The Impossibility of Sex in the Arts
The masters never said it would be easy
On February 7, 2005, The New Yorker ran a striking cover. The black-and-white drawing shows a crowd of people, with red lines indicating each person’s line of sight, and many of the people are looking at someone who is looking at someone else who is looking at someone else and so on around the cover. Some of them appear flirtatious. It’s a fascinating theme that has also appeared in the finest works of art.
The Spice: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Sometimes the effect of this theme is playful, as in Summer by French artist Nicholas Lancret. This painting shows peasants holding hands and dancing in a clearing on the edge of town. Nearby, a man and woman sit on a bale of hay in intimate conversation. The immediate impression is carefree, yet body language betrays a disturbance.
Bodies bend at odd angles, necks crane, and the eyes…follow the eyes. The men are all besotted with one woman or another, but the women in the circle have all turned to look at the couple on the hay. The man over there is desperately coaxing his companion, but her eyes are on one of the dancers, a man who gazes longingly back. Here, at least, we have a pair of lovers in the making.
This painting adorns the cover of an old record I have of Felix Mendelssohn’s incidental music for William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1605). In this comedy, Hermia is in love with Lysander, but she’s supposed to marry Demetrius, who’s her friend Helena’s ex, an ex for whom Helena still has a thing. Matters get worse when fairies serially misapply a love potion. Everyone, including the fairy queen Titania, falls for the wrong person. There’s even tension between Theseus and Hippolyta, who are days away from their wedding. It would seem that falling into each other’s eyes is anything but simple.
Psychologists have ideas pertaining to this. My favorite is objet petit a, which comes from Jacques Lacan. It means the object of desire, what you really want, and it’s unobtainable. It’s often described as a hole that’s built into you and can’t be filled, only circled. You think you want that prestigious job or another Iced Sugar Cookie Almondmilk Latte, or a lover like Lily James or Michael B. Jordan, but if you get it, you’ll still find yourself searching. That isn’t all bad, however, because it drives us to new pursuits.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream ends well, with everyone looking forward to a life of bliss with their partners. Modern research tells us, however, that the thrill of love lasts a few years at most and after that it’s hard work usually ending in breakup. Objet petit a is the spice of love, but it’s also the bane.
The Bane: Salomé
Oscar Wilde’s one-act play Salomé (1891) develops a tale from the Bible into a maelstrom of misplaced desire. The captain of the guard looks admiringly upon Salomé, who is the stepdaughter of King Herod and the daughter of Herod’s wife Herodias. The princess, a real ball of fire, is enamored of Herod’s prisoner John the Baptist. Meanwhile, Herod salivates over his own stepdaughter, especially when she dances, thereby displeasing his wife. It’s a pessimistic take, if not on love, then on lust.
Unlike in Shakespeare’s comedies, peril laces the circle of desire. After all, this is a tragedy. At the beginning, a page warns the captain of the guard about his male gaze:
“You are always looking at her. You look at her too much. It is dangerous to look at people in such a fashion. Something terrible may happen.”
Similar warnings recur, making clear that lust, even when merely looking, requires caution.
It ends terribly. The guard stabs himself, John the Baptist gets beheaded, and Herod orders his heavies to kill Salomé with their shields. The body count is Shakespearean but takes only one act to get there.
Khaos Diktator Design presented a grisly take on related themes in its cover art for heavy metal band Devourment’s album Obscene Majesty (2019). It invites interpretation while remaining ambiguous. Central to the work is a dismembered classical statue. Around it lie women in distress as a man wields an arm impaled on a spike. A head on a platter is in the foreground, an obvious nod to the tale of Salomé, but what is this painting saying? Is this misogyny, which is an accusation often cast at brutal death metal bands, or something else?
I believe the key is in the disturbing lyrics of the song “Truculent Antipathy.” A metaphor is at work as they tell of a man committing horrible acts against a woman only to then experience similar acts inflicted upon him by a woman, or as the lyrics summarize, “Misandry rules misogyny.” This strikes me as a fair assessment, although I’m sure many would demur, of gender politics today: everybody at everybody else’s throat.
Does it have to be that way? In L’Etourdit (1973), Lacan famously explored the idea that “There is no such thing as a sexual relationship.” I view this as a comment on the different psychological makeups that people have, resulting in their ultimate incompatibility. No two individuals, whether of same or differing sex or gender, are a perfect match. Despite my fondness for Lacanian concepts, I hold out hope that two individuals may, despite differently shaped psyches, be a perfect fit.
After all, it works out for some, doesn’t it? Enduring loves may not always be pretty, but sometimes, as with Gabriel von Eisenstein in Johann Strauss’s operetta Die Fledermaus (1874), the tempting paramour behind the mask at the ball turns out to be your spouse and you’re more than happy to end up back home together.