THE PHI­LOS­O­PHY OF DE­SIRE

Neue Luxury - - News - By Da­mon Young

The young man is over twenty-five cen­turies old. He stands fac­ing us, nude and mus­cu­lar, mouth flat or turned up in a gen­tle smile. He is a kouros: a statue of a youth, from an­cient Greece. Whether he is keep­ing a god com­pany in a tem­ple, or com­mem­o­rat­ing a dead sol­dier, one thing is ob­vi­ous: this mar­ble boy de­sires noth­ing. He is less a vi­sion of vi­o­lent or lust­ful ado­les­cence, and more a math­e­mat­i­cal dream: still­ness, pro­por­tion, unity. His naked­ness has none of the swag­ger of later clas­si­cal and Hel­lenis­tic con­trap­posto youths, their hips and shoul­ders op­posed in tilts, front leg ca­su­ally bent at the knee. The kouros is open, pure, serene.

Let this young man be our em­blem of a cer­tain philo­soph­i­cal out­look: cere­bral, aloof, chaste. How­ever thought is un­der­stood here, it is best when dis­tanced from de­sire. Vir­tu­ous love is per­mit­ted, along with sulky grief or vir­ile vi­o­lence. But car­nal ap­petite? This is the stuff of beasts, not men seek­ing truth.

Writ­ing some 150 years af­ter the kouros was chis­elled, Plato gave West­ern civil­i­sa­tion the fullest cel­e­bra­tion of this in­tel­lec­tual ideal. A philo­soph­i­cal and po­etic in­no­va­tor, Plato was also a moral and po­lit­i­cal con­ser­va­tive— on some read­ings, even a re­ac­tionary. De­spite his mov­ing lit­er­ary works, and pas­sion­ate de­fence of the philo­soph­i­cal life, the Athe­nian thinker of­ten de­fended a neutered in­tel­lec­tu­al­ism. As philoso­pher Martha Nuss­baum notes in The Fragility of Good­ness, Plato was af­ter a point of eter­nal per­fec­tion; an airy asy­lum from the world’s phys­i­cal ne­ces­si­ties. “All of our ap­petites are lead weights,” she writes. “But we can have no doubt about which, for Plato, is the heav­i­est. Sex­ual de­sire, the ‘chief of­fi­cer’ of the ap­petites and ‘tyrant’ of the soul.”

In Plato’s di­a­logue Phaedo, for ex­am­ple, Socrates sledged the body in favour of the soul. The spirit be­comes “tainted and im­pure,” he wrote, “be­cause it has al­ways as­so­ci­ated with the body and cared for it and loved it, and has been so be­guiled by the body and its pas­sions and plea­sures”. Phi­los­o­phy is less a quiet hobby for aris­to­crats, and more a file to saw away the bars of the flesh, re­leas­ing the mind for bet­ter things.

Plato changed metaphors in Phae­drus, but his wari­ness of the pas­sions re­mained. He granted that lust—of hand­some youths, but the point was more gen­eral—might en­cour­age love of truth. We can see in some­one’s beauty, beauty it­self: the ul­ti­mate forms of re­al­ity. But too many Athe­ni­ans only chased sex, Plato noted. “Choos­ing that part which the mul­ti­tude ac­count bliss­ful,” he writes, they “achieve their full de­sire”. The soul’s winged climb is again downed by horni­ness.

Plato’s grand flinch from li­bido cul­mi­nated in the work of Ger­man philoso­pher Arthur Schopen­hauer. While de­vel­op­ing the ideas of Im­manuel Kant, Schopen­hauer was also some­thing of a Pla­ton­ist: look­ing for a way to avoid the world’s flux and strife. He saw sex as life’s ra­pa­cious­ness us­ing us to fur­ther it­self—any talk of ro­man­tic love was just “soap bub­bles,” he wrote in The World as Will and Idea. While Plato tried to de­ploy eros in­tel­lec­tu­ally, Schopen­hauer wanted out of ap­petites al­to­gether. His ideal state of mind was to­tally with­out long­ing—a kind of Bud­dhis­tic with­drawal from all cares, in which the self re­alised its own noth­ing­ness.

Plato and Schopen­hauer are ex­treme ex­am­ples, but their out­look is rep­re­sen­ta­tive. There is, in phi­los­o­phy and the­ol­ogy, east and west, a long his­tory of so­mato­pho­bia: fear of the body. Sex­ual de­sire is of­ten seen as the most dan­ger­ous of all phys­i­cal urges: a kind of mad­ness, which over­throws the right­ful rule of rea­son. But de­sire in gen­eral is vil­i­fied—a crav­ing that leaves us mis­er­able, self­ish, ugly.

This re­sponse to hu­man frailty and flaws makes some sense. De­sire is al­ways an ex­pres­sion of value: for this rather than that; for him rather than her; and now rather than later. Hunger, thirst, arousal, wish—these com­mit us to the world. Re­gard­less of what we think, or what we think we think, de­sire takes over from mere ex­is­tence. This is rightly fright­en­ing, threat­en­ing our ideas of lib­erty. Be­fore we can de­lib­er­ate and de­cide, we find we have al­ready cho­sen.

For the philoso­pher Al­fred North White­head, this was an ex­am­ple of ‘im­por­tance’: all life prefers some things over others—in fact, it is this pref­er­ence. There is no ra­tio­nal de­lib­er­a­tion about facts, with­out there first be­ing some judge­ment of im­por­tance, which iden­ti­fies these facts and not others. “No fact is merely it­self,” he wrote in Modes of Thought.

So de­sire is slan­dered be­cause it seems to mock our sovereignty. We can no longer be free atoms, vec­tors de­ter­mined only by cal­cu­la­tion. With de­sire, we be­come en­tan­gled.

Lust or long­ing also re­veals a strife of val­ues. We think we want tem­per­ance, pru­dence and so­bri­ety—yet we find our­selves chas­ing profli­gacy, aban­don and ma­nia. To recog­nise de­sire is to dis­cover our­selves at odds with our­selves.

But the in­tel­lec­tual vi­sion of a world with­out de­sire is it­self a kind of yearn­ing. Thinkers like Plato and Schopen­hauer did not sim­ply be­gin with a premise and move log­i­cally to a con­clu­sion—they wanted a world in which de­sire was abated or an­nulled. This is not sex­ual de­sire, but it is cer­tainly a pro­found and pow­er­ful want: to slow or stop their want­ing. Per­haps this can be granted in mo­ments—med­i­ta­tion, ex­er­cise or art, for ex­am­ple—but it makes no sense of ex­is­tence in gen­eral, or hu­man ex­is­tence in par­tic­u­lar.

Philoso­pher Friedrich Ni­et­zsche saw this schol­arly re­jec­tion of de­sire as a sick­ness: the day­dreams of weak, ail­ing bod­ies. Their body “is a sickly thing to them,” he wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathus­tra, “and they would dearly like to get out of their skins”. And from this, they seek to avoid the phys­i­cal world al­to­gether, in favour of oth­er­worldly truth, or noth­ing­ness. In this light, the de­sire to avoid de­sire is still, ob­vi­ously, a de­sire—but a patho­log­i­cal one.

Ni­et­zsche was a cruel critic at times, but his di­ag­no­sis had some­thing to it. De­sire that hopes to de­stroy it­self for the sake of truth or beauty or jus­tice—there is some­thing ill in this. It sug­gests we no longer trust our­selves. In Charmides, Socrates spoke of his “wild beast ap­petite” for a young man at a wrestling school, and the Ro­man philoso­pher and lawyer Cicero de­scribed Socrates con­fess­ing to his vi­cious tem­per­a­ment. Per­haps the dream of a world with­out aches or pangs arises when, ashamed or pained, fierce urges turn against them­selves.

If this is true, then no de­nial of de­sire can help. Lust or crav­ing can be ig­nored, fal­si­fied, pro­jected onto others. But it can never be done away with, if only be­cause this en­ter­prise it­self re­quires some form of de­sire to work—if not sex­ual, then some­thing equally pow­er­ful and dan­ger­ous. At best, de­sire be­comes sub­li­mated: given new ideals to ful­fil. This Freudian lan­guage is no co­in­ci­dence: psy­cho­anal­y­sis is a lit­tle like Plato and Schopen­hauer, but with­out the hope of oth­er­worldly en­light­en­ment or bliss­ful noth­ing­ness. In this gen­eral por­trait of the psy­che, li­bido can nei­ther be ruled nor ex­iled—it is the house guest that must be ac­com­mo­dated. So the rem­edy is not re­pres­sion, but rev­e­la­tion: be­com­ing in­ti­mate with de­sire; be­ing more cu­ri­ous about our own grop­ings and lurches.

Put an­other way: de­sire is a prob­lem, yes. But not one to be solved, once and for all. Like a rid­dle or puzzle, it prompts con­sid­er­a­tion—and also guides it, pro­vid­ing some of its force.

If the an­cient kouros is an em­blem for this de­sire, he does not sym­bol­ise the end of it. Our per­spec­tive can shift. Let his naked­ness re­flect hon­esty; his charm, raw ma­te­ri­als put to new ends; his beauty, forces held in grace­ful con­flict. If the young man is calm, it is be­cause de­sire de­mands rest and re­flec­tion be­fore its next ad­ven­ture.

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