Philosophy

The Sexual Sublime and the Sublime Reality of Death

Sex and death are the greatest realities of the sublime. The sublime, as articulated by Edmund Burke, is “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime, that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which on the part of pleasure.” From the pen of the man who would inspire entire aesthetic and literary movements after him, we can succinctly reduce the sublime to that which produces “the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”

While Burke defended aesthetics against the encroachment of sterilizing rationality marching to suffocate it (the beautiful also produces an emotional response but not the “strongest emotion” as the sublime does), Burke also implied that the ultimate expression of the sublime is death and destruction. Why? Because death, or destruction, makes us realize the finality of our existence. In death we come to terms with who we are as embodied mortal creatures. And this, of course, produces the most extreme fits of passion, emotion, and psychological torment as we grapple with the reality of our limited existence.

Sex and death are the greatest realities of the sublime because sex and death give purpose and meaning to our lives; it actually makes our choices worthwhile and consequential. In death, especially, with mortal creature reality fully manifested the choices we make are magnified to the fullest.

Man is not a rational animal. Man is a pathological animal. Thus it isn’t surprising that the two great realities of the sublime are pathological in nature: sex and death. In fact, sex and death can often be companion souls with one another.

Sex and the sublime should be self-evident enough. Sexual pathos is the manifestation of frenzied movement, emotion, and sways that are indicative of the sublime. The sublime is ecstatic, and sex is an ecstatic reality. Sex gets the blood boiling, so to speak, which brings about the great movement of terror, horror, and shame that are involved in the sexual act.

Jupiter and Antiope
Nicolas Poussin, “Jupiter and Antiope.”

Yet sex also entails a certain dying to the other. The self is given entirely over to the other in the sexual act. In the sexual act the self is entirely consumed by the other and, in a psychological and interior sense, dies to the other. Yet this is a reciprocal act. Both partners die to one another in the sexual act which paradoxically has the greatest potential creative outburst of all: the creation of new life!

This reality of the sublime nature of sex and death is still preserved in the ancient repository of our sublime origins: ancient poetry and mythology. In the Enuma Elis, the Babylonian creation story, the god Marduk must overcome the chaotic water goddess Tiamat. Tiamat, the personified female femme fatale who self generates and is a threat to the “male” world is therefore confronted by the masculine male god Marduk where the two battle with erotic overtures in their dialectical encounter. Marduk eventually fires a prolonged arrow—like an erect phallus—into Tiamat’s mouth which kills her. Marduk then stands over her in a position of domination to build the new world of civilization from her blood:

And the lord stood upon Tiamat’s hinder parts,
And with his merciless club he smashed her skull.
He cut through the channels of her blood,
And he made the North wind bear it away into secret places.

Hesiod’s Theogony also captures the sublime, ecstatic, sexual and death-saturated, origins of civilization. The birth of the gods comes from the violence sex of Uranus and Gaia and Kronos’ chopping off of Uranus’ phallus which births the Olympians and, long after, humans:

As soon as Cronus lopped off the genitals
with the sickle, they fell from the mainland into the much-surging sea, so that the sea
carried them for a long time. Around them a white
foam from the immortal skin began to arise. In it, a maiden
was nurtured. First, she drew near holy Kythera,
and from there she arrived at Kypros surrounded by water.
From within, a majestic and beautiful goddess stepped, and
all around grass grew beneath her slender feet. Aphrodite
[foam-born goddess and fair-wreathed Kythereia]
gods and men call her because she was nurtured in foam.

Cruikshank, George, 1792-1878; Venus Rising from the Froth of the Sea
George Cruikshank, “Venus Rising from the Froth of the Sea.”

Even Homer’s Iliad retains this sublime chaotic cosmic reality. The first outbreak of mass battle in the Iliad is after Paris is whisked away by Aphrodite and he seduces Helen in his bedchambers for a night of steamy and gaudy sex. Likewise, the movement of the second half of the epic is preceded by Hera’s seduction of Zeus and from their sexual act chaos breaks out in the world below.

Yet it is precisely in the aftermath of the chaos of sex and death in the Iliad that we witness some of the much touching, beautiful, moments in the whole song. First is Hector’s return to Troy where he embraces in his tender arms Andromache and Astyanax. Second is Patroclus’ healing of the wounded hero Eurypylus. Third is the Greek defense of Patroclus’ body from desecration by the Trojans. Fourth is Priam’s venture into the tent of Achilles to recover the body of Hector where he and Achilles weep in each other’s arms in the only moment of loving forgiveness in the poem.

Fast forwarding to the romantics, whether John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, Friedrich Hölderlin, among so many others, part of the sublime content of their poetry is the spectacle and heroism of war and sex. For war and sex “excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime, that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which on the part of pleasure.” War is, of course, not a pleasing experience. It is exciting experience in the classical usage of the word exciting: arousing. War arouses the passions inside of us to fight or flight.

Likewise, sex is not meant to be a pleasing experience either. It is an arousal experience and an ecstatic one. Modern sex, with its dry and robotic nature, is depressing. People seek passion, energy, and spice to their erotic lives. That is sublime because the sublime sexual encounter is a momentary catharsis that exhausts itself in death to the other.

What excites the passions inside of us to break us out of our robotic shells? Happy endings might tickle us, but they hardly make us cry or feel something deep inside our emptied metaphysical souls. Sex and death, especially death, do tend to make us cry and cause us to carry a deep weight inside our empty souls. The paradox of the sublime reality of death is that our encounter with Death may just wake us from rational slumber and cause us to live ecstatically again.

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