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A Few Notes on the Nature of Desire

A Few Notes on the Nature of Desire

So much has already been said about love. So much art has come out of this experience: poetry, novels, films, plays, music. But oftentimes, it feels like there is always something to say about it. That love and desire is a universal and, at once, unique experience for all of us.


“Desire eludes final definition”, writes Catherine Belsey. Desire’s nature is indecipherability. That effort to define desire in its most minute ways would be an exercise in futility. Love happens differently to other people, but these experiences are unified by elements in which universal to the act of loving.

“No matter what technologies we devise, the knowledge of Eros available to us is no clear or certain thing… We do our utmost to grasp the pathos of erotic experience as it soars through our lives…”

Photo | The Inscrutable Brilliance of Anne Carson | Photo by Jeff Brown

Anne Carson begins her thesis about desire through the poem of Sappho,

Eros once again limb-loosener whirls me

sweetbitter, impossible to fight off, creature stealing up 

Here Carson examines the word sweetbitter (glukupikron). Eros as “an experience of pleasure and pain.” A paradox. Love is at first sweet turning bitter over time. She then proceeds to problematize this word. Sweetbitter and bittersweet. She argues that Sappho does not denote the chronology of love (from sweet to bitter) but “the instant of desire”. A cognitive split in the lover. In that splid second, we gain access to the pleasure (sweetness) and pain (bitterness) of loving. Because of this paradox, desire in itself cannot be classified as a friend nor a foe of the lover. She then proceeds to historicize this paradox of love and hate in classical Greek epics

ποθεῖ μέν, ἐχθαίρει δέ, βούλεται δ᾽ ἔχειν.

 For they love him and they hate him

and they long to possess him.

Love and hate are perceptible feelings and each of them corresponds to a particular action inherent to a particular circumstance. However, in the context of desire, love, and hate are felt but the lover is immobilized by this feeling. There are many stories like this. Moments of indecision where logic flies out of the window, subsumed under the notion of desire. A person who listens to their friend’s advice in the face of the beloved abandons the advice immediately, then the cycle continues. Desire then becomes neither a friend nor an enemy. “An ambivalent being.” Hence the lover must always make peace with it. 

I hate and I love. Why? you might ask.

I don’t know. But I feel it happening and I hurt.  

(Catullus 85)

Desire as lack

If some other poets describe desire in concepts such as feelings Sappho and others preferred the physical or bodily sensation when depicting desire. A conflict between the body and the senses. Drawing on the history of ancient physiology and psychology, desire then assumes its place in the metaphor of sensations: heat, liquidity, melting, freezing — either pleasurable or unpleasant. 

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Desire simply is a lack. We desire what’s not within our grasp. It’s a popular concept then that once we get what we want we quickly move on to chase other things. It can be inferred that for desire to stay forever, distance must always be kept. “Union would be annihilating”, as Carson put it beautifully. 

If desire is lack, what does this lack refer to? When we experience the electrifying presence of eros, this lack asserts itself. That there’s something missing in us. 

There’s a Greek story by Aristophanes that talks about the origin of love. Humans were once round creatures, living happily, rolling around, then got overconfident and challenged the gods. Zeus, then proceeds to cut them in half. To be complete, humans, for the rest of their lives would have to seek this other half.

When we desire someone we experience this “nostalgia for wholeness”, a realization that something is lacking. Or something was stolen from us. This is exemplified by too many love songs. 

“Love does not happen without loss of vital self. The lover is the loser. Or so he reckons.”

Anne Carson has a way of putting in very romantic ways the very first instance when desire is felt. All at once, we gain a knowledge of who we could possibly be, a better self when touched by this erotic accident. Desire opens a whole gamut of experiences, of perceptions, “a gust of godlikeness”. The person that we become when we desire someone seems to be the person that we were truly meant to be all along. Desire, then, in the recognition of who we are meant to be, what we lack, and the perceptions that occur to us, changes us. 

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