Why Desire?

by longingforthereal

She tugged at my shirt, but I turned her away. She was an older woman of close to sixty, haggard, her face worn and grimaced, ethereal in her unattractiveness. She wanted me, but I refused her advances. That is, until a minute later, when, in her final plea, I glanced into the depths of her face and gave in. “Ok, yes.” Why I acquiesced, I couldn’t say. But just as I turned to embrace her, she vomited, and announced to me it was a burrito she had eaten earlier.

 My repulsion put a stop to whatever might have happened, and I left the room in disgust. I wandered down a grey hallway, and then into a green room, incandescent yet foggy, perhaps from smoke or dust. And there was my mother. She was sitting in a circle with a number of other people her age, all of whom were playing the guitar and singing in unison. The song was called “W” and it had a beautiful, understated melody that remained in my head as I woke up.


This was a dream. The melody to “W” was still in my head when I turned laboriously toward my cell phone, only to see that it was two thirty in the afternoon. Part of me felt ashamed. But the melody had a mitigating effect that allowed me to rise from the mat I’ve been sleeping on as of late with an air of calm. I had been up until about five in the morning, talking into the night with friends. The conversation was spurred on by one friend having observed with disappointment a young woman he’d recently been infatuated with walking home past us, holding hands with another man. My own predicament was that I found myself with a young woman who wanted to come upstairs, though I had no interest in that. Typical situations of unrequited desire or feeling, at once mundane and extraordinary, our all-too-human predicaments led to all the things we talk about when we talk about love: commitment, sex, jealousy, monogamy, the idea of love itself. All the contours of the most emotional parts of our lives swirled about the porch in trails and circles of words, foregrounded by the luminosity of the impending sun, who, I can say with assurance, knew all the answers to our questions.

 Through the trail of words, we eventually found ourselves on the topic of the Kinsey reports of 1948 and 1953. I noted that one of the most significant things about these reports was Kinsey’s conclusion that sexual identity itself was something of an absurdity, given his observations that sexual response did not correspond exclusively to the touch of the opposite sex. In the second report, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, the idea of “normal” female sexuality was undermined, though Kinsey, despite the basis of his own findings, declared that sexuality was best cultivated in a “normal” heterosexual couple. While certainly not condemning homosexuality, he ignored even his own findings, which held so much promise in terms of upending the psychoanalytically supported institution of heterosexuality, in favor of his own cultural assumptions and bias toward the traditional hetero-normative institution.

 “That’s fine, but one thing I don’t understand, and frankly don’t appreciate, is the embrace by the gay community of their own sexuality. They flaunt it. Children attend Gay Pride parades with men masquerading in thongs. I don’t think that’s right.” I was inclined at once to both agree and disagree with my friend. His argument was one that is exemplified in Jean Bethke Elshtain’s 1982 Salmagundi article “Homosexual Politics: The Paradox of Gay Liberation,” where she argued that the gay liberation movement suffers from an internal contradiction: by demanding recognition on the grounds of sexual identity, the movement simultaneously forecloses the possibility of that recognition as it becomes lost in a histrionic form of separatism, at the expense of democratic equality and civic participation. Elshtain was responding to gay intellectuals like Dennis Altman, Karla Jay, and John Murphy, who were demanding not only recognition, but pronouncing the limitations of liberalism in the realm of culture. And while there is certainly merit to Elshtain’s argument, she missed a fundamental problem brought to light by the writings of these intellectuals: desire.

 As the conversation continued, the consensus was that Gay Pride parades may pass on, arguably becoming a faded symptom of a much needed revolt against standards of sexual deviancy and normalcy. By this reasoning, we could see the Gay Liberation movement, like the other liberation struggles of the late 60s and early 70s as the playing out of a dialectical struggle, Hegel’s spirit coming into consciousness of itself through necessary reconciliation, until the achievement of full equality. So we could see the necessity in such separatist tactics, their tactical or strategic importance, while situating it as a historical moment toward fulfillment.

 But I want to say that this way of thinking is in keeping with exactly the liberal sensibility that so values progress that it misses the larger historical significance of profound expressions of desire as a potentially positive symptom of the collapse of the public and private spheres.

 The personal has always been political, insofar as the political is motivated by certain visions of the good life. That vision derives not only from a valuation of healthy political debate and public participation, but, ideally, from the desired ends that motivate such debate. But it is precisely those ends that we see coming into question in our so called post-modern age. This may be the root of our pluralistic, interest group based politics that led Theodore Lowi, in 1969 to pronounce The End of Liberalism. But desire, I think, should not be conflated with self-interest.

In 1964, Norman O’ Brown emphasized the importance of desire in his psychoanalytic revision, Life Against Death. Brown argued that the initial separation from the mother in which individualization and identification with the same sex parent was the cause of great anxiety, stemmed primarily from a fear of death. This was what led to the establishing of heterosexual relationships as a culturally sanctioned way of keeping the desires of polymorphous perversity at bay as a denial of finitude. But, as Brown argued, it was exactly desire, as the fundamental embrace of life, that mitigated these anxieties, and so pointed not to the cultural contingency of heterosexuality, but in fact the profound fear of death that attended the institution, manifesting itself as a neurotic emphasis on autonomy. Desire is an embrace of life, a way of reconciling oneself to death, and calling into focus the fact of death underlying our cultural practices, while bringing to light the arbitrarily rigid distinctions in sexual identity and steadfast autonomy.

The embrace of personal desire in a public forum may be, for some, an encroachment on privacy. And this is point is certainly understandable. But I want to say that the reactions to such embraces speak to a certain liberal tendency to over-value privacy, as though we seek to keep the fact of our humanity as desiring creatures shrouded in secrecy, as though we’re ashamed of the Dionysian rites we’ve abdicated in order to put emotion, at a remove. For Nietzsche, these orgiastic rites were thought to invoke the Gods, but as we lost connection with the perceived reality of such invocation, tragedy was born, and our rites became only symbols, representations at a remove from our emotions in a way that separates our words and works of art, our desires, from our human concerns, our human tendencies toward desire. And as the values of bourgeois morality place a premium on privacy and an “equality” that comes at the price of the soul, these invocations of desire are perceived as not only misguided, but shameful.

So can we think about desire in another way, as not simply the narcissistic embrace of one’s own sexuality as so many assumed of the Gay Liberation movement, but as an embrace of life against death, a profound public recognition of love and emotion more generally against the stultifying constraints of liberalism? Can we think about the Gay Liberation movement as a public expression of the limitations on emotion and feeling that our Lockean liberalism and Calvinist work ethic, which dictate the good life in terms only of bourgeois middle class life, impose? As a political expression of the personal, can we think of our contemporary Gay Pride parades as celebrations of desire so lacking in public life?


Immediately after awaking from my dream, I thought of the seriously Freudian implications it held. But as I thought more, I found that the ostensible incest message contained in my probably meaningless dream was overshadowed by the importance of its fantasy, strange and bizarre and uncomfortable as fantasy sometimes is, as the placid dirge of “W’s” melody, birthed in desire, put a smile on my face and a faith in the day to come.

-Erik Hmiel