The Rebirth of Pleasure

Karmen MacKendrick

[1] Perhaps the trickiest thing about writing for an issue on "feminism's others" is figuring out what "other" means in this context, as it seems fairly certain that it doesn't mean anything so crude as "anti-feminist." And if it did, that term in turn would be a difficult one to which to assign a meaning; within feminist theory (as I am forever telling undergraduate students) we find a remarkable range of ideas and ideals, and more than a few active disagreements. So to take any sort of position with the idea that it was "anti-feminist" would be not only the sort of reactionary move that rightly rolls eyeballs, but also probably just factually wrong; that is, that position could probably be found within feminist theorizing somewhere. (There are exceptions, of course, but we have to be unusually crude to create them—something along the lines of "all women are insignificant," maybe.) Otherness may be this sort of anti-ness, an opposition we use to define ourselves. But it may also emerge from within, precisely as that which nonetheless can't quite be within, that which doesn't quite fit, yet remains relevant to that to which it is other.

[2] Such an "other" seems to me to indicate that for which there isn't space, not, or not necessarily, out of hostility, but because starting assumptions and working paradigms are so very different. Even then, it's by no means obvious what would be other to feminism, which has influenced, if not every discipline and sub-disciplinary realm of inquiry, at least most of those that an academic writer might consider. The topics on which I'd like to touch here, having to do with erotic pleasure, are, if anything, among those on which feminism has given us some of the most important, and even often helpful, recent theory. Most immediately, it is in some measure the insistence upon taking women's experiences seriously that keep scholars looking at the intensely erotic writings of Medieval women mystics that inspired the theory I use below; it is the largely-feminist insistence upon the importance of corporeality that has also brought us to an insistence upon pleasure.

[3] But it is exactly that sense of insistence that has me troubled. Once we move out of what was always a limited range of anti-sex (or, at any rate, anti-sex-in-this-perceived-as-misogynistic-culture) feminism, we find pleasure, especially erotic pleasure, insisted upon or celebrated as something right—a good, even a right in the more political sense. (The political implications of our having such rights may be either liberal or radical, depending in part upon their relation to the social structures within which they occur.) How this pleasure is conceived, and especially how the difference or lack thereof between women's pleasure and men's is conceived, varies enormously from one school of thought to another, but where pleasure is not viewed with suspicion, it is viewed as something we all can and ought to claim. I want to argue that this notion of a rightness to pleasure and a right to pleasure has itself something a little odd about it, a little off—but we have to start other-where to see why.

[4] As with most complicated issues, this one demands some caution. Again, I am not taking a simplistically contrary position, not arguing that we (women, men and other-gendered alike) have no right to pleasure, or that pleasure should be more accessible to some of us than to others. Indeed, I would hate to see pleasures in their mind-boggling multiplicity forced back into an assortment of closets. Most of the pleasure-loving forms of feminism, those coming under the "sex-positive" heading, hold some appeal for me, and not only because they've so improved the available porn selection. Yet: I worry that we lose something in our insistence and our guiltlessness. And still: I don't mean to suggest that we should return to feeling bad about taking pleasure.

[5] It's subtler than that. I think that, in order to embrace our pleasures, we've taken all the darkness out of them so that we can say loudly what may still need to be said: that these are permissible, acceptable, good-for-us; that no one has the right to deny them. But this means pathologizing the eroticism of the impermissible, the unacceptable, the evil—the eroticism these things have just because that's what they are. In insisting, rightly, upon the importance of pleasure; in refusing to deny ourselves pleasures (at least the consensual ones), we have so normalized pleasure that we've stripped the intensity and the fear and the pain right out of it. We have to have done so, because to insist on pleasure that breaks us, to insist on being torn out of ourselves, undoes the aggressive delight of insisting on pleasure-for-me—and, to take another mode of feminist thought, the communal nurturance of mutual pleasure-for-us. If we have only just gotten our selves, just established decisively our right to agency and subjectivity, it seems terribly counterproductive to delight in self-loss, or even in self-exceeding.

[6] To speak of seeking or refusing pleasure in the language either of right or of obligation rings not so much false as simply misplaced; both come to seem kinds of category errors when we try to extend them to the class of intense pleasures that come intermixed with pain and the play of power. It is hard to see how one might have an obligation to others to feel the bite and burn of a well-wielded whip; still less to go on feeling it when one has demanded that it stop, both meaning it and not meaning it at all. It is just as hard to see how it makes sense to say that one could have the right, just for oneself, to be broken out of that self, slammed against the sturdy boundaries of the ego until they break.

[7] Yet once more, this is not simple rejection (well, maybe of the obligation part). If it were not for the sense that we have a right to our pleasures, we might never get started toward this pain and breaking. Those who might want to seek out such intense sensations could well be stuck in the unpleasant guilt of must-not or the pathologizing of, still, much mainstream psychiatry. But this sense of right and rightness will only get us halfway: to consent and consensual pleasures, where we must start if we are to have pleasure at all; but not past the point at which consent and its implicit agency lose meaning. It won't take me to the outside of myself where I need to go, nor to the shattering of that self from which I return just a little more peaceful. This shattering, exteriorizing intensity is an otherness that arises from within the focus on the body and its pleasures. We need the thought, and maybe even the language, of a right to pleasure; we need that permission. But then we need more than can be made permissible.

[8] Narratives that find joy in suffering and self-shattering (I imagine, paradigmatically, the sixteenth-century Dark Night of the Soul) either anger or worry us; this is not what pleasure is supposed to be. It's not only that we dislike the idea that we might have to suffer on the way to joy; we like even less the deeper complexity of seeing the joy in suffering. Traditionally, religious narratives—the repository of so much of our sense of paradox—have been more amenable to these complications than have other genres. Here too, though, the modern sensibility is uneasy; contemporary theology has tended to emphasize the niceness and sanity of its gods. Given that so much of suffering is human-imposed, unnecessary, horrible it seems wrong to celebrate it. But there is more to religion, as to pleasure, than the ethical.

[9] I've grounded the following meditation in the tradition of religious texts, in large measure simply because this is the tradition of tellings most like this, and so the place of the language that most nearly works. There is no direct engagement with or against feminism, precisely because this is other: it takes up issues important within feminist thought, issues of pleasure and more specifically of erotic pleasure, of individuality and autonomy. But it takes these up from an angle that won't fit in, and so has tended to be omitted, or simply glossed over.

[10] Because of the indirection of this argument, let me make a few direct points here, some of them again, but they're easy to lose. I think that we do need to begin with the notion that we have a right to our pleasures, even if they aren't quite mainstream; and I think that the limit of that right is consent. That is, I concede some very basic liberal, and liberal feminist, points. But the pleasures that interest me most are those for which both pleasure and consent can only be starting points, those that build in intensity to the point of violence, those that incorporate pain and twist the will. They do not become, thereby, unpleasant and nonconsensual—rather, they so completely problematize those terms that the terms become inadequate and incorrect. (They do not simply transform the pain into pleasure, the subordination into equity.) Key to that problematizing is the ability of intense experience to break us out of ourselves—those selves we must be for right and consent to be meaningful. This is not at all the same as arguing that we needn't begin in consent, any more than it is the same as arguing that we have no right to pleasure.

[11] With that said:

[12] In a work called Tears and Saints, E.M. Cioran writes, "Once you have tasted the joys of suffering, you are hooked on them forever. As Margaret Mary Alacoque [1] used to say, 'life is unbearable without suffering!' Through pain, we have hoisted ourselves to God's level." (Cioran, unpaginated) A remarkable notion, highlighting Christian perversity, the notion of the god whose body suffers. We, at least since Leopold von Sacher-Masoch first eyed the Lives of the Martyrs, (Sacher-Masoch, 274) have been inspired by images of the saints: Teresa, unspeakably joyous as the cherub's arrow pierces her entrails; Antony, hair-shirted and tormented by voluptuous visions in the desert; Sebastian, serene with his multiple arrow-piercings; Catherine stretched and broken on the wheel; Joan of Arc, defiant even tied to the stake. Oh yes, and "the one whom they have pierced," (John 19.37) Christ, who, though not technically a saint, is after all the prototype of Christian suffering, of whom Guy Baldwin remarks, "Christ was reportedly a guy who was a sensitive renegade, set himself up to be on the receiving end of some very serious suffering, and taught that submission to a higher authority was the key to salvation. Who could be surprised that I turned out to be a lifelong gay sadomasochist with Christ as my role model?" (Baldwin, 126)

[13] When I let myself think this, these are things that I remember.

[14] "Surely," St. Augustine writes to his much-desired God," my memory is where you dwell, because I remember you there since first I learnt of you, and I find you there when I think about you." (Augustine, X.xxvi . 37) Out of sight quite fails to make out of mind; solitude instead refines the skin to a thin-stretched surface over screaming raw nerve-ends. One would wish, alone, to enwrap oneself, secured away from the world, protected, isolated, and self-sufficient. Freed from desire, or wholly self-satisfying, or easily able to grab a body for a pleasantly meaning-free scene. But memory, in the intensity of selfhood's solitude, refuses astonishingly to remain something purely within, refuses to stay wrapped-up. The space of memory occupied by a singular absence—You—will always draw one outside, keeping one from being precisely equal to oneself. Solitude only sharpens sensitivity to this seductive space. The saint awaits a God who may have forsaken him, or her. We await the return of the pain that will bring us peace. In the desert, alone, one waits.

[15] This memory, You, is not the memory of a simple unity (You-and-I), as if one could be restored to a never-present wholeness. Instead, such a memory recalls to us the doubleness of cutting. The double cut marks the moment of re-birth. We can only understand this if we see that the first birth is that of becoming human, individuated, cut off.

[16] "Beings which reproduce themselves," Georges Bataille tells us,

are distinct from one another... Each born alone. [Each] dies alone. Between one being and another, there is a gulf, a discontinuity.

This gulf exists, for instance, between you, listening to me, and me, speaking to you. We are attempting to communicate, but no communication between us can abolish our fundamental and I are discontinuous beings.

But I cannot refer to the gulf which separates us without feeling that this is not the whole truth of the matter. (Bataille, 1957, 12-13)

Discontinuity marks the fundamental split that cuts one off: to be a self is to be only oneself. Our first birth is singular and establishes singularity: it cuts us apart. From our mothers (by which the navel, in traditions from Plato's Aristophanes onward, becomes the site of our sorrow in isolation), from objects (in psychoanalytic theory, the infant comes to recognize itself by establishing skin-boundaries: "that is not me" is a necessary preliminary to "this is me"), from continuity with whatever cannot be securely contained within the self.

[17] To be born again, we must once again remember. Memory must draw us out of our selves, into divine spaces, left empty by a singular withdrawal. "Each pain," says Cioran, "leaves behind an emptiness that can never be filled again." (Cioran, 100.) Yet filling what remains empty within us, hurting again, does not leave us the least bit more self-sufficient.

[18] In the increasing self-containment of solitude, one retains the rending memory of communication. The first cut cuts me off and leaves me to myself. The second cuts me open and leaves me to remember. Communication at the intensity of the sacred is not the easy transmission of information but a wrenching instant at once intimate and violent—"paradoxically," Bataille writes, "intimacy is violence, and it is destruction, because it is not compatible with the positing of the separate individual." (Bataille, 1973, 51) The ecstasy of communication marks the moment in which the self is opened to the outside, the raw scream filling the space past words, the joy—"...all of being ready and open—for death, joy or torment—unreservedly open and dying, painful and happy, is there already with its shadowed light, and this light is divine: and the cry that being—vainly?—tries to utter from a twisted mouth is an immense alleluia, lost in endless silence." (Bataille, 1957, 271)

[19] Surely my memory is where you dwell. Surely the divine You dwell(s) outside, in the space of memory, within, drawing me out of me. Incarnate memory turns the self inside-out. Incompleteness in solitude intensifies at once isolation and vulnerability. Too much oneself one craves mnemonically the loss of oneself. To wait is to want. "Anguish," Bataille writes, "assumes the desire to communicate—that is, to lose myself—but not complete resolve: anguish is evidence of my fear of communicating, of losing myself." (Bataille, 1954, 208)

[20] The first birth, the cut establishing our self-sufficient humanity, is singular. The second is infinitely multipliable: if to be only human is to be cut off and cut away, we shall find our human divinity in being cut open, in a repetition not only of the immemorial perfect pain (pain, like birth, comes every time as new and astonishing), but of every glance and touch on the marks that remember it to us: we can be born again.

[21] It is only through violence—through the peculiar violence which is singularly opposed to oppression [2]—that we can go beyond ourselves, remember what is always missing, the incompletion of seemingly self-sufficient individuation: only the pain that brings us back to the forgotten, back home, home where we know, even the first time, we belong.

[22] And here, like Augustine, we can say, "in some way, though incomprehensible and inexplicable, I am certain that I remember forgetfulness itself." (Augustine, X.xvi, 25.) The restlessness that rubs our nerves raw when we wait is our memory of having forgotten. It is only by being broken that one returns to the memory of forgetting, to the openness of self to the outside. To remember is neither simple nor safe, but when one cannot shake the restlessness of forgetting, the space of memory will be a constant and irresistible draw. We cannot rest with knowing we have forgotten, with feeling ourselves so far from being at home. We cannot rest with every nerve-ending on fire with the absence of sensation.

[23] This restlessness is the call of rebirth, the memory that makes ordinary life too cold, too easy, too close to a lack of life. To be born again is not once and forever but always again, always demanding, again. [3] It is not to transcend the body, but to intensify to the very edge of possibility the body in its specificity: Here, where air brushes against exposed skin; here, where the whip thuds bruises down toward bone; here, where muscles pull against restraint; here, where sudden drops of heat contract the self to a square-inch surface of skin—Here, without recourse.

[24] "Stripping naked," says Bataille in Erotism, "is the decisive action. Nakedness offers a contrast to self-possession, to discontinuous existence, in other words. It is a state of communication revealing a quest for a possible continuance of being beyond the confines of the self." (Bataille, 1957, 17) Without recourse or security, suddenly always unready, however eager, for the realization that one cannot neatly step but can only be torn out of oneself—without recourse from the violence of grace, the violence before which all modes of supplication fail. After all, as Bataille writes later in that same text, "the divine will only protect us once its basic need to consume and to ruin has been satisfied." (Bataille, 1957, 181)

[25] Pain is no less intolerable for being the most desperately sought privilege, but its loss would be anguish beyond tolerance—this is what gives such power to the one who inflicts pain. Pain defines the specificity of the body at every point. The pleasures of pain are curiously anachronistic, as if they always threw us out of time; and always utterly immediate, as if all time were now, as if every place were just here.

[26] We too easily underestimate the flesh: body memory is strong and specific, and the bruise where the clamp held, the pinprick tenderness where the needles broke through, the edge of the scar where the skin just opened, remember. The seduction of the divine by body memory is carnal and double. Drawn out by the space that the joy of pain once opened in memory, brought to a home one had always forgotten, one is seduced by grace, by the power which delights in hurting; opening oneself to desire, stripped in supplication, tracing with covert fingertips all of the lingering points of pain, one seduces the divine as well, draws the forgotten within, incarnates the word, remembers. One last bit of Bataille: "According to John of the Cross, we must imitate in God (Jesus)...the agony, the moment of non-knowledge...the despair of God...The agony of God in the person of man [and here we might fault Bataille for his use of the masculine, except of course that he speaks literally of a male body] is fatal—it is the abyss into which vertigo tempted him to fall. In the agony of God, the confession of sin is irrelevant." (Bataille, 1954, 47)

[27] It is irrelevant what one confesses, where pain is more than penance, where it reiterates the sudden openings of memory, the outside into which You draw, the divine draws us; the astonishing ease with which it lets itself in, You let Yourself in, in the person of another whose delight in pain draws us out, seduces us into breaking.

[28] Just here, where the knife cuts...

[29] Just here, where the flow of blood opens us to a divinity without which is suddenly and just the same our own. Open into a space in which even the blood of gods can flow, filling the cup offered as an incentive to remembrance: "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in memory of me." (1 Corinthians 11.25)

[30] In an act of transgressive transubstantiation, the blood-drunk divine reminds us that grace is that which we have forgotten, that even in the weakness of the spirit the flesh remembers, flesh purified from all distraction by the perfect focus of pain, flesh that prepares the sacrifice of self in the intolerable abstention from pain, flesh sanctified.

[31] Just here, where a fingertip touch on a long slow scar suffices to the memory of grace.

Works Cited

Athanasius. The Life of Antony. ca. 360 AD. Translated by Robert C. Gregg. N.Y.: Paulist Press, 1980.

Augustine, St. Confessions (ca.. 397), translated by Henry Chadwick. NY: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Baldwin, Guy. "Radical Rite". In Religious Sex, ed. David Aaron Clark and Tristan Taormino. NY: Rhinoseros Books, 1996.

Bataille, Georges, Erotism: Death and Sensuality, translated by Mary Dalwood, San Francisco: City Lights Press, 1986. from: L'Erotisme, Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1957.

—Inner Experience, translated by Leslie Ann Boldt, New York: SUNY Press, 1988. from: L'Experience Interieure, Paris: Gallimard, 1954.

Theory of Religion, translated by Robert Hurley, NY: Zone Books, 1992. from: Théorie de la Religion, Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1973.

Catherine of Siena, St. The Dialogue, translated by Suzanne Noffke, O.P.. New York: Paulist Press, 1980.

Cioran, E.M. Tears and Saints, translator unlisted. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. from: Lacrimi si sfinti, (in Rumanian), 1937, publisher not listed.

John of the Cross, St. Dark Night of the Soul, translated by E. Allison Peers. NY: Doubleday, 1959.

Plato. Symposium, translated by Michael Joyce. In The Collected Dialogues of Plato, edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Bollingen Series LXXI, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Sacher-Masoch, Leopold von. "A Childhood Memory and Reflections on the Novel". In Gilles Deleuze and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty. New York: Zone Books, 1991.

Teresa of Avila, St. The Life ofTheresa of Avila, by Herself. 1562. Translated by J. M. Cohen, N.Y.: Viking Penguin, 1957.


[1] Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690) was a visionary who frequently witnessed visions of the Sacred Heart.

[2] "Abuse, exploitation are what break 'communication,'" Bataille , 1954, 208

[3] One of the most interesting of the heretical Catholic scholars, Meister Eckhart says of God that God "is always born and in the process of being born" (sermon "See What Love," sec. 11)—affirming, if heretically, our sense that this second birth returns us to the divine.