René Magritte, The Lovers, 1928



Richard Jonathan

Richard Jonathan is the author of the literary novel Mara, Marietta: A Love Story in 77 Bedrooms

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1490 (detail)


Miss Julie, like Hedda Gabler, Carmen and Emily Brontë’s Catherine, has attained the status of a mythic character. In this essay, the second in a series of four on Miss Julie, I will argue that the main reason for this is the distinctive drama of the sexes the play stages. My thesis is that this drama, with its ‘primal scene’ of sexual intercourse—unsettling, ambiguous, stimulating—speaks to our ‘secret self’, that subconscious or preconscious dimension of our being that is perpetually engaged in a struggle to come to terms with the mystery of sex. Given the nature of this thesis, I hold that, just like sex, it would be best to develop it obliquely. To this end, after a concise elaboration of my argument, I will present the epilogue to Sylviane Agacinski’s book, Drame des sexes: Ibsen, Strindberg, Bergman, which sets the stage for an essay by Jessica Benjamin, ‘Sympathy for the Devil: Notes on Sexuality and Aggression, with Special Reference to Pornography’. This essay will shine a light into the workings of your secret self and—via my redirection of your attention here to Miss Julie—that self’s fascination by the disturbing fuck that divides the play in two. The relation of ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ to my thesis hinges on how our imagining or witnessing the play’s ‘primal scene’ stirs our own sexual fantasies and reflections. As for the remainder of the posts in this series, you will recall, if you’ve read post 1, that post 3 will offer a critical comparison of Mike Figgis’ film version of Miss Julie with that of Liv Ullmann, while post 4, the last in the series, will offer a commentary on Philippe Boesman and Luc Bondy’s opera Julie.1


1 – These posts will be online by 30 April 2023.

Gustave Courbet, Lovers in the Country, 1844


I’ve asserted that Miss Julie has become a mythic character because of the distinctive drama the play stages. By ‘mythic’ character I don’t mean a ‘legendary’ or ‘iconic’ character (as pop culture would have it), but rather a character who, simply by being him- or herself, causes us to subordinate reason and proof to memory and imagination, to question our prejudices and doubt our certainties, and to understand that the claims of ‘reality’ do not have universal purchase. All of this is but another way of saying that Miss Julie conducts us to our ‘secret self’, and, thanks to her fuck with Jean, gives us the impetus to access it. This, precisely, is what a ‘mythic character’ does—they enlarge our ‘little life’ by, in this instance, giving us access to our inner world. In terms of my thesis, then, Miss Julie enables us to see that sex is an equation without remainder that nevertheless remains unresolved. This paradox turns, of course, on the discrepancy between ‘conscious’ sex (the tip of the iceberg) and ‘subconscious’ sex (the iceberg’s submerged bulk).

Fernand Khnopff, Marguerite Landuyt, 1896

Indeed, despite the plethora of sociological, psychological, and situational data Strindberg provides about her, Miss Julie cannot be ‘explained away’: if she could, the play, instead of being a perennial favourite around the world, would have lost its interest long ago. There’s something about the girl that draws us to her, and that something has to do with sex. And there’s something about sex that always escapes us, and that something has to do with desire. This is why we take Miss Julie’s hand and let her lead us to our ‘secret self’.1 Indeed, as, Sisyphus-like, we shoulder the rock of understanding up the mountain of sexual mystery, Miss Julie accompanies us part of the way. If the rock is destined to roll back down before we reach the summit, don’t blame it on Strindberg’s heroine, but on the ever-renewed mystery of our own desire.


1 – If you want to associate Miss Julie with a classical myth, there are many at hand. How about that of Cupid and Psyche? That myth, as Freud found, ‘implicitly identifies soul with sexuality, and sexuality with conflict’ (cf. Laurence Coupe, Myth. Routledge, 2009, 2nd edition, 118-19).

Fernand Khnopff, Study of a Woman, 1895

The appeal of the distinctive drama of the sexes Miss Julie stages is due to the fact that the play makes us question all the prejudices Sylviane Agacinski1 argues most of us hold today, namely that in the drama of the sexes solipsism is preferred to relation, gender-identity to sex-as-alterity, and conflict-aversion to conflict-as-stimulus. Just as Freud said to Jung when their trans-Atlantic ship was approaching New York, ‘We are bringing them the plague’, so Miss Julie brings to the ‘comfortably numb’ spectator a dose of stimulating disruption. And this, paradoxically, spectators find appealing, for in their heart of hearts they—at least those who are still alive because they desire—appreciate a helping hand as they shoulder the rock up the mountain. Indeed, truth be told, ‘comfortably numb’, like the middle of the road, is a very boring place to be. And so in the wasteland of ‘modern love’, Miss Julie’s suicide, subsequent to her midnight fuck, mixes in us ‘memory and desire’, and stirs the ‘dull roots’ of our indifference with dew from her fateful dawn. In a nutshell, then, my thesis holds that the ‘primal scene’ of Miss Julie speaks, however obliquely, to our secret self—that self that secretly rebels against ‘modern love’ (as articulated by Sylviane Agacinski in Section 2 below)—and it stirs our own sexual fantasies and reflections (the dynamics of which are articulated by Jessica Benjamin in Section 3 below).


1 – Sylviane Agacinski is a French philosopher who has focused on the politics of sex, the metaphysics of sex, and the drama of the sexes.

Fernand Khnopff, Near the Sea, 1890



From Sylviane Agacinski, Drame des sexes: Ibsen, Strindberg, Bergman (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2008) 201-202.
Translated here by Richard Jonathan.

Everything, in the dominant ideology, repudiates and stigmatizes drama, and the drama of the sexes in particular: individualism, the fashion for gender identity/the denial of sex-as-alterity, and even a dread of conflict itself, considered deleterious. Every contradiction, contemporary thought holds, must be resolved, every conflict and problem solved.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Couple in a Room, 1912

The strictly individualist perspective, confining one and all in their egocentricity, seems to render obsolete the torments of love so widespread before. To be able to procure pleasure for oneself, by whatever means, has become an exclusive quest that has stripped the other sex, and indeed the other tout court, of his or her bewitching—and therefore dangerous—erotic power. Sexual disenchantment makes the other a mere partner, or simply an instrument of one’s excitement. One now has only to pursue the best way of achieving orgasm, including by ‘making use’ of another person. Love becomes an archaic sentiment, almost obscene, as does the giving of oneself in sexual relations. One is also  happy to see, thanks to the laboratory, the links between sexuality and reproduction broken, while hoping that sexuality itself will become entirely mastered technically, liberating one from everything akin to the carnal passions that the drama feeds on. No more love, no more drama. ‘Cool it down.’

Otto Mueller, Couple at Table, 1925

However, I see hardly any possibility of thinking critically about sex without the other, and even less of founding a trouble-free sexuality, or finding the general formula for harmony between man and woman. Is that something to be regretted? I don’t think so. Indeed, peace between man and woman would, perhaps, be even more deadly than war between them. Just as democracy is vitalized by the conflicts that shake it up, so love lives thanks to the enigma of the other and the unbridgeable distance between oneself and another.

Otto Mueller, The Lovers, 1919

The fact of the matter is there is drama, and this drama, with a few variations, plays out again and again, endlessly. We can only glimpse its end if we know the reason for it. But what reason presides over the dissymmetries of which the sexes, in the world of the living, constitute the pre-eminent example? Sexuality, in the sense of sexuation, stamps everyone with their ‘own’ sexual alterity, and the drama of the sexes is also the drama of sex: the upswell of desire and carnal passion makes everyone a stranger to themselves. Sex does not confer an identity but rather the alterity of every being insofar as it is sexed—it is at once the other sex and the other in myself, who desires the other, an other themselves sexuated (capable of desire). The drama of the sexes thus plays out—as well or as badly—between men and between women, with the same imbalances, the same misunderstandings, and the same conflicts as those that take place between a man and a woman (except, of course, for those that concern reproduction).

Tamara de Lempicka, Idyll, 1931

The sexes are elements in a system that turns on desire. Caught up in dynamics that escape them, they have to come to terms with each other. Drama represents the eternally restarting operation of this machine, a machine at once powerful, marvelous, and destined to break down.

Picasso, The Kiss, 1969



Jessica Benjamin


Notes on Sexuality and Aggression, with Special Reference to Pornography

Posted by kind permission of Jessica Benjamin, psychoanalyst; supervisor and faculty member, New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy, New York University

From Jessica Benjamin, Like Subjects, Love Objects: Essays on Recognition and Sexual Difference (Yale University Press, 1995) 175-211.
This is an abridgement of Chapter 6, made on the basis of omitting the paragraphs on metapsychology.
Intertitles added by RJ.



The occasion for these remarks was a conference on pornography, which led me to speculate about the excitement associated with sadistic fantasies and images of sexual violation. Viewing a number of pornographic works, the participants in the conference were compelled to conclude that their awareness of sexual objectification and degradation, even their revulsion, did not exclude fascination and excitement. Indeed, any observers who can tolerate the conflict may note with dismay their own excited responses to fantasies or images of acts that they know would in reality be distasteful, perhaps frightening or even traumatic. The same sexual fantasy may at one moment seem to incarnate some exciting aspect of otherness, at another appear terrifying, at yet another appear only as degrading repetition. The conflict that pornography inspires actually pertains to the realm of sexual fantasy as a whole: Pornography is a particularly sharp form of the disjunction between fantasy and reality, between symbolic representations and real interaction. My interest in this essay was therefore to reach some understanding, beyond the mundane, about this disjunction between sexual fantasy and reality. Such an exploration must necessarily try to illuminate the sadistic component of sexual fantasy and thus reveal something about how aggression becomes implicated in sexuality.

Egon Schiele: Nude Self-Portrait, Squatting, 1916 | Female Semi-Nude, Reclining with Legs Spread (Edith Schiele), 1916

The fact that the sources of sexual excitement in fantasy diverge so widely from the sources in real interaction does not mean, as common wisdom has it, that fantasy is privileged to reveal the truth concealed by outer reality. Such a notion of truth vastly oversimplifies the complicated relationship of wish, fantasy, and reality. It implies that reality ‘is,’ that it has one truth, and that this truth can be known apart from the complex process of psychic representation. For example, some feminist opponents of pornography say that its contents expose the truth about ‘the male compulsion to dominate and destroy that is the source of sexual pleasure for men’1. Not only does this stance imply the existence of an essential masculine nature, which the lifting of cultural repression would expose, it also equates the acts portrayed in pornography with what all men really wish for in their sexual life. It further implies that such wishes are simply what they appear to be: they do not represent any other motives or processes beyond themselves; they are what they are.


1 – Andrea Dworkin, ‘Pornography and Grief’. In Take back the night, ed. L. Lederer. (New York: William Morrow) 289

Egon Schiele, Reclining Male and Female Nude, Entwined, 1913

Of course, Dworkin’s statement also implies that violence, transgression, abomination—all the ‘heterogeneous elements’1 that the Angel in the House declares to be anathema—are alien to and absent from women. Women’s participation in sexual domination, if not explained away as the result of coercion, would mean that women’s nature is as pornography portrays it: submissive, violated. And this conclusion is indeed problematic for feminists. If men inevitably are what they are, then how can women not be what they are? The conventional association of femininity with submission is a ‘truth’ to be confronted, and the most serious of the feminists against pornography, Catherine MacKinnon, has conceded this point. Although her analysis is rather simple, MacKinnon2 has courageously insisted that women do experience sexual pleasure under the current conditions of abuse and ‘dehumanization’; they are not simply abused against their will. She grants that for women ‘subordination is sexualized, the way that dominance is for the male, as pleasure as well as gender identity, as femininity.’ MacKinnon argues with those who would salvage sex by freeing it from the onus of violence: ‘Violence is sex when it is practiced as sex.’ Hence ‘if violation of the powerless is part of what is sexy about sex,’ we must take another look at sexuality.3


1 – Georges Bataille, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, ed. Allan Stoekl (University of Minnesota Press, 1985)
2 – Catherine MacKinnon, Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law (Harvard University Press, 1987)
3 – Ibid. 5-8

Egon Schiele, Two Girls, Lying Entwined, 1915


But MacKinnon does not really take a look at sexuality. She relies on such simple notions as the premise that gender psychology works through ‘social defining’ of men and women. She does not try to unlock the mystery of what makes violation and powerlessness exciting; of how the hierarchy of gender insinuates itself into or ‘discursively constructs’1  sexual pleasure; of how violence can be experienced and practiced as sex. Instead she flattens the most difficult problem into the proposition that ‘violence is sex.’ Because men dominate, they are able to use sexuality as a means of perpetuating control. What sexuality ‘is,’ and why it can be instrumentalized, remain mysteries. MacKinnon’s notion of how sex can be used seems to rest on the unspoken assumption that sexuality ‘is’ a devil, a kind of irresistible temptation, an infinitely manipulable weakness—like hunger in time of famine, which can be exploited to get people to do anything one wants, rather than like appetite, which is cultivated and formed by fantasy. This assessment of sexuality actually slams the door on the provocative question as to how sex can be violence and violence can be sex. What exactly allows sexuality to carry or transmit relations of power, violence, and destruction? What is this ‘thing’ called sex? The collaboration between sexuality and power might somehow be related to the fact that a violation that would be abominable in reality can be pleasurable in fantasy. The disjunction between fantasy and reality must be taken seriously if we are to begin to understand the complexity of sexuality and its inveterate association with violence and revulsion.


1 – Biddy Martin, ‘Feminism, Criticism, and Foucault’. New German Critique 27:3—30, 1980 and Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (NY: Routledge, 1990)

Egon Schiele, Coitus, 1915

The violent character that sexuality assumes in fantasy is not simply the unconscious content coming to light, the opening of Pandora’s box, as early psychoanalytic discussions seemed to imply. In what might be seen as the flip side of Dworkin’s literal-mindedness, psychoanalysts formerly took literally the idea that the lifting of repression revealed an unconscious wish—for instance, that women’s unconscious wish to be ravaged constituted the trauma of rape. This supposition reflected a simple inversion of the notion that people want what they consciously express, that reality lies on the surface of consciousness. It collapsed the distinction between the symbolic meaning expressed by such a wish and its literal enactment, between the symbolic and the concrete, between experiences that can be symbolized and those too painful and traumatic to be symbolically processed. Emphasizing this distinction, Simone de Beauvoir1 pointed out that even if the adolescent girl enjoys the fantasy of being raped, the reality of rape would be traumatic, horrible. The presence of an other who is outside one’s control and can exert power on one’s body is an entirely different experience from any fantasy form of the wish, however frightening. Despite the efforts of feminists to bring the traumatic meaning of real events to the foreground2, psychoanalysis took an inordinate amount of time to begin to grasp the difference between trauma and fantasy. On the other hand, fantasy plays a role in representing and concealing real horror that a simple insistence on reality misses.


1 – Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (NY. Knopf, 1952)
2 – See Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery (NY: Basic Books, 1992) and Jody Davies & Mary Frawley, Treating the Adult Survivor of Childhood Sexual Abuse (NY: Basic Books, 1993).

Egon Schiele, Friendship, 1913

As most psychoanalysts have finally admitted, reported experiences of incestuous abuse often are not imagined but represent real trauma; the effects of real events are usually quite different from those of imagined interactions, even though the latter may constitute efforts to represent less explicit actions. The manifold consequences of abuse, especially dissociative states, and the complexity that these consequences generate in the analytic process, especially in the transference-counter-transference1, are finally receiving serious attention. In light of such efforts, it becomes apparent that what is presumably real is often the most difficult thing for the mind to take in and process symbolically—it is ‘hard to believe.’ The acknowledgment of reality does not mean that fantasy is now entirely reducible to reality, or even that fantasy does not play a role in the individual’s representation of traumatic events, although often the ability to make good use of fantasy is impaired. It means that the ‘truth’ resides not merely in the wish but also in the place of the wish in relation to real events and fantasized objects; that the subject takes a different position toward the one than toward the other; and that the inability to own reality (denial) is as serious a problem as the inability to own fantasy (repression).


1 – Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery (NY: Basic Books, 1992) and Jody Davies & Mary Frawley, Treating the Adult Survivor of Childhood Sexual Abuse (NY: Basic Books, 1993).

Egon Schiele, Reclining Woman, 1917 (detail)

The ability to distinguish fantasy from real events and to use symbolic representation to signify something other than its concrete referent cuts both ways. The anti-pornography movement operates with the same concreteness of thought, in reverse, as did the old psychoanalysts. By equating representations of fantasy with reality, the movement suggests that images of violation are as traumatic as the reality of violent events—when, in fact, those images may be used to represent something different or farther flung. The same false oppositions frame polarized debates in other sexual arenas, so that political discussions of sexual harassment, date-rape, and recovered memory often manufacture impossible choices between paranoia and denial of real abuse. It is necessary, therefore, to protect the distinction between the symbolic and the concrete on two fronts—to sustain simultaneously the respect for unconscious fantasy life and for outer reality, a tension that threatens to break down both in the psychoanalytic movement and in intellectual life as a whole. This tension corresponds to the two main difficulties in dealing with destructiveness: recognizing real danger ‘out there’ and accepting the presence of internal destructiveness.

Egon Schiele, The Green Stocking, 1914


To begin with, then, pornographic representations express not the concrete content of desire but rather a relation between sexual excitement and the realm of fantasy. The character of pornographic representation, especially its sadistic content, charges us to formulate the distinction between reality and fantasy—between being affected by an outside other and being inside the enclosure of one’s own fantasy, between the concrete and the symbolic. The conflicting reactions that pornographic representations generate—arousal and resentment—point to this distinction. They also point beyond the individual to the collective or cultural dimension of such representation as a ‘shared imaginary’ of sexuality. Thus pornography itself, as a kind of social institution or agency, has a liminal status. It contains a direct appeal to a private world of fantasy, and yet it is a source of outside stimulation, which can be felt to manipulate or do violence to the conscious self by stimulating against one’s will, by evoking the unconscious imagery and identifications one has to share with others. Pornography can therefore be felt as a confrontation with some dangerous and exciting otherness, fictive or real, which has the power to create internal excitement, pleasurable and/or repellent. It may be that this otherness is all the more repellent at times because it corresponds to an other that lives within us, making us, as Kristeva put it, ‘strangers to ourselves.’1


1 – Julia Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves (NY: Columbia University Press, 1991)

Egon Schiele, Woman in Black Stockings (Wally Neuzil), 1913


Understanding this confrontation depends, I have been suggesting, not only on how we think about sexuality but also on how we think about the relations between fantasy and reality, inside and outside, self and other. The decisive issue may not be the content of sadism—for we assume that sadistic elements are present in all sexual life—but rather the counterpoint between fantasy and recognition of otherness, especially the other’s subjectivity. My point of departure is Bataille’s2 provocative question: How is eroticism related to death? Why do images of death and violence inspire sexual excitement? This question in turn will lead us to some speculation about the transformation of mental material into bodily, sexual excitement, about what it means that fantasies ‘go into the body.’ Bataille’s reflections on eroticism are in much the same vein as Freud’s portrayal of the struggle between life and death. At the beginning of Death and Sensuality Bataille quotes Sade: ‘There is no better way to know death than to link it with some licentious image.’ Freud’s opinion is quite close to this: the death instinct ‘escapes detection unless its presence is betrayed by its being alloyed with Eros.’3


1 – Adapted by Richard Jonathan from Georges Bataille, Eroticism, tr. Mary Dalwood. (Penguin Books, 2001): 12-13
2 – Georges Bataille, Death and Sensuality (NY: Walker, 1962)
3 – Sigmund Freud, ‘Female Sexuality’ (1931). SE 21:225 – 246. (London: Hogarth, 1961)

Egon Schiele, Woman in Black Stockings, 1913

In Bataille’s thinking, death is a point of reference for the loss of differentiation between self and other: ‘Eroticism opens the way to death. Death opens the way to the denial of our individual lives. Without doing violence to our inner selves, are we able to bear a negation that carries us to the farthest bounds of possibility?’1. By ‘death’ Bataille means not literal death but ‘the fusion of separate objects’ that ends their separate identities, a dissolution of the self. Bataille’s picture is paradoxical: individual islands separated by a sea of death—representing the ultimate oneness—which the isolates must cross to meet one another. It is this crossing that creates sexual excitement: ‘But I cannot refer to this gulf which separates us without feeling that this is not the whole truth of the matter. It is a deep gulf, and I do not see how it can be done away with. Nonetheless, we can experience its dizziness together. It can hypnotize us. This gulf is death in one sense, and death is vertiginous, death is hypnotizing’.2


1 – Georges Bataille, Death and Sensuality (NY: Walker, 1962) 24
2 – Ibid. 12-13

Egon Schiele: Standing Nude with Orange Stockings, 1914 | Self-Portrait in Shirt, 1914


As a psychological category, intersubjectivity refers to the capacity of the mind to directly register the responses of the other. It is affected by whether the other recognizes what we have done and is likewise charged with recognizing the other’s acts. Above all intersubjectivity refers to our capacity to recognize the other as an independent subject. In the mutual exchange (or denial) of recognition, each self is transformed; this transformation is a condition of each subject’s expression (or denial) of her or his own capacities. Whatever breakdowns in recognition occur, as they inevitably do, the primary intersubjective condition of erotic life is that of ‘experiencing the dizziness together.’

Egon Schiele: Self-Portrait with Chinese Lantern Plant, 1912 (detail) | Portrait of Wally Neuzil, 1912 (detail)

Recognition means that the other is mentally placed in the position of a different, outside entity but shares a similar feeling or state of mind. Separate minds and bodies can attune. In erotic union this attunement can be so intense that the separation between self and other feels momentarily suspended: self and other are fused. The sense of losing the self in the other and that of really being known for oneself can be reconciled. This sense of simultaneously losing the self and retaining wholeness, is often called oneness and is often described as the ultimate point of erotic union. The desire for erotic union with another person who is endowed with the capacity to transform the self can be seen as the most intense version of the desire for recognition. When both individuals experience themselves as being transformed by the other, or by what they create in conjunction with the other, a choreography emerges that is not reducible to the idea of reacting to the outside. The experience is one not only of sensual pleasure, which can be felt in a state of aloneness or indifference to the other’s existence, but of co-creation and mutual recognition. In erotic union the point is to contact and be contacted by the other—apprehended as such.

Egon Schiele, Embrace (Lovers II/Man and Woman), 1917


The relevance of this intersubjective dimension becomes evident as we examine the fate of Bataille’s flirtation with death through transgression. Significantly, Bataille draws back from the joint contemplation of the abyss in his text and goes on to present instead the familiar form of dissolution, the dual unity of violator and violated—male and female, of course. In my analysis of erotic domination as exemplified by Story of O1, I argued that this breakdown into complementarity of doer and done to—so taken for granted by Bataille—reflects the inability to sustain the necessary contradiction of differentiation, in which we both recognize the other and continue to assert the self. In this breakdown these two elements of differentiation are split: one self asserts power, the other recognizes that power through submission. The two moments are represented as opposite and distinct tendencies, so that they are available to the subject only as alternatives: each can play only one side at a time, projecting the opposite side onto the other. In the split unity, each partner represents the other’s opposite rather than struggling fully with the other for recognition.


1 – Jessica Benjamin, The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination (NY: Pantheon, 1988). See also EROTICISM IN FICTION: PAULINE RÉAGE.


It is the rigidity of this complementarity that ultimately leads to narrative exhaustion, the moribund outcome of objectification. The  shared confrontation with de-differentiation—that is, the dizzying loss of self in erotic experience—is what counteracts the element of one person’s reducing the other to his (undifferentiated) thing. As the splitting of positions into violator and violated gradually vitiates the shared sensibility, vertigo is replaced by control. The sexual tension diminishes as the master overpowers the other’s subjectivity.1  Loss of tension is the common dynamic of erotic domination and objectification. Thus the split unity of violator and violated eventually reproduces the same deadness and lack of sexual tension that the vertiginous confrontation with death  was meant to overcome. The sea of death can be crossed only by reaching the other—as a being outside omnipotent control.


1 – As Bataille recognized, ‘the slave, by accepting defeat, has lost the quality without which he is unable to recognize the conqueror so as to satisfy him. The slave is unable to give the master the satisfaction without which the master can no longer rest’. Georges Bataille, ‘Hegel in the Light of Hemingway’. Semiotexte 2:2-22, 1976. p. 12

Egon Schiele, Death and the Maiden, 1915

As I have discussed in relation to Winnicott’s theory1, the freedom to fantasize may contribute positively to the metabolizing of aggression; the exercise of that freedom may help to dissipate the sense of unreality that disappointment and rage have engendered. The inner tension of aggression may be modified through a shift in the outer relationship back to mutual understanding, which includes communication of fantasy contents. Rather than bouncing back in retaliation, the other’s persistence in receiving communication gives meaning to the expressive act and so transforms the self’s inner state. The transformation is in the direction that permits the self once again to tolerate the outside, the different. The shift back to mutual understanding, or out of the fantasy of destruction into the reality of survival, re-establishes the tension between two individuals even as it dissipates the tension of aggression within the individual. But when this shift back to intersubjective reality fails, internalization remains the only way to deal with aggression; the turning inward of aggression forms the basis of the fantasy of doer and done to, an inner world of persecutors and victims. The apparent busyness of this inner world does not alter the essential emptiness that is felt when the self assimilates to other or other is assimilated to the self. Deadness and repetition reflect the inability to contact anything outside. In this case internal fantasy replaces rather than complements interaction or exchange with the outside.


1 – See  Chapters 1 and 3 in Jessica Benjamin, The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination (NY: Pantheon, 1988)



This turning inward of aggression when the other fails to survive may be a key to understanding certain forms of sexual fantasy. In my analysis of erotic domination1 I suggest a parallel between Winnicott’s thinking about the destruction of the object and Freud’s discussion of sadomasochism in ‘Instincts and Their Vicissitudes.’ In Freud’s thinking at that time (the period in which he defined the instincts as self-preservation and libido, before the formulation of the death instinct), the infant’s initial posture is that of a primary sadism.2 This sadism is indifferent to the outcome, to whether or not the other is being hurt. Perhaps it is simply a discharge of aggression, before consequences are perceived. The intervening step that leads to the formation of true sadism is that the child internalizes and turns this sadism against him- or herself, in the form of a primary masochism. Finally, once the identification with suffering is in place, the infliction of pain on the other—sadism proper—emerges. In other words, it is only the step of internalization that converts the primary destructive impulse into a wish to harm.


1 – Jessica Benjamin, ‘The Bonds of Love: Erotic Domination and Rational Violence.’ In The Future of Difference, ed. H. Eisenstein & A. Jardine (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1980)
2 – Again, though, I find Eigen’s argument convincing that beneath this primary sadism we can postulate an even more primary experience of ‘stimulus rape,’ producing the inner tension that leads to the initial aggression. However, in this logic aggression is absolutely ineluctable, since there is always more tension than can be somatically and mentally processed, except in death. In keeping with Freud’s later argument in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, escaping tension is the logic behind the death wish, turning the tension outward in aggression the preferred means of escape.


Laplanche1 elaborates this movement from primary sadism to masochism to sadism proper in a suggestive way. He proposes that we call the first step aggression rather than sadism, for initially it is not alloyed with sexuality at all. It becomes alloyed with sexuality only in the second step, at the point where it is internalized as masochism. Thus, only with the second step—masochism—do we have the first sexual position. This turning around on the subject, the move toward reflexivity, is  actually what creates sexuality2. Independently of whether the fantasy itself is of being active or passive, it is central to both sadism and masochism. In both the dominant and the submissive role, the action is internalized and enters the self as fantasy. The process of turning around occurs through the transmutation of aggression into ‘the sexual’—what Laplanche calls fantasmatization—regardless of the fantasy content. In this reflexive process, Laplanche states, ‘the fantasy, the unconscious, and sexuality’ emerge ‘in a single movement.’ This sexuality, he argues, is actually a kind of ‘frenetic anti-life,’ opposed to Eros3.


1 – Jean Laplanche, Life and Death in Psychoanalysis (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1976)
2 – Ibid. 92-102
3 – Ibid. 123-26

Egon Schiele, Self-Portrait (The Yellow Nude), 1910 (detail)

Although I may be taking liberties with Laplanche’s intentions, I believe that in his theory of the creation of sexuality as a process of fantasmatization he is describing something similar to Winnicott’s theory of destruction and survival. Of course, he is working with the language of instinctual tension as the property of the monad, and so we are once again required to translate. But his novel reading of the meaning of sadism suggests an important point of intersection with the idea of the destruction of the object, one that leads to a new understanding of sexuality. We might refer to what Laplanche calls sexuality as ‘the sexual’—a sexuality that is not Eros but seems closer to what Bataille usually means by eroticism.1 We might suppose that fantasmatization means a process of symbolically re-turning aggression into one’s body, where it is converted into a source of pleasure—a reprocessing of bodily tension in the imaginary body. This conversion of aggression is the essential  mechanism for the creation of the realm of sexual fantasy. This realm of fantasy then relates to the ‘subjectively conceived object,’ as opposed to the independent object who has survived destruction and can be loved—even if both objects are the same person.


1 – For Bataille (1962), the juxtaposition is between sexuality as something purely animal and eroticism as that which involves our encounter with death. See Les Larmes d’Eros.

Egon Schiele, Self-Portrait with Lowered Head, 1912

Eros, as Laplanche, following Freud, implies, is about something other than the sexual; it is about life as opposed to death, about contacting the other. Again, this does not mean that Eros designates some purified relationship to the other that is free of aggression or hate. Quite the contrary, Eros, like ‘the sexual,’ has its own way of taking up aggression and sexuality—of balancing recognition and destruction. But the erotic moment is that in which the other survives destruction, is not wholly assimilable to one’s mental product. It is about the encounter of two subjects that moves through omnipotence to recreate tension, that includes mutual recognition or the sharing of mental states. But such definitions do not mean that ‘the sexual’ and the erotic can be teased apart, for they generally occur simultaneously.

Egon Schiele: Male Nude with Red Loincloth, 1914 | Kneeling Semi-Nude, 1917


I would like to consider the idea that the sadomasochistic themes so common in fantasy and in cultural representations of gender, especially pornography, are the logical culmination of the turning inward of action and the creation of fantasmic sexuality, ‘the sexual.’ Ultimately, they are a means of dealing with encapsulation in omnipotence in the absence of intersubjective containment of aggression, loss, or trauma leading to unrepresentable psychic pain. This absence has resulted in a disproportionate disappearance of the outside other. In its place appears the objectified ‘subjectively conceived’ object, a fantasmic being that does not solve the problem of ‘waste disposal.’ We might say, then, that the pornographic use of sadomasochistic fantasy reflects an attempt to turn outward a sexuality that is already turned in on itself. Like the third step in Freud’s discussion of sadomasochism, it follows upon a turning inward. It is a reaction to the unpleasant inner tension associated with the absence of outer tension—a state we call boredom—or to the unmanageable surfeit of tension we call rage, which perhaps marks the place of the unrepresentable pain and loss that must be enacted through the imagery of bodily pain. In particular, directing aggression toward and inflicting pain on the female body serves a double purpose: substituting for the intersubjective container of communication and representation, and revenge against the mother for failing to respond. Sexual boredom is frequently the reason given for an interest in pornography. But the dilemma then becomes how to turn back outward when there is no outside, when both subject and object exist only within the capsule of omnipotence, of fantasy. This is where transgression comes in, the attempt to create a substitute form of outsideness by exposing the inner, private, autoerotic components to a fantasied public, to an observer that is neither subject nor object of the fantasy. The spectator creates the sense of outsideness, the consumer is the outside other to his own fantasy, which is enacted on the screen or the page before him.

Egon Schiele: Self-Portrait in Black Cloak, Masturbating, 1911 |  Black-Haired Girl with Raised Skirt, 1911

This transgressive breakthrough between inside and outside can become simply another loop in the circuit of doomed efforts to reach some live connection, some externality. The point of such contact is, of course, discharge—discharge of aggression, evacuation of toxic elements, and embodiment of the pain or degradation that cannot be encompassed by the self. Discharge into an outside that does not exist in mental representation is impossible; some tension with the outside is required to produce physical discharge. Lacking the opportunity to rid the self of aggression, the subject transmutes it into sexual discharge; autoeroticism affords a substitute behavior that seemingly does not require an outside other. Whereas in infancy the regulation of internal tension states has to occur through the direct transformational action of self or other, the pornographic subject can partially use the symbolic level for transformation and can identify with representations of bodily activity. In another sense, however, his or her use of images bears comparison with infantile self-regulation through auto-erotic self-stimulation. The use of symbolism in pornography is incomplete; it does not serve to release tension without physical stimulation and discharge (as, for instance, the close of a narrative may produce emotional discharge, catharsis, through identification). Indeed, the purpose of pornography is to use but attenuate symbolic expression, to evoke excitement that can be released through physical self-stimulation. What this suggests is a kind of interruption in the symbolic processing—again, not primarily of sexuality but of aggression. We may ask whether, as Laplanche implies, this interruption is a derivative of joining excitement to the fantasmatic.1


1 – See Robert Stoller, Perversion: The Erotic Form of Hatred (NY: Pantheon, 1975).

Egon Schiele, Two Girls on Fringed Blanket, 1911


In the absence of intersubjective space, symbolic capacities collapse: actions become things, and images of actions become things. If the consumer of pornography takes the image as an occasion for physical discharge, so the opponents of pornography likewise collapse representation and action. Anti-pornographers say, in effect, ‘These images make me feel bad,’ rather than ‘I feel bad when I see this because I identify with the image of myself as a degraded object.’ Or even, ‘Because of my identification, because I am moved by such things and they do not leave me cold, I should at least be free to avoid having to see them on public display.’ Instead, the argument has been posed in terms of ‘real’ effects. The anti-pornography campaign has said, ‘I cannot take this to be symbolic; it is the same to me as if the act were actually being performed upon me.’ Indeed, for those people who have suffered abusive and traumatizing violence, it is not surprising that the space of symbolization has been destroyed as well, that the image conveys the threat of actuality. Both pornography and anti-pornographers operate on the basis of the symbolic equation, in which what is represented in the image is not symbolic but real: the controversy is only about whether the ‘thing’ is sex or violence. The symbol is the thing symbolized; the representation itself is violence. The self feels coerced by the thing, deprived of subjectivity by the objectifying image. As a result of the foreclosure of the symbolic space, representations of violence undertaken with the artistic intent of evoking meaningful reflection cannot be discriminated from violence meant to excite coercively.

Egon Schiele, The Poet (Self-Portrait), 1911

But if the same underlying structure—the symbolic equation—underlies both real acts of symbolic violence and the pornographic representation, this does not make action and representation exactly the same1. Violence is violence when it is practiced as violence, to paraphrase MacKinnon. Real violence cannot be limited to and contained by the specular relationship to sexual excitement; it exceeds representation. Pornography—with some exceptions—limits one to the image, the performance, the simulated deed. Pornographic excitement may be an attenuated use not only of symbolization but also of the transitional space. It forecloses the space between symbol and object and makes the represented object appear to be the ‘thing’ that evokes excitement, but the thing is precisely not real. In pornographic sex, fantasies are not contained as symbolic representations in the subject’s mind, they are routed via symbolic equation from the object directly to physical discharge. But the sexual act that brings about the discharge (most commonly, masturbation) is seldom a replica of the image that generates the excitement.


1 – Robert Stoller, Observing the Erotic Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985)

Egon Schiele: Girl in Chemise and Garters, 1917 | Self-Portrait in Yellow Vest, 1914

Speaking more generally, what does this analysis of attenuated symbolization say about the sadistic content of pornography and the proximity of aggression and sexuality? The point cannot be to ‘get rid of’ dangerous fantasies; rather, it must be to contain and transform them through symbolization in the intersubjective space. My aim here is not to analyze sadism as if it were primarily or exclusively the property of pornographic fantasy—for we have already seen that aggression and fantasmatization are constitutive of sexual life. Rather, the point might be to distinguish between pornographic representation, which operates on the level of the symbolic equation, and forms of expression that provide fuller symbolic representation. In effect, while symbolization promotes the movement outward—the vector toward exchange with the outside (whether interpersonal communication or artistic sublimation)—the symbolic equation maintains the inward movement of fantasmatization, in which only discharge allows release.

Egon Schiele: Seated Woman with Bent Knee, 1917 | Self-Portrait with Outstretched Arms, 1911


We may now return to the question raised by the shared confrontation with the abyss, the gulf that separates one subject from another. In effect, it is the acceptance of this separation that makes shared contemplation possible, and it is with this acceptance that the erotic, the outward vector, is associated. Still, having seen the role of sexual fantasmatization in pornography, we might wish to know how ‘the sexual’ and the erotic come together. Once we accept Laplanche’s idea of the simultaneous formation of ‘the sexual,’ fantasy, and the unconscious, we cannot assume that there is any sexuality, any erotic relation, free of them. Rather (and this is the essence of what Freud discovered), sexuality—as a major dimension of the psyche—is necessarily imbued with and constituted by the fantasmic elements of ‘the sexual.’

Egon Schiele, Nude Male Torso, 1910 | Male Nude Propped on Left Elbow, 1910

This understanding allows us to see that it is not simply the particular content of fantasy that makes some sexuality erotic and other sexuality pornographic. Certainly, the content of sexual fantasy is symptomatic of the way the problem of destruction has been shaped for the individual, of the vicissitudes of his self-other relations. But it is the relationship between the person and the fantasy, the fantasy and its form of expression, that makes the difference. Speaking more generally, what distinguishes the erotic—in interaction or representation—is the existence of an intersubjective space that both allows identification with the other and recognizes the non-identity between the person, the feeling, and the ‘thing’ (action) representing it. We cannot say that sadomasochistic fantasy is inimical to or outside the erotic, for where do we find sexuality that is free of the fantasy of power  and surrender? Would sexuality exist without such fantasy? There is no erotic interaction without the sense of self and other exerting power, affecting each other, and such affecting is immediately elaborated in the unconscious in the more violent terms of infantile sexuality. (For example, a woman’s fantasy of devouring her lover emerges in a dream, in which the visual image of a fox chasing a rabbit is followed by an auditory expression, the words said almost lovingly: ‘I’d like to drink your blood.’) But what makes sexuality erotic is the survival of the other throughout the exercise of power, which in turn makes the expression of power part of symbolic play.

Egon Schiele: Portrait of Edith Schiele, Seated, 1918 (detail) | Self-Portrait with Raised Left Hand, 1915 (detail)

Eros can play with, rather than be extinguished by, the destruction wrought by fantasy: when the experience of union (fantasized, perhaps, as devouring or being consumed) can be contained symbolically and does not destroy the self; when sharing and attunement are not destroyed (‘ruined’ or ‘spoiled’) by the other’s outsideness and difference; when separate minds can share similar feelings. Eros unites us and in this sense overcomes the sense of otherness that afflicts the self in relation to the world and its own body. But this transcendence is possible only when one simultaneously recognizes the separateness of some outside body in all its particular sensuality, with all its particular difference. If real others actually engage in violent, traumatizing acts, then the symbolic capacity becomes our worst nightmare. Only when real others survive without retaliating, let alone attacking, is there safety in the potential space of symbolization. Only then is there sufficient separation between the object and our reaction to it, and only then does symbolization free us from the concrete. Otherwise the widening of our identifications stops short of full symbolism and remains in the stage of symbolic equations, in which the symbol is the thing symbolized. This leads not to freedom but to the danger that images come alive, symbolic ‘things,’ will make us feel without even touching us. In such a world of demonic objects, sexuality can appear to be a devil; it becomes a terrifying force through which, as MacKinnon implies, we can be made to do anything—compelled to submit to destruction or to destroy in order to be rid of dangerous impulses that find no symbolic space for expression.

Egon Schiele: Seated Female Nude, Raised Right Arm, 1910 | Self-Portrait, Arm Twisted above Head, 1910


Not the violence of the images themselves but the closing of the space between the object and its representation in order to compel a reaction makes the pornographic different from full symbolizing.1 The whole point of pornography is to make you feel excited (‘the devil made me do it’). The reduction of the symbolic to ‘things’ that are identical with the symbols—‘sex is violence’—captures both the pornographers and their opponents in the world of frightening objects. Ironically, then, pornographers appeal to a right of free expression that they cannot exercise; their form of revolt against inhibition reaffirms the very lack of freedom for symbolic, erotic play. However, to the extent that the anti-pornographers deny the distinction between pornography and symbolic play in artistic representation—a distinction that lies not in content but in form—they share the view of a psychic world of coercive forces, in which objects incarnate rather than symbolize power. The fantasmic turning inward that makes aggression into its counterpart, ‘the sexual,’ can be experienced as benign only in the space of intersubjectivity, whether with a real or an imagined other. But as Segal herself points out,2 the line between symbolic equations and symbolization is a continuum, not a boundary. The distinction between fantasmic sexuality and symbolic play of eros is only a conceptual one. For in ‘real’ sexual life, the distinction between the sexual and the erotic is not so easily upheld. In the abstract, we can agree with Freud that Eros is directed outward, toward the other; this places Eros in opposition to the turning inward of the sexual. For the sexual is the turning away from the world and even from one’s own body sensuality, both of which become absorbed in the process of fantasmatization. Ever ambiguous, sexuality at once expresses this process and forms the most powerful conduit of erotic desire, desire for the other.


1 – What I mean by ‘full symbolizing’ would not, I think, correspond to Lacan’s symbolic order alone, but to an integration of the Imaginary with the Symbolic, which recognizes the origins of the latter in the former and allows the transition from one to the other to be a ‘useful’ space.
2 – Hannah Segal, ‘Notes on Symbol Formation. International Journal  of Psychoanalysis 38:391-397 (1957)

Egon Schiele: Nude Girl (Gertrude Schiele), 1910 | Black Nude (Self-Portrait), 1910


We could consider the distinction between the sexual and Eros as coincident with two hypothetical poles of sexuality, the one aligned with omnipotence, death, and fantasy, the other with recognition, life, and reality. Yet to this we would have to object that, as Freud says, Eros and death seldom appear separately. Thus, the converse of his conclusion is also true: that what we know about Eros is often what presents itself to us alloyed with its opposite—death, the destructive impulse. For the idea of an object that can survive destruction also provides that destruction must have its say, that fantasy must endeavor to devour reality in order for the subject to taste the difference between them. And reality must survive the devouring of the unconscious in order to be more than mere repression, and thus to truly include the discovery of an other. Furthermore, the idea of the destruction of the object suggests the indispensable role of aggression or negation in the subject’s effort to reach another. The underlying argument about pornography and violence among feminists is as much about the necessity, the place, of aggression as it is about sexuality. The anti-pornographers are in combat with aggression, they disavow it, they wish it to belong to men. They are not aware that disowning aggression means never tasting the difference, never giving up omnipotence, remaining in the internal world of ‘subjective conceived’ fantasy objects. Of course, the conscious and unconscious effort is to stay connected to the idealized good object, the good mother, nature. But only a good that survives hate can be experienced as an unthreatened, precarious good, and thus not requiring constant defense. For without successful destruction there can be no escape from the realm of idealization and fantasy, and hence no sexuality that is not literal and concrete, in its own way captive to the symbolic equation as much as pornography; no sexuality that includes recognition, and so no confrontation with difference and outsideness that is not violent and traumatic.

Egon Schiele: Kneeling Male Nude (Self-Portrait), 1910 | Self-Portrait with Bare Stomach, 1911


In intersubjective terms, aggression can be seen as an affect that becomes linked to one manifestation of a primary direction of the self. Aggression, like sexuality (before it becomes ‘the sexual’), is a given (and in that sense a Trieb), a blind motoric impulse. The two become intertwined in the sexual. But aggression also, perhaps first, participates in destruction or negation: the moment of self-assertion, directed toward the other, the counterpart to recognition. Any act of the subject toward the other that has an impact ‘negates’ the other, breaks into the other’s absolute identity with her- or himself in such a way that the other is no longer exactly what she or he was a moment before. This change in the other constitutes the recognition the subject seeks—it can be sufficient to satisfy the aggressive tension. This process of negation, acting on the other, and being recognized—Winnicott’s destruction with survival—is initially the opposite of the turning in on the self. Negation, I have argued, is usually directed first toward the other and becomes internalized only when the other cannot receive or transmute or contain, above all recognize, the subject’s act. In erotic exchange, the other does receive and recognize the impact of the subject. If ‘the sexual’ arises as the negative of Eros, it is because Eros—the striving toward the other, the process of recognition—cannot succeed alone in containing all aggression; some must turn inward to evolve within the sphere of omnipotence.

Egon Schiele: Portrait of a Woman with Orange Hat, 1910 | Self-Portrait with Eyelid Pulled Down, 1910

Aggression, like sexuality, is thus not necessarily associated with death or even with ‘the sexual’ but can serve more than one master. As the inextricable counterpoint to recognition, destruction is not the  negation of Eros but its complement. Thus Eros cannot, need not, evade aggression, which so often fuels destructiveness. Rather, we might rethink Freud’s remark at the close of Civilization and Its Discontents, that ‘now it is to be expected that the other of the two ‘Heavenly Powers,’ eternal Eros, will make an effort to assert himself in the struggle with his equally immortal adversary’1. Because there can be no useful experience of destruction and survival without aggression, the question is really how its immortal adversary, Eros, can inspire aggression to assume its most creative form, destruction survived. In light of Freud and Bataille, we might say that when it is allied with Eros, destruction helps us to cross the sea of death that separates us. The task of Eros may be, then, to summon back to the ‘Heavenly Powers’ its cast off foe, ‘the spirit that negates,’ who is, as Goethe’s Mephistopheles tells us, ‘Part of that force which would / Do evil evermore, and yet creates the good.’


1 – Sigmund Freud, ‘Civilization and Its Discontents’ (1930) SE 23. London: Hogarth, 1953) 145

Egon Schiele: Kneeling Girl (Gertrude Schiele), 1910 | Self-Portrait with Peacock Waistcoat, 1911




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