In 20th century and contemporary film and television, the experience of orgasm is almost invariably depicted by images of waterfalls and fireworks. The classic example is probably the scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (1955) in which a romantic dialogue between the two main characters, played by Grace Kelly and Cary Grant, is cross-cut with images of multicoloured fireworks. Many recent productions present analogous images. In The Notebook (2004) by Nick Cassavetes, the two lovers fall into one another’s arms in a pouring rain; and massive waterfalls frame crucial romantic encounters in several popular movies, such as Roger Donaldson’s Cocktail (1988), Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans (1992) and James Cameron’s Avatar (2009). They allude to sexual climax, which thus appears as an explosive or overflowing event that falls upon us like natural upheavals and mechanical eruptions.
This echoes the literary and art historical portrayals of orgasm as ‘ecstasy’ or ‘ex-stasis’ in its various registers – aesthetic, religious-spiritual and existential. The images of overflow and explosion provide a naturalistic interpretation of the core idea of stepping outside oneself and transcending one’s limits that has fascinated Western culture since antiquity.
One type of the ecstatic experience of self-transcendence is visually captured by Italian Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini in his statue The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa (1647–1652), nestled inside the Cornaro Chapel of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome. Wrapped in the fabrics of her own robe, Theresa collapses, throwing her head back and closing her eyes. A cupid-like angel figure gently holds her up by one corner of her robe while aiming a golden arrow at her heart. The dynamically folding fabrics of Theresa’s own robe surrounding her from all sides and the bronze rays that rain down on her from an unseen source above convey the experience of ecstasy. The religious setting does not compromise the sensuous qualities of the scene but on the contrary draws attention to the fact that transcendence is involved in all forms of ecstasy - religious, aesthetic, erotic and sexual. A very similar image of a dynamic whirlpool of passion is presented in more prosaic form by Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005): in a freezing cold night, two lovers are wrapped in multiple layers of moving fabrics that issue from their clothes, sleeping bags, tent canvases.
"The images of overflow and explosion provide a naturalistic interpretation of the core idea of stepping outside oneself and transcending one’s limits that has fascinated Western culture since antiquity."
In philosophical terms, these pictorial and verbal imageries can be understood by analysing the phenomenon of flow. In his Phenomenology of Perception, the French philosopher Maurcie Merleau-Ponty draws attention to the dual powers of flowing elements. He points out that on the one hand flows tend to spread out boundlessly, in several directions, but on the other, they also have the capacity to carry themselves like a stream in one direction, yet without limits. Crucially orgasm involves both forms of sensuous expanse and can thus be characterised as a multidirectional flow.
Merleau-Ponty argues, however, that it is not just particular experiences that have the character of ‘flow’. Rather, what is flowing is temporality itself as a common structure of our way of experiencing the world. Experience is constantly in the dynamic state of formation and generation, and at each moment it presses itself toward the next moment and further toward an open future. It always proceeds, completely irrespective of its specific contents, as a flow. So, in addition to the sensuous flow of pleasure across the climaxing body, characteristic of orgasms, there is the flow of time itself, shared by all experiences.
"Orgasmic experience does not manifest the threefold structure of experienced time."
This argument allows us to pay heed to another aspect of orgasmic enjoyment: it has the capacity to interrupt the ordinary course of life and throw us outside of time. Most other experiences clearly display a threefold temporal order of past, present and future, carrying traces from earlier experiential life and referring to an anticipated future. But orgasmic experience does not manifest the threefold structure of experienced time, nor does it settle in the temporal order of our practical lives. It dislocates the experiencing subject temporarily and seems to raise her above time or press her underneath its surface.
In this respect, orgasm parallels fainting, loss of consciousness, dreamless sleep and, ultimately, also death. The French use the term ‘la petite mort’ for it, referring to the state of weakening awareness or fading presence which essentially involves the disruption of the temporal flow of consciousness. Artistic inspiration, divine illumination and certain forms of insanity or madness offer further analogue states. In all such frames of mind, we divert from the temporal order of our normal lives, from their practical and social engagements, and transcend or submerge – not just our own personalities – but time itself.
Phenomenologists have also drawn attention to another structure characteristic to human eroticism. In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir argues that our expressions of sexual excitement and satisfaction are ambiguous and multiply so. Human desire is not a unidirectional urge stagnated or fixed on its object but instead fluctuates in a cyclic and spiral manner, constantly rising and falling, ebbing and flowing. Desire does not aim at its object like hunger and thirst do, nor does it intend satisfaction in the manner in which practical projects set their goals. Rather than proceeding straightforwardly from one point to another, erotic desire is able to stay or linger in the state of expectation and anticipation and develop, grow and intensify in this in-between position.
Moreover, sexual satisfaction is an unstable state. It does not stand opposite to the desire that seeks it but carries desire at its core. This holds even for the state of total gratification. In this respect, sexual satisfaction resembles a smoldering fire: it can be set ablaze by one single spark, be it a look, a touch, a smell, a word, an image, a memory.
"The intentionality of feminine desire is structurally analogous to the experience of disgust."
Beauvoir adds more ambivalence to this general picture by arguing that we can distinguish between two main forms of human desire. She calls these ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’. Whereas the masculine form of desire responds to objects that simply appear as attractive, the feminine form responds to objects that draw as forcefully but at the same time suggest we should stay at a distance. Thus understood, feminine desire involves an additional duality. It is as if the desired object would send a double message to the desiring subject: come but guardingly. So, the object does not simply appear as positive but also as suspicious. If this holds, then some forms of human desire are also ambiguous in the valuation of their objects.
The intentionality of feminine desire, then, is structurally analogous to the experience of disgust. The two experiences are of course very different in their values and functions, but what is similar is that both involve, in different measures, two contrary momentums: on the one hand, the impetus to move toward the object and on the other – to stay away. Whereas disgust orders us to keep distance but still stay focused, feminine desire orders us to approach but with caution.
Phenomenologist Aurel Kolnai’s classic On Disgust (1929) presents the emotion of disgust as a mixture of forceful repulsion and mild fascination. ‘Macabre allure’ is what Kolnai calls the dual force by which disgusting things and processes influence us, provoking our revulsion but at the same time suggesting that we should study them in more detail. Disgust-elicitors command us to eject, expel and distance ourselves, but concurrently they captivate our interest and order us to fix our gaze upon them. We are drawn to inspect and scrutinize their sensible qualities and invited to learn more.
Beauvoir’s account of feminine desire echoes disgust in its mixed nature: forceful currents of attraction are confronted with dim counter currents. If this holds, then feminine desire would have the structure of a rip current which throws its rafters in contrary directions.
"‘Feminine desire’ is not a desire experienced by women but a cautious or hesitant mode of desiring."
This duality of experience is forcefully pictured by the ball scene in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina (2012): the voluptuously dressed guests of the party waltz around the dance hall creating a whirlpool of surging silk and velvet; Karenina and Vronsky float in the current like two leaves, one white and the other black; their fingers entwine as branches and then separate again; their bodies press against one another and then part, forward and backward, round and round. The movement proceeds in constant alternation till its growing intensity finally swamps the lovers and raises them high up.
Both Vronsky and Karenina experience feminine desire, in Beauvoir’s terms. Indeed, masculine and feminine forms of desire are not distinct attributes of the male and female sex respectively.
Beauvoir’s original analysis suggests such a division but her definitions of these two forms of desire are free from all references to the biological sex, instead focusing on modes or manners of relating, and so do not require that masculinity associates with men and femininity with women. What is at issue in ‘feminine desire’ is not a desire experienced by women but a cautious or hesitant mode of desiring; and correspondingly masculine desire is not the desire experienced by men but the desire of the emphatic or decisive. Both modes of desire can be experienced by both men and women. Moreover, any person is able to experience desire in both the feminine and masculine mode, and sometimes even with the same partner.
Phenomenological analyses thus illuminate the complexity of human desire and orgasm. They show that sexual desire is often more complicated than other desires in its different forms, tensions and counter forces. The dynamics of desire is very different from the dynamics of other human needs and projects, however urgent and intense they may be.
Orgasm as a concrete bodily and sensuous fulfilment of desire is not the endpoint of desire. Rather than terminating, it saturates and brings desire into a dormant state, to be awakened again by the desired object or a memory or trace of it.
Desire, orgasm and its experiential similarities to spiritual forms of ecstasy are not just probabilities of chemical reactions or neural firings. Instead, they are human potentialities that need imagination to be activated and cultivated.