Dion Kagan reviews 'Desire: A memoir' by Jonathan Dollimore

In one of my pedagogical fantasies, I design the curriculum for a course called ‘Modern Theories of Desire’. My students read Marx, Beauvoir, Foucault, and Butler. They study Hegel on desire’s organisation of the everyday relationship between the self and the world; some critiques of developmental psychology, a sociology of addiction; Freud, of course. I also screen films – Almodóvar, Wong Kar-wai – set a novel or two, and in class we read poetry. It may seem a whimsical curriculum, but by semester’s end my students have a rigorous working knowledge of ‘ways of thinking about desire’, their assumptions have been questioned, curiosities aroused.

Jonathan Dollimore’s Desire: A memoir could easily be on my curriculum. Indeed, it could be the subject primer. The book is intimate, as its title promises, but it also collects informed philosophical speculations on desire. It is a kind of auto-ethnography, with Dollimore mining his own life story for insight into the amorphous mechanics of desire: lust, longing, affection, and love; also depression, melancholy, boredom, and loss, all part and parcel of desire’s cravings and cathexes.

Dollimore is the right man for the job. His career as a key figure in literary studies and social theory, with works on Renaissance literature, decadence, art, censorship, transgression, gender, and death, has steeped him in the ways artists and thinkers have tried to capture desire’s elusive complexities. Less well known are the facts of his own life: from a formative road accident that brought the working-class adolescent motorcyclist close to death (but also close to his first amour fou), to some years as a regional journalist where he cultivated the literacy, literary fascination, and productive ambivalence he would eventually bring to his first post at Sussex University in the late 1970s. There Dollimore discovered that ‘philosophy was not only more important than the academic study of it allowed, but ... as a subject it needed to be turned against the academy which diminished it’. His career developed during the Liberation movements and urban gay male subcultures that would form an important backdrop to his own polymorphous sexual trajectories.

You might expect a book titled Desire: A memoir to burst with the exploits of an insatiable lusthound, a dizzying notching-up of the bedpost that moves toward a climax of self- understanding. Well, there are plenty of revealing memories here, variously arousing, cute, funny, and bleak, the most elaborate of which occur later in the book and during a chapter devoted to time spent in Sydney in the 1980s. But despite its utterly frank, unexpurgated self-dissection and sharing, Desire is not ‘confessional’ per se. ‘I’m not attracted to the confessional for its own sake,’ Dollimore tells us; ‘to be worth writing about the personal needs to have a meaning beyond me.’

Dollimore is also a Foucauldian from way back so he is suspicious of the thought nexus that welds sex to essential truths of identity: the deepest and truest self is neither inscribed nor revealed through one’s desires. This is a fiction invented by modern sexual scientists and capitalised on by mundane ideological norms. Like the breed of queer scholars associated with ‘the anti-social thesis’, including Leo Bersani and Lee Edelman, Dollimore is inclined to see in sex a dissolution of the self – the potential for a shattering of identity – rather than the revelatory moment in which personhood falls into coherent relief.

Undoings aside, what can’t Dollimore illuminate about desire? – how what remains unconsummated is so often the most ‘beautiful wound’; how the most accomplished seducer is so often vulnerable; how desire may be the mangled reincarnation of parental grief. In this way, his memoir is revelatory indeed.

By the time we arrive at the fifth chapter’s explicit turn to depression, we have an inkling of why this is important alongside the knowledge that our memoirist has survived multiple suicide attempts. ‘Why does a book about desire and memory include these reflections upon depression?’ he preempts. Foremost among the answers is something that has already been made plain: ‘depression ... is a sickness of desire’. It is ‘inseparable from memory, and ... memory, too, is potentially a kind of sickness; of desire turned destructively back on itself’. If there is a central thesis, this is it: loss, desire’s obverse, is at desire’s heart. For Dollimore, desire is a backwards feeling, a state underwritten by ‘lack, an absence, a baseline of permanent dissatisfaction, verging on pain’. In this he joins Heather Love and other queer writers interested in the relationship between backwardness and sexual feelings.

Foucault famously said in an interview that, ‘For a homosexual, the best moment of love is likely to be when the lover leaves in the taxi. It is when the act is over and the guy is gone that one begins to dream about the warmth of his body, the quality of his smile, the tone of his voice. It is the recollection rather than the anticipation of the act that assumes a primary importance.’ While conventional romance scripts are traditionally organised around anticipatory modes – expectation, flirtation, courtship, the dance of seduction – homosexual eros, due to its particular historical and social context, has had a different grammar of love: ‘complications are introduced only after the fact’. On this and much more, Desire has stirring, eloquent lessons to teach us all.

Published in May 2018, no. 401

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