taboo on exhibitionism. And under
the regime of differential beauty and wealth, orgiastic contagiousness
all too often serves the purpose of summoning up the energies that fails
with waning love, if not to escape from the confines of loveless
relations. The transgression of the taboo on infidelity can also be
reinforced with the transgression of the taboo on forbidden forms of
The sexualisation of the orgy is probably responsible for the often
vehement rejection of public sexual behaviour, foremost the production
and exhibition of erotic images: not entirely unjustified, the excluded
often regard the orgy as a kind of infidelity and depravity. That does
not prevent the genuine communion of sexual arousal to enhance and
maintain the sexual receptiveness and to effectively check every
endeavour to bereave life of its real - erotic - charms.
Chapter VIII of The erotic eye and its
'the ecstasies of eros'
THE NUDE CAPTURED IN THE IMAGE
After having examined the influence of clothes on the erotic appearance,
we should now concentrate on the way in which the image transforms the
whole process of looking and showing.
Before tackling the more obvious and better known effects, we want to
draw the attention on a less familiar, but therefore not less important
phenomenon: the way in which the image lays bare the inner shortcomings
of seeing, and how, precisely therefore, it also feels called to make
For, on a closer look, the eye’s approach of the nude turns out to be
rather frustrating: the eye can never really come to grips with it. To
begin with, seeing has its inherent shortcomings: the eye gets to see
merely one side of the body; it cannot catch the whole body and its
beautiful parts in one glimpse; it only sees that aspect on which it
focuses; and it cannot but enjoy merely a single moment of the process
of the unfolding of beauty. The insufficiency of seeing is further
enhanced through the eye’s seizure of power: in that it is out at taking
the place of the hand and the genitals, it all the more painfully becomes aware how much it must resign from enjoying
the surface of the body and what it contains. In short: the erotic eye
not only deprives itself from the tactile and genital interaction with
the body, precisely by doing so, it lays bare its own inherent blindness.
To remedy such blindness, the erotic eye is doomed to circle around the
body, to approach it from ever changing distances, to look at it from
ever different angles. The desired body has to display itself in an
endless succession of ever new facets: erotic eye and nude are doomed to
dance and endless pas de deux. How dearly would the eye want to multiply
itself to be able to admire the desired body from all sides, from all
distances and at all moments! How dearly would it equal the
thousand-eyed Argus, let alone the all-seeing God! And on top of that:
how dearly would it become a hand, to be granted the pleasures of
touching, if not the penis or the vagina, to be able to expand in the
endless space of orgasm. How dearly would it want to be not only
all-seeing, but omnipresent as well!
The image is a most powerful means to achieve this goals.
(1) THE FRONT AND THE BACK
In the visible world, bodies have a front and a back. What is more: they
show their front only by hiding their back. Certainly, by turning around
the body, we lay eyes upon the hidden side, but the problem repeats
itself. The reverse side only becomes visible by hiding what was
previously visible. That has an often unnoticed effect on the structure
of living beings. They are out at concentrating all the relevant
information in one single surface that can be scanned in one glimpse:
think of the calyx of a flower, the vaginal swellings of apes and
primates, a face. Since animals have mostly
more than one kind of interaction, they have to show more than one
surface. A solution is to change one and the same surface: through
opening the mouth, a formerly friendly face can be changed into a
threatening one. Or different surfaces may be allocated on different
parts of the body: the front, the back, the flanks, the belly. Dependent on the kind of
interaction, the animal can display one of its many surfaces. When
fighting, the baboon displays its face, when copulating its rear, when
lactating, its breast.
With humans, most expressions are displayed on the front, especially on
the face. Also the sides provide some information: think of the profile
of the head and the body. No relevant information is visible on the back
- with the striking exception of the cross formed by the cut between the
buttocks and the fold that separates them from the thighs.
During sexual encounter, the human body may be approached from the back
or from the front. From an evolutionary point of view, the dorsal
approach is the older one. Most apes and primates - with the exception
of the meanwhile legendary bonobos – approach the female from the back
side. To seduce her partner, the female displays her vaginal swellings.
As soon as man began to walk upright, the vagina disappeared between the
legs. The buttocks had to take over the function of seducing the male.
Henceforth, the sign of the cross indicated where the vaginal opening
had to be found. The four arms of the cross are like arrows pointing to
the opening in the centre, not otherwise than the concentric stripes in
many a calyx.
That does not prevent the vagina from being more accessible from the
front. Add to this that all the relevant information about the partner
is visible on the front, foremost on the face. And, what is perhaps even
more important, that a frontal approach allows the whole complex of
maternal interaction to be integrated in sexual intercourse: think of
the sight of the eyes and the feel of the breasts. A series of secondary
adaptations comes to cement the shift to the front. As a counterpart to
the cross on the back, a hairy triangle indicates the place of the
hidden vagina on the front.
Through such complex adaptation, the human body is no longer a single
surface that can be overlooked in one glimpse. It has become a real body
again: a three-dimensional object with a front and a rear that hide each
other from view. The female has to display her beauty by turning around
or being turned around, always revealing one side by hiding the other
from view. Or it is the male that has to circle around his beloved,
always paying the gain of the one beautiful sight with the loss of
another. When the lovers proceed to copulation, it is no longer possible
to set eyes upon the various sides one after another: the intertwining
of the bodies confines the erotic appearance within the limits of a -
mostly frontal - view.
The abortive frontalisation of the human erotic body is responsible for
the fundamental ambivalence of the back. While, with the male, the cross
can only refer to the anus, with the female also the vagina can be meant. A second ambivalence comes to join the uncertainty
about the genital or anal nature of the solicitation. Seen from the
back, it is not always easy to tell a male from a female. Only the
proportion between shoulders, buttocks and waist or the proportion
between fat and flesh can make the difference. But, in real bodies, the
difference is not always sufficiently outspoken. Technical difficulties in the rendering of hairs,
especially in sculpture, can only enhance the ambivalence. Whence the
importance of strong secondary clues for sexual identity, such as long
hair or plaits, sexually unequivocal clothes (a bra, lingerie) or props. Conversely, artists prefer the view from the back
when rendering a hermaphrodite. The back side
of the body does not show up expressions or clues for individual
identity. That is why the dorsal approach is often experienced as
bestial as opposed to the more human frontal approach. This leads to a
final ambivalence: the dorsal approach of a body easily paves the way
for dominant behaviour. Thus, the back does
not show up an unequivocal opposition between male and female, genital
and anal, individual and collective, spiritual and physical, human and
bestial, love and dominance. Which only confirms the importance of the
shift of the whole proceedings to the front.
Be that as it may, the erotic appearance tries to remedy the inability of
the eye to overlook it from all points of view at the same time. A
solution consists in so turning the body that it shows up as many
treasures as possible, as if the diverse phases of the erotic display
are condensed in one single posture. Another
method consists in giving an advance to the treasures on the front. This
is the more efficient, since the turning of the back is often not so
much a means of displaying the beauty of the buttocks, as to hide the
front from view. This leads to a reverse shift to the back: the sight of
the buttocks comes to compensate the invisibility of the breasts. Also the upper side of the back gains in appeal when
the shoulder blades or the shoulders are read as breasts.
The erotic eye may also resort to the mirror. By placing a mirror behind
his beloved, the lover can set eyes upon the front and the back at the
same time. There are two versions: either the front or the back are
turned to the mirror.
Only the image provides more satisfying solutions. The artist can so
twist the body that many beautiful elements can be overlooked from a
single point of view. A classic procedure –
already recommended by Alberti – is to show the body from three
different perspectives, as in the ordeal of Paris. The artist may extend this method into summoning up
an entire harem with nudes in the most diverse postures, as in a
veritable erotic panoptikon. In photography,
the same effect can be achieved through series of photos, collage, or
multiple exposure. Since there are two
breasts, the artist need not resort to repetition, especially since
breasts have only a front side and a profile. The classical procedure
here is to display the breasts so that one breast is seen from the
front, and the other from the side. Such dispositions exerts an often
irresistible spell, since it is the view of the breastfed infant.
The body has not only a front, a back and a side, but also an underside:
the palms of the hand, the soles of the feet, the armpits, the genital
fold and foremost the anus. The soles of the feet have the wrinkled skin
in common with the genitals - a sure sign that they are not meant for
eyesight. They belong to the ‘pudenda’ and are banned from the image
(think of the well known stories about Van Eyck and Carravagio) – unless
they are explicitly brought in the foreground to enhance the effect of
That the body has no upper side does not prevent it from often being
photographed from above. The intention then is rather to stress the
profile of breasts and buttocks.
Perspectival sight not only deprives us of the sight of the hidden side,
it hides our own body from view in the first place. Only in reciprocal
erotic display can we reconstruct our own attractiveness in the arousal
of our partner. More willingly do we resort to the mirror, a device that
is older than the image – at least as the surface of the water in
Narcissus’ pond. Not for nothing has the mirror been declared the very
paradigm of the image. Not only technical restrictions are responsible
for the fact that above all the face is admired in the image: apart from
our back, we can see all the other parts of the body without a mirror,
although from a rather unusual perspective. From the nineteenth century
onward, man-sized mirrors move from the mirror-hall to the private
sphere, where one can see his own body as the others do. The
hermaphrodite gaze uses the mirror to project his own image in the
(2) THE PART AND
Living beings isolate the relevant objects in their field of vision as
separate wholes: as figures against a background. Since the field of
vision has the form of a cone, the eye can only see the object as a
whole when it is sufficiently remote. But especially loving bodies tend
to approach each other. Parts of the body have to be delineated as new
figures against the background of the body: think of the face, but also
of the breast, the buttocks, the genitals. The process repeats itself:
also the face becomes a background against which the eyes, the mouth,
the nose and the ear are delineated.
Such layered structure of the visual appearance delineates new forbidden
zones. From a distance, we see the whole and lose sight of the parts.
From nearby, we lose sight of the whole and the other parts. Whence a
second form blindness inherent in erotic seeing.
The image traditionally solves the problem by showing a whole in which
the parts are clearly discernable. For a long time, the nude used to
appear as a hole body – and that is still the case in standard
photography (think of the centrefolds). Only clothed bodies were allowed
to appear as busts or mere faces. Isolated parts of the body can only be
found in studies. Courbet’s ‘Origine du Monde’ is perhaps the first nude
showing only a fragment of the body other than the face or the bust.
Foremost from Stieglitz onward, the ‘close-up’ is a most cherished
device in erotic photography. In a first phase, the traditional reduction of the
body to the bust is extend to the headless trunk and the pair of legs. In an second phase, the camera focuses on ever
smaller parts of the body.
However much the eye might enjoy an isolated part, it is not ready to
give up the relish of the other parts. It may flutter about from one
image to another. Another possibility is capture the various parts in
one single image. A first method consists in condensing various parts,
or a part and the whole. When this method joins the centrifugal move
away from the genitals (chapter III), it is turned into the desire to
see the central part in the whole: the phallic torso.
When this method joins the desire of the eye to see the desiring organ
in the desired body (chapter III), it is the phallic woman that appears
in the guise of the phallic torso.
There is also the phallic bust, whereby the head plays the role of the
glans, the neck of the shaft and the breasts of the testicles. In a variant of the phallic torso, the reversed back
embodies the shaft, and the buttocks the two lobes of the glans. Also other parts of the body can be condensed with
the whole, as when the torso is read as a face. And, finally, the whole may be condensed in the part,
as when the labia are read as the body and the clitoris as a head, or
when the torso is condensed with the face.
And, of course, there are the numerous cases of displacement we dealt
with in chapter III.
(3) THE CENTRE
AND THE PERIPHERY
‘Details are always vulgar'
Oscar Wilde, ‘The Portrait of Dorian Gray’.
All too readily is the visible world conceived as a photo on which
everything is sharply defined. In fact, it only reveals itself through
focusing eyes converging towards a given point in space. A single aspect
of the visual world is grasped at the expense of the surrounding zone,
which becomes blurred as the eyes focus on the target. To clear up the
mist, the eye must shift its focus, but wherever it moves, it drags its
hazy aura with it. Because of this, the eye is destined to desperately
flutter about, relishing one flower after another - utterly deprived of
a global perspective on the whole meadow. This is another form of the
blindness inherent in vision.
Many images adhere strictly to the principle of binocular vision,
bringing into sharp focus only what is supposed to stand at the centre
of attention. The most obvious way of achieving this is to omit
irrelevant details or objects in the foreground, the background, and the
periphery, as in an icon. Alternatively, when the environment is allowed
to enter the picture, it tends to be blurred. A well know procedure is
the ‘colour-perspective’ which was introduced in painting by the Flemish
school. Since the introduction of the camera, the layering of an image
can be achieved through approximating the real range of sharpness (in
depth) or on the contrary, by shortening or widening the range of
blurring. Blurring the periphery is done by preparing the lens. A
contrast between parts of the picture rendered in sharp focus and areas
which remain in soft focus, may centre the attention on the most
relevant parts of the image, or, conversely, submerge them in a
There is also the reverse strive to clear up the entire field of vision.
In paintings and drawings, it is simply the natural propensity of the eye
to focus on what it is doing, that causes the painter to render
everything in sharp focus. As soon as the techniques of representation
became aware of the unrealistic effect of this procedure, it was counteracted by a
deliberate blurring of peripheral and distant objects. Nevertheless, the
urge for overall high-definition has not subsided. The erotic eye is
reluctant to confine itself to a single vantage point, it eagerly wants
to penetrate even the remotest corner of the image. In meeting the
demands of the greedy eye, overall sharp focus gives the impression that
the nude is utterly disposable.
Not only does an overall sharp focus look artificial, it is often
appalling. It hurts the sensible eye, let alone the loving one. It is
well known how the pupil of the enchanted eye tends to widen, which
culminates in the typical loving gaze. Such loving gaze is no longer
able to discern sharply delineated shapes. It is as if the world is
wrapped in a kind of mist. No surprise then, that many a photographer
chooses to dismiss sharp focus altogether and gently wraps the image in
the gauze of a ‘flou érotique’.
Blurring can be achieved through moving the camera or the nude, through
immersing the nude in water, through wrapping
the nude in transparent cloth, through
resorting to grain, or to diverse forms of
manipulation, digital or other.
But the overall blurring of an image must
run counter the cravings of the
eye. In every real erotic encounter the emergence of natural ‘flou erotique’ preludes the eye’s imminent closure and the advent of tactile
and genital interaction. The image, however, cannot keep that promise.
Thus the eye is doomed to continue looking. That is why it soon demands
that the mist be cleared up. Whence the overwhelming predominance of
high-definition nudity in erotic photography. One cannot escape the
impression that the unrelenting urge to uncover the nude and its
proceedings in its minutest detail simply compensates for, and
witnesses, the forever impossible unfolding of love in the image.
The soft focus congenial to painting has the additional advantage of
concealing the minor imperfections of the body. Similarly, despite the
broad range of techniques available for rendering details in the
sharpness of an image, photography has developed its own devices to get
rid of too much focus. But it is worth noting that some painters and
photographers make a virtue out of need, by discovering a new range of
erotic imagery that lays bare the smallest details of the body. If the
skin is flawless, this may lend an unknown appeal to the virginal body
(see Wantuch's close up above).
(4) THE TRANSIENT
So spoiled are we by the abundance of images, that we all too
easily forget that, in the real world, the erotic appearance has to
unfold as a book, page after page - while we nearly have the time to
read. Here originates the conflict between the desire to linger over
transient splendours and the yearning to discover the nude’s entire
range of ever-changing erotic delights.
There are natural ways of disrupting the course of time. The nude
obviously does this when resting. But, also when moving, the movements
of the body often come to a standstill in some expressive gesture,
posture or position. These furtive movements can be prolonged by
‘adopting a pose’, like in a tableau vivant – or in Fourier’s ‘musée
imaginaire’, where the most beautiful men and women were supposed to
display their charms before the whole community. Also postures that are
a culmination of movements, or movements that are beautiful within
themselves, can be made enduring through repetition: think of the
wiggling of hips, or the patterns of movement in dance.
But such natural procedures are only a poor substitute for the image’s
unrivalled ability to transform the moment into eternity. Only the image
has the capacity to meet the erotic eye’s deep-rooted longing to
encapsulate the fleeting glimpse into an everlasting immobility.
However, it is one thing to catch positions of repose or naturally
immobile expressions and postures. It is quite another to catch the
culminating points of movements or the beauty of the movement itself.
For a long time artists were forced to rely on memory and intuition, if
not to resort to convention. And only in the society of slaves could an
artist like Parrhasios have a slave killed for the sole purpose of being
able to catch the anguish of the moment of death. Such shortcomings of
memory have driven the unrelenting human quest for techniques to
overcome them. And this is precisely why there was such triumphant
welcome for photographic techniques which shortened exposure times and
made it possible to obtain fixed and clearly defined images of moving
objects. With this development, photography could at last decompose the
passing of time in its constituent movements. The same impulse is at
work when people watching erotic videos slow down the motion of the film
to catch the supreme moment. We must surmise that the explorations of
Muybridge and Marey were fuelled above all by the desire to catch,
amidst the proliferation of meaningless shots, the one and holy
cherished moment. It has to be plainly admitted that the immobile image
is the medium of voyeurism ‘par excellence’, the veritable ether of the
How much the immobile image might satisfy the desire to submerge in the
eternal moment, it cannot satiate the craving of the erotic eye.
Precisely by disclosing the enchantment of the transient moment, the
immobile image only stirs the desire for the other splendours to be
admired. The eye soon feels deprived by one single image and implores
time to resume its course, even it is only for as long as it takes
before another supreme moment can be frozen. Ever new facets of beauty’s
unfolding are fixed, one after the other, until, eventually, the steady
natural flow of the erotic display breaks up in the accumulation of its
highlights, which can be combined in one and the same image through
various photographic and artistic techniques. A composition like the
dance of the three Graces might well be read as the simultaneous display
of three successive phases of one and the same woman. Marey introduced
the technique of multiple exposure. Duchamp and the Futurists adopted
this technique in painting. It continues to be a popular technique in
contemporary photography, where it is refined through variations in the
number and the timing of the exposures:
However, freezing a phase in a process or a movement conveys a certain
feeling of immobility. To dispose of this macabre flavour, artists and
photographers often resort to a more convincing means of suggesting the
elusive moment. Rodin maintained that the only solution was to combine
two different phases of the same continuous movement in one pose.
According to Clark, this was also the solution adopted by Miron in his
discobolus. Painters also made the dynamics of the rectangle endorse the
feeling of movement. Velasquez marks the introduction of the technique
of blurring the contour - as if a limb was dragging a kind of veil. In
photography, this effect can be easily achieved by reintroducing a
prolonged exposure time.
It is not only the nude that moves before the eye, also the eye moves
around the nude. Also the way in which the
eyes zooms in on the centre of the proceedings can be rendered.
(5) THE SURFACE
AND THE INSIDE
‘Templum aedificatum super cloacam’
The eye reveals only the surface of objects, never their inside. And
this gives birth to the final type of blindness inherent in vision.
Only to the genitals is the inside of the body naturally revealed.
Genitals, however, do not see: they feel. And what is more, they
disclose a dimensionless world which is quite different from the
three-dimensional world of the eye (see Chapter I). And it is only in
this discrete and vectored world that the vaginal cave appears as an
inside that the eye wants to penetrate. There it stumbles on the sight of
the mucous membrane which appeals only to an archaic erotic sensibility.
Only when a preliminary level of erotic arousal has been achieved do the
splendours of the vaginal cave appeal to the eye.
Instead of being fuelled by the genital urge to penetrate the body, the
desire to overcome the limitation of the surface and enter the forbidden
zone of the interior can be directly ignited at the visual perception of
the skin itself. It suffices to conceive the body as a layered
structure, as though it was an onion. By peeling the onion, the desire
to see what is hidden behind the surface can be satisfied, again and
again. Because it is mostly covered with several layers of clothing, the
body perfectly fits this idea. With the only exception that the peeling
cannot go on endlessly. When veil after veil is lifted, as in Salomé
dance, eventually the skin appears. The passion of unveiling runs up
against the barrier of the skin. To the craving eye, the skin may
appear to be just another cover that can be removed. Alphonse Allais has
the story of the pasha who sent for a virgin. The guards cut off her
dress, to the pasha’s ordering: “More”! “More”! Finally the virgin stood
naked before the pasha. “More”! he ordered. And the guards set about
In crossing the threshold of the skin, however, a heavy toll has to be
paid: the realm of pure ugliness has been entered. Not another
delightful surface is laid bare, only muscles and intestines. These
organs have a surface too, but it is not destined for eyesight, in much
the same way as the mucous membrane of the genitalia.
What promised to be the ultimate satisfaction of the voyeur, proves to
be its ultimate frustration. The luxurious eye destroys the splendour by
its own greed. With hindsight, it dearly deplores the sacrifice of the
precious beauty of the skin, which is now all the more enhanced against
the sight of the repulsive flesh and intestines. Unless the greedy eye
starts to savour a new relish: the enchantment of the beautiful surface
is broken and the sojourn of the intestines forever cures the eye’s
insatiable appetite. This may explain the obsession of da Vinci and
other men with exploring the intestines. We will further examine the
close relationship between voyeurism and sadism in chapter XI.
Just as the eye may try to penetrate the vaginal cave as though it were
a penis, so the genital urge can court the eye’s endeavour in desiring
to lay bare the interior of the body. Skinning is then transformed into
ripping (as in the famous cases of Bertrand and Jack the Ripper). Since
the moist gleam of the intestines is a compelling reminder of the mucous
membrane of the genitalia, which are equally concealed by the foreskin
or the labia, ripping the belly open with a sharp knife might become an
elevated form of opening the labial crease, particularly when it
uncovers a foetus in the womb as shown by the famous drawings of da
The substitution of the intestines through the vagina is endorsed by the
interpretation of the vagina as a cut or of the cleft between the
buttocks as the result of previous splitting. In the same vein, the
various folds and axes of symmetry in the body (belly and back) are
often conceived as cutting lines. They provoke the desire to cut them
open, as we do when preparing to eat animals.
Here lie the roots of Aristophanes’ idea that people originated from the
splitting of a four-legged and four-armed double-being. Or of the idea
that the body can be opened and closed at will with a zipper, as though
skin were another garment.
The obsession with scars on the skin, first and foremost on the soft
belly, or the fascination with seams (in nylon stockings for example)
may hint at such kinds of obsessions.
Conceiving the surface as being transparent is another way of
trespassing on the forbidden zone imposed by it. Many people dream of
possessing a device that could make clothes transparent. Transparent
clothes make this fantasy real. But only x-rays and scanners fully
realise such fantasies. Yet again, the transparency does not stop at the
threshold of the skin: the entire body is affected. This time we do not
hurt on the ugly surfaces of the internal organs. We discover a range of
delightful contours which outline soft, undulating surfaces instead. The
contrast with the harsh structure of the skeleton only adds to the
enjoyment of the softness of the transparent flesh, as does the
transposition of the all-pervading orgasmic feeling in three-dimensional
space, which only adds to the charm of transparency. Therefore, as much
as the mirror compensates for the invisibility of the rear, x-rays
compensate for the invisibility of the inside. But also here can the fun
be spoiled by the sheer ugliness of what we get to see, or
the emphasis on the skeleton reminds of the transience of beauty.
In photography, the idea of transparency and ghost-like permeability may
be conveyed through the superposition of negatives or multiple
(6) SEEING AND
Visual beauty consists in essence of clues for originally tactile
qualities. When love can develop undisturbed, those clues function as a
promise for the impending tactile delights. If the eye wants to continue
enjoying visually, a last and more fundamental paradox ensues: the more
we indulge in pure visual enjoyment, the more we have we to resign from
the promised tactile delights. The more the lover loses himself in the
relish of the blush, the more he has to resign from feeling the warmth
of the cheek. Thus, not only is there an inherent blindness in seeing,
seeing itself comes down to a more fundamental tactile - and, as we have
seen also genital - resignation.
To remedy such fundamental shortcoming, the eye may try to read the clues
no longer as promises of impending tactile delights, but as visual
beauties in their own right. Such not only increases the pleasure of the
eye, it also compensates for the resignation of the promised tactile
delights. To fully appreciate such transformation, it is important to
further analyse the structure of visual appearance.
From a distance, we first catch the contours of the body, not so much
its volume or its undulations. The female body appears as an
amphora-like figure or as a silhouette from which breasts and
buttocks protrude in opposite directions.
When approaching the body, the attention shifts to the tactile qualities
of the body: volume, texture, colour. Volume - or to phrase it more
precisely: the feeling of rounding and undulation - is revealed to the
eye through variations in light and dark (tone), evenness or roughness
through the continuity or discontinuity of these transitions, softness
through the gentle transition from light to dark. Colour betrays the
temperature of the skin. When the body is sexually aroused, blood is
spreading over its entire surface. The blush not only signals sexual
readiness, it also allows to visually enjoy the warmth of the body
aroused. Next, there are the countless variations of a more or less
pronounced red - from pink to purple - appearing on lips and tongue,
glans and labia minora, but also on nails and nipples. Through contrast
with the white of teeth and eyeballs and the black in the throat, they
tend to be perceived as pure red. They come to be part of what we could
call the fundamental erotic chord: white-red-black. A predominance of
red lends the chord a strong erotic freight. When the emphasis shifts to
the opposition between black and white, the effect is more aggressive. In the basic chord, the colour of the white skin can
be replaced with that of a sun-burnt skin.
Of a more purely optic - non-tactile - nature is the colour of eyes and
hair. The hair on the head, in the armpits and on the pubis is a purely
visual sign. The same goes for the colour of the eyes, which varies from
brown, over green, to blue. If it is blue, it acquires additional charm
through reminding of the colour of the eyes of a newborn baby. Even if
these colours are purely visual, they cannot but be integrated in the
fundamental erotic chord. Green eyes enhance the red of the lips and the
blush. Brown eyes tend to submerge in the black of the basic chord,
especially when the pupil is widened, and come to resonate with the red
of the lips and the white of the teeth and the eyeball. The effect is
the more pronounced when the hair is dark and contrasts with the white
of the skin and the red of the lips. Blue eyes contrast with the pink
and red of the basic chord. As a consequence of the similarity of tone,
they also attract the yellow of blond hair. These colours join to a new
chord of red, yellow and blue. Alongside such coordinates, a veritable
erotic theory of colours could be developed.
The pink blush on an exalted skin is enhanced through the contrast with
the blue of the blood in the veins. Since the veins are seldom depicted
in the image, the blue can be integrated in various other ways.
Against the background of the duality of optically detected tactile
qualities and purely optic qualities, we understand the transition that
takes places when we approach our beloved. The pure outline seen from
the distance asks for being filled in with colour and tone. In real life
the eye can realise the shift is realised through the naked eye.
Clothes, but foremost the image objectivate such subjective stance: one
and the same figure may be rendered through outline our through colour
and tone. The emphasis on colour and tone compensates for the
postponement of tactile contact when the erotic eye wants to prolong
the relish of the purely visual appearance.
Tone and colour are far more difficult to render than mere outline. For
a long time, an outlined surface used to be filled in with one single
colour in one and the same tone. This conjures up celestial and ethereal
figures or the austere beings in black and white. From the Renaissance
onward, the technique of the ciaroscuro was introduced and methods were
developed to get rid of the outline through rendering volume through
tone rather than outline. But only in photography can the rendering of
colour and tone easily be combined. We would have expected that the
force of tone and colour would now compensate for the resignation of
tactile contact. But, in practice, it turns out that the possibilities
to manipulate colour turn out to be far more reduced in photography as
compared with hand-made painting.
Once these techniques have been widely accepted, the possibilities
created through the elimination of variations in colour and tone were
rediscovered. Only now could the merits of these seemingly archaic
techniques - line-drawing, silhouette and cloisonné - be appreciated for
their own merits (Manet, Gauguin etc.).
Also photography kept its end up. By eliminating colour, the artist
bereaves the body of its erotic temperature. That was from the beginning
the case in most prints and photos until the introduction of
colour-photography. From the Renaissance onward, sculptors deliberately
resigned from rendering colour. They referred to ancient sculpture.
Unjustifiably so: of the Cnidian Venus, sculpted by Praxiteles after the
model of the desirable Phryne, no cast has come to us, since it was
painted, which made it impossible to mould a cast.
Sometimes outline as well as volume are emphasised. Since outline is in
the first place a quality perceived from a distance, this mostly induces
a cool, merely optic effect, especially when the background is white.
For the same reason, an outline tends to reduce the feeling of volume (Botticelli
versus Titian). The effect can be neutralised
through introducing stronger shadows. In an endeavour to eliminate the
feeling of distance, many an artist has the nude emerge from the dark,
which produces a convincing effect of intimacy. The alluring curves of
the contour can be combined with the feeling of intimacy by
outlining only one side of the body and letting the other submerge in
the dark. That does not prevent many an image
in black and white from being very suggestive, especially if the
subject-matter is erotically charged and when other tactile qualities
such as the softness of the skin are emphasised.
The elimination of colour can be completed with the elimination of tone.
While tone and colour suggest nearness and intimacy, a desire to touch
and to merge, their elimination signals a distancing, a withdrawal in
the austerity of a purely optical approach. In
a first phase the transition from light to dark is divided in three
steps: light, dark and some intermediate tone.
The silhouette further abstracts from tactile qualities. Reduction to
one and the same tone and colour, as in Matisse's papier-collé’s,
eventually flattens the surface altogether. In photography, a more
subtle variant can be found: the use of a limited scale of light and
dark tones. In photography, even the silhouette can go hand in hand with
an all the more stronger suggestion of rounding. A more sophisticated version concentrates not so much
on the contour of the body as rather on the borderlines between light
and dark on its surface, which can be heightened to a crude opposition
of black and white. A particular effect is
obtained through the projection of the silhouette on a transparent
cloth. The appeal resides in the contrast between the feeling of
nearness and the simultaneous absence of tactile clues. A sophisticated
variant is high-key of low-key photography and related procedures. The (scaling) of the transition from light to dark
leads to a neutralisation of the feeling of volume and eventually to an
utter flatness. In the pure line-drawing,
finally, the outline is rendered in black lines on a white background
and vice versa. The effect can also be achieved through
digital manipulation. Through emphasizing the
suggestive rather than its discriminatory
characteristics of the outline, it is possible to obtain a strong
feeling of rounding nevertheless.
However much the eye may be fond of enjoying the tactile qualities of
the body, it remains a mere advance. In real life, the optical delight
paves the way for the feast of touching, kissing and embracing. The
image is doomed to forever postpone such unfolding (see chapter VIII).
Whence the propensity to touch it nevertheless, to devour the nude with
the eyes. Here originates the phantasm of touching the body with rays of
light. Plato fancies that rays of light are moving not only from the
object to the eye, but emanate from the eye to the object as well.
Descartes and Diderot compare seeing with touching with a stick. Such
paradigm survives in the speculations about the relation between seeing
and the sense of touch (Freud in 'Drei Abhandlungen'). The phantasm is
transformed into reality when the painter conjures up the image with a
brush - or, better still, with the fingers (Chardin); or when the
photographer lights his model, especially with a flash or infra-red,
especially since such light produces warmth and hence seems to affect
the body. think also of the idea of rays ending in hands, as with the
Egyptian god of the sun Ra. Also a telescopic objective that zooms in on
the nude reminds of an erection and penetration.
Although the eye can read and enjoy the tactile qualities of the body,
it forever will be excluded from the realm of fragrance. Here originates
the natural antipathy of the eye for hair and clothes.
Chapter IX of
'The erotic eye and its nude'
objet de désir 8
'the ecstasies of eros'
THE TRANSFIGURATION OF THE NUDE IN THE IMAGE
In the preceding chapter, we have seen how the image lays bare the
intrinsic blindness of the eye while at the same time being a remedy for
it. In this chapter we will describe how the image succeeds in
heightening - idealising - the beauty of the nude. The artist can change
its colour, texture, form, posture and behaviour so that it can better
meet the demands of the erotic eye. Also the characteristics of the
image itself - its immobility, the frame, the inner structure of its
surface - provide new possibilities.
(1) THE SKIN
An even and flawless skin is a powerful erotic stimulus. That is why, in
handmade images, all kind of irregularities are simply omitted. A photo
can be retouched. More sophisticated is the use of the natural 'low
definition' of a painted, sculpted or printed surface. In photography, the same effect can be achieved
through the choice of the right grain or through digital correction. As a reaction, many photographers reveal the minor
wrinkles, the little hairs or the minuscule knobs on the skin. Through
rendering the little knobs, a remarkable sense of tactile sensuality can
Formerly, the soft female skin used to be opposed to the sweaty or oiled
skin of the male (Greeks, Nuba). Since the use of sun oil and the
culture of bathing, an oily sheen is also appreciated on the female
body. It homogenises the skin and creates the illusion that there are no
wrinkles or pores. It also reminds of the sweat that often appears
during sexual arousal during and after intercourse.
A caressing hand appreciates above all the unbroken extension of the
skin. While holding a breast is a rather local pleasure, over a back,
the buttocks or the thighs, the hand can freely move back and forward.
The gaze joins this movement and wants to equally move undisturbed
over the expansion of an endless surface. Clefts (eyes, mouth, vagina),
openings (nostrils, penis), skin with a different texture (nipples, lips
and fingernails), protrusions (nose, penis) and foremost hair, come to
disturb the unbroken extension of the body, especially on the face and
the front. A natural way of solving the problem is to concentrate on the
side of the body. The only cleft that is to be seen there - the fold of
the armpit - can be made undone by lifting the arms.
More appealing is the sight of a back, the object to be caressed par
excellence. The integrity of the surface is slightly broken where the
back dissolves into the anal cleft, which hides the openings of anus and
vagina. But such minor disturbance only comes to enhance the effect of
the unbroken extension of the back. That does
not prevent the surface on the front from also having its charms: the
inner side of the arms, the breasts, and above all the belly. The
pleasure for the eye is heightened through shaving the hair of armpits
and pubis, as used to be the rule in painting and sculpting. That
contrast too strongly with the slimy skin of the genitals to the skin. That is
why a shaved vagina tends to anxiously be closed, as opposed to an
aroused one that tends to stand open like the calyx of a flower. Through the removal of the pubic hair the cleft of
the vagina catches the eye all the more. Wherefore the cleft is often
omitted altogether (reduction of the pubis to a Y, see Chapter VIII), as
has been obligatory in classic painting and sculpture - when the vagina
was not covered otherwise.
Some artists proceed to eliminating not only the cleft, but also the
folds surrounding it.
A similar strive for homogeneity is apparent in the tendency to remove the
Other artists even eliminated the lips. The homogenising is completed
when also the hair on the skull is removed.
The move towards homogeneity comes to its apogee in Brancusi's '
Sculpture for the blind', where the head is reduced to an egg, over the
surface of which the hand can go its caressing course, undisturbed by
protrusions and unevenness of all kinds. A comparison with 'Torse de
jeune fille' analysed in Chapter III, reminds us of the fact that the
removal of all obstacles to the caressing hand is at the same time the
ultimate fulfilment of the strive to eradicate every reminiscence of the
The qualities of the skin can also be heightened through opposition. The
skin may be contrasted with dried paint, sand or stone. The effect is
further strengthened in that skin is the organ that is kept clean par
excellence. Soiling it tends to convey a sense of accessibility. Also
the structure of foam sharply contrasts with the smoothness of the skin,
especially since soap makes the hands slide over its surface. In other cases, the naked skin of the body is
contrasted with objects or an environment. The warmth and the softness
of the skin can be opposed to the rough surface of hard metal. The woods or the grasslands provide many a contrast
to the nude skin. Most cherished is the
opposition between the flawless even skin and the rough angularity of
rocks that could hurt it.
And of course, the most dramatic contrast is with unhealthy,
diseased or aged skin.
Ever since Cranach, the vulnerable nude is often contrasted with the
roughness of bark. It is remarkable that in most cases the phallic as
well as the vaginal characteristics of the tree are stressed. The most dramatic way of showing off the even skin of
youth is to contrast it with the wrinkled skin of an aged body. And, finally, an echo of the contrast between the
archaic slimy skin of the genitals and the nude is to be found in the
opposition of the skin with the wet vegetation on the rocks.
Unforgettable is the opposition of the white nudity of the female body
with those rosy nipples to the dark gleam of the slimy serpent wound
around its belly and shoulders in Von Stuck's 'Sünde'.
Lettings one's fingers glide through a voluptuous mane of hair is an
altogether different tactile sensation than caressing a back or holding
a breast. Both kinds of tactility are often
opposed, so that their difference is only stressed and enhanced. Single hairs, on the other hand, cannot be caressed
at all. They rather come to disturb the contact between hand and skin,
especially when they cling to a wet or sweaty skin. Which does not
prevent that the linearity of such hair only stresses the tactile
qualities of the skin for an eye that merely looks. Also wisps or dark hair may be contrasted with the
white undulations of the body.
Especially an abundant mane of hair may serve as a natural way of
concealing not only a sideward glance, but also shoulders, the back, the
breast or the whole body.
Totally different from the mane of hair on the skull is the pubic hair.
The contrast is often endorsed by that between skin and mucous membrane.
The contrast between skin and hair may also be transposed to the
contrast between the nude and fur.:
(3) THE SKELETON
As a rule, bones play a role only in the male body. In the female nude,
the bony structure is covered by a layer of fat. But precisely the
softness of that layer may be enhanced through contrast with the bony
skeleton. Especially the ribs make the breasts above them appear all the
more soft. The ribs on the back heighten the
softness of the thighs. Also the bones in the
fingers may accentuate the softness of the breast of the buttocks.
(4) COLOUR, BLACK AND WHITE
In chapter VIII(b), we have demonstrated how sophisticated techniques of
lighting can heighten or diminish the feeling of rounding. Here, we have
only to mention how all kinds of props may intensify the colour of eyes,
hair and skin by making them resound in a more encompassing chord of
(5) LINE AND SHAPE
Echoes in the body itself can intensify the feeling of roundness. An
example is the lowest rib that echoes the undulation of the breast,
effect which is only emphasized through appropriate framing. The undulation of the flesh can also be emphasized
by props or the environment.
Most effective is also the use of contrast. Smooth skin looks all the
more sensual when it is contrasted the delicate texture of textile and
leaves. More obvious is the opposition to
Things come to their apogee when the vulnerable nude body is contrasted
with cold metal, especially when it wears a suit of armour and
brandishes a sword.
The artist need not confine himself to the natural echoes or the use of
props. More often, he proceeds to sometimes drastic changes of the shape
of the body. A well know example is Ingres' ‘La grande Odalisque’. Here,
the emphasis is on the elongated arms and legs, fingers and toes, and
above all on the elongated neck. The whole body appears as one endless,
undisturbed object of touch. Even the surface of the breast that appears
through the armpit is not broken by the presence of a nipple (see
Chapter III). In Brancusi's 'Kiss' the confinement of the figures within
the limits of a cube emphasizes the intimacy of the kissing couple (see
Also the photographer is not submitted to the limitations of reality.
Intelligent lighting and the choice of an appropriate posture, may lead to
often unexpected effects. The photographers disposes of still other
techniques. Parts of the body that approach the lens appear to be larger.
This effect may be used to enhance the expressiveness of a gesture or a
posture. An unusual perspective may lead to a more drastic
metamorphosis. The majority of the examples of the phallic woman and the
vaginal man in Chapter III are only conceivable through the intervention
of the image. Also a deforming mirror may
produce estranging effects. Louis Duclos used the method for obtaining
the anamorfosis of portraits in 1889, but it is above all André Kertész
who produced the most surrealistic erotic beings with this method in
1933. They inspired Salvador Dali to his 'melting forms'.
The transformation can amount to the creation of new erotic beings.
Kertész shows multiple bodies, joined to each other like Siamese twins.
The image allows for even more radical transformations.
To begin with, there is the recombination of photographed parts of the
nude. The desirable parts can be multiplied.
Foremost the breast seem to be predestined for such multiplication from
the ancient Egyptians onward. The theme is further developed by Bellmer,
Lachaise and Louise Bourgeois. Not only
breasts, but also halves of bodies can be recombined to a new erotic
being. The oldest examples are perhaps the surrealistic bodies of
Bellmer. The transformation can proceed to
hybridisation with animals. In most cases, it is only (parts of) the
body which are replaced. As when the human being is lent the body of a
leopard or a bird. Fur or plumes invite the caressing hand, a tendency
which is strongly counteracted by the presence of threatening sharp
teeth or claws. In other cases, the upper part
of the body remains human: sphinx, centaur, mermaid, angel. Such
metamorphoses often play with the contrast between human control and
unbridled animal sexuality or aggressiveness. Hybridisation often goes
hand in hand with the creation of a hermaphrodite: plumes, with which
woman like to adorn themselves, are in essence male props. Fur - from
a prerogative of male power (Emberly) - reminds not only of the pubis,
but foremost of the hairy male body.
(8) NEW WAYS OF CONCEALING AND REVEALING
Since the representation in an image is no longer limited by
reality, the artist need no longer confine himself to clothes to play
the game of revealing and concealing as described in Chapter V. He can
resort to the most diverse materials to obtain an even stronger effect.
The artist can proceed to colour the body in unusual colours, using
unconventional pigments and creating the most inventive patterns (for
example through solarisation).
But the image has also inherent means of attracting the attention. To
begin with, there are points on the surface of the rectangle that
naturally focus the gaze (Theodor Lipps). Convention only endorses such
natural propensity. In Titian's ‘Venus of Urbino’ the vagina is situated
at the intersection of the middle of the long side and the golden
section on the short side. The attention can
also be focussed through appropriate lighting.
But the image possesses above all intrinsic means of concealing. That
seems strange, since the image rather conjures up the idea of showing,
revealing, laying bare. In fact, the image only shows merely one moment
out the whole process of the unfolding of beauty, without any hope that
we soon will lay eyes upon the other moments, as in the real world. To
be sure, the image can solve the problem as we have seen in Chapter
VIII. But it can also make a virtue of necessity. Just like clothes, the
image only stirs the desire to lay bare the concealed parts and moments.
This is especially true of images that only show the back side,
especially when the gesture with which the nude lifts up its arms,
cannot but teasingly remind of the treasures hidden on the front.
The same goes for images that imitate the blur around the focus of the
eyes and then only stir the desire to penetrate the areas that go hidden
in the 'flou' (see Chapter VIII).
Even more efficient is the use of shadow. In the image, the gradation of
light and shadow is given once and for all. The eye cannot accommodate
and subsequently penetrate the formerly dark areas. The artist can use
this effect to fuel the erotic tension: how long we might stare at the
shadowy parts of the image, we never shall be able to penetrate its
The effect is further enhanced when the light falls on the clothes that
have to be laid off:
The most efficient means of concealing is, finally, the frame. The
artist can stage the whole body, so that we can admire one part after
another. But more often does he restrict himself to showing only one
part of the body, revealing us one beauty by bereaving us of the sight
(9) THE IMAGINARY WORLD
Not only can the qualities of the nude be idealised in the image,
the nude itself can be staged in all kind of imaginary settings.
But the image is first and foremost the place where relations with less
fantastic, but therefore not less imaginary partners is staged. That
shall be the subject of our next two chapters.
of ‘The erotic eye and its nude’
'the ecstasies of eros'
CHAPTER TEN: IN THE BEAST WITH TWO BACKS' DEN
'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.
(1) THE LOVER AND HIS
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 – visual appearance is 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. 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. And,
ever since Fuessli, this development is completed through letting the
model have a dream. Also death is an obvious
In still other cases, the artist hides the reluctant face behind a mask,
a cloth, a piece of garment, or the hands or the arms. If he does not altogether frame it out (the headless
trunk), 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 mirror, 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 most
cherished lesbian scene. Also the couple making
love before the camera cannot but stage sexual intercourse.
And the fate of the photographer is, if possible, still worse. How much
the photographer resents his expulsion from the image is apparent from
the many endeavours to introduce himself in the image again.
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
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
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.
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 hands, 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
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. 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
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 PRIMEVAL SCENE
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 someone else.
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 splayed wide?
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 party? 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 desired beauty.
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 WITH TWO 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 dish of 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 mouth.
But, of course, the disappearance of the penis is not the main reason
why the primeval scene is more often depicted as the intertwining of
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 spectacle. 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. A 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. That goes especially for caressing.
Also in real intercourse, the erotic eye often joins the hand
that is caressing the body. But the artist can
also maintain the entwining and try to arrange the bodies in a surveyable symmetry. The focus on the genitals
between the symmetric pair of legs can be avoided through replacing
the merger of genitals with that of more peripheral organs.
(6) THE BEAST WITH TWO BACKS
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. The caressing can be delegated to the hair of the
beloved. 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, or it penetrates the
The merger can also be staged after the displacement of desiring and
desired organ alike.
(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.
Chapter XI of ‘The erotic eye and its nude’
objet de désir
'the ecstasies of eros'
THE SACRIFICE OF THE NUDE
‘With lovers like men, who needs torturers?' (Kappeler).
(1) SADISM AND MASOCHISM
Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell
The image does not always show the nude – or the metamorphosis of the
nude into the hermaphrodite or the animal with the two backs. More often
does it stage the maltreatment of the nude. Already the eye of the
little child transforms the loving interaction of its parents into the
enactment of rape, if not some ritual murder, since the child wants to
save the mother. But especially the image seems to be fond of such
transformation. It matters to understand why.
Sadomasochism is often understood in terms of a sudden change of love in
aggression - or of pain in pleasure. No doubt, such sudden change is
facilitated through to the morphological proximity, if not the
considerable overlap between sexual and aggressive behaviour. In love as
well as in aggression, the distance normally kept between interacting
organisms is given up to enable erotic or aggressive entwining. Not for
nothing does the child often confuse its parent’s loving embrace with
fighting. There is also an undeniable affinity between the expressions
of love and aggression themselves. It is difficult to distinguish
panting with anguish from heaving with pleasure, to discern cries out of
pleasure from cries out of pain, and it might sometimes very difficult
to tell orgasm from death-anguish. That goes especially for the images
of these expressions: artistic conventions – or the inability to catch
the precise differences between nearly related expressions such as
crying and weeping – obscure the often nearly discernable real
differences. Moreover, it is but a short leap
from intensely kissing to biting, from intensely stroking to pinching,
scratching, slapping or spanking, from eagerly embracing to strangling,
from penetrating to ramming. And it is known
all too well how the outer signs of sexual arousal may be produced by
non-sexual causes. Spanking makes the skin 'blush
suffocation makes the
victim gasp for breath, which reminds of the voluptuous moaning and
heaving of orgasm. No wonder that Gilles de Rais timed
his orgasm with the last breath of his young victims.
Which also provided him with the orgasmic sight of the empty gaze or
rolling eyes. And suffocation, just like hanging, not only makes
palpable the enticing movement of exalted breathing, but also calls
forth a rampant erection: hence the desire of the insatiable mistress in
‘The empire of the senses’ to strangle her lover. The same effect is
achieved through inspiring fear, exposure to cold, and so on. Further, many a form of teasingly pretending to
withdraw or resist, naturally calls forth the corollary, equally
mock-aggressive coercion. This only heightens
the effect of the posture of surrender.
This does not suffice, however, to explain sadomasochism. The
similarities can only explain why love may suddenly change in
aggression, not why the ‘aggression’ is continued or is from the
beginning intended. It is not difficult to understand why many an ardent
lover suddenly feels compelled to bite, to pinch or to spank, not why he
continues to do so or why he is from the beginning out at such
maltreatment of his beloved.
Furthermore, it is rather inaccurate to understand sadomasochism in
terms of aggression: that would come down to a confusion of morphology
and function. Genuine aggression, in animals as well as in men, stops
short of mutilation or killing. It is merely a ‘symbolic’ threat that
subsides as soon the threatened adopts an - equally symbolic - attitude
of submission or really yields to the demands. Sadomasochism, on the
other hand, not only threatens without obvious reason, it also
deliberately carries out the threat. In that sense, it may be considered
as a ‘desymbolisation’ of aggression. It is as if the animal that would
like to deter a competitor, would proceed to real biting instead of
merely showing its threatening teeth. In sadomasochism, things are put
upside down. Aggression is elicited through staging refusal, rather than
prevented through showing submission, let alone seducing! And since the
ultimate goal is the implementation of the threat, sadomasochism also
distinguishes itself from mock-rape, where the staged refusal is not an
aim in itself, but merely a means of heightening the erotic
attractiveness. When the arousal has reached its acme, feigning is
replaced with unbridled sexual surrender.
The morphological similarities, though, are the key to a genuine
understanding of sadomasochism: failing genuine and reciprocal sexual
arousal, at least the outer appearance of it – the expression – is
obtained through the infliction of pain. The sight of the expression
elicits the urge to heighten it, just like with a real expression. That
can only be realised through further infliction of pain. So, there is no
transformation of love in aggression. Rather do morphologic similarities
enable the integration of elements from the aggressive repertoire
(fight/flight) in a sexual context: the ‘subordination under the
primacy', to paraphrase Freud. During this process, the aggressive
components undergo the required changes: think of the ‘de-symbolisation’
This approach makes clear why the overlap comprises not only the
expressions, but the corollary actions as well. Precisely because the
expressions of love and aggression are not always clearly discernable,
kissing, stroking and embracing can be replaced with biting, pinching,
spanking or suffocating. Even when in both cases the same organs are
used, the behaviour is totally different from a functional point of
view. It is possible that their appearance is motivated through
aggressive feelings, caused by the inability to produce the desired
reaction. But once they turn out to produce the desired effect, the
motivation is no longer aggressive, but sexual. Compare with the
impatient baby that bites in the nipple of his absent-minded mother, and
continues biting when it finds out that mama is finally looking and
talking at him.
The integration of elements borrowed from the aggressive repertoire in
an erotic context is provoked by the inability to be aroused in a
genuine sexual way or by the refusal to surrender sexually. Such refusal
or inability is found not only in many marriages, where one ought to
love but no longer does, but also in extra-marital relations, where one
is inclined to love, but ought not to surrender. This situation is the
rule under the regime of the exchange of beauty for benefits and
differential beauty, under which a majority has to content itself with a
second-hand partner. And these factor are in their turn responsible for
a more fundamental disturbance of the mechanism of arousal: the falling
apart of reciprocal seduction in one-sided voyeurism and exhibitionism.
(2) THE SACRIFICE OF LOVE
THROUGH THE DESTRUCTION OF BEAUTY
"Je n'ai pu aimer que là où la mort mêlait son souffle à celui de la
Edgar Allan Poe.
Sadomasochism is not confined to natural behaviour like biting,
pinching, spanking and suffocating. It has a remarkable predilection for
instruments that enhance the effect of natural behaviour or that enable
the sadistic version in the first place. Pinching is relegated to
stickers, pincers or nipple clamps, if not
heightened to piercing or pricking with pins,
the effect of moulding is obtained through the binding up of breasts or
buttocks, slapping or spanking is heightened
to whipping or flogging, keeping in check is
relegated ropes and belts, heaving is enhanced
through gasmasks, which have the additional charm of covering the face
that could betray the reluctance to surrender (see Chapter II) and
accentuates the take over of the impersonal drive, penetrating is
heightened to stabbing and the release of sperm substituted with the
sprinkling with hot wax.
Once the instruments have been introduced, their advent seems to have
become unstoppable. Ever more spectacular versions are introduced,
until even the penis is instrumentalised. Instruments also allow for the combination of diverse
sadistic impulses in one and the same action: pinching and penetrating
are combined in pricking with needles or pins: cutting and containing
are joined in bonding with cutting wire.
The introduction of instruments paves the way for a further development
of sadomasochism. Piercing - as is already apparent in Proust’s piercing
live rats with hatpins until they died - is the mitigated form of
stabbing; the tamer’s whipping of the butcher’s cutting or chopping up;
and the handling of cigarettes and candles of the burning of the entire
body altogether (Die Flambierte Frau). This dormant or repressed
proclivity to mutilation is betrayed not only in the appearance of
knife, dagger and sword and the suggestive bandages or trails of blood,
but first and foremost in the pegging out of the body on a metal frame or a
cross in many a sadomasochistic setting.
The shift from merely suggested to overt mutilation is fed by the
displacement of the vagina to the virginal surface of the skin or to the
folds and axes of symmetry on the body, that are readily read as cutting
lines or seams. Or, to phrase it with Angela Carter: even when the body
has many openings where the penis might penetrate, the relation of the
knife with the flesh is far more arbitrary: it can penetrate everywhere.
Nude warriors fighting with knives or swords – think of the Celts or
gladiators – only fuel such fantasies.
But not always does it get so bad. The majority of sadomasochistic
procedures stop short of genuine mutilation and content themselves with
the mere flirting with the anxiety-provoking idea of torture. Not
surprisingly, these soon subside to some form of forced intercourse
(mock-rape), if they are not reduced to some sophisticated form of
foreplay to habitual intercourse altogether. In the image, this is
reflected in the presence of a kind of aesthetic veil over the
In completed sadomasochism, however, the ultimate release of both pain
and the tension caused by its alluring expression, is brought about not
so much by ‘la petite mort’ of the orgasm, but by genuine ‘grand death’
- exemplified in Gilles de Rais' timing of his
orgasm with the death of his victims.
The destruction of the masochist at the same time releases the tension
caused by the expression of pain and the experience of pain that caused
the expression. The paradigm of such primeval sadism is Sade’s outburst
on Easter Sunday 1768, when he tied up Rose Keller, whipped her, cut her
with a knife and dropped candle wax into her wounds. Such drama on
Easter is surely an echo of that other drama on Good Friday in 1759,
when two women let themselves crucify in public, in the wake of the
Jansenist craze of the flagellants (Zanker 58ff).
Thus, the transformation of pain in sexual arousal turns out to be a
mere foreplay for the sacrifice of love on the altar of aggression.
The substitution of pain for sexual arousal merely initiates the move
toward the utter destruction of the beautiful body - the fountainhead of
love - by which the sadomasochistic frenzy is appeased at last. We need
only recall how, in an effort to bring the voyeuristic endeavour to its
acme, the arousal of the skinner or ripper is released by being plunged
into sheer vaporous ugliness.
Sadomasochism is essentially the sacrifice of love through the sacrifice
of beauty. Such sacrifice is far more effective than castration.
Castration only bereaves of the instrument of love and leaves the
potential lover hopelessly at the mercy of inexorable beauty, that
continues stirring the desire. It would be a mistake to consider the
sadomasochistic sacrifice as some derivative of castration: castration,
on the contrary, is a mitigated form of the sacrifice, of which it
nevertheless may be an adequate symbol. The sacrifice is the veritable
mortification of the ‘will’, as propagated by Schopenhauer and depicted
in Wagner’s Parsifal.
(3) THE DESTRUCTION OF
BEAUTY AND CASTRATION
Ich will deinen Mund küssen, Jokanaan!
(Oscar Wilde, Richard Strauss)
Also the female can resort to the techniques described above to remedy
failing arousal. But we should not overlook the specific accents of
Under the regime of differential beauty and the exchange of beauty for
benefits, only the male is addicted to female beauty, while the female
remains rather indifferent. She is rather out at enjoying the male’s
arousal, while remaining cool herself. With her, no tension has to be
discharged. The problem is rather how to prevent the discharge of
tension in the male: orgasm temporarily suspends desire and breaks the
spell of female beauty.
This form of female sadism is rather out at keeping the male at a
distance – at fixating him in his status of a mere eye. As long as he
merely looks, she can enjoy his eager eye as well as his erect penis.
Ideally, she heightens the tension to the point when the man ejaculates
without touching himself or her body. Thus, Keyes lets his dominatrix
complain: “If I tease you enough, will your dick squirt without playing
with it?” (Money). And that explains why the behaviour of the genuine
‘femina dominatrix’: in the full possession of her beauty the spell of
her gaze dissuades from approaching. Noli me tangere! Don’t dare to
Another version of the femina dominatrix stages rather the economic
foreplay to this sexual interaction: the female who lets the
male slave, while refusing to sexually gratify him accordingly: the
Venus Frigida, whose blessing we amply described in ‘The
ecstasies of Eros’.
The femina dominatrix may endorse her dominating gaze with whips or
other attributes. However much this version might stir deep-rooted male
anxieties, it has something hilarious about it. Whereas the beautiful woman
naturally enslaves the male with her mere beauty, an armed woman cannot
but stir male aggression. The threat of an armed woman may only be effective
when beauty first disarmed the poor male.
Far more convincing are teeth and claw: when the male throws himself in
the arms of the female, he is vulnerable by those weapons indeed.
Furthermore, they stir deep-rooted oral anxieties (cat-woman, being
devoured by a shark of a whale, the swallowing black of the vagina).
The counterpart of the woman that reciprocates male dominance with a
whip of her claws is the tied up male: his eyes are allowed to see and
his penis can stand up, but he himself cannot move. A variant is the
male torso bereaved of the legs allowing him to approach the female and
of the arms that threaten to embrace her.
Female sadism could suffice with these variant. The erect penis,
however, contains a double danger. On the one hand, it threatens to
ignite the frigid beauty of the female, and it is all the more out at
releasing the tension, the more the beauty of the ‘femina dominatrix’
arouses it, on the other hand. To maintain her power – and to block the
unfolding of love with herself as well as with the male – the female might
feel tempted to castrate the man. The heightened beauty of the female
can only survive in destroying that of the male.
As opposed to the male, who with the destruction of female beauty also
annihilates his own desire, the female is utterly left in the cold after
having castrated with her beauty. Castration would have turned the male
in a mere gazing eye (Dahl), were it not for the pain, that would have
him lose all attention for female beauty. There is nobody left, then, to
admire female beauty. That is why female sadism often
comprises a final phase in which the femina castratrix incorporates the
penis. She is thereby transformed into a female hermaphrodite. That is
why the destruction of the penis is rather a removal leaving the penis
intact in view of its impending incorporation, and not so much the
release of the sadistic urge.
While representations of male sadism preferably stage beauty destroyed,
representations of female sadism accentuate the castrating female rather
then the castrated male. Representations of castration itself are rather
scarce. The reason is that Salomé prefers to relegate the job to an
executioner. Already the use of weapons reduces the sovereignty of her
pure beauty. The most refined version of the castrating woman is
embodied in the Salomé of Oscar Wilde and Richard Strauss: as the price
for the denudation of her beauty, Salomé demands that the one man
castrates another. She is a mere onlooker on the proceedings: the
triumph of female beauty as the prime mover. Even stronger is the power
of beauty when the male is castrating himself for the sake of woman (Kybele)
That does not prevent that, over the course of history, the figure of
Salomé has gradually condensed with that of Judith, who decapitates Holophernes with her own hands (Panowksy). Such condensation allows the
artist to depict Salomé with the sward in her hand (Caravaggio).
There is also a form of ‘lesbian’ sadism that complies to the male
scenario: generally an older and mostly not so beautiful, if not ugly,
woman takes the place of the male and destroys the beauty of her victim.
She is driven by the revenge of a minor beauty that feels eclipsed
through the splendour of her victim. This variant of female sadism
perfectly fits in the conception of sadomasochism as the sacrifice of
beauty, although this time, the aim is the destruction of the object of
(4) THE ELUSIVE SADIST
Sadomasochism originates not so much in some mysterious transformation
of pain in pleasure, but rather in the integration of elements of
aggressive behaviour in the repertoire of love: the expression of pain
as a substitute for the expression of erotic transport. In the ideal
case, it leads to the destruction of beauty as a means of releasing the
sexual tension, or as a means of blocking the arousal as well as the
approach of the male.
The paradigm of sadomasochism is the infliction of physical pain and the
enactment of physical destruction. Nevertheless, it is not always
physical maltreatment that fuels the sadomasochistic enterprise. Not
seldom, the adepts of sadomasochism have a bad conscience about their
proceedings. Already the predilection of instruments betrays a
propensity to transfer the execution of the sadistic impulses to
instruments. But it is only when the sadist transfers the handling of
the instruments to an ‘instrumental sadist’, as Salomé to the
executioner, that he can have clean hands.
Another way out is to switch to less painful substitutes, which are
expressions of love nevertheless. There are lots of possibilities.
Lovers not only are looking for sexual gratification with each other,
but also for reciprocal help. Thus, asking for help can be a way of
asking for love. Here originates the classic ‘masochistic’ attitude of
the helpless, poor or ill woman (‘La traviata’). That explains why,
paradoxically enough, a lover can feel driven to harm his beloved: in a
second phase, he can pose as the one who comes to the rescue. He thus
can regain the love of his beloved. Parents are using the same trick,
when they frighten their children by telling fairy tales, to all the
more enjoy the ensuing intensity with which their children come to seek
security in their arms.
Add to that the willingness to make sacrifices or to suffer deprivation
for the sake of each other’s gratification, which is an unmistakable
sign of love. Not for nothing do lovers endlessly repeat that they would
go through hell for each other. That is why they not seldom are
conjuring up the most diverse evils from Pandora’s box in the name of
love. Very efficient is threatening to withhold love or to give it to a
third party. The ultimate symbolic proof of love is the devotion to the
most repellent excrements of the beloved one (Last Tango in Paris). But
these are merely extreme manifestations, even when the emphasis on food
and drink betrays that this behaviour is derived from loving behaviour:
lovers are supposed to feed, clothe and shelter each other. That is
obvious from the less drastic performances where the partner has to
behave like a dog eating dog food.
That sheds a new light on some secondary aspects of the original
sadomasochistic procedure. The amount of pain inflicted or
endured can be a measure for reciprocal dedication. It can also
call forth the desire to come to the rescue. When the executioner
afterwards comes to take pity on his victim, he covers up the traces of
the initially sadistic enterprise.
Also the pleasure in the act of submitting, inherent in the infliction of pain, is
only seemingly of an aggressive nature. It only appears when the power
of sexual attractiveness is waning and leaves room for artificial forms
of domination or submission.
There is also a non-sexual version of the femina dominatrix, the most subtle
version of which is of a purely
spiritual nature. The dominatrix then revels in seemingly aggressive,
non-sexual forms of exercising power, and she does so because she is not
or no longer able to exert real sexual power over her lovers.
Conversely, the non-sexual submission of the masochist can compensate
for the lack of real sexual slavery. In either case, we are dealing with
a sexual relationship, and not with an enactment of power relations in
society, as many an author – from Bloch, over Gebhardt and Fromm, to
Foucault and Carter – will have it. In their urge to fathom the darkness
of the sadomasochistic universe, they involuntarily are turned into the
accomplices of the elusive sadist, who is only interested in obfuscating
the sexual origin of his proceedings.
And, finally, the elusive sadist also summons up disobedience – or to
phrase it more philosophically: transgression – in the service of love.
(5) BEAUTY BORN OUT OF PAIN
‘N’ajustez jamais la robe au corps, mais disciplinez le corps pour qu’il
s’accorde à la robe’.
Elsa Schiaparelli,’la grande dame de la couture surréaliste’
Many interventions meant to heighten erotic attractiveness have an
unmistaken sadistic overtone: carvings, tattoos, bound feet, plastic surgery. That
the infliction of pain is only a means of heightening beauty, seems to
clear such sadistic intervention of any suspicion: beauty must suffer.
But things are more complicated. The question remains whether carvings
or tattoos really heighten the beauty of the skin. For they only come to
break the evenness, the smoothness and the extension of the skin, and
replace its sensuous appeal with its very opposite: signs. Also the
‘horror vacui’ speaks volumes: in the end, the skin is overgrown by
tattoos - horror of the void as horror of sensuous luxury. Also the
continued use of make up can deteriorate the condition of the skin, to
the extent that only the disease can be the remedy. And many an uplifted
breast has lost its natural suppleness, which makes already its mere
sight to a painful experience. What presents itself as heightened beauty, turns out
to be its mere negation:
Thus, it appears that the heightening of beauty has merely to avert the
attention from its destruction. The heightening of beauty is in many
cases a mere pretext to indulge in sadistic pleasures: the destruction
of beauty in the guise of its construction. For it cannot be denied that
tattoos are in essence marks. Where there is a mark, there has been a
wound. The construction of seeming beauty is preceded by an overt
destruction. This time, the sadist eludes us in time: in the past that
has merely leaves its marks – not otherwise than the executioner that
afterwards come his victim to the rescue.
Carving the skin and tattooing are a gory spectacle.
The screams are often shouted down with a the beat of drums. Far more
refined is the sexual justification of the screams, as when
the master has his disciple have intercourse in view of making the
skin even more sensitive to his sadistic intervention. At the same time,
such staging allows for letting the pain pass for a surplus of sexual
tension that has to be released in orgasm. Also the assistant can enjoy
the expression of pain that he at the same helps to mask as an
expression of sexual pleasure. A further stride is the so-called
tattooed without tattooing. These have their partner tattooed by an
‘instrumental sadist’ in order to be able to fully enjoy her suffering.
That also explains why the repressed resurfaces, again and again. Many a
scarf is re-opened and many tattoo is renewed (Kafka).
Tattooing is a form a sadism that wraps itself in honourable veils, just
like the ‘spiritual’ versions of sadism. The bad conscience about
tattooing is betrayed even in the contention that the marks would
heighten the pleasure when stroked (compare with the
justifications of circumcision). The unvarnished versions of tattooing
are the application of burning cigarettes or hot candle wax.
Piercing stems from the sm-scene and has become an innocent prop.
Its sadistic origin is also betrayed in that its in essence abhorrent effect
is heightened through a kind of negative exhibitionism: making grimaces
is obligatory in the corollary magazines. Also frightening and
deterring, just like pain, have in common with the beauty they negate,
that they exert an irresistible effect on the onlooker.
This sheds a new light on the contemporary aesthetic surgery and the
fitness-culture. Not only fitness-centres, but also the operating table
of the aesthetic surgeon – not to mention the apparatus for deforming
skulls, elongating necks, lips, earlobes and labia minora – cannot but
remind of the torture chambers and sm-cabinets, the dark prototypes of
the white hospitals. Also the heavy efforts, the intense pains and
deprivations imposed to become beautiful, take an auto-sadistic
(’masochistic’) overtone in this context. Especially with fitness, the
heavy and often compulsive efforts are not seldom supposed to release
sexual tension. The same goes probably for the endless making oneself
up, combing, dressing and sunbathing. Auto-castration precedes the
destruction of beauty. Many endure the pain because it equally alleviates the feeling of guilt. By putting themselves in the
spotlights, the competitors are driven off the scene. Suffering for
beauty can thus come to function as a kind of self-punishment for the
seizure of power and as a kind of means of transferring the guilt to the
eclipsed: they should have been prepared to do some effort
This time, the real destructive nature of the undertaking becomes
only visible afterwards. Even when it cannot be denied that many an
effort pays in the short term, in the long rung high heels deform the
feet and corsets the chest, dieting degenerates into anorexia or bulimia and
excessive sun-bathing leads to premature ageing of the skin, if not to
cancers. And that goes equally for the danger of infection with
tattooing and piercing, in which seldom the secret appeal of the whole
Only seemingly is sadism a question of muscle and instruments causing
pain. The kernel of sadistic pleasure is in essence voyeuristic: the
sovereign contemplation of the destruction of the fountainhead of love –
the beauty of woman reduced to her body or man reduced to his penis. And
only seemingly is masochism a question of pain. From the sadist’s point
of view it suffices that the masochist provides the necessary
expression. The real pain and the actions through which it is inflicted,
are of no further concern. Granted, to the masochist the pain is all the
more real. But we shall soon understand how sadomasochism knows to
eliminate also this last obstacle.
It begins to dawn on us that there might be a near relationship between
sadomasochism and voyeurism/exhibitionism. The crux of the sadistic
pleasure is the voyeuristic enjoyment of the exhibitionistic performance
of the masochist. The visual aspect is fundamental. Sexual interaction
can easily be performed in the dark. But a sadomasochistic
relation is unthinkable without the visual aspect – or, what amounts to
the same, the audible aspect. What is more: sadism can only come to its
apogee when the contemplation of the suffering of the masochist becomes
really sovereign. The elusive sadist already transferred the infliction
of pain, first to instruments, and then to the manipulator of the
instruments. That is not only a mechanism to obtain clean hands, but
foremost to free the hands of any activity that might disturb the
contemplation of suffering. Only as a pure voyeur can the sadist
contemplate the proceedings of the instrumental
sadist in all sovereignty. That leads to the sadomasochistic triangle: the master
commanding the executioner or the dominatrix having the castration of
her lover executed through a third admirer. That reminds us of the lover
that had his beloved make love to her lover, to be able to
contemplate undisturbed. In both cases, the greedy eye provokes the
transformation of a dual relation in a triangle: the animal with the two
backs or the sacrifice of beauty. Thus, sadism is unfolding to a variant
of voyeurism. To give account of this profound affinity between these
two perversions, it would be a good idea to coin the term ‘sadovoyeurism’
On the other hand, voyeurism can only fully develop into a fully
gratifying – and no lo longer a castrating – experience through its
transformation in sadovoyeurism. In its most primitive form, voyeurism
came down to a de facto castration: the voyeur as well as the
exhibitionist resigned from every sexual gratification through confining
themselves to a pure visual relation. The sadist, on the other hand, can
fully be gratified, precisely because he visually witnesses the
destruction of the source of sexual arousal. Granted, he pays a heavy
price for such privilege: his gratification comes down to the ultimate
resignation from beauty, the sexual arousal it ignites, and the genital
release of it. The same goes for the sadomasochist. He no longer is
consumed by a desire that cannot be satisfied: in the end, it is dead
that releases him from the pain (Schopenhauer).
We have already seen how sadomasochism is fundamentally the sacrifice of
love through the destruction of beauty, the fountainhead of love. We now
can add that this is precisely the reason why voyeurism and
exhibitionism of necessity have to develop into completed sadovoyeurism
and maso-exhibitionism. By joining the already mentioned tendency to a
generalised visualisation of love and through completing it,
sadovoyeurism is fulfilling the real destiny of the perverse move: the
self-annihilation of love. While beauty initially was the spark that
made the fire of love ignite, the destruction of beauty is the black
hole that swallows the orgasmic expansion of love, not otherwise than
Kronos devouring his children.
Not for nothing does sadism feast its triumph in the two cultures that
most resigned from real love through the development of a high culture
of the image: Europe and Japan.
(7) THE IMAGE AND
SADOMASOCHISM’S COMING OF AGE
The image is the main catalyst in sadomasochism’s coming of age.
The mere adoption of a voyeuristic stance as such already comes down to
a kind of destruction of the object: the reduction to a mere visual
appearance equals the obliteration of the tangible body. That is only
sealed in the image: since it merely renders the visual appearance of
the nude, it only enhances the exclusion contained in the primeval scene
depicted in it. This double frustration may be the main catalyst in the
transformation of the representation of intangible beauty (or the
primeval scene) in the staging of the sacrifice of beauty. Furthermore,
the image has an outspoken predilection of the literal sadism of pain
and wounds: the more concealed spiritual forms are invisible.
Therein, the image counteracts the elusive sadist’s endeavour to render
his undertakings more respectable.
But there is more. Reality exercises severe restraints on the
sadomasochistic enterprise. The sacrifice must not be seriously injured,
let alone be tortured to death. In every sadomasochistic setting, there
is set in place a whole system of signals indicating which thresholds
should not be crossed. Since this will not suffice, the aggressive
frenzy, triggered through erotic releasers, has to be additionally
contained through a compulsory ritualisation of the sadomasochistic
performance (cfr compulsory neurosis). Such restraints are imposed by
culture. In former times, nobody objected nearly related
phenomena: all kinds of torture, cruel punishments (crucifixion), ritual
cruelties (Azteks, Roman gladiators) and milder forms of cruelty like
bullfights. More and more, the destructive frenzy that otherwise would
culminate in a fully-fledged sacrifice, is mitigated to a ritually
contained sadomasochistic performance, that eventually culminates in the
sexual release it was meant to eradicate. ‘La petite mort’ triumph
over ‘la grande mort’.
Things are totally different in the image. Since, in the image, the
proceedings are merely staged and faked, nothing can prevent the
mitigated real performance from culminating in staged outright sacrifice
Finally, the image disposes of purely intrinsic means of gratifying
sadistic impulses. Greek sculptures are often mutilated: arms or legs
are failing. Secret charms emanate from such mutilated sculptures. Ever
since Rodin was struck by the sight of his study for Saint John the
Baptist - a decapitated torso without arms and with deep marks – the
decapitated torso without arms and legs has become a cherished subject
in modern sculpture (Rodin’s ‘Iris messagère des dieux’ as the
counterpart of Courbet’s ‘L’origine du monde’). Also in a
two-dimensional image, the artist can use the frame or digital manipulation as a means of
mutilating the body. The destruction of the
body often goes hand in hand with a destruction of the image as such.
The obstacles to an unhindered development of
the sadomasochistic enterprise are only totally removed when an animal
replaces the human sacrifice, as in the Nitsch’ ‘Orgien-Mysterien-theater’,
where animals are cut open instead of naked women:
For the same reason, the image enables the full visualisation of sadism
to pure sadovoyeurism. The pleasure of torturing originates not so much
in the activity itself, as in the expressions it produces. The required
expression can directly be conjured up by the image, and at its highest
intensity at that: as the orgasmic frenzy of death-anguish. The sadist
can confine himself to a purely voyeuristic stance and dispense with
mere instrumental sadism.
The full sadomasochistic triangle can be replaced with the dyad of sadovoyeuristic
onlooker and his victim. Also the masochist is transformed into a pure
exhibitionist, a mere appearance. We already mentioned how the suffering
did not concern the sadist, but was all the more real to the masochist.
But since, for the sadovoyeur the victim has only to produce the
necessary expressions, the image can easily get rid of the feelings of
the masochist, as it did of the actions of the instrumental sadist.
While the sadist is transformed in the sovereign sadovoyeur, the
masochist evaporates into a mere appearance.
The same image, then, that forbids the orgasmic unfolding of the very
beauty it reveals, utterly gratifies the purified sadomasochistic greed
without any restraint. It is the natural habitat of the sadomasochistic
endeavour. Only in the image can the inbuilt trend of love to dissolve
itself in a pure visual experience come to its apogee. This is the truth
in Steiner’s contention that there is a secret affinity between the
total freedom on uncensored erotic imagination and the total freedom of
Not only exhibitionism and voyeurism, but foremost sadomasochism
completed to sadovoyeurism owe their completion to the image. Only the
image enables the full development of ‘la grande mort’ in making
abstraction of the merciless pain that will forever be felt because the
desire to be released by ‘la petite mort’ cannot be satisfied.
That does not prevent that – apart from snuff-movies and real murder –
the examples are rather scarce and foremost male. We soon will
(8) MODES OF THE
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters...
Just as there is a voyeuristic triangle, there is also a sadomasochistic
triangle. The completed sadomasochistic sacrifice is enacted through the
sinister triad of the sovereign voyeur, the instrumental sadist(s) and
the masochist. Under the guise of a punishing torture, the triangle is
depicted in the flagellation of Piero della Franscesca.
The ordinary voyeuristic triangle is often obfuscated in an attempt to
mitigate the pain of having to relegate one's role as a lover to a third
party. Ideally, the sadomasochistic triangle is shortened into the dyad
of the sovereign sadovoyeur contemplating the masochistic appearance. A
bad conscience about the sadomasochistic proceedings can be an additional
motive to expel also the instrumental sadist from the image, and staging
merely beauty destroyed. This is a cherished procedure, not only in male,
but also in female masochism.
But the triangle is often emphatically restored. The staging of the
instrumental sadist allows the projection of the sadism of the sadovoyeur.
The projection is masked in that the role of the instrumental sadist is
relegated to an animal or a monster.
The next step in the process of projection is that the sadovoyeur poses
as the one who comes to the rescue. Here, the triangle unfolds to a
quadrangle: the onlooker is split over two protagonists in the image.
Just as the display of beauty can go hidden after some seemingly neutral
action, just so can the ritual sacrifice of beauty be disguised – and
justified - as the implementation of a punishment (to be distinguished
from the scenario where the sinner is punished for his real sexual
sins). The similarity of the techniques, should not make us overlook the
distinction between the sacrifice of beauty and the diverse forms of
punishment by political or parental authorities. With punishment, pain
is inflicted as retaliation for the real of symbolical pain inflicted by
the punished one. The punishment may range from an innocent smack in the
face to the sovereign contemplation of two prisoners killing each other,
as with the gladiators in Rome. All these forms of inflicting pain or killing
are intended to gratify the feeling of power and retaliation, not to
elicit sexual tension, as in the genuine sadomasochistic torture.
That is not to say that the more sophisticated forms or punishment
cannot stir sadistic impulses. All kinds of torture have been real
midwifes of sadomasochism and, conversely, sadomasochistic impulses have
undoubtedly stimulated the refinement of the methods used.
The reverse is equally true: also erotic feelings can conjure up the
need for punishment. Under the regime of compulsory marriage a
passionate relation is always forbidden. Transgression cannot fail to
conjure up the corresponding fear for punishment. The transgressor can
try to get rid of his feelings of guilt through ascribing them to the
machinations of a seductress and then relieve his feelings of guilt by
punishing her. The sacrifice of beauty can then be justified as a
punishment for an indecent provocation. The punishment is a mere
justification, since it does not apply to the sexual arousal in the
punisher, but to the provocation of the punished. The executioner of
the punishment can only get rid of his arousal by destroying the beauty
that provoked it. Thus, the threat with punishment, that initiated the
displacement of sexuality to sadomasochism, comes to serve as the
justification of sadomasochism: the sadist as well as his victim do not
longer feel involved in a dark destructive undertaking. (This element
can add to the charms of transgression as described above). Guilt can
also be alleviated through transforming the desired woman in the
punishing – castrating – woman. The ‘femina castratrix’ has the
castration performed by an executioner or the sinful man itself.
The disguise as punishment explains the introduction of many a form of
torture in the sadomasochistic universe. A speaking example is the
crucifixion of Christ. Although crucifixion has become obsolete as a
form of punishment, it remains a most cherished sadomasochistic
procedure, as well in male as in female sadism. This is reinforced by the fact that not only the surrendering
body, but also the raped body naturally takes the form of an X,
the Andreas cross: on the cross, the nude is as defenceless as in the
image. The association of crucifixion and copulation is strengthened
through the fact that Jesus Christ has been penetrated with a lance.
The same goes for the flagellation of Christ – imitated by many a monk
or nun castigating themselves for their sins of the flesh – a practice
that survived in many a brothel of the eighteenth century and the secret sm-room in many a modern house.
The propensity of sadomasochism to disguise itself as the infliction of
punishment also facilitates the enjoyment of real punishments as a
displaced sacrifice of beauty. Here originate the secret charms of the torture
of Jesus Christ and the countless Christian martyrs like the Holy
Sebastian. Victims of torture and punishment are even predestined to
such displacement, since they cannot but summon up feelings of sympathy,
which pave the way for a genuine sexual transport. Especially the fact
that the martyr sacrifices himself for a higher cause and that he
rejects the indecent proposals of his torturers, makes martyrdom
resemble the sadomasochistic triangle. Not for nothing are religious,
but also political martyrs a most cherished subject in painting, and not
only in Western art.
The sacrifice of the nude can also go disguised in medical
It begins to dawn on us why the open depiction of the sadomasochistic
primal scene is so scarce. It remains to be understood why the beauty
destroyed is predominantly male. The obvious answer is that the same
woman, that seems to have her problems with the overt enjoyment of an
erotic male nude, does not object to be aroused by the sacrifice of a
male under the guise of punishment or martyrdom, exemplary in the
crucifixion of Christ, or by the sight of man that have been deformed or
disfigured by blind fate.
The theme is the more cherished since it allows sadism to go hidden
behind the veils of motherly care. This is all too obvious with Maria
and the nude maltreated body of her son on her lap, as in Michelangelo’s
very suggestive Pietà. As soon as, under the auguries of feminism, women
begin to produce erotic images, they soon proceed to overt depictions of
the mutilated male body.
All this – apart from the fact that women are more interested in the
signs of wealth and power than in the nude body - has to be taken into
account when the female attitude towards erotic imagery is compared with
(9) THE TRIUMPH OF
SADOMASOCHISM AND THE END OF ART
At first glance, the completion of sadism is sadovoyeurism saves the
image. Merely contemplating the seductive nude is a castrating
experience, which makes the voyeur turn eventually his back on the image. The sadovoyeuristic contemplation of the sacrifice of beauty, on
the other hand, is, especially for man, a completely satisfying
experience and its depiction in the image does justice to the image as a
purely visual medium. It comes as no surprise, then, that the inherent
logic of the image leads to the transformation of the representation of
the nude in that of the sacrifice of beauty (with the hermaphrodite and
the beast with two backs as intermediary stages). The unfolding of
perversion thus comes to join the unfolding of the image. The image is
no longer the forbidding forbidden, but the gratifying gratification.
But the simultaneous unfolding of perversion and image is at the same
time their ultimate self-annihilation. The unfolding of love is reversed
and swallowed up in the pure visual experience of sadovoyeurism, the
negation of precisely beauty that is the spark that ignites the passion
of love. And the image turns out to be precisely the contrary of what it
intended to be: to reveal a heightened beauty. In a first phase it
revealed a heightened beauty, that it at the same time made inaccessible by
bereaving it of its tangibility. In a second phase it staged a fully
accessible perfection, but a perfection that only contains the
destruction of the initially promised ideal. Through enabling and
enacting the destruction of what it originally was meant to reveal, the
image comes to resemble what it represents: from a means of revelation
it is turned into a catalyst of destruction. In that sense the shroud of
Turin – Magdalene’s veil – may pose as the paradigm of such development.
The void of love in the image as a void: truly, this is the veritable
black hole, of which Malevitch’s black square on black background, meant
to seal the end of figurative are and to herald the advent of abstract
art, is only the faint afterglow.
Through such sinister a diabolic dialectics, the image speaks out a ban
against itself. In the end, it has become the forbidding forbidden
again, but now in a far more profound sense: by forbidding love, it
finally also forbids itself. Time has come to tackle the mimetic taboo.
of ‘the erotic eye and its nude’
'the ecstasies of eros'
THE TABOO ON THE EROTIC IMAGE
We should finally
concentrate on a far more mitigated form of the destruction of beauty:
the resistance against the erotic image.
from way back, erotic images have been subject to often fierce taboos. It is
an illusion to think that those taboos have been gradually overcome
over the course of history. Quite the contrary: the forces opposing
the ‘frenzy of the visible’ (Williams) are growing stronger with the
introduction of every new technique of production or reproduction of
images. From Moses, Plato, Buddha and Confucius, over Mohammed, Savanarola, Luther and Calvin, to Dworkin and Khomeini, an ever
increasing choir of iconoclasts have been fulminating against the
growing tidal wave of erotic imagery. It is not our intention to write
the history of that opposition. Rather are we interested in the
attitude of the artists and the art lovers themselves. For, their
stance on erotic imagery is not always positive. In the silence of
their workshops, they often wage a fierce battle against the allure of
erotic beauty and the fascination of its destruction, just like Saint
Anthony in the desert. Long before iconoclasts engage in their
destructive undertakings, they often have expelled themselves the
devil from many an image with their own hands.
(1) THE TABOO ON EROTIC IMAGERY
Cet homme (Boucher) ne prend le pinceau que pour me montrer des tétons
et des fesses.
Je suis bien aise d’en voir, mais je ne puis souffrir
qu’on me les montre’
The taboo on erotic imagery is an extension of the natural and
culturally enforced taboo on the display of the erotic beauty of real
bodies, which we already examined in chapter VIII. There we described
the natural propensity to hide the genitals from view, the propensity
of lovers to retire, and the avoidance of seduction in everyday
The image only makes things worse. It elevates beauty to unknown
heights. That induces many a lover to look for an afterglow in the
real world. There, he has often to conclude that he does not qualify.
He then resumes his commerce with the image. Which is not difficult,
since the beauty in the image surpasses the beauty of real bodies.
This cannot but strengthen the feelings of inferiority and the frustration in
the poor onlooker, and therewith also his resentment, not only of the
beauty in the image, but also of the image itself. The same feelings
are stirred in the lesser beauties, who feel eclipsed by the
heightened beauty in the image and feel utterly excluded.
That does not prevent the image from providing a visual pleasure which
the real world cannot but withhold. In real life, voyeurism is by
nature confined to the contemplation of the face and those parts of
the body left uncovered or intimated through the clothes. In the
image, the voyeur can lay eyes upon the whole body, excited genitals
included. That makes it all the more difficult to resist. This turns
out to be a poisoned gift: it is impossible to have intercourse with
an image. The image transforms the onlooker into a castrated voyeur,
looking at the hermaphrodite body (chapter III) or the beast with two
backs (chapter X and XI). That cannot fail to stir feelings of
resentment against the image and what it depicts (Kappeler). As we
have seen, that leads to the ultimate destruction of beauty and the
AESTHETICISING OF THE EROTIC IMAGE
There is, however, another way out, which we deliberately left out of
the picture in our description of the erotic themes in the preceding
What has to appear in the image, has to adapt itself to the nature of
the image. The image forbids tactile and genital commerce and hence is
only appropriate to the pure visual initial phase of erotic commerce.
It is just as too well that Titian’s Venus hides her treasures with a
subtle gesture of the hand – a reminder of the ‘noli me tangere’ of
the immaculate virgin. Were she to splay her legs wide, like the
headless trunk in Courbet’s ‘Origine du Monde’, she would no longer so
graciously balance on the rope between revealed visual beauty and
merely promised tactile or genital gratification.
Thus, there is also a taboo on the erotic representation emanating
from the very nature of the image itself. And that taboo is in line
with the natural taboo inherent in vision itself: senses of the
distance cannot feel, let alone genitally consume. The subtle gesture
of Titian’s Venus saves the erotic eye from the traps of the
visualisation of the genital. No longer has it to look on sadly how
the erotic appearance is dissolving into the hermaphrodite or the
beast with two backs. The curtain before Courbet’s picture in Khalil
Bey’s palace cannot conceal that the image has become a fetish and has
thereby betrayed its true destiny.
It becomes the image to be somewhat reserved about the allure of what
it conjures up. In order to remain faithful to its destiny, it should
rather use sexual arousal to create a kind of visual perpetuum mobile
in focussing on the formal beauty of the erotic appearance – the
proportions and the composition of forms and lines, black and white,
colours and materials. The erotic appearance is then the starting
point of another kind of pleasure: the ease with which the appearance
can be comprehended. This is a purely sensual – aesthetic – pleasure,
whereby the pleasure in the ease is in relation with the complexity of
the task. Such pleasure can join the erotic allure and at the same
time propels the erotic arousal along aesthetic pathways. Therein,
formal beauty resembles clothes that heighten the erotic tension in
prolonging denudation. It is as if an invisible veil is woven over the
erotic charms. Instead of being the spark that ignites the erotic
fire, formally aestheticised erotic appearance invites us to submerge
in it. Formally contained erotic beauty is the highest form of visual
beauty. Not for nothing have artists from way back been obsessed by the
challenge of catching erotic beauty in the image. Not for nothing are
the highest achievements of the visual arts to be found in the domain
of erotic imagery. And not for nothing are the most beautiful examples
in this book often hand-made pictures: not only do they warrant a
continuous heightening of beauty, they also enable a far more severe
formal containment of that heightened beauty as well.
As soon as the image formally contains the erotic appearance, it is no
longer the embodiment of a fourfold taboo. It no longer forbids
tactile or genital pleasure, but generously grants full visual
pleasure. And it is no longer doomed to enact the forbidden: no longer
does it stage the arousal through a third party – the primal scene –
but an erotic appearance that is freely allowed to capture us. At the
same time, the formal containment of erotic beauty transforms
voyeurism into an aesthetic attitude. Sexual arousal is consumed in
the creating or discovering of formal beauty. Such completion of the
perverse move effectively checks the transformation of voyeurism into
sadovoyeurism. Only then is the voyeur transformed in an artist or an
art lover, and the exhibitionist in an erotic performer. The marriage
of erotic and formal beauty not only seals voyeurism’s coming of age
as an accomplished aesthetic pleasure, it also enables the image to
fulfil its true destiny: the revelation of beauty.
The same image that asks for the formal containment of erotic beauty,
lifts the ban on the completion of the full sadomasochistic sacrifice.
As opposed to the enactment of erotic beauty, the destruction of
beauty does not require formal containment: the source of arousal is
drying up. Only the mitigated versions of the sadomasochistic
performance ask for formal – ritual – containment, although it is not
the unfolding of love that has to be checked here, but the urge to
destroy its fountainhead: beauty. That is betrayed in the often
meticulous composition of the mise-en-scène. Sadomasochistic
literature obtains the same effect by providing elaborated and often
endless details about what, where, when and why: this diverts the
attention from what is really happening.
It will not have escaped the attention of the reader, though, that,
precisely when the destructive impulses are given free rein, an often
breathtaking beauty is coaxed from the in essence repulsive sight of
what we get to see then. To the effect that we no longer avert our
eyes in disgust, but, on the contrary, continue looking with
fascination. In that sense, beauty saves the image also when it stages
the destruction of the nude. Although such beauty is isolated from
what has been a beautiful body, it cannot but stir the homesickness
for the immaculate nude. But, since the nude is now destroyed, that
desire is neutralised, at least for as long as we continue looking.
What has been a means of destroying the sexual urge is thus
transformed into an effective means of letting the pleasure in beauty
remain purely aesthetic – a purely visual enjoyment that no longer asks
for its completion in an act. Such aestheticising is often far more
effective than that of bodily beauty: with the latter, the goal is
within reach, while, with the former, any attempt at proceeding to
touching is checked by the ugliness of what then looms up. That is
probably why beauty in art so often goes hand in hand with ugliness.
(3) THE DE-EROTISATION OF THE EROTIC IMAGE
Conversely, it seems far more difficult to maintain a proper balance
between aesthetic and erotic beauty. Time and again, the erotic image
capitulates for the call of genital release. It is not difficult to
see why. So urgent is sexual scarcity – not least as a consequence of
the fact that beauty in the image eclipses real beauty – that many a
potential lover prefers to let him castrate by the image, rather then
being disillusioned or rejected in the real world. When the image has
to titillate, formal beauty only diverts the attention. The focus is
on purely erotic releasers. The most beautiful women display themselves
in the most alluring poses. It is these images that call forth the
anti-erotic resentment. It will be superfluous to insert that kind of
images in our text.
That is why many an artist tries to ban the erotic image from the
image, rather then to destroy it.
An obvious solution is to play off the medium. The artist can replace
the softness of the skin with strokes or grain, break the magic of
colour through resorting to black and white (or white marble) of
neutralise the undulations of the body through reducing the body to a
sheer circumference or a surface. We have illustrated this in chapter
The artist can also devaluate the nude. He then stages mere naked, if
not non-ideal nudes: from the pre-pubertal girls of Shiele, over
modal bodies with all their natural shortcomings,
to deformed or mutilated bodies, if not corpses. Such anti-idealistic trend can already be observed
in Hellenism, it was overwhelming in the official Christian art of the
Middle Ages, got new impulse after the restoration of the rights of
the body in the Renaissance, after the advent of erotic photos in the
middle of the nineteenth century and in the wake of feminism in the
twentieth century. Thus, Neads – inspired by Derrida’s predilection
for what is outside the frame – pleads for the depiction of what has
hitherto been excluded from the image: the vagina and her
(4) CIRCLING AROUND THE NUDE
"The nude is for the artist what love is for the poet"
Far less obvious is the replacement of the nude with subjects that
centrifugally orbit around it.
To begin with, there is the portrait. At the hinge between non-erotic
- political and economic - and erotic commerce, it is predestined to
initiate the move away from the nude. Instead of being the prelude to
the submerging of the face in the overall erotic appearance, it comes
to express the political and economic import of the person.
In other images, the focus is shifting from reciprocal seduction to
competitive or productive action. In the beginning we are dealing with
religious or historical scenes. Gradually, when cheaper forms of
images were introduced, we see ever more profane subjects replace the
heroic feats of rulers and saints. The focus is shifting to transient,
peripheral events, culminating in the snapshots of photography.
Although it cannot be denied that many of these images exert the
necessary charms, they nevertheless are peripheral subjects. After
all, men as well women are economically and politically active only in
view of acquiring sexual gratification. That goes especially for the
flaunting of power and wealth: the Trojan War was in fact a war for
Such mediated, competitive or productive action is performed in an
environment: an interior or a landscape as the scene on which human
action unfolds. Initially, the focus is more on the action than on the
environment, but gradually the environment takes over, to finally push
the action aside. In a first phase, man is only represented through
signs: the buildings or products testifying to his wealth or his
poverty, if not to the idleness of human endeavour:
And that reminds us of the fact that it is precisely political and
economical relations which are responsible for the fact that loving
relations cannot develop properly. Not surprising, hence, that every
depiction of sexual relations cannot fail to leave a nasty aftertaste.
And that cannot but lend an additional charm to the centrifugal
movement away from the nude: a sojourn in the distant realms where the
human fate is shaped has at least the advantage that it can keep the
fire of hope burning.
Unless we prefer to resign in the sight of unspoilt nature, which is
totally indifferent for human strivings or which immeasurably rises
above it. In all these cases, the landscape negates the competition that
used to appear in the centre of attention.
Human action can also be replaced with the depiction of man’s weapons
and tools or the products of his labour. But, just like the painters
themselves, also the theoreticians seem not to be aware of a more
fundamental negation. Beyond the opposition between human action and
instruments and products, the more fundamental opposition between
erotic and non-erotic escapes the attention. The still life is not
so much the negation of human action, as rather of the goal of any
action. After all, instruments and products of labour are destined to
enter the economic exchange between man and woman, who feed each other
and their children.
Bryson is right in arguing that, in the still life, the apogee of the
Albertian painting is missing: the vanishing point (69) While, in the
geometric centre of Titian’s Venus of Urbino the vagina is shown, in
Cotan, the logarithmic spiral is rotating around a black void – the
counterpart of the black square on white background of Malevitch, who
not for nothing also placed a black cross in the centre:
Such genealogy of iconography – Hegel somewhat on his head – demonstrates that the nude is the real vanishing point of all
subject matter. Although we should remind that – just like the spirit
in the eye – also the erotic appearance disappears in the hole.
(5) FROM THE TABOO ON EROTIC IMAGERY TO THE
TABOO ON MIMESIS
There are also more formal solutions of the problem. In an endeavour
to ban the nude from the image, many an artist focuses on formal
beauty, which originally was meant to merely contain erotic beauty.
They submit the body and its parts to some formal pattern: they
reduce the organic forms to geometrical schemes or translate them in
purely formal compositions of black and white, colour, or texture.
The body becomes increasingly unrecognisable, if it is not reduced
to a pure abstract scheme.
Also the bodies entwined do not escape that fate. In real life, they
are often mingled up in an inextricable knot. We already described how
that called forth the propensity to arrange the bodies in often rigid
symmetries that, for real bodies, are rather uncomfortable
Sometimes the artists go so far that they reject the importance of the
– in essence erotic - subject matter altogether, and try to get rid of
mimesis as such. The anti-erotic impulse is the extended to an
all-encompassing anti-mimetic crusade.
In a first phase, this move results in the development of abstract art
in the first half of the twentieth century. ‘Figuration’ as such is
rejected and the artists resort to a purely formal play with
geometrical forms. In fact, these are merely the double negation of
the nude: they are monolithic objects, as opposed to the body that is
a harmonious whole of diverse parts. And they are flat and angular, as
opposed to the round and undulating surface of the body. Through such
negation, abstract art unwillingly betrays its real origin. The
anti-erotic character of the early abstract painting has hardly been
recognised (see also 'Mimesis
and abstraction'). Only Steiner (1965) negatively asks the question: ‘Would
not one of the definitions of abstract, non-objective art be that it
cannot be pornographic’.
Far more consequent has been the complete rejection of mimesis as
such; the feat of ‘conceptual’ art in all its variants. Instead of
transfiguration the world – in essence: erotic beauty – in the image,
it is banned from the image through hanging signs on the wall, that
only refer to a world outside the picture. Mimesis is transformed into
semiosis (See: About the realtion
between philosophy and art). This seals the end of art. The taboo on the image in the
traditional art of the past century is only the most recent of a long
series of anti-mimetic upsurges that from way back are wreaking havoc in the
world of the image. The same impulse will have laid on the roots of
the imposing of a generalised taboo on representation by Moses that
has been taken over in the Islam and led to the bloom of abstract art
in all those religions.
Needless to say that a heavy toll has been paid for such anti-erotic
trend that extends into a veritable anti-mimetic crusade. What art
gains in formal beauty – and the artist in respectability – it loses
(6) THE RETURN OF THE REPRESSED
The erotic devil does not let himself expell so easily. There is
something like the return of the repressed.
The corrosion of erotic appeal through grain, black and white or the
silhouette discloses often unexpected charms. The staging of repellent nudes feeds the resentment
against the unattainable beauty, or satisfies a whole array of
‘paraphilias’ such as paedophilia, efebephilia or gerontophilia, if
not necrophilia, zoophilia and the like. And in the previous chapter,
we have described the secret charms of the destruction of beauty.
The erotic devil also joins the centrifugal move away from the nude.
We already mentioned how the depiction of scenes of torture is often a
nearly concealed alibi to satisfy sadistic impulses. Also the many
‘historic scenes’ are mostly a mere alibi to stage nude bodies in all
kinds of poses. That is foremost the case with scenes of battle, that
often acquire an erotic freight as a consequence of the similarity
between fighting and copulating.
Also more prosaic activities often allow for indirect sexual
gratification. Most cherished is the theme of the individual or
collective bath: from the countless Bethesda’s in the bath, over the
Turkish Bath of Ingres, to the many ‘bathers’ in modern art. Also
photography developed countless, rather modest variants: the visit of
the doctor, the secretary on the ladder, the nurse and so on.
The erotic devil even knows how to provoke the elusive erotic beauty
out of the landscape or the still life. Human action is negated in the
representation of nature as a lost paradise, where everything can be
found in plenty, wherefore man has to labour hard. But the fruits in
paradise are the nearly concealed substitutes for the real fruits that
can be harvested after hard work. And these often shimmer through in
the contours of many a landscape.
And of course above all the objects on the still life can all too
easily be read symbolically: the image is then debased to a mere sign
that has to conjure up erotic associations in the dark chamber of the
skull. Elsewhere, things take the shape of the repressed nude or
engage in often nearly concealed orgies.
In general, the repressed erotic pleasure resurfaces in the often
obsessive realism and the fascination through transparency, reflection
and the like, that characterises many a landscape or still life from the
All these trends converge in Duchamp’s ‘La marièe mise à nu par ses
célibataires même’. At first glance, it is only a heap of meaningless
objects – a kind of synthesis of historic scene, landscape and still
life. After interpretation, however, it cannot but conjure up rather
obscene representations in the mind. It is no accident that this
prelude to ‘conceptual art’ is the product of an artist who was known
for his rejection of mere sensual titillation of the retina.
Also the geometrical straitjacket, in which the nude has been
contorted, often only enhances its secret erotic charms. A voluptuous
pose may lend its momentum or its justification from it. Or the symmetry of the composition betrays the
nearly concealed desire of the bodies to entwine: geometry is turned
into a symbol of bodily interaction. Or it is transformed into a
symbolic comment on what it contains, as when Brancusi catches his
lovers within the confines of a cube. Often
precisely those parts of the nude, that have become unrecognisable
through abstraction, begin to resemble other objects, that in their
turn symbolically refer back to what has been hidden from view. And geometric discipline necessarily reminds of the
frames in which sadists use to hang their victims.
And, last but not least, even the most consequent abstraction, or even
the most fervent conceptualising of art cannot clean art from its
erotic stains. Already in Klimt do the clothes, that are meant to hide
the nudity of the models, brim over with abstract motives with overt
erotic connotations, when they do not engage in sexual life altogether. With Eva Hesse, the geometric volume of the cube is
suddenly turned in what it negates: the smooth, round, organic hole of
Often the repressed returns only in the mind of the beholder, who
descries an erotic charge in even the most abstract representations.
Thus, Lucy-Smith does not hesitate to read Mondrian’s crosses in
terms of copulation. As if abstract art would be one gigantic orgy.
Conceptual art, finally, continues to speak of art notwithstanding all
its anti-mimetic fervour. That betrays how strong the appeal of what
has been condemned continues to be. Also the predilection of iconic
signs instead of purely abstract verbal signs, testifies to the
(7) ETERNAL BEAUTY
Needless to say that there is a big difference between the return of
the repressed and the cautious balancing on the chord between erotic
containment of erotic appeal. It suffices to compare the images.
The reach and the impact of the ant-erotic impulse, which extends to a
general anti-mimetic crusade, can shed a new light on the production
of artistic images as such. Consecutive tidal waves of erotic imagery
have flooded the world on an ever increasing scale and in ever more
broad layers of the population. The discoveries in Pompeii may give us
an idea of the huge quantities of erotic imagery that may have been
destroyed in the course of the centuries. It is apparent then, that
these tidal waves are not some undercurrent that has not connexion
whatsoever with 'genuine' art. For it is not by accident that
the anti-mimetic fervour of modern art originates at precisely the
moment when, in the middle of the nineteenth century, erotic photos
have been exported by the shipload to every corner of the world. The
anti-mimetic impulse in modern art is only a particular example of the
increasing anti-mimetic fervour that, from the very beginning of the
production of images has been opposing the profusion of erotic
imagery. Many a commentator either looks back with home-sickness to
the freedom of times bygone or places far away, or sketches a history
where ever new taboos are lifted. We think that, from the beginning,
opposite forces have been at work: on the one hand the frenzy of the
visible, the propensity to catch everything in the image, as opposed
to the tendency to centrifugally move away form the erotic beauty.
How such dynamics unfolds historically, is determined by the
development of mimetic techniques. Labour-intensive mimetic techniques
are predestined for prestigious centrifugal subject-matter: erotic
themes are more easily depicted in a print than in a marble sculpture.
In addition, techniques that are not so labour-intensive, and hence
cheaper, more easily lend themselves for private use. A fresco or a
marble sculpture are more suitable for public use, a print or a photo
for private use. And, since the development of mimetic techniques is
characterised by increasing productivity, the development of subject
matter seems to steadily move towards the erotic centre. With every
increase in productivity, the image seems to push toward the centre an
on ever increasing scale, which calls forth ever new and ever more
drastic anti-mimetic reactions, in the image in the first place.
On the other hand another characteristic of production is responsible
for the fact that ever more eccentric subject matter is dealt with.
Images last. While musicians have always to reinterpret existing
scores, visual artists and writers are compelled to tackle ever new
subject-matter. As soon as the handling of the most obvious subject
matter is saturated, more centrifugal themes explored, which also
produces the illusion of an ever increasing freedom.
(8) THE CULT OF THE IMAGE AS AN ORGY
Up to now, we took only sexual - voyeuristic - motives into account.
Time has come to introduce another factor that fuels the development
of the image: communal - orgiastic - motives (see also: 'The
orgy'. Also the desire to meet
collective standards and the desire to share beauty lie at the roots
of the production of erotic imagery.
In view of the relentless and often fierce opposition against the
‘increasing’ sexual freedom, the benevolent effect of the communal
enjoyment must be stressed. A common sexual standard is imposed on the
whole community and stimulates every member to cultivate his beauty
and his sexual prowess. How benevolent this effect is, can be measured
by the overall appearance of members of ascetic cultures condemning
every orgiastic feeling in view of some spiritual mission. Just like
erotic clothes eroticise the body, ascetic clothes induce a general
degeneration of bodily beauty. The same goes for the sexual habits.
It cannot be denied, however, that erotic imagery eclipses the beauty
of real bodies and real sexual behaviour. On the other hand, it must
be granted that the quasi omnipresence of erotic imagery has furthered
the diversity of sexual commerce and has made short work of the
negative effects of centuries of sexual repression, in the first
place due to the material conditions of the masses that had to produce
the wealth of a minority that was allowed to enjoy full sexual
freedom. What Foucault considers to be an increasing control, is in
the long run only a superficial and transient reaction, due to the
vehemence of the erotic earthquake caused by the increasing wealth of
ever new layers of the population in the industrialised world. This
explains the spread of a refined sexual culture in ever more layers of
It has to be admitted, however, that not everybody can meet the standards of
the universally acclaimed embodiments of beauty and the athletes of
sexual prowess. Precisely therefore, the communal consecration of
beauty threatens to restrict itself to the chosen few. The solution has
not to be found in forbidding the display of beauty (especially when a
proper distinction is made between communal seduction and sexual
seduction, which may be asking too much). As opposed to material
conditions, that can be improved and more fairly distributed, bodily
beauty is unequally distributed over a given population. Although many
techniques allow for some correction, the ideal of erotic
egalitarianism will certainly remain an illusion forever. In the
meantime, those who feel eclipsed, should rather develop other
qualities – as the minor beauties have done from way back – instead of
hindering the happier ones to enjoy their beauty and to display their
© Stefan Beyst,
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