The French have a vocabulary of eroticism littered with gems. Jouissance and jouir scrupulously put the facts but they hint at currents that flow beneath. English cannot channel them. Leon Roudiez’s, in his introduction to Desire in Language, is that there are several meanings of jouissance. The meanings “are simultaneous” and at once “sexual, spiritual, physical conceptual.” The definitions are neither sterile and medical nor guttural and grotesque. Yet because of our tradition or some natural limit of expression English comes awkwardly to the bedroom. Sentences can buck with double meanings. But if the word is not diagnosing a condition it is being scrawled on bathroom doors. If we wish to speak of the kind of pleasure we take–the supreme pleasure, say, associated with sexuality at its jagged edge with consciousness–we lack the terms acknowledged and allowed in polite French circles.
The Bible has “knowing,” but it is imperfect. Deep in the prehistory of Greek there was a word root constructed of a k or g, an n, and a vowel. The words springing from this root all have to do with reproduction, both sexual and intellectual: generate, gonad, know, ignorant, and forty others. In the King James Bible a husband knows his wife and begets children. In the Bible’s original Greek procreation is a type of construction, say ‘the Structure of the Orgasm and Making Children.’ There is no bliss and if there is pleasure it is tangential.
The Stuarts called it “dying,” the Victorians called it “spending,” and we call it “coming:” a hard look at the horizon of our literary culture suggests that it will not be long before we come to a new word for orgasm proper–but what that word is I have no idea. Yet they all have their problems. All imply a arrival at a station we either do not understand or do not wish to linger. Death, a store or a porn shoot. None are pleasing.
This is a rarefied problem. Roland Barthes deplorably underutilized distinction in ‘Pleasure of Text’ between plaisir (translated as “pleasure”) and jouissance, translated as “bliss,” springs to mind. Julia Kristeva’s Desire in Language must lose some of its spark in translation. The object of love in Rabelais’ writing is mildly confounded but much else remains. Yet this blog is built for addressing the most rarefied of problems.
The problem is linguistically unrelated to love but pragmatically intertwined. The French staple for ‘love’ is amour from the Latin amor. Interestingly, English’s “love” is more related to the Latin libet, to please. Many distinctions, love being one of them, in the English language come to us via the various invasions of the British Isles. A history of the English language is essentially a division between Norman words (a curious but pleasing mix of French and Latin), which never lost the gloss they received when the Normans invaded in 1066, and more Germanic words that were associated with the then newly-conquered lower classes.
So we have swine and cow (German: Schwein und Kuh) whereas the nobility who primarily saw only the cooked product called it pork and beef (French: porc, boeuf). Compare French “arrêt” with “stop” and “arrest.” I can stop you or I can arrest you. In some sense they’re indistinguishable, but only one implies the authority of William the Conquer. Compare French “désolé” with English “sorry” and English “desolated.” The French and Latin have traveled upwards to the teaching hospitals and the centers of power, while the German has traveled to the bars. There is something fulfilling about that observation.
But perhaps some of the problem with love stems from Protestant theology. The tension between eros and agape is considered by some Protestant theologians, most famously in Eros and Agape, the fundamental tension of metaphysical truth claims.
Eros, detached from its mooring in Ancient Greek but related, is a needs-based and desire-based, egocentric and acquisitive love. We can love other humans and God with a love of eros but the loves comes from self-interest. In order to acquire and possess them. Think of Modravia’s novel Boredom and you have thought of eros.
Agape is unconditional, empathetic. We love God and other people purely on their own terms without any idea of self-gain. Consider François Rabelais’ will: “I have nothing, I owe a great deal, and the rest I leave to the poor.”
Is it no wonder, then, that Protestant North America would always strive for the selfless agape of Protestant theologians rather than the more worldly eros?
But I am loath to attribute thousands of years of etymological history to a few Scandinavian theologians. Instead, dear reader, let us dwell on the fact that the language of the English, and by extension the United States, remains bereft of a moderate word to describe our immoderate lives. We are stuck in the camp where we have low and high, shit (German, see Scheiße) and excrement (from Latin), without any pleasing middle ground to describe the world we inhabit. It’s a tragedy but, as I said before, a rarefied one.
There are problems that have no solutions. In an odd sense, this blog is built for addressing them. There is no need for an answer. If we think together about it for a long enough time, well, that’s a victory. In the laconic phrase of Kurt Vonnegut, ‘so it goes.’ But before you go, dear reader, let’s contemplate a few oddities. People like me in their oddness but different in one meaningful way. They can be judged according to what they’ve done whereas I can only be judged by what I intend.
Jacques Lacan asked a question. What is jouissance in this modern world of law and rules? He answered in his own way. “It is reduced here to being nothing but a negative instance. Jouissance is that which serves no purpose.” Perhaps that is why English has no comparable word. An emotion without utility is particularly well suited to degrade the emotion in the eyes of the reading and speaking public. Dear reader, there is an aversion to emotions being useless when everything is expected to have some use. Useless is a dirty word. But it should not be.