There is a fantastic scene in the cult film Heathers where Winona Ryder and Christian Slater are entwined in an embrace after making love. There they are in that post-coital haze — young, naked, and pale in the moonlight. Doe-eyed Veronica (Ryder) looks up to her bad boy beau J.D (Slater) and says not “I love you,” not “Let’s never be apart,” but instead, “I say we just grow up, be adults, and die.”
I love this scene for showcasing a whip-smart duo outraged by the horrors of high school. They are lovers looking to destroy an outrageous teen world where everyone is awful, oblivious, shoulder-pad-wearing, croquet-playing cattle following the popular herd.
In Veronica saying, “Let’s grow up, be adults, and die,” we get a scene with another snarky one-liner, yes, but we also get a vision that is full of human vulnerability. It isn’t simply the film’s black humor driving the line — it is the sex itself. They want an escape — an escape more lasting than saying buh-bye to high school. An escape more lasting than growing up.
It is in this moment that Veronica has had a taste of real oblivion.
In French, la petite mort (little death) is an expression used to describe “a brief loss or weakening of consciousness,” or, more specifically, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “the sensation post-orgasm as likened to death.”
Death-with-a-capital-D terrifies me, but just a little death? Well, that might be okay, like a splash of almond milk in my coffee — a little less strong but still doing the trick — because what I am seeking in little deaths — in oblivion-on-earth — is to escape myself for a few minutes. I’ve been living with myself, with my obsessive thoughts, my insecurities, my skewed perceptions for 30-plus years, and frankly, I could use a change of mental scenery. This is not to be confused with suicidal ideation. A little death requires smashing the ego and demystifying what it means to no longer be oneself. It’s a taste of freedom from all the things to which our identity is so desperately attached: our job, our partners, our houseplants, our color-scheme on Instagram.
No, I don’t want to die-die. Like Peggy Lee replies in her song “Is That All There Is?” when asked why she doesn’t just end it all — I, too, am not ready for that “final disappointment.”
I just want to get away from myself for a couple hours, a few days. Like Veronica, I just want a death holiday from all the social madness.
The avenues to sort-of die are varied. One may be struck with a sexy 19th century illness, like the Cotard Delusion (aka: walking corpse syndrome); or a condition the neurologist Jules Cotard described as “le délire de la négation” (the delirium of negation) and believe themselves dead already, believe themselves zombies, believe themselves to be decaying, believe themselves immortal. One might take up an opium pipe and retire permanently to their study like a Parisian dandy, or even dabble on the weekends with DMT which, beyond the spiritual journey that Ayahuasca provides, offers an experience similar to a NDE (near-death experience): bright lights, superior races, psychedelic geometric portals — the whole shebang.
But even with all these options you won’t find me at some anachronistic steam-punk convention calling myself Mademoiselle X — Corpse Bride of Paris, and the thought of ingesting any sort of drug plagues me with panic, so I won’t be doing that either.
At the end of the day, I am a romantic who wants ego death without the diarrhea and vomiting, who wants to fall into spiritual oblivion with another, with a beloved, with Christian Slater.
In the most poetic portrayal, la petite mort is the bedroom’s golden hour. A stretched-out, intimate sex epigraph shrouded in bliss. And what this state offers is beyond romantic love, beyond lust, it is a moment where we are beyond the limits of ourselves. We have connected with the other, the lover in our arms, and not possessed them — but instead, transcended. Of course, this is not how sex works most of the time. Modern sex so often involves quite a bit of scrolling, quite a bit of scrambling, a series of performative acts we may or may not feel skilled in; it is plagued with a grasping for gratification, a grasping to be held and believe that we exist, that our needs are met, that we are desirable, that we can feel.
Sadly, sex so often is about us — alone, afraid. Sex so often is complicated because at its motor is the desperate and fumbling preservation of our very fragile ego.
I recently stumbled across a series of YouTube interviews with Gregor Reti, a music-executive-turned-spiritual-sex-guru and author of a book entitled Sex and Ego Death — a book Amazon has likened to “Eckhart Tolle on Viagra.” Like all moments where I am most intrigued by a person, I found myself simultaneously repulsed and attracted to the man and his philosophy. He had a v-neck rocker t-shirt and all sorts of beaded bracelets, a sleazy hip look made most complete by his Matrix-style transition lenses. Reti is confident. Reti has renounced his former path of power and prestige. Reti has left his lucrative marriage for a twin flame relationship and now hops around desert polyamory festivals spreading the good word of ego-crushing sex.
I found it hard to accept the message considering the messenger. I found it hard not to be suspicious of a once music executive who preaches more and more sex to have not been #metoo-ed by now. In short, I found it hard to escape myself, to turn off my prepackaged feminist judgments and simply listen. Yet, despite what I wanted to assume, this man had been “awakened” — his life had undergone a radical shift since he let go of all the things he thought mattered and began seeking encounters where he could be utterly vulnerable with other human beings.
Whether or not I subscribe to his ego having been crushed or not is an entirely different discussion. His videos reminded me though that spiritual hunger is insatiable and whether it be through Tantric sex, a VR helmet, or a 10-day silent retreat, we are forever seeking some chance to escape our carefully-constructed version of life and the mean girl chatter in our heads.
In Buddha’s first discourse he lists the three objects of craving: the craving for existence, the craving for non-existence, and the craving for sensual pleasure. We want to live and die at the same time — and to feel good while we’re at it!
To be free of all craving is to be free of death. Since most of us aren’t there yet, since even Mademoiselle X at the steam-punk convention is (I’m sorry to inform her) mortal, it seems the most we can ask for are these little deaths along the way.
Are all means of self-awakening self-serving? Are we becoming better people in the process? Perhaps yes, perhaps no, but a little shattering of ego could do us all good.
And if in doing so we are afforded the chance to connect physically, emotionally, and spiritually with another human being, I would say that is as good a palliative as any for the isolation epidemic.
We know this much: the cost of awakening is death, even if it is just un petit one. For Veronica in Heathers, and for all of us, the cost of not being oblivious is chasing oblivion.
Julie Schulte is a writer based in LA. She teaches workshops on the wild feminine voice in memoir. She likes bold, untethered women in real life and played by Winona on screen.