The Glasgow Review Issue 2

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Writing About Desire

Catherine Belsey


I am writing a book about desire.

I can't now remember why I ever wanted to write about anything else. Writing about desire is at once the ultimate challenge and a supreme self-indulgence, an attempt to find ways of analysing and representing (re-presenting) what must surely be the commonest and yet the most personal, the most ordinary and at the same time the most singular condition. At once shared with a whole culture, but intimate and individual; banal and yet unique: if these are not exactly paradoxes of desire, they are perhaps indeterminacies, instances of the difficulty of fixing, delimiting, delineating a state of mind which is also a state of body, or which perhaps deconstructs the opposition between the two, throwing into relief in the process the inadequacy of a Western tradition that divides human beings along an axis crossed daily by this most familiar of emotions.

Writing about desire. It's not as if it hadn't been done before - by poets, dramatists, novelists, sexologists, moralists, psychoanalysts, sociobiologists. But something seems to remain unsaid. And it is this above all that motivates yet more writing. Desire eludes final definition, with the result that its character, its nature, its meaning, becomes itself an object of desire for the writer. And not only, I suspect, for the writer. People like to talk about desire. `Let me tell you', they say - and they do. Rehearsing stories, exchanging views, gives people a buzz. As a result, it's the perfect research topic: you can work on it anywhere, and enhance your social life at the same time. Desire breaks down the boundary between work and pleasure. I want to know about desire; I want to pry into its secrets and have access to its holy places; and I want these things with a special kind of intensity which I believe bears witness to the peculiar privilege our culture accords to desire.

I don't usually write in this confessional mode: we British commonly feel that a certain reticence is only proper; some things are better kept to ourselves. But writing about desire so raises all the problems which currently confront literary criticism, gender studies and cultural theory, raises them in so acute a form, that it seems worth trying to analyse the process itself, to formulate the questions that I have encountered, some of them still unresolved, in the hope of generating discussion and perhaps eliciting solutions.


There is, of course, in addition to the personal pleasure, a politics of writing about desire. First, a sexual politics - by which I mean not so much a politics of gender this time, as a politics of sexuality. Western culture's current understanding of desire is the location of norms, proprieties and taxonomies which constitute a form of constraint. God's Enlightenment surrogate, Nature, polices modern Western sexuality to deeply coercive effect. Most obviously, Nature forbids transgressive sexual practices, though the result of this, as Michel Foucault has so persuasively argued in The History of Sexuality Volume One, is not the elimination but on the contrary the construction of perversion, as Nature's differentiating, demonised other. The `unnatural' defines by its difference what is acceptable, and in the process either brings into line or outlaws sexual subjects.

Transgression, and gay and lesbian sexuality in particular, is at last beginning to elicit the political attention it deserves. But there is another sexual constraint, more insidious, less commonly detected, but possibly no less coercive in its consequences. The sexual relation, Enlightened common sense insists, in its acceptable, heterosexual mode, is natural, healthy, wholesome and organic. Sex, so the story goes, is ultimately reproductive and therefore useful: it has survival value for the species. According to this teleological, functionalist account of sexuality, if we get our sexual relations wrong, if they don't work out for us, that is in one way or another the result of a failure of adjustment. We know, of course, that it's difficult, that there is a sexual problem. Sex education in schools is becoming elaborate and complex, often involving role-play so that children can enact the problems in a safe context: a monologue on the life and times of the rabbit is no longer thought to be enough. But the explanation of any given problem is always specific to the situation. Does Othello strangle his wife in their wedding sheets? It must be, according to current Shakespeare criticism, because he's an outsider, and thus a prey to all kinds of anxieties, especially sexual anxieties. Do the hard, phallic heroes of popular romances resist true love and the eternity of domestic happiness that it entails? It must be because they are damaged, often deprived of real affection, and in need of the repair that can be brought about only by the love of a good woman. Scarlett O'Hara can't get it together with Ashley Wilkes? An incompatibility of minds and bodies. Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler? A failure of communication in a society that keeps women infantile ... One way or another, the problem is commonly seen as either individual or cultural. If sexuality is natural, the failure of the sexual relation, disappointment in love, the implicit argument goes, is our failure, the consequence of an afflicted personality or a repressive culture, or both, and the cure must be a return to nature, which cannot get it wrong, even though, it's worth noting, nature is what has to be taught - in sex education classes and popular handbooks.

But what if sexuality precisely calls into question that opposition between nature and culture? What if there is no human sexual relation outside culture, outside the regime of the signifier? What if we can never be uncontaminated organisms, wholesomely getting out from under the burden of the symbolic order that identifies us precisely as human animals? Desire, I believe, is the location of the contradictory imperative that motivates the signifying body which is a human being in love. Desire is in excess of the organism; conversely, it is what remains unspoken in the utterance. In consequence it has no settled place to be. And moreover, at the level of the unconscious its objects are no more than a succession of substitutes for an imagined originary identity, a half-remembered pleasure in the lost Real, a completeness which is desire's final, unattainable object. Perhaps, therefore, desire itself, the restlessness of it, and not our inadequacy, is the heart of the problem. Perhaps the sexual relation has no more to do with nature than granary bread or herb shampoo. And possibly by naturalising it we construct exclusions and make failures.

Meanwhile, the struggle to measure up, to establish a happy and wholesome sexual relation, to satisfy what might possibly be an insatiable desire, keeps us quite literally off the streets. Modern Western culture privileges private life and personal experience over every other kind of satisfaction. Indeed, since Freud other activities are very often seen as a substitute for sex, a way of making do when the sexual impulse is frustrated or denied. Public affairs, by contrast, rate very low in the scale of values, and political intervention is hardly to be imagined as a source of happiness. Social stability depends in more ways than one on the profoundly anti-social couple, cultivating their relationship, tending it, agonising over its moments of crisis, anxiously watching it grow.

Part of my project in writing about desire is to redress the balance a little. Not to reverse it, not to invert the hierarchy, privileging the public over the private, or the political over the personal. All poststructuralists know that to reverse the values of a binary opposition is to leave the terms of the opposition in place. And `Down with Desire' is not much of a rallying cry. I'm not even sure that I might not defect myself. In drawing attention to the politics of desire, I want to question not merely the privilege we accord the personal, but its autonomy, its isolation from affairs of state. Of course, a moment's reflection makes clear that private experience is not the independent, untroubled realm that pop songs and romances promise, a garden of Eden, just made for two. In practice, partnerships inhabit a world of rents and food prices and bus fares, though they transcend them too. But true love, the heart of a heartless world, is often the reason why the world stays heartless, and prices go on going up. More effectively even than Christianity in the nineteenth century, True Love in the twentieth acts as the solvent of class struggle.

Meanwhile, Family Values, cemented by True Love, legitimise oppressive state policies and inadequate social expenditure. All those who repudiate, lose, or simply never track down the ideal happiness that nature is supposed to have intended for them are seen by the right as deviant and culpable, betraying society by rejecting the promise it holds out of nuclear cosiness for life. Single parents are held to be irresponsible and penalised accordingly; working mothers are blamed for neglecting their children and fostering crime; and in both cases the provision of adequate child-care facilities would solve most of the problems and generate a good deal of employment in the process.

At the same time, desire is also the location of resistances to the norms, proprieties and taxonomies of the cultural order. I've mentioned transgressive sexualities in this context and the work that's going on in that field. I don't especially want to make that a central issue in the book I am writing, though I shall have some things to say about it. But I'm not so much concerned at this stage with sexually defined identities, or with specific objects of desire. Desire, I'm convinced, can go anywhere, and I would support all efforts to legitimate sexual dissidence. But I'm also interested in the common ground. In her novel Written on the Body Jeanette Winterson tells a love story without revealing the gender of the narrator. The object of the narrator's desire is a woman, but there have been others, some of them men. Winterson's story is compelling, passionate, lyrical. What matter, it seems to say, who is speaking, when desire is always derivative, conventional, already written. Of course love is also intensely individual, so that what is written is repeated with a difference, including the difference of sexual preference. But what I want to emphasise is the way that desire in all its forms, including heterosexual desire, commonly repudiates legality; at the level of the unconscious its imperatives are absolute; and in consequence it readily overflows, in a whole range of ways, the institutions designed to contain it. Desire thus demonstrates the inability of the symbolic order to fulfil its own ordering project, and reveals the difficulty with which societies control the energies desire liberates.

Moreover, desire imagines a utopian world, envisaging a transform-ation and transfiguration of the quotidian which throws into relief the drabness we too easily take for granted. Madame Bovary's degraded romanticism, no less a product of the culture she inhabits, as Flaubert's novel makes clear, nevertheless has the effect of focusing attention on the triviality and the complacency of bourgeois provincial life. Desire, even when it's profoundly conventional, is at the same time the location of a resistance to convention. It demonstrates that people want something more.

But I have another project, too, in writing about desire, and this is one which has been a preoccupation of all my recent work. Just as desire has claimed a grounding in nature, so it has also affirmed its universality. This most intimate of conditions is commonly held to transcend cultural boundaries and historical difference, to be shared across time and space. However much sexual practices and preferences are known to differ culturally, the desire that motivates them is tacitly understood to be the same at all times and in all places. It is for this reason that I want to write about desire and not sexuality. And it begins to seem to me that there are historical distinctions to be made. The problem is difficult. In order for there to be difference, there has to be continuity, to the extent that it's necessary to be able to use the term desire at all for what happened in Greece or Rome or Early Modern Europe. But there are also, I think, discontinuities, which indicate that human experience is neither eternal nor immutable. Things change.

One of my favourite Silhouette romances defines the protagonist's erotic dilemma in these terms: `Her body wanted what he was doing. There was no question about that. But, a warning voice from within her scolded, did she?'[1] That question, however naively formulated, is surely intelligible to most twentieth-century Western readers. I am not convinced that it would have been intelligible to Ovid or to the anony-mous author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, though they would both have ackowledged that desire might conflict with morality. I'm not even sure that the distinction the modern narrative makes between the body and identity (`Her body wanted what he was doing ... But ...did she?') would have been intelligible to Plato, though he certainly perceived the possibility of a conflict in the soul between temperance and excess.[2] Cartesian dualism, locating identity in consciousness, reconstructs not just our theory but our experience of desire.

Things change. The political implications of that analysis are considerable. We are not at the end of history. On the contrary, history goes on, at least if the world survives our present drive to self-destruction, and human experience will not always be as it is now. Things will change again, and we can choose to intervene or not, to determine the direction of change or to leave it to chance, which is to say to the cultural logic of late capitalism. I see desire as a test case for the possibility of change in an area which seems most personal, most private, most independent of history.


Another way of putting all this is to say that I want to interrogate the metaphysics of desire, to call into question the widespread notion that desire, however differently conceptualised by fiction, sexology or psychoanalysis, remains a fundamental and constitutive category of human experience, beyond the signifier, and the common assumption that desire, because it is simply given, needs no analysis. It's curious how little attention literary critcism has paid to the desire which features so commonly in the texts it analyses. Conventionally Shakespeare's comedies, for instance, are dissected in quest of their moral message, not their accounts of desire. In the eighties a whole school of American criticism insisted that love in Elizabethan poetry is not love but politics in disguise.[3] The desire in these texts somehow goes without saying.

This metaphysical desire has no history. I want to furnish desire with a history, which is not, I hope, another grand narrative, but a story of difference, of change. Jean-François Lyotard has taught us to distrust the seamless metanarratives of development which legitimate oppressive regimes, whether based on consent or terror. My aim is more modest: to trace the constraints and resistances of desire in their historical discontinuity. I also want to look into the future - not with a programme (heaven forbid!), but with a view to giving an account of the ways in which people have imagined the alternative modes of desire, particularly in utopian writing. And if all this seems ethnocentric, as it is, I want to draw attention to the dangers of imperialism inscribed in anthropology. Just as feminists want men to take us seriously, but not to speak on our behalf, so it is not for me to speak for other existing cultures, whether Third-world or African-American. My job here, I believe, is to listen.

So much for the motives and the project. The problems arise as soon as I think about how to put the plan into operation. What are the materials of this study? Experience? (Perish the thought!) Texts, then. But which texts? Second, what is to be my theoretical framework? Does the kind of scepticism I have gestured towards allow me authority figures (Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, for choice), or am I obliged to treat their work as texts too? And, last but not least, how is desire to be represented? How can I write about desire? What kind of writing would do it justice?

First, the materials. I don't believe we have access to other people's experience. I'm not even sure we have access to our own. But more important, experience, like sexuality, does not seem to me to exist in the raw, in its natural state, outside the order of language and culture. Experience is lived as differential, and difference is the mark of the signifier. Experience inhabits the symbolic order, whether in a state of submission or resistance to it. That it also exceeds the symbolic does not justify a metaphysics of experience, investing experience with a presence anterior to signification. On the contrary, experience simply participates in the differance, the distancing and the displacement, which is the condition of all signifying practice. Its presence, similarly, is an illusion.

To deal in texts, then, is to come clean about differance. It is to surrender the authority of experience (which is, after all, not open in the end to discussion), and to stage the debate in the arena of textuality, which is available to anyone. But which texts? Freud, of course, and sexology, naturally, though I find I keep on deferring that one. But also fiction. (I use the term in its broadest sense, to include poetry, drama and opera, as well as film ...) But especially popular fiction. It is surely ironic that the most detailed investigation of the privileged category of desire should take place in the least privileged modes of writing, the texts produced by the entertainment industry.

Or perhaps not. In the middle ages love tends to be relegated to fiction because fiction is appropriately trivial. The Church concerned itself with lechery, but love is mainly a matter for vernacular romances and lyric poetry. When in the Enlightenment period reason and science supplant theology, serious writing requires plain prose to transmit clear, sharply defined analysis of the concepts which are held to constitute knowledge. Meanwhile, all that is excluded by these values, the irrational, arbitrary, inexplicable residue which exceeds or defies the category of the knowable, becomes the theme of fiction (in my broad sense), which is entitled to be figurative, paradoxical and elusive.

Desire is thus not repressed. On the contrary, as Foucault has argued, it is extensively represented and explored, but the exploration takes place behind the back of the Enlightenment, so to speak, not in secret, but in a region which can remain unacknowledged in the hard, rational, analytical world whose hero is `man'. This region is private, marginal and in a sense feminine. Women were the first writers and readers of the novel in the eighteenth century; women were permitted to be experts on desire.

But in a patriarchal culture men rapidly appropriate whatever women invent. No sooner had Richardson, Fielding and Sterne commandeered the novel, than at the end of the eighteenth century Romanticism began to idealise fiction as `art'. `Literature' rapidly comes into being, along with Grand Opera and Family Values, with the result that love becomes a serious matter. By the end of the century Freud on the one hand and the sexologists on the other were ready to subject desire to scrutiny as a worthy object of scientific knowledge. The position had apparently been reversed.

And yet in the process of scientific analysis something slipped away. What is arbitrary, paradoxical and elusive, subjected to explanation and measurement, becomes drab and clinical. (British television recently went through a phase of broadcasting serious discussions late at night, in which groups of young people with newly washed hair reveal their sexual preferences and practices in properly scientific vocabulary. It's a real turn-off.) Fiction, meanwhile, entitled to be figurative, evasive, contradictory, sustained the mystery. To my mind, fiction remains the supreme location of writing about desire.

Fiction, then, constitutes the primary material for analyis. But which fiction? In view of the suspicion which now quite rightly attaches to the literary canon, its narrowness, its exclusions, I began, resolutely, with popular romance. It's easy to read; it's eminently familiar, even if you've never read one before; and it throws into relief all the problems of desire that Cartesian dualism both poses and offers to solve: mind and body apparently reconciled, in practice driven further apart in the cataclysmic rapture of True Love. I engaged in depth with Gone With the Wind, probably the best-selling love story of all time, and I found it more revealing for my purposes than most of the canonical literary texts of the twentieth century, with the possible exception of Toni Morrison, whose brilliant and initially non-canonical fiction has recently been snapped up for the syllabus, and is even now being chewed over and digested in progressive literature departments all over the English-speaking world. I know: I've done it. (I fear that a similar fate awaits Jeanette Winterson in due course. I'm not convinced that expanding the canon without changing the practice of reading is necessarily a radical move.) I could have worked on popular music, but it's very expensive to quote the lyrics, and we authors eventually develop a strong practical streak.

I have learnt a great deal from popular romance, but one striking feature of many of the Mills and Boon romances I have read is the frequency with which they feature governesses or nannies far from home, who fall in love with their dark, Byronic, brooding employers. Indeed, dark Byronic heroes with a secret are extraordinarily common in romantic fiction, as are heroines who do not consider themselves beautiful and who have to make a living. We've been here before - in Jane Eyre, for instance. The canonical nineteenth-century novel returns to haunt twentieth-century popular fiction in ways which suggest that cultural studies cannot get out from under English Literature with quite the abandon that we once hoped. Harriett Hawkins has written a witty book about the imbrication of Literature and popular culture. In Classics and Trash she draws attention to the relationships between Phantom of the Opera and The Bostonians, Robin Hood and Shakespeare's Henry V, Gone With the Wind and Daniel Deronda. Sam Spade quotes Prospero to haunting effect at the end of The Maltese Falcon. The inference Hawkins draws is not exactly that popular culture is parasitic on the canon, but that culture in general is not so easily divided between classics on the one hand and trash on the other.[4] It is possible that at this historical moment we cannot choose to discard the canon. While the right foresees the fall of Western civilization with the decline of the old ethnocentric Great Books courses, and the ultra-left imagines a synchronic world of wall-to-wall cultural studies, perhaps we need to perceive culture itself as more complex, more densely determined than either of these opposed positions allows.

When it comes to the past, to an engagement with historical difference, my anti-canonical impulses are still more severely tested. Take the Renaissance, for example. The very few women whose writing survives from the period, with the exception of Lady Mary Wroth, had relatively little to say about desire: their main concerns were understandably elsewhere. But I have to read the Reformers' rhapsodic accounts of the married state; I need to assess the medical position, as relayed in works like Erotomania, Edmund Chilmead's translation of Jacques Ferrand's treatise on lovesickness. I ought to pay attention to R.B.'s play about Judge Apius, whose anarchic desire for Virginia impels him to break the law he represents and rape her. Apius and Virginia was probably printed in 1567, and has been resolutely ignored by most literary criticism ever since. I should certainly read the non-canonical works of Middleton. But I also need to look (don't I?) at Astrophil's textual struggles to reassert control over his own life in the face of desire for Stella, and at John Donne's passionate and at the same time ironic attempts in lyric poetry to reconcile soul and body, sex and the desire which so far exceeds it. And what about Shakespeare? Renaissance desire without Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Antony and Cleopatra? That looks to me like taking self-denial too far. It is we who have canonised Shakespeare: his plays were precisely the popular culture of their own day, reviled by moralists as likely to deprave and corrupt, while the educational syllabus was all in Latin. We may have our reservations about the Shakespeare industry in its present manifestation, but refusing to read Shakespeare in consequence simply cuts us off from one of the most important locations of the meanings in circulation in the period.

The question what we should read seems to me now relatively easily answered: everything. What matters, I increasingly believe, is that we read it otherwise: not, that is to say, looking for the organic unity of the work; not looking for the author behind the text; and not, above all, in order to evaluate, to assess merit on a scale from one to ten, to allocate a judgment that issues in little more than self-congratulation at our own discernment. I think we could afford to read better than we have. The reaction against New Criticism led to a certain contempt for close analysis of the text, and some forms of radical criticism have earned themselves a bad name by their lack of attention to textual detail. But this tendency is not legitimated by poststructuralist theory or practice. Roland Barthes in S/Z dissects Balzac's short story more minutely than any New Critic had time for. Derrida pores over the textual details, often apparently marginal, of Saussure, Rousseau and others. And Foucault reads trial records, and prisons themselves, as if they were poetry.

The implication is that if we are to learn from them, we should treat texts - all texts - with almost infinite respect. This might sound surprising, since much recent interpretative practice precisely unpicks the seams of the text, dwells on the uncertainties, seeks out the instabilities of meaning. But I think the kind of traditional criticism, which claimed to show a proper deference to the text, in practice often treated it with inadvertent contempt. It is not in the end respectful to regard the text as the implementation of a prior, unifying thematic agenda; it is not respectful to see the text as the slave of an organising authorial intention; and it is certainly not respectful to allocate it a grade which implies in almost all cases that it could have been better than it is.

A text might be seen as a delicate ensemble of signifying practices which bears witness to the indeterminacy, the polyphony, the heterogeneity of meaning at a specific historical moment. That heterogeneity is the evidence that the signified is always unstable, subject to change. It demonstrates that the meaning of woman, or servant, say, meanings lived out by people's bodies, in people's experience, is not fixed by nature, or even by culture, but is always a potential site of struggle, which is a struggle simultaneously for meanings and bodies and experience. Resistance is both a political act and a textual characteristic. The difficulty with which the text makes its meanings stick puts on display the pressure points for change; the precariousness of its propositions makes imaginable the possibility of alternatives. But this kind of reading is hard work: you have to concentrate; the text plays tricks, and you can't afford to miss one.

Although I develop increasing reservations about traditional criticism, I find I have increasing respect for traditional scholarship, not necessarily for its conclusions, but for its knowledges. We need to know as much as we possibly can, about the history of the texts we read, and about the institutions in which they circulated, were performed or marketed. A certain amount of what passes for radical work now seems to me a bit thin on information, and this can lead to elementary misreadings. I have resolved to make every effort to know more and read better.


So much for the material. What about the theory? I believe that there is no practice without theory, whether the theory is explicit or not. It follows that the theory had better be explicit if we are to have the least idea what we're doing. The problem, however, as I see it, is that there's no absolute reason to opt for one theory rather than another. If truth is no longer an available option, since there can be no extra-linguistic verification procedure, since, in other words, we can only know in language, which is culturally relative, there are no guarantees of the accuracy, or even the sophistication of one theory as opposed to another. The choice, since we do choose our theoretical frameworks, owes somethingto an element as unreliable as personal taste, of course. I find sociobiology, for example, deeply distasteful, crude, as well politically reactionary. And politics, come to that, is important too: I am drawn to theories that permit the kind of analysis that seems to me politically productive.

But there is, I think, both more and less than personal preference at stake. Can we, for example, talk seriously about desire without taking account of psychoanalysis? It might not be much, but it's probably the only theory we have that focuses on desire without ignoring the signifier. It's not necessary to adopt it uncritically. Freud, for instance, wonderfully isolated the ungendered, polymorphously perverse, infinitely desiring infant that inhabits the unconscious and refuses to grow up, but he carries too much nineteenth-century baggage for us simply to take over some of his `scientific' categories, not to mention his antifeminism. There is, moreover, a crude, reductive, post-Freudian Freud, who reproduces the conventional duality of nature and culture, and conceives of sexuality as a powerful natural impulse which civilization consistently inhibits. But there is also to be found in Freud's texts an understanding of desire as always caught up with prohibition and loss, and the resolution of the Oedipus complex as the reluctant renunciation of a forbidden love which is never entirely complete. Meanwhile, Jacques Lacan remakes this version of psychoanalysis for a world of sliding signifiers and subjects constructed outside themselves, in the Other, the locus of the deployment of speech. Lacan's work, in turn, is deeply phallocentric, but it is also, and elsewhere, subtle and seductive in its elegiac lyricism. Try this from `The Direction of the Treatment and the Principles of its Power':

Desire is produced in the beyond of the demand, in that, in articulating the life of the subject according to its conditions, demand cuts off the need from that life. But desire is also hollowed within the demand, in that, as an unconditional demand of presence and absence, demand evokes the want-to-be under the three figures of the nothing that constitutes the basis of the demand for love, of the hate that even denies the other's being, and of the unspeakable element in that which is ignored in its request. In this embodied aporia, of which one might say that it borrows, as it were, its heavy soul from the hardy shoots of the wounded drive, and its subtle body from the death actualized in the signifying sequence, desire is affirmed as the absolute condition.

Even less than the nothing that passes into the round of significations that act upon men, desire is the furrow inscribed in the course; it is, as it were, the mark of the iron of the signifier on the shoulder of the speaking subject.[5]

I can't surpass that. But I can put it to work - to identify in texts by authors who had never dreamt of Lacan, absence as desire's recurring figure, as it is in Renaissance lyric poetry, or the trace of antipathy which resides in desire in Othello and Antony and Cleopatra, not to mention Casablanca. But if Lacan explains, he does not explain away: in the light of his work desire remains elusive and contradictory. His prose, difficult and tantalising and infuriating, re-enacts the modes of speech of unconscious desire itself in its figurative plurality.[6] The project is not so much to systematise as to specify, and to specify as problematic.

And that, perhaps, is the attraction of poststructuralist theory at this historical moment. It problematises. Far from providing a theoretical grid that can be brought to bear mechanically on any text, poststructuralism makes difficulties, and so calls into question the clichés and complacencies that I grew up with, the taxonomies I have referred to, which neatly polarised love and hate, wanting and possessing. Derrida's account of language, by analogy, does not dismiss metaphysics, still less reason and truth, but his work makes it impossible to invoke them as guarantees that the familiar answers to our questions are final.

It was (is) perhaps imperative that we should doubt the certainties of the past, both within the institution of English and in the wider world. The theories I invoke will be supplanted in due course. In the mean time they make it possible to reopen issues that seemed closed, and to reread texts that seemed transparent. The authority I claim for them tentatively, hesitantly, is in the end no more than that. And if Lacan and Derrida seem to me to be right, to tell it like it is, that proves nothing, except that I'm an effect of a specific cultural and historical moment.


Finally, and this is the really hard one, how is it possible to write about desire? Not (and this is not open to negotiation), not in the coy, quasi-objective and actually coercive formulae of professionalised literary criticism: `As we have seen ...', `As we shall see ...' What is this imagined `we' whose consensus is so effortlessly assumed? And not with the affected authority of subjectless `scientific' neutrality: `impartially' described from a distance, desire retains all of its absurdity and none of its charm. Should I, then, by contrast, simply allow desire to speak for itself? Here it is in Barbara Cartland's version:

As he drew near to her he knew that she quivered and he was almost sure it was not with fear.

He stood for a moment in silence before he said:

`When I received your letter on Sunday morning and thought I would never find you again, I went to the Library and took down the book of poems we had been reading. I opened it at random, Indira, and read a poem which seemed to me to be the answer to what I was feeling.'

He paused and as if Indira knew she had to make some response to what he had said she raised her eyes slowly and, he thought, a little shyly, and then found it impossible to look away.

Softly the Marquis said:

'Kuan Kuan cry the ospreys
On the islet in the river.
Lovely is the good lady,
Fit bride for our lord.'

Indira did not move as he finished speaking but only waited, and he saw a sudden light come into her strange eyes.

Then as the colour rose in her cheeks like the breaking of the dawn she made a little incoherent sound and moved towards him ...

... For a moment she was very still. Then almost like the rhythmic movement of the sea or the sound of music, she lifted her face to his and he found her lips ...

... Only when she felt as if the Marquis had swept her up and they were riding among the stars did he raise his head and ask in a strangely unsteady voice:

`What do you feel about me now?'[7]

Apart from the gender politics of this unexceptional passage, which are appalling, what is striking here is that desire hardly speaks at all. The narrative voice draws on the common repertoire of nineteenth- and twentieth-century metaphors for desire: the sea, music, riding among the stars. Desire, we are to understand, is boundless, natural, profound, transfiguring. And like each of the analogies the text invokes, it is wordless. Meanwhile, Indira quivers and makes incoherent sounds; and the Marquis quotes an ancient Chinese poem in his grandfather's translation. Here the regress is almost infinite: as the metaphors themselves also indicate, in order to speak, to ground itself at the level of the signifier, love can only quote, and preferably from a text which is virtually without origin and thus transparent. Desire alludes to texts - but in order to efface its own citationality. It thus draws attention to its elusiveness, its excess over the signifier. Desire is what is not said, what is `hollowed within the demand', as Lacan puts it. The Marquis's desire is not in the words of the poem he quotes, though in this passage it is nowhere else. The poem is an oblique proposal of marriage, which means love. Desire is thus understood by the reader, recognised as the meaning of a textual gesture which is almost emblematic.

I want to write in a way that inhabits the terrain of desire without simply reproducing its self-effacing and ultimately evasive citationality. Roland Barthes achieves something like this in his brilliantly witty and at the same time melancholy exposure of desire's theatricality in the succession of monologues which constitutes A Lover's Discourse: Fragments. Barthes here magnificently puts on display desire's anxieties, its torments and tantrums, drawing attention in the process to its citationality by listing his sources in the margin. And he does all this not by description but by simulation, by writing in the first person.[8] The I of these utterances is an astute observer of the lover who is held in place within them, so that we perceive desire simultaneously from the inside and the outside. The book is a tour de force, but it's not a model for the book I want to write to the degree that it is explicitly fragmentary and synchronic. I want to tell a story, even if it's important that it's not the Whole Story.

Foucault tells a story in The History of Sexuality, but as the volumes go on it becomes clear that the project is increasingly to treat sexuality as a discipline which constitutes a location for the recruitment of subjects, and not specifically sexual subjects. Substantial and important as it is, The History of Sexuality is not really about desire.

Derrida's The Post Card is, and the clandestine love letters that fill the first 250 pages of that text are thrilling and disturbing and electrifying. They tantalise the reader with their mixture of `factual' references and withheld identities; they tease by doing philosophy in this sexy setting; and they thus elude all the oppositional categories that the Enlightenment so rejoices in: fiction and non-fiction; reason and passion; poetry and prose. If I were left with only one book in the world, I hope it would be The Post Card. But here desire is taken to be the paradigm case of all signifying practice, and the ultimate instance of differance.[9] Though that's what I believe too, it's not the main thing I want to say.

Kristeva's Tales of Love probably comes nearest to what I want to do, and I draw on that text a great deal. But the book is ultimately about the psychoanalytic project itself, about the transference as a cure for love's discontents and, though history is crucial to its argument, Tales of Love is perhaps less committed than I am to tracing a succession of historical differences.[10]

There are no models, then. But one feature all these texts have in common, including Lacan's, including Barbara Cartland's, is that by citing, by evading, by teasing, they elicit the desire of the reader, thus demonstrating the degree to which desire is an effect of the signifier. Psychoanalysis proposes that fiction (in my broad sense) is a kind of adventure playground, where grown-ups can imagine that they recover the lost wholeness of childhood, secure from civilization and its discontents.[11] Here conscious and unconscious processes are no longer in conflict, and Kristeva's semiotic sounds and rhythms invest fantasy with pleasure.[12] At the same time, the location of fiction in the symbolic reintroduces absence and death, and by differentiating the fictional, keeps desire in view. I should like to produce a text that would do that too: would keep desire in view for the reader, not just as an object of knowledge (though it is that) but as a lived condition, so that it's possible to see not only what but also how much is at stake in the metaphysics of desire.


And writing itself, the process, the production of a script? It is a romance, of course, `an explosion of dreams and desires',[13] by turns painful and euphoric, but compulsive and utopian either way. Like romance, writing is narcissistic to a degree, at its most elementary level a quest for recognition, the place where the subject appears. But it is also an attempt to reach the beyond of the demand, to transgress the ordering processes of the symbolic or to suspend its prohibitions. And in this sense writing is where, paradoxically, the subject disappears, undergoes the death, precisely, of the author. Nowhere is it more apparent that subjectivity inhabits the field of the Other than in the effort to write something difficult, to formulate an idea which remains either stubbornly elusive or drearily banal. Moreover, to the degree that to write is to exceed, however momentarily, the space allotted to the subject in the signifying chain, to break the symbolic Law, it is also to know for sure, at least from time to time, that the cogito is neither in control nor an origin. In that respect, you might choose to say, why it's almost like being in love ...


[1] Clare Richards, Renaissance Summer, (New York: Silhouette Books, 1985) p. 36.

[2] Plato, The Phaedrus, (237-7; 245-6) pp.253-6.

[3] Arthur Marotti, '"Love is not Love": Elizabethan Sonnet Sequences and the Social Order', (ELH 49, 1982) pp. 396-428.

[4] Harriett Hawkins, Classics and Trash: Traditions and Taboos in High Literature and Popular Modern Genres, (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990)

[5] Jacques Lacan, Ecrits, trans. Alan Sheridan, (London: Tavistock, 1977) p. 265.

[6] Malcolm Bowie, Freud, Proust and Lacan: Theory as Fiction, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987) pp. 105-6.

[7] Barbara Cartland, Riding to the Moon, (London: Arrow Books, 1983) pp. 163-4.

[8] Roland Barthes, A Lover's Discourse: Fragments, trans. Richard Howard, (London: Cape, 1979) p. 3.

[9] Jacques Derrida, The Post Card From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, trans. Alan Bass, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987)

[10] Julia Kristeva, Tales of Love, trans. Leon S. Roudiez, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987)

[11] Sarah Kofman, Freud and Fiction, trans. Sarah Wykes, (Oxford: Polity Press, 1991) p. 6.

[12] Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. Margaret Waller, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984)

[13] Jeanette Winterson, The Passion, (London: Penguin, 1988) p. 13.