The following is an excerpt from Death & Sex by Tyler Volk and Dorion Sagan. It has been adapted for the Web.
If we, as humans full of tall tales and musical dreams, can come up with all manner of story and associations, how are we ever to get to the bottom of the mystery of sex? Evolution, one avenue of solution, is certainly the main road taken in this book. But that, too, can be twisted. The mating mind is so full of sexual thoughts and erotic innuendo that it can see sex everywhere. Forget all the jokes that have double entendres and think of the more basic fact that the romance languages ascribe a gender to virtually every noun. In Spanish, the earth, la tierra, is feminine; the sky, el cielo, masculine. Never mind that the sun is male in some languages and female in others, or that in Ibiza and the Azores—and all Spain and Mexico and South America—coño, the vagina, takes the masculine article, el coño, like el toreador, the (male) bullfighter.
Sometimes the clearest example of a phenomenon is rendered not by the mundane version, but by the extreme case. Philosopher-novelist Samuel Butler said of Victorian society that there was nothing the English would like more than to see the fruitful union of two steam engines. American astronomer Thomas Chamberlin spoke of the sex-like merging of planets in collision. And comedian Lenny Bruce noted that men are not so picky; they will do it with mud or Venetian blinds.
Gendered thinking reflects our bodies. Even when we don’t think we do, we have sex on the mind, as Freud showed. But when it comes to coming to grips with the mundane omnipresence of thoughts sexual, few subjects are as strangely illuminating as the extreme case, that of French theorist Georges Bataille (1897–1962). Deeply influenced by the Marquis de Sade and Friedrich Nietzsche, Bataille was author of the infamous novella Histoire de l’oeil, The Story of the Eye. The book details the depraved adventures of a teenage farm boy and his girlfriend, Simone, who has a fetish for eggs and egg-like objects that leads her at one absurd point to insert bull’s testicles in her vulva and, still unsatisfied, replace them with the bleeding eye of a freshly killed matador. The founder of surrealism, Andre Breton, expelled Bataille, who also influenced the literary theorist Blanchot and the philosopher Derrida, from the ranks of the surrealists, in whose social circles he traveled in the 1920s.
Like himself in his theoretical excess, Bataille’s characters are exhibitionists. The young couple fornicate and urinate in front of the girl’s aged mother; they seduce a beautiful, deranged neighbor in an impressively narrated lightning-storm scene. The deranged neighbor is committed to a mental institution, from which they help her escape only for her to kill herself. With a compulsive, if demented, logic, they have sex next to her dead body. Then they flee to Spain, where they seduce a priest in a church, forcing him to use bodily rather than symbolic fluids in a mockery of the eucharist; it is also in Spain that they witness the goring of the matador, whose organs the demented Simone refuses to let go to waste.
Roland Barthes argued that L’histoire is not mere pornography. It does not just string together a series of sexual episodes, but is a symbolic realization of the transgressive, other-connecting sexual mind. Bataille, in a postscript to his tale, admits that parts of the book were autobiographical, that he was conceived by a blind father and jerked off naked at night next to his mother’s corpse.
Bataille’s sexualization of reality is a study in perversion (from the Latin per, “away,” and vertere, “to turn”—thus “turning away”); it is a perversion, for example, a turning away and application of sexual energy to the wrong objects, when, in one of Sade’s fictions a son-in-law who promises to be chaste with a virgin bride-to-be and stops short of satisfying himself in the one way he most wishes—a Sadeian joke as, given the groom’s desire for anal sex, the virgin will quite likely become pregnant even as he exercises his would-be erotic prudence. But it is also a perversion of a perversion: Bataille’s insistence on transgressing, overturning, sullying, and sexualizing everything, while it is an affront to society and the proper, is also a perversion of the hypocrisy of preached but disobeyed moral strictures. It is a turning away from society’s turning away from sex. Therefore it becomes an embrace of the sexual, of excess as the milieu of the sexual, as that which by nature does not keep its colors within the lines, does not stay neatly within its boundaries. For Bataille nothing was impregnable and everything was impugned. Sex, like death, was a pathway to transcendence, to the unveiling of artificial boundaries, including those of rational thought and the disciplinary boundaries of academia. He stepped through the doorway of excess to rub shoulders with the infinite. He used writing not to make deductive arguments but to make fun of them. He wanted to come, not to a conclusion, but to ecstasy.
In one of his essays he presents human evolution as a sexual phenomenon. Like an erection, primeval ape-man rises from a stooped to an upright posture, standing erect on Earth’s surface. But the process, says Bataille, has not reached its logical conclusion. Our eyes still face forward, looking out parallel to the ground. Logic (which, as a proto-postmodernist, he was making fun of ) dictates that for the process to culminate, our eyes should migrate to the top of our heads, merging to form an aperture through which we might ejaculate the contents of our bodies in an obscene cascade toward the true object of our desires, the sun.
Like the gendered articles of unsexual things in Latin-derived languages, Bataille’s extreme fantasy shows our tendency to project our own animal sexuality onto a more-than-sexual world. Yet as Barthes intimates, there is something more than sexual, something of literary merit, in Bataille’s depraved imaginings. It is as if he were showing us a real quality of the universe that we had somehow missed. As if we could only take in the philosophical ideas he had to offer by presenting them in the form of sexual imagery.
In the recent movie Sunshine, directed by Danny Boyle, a crew in 2057 is dispatched to space on a dangerous mission toward the sun. They must adjust a nuclear imbalance in the sun that, if left unaddressed, will lead to its death. As in Bataille’s evolutionary fantasy, the real focus of life’s desire is not other humans but the sun.
Bizarre as it sounds, there is some truth to this. Animal life’s activities are not random, but controlled activation of the stored energy of the sun, collected by photosynthetic life, for which sunlight is the source of energy no less than food is ours, and toward which the leaves of plants turn.
In the cosmic scheme of things, it is not sex that is life’s true aim so much as reproduction. And reproduction, scientifically viewed, represents the maintenance of a certain kind of complex system that uses available energy, spreading it in the process. Such systems, not confined to life, spread energy and are favored by a universe obeying thermodynamics’ second law. The second law, usually still construed as a tendency toward disorder, is really a more general principle easier to visualize as the spreading of energy, which in the chemical realm leads to complex molecules. But in some regions of matter, the path of least resistance is for the continuous construction of complex and ordered structures that more effectively dissipate energy. Thus tornadoes and other complex chemical systems—and life is nothing if not a complex chemical system—not only arise naturally but, if they’ve tapped into a reliable energy source, tend to expand until they’ve made use of all available energy.
As complex systems maintain and grow, differences, such as those between hot and cold, and high and low pressures, chemically concentrated and less concentrated adjacent regions tend naturally to even out. Complex whirling typhoons spreading above the Pacific, for example, reduce the difference, or gradient, between high- and low-air-pressure masses. If it can, nature will produce complex systems, such as convection cells, whirlpools, and repeating chemical reactions, that are better at dispersing energy than mere random arrangements of matter. In these terms, life belongs to a class of complex systems cycling matter to spread energy, finding where it is concentrated, using it and dispersing it, mostly as heat, in accord with the second law. Geophysicist-ecologist Eric D. Schneider points to satellite and airplane measurements above ecosystems that show life spreads energy and reduces gradients like other natural complex systems. Evolution itself is not random, but is naturally oriented to the depletion of energy reserves, the greatest of which is the sun. Stars would burn out anyway, but life on Earth is part of this process. Life measurably keeps itself cool as it dumps heat into space. It is thus no coincidence that life is focused on the sun. Sex only exists because of life, and life as we know it, on the vast scale we know it, only exists because of the colossal local energy concentration it is helping to spread out (to spend, as Bataille would put it) as it eats, grows, and reproduces—the sun.
Bataille was right to emphasize the sun as object of life’s evolutionary desire.
The entire energy we see in life—including the transgressive tangents Bataille’s teenagers take as they move through a series of unusual love objects ranging from liquids like cat’s milk, semen, urine, blood, and tears to relative solids like eyeballs and eggs—is a displacement, a permutation of the energy of the sun. The great educator and rebel Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake as a heretic in the central Roman square of Campo de’ Fiori on February 17, 1600, for, among other things, believing that there were other living worlds besides Earth and that Mary was not a virgin. He also believed, correctly it turns out, in a sort of natural reincarnation where matter recycles to re-form the constituents of all living beings: “Don’t you see,” he wrote, “that that which was seed will get green herb and herb will turn into ear and ear into bread? Bread will turn into nutrient liquid, which produces blood, from blood semen, embryo, men, corpse, Earth, rock and mineral and thus matter will change its form ever and ever and is capable of taking any natural form . . .”
These material transformations are part of the natural cycling of matter in regions of energy flow. This orderly cycling is only possible because of external energy sources that power the maintenance and growth and, in life, the reproduction of complex systems in accord with the second law. Such cycling transformations come prior to meaning—whether beautiful music or Bataille’s theoretical cacophony—and the search for it. That Bataille is considered to be a source for postmodernism is no coincidence. Having read, in Paris, in 1929, La Biosphère, the book in which the author, Russian geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky, for the first time regards life as a naturalistic energetic whole transforming solar energy, Bataille’s thought was infused by a powerful strain of science that had nothing to do with morality except by its conspicuous absence. Torn later between the competing ideologies of communism and fascism, Bataille anchored his thought in the theoretical bedrock of Vernadsky’s energy science. Life’s transformation of solar energy is beyond our morality, older than our species, and the source of our erotic energy and sexual obsessions.