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  • A Jouissance Beyond the Phallus: Juno, Saint Teresa, Bernini, Lacan
  • Tom Hayes

For since each hand hath put on nature’s power, Fairing the foul with art’s false borrowed face, Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bower, But is profaned.

—Shakespeare, Sonnet 127


In Book III of his Metamorphoses Ovid tells the story of how Jupiter teased Juno by saying women experience greater pleasure in lovemaking than men. 1 Juno denied this, and when Tiresias, who had experienced sexual intercourse as both a man and a woman, said he agreed with Jupiter, Juno blinded him. Neither Ovid nor any other ancient teller of this story explains why Juno denied Jupiter’s assertion or why she blinded Tiresias for agreeing with him, but the answer to those questions is not difficult to figure out. Juno did not want to acknowledge that she experienced greater pleasure in lovemaking because to do so would require her to validate his fantasy, to acknowledge that the picture she knew Jupiter had in his mind of her in a state of uncontrolled self-shattering ecstasy was accurate.

Fifteen hundred years after Ovid, Teresa of Avila spoke about her ecstasies and came close to acknowledging the truthfulness of Jupiter’s original taunt. She believed her ecstasies were evidence that women had a greater capacity for loving God than men did (Weber 1990, 41). The language she used to describe these experiences is explicitly sexual. For example, in her most famous account she tells how a beautiful angel appeared to her with his face aflame: [End Page 331]

In his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated my entrails. When he pulled it out, I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one’s soul then content with anything but God. This is not a physical, but a spiritual pain—though the body has some share in it—even a considerable share.

(Teresa 1957, 210)

Is this vividly erotic description the result of naiveté or sophistication? Is Teresa experiencing greater pleasure than a man can or is she merely reinforcing man’s fantasy of seeing a woman surrender to him? A century later, in his poem entitled “The Extasie” John Donne made fun of the ambiguity inherent in the word. He wittily plays with the paradox that we must use profane language to express sacred experience. He attacks the desexualization of love by showing that the very experience the poem presents is, by its own contradictory logic, impossible. A spiritual ecstasy, the poem suggests, is an absurd complication of an act that should be enjoyed for its own sake.

In his 1972–73 seminar Jacques Lacan (again) took up “the whole quarrel about physical love and ecstatic love, as they are called” (1998, 75). Here the phrase “as they are called” indicates Lacan’s dissatisfaction with the binary opposition between physical and ecstatic love, which, he says, is the reason “Christianity naturally ended up inventing a God such that he is the one who gets off (jouit)!” (1998, 76) That is, the degradation of the physical and the valorization of the ecstatic or the spiritual increased rather than decreased emphasis on the orgasm. Non-Christian cultures such as those in China, Japan, and India, are no less patriarchal than Christian cultures, but they do not disparage sexual love in order to elevate spiritual love. As Michel Foucault pointed out, these non-Christian cultures practice an ars erotica whereby “pleasure is not considered in relation to an absolute law of the permitted [End Page 332] and the forbidden, nor by reference to a criterion of utility, but first and foremost in relation to itself” (1980, 57). The truth produced in this way is secret and is transmitted in an esoteric manner. Christian cultures on the other hand practice...

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