The first sequence of Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amor is intensely disturbing. This is surprising, because superficially it is what would be called in Hollywood vernacular a “love scene”. We see close ups of two people in bed together, a heterosexual (albeit mixed-race) couple is having sex. The scene cuts to show stinging imagery of the damage caused by the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. This is a graphic scene. What possible connection could there be between a couple copulating and the horrors of the Second World War? I am not completely sure that there is a single answer, however many of the authors we have read this quarter have grappled with the intersection of sex and death.
Perhaps the only thing more disturbing than juxtaposing sex and death, is taking pleasure in the matter. In Joan Didion’s collection of essays The White Album, Didion paints a dark picture of Hollywood in the late 1960’s. Her essay on The Doors characterizes the era, describing them as disillusioned aftermath of the flower-power generation. For Didion, The Doors’ lyrics embody an unusually dark fascination with sexuality in a way that transcends their contemporaries. Maybe, Didion’s own world was unusually dark, having been personally affected by the Manson murders. Didion makes the claim that “The doors’ music insisted that love was sex and sex was death and therein lay salvation.” (21, Didion) It is common for people to take pleasure in sex, however it is extraordinarily rare for people to openly take pleasure in death. In her discussion of The Doors’ hedonistic lyrics, I get the impression that for Didion, Hollywood (and perhaps the world) are far more troubling than most people would like to believe. And that in fact we all at some level have a strange fascination, and perhaps (at least for Jim Morrison and his revealing vinyl pants) fetishization of death.
The connections W.G. Sebald makes between sex and death in his book The Rings of Saturn are far more unsettling than those in The White Album. Saturn is a far darker novel then it appears to be on the surface, and a perfect example of this is when the narrator encounters a couple making love on the beach. The narrator is confused in his memory whether the couple was two humans or a single sea monster, explaining that he “…turned to look back down the deserted stretch I had come by, and could no longer have said whether I had really seen the pale sea monster at the foot of the Covehithe cliffs or whether I had imagined it.” (69, Sebald) Sex—a process often associated with the beginning of life—is juxtaposed with the image of a sea monster, a manifestation of death. Throughout the entire novel, Sebald’s narrator is grappling to make life meaningful in spite of humanity’s hatred and the certainty of death. The book delves deeply into the worst parts of human history, namely genocide. For Sebald, Sex is a process that represents life, a process that forces people to answer seemingly impossible questions about why we should live. This connection is made most clear when Sebald makes his one of few real textual references to the Holocaust in his discussions of silkworms. He discusses the silkworm explaining that “the only purpose it has is to propagate. The male dies soon after mating. The Female lays three to five hundred eggs over the course of several days, and then also dies.” (275, Sebald) Yet again, there is a connection that is being made between sex and death, however this one strikes at the jugular. Is Sebald asking his readership if the sole purpose of human life is to propagate? For one generation to give birth to another generation who is equally clueless about where humans belong in the cosmos, another generation perhaps just as likely to commit genocide?