Good dinners pass away, so do tyrants and toothache

Terry Eagleton

  • Death, Desire and Loss in Western Culture by Jonathan Dollimore
    Allen Lane, 380 pp, £25.00, April 1998, ISBN 0 7139 9125 9

Literary theory is in love with failure. It looks with distaste on whatever is integral, self-identical, smugly replete, and is fascinated by lack, belatedness, deadlock, self-undoing. Works of literature catch its attention once they begin to come unstuck or contradict themselves, when they unravel at the edges or betray an eloquent silence at their heart. Like some remorseless therapist, the theorist is bent on exposing just how spiritually dishevelled such texts really are, despite their pathetic attempts to appear plausible and coherent. Literary theory is an aesthetics of the underdog, championing the humble particular which plays havoc with the structure of an epic or the intentions of a novelist.

This labour of the negative, as Hegel called it, seems appropriate to a politically sceptical age, in which no one is much impressed any more by robust vitality or unqualified commitment, and when irony or ambiguity seem the closest we can come to what a more confident past knew as the truth. In all of this, the concept of desire has a key role to play. Since, according to psychoanalysis, desire is a nameless hankering, unfulfillable by any of its particular objects, it fits supremely well with this negative standpoint. It is less a craving for literary stardom or a square meal than an empty, intransitive yearning whose various targets all turn out to be arbitrary substitutes for one another. Like a turbulent child, desire shatters whatever is hastily produced to keep it quiet and moves restlessly on to the next breakable bauble. It has its source in lack, and is intent simply on keeping itself in business, hijacking bits of rubber, dreams of omnipotence or the desires of others for this obtusely obsessive end. But because none of its objects can really satisfy it, desire figures also as a furious excess, a perpetual refusal with something of the uncompromising drive of revolutionary politics.

Politically speaking, then, this latest metaphysical hero of cultural theory is able to have it both ways. If it is a pure negation which can’t be pinned down, it also has all the positive force of an insurrection. In this it resembles death, which is also beyond representation – death is the last thing we experience, in more senses than one – while being at the same time brute reality. It is no wonder, then, that ‘desire’ crops up so often in the titles of books by disillusioned radicals whose zeal for overthrowing everything in particular is matched only by their doubt that this could ever come about. A rather less high-minded motive for such book-titles is that they promise to win you a double readership, hovering as they do between scholarship and sensationalism, cultural studies and bodice-rippers. The authors of these books usually insist on the need to historicise, but rarely glance sideways at the historical context of their own attraction to desire.

Jonathan Dollimore’s Death, Desire and Loss in Western Culture manages to pack no less than three resonant negations into its title, an emphasis on depletion at odds with the ambitiousness of his project. In a remarkably wide-ranging survey from Anaximander to Aids, Dollimore presses his case that the drive to relinquish the self has always lurked within Western notions of identity and can be found above all, ‘perversely, lethally, ecstatically’ in sexuality. This, among other things, is a coded rebuke to those Post-Modern theorists for whom the affirmative ‘humanist’ subject has now given way to the ‘decentred’ one. (Such theorists, oddly, also regard thinking in terms of historical stages as Part One of an oppressive rationality.) On the contrary, as Dollimore shrewdly shows, the Western subject was never more affirmative than when it was falling apart.

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