The very word erotic comes from the Greek word eros, the personification of love in all its aspects—born of Chaos, and personifying creative power and harmony.
Audre Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power”
In lockdown, I have learned to live erotically. By which I mean that, in Lorde’s terms, I have come to assert the erotic as “the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered.” Identifying herself as a “Black lesbian feminist”, she focuses on the erotic as a way to transform a “racist, patriarchal, and anti-erotic society.” My primary focus here is on the ways in which work within capitalism produces an “anti-erotic society.”
Lorde defines the erotic as “a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling.” She describes a beautifully sensual practice that she developed in World War II in which she would spread yellow food colouring through margarine. The uncoloured margarine would be left out to soften and the burst pellet of food colouring would be kneaded through the bag to colour it. She compares the spreading of this colouring to the erotic “kernel” within herself:
“When released from its intense and constrained pellet, it flows through and colors my life with a kind of energy that heightens and sensitizes and strengthens all my experience.”
I love the sensuality with which she describes kneading the “rich yellowness” gently back and forth between “our fingers.” For this was a communal pleasure, not one to be hoarded by an individual. As she goes on to say, “The need for sharing deep feeling is a human need,” but is one that it is difficult to find within in a “European-American male tradition.”
As the yellow spills out of the pellet, I visualise it as a glowing light, giving the packet a shining talismanic quality. The erotic appears here as a guide to “inform and illuminate our actions” but it also shields us from accepting “self-negation…numbness…[and] powerlessness.”
Much of my pre-corona life was spent sitting dutifully and joylessly in a grey office. My work there could probably just about be described as interesting at points. But it’s only real reward was rent money. The more effective my strategies for zoning out, the less slowly the hands ticked round the clock. Having a boring but reasonably well-paid office job is certainly not the greatest injustice in the world. But the oblivion that it induces is insidious nonetheless:
“The principal horror of any system which defines the good in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need, or which defines human need to the exclusion of the psychic and emotional components of that need—the principal horror of such a system is that it robs our work of its erotic value, its erotic power and life appeal and fulfillment. Such a system reduces work to a travesty of necessities, a duty by which we earn bread or oblivion for ourselves and those we love.”
Living on Universal Credit during lockdown has freed me from obedience to necessity. Perhaps I am not the only one - a poll conducted during the pandemic found that the majority of people in the UK now support the introduction of a universal basic income. Lives that are no longer dominated by work can be devoted to the erotic. But as Lorde points out, experiencing the “open and fearless underlining of [our] capacity for joy” makes us “dangerous”. Once we have experienced deep sensual and spiritual pleasure, why would we settle for being compliant office based tax payers?
“Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning within our lives. And this is a grave responsibility, projected from within each of us, not to settle for the convenient, the shoddy, the conventionally expected, nor the merely safe.”
The erotic is not simply about experiencing pleasure, it is also an epistemology in that it is the “nurturer or nursemaid of all our deepest knowledge.” Lorde describes erotic knowledge in experiencing the sensation “It feels right to me.” If we know what feels right, we also know what feels wrong, even when the dominant cultural messages suggest otherwise. Armed with this knowledge, we become much less obedient subjects, able to follow a deep sense of goodness for ourselves.
Love in the Time of Corona