Sex, Prayer, and Broken Being in Nymphomaniac

By The Very Reverend Archimandrite John Panteleimon Manoussakis

(For Antonio Mizael)

“Yahweh, you seduced me unlawfully, and I consented to being seduced; you raped me, and you were too strong for my resistance to prevail.”

Jeremiah 20:7

“Thou art victorious; open-mouthed he gapes at your beatitude, you took him as a woman, cut him through, opened him, turned him inside out. Placing your outside within, you converted the most intimate part of him into his outside.”

Lyotard, The Confession of Augustine

Lars von Trier’s cinematic epic, Nymphomaniac, aims at accomplishing the unthinkable. It aims at re-claiming sex in all its perversion—and what is sex if not perverse?—for God.

Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) is the single audience of the long (241 minutes long to be exact) and explicit confessions of a self-described nymphomaniac (Joe). Curiously, Seligman remains unmoved throughout the recitation of this epic of sexual desire. His lack of excitement is not due to the banality of sex, of which this film is an unparalleled example; rather, Seligman’s excitement takes place on a different registrar. It manifests itself in a sublimated form that supplements the narrative of Joe’s carnal desire with a series of intellectual digressions divided into chapters. Through them, the film offers an impressive kaleidoscope of human knowledge that encompasses such diverse subjects as fishing, botanology, literature, music, psychology, mathematics, and so on. There is even a chapter on the theological differences between western and eastern Christianity, inspired by Rublev’s icon of the Virgin Mary. Seligman’s inability to see in the Ovidean transformation of sexual desire nothing more than a series of cultural allegories turns the film into a visual encyclopedia; the closest to a Summa Theologiae of modernity than anyone could produce today.

Ironically, however, it is this cultural commentary, and not the descriptions of Joe’s sexual adventures, that seduces the viewer with the guilty pleasure that can be derived only from pornography, even if, as in this case, it is only a conceptual pornography. Seligman is, by his own admission, an atheist and asexual. He explains, however, that he is interested in the concept of religion, in the same way that what interests him in Joe’s sex stories is only the concept of sex. Yet, as he remarks, “you won’t find me on my knees for either.” But isn’t it this precisely the point? That neither religion is religion nor sex is sex unless we are on our knees? That if I cannot be on my knees in front of the Other in sex, I would never be able to be on my knees in front of the Other in prayer?

If pleasure is essentially a self-induced theosis—a premature ejaculation of sorts that distorts theopoetics into autoerotics, then the Nymphomaniac represents a reversal of the psychoanalytic tenet according to which the desire for God is nothing else than a sublimated desire for sex. On the contrary, the story of Joe suggests that the desire for sex is a masqueraded desire for God. At the end of volume I, Joe turns to her lover in bed and says: “Fill all my holes.” At that time, this phrase is the provocative statement of an insatiable lust. At the end of volume II the same phrase, the only phrase repeated throughout the film, assumes a completely different meaning. In this last scene that repeats a number of earlier references, Joe is left alone in a deserted alley, beaten, bleeding, and abused in all possible ways. She now repeats the same request: “Fill all my holes, please.” However, her words are not addressed to anyone. This time the holes that need to be filled are not her bodily orifices, but both the physical and psychical cracks she has sustained. “Fill all my holes, please” is a confession of what is lacking in her. It is a petition for grace, a prayer; for a prayer can come only through the cracks of a broken being—these same cracks that can now become the openings to God’s grace.

The Very Reverend Archimandrite John Panteleimon Manoussakis is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the College of the Holy Cross (Worcester, MA), and the co-editor of the Journal for Continental Philosophy of Religion (Brill). He is the author of God After Metaphysics: A Theological Aesthetic (Indiana, 2007, translated into Russian and Romanian), For The Unity of All (Cascade, 2015, translated into Italian), and The Ethics of Time (Bloomsbury, 2017).

 

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