Lars von Trier, Nymphomaniac | Claude Monet, Nymphéas bleus et Saules (detail), 1919

Art & Individuality

To undertake a voyage of discovery in pursuit of a vision, to risk one’s skin in the quest for renewal and then, in the end, to deliver a work that sings—only the artist’s individuality triumphing over the collective’s mediocrity can achieve this. In this series I will honour works of art that, through their singularity, testify to the triumph of individuality.

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Lars von Trier, Nymphomaniac

Stacy Martin as young Joe

Charlotte Gainsbourg as Joe

All images (except for the two of Lars von Trier) are screenshots from the Artificial Eye DVD of Nymphomaniac (The Director’s Cut), 2015


Stacy Martin; Shia LaBoeuf as Jerome Morris

One drop of sweetness in the heart, and then
A cold anxiety.

They press their bodies close, join lips and tongues,
Their breath comes faster, faster. All in vain,
For they can gather nothing, they cannot
Effect real penetration, be absorbed
Body in body, utterly. They seem
To want to do just this. God knows they try,
Cling to each other, lashed in Venus’ chains
Till finally, all passion spent, they die,
Relaxed completely from that violence,
Melted, undone; so, for a little time,
The furious fire subsides. But it will blaze,
Break out again in madness, and they’ll seek
Again whatever it is they want to reach,
Find no prescription, no device to stop
This rank infection, so they peak and pine,
Confused and troubled by their secret wound.


Lucretius, De rerum natura
Book IV, lines 1060-61 and 1005-16

From Lucretius, The Way Things Are: The ‘De rerum natura’ of Titus Lucretius Carus,
tr. Rolfe Humphries (Indiana University Press, 1969)



1. Desire is the essence of man, it is the heart of human existence.

2. There is a fundamental incompatibility between desire and speech.

3. Desire is essentially desire to be the object of another’s desire.

4. Desire is always the desire for something else, since it is impossible to desire what one already has. The object of desire is continually deferred: As soon as it is attained, it is no longer desirable, and the subject’s desire fixes on another object.

5. Desire can never be satisfied; it is constant in its pressure, and eternal. The realization of desire does not consist in being ‘fulfilled’, but in the reproduction of desire as such.

Extracted and adapted from Dylan Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis  (London: Routledge, 1996), pp. 36-39. The other quotes from Lacan in this post are also from this source.

Jacques Lacan is a French psychoanalyst who ‘invented a way of thinking about mental life and its vicissitudes that is at once Socratic and technical, speculative and precise, a way of thinking that focuses minute attention on the details of subjective experience in order to discover an orderliness in both the depths of interior life and the heat of interpersonal relationships’.

Michael Vincent Miller, foreword to Jacques Hassoun, The Cruelty of Depression: On Melancholy,  tr. David Jacobson (Adisson-Wesley, 1997)

Stacy Martin

One drop of sweetness in the heart, and then a cold anxiety: Lucretius here is talking about love. Joe, the heroine of Nymphomaniac, says: ‘For me, love was just lust with jealousy added; everything else was total nonsense. For every hundred crimes committed in the name of love, only one is committed in the name of sex’. For Jacques Lacan, ‘to love is, essentially, to wish to be loved’. He theorizes that love occurs in the realm of the imaginary (along with other illusions such as wholeness and autonomy) while sex is rooted in the real, that is to say in the domain of ‘that which resists symbolization absolutely’, and as such is opposed to meaning. Moreover, for Lacan, ‘sex, in opposing itself to sense, is also, by definition, opposed to relation, to communication’. Is it any wonder, then, that Nymphomaniac is a film about solitude?

Shia Laboeuf and Stacy Martin

Lars von Trier, as I wrote in my acrostic on The Element of Crime, is for me, ‘the most exciting filmmaker of the past three decades—and more’. That Nymphomaniac was maligned by mediocrities did not surprise me, nor did the fact that the film-going public, true to form, preferred high-gloss vacuity to gritty substance. Still, I was saddened that this magnificent film that Lars drew out of his solitude after being declared persona non grata at Cannes in 2011 was not received more warmly. Why? Because, as the world acquires a taste for illiberal societies, the freedom of which Nymphomaniac is a vector offers a model of resistance. Indeed, each of us, in confronting the singular truth wrapped up in our desire, becomes an individual, and individuality makes us less likely to fall prey to the sirens of ideology (be it hyperconsumerism or religion, populism or PC) that are making our world more ugly.

Lars von Trier

Nymphomaniac, then, is a story about the assumption of one’s desire and the extreme solitude that necessarily ensues. Joe, in her fictional universe, is, in this respect, a reflection of Lars in our all-too-real world (who would have thought that France, the land where the figure of the artist is not yet reduced to a purveyor of market-driven mediocrity, would take at face value an attempt to be witty that went badly wrong? For more on this, see this interview with Lars.)

Lars von Trier

Let us now focus on the film itself, and the mystery that is Joe. Lucretius, in the extract on sex, speaks of a ‘secret wound’. The intelligence and grandeur of Nymphomaniac, its elegance and dignity, derive largely from the fact that it refuses to offer an explanation of Joe’s ‘secret wound’. Instead, thanks to Lars’ use of Brechtian distancing—the alternation of action and reflection, desire and speech—it invites us on a voyage of discovery. Of what? Our own intimacy. How many of us have the courage to take up that challenge?

Charlotte Gainsbourg

Language aims at transparency. Sexuality defies transparency. Joe, in speaking of her sexuality, is, on one hand, authentic and engaged, and on the other hand, doomed to ‘misrecognize’ what she is talking about. Misrecognition, in Lacan’s conception, is not ignorance, but ‘a certain organization of affirmations and negations to which the subject is attached; behind his misrecognition, there is a kind of knowledge of what there is to misrecognize’. Not an entanglement we can count on Seligman to untangle. We are left, then, where all great art leaves us: in front of the mirror of our own misrecognition. Nymphomaniac, we see, is a film that illuminates the impossibility of language (and indeed, representation) to illuminate sex. For the adventurous viewer, the film is an Alice-in-Wonderland looking glass; for the risk-averse, it’s a rabbit hole they’d rather not enter.

Charlotte Gainsbourg; Stellan Skarsgård as Seligman

Sexuality, however, is not reducible to sex: Our relation to the sexual is conducted via its unconscious signification. In other words, sexuality is mediated by fantasy. What do we know of Joe’s fantasies? ‘It would turn me on enormously to imagine a sexual situation in which verbal communication was impossible’, she says, referring to the scenario with the African lover(s) she’d set up. There are also Jerome’s hands and G’s feline grace which elicit a response in fantasy. But beyond these examples, nothing. All we see are Joe’s acts. This largely accounts for her mystery, and until we accept that she has made of her eroticism (as Beauvoir said of Sade) ‘the sense and expression of her entire existence’, we tend to hanker after some key that would unlock that mystery. Indeed, her intelligence and articulacy, her evident understanding of others’ psychology, keep us in expectation of some ‘revelation’. By the end of her story, while much about Joe was still up in the air—just how influential in her make-up, for example, was her love for her father and her disdain for her mother?—I’d concluded, again as Beauvoir said of Sade, that the key to her eroticism (which is the key to her mystery) is her ‘alliance of insatiable sexual appetite with radical affective isolation’.

Charlotte Gainsbourg

Not much fantasy, love for no-one (except Jerome): This dual all-but-absence deprives us of any ‘handle’ we might have used to ‘get a grip’ on Joe. She is nothing but desire, and in her desire she is sovereign. Like Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne, she is content to ‘hold the mirror’ while we, until we accept her on her own terms, look for a key to her mystery ‘among the garbage and the flowers’. Despite all her physicality, it is with her mind that Joe, by the end of the film, ‘has touched your perfect body’. A beautiful paradox.

Stacy Martin

Joe, then, is a magnificent fictional character. Let us not forget, however, that besides the ‘erotic case study’ dimension that the Joe—Seligman scenario encourages us to pursue, she is also a magnificent metaphor of Lars von Trier’s radical lucidity and relentless courage. ‘To live outside the law you must be honest’: Every artist, to the extent that he/she assumes their individuality, is an outlaw. From the honesty of his outsider state, Lars shines a light into the darkness of our hypocrisy. Beyond Joe’s verbal formulations—‘What was Hitler when it all boils down other than a man to whom society gave free rein?’ | ‘Each time a word becomes prohibited, you remove a stone from the democratic foundation.’ | ‘That empathy you claim is a lie, because all you are is society’s morality police.’—it is the film in all its ‘pornography’ that demonstrates how lucidity and courage are components of spiritual vitality.

At the heart of Nymphomaniac is the question of ethics. It is not a film ‘about’ ethics—no work of art is ever ‘about’ anything; rather, it is a film which, to the extent that it invites us to understand Joe, challenges us to articulate our own ethics. From a Lacanian perspective, the key ethical question is: ‘Have you acted in conformity with the desire that is in you?’. Civilized morality, as Freud demonstrated, is pathogenic, and induces guilt in the subject. In analysis, ‘when the analysand presents him with a sense of guilt, the analyst’s task is to discover where the analysand has given way on his desire’. Indeed, ‘from an analytical point of view, the only thing of which one can be guilty is of having giving ground relative to one’s desire’. This has nothing to do with a hedonistic or libertine ethos, nor does it have anything to do with ‘doing good’ by ‘curing’ the subject and helping him ‘adapt to reality’. Indeed, far from being a normative ethics, Lacan’s ethics, like von Trier’s, is one that respects the subject’s right to resist domination.

Charlotte Gainsbourg

Now let us ask: Just what, in fact, is desire? It is, as Lacan puts it in his seminar on ethics, ‘nothing other than that which supports an unconscious theme, the very articulation of that which roots us in a particular destiny, and that destiny demands insistently that the debt be paid, and desire keeps coming back, keeps returning, and situates us once again in a given track, the track of something that is specifically our business’.

In showing us how Joe lives out her desire, Lars von Trier shows us an ‘ethics of the singular’, an ethics that, in Lacan’s terms, ‘cannot be centred on general, universally valid rules, but on a singular jouissance that withdraws from all forms of generality or universality’. In a word, an ethics profoundly respectful of the person, and not of social personae.

Nymphomaniac, then, is a film in which Lars von Trier, with his radical lucidity and relentless courage, gives us a demonstration of ethics-in-action wrapped up in pornography. I take my hat off to him, and I salute Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stacy Martin, Shia LaBoeuf and Jamie Bell (and, indeed, all the other actors, including the porn doubles), whose talent and dignity, trust and generosity, made this masterpiece possible.


The full title of Richardson’s novel is Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded. It was published in 1740. Sade’s Justine, published in 1791, is subtitled, as you can see, or the Misfortunes of Virtue. Von Trier’s vision, of course, is akin to that of Sade. As for Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (better know as Fanny Hill), it was published in 1748-49 and inaugurated English literary pornography in prose.

Genet, Rimbaud and Violette Leduc: Three of Joe’s cousins, three who practiced, like her, an ethics of the singular.

Three films of relevance to Nymphomaniac: Marat/Sade directly, Last Tango in Paris and In the Realm of the Senses obliquely.

Peter Brook’s film of Peter Weiss’ outstanding play, Marat/Sade, is itself outstanding, with Glenda Jackson and Patrick Magee giving absolutely scintillating performances. I can think of no better introduction to Sade’s philosophy; his debate with Marat is more relevant than ever, opening up fresh perspectives for resistance to the increasing encroachment of hyperconsumerism into all spheres of life.

From Simone de Beauvoir, Must We Burn Sade?  tr. Annette Michelson (New English Library, 1972)


Sade tried to make of his psycho-physical destiny an ethical choice; and of this act, in which he assumed his separateness, he attempted to make an example and an appeal. It is thus that his adventure assumes a wide human significance. Can we, without renouncing our individuality, satisfy our aspirations to universality? Or is it only by the sacrifice of our individual differences that we can integrate ourselves into the community? This problem concerns us all. In Sade the differences are carried to the point of outrageousness, and the immensity of his literary effort shows how passionately he wished to be accepted by the human community. Thus, we find in his work the most extreme form of the conflict from which no individual can escape without self-deception. It is the paradox and, in a sense, the triumph of Sade that his persistent singularity helps us to define the human drama in its general aspect.


From Dany Nobus, The Law of Desire: On Lacan’s ‘Kant With Sade’  (The Palgrave Lacan Series, Springer International Publishing, 2017)


For Lacan, Sade had thus been the first to formulate, through the mouth of his libertines, a new ethical system that does not take its bearings from common principles of moral goodness, and that does not aim to secure a set of socially sanctioned values about mutual support, benevolence, courtesy and respect. Yet for this in itself to have been possible, he asserted, Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason would have been the necessary turning point, if only because Kant had set out to propose a comprehensive theory of morality which does not rely on conventional distinctions between good and bad, which regards emotional factors of sympathy and compassion as ‘pathological’, which deems the anticipated consequences of one’s actions to be irrelevant with regard to human beings proceeding to fulfil their moral duty, and which constructs the moral law as simultaneously subjective and universal. Without seeing Sade as the literary extension of Kant, Lacan posited quite firmly that Sade’s work—here, Philosophy in the Boudoir—in a sense completed Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason, and even revealed its truth. This is indeed one of the most important theses of ‘Kant with Sade’: in Philosophy in the Boudoir  Sade presented the disturbing truth of Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason, a truth which Kant himself had failed to recognize and disclose, as Horkheimer and Adorno had already suggested when they claimed that Kant was not nearly as rational a philosopher as he had wished to be. How Sade did this, and how this truth should be understood, is what Lacan set out to explain in the rest of his paper.


From Annie Lebrun, Sade: A Sudden Abyss,  tr. Camille Naish (City Light Books, 1990)


Wouldn’t one do better to try to read Sade, for the first time, ‘literally and in every sense’, like poetry? Everything in Sade invited this approach. First of all, an excessive manner of proceeding, evidently more metaphorical than philosophical. Totally at loggerheads with all systems of control, Sade began by showing man held prisoner within the theater of his body: ‘All that depends upon our structure, our organs and the distress they feel; we can no more change our tastes than we can change the shape of our bodies,’ he declares in The One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom. At the same time, he shows the extraordinary spectacle of the steps taken by this corporeal theater in order to defeat fatality: as he also writes in The Story of Juliette: ‘Man’s whole happiness lies in his imagination.’ I decided to take as my point of departure this contradiction which so haunted me. I was sure of very little, except that Sade was neither the madman, revolutionary, saint, fascist, prophet, man of letters, butcher, fellow creature or even the thinker he was made out to be. I knew only that he was alone, mercilessly alone, with a solitude we try to forget can be possible. That on his side, therefore, was the withering efficiency such solitude can bring.

From Horkheimer and Adorno, ‘Excursus II: Juliette or Enlightenment and Morality’, Dialectic of Enlightenment  (Stanford University Press, 2002) p. 74


Just as Kant’s moral philosophy set limits to his enlightened critique in order to rescue the possibility of reason, unreflecting enlightened thinking has always sought, for its own survival, to cancel itself with skepticism, in order to make room for the existing order. In contrast to such precautions, the work of Sade, like that of Nietzsche, is an intransigent critique of practical reason, beside which even that of Kant himself appears like a revocation of his own thought. It pushes the scientific principle to annihilating extremes.

In psychological terms Juliette, not unlike Merteuil in Les liaisons dangereuses, embodies neither unsublimated nor regressive libido but intellectual pleasure in regression, amor intellectualis diaboli, the joy of defeating civilization with its own weapons. She loves systems and logic. She wields the instrument of rational thought with consummate skill.

By Richard Jonathan | © Mara Marietta Culture Blog, 2019 | All rights reserved