Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The Endless Desire for Desire

I will do you the favor of not reporting Polly’s commentary on this letter. As always happens in her Ask Polly column in New York Magazine, the letter is far more interesting than the self-indulgent psychobabble that Polly conjures up.

I am reporting this letter because its author is in therapy. She is in therapy with a woman who seems clearly to share her interest in desire, especially in desiring desire. So, she provides us with evidence of what happens in certain forms of therapy, and of the results.

The letter writer, who dubs herself Make Desire Safe Again (MDSA), believes that she does not feel her desires. She semi-understands that the lack of desire, the loss of appetite, the loss of libido, usually signals depression. But, she does not understand that desire does not return because one obsesses about it, but because one finds a way out of one’s depression.

As for the question of desire, it is at the center of Freudian psychoanalysis. For the record, it should be clear that the necessary but not sufficient condition for desire is not having something. You cannot desire something that you have. You cannot even say it in English. You cannot say: I wish I were here. But, you can say: I wish I were anywhere but here.

But, we always lack certain things. We cannot possess everything. We have not had certain experiences. And yet, we certainly cannot possibly want all of them, in the sense of desiring them.

Freud solved the problem by positing that we only desire what we are forbidden to have, like incest. One could show objectively that we do not all want to copulate with our mothers, but surely some people try to manufacture desire by trying to figure out what they are not allowed to have. It is the basis of Freudian psycho analysis.

I discussed the issue yesterday in the post on Sex among the College Set.

As it happens, this can make you desperate, but it does not produce desire. Being desperate to have something does not mean that you desire it. Being desperate to have something because you think that it will cure all of your ills does not mean you desire it. Stalkers mistake desperation for desire. It would be a good idea if we all got over this confusion. 

As normally happens with such letters, MDSA tells us next to nothing about her life. I consider it a symptom of a therapy project that entices people to get lost in their minds and to withdraw from everyday life and everyday relationships. Shoring up friendly relations would do more to revive her waning desire than mooning about her lack of desire it in therapy.

Another sidelight is this. If she has it all she cannot want for anything. If she is all things for all people, if she has a career and a partner she cannot be wanting for anything. The highly dubious notion of having it all points toward erasing desire, and thus to depression.

Apparently, MDSA is also suffering from severe moral self-judgments, the sort that you would normally find in someone who is depressed. We learn that she is ambitious and perhaps works very hard. But, we do not know what she is working at. We do not know how old she is and how long she has been working at it. We do not know of her successes or her failures, her work schedule or her responsibilities. We know nothing of her education, her family, her locale, her friends or even her age.

She complains at not crushing on male celebrities, but we do not know whether that means she is depressed or that she prefers women. She says that she has a partner, but we do not know what that means either. Of what gender is the partner? How long have they been together? What are their future prospects? Do they live together? Are they planning to get married? Does she want children? I could go on, but you get the picture.

MDSA has not described herself as a human being with a life, but as a psycho abstraction, uprooted, lost, unmoored, desocialized, living a life that lacks specificity.

Might this not be a sign of depression? And might the cure not lie in her ability to find her footing, to stand on solid ground, to feel proud of her achievements?

For the record, I reprint the letter in its entirety:

I’ve always been a very ambitious (careerist, if you want to be unkind) person and, annoyingly, used to say “My reach must exceed my grasp” a lot. Recently, I’ve realized that parroting this phrase is bullshit because, in fact, I am terrified to have my reach exceed my grasp. I can be ambitious in an abstract way — I am hard-working, apply for jobs, am “productive,” keep moving forward, all of that — but I don’t know how to desire anything that I don’t think is at least somewhat within my grasp. Ambient, aimless desire feels unsafe. My condition is this: Either I have no desires and that feels scary because it reminds me of depression, or I do have a desire and it’s scary because it feels like deprivation I can’t handle. Wanting highlights what I don’t have and makes me feel not okay. I hate being dissatisfied or envious, especially because I am generally happy with my life and feel like I’m on the right track, and wanting puts me in that space.

Let me use a very silly example. I know plenty of people who have celebrity crushes and will sometimes fantasize about Channing Tatum (or whoever) falling in love with them. They know it’s not going to happen, but it makes them happy to fantasize. I can’t let myself do that. It just feels shameful and pathetic, like, “You stupid bitch, celebrities don’t even know who you are! This is not going to happen! Also, you have a partner.” I didn’t used to be like this, but now I can barely even start daydreaming without judging myself.

To my mind, desire is okay if it’s useful (i.e., inspires me to work harder for a job or be healthy), but it’s a waste of time and actively dangerous if it’s not. (I could get lost in desire and never do anything in the real world and also then become more dissatisfied with the real world.) I could probably find a way to reinterpret “aimless” fantasies into something useful and motivating, but I think that misses the point. I can feel that my life would be better — richer, bigger — if I weren’t afraid of desiring things that I don’t think I can have.

I was talking to my therapist about this, using the celebrity example and asking why other people don’t feel ashamed. Immediately, she said, “Some people are just okay wanting things they know they’ll never have.” I’d like that, and I know that you often talk about the importance of owning your desire. Do you have any suggestions for that first step?


Make Desire Safe Again 

As for owning desire, you never own desire. You might own your life, assuming that you are not pretending that you do not have a life. Evidently, therapy is not doing her very much good. At the least, MDSA desires desire. Doesn't that count?


Anonymous said...

If I gave into all my desires , I wouldn't be free

Anonymous said...

To be wanted and desired. Every see Michael Mann's 1986 Manhunter?

Tim Denton said...

"I wish I was here." sounds like a metaphor for depression.

Anonymous said...

She envies people who don't mind being less than perfect and even childish for having stupid crushes. Others who have crushes on celebrities are pathetic but she envies them for not placing tortuous restrictions and crushing judgments on themselves. At the beginning of her letter she says intellectual-sounding disparaging things about herself to show her superiority. Her therapist, in my view, said something okay. It was a reality check that other people aren't sub-intelligent but are simply airing their wishes without crushing self-judgment. It isn't that the letter writer lacks desire, it's that she suppresses it so as not to appear ridiculous. She probably has a crush on Channing Tatum and hates herself for it. I agree that she could choose someone more interesting but so what. Normally I think therapists are crazier than the clients but twice a day a broken clock is right.

whitney said...

Her letter sounds really positive to me. She's upset that she doesn't have celebrity crushes because it seems shameful and pathetic to her. It is. A grown woman having celebrity crushes is pathetic. You should outgrow that out of your teens. She's out growing her cohorts and I think it sounds like that's a good thing though it won't be easy if she follows it to its logical conclusion

Anonymous said...

To me she sounds like so many deluded young women these days: she has swallowed the lie that women can find deep and true meaning and gratification in "what they do," instead of in "who they are."

lynney62 said...

As an old lady of 70+yrs, and a widow of 30+ yrs, I've had a fabulous crush on a fantastic Spanish tennis star for 15 yrs. now and it's wonderful! Such fun! I think this woman takes herself way too seriously....lighten up, have a crush and enjoy it! :)