Sex happens: a phenomenological reading of the casual encounter: Renée Tobe
As we read, we gather together our knowledge and experience and we picture the situation and surroundings sketched out in writing. We picture a world not there, rendered in words as ‘experience’; the act of reading sustains these conflicting conditions. Memory and sensuality are intertwined with the settings in which particular events not only transpire or in which they are remembered to have happened, but also in which they might be imagined to take place. We enter the world through the boundary between our imaginations and the given world and phenomenology provides the language or means to describe it. It also helps us to understand the role of architecture in this discussion. Reading combines mimetically the mystery of language with architecture’s unique capacity to signify order (Pérez Gómez2006). The phenomenological discussion implies spatial awareness and a ‘there’ brought to life in words. We get ‘lost’ in a novel, not because the words, grammar or structure confuse us, but rather the opposite; the world of the novel is such an ordered, formal and deeply comprehensible ‘place’ that we have lost, for the moment, connection with the physical world around us. Two contemporary volumes, The Sexual Life of Catherine M. by Catherine Millet and Tricks: Twenty-Five Encounters by Renaud Camus, focus on explicit descriptions of casual sex (Millet 2001; Camus 1981). The spatial evocations of the locales in which the events take place include public parks, bedrooms, night clubs, circulation spaces and thresholds such as staircases and doorways. Conjuring up images of what locations are like, whether inviting or claustrophobic, bright or ill-lit, relies on the reader’s imagination and our lived experience grounds us in the writer’s world. Expressions of architectural form in literature disclose peculiarities of spatial experience, such as how small is small, how dark is dark, or how open is open. One person’s experience of an intimate corner is another’s claustrophobic enclosure, so
that Millet’s description of an area that needs to be only large enough to enclose two bodies together, offers a vast range of imaginative possibilities depending on each reader’s experience and preference. Camus describes a room where he often takes his tricks, but prefers not to spend the night, as unwelcoming: the bed is cold, there is no hot water, and no shade for the lamp. Architects’ intentions are to design appropriate settings for designated events utilising both quantitative and qualitative predetermined criteria. By contrast, literature creates these events in the imagination in as many different ways as there are readers. Form, purpose and structure are inherent in how architects ‘plan’ buildings. Casual sex implies connections that are unplanned, formless, capricious or unsorted and correspond to the circulation spaces that often provide a location for these expeditious activities. Similarities between primary areas (such as bedrooms, kitchens, boardrooms or galleries) and our relation to them and the sensual experience of the world, find themselves mirrored in the correspondence between the supporting ones (such as circulation spaces, hallways, stairwells, doorways, closets or storage areas) and Millet’s and Camus’ promiscuous, and sometimes random, couplings that take place there. These auxiliary places include a maid’s room, a chambre de bonne, rooms that occupy the top floor of Parisian apartment houses. Museums preserve and display artworks and artefacts for public consumption, but Millet excludes descriptions of formal exhibition halls in favour of the supporting regions. It is as if these actions, that are in between the authors’ primary identities as writer, in Camus’ case, or art critic, in Millet’s, can only take place in ‘in-between’ spaces.