Writer in Residence

The Erotic and the Prophetic: A Lesson Across Centuries

By Irfan Ali


I’m loathe to admit that I only became intimately familiar with the works of celebrated Black feminist theorist and poet Audre Lorde a little over a year ago, when my partner gave me a copy of Sister Outsider, one of Lorde’s collections of essays, as a kind of required reading for our relationship. Of those uniformly excellent pieces of writing, one struck me far more than the others: “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” an essay about the hidden and suppressed source of insight we regularly overlook. 

Lorde explains the erotic is a source of power within us originating from the feminine parts of our being. She describes it as a wellspring of knowledge and motive energy generated not through our rational intellect, but through the fullness of our experiences, feelings, and sensations, including those aspects we are unable to consciously express or recognize. Lorde asserts that without fully familiarizing ourselves with the erotic within us, we’re unable to find any real fulfillment in our lives. And it is for this reason, she explains, that the erotic has been suppressed within our patriarchal, profit-driven societies. These systems propagate themselves through self-abnegation, compelling those trapped within to eschew their deeper human needs in favour of limitless consumption, the only thing keeping these systems from collapse. As such, the erotic constitutes an everpresent threat to their continued existence.

The suppression of the erotic manifests in two ways. First is through a deliberate and malicious misnaming. Prior to reading this essay, I’d only ever thought of the erotic in relation to sex. This, Lorde explains, is intentional: by linking the erotic exclusively to sex—and especially to the pornographic—patriarchal systems are able to diminish and trivialize its value in every aspect of our lives. The second way is through the active suppression of women, who are best able to access and utilize erotic power. Women are made to feel ashamed and weak for acknowledging the erotic demand in their lives. Yet, as Lorde notes, these very societies recognize its value enough to “psychically milk” women for it in service of men’s emotional wellbeing. Her disturbing use of the verb ”milk” expertly highlights the violence of this process.

In writing “Uses of the Erotic,” Lorde implores women to resist the patriarchal demands of society by fully acknowledging and accessing their inner erotic. While she was writing explicitly to women, the essay had a profound effect on me. As men, we commit horrible violence on ourselves by completely suppressing the erotic demand in our own lives, in turn visiting that violence on the women around us by foisting unsustainable amounts of emotional labour onto them. It served as a powerful reminder to me to honour and acknowledge the feminine parts of myself as I continue to grow into a fuller human.

What struck me most about “Uses of the Erotic” wasn’t simply the powerful insights Lorde was able to condense into its seven brief pages, but how closely her writing resembled that of one of my favourite writers: Al-Ghazali, the celebrated philosopher, theologian, and jurist considered by many to be the most significant Islamic figure beyond the Prophet Muhammad and his direct lineage. 

In his spiritual autobiography, Deliverance from Error, Ghazali recounts the malaise that overcame him during his tenure as the principal religious scholar and teacher of Baghdad, the now-capital of Iraq which had long been a major centre of thought and commerce throughout the ages. Realizing that his faith had become infected by a desire for worldly fame and accolades, he abandoned his post and lived for the next ten years as an ascetic in an attempt to return to true spiritual knowledge and practice.

During this period, Ghazali studied and engaged with the beliefs of various Islamic sects of the time, as well as with the traditions of classical Greek philosophy. Ultimately, he found that the only reliable means of developing a true spiritual connection was through Sufism, the then-fringe practice of Islamic mystics. Ghazali concluded that this connection, a prerequisite to a true sense of meaning and fulfillment in one’s life, could only be achieved by foregoing rational knowledge-seeking, instead seeking it through transcendental, spiritual experiences that could not easily be described or articulated, something unique to Sufi practice. This method, when undertaken in earnest, opened one up to prophecy, allowing one, Ghazali argued, to experience a modicum of the same spiritual connection that inspired all of the prophets within the Abrahamic tradition. But here he also intoned a word of caution: one needed to be perpetually vigilant as truth and prophecy were easily misrepresented, suppressed, and altered as a means of control and misguidance.

Given their vast separations across time and geography, there are of course clear differences between Lorde and Ghazali’s work. Lorde was concerned with the erotic across all aspects of life, whereas Ghazali was primarily concerned with the spiritual dimension. Lorde wrote expressly for women, whereas Ghazali wrote for members of his faith. Lorde saw asceticism as a repugnant denial of human nature, whereas Ghazali saw it as a means of forging true spiritual connection. Yet despite this all, their similarities remain striking. Both concluded that true fulfillment in our lives can only be achieved by tapping into a wellspring of hidden insight that exists beyond our rational knowledge, a wellspring actively suppressed and misrepresented because it is so antithetical to the existence of oppressive systems. And though Lorde may not have explored the religious implications of the erotic in her brief piece, she acknowledged that it was a “spiritual” resource and described the insights it gives to those who fully embrace it as “revelation.”

So what does it mean that two so vastly different people—one, a queer, Black, American, woman poet and theorist of the 20th century; the other, a straight, Arab, male religious scholar and jurist of the 11th—arrived at what is essentially the same conclusion? Perhaps it simply reinforces the legitimacy of both works. It seems a spiritual and existential malaise has descended over most of us now that the wheels of our societies have suddenly come off their axles. Many of us are seeking a way forward, but unsure of where to begin. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. It seems our paths eventually converge in the end.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Irfan Ali is a poet, essayist, writer, and educator. His short poetry collection, Who I Think About When I Think About You was shortlisted for the 2015 Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers. Accretion is his first full-length work. Irfan was born, raised, and still lives in Toronto.