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The Shadow of Venus: Atavism and Sexuality

How can the primitive shadow side of our sexuality be understood?

David Zigmond argues that we are driven not so much by the need to procreate as by the attempt to master and fixate the past.

If venereal delight and the power of propagating the species were permitted only to the virtuous, it would make the world very good.’

James Boswell, London Journal, March 26th 1763

Most creatures have a vague belief that a very precarious hazard, a kind of transparent membrane, divides death from love: and that the profound idea of nature demands that the giver of life should die at the moment of giving.’

Maurice Maeterlinck, The Life of the Bee, 1901

Of all human paradoxes, our Sexuality is the cruellest, the richest, the most tragi-comic. For all, it is the Maker of Destiny; but for many (most?), the Scrambler of Design. It is the 'Joker' in the Pack of Intent. Even if we have ourselves escaped archaic and anarchic tides and vortices, we are almost certain to have witnessed other, no-lesser mortals, depart the rational world; Abducted by Aliens. At its best, it spawns the ordinary miracle of new life. It is 'Libido', ‘Nachus', the germ of family, the template of growing networks. But as it enters our shadowlands it is transformed, tranceformed, to Destrudo, Mortido: the slayer of integrity, the courtesan of dismembered and dishonoured unions. The fluids that carry the Germs of Life, may also convey the viral Nucleic Acids of Death. The Harbourer of Life beclouds the Harbinger of Death. Perhaps our existential predicaments are, literally, embodied in the anatomical plan: our reservoirs and channels of procreation reside and emerge next to those of elimination. Spring of Life: Waste of Death. Propinquitous adversaries; inseparable neighbours.

Libidinal sex runs to the trumpeted birth, the proud dynasty. But sex is chimeric and fickle: tumescence sometimes transmutes to tragedy with the inexorability of a mighty waterfall. We are publicly and privately fascinated by such sex-in-destrudo. In its noblest and grandest forms we have Biblical Tales, Classical Myths and Opera. For more immediate, salacious gratification, weekend newspapers are cheaper and easier. The Fallen Great always sell News-Print. Those less candid savour shrill morality, the more humble know it could be (has been?) them.

Humankind is unique in liberating libido from oestrus. Our sexual activity is only fractionally motivated by our desire for procreation. In other species every ‘courtship' gesture is some kind of selection, ranking, monitoring of healthy fertility, and negotiation about defensible space. The sexual act itself is functional and uniformly stereotyped within the species. All is subsumed to procreation. All this can, and does, happen in human encounters, but most sexual acts occur outside the procreational remit: we create a more diverse and unpredictable world where sex, the excitement produced when we are touched at the delicate junction of our inside and outside, can only be understood in terms of experience, not biological function.

This 'experience' is a hind-brain act of creation. With our fore-brain we may attempt to guide, edit, appreciate or moralise —all the ways we have of socialising the Primitive; directing the sexual 'current'. But the 'sparks' of sexual excitement are forms of primitive entrancement and enthrallment: the gravitational field of our individual and collective past, impelling us to re-enact, regurgitate, revisit, sometimes resolve Ancestral Homes: our in­fancy and our biological legacy. These forces, emanating from our individual and species inheritance, act in many ways like planetary gravity. We are mostly unaware of it, until mishap and misjudgement make clear how decisive and irresistible are the influences of planets or stars, which may have long passed out of visibility, and whose distance from us is not comprehensible within our usual frame. In the domain of our sexuality, especially, there are crucial influences whose origin has long vanished: 'Woe betide' is an interestingly constructed phrase to caution those sceptical or casual about submerged tides and currents. The determinants of our sexuality are not part of the usual landscape of conscious and intentional self. Hence the peril and fascination.

What are these primitive realms, these springs of such hypnotic power? A condensed answer is that human sexuality recapitulates both ontogeny and phylogeny. We are driven not so much by the need to assure the future (by fertilisation), as by the attempt to encompass, master and fixate the past. As we shall see, such attempts are only ever transiently successful; but the most fleeting of such satisfactions is still the most reliably alluring and perennial of all human balms and stimulants.

The ontogenic basis of our sexuality is the one that has been recurrently rummaged, especially by psychoanalysts. In brief, we regress to earlier satisfactions or struggles in order either to possess or master them. We become the anguished infant quelled by the stroking hand, the hungry mouth searching for the breast, the newborn gazing at the source of life, or struggling (vainly!) for re-entry through the Arch of Birth. Intertwined, interpenetrated, we relive the fascinated dances of exploration of body parts, the existence of ‘other'. The familiar and the alien. Safety and danger. A part and apart.

All this, as in infancy, is lived out through touch, gaze, body heat and flu­ids, and contact of the most primal and powerful kind: the junction of inside and outside; Endoderm and Ectoderm. Sensa­tion is seared to its earliest and its essence — the Mother of all Experience.

By publicly-avowed convention we regard sex as 'healthy' and 'wholesome' when it derives from the Winnicottian triad of pleasured Mother-baby bonds: feeding, nursing and playing. These, with myriad variations and inventions, conjur the Joy of Sex, the Light Side of the Moon, Libido. But the infant is not purely pleas­ure-seeking, pain-avoidant. Whether by wish, fear or phantasy, the primitive mind tips over into a welter-world of monsters, perils and horrors. The pleasure-triad becomes starkly inverted — a Kleinian cluster of pillage, invasion, spoliation, makes a shadowy, malign reflection. We are in the territory of Crime and Punishment, The Moon's Spectre, Mortido.

This mortidinous dimension of Sex is commoner than 'Common-Sense' would have us suppose. For the 'public' and simplistic view is that 'healthy' sex is fuelled by solely 'good' intentions and inclinations — kindness, pleasure, safety, mutuality. Most of us know otherwise. These contributions may make sex warm, but not catch fire. Alas, 'normal' sexual excitement often needs an element of danger, challenge, peril, pain. Mostly, fortunately, our forebrain can contain and compromise the hindbrain's hazardous cravings. We settle for the fierce kiss, the sharp ridged sweep of a fingernail, the violent thrust, the understood utterances of erotic abuse, the fantasy never uttered. Here, we can have combustion without conflagration, danger without harm. Flesh and trust are unbroken. An Erotico-magnetic field and spark needs this tension and juxtaposition of opposites. Safety and danger, protection and attack, Libido and Mortido. The balance of opposites is difficult and fragile, especially in long-term relationships. Most commonly, through fatigue, the balance shifts towards safety, leading to a current without sparks and often, sadly, no current at all. Less commonly, the shift will be toward danger, destrudo and death (either literal or metaphorical), which leads to many sparks, but no current. Frequently, in such cases, sex is no balm, but a bait and a weapon, used in symbolic retaliation for ancient hurts and horrors. There is, here, no counterbalancing libido.

Such condensation within our sexuality of early and primitive experiences and struggles often imbues our sexual bonds with infantile intensity and perspective: 'I can't live without you'. It is often impossible to separate primordial bliss from primeval terror: Life and Death are here explosively close. 'Crime Passionel' is the commonest (peacetime) murder.

Our hindbrain is the repository not only of the innumerable ghosts of our individual-past, but also the echo-traces of our species-past — our phylogeny. The odyssey of evolution, the aeons passed in Life's Push from Amoeba to Flatworm to Fish, Mudskipper, amphibian, mammal; all exist as remnants in our anatomy and gestation. Miraculously, we condense millions of years of evolution into the nine months in-utero, during the ordinary, extraordinary growth of fertilised ovum to human foetus. 'Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.' There are equivalent vestiges in our dreams and sexuality, too. We dream of flight, of sub-aquatic or burrowing existence, of being the bloodied roaring King, or his terror-struck, whinnying quarry. We may dream of our skin shedding, of laying eggs, of pupating into alien forms. These are not the workings of a modern fore-brain engulfing biological data to feed it, fragmented and mutated, into hind-brain’s dreams. Such images and notions occur among the earliest Myths and Art-forms known to us, often from cultures not acquainted with such creatures. The identification with other life-forms seems an 'intuitive' hindbrain act, an awakening of a prehistoric memory trace, a zoomorphic variation of Jung's Collective Unconscious, connecting and echoing Life, in all its panoply and history. Such dreams are not merely inventive projections: they are Nature's reminder that we are where we have come from.

And so it is with our sexuality; an activity so diverse as to make absurd our endless attempts to contain it within frames of morality, normality or sanity. Even if we do not outwardly transgress, we know that our inner images and wonderings are often generated beyond the frame. We burden and misunderstand ourselves with the assumption that human sexuality should, like other creatures, have a standard and stereotypic form; a ‘normality’ that can be assessed by the parameters of a biological function. But millennia of evidence indicates that sex is more akin to dream-state than bodily function. In this dream-world, this entrancement, we may unwillingly and unwittingly find hypnotic echoes and compulsive urges which have no useful role in fertilisation, but in which, by vestiges and relics, the whole of nature finds representation.

Sex is the anchor that we throw over the gunwale of human-kind to the ocean-bed of the animal. The anchor-points through which we cleave, with such ephemeral obsession, to our animal sub­stratum are, often, so diverse and remote, that our forebrain-self responds with either incredulity or alarm.

A short selection of other species' scenarios gives some illustrations to the notion of our sexual atavism. They range from the benign and sublime, to the ma­lign and hideous. In some we find the parallel is direct and clear, in others indirect and metaphorical. For the sake of brevity, I have bracketed the human equivalent in a cursory, but hopefully comprehensible, form.

  • Birds feed their young beak-to-beak. (Sexual mouth kissing comprises many feeding imitations.)

  • Mouth-brooder fish fertilise and care for the eggs in the mouth. (Dreams and fantasies of oral impregnation and fertilisation.)

  • Snails and slugs are hermaphrodite, enacting both gender roles simultane­ously. (We are significantly more her­maphrodite, in secret or private, than our anatomy or social conventions suggest.)

  • Cat family males have a barbed penis — this causes intense sudden pain to the female on withdrawal, stimulating ovulation. (Some pain is often aphrodisiacal, either intrinsically, or because of its suggestion of danger.)

  • The female praying mantis devours her male mate soon after fertilisation, to serve as nutrient for her motherhood. (At its most horrific is the post-coital murder, usually perpetrated by males. What is rather more common is an intense, but inchoate, male fear of post­-coital engulfment or castration. In my view, these feelings are nowhere near accounted for by psychoanalytic notions of envy, oedipal retaliation etc.)

  • In some species of spider, the male will weave a web around the female in order to protect himself from being eaten. Often he will offer her a web-wrapped gift of other food to distract her while he is doing this. (Bondage is often a defence against the danger of coitus, albeit sometimes ritualized. Gifts are often distractions to forestall attack.)

  • In many mammals the mother will lick the infant all over for cleanliness and warmth. Common too, is the mother's eating the body waste of the infant, not only for hygiene and the deterring of predators, but also to make an olfactory bond of recognition that may be essential for the infant's survival. (As with mouth-feeding, there are many echoes here in oral sexuality.)

  • Barnacles, which cannot move to mate,have developed a unique telescopic penis to enable sex at a distance. (The human equivalents here are numerous and metaphorical, and range from voyeurism to telephone and internet-sex; from prostitution to pornography. The human ‘shell' here is emotional, and the 'distance', anonymity.)

Possibly the most universally emotive animal act serving as a metaphor for understanding the experience and metaphysic of human sexuality, is that of the Salmon. Such fish swim from their sea habitat, up and against river currents, in order to spawn in the very same place that they were hatched. The journey is gruelling and the mission heroic, for the enfeebled creatures die of exhaustion soon after emission.

There is a poetic equivalence here to our own sexual and life-cycles of excitement and struggle; decay and death. The heightened senses, the thrashing, gasping, rasping struggle of life. The cries and shouts, akin to the holler of labour: the fanfare of imminent birth. Then, Explosion-implosion. Transcendence, contraction, mindless, senseless, flaccid, as vulnerable as a new-born; still-born? Quiet and still: barely breathing in the twilight. A sweet-musty odour, a fluttering fall of autumn leaves. Death fleets and vanishes. Beneath the Flow, the Undertow. Life is fragile and transient: how precious!

It is through sex, through the stellate explosion of our senses into orgasm, that our struggling polarities are miraculously, if transiently, reconciled. Inside and outside, forebrain and hindbrain, human and animal, safety and danger, a part and apart, self and other, microcosm and macro­cosm, life and death. Perhaps this last verse can most aptly close this circle of cycles:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

TS Eliot, 'Little Gidding', The Four Quartets.

Dr David Zigmond is a Medical Practitioner and Psychotherapist working both privately and in the NHS. His early training was in both psychoanalytic and humanistic frames: a paradox and amalgam he still enjoys.

HUMAN POTENTIAL Winter 1995 27

Contents Copyright ©; Dr David Zigmond 1995, 2010

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Version: 19th October 2014

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