Monday, May 27, 2013

À mon seul désir

This post has been brewing for a while - since my Spring Break trip to Paris.  It springs from one of my visits to the Cluny during that trip, when I ended up in the Unicorn tapestries room.

I've been in there before of course, if only because it is the only air-conditioned space in the museum.  My first month-long trip summer trip to Paris I took in July instead of June and it was hot (and a little smelly).  I was spending my afternoons in museums looking at Virgin and Child statues and most of the Cluny's are gathered in a gallery right next to the tapestries room, so I would duck in there to sit in the a.c. for a bit whenever I got just too uncomfortable.  On this most recent trip, in March, it was freezing cold and I got routed through the room because that space with the Virgins was briefly closed for some reason.

And for some other reason I was struck by the panel above, sometimes labelled as the Lady and the Unicorn.  Struck not so much by its imagery, as by its text: the inscription that appears on the tent right above the lady, "à mon seul désir."  The phrase stuck with me and started repeating it to myself: I liked saying those words and hearing them.  So much so that I wanted to keep that experience going, so that when I got home I made myself a bracelet with beads that spell out that phrase.  I've been wearing it everyday since.

This despite - or maybe really because of - some tension over the phrase's meaning, which is what I want to write about here.  The tension comes from an ambiguity in its translation: "à mon seul" or "to my only" - that much is clear - "désir" - which literally means "desire," but could be interpreted to mean love.   "To my only desire" or "to my only love," which is it? What is the difference between the two?  And finally, what could either or both mean to me and so explain my sudden attachment to this phrase? In trying to think through all of this I came across Lauren Berlant's aptly titled Desire/Love, which I am going to make occasional use of here (and which you can download from Punctum Books here).

First, I am very resistant - and so also very attracted to - the "to my only love" interpretation.  Because I don't - and yet secretly want to - believe in the idea of an "only love," of a one right person. 

In general, I don't believe in it because it is so obviously illogical, unreasonable, impossible: in this whole wide world, how could there be a one right person, an "only love," for each of us?  I don't believe in it because it is so conventional as to be cliched, a product of every romance narrative from the Middle Ages forward.  And I don't believe in it because it is coercive and limiting: if there is a one right person, then there is also a one right way to live a life, in a couple pair-bounded with that one right person; and if your life isn't like that - as mine isn't - it must be a failure of some sort; you must not have met that one right person yet and ought to be spending your life looking for him (or her); and if you aren't, if you don't want to, because you find the whole processes of dating to be disheartening and humiliating - as I do - then there must be something wrong with you.  As Berlant points out, romantic love's failures are consistently read as personal failures rather than as evidences of its impossibility and in this way ideology sustains itself at a cost to the individual (p. 101). 

And yet, the first of my reasons for not believing in an "only love" - it's illogical, unreasonable, impossible - is exactly one reason why I want to believe in it: because given that it is illogical, unreasonable, and impossible, how much more special must its real existence be?  And then to hell with all of the rest of my objections.  And because I secretly believe this, I'm not willing to settle for a good enough relationship with a nice enough person in order to have the one right lifestyle with someone other than the one right person (and am I the only person who gets a ad every time I log out of Facebook that promises "more relationships" than the site's competitors, as if simply being in a relationship, any relationship, were a worthy goal in itself?)

I am also both resistant and attracted to the "only love" reading of this phrase at this moment in my life because I both don't and do want to attach it to the last person I was involved with, in a relationship that ended just about a year ago (in fact I am very conscious of writing this on the one year anniversary of the last time I saw him, although at the time it was not in any way evidently an end to the relationship).  I don't and do want to identify this person as my "only love," precisely because he is gone from my life and is not coming back (something that I am still struggling with a year later).  I don't want to attach this idea to him because he is gone and so if he was the only love than that experience is in the past and not being able to sustain that relationship is an ultimate failure.  But at the same time I do want to attach it to him because it seems like a way of somehow holding on to him even in his absence.  I am evidently experiencing melancholia, in a Freudian sense and as explained by Berlant, a way of merging the lost object into the self in order not to experience the loss and so an inverse of the idealized love relationship understood as the fusion of two into one (p. 29).  I identify him as the "only love" now that he is a lost love precisely in order not to lose him.  In doing so I write our relationship into a slightly different, more tragic, but equally conventional and cliched narrative structure.  

And so I, ironically, make our relationship much more conventional than it ever actually was.  Because even though he and I were together for almost four years (a record for me by the way), our relationship did not conform to the quasi-marital pattern that people expect of a boyfriend and girlfriend.    That was difficult for me to accept to begin with, because I had those expectations too; but after a while I came to like it, because for me it was a way of being in a relationship with someone without losing my sense of myself as I have in previous more conventional relationships.   It continued to be difficult for other people to accept, however, and I experienced directly the coercive qualities of our culture's ideology of romantic love in other people's negative reactions to my decision to stay in the relationship as it was (see Berlant, p. 44-5, 87).

Not wanting and yet wanting the phrase to mean "to my only love," then, I've been trying to consciously read that last word as "desire" instead.   And reading Berlant, that seems appropriate as desire can be distinguished from love by its ambivalence, which the narrative conventions of romantic love attempt to stabilize in order to produce a stable sense of self (p. 25, 44, 76, 95).   Recognizing desire's ambiguity introduces some irony into the phrase, however; for how can there be an "only desire" if desire is always at least doubled?  In desire, the drive for merger - for the "only love" - coexists with the drive to destroy - to critique all of these coercive cliches and conventions out of existence, at least in my own mind if not in the wider world.  And the drive to master the other - to finally make our relationship conform to convention and so resolve the conflict with myself and others - meets the drive for recognition from the other  - something that I cannot get from him in his absence and that makes the lost-love narrative finally unsatisfying (p. 39).  

I choose to read it as "desire," for desire can be deeply positive exactly in its ambivalence or really its multiplicity: I read the bracelet as asking me what I desire in this or that situation, even situations that have nothing to do with romantic love.   As Berlant writes building on Eve Sedgwick, desire can be productive of pleasure, of creativity, newness, and possibility - but only if it is not confused with the desire for stability or schooled by convention and by fear not to stray off of romantic love's overly beaten tracks (p. 44, 95). 


  1. This is a lovely post, Marian. But I have to say that I view the distinction between "love" and "desire" almost exactly the opposite as you describe them here (I haven't read Berlant's book, though). "Desire" for me is the force out of our control, the urge that can be indulged in, contained, or redirected, but never done away with. Over the years, I've come to think of "love" (as in romantic love) as more volitional. We "make" it, both together and in ourselves. We have to learn to give it back and forth, and also what happens when we withhold it.

    I absolutely share your skepticism about the idea of a "one true love" out there, waiting to be found. But I do think that we can decide, once we've found someone that we desire and have decided is worthy of our love, that we can decide to make them our "only love," the only one that we relate to in that way. They may not have been the only possible love out there for us, but they can become our only love if we choose to make them so.

  2. Hi Ben.
    Thanks for the comment. Among other things it gives a chance to clarify a bit. I'm not entirely happy with how I ended this post.
    It's not that I or Berlant in my reading of her, think of desire as being volitional or a matter of choice - far from it in the Berlant since her discussion is very much informed by psychoanalysis. It's that I'm choosing to read "désir" in that phrase literally as "desire" rather than as "love," even though that opens up the irony of desire never being "seul" or only but always multiple and even conflicted.
    Where my reading, informed by Berlant, differs more from what you are saying here is on the subject of love. She and I following are reading love, romantic love, only love, not as choice but as convention and even cliche. As the social pressures and internalized ideologies that try to contain and control unbounded desires into the socially acceptable form of love.
    Its fine to say that love or only love is something that you can chose to participate in. Where it's coercive force becomes evident is for those of us who don't chose to and regularly face disapproval from others.