In 1954, the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004), visited the Soviet Union, and with his camera, he explored the people living under communism. Cartier-Bresson was known for his candid shots—catching ordinary people in ordinary acts—but his camera somehow rendered both an extraordinary commentary on human nature.
During his visit to Moscow, Cartier-Bresson visited an automobile factory and captured men and women at work. Among those photographs, one in particular stands out. In it we see three figures: a man and two women. Here is an encounter that goes beyond any banal depiction of a communist factory. The man and the woman appear to be engaged in some kind of confrontation but there are signs that something else is happening beneath the surface.
The man stands erect, clutching his wrench. His welding apron is dirty, and his welding headgear fits tightly over his slick hair. He appears to be less than amused by what the woman supervisor is trying to tell him. An anti-authoritarian anger boils just below the surface. The muscles of his clenched jaw and his bare arm announce their power, and not just his own. He appears an embodiment of something greater than himself—a force of nature, even.
The face of the female supervisor, on the other hand, is more relaxed, as if the subject of her giving job instructions is a secondary matter. She equally asserts her power, however, as she firmly touches her collar and open neckline, her fingers snug underneath the coarse fabric of the factory dress. Her power, however, is both perfunctory and erotic. She clutches her collar like some bureaucratic soldier, ready to exercise her duty if things go awry, yet the placement of this grip indicates she could easily transcend the joyless bureaucracy, and enter the realm of undressing.
In the background, another woman looks on. She knows that she might as well be invisible at this moment, yet she is mesmerized—perhaps even envious. This is an encounter between the worker and the supervisor, and the subconscious expression of this encounter contains rich meaning. There is no sentimentality, only grit combined with desire. As Milan Kundera writes in his novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, “Physical love is unthinkable without violence.” The power exchange between the man and the woman doesn’t end in the factory, even if they never meet again. The erotic encounter has been recognized and acknowledged, and in some way, fulfilled.
One of the most powerful elements of Cartier-Bresson’s capture is the juxtaposition of this singular encounter and the lifelessness of the totalitarian ideology in which it occurs. What happened after these two left the factory? Did they meet? Or did they go home to their respective deplorable conditions? Do they each have families and many mouths to feed? Are they members of the Communist Party? Are they committed to the ideology their work is supposed to be serving or are they just cogs in the system?
There are things that transcend time and ideology, in spite of all efforts to the contrary, and it is these that make us human. Sexual tension and especially love, that is to say all things relating to eros, are part of that transcendence. Eros is among the more mysterious and powerful forces we live for, or at least, we should live it as it is the driving force of life, creativity, and abundance. The world which we inhabit right now, however, seems devoid of this tug as it is devoid of the desire for life such erotic moments indicate are part of our nature.We have worked even harder than the communists did at designing an erosless world, a machine to churn out purely perfunctory artifacts, the purposes of which are, paradoxically, meaningless.
On one hand, we face moralists who insist that we ought to define relationships between men and women according to some rigid, dreary, and fictional manual from what they imagine held sway in the 1950s. On the other hand, we face a new wave of neo-Victorians, who treat sex and erotic encounters in a strictly contractual way. These are relationships bathed in an antiseptic liquid. Here, men and women are not allowed to be themselves or to revel in what ought to be a source of joy and fecundity. Some women react to the so-called “male gaze” by proudly proclaiming their misandry, and some men choose a type of masculinity that very quickly leads to a corresponding misogyny or even pure homoeroticism. In all cases, the delicate balance between the masculine and feminine is destroyed.
In addition, the very meaning of sexual difference is turned upside down. The transgender ideology is an attack on both masculinity and femininity. If the falsehoods of this ideology were actually true, transgender people would be in a half-human state. Neither male nor female, they would be suspended in some anti-metaphysical status—alive but not partaking in human being. They would be incapable (whether physically or mentally) to truly engage in a sexual act. Their self-imposed, mechanical celibacy is based on an unhappy turn inward. By electing a state that is neither male nor female, they have chosen the annihilation of eros.
The irony of our current collective consciousness is palpable when we compare it to what is going on in Cartier-Bresson’s photograph. The photograph, which was taken at the height of the power of one of the most brutal, murderous, and totalitarian regimes, is not engaging in any socialist or capitalistic transaction. Instead there is something pure and human that reaches across the ages, in spite of the imposition of tyranny. In fact, it is our world that has commodified itself. We are in the grips of some warped and mutated version of Marxism where the relationships which evade economic definitions are forced into materialistic and capitalistic frameworks. As Byung-Chul Han so aptly observes in his book, The Agony of Eros, “In a society where everyone is an entrepreneur of the self, the economy of survival reigns. It stands diametrically opposed to the non-economy of eros and death.”
One cannot quantify sex and eros. It is a relationship that is mysterious. Images like Cartier-Bresson’s speak to the transcendence of eros over politics. To be sure, erotic acts and encounters have their own language and their own unique revolution. Desire is a form of turmoil, of unsteadiness, and of yearning. But it also has a kind of resolution in the life-giving power that it generates. But this revolution and resolution have nothing to do with the ordinary sort of politics and ideology that so engage our consciousness today. (This is why the so-called “sexual revolution” failed. It was based utterly in politics and ideology.) There is no economic metric or genderless revolt against the order of things in pure eros, and in the end it will not be denied, not even by our ham-fisted efforts to snuff it out today. Eros, in the end, is based on human vulnerability, on the fragile balance between a man and a woman, on a mystery of being, and the relationship between lover and the beloved.