I read this in my writing seminar today. I’m fairly pleased with the result, so I thought I would share it with you.
I would have to label myself as being unjustifiably forward were I to simply say, “I am interested in the concept of the orgasm” and leave it at that. This would be unacceptably presumptuous for two reasons, neither of which concerns the ethical propriety of discussing this matter in the Rock, during a class presentation (of sorts), or in front of my professor. Indeed, I believe we’ve all slipped a few phrases into our responses or essays that might be heard – perhaps by someone uninitiated in our seminar’s familiarity or our university’s general liberated-ness – as insults to our kindly professor, underminers of our collective academic seriousness, or insults to the reputation of our well-endowed Ivy League institution. For the sake of disclosure and to ensure that there is complete honesty between reader and writer before moving on, I must admit that, although I have been pondering the concept of the orgasm for several months without raising the issue in class, I am not concerned about our professor taking offense to this discussion, since it comprised the bulk of my application for this course.
No, the concerns are more serious and strike at the very heart of the issue in question (which is, by the way, not exactly “the concept of the orgasm”). What I’d really like to hone in on is not the orgasm per se, but its position, its function in language. Or rather, languages. The thing I’m really interested in, to put it another way, is not a thing at all but particular sets of relations that exist between languages, their speakers, and jouissance. When thinking about language, something I do quite a bit of in my occupation (and I mean this not in the sense of mon métier but instead mon activité or mon occupation), theories of signification can end up being easy to believe but difficult to understand ou sentir. It’s easy to comprehend Saussure’s arguments (and diagrams) that explain how the signifying function brings both the signified and the signifier into existence as two sides of the same coin, but I find it more challenging to think about what that means for the meaning of these elements. This difficulty doesn’t really present itself in Cours de linguistique générale, which presents signification as a process that deals with solid, concrete things and names them arbor and equos.
But that is why “the concept of the orgasm” presents a more interesting challenge. Its existence is surely real (a statement I do hope, for your own sake, you have no trouble accepting) but cannot be grasped as one can a tree. Instead, it exists as a specter, a figure at the limit of language itself. By its nature, jouissance resists closed up, stable signification (for what it’s worth, Lacan argued that one of the symptoms of the neurotic is that he is so unable to give up his hold on a stream of conscious language that he tries to maintain a coherent thought through the moment of sexual climax). Here you might be able to discern the first reason I said this essay is too forward. I am interested in how different languages speak of orgasm, the words they use to approach it from different angles. But saying that I am “interested in the concept of the orgasm” begs precisely the question I aim to ask. That is: What can we learn about different cultures from studying their words for le petit mort? Is there anything to be learned about America’s famous puritanical prudishness from the un-descriptive, nearly derogatory “to come” (which highlights what can safely be said to be an aspect of the experience less connected to intense pleasure than the apparent targets of its French counterparts)? By claiming to be interested in “the concept of the orgasm” I’m unfortunately taking the signified itself to be as stable and easily recognizable a thing as un arbre when I’m really trying to untangle a web of signifieds not easily, or feasibly, translated.
The second reason is more personal still. The truth is I’m terrible at language learning. It took me a long time to learn how to read English (I am still proud of finishing that first Amelia Bedila book, a particularly writerly place to start I must say) and I still have trouble with spelling. Just recently, I’ve all but given up on the prospect of learning French, which was my first attempt at another spoken language. But still, I’m interested in this comparative language issue even though I don’t know any good vernacular for orgasm beyond the few French ditties I’ve busted out so far. My assumption, still unconfirmed by more linguistically-talented friends, is that there must be some good ones out there in German, Chinese, Arabic, Sanskrit, Japanese or Esperanto. But this is just an assumption; one I think might be, again, getting ahead of itself, this time in a manner more directly connected to writing.
The problem seems to me to be the expectation that I will find something incredibly illustrative in these different languages. I’m all ready to see a tightly controlled, frustratingly roundabout, and surprisingly violent Japanese word and I have a lot of hope for German, which a friend described to me as a language designed for abstraction and powered by word play. But my concern, which I believe has prevented me from taking up this topic for my third essay, is that I will write what I already “know” and find what I already expect to see. On the one hand, I think I’m envisioning writing this as an exploration but I also know that it is a stand-in, a fetish object covering up my inability to really learn another language. I fear that my curiosity about “the concept of the orgasm” is really compensation for my feelings of failure coming out of French class. I think my unconscious drive to write this essay perceives it as a way to write myself out of my English trap: if I try hard enough, maybe my multilingual essay will stand in for my shame at only being able to see the words of other languages as novelties instead of as richly meaningful signs.