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LETTERS FROM LUNA: Eros through the lens of Jouissance & Audre Lorde’s ‘Uses of the Erotic’

by Rohini Walker

“I write woman: woman must write woman. And man, man. So only an oblique consideration will be found here of man; it’s upto him to say where his masculinity and femininity are at: this will concern us once men have opened their eyes and seen themselves clearly.”

So wrote the Algerian-born French feminist writer, poet and luminary, Hélène Cixous in her provocatively subversive essay, The Laugh of the Medusaa work so rich and layered and necessary, I shall be returning to it often in future installments of Letters from Luna.

The reason I chose these particular words by Cixous is to preface this Letters with a request – and one that I ask also be extended to future missives – that is: if you happen to be reading this and you are identified as a man, this is for you too, but for that other part of you. The part of you that is your feminine principle, your Anima – in other words, your Psyche, your very Soul. I write this for her, this deep, powerful, other in you, so you may become aware of her as she is spoken directly to, as she is seen and beckoned forth through whatever resonant frequencies these words transmit to her.
 
I do this with the hope and intention, not of destroying the ‘potency’ of manhood, but of pointing towards the depths of what underpins it – that is, to nudge you towards a radical, clear-seeing of all that you are. A seeing that will ultimately bring a richer and more vivid potency to your maleness – that will give it the depth of roots.


She is Receiving, 2015, Oil on linen, 60×48″ by Ryan Schneider


 Excursions down the labyrinthine rabbit- holes of Hélène Cixous’ body of work inevitably brought me to the French word Jouissance. Except – it’s so much more than a word: a concept, an idea, a philosophy, an art of living, an individual and collective movement. It is also one of those words that disappointingly falls short when translated directly into English: a full-bodied, blood-red vintage into saccharine sweet, cavity-inducing soda pop.
 
A tip-of-the-proverbial-iceberg understanding of Jouissance would be Plaisir, or our English Pleasure. However, as Jane Gallop writes in Beyond the Jouissance Principle:

“The difference between jouissance and pleasure is generally understood to be one of degree: jouissance is stronger, and so the person who experiences it is stronger, braver, less repressed, less scared. The timid, defensive egos, cautious in their bourgeois comfort, prefer plaisir and shun jouissance , but we brave, feminist, revolutionary avant garde…”

Reading Gallop’s explorations of jouissance, and her frequent citing of the French philosopher, Roland Barthes, in his explorations of it, brought to mind the portion in Plato’s Symposium, where Socrates recalls a dialogue concerning Eros that he had as a young man with the priestess and prophetess, Diotima of Mantinea. She spoke to Socrates about Eros being Love that is – and I paraprhrase –  ‘neither beautiful, nor ugly’ – that Eros or Love is beyond binaries of good and bad, pleasurable and painful. It is instead, an all-encompassing quality – neither god nor human – but daemonic, resonant of the embodied soul, a bridge between the heavenly and earthly realms. Eros, according to Diotima, is the mythic progeny of Resource & Poverty, conceived at the celebration of the birth of Aphrodite – the Goddess of Beauty. In other tellings, Eros is the offspring of Aphrodite and her lifelong consort, Aries, the God of War; or that he appeared when Aphrodite arose out of primordial sea-foam, and remained by her side as a sort of son – and that it was his arrow that forever bound her fate to Aries.

As recounted in the Greek myth, Eros and the mortal soul, or Psyche, seek union through the ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ of the vast spectrum of embodied existence by experiencing it all – enlivened, thoroughly attentive, beyond binaries of good and bad, and the mandates of society & culture: jouissance – full-bodied pleasure, or aliveness, to the manifold nuances of human experience.
 
Attempts at directly translating jouissance into English (and presumably most other languages) divests it of its vast value, leaving our understanding of it incomplete, and the knowledge of our need and capacity for it crippled. Consequently, any reference to it is always in French:

“Jouissance is used in English, it is said, because our language lacks an adequate equivalent. Indeed, we might say that whenever a word passes unstranslated into another language, it signals some inadequacy in the second language, some plenitude in the first.”

The nature and qualities of jouissance, much like those of the feminine and the soul (to be understood as interchangeable, according to myth and depth psychology) cannot be fully, or even partially, understood and appreciated without Eros ­– the root of our English ‘erotic’. The particular richness of the French language, as distinct from the particular richness of English, has strong foundations in Eros:

“The French have a distinguishing advantage…the French have a vocabulary of eroticism…which smells neither of the laboratory nor of the sewer, which just -attentively, scrupulously – puts the facts.”

Quite.
 
The heavy-handededness of 17th century Cromwellian puritanism did much to subconsciously sterilize the English language of its roots in the mediaeval tradition of early Romanticism. Those poems and songs, grounded in Eros, while overtly directed at lovely courtly ladies, were in fact devotional compositions to Goddess in her multifarious emanations, both beautiful and terrifying, and particularly as Muse and Psyche– as explored in glorious depth by that poet of poets, Robert Graves, in his timeless The White Goddess:

The function of poetry is religious invocation of the Muse; its use is the experience of mixed exaltation and horror that her presence excites.”

Jouissance.

And for jouissance to exert its radical, revolutionary, decolonizing power over our rapaciously repressed Psyches, Eros must be invoked.
 
Unfortunately, our English-language understanding of the erotic been reduced to a pastiche of objectification in the form of lifeless, mechanical, (sub)culturally sanctioned and ubiquitous pornography – an instrument of control and domination, utterly devoid of any felt-sense of the truly erotic.
 
Thankfully, the English language also has the phenomenon that was Audre Lorde, and her brave legacy of words. It is through Lorde that we can obliquely approach an understanding of jouissance – specifically through her essay Uses of the Erotic, in the slim and powerful volume The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.

Audre Lorde, courtesy of Dagmar Schultz/Freie Universität Berlin, University Archive, Lorde Estate

Here, Lorde crafts a definition of the erotic that ventures as close to an understanding of the radical nature of Jouissance that I have come across in the English language:
 

“The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings…For the erotic is not a question only of what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing.”

For women, and also for men, to fully open to this felt-sense, this movement of energy in all our experience – sometimes chaotic and terrifying; sometimes rapturous and sublime – is to embrace the erotic, and liberate that authentic, vital, feminine aspect, mythologized as our soul – our Psyche – from the shackles of a system of control that keeps us comfortably numb and compliant.

The depths of the authentic feminine within all of us is dangerous to a patriarchy that we have internalized, whose modus operandi is divide & conquer, judge & punish: the way of the colonizer. The obsolete and absurd domination of the Father-God principle can end when we embrace jouissance; when Psyche and Eros are united. The child of their union, as the old story goes, was Hedone, or Bliss. Not the bliss of comfortably numbing pleasure and addiction – but the Bliss of an all-encompassing, felt embrace of the pleasurable intensity of all that is.
 
This includes our taboo, repressed aspects and their attendant desires:

“We have been raised to fear the yes within ourselves, our deepest cravings. But, once recognized, those which do not enhance our future lose their power and can be altered. The fear of our desires keeps them suspect and indiscriminately powerful, for to suppress any truth is to give it strength beyond endurance. The fear that we cannot grow beyond whatever distortions we may find within ourselves keeps us docile and loyal and obedient, externally defined, and leads us to accept many facets of our oppression as women.”

And for men- this is the oppression of the feminine within, and consequently, without.
 
What Lorde is describing here is alchemy – the use of base matter to create the sublimated Philosopher’s Stone.

She writes:

“But when we begin to live from within outward, in touch with the power of the erotic within ourselves, and allowing that power to inform and illuminate our actions upon the world around us, then we begin to be responsible to ourselves in the deepest sense….Our acts against oppression become integral with self, motivated and empowered from within. In touch with the erotic, I become less willing to accept powerlessness, or those other states of being which are not native to me, such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, self-denial.

 

Lorde is speaking directly to the decolonization of our souls through the practice of jouissance­: our connection to and intimacy with the intense power of the erotic within us; that openness to the endless movement, ebb and flow of energy which is our birthright as embodied souls.

A birthright and identity that we have been colonized into forgetting and systemically repressing:
 
To refuse to be conscious of what we are feeling at any time, however comfortable that might seem, is to deny a large part of the experience, and to allow ourselves to be reduced to the pornographic, the abused, and the absurd.

How then, do we enter into this radical and daunting practice of jouissance when we are so deeply conditioned and colonized?

Where do we even begin?

I suggest here a deceptively simple, yet tremendously powerful practice, as described by the wonderful Pema Chödrön in her book, Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits & Fears:
 
Make a commitment to pausing throughout the day, and do that whenever you can. Allow time for your perception to shift. Allow time for the natural energy of life as it is manifesting right now. This can bring dramatic changes in your personal life, and if you are worried about the state of the world, this is a way that you can use every moment to help shift the global climate of aggression towards peace.
 
As an entry point into jouissance, into creating an internal environment where our repressed Psyches can finally unite with Eros, this simple practice of pausing and paying attention is radically transformative.
 
It is, in fact, a springboard into soul-decolonization.
 
Through this small, secret commitment to ourselves, we have nothing to lose, and so very much to gain.

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