The tongue, this invertebrate, which is the grey eminence of Amorpolis, is the prime minister in the shadow cabinet; in fact, much more capable than the officially serving Penis; the tongue is so underestimated. And yet he can do everything! Wedge anywhere, in the mouth, in the ear, under the eyelid, under the armpit, in the groin, bore into the nest between the thighs, ring the bell near the door of your sex, detect the smallest response, dance every dance, swim, grind, irritate, apologize, smooth, clean up. He can even ejaculate; a well-trained tongue can do it too! The tongue is the real ruler of the world of love. Penis is a servant, rarely clever, more often not very bright. He turns up to finish off the basic job. But the tongue! The real castration wouldn’t be the cutting off of the testicles, or a decapitation of the penis, but a loss of the tongue. A man who has lost his tongue has lost his speech and his Eros. He has lost his mind. It is a husk that knows the world only by hearing. What one would call a sophisticated erotic philosophy, is expressed in the tongue of the tongue. I love this tongue.
The above passage is from a 2012 novel by a Polish poet and writer Anna Janko1 – the book, which is a reflection on the overwhelming power of a sexual encounter, includes paragraphs that testify to the difficulty of writing about sexuality, particularly as experienced by a woman. That I have chosen a passage focusing on the tongue is no accident here, as will become apparent. Janko created a bold novel, particularly as it was written in the now profoundly conservative and religious Poland. It celebrates the power of a deep sexual bond, which comes out of a vague longing that everybody is familiar with, and that here becomes real and embodied. Also, and it is perhaps too obvious to spell out, the passage dislodges heteronormative ideas of sex, despite mentioning the penis – as clearly the tongue, which Janko sees as the king of the erotic realm, is available to all.
A deep sexual experience is part of being human and has been thought about and written about for as long as we have been able to formulate thoughts. It is often confused with simple sexual pleasure or even love: while it has elements of both it is neither. These ephemeral moments of sexual passion of such intensity are rare despite the apparent plethora of opportunities for erotic adventures in the contemporary world. The moments of great physical union can be transformative, and this ability to transform also carries an inherent sense of risk of being consumed by it, of becoming changed beyond any recognition, with no chance of turning back. In what follows I offer a few reflections on the notion of transformation through bodily fusion and focus in particular on two films which, however dramatically different they are from each other, not only acknowledge the quality of an intense sexual encounter but also recognize its potentially transformative powers with its profound and real risks. The change they bring forth is as inevitable as the risk: it can shatter one’s identity and way of thinking, our status quo, and our very existence. At times this bodily fusion, the intense giving and taking, can be described as jouissance, a term the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan2 used to identify enjoyment at the border of pain, carrying with it the risk of self-destruction. The mechanism inherent in jouissance was first described by the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud3 who called it the death drive, a drive which makes us pursue things to the point of destruction, but which also can make us feel more alive than ever – perhaps through our desire to forget the finite quality of all nature’s experience – finite because mortality is always a part of it.
The films I have in mind are The Untamed (2016) and Red Road (2006) – completely different in their genres, storyworlds and conclusions and sharing the profound belief in the power of a physical encounter. What is of interest here is a hope that a transformative power of such an encounter on screen might open a space for the spectator to change too – through questioning her assumptions regarding sex and love, but also perhaps the organization of the world as a whole. This is what Donna Haraway4 has recently termed ‘string figuring’ or ‘tentacular thinking’, a way of thinking outside prescribed, predictable and safe boxes.
As I am writing, a Hollywood-produced film by the Mexican director Guillermo del Toro entitled The Shape of Water has been nominated for thirteen Oscars, including the Best Picture Award. It is a story of an unlikely love affair between a mute cleaner played by Sally Hawkins and a water creature. The romance takes place against the background of the CIA schemings during the Cold War in which the couple find their special connection without words, through first of all sign language, then touch and then indeed a physical encounter that Freud might call ‘oceanic’. Prior to its Oscar nominations, the film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2017. In 2016 a film by another Mexican director, Amat Escalante, also premiered in Venice and won a Silver Lion. The film’s Spanish title was Le Region Salvaje (A Savage Region) translated as The Untamed in English, a very different proposition from The Shape of Water in every way, except for a human erotic encounter with a non-human creature. The Shape of Water enters a territory of a fairy tale where love overcomes all, whereas The Untamed focuses on the absolute commitment to the moment and its potential for subsuming and consuming all-encompassing euphoria through a sexual encounter – a euphoria which can be seen as embodying Lacanian jouissance, and is as transformative as it is dangerous.
The Untamed occupies a space between the horror movie, science fiction and a gritty urban realism. In a forest, just outside the city, in a house guarded by an elderly couple there is an extra-terrestrial creature, which, it is revealed in the course of the movie, is a huge octopus-like being that can and does give an otherworldly pleasure to anybody who chooses to enter its space. The choosing is important. This is not a predatory being, this is not the scenario of Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin where the alien embodied by Scarlett Johansson prowls the city looking for lonely men. Their sexual longing is exploited in Under the Skin but there is no physical gratification – or any other gratification for that matter as the seduced men disappear into an oblivion of blackness, never to be seen again, their internal organs dissolved. The turning point in the narrative of Under the Skin comes when the woman, in her ploy to seduce a disabled man, invites him to touch her face and hands as she drives him to her alien lair. Apparently because of the touch, she is unable to destroy him and instead we see her own desire emerge. It is worth pausing briefly here to reflect on the importance of touch not only as a sexual encounter but also an extension of that. The philosopher Jacques Derrida5 in his discussion of Jean-Luc Nancy’s 6 essay Corpus, reminds us that to touch means ‘to tamper with, to change, to displace, to call into question; thus, it is invariably a setting in motion, a kinetic experience’. The touching, therefore, is a harbinger of change – it can be a good change, or bad, but it is a movement, and it can become explosive and revolutionary.
In The Untamed, as opposed to Under the Skin, there is no element of seduction coming from the Other. The creature is no prowler or predator. The desire comes from the subject who seeks out the creature’s abode, succumbing to her or his longing to experience the all-embracing pleasure and a fusion with the non-gendered Other. Once a person decides to enter the house where the octopus-like large alien resides (and when I say ‘large’, I mean elephant-large) she or he is first treated to a mind-altering experience, before entering into a voluntary sexual encounter with the alien creature. People turn up in the lair usually encouraged by stories of the experience – the creature’s fame spreads by word of mouth. The nature of the pleasure is consummate and connects to the subject’s innermost sexual fantasies and desires. The danger of the encounter appears to come from a sense of merging. To put it differently, those who experience the physical euphoria with the alien often lose all sense of drawing a boundary between them and it, the creature. It seems – which is not made clear – that if only you can pull back in time yourself, no harm will come to you – but the issue is the ability to pull back, when all you want is more – and more. The encounter therefore has the structure and dynamic of addiction.
The film opens with a frame of a young woman, Veronica, touching her bleeding abdomen. We see a suggestion of a shape as it moves away. We hear the voices of the couple outside, the creature’s guardians. They order the young woman, who is now on her own, to leave. She does not want to move despite being hurt. ‘Let me stay a little longer’ she pleads with them. But the moment is gone, the creature pulls back – for now. Through the young woman’s visit to the hospital to have her wound treated, we are drawn into a gritty and grim depiction of urban relationships in the unnamed city in Mexico. The setting of the narrative and the story world of The Untamed is not a million miles away from the gritty city of Red Road, the second film I focus on, or indeed the Glasgow of Under the Skin. The urban space in these films is a hostile environment of stifling, limiting encounters, full of misogynist abuse and homophobic pressures which fuel vague longings for escape on the part of its inhabitants. These longings, if unmet, can be corrupted into crime and violence. It is a life in which desire, including sexual desire, is prohibited, a situation that leads to dysfunctional, violent and ultimately destructive relationships. The physical closeness appears to offer a rare escape. In Red Road Jackie, the central character, watches people’s lives through her CCTV cameras: she is looking out for signs of closeness and intimacy but sees few; the best ones are those of people with pets.
In The Untamed, Veronica, the woman we meet at the beginning of the film, draws us into the urban space after her accident with the creature. She befriends the male nurse, Fabian, who we learn is having a homosexual affair with a man married to his sister, Ale. Ale and her rough husband Angel have two young children too, suggesting a trans-generational passing on of the restrictions, limitations and abuse. In addition to his adultery with his brother-in -law, Angel appears to be arrogant, violent and a bad father. After a series of revelations told in a slow, low-key, realistic mode, almost stifling the viewer, the betrayed wife is led to the house in the forest by Veronica. A move away from the city to a forest where the creature lives is significant for its move away from the urban. One of the guardians of the creature tells Ale that in the first instance her mind will be transported – presumably by the powers of the alien, before the pleasure is entered into. The first encounter is very successful. The wife feels liberated through her pleasure, through the all-subsuming encounter that, as she explains to her friend, leaves her feeling happy ‘when all resentment and hate are gone’. When her violent husband seeks reconciliation, she rejects it saying that she feels well for the first time in her life, and begins dragging him through the forest to the creature so that he too can experience the liberating euphoria. However, it becomes clear when they get there, that further deaths have taken place, as the jouissance that dissolved all boundaries has destroyed the lives of new subjects.
It is not that the creature is inherently evil, as opposed to the inexplicably predatory femme fatale of Under the Skin – where, for the record, no sex actually takes place between the alien woman and the annihilated men: the promise of sex is a pure ploy to destroy. In The Untameable, on the other hand, the desire comes from the longing subject and is realized beyond any imagination on the part of the recipient who perhaps because of it cannot keep it within reasonable boundaries. This is indeed the territory of the death drive, first mentioned by Freud in his ground-breaking and still controversial publication Three Essays on the Theory of Human Sexuality (1905) and developed in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920).
In the preface to the fourth edition of Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, Freud links his notion of sexuality to destruction and danger. It is in this context that he mentions Plato’s7 Symposium, a treatise in which the Greek philosopher Socrates and his guests talk about physical love: ‘… what psychoanalysis calls sexuality was by no means identical with the impulsion towards a union of the two sexes or towards producing a pleasurable sensation in the genitals; it had far more resemblance to the all-inclusive and all-embracing love of Plato’s Symposium’.
In Plato’s Symposium, the female priestess Diotima explains to the young Socrates what the older Socrates will explain to his dinner companions and to us: namely, that Eros is neither a god nor a mortal, but a daemon, an intermediary and hybrid who unites and binds together all separate spheres. This as an idea holds a promise and a threat – the ‘binding’ heralds a change, a submission to the Other, a union which can have catastrophic consequences as well as exhilarating ones – for if we are to be bound to another being, we lose our separateness, our comfort zone; in fact, we lose who we are, our identity.
It is this ancient idea of a daemon of physical desire that one cannot control, which is both life-giving and also potentially fatal, that we observe in The Untamed. Anna Janko, the Polish novelist quoted above, more than 2,000 years later echoes the sentiment of Symposium: ‘Physical desire is the longing to seep into the other being with one’s own, to cross over the boundary of “who I am” and “who you are” and to knit them together with a powerful stitch’. The desire sews together the fabric of life but it can also transform it beyond our intentions, and in the worst case destroy our very being.
It is here that I would like to return to Red Road, a British film directed and written by Andrea Arnold. Patricia Pisters in The Neuro-Image: A Deleuzian Film-Philosophy of Digital Screen Culture calls Red Road a ‘neuro-thriller’. It won the Jury Prize in Cannes in 2006. There have been some scholarly analyses of the film. However, there is a hesitation in the naming of the key element in Jackie’s trajectory which manages to dislodge her sense of purpose but which also catapults her out of a virtual desert of paralysis and inability to engage with the world. This is the erotic scene between Jackie and a man she hates and wants to frame in order to send him to prison: Clyde, the man who is responsible for the death of her husband and daughter in a road accident. Some critics overlooked the scene’s significance completely; for example the reviewer in Sight and Sound (2009) writes: ‘the director has thrown it in to give a purposeless script some drive. Frivolous, cheap and not very convincing at all’ (Pattison, 2009).
Instead, I would suggest, the scene is both crucial and deeply convincing and represents the power of the daemon of desire and fusion. Jackie in Red Road is a police woman or a security guard. She watches the world as it unfolds on the CCTV cameras that enable her to look, without being engaged in the world, without her touching it. This activity covers her profound sense of loss and despair – as a viewer we do not understand why she is the way she is – until much later, perhaps until the very end of the film. But we realize that something strangely obsessive is going on in her watching, observing, in her Lack.
The film draws heavily from a genre tradition where the key protagonist is also a voyeur – the world out there is different from the world he or she inhabits. It is the notion of a division between inside and outside which demands to be crossed. The notion of spying on other people through a mediated space is presented in classic films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), Antonio Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), Coppola’s Conversation (1974) and Krzysztof Kieslowski’s A Short Film about Love (1988). The last one on the list, A Short Film about Love, is worth mentioning here in passing as there the character’s sexual longing gets destroyed by the actual physical encounter with the subject of his infatuation: the fantasy is destroyed by its enactment. Not so in Red Road or indeed The Untamed – the encounter with the fantasy works because of the exceptional meeting of the desire with the body, the drive, because of the momentary abandonment of all restrictions imposed by the external world – because of, as Plato would say, the miracle of a Temporal Object, which does involve the body and the mind in one space. As it is a miracle, it does not take place routinely. It is exceptional.
In these films of voyeurism and surveillance, the main protagonists are separated from the actions which unfold either before their very eyes (Rear Window or The Conversation) or with some time lapse (Blow-Up). In all films, the protagonists’ position in the actual world is ambiguous and, for a variety of reasons, detached – a detachment that feeds the desire to be a part of it. The separation offers safety but it is also a source of painful confusions. They get misled by the clues they are given – they misread the signs and arrive at conclusions which then have to be corrected, re-assessed and appropriate actions taken – or not, because it may be too late to take them. We are also invited to reflect on our position as cinema spectators, for we too are engaged in the world presented to us on the screen. The life as watched (or listened to) by the protagonists of the classic films does invade their private space. In Red Road, too, the private space is invaded: first by the compelling desire for revenge (an impulse we can interpret as the death drive fuelled by her melancholia) and then by the stranger to invade her body beyond her expectations, like in The Untamed.
Lacan claims that desire is always connected to knowledge. Because of our innate Lack and via our fantasy, we desire those who have what we do not have. Or rather we desire those who we think might have the knowledge that we lack. In The Untamed the alien creature has the knowledge to transport anybody out of the pain of their mundane life, so their relationship to the world would be ‘without hate or resentment’, subsumed in a union with the alien creature, or perhaps rather with one’s own embodied fantasies.
In Red Road the question is, what kind of knowledge might Jackie be after? We do not know. The director Andrea Arnold leaves clues but no clear suggestions. However, it seems that Jackie’s desire is connected to knowledge that links to her loss; Clyde does have the knowledge Jackie might want, the dark, disturbing knowledge which only he has – of the last moment of her family’s life. The two people, Jackie and Clyde, the woman removed from the world of the living and the man who inadvertently through his addiction killed her family, make an impossible and brief but deeply significant connection – through their lovemaking, intensified by the ignorance that binds both to knowledge and Lack.
Without wanting to and meaning to, the physical intimacy between Jackie and Clyde, made palpable to the spectator by the long foreplay including indeed licking of her body as well as through the oral sex, with the tongue (as Anna Janko would have it) being the chief instrument of her desire. Against Jackie’s conscious plan, the encounter becomes an erotic experience which wipes out anything else, and as in The Untamed; it subsumes those participating in it. Nobody dies in the encounter but certain things can never be the same: Jackie loses control completely and there is no turning back.
In in the grim setting of Red Road and against the harshness of both the physical and emotional wasteland, Jackie, like in a fairy tale, is woken up from a long sleep.
Her state of passive near-death existence is reversed not by speech, but by her bodily feminine jouissance, the jouissance which needs the Other to produce intensity and abandon. Lacan tells us that the phallic jouissance (note that Lacan has no time for a biologically determined gender) is a masturbatory experience with no need for the Other. The feminine jouissance (which can be experienced on occasions by a man too) is a far fuller experience. It is a joy nourished by (the unconscious) desire for the Other which can find momentary fulfilment in the Real of the union – in the body, outside the language but connected to it by unconscious desire. This kind of jouissance is hard to theorize and write as it is outside language. What makes the film so potent is Arnold’s bold reclamation of the power of sexual jouissance in the middle of a film about loss and revenge. That bodily encounter changes everything – including the way Jackie thinks.
The feminist Donna Haraway in her book Staying with the Trouble urges a way of thinking about the world, which moves away from hitherto accepted traditions, including binary oppositions. This re-thinking, however utopian it might be, offers a chance for the world to re-define itself. She defines this as ‘tentacular thinking’ or string figuring. One could argue that this position is against any conservative configurations, which could be limiting or pessimistic. Haraway urges instead an attempt to think outside the rigid boundaries, suggesting effort is made to find ‘in-between’ spaces in which new allegiances might be possible and in response to which, the world will have to change. The first step is to think outside the Anthropocene, that is, out of the human position.
Haraway talks about ‘non-arrogant collaboration’: across cultures, races and species, insisting: ‘We are all lichens; so, we can be scraped off the rocks by the Furies, who still erupt to avenge crimes against the earth. Alternatively, we can join in the metabolic transformations between and among rocks and critters for living and dying well.’
Haraway insists on the importance of stories, which create spaces for different thinking: ‘It matters what thoughts think thoughts. It matters what stories tell stories.’ The two stories I have presented here offer such a space. Red Road is a film about forgiveness through a sexual intimacy which does not lead to love. In its quiet way this is indeed a non-arrogant collaboration of sorts. It is perhaps too optimistic to see The Untamed as an attempt to move away from the rigid and patriarchal Anthropocene, but a notion of being able to take seriously one’s bodily encounters beyond traditional morality might take us some way towards the tentacular thinking that Haraway advocates as a new way of relating to the world.
- Janko. A. (2012) Pasja wedlug Swietej Hanki. Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Literackie.
- Lacan, J. (1999 ) Seminar XX. On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge. Miller, J. A. Miller (ed.) Trans. by B. Fink. London & New York: Norton.
- Freud, S. (1905 ) ‘Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality’ in Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud. Volume VII. Trans. by J. Strachey. London: Hogarth Press & the Institute of Psychoanalysis, pp. 125–245.
- Haraway. D. (2017) Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham and London: Duke University press.
- Derrida, J. ( 2005) On Touching – Jean-Luc Nancy. Trans. by C. Irizarry. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
- Nancy, J. L. (2008) Corpus. Trans. by R. Rand. New York: Fordham University Press.
- Plato (1997) Symposium and the Death of Socrates. Trans. by T. Griffith. Ware: Wordsworth Editions Limited.