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Meaningful Texts: Uses of The Erotic by Audre Lorde

It is possible that all the answers to life’s questions are in one book: . If you’re unfamiliar with Lorde’s work, strap in because no one is more deliberate with words, discerning with ideas, and more cutthroat when it comes to truth-telling than Lorde.

To read her is to see your face in a mirror you’re not sure you want to look into, but cannot look away from. Lorde forces us to confront our biases, complacency, and complicity in our own discontent. And the lies we tell ourselves to preserve a system that doesn’t serve us.

Today, I am featuring a section of her essay, “.”

Lorde defines the erotic as a primal source of information and power. It is your life force. The part of you that shows you who you are.

Most of us, Lorde argues (and I agree), have cut ourselves off from this source of information about our selves. Walking through life confused about who we are, what we want, and what brings us joy, pleasure, and fulfillment. Even writing those words feels “dirty” and forbidden – how dare you seek joy, pleasure, and fulfillment from your life. Choose pain, suffering, and martyrdom! That is noble! Pleasure is self-indulgent!

Au contraire.

Lorde challenges us to break free of “encouraged mediocrity” and to FEEL. She proves our societal empathy deficit is based on the fact that none of us knows how to properly feel our feelings and this includes pleasure. Self-deception masquerades as self-actualization, as people hide the truth mostly from themselves. Because if they were to look honestly at their lives, they’d have to look in the mirror.

It is easier to choose denial.

The problem is you cannot selectively numb. You cut yourself off from one feeling (like pain), you cut them all (like pleasure). If you don’t own your sadness, grief, sorrow, and horror – you cannot access your joy. Which is why we often mistake the erotic to mean Dionysian, frivolous, and self-indulgent.

When in actuality, it is power.

Especially for those who have been taught to deny, repress, or reject this side of themselves.

In other words, to deny your joy is to deny your power.

And with that, I give you, :

“The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognized its power, in honor and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves.

It is never easy to demand the most from ourselves, from our lives, from our work. To encourage excellence is to go beyond the encouraged mediocrity of our society. But giving into the fear of feeling and working to capacity is a luxury only the unintentional can afford, and the unintentional are those who do not wish to guide their own destinies.

This internal requirement towards excellence which we learn from the erotic must not be misconstrued as demanding the impossible from ourselves nor from others. Such a demand incapacitates everyone in the process. For the erotic is not a question of what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing. Once we know the extent to which we are capable of feeling that sense of satisfaction and completion, we can then observe which of our various life endeavors bring us the closest to that fullness.

The aim of each thing we do is to make our lives and the lives of our children richer and more possible. Within the celebration of the erotic in all our endeavors, my work becomes a conscious decision – a longed-for bed which I enter gracefully and from which I rise up empowered.

Of course, women so empowered are dangerous. So we are taught to separate the erotic demand from most vital areas of our lives other than sex. And the lack of concern for the erotic root and satisfaction of our work is felt in our disaffection from so much of what we do. For instance, how often do we truly love our work even at its most difficult?

The principal horror of any system which defines the good in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need, or which defines human need to the exclusion of the psychic and emotional components of that need – the principal horror of such a system is that it robs our work of its erotic value, its erotic power and life appeal and fulfillment. Such a system reduces work to a travesty of necessities, a duty by which we earn bread or oblivion for ourselves and those we love. But this is tantamount to blinding a painter and then telling her to improve her work, and to enjoy the act of painting. It is not only next to impossible, it is also profoundly cruel.”

– Pages 30-32 from . This edition is edited and with an introduction by Roxane Gay, who is the Lorde of our lifetime (if you haven’t read yet, omg, read it).

This has been the second installment of a new segment I’m calling Meaningful Texts, where I share sections of literary and philosophical work I find impactful, illuminating, game-changing, or mind-bending. And want to share with you.

My hope is that these works influence you as much as they’ve influenced me. And that you share them with others.

Check out . Be warned that once you read Lorde, you will be changed. You cannot unsee what she shows you.

And the world will never be the same.

What a gift.


PS: kicked off last week with hundreds of people working together on their dream projects. There has been so much activity, we went over our monthly allotted page views on Discourse in less than a week! 

I’m really proud of what’s happening inside so allow me a moment to boast about our members. To have the courage to choose to invest in your joy, to take your own projects seriously, is to create the future of our world.

It’s a deliberate decision to reject mediocrity and own your power. Your power to choose meaning, fulfillment, and pleasure. Not from self-indulgence, but from self-empowerment. And when you do, you empower others to do the same.

Or as one member put: “I’ve never been around people who are as excited about my project as I am. It’s amazing.”

This is a travesty – though I’m glad we’ve been able to create a space where this is possible. I want to live in a world where your power and passion are encouraged, not demeaned, diminished, and weaponized against you.