Uses of the Erotic: Audre Lorde on the Relationship Between Eros, Creativity, and Power
By Maria Popova
To be a complete human being, to fully inhabit your own vitality, is to live undivided within your own nature. No part of us is more habitually exiled, caged, and crushed under the weight of millennia of cultural baggage than Eros — the part that includes sexuality but transcends it to also include our capacity for spontaneity and playfulness, our tolerance for uncertainty, our unselfconscious creative energy.
W.H. Auden understood the centrality of Eros when he looked up at the stars that made us and realized how we too are “composed like them of Eros and of dust, beleaguered by the same negation and despair.” Audre Lorde (February 18, 1934–November 17, 1992) understood it with singular clarity of vision in a paper she delivered at the Fourth Berkshire Conference on the History of Women at Mount Holyoke College on August 25, 1978, titled “Uses of the Erotic,” later adapted as an essay in the altogether indispensable Lorde collection Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (public library).
There are many kinds of power, used and unused, acknowledged or otherwise. The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling… We have been taught to suspect this resource, vilified, abused, and devalued within western society… It is a short step from there to the false belief that only by the suppression of the erotic within our lives and consciousness can women be truly strong. But that strength is illusory, for it is fashioned within the context of male models of power.
The erotic offers a well of replenishing and provocative force to the woman who does not fear its revelation.
She offers an expansive definition of Eros:
The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing its power, in honor and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves.
The very word erotic comes from the Greek word eros, the personification of love in all its aspects — born of Chaos, and personifying creative power and harmony. When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives.
Eros, she observes, springs from our capacity to feel — a capacity that demands of us the difficult courage of authenticity, for, as E.E. Cummings knew, “whenever you think or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself.”
Observing that “we have been raised to fear the yes within ourselves, our deepest cravings,” Lorde writes:
The erotic is not a question only of what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing. Once we know the extent to which we are capable of feeling that sense of satisfaction and completion, we can then observe which of our various life endeavors bring us closest to that fullness.
In consonance with the existential psychologist Rollo May’s insight that eros “elicits in us the capacity to reach out… to preform and mold the future,” Lorde argues that “recognizing the power of the erotic within our lives can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world,” and writes:
When we begin to live from within outward, in touch with the power of the erotic within ourselves, and allowing that power to inform and illuminate our actions upon the world around us, then we begin to be responsible to ourselves in the deepest sense. For as we begin to recognize our deepest feelings, we begin to give up, of necessity, being satisfied with suffering and self-negation, and with the numbness which so often seems like their only alternative in our society.
Out of this refusal of self-negation arises raw creative vitality, irradiating every aspect of life:
There is, for me, no difference between writing a good poem and moving into sunlight against the body of a woman I love.
Indeed, Lorde insists that a fundamental function of erotic connection is to serve as “the open and fearless underlining” of our capacity for joy. In a sentiment the poet Ross Gay would echo a generation later in contemplating connection as the broadest portal to joy, she writes:
The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference.
That self-connection shared is a measure of the joy which I know myself to be capable of feeling, a reminder of my capacity for feeling. And that deep and irreplaceable knowledge of my capacity for joy comes to demand from all of my life that it be lived within the knowledge that such satisfaction is possible, and does not have to be called marriage, nor god, nor an afterlife.
This is one reason why the erotic is so feared, and so often relegated to the bedroom alone, when it is recognized at all. For once we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of.
Complement with Rilke on the relationship between sexuality and creativity, then revisit Lorde on feeling as an antidote to fear, turning fear into fire for creative work, and her poignant poem “The Bees.”
Published August 18, 2023