At some level of analysis, most of life’s stories operate around a central question. It might be posed as: How can our various sexualities, our capacity for giving and receiving pleasure, be celebrated as the best source of health, healing and happiness? Or are these energies forever to be co-opted and condemned by hostility and fear?
This basic conflict has been with us since our beginning. But nowhere has it been more culturally dramatic than here at the end of the millennium. In our society, sex is blatantly "out" on the surface of everyday life. But it is mostly there on the condition that it has been shorn of the deeper emotional and spiritual powers of eroticism. Sex is paraded everywhere, but only as a pervasive titillation.
The forces of sexual intolerance may appear to be receding as prurient material becomes more accessible. But this is only because a more genuine eroticism has already been subverted. This sexuality on the cultural surface actually substitutes for and deprives us of our real erotic potential, a more powerful and satisfying pursuit of our diverse bodily pleasures.
The brouhaha over Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut illustrates this plight. It is a movie that inflames our fears of eroticism by presenting sexuality as a destructive force, generated only by the dark impulses of jealousy and the lust for power or possession. The movie is a perfect indicator of the extent to which we have lost our erotic grounding and our capacities for divine ecstasy.
Set aside for a moment that Eyes Wide Shut is a cinematic masterpiece of glossy mediocrity. Set aside the cardboard acting, the platitudinous script and the funereal pacing. And set aside the honor we should pay to the stellar career of the now deceased director. Rather, this movie and the controversy it provokes are symptoms of our times.
Eyes Wide Shut operates around the boundary between dream and "reality," between imagination and social possibility, and it delivers an antisexual message: Only danger, degradation and death await those who venture into erotic exploration.
We meet Dr. and Mrs. Bill, a sad but "successful" marriage in which passion appears to be fueled by jealousy, possessiveness and an obsession with sexual commodification, an obsession with one’s value in the eyes of another. We track Dr. Bill’s hurt and vengeful pursuit of sexual adventures outside the marriage, and the titillating tragedies into which they nearly propel him. At the end, when the family is reunited in the thrills of Christmas shopping (yes, the pretty daughter will get her Barbie doll), Dr. and Mrs. Bill resolve to restore passion in their liaison by "fucking" in the very near future.
When chronicling Dr. Bill’s exploration, the film exhibits the immoral logic of a certain sort of "family values": Stay with your spouse in a loveless but lucrative marriage, for outside it lies only the wasteland of dehumanization, betrayal, deception, humiliation, child prostitution, drug overdose, HIV and sinister brutality.
And the "fucking" in this marriage is not making love. In this context, it implies the use of another’s body as a medium for masturbation. Its force is derived from possessiveness or the need to experience our desirability as if through the eyes of a spectator. This is evidently the best one can hope for in such a marriage. There is scarcely a hint of tenderness or the mutuality of a genuinely erotic connection between Dr. and Mrs. Bill.
Interestingly enough, almost the only tenderness, loyalty or compassion portrayed in Eyes Wide Shut is manifested by those condemned to die. The philandering Dr. Bill, a successful New York physician catering to the city’s elite, almost engages an angelic streetwalker. We later learn she is HIV-positive. He is also rescued from macabre punishment, perhaps death, by a high-class prostitute whom he had previously treated for a recreational drug overdose. She later dies, and he visits her in the morgue – almost bringing himself to tenderly kiss her corpse.
Sexual passion is complex enough and erotic partnerships hard enough. Did we really need this endorsement of the moralizing propaganda that sexuality feeds from a basic hatred of our humanity, that its pursuit leads only to disaster, and that ultimately one must choose the death of desire in order to preserve the law and order of civilization? Kubrick’s last movie does us precisely this disservice.
The sexual culmination of Eyes Wide Shut involves an "orgy" in which black-cloaked men in masks stand motionless around a circle of women whose breasts and buttocks are exposed. These women are ready to sexually service men who stand mute in the erotic emptiness of their power to possess and dominate. This is sex at the end of our millennium, the fading promise of the fullness of naked eroticism surrounded by the pervasiveness of domination, destruction and death.
Sexuality has always been both the wellspring and the blessing of life’s energies and also that which we fear the most. This culture is losing sight of the erotically affirmative ways in which we can overcome our fears.Barnaby B. Barratt is a Wayne State University professor and director of the Midwest Institute of Sexology. His practice of sexuality counseling and psychotherapy is in Farmington