Monday, March 10, 2014

Take It to the Limit

I happened on Jonathan Cott's 1978 Rolling Stone interview with Susan Sontag, which was published in its entirety by Yale University Press last year.  I have my differences with Sontag, but I always enjoyed reading her essays, even when I disagreed with her.  I'd recommend this long interview to anyone interested in Sontag, in what it means to be an intellectual, in mortality, or in many other issues.  "Mortality" is a big issue here, because at the time of the interview Sontag was just coming off a regime of therapy for cancer, which was reasonably successful (she lived for another quarter-century), but she'd come close to dying and she knew it.

Still, there's something in the interview that bugged me, and if I remember right it is something that had bugged me before: Sontag's view of the "demonic" side of human sexuality.  I should probably reread her early essay on pornography, and I don't assume that her view of sexuality didn't change over time, but here I just want to comment on what she said to Cott in 1978.  It feels familiar to me from having read her before, and I think it's a view she shared with a good many other people, intellectuals or not.

Sontag begins by saying that she thinks the renegade Freudian Wilhelm Reich "really didn’t understand the demonic in human nature and that he had a picture of sexuality only as something wonderful.  And of course it can be, but it’s also a very dark place and a theater of the demonic" (41).  I don't necessarily disagree with this, though I'm not sure what Sontag meant by "demonic" that isn't merely tautologous, and I find it ironic since elsewhere in the interview she talks about her distrust of metaphors.  I don't suppose she believed literally in demons, so that metaphor needs to be unpacked a little, and she doesn't do that.

More to the point, while I can agree that sexuality "is also a very dark place and a theater of the demonic" (for some value of "demonic"), the same can be said of just about every other human endeavor, from food to art to religion to science to being a parent to being an intellectual.  So why single out sexuality?

Cott then quotes Sontag to herself on S&M from her essay "Fascinating Fascism": "The color is black, the material is leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death."  Ooooh, child!  That's just a bit simplistic.  One well-known aspect of sadomasochism is its reenactment of scenarios of abasement and control from childhood, but Mom doesn't usually wear black leather when she's warming your bottom.  (At least mine didn't.  I mustn't overgeneralize from my own experience.)  Everything I've read indicates that S&M works best as erotic theater: you kiss your Mistress's boots and then arise refreshed to resume running the corporation from the executive suite. It's not "real," it's playing with fantasies.  Perhaps, as with many fantasies -- including art -- S&M works as a way of managing and controlling painful feelings.  (Is that its essence?  No.  Again, I don't think human sexuality has an essence.)  It seems to me, again, that Sontag was overreliant on metaphor in that passage.  Its ritualistic use of repetition also makes me a bit skeptical of Sontag's disavowal in her answer to Cott:
I don’t deeply understand it because it’s not me, but I guess I understand it more than you in the sense that I know it’s for real, and know that the reason people can continue to have an idea of sexuality simply as pleasure – in the most desirable sense as contact, love, and sensuality – is that they don’t go to the end of what sexuality is … and they probably shouldn’t, of course, because is one is playing with fire.  And if one goes to the end, I think it’s a much bigger and more anarchic thing than one imagines, and that’s why throughout human history it’s been the subject of so much regulation.  I don’t think people understand why there’s been this problem of repression.  I’d sort of turn it around and say that the reason most societies have been, to a considerable extent, repressive about sexuality is that people have understood that it can get out of control and be completely destructive [41-2].
Again, I can agree with this to a point, but it seems to me that Sontag is equivocating.  I think she'd have denied that the true nature or core of human sexuality is demonic, but she still seems to be saying not only that cruelty and domination are part of human sexuality as we have constructed it (which I think is obviously true), but that they are "the end of what sexuality is," and that anyone whose sex life doesn't include some cruelty isn't being honest, isn't "going to the end" of human sexuality (which I think is obviously false).

I don't believe that human sexuality has an essence or an end, which perhaps puts me in the uncomfortable position of conceding that for some people cruelty and destruction may be authentically part of their sexuality, while for others they are not.  I don't see this as a real problem, though, because I'd say that cruelty and destruction are authentically part of human nature too.  Authenticity, however, is not validity.

Cott then quotes William Blake, from his big poem Jerusalem, on "Sexual Organization", and Sontag continues:
Yes, there’s something wrong with human sexuality [laughing].  You see, we’re not animals.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with animal sexuality, but at the same time it is kind of awful because it’s so purely physical and for the most part is so extremely disagreeable to the female.  With the exception of some species like wolves, for instance, who have something more like a family life and tend to be monogamous, it’s generally this crazy kind of disconnected, dissociated act that, as I said, is very unfavorable for the female and really does seem to be the reproductive urge and nothing more.  Human sexuality, however, is something entirely different, but it didn’t quite work out – in fact, I once described the human sexual capacity as being incorrectly designed.  I mean, to move sexuality onto another plane whereby it becomes a psychological and emotional thing doesn’t quite work – it only works when it’s controlled or inhibited in some way.  Did you see that movie by Nagisa Oshima called In the Realm of the Senses

I did, and I’m afraid that I’m never going to forget it.  There’s no way you can forget the ending of that film when the woman strangles the man while they’re making love and then cuts off his penis and writes the words “The Two of Us Forever” on her chest in blood.
You know, I think Oshima’s right.  I think that’s an authentic experience.  Luckily it’s given to very few people.  But this is a perfect illustration of what happens when you don’t have any breaks anymore.  They went to the end, and the end is death [42-3].
Here Sontag says it explicitly: the end of human sexuality is death.  Well, in the long run we are all dead, but conceiving death as the telos -- the completion in the sense of fulfillment, the goal -- of life is a mistake.

The complexity of human sexuality, even as Sontag theorized it here, isn't a matter of "incorrect design," since organisms aren't designed (another unfortunate metaphor that Sontag should have known better than to use).  I view it as a consequence of the human capacity for symbolism -- for language, for abstract thought, for constructing stories about our experience -- overlaid on our biological functioning, because in Darwinian evolution there is no reason why human sexuality (or anything else) should be correctly "designed."  Darwinian evolution is often a mess, because it isn't directed by a designer or toward any goal.  What matters is whether a trait more or less works overall, and doesn't screw the species up to the point that it can't sustain reproduction at all.

In the Realm of the Senses is not very helpful for Sontag's discussion.  As Cott says, it's the story of a man and woman who have an obsessive sexual affair, which culminates in the woman strangling the man while they copulated, and (after he was dead) cutting off his penis and testicles.  As Hollywood marketers would say, it's Based on Real Events, though the film was made by a maverick, bad-boy Japanese director outside even the workings of the Japanese film industry: in 1936 a woman named Sada Abe did just that to her lover Kichizo Ishida.  She carried the severed parts with her until she turned herself in to the police a few days later; she was tried, convicted, imprisoned, and released in 1941, five years after the murder; she lived until sometime in the 1970s.

Oshima Kagisa's 1976 film was neither the first nor last to be made about her, but it was the most notorious because of its onscreen depiction of genitals and penetration.  Whether Oshima was "right" about Sada Abe is open to question, since he was of course creating a story of his own, imposing his understanding of the events for his own purpose, but it seems clear enough that Sontag wants him to be right, and to agree with her interpretation of the case, that Abe and Ishida "went to the end, and the end is death."  But what's the big deal?  One could say the same thing, just as accurately, of a monogamous married couple who vow to stay together "till death do us part" and do so, even if neither one kills or mutilates the other along the way.  But that's not transgressive, not "edgy."  If Sontag exalts Abe and Ishida's "end" over the more prosaic kind, it must be for other reasons than logical necessity.

Cott protests, talking about Reich's account of repression and "healthy" ways of being sexual.  Sontag replies:
But I believe that’s true, too. I know people who have very pleasurable, sensuous, nondestructive, non-S&M sexual lives.  Not for a minute am I saying that that’s not possible.  In fact, not only is it possible, it’s desirable.  I just think the people who can do that don’t take it to the limit, and, as I said before, they shouldn’t.  But I don’t agree with Reich that fascism primarily comes out of sexual repression, though I do think it has a very powerful sexual rhetoric that was appealing to people [44].
Here again, Sontag says that people who don't kill and mutilate each other "don't take it to the limit," covering her ass with "as I said before, they shouldn't."  But she doesn't sound very convinced.  I agree with her that fascism doesn't primarily come out of sexual repression (largely because I doubt that fascism is "primarily" anything), but I disagree that violence is "the limit" of human sexuality (or of sexuality in other animal species, for that matter), and I don't think Sontag gave any reason for supposing that it is.  It sounds as if she wanted it to be, and considered that reason enough to suppose.

Which isn't to suggest that Sontag was a secret sex killer. I suppose she was excited by the fantasy, and tried to rationalize the fantasy by basing her interpretation in human nature, which indicates to me that she confused metaphor and reality here.  Compare the way that some writers have tried to identify the S&M classic The Story of O with the true nature of human sexuality or love, and the fantasies it depicts with the true desires and practices of the woman who wrote it.  As the author of that book said, "There is no reality here. Nobody could stand to be treated like that. It's entirely fantastic."  Analogously, millions of people have been thrilled by the indestructibility of John McClane, walking barefoot for hundreds of yards on broken glass, scorched by flame, beaten up repeatedly.  But "Nobody could stand to be treated like that" in real life, and it's not even an ideal to be worked for.  It's a fantasy that stands for something else.

So let me try some analogies.  Is there a similar limit to food consumption?  Are the lucky few who eat until they explode going to gastronomical limits that the rest of us unimaginative souls just lack the guts to explore?  What would be the limit of masturbation?  Or spanking your child?  Isn't that kind of ... vanilla?  Or accumulating lots and lots and lots of money?  Or writing a novel?

I think Sontag overlooked that our bodies have limits, and they're mostly fairly modest.  Most love affairs simply burn themselves out, and those that last for any length of time coexist with other human activities.  Abe and Ishida apparently found it difficult to stop copulating: they often spent days in bed at a time.  Abe wanted to kill Ishida because she was afraid she'd lose him to another woman, and she wanted to have him entirely to himself.  (Another example of the kind of "limit" Sontag evidently had in mind is obsessive jealousy, wanting to own another person.  That presumably originates in the jealousy of infants who don't want to share Mommy with anybody else.  It may be "authentic," but should it be indulged to the limit?)  But most sexual partners lose that initial craving to spend all their time glued together: the obsession wears off, turns into satiation, indifference, even repulsion.  Satiation is a limit just as authentic as stuffing yourself until you burst.  Once the body is satiated, it usually shuts down: the man can't produce an erection let alone an ejaculation, the woman gets sore or exhausted.  Sometimes it doesn't happen, but that's a sign that something has gone wrong.

The mind, on the other hand, has no limits.  (Money, as opposed to real material wealth, is similar: money is an abstraction, without inherent limits.)  We can imagine impossible things: copulating with the same person for decades without doing anything else, owning everything in the world, being the supreme King or Queen, eating your own weight in ice cream, living forever, etc.  They aren't therefore "authentic": the opposite, if anything.  It should be remembered that this notion is a point of agreement between Sontag and many religious conservatives: they believe that one (the?) function of marriage is to control sexuality, and without such control it will spill over into rape and other kinds of excess.  This is open to doubt for various reasons, for example that rape occurs in marriage too.  That Sontag and religious nuts agree on something doesn't prove it's wrong, but I'd say it ought to give one pause before one accepts it.