By now, the L.A. symphony-goer’s orgasm has been heard round the world. There was a slight attempt to pathologize the woman’s unmistakable (my opinion) moans of pleasure during the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony—surely she must have had a seizure of some sort? Well, yes—one that had her breathing heavily and her male companion smiling at her. And she stayed for the rest of the performance.
We all projected what we needed that moment to be. One witness thought the partner’s smiling gaze was “an effort to not shame her. It was quite beautiful.” Others saw no shame involved. “Some people really know how to live,” ended one post on Twitter, voicing a majority opinion I found delightful. Could it be that we have all grown up, and no longer wish to deny anyone the right to abandon themselves to pleasure?
One of my favorite responses came from British composer Magnus Fiennes (brother of actor Ralph Fiennes), who was seated nearby. “A woman in the audience had loud and full body orgasm during the 5th’s second movement,” he tweeted. “… Band politely carried on. Props to LAPhil (and Pytor Ilyich) for bringing it on…..”
And props to her for letting go. Not only has she given us all a frisson of envious delight, but she managed to loose the bonds of propriety. I am reminded of Nuar Alsadir’s recent essay in The Paris Review, in which she recalls lecturing about the Victorian dread of post-coital emptiness and having her lapel mic’s volume shoot up at the word “ejaculation.” She dissolved into laughter. And when she tried to start over, she reached “ejaculation” again and cracked up, unable to go on. The harder she laughed, the harder her students laughed with her.
“The British call convulsive laughter corpsing,” she writes—once she has regained her composure and begun to reflect. The etymology of “corpsing” is the fits of giggles gotten by actors who are meant to be playing a corpse, which I can only compare to the chapel giggles that used to overtake us at my Catholic all-girls high school. At the time, they were almost scary: you were dipping into a place of uncontrollable, forbidden mirth. Now I savor the memory. Too much of life is controlled, scripted, and proper.
That might be why the accidental interruptions on Zoom charmed us so during lockdown. Experts in international relations are not expected to have wayward toddlers; CEOs of multinationals are not expected to have boundlessly enthusiastic puppies. And why not?
Because we have been pretending to be tightly controlled and appropriate at all times.
Streaking broke some of that social conformity down, back in the seventies. Even the “spontaneous” concerts professional musicians sneak into public spaces can crack the veneer and let in a little wonder and joy. Throwing down one’s prepared speech was probably delightful the first time, but soon became a practiced gesture, a symbol of spontaneity rather than the real thing.
Alsadir quotes the poet Elizabeth Bishop, who pointed out that hearing someone cough or hiccup gives you “a sudden sensation as if you were inside him—you know how he feels in the little aspects he never mentions.” It is a far faster route to empathy than hours of conversation, and it sent Bishop to poetry because such moments distilled the self so powerfully.
Imagine the empathy at that L.A. concert. Was the pleasure contagious? Did a shiver run through the audience? Orgasm is a little more specific than laughter, which is definitely contagious. But both topple the boundaries, letting us inside the mind and body of another human being. As we listen, we, too, lose a little of our habitual control. This may be why “some cultures view an open-mouthed laugh as a form of indecent exposure,” Alsadir notes, and Maimonides warned that “laughter and levity bring about illicit sexual conduct.” There is a recklessness to helpless laughter, a defiance, a succumbing to its seduction.
Giving way, we feel free. I think of the relief, in those early years of marriage, of daring opinions, noises, confessions, and desires I would not dream of expressing with anyone else. I think of Mary Tyler Moore giggling helplessly at the funeral of Chuckles the Clown. I think of anyone who dares to be fully human, protocol be damned.
“Spontaneous outbursts of laughter”—or pleasure—“carry you over the mark into a joyful sensation of limitlessness,” writes Alsadir, who is both a poet and a psychoanalyst. She notes that this happens less often in adulthood, except when people have completely dropped their guard, “or when their ego functions have been compromised, as when sleep-deprived or drunk.” “Ego functions” is a stock phrase of her profession, but to a layperson, it holds a clue. Ego is what keeps us from relaxing into ourselves, because ego says we must win approval, show power, be larger and greater than our silly self. Yet the joy—this is turning Buddhist—comes in forgetting the ego altogether.
And there is the paradox. For a while, I worried about the woman in L.A.—would she be mortified? Would she never attend another concert? But if we accept the parallel with giddy, uncontrollable laughter, Alsadir promises a better resolution: “You might assume that someone subject to a spontaneous eruption from their unconscious in the form of laughter would be humiliated, but for the most part they end up feeling empowered.” Awake, as opposed to carefully woke, and fully alive. They have transcended society’s bounds, snapped the chains of propriety, allowed what was deepest inside them to well up.
And there is no surer recipe for joy.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.