Lesson 4. The obscure Object of Desire
We live in the endless projection of our desires. We are aware of our desires, but only in the sense that we have set out to satisfy them. We experience their pull and the unrest they create; we dwell in the instability desire generates, we are carried hither and thither by our desires and it is once again gnawing desire that is troubling our thoughts. We suffer from frustration and, forever malcontent with what the present has to offer, wish for a place where our all desires would be fulfilled.
Yet has being cast in the midst of our desires ever taught us what exactly it is we are desiring? For example, the teenager craving for a motorbike, does he really know why he wants it? Is it absolutely certain that it is the motorbike he wants and not something to give him pride, make him feel more confident in front of his pals, give him a feeling of strength and even virility? If this is so, then it means that what he desires is in fact one thing for another without knowing exactly where his desire is taking him.
The difficulty is therefore first of all to identify the true object of desire. Are we aware of the object of our desires? What exactly are we looking for through our desires?
A. Need as a pretext
A trivial reply often given to this question is that one desires what one needs, that’s all! To say that one’s need is the object of one’s desire is effectively quite convenient an answer, but does it really hit the mark?
1) The term need refers primarily to the state of a living creature with respect to what is necessary for its conservation. Animals have needs, just like man. The need to sleep, the need to eat, the need to drink, the need to breathe, are all needs in the strict sense of the word. A need makes itself known through specific sensations. For the needs just mentioned these are sleepiness, hunger, thirst, choking. The need reappears in a cyclic or periodical way, according to the biological clock of the organism. When a need occurs this calls for an appropriate response which an animal will immediately tend to. On the contrary man, although he receives the anticipatory signals of a need, is perfectly capable of by-passing or neglecting them. We do not listen to our needs and have a very poor knowledge of them. An animal does not deviate from its needs. When a dog feels ill it fasts spontaneously, while man sometimes does the opposite of what his instincts would order him were he to listen to them. Man has his freedom of choice, his free will, he is not the slave of his needs, he can control them, refuse them or accept them. Needs therefore characterise the vital consciousness, it is by definition organic or biological. However, since we are essentially a mental consciousness, it is easy for us to stand up to vital consciousness. All the same we remain embodied beings and we cannot indefinitely ignore the demands of our body. When deprived of sleep, a man dies in a few days: his organism can no longer detoxify through sleep and succumbs to its own poisons. It would seem that depriving a man of the possibility of dreaming is conducive to madness, a kind of mental intoxication. When deprived of waking, man gets apathetic. We must ensure that hunger and thirst are satisfied lest we shall fall ill, then die. What is at stake in the satisfaction of a need is the integrity of the living organism, the integrity of biological life. Any obstacle to the needs of an individual results in the sensation of pain. The sensations are signals sent by the body that its integrity is being jeopardised and that this situation must be remedied if it is to recover it. When disorder is installed in the organism, this is experienced as pain.
This link to bodily integrity shows us that needs are inseparable from the natural tendency to self-preservation that govern all living creatures. Biological life wants its own growth and conservation, and it does this through constantly maintaining its own structure. However maintaining the structure of the living organism requires a uninterrupted interaction with its environment and a bodily regulation that manifest as multiple needs.
Hence, by extension, we could call physiological those needs that must be satisfied for the preservation of the human being. In this respect it is undeniable that man needs: some clothing, a roof over his head, medical assistance when ill, a proper education, some care, culture etc… That is, there are needs which appear necessary to life and without which it is difficult to imagine an adequate human life. The competence of the physician is to appreciate the extent of biological needs. It is the task of politics and economics to ensure that the satisfaction of needs be equitably distributed throughout society, because a society is founded on the exchange of goods and it is this exchange of goods which enables everybody’s need to be satisfied.
Nevertheless this use of the term need has the inconvenience having too large an extension. It ends up denoting more or less anything. It is all too easy to posit a number of needs and then proclaim them “necessary”. Why not speak of a “vital need” for the cellular phone, the television, the hifi, the computer or the microwave oven? One may indeed raise the question if we do not mistake for needs what is more likely to pertain to the order of desire. Ought we to fight for everybody’s right to own this or that technological gadget as if it fulfilled one of life’s primary needs? What is truly essential to life and what isn’t? How can we differentiate need from desire?
One very important point we can examine is that of the passage from need to desire. Need manifests in a periodical way and has the structure of a habit. Our body functions in a repetitive fashion according to rigid daily and seasonal cycles of sleeping and eating. It is possible to take advantage of the body’s malleability to make it acquire new habits, which will then manifest as new needs, as pressing as the biological needs they mimic. This is exactly what happens in addiction. The inveterate smoker does not only feel the desire to smoke, he has engraved in his body a need to smoke. He has accustomed his body to its dose of nicotine, to its dose of a tranquillizer for its states of anxiety. When he is unable to smoke for two or three hours, abstinence will create a genuine discomfort. This is more than the vague impulse of desire. Habits have left their trace in the body’s memory; the body has gained the habit of reiterated intake of tobacco. This leads inevitably to the smoker becoming desensitized, to the effect that the dose of tobacco must be increased to yield the expected gratification, which in its turn leads to further desensitization and so on. An artificial need is created, which feels exactly like natural ones. The smoker who can’t get his cigarette feels bad indeed, irritable and weakened as by prolonged fasting, as if his hold on life had somehow diminished. This may explain why weaning has to be gradual. The smoker must replace bad habits with good ones, which will still be habits. Likewise, drugs, illegal or not, become a need for those who depend on them.
This is true of all repetitive behaviour, of compulsive behaviour, of all those cravings “one can’t do without” and which all imply some sort of addiction. It goes as much for the shopoholic’s compulsive need to buy as for the urge to go to the movies, to go for a walk etc… All these different types of behaviour indicate repeated habits, which of themselves and because of their own inertia, generate a regular need it becomes necessary to satisfy. Since what is at stake in this process is mind’s own propensity to find satisfaction through repetition, there are no limits to how many needs can be created and these needs can take any form whatsoever: running, writing, painting, doing harm, drinking, sex etc… This, by the way, is what most of us also refer to as our “passions”.
Interestingly however, desire is often thought of as superfluous – here is one example of the contradictions inherent in our ordinary thinking – and as artificial and not natural; in this respect it is opposed to what is thought of as necessary, in other words needed. Now we see that this opposition is wanting. There is a transition from the mental level of desire to the physiological level of need.
How then do you go from need to desire? In Hegel’s idiom, this amounts to distinguishing the natural-self (the self that has natural – physiological – desires) from the human-self. As long as consciousness remains at the level of the basic satisfaction of its tendencies, it is confined within the narcissistic frame of need. It is a prisoner of the body. The only awareness is that of the bodily individuality. Of course has self-awareness, but through the mere negation of its correlative object. I face the object, say an apple, and then I consume it (eat it, id est negate it) and this construes and maintains my vital self. However, as a human being, I am not content with the mere satisfaction of needs. I may well need a place to dwell, but I desire to have a palace rather than a hut. I need to feed myself, but I desire delicious food rather than a simple loaf of bread. Where is the difference? Hegel’s answer is not uninteresting. The self (the I ) does not desire on its own; it desires in relation to another self. Desire signals the entry on stage of one’s awareness of other people and thus of social awareness. The palace is desirable because it feeds my pride, it makes me feel important in the eyes of others. It enables me to be envied. Better, it allows me to be desired myself. The same goes for gourmet food: it receives its meaning from the enthusiasm it creates, from all the nice compliments it gets and from the conviviality of a ceremonial meal. Gourmet food plays the part of the mediator for everybody’s self-assertion. Desire implies an inter-subjective relation of myself to other selves. In one word: there is even in the simplest desire a dimension, proper to the self, which is that of the desire for recognition. What the self is looking for is for another self to notice it. Inherent in desire is a wish that the other self feeds my own. What the self is really looking for through its desire is not so much the object itself as a recognition of its own worth. The self so lacks confidence in its own value that it needs it confirmed by another: it wants others to recognise it at last in some flattering way. When facing others I desire, I am no longer nothing, I become someone, I gain importance as the owner of the palace or as the chef whose cooking is praised. I am no longer just anybody, I strut about on my motorbike and everybody’s eyes are on me. Each of my desires can exhibit my pride, my vanity, and give me a feeling of my own importance and superiority.
This analysis explains why we so value luxury, artful device and ostentation, superfluous though they may be. Recognition uses artful device to achieve its goal. Who cares about the real value of the thing! What the self is trying to do is to appear in as valorising a light as possible. Hence it is lead to desire whatever is “catchy”, that is the representation which confers the greatest value to it. This explains why desire is so far from the ordinary need. We rarely desire what we really need. What we do desire is rather the kind of thing we believe we must have in order to get other people’s esteem. The gadget the child shows off during playtime has very much that purpose! It helps the self to assert itself with respect to others by exhibiting a fetishistic object. The object of desire finds its meaning in the relation to others. It strengthens the ego. Thus, when the self experiences the satisfaction of a desire as a must, it is of course not in the biological sense, but in the purely mental one. I say that I “need” this or that object, yet what matters in fact is not the object but the subject that I am: to feel I have earned greater recognition, to feel “a man” or to feel “more a woman” and so on. This mental dimension of desire is what really distinguishes it from a need.
B. Want as origin.
How shall we then characterise what properly defines the object of desire? All desire stems from a want. On does not desire what one possesses, one only desires that of which one is wanting. There must be a representation of a want for envy to arise, and thereby desire. It must also be the case that the person (or the subject) firmly believes that the object he desires is the incarnation of his expectations. The livelier this belief, the more intense the desire. To understand desire, one must exactly identify the nature of the want that is its origin, because it is this want that confers to desire its value and momentum.
Let’s consider envy. It is a very specific form of awareness which arises when I compare myself with someone else. I see that he has what I do not, some object which in my eyes is a formidable asset to give meaning to one’s existence. He has a splendid car (or job or wife or bank account or body) and I have only my old jalopy, my miserable job, my poverty, my plain looks and so on. In fact what I envy is himself. Whenever he drives by everybody is looking at him, he is admired, he is loved, he has everything I would want to have. So, plagued by low self-esteem, I envy him, I would want all these things that give so much importance, which would make me a god among men. And envy torments me because I cannot get rid of my desire, because my desire has become an obsession. I can feel my want physically like a hole in the stomach. I come to believe that if only my desire were fulfilled all would be given to me and I would at last be happy. Envy is like a twinge in the tummy, the sort of desire which becomes a painful, obsessive awareness of something lacking. When suffering from envy, I am haunted by my desires, obsessed with the idea of the thing I don’t have. Envy invests the whole value of my aspirations in the object. This is what gives me this hallucinating stare of envy I sometimes detect in the looking-glass; this burning stare I fixate on the object of my desire, a fascination such that I no longer see a car, money, a woman etc… but some sort of divinity I kneel to in adoration, in front of whom I drool with envy, whom I could almost pray in silence and who possesses my imagination. This divinity embodies the fulfilment of my most secret desires, it is the end of my discontentment and an opportunity for a future revenge on life and the injustice that has made me feel so limited, so miserable, so alone with my petty life that wants of everything. Thus, in envy, there is an immense need to compensate for a shortfall. What my envy is pursuing is the means to extinguish the fire of dissatisfaction; it is an attempt to bandage the piercing wound of desire. One says of envy that it is eating one away. It acts like an acid distilled in the blood, the acrimonious secret of one’s wants out to scorch the heart and fill it with bitterness.
Yet this is precisely how a want most clearly reveals itself in the process of desiring. Whatever is lacking, even if the shortfall is grounded only in the idea of a deficiency, its effect is felt and expressed in the pit of the stomach as desire invades us. And from the awareness of being wanting we seem to draw an extraordinary energy and a vigorous fighting spirit to fulfil our desires.
Nevertheless, as we have just seen, this mental want can be interpreted in a sense which is more than psychological. Desire has a metaphysical dimension. The different values of desire have been described by Plato in a famous passage from the Symposium. Plato uses myth, that is, a pictorial representation, to evoke the nature of desire.
2) Plato has one of the protagonists of the Symposium tell of the birth of Eros, the symbol of amorous desire, in order to better talk of the origin of desire. He says that Eros was bred under the supervision of Aphrodite during a banquet of the gods. Poros, the father of desire and one of the gods present at the banquet in the honour of Aphrodite, rÊtreats and, drunk on nectar, falls asleep in the grass. A beggar woman, Penia, who stands for poverty and destitution, wants to take advantage of the situation and have a child with him, so she lies down beside him and conceives of Eros.
A myth requires that one attempts to interpret it in order to proceed from its face-value meaning to its latent one. Talking of the birth of desire means trying to clarify its nature. Penia, the mother, symbolises poverty and limitation because the lack of something is inherent in desire. Poros on the contrary symbolises unlimited plenitude, because there is in desire a divine Force which is the energy of radiant life. Desire is ambiguous since it partakes at once in plenitude and deficiency, and this in such a way that they cannot be dissociated. There is in desire both the abundance of life and the want for it. This would seem a contradiction, and it is indeed the very nature of desire to be contradictory. Eros is not a god, he is not Poros. Poros, the god of riches is, like all gods, perfect. Being fullness, he has no cause for desire. If Eros takes after his father it is not because he possesses plenitude, but rather that his is an aspiration to plenitude, he is an impetus towards Plenitude. Desire is by nature idealistic. It wants what is best and most perfect, it tends towards what is best and most perfect. Yet tending towards plenitude is not the same as having Plenitude. This is the big difference between Eros and Poros. Thus Plato warns us that Eros is not as handsome and glorious as one imagines him to be. He is hard, dry and shoeless. He sleeps under the roofs. One day he can be buoyant with life, give strength and spirit to whoever he is possessing; the next he will reveal his destitute side and throw one into despair, aimless wandering and grief. A small and telling detail: Poros did not take the initiative to conceive of Eros. Plenitude is beyond desire. It could not give birth to desire, it is a state of absolute fullness. The initiative was Penia’s . This does not make desire a purely biological instinct, as a materialist would contend. Desire has a spiritual dimension. Desire is an impetus to perfection. Another important point is that desire is the companion of Aphrodite and Aphrodite is beautiful. Even when it takes the roundabout path of theft, deep down it is still seeking Beauty, Plenitude and Good. It is the privilege of humans to be able to desire. The animal, locked into its finitude, with no awareness of this finitude, would not be able to desire. Likewise the gods are locked into their perfection and could not desire because they have already got everything. Only a creature at once mortal, because incarnate, and eternal because of its soul, can desire. Desire brings with it an aspiration, an elevation to Perfection.
3) A second interprÉtation of want is described in another passage of the Symposium, in the myth of the hermaphrodite. One tells us that long ago existed creatures at once male and female, spherically shaped and having four feet, four hands, two heads and so on. These creatures became too mighty. Zeus had to teach them a lesson. He decided to cut them in two through the middle in order to weaken them and Apollo was given the task of sewing their skin up again to make what we know refer to as men and women.
What is the meaning of the hermaphrodite? His form is spherical, which is the form of completeness, he is one and strong. The hermaphrodite represents the plenitude of the Force of a creature enabling it to defy the very gods themselves, symbols of perfection. So much arrogance in an earthly creature irritates Zeus. He decides to deal with their complacency. He cuts them in two halves along the back and asks Apollo to sew up the parts again. The result is what we have now, humans in one piece, standing on two legs. The human condition is no longer the same, man has been punished by being divided, the immediate result of which is to weaken him. This means that once duality is introduced at the level of feeling, everyone lacks his other half and sets out to find it. This inner want can be understood and interpreted in two ways:
a) that of the legend of a kindred soul, which tells us that here on earth everybody has its complementary half with whom he wants to merge to recover his unity. This is the theme of love as a fusion of one creature with the other in his quest for completeness. This is very much the romantic interprÉtation, it is the girl awaiting Prince Charming, her head filled with dreams of love in a rose garden and of perfect understanding between two beings made for one another. Imagination can indulge in the idea of love as a coming together with the loved one to recover an original unity of which one feels the lack in one’s petty, sad and dull-grey existence. However, this desire of a fusion immediately knocks its head on reality: the other person is different than me. There is him (or her) and me. There is a great temptation in amorous passion to attempt to absorb the other person, or in a romantic sacrificial ritual, to try to achieve a fusion which can never take place in this world. When in literature one exacerbates the idea of love as fusion, the novel often culminates in self-destruction. This is the logical outcome: when there is 1 person facing 1 person, this makes always 2 persons, while what lovers are looking for is unity. Fusion is not unity.
b) or – this is the second interprÉtation – duality means something else: it means that the wholeness of the Self has been broken, that the soul has had part of itself cut off, the divine part. This sheds a totally different light on desire’s pilgrimage. If the soul desires, it is not because it is looking for “another”, but because it is searching for its own totality, for the non-fissured Totality that is its own self. This is not the same thing as two individual selves trying to merge; this is a unity embracing at once male and female trying to rebuild itself. “The reason is that our former nature was such that we were a complete whole: this is desire and the pursuit of everything we call love”. Without knowing it, in the pilgrimage of its desiring, each one is seeking a lost part of himself. Hence, when we desire something, we attribute to the object we desire (a woman, money, power) the ability to respond to our need for Plenitude. However experience shows very often that nothing in this world could fulfil our desire.
We expect too much absoluteness of what is merely relative. We find a few passing joys, yet we are disappointed time and again, and our disappointment stems from the illusion that results from trying to raise the relative to the level of the absolute. Whence endlessly repeated desiring. What we are looking for is not to be found in things, but in the Fullness of our own consciousness; what we are really looking for is ourselves. We want to heal the old wound of the mind severed from its Origin and condemned to wander in this world without finding fulfilment. We are not looking for a fusing embrace with another, but for a total reconciliation with Ourselves, because it is in the full reconciliation with Ourselves that we find Plenitude. The realm of desire is therefore not that of natural needs; it is that of the aspirations of man in quest of his own divinity.
4) This interprÉtation may well appear far too simple for our complicated minds! We prefer to think that desire comes with the promise of satisfaction, which is this reward we call happiness. We would want to deceive ourselves in order to pursue innumerable desires, thinking that this hunt will eventually benefit us. This gives free reins to our imagination, even though it almost always fails…
Also this idea of a racing pursuit is in vogue. It reflects our post-modern world. It is exactly what commercials and the media show us. Let’s examine how desire works in the case of the consumer. Have a look at advertising spots: “Go on dreaming. We take care of the rest!” one travel agency tells us. The underlying message is “Please fantasize as much as you can, get drunk on your own desires and hence become our best client!” Another example: "give us you body and we’ll take care of the rest”. We are here to sell you tailored fantasies! Notice the label on products. Why call a skin cream Plénitude? Because deep down this is exactly what each of us is secretly longing for. If some way or other the message could slip into my mind that consuming can contribute to my plenitude, how desirable consumer goods would become! Advertising is constantly taking advantage of man’s spiritual aspirations; its cunning – which is psychologically very accurate– consists in associating the consumption of a thing (a yoghurt, a dress, a shampoo, a trip far away) with an inner aspiration, in such a way that in the imagination these two come to be viewed as identical. Advertising makes us yearn for far away horizons. We are so full of unfulfilled expectations longing to be satisfied, our daily drudgery appears so disappointing in comparison with those model lives, those glossy pictures of an idyllic existence, displayed by advertising! We have grown accustomed to find fulfilment in fantasies. We are perfectly happy being served tailored fantasies and, economically speaking, this is a very good thing: it makes us consume. It is what motivates the obedient consumer. It makes advertising a lot more exciting than it would normally be. The caption “Furniture X: a sign of inner wealth” is a good one: beyond the pun, it is very astute. Indeed it is clever to generate the unconscious belief that an armchair, a sofa, a table would give you inner wealth, since it is of course inner wealth that we are seeking through our desires! This is what would make life comfortable and not furniture, a skin cream or pots of yoghurt. When a thing is pinned down to its mere materiality, to its usefulness, then it can of course satisfy a need, but certainly not fulfil a desire. For this thing to become desirable it has to be turned into a symbol that makes one fantasize, that evokes one of the mind’s inner aspirations. The manipulating art of advertising consists in presenting the object so seductively that the very wrapping makes it a symbol of spiritual aspiration.
One question however remains to be dealt with. Is it sufficient to define desire as a want? Although it is connected with the representation of a lack on the level of fantasizing, desire itself is not a lack. To understand desire solely as a lack is reducing it to its negative aspect. The idea of wanting does not shed sufficient light on desire, since it does not do justice to the positive and creative force inherent in it. In the Symposium, desire is not spoken of as bred by Penia only; it also takes after Poros. Isn’t it possible to see in desire the expansion of a Force rather than the expression of a want?
1) Desire is among other things a positive and creative force, which both desires to be (it desires itself) and desires transformation. Ordinarily we believe that only the object of desire motivates it; yet pursuing an object and have one’s satisfaction depending upon it is to be wanting. The assertive force of desire is not that. The force of desire is not in aiming for the object, but in the overflowing impetus of a force, which is no other than Life in us donating itself to itself. The true joy desire gives us does not lie in obtaining the expected object, but in the sheer joy of desiring it. It is not finding satisfaction in the end, which only serves to mask the reality of dissatisfaction. Desire contains in itself a power of assertion and in therein lies its mystery.
Only, there is desire and there is desire. It is perfectly possible that I find implanted in myself purely artificial desires that do not in any way correspond to what I am and what I want. There are core desires and peripheral desires, desires that are true aspirations of the soul and others that are disorderly excrescences of the intellect, sprouts that do not have their true root in the self. At the very heart of the interiority given and asserted in desire, there must be a way to differentiate between authentic and bogus desires. Borrowing a metaphor found in Stephen Jourdain’s Cahiers d’Eveil, true desire is the one that grows in the heart, false desire the one that grows in the head. The former corresponds to a true, central self-assertion, the other is only an intellectual suggestion without resonance in the soul. False desire arises in the mind when it imagines it wants something and frightens itself with the idea of never obtaining what it wants. False desire can simply be the result of a disastrous comparison with other people. It may well just be an imitation of desire and no more than a stir in the air. Since it cannot connect an inner impetus with its necessary outer correlate, it is wanting and carries with it only emptiness. Surfing on the wave of life, it is borne by the void beneath it. That is why, says Stephen Jourdain, false desire “cannot be dissociated from the feeling of separation and incompleteness.” Here Stephen Jourdain is remarkably lucid since it is precisely when man considers the torment false desire inflicts upon him that he gains “this pessimistic conception of life that portrays him as fundamentally incapable of fulfilment, as well as irremediably contradictory and perverse”. The result is a depreciation of desire, which from then onwards is viewed only from the point of view of lacking. Yet true desire is not marked by separation or incompleteness, it is one with itself, it contains the wholeness of the self, it does not approach its object from a negative point of view, as if to escape suffering, but from a positive one, since it is an adventure, a conquest, it is a sparkle of passion with no other motivation than the joy of desiring. Here of course, the words “true” and “false” as applied to desire have no moral content; they should be taken to mean authentic and inauthentic. Stephen Jourdain’s remark has one major merit: it shows us that we would be wrong to view desire only as a lack. It is a creative power, more, a creation of the self by the self. Stephen Jourdain says that it is to the consideration of false desire only that we owe the traditional experience of desire as lack, separation, incompleteness, and not to the consideration of true desire.
We must be careful also with another distinction, which, this one, does have a moral connotation. There is another sense in which you cannot put all desires in the same basket. There can be many forms of desire. There are those that appear to be centred only on the ego, its wants, its secret frustrations and expectations: everything that is necessarily connected with a painful past. When desire is only an expression of the ego, it carries the seal of wanting and is related to the past. But there are other desires that go beyond the self and the sole consideration of one’s own little person. Generous desire has nothing of a weakness or a want. It partakes in a movement of expansion of the heart that seeks to extend life and to increase it. Desiring for oneself means to lock up the strength of desire within narrow limits. Things are totally different when desiring goes beyond the self, when one no longer desires on a strictly personal level, but engages other people’s well-being and even more: the joy of the whole world. When desire goes beyond the ego, it liberates the power of assertion and of transformation inherent in Life. Then, unlike most of the time, desire is no longer a predator, it gives, it becomes a gift.
2) Is it not possible then to say that in this sense desire in fact is in want of nothing? That at its root all desire is borne by a tendency to expansion and assertion? It is customary, when analysing this point of view, to consider Spinoza’s theses. ‘Each thing, inasmuch as it is, endeavours to persist in being” says Spinoza. Spinoza calls this endeavour conatus. Everything tends towards the assertion of itself, not just man. Life wants itself, seeks its own expansion. This infinite power of expression is the very essence of man. This effort is constant, even though it appears in different forms. It is called will when referring to the power of the soul alone, it is called need (Spinoza uses the term ‘appetite’) when referring to the soul’s relation to the body. Spinoza adds that from this point of view there is no difference between need and desire, except that “desire relates to humans insofar as they are aware of their appetites and can therefore be defined as follows: desire is appetite when it is conscious of itself.” If nothing precedes desire, if on the contrary it is from desire that Life’s positive impetus proceeds, then it follows that it is desire itself that gives the object of desire its value. In other words, we do not desire a thing because of its intrinsic value, prior to any desire. A thing receives its value from the moment it is desired. The more I desire something, the more valuable it becomes in my eyes. Whence desire’s tendency to look upon the value as belonging to the object.
Since desire partakes in Life’s universal power of self-assertion, it is a positive assertion of Life’s most intimate Self. It is like the sap that expresses itself in a myriad of different ways: leaves, branches, fruit. All the expressions of desire manifest the nature of conatus, life’s tendency to persevere in being and to perpetually increase its own being. Meaning exactly this, Spinoza says that Desire is the essence of Man. It is much to Spinoza’s credit that, unlike a long ascetic tradition, he saw in desire life’s power of self-assertion, against an interprÉtation of desire that viewed it only as a lack or worse, as a sin of the flesh. However if desire is the essence of man, to deny desire is to deny humanity. To condemn desire is considering that it is not really part of human life. Yet desiring is natural and very human. Morally speaking you cannot found anything on the principle that men could not or ought not to have desires.
In fact there is nothing we need to reject in desiring as long as the desire is assertion, that it brings with it Life’s fundamental willing. Even better, that in any case it is in the very nature of false desire to go beyond its own boundaries and sooner or later encounter its own sublimation. When this happens desire burns its own artifice, it no longer goes for minor whims; when it burns as pure Passion, it turns into an ardent generosity that yearns for a transformation of everything that is into something better. It is when you find desire at its most intense that you discover its Strength, which is not just individual and which does not merely result from a deficiency, even less from sin or evil. And this strength is latent in all desire.
3) One cannot deny desire without denying Life. No one has understood this better than Nietzsche. In Twilight of the Idols he conducts a severe case against the ascetic representation of Desire such as you find it in religion: “The Church fights passion through excision: its practice, its “treatment” is castration. It never asks itself how to spiritualise, embellish, divinise a desire”. Nietzsche does not ignore what he calls the stupidity of passions. He is not out to praise any desire, without a closer examination of everything mean, stupid, violent you can find in desire. Only, once desire becomes active, it also necessarily becomes aware of itself and hence it cannot remain as it is. A desire matures. A desire is something which grows and asserts itself or else it will fall like a dead leaf. If it were possible to spiritualise desire, to have it knowingly, to desire deliberately, then desire would of itself get rid of its own negativity. If desire were borne by the flame of lucidity, it would rid itself of its own boundaries, it would reveal itself as a Force. This Force is the very one through which Life never ceases to want Itself, to experience Itself, to desire itself, more and more. The morbid and ascetic representation of Desire turns it into an accessory element of life and views it only as sealed by sin and evil. Yet desire is so essential, so essentially human that it is the very sap of Life; hence to deny desire is, for man, to turn as dry as dead wood, it is to no longer be inhabited by Life. It is true that religious men sometimes attempt to extinguish desire in their own selves, yet this only results in desiccating their bodies and devitalising their senses. Krishnamurti has written some magnificent pages on this topic in The First and Last Freedom. Religious asceticism has failed to see the possibility of transfiguration, of divinisation of desire, because from the beginning it has considered desire as a sin and as an element which could not be integrated into religious life, but which belonged to secular life. For Nietzsche, when religion introduced this duality between sacred and secular, when it placed Desire on the secular plane, when it considered Holiness a state from which desire had been extracted, it imposed the rigor of ascetic morals with all its force of repression and of self-denial. Desire has been identified with the temptations of the flesh and of sin, with sexuality as evil, with the damnation of concupiscence, and we have lost sight of Desire’s divine aspect.
What would happen if we stopped to see life as divided into sacred and secular? Either Life is altogether sacred and a spiritual dimension is necessarily inherent in desire, or Life is altogether secular and desire is naturally part of it. Nietzsche remarks that Greek religion knew nothing of the concept of sin. It shamelessly celebrated Desire as the force of Dionysos. In cultures other than our own, like India, desire has not been confined outside the borders of life; on the contrary it has been celebrated and glorified. God himself creates the World with a Desire, through desiring Himself indefinitely; it is the divine Desire, which fecundates nature and gives birth to all the diversity of Manifestation. Of course from an ascetic point of view, a religious representation celebrating the sexual intercourse of Shiva and Parvati shocks. “These horridly lubricating divinities!” exclaimed the missionaries. At least this representation denies nothing. It introduces a sacred dimension to desire to the point of viewing amorous relations as an initiatory path. This does not mean that it sanctifies debauchery. Rather, it raises the sexual act to the rank of a religious ritual by sublimating the impetus of human love into becoming an expression of divine love. One only sanctifies debauchery, one only renders a cult to the eternally unfulfilled when one forgets the sacred dimension, the vertical and divine dimension of Desire. There is in the forcefulness of Desire a mystery, which exceeds by far its material manifestation in consumption and its individual manifestation as egocentric desires. Desire is not a by-product of consumption and of consumer society, even if one often wants to persuade us that it is.
The true object of desire is not necessarily what it appears at first glance to be pursuing. This is why we do not always know what we want. Were we able to view our desires in the full light of consciousness, we would begin to perceive that the process of desiring is never without the projection of the representation of a want: want of another person, want of recognition, want of affection, want of self.
Yet there is not only want in the object of Desire. There is in Desire a Force, which cannot be reduced to the individual and egocentric will to power. This is Life wanting itself through the movement of desiring, Life seeking its own assertion and self-growth. Desire cannot be reduced to a desire of another person. It is not enough to characterize desire to say that one desires with respect to other people. All desire emanates from the self, even if some of them contain a richer and deeper self-assertion than others. Does this not imply in the end that the expression “object of desire” rests on a misunderstanding? The essence of Desire is not in its object, but in the subject who is desiring. To desire is to manifest, to give oneself in a perpetual self-manifestation, in a creation of oneself by oneself.
Home © Philosophy and spirituality, 2003, Serge Carfantan. Translated by Catarina Lamm