Being Desired by Nuala O’Faolain
Harper’s Bazaar -February 2002 (pg.188)
How do you go on when the kissing has to stop? I don’t know where desire for another person comes from. I have stood among the ruins of a great estate where the lady of the manor put everything she possessed at risk out of mad desire for one of her husband’s humble stable servants. Wind tormented the trees along the overgrown avenue in front of me, the avenue down which she was driven when she was caught–a pauper, socially disgraced, her child taken from her, the lunatic asylum her home for the rest of her life. Those were the punishments of the time, and she knew she risked them, and still she went with the servant. What gulfs of need are within us, I wondered, that we fix like that on another human being? And what trick of mind or body makes a particular person the person we have to have?
They should tell us when we’re young:
“Someday you may feel a wonderful thing called passionate desire, and if you do, it is going to half kill you.”
Carmen was murdered for it. Tristan and Isolde stopped the world for it. Humbert ruined Lolita for it. Antony lost an empire when Cleopatra made him burn with it. It sinks its claws into men and women, into rich and poor. In every shopping mall at this moment and every quiet suburb and every neat apartment building, there are people writhing in the gorgeous, bittersweet agony called desire.
If we were reasonable beings, we would keep a shotgun trained on it where it pads up and down just outside the perimeter of our orderly lives. The smell it gives off, we would warn the young, is very, very dangerous. Except that kids are safe–even the ones who weep on the phone and swear every week that they’ll die from wanting this one or that one. They’re too light and quick for desire. They are like their scents–flowery, sassy, sweet–and they don’t feel the attraction of heavy, musky perfume. Desire wants mature body-hosts to lodge in.
And so a colleague, ignored for months, tucks you under his raincoat to run across the road in a storm, and you’re finished. A friend drops in to gossip, and while he’s laughing you notice the pinkness of his tongue: The worm has entered the rose. Anna Karenina meets Vronsky; child, husband, position must go. The man next door brushes against you when he’s returning a ladder, and your life’s up for grabs. Samson listens to Delilah, and he must obey her, come what may. Your daughter’s fiance puts a hand on the small of your back. An electric shock runs through you. He stops walking. You stop walking. You’re lost.
Come on, you may say. Lighten up. He fancies her (or him); she fancies him (or her). What’s the big deal about it? So, okay, the heady stuff wears off, but then they can settle down, have a few kids, be good friends to each other. But that’s not desire. That’s falling in love. That involves taking the other person into your heart to know and cherish. Sure, there is intense desire there at the beginning, but time transforms it into one among other bonds–the making of a home, the achieving of goals, the sharing of fun. Honeymoon desire mutates, for millions of happy people, into personal and domestic love. But real desire never mutates into anything else. It is never happy, only triumphant. It destroys And it is a waste of time to take a stricken one aside and talk common sense, self-protection, duty to others. There is nothing he can do, he says. This thing took him over. His eyes are filmed over with passion. He is in the state that Racine called “tout entiere a sa proie attachee — totally focused on the prey.
Mutual desire rips people open to each other, and they stand revealed, so they believe, being to being.
But there is only a moment when the forces are in balance. Because dangerous as it is to feel desire, it is quite as dangerous to be the one desired. Because then, when the beast moves on, you lose everything. One minute you’re enveloped in your lover’s warm attention; the next, you’re standing there on your own, cold and shivering. The massive affirmation that you felt while you were the object of desire turns out to be an illusion. Desire takes away with it the gifts that it seemed to confer.
Yet who wouldn’t kill for that glow? They are radiant with wanting you, the ones who desire you. The demon has allowed them out on a long rope, and they look at you in a blurred, ecstatic way.
They think if they can possess you that they’ll be almost there, almost fulfilled, almost about to get enough of whatever it is passion must consume. Which is why, when the beast of desire roams past, we do not hide, like sensible folk would. We try to make a pet of it. We risk being lacerated by its claws. Because what other heaven is there in this ordinary world than to feel its golden eyes on us? When else does someone see us as totally powerful, totally beautiful?