December 28, 2012
BUSAN. I’ve been meaning for a while to use this space to write some posts on readings that I’ve been doing for my graduate study. I don’t necessarily want to write “book reviews” but rather highlight some aspects of the material that strikes me as interesting or thought-provoking. It took about a dozen or so books before I found myself sufficiently inspired, so this is the first. Anne Dufourmantelle is a philosopher and practicing psychoanalyst who is also a professor in my program at the European Graduate School. Here are some thoughts on her book Blind Date: Sex and Philosophy.
Dufourmantelle begins by noting that the history of philosophy has not adequately addressed sex. The proposition she offers, therefore, is a meeting of the two, a “blind date” of the book’s title. One of her principle themes is the idea of separation (starting from birth) which, as a result, breeds a desire to connect, to find our other half or some sense of completeness. To be separated is to be alone. We are alone in both life and in death. So we strive to bridge again this "yawning gulf of the vanished Other." (97) What we find in sex is non-symbolic, non-coded connection, free from the structuring of time. It is a compulsion to return to wholeness in an event that transcends the need for understanding. What we find in philosophy is a desire to explore what can never be completed—an endless lack, bogged down by language, that we nevertheless feed.
With Dufourmantelle as the mutual friend setting up this blind date, sex and philosophy find that there is much in common to discuss, particularly in their proclivity toward explorations of obsession and desire. The Socratic dialogues were attempts to reach out and find essences. Philosophy finds itself wandering the horizons of wild thoughts, trying to break through and feed the intellectual urge, and the hope to return with something meaningful. Sex is similarly unsatisfied. Like philosophy, it is a reaching out for the object of desire, an object that, as Freud said, is never contained and in fact not consciously known. Both exist also within the unconscious awareness of death. More on this later.
Dufourmantelle brings a deep knowledge of philosophy to this meeting, but it is her poetic explorations of sexual encounters that give this small book such great weight. She eases into the idea that sex is an event, encapsulated by emotions. It is not so much an act as it is a state of becoming within the event as it occurs. It is a manifestation of the Greek word kairos, the state of being fully present, independent of divisible intervals. "Our desire to merge, to become one, to forget everything with the other finds its ideal in this experience of the kairos. It is the desire for one's very self to dissolve into something else that would be the world itself, its whiteness, a blind space in which you or I have disappeared from the scene together." (41)
This idea of suspending chronos (time as intervals) and entering into pure being is another strong theme. Although she doesn’t make it as explicit as I will here, in philosophy there is language, the code we use to communicate, explain, etc. In that action, that event, there is absence of essence, there is separation from the outset. We try to find truth in relation with other beings, but the means is flawed. The sexual event as kairos is the hope, the desire of transcending this, of finding the extended meeting place of pure truth. "(T)he body tells no lies… In the beginning we do not evade. We are caught up entirely in the living moment of what is beginning right there where we are, and we are led to be still more intensely alive." (43) What I wonder now, reflecting on what I’ve read, is whether Dufourmantelle believes that sex is the actualization of kairos in a way that philosophy is not. Certainly in the moment, sex seems to be closer to transcendence than philosophy. I’m not sure she would agree, but her prose seems to suggest it.
Continuing with her theme of desire, Dufourmantelle addresses sex and philosophy in terms of hunger, and in so doing, places desire in context with and also as distinct from love. Desire is a state of eternally unsatisfied hunger. Love is a satisfaction of hunger, but even with love there is always the risk of eventual indifference or abandonment—again, the unspoken awareness of a possible return to separation. "…[L]oving is our way of responding to the desire to live among the living as we face the certainty of death." (78) Death is, of course, the ultimate separation. Each of us is aware of our eventual end and this contributes, and may in fact dictate, our desirous attachments. "Sex is our only true response to the anguish of death. Making love makes us forget that life is always on the verge of ending and that the body itself belongs just as much to death as to life." (102)
Philosophy is not the only realm that shares these ideas, there are also our ideas of God and the divine. I found myself thinking about how people are drawn to religion for much the same reasons—to cope with the despair of being singular in the world and of our eventual demise. The distinction of course being that religion is something that is easier to contain. Faith is vulnerable to periods of loss, but there is always the notion that God is always accessible and will never leave. There is much more to be found in Blind Date, including a great section on love letters of philosophers, such as from Heidegger to Arendt and the Nietzsche/Salome/Ree love triangle. It’s a real treat to find so much content in such a quick read.
Sex and Philosophy