Carnal Knowledge

by Wendy Doniger

nowing" is a euphemism for the sexual act in many languages, deriving from the biblical Hebrew usage. (Here we may note the power of language: once someone in ancient Israel used a verb meaning "know" to refer to the sexual act, it predisposed all Jews, Christians and Muslims to believe that they would know the people they slept with.) Sexual knowledge is the key to the biblical story of Eve. The awareness of sexual difference is the fruit of knowledge, and after the Fall, Genesis imagines sex in a new and striking way: "And Adam knew Eve his wife." The metaphor of sex as knowing cannot in this context be accepted as a euphemism--"modesty of language," as some commentators have called it. In the first chapters of Genesis, the same verb, "yada," means to know and distinguish between moral categories and to be aware of one's own and another's physical difference (nakedness). As Zvi Jagendorf discusses in his essay "'In the Morning, Behold It Was Leah': Genesis and the Reversal of Sexual Knowledge," underlying all the first instances of knowing is the concept of distinction rendered physically immediate by the image of the opened eyes.

Carnal knowledge is also central to the story of Tamar (whose father-in-law, Judah, does not know her when she disguises herself to seduce him). Just as lack of knowledge originally made sex possible for Eve, so knowledge and discovery finally forbid it for Judah. The verb appears in the negative form for the man at the end of the story of Tamar and Judah: "And he knew her again no more." Not surprisingly, the usage of this verb is gendered in an asymmetrical way: Genesis never says that a woman "knows" a man. Hebrew, it seems, could not say that (although it could in the negative, as Lot's daughters are said not to have known man; Gen. 19:8). When the pun extends into New Testament Greek, however, the woman can use it actively (though still negatively): when the angel tells Mary that she is going to have a baby, she replies, "How can that be, since I do not know a man?" (Luke 1.34).

It has been argued that the term "carnal knowledge," from medieval canon law, suggests that embodied knowledge of oneself and another human being can be attained in the intimacy of lovemaking. But this intimacy is merely physical: the qualifier "carnal" effectively canceled recognition that either intellectual or spiritual understanding can occur. Tertullian said, "The flesh will still be the thinking place of the soul." Is "carnal knowing," then, a contradiction in terms? Carnal knowledge means that the body transmits to the brain a knowledge that the brain would not otherwise have. Terence Cave has speculated on the nature of such knowledge in tales of disguise and recognition: "What emerges if one puts together these different aspects of the idiosyncrasy of recognition is first of all a sense of a means of knowing which is different from rational cognition. It operates surreptitiously, randomly, elliptically and often perversely, seizing on precisely those details that from a rational point of view seem trivial" (Recognitions: A Study in Poetics). In these stories, all differences fall apart, trumped by sex, which is irrational and hence cannot be disproved; which is in the body and hence cannot be subjected to mental criteria.

In Shakespeare's play "Measure for Measure," Mariana substitutes for Isabel in the bed of her husband, Angelo, and Angelo is fooled. The play climaxes in a wonderful passage of puns and riddles on "knowing." Mariana argues, "I have known my husband; yet my husband knows not that ever he knew me ... Angelo, who thinks he knows that he ne'er knew my body, But knows, he thinks, that he knows Isabel's." When the duke asks Angelo, "Know you this woman?" a bystander interpolates, "Carnally she says," but Angelo confesses that he does, in fact, "know" the woman, though he denies any but public knowledge, to which Mariana replies, "But Tuesday night last gone, in's garden-house, He knew me as a wife."

That the sexual act is the ultimate key to unlock a concealed identity is a Freudian assumption, which Michel Foucault sums up well:

[W]e also admit that it is in the area of sex that we must search for the most secret and profound truths about the individual, that it is there that we can best discover what he is and what determines him. And if it was believed for centuries that it was necessary to hide sexual matters because they were shameful, we now know that it is sex itself which hides the most secret parts of the individual: the structure of his fantasies, the roots of his ego, the forms of his relationship to reality. At the bottom of sex, there is truth. (Hercule Barbin)

So, too, the work of the Lacanian feminist Luce Ingaray seems to assume, or imply, that sexual difference is more fundamental than other forms of difference, and is not to be understood as articulated through other vectors of power; indeed, other forms of difference might be derived from sexual difference. In the context of the mythology of the bedtrick, this means that the failure to distinguish sexual difference--by which I mean not only the difference between one sex and another, but the difference between the sexuality of one person and another, that is, the difference between partners in bed--creates a vector of power through which other vectors such as race or class may be filtered.

But Freud did not invent the belief that sex is where we find the truth about an individual's often masquerading identity; he learned it from the texts of stories from other times and other cultures. These texts insist that the body tells the truth: the real person is the person glimpsed in bed, while the person whom we see at other times is a veneer, a superficial double. The extreme form of this view, which denies individuality and reduces sexuality to animality, is characteristic of pornography, as John Hubner remarked: "Sex strips away identities it takes a lifetime to build. A naked aroused man is not a brain surgeon or a university president or a Methodist bishop. He is an animal with an erection" (Bottom Feeders: From Free Love to Hard Core--The Rise and Fall of Counterculture Heroes Jim and Artie Mitchell).

A number of texts in several cultures express or imply the view that, in bed, the victim might put his or her finger on the sexual trigger of identity. Milan Kundera's womanizing hero in The Unbearable Lightness of Being sought the secret of each woman's minute difference in bed, and Kundera tells us why: "Why couldn't he find it, say, in a woman's gait or culinary caprices or artistic taste? To be sure, the millionth part dissimilarity is present in all areas of human existence, but in all other areas other than sex it is exposed and needs no one to discover it, no scalpel ... Only in sexuality does the millionth part dissimilarity become precious, because, not accessible in public, it must be conquered." Ignoring other signs of identity, such as the gait of the foot, which distinguishes humans from animals, and tastes in food, the womanizer wants not only to know a woman, to cut her open like a surgeon (the man in question, Tomas, actually is a brain surgeon), but also to conquer her in her sexuality, in her hiddenness.

Supernatural or magical bedtricksters in myths can often be identified not by any constant criterion, such as their lack of a shadow, but, rather, by things that they do at certain moments--such as, for instance, the moment of making love. Bedtrick myths abound in literal projections: a god or demon projects from his mind, like a beam of light from a film projector (or what, in my childhood, we still called a "magic lantern"), an illusion that envelops the mind of his victim. Such a trickster is, however, compelled to take his (more rarely her) own true form when he loses mental control and hence inadvertently turns off the current from the magic projector in his head. When the king in a Sanskrit play asks, "How can you find a deity who has concealed herself by her magic powers?" the jester replies, "Sometimes they fail to conjure up the concealment" (Tapati-Samvaranam: The Sun God's Daughter and King Samvarana). This happens, according to various texts, when the trickster sleeps, dies, eats, laughs; gets drunk, angry, frightened, very happy; or, in the case of a demoness, gives birth. It also happens when the trickster makes love, when sexual passion strips away the disguise and reveals the true identity. This cluster of beliefs centers upon the intuition that the truth is encased in the subconscious--in sleep, in dream, in bed, in sex.

Hindu demons inadvertently resume their own forms when they shed their seed in lust. The Buddha is said to have claimed that there are two occasions when a naga (a cobra-god, frequently a snake lover) will reveal his true form, presumably after assuming a human form: when he engages in sexual intercourse with a female of his own species and when he sleeps thinking he is safe from detection. The specification of a female of his own species suggests that it is not just the power of sexuality but the pull toward the form corresponding to that of his partner--toward sameness, away from difference--that draws this bedtrickster back to his true self from his masquerading self. Supernatural creatures are well aware of the fact that they may be unmasked by sex. A Hindu bedtrickster in a Sanskrit text from c. 700 CE knows that he may reveal his true form when he makes love, and so he takes precautions:

A celestial courtesan fell in love with a Brahmin and begged him to stay with her, but he rejected her, saying, "Don't touch me! Go to some other man who is like you." He went away, and a demigod who was in love with the courtesan and had been rejected by her observed her now and reasoned, "She is in love with a human. If I take on his form, she will suspect nothing and will make love with me." Disguised as the Brahmin, the demigod approached her and said, "You must not look at me during the time of our shared sexual enjoyment, but close your eyes and unite with me." She agreed, and when they made love, and her eyes were tightly closed, she thought, because of his hot energy, it was the form of the [Brahmin] suffused with the sacrificial fire. Then, after a while, she conceived an embryo, who came from the demigod's semen and from (her) thinking about the Brahmin's form. The demigod went away, still in the form of the Brahmin. (Markandeya Purana)

The demigod's "hot energy," or semen, is heated by his lust, not (as the nymph imagines) by his sacrificial power. Her belief that she is making love with the Brahmin (never dispelled in this episode--the trickster leaves before he is unmasked) gives the child the Brahmin's form, through parental imprinting: the belief that, if a woman thinks of someone other than her actual partner during the sexual act, the child she conceives may resemble not the actual partner but the imagined partner.

The revelatory sexual act is a recurrent theme in the American cinema. When the heroine of American Gigolo (1980), all starry-eyed and worshipful in her postcoital glow, says to the hero (if we can call him that), "I want to know all about you," he replies, "We just made love, didn't we? Then you know all there is to know." Maybe this is meant to apply only to gigolos, whose meaning is entirely circumscribed by sex. But it is all that the woman needs to know about her man in Pedro Almodovar's Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989), in which the heroine is abducted by a man who claims that he once knew her (carnally and otherwise), which she vehemently denies. When he finally makes love to her, at the moment when he enters her she says, "Now I know." "What?" "I remember you now. You told me that we had screwed before. I said I didn't remember. Well, now I sure do remember." To which he simply replies, not skipping a beat, "It's about time."

Some gay men say that each of the two partners can know simultaneously what both of them experience separately, that they can know what it is to penetrate while being penetrated, or the reverse--the Teiresias paradigm. Daniel Mendelsohn argues, "If the emotional aim of intercourse is a total knowing of the other, gay sex may be, in its way, perfect, because in it a total knowledge of the other's experience is, finally, possible" (The Elusive Embrace: Desire and the Riddle of Identity). This is, as Jonathan Lear put it in a New York Times book review of Mendelsohn's work, "a fantasy of the total transparency of the other's experience." It assumes that, because your partner is doing the same physical act that you have done and will do, s/he is feeling what you have felt and will feel. The cross-sex (or heterosexual) fantasy, by contrast, is the challenge of knowing someone who is otherwise opaque to you, someone as different from you as you can imagine or find (not just someone of the other gender but, ultimately, someone of another culture or even another species, as in the tale of Beauty and the Beast). Mendelsohn's assertion that "sex between men dissolves otherness into sameness" makes no allowance for the sexual individuality that applies equally well to same-sex and cross-sex experience: the chance to know the unique qualities revealed both in sexual sameness and in sexual difference, the different ways in which each of us is penetrated or penetrates.

The sadistic aspect of sexual knowledge as power was chillingly depicted by Nicholas Delbanco in his glimpse into the mind of a serial killer named Trip:

Control: Trip liked the way he kept it and his partners lost it--the weepers, the screamers, the polite ones swearing shamelessly and then the proud ones begging, stripped of pride. He liked what he learned about women from the way they behaved in the dark. There was nothing else--well, drowning or torture maybe, but he wasn't into drowning--that could teach you so much, and so fast ... From the moment he first understood how people change without their clothes, how what they're hiding matters and you can get their secrets when you get them into bed, Trip understood the game. And everybody played. He knew her, says the Bible, and Eve swallowed knowledge when she ate the apple and offered a piece to Adam and then got dressed and left ... The satisfaction was discovery--how you never knew beforehand what a person would reveal to you when you had your cock or hand inside them and were bearing down. You never knew till you were trying them how they would respond. (In the Nature of Mercy)

The casual dismissal of drowning, but not torture, as an equivalent to the sexual manipulation of knowledge is one of the minor terrors of this passage.

Annie Dillard balances the assertion that sexual love is the best (and the counter-assertion that it is the worst) source of knowledge of personal identity in her novel The Living, in a passage about a man named (androgynously) Clare:

Clare knew that common wisdom counseled that love was a malady that blinded lovers' eyes like acid. Love's skewed sight made hard features appear harmonious, and sinners appear saints, and cowards appear heroes. Clare was by no means an original thinker, but on this one point he had reached an opposing view, that lovers alone see what is real. The fear and envy and pride that stain souls are phantoms. The lover does not fancy that the beloved possesses imaginary virtues. He knew June was not especially generous, not especially noble in deportment, not especially tolerant, patient, or self-abasing. The lover is simply enabled to see--as if the heavens busted open to admit a charged light--those virtues the beloved does possess in their purest form. June was a marvel, and she smelled good.

The animal sense of smell, transmuted into the human seventh sense of sex, simultaneously encapsulates and triggers the boundless, ineffable appreciation of the "marvel," the shining wonder, of another living being. And this combination of physical and emotional factors outweighs the intellectual assessment of the object of desire.

This is not a universal belief, though it is demonstrably cross-cultural; I have found it in certain cultures at certain moments (ancient India, the Hebrew Bible, Renaissance England and Europe, Hollywood films), from the great religious mythologies of the world to contemporary popular culture. It is common to argue that you get to know people through love rather than through sex, but people in various cultures tend to mix up sex and love as ways of knowing. Thus some texts argue that you do know people through love and that you do not know people through sex (regarded as inferior to, and indeed opposed to, love); others that you do not know people through love and that you do know people through sex (regarded as embedded in the body, which is closer to the essential self). Still others muddy the waters by regarding sex as caused by or causing love, or love as a form of desire, lust or sex. Classical Indian texts, for instance, distinguish sex (kama) from love (prema), but different genres disagree as to which of these a woman experiences with her husband, and which with her lover. Ideas about love vary greatly from one culture to another, and often we must rely on our rather shaky knowledge of what a particular author means by "love."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR | Wendy Doniger

DonigerWendy Doniger (who has also published under the name Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty) was born in New York City on November 20, 1940. She first trained as a dancer under George Balanchine and Martha Graham and then went on to complete two doctorates, in Sanskrit and Indian studies (from Harvard and Oxford). She has taught at Harvard, Oxford, the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, the University of California at Berkeley and, since 1978, at the University of Chicago, where she is the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions, in the Divinity School, the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, and the Committee on Social Thought.

Her research and teaching interests concern both Hinduism and mythology; her courses in mythology address mythological themes in cross-cultural contexts, and her work in Hinduism covers mythology, law, ritual, art and dance. Among Doniger's long list of publications, the most recent are Other Peoples' Myths: The Cave of Echoes (1995), The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth (1998), Splitting the Difference: Gender and Myth in Ancient Greece and India (1999) and The Bedtrick: Tales of Sex and Masquerade (2000). Her works in progress include a memoir, a novel and a translation of the Kama Sutra, with Sudhir Kakar.

In 1976, Doniger's son Michael (then age 5) summed up his mother's career and interests: "My mom is a history of religions teacher at the University of Chicago. She teaches mainly Indian religion. She has gone to India many times. She might take me next summer. [She did.] My mom also rides her horse, makes collages, writes books, has dinner parties, and talks with her students."

COPYRIGHT | This feature was adapted from a talk presented at the Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities, University of California, on October 8, 1999. Copyright 2001 The University of Chicago.

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