Monday, December 15, 2008

Come Now and Look at Me

Not so long ago Jessica wrote a post titled "“Come for me, baby”: orgasm on command" in which she asked
Why is this phrase (and its variations) so ubiquitous in romance? You don’t believe me? Well, here’s a list complied ONLY from my bookshelf of maybe 30 titles. I bet you can think of many more.
Of course there's an element of dominance/control involved, and as Jessica asks, "was it the Office of Alpha Hero Protection that issued the dictum (heh) that in order to enhance Alphaness, heroes must control even this aspect of lovemaking?" But I suspect there might also be an element of bonding involved, of becoming, in the words of Matthew 19, and repeated in the marriage ceremony "one flesh."

Jessica's post reminded me of another frequent command issued by heroes, namely that the heroine look at him as she has her orgasm:
The blood was pounding in his head, roaring in his ears, yet his body continued to move slowly with hers. Balanced on the edge, David said her name a last time.
"Aurora, look at me." When her eyes opened, they were dark and aware. "I want to see where I take you." (Roberts 591)
And here's a similar example:
Byron realized suddenly that it was not enough for there to be pleasure given and taken. He wanted Victoria to be aware of him, as aware of him as a man as he was of her as a woman. She was beautiful like that [...] beautiful with her tightness clasping him intimately, as if she would turn them both into one marvelous animal. But he did not want her to plunge into ecstasy alone. He wanted her with him as she went over the edge - he wanted to be a part of that beauty at its climax. [...] "I'm here," he whispered. "Look at me. Remember - I am with you."
She opened her eyes and met his gaze. "For now," she agreed. (Joyce 67)
Again, I think the command is part of an attempt to bond the two more closely. I wonder if there's any lingering literary and emotional significance derived from much earlier medical/scientific ideas about the power of the eyes. In the Renaissance it was thought that eyes could potentially have a powerful effect:
"Love's arrows," held in high esteem by the French poets of the Pleiade, were not, for Ficino, a mere metaphor. They were equipped with invisible pneumatic tips able to inflict severe damage on the person shot. Had not Plato already said that love was a kind of ocular sickness (ophthalmia: Phaedo, 255c-d)? And did not Plutarch ascribe to sight a "miraculous force"?
Regarding the "evil eye," fascination or jettatura, its etiology is the same:
Fascination is a force which, emanating from the spirit of the fascinator, enters the eyes of the fascinated person and penetrates his heart. Spirit is therefore the instrument of fascination. It emits from the eyes rays resembling itself, bearing with them spiritual quality. [...]
So speaks Agrippa of Nettesheim, after Ficino. (Culianu 30)
As mentioned above, this scientific explanation of the function of the gaze influenced literature:
In late medieval literature [...] the arrow does not always proceed directly to the heart, but strikes the lover first in the eyes. This bizarre trajectory becomes more comprehensible when we realize that the poets have associated the arrow of Love with either the glance or the image of the beloved, which enters through the lover's eyes but pierces deep within. (Stewart 13)
Donaldson-Evans clarifies that this imagery has a very long literary history:
when love is born not simply as a result of seeing the Beloved but by the active participation of the Beloved's glance, then we are dealing with a specific tradition which can be traced back to early Greek classical literature. It is, in fact, a topos which, since it has gone unnamed until now, we propose to call the Aggressive Eye Topos. (202)
Its scientific basis, according to Donaldson-Evans, contributed to its longevity:
such imagery is rooted in a theory of vision which extended from classical antiquity up to the seventeenth century. This scientific authority (it is only for us that it is pseudo-scientific) undoubtedly accounts for the popularity and extraordinary longevity of this particular literary tradition. (203)
I'd like to suggest that, even if we would now consider the scientific authority underpinning the Aggressive Eye topos to be merely archaic pseudo-science, the tradition perhaps lives on in literary form in the romance genre. Heroes who ask or command heroines to look deep into their eyes seem to be trying to create an emotional connection (they may not at this point think of it as love) between them. When the hero ensures that they orgasm together while looking into each others eyes, he is perhaps trying to join them both physically and optically (body and soul), and in coming together in this way they are perhaps almost literally made, at least for a short space of time, into "one flesh."

The image of the eye is from Wikimedia Commons.


  1. I agree that the meaning of the phrase "come for me" could be just what you've suggested. It's interesting, actually, how many different things it can mean, when it seems so unambiguous.

    I had never noticed the "watch me" bit, but just last night, reading the fourth Sookie Stackhouse novel, Dead to the World, I read this:

    "After a moment he said, 'Don't close your eyes. Look at me lover.'

    ... 'Watch me' he said in my ear."

    There are some accounts of sexuality which hold a version the account of the gaze you've outlined -- that it is about mutual recognition, or recognition of the other, or recognition of the self via the recognition of the other. This last account is found in Sartre, but also, more recently, in Thomas Nagel:

    "Sexual desire involves a kind of perception, but not merely a single
    perception of its object, for in the paradigm case of mutual desire
    there is a complex system of superimposed mutual perceptions- not
    only perceptions of the sexual object, but perceptions of oneself.
    Moreover, sexual awareness of another involves considerable self-
    awareness to begin with-more than is involved in ordinary sensory
    perception. The experience is felt as an assault on oneself by the view
    (or touch, or whatever) of the sexual object.",%20Sexual%20Perversion%20(1969).pdf

    (sorry I cannot seem to figure out HTML when I am in comment boxes!)

  2. Sorry again for the messed up formatting! And I think the link in my name takes you back to the Nagel article!

  3. Yes, the link in your name in the first comment does link to Nagel's article. Linking in comment boxes is really quite easy. You just need to do the following:

    1) open a pointy bracket <
    2) insert the following immediately afterwards
    3) a href="URL GOES HERE"
    4) put in a real url, not "URL GOES HERE." But do remember to keep in the quotation marks. They're important. There shouldn't be a space anywhere except between the "a" and the "href="
    5) close the pointy bracket with a >
    6) type in some text which will appear as the link
    7) open another pointy bracket <
    8) type in the following
    9) /a
    10) close the pointy bracket >

    Sorry, that's probably not the best way to explain it, but if I tried to demonstrate it would probably confuse Blogger and it would tell me I've got an unclosed bracket or something, and then it wouldn't allow me to post the comment.

    Thinking about that quote from Nagel, it strikes me that it might provide an insight (pun unavoidable) into the long descriptions one often finds in romances of how the heroine looks, how the hero looks, how each thinks about the way the other one looks etc.

    Here's how Rachel Anderson described this sort of thing:

    In some romantic fiction of the 1950s and 1960s the account of the heroine’s outward appearance is developed to such an extent that one is given a peepshow of her entire toilette, rather in the nature of a Louis XIV levée, including a description of her bath, the putting on of her underclothes as well as her outer ones, the application of her make-up, and the combing out of her hair. But some indication, however slight, of the heroine’s physical attributes has always been an important part of the romantic novel. (85)

    Ann Barr Snitow commented that

    Harlequins revitalize daily routines by insisting that a woman combing her hair, a woman reaching up to put a plate on a high shelf (so that her knees show beneath the hem, if only there were a viewer), a woman doing what women do all day, is in a constant state of potential sexuality. You never can tell when you may be seen and being seen is a precious opportunity. (249)

    Anderson, Rachel. The Purple Heart Throbs: The Sub-literature of Love. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1974.

    Snitow, Ann Barr. “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different.” Radical History Review 20 (1979): 141-61. Rpt. in Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality. Ed. Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell and Sharon Thompson. New York: Monthly Review P., 1983. 245-63.

  4. I haven't had a chance to read the Nagel yet, but Laura, those quotes from Anderson and Snitow are much better explanations of what I mentioned after your Cinderella/beauty myth post. (I suggested that passages dwelling on the minutiae of appearance in part reflect a combination of didactic and how-to messages about achieving beauty and put-togetherness; rather like a women's fashion mag, which sets a standard and then demonstrates how to live up to it.)

    Your HTML would be all this on one line:

    <a href=",%20Sexual%20Perversion%20(1969).pdf">Nagel</a>

    = Nagel

    However, it works just fine to put the link in your name. On some blogs that's even preferred.

  5. Sorry--obviously I didn't mean "didactic and how-to", as how-to is a subset of didacticism. I meant didactic in both the sense of making moral or normative statements ("You must look and act this way") and the sense of offering detailed instruction ("... and here's how to do it").

  6. I think you're right, RfP, that that sort of description can have more than one function. It partly depends on the perspective the reader adopts, and within the text, different characters interpret what they see in different ways. The heroine, for example, tends not to see herself the way the hero sees her, and she often misunderstands the hero or only partially "sees" what his true nature is.

    Seeing and interpreting the way other people look, falling in love, and preparing to be seen and fallen in love with, can be very closely connected in these texts.

    And on the issue of appearances, your description of how to write html tags is much prettier than mine and I'm jealous! ;-)