Friday, March 16, 2012

Eros, Regret, Desire

I doubt it is feasible to outwit hindsight. Regret, as I understand it, isn’t tantamount to lamenting a poor choice. It is an acknowledgement of the uncomfortable (or thrilling?) fact that human experience is a chain of ever forking paths. Sometimes, these paths are recursive. I return, for example, over and over, to the subject of frustrated desire.

I recently found a weird little book called Simple Passion. It’s about a French woman’s brief, electric affair with a visiting American. For the entire duration of the relationship, she says, she could do nothing but wait for him. Ordinary actions – from the mundane, like tooth-brushing, to the engaging, like serious conversations – only covered her inward act of waiting, a thin patina over her desire. For her, the desire was total, consuming. The book impressed me because she seemed to grapple with desire in terms similar to my own: “I often strike a balance between a strong desire and an accident of which I am either the instigator or the victim, an illness, or some other tragedy,” she wrote. “Knowing whether I would agree to pay the imaginary price of disaster is a sure means of assessing the strength of my desire, possibly also of challenging fate…”

Georges Bataille – also French! – famously argued that the human experiences of Eros and death were curiously imbricated. To be clear, “death” for him was “loss of the self,” and so not limited to strict physical death. In the throes of Eros, we face the possibility of losing ourselves in the object of our desire; the actual sexual act even suspends normal social, psychological, and anatomical interpersonal boundaries. It is a little death.

I have said nothing here of how our ideas of social propriety might actually play into the cultivation of desire, even though I think this is unavoidable and important, too. I think there is a relationship between this and the foregoing, viz., that Eros and desire have sharp edges. Maybe you disagree with me, that the edginess of desire is part of its appeal?

Even if you do disagree, I wonder what happens to that acuteness when desire is part of a comfortably complete narrative. I certainly see how this can offer pleasures of its own. But I suppose what I’m saying is that desire in an incomplete story is pleasurable, too, while the quality of that pleasure is different. Desire can be fulfilled, frustrated, or left inchoate. I wonder about the ultimate appeal of fulfilled desire. I don’t suppose you like the music of the Talking Heads? One of David Byrne’s most frequently misunderstood tunes is called “Heaven.” The refrain goes:

Heaven is a place
A place where nothing
Nothing ever happens

Taken in isolation like that, the suggestive readings are almost too tantalizing. Does he mean that paradise is an idyll just because everything is left unfulfilled, or is heaven simply a bore? The verses bear out that it’s the latter sense he means:

There is a party
Everyone is there
Everyone will leave at exactly the same time
When this party’s over
It will start again
It will not be any different
It will be exactly the same

Does it inappropriately re-locate the focus to claim that unfulfilled desires are only interesting in terms of the constraints that hinder them? I think so. But then, I am probably relying too much on my individual experience, which seems peculiarly heavy in desire without resolution. (This may suggest that I am in the habit of desiring too much, or denying myself too much.)

I had a friend in college who was also a girl. We were ourselves, young. We stopped talking eventually. She became a regret, a long moment-let-slip, a stinging sweet memory like a tiny cut.
She wrote me 10 years later. I thought: I am old enough to measure dormant relationships in decades. I thought next of that night, and my regret. I have other regrets, many worse than this. My darkest are for things done, rather than for things not. This is a different sort of regret. I thought of Vera Pavlova’s poem:
If there is something to desire,
There will be something to regret.

Regret as desire doesn’t depend on transgression. When desire is present, regret is inevitable. Buddhists identify desire as the source of all suffering: eliminate the former, avoid the latter. And yet:

If there is something to regret,
There will something to recall.
If there is something to recall,
There was nothing to regret.

Maybe desire, and thus regret, is more than a befuddling shackle to be shed. Maybe I treasure regrets as crystallized desires, connections to my past selves, only as bitter as they are sweet. Is it strange that many of my regrets are erotic? Anne Carson describes Sappho’s deployment of Eros in precisely this manner, embracing both the pleasure and pain inherent in desire. Eros, for Sappho, is a strange beast:

Eros makes me shiver again
Strengthless in the knees,
Eros gall and honey,
Snake-sly, invincible.

My regret shares this erotic duality because regret and desire are not easily disentangled. Pavlova’s poem, in the end, draws a circle:

If there was nothing to regret,
There was nothing to desire.

I must accept two different senses of regret. A conventional sense may connote a poor past decision, a failure. It is this sense that Pavlova prompts me to reject. My past is irrevocable, but the dynamics of regret preserve the sweeter sections. As Eros is bitter, regret is sweet.