Embracing Jouissance

from the film Thelma and Louise, 1991

from the film Thelma and Louise, 1991

Sometimes a word holds power because we’re familiar with its definition. We know what it means and consequently, we feel what we know. But on rare occasion we encounter the opposite -  we feel the presence of a word as right or true, with little understanding of its meaning. This was the case when I first heard the word Jouissance.

As Susan Rowland was presenting a seminar on the creative life of 14th C English anchorite Julian of Norwich, she mentioned Julian’s book “Revelations of Divine Love” (1342) as an embodiment of Jouissance; an outpouring of creativity with a feminine slant. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but figured if an anchorite from the middle ages could experience this whatever-it-is in spite of her walled-in existence, then I wanted to aspire to feeling it too! But what was it, exactly?

I asked Susan if the concept of jouissance could be said to embrace feminine sexuality and playfulness as something valued by God, and she said yes. And that ‘yes’ was all I needed to hear. I fell in love with this word and thought it could be the name for the very thing I’ve been longing to feel all my life but never knew how to name.

In the simplest literal translation from French, jouissance means enjoyment. But as with all things French, there is nothing so simple about it. Is it pleasure or bliss or an orgasmic high?... It turns out it is all of these things, and none of them. Jouissance has been resisting definition, even by the French, since its inception, and Americans have all but given up in their attempts to translate this word.

The word jouissance originated in the late 1500’s as a noun - an entity, a state of being. But considering its resistance to definition, I’m wondering if jouissance would better be held as an adverb. Jouissance is a feeling, an active energy inside oneself that changes by the moment and transforms even as it’s identified. It’s an energy that feels good, but could be dangerous, and how it manifests is unique in each individual. For these reasons, I beleive jouissance seems better suited to adverbial images and actions rather than as a concrete thing with a definition.

Over the centuries the idea of jouissance has been batted about by likes of Hegel + Kant, Sigmund Freud, and Jacques Lacan. It’s been attached to the castration complex and described as phallic. It’s been inexorably linked to and contrasted with pleasure and The Pleasure Principle. But is wasn’t until Roland Barthes published “The Pleasure of the Text” in 1973, that jouissance was described as distinct from pleasure and distinguished as something of its own. And it turns out that the word jouissance, as opposed to pleasure, has at least two aspects, including one with a decidedly feminine nature.

Jane Gallop describes Roland Barthes’ distinction between pleasure and jouissance in her essay Beyond the Jouissance Principle. “Barthes distinguishes between ‘pleasure’, which is comfortable, ego-assuring, recognized and legitimized as culture, and ‘jouissance,’ which is shocking, ego-disruptive, and in conflict with the canons of culture.” And indeed, French feminists loved this new aspect of jouissance and it has come to serve as an anti-patriarchy emblem of French feminine theory.

As a result of Barthes’ work, Lacan conceded to the distinction between pleasure and jouissance, as well as to the idea of the feminine aspect of jouissance. And in 1973 he assigned the word two algebraic symbols - J0 and JA. The first being phallic jouissance and the second being feminine jouissance (the other). (An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, Dylan Evans)

“The difference between jouissance and pleasure is generally understood to be one of degree: Jouissance is stronger, and so the person who experiences it is stronger, braver, less repressed and less scared.” (Gallop)

Gallop continues to quote Barthe as saying, “The text of jouissance causes the historical, cultural, and psychological foundations of the reader to vacillate.” It is this power to unsettle ideological founding assumptions that is celebrated in the French feminine concept of jouissance.

French feminist theorist Hélène Cixous, best known for her book “The Laugh of Medusa,” refers to jouissance as “that intense, rapturous pleasure which women know and men fear.” (Gallop) Cixous goes on to say “it combines mental, physical and spiritual aspects of female experience, bordering on mystical communion: explosion, diffusion, effervescence, abundance...takes pleasure (jouit) in being limitless". Cixous maintains that jouissance is the source of a woman's creative power and that the suppression of jouissance prevents women from finding their own fully empowered voice. (The Anti-Oedipus Complex, Robert Weatherill, 183.)

And literary critic Sandra Gilbert adds this: "to escape hierarchical bonds and thereby come closer to what Cixous calls jouissance, which can be defined as a virtually metaphysical fulfillment of desire that goes far beyond [mere] satisfaction... [It is a] fusion of the erotic, the mystical, and the political." (Wikipedia, Jouissance)

Interestingly, when I did a search on ‘Jouissance and Carl Jung’ nothing came up. I would be fascinated to know if he ever had an opinion on the word. I visualize jouissance as an energy that has its roots in the energy of libido (as Jung described libido, not as Freud did), and I wonder Jung would’ve agreed with its purported connection to creativity. It seems like a word he would love, if for no other reason than because it defies definition.

Let’s look again at the phrases that describe jouissance - The source of a woman’s creative power. Combining mental, physical and spiritual aspects of the female experience. A fusion of the erotic, the mystical and the political... Oh my goodness! Who wouldn’t want to feel any and all of this! But how?

Thinking back, I’ve tried to identify moments in my life when I might’ve felt something like jouissance and I came up with several, my favorite of which is a memory of driving a car. But it wasn’t just any car, it was a 1980 MGB red convertible with tan leather seats, and it was mine. I was 23 years old and bought it for a song from a collector who took pity on my poverty and was smitten with my youthful looks. And this car was my prize possession.

Oh how I loved to ride the winding roads of Connecticut with the top down, the music turned up, and the wind in my hair! I felt true joy, utter abandon and profound awe for the beauty of nature so very close to my leather-wrapped steering wheel. I named my car Passion. And ultimately that passion got the better of me. One day, as I was racing along the curves of River Road in Essex, I lost control and crashed into a stone wall and totalled my beautiful machine.

So now I’m thinking, it wasn’t just passion, it was jouissance. And my consumption with that feeling wasn’t unique, it was archetypal. An archetypal experience of jouissance. And if that’s true, then there must be more images of this energy, this feeling. And there are -

We need look no further than the famous image of Grace Kelly in “To Catch a Thief -” - scarf on her head, wind in her hair, at the wheel of a convertible, courting danger. And we find the same image when Susan Sarandon played Louise in “Thelma and Louise.” So here we have it; there’s a pattern.

Jouissance teeters on the edge of ‘too much’ and when we’re young and inexperienced it’s easy to fall off the ledge it its embrace. But as we get older, I think it’s possible for women to enjoy the ride without the crash. It might even be necessary, if women are to change the patriarchal tenor of our times. If Hélène Cixous is right, and the suppression of jouissance prevents women from finding their own fully empowered voice, then we need jouissance now more than ever.