What differentiates holy desires from pornographic ones?
Mary looks down toward her bared breast, which is shaped like a cone and placed rather high on her chest in Lorenzo di Credi’s Madonna of the Nursing Child. The Christ-child’s lips part to receive her breast. He seems moments from suckling, yet his eyes remain locked on the viewer.
Di Credi’s is one of many images of the nursing Mary (Maria lactans) that appear in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. (Byzantine iconographers had been producing them for centuries, calling images of the bare-breasted Mary Galaktotrophousa, the Milk-giver.) But by the seventeenth century, these once-popular images had become much less common. In 2008, the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano responded to the decline of Maria lactans by calling for the rehabilitation of a semi-nude nursing Mary. Such images, it maintained, are important testimonies to the humanity of Christ, ways of nurturing desire for the God made flesh.
Later in 2008, Playboy in Mexico ran a December cover with a woman posing in front of stained glass, her hand cupping her exposed breast. The headline read, “Te Adoramos, María.” The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights denounced the image. This was not the kind of Mary the Catholic Church had in mind. It was certainly not the kind of desire it wanted to nurture.
Most of us, whether or not we identify with the Catholic Church’s line on pornography, can still discern a difference between di Credi’s Mary and Playboy’s María. But how, exactly, can one name it?
I take up this question in the first chapter of Image and Presence, where I argue that one way to distinguish these images is to attend to the role of desire in each. If an image, as I argued in a previous blog post on Confederate monuments, gives more than it is, mediating a presence beyond its literal existence as canvas and paint, then desire is central to that mediation. Desire follows this arc from the image’s literal existence to the presence the image gives. The image thus works to elicit a desire that neither ignores the literal nor terminates in it, but rather opens the literal to the more-than literal. To put it another way: An image both is and is not what it images, and to receive it as an image is to desire what the image is and is not. To love an image of Mary is both to love this image, this canvas and paint, and also to love the presence it mediates to me. Desire opens to receive the presence the image gives, the presence, in the case of di Credi’s image, of Mary. But does the Playboy cover also yield the presence of María?
It’s helpful to turn back to the images and observe more concretely how each elicits desire.
In the di Credi image, the Christ-babe gazes at the viewer and invites her to identify with him, to desire as he desires, to be nourished as he is nourished. The viewer’s gaze is directed toward this nourishment both by the Christ-babe’s direct stare at the viewer and Mary’s downward glance at the breast; the circulation of the gazes move toward an invitation to nurse from Mary. And yet the flesh and blood viewer cannot accept this invitation literally, cannot nurse from the painted Mary the way the painted infant can, even if she had not left her days of drinking mother’s milk far behind her. The differences in the material existence of the painted infant and the fleshly viewer obviate a purely material interpretation of the Christ-babe’s invitation, and the geometric shape of the breast confirm its symbolic status. The route to a solely material satiation of desire is negated, so that desire can open to meet the presence the image gives. As the image is and is not what it images, desire is negated to receive the “is not.”
The viewer is invited to feed from Mary spiritually, to desire her spiritually, as a way of desiring the divine. In this way, the literal opens to the more-than-literal. The di Credi image encourages the viewer’s desire to open from the literal to the more-than-literal, so that the image can give more than it is. Leaving aside normative questions about how one should desire, we can yet see that this type of desire is required in order to receive an image as an image. The structure of desire mirrors the structure of the image, connecting the literal with the non-literal.
Most of us can discern a difference between di Credi’s Mary and Playboy’s María. But how, exactly, can one name it?
In the Playboy cover, by contrast, María’s nakedness is offered up for the viewer’s consumption with every visual cue confirming the viewer’s instinct to respond to it in the ways he has been trained to respond to pornography. The cover represents and elicits a desire that terminates in its consumption by the viewer. In attempting to foreclose the opening of the literal to the more-than-literal, the cover literalizes desire. Where literal desire can open to the more-than-literal, literalized desire names a desire arrested from any non-literal meanings. In the case of the Playboy cover, the presence of María is obscured. Desire is directed toward the shadows and lines of the cover, the form that substitutes for the presence of María.
The reduction, or literalization, of desire for María’s breast is what it means to say that Playboy is pornography while Maria lactans is not. It is also what it means to say that the image of María betrays its status as an image. In attempting to substitute itself for the protoype, to replace María with a representation of her form, the image tends toward an illusion. It ceases to open to a presence beyond itself but instead offers its literal existence as that presence. Like most illusions, it is both more real than an image—for offering itself instead of an imaged—and less, for ultimately delivering less than an image does.
The reduction, or literalization, of desire for María’s breast is what it means to say that Playboy is pornography while Maria lactans is not.
How might iconoclasm restore such an illusion to its nature as an image?
In my prior blog entry, I pointed out one way iconoclasm mimics the logic of an image: in creating new images by breaking old ones. Here I want to suggest a subtler version of iconoclasm’s mimicry. It does not want desire to terminate in the literal. Iconoclasm—certain forms of it at least—wants to open desire to the more-than-literal, to redirect the gaze of the heart, by restoring the negation at the heart of imaging. If the image gives more than it is by presenting something more than its literal existence—something that it literally is not—then iconoclasm can work to break illusion to open to something beyond itself, beyond the literal.
The question, of course, is what kind of iconoclasm (additive? displacing?) might perform this miracle of turning an illusion into an image. That issue requires its own careful consideration. What I want to argue now is a more general point. If images are and are not what they image; if receiving them requires a desire that is and is not directed to the image’s literal existence; then when an image tends toward an illusion, perhaps iconoclasm can restore the negation that makes an image image.