The credits rolling and the music blasting, the end of the movie Nymphomania by Lars von Trier. Even before it ends my Argentina (psychoanalyst) girl begins to feel she wasted two hours of her time. She verbally dashes from to and fro about how Trier is a child, and the movie made no sense at all. I am waiting for the question, “what did you think about it?” This post is in some sense what I thought about it, what made sense to me, and how I understand her disdain for it.
In order for me to begin I will of course look to the tradition of the libertine, and with this quote:
Juliette asks me ‘what is your view? Is there any more divine passion in the world than lust?’ ‘I would venture to say that there is not but lust must be carried to excess: in libertinage, he who applies curbs is a food who denies himself all possibility of ever knowing what pleasure is.’ ‘libertinage,’ Durand put in, ‘is a sensual aberrance which supposes the discarding of all restraints, the supremest disdain for all predjudices’.
Here we see in Sade’s work something that Trier is asking the viewer as well. Trier much like Sade is deeply religious in the sense that he is questioning the notion of freedom and morality by allowing the libertine access to the divine, the divine is close to the excess, or in the inhuman. As we see the young Joe which is played by the striking Stacy Martin playing a game with her friend on the train we ask ourselves if this is true, can two girls get men to fuck them by just asking? The ultimate ‘win’ is when she confronts a married man who actually bought his wife an anniversary present, she drops to her knees and unzips his pants; she commences to perform oral sex on him. This isn’t just a gratuitous sex scene, but it tells the viewer that there is something going on here, a older teenage girl seducing to the point of raping a man with her mouth. Is it possible to rape without penetration?
The classic work on pornography, The Sadeian Woman, Angela Carter writes, “the prick is always presented erect, in an alert attitude of enquiry or curiosity or affirmation it points upwards, it asserts. The hole is open, an inert space, like a mouth waiting to be filled. From this elementary iconography may be derived the whole metaphysic of sexual differences—man aspires; woman has no other function but to exist, waiting. The male is positive, an exclamation mark. Woman is negative.” Trier calls this entire idea into question in this one scene, because he is the waiting one, the inert desiring machine that is ‘overpowered’ with lust. However again it was Sade writing in the 18th century that would be the direct influence on Trier’s Joe, Sade was adamant that women could be libertines just as men, actually he called for it, and he was correct as Trier shows that women must behave in the same sadistic manner as men if they are to not be perceived as a “universal victims” which of course leads to a immunitary logic. Even in Nymphomaniac II when Joe is being beaten by the sadist we never feel she is a victim.
Nymphomaniac confronts us with the question of what is good and what is evil. This question is not puerile and not only the question of stoned teenagers, but has extreme political ramifications. We even have two characters that are trying to exemplify one characteristic over the other, Joe the evil sex crazy nymphomaniac who has no remorse, and the angelic asexual Seligman (which in German means blessed man)who saves Joe and tries to absolve her of all her self prescribed “sins”. It was Kant who first reminds us of this logic, the logic that good is often predicated on evil. Was the revolution legitimate? Was the beheading of the King a morally perverse act or was it necessary?
In Kant’s Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals he writes of what has been translated as the categorical imperative. Act only according to the maxim that your action will be considered a universal law. That all ends should become ends in themselves without any subjective advantage, to strive for the objective in order that all should follow the maxim. However, this objective view was famously criticized by Hannah Arendt in her Eichmann book because of course Eichmann was following this maxim when he stated he was only following orders, only performing ones duty without regard to any subjective end. Again going back to the idea of the Enlightenment, “the urge to do good can necessitate evil actions.” Sade is the ultimate critic of the Enlightenment, or he is making us aware of the logical consequences of it. This is exactly what Joe does in Van Trier’s Nymphomaniac part II.
Joe in her sexual addiction meeting says:
I’m not like you, who fucks to be validated and might just as well give up putting cocks inside of you. And I’m not like you. All you want is to be filled up and whether it’s by a man or by tons of disgusting slop makes no difference. And I’m definitely not like you. That empathy you claim is a lie because all you are is society’s morality police whose duty is to erase my obscenity from the surface of the earth so that the Bourgeoisie won’t feel sick. I’m not like you. I am a nymphomaniac and I love myself for being one, but above all, I love my cunt and my filthy, dirty lust.
Here Joe refuses her castration, she like Sade’s character Julliette feels she is above or even god like because she no longer follows the morality of morals. She makes her own rules and accepts her position as a libertine. However, and this is the point which is extremely important in our times. Trier and much like Sade questions the emptiness of the libertine. He is asking the question and then what? Sade in his published writings stated his only intention was to condemn the libertine, to show how vacuous it becomes. Joe and Trier show us this as well; when you watch a piece of film where the sex finally becomes uninteresting (since you have watched every variation on sexuality you can think of) you know that Trier does his job. The most brilliant thing (and yes I think the film had flashes of brilliance) we see in the film is how Joe’s character changes. He even intentionally uses two different characters to portray them. The younger and attractive version changes into someone hardened, lacking affect, and quite miserable.
My Argentine girl watched the second part the next day, before I got to it. So she wasted another three hours? Of course not, she felt the second part was more pertinent, and much more interesting. Also, I feel in some sense she is correct. Why are we still asking questions, or better why are we continuing to expect different results within the axioms we are setting out for ourselves? Questioning the Enlightenment and Humanism, even though we know that a specter is haunting humanism. Sade allows us to remember that Heidegger was wrong in claiming that we need the gods to come back, we need to accept our fate, claim we are fractured, and at all cost