In last week’s column, I touched on the question of the erotic content of the practice of body piercing. This week I would like to reexamine the question of the erotic from the standpoint of originary thinking. I say “reexamine” because my latest book, Signs of Paradox, contains a chapter on “two psychoanalytic concepts,” the erotic and the unconscious. From a strictly generative standpoint, this chapter strays in the direction of empiricism; but such “straying” is the very modus operandi of the erotic and cannot be avoided in the discussion of the subject. The minimalism of originary thinking encounters the erotic as a “temptation” that it cannot encompass but only refer to obliquely. The erotic is recalcitrant to originary theory, for the very reason that the purpose of cultural deferral is to permit it.

We can construct a simple model of originary “triangular” or mimetic desire, but we cannot use it to predict the worldly operations of desire. My desire is mediated, in the general case, by the expressions of desire I encounter; I desire what others desire. But there is an additional component in desire, one that becomes dominant in sexual relationships, in which the desire-object itself serves as mediator. We call this component the “erotic.” Its role is clearest when this “object” is a human being, but even inert objects carry an erotic charge insofar as they may be said to figure the human Other’s self-mediation. It is the existence of this erotic component, with respect to which the search for an “originary” mediator is futile, that makes the construction of a predictive model of triangular desire impossible.

In this conception, it is not quite accurate to say that the erotic is to the sexual as culture is to nature. If we take sexual appetite as given, what transforms this appetite into desire is the mediation of our appetite through representation. But the object of my sexual desire, however her desirability may be enhanced for me by the desires of others (to simplify matters, I will assume the until-now culturally dominant “he/I” desires “her”), does not become an erotic object until she herself reflects this desire, that is, when she shows me that she finds herself desirable, that she desires her own desirability. Erotic desire is desire for an Other whom we conceive as sharing, indeed, inaugurating, our own desire.

 Les filles au miroir

Lesbos, terre des nuits chaudes et langoureuses,
Qui font qu’à leurs miroirs, stérile volupté!
Les filles aux yeux creux, de leur corps amoureuses,
Caressent les fruits mûrs de leur nubilité…

Charles Baudelaire – “Lesbos,” Les fleurs du mal, 1857 (one of the six condemned poems)

[Lesbos, land of hot and languorous nights
That incite, sterile sensuality! before their mirrors
The hollow-eyed girls, in love with their bodies
To caress the ripe fruits of their nubility…]

The original title of Charles Baudelaire‘s Les fleurs du mal, arguably the most significant volume of lyric poetry of modern times, was Les lesbiennes. The first modern poet was he who dared connect the eroticism of the male spectator of female homosexuality with the Sapphic origin of lyric poetry. The condemnation of the two “lesbian” poems of the original 1857 edition illustrates the danger of an eroticism potent enough to transcend the specifics of sexual roles. In the second half of the nineteenth century, lyric poetry constitutes itself as a radical anthropological discovery principle through an act of faith in Sappho’s originary lyric consciousness. Only at the turn of the century, after Baudelaire’s doubling of this consciousness and its internal absence from without as itself an object of desire could Renée Vivien translate Baudelaire’s “Sapphic” vision into straightforward lesbian love-poetry.

Baudelaire teaches us that man is attracted to female “narcissism,” not as emptiness is to fullness, but as the desirer of the different is to the desirer of the same. The girls caressing their “fruits mûrs” before their mirror are exemplary erotic figures in the very plurality that attests to their individual lack of Being. The space between the woman and her mirror image is the same abyss of desire as in male (auto)eroticism, but it lies between her and her own image.

Because the erotic Other is her own mediator, she appears at first glance to inhabit a utopia of self-absorption. Freud’s theory of narcissism is based on this illusory self-sufficiency, which Girard (Des choses cachées… p. 391ff) denounces as a myth. Yet this myth of psychoanalysis is not faithful to eroticism itself. The “narcissistic” erotic object does not appear to the subject as self-sufficiently enclosed within herself; on the contrary, she is still more alienated in her desire for herself than I am in desiring her. I can at least hope to approach the object of my desire, whereas she has already approached hers to the maximum–to the closest point at which she can make out her image in the mirror. The mirror is a locus of jouissance because it is in the first place one of anxiety–that of the old queen awaiting with horror the wrinkle that will end her tenure as “the fairest one of all.”

The myth of Narcissus who, far from inhabiting a utopia of desire, suffers until his metamorphosis a nightmarish fate comparable to that of Tantalus, reveals that the “narcissistic” self is not whole but divided. Its desire for its own reflection / representation can never be satisfied. What arouses erotic desire in the subject is not the other’s wholeness, but its relocation of desiring alienation to the abyss between itself and its own image.

This discussion might seem to imply that Girard’s mimetic critique of the psychoanalytic model of desire attacks only a secondary component–the internal mechanism of “narcissism”–while leaving intact the Other’s self-sufficiency, not, to be sure, in the sense that she is satisfied in her desire, but in the sense that, at least, she is the sole source of the image that is her object of desire. But the image in the mirror, like all such “supplementary” doublings, reveals the flaw in this perfect complementarity. The woman loves in her image the desires, potential and real, that it attracts from without. Her self-love is not self-determined, but an appeal to public mediation–why else need she look in the mirror? The autoerotic island of the erotic mediator floats on the sea of diffuse mediations through which the world attributes to each object its value for desire. Although Freud’s remarks about the attractive woman’s “narcissism” do not constitute a wholly satisfactory theoretical model, they are not altogether without foundation. The attractive woman does “narcissistically” contemplate her own image; what draws her back to her mirror is her astonishment at being “herself” this figure of beauty to which numberless admirers have given value.

Hence, just as the young woman caressing her fruits mûrs in the mirror is the exemplary object of erotic desire, an ugly woman admiring herself in the mirror is an object of fear and loathing or, at best, of comedy. To the very extent that her “unjustified” desire produces nevertheless a mimetic effect, we turn away in horror, just as the “homophobe” turns from the expression of male homosexual desire. This turning-away pays homage to the mimetic temptation of desire, but by the same token it thematizes our resistance to it. The degree of this resistance is a measure of our “sanity” in sharing the desires of the community. But because the erotic figure is herself our mediator, our need for the Being she incarnates may lead us to follow her beyond the values of common desire. Erotic “perversion” becomes a tribute paid by the sexual to the originary operation of desire: the generation of sacred significance.

As Bernini’s famous statue of Saint Theresa reminds us, religious ecstasy and erotic ecstasy can take much the same form. How then shall we distinguish between eroticism and religion, eros and agapé? Erotic desire, as we have seen, is based on the reduction of the triangle of mediated desire to a relationship between desiring Self and desired Other in which the latter serves as both object and mediator. God as the originary mediator of all desire is surely the mediator of my desire for his Being.

The Other of erotic desire loves herself as representation, as the imaginarily timeless image in the mirror. In the religious case, we attribute to God himself the timelessness of representation; the separation between God and “himself” into which the erotic imagination can insert itself is figured by the sacrificial figure, who is the originary designatum of the sign but not the bearer of its Being. God’s internal self-separation is realized theologically in the Trinity, which includes the Incarnation within the godhead itself.

Christianity does not want our love for the Son to be erotic; the figure of appetite is conjured homeopathically through the communion wafer. But once it becomes possible to see Jesus as exemplifying the despairing desire for his own immortal essence that Lamartine extended to all mankind in his line “L’homme est un dieu tombé qui se souvient des cieux” [Man is a fallen god who remembers the heavens], it becomes conceivable that his mediation might mobilize the energy of sexual desire as well. The “sublimation” of eros into agapé occurs at the point where the object of the mediating Other’s own (self-)desire is understood not as a physical image of the desirable but an immortal “soul.”

From the converse, spiritual, perspective, the erotic appears as a strategic short-circuiting of self-relationship: to love significance in one’s body rather than one’s soul. It is no accident that in Baudelaire’s poem, as in eroticism generally, this short-circuiting is in the first place the act of the mediating Other. Were the male subject’s sexual appetite sufficient unto itself, it would not require erotic supplementation. The whole demonology of female sexual desire finds its place here, from medieval “misogyny” to the vampiric fatal woman of the Decadence.