Tonight I'm thinking about desire. I'm not quite sure how to differentiate it from lust, or if the distinction means anything at all. Desire is always there, and just maybe if it's distinguished from lust it's only the grounds of intensity.
Lust is the noonday demon; that definition goes back to late classical times. Lust has always to be underlain by desire, though. Desire as the sense of a lack, as a need--- lust is just the more fevered form. Edmund White writes that to know what someone desires is to know their essence, to know the things that define them.
Desire isn't much talked about these days. It's certainly not examined and celebrated the way it was a generation ago. Lust is written about, though almost never favourably. Lust is seen as being really about power, about the need to dominate. Desire is read as both weakness and aggression. There's a lack of some kind--- a lack that's seen as somehow culpable ---that can only be filled by taking something from another, by violating the autonomy of the other. We're a long way from the celebrations of desire and the flesh that you can find in some twentieth-century writers. We tend here in the new century to think of desire as a politically-suspect screen for the need to subjugate or degrade or violate, and to simultaneously see desire as representing a shameful lack, a weakness growing out of neediness.
I have been thinking about Edmund White's formulation: know what someone desires, and know the essence of the person. It's hard, I suppose, to think about what you really desire. In my own life, I know it hasn't been fame or wealth. I've been an academic, so knowledge is always there: the desire to know about the past and the world, the desire to know all the stories about why and how the world came to be this way over time. Beauty, too. I want beautiful young companions in my life. If you want to think that what I'm looking for is the beauty I've never had for myself, you wouldn't be wrong. Beyond that, though, it's hard. I can think of girls I've desired, girls I've sighed over, girls who've filled my dreams. It's just hard to break those images down, to see what each of them represented.
I know about desiring, but it's hard to imagine being desired. I must've been desired in my life--- there are girls who've come willingly to my bed. What's hard there is to understand why, to understand why they'd find me worth desiring. I'm not sure that statement is all about self-loathing. Some of it is about incomprehension, about trying to understand what a young companion could imagine I'd have to offer her. I take it for granted that we're all creatures who live inside stories, and so I do try to puzzle out what stories I'm offering up to a girl, or what stories she thinks I'll help her create.
It may be a hard thing to be desired. It's only human to feel that if someone unsuitable or unattractive desires you, that you've somehow done something wrong. It must be hard, too, to have to always be aware of what about you is desired, to have to find that in yourself to keep offering it to a lover.
Now I suppose, too, that it's becoming a hard thing to feel desire without a tinge of shame. Desire implies a lack. Desire is unrequited far more often than not--- which is a judgment about one's own value. But it's not just that. Even if desire remains behind the eyes, there's the current belief that desire is somehow always a kind of aggression, a way of treating someone as less. Everything is seen through a lens of power and dominance. To look at someone and find them desirable, to look at them and experience lust, is increasingly regarded as politically unacceptable--- as inflicting a kind of social harm. I read too many articles and blog posts where the author insists that a sign of social progress is that fewer and fewer social interactions have any shred of sexuality associated. That leaves me baffled. Flirtation is one of the great pleasures of life--- it drives conversation and it does liven up the grey quotidian world. Being a roué, being a gentleman of a certain age, being someone who is fascinated with eighteenth-century culture--- how can I give up desire and its expression in flirtation?
Show me what you desire, and I'll tell you who you are. Edmund White's formula. I can look at that idea and have questions, but there's truth to it.
What makes me feel more and more out of step is that desire itself is less and less read as being about the possibilities of pleasure and play. To feel desire, let alone express it, is coming to be seen not as morally flawed--- the Victorian idea ---but as politically suspect and socially oppressive. I've no idea how that ever happened.