The Paradox of the Obscene


The writer and erotomaniac Bataille spent all his life forcing words out of his brain, while seeking for their transgression in imagined, yet written carnal indiscretion.

So: Language used against language. A bit like the Zen scream Katsu!, the master shouting at his pupil in order to induce an ‘enlightened state’. “Garrotte him words.” In Resnais’ master piece Providence, the words of the one time mistress about her former lover Dirk Bogarde.

That whole bunch of philosophers meditating since the seventy’s on ‘The Sublime’ were on the same war path. How to escape petty bourgeois reality? How to rid oneself of tightening prejudice and of moral hang-ups? How to get rid of what I use to call normalism? From Burke to Foucault, from Sade to Bataille – That was the question: To transgress or not to be.

This endeavour is tainted with pragmatic paradox. The moment one has found an ‘experience’ which forces the mind into awe and utter amazement, for one perhaps precious moment excluding language from the mind because one ‘cannot find words’ for that experience – that very moment cannot be but unique. Striving for its repetition is impossible, simply because then you are already expecting what could not be expected the first time.

So the only way out for these sublimists seems to… say it in some special way and to seek their transgression in written carnality or in images. However, sexual realism using vulgar words still remains language, being always more eroticism than porn. Language which really hits on things and even seems to be things – it is but a poet’s realist illusion. Truly shocking porn is always ‘of the image’. Not saying things. No, show them – or for that matter to oneself. Yet, after a while, even these pictures tend to dull the participant observer.

Japanese draughtsmen were quite aware of this, their images do indeed intend to excite by way of shock. Their concern is what Mishima in his little book Sun and Steel described as: ‘All those things that could never emerge from words…’




The Frenchman Bataille tried ‘transgression’ by way of imagined, written acts of carnal indiscretion. Hans Bellmer, German immigrant in France, saw that Bataille’s ‘shocking’ words needed to be ‘updated’ into true visual astonishment’. He illustrated Bataille’s novella Madame Edwarda.

Bellmer was, me thinks, certainly inspired by the neat, pointed erotic drawings by the Japanese. However, being such a delicate a draughtsman, his drawings cannot but distract the art lover’s eye from the obscene content of his often weird images.



Hans Bellmer

One might say: All this is typical for that period of the 20th-century called Interbellum, with its explosion of energy after that other enormous big-bang, The Great War. And indeed, it is. Those were the days when in intellectual circles ‘negro music’ became fashionable, when ‘primitive’ masks were sold on the art market and were used as model by Western painters and sculptors, when psychoanalysis reduced ‘man’ to early sex experiences – Modern days, in a word, in which that Romantic notion of ‘the child as father of the man’ was taken very seriously.

However, this highlighting of ‘life’, ‘energy’ and ‘carnality’ surely spilled over into our Postmodernity, where it was linked to mediations on both ‘The Sublime’ and ‘The Body’. Always mixed into this cocktail is the semantic guerrilla against the normalizing effect of language and logic. Why not bring in a pitch of salty Zen: “A great deed does not mind the rules…”


[In between parentheses: Pound, with his stress on Japanese and Chinese ‘characters’, did write true ‘Western’ poetry, full of ‘ideas’, ‘words’ and ‘metaphors’. Why not, in this context, quote his almost haiku-like little poem An Object, an essay in saying what he would like a poem and a thing to be, this in a manner which he later disavowed:

                              This thing, that hath a code and not a core,
                              Hath set acquaintance where might be affections,
                              And nothing now
                                                                    Disturbeth his reflections.

And why not also his grand quatrain Quies – all words and ideas, not a trace of ‘things…’

This is another of our ancient loves.
Pass and be silent, Rullus, for the day
Hath lacked a something since this lady passed;
Hath lacked a something. ‘Twas but marginal.]


Sebastiano Timpanaro, an Italian philologist, wrote an intriguing book on the Freudian lapsus, that slip of the tongue on which the Viennese psychoanalyst placed so much value. In Freud’s famous treatise on dreams case after case is ‘solved’ by digging into the sexual background of such linguistic failures. Timpanaro finds Freud’s solutions both arbitrary and unnecessary. They are, in short, begging the question, as Freud always already knew the solution beforehand. His theory was the norm for his explanation.

One explanation, which in Timpanaro’s analysis turns up time and again, is the association of sounds or the ‘ring’ of words.

“Banalization, confusions between similar sounds, and so on, these are tendencies and not laws. Even the most slovenly and ignorant copyist, or the most distracted and emotional speaker, always writes more ‘correct words’ than ‘slips’…” However, once they slip up and say something untoward and unwanted, the aural association of words explains the mix up and thus their slips. They do not point to some deep, ‘unconscious’ psychiatric disorder, profoundly rooted, as Freud would have it, in the sexual mess of the pressure cooker of Western society: The nuclear family of papa/mama/child. They are, then, more or less innocent mistakes.

Allow me to suggest the relevance of all this for our understanding of the haiku. Call it innocent, call it infantile – however, this mix up of same sounding terms does indeed reflect on the haiku mechanism of ‘finding’ or- perhaps better phrased – the assemblage of a poem on the conveyor belt of written images. There is, methinks, an intrinsic connection between on the one hand forcing things into a haiku, gluing thing-like impressions together, and on the other hand this associative process in the unconscious grottos of our mind.

The haiku may very well be resulting from this unconscious pasting of impressions, as such merely suggesting something ‘deep’. Both haiku and the ‘association of ideas’ are but wafer thin.


The strange, if unwanted bonding between avant-garde philosophers of the Foucault type and latter-day sectarian mystics basing themselves on Rudolf Steiner and what not, seems to be an indication of all this.

It is amongst these philosophers-speculators that haikuïsm often turns up. To come in touch with ‘the Real’, the ‘inner core’ et cetera – it is always a sign of people feeling cramped in by either the routines of their everyday working life or perhaps by their impoverished language. They will stress the ‘voyage into the depth of the soul’ and love Basho’s visits to places and shrines which he said are ‘made immortal by poetry’, even though Basho himself time and again tells us that these very same places are ruined by man’s own doing or by earth quakes and what not.

Of the essence here is the mystic’s desire for the Now, for the reduction of the flow of time to an instant. This perfect and polished Present is as timeless as that other religious hit: Eternity. Both share the elimination of social history and the person’s own life, of his projective modelling of all things encountered, a capacity that cannot work without the flow of real time. This alleged absolute Now of the mystic is unfathomable, the mysterious moment in which the ego drowns, to give itself up to what, perhaps with a wink, may be called Das Ding an Sich – the thing in itself, which is always Jenseits, floating in that Nowhere Land of Timelessness where it may meet other Dinge an Sich.

Haikuïsm plays with these notions, ideally demanding of the poet to loose himself and loosen himself, thus purging him of his ego and become a thing amongst things, a passionless mirror in which things are supposedly reflected ‘just the way they are’, in their pure chance like being-together inside the mirror image. Thus arises the haiku – a mirror, if not a cage for things. The haiku can only ‘become’ after consciousness being time and history has been shut out. Or so the mystic ideology runs.

Esoteric fanatics love this paradox, the one obliterating the ‘self’ while at the same feeling very, very special – not merely far away from, but more especially far above the madding crowd. That awful, if not awesome cocktail of sickening humility and hubris. Basho himself: “Every journey brings you back to the transience of life. If you perish while travelling, this is the will of heaven. That thought made me happy again.”

And I would like to just point out the paradoxical similarity between on the one hand this allegedly ‘selfless meeting of things’ in which the poet himself becomes reified as the mere receptor of impressions, and on the other hand the syndrome of narcissism involving a consciousness which considers itself a thing, thus being able to treat other people as things… The samurai: Being the sword which kills the other sword. Or having read the above on the obscene: Mere bodies as things carnally and violently banging into one another.

Narcissism is the mental make-up which correlates with a technocratic attitude towards one’s surroundings – things and people-as-things. Japanese culture is a shame culture par excellence, shame as opposed to guilt. This is also typical for narcissism. It is a world of personages more so than a society of persons, a world more of competition and management than of cooperation and empathy. In the fourth episode of this essay on hakuïsm I shall come back to this.

Somewhere I read that “the haiku is not just a verse form. It is also a way of life, a state of readiness, willingness.” Not my will, but Thine…, that common notion of mystics, Western of Eastern or otherwise. It seems indeed to be the attitude of the haiku poet who gives himself over to his surroundings and who believes, falsely so, that he can let things flow immediately into his words – ready as he is for a thoughtless association of sounds and images.

To become innocent again – or perhaps just childish.

Sierksma, November 2016

[Also read the No.s 1,2 and 4 of this series On Haiku]


Author: rjsiersk

Sierksma was born in Friesland, a 'county' in the northern part of the Netherlands with its own language which he does not speak and with an obstinate population to which he both belongs and does not belong. A retired Professor of Social Philosophy and Aesthetics, as a Harkness fellow he taught at Rutgers and Berkeley Universities in the USA, and at GUAmsterdam and TUDelft in the Netherlands. In 1991 he was awarded his PhD from Leiden University on the subject of 'Surveillance and Task: Labour Discipline between Utilitarianism and Pragmatism'. His books include Minima Memoria (1993), Lost View (2002 with Jan van Geest), and Litter Scent (2013). He has published poems and articles in Te Elfder Ure, Nynade, Oasis and the Architectural Annual. Half the year he lives in Haarlem, the other half he spends in la France Profonde, living ‘in his own words’ as the house out there was bought with the winnings from his essay Eternal Sin, written for the ECI Essay Prize (1993). In this blog, Sierksma's Sequences, written in English, he is peeping round his own and other people’s perspectives. Not easily satisfied with answers nor with questions, he turns his wry wit to a number of philosophical and historical issues. His aim in writing: to make parts of the world light up in his perspective - not my will, thine! Not being a thief, he has no cook, one wife, some children, one lover and three cats.

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