The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


It was a long time since I had longed for anything, and the effect on me was horrible.

—Samuel Beckett, “The End’

It begins with a tingle. A fleeting fantasy of revenge. A glint of attraction. We shake it off, but it sneaks up again. It can feel dangerous, alluring. Frustrating too—since without an obstacle, desire is merely a temporary state quickly dissolving into satiety. But the forbidden, the denied, glistening just out of reach? The history of our desires is the story of how we lose ourselves to them.

Whether it’s a desire for a person, or an object, or something intangible like “fame” or “glory,” people have long been made nervous about the way craving for or coveting something can take us over. Medieval churchgoers were warned against harboring desires for forbidden things—they knew it as the sin of Morose Delectation, from the Latin mora (delay or tarry) and delectare (to entice). The forbidden thoughts could be anything—from hating a rival to the desire to avenge a hurt. But becoming engrossed in and preoccupied by sexual temptation was the most common, and bewitching, kind. The early Victorians spoke of the disease of “monomania,” all thoughts taken hostage by one single idée fixe: Captain Ahab’s desire to kill Moby Dick, or Heathcliff’s fixation on “his departed idol,” Cathy. Monomania could derange a person’s mind, even causing them to neglect their bodies and health. In the twentieth century, the philosopher Georges Bataille suggested that it is not only the person who is consumed with desire who finds himself disappearing under the weight of his obsessive need. The longed-for person or object begins to disintegrate too. The desired person or thing seems to fade away, replaced by a shimmering “aura,” writes Bataille, and it is impossible to know whether it is “horror or fascination” that compels us toward it (see: MORBID CURIOSITY).

You’d be forgiven for thinking we have moved beyond the idea that our desires are something both we, and the thing or person we desire, are lost to. In a culture absorbed by the idea of self-actualization, the idea of following one’s heartfelt intentions is presented as energizing and important (see: SATISFACTION). When it comes to sex, we might think of the twentieth century as the time when desire was liberated from the shame and confusions of religious sin, and assume that sexual desire has become ordinary, rather than something to be enchanted by, or lost in. Twentieth-century sexologists such as Alfred Kinsey and the duo William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson made it their business to redeem sexual desire from its older transgressive associations, and to make studying sex a respected science involving white coats and laboratories. In their studies and others that followed, desire became equated to a bodily appetite, comparable to hunger or thirst. Making a sexual urge as natural or inevitable as the need for food or shelter, this model served to simplify it too, imagining a chain of triggers and motives linking emotional desire to physical arousal, passionate intimacy to genital satisfaction. But desire is not like that, not really. Arousal can take place even when you don’t feel desire; a craving might not always lead to a satisfying ending. More than a biological instinct, desire follows circuitous routes through the imagination: it is strange and estranging too.

Perhaps it’s because desire runs so close to fear that it can feel, as Beckett knew, so horrible. The habit among theologians, doctors and even sexologists to attribute our desires to some other part of ourselves—something the Devil sent, or the product of a diseased mind, or even a biological instinct implanted over millennia of evolution—may be partly a response to how uncomfortable longing can be. Perhaps our urges frighten us because they might lead us astray, hurting those we love and disrupting the status quo. Perhaps we suspect we idealize the desired object, and fear the tumult we’ll create: we cling to those we desire, and fling them aside, adore and despise them in turns. Part of what makes desire so hard to tolerate is the FRUSTRATION and DISAPPOINTMENT that so often come with it. But perhaps more hidden is its SHAME: the way longing for someone exposes us, forcing us to admit we lack something that we don’t already have and can’t easily obtain.