Essay: “Cy Twombly’s Jouissance”, Garageland 18: Sex.

Roland Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text sexualises reading, contrasting the text of plaisir, pleasure, and the text of jouissance, meaning orgasm as well as bliss. While pleasure is generated by closure and order, bliss is in the loss of limit and in endless opening out.

Barthes’s bliss is near to the sublime as opposed to the beautiful, the romantic as opposed to the classic, and it can be applied not just to literary texts but to visual art in which order is challenged and boundaries crossed. I’m thinking of the blissful indeterminacy in Delacroix or Gros and also in a modern romantic artist, Cy Twombly.

Twombly’s paintings are explicitly erotic with titles like Venus or Wilder Shores of Love as well as sexual images and fleshy colours. But his jouissance is not confined to erotic subject matter and is more to do with overflowing limits and breaking boundaries. This involves erasure and defacement in which edges are blurred, rectangles crushed, calculations vandalised and words like “Apollo” sink into Dionysian chaos. Language, demolished in this way, approaches Julia Kristeva’s “semiotic”, or pre-linguistic, realm of inarticulate babble.

But such bliss in the loss of limit has its underside. The jouissance of bodily excess includes a frenzy of mess. Vaginas and penises in Ferragosto jostle with smears resembling bile, blood and excrement. These paintings combine sex with filth, waste and, to cite Kristeva once again, abjection. Their bacchanalia is violent, with scarlet gashes and angry scrawls. Jouissance involves demolition and in the Hero and Leander paintings this is combined with the tragic tale of the lovers. The sequence begins with messy pink blossoms, moves to a scrawled surge of darkness and then into watery greyness and empty air. Here erasure refers to death and blissful scribbling vanishes into airy nothing.