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Who Desire

All we seem to do nowadays is tell and retell the stories of our lives. For over a century, we’ve tried to grasp at ourselves from the same angle, convinced there’s only one key to unlock the secret of our subjectivity: desire.

 – Anne Garréta(1)

I think it’s been longer than that, although it mightn’t have been expressed in quite the same theoretical terms. At any rate, after reading Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality, it’s impossible to think about desire without wondering how it’s meant to define us.

Describing the intensification of philosophical and political focus on sexuality from the “classical age,” Foucault proposes that the analytical discourse which developed intended the “displacement, intensification, reorientation, and modification of desire itself,” in order to control of faculties and talents of the population.(2)

It’s obvious in the Post Scriptum of Not One Day that Anna G agrees.

Advertising sells one thing and only one thing. Do you truly believe it refers to a world of commodities? Wrong. All it talks about is itself and its wellspring: desire, pure.

Keep us desiring keep us buying. I often think that we simply need to be moving, stirring. Doubtless the need is exploited, but we also create tasks and necessities in order to test our mettle and prevent boredom. There is the other kind of desire that wants the heavenly escape. Maybe this is closer to what the author means here.

Anna G. is an OULIPO writer. So she can’t be trusted. Or she can be trusted, depending on how you look at it. She can be trusted to have some game afoot. She can’t be trusted to mean what she writes. But, as she points out in her Ante Scriptum, no narration reveals a subject or coherence that we can map. She promises, however, to reveal a little in this book. To let her constraint reveal. As Judith Butler says, gender is constructed by repetition. The same may be said of persona/personality. Anne G. will, she says, write for 5 hours each day for a month about women with whom she was connected by desire. There will be no predetermined architecture and she won’t revise. The memories will be written as they arrive. The narrative is written in the second person, so one could imagine that the memory portion of the avatar is the effective narrator, though I’m not sure the author intended this.

It’s an intriguing and edifying read. The voice is amiable and interesting, always in the state of discourse. It's a translation, but the translators were Emma Ramadan (who also translated the earlier Sphinx) and the author herself, so the tone is probably well conveyed. I was interested particularly in the K* section, where the author says that she/you cannot recount K* because she/you had “more than desire” for her. Her/your tenderness will not allow the cold, analytical attitude that narration requires, that is “consistent with the coldness of desire.” And on the next page, for the only time in the book (I think), “I” is used. The constrained writing has revealed a love she/I didn’t realise. Is it memory or a new subject who speaks here:

I suddenly feel with a five-year delay the devastation of having lost a woman that I loved (that you loved?) without ever having known it.(3)

The episode interests me for the nature of its distinction between love and desire. They're not usually described as hot and cold in that way. The narrator says that in order to write a memory it must be dead, but that her love has kept K* alive, suggesting that love produces a lasting somatic affect in the organism, because where else could a memory be alive. Love is therefore breathing and warm, if not hot; it unsettles the intellect enough to confuse its objectivity. Desire on the other hand, usually characterised as “hot,” is a cold entity that allows distance and analysis. If this is so, how can it be manipulated as easily as the author and Foucault suggest. Is Anna G. displaying an idealism that preserves Love within a precinct of exalted pre-semantic worth, as opposed to the historically less honourable sex-oriented notion of desire? Is she incidentally criticising her own [desired or beloved] practices of sex and literary expression? Does love paralyse analysis because it’s still in the realm of belief, and is that better?

Every time desire is betrayed . . . uprooted from its field of immanence, a priest is behind it.

– Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari(4)

All of this is compounded by the fact that the author didn’t follow the original constraint. She didn’t write for 30-31 days, but 12. She didn’t write consecutively but gave up the task for months before coming back to it. She has the gall in her Post Scriptum to say that her resolution meant little because who was it for; the reader, after all, is hardly a person (Ahem . . .). [In fact she didn’t need to state the constraint at all, so she’s being honest in order to be false, but that didn’t occur to me until now.] She also tells us that one of the episodes is a fiction, which means they might as well all be fictions. Plus the views expressed. Plus the lovely landscape of America, which arose as one of her desireds.

This is not my understanding of how OULIPO works, but that’s alright. There’s nothing worse than complete predictability and sincerity. She did in a way allow memory to dictate. Maybe memory demurred. And the point of a constraint is to de-construct the notion of a self. My question about love and desire is less to do with the author and more to do with the line of reasoning.

One sign of true love in the medieval Le Roman de la Rose is that the lover “burns” the closer he gets to the beloved. In her company he blushes, speech and reason desert him, he is overcome with shyness and forgets things. False lovers chatter away fearlessly flattering. They have no fear of loss.(5)

Likewise, in Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, as soon as Frederic no longer wants Mme Arnoux, the “atrophy of the heart” leaves “his head entirely clear,” and he lies.(6)

Desire is exploded [as opposed to explored] in the current IMMA exhibition. Elaine Hoey, the wonderful artist of virtual reality, comments that once you possess what you desire you don’t desire anymore—so her interactive installation provides a man who does nothing but walk. In the other works, desire is expressed in fragmented ways. Inner states mostly, a force. Often communicated by the richness of the materials used. It’s really quite a stunning exhibition, but little sense of individual quest, which is part of my understanding of desire.

It seems that true love is generally understood as a unification of the personality. In true love one declares oneself an entity. One hangs around long enough for a measure to be taken. It means you hold certain things preciously close. But do you throw away what you really desire? And if you're being precious isn't a large portion of “you” hidden?

Latin Vener-, Venus, deified abstraction from an originally neuter common noun venus “sexual desire, qualities exciting desire, charm”; akin to Sanskrit vanate "(s/he) likes, takes pleasure in," -vana- "loving," vāñchati "(s/he) desires, wishes," Old English wȳscan "to wish," wunian “to remain, dwell," Old Norse una "to be satisfied" (Merriam-Webster)

. . . the original sense perhaps being “await what the stars will bring,” from the phrase de sidere “from the stars,” from sidus (genitive sideris) “heavenly body, star, constellation” (Online Etymology Dictionary)
[But this is a speculation, according to the OED]

Anaïs Nin asserted in her diary that the poet is a lover, is in love. A believer? True? Sincere? I don’t know about that. Possibly the romantic poet, the lyric poet, though it’s disputable. Not the postmodern or experimental poet. Absorbed, delighting in, passionate, yes; interested in honest exploration. Sensitive, highly aware, tuned, moral often. Why the persistent demand for valorisation under the banner of big L. Can’t we like want and respect. Desire doesn’t preclude any of these and is at least descriptive.

…his dedication was primarily to the idea of himself in love. This idea seemed to him magnificent, even sublime. 

– Angela Carter(7)


(1) Not One Day. Translated from the French of Pas un jour by Emma Ramadan and the Author. Dallas: Deep Vellum Publishing, 2017, 3.
(2) The History of Sexuality 1: The Will to Knowledge. Translated by Robert Hurley. Penguin, 1990, 23.
(3) Cit., 53-4.
(4) A Thousand Plateaus. Translated by Brian Massumi. London/New York: Continuum, 2012, 171.  
(5) The Romance of the Rose. Translated by Charles Dahlberg. Princeton University Press, 1995, 64.
Online Old French text: ll. 2425-2490.
(6) Sentimental Education. Translated by Robert Baldick. Penguin, 2004, 403.
(7) “A Souvenir of Japan,” Fireworks. London: Virago, 1987, 9-10.

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