Thursday, December 15, 2005
It Hurts So Good
The other day while websurfing, I came upon this portrait of Jason Isaacs as Captain Hook. The artist, someone named Katie, offered no other caption than “Let your imagination run wild!”
Well, the small hands could be Peter’s, attacking during a vicious battle after having afflicted Hook with some terrible wound. However, they might just as easily be Wendy’s, and Hook might not actually be in pain. Let your imagination run wild....
It’s been a long time since I saw the ambiguity of pain/pleasure on a human face captured quite so successfully. This portrait demonstrates perfectly that the look of agony and the look of ecstasy are identical. And personally, I find this picture one of the most erotic things I’ve seen in a long time. Why it is so powerful is a question I’ve been asking myself for days, so here are my ruminations on the topic:
I think the thrill of sex often lies in its magical ability to bring opposites together. Males and females experience the opposing traits of gender: that is, women are exposed to aggression and men encounter submission. Beings who live much of the time by reason and practicality are flung into the flip side of life--passion and recklessness. And in the realm of sex, the extremes of pain and pleasure inexplicably intersect, in a manner that is totally engrossing.
You don’t have to be into S&M for this to be true. Even people who are repulsed by bondage find a blend of pleasure and pain in the sex act. We use very interesting adjectives to describe sexual pleasure: agonizing, excruciating, torturous. The physiology of the sexual response is remarkably similar to the pain response: tenseness, trembling, thrashing. Erotic moaning can be indistinguishable from groans of pain. Even psychologically there are similarities...arousal can seem unbearable, make you frantic, desperate, overwhelmed. Sometimes if you were asked if you felt good or bad, you might not be quick to answer. Although ultimately the feeling will prove to be pleasure, it is just so intense and severe, it’s hard to sort out.
And that’s the point. Sexual experience is extreme. What sensation could be better than one so intense that it falls beyond the scale of pain and pleasure and can’t even be clearly categorized?
It’s the intensity of the feeling that is important. In a culture that so often requires us to hide or contain our feelings, only extreme sensation will cause a visible, physical reaction like the expression worn by Hook. Anyone wearing such a face has clearly lost control, the way we all do when in acute pain. But what if it isn’t pain? What if that look is born instead of bliss? One can only imagine the extent of pleasure that would evoke such a look.
And in seeing Hook’s expression, it’s hard not to think about what he might be feeling. Since the look is so ambiguous--because it could just as easily be pain as pleasure--therefore we find ourselves studying it, contemplating it, pondering what it would be like to feel what Hook does, or to make him feel it. For a moment it doesn’t much matter whether the feeling is good or bad; the beauty of it is that it is so intense.
Sometimes the erotic urge is just for intensity. That is why we say, “let me die in your arms,” or less delicately, “fuck me till I’m unconscious.” It’s why we like vampires who drink their victims dry. It’s why we dream of sex that is sweet torture and puts us in agony. We like sex (at least in the fantasy world) to be in the context of extreme emotion, no matter whether it is lust, terror, rage, jealousy, desperation, or even hatred. Be it agony or ecstasy, the intensity refreshes and invigorates us.
Very literally, it hurts so good.