The German philosopher Immanuel Kant argued (in Critique of Practical Reason) that if a man were given the opportunity to have sex with a woman he had long desired on the condition that when he was spent, he went to the gallows, that man would transcend his sensual nature in the face of such an outcome, and walk away from his desire.
This man would, according to Kant, overcome what the philosopher determined to be the “pathology” of such things as wishes and desires, and instead exercise ethical autonomy, reasoning that sex, no matter how greatly desired, was not worth the death that would follow. Kant took his assumption to demonstrate the ability of a human individual to transcend her or his sensuous nature, especially in the face of adverse outcomes.
This perspective has been challenged by thinkers such as Jacques Lacan, and more recently, Slavoj Zizek, both of whom point out that there are some among us who could only enjoy a night of passion if they knew death would follow.
Says Lacan: “it is not impossible for a man to sleep with a woman knowing full well that he is to be bumped off on his way out, by the gallows or anything else… it is not impossible that this man coolly accepts such an eventuality on his leaving”
Lacan in particular discusses the role of jouissance in such a decision, that untranslatable word (“enjoyment” doesn’t come anywhere near it) that involves living out desire in utter disregard of the consequences.
As Hélène Cixous describes jouissance it contains elements of the erotic, in that it fractures everyday structures, offers sexual rapture, and from a woman’s point of view, offers sublime mental, physical and spiritual experiences. It is a transcendental state, offering freedom from oppressive realities, an escape from hierarchical bonds and systems of cultural, religious, sexual, and linguistic oppression, in short it is: “blowing up the law of the father” (Stigmata).
Lacan being Lacan argues that jouissance can never actually be attained: it remains forever a desire, a yearning. The satisfaction obtained is never the satisfaction anticipated. The reality must inevitably fall short of the imagining. Desire continues to flourish, desire is insatiable, desire is lack.
Or as T.S. Eliot puts it in The Hollow Men:Between the idea and the reality Between the motion And the act Falls the Shadow. I once had a wonderful teacher, mentor and friend, an elderly psychiatrist who knew too well the perils of acting on his desires, and had incurred a kind of professional death as a consequence of his impulse towards the experiencing of jouissance. The dire consequences of his forays into inappropriate love affairs didn’t stop him telling me how it would have been if we’d met fifteen years earlier. This was one of the things I loved about him: he knew how much he’d lost by loving the wrong women at the wrong time, and it didn’t stop him openly wanting us, even though his time for that had passed. I’ve no doubt had it not, we would have got into something and being who he was, he’d have incurred an adverse outcome yet again. One of the things he taught me was his theory of a role he called “Yearner/Despairer.” In this role, which he willingly admitted to be one in which he spent a large portion of his time, the individual is filled with most painfully ambivalent emotions towards another, see-sawing between intense longing, and the most abject despair that the longing can ever be satisfied because the other is in some way inaccessible, or the longing is unrequited. My friend argued that this is a role in which many of us spend much of our time, not necessarily on account of another human being, but in longing for things, situations, circumstances that we simultaneously despair of ever acquiring. It is a most uneconomical way to live a life, as the energy expended in maintaining two such contradictory and powerful emotions at the same time, is mind-boggling.
So what, I asked him, is one to do? Please don’t cross your legs like that, he said, and then went on. All we can do is sit in the ambivalence, he said, and see where it takes us.
But that is too uncomfortable, I protested, how can anyone keep on doing that?
We have no choice, he said. If we sit in it long enough, in that tension of the opposites, another possibility will emerge. But know what you are doing Watch it play out in front of you. Stand back and watch it. It’s the distance you need to learn.
Can you do that? I asked him, because it didn’t seem to me, knowing his history, that he’d chosen such a course.
No, he said. Or rather, very rarely. Even though I knew my desires would see me in the gallows, figuratively speaking, I could never say no to love. But I knew every time what was in store for me. I didn’t do it blindly. I knew what would follow. I made choices. And at times I had to sit in the ambivalence, when things didn’t go as I would have liked. But you must learn to get the distance you need to see what you are doing. Don’t let the emotion blind you if you can help it. Feel it, but don’t let it dominate you. It’s a process, he finished up, and we laughed, because we both hated that word used in that way.
I don’t agree with Kant’s theory that a man (or a woman) will inevitably refuse a night of sexual bliss if the outcome will be certain death, and that this test proves we are capable of transcending our sensual natures. I’m not at all certain that transcending our sensual natures is a worthy goal in the first place. Neither do I agree with Lacan in his assertion that jouissance is only what it is because it is unattainable. That there could ever be an end to desire is unimaginable to me, not because of a failure to achieve the sublime, but because having achieved it, according to one’s own lights, one wants an eternal return.
As for yearning and despairing. It seems to be the human condition. The best to be done is to know it. Or as Cixous puts it:
So let us separate. Let us separate beyond separation. Or else let us love beyond loving. Go further.