Apr 172012

Orgasm… la petite mort… the little death.

And almost instantly, I’m back under a heap of French feminists, semioticians, and philosophers–old friends that I haven’t visited since graduate school. And here, à la bibliothèque, the aura of French theorists smells exactly as I remember it–of musty pages, cold coffee, and highlighter ink.

Lacan’s jouissance. Kristeva’s chora, the feminine space I never fully explored. Barthes’ petite mort, emotional purging (like Aristotle’s catharsis), annihilation, erasure, and subsequent bliss through a sort of literature-induced mimesis, the direct English equivalent for which I never technically located in my assigned translation of Le Plaisir du Texte. My attempts at translation sit in my office in some old binder that probably smells of musty pages, cold coffee, and highlighter ink.

(There are so many connections I’d like to explore now–between poetics, aesthetics, sexuality, power, and bdsm! But not now. I don’t want literature-induced bliss, I want orgasm-induced bliss.)

Leaving theory behind, I turn to the science of la petite mort, the little death, from fields that are far less familiar. Perhaps because I lack the discipline-specific education to understand the terminology and explanations, I’m more inclined to have a sort of blind faith, ironically, faith in science.

Scientific studies of brain activity actually support the notion of a “little death” during orgasm. According to a 2005 study published in Psychological Bulletin1

“. . . subcortical paroxysmal and right hemispheric high-amplitude slow activity appear to be related to the partial loss of consciousness during orgasm. Along with sexual arousal and orgasm, a lateralized right hemispheric activation occurs. These modifications of the EEG clearly classify orgasm as a specific ASC not comparable to any other psychophysiological states.(104)

According to a 2006 paper in European Journal of Neuroscience2

“. . . decreased blood flow in the left lateral orbitofrontal cortex signifies behavioural disinhibition during orgasm in women, and that deactivation of the temporal lobe is directly related to high sexual arousal.” (3305)

Additionally, the authors mention “Le Petite Mort”, or “the Little Death,” as the physiological response that enables

“. . . the experience of timelessness and ‘release’. To some degree, the present results seem to be in accordance with this notion, because female orgasm is associated with decreased blood flow in the orbitofrontal cortex, a part of the brain that is crucial for behavioural control.” (3315)

During orgasm, there is decreased blood flow to a part of the brain and partial loss of consciousness–orgasm really is a little death.

While I can’t quite articulate what any of this means to me–me, the girl who cannot come with a partner–I can articulate that it does mean something to me.

While the sex/play is satisfying, sometimes it feels like J and I have been having foreplay for over a year. I still haven’t had an orgasm with him. I hate not being able to share something so important and  intimate with my partner.

I want that.

I want catharsis, annihilation, erasure, bliss.

1 Vaitl, D; Birbaumer, N; Gruzelier, J; Jamieson, GA; Kotchoubey, B; Kübler, A; Lehmann, D; Miltner, WH et al (2005). “Psychobiology of altered states of consciousness.” Psychological Bulletin 131 (1): 98–127.

Georgiadis J, Kortekaas R, Kuipers R, Nieuwenburg A, Pruim J, Reinders A, Holstege G (2006). “Regional cerebral blood flow changes associated with clitorally induced orgasm in healthy women.” European Journal of Neuroscience 24 (11): 3305–16.

  3 Responses to “la petite mort”

  1. I meant to send this three days ago, but you had me at "French feminists, semioticians, and philosophers". I think that will always be the height of sex for me. Maybe not literally, but it's a very close second.

    Anyway, I wish you all the best in your chase after la petite mort. Just keep having fun. You never know, it may sneak up on you when you aren't looking.

  2. @Rogue Scholar: "…but you had me at 'French feminists, semioticians, and philosophers.'"

    You know, that's something you don't hear everyday. Come to think of it, I wish I heard it more often. :)

  3. Me too. The world would be a much better place if I did. Well, maybe not, but it's a nice thought anyway.

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