Ecstasy of Saint Teresa

Part Nine Chapter 17

Look! The Botticelli smile on Julie’s face has been replaced by the swoon of Bernini’s Teresa!


For the context, see: Golden Years, David Bowie

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Ecstasy of Saint Teresa
Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome

Sebastiano Ricci, Ecstasy of Saint Teresa


O how often, when I am in this state, do I remember that verse of David, as the heart panteth after the water brooks, which I seem to see literally fulfilled in myself… When these impulses are not very strong, things appear to calm down a little, or at least the soul seeks some respite, for it does not know what to do. It performs certain penances, but hardly feels them; even if it draws blood it is no more conscious of pain than if the body were dead… But there are other times when the impulses are so strong that it can do absolutely nothing. The entire body contracts; neither foot nor arm can be moved. If one is standing at the time, one falls into a sitting position as though transported, and cannot even take a breath. One only utters a few slight moans, not aloud, for that is impossible, but inwardly, out of pain.

Our Lord was pleased that I should sometimes see a vision of this kind: Beside me, on the left hand, appeared an angel in bodily form… He was not tall but short, and very beautiful; and his face was so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest rank of angels, who seem to be all on fire. They must be of the kind called cherubim… In his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he pulled it out, I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one’s soul then content with anything but God. This is not a physical, but a spiritual pain, though the body has some share in it—even a considerable share… But when this pain of which I am now speaking begins, the Lord seems to transport the soul and throw it into an ecstasy. So there is no opportunity for it to feel its pain or suffering, for the enjoyment comes immediately.


From The Life of Saint Teresa by Herself, translated and with an introduction by J.M. Cohen (Penguin Classics, first published in 1957), pp. 209-211.

Josefa de Ayala y Obidos, Teresa d’Avila, 1672

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (study)


You only have to go and look at Bernini’s statue [of Saint Theresa] in Rome to understand immediately that she’s coming, there is no doubt about it. And what is her jouissance, her coming from? It is clear that the essential testimony of the mystics is that they are experiencing it but know nothing about it.


Jacques Lacan, Seminar XX, Encore, 1972-73. In Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the école freudienne, edited and introduced by Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose, translated by Jacqueline Rose (NY: W.W. Norton and Pantheon Books, 1985) p. 147


The concept of desire is crucial to Lacan’s account of sexuality. He considered that the failure to grasp its implications leads inevitably to a reduction of sexuality back into the order of a need (something, therefore, which could be satisfied). Against this, he quoted Freud’s statement: ‘We must reckon with the possibility that something in the nature of the sexual instinct itself is unfavourable to the realisation of complete satisfaction’ (Freud, ‘On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love’ (1912), SE 11, pp. 188-189; PF 7, p. 258).

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (detail)

Bernini, Monument to the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni (detail); 1671-74

At the same time ‘identity’ and ‘wholeness’ remain precisely at the level of fantasy. Subjects in language persist in their belief that somewhere there is a point of certainty, of knowledge and of truth. When the subject addresses its demand outside itself to another, this other becomes the fantasied place of just such a knowledge or certainty. Lacan calls this the Other—the site of language to which the speaking subject necessarily refers. The Other appears to hold the ‘truth’ of the subject and the power to make good its loss. But this is the ultimate fantasy. Language is the place where meaning circulates—the meaning of each linguistic unit can only be established by reference to another, and it is arbitrarily fixed. Lacan, therefore, draws from Saussure’s concept of the arbitrary nature of the linguistic sign the implication that there can be no final guarantee or securing of language. There is, Lacan writes, ‘no Other of the Other’.

Sexuality belongs in this area of instability played out in the register of demand and desire, each sex coming to stand, mythically and exclusively, for that which could satisfy and complete the other. It is when the categories ‘male’ and ‘female’ are seen to represent an absolute and complementary division that they fall prey to a mystification in which the difficulty of sexuality instantly disappears: ‘to disguise this gap by relying on the virtue of the “genital” to resolve it through the maturation of tenderness, however piously intended, is a fraud’ (‘The Meaning of the Phallus’, 1958, Ecrits). Lacan therefore argued that psychoanalysis should not try to produce ‘male’ and ‘female’ as complementary entities, sure of each other and of their own identity, but should expose the fantasy on which this notion rests.

Giovanni Battista Piazzetta, Saint Teresa in Ecstasy

Artemisia Gentileschi, Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy, 1613

The concept of jouissance (what escapes in sexuality) and the concept of signifiance (what shifts within language) are inseparable. Only when this is seen can we properly locate the tension which runs right through Lacan’s Encore between his critique of the forms of mystification latent to the category Woman, and the repeated question as to what her ‘otherness’ might be. A tension which can be recognised in the very query ‘What does a woman want?’ on which Freud stalled and to which Lacan returned. That tension is clearest in Lacan’s appeal to St Theresa, whose statue by Bernini in Rome he took as the model for an-other jouissance—the woman therefore as ‘mystical’ but, he insisted, this is not ‘not political’, in so far as mysticism is one of the available forms of expression where such ‘otherness’ in sexuality utters its most forceful complaint.

And if we cut across for a moment from Lacan’s appeal to her image as executed by the man, to St Theresa’s own writings, to her commentary on ‘The Song of Songs’, we find its sexuality in the form of a disturbance which, crucially, she locates not on the level of the sexual content of the song, but on the level of its enunciation, in the instability of its pronouns—a precariousness in language which reveals that neither the subject nor God can be placed (‘speaking with one person, asking for peace from another, and then speaking to the person in whose presence she is’). Sexuality belongs, therefore, on the level of its, and the subject’s, shifting.


From Jacqueline Rose, Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the école freudienne, edited and introduced by Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose, translated by Jacqueline Rose (NY: W.W. Norton and Pantheon Books, 1985) pp. 32-33, 52.

John Singer Sargent, St Teresa of Ávila, 1903

Mara Marietta