By CS Bhagya
Research, to employ that severely over-cited Dickensian phrase, can be the best of times and the worst of times. A crucial element of conversations revolving around research moments is that “discussing” – quite a misnomer – actually involves the two opponents donning armour and battling it out on the slippery slopes of theory and analysis. This is true irrespective of case: whether it concerns the appraising of a text from a safe distance – a series of prompt approvals or dismissals – or the unapologetic demolition of the text from quarters too close for comfort into “nonexistent!” (as more than one browbeaten rookie researcher has wailed) components. It’s only slowly that you begin to notice that the process of “unpacking”, “decoding”, generally shredding into constituents, happens nearly everywhere, within and without the classroom. Even something as seemingly uncharged and innocent as a casual conversation might, to the quick eye, become revelatory of deeply entrenched beliefs and prejudices. Men and women donning roles, discarding them, performing various identities, interacting from these positions, speaking these positions and being that – utterances shot through with differences of power, hierarchies showing through unwittingly, instantly turning the conversation into fraught, unbalanced activities. Men and women talking to each other – talking to each other or at each other or through or over or down to? I was reading Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me and pondering the painful experience of moving into academic spaces where academic men, more often than you’d want to believe, try to explain academic things to you which you are – voilà! – more than fully academically equipped to comprehend yourself. A cutting experience to say the least, especially after years and years of all-girl study environments that don’t really have that much trouble taking you seriously and on your own terms; academic men of this particular bent of behaviour should be introduced to these spaces, since they seem to have so much trouble believing how easily it’s possible to carry on a serious discussion without dismissive condescension bordering on contempt. This piece – loose ruminations with a generous helping of theory, really – on Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac films got written when I was trying to think through the tricky problems of conversing with (contemptuous) men, but drifted toward the wider shores of discussing the female body and sexual pathology. I chose the films because they interwove problems more obviously applicable to a cultural theory classroom – ideas related to the female body, the male gaze, pornography and patriarchy – with the less immediately perceptible linkages between conversation and networks of patriarchal power.
Scene 1: Body
The story begins with Seligman, (Stellan Skarsgård) finding Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lying sprawled, bruised and bleeding in the alleyway in front of his house. After helping her into his house and into a comfortable bed to rest, he offers himself as audience to a willing narrator as Joe embarks upon the tale of the special circumstances that brought her there. She starts her tale by revealing that she “discovered her cunt when she was two”.
The trajectory of the two Nymphomaniac films (2013, 2014) charts Joe’s personal narrative in a series of 8 chapters – this move seemingly intended to create an atmosphere of writing, of textuality, that is deliberately grafted upon the tale, to orient the spotlight onto not just the story as it is told, but the process of the construction of the story itself. Sexuality, then, appears to be posited by von Trier through the clever self-conscious storytell of Joe, it is imbricated in processes of depletion, replenishment, recreation and rearrangement of meanings that circulate around, among other things, the body.
Scene 2: Conversation
After her potentially sacrilegious revelation, Joe continues with a story that is loaded with what to a regular cinema-goer might be construed as prodigious pornographic detail. First, she voluntarily asks a random stranger Jerome (Shia LaBeouf) to relieve her of her virginity, which he, of course, cheerfully does. Some years later, with her comrade in arms, another rebellious girl named B, she takes to boarding trains and traversing the length of each train looking for “prey,” to seduce and check off on their ever-lengthening list of sexual conquests. Seligman’s character doubles as critic and as patient listener who helps Joe alleviate her recent traumatic experience through the plausible cathartic exercise of story-telling.
In the interludes to Joe’s story, Seligman betrays, minimally, his own interests. It is evident he’s a voracious reader, and his little house is filled with classics – books, art, music; and the insights he’s gleaned from reading and working with them are liberally sprinkled in his erudite conversations with Joe. Seligman primarily serves as a distancing mechanism, a hermeneutic framework through which, to every anecdote dispatched by Joe, he appropriates the narrative and constricts it to an analytic moment, after which Joe, having unwearyingly heard his interventions, occasionally responds, extrapolates or treats them as a momentary inconsequential, if interesting, digression. The structure of the story is such that it allows for the interplay of both their perspectives as confrontation, as play, as contest, as a constantly shifting altercation between two very different experiential attitudes – Joe’s as an embodiment of pure narrative, as somebody who experiences the world first hand and lets it come into intimate contact with herself, and Seligman’s – who experiences it at a critical distance, through interfaces of literature, art, music; essentially, various forms of knowledge. Patent in this binaristic division of the roles of Joe and Seligman is the not so subtle evocation of the nature-culture binary that has formed the crux of feminist interventions in philosophy and politics – the fight against the sexual division of labour and consequent relegation of the woman to a private sphere, and the man to a public sphere, due to a presumed understanding that women, owing to certain bodily functions (predominantly childbirth) are bound to their bodies, while men, without such compulsions to nurture, possess a free rein to exercise their intellect freely.
Joe and Seligman appear, then, to represent the binaries of nature vs. culture, as well as the mind/ body divide, in which Joe presents the case of nature and Seligman that of culture; Joe the body, and Seligman the mind. While Joe is a surfeit of sexual experience, Seligman is precisely the lack of it – a virgin and professedly asexual. What ensues is a re-enactment of the tussle between these polarities through the course of Joe’s narrative. Every time Joe pauses in her tale, Seligman takes the opportunity to cast it into a mould of interpretation of his own particular invention, generated from his vast reserve of knowledge. These interpretations range from a clear-cut critique of the narrated anecdote, to attempts to disabuse Joe of her own diagnosis of her situation, to according the narrated fraction of the story a metaphorical import by introducing resemblances to an allusion that has just occurred to Seligman.
The first chapter that Joe’s narrative is divided into is titled “The Compleat Angler” after the 1655 Izaak Walton book of the same name – a childhood favourite of Seligman’s. While Joe recounts her years growing up, especially the time she spent with B sexing her way across trains, Seligman discourses on this book that occupied his interest for the longest time as a child, and offers it as a parallel to Joe’s movements through the train – according to him, Joe and B moved as the larger predator fish did through the river, first feeding on the easily baited smaller fish, then to the prize catch: the men in the first class compartment.
At first Joe is piqued by his digressions; later, mildly irked, because they interrupt her story too often, and finally quite transparently annoyed, because of the lack of relevance of his digressions to some of her anecdotes. After one particularly lengthy intrusion, Joe remarks coldly, “I think that was your weakest digression yet,” and Seligman, snubbed, falls silent as she resumes her story. Von Trier juxtaposes these two commonly visible structural devices with which narrative tends to get permeated, and examines the tensions between the two – asking questions of what constitutes a story, whether a pure tale stripped of all overtly allusive, “intellectual” content (pure experience laid bare) is possible. In the same way, he extends his thesis to wonder through the cinematic medium, whether pure body as the singular mode of accessing the world is a plausible antenna with which to mediate the pulse of society. Especially with regard to women – femininity and its fraught relationship with the body – this is particularly pertinent, and von Trier’s exposition hinges on this – the interrogation of the female body that is used as a site of regulation and surveillance upon which normative (particularly hetero-normative) society consolidates itself.
Scene 3: Guilt
While Joe’s journey largely has her encapsulating her life into an embellished narrative, von Trier unleashes a series of crucial questions related to sexuality and the female body. Joe’s series of sexual liaisons, adolescence onwards, has her accustomed to sexual activity as a natural part of her daily routine, so much so that it appears to have turned, to her consternation, into a knee-jerk response to most situations, whether they possess sexual stimuli or not. Her physical response to the deterioration of her father’s health is to launch herself into sexual activity with more aggression than before, the culmination of which has her – to her intense shame and guilt – lubricating at her father’s deathbed. Seligman assures her that there’s no cause for her to castigate herself for reacting sexually to her father’s death, since sexual arousal in moments of crisis is a common enough phenomenon. Towards the end of the film, when Joe has just revealed to Seligman that she came very close to killing her once-husband Jerome because he had taken up with P – her heir-apparent in organised crime who she had personally trained to blackmail and sexually assault people indebted to the associated organisation for which she worked – Seligman comments that her story would have been very different had she been a man. “You were a human being, demanding your right,” he tells her. “And more than that, you were a woman demanding her right”. Still unconvinced, she asks, “Does that pardon everything?” He asks in return,
D’you think if two men would’ve walked down a train looking for women, d’you think anybody would’ve raised an eyebrow? Or if a man had led the life (of sexual promiscuity) that you had? When a man leaves his children because of desire we accept it with a shrug, but when you left your child, you had to take up a guilt, a burden of guilt that could never be alleviated. And all in all, all the blame and guilt that had piled up over the years had become too much and you reacted aggressively, almost like a man, I have to say. You fought back, you fought back against the gender that had been oppressing and mutilating and killing you and millions of other women.
Scene 4: Love
Interestingly enough, Joe’s choices in the film, especially at the beginning of the second film, are crucial to understanding the complexity of Joe’s problem: when Joe meets Jerome again after several years post the loss of her virginity, she finds that she falls in love with him, helplessly, despite desperately wanting otherwise, but loses him again because he marries someone else before she can confess her love to him. When she finds him again at the end of the first film and is having “fulfilled” sex with him within the purview of a romantic liaison, she suddenly loses all feeling, and despite repeated, progressively violent attempts to achieve an orgasm, fails to. As a consequence, she become lax about birth control during that period, and conceives a child. After her son Marcel is born, still desperate to regain her orgasm, she decides to seek the services of a professional sadomasochist K, in the hope of violently kick-starting her lost sense of pleasure. Once, when away for a session with K, she’s running late, and Marcel finds a way to climb out of his crib and climb into the balcony, fascinated by the sight of falling snow. Just as he’s leaning over the railing trying to grab at a handful, about to tip over, Jerome enters the house and rescues him in the nick of time. Outraged at her neglect as a mother, Jerome forces her to choose between her child and K that night, giving her the ultimatum that if she walks out that Christmas night, she can say farewell to her family forever. Joe walks out, misbehaves with K, and as a reprimand, receives a more severe punishment than before, and simultaneously finds a way, finally, to achieve orgasm.
Earlier, she and her friend B parted ways because B had the nerve to introduce the concept of love into the secret teenage cult that they had started together, called the “little flock”, to worship sex and their “vulva”. Before storming out of the group, B whispers in Joe’s ears, blasphemously, “The secret ingredient to sex is love”. When, ironically, Joe appears to have fallen into the same clichéd trap of exalting romantic love after her re-acquaintance with Jerome, von Trier undercuts it by having Joe lose her orgasm. Joe’s loss of her ability to experience sexual pleasure and her retrieval of the same coincides – neatly – with her succumbing to the construct of romantic love which she has railed against all her life. Von Trier slyly, under the facade of tipping his hat to the romantic experience, then disavows love as the authentic alter-ego to sex, and posits it as a feeble counterfoil – in fact, rather a glossy gimmick – while sex, unadulterated (or adulterated), is underscored as the real thing.
Scene 5: Pathology
The problem of the body here in Joe’s case is further complicated because she is, self-confessedly, a nymphomaniac. The term [derived from the New Latin nymphae (inner lips of the vulva) + mania (mania), from the Greek nymphe (bride) + mania (madness)] refers specifically to “uncontrollable or excessive sexual desire in a woman”, and already, preliminarily, begs unpacking along gendered lines. It begs one to consider the existence of this separate, highly charged and quite blatantly pathologizing allusion to the “uncontrolled” sexual desire of a woman. While the film itself doesn’t delve into the history of “nymphomania”, Joe, categorically claiming to be a nymphomaniac, is not unaware of the prejudices associated with a woman who chooses to privilege her sexual life over the roles allowed her within the narrow confines of social acceptability. In her study Nymphomania: A History Carol Groneman notes that, at least in the Victorian period,
[B]oth doctors and the patients who sought medical help believed that strong sexual desire in a woman was a symptom of disease. Self-control and moderation were central to the health of both men and women, but women’s presumably milder sexual appetite meant that any signs of excess might signal she was dangerously close to the edge of sexual madness. Not surprisingly, physicians registered the greatest concern when the disease appeared in “refined and virtuous” women […] While attempting to define excessive sexual desire as a disease, physicians continued to identify the patient’s lack of moral restraint and willpower as central to the malady. The first full-length study of the disease, Nymphomania, or a Dissertation Concerning the Furor Uterinus, written by an obscure French doctor, M.D.T Bienville, and translated into English in 1775, emphasized that particular connection.
Thus, while noting the charge that the label “nymphomaniac” carries, it’s unavoidable for any exposition on the subject to not discuss the stigma associated with the label – the label that Joe so daringly flaunts here. Initially, Joe presents herself to Seligman with great hesitation, as an unforgivable, sinful woman, presenting the story of her unpardonable crime as if in expiation. Seligman, in response, tries to intervene intelligently, serving to critically examine the events causing her anxiety and guilt through factual contradiction and reassurance, or by means of reframing her anxiety by directing her attention to the tellingly gendered socio-cultural matrix in which she has had these scarring experiences.
Scene 6: Therapy
Approaching a drastic shift from her lifelong protest of the construct of romantic love, just when Joe’s life approaches normalcy, and just when she’s about to go down the same well-trodden path as the rest of the society she’s never felt she belonged to, the most important singularly significant focus of her life – sexual pleasure – gives way beneath her. Her reclamation of her orgasm coincides with her walking out on her family, shredding the fabric of the family, the sacrosanct building block of monogamous, hetero-normative society that disallows her identity as a nymphomaniac an accepted existence. Once she’s out of the family structure for good, and has returned to her old ways of sleeping with men at will, the manager at her job summons her into her office and warns her about her behaviour, which is raising the hackles of a lot of women around, because they feel that their husbands will be Joe’s next target. She’s forced to attend a sex addicts group for therapy, but one fine day she realises the futility and hypocrisy of the sessions and explodes, announcing that she’s not like the other women there, hoping for rehabilitation and reintegration into society, because her sexual “addiction” isn’t circumstantial, a product of a psychological mishap, but she is what she is by nature and by choice, and refuses to “adjust” to normal society. She tells the therapist squarely that the empathy she claims “is a lie. Because all you are is society’s morality police whose duty is to erase my obscenity from the surface of the earth, so that the bourgeoisie won’t feel sick”.
The regulation of Joe’s sexual appetite and misdemeanours can be traced to networks of power which started crystallising in the 18th century, according to Michel Foucault, when four strategic unities could be identified for when specific mechanisms of knowledge and power centering on sex took on a consistency and gained an effectiveness in the order of power, as well as a productivity in the order of knowledge. Of the four listed in The History of Sexuality: Volume 1 (The Will to Knowledge), one is quite clearly applicable in Joe’s case, or in the case of the pathology of the nymphomaniac, that is the process of
[H]ysterization of women’s bodies: a three-fold process whereby the feminine body was analysed – qualified and disqualified – as being thoroughly saturated with sexuality; whereby it was integrated into the sphere of medical practices, by reason of a pathology intrinsic to it; whereby, finally it was placed in organic communication with the social body (whose regulated fecundity it was supposed to ensure), the family space (of which it had to be a substantial and functional element), and the life of children (which it produced and had to guarantee, by virtue of a biologic-moral responsibility lasting through the entire period of the children’s education)…
Scene 7: The Abject
Her last aggressive onslaught against the quotidian, this time consciously wreaked, is to join an organised crime contingent that hires her to use her vast knowledge of sexual practices in blackmail and extortion, and ends in her protégé P taking on her role as sexual provocateur par excellence and filling in her shoes to the extent of taking up Jerome (who has reappeared once again) as her lover. In the last scene of her narrative to Seligman, Joe tries to kill Jerome, but forgets to rack the gun and fails to fire. Jerome and her protégé violently assault her and have sex in front of her, Jerome penetrating P with the same number of thrusts as when he had taken Joe’s virginity, which Seligman had earlier equated to the Fibonacci sequence, as if coming full circle.
Before leaving her to die in the alleyway, P also, in a final move, urinates on top of Joe. Joe has been dealt the final stroke of abjection, abandoned to be an outcast in a world she was just beginning to learn the ropes of, if only antagonistically. Julia Kristeva’s theory of the abject is useful to consider in this respect. In her work, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Kristeva defines the abject as that which does not respect borders and positions and rules, that which “disturbs identity, system, order”. Kristeva posits that abjection largely occurs at two different tiers: biological bodily functions, and as inscribed in a symbolic religious economy. The first category expresses itself in terms of bodily explusion of wastes like shit, blood, urine, pus, and so on. Here, when P urinates on top of Joe, it appears to be an unambiguous attempt to seal Joe’s fate and declare that she has been cut out of the position that she previously occupied – and not only has her reign of sexual prowess seen its last, she has been rendered useless and eliminated from the structures within which her movement was unfettered, even if that movement was conditioned on erasure from the mainstream. Her body is symbolically expelled from the realm of the organisation, and from any remnant of a possibility of reconciliation with Jerome.
In a doubly cynical take on von Trier’s part, the last scene of the film depicts Joe resting in bed having concluded her tale, when Seligman furtively enters the room. When the camera slides down his torso, it’s revealed that Seligman is naked from the waist down and is moving purposefully toward Joe in her bed. Joe, sensing somebody else’s presence in the bed, wakes up suddenly and looks alarmed, and when Seligman says, “But, you’ve done it with so many men!” Joe racks her gun, shoots him, and disappears into the night. Seligman, so far difficult to pin down, is reduced in one fell swoop to a voyeur in intellectual disguise, and exchanges roles with Joe in the reverse enactment of the mind/ body binary. Joe until now exemplified the body and its gendered attunement to the world, and Seligman the mind and its different affiliation with the same world, but in his attempt to force himself on Joe, Seligman is catapulted into a degrading, violent exemplification of the (gendered, male) body in opposition to the (gendered, male) mind.
Scene 8: Climax
Through the proliferation of graphic detail explicitly shown in the film, von Trier also seems to be threatening the borders of sex and its visibility on screen, and doesn’t provide easy answers to debates surrounding, for one, pornography. Cultural theorist Andrew Ross, discussing the popularity of porn, notes that “while campaigning for the reform of pornography so that it becomes less exploitative, the replacement of the content of representations – “bad sex” by “good sex” – changes very little; what is needed is the reform of the very structure of looking and gazing that organizes visual representation”. Von Trier’s film presents the female body and its multiple interactions with the gaze – male, female, or societal – and breaches the frame narrative and demands that the audience also question its gaze(s) and how it views the sexually (hyper-) active body of Joe as portrayed explicitly on screen. Simultaneous to the demand, von Trier seems to fear that the restructuring of the gaze is more difficult and obstacle-ridden than one would want to believe, necessitating perhaps the same gruelling, continuous shifting back and forth – as between Joe and Seligman – of more narratives, critique and debate.
If Joe’s constant self-castigation and branding of herself as an unpardonable sinner throughout the film can be construed as shaping herself in response to the male gaze, here, the tangible male gaze is that of Seligman’s – initially sympathetic, critical, understanding, but ultimately deceitful and aiming to use her body for its own pleasure and subjecting her body to its control. Seligman’s character, if he represents the male gaze and its complex functioning (as envisioned by Laura Mulvey in her early piece Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, 1975, introducing the term “male gaze”), can also further be read as complicating this notion that became a fulcrum of debate among feminist film theorists in the 70s. Seligman does not unproblematically exemplify a monolithic notion of the male gaze as the sole influence of the male spectator shaping the female body on screen – the mechanisms of the male gaze deep-rootedly operate upon how women in society are perceived; they are not a detached external process but an ingrained, constitutive process that singularly forms conceptions of beauty for women in accordance to societal expectation and validation. As John Berger put it in Ways of Seeing, there are insidious ways of reproducing socio-cultural processes in which “Men dream of women. Women dream of themselves being dreamt of.”
Seligman does not in fact personify this form of a prescriptive one-directional male gaze, but interacts variously with Joe’s narrative; thus the body here and its configurations continually changes their measure: constructed by Joe’s tale of herself, but later mediated by Seligman through his interpretation. In fact, when Joe starts losing patience with Seligman’s interruptions, it indicates the more coercive moments of Seligman’s relentless analyses, a moment when Seligman reveals himself to be little more than a sophisticated mansplainer, instructing Joe on the meaning of the occurrences of her own life, not allowing her the final authority to have a conclusive say in what her own life means according to her. Not unlike how, as Solnit states in Men Explain Things to Me, “billions of women … out there on this seven-billion person planet [are] being told that they are not reliable witnesses to their own lives, that the truth is not their property, now or ever”. Von Trier appears to be extrapolating this classic case of mansplaining into a profounder vein by having Joe shoot Seligman in the end and disappear into the night, as if her choice to kill Seligman was a final disenchanted recognition of her plight as a woman in an impregnable man’s world, the epistemic enclosure of which appeared to her to be quite without horizon.
Shooting Seligman appears to be the apex of the rupture of this relationship – Joe identifies the culminating point of her relationship with Seligman as symptomatic of her relationship with the patriarchal universe that stigmatised her choices, pathologized them and rendered her absolutely inassimilable into its narrow regimes. After tracing Joe’s development in a long tale – wherein she seems to be either consciously shaping herself or fending off self-construction in response to a very tangible male gaze in the vicinity, and patriarchal society as a whole – von Trier seems to bleakly prophesy that a woman of such sexual appetite as Joe possesses may not survive in the said society without being completely divested of sexual agency and social autonomy. Von Trier instead allows her that one redemptive and – paradoxically – victorious moment, where she does indeed escape the clutches of the patriarchal symbolic sphere, by entering into a domain of darkness – darkness signifying the discontinuation of the semiotic continuum of the patriarchal world where every attempt to define herself was incessantly thwarted and consequently contorted into yet another patriarchal signification; darkness which might signify a fresh start away from this vortex.
An earlier version of this piece was presented at the conference Bodies that Matter: The Ideology of Gender (February 2015, Ram Lal Anand College) and at the workshop Notes from a Course: Sexualities, Censorship, Contemporary Indian Cultures (April 2015, JNU).
CS Bhagya is pursuing an M.Phil in English at the Centre for English Studies, JNU.