Columns / Discourse / April 15, 2015

Danse macabre

In the service of attaining fuller comprehension of everyone’s favorite subject, TKS presents ‘Sex Psych,’ a new op-ed column that will provide a scientific rendering of non-normative sexual behavior. The first three columns will focus on risk, the next three will focus on erotic styles, and the final three will focus on queerness. The aim here is to give sexuality, particularly non-normative sexuality, scientific legitimacy, and to do so we must curtail the impulse to defend as much as that to condemn. Of course, complete objectivity is impossible; nevertheless, the subject of non-normative sex has been so mishandled as to make the vain pursuit of objectivity imperative.

At the center of this week’s risk column is sex and death, those opposing forces whose frequent fusion has stimulated the minds (and libidos) of parties as disparate as social psychologists, dungeon doms and ancient Greek playwrights. It is among this latter group that we begin, with an exploration of the sex rites associated with the ancient Greek god Dionysus: he of wine, madness and, above all, carnality.

To understand these rites, one must first pay heed to a phenomenon known as creatureliness, or the acceptance of humans’ animal status. Reigning psychological theory, entrenched as it is in an existential terror management perspective, holds that humans abhor creatureliness because it reminds us of death; animals, with their dearth of civilized (read: life-prolonging) mores, place their decay front and center and thus terrify us completely. Our terror manifests most patently in our disgust of that which betrays its creatureliness, from the unshaven female genitalia to the carcass rotting on the road.

And yet, much as we reject creatureliness, we cannot deny our attraction to the death it represents. It is this ambivalence which undergirds (and permits) the practice of Dionysiac rites. For these rites are rife with erotic potential of the sort that can only be fulfilled through an awareness of the essential sexiness of death, and of the death that’s necessitated when carnality is pursued to the highest degree; the manic dancing, hysterical hair flipping and orgiastic drumming carried out in these rites are activities so creaturely that, in short, they can only end in death. And the death that occurs is as sexy as it gets: the culminating act of the Dionysiac ritual is the tearing to pieces and swallowing raw of an animal body, often a bull and sometimes a man. Though perverse, it is an act which is described by the ancients as performed with gusto; though perverse, it is an act which at its most basic level arouses.

Though the social function of such drunken revelry is ostensibly to lose oneself to madness (by embodying the spirit of immortal and creaturely Dionysus), the practice of these rites goes far beyond ecstatic catharsis: fundamentally, the sex rites of Dionysus cannot function without the savage logic that to be like one’s god, one must consume one’s god. In short, to live forever (a state achieved through frenzied sex), one must kill. To achieve the purity of complete orgasm, a state of being which is akin to, and proceeds from, the loss of individual responsibility, one must engage in the pollution of murder. It’s no wonder these rites were carried out by masses at a time; ecstasis is by nature contagious because the sex dance performed in its service is danse macabre: a dance of death, that one force on earth which unifies us all.

For more information on Dionysus, this reporter recommends Euripedes’ play The Bacchae. Sex Psych’s exploration of sexual risk-taking continues next week with a column on barebackers and bugchasers!


Joy Westerman

Tags:  creatures death Dionysus libido sex sexuality

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