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.

The book centres, as all current theoretical studies should, on an unthinkable deadlock. Mutability is at once the enemy of desire and its very medium, so that ‘the very nature of desire is what prevents its fulfilment, what makes it “impossible”.’ From the ancient Greeks to the author of Ecclesiastes, from Buddha and St Augustine to the Renaissance poets, death is not simply an ending but an internal undoing which, like the subversive motions of desire, undermines us from within. If mortality, like prohibition, is what makes our pleasures sweeter, it is also what punctures them; if desire deliriously unbinds the unity of the self, it does so only to prefigure a more absolute dissolution. For the Romantic libertarians, desire is baulked by forces external to it, which in theory it can always resist; the rather less sanguine truth is that desire digs its own grave, defaces whatever it embraces.

The book skilfully traces these motifs through Shakespeare, Montaigne, Raleigh, Donne and an array of Early Modern others, before turning to consider the denial of death implicit in Enlightenment thought. As Jean Baudrillard remarks, there is a sense that for modernity ‘it is not normal to be dead’ – that the dead are committing some kind of unspeakable solecism simply by no longer being around. Not to exist at all is a disturbing form of extremism. Dollimore himself doubts this thesis, as Michel Foucault doubts that the Victorians were coy about sexuality. In Dollimore’s view, death has been not so much repressed by modernity as resignified, in ways which permit a never-ending analysis of it. His own book is presumably an example. But this passes too lighty over the fact that death is bound to appear scandalous to a hubristic culture which believes that nothing can escape its mastery. The true Platonism of our time, the idealist fantasy which seeks to disown material limits altogether, is surely to be found in the Post-Modern body, that infinitely pliable non-entity which can be pierced, plumped up, scooped out, remoulded, regendered, but cannot finally be prevented from turning into garbage. The sacred rituals which used to promise eternal life – burning incense, drinking the blood of the god, slaying a fatted calf – have now become the liturgy of burning off fat, drinking fruit juice and not eating calves at all.

Dollimore pursues his theme through modern philosophy. Hegel’s dialectic seeks to incorporate death into life, and his Spirit finds its truth only in the process of dismemberment. For Heidegger, the only authentic life is one which embraces death as an inner structure of Dasein or human existence, while for Sartre humanity is simply the ‘desire to be’, a tragically unfinishable project driven on by its own lack or néant. In Schopenhauer’s gloomy writings, desire, now retitled Will, is a striving bound to thwart itself, one which can be assuaged only in death or in the disinterested contemplativeness of the aesthetic. Freud, for whom life is just an elaborate detour en route to death, is forced to conclude that ‘something in the nature of the sexual instinct itself is unfavourable to the realisation of complete satisfaction.’ Rather than lose itself in fulfilment, desire prefers to be crushed out of existence altogether by the death drive.

There is a distinctly potted feel to this whirlwind trip around European thought, with seven and a half pages on Hegel, one and a bit on David Hume and so on. The Monty Python ‘Summarise Proust’ contest, in which competitors had thirty seconds to deliver a précis, springs irresistibly to mind. Like the motion of desire itself, the book drives remorselessly from one author to another, raiding them for what it needs but careless of their specific textures. Literary works are plundered for their abstractable content, with scant sensitivity to questions of artistic form. The structure of the book parodies its own thesis: the subject of desire is what keeps this narrative in motion, but also what forms a kind of internal blockage to its full realisation. As with desire, too, the various objects examined, from Parmenides to Cavafy, turn out to look oddly alike.

Even so, this is an impressively versatile survey, although it passes over an important moral dimension of its subject, unsurprisingly in an age when the erotic is more in vogue than the ethical. In a few comments on Christianity, Dollimore rightly resists the usual left-humanist caricature of the creed as morbidly life-denying. He sees that ascetism has an emancipatory aspect to it, concerned with future transformation rather than present self-loathing. He might have added that for the supposedly anti-fleshly St Paul, it is the sexual coupling of bodies which symbolises the relationship between Christ and his people, and that in Christian tradition celibacy is meant to be a sacrifice. Since it is no sacrifice to surrender what you regard as worthless, Christian ascetism is a rather more complex affair than the scoffings of a Nietzsche might suggest. But for Christian theology the supreme model of such sacrifice is not celibacy but martyrdom. In a discussion of Marx and Feuerbach, Dollimore speaks of Marxism as ‘socialising’ death, shifting attention from the perishable individual to the rather more durable species. But martyrdom is a socialising of one’s own death, too, converting it into a means of life for others. Since the martyr willingly abandons his life, he looks at first sight much like the suicide. The difference is that the suicide relinquishes what has become unbearable to him, whereas the martyr gives up his most precious possession in the hope that good may flow from it.

In Christian theology, what determines whether or not you can embrace death in this way is how you have lived. If you have failed in life to divest yourself for the sake of others, you will be trapped like William Golding’s Pincher Martin in a hell which is the inability to die. By the end of Golding’s novel, Martin has dwindled to a pair of huge, lobster-like claws tenaciously protecting his dark centre of selfhood from the ‘black lightning’ of God’s ruthless mercy. Martin refuses to be picked apart: he is one of the damned who regard themselves as too important to undergo anything as squalid as personal extinction. W.B. Yeats may not have landed among that select company, but the hair-raisingly blasphemous epitaph he wrote for himself –

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!

– disdains death as a vulgarity fit only for clerks and shopkeepers.

It is the martyr’s meaning of death-in-life which St Paul has in mind when he comments that we die every moment. To live selflessly is not to exist in a sate of self-dissolution but to behave in a certain style, one which requires keeping your wits about you and having a reasonably resilient ego. True self-abnegation is not a matter of political submissiveness or the heady jouissance of sexual pleasure, but of anticipating one’s death by living in the service of others. It is this which Heidegger lamentably misses, in his failure to link what he calls Mitsein – living with others – with the authenticity of being resolute for death. The latter is then debased to a kind of solitary heroism, with unsavoury fascistic overtones. If death is what gives shape to life, it is because it signifies a self-abandonment which is the pattern of the good life. It is not just because the worm lurks in the bud or because our achievements turn to ashes in our mouths or an awareness of our finitude restrains us from hubris, or the brevity of life renders our sensations more intense.

‘To know how to live,’ Dollimore wisely comments, ‘one must first know how to die.’ As the most dramatic event ever to befall most of us, death is to be performed rather than endured, something we have to get good at, like playing the trombone or tolerating bores. Whether we can pull it off with any degree of élan depends, like any dramatic performance, on practice. For a venerable moral tradition, the name of that ceaseless rehearsal is living. But this is not to see life as a mere antechamber to death, since to know how to live in the knowledge of death is to know how to flourish.

Dollimore’s study is as much about mutability as it is about death or desire, a theme which is at once profound and banal. (Something similar could be said of the author’s literary style, which deals with momentous issues in a depthless, drably functional prose.) Few things are more mind-shaking than the truth that everything perishes, and few more corny either. Rather late in the book, Dollimore seems to recall that mutability isn’t always such a bad thing after all. If good dinners pass away, so do tyrants and toothache. Samuel Johnson regarded all change as a great evil, whereas Brecht seemed to see the sheer fact of change, as opposed to particular unpleasant instances of it, as inherently comic. In one of his fables, Herr Keuner returns to his native village after a lengthy absence to be cheerily told that he hasn’t changed a bit. ‘Herr Keuner,’ Brecht writes, ‘turned pale.’

If Dollimore leans rather too heavily on the miseries of transience, he also exaggerates its centrality. Much that is oppressive in human existence springs from inertia and recalcitrance, not from the fall of the leaf. Post-Modern and historicist thought, as Francis Mulhern has pointed out, tends to reduce history to change; but ‘history is also – decisively, for its greater part – continuity.’ Nothing is more persistent than the idea of ephemerality, as this book demonstrates without being quite aware of the irony. In Dollimore’s speculative striding from the ancient polis to the gay bar, the history of ideas would indeed seem at times no more than a footnote to Plato. Mutability may provide the book’s subject-matter, but it is treated in a remarkably invariant way. For political radicals, it is precisely the fact that things don’t change all that much – Marx’s paralytic ‘nightmare of history’, to snap out of which demands such a struggle – that is the problem.

Death, Desire and Loss in Western Culture is a boldly transhistorical book from one who would lay claim to the title of cultural materialist. Once or twice, it pauses to historicise its otherwise rather repetitive story-line. From Heraclitus to Schopenhauer, Dollimore observes, meditations on death tend to crop up in conditions of historical crisis, when failures of political praxis lead to high-minded renunciations of human society. Freud’s great work on the death drive, after all, has its root in the First World War. The Schopenhauer who held that we would all have been far better off not existing at all was also the man who reputedly helped out a soldier taking aim at a revolutionary mob by handing him his opera glasses. It is an instructive allegory of the relations between culture and politics.

In Modern Tragedy, Raymond Williams deals with what one might call the politics of death, insisting on how culturally variable it can be so as to counter what he sees as a reactionary metaphysics: ‘To say that man dies alone is not to state a fact but to offer an interpretation. For indeed men die in so many ways: in the arms and presence of family and neighbours; in the blindness of pain, or the blankness of sedation; in the violent disintegration of machines and in the calm of sleep.’ For a humanist like Williams, the statement ‘we all die alone’ is no more informative than the claim that we all eat or sleep alone. It is just a way of saying that it is I who am doing this particular piece of dying, even if you are pegging out alongside me. But there are two opposed ways of refusing the view that death is inherently tragic, an intolerable self-estrangement which strikes meaning from human life and so plays into the hands of conservative absurdists. There is Williams’s way, which is to argue that the idea of death is simply an abstraction from culturally different ways of expiring, just as you might claim that the imposingly singular ‘desire’ of psychoanalysis is an abstraction from diverse sorts of want. Or you can take the opposite path and view death as a value-free biological fact, as intrinsically indifferent to significance as a rumble in the gut. From this viewpoint, death is no more tragic or affirmative, absurd or emancipatory, than the cawing of a rook.

Dollimore’s study refuses both of these strategies. It insists, rightly in my view, that there is indeed a transhistorical fact to be examined here, which no historicism can dissolve conveniently away. In this sense, the repetitiveness of the book’s narrative is part of the point. But it is also wary of the naturalistic alternative to the culturalist account, finding in death, like Hamlet contra Claudius, something scandalously in excess of all natural occurrence. The book has its emotional source in a profound sense of sorrow – that of a gay intellectual for whom the latest tragic conspiracy of death and desire lies in the catastrophe of Aids. The final section of the study, which turns directly to this topic, contains its most moving, intricate explorations. Yet the naturalistic and culturalist viewpoints need not be at odds. Death is indeed natural; but it belongs to our nature to be able to make something of the biologically given, just as it belongs to desire to be in excess of biological need. To perform one’s death is to convert fact into value, conjuring something out of nothing; and whether we can do this depends not just on the conditions in which we die, but on how we have lived. Robert Maxwell probably departed this world in circumstances which, in any literal sense, made the whole notion of such performance quite irrelevant. But even if he had passed away in bed with all his faculties intact, it is doubtful that be would have been able to do much more than die in something like the way that he digested or perspired.