Sexuality (As Food Or Money) As A Compensation For Existential Deprivations

Andre Derain, “Ball of Soldiers in Suresnes”, 1903
Andre Derain, “Ball of Soldiers in Suresnes”, 1903

The life of soldiers is miserable enough even when there is no war. Soldiers in the army are like poor among civilians, even worse, in many situations they have to act like slaves of the higher ranks. It’s interesting that “Ball of soldiers in Suresnes” shows only one soldier in the mood of the “ball” – he is accurately, as on a rope, dancing with a woman who is, for him, like a piece of precious furniture. She may even have been hired to dance with the soldiers. For Derain, this soldier is a collective presence (like soldiers in general are collective substance for military decision-makers) – in the painting he represents all the soldiers who got permission to enjoy the ball at this particular place and time. The reduction of the quantity of dancing soldiers is painter’s bold compositional decision emphasizing that soldiers are universally treated as exchangeable bodies, as bayonets, according to the international way of calling them. The three figures behind the dancing couple – two soldiers and a sergeant, are there to keep an eye on the soldiers’ behavior. The watchful gaze of the two soldiers on guard compositionally confirms that the hall, of which Derain chose a small part, is much larger. Let’s pay attention to the fact that the soldier on the left watches what’s happening in the right part of the hall which we cannot see, while the soldier on the right keeps eyes on what’s happening in the left part of the hall. Why didn’t Derain do it the other way around – let the soldier on the left to watch a left part of the dancing hall and the soldier on the right – to the right area of the hall?

Derain is more than a realistic painter. By making the soldier on the left look to the right, Derain makes his gaze and attention cross the dancing couple – to include it into the orbit of his observation. And the same is true about the soldier on the right. The dancing pair representing all the dancing couples in the hall is over-watched. And this is exactly true about the life of soldiers who are even in their off duty time under the despotic military surveillance. The sergeant looks suspicious watching the dancing soldier(s) – will they dare to transgress the limitations on movements that are established by military code for the dancing soldier? The poor soldier is trying as hell to look decent (just look at his pants) at the dance hall. Derain has not only depicted the limits on soldiers’ pleasures, but standardization of these pleasures as a factor of miserability of soldiers’ lives. The fact that we see three persons watching one couple (all the couples as one) tells us about the disproportion between mini-pleasures allowed to soldiers, and the watchful gazes of the military “big brother”, the extreme non-freedom of those who suppose to defend our freedom.

Max Beckmann, “Soldier’s Dream”, 1942

Contrary to the painting by Andre Derain, the one by Max Beckmann impregnates the social situation by the information about the internal world of a universal soldier – his dreams and hopes. When today, the corporatized media create idealistic image of the American soldiers who in the midst of death in Iraq and Afghanistan dream only about their families, it is incompatible with Beckmann’s more truthful picture. Tanatos for soldiers, especially during war times, becomes the equivalent of Eros. The point is even not that a typical soldier’s dream is about dissolving in bliss with a prostitute, but that this very bliss in essence as the soldiers’ unconscious or even conscious imagination is mediated by the images of death. Beckmann’s painting reflects the WW2 when dreams become as extreme as destruction of war. The time with woman Beckmann represents as a time spent in a cage amidst an exotic “beauty”. A whorehouse is transformed into the otherworldly place where even a soldier after the battlefields can feel himself an exotic bird deserving admiration. The woman, who delivers the man’s blissful dissolving into happiness, is represented by Beckmann as a lady-boa whose embrace carries death by analogy with the battlefield but embellished by beautification. In other words, soldier’s dream is not to live – it is to die but more pleasantly than on the battlefield. To be suffocated by the orgasmic sensation – it is the maximum a soldier can wish for, it is better than to be taken off by bullet, bomb or missile.

Woman is imagined as a weapon, but the physical orgasm is added to death (it becomes the equivalent of a passage with light at the end, reported by many people who survived a near death experience). In other words, even soldier’s pleasure is still imagined as death in a condition of being embellished by the feeling of happiness. Soldiers’ dreams reflect the kingdom of Tanatos they were sent to by their masters-decision-makers. They reflect their life during the war in the embrace with death. Death penetrates everything including sexual excitement and orgasmic bliss. And it is death that for them creates the culmination of orgasmic release. The limits on the time of orgasm (reminded by the symbolic figure demonstrating the big clock) are the same as limits on time of life. We see in Beckmann’s painting the orgasmic limitation as a metaphor of the limit of life which normalizes/compensates for the existence of this limit. When war enters pores of your body and the nucleus of your soul you cannot dream about life, but about beautiful, satisfying death. The tragedy is more tragic if it more beautiful.