Cerebral Arousings: Romana Byrne’s Aesthetic Sexuality

2013, Bloomsbury Publishing

aesthetic-sexualityFor my first book review in a long while (and the first anniversary of my first review here), I’ve decided to start a new category in my “Other Authors” column: The Genre. I have several essays planned that don’t quite fit into either “Classics” or “Recently Released”—reviewing a group of novels with similar themes, for example, none of which might be considered “classics” but are worth bringing to your attention and illustrate a point. I can also write articles about trends in the field of erotica (and vent about them). In other words, take a step back and write about the wider picture.

I can also write about books about erotica, feature authors and researchers who also take that step back and survey the field rather than create works of fiction themselves.

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For my first book in this category, I wanted to spotlight an excellent project by author Romana Byrne that hasn’t seemed to get the attention it deserves: Aesthetic Sexuality: A Literary History of Sadomasochism.

Just from its title, it should be on the bookshelf of everyone who’s interested in the field of BDSM erotica, right alongside Deleuze’s “Coldness and Cruelty” and Bataille’s Erotism (which Byrne’s book discusses). One would think this volume would be cited and referenced in nearly every essay on the topic of Kink Lit. And yet when I stumbled across it via an Amazon “suggestion” while browsing these other more well-known titles, I found very few reader reviews and very little online discussion.

Which is too bad, because it is excellent.

The book does not pretend to be a comprehensive survey of all BDSM literature; it was written with a specific academic argument in mind. But its greater value, to me at least, lies not in its initial thesis but in the sheer amount of information that accompanies it, the deeper analyses of the great works of kink and how they relate to my own personal journey and investigations. In other words, this is a nearly perfect book—if it’s what you’ve been searching for.

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The raison d’etre for this book might seem somewhat obscure to casual readers of erotica.

Ms. Byrne, a former professor of, well, kink, at the University of Melbourne, wrote it in response to a specific statement by Michel Foucault in his History of Sexuality, Volume 1. In that study, Foucault claimed that for the last two centuries, since the Industrial and Scientific Revolutions, Western culture has lost its ars erotica—the artistic sense of the erotic, the mystery that cannot be analyzed but must be passed down from master to novice—if it even ever had one, in favor of a scientia sexualis, the scientific examination of sexual practices. Finding sexuality’s root causes, explaining sex in the discourses of biology and psychology. The Western need to examine, categorize, talk about.

In contrast to this, only the Eastern cultures—East and South Asia, the Arabic world—have maintained this “aesthetic sexuality,” this ars erotica, that defines the knowledge of sex as something that must be experienced: its pleasures, its grief, its humanity. Its sense of art: something to be made, to be created by the person. A process, of self-becoming.

Byrne takes issue with this assumption (Foucault making bullshit assumptions? This cannot be!), and her primary argument is that the West has long had its own sense of the aesthetic in sexuality, in its practice of BDSM and sadomasochistic practices.

Sadomasochism and its modern, consensual component BDSM, as much as it has (possibly) changed over time, cannot be defined down to basic biological/evolutionary functionality: the need for fucking has a classifiable purpose (we’d run out of people if we didn’t do it); wanting to be tied up and whipped, less so. Some of us know that our kinks are no mere affectation—it’s in us, it’s cellular—but the ways we express these urges are societal, optional, preferential: aesthetic. We like the look of leather on skin, or perhaps rope. Tani Naomi films. Diaper play no, at the club; public flogging yes. Etc. (Your possible disagreements prove my point.)

One of the primary artifacts of this artistic practice is its legacy of sadomasochistic literature, which has, since Sade, reflected the aesthetics of the wider European and American culture of its time—as Western cultural aesthetic philosophy has evolved, so has its kinky literature. The book, then, is a chronological examination of the major works of kink since Sade, with comparisons to the dominant contemporary aesthetic Theory—all to demonstrate that we, too, have our own ars erotica.

Sound dry? To some it will be, and I’m not saying it should fascinate every reader of kink. But it looked to be right up my alley.

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aesthetic-sexuality-2As a writer of erotica, I am one of those people to tend to over-research. My fiction is porn, but it is also commentary on porn. A story about two (or more) people in a room fucking might pique my interest temporarily, but the stories that remain in my mind go for something deeper—I am attracted to the whys of erotica, especially BDSM erotica, as much as the hows. I want hotness—or it’s not erotica—but I want some insights, some sense of experiencing something new, or to be challenged, or to be made to see something in a new light. This might be a deeper psychology of need, or, as I tend to write, a bit of observation about the genre itself, along with the “whys” that go along with that inquiry.

Why the present fascination with billionaires, for example? (My upcoming Villa series exists in a world of them, yet it does not romanticize them. At all.) Why has kinky literature always used wealth—Sade did—as a signifier of sexual power differences? There are so many curiosities in our genre worth examining. Much of my own erotica examines sexual expectations, which are themselves built from existing erotica. But enough about me…

Or perhaps I should say, back to me in a moment—because in addition to following her main argument, what I got out of Aesthetic Sexuality, along with simply learning a great deal about the history of our genre, was information that answered specific questions that I’ve long had about my own tendencies and fascinations as reader, writer and practitioner of BDSM. And I’m suggesting to you that besides joining Byrne in her quest to prove that we kinksters are the heart of Western ars erotica, agents of an art of self-creation, sexual self-definition, you too might find jewels of information that can lead to a bit of self-illumination, as well.

Ms. Byrne makes her points thoroughly and admirably. I’ll admit, while I’ve read a fair amount of Theory, I am not as qualified as some might be to judge every argument she puts forward. I would love to hear rebuttals, if anyone out there has any. Some of her positions and observations were perhaps more insightful to me than others, or maybe I just happen to know a bit more about a few books that she discusses while being much more wide-eyed and receptive to other information.

Of the eight chapters in this book, it was Chapters 4, 6 and 7, along with the Introduction in Chapter 1, that utterly fascinated me.

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We begin, of course, with Sade. (The discovery of pre-Sade kink is one of my great hopes—there has to be something out there.) It’s fairly well known that Sade’s works were a critique—albeit an outlandish one—of the moral politics, and political morals, of his time and place, late 18th Century France.

However, being concerned with the relations of sadomasochistic literature to aesthetic theory, what Byrne emphasizes in this chapter is just how entwined aesthetics and morality were at that time—aesthetic appreciation was inseparable from moral judgement. How could an immoral painting be beautiful? It couldn’t, of course! And since morality aligned with what was “good”—the social order, which was of course the natural order—then what was decadent could not be beautiful. (Ding. “Shame!”)

sade_tableau-vivant

Un tableau vivant.

Sade turned this on its head. This is getting outside the purview of this review, but basically, by being a deviant and calling crime a beautiful thing to be admired (and cleverly reasoning out that that can be called the “Natural Order”), it not only poked a finger in the eye of authority, but opened up all sorts of twisted observations of what defined Beauty—the crimson welts on a freshly whipped, lily-white backside (consent mattered not; it made it even more criminal, therefor more luscious without it); the tableaux vivants constructed of naked, tortured, writhing, ecstatic bodies. And as a side note not really mentioned in Byrne’s book, it also began centuries of people wanking under the sheets to things they Ought Not Find Arousing.

I am grossly oversimplifying. This chapter all has to do with Kant, and trust me, Ms. Byrne sorts it out.

The next chapter has a similar thesis, that of a grotesque literature being created to critique the social and political mores of the day. It features Mirbeau’s Le Jardin des supplices (The Torture Garden) and the poetry of Swinburne to show that an over-the-top, horrific description of torture of the human figure as something beautiful to be admired, set in an exotic locale (China), can be used as a metaphor for the casual, nonchalant exploitation of native peoples by Imperial Europe; in Swinburne’s work we find a lot of references to blood and roses written in asymmetric meters that had the same effect. It works.

I’ll admit this chapter went on a bit long for me, and I was quite surprised, and I must say disappointed, that in her chronological exploration of S/M literature, Byrne did not include Venus in Furs, one of the most influential books in all of kink. As I’ve pointed out in a previous review, it gave us the ‘M’ in BDSM, after all. Venus is highly concerned with aesthetics, in its own odd way, and I would have loved to read her thoughts on the novella.

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But it was the middle three chapters that dragged me out of a distanced, intellectual interest in this book and into the personal.

Anyone who’s read many of my reviews, or my fiction, knows that I have a certain affection for what I call “institutional porn,” or as Molly Weatherfield’s husband is credited for naming it in the Introduction to Carrie’s Story, “chateau porn.” An erotic fiction based on organizations, often secretive, often wealthy, sometimes global in scale, in which (voluntary, of course) slaves are recruited, auctioned, resold, contracted into servitude. And then wonderfully tormented. The fiction of Weatherfield, Antoniou, Réage, even Roquelaure. The four women I dedicated my debut novel to, and I think I might as well dedicate the next book to them, too, since it’s even more directly influenced by them, even as I’m commenting on them. (Sorry, I digress.) While usually consensual, these worlds, once entered, appear non-consensual, or something close to it. Consensual non-consent, I’ve seen it called.

And by the way, relax. It’s fiction.

I love this stuff. And I have always, even in fantasy, even before I’d read a single word of erotica, preferred it to the more realistically scaled (if not narrated) “BDSM romance”-type stories—and fantasies, for that matter—which are usually told on a much more personal level.

In fact, it’s that very impersonal quality that I have always found arousing. There is an increased level of objectification, here, the protagonist just a cog in a huge, very kinky machine. It’s all very, very humbling, for them. Of course there are personal attentions, lusts, even loves in such novels, but even then the stories often center on the attractions formed by the chance proximities created by the Machine—often the slave can be torn away from that love and sold to the highest bidder and transported away, never to see them again. They are there for the pleasure of others, and entered such a world knowingly.

Jesus, that’s hot.

But why? For many, it’s not. In Lisabet Sarai’s review of Weatherfield’s Safe Word, she says it seems outdated, it lacks that “sizzle” of a one-on-one relationship. But that’s no lack of sizzle; that’s a personal preference. Which is fine, I have no problem with that. I would never try to tell anyone that their fantasy of being whipped and ravished by one particular person is any less legit than wanting to be sold off into some anonymous underworld of global slave traders. I’ve read a few incredible novels based on one-to-one (or so) domination and submission.

But why do I, why do some of us, find just that kind of relatively impersonal fantasy, and by extension fiction, so goddamned arousing?

As it happens, Ms. Byrne explains it. For which I am eternally grateful.

It all has to do with Nietzsche.

No really.

In three consecutive, central chapters, Ms. Byrne compiles the basics of Nietzsche’s theory of aesthetics as expounded in his Birth of Tragedy and Will to Power (taking into account all associated problematics with both books, especially the latter), relates them to two books by Bataille, and then, brilliantly, uses these theories to analyze two of my favorite, and most important books in erotic literature, Réage’s Histoire d’O and Berg’s L’Image.

This. Book. Rocks.

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I tend to top, in real life, but I’ve always maintained that in erotic fiction, the narrative heat almost always resides with the submissive—it’s the uncertainty of what will happen to them. There’s an intensity to that side of the equation that, with certain exceptions, is hard to match from the dominant’s point of view. Tops can thus imagine themselves doing things to the protagonist, in such stories; subs can put themselves in the narrator’s position (so to speak). A really good story enables us all, no matter what our preference, to do all these things at once.

Reading Ms. Byrne’s book has enabled me to figure out that what has always interested me so intensely is not just submission, by the person(s) to an anonymous agency, but submersion—the act of becoming anonymous.

To summarize Byrne’s summary of Nietzsche’s summary:

The idea of tension between the Apollonian and Dionysian drives is as old as Western culture itself—the concepts were invented by the Greeks, after all. Again oversimplifying, Apollonian aesthetics and values encompass the logical, the overt, the illuminated, the solitary. Meanwhile the Dionysian embraces darkness, intuition, cruelty, desire (though there is also Apollonian desire), the collective—the orgy, in other words. But the two concepts aren’t just opposites, they aren’t even merely complimentary—they are dependent upon each other for their own existence. There cannot be one, without the other to define it. Life without the Dionysian drive would not be “Apollonian,” it would just be Life.

In the best chateau porn—the works that get me really hot and bothered—the protagonists voluntarily enter into situations in which they forfeit control, and undergo a process of what Byrne, and Nietzsche, call “tragic self-shattering,” on their way to a deeper understanding of themselves—and for us the readers, the human condition in general.

In a way, this sounds, and is, similar to the method by which armies train their new recruits—tearing them down, breaking their individuality, building them back up as a unit. And this analogy is not inapt. But in erotica, the experience is more…thoughtful, more aesthetic, more…spiritual even, yet an experiential spirituality of the body more than a “religious” soul. (Nietzsche was decidedly anti-religious.)

The Dionysian, along with pleasure, embraces, or rather is built from, pain. To enter the Dionysian, one has to lower oneself from the light into the darkness. Why? Because, conversely, along with the pain comes more intense pleasures! There’s no playing it safe, in the Dionysian world (not that the Apollonian world is risk-free either, but they are different risks, and different rewards). But these intense rewards require sacrifice:

“Tearing-apart” is the primary quality of Dionysus, the basis of Dionysian pleasure, and thus Apollo is central to Dionysian experience in its capacity to be destroyed. Once Dionysian consciousness subsides, man is repulsed by the terrible truths he has experienced. …He escapes these truths through Apollonian semblance, which is a “necessary result of gazing into the inner, terrible depths of nature—radiant patches, as it were, to heal a gaze seared by gruesome night.”1

In other, milder words: I let them do what to me at the bondage club last night?!? No, no, no, no, no—that did not happen. <Whistles past the graveyard.>

Thus,

For Nietzsche, the Dionysian aesthetic experience, in allowing an intuition of the will, does not deliver one from suffering, but, on the contrary, unites one with “eternal, primal pain, the only ground of the world.”

He then adds that

Power is used to inflict pain but is also required for one to derive pleasure from pain, as one needs to be “hard enough to feel pain as pleasure.”

But why? Toward what goal?

The answer, to me, is the sublime2. How?

Nietzsche’s Dionysian sublime state is never solely a product of another’s force, but must be strived for: “it is clear that only the rarest and most lucky cases of humanity can attain to the highest and most sublime human joys …[requiring] a long a preparatory life leading to this goal.”

story-of-o

The lovely Corinne Clery as O, about to be whipped while a Victrola drowns out her screams in Just Jaekin’s Story of O.

Bingo! Carrie’s Story in a nutshell. And O’s quest, as well. And half my erotic thoughts since before I can remember. There is a scene in The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty, the amazing “dining hall” scene with all the soldiers (which would be horrific in real life), during which Beauty is, after many previous humiliating yet thrilling activities, bent backward over a keg, held down, and penetrated in two orifices. And she decides that she’s fine with that. She lets go, gives in to the will of the others, not just these two men but the castle itself, the system: she is just a set of holes, she tells herself. And she is thrilled by this. Similarly, in the Marketplace novels, it is frequently commented on by slaves that what they have been searching for their entire lives is not just serving a Master, but serving. And through the mechanism of the Marketplace, they are allowed to do that. They are just as devoted to their system as to their individual Masters; in fact, their particular Masters are frequently a cause of letdown. The system provides fixes: time-limited contracts, emergency mediations, retirements. Yet total devotion, obedience, and submission are expected from them—which is exactly what fulfills them.

The Dionysian aesthetic expresses the ugliness of the will, the bliss of destruction and pain, by shattering Apollo’s principium individuationis, causing “subjectivity to vanish to the point of complete self-forgetting.”

Now that’s a submissive sex story. The pre-eminence of individuality is not just subjugated, but is erased, as totally as submission and sacrifice can get without loss of life. And voluntarily? Woo! That’s hot.

…Subject-object distinctions are destroyed as man is “at one and the same time subject and object, simultaneously poet, actor, and spectator.”

This idea was vital to my novel Blue, and I hadn’t even read Ms. Byrne’s book yet. I am, again, speaking of consensual agreements, here. Such behaviors without consent, or with dubious/confused consent, can also be arousing to some of us—in fiction—but it’s not the same as seeking to craft oneself into something new, even as those to whom the submissive has given up power are doing some heavy crafting themselves.

This is an experience of “blissful ecstasy,” “sublimity,” and horror. The experience of self-shattering is horrifying, but it is sublimely pleasurable to learn that individual subjectivity is “mere appearance and that the eternal life of the Will is not affected by this annihilation.”

Is anyone else getting hot?

All of this willful self-subjugation, to the point of self-annihilation, is about becoming, rather than simply “being.” O, Carrie, the Marketplace’s Robin and even Chris Parker—they know what they’re getting into. Okay scratch that, at times, but they still volunteer to enter an unknown world, that they know they’ve wanted their entire lives. They are ready to become something else. And they know sacrifice is required, significant sacrifice, and if written well, friggin’ hot sacrifice.

This kind of erotic fiction is not about romantic love, not about being spanked or controlled by a lover one trusts (or doesn’t entirely trust). It’s not even about making a sacrifice for that lover. It’s about a total immersion, a submersion, into something far bigger than yourself, bigger, even, than the Marketplace or the Association or Roissy. Only by becoming faceless, just an anonymous body to be used by those in power, a mere object for the Machine, can one merge into a far bigger collective subjectivity than one could ever hope to by oneself. Something primordial, something deep.

Lose yourself. Give yourself, totally. That’s what gets me all kinds of wound up, but have never been able to articulate, for most of my life.

…Once again, in fiction, of course. Because while objectification in real life (other than agreed-upon in the bedroom) can become exploitation, neither of which is fun in reality; in fiction, in fantasy—and possibly in the real-life bedroom (or club, hey, whatever)—this is heady, heart-pounding stuff. It’s how some of us are geared. Top or sub, if only there was a real Roissy or Beauty’s castle or Marketplace that we could join, either as Master or slave. This is the power of erotic fiction, to me. We just can’t attain such things, such deep, transformative things, in our society, in our time. Yes, we might be able to enter a 24/7 D/s relationship, but the totality of self-shattering is something not only erotically difficult, but most likely something we’d really rather avoid, in real life. Talk about your gaslighting.

Yet how many hours of sleep have I lost, over my lifetime, just thinking of it all?

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story-of-o-film

From The Story of O, 1975, directed by Just Jaeckin.

Byrne goes on to brilliantly, in my opinion, coordinate these theories with the works of Réage and Berg. To me, Chapter 6 of this book is a mini-clinic in writing erotica. She regards Story of O and The Image in many lights: of feminist critiques of both, taking into account these critiques but also showing why those of us who think they’re sexy can ignore them; she explains just how the Dionysian aesthetic is put into practice in both novels; discusses the role of love; investigates the meta-fictive storytelling of both books. I could go on forever, about this chapter, but you should just buy the book for yourself.

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Chapter 7 moves into the post-modern era of aesthetic theory, using Baudrillard’s influential (if sometimes nutty) theories, as well as Foucault’s, on the “real” vs. artifice, surface vs. depth, to reach some conclusions about BDSM as theatre.

aesthetic-sexuality-3I found this chapter tremendously informative as well, and especially helpful in my own investigations. I actually read this chapter first, because I happened to find Byrne’s book as I was grasping for an angle to write a survey of the erotic/spiritual art of Saturno Buttò, which was also during the same time I discovered the novella Women’s Rites by Jeanne de Berg, the female pseudonym of L’image’s Jean de Berg (and both pen names of the amazing Catherine Robbe-Grillet). There was a wonderful synchronicity between Butto’s art and Berg’s vignettes, and stumbling across Ms. Byrne’s book helped me to make sense of that connection.

I will be writing that review next, and as with Byrne/Nietzsche’s concept of the sublime, I will be discussing the theatricality of BDSM in that essay.

Chapter 8, unfortunately, was perhaps the least satisfying chapter for me. If the previous chapter took into account post-modern aesthetic theories of “the real,” to investigate BDSM as a form of self-creation through its inherent theatricality, 8 looks into even more recent manifestations of surface as an end to itself. Surveying fetish fashion magazine shoots, the author explores how the many splintered and often politicized kink communities use the signifiers as code—to self-create, yes, but also to differentiate from other kinks.

But by embracing “fashion,” in my opinion, all we get is surface. And while according to post-modern theory that’s all there is—surface—I still know there are others out there who are far more interested in getting into something deeper (as impossible as Po-Mo says that is), rather than merely adopting a stance that says “my lifestyle.” Everything is politics, these days. I don’t really want to get into this chapter with you, right now.

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But my God, what a wonderful book. Byrne is careful not to call it The Literary History of Sadomasochism; she does not pretend to have compiled anything resembling an exhaustive survey of all the naughty books. But in defending her thesis—that we in the West have our own ars erotica, our own erotic Art of self-becoming—she has not only convinced me of something I didn’t even know was in doubt, but has made me see the wider situation in a new light. And along the way, she has given me more insights into erotica, into my own writing, and into my own tendencies and nature than I’ve found in any other book.

If you are interested in Kink, in the vast, only partially explored frontiers and theories of it, not just a kinky novel or two but what makes those novels—and we authors and practitioners—tick, then I highly recommend this deep, thoroughly researched, and well written book.

Aesthetic Sexuality can be purchased here.


  1. All block quotes are from Aesthetic Sexuality, all text in quotation marks within them are Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy or Will to Power.
  2. I discuss concepts of the sublime in erotica in my next blog review, on the art of Saturno Buttò and the novella Women’s Rites by Jeanne de Berg.

  3 comments for “Cerebral Arousings: Romana Byrne’s Aesthetic Sexuality

  1. October 20, 2016 at 12:12 pm

    An incredible critique LN – so much detail. It’s superb.

    • LN Bey
      October 20, 2016 at 2:29 pm

      Thank you, Emmanuelle! It’s always wonderful when we find exactly that book we’ve been looking for, isn’t it?

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