While I can’t have you, I long for you. I am the kind of person who would miss a train or a plane to meet you for coffee. I’d take a taxi across town to see you for ten minutes. I’d wait outside all night if I thought you would open the door in the morning. If you call me and say ‘Will you…’ my answer is ‘yes’, before your sentence is out. I spin worlds where we could be together. I dream you. For me, imagination and desire are very close.
Desire is always a kind of invention. By which I mean that the two of us are re-invented by this powerful emotion. Well, sometimes it is the two of us, sometimes it might just be me, and then I am your stalker, your psychopath, the one whose fantasy is out of control.
Desiring someone who has no desire for you is a clue to the nature of this all-consuming feeling; it has much more to do with me than it has to do with you. You are the object of my desire. I am the subject. I am the I.
When we are the object of each other’s desire it is easy to see nothing negative in this glorious state. We become icons of romance, we fulfil all the slush-fantasies. This is how it is meant to be. You walked into the room… Our eyes met… from the first moment… etc
It is safe to say that overwhelming desire for another person involves a good deal of projection. I don’t believe in love at first sight, for reasons that will become clear later, but I do believe in desire at first sight. Sometimes it as simple as sexual desire, and perhaps men are more straightforward there, but usually desire is complex; a constellation of wants and needs, hopes and dreams, a whole universe of uninhabited stars looking for life.
And nothing feels more like life than desire. Everyone knows it; the surge in the blood, cocaine-highs without the white powder. Desire is shamanistic, trance-like, ecstatic. When people say, as they often do, ‘I’d love to fall in love again – that first month, six months, year’…, they are not talking about love at all – it’s desire they mean.
And who can blame us? Desiring you allows me to feel intensely, makes my body alert as a fox. Desire for you allows me to live outside normal time, conjures me into a conversation with my soul when I never thought I had one, tricks me into behaving better than I ever did, like someone else, someone good.
Desire for you fills my mind and thus becomes a space-clearing exercise. In this jumbled packed, bloated, noisy world, you become my point of meditation. I think of you and little else, and so I realise how absurd and wasteful are most of the things that I do. Body, mind, effort, are concentrated in your image. The fragmented state of ordinary life at last becomes coherent. No longer scattered through time and space, I am collected in one place, and that place is you.
Until it goes wrong.
The truth is that unless desire is transformed into love, desire fails us; it fails to do what it once did; the highs, the thrills. Our transports of delight disappear. We stop walking on air. We find ourselves back on the commuter train and on our own two feet. Language gives it away; we talk about coming back down to earth.
For many this a huge disappointment. When desire is gone, so is love, and so is the relationship. I doubt though, that love is so easy to shift. Loving shies away from leaving, and can cope with the slow understanding that the beloved is not Superman or Miss World.
We live in an Upgrade culture. I think this has infected relationships. Why keep last year’s model when the new one will be sleeker and more fun? People, like stuff, are throw-aways in our society; we don’t do job security and we don’t offer security in relationships. We mouth platitudes about time to move on, as though we are doing something new-age and wise, when all we really want is to get rid of the girlfriend/boyfriend/husband/wife.
I don’t want a return to the 1950’s when couples stayed together whatever the hell, but whoever said that relationships are easy?
Advertising always promises that the new model will be easier to use. And of course when you ‘upgrade’ to the next relationship, it is easier – for a while.
If you are pretty or personable, handsome or rich, serial relationships offer all the desire and none of the commitment. As sexual desire calms, and as the early fantasies dissolve, we begin to see the other person in real life, and not as our goddess or rescuer. We turn critical. We have doubts. We begin to see ourselves, too, and as most of us spend our entire lives hiding from any confrontation with the self, this sudden sighting is unpleasant, and we blame the other person for our panicky wish to bolt.
It is less painful to change your partner than it is to confront yourself, but one of the many strange things about love is that it asks that we do confront ourselves, while giving us the strength of character to make that difficult task possible. If desire is a magic potion, with instant effect, (see Tristan and Isolde), then love is a miracle whose effects become apparent only in time. Love is the long-haul. Desire is now.
An Upgrade culture, a Now Culture, and a Celebrity culture, where the endless partner-swapping of the rich and famous is staple fare, doesn’t give much heft to the long-haul. We are the new Don Giovannis, whose seductions need to be faster and more frequent, and we hide these crimes of the heart under the sexy headline of Desire.
Don Giovanni – with his celebrated one thousand and three women, is of course dragged off to Hell for his sins. Desire has never been a favourite of religion. Buddhism teaches non-attachment, Christianity sees desire as the road to the sins of the flesh and as a distraction from God.Islam has its women cover themselves in public lest any man should be inflamed, and jeopardise his soul. In Jewish tradition, desire ruins King David and Samson, just as surely as modern-day Delilah’s are still shearing their men into submission. Yet it would be misleading to forget the love poem in the Bible that is the Song of Solomon; a poem as romantic as any written since, that gives desire a legitimate place in the palace of love.
And quite right too. Desire is wonderful. Magic potions are sometimes exactly what is needed. You can love me and leave me if you like, and anybody under thirty should do quite a lot of loving and leaving. I don’t mean that desire belongs to youth – certainly it does not – but there are good reasons to fall in love often when you are growing up, even if only to discover that it wasn’t love at all.
The problems start when desire is no longer about discovery, but just a cheap way of avoiding love.
It is a mistake to see desire as an end in itself. Lust is an end in itself, and if that is all you want, then fine. Desire is trickier, because I suspect that it’s real role is towards love, not an excuse in the other direction.
There is a science-based argument that understands desire as a move towards love, but a love that is necessary for a stable society. Love is a way of making people stay together, desire is a way of making people love each other, goes the argument. This theory reads our highest emotional value as species protection. Un surprisingly, I detest this reading, and much prefer what poets have to say. When Dante talks about the love that moves the sun and the lesser stars, I believe him. He didn’t know as much as we do about the arrangement of the heavens, but he knew about the complexity of the heart.
My feeling is that love led by desire, desire deepening into love, is much more than selfish gene social stability and survival of the species. Loving someone is the closest we can get to knowing what it is like to be another person. Love blasts through our habitual sclerotic selfishness, the narrow ‘me first’ that gradually closes us down, the dead-end of the loveless life.
There are different kinds of love, and not all of them are prefaced by desire, yet desire keeps its potent place in our affections. Its releasing force has no regard for convention of any kind, and crosses gender, age, class, religion, commonsense and good manners.
This is bracing and necessary. It is addictive. Like all powerful substances, desire needs careful handling, which by its nature is almost impossible to do.
Almost, but not quite. Jung, drawing on alchemy, talked about desire as the white bird, which should always be followed when it appears, but not always brought down to earth. Simply, we cannot always act on our desire, nor should we, but repressing it tells us nothing. Following the white bird is a courageous way of acknowledging that something explosive is happening. Perhaps that will blow up our entire world, or perhaps it will detonate a secret chamber in the heart. For certain, things will change.
I don’t suppose that the white bird of desire is nearly as attractive to most of us as the white powder substitute with natural highs. Desire as a drug is racier than desire as a messenger. Yet most things in life have a prosaic meaning and a poetic meaning, and there are times when only poetry will answer.
For myself, when I have trusted my desire, whether or not I have acted on it, life has become much more difficult, but strangely illuminated. When I have not trusted my desire, out of cowardice or commonsense, slowly I have gone into shadow. I cannot explain this, but I find it to be true.
*This article by Jeanette Winterson appeared as a column in The Independent and has been produced here in its entirety. The original can be found here.