Auteur: Alexandre Leupin

Alexandre Leupin est professeur distingué au département d'études françaises à Louisiana State University.

Phallophanies: A Coda (Grieving for the Phallus)

This paradigmatic image that attracts all the threads of our desire

– the Crucifixion image. (L’éthique de la psychanalyse, 304)


Phallophanies: A Coda (Grieving for the Phallus)

When is a book finished? When the author has become tired of endless emendations and additions and feels that the thought process cannot be furthered. The end of the book is thus an arbitrary decision, a compromise between relative failures and successes. As one of my friends said: “A book is always a failure, but you have to fail with elegance.”

Fifteen years ago, I published a book, Phallophanies, when I thought it had exhausted its possibilities. The book dealt with the discovery and interpretation of a phallic shadow on many, many representations of Jesus’ crucifixion.

Figure 1 Raphael, Pièta, Rome

Figure 2 Raphael, Pièta, detail

How to explain this indubitable presence in paintings that belong to a corpus that is supposed to be always reverential, sacred Christian art? At the time of publication, I relied on the artists’ unconscious motivations in a vague and unsatisfactory manner.

Revisiting my themes because of this chronicle, I see now how to obviate to the book’s incompletion – completeness (meaning) always arrives late, always is retroactive.

Figure 3 Pieta, 1450-1500, Koutloumoussi Monastery

When I wrote Phallophanies, Jean-Claude Milner’s Constats (2002) had not been published. Professor Milner lays out very clearly the case for a paradigm shift between ancient and modern notions of gender, an antinomy that is at the core of my argument.

For Milner, Judeo-Christianity created a sexual universe totally different from what we encounter in ancient cultures.  Let me briefly summarize these antinomies.

In Greco-Roman culture:

  1. The sexual act is not a pleasure or: there is no sexual pleasure.
    2. Love (Eros) is not dependent on sex. Translating Eros by Love is quite misleading.
    3. Pleasure depends on philia (“friendship”, another mistranslation), not sex. Philia is the absolute acceptance of the foreigner, of what is alien to us.
  2. Philia is a fusion, it requires the incorporation of the other, a union with another, whose ultimate form is cannibalism – see Montaigne or before him, Lucretius, De rerum natura, IV 1108). However, incorporation is not sexual, as Lucretius writes (IV 1141-2)
    5. Marriage is not related to pleasure: “There are good marriages, but there are no delicious ones” (Maxim 113), writes La Rochefoucauld in the 17th century. He expresses here a wisdom that is a ghost of the wisdom in Antiquity.
  3. For the Ancients, passion, love, desire are negatives, they make a subject lose control over himself. This is in contradiction with the ethics of Antiquity, where men must reach self-sufficiency and be autonomous, and therefore should not depend anyone, especially a woman, see as an inferior being. A free man in love is the slave of a woman (See Paul Veyne’s studies on the subject).

The shift to modern attitudes toward sexuality is attributed by Jean Claude Milner to the dogma of resurrection. I think a clearer causality can be ascribed to the dogma of Incarnation. Jesus is at the same time fully God and fully man, including his sexual attributes. This in opposition to the gods of antiquity, who have no real body, only a simulacrum of a sexualized body.

In modern (=Western) cultures:

  1. There are sexual pleasures. In fact, any pleasure has a sexual genealogy and a sexual horizon (this is Freud’s thesis).
  2. Love and pleasure are compatible.
  3. There may be love and pleasure in marriage. This axiom would have make La Rochefoucauld laugh or Socrates cry; according to tradition, Socrates had a very unhappy marriage devoid of love or pleasure).
  4. Love is a prerequisite to marriage; marriage was previously an alliance of interests between families, tribes or even nations.
  5. Pleasure is not grounded on incorporation, but on use of bodily objects (use being taken here in the sense that Marx gave him under the name of commodity or merchandise).
    6. In the modern world, there are only material pleasures, bound to a body.
    7. Language, as a matter, is a means of pleasure, or (Freud) there is sexual pleasure only through language. There is culture only where there are pleasures, and there are pleasures only where there is a culture.
  6. I add: Passion is good, more, it is mandatory: if one is not passionate, one needs at least to pretend to be.

At the end of this contrasting analysis of gender notions, Jean-Claude Milner can assert: “Sexual pleasure is a Judeo-Christian invention.”

         As far as Lacan is concerned, the sentence I have put as an epigraph to this text by itself completes my thought process and removes any interpretative arbitrariness that my sometimes bemused readers reproached me. I was aware of Lacan’s provocative statement while writing the book, but could not make sense of it at the time. How could the Crucifixion image absorb all our (Western, I must add) representations of desire?

Interpreted through the epigraph, the Christic phallic shadow indicates, among other things, that the phallus itself has been crucified, that is repressed, and that, after the Judeo-Christian paradigm shift, it can come back to us only in the form of an image, a phallophania, a fantasy, an ungraspable ghost.

Moreover, at the time of Pallophanies’ publication, Lacan’s Séminaire VI, Le désir et son interprétation (2013) was not available either. The April 29, 1959 seminar is entitled (by Jacques-Alain Miller, I presume) Phallophanies, and the second subsection is titled “Le deuil du phallus”. This “grieving for the phallus” definitively makes sense of my main thesis. It fully accounts for the phallic image in Christian art, on the very body of Christ, in paintings made by artists for whom such an object could have not been farther from their minds when they were completing a representation of Crucifixion. I therefore owe a debt to Lacan: his interpretation retroactively proves that my idea was not a fantasy, a projection, a sign of obsessional neurosis, madness, or arbitrariness (which some readers imputed to me). It makes definitively sense of the Christic phallic shadow.

One cannot account for the phallic shadow other than as an unconscious symptom that speaks from the obscure abyss of the soul. This symptom originates in Judeo-Christianity, beginning in the ninth century, and nowhere else. Catholicism prompts us to the grieving of the phallus, at the same time emblematized and analyzed by the Crucifixion image.

Indeed, the phallus is, in most other religions, an object to be celebrated, honored, and revered. Francesco Salviati, the mannerist Renaissance painter, remembers the bacchanalia of Antiquity when he engraves the Triumph of the Phallus.

Figure 4 Francesco Saliviati, The Triumph of the Phallus, mid-XVIth century

Only in Christianity the phallus becomes a shadow of itself, so to speak. Hence, the end of the Oedipus complex and castration are unconsciously anticipated by representations of Crucifixion comprising the shadow: these analytic processes have a religious background that is specific to Europe’s culture and history. Which means that everything Lacan and Freud say about the grieving of the phallus, the liquidation of the Oedipus complex, the impressing of castration on the subject are relevant only in a Judeo-Christian setting. A Byzantine (iconodule) or catholic context, we should add; that is, a culture which is not iconoclastic and allows the representations of its God. Judaism, Islam and Protestantism have thus to be excluded form this context.

Thus, both the differences and commonality of psychoanalysis and Christianity can be made clear. It is because of Catholicism that Freud and Lacan can propose the grief for the phallus and the demise of the Oedipus complex as a crucial stage for psychic development.

         At the same time, there is a profound difference. Psychoanalysis is not at the service of repression, whereas the Catholic Church built its doctrine by contesting, almost since the very beginning, heresies that tried to resurrect pagan rites, among others, the phallic cults associated with paganism. In a way, heresies can thus be considered as major contributors to the dogma, which is partially built in response to them. Specifically, Carpocratians, Phibonites, Cainites, gnostic heresies which were all centered on pagan conceptions of sexuality very effectively stamped out from cultural memory by the Church, their writings burned down and their followers persecuted.

In consequence, even if they show up from time to time in the West, phallic cults are relegated to the margins of culture, in works of occultists and practitioners of sex magic. Paschal Beverly Randolph (1825-1875) is a Rosicrucian who was the first to introduce sexual magic in white America. Ida Craddock (1857-1902), an early American feminist, who died persecuted by the authorities, wrote a book, Heavenly Bridegrooms, which inspired the English occultist Aleister Crowley. Maria de Naglowska translated Paschal Randolph in French and influenced the Surrealist movement. We would do well to remember here Lacan’s statement: “Mythology is a sexual technique”.

The phallus cult has also, in the West, found refuge in folkore, in Greece for example.

Figure 5 A resident of the town of Tyrnavos in central Greece participates weilds a model phallus at the town’s famous pagan phallus carnival.

The label “folklore”, of course, indicates by itself that a custom has been relegated to the margins of culture, past or present. The occultists’ and partakers’ marginality is testimony to the Church’s efficiency, even if its doctrinal influence has now been in decline for three centuries.

Outside of the West, that is, beyond the reach of the Church, phallic cults are still alive, in Africa, in India (Shivaism), in Japan:

Figure 6 Marra Kannon Shrien, Yamaguchi


In Bhutan, it protects dwellings by warding off the evil eye:

Figure 7 On a wall of Timphu, Bhutan


This prophylactic function was already know by the Greeks and the Romans:

Figure 8 Warding the evil eye, 4th AD, Sousse, Tunisia

            Are we in the West happier because we have grieved for the phallus and overcome the Oedipus complex? The question remains open.

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