Although I touched on the idea briefly in my first article here at Sex and the 405, I’d like to expand more on the idea of obstruction as it relates to the erotic.
As mentioned, in some ways, obstruction is necessary for any erotic element to exist. Eros, by definition, logically requires a lack: the erotic is a desire for possession; if possession has already been established, there is nothing left to desire. “Possession”, in this sense, can refer to a lot of things, and not simply a jealous lover’s excessive grip on the beloved, but a desire to possess someone’s presence, attention, interest, or longing. It can simply mean that you desire to continue desiring them.
But it requires, by definition, that possession is, at best, fleeting, if not entirely impossible.
To sustain erotic tension, then, some form of obstruction must be present. In Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet, she invokes geometry as a perspective of the erotic: a triangulation of desire. She writes that in each erotic relationship, there are at least three points: the lover, the beloved, and the obstruction. The obstruction suspends the lovers on a plane that prevents them from collapsing into each other; they remain buoyant in their desire for one another through distance. Carson writes that while the point of obstruction is occasionally another lover, a cause of jealousy, that “there are more ways than one to triangulate desire. Not all look triangular in action, yet they share a common concern: to represent eros as deferred, defied, obstructed, hungry, organized around a radiant absence — to represent eros as lack.”
This point of obstruction could be nearly anything. One could find obstruction in boundaries, for instance, in the simple awareness that the two lovers are, in fact, two distinct lovers, noting the infuriating barriers of their own skin as an impossible distance; in the distance one has to cross to kiss the beloved; in the pause between “I love you” and “I love you, too”; in that moment of anticipatory breathlessness.
To desire, then, is to reach across the abyss maintained by the obstruction. And it is an inevitably vain movement, because nothing can ever be possessed completely and indefinitely, but it is in our vanity, our foolishness, that the erotic element presents itself; even while knowing that I can never truly have my beloved, for instance, in any variety of ways possible (time, space, attention), I reach to him or her, and in that exquisite agony of just being too far, I desire. Or, as Carson writes, “the reach of desire is defined in action: beautiful (in its object), foiled (in its attempt), endless (in time).”
The tension resulting from this obstruction can be bittersweet or it can be thrilling; on occasion it is both. For instance, once, during a personal exchange during a period in which we were forced to not see each other for an extended period of time, a lover sent me a quick missive that read solely “every nerve ending profoundly opposed to waiting…”
I considered the intensity of such desire before responding: “yes, but this is such a sweet form of torture. Every neuron charged with electricity. I savor my impatience, my reluctant anticipatory waiting. I like being driven mad like this. Truly, I couldn’t be any happier than if I were strung across a threshold, like a lyre, and plucked only occasionally, the tension reverberating throughout my entire body. Lingering with its aftertaste, longing for its return and sustained by this very arc.”
Eros, then, among its many meanings, ambiguous and occasionally conflicting, is waiting, is distance, is reaching.