Death and the Maiden

Woman in Three Stages, by Edvard Munch (1894)

Woman in Three Stages, by Edvard Munch (1894)

Some of my earliest erotic memories are linked to death. I was thirteen when I read Interview with the Vampire and, even then, I was aware of what would become a voracious sexuality. But for reasons to do with personality and upbringing, I had no way to frame my impulses and nowhere safe to explore them.

Books were the lens through which I explored that part of myself, and the books I was drawn to eroticized death in some way. In fact, the first time I gave myself an orgasm, I was thinking about the scene where Lestat kills a courtesan while Louie watches (in tragic, moral conflict). Even now, I remember imagining myself as both the courtesan and Lestat.

That scene, as well as others from Dracula (those brides, Lucy’s transformation, Dracula’s ravishing of Mina while Jonathan sleeps beside her) and Wuthering Heights (Cathy’s gorgeously tragic death), aroused me in ways that teen romances never could. Those eroticized portrayals of death and violence tapped into the striving, subterranean part of me that longed for something more, something darker and deeper. I longed for transcendence in a way that’s almost painful to remember.

Growing up, I was cradled in the sort of security that anyone would be lucky to have, but I knew, without being told, that the security I felt wasn’t foolproof or permanent. I also knew that I didn’t want to be safe, even though the alternative scared me. I wanted to feel everything. I wanted to rip into life with my teeth.

By the time I was in college, I’d discovered Bataille and Nin. I was obsessed with Angela Carter*. I grew restless and impatient with myself and nice young men and civilized sex. Unlike my openly kinky friends who liked being spanked or humiliated, there was no label for what I craved – a deeply eroticized place where death is a tangible presence in an overly sensual world. I couldn’t find access to that in life, so I read about murderous husbands and elegant predators, starving for something I didn’t understand.

So what is this link between sex and death that has always worked so deeply for me? I’ve thought about this for years, and the best I can manage is that there are three different components – defiance, catharsis and power – that work on me to different degrees, depending on my frame of mind at any given time.

The first, and possibly most primal reason for my fascination is that I’m terrified of my own mortality. To age and weaken, to become vulnerable and powerless, to lose agency over my body and, even more frighteningly, my mind – these things genuinely scare me and sex is, in a way, a momentary act of defiance. A rejection of the inevitability of my own decline.

Before the body gives out and becomes in-viable, we use it to wring pleasure out of an existence that is finite and short. (Forgive me that assumption – I’m an atheist. For those who believe in an after life, this may not be the case). Food and sex are two of our primary drives, and as such, the satisfaction of these drives are two of our primary pleasures. But sex does something that food cannot. While food is wonderful (really, really wonderful), sex (at least good sex) can be actively transcendent. Here’s what I mean.

Think about the best sex you’ve ever had; the fucks that were so good you still know what it felt like to bury yourself in that person. It’s the sex that stripped you down to a series of responses, and pinned you to the salty, filling present. Sex like this turns you into a greedy, striving thing. It makes you writhe. It destroys your dignity and twists your face. It dismantles your attachment to the person you think you should be. It takes you past worry. It takes you past death. If only for that moment, you are nothing but a body and you are desperately alive.

Orgasms are sometimes called la petit mort (the little death). This term can be used to describe any sexual climax, but it also refers to a particular sort of orgasm, one that I’ve never experienced – not everyone can. Essentially, the woman passes out in the middle of coming and revives moments later, still at the peak of her pleasure.

Orgasms and, in special cases, la petit mort, are the physical incarnation of a paradox, one that views the peak of sexual pleasure as a sort of crisis – a culmination of sensation that ends in cathartic release. Given that, sexual pleasure can be seen as a metaphor for the interplay between life and death. But unlike true death, which is permanent, we can engage that metaphor as often as we like and on our own terms. In this way, sexual transcendence is a sort of miniature version of the ultimate transcendence between life and death.

Sex and death are both driven by catharsis, and we, as human beings, crave catharsis. It’s one of the reasons we watch films that make us cry. It’s why horror is one of the most popular genres. It’s why vampires were so popular in romantic and erotic fiction a few years back. In fact, vampires have become the erotic personification of death. They are both the threat and the promise of release. They are death and the means through which to transcend it – so much so that a standard tropes in vampire fiction is the question of immortality. Should the mortal allow her lover to make her a beautiful, immortal killer?

Which brings me to the third aspect of pleasure and mortality that has always attracted me. Predation and power. As unsettling as this may sound, there is no greater exercise of personal power that the ending of someone else’s life…unless it is for the intended victim to defy death and live.

This is where vampires and predators become especially useful. Dracula’s brides, succubi, men with a roomful of lovely, dead wives…unlike normal monsters, they seduce their prey, so that the victims experience a paradoxical fear and pleasure. That twining of fear and pleasure combines physical transcendence with the animal will to survive, and the tension between those two instincts is visceral and incredibly hot (all the more so when it’s not entirely clear that the victim will succumb).

In the end, the dance between sex and death comes down to a question of power. Who wins? The mortal or mortality? It’s this struggle with the inevitable, more than any other aspect, that draws me to eroticized portraits of death. It is, quite literally, the ultimate power play with the highest possible stakes.

When I see Cathy dying from a strange, self-induced madness, I see the sensuality of her loss and the ferociousness of Heathcliff’s grief (i.e.: the fact that her death only increased her power over him). When Lestat kills the prostitute, I see a woman dying in ecstasy because she cannot escape. When three female vampires ravish a man, I see an inversion of a power dynamic that is as satisfying as it is dangerous. When a girl escapes her brutally sensual husband, I see the thrill of sexual awakening combined with the literal defiance of death.

So why does death occupy an eroticized place in my fantasies? Because I eroticize power, I crave catharsis, and because I want to live. I want to defy what cannot be defied. I want to use my body to its full capacity as often as I can. I want to feel alive. I want this desperately, and nothing makes me feel more alive, more sexual, more aware and more powerful than being confronted with the knowledge that some day, sooner or later, all of it will end.

*N.B.: The Angela Carter story I reference in this post is called “The Bloody Chamber” from the collection of the same name. It’s a retelling of the Bluebeard fairy tale, and if you’ve never read it it’s worth picking up. In fact, the entire collection is incredible. You can find it here.

12 comments

  1. Malin! As always, you write with insight and authority. As you say, we attempt to ‘defy’ death through sexual sensation, shaking off mortality’s hold by losing ourselves to pleasure. In writing that feeling, we not only relive its intensity, but preserve the ‘enchantment’. Each story is almost a talisman against death: a moment suspended in time forever more.

  2. An insightful and fascinating post that delves into one of the most enduring themes of eroticism – but also one of the most primal parts of the human psyche. I too, am fascinated by the sex / death trope as a writer and a reader. The “paradoxical place of fear and pleasure” is such a charged place to write from, particularly as I identify as both female and a feminist, but I’m erotically drawn to the theme you so aptly term “predation and power”. I would also include the opposite energy of “surrender” in there. So I continue to wrestle with these themes. The examples of lierature you explore are excellent (love “The Bloody Chamber”), and it also makes me think of the ‘femme fatale’ archetype, which I believe Freud described as the embodiment of sex and death. I recall my earliest sexual fantasy was also a vampire fantasy that involved seduction, abduction, flight, torture and possession. I was eight.

    What you explore in this article is all the more powerful because of the rigorous, raw and honest self-examination and revelation. It encourages me to delve more deeply, and write more on this theme. Thankyou …

  3. The many different ways our cellular level drive to reproduce works it’s way up and manifests itself in our consciousness never ceases to fill me with wonder. Thank you for your thought provoking treatise.

    1. “The many different ways our cellular level drive to reproduce works it’s way up and manifests itself in our consciousness never ceases to fill me with wonder.”

      I feel the exact same way.

    1. Thank you, lovely. I’m afraid I can get a little evangelical about certain authors and Angela Carter is definitely one of them! But really, in all seriousness, I think you would love her… xxx

  4. I agree wholeheartedly. Lacan said that all drives were really the death drive. I have come to see it not as a drive towards death, but a defiance of our finitude in which death might be the result.I often think of eroticism as a rebellion of the flesh against our fleshness, if that makes any sense. A way through the body to be something more than just a body, more than just an instinct-directed organism. We always associate the erotic with animality, but actually, I think it’s quite the opposite.

    1. “I often think of eroticism as a rebellion of the flesh against our fleshness, if that makes any sense.”

      Yes! Thank you for this. That’s exactly it. It’s impossible to uncouple death from sex. Eroticism and sex have the capacity to transcend in ways that are dismissed as animalistic, but that can actually be experienced as viscerally spiritual, if such a thing is possible. While it’s true that sex isn’t always quite that packed with meaning, the *potential* is there and it’s that potential that makes eroticism exciting (and powerful and worthy of respect).

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