Jack’s Naughty Bits: Baudelaire, Le Spleen de Paris

Pin it

Jack's Naughty Bits

At a particular moment in the otherwise forgettable Catherine Breillat film, Romance, the female lead picks up a man on the street, takes him back to her apartment building and has sex with him on the stairwell. All of a sudden, however, the sex becomes rape, and the man runs off taunting her: “I fucked your ass! I fucked your ass!” It was a disturbing scene on many fronts (not least as part of the surprisingly anti-sex sentiment that ran through the film), but it made me conscious again of how much the idea of having and taking are bound up in sexual relations, despite whatever kindness and gentleness we might like to prevail.

I am speaking, of course, about the hackneyed conception of sex as pursuit and evasion, a function of one party conquering the other, and, in doing so, managing to assert their power (normally thought to be from male to female, though the reverse is sometimes just as true). All sexual relations do not correspond to this model, obviously, but it does strike me how many men will respond to a sexily dressed or exceptionally beautiful woman by saying they want to fuck her, not, it seems, out of actual desire, but out of a violent urge to bring her down a peg. Sex is a vehicle, at times, for expressing frustration and self-hatred, for the feeling of impotence in the face of the unattainable, for the built-up exhaustion many men feel with the whole process of pursuit itself and the desire to punish women both for having evaded and, at the critical juncture, for actually having succumbed.

And yet, Breillat’s film brings out a further subtlety: that what counts as having or taking someone will depend from person to person, and perhaps from circumstance to circumstance. Conventionally, men have women when there’s sex; women have men when there’s a ring (though it’s clear that this conception is aging). Breillat’s rapist, however, needed anal sex to feel like he had had the protagonist. By contrast, I once wrote a character who wanted only to taste the woman’s vagina; sex wasn’t necessary for him to feel he had had her — only taste. It’s clear that any number of other lines could be drawn, all arbitrary.

It would be nice to be able to tease out which sexual motivations derive from erotic desire, and which from the violent wish to seize power. I think a lot of sex has elements of both, and it might not always be clear what the mix is. In the excerpt below, Baudelaire is describing the moon-touched woman who appears and reappears in his Paris Spleen, a collection of prose poems written about fin-de-siècle Paris. By the end, it becomes clear that he is trying to differentiate his feelings for her from the simple desire to conquer. Perhaps here, Baudelaire too recognizes the contrary impulses that can underlay lust and wants to insist not on violence, but on beauty. Would that the balance could always shift so.


From Le Spleen de Parisby Charles Baudelaire

Translated by Edward Kaplan, modified slightly

“Le desir de peindre”

Unhappy perhaps the man, but happy the artist shattered by desire!

I burn to paint her who appeared to me so rarely and who fled so quickly, like a beautiful lamented thing left by the traveler swept into the night. She disappeared so long ago!

She is beautiful, and more than beautiful; she is surprising. Black abounds in her, and everything she inspires is nocturnal and deep. Her eyes are two caves dimly glittering with mystery, and her gaze illumines like lightning: an explosion in the darkness.

I might compare her to a black sun, if you could imagine a black star pouring forth light and happiness. But she reminds you more readily of the moon, which probably branded her with her fearsome influence. Not the white moon of romance, which resembles a frigid bride, but the sinister and intoxicating moon, suspended deep within a stormy night and jostled by fleeing clouds. Not the peaceful and discreet moon attending upon the sleep of pure people, but the moon ripped from the sky, defeated and rebellious, which the Witches of Thessaly fiercely compel to dance on the terrified grass!

A stubborn will and the love of prey dwell on her little brow. However, below her disquieting face, where mobile nostrils inhale the unknown and the impossible, with inexpressible grace, there bursts the laughter of a large mouth, red and white, and delicious, calling to mind the miracle of a magnificent flower budding in volcanic ground.

Some women inspire the need to defeat them and take full pleasure from them; but this one arouses the desire to die slowly under her gaze.

last week next week

Jack Murnighan‘s stories appeared in the Best American Erotica editions of 1999, 2000 and 2001. His weekly column for Nerve, Jack’s Naughty Bits, was collected and released as two books. He was the editor-in-chief of Nerve from 1999 to 2001, before retiring to write full time and take seriously the quest for love.

Introduction ©2000 Jack Murnighan and, Inc.