Men and the art of Motorcycles

I n 1948, Albert Camus wrote to his publisher Blanche Knopf
asking if the sales of his novel, The Outsider, were as good as
the reviews because “ je voudrais m’acheter une motocyclette” — he
wanted to buy a motorcycle. He was not the first writer to be
captured by the lure of two wheels. A decade and a half earlier, T. E.
Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, sold his Fourth Folio Shakespeare
to buy a Brough Superior motorcycle. Lawrence’s book, Seven
Pillars of Wisdom, was in print, but despite an original manuscript
selling recently for more than $1 million, sales were not strong.
Lawrence got £80 for the Shakespeare folio. It was half what the
motorcycle cost him. In terms of desirability the motorcycle was
the better investment. Although Lawrence died riding it in 1935, a
Brough today is worth more than the Folio. Such is the appeal of
owning a machine that, for Lawrence, was a logical extension of
his human faculties. The bike, Lawrence wrote, was a ‘provocation
to excess’ — one that was encouraged by the machine’s ‘honeyed
untiring smoothness’. The words conjure up an anthropomorphising
bond. As Lawrence wrote, his motorcycle loved him — it gave him
‘five more miles of speed’ than a stranger would get.
Usually, the motorcycle is associated more with erotica than
love, with the notion that it is invested with male phallic value. But
a closer look at the iconography reveals a shaping over that retrieves
a female sexuality within an erotica. In the ubiquitous images from
1890s postcards of women astride motorcycles built in the open
frame style of women’s bicycles — a female desire is evident. It is the
desire that psychoanalysis identifies as the wish to ‘be’ the phallus.
This suggests Freud’s formula, in which, the woman
compensates for her lack of a penis by creating a substitute, in the
form of a child. But we know that the phallus is not the penis, it is a
signifier, one that, in the case of a motorcycle, can take on the value
of a fetish. It is most evident in art and film, where the woman’s
body is made increasingly smoothed and shined to resemble
Freud went further than this male fantasy. He knew that reality
is fabricated out of desire which, for a woman, can involve being
desired for what she is not. In Maryanne Faithful’s 1960’s classic,
Girl on a Motorcycle, and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s 1983 film Le Belle
Captive, there is an attempt to capture this in the form of a free
and powerful woman riding a motorcycle. Such a motorcycle is not
a penis as much as an unobtainable object and a defense against
anxiety. Desire, we know, grows around an object that meets a
psychological need, not a physical one. It grows strongest beside
the objects around which the subject is constructed, strengthened,
along the way, by the difficulty experienced in formulating a
demand that will match the psychological need. Such need, unlike
thirst or hunger, is not easy to justify, particularly when it is a
demand arising from the need for love. So, how is love configured
in a desire that attaches to a motorcycle?
For men, the standard interpretation is around phallic potency
to do with the shape and function of a sleek, powerful machine.
This often takes on a pornographic sense with women posed beside
bikes in erotic settings. Then, there is the outlaw motif, beginning
with 1953’s The Wild One, where motorcycles align with mobility,
such that motorcyclists are on the road, unattached to a stable
home, making the rider the ultimate stranger, unknowable because
of his transience, unassimilable because of his lack of origin.
Movement here defines a refusal or inability to fit into
mainstream society. But once on the road, it becomes clear that the
rider, not the terrain, must supply a narrative. Captain America
and Billy, heroes of 1969’s Easy Rider, face this when they fail to
find peace off the road, and die beside it. If their bikes stand for
autonomy, it is the illusory sort correlative of the obsessional
fantasy in which one can flourish without reference to the other.
As a desire it is tentative — a desire to avoid castration. Peter
Fonda’s character in 1963’s The Wild Angels, captures this when he
explains: “We want to be free to ride our machines and not be hassled
by The Man”. It suggests a delusion of the will to freedom, where,
rather than rebellion, bikers, in fact, embrace conformity.
But there is another sort of male desire implicated in
motorcycles — one that allows the subject to come to terms with
his own desire, often by elaborating and eventually throwing
away the father’s terms for his own. This is what you might call
normal evolution, starting with belief in the father in childhood,
destroying him in puberty, and coming to terms with him in
In this respect, the differentiation made by Lacan between the
real father, imaginary father and symbolic function of the father
is useful, especially since, the symbolic father has now become
questionable, that is, its guaranteeing and answer-providing
function is no longer convincing. As a result, the number of
subjects on the run, looking for a new master, increases, thus
creating openings, notably in outlaw bike culture, for the
paranoid master. This is what characterises the popular image of
On the masculine side, the absence of the possibility of
identifying with the symbolic function condemns the man to
stay at the level of immature boy and son, one who is afraid
of the threatening female figure, which assumes its atavistic
characteristics. Hence, then, the ubiquity of puberty and
adolescence in males. On the feminine side, there is a role reversal:
the absence of the security enhancing symbolic law regulating
desire and enjoyment, invests women with ancient masculine
fears, and this results in a turn-around: today we have woman-thehunter
and man-the-hunted.
This is a contemporary snapshot, one that, I think, departs
from what often occurred when Camus desired his first bike.
Then, motorcycles were mostly owned by men who, while drawn
to the phallic allure of the machine, were more invested in the
symbolic father. This meant they were also more invested in their
sons, and used the bike as a means of transmitting what it is to
be a man. Perhaps that is why it is important to own these objects
of desire, as that guarantees an obligation; the delivery of love in
much the same way as paternalistic men’s claim to ownership of women
was supposed to do.