There, on the soft sand, a few feet away from our elders, we would sprawl all morning, in a petrified paroxysm of desire, and take advantage of every blessed quirk in space and time to touch each other: her hand, half-hidden in the sand, would creep toward me, its slender brown fingers sleepwalking nearer and nearer. Humbert Humbert (Nabokov) evokes his sexual awakening and nostalgia for such purity, elusive as the grains of sand that shelters the memory of his first love (and the only one, before seeing it reincarnated in Lolita). But death lurks between haze and its sweet smell like burning lava preserve these fossils memory.
Sand bed, sensual and deadly in equal measure, infinity of sand or the desert as a place of extreme experiences has fueled the artistic imagination. Its undulating and metamorphic relief invites bodies to left be battered, mimicking the anatomical curves and orographic ones in a shared nudity.
The aridity of desert landscape transform erotic courtship in some kind of arcane ritual. Desert image becomes polarized, ranging from promise to doom: place of edenic reencounter through love (see orgiastic scene in Zabriskie Point, Antonioni) or last station (a one-way trip) where sex is the bait to conformism (Kobo Abe‘s The Woman in the Dunes).
Antonioni’s film, flagship of hippie counterculture, turn desert into the last bastion of freedom against increasing consumerism with which American society evaded its imperialist atrocities in Vietnam era.
Of that naive proposal remains a scene in our visual memory as a retinal persistence that refuses to disappear: one in which couples multiply with every kiss, in which every caress seems to engender other bodies, each copulation inseminate other copulations ending to conquering long stretches of dust, lubricating the wilderness, giving life to the wasteland.
Rodney Graham picked up this scene and extended it in loop to 108 minutes (the lenght of the film), playing with time, paying homage with his guitar to Jerry Garcia of original soundtrack. In Softcore–More Solo Guitar Music for the Sex Scene (2001), Graham experiment emphasizes the elasticity the time acquire in the desert, in love and in the imagination. Cyclical and infinite time, as in myth and (failed) dream.
To edenic vision of desert, Kobo Abe opposed the metaphor of desert as a fatal mirage, as a trap capable of breaking the logical structure on which try to justify the existence. In The woman in the dunes, a coastal town lives with the constant threat of being buried under landslides. The beach is like a desert, because the sea is always away, and the houses are hidden in sand pits. In one of these houses is thrown the protagonist, an amateur entomologist who traveled to the site to study a type of beetles. There is waiting a woman, for which will feel a mixture of attraction and repulsion, pity and anger, that will explode in sex scenes, mistrust, aggression and something like affection.
A cold sensuality pervades descriptions, from that first awakening finding the woman sleeping naked, sanded all her body except the head (because a rain dust pierces the roof), as a statue forged in grained gold. He considers she as an accomplice of the plot to hold him prisoner (to remove sand) but also as a victim of an absurd world.
He sees himself trapped in an anthill, dragged by desert beetles as a hungry mouse. She’s carnivorous plant, seductive mantis, but also a puppet. Her eyes of hare, her cheeks dimples, the pleasant baths she invites him, overcome his resistance, and the excitement takes him to desire to “tear the body’s nerves and screw them in her thighs.” The wooing scenes also remind mating of insects.
Hiroshi Teshigahara, in the film version of this novel, was able to translate the plasticity of these epidermis eaten away by sand, clogged throats, anatomical fragments that seem examined by entomologist with a magnifying glass, fragments overlapping the curves of desert; sand collapses as reflection of psychological collapse. Disturbing seduction of a primal world at the same time apocalyptic.