On coming and going

Death, Desire and Loss in Western Culture
July 10, 1998

This book opens with extracts, raunchy enough to be called pornographic, from Oscar Moore's novel, A Matter of Life and Sex. Its protagonist courts Aids and infects others in bathhouses. Death is his "last fix". Jonathan Dollimore thinks that in western culture "death inhabits sexuality" although the intimacy of the bond, he argues, has become apparent only in the age of "the gay cancer". Those who sleep together now die together. Desire shall lead us to death. Dollimore examines meditations on death, desire and mutability in western literature and philosophy from the Greeks to the homosexual poet C. P. Cavafy. I think Dollimore exaggerates death's share in this intellectual heritage.

Connecting death with desire is mutability. Dollimore finds in W. B. Yeats, who never experienced a death wish, a discrepant ally: "Man is in love and loves what vanishes,/ What more is there to say?'' Dollimore has more to say in this occasionally repetitive book full of insights that provoke pathos. There is a secret impossibility in desire; we sense always the skull beneath the beautiful skin. Read as a wide-ranging anthology with connecting commentary, it succeeds superbly. But Dollimore has a thesis: for westerners death does not defeat desire, rather it consummates it. He finds support for this in many a half-truth that was true for the occasion. Like a Christian theologian, he finds everywhere the paradox he seeks.

Dollimore often exaggerates the western interest in death. Philosophers from Socrates to Sartre have meditated on death, and many have found it to be profound and seductive. Hegel and Schopenhauer have admittedly idolised death as the very aim of life. But fortunately no one has said: "I die, therefore I am" or "I desire, therefore I exist". With Christian belief in abeyance these days, there is something terminal about death. A gay man visits the grave of a lover: "I have no faith - only memories." Old men, almost dead, continue to desire as if the orgasm might redeem them.

Life should be ardent. That is the message of the many poets and philosophers Dollimore cites. This is perhaps a characteristically Western view and may explain the compulsion to expansion and conquest. Dollimore writes movingly about Sir Walter Ralegh, who was imprisoned and eventually executed for his failure in a commercial venture. Ralegh came to adulate death as a more ruthless omnipotence than God. Death was a mocking tyrant more worthy of worship. Yet, adds Dollimore, the inevitability of death imparts intellectual energy while it saps life: Ralegh wrote his massive A History of the World while in the Tower of London.

Life should be ardent is also the message of the chosen homosexual poets and philosophers. Here is a "casual, faceless voraciousness" for life's pleasures. Michel Foucault, Dollimore's hero, ridiculed the idea of safe sex: if it is sex, why should it be safe? Our fate, death, is latent in our desire. Foucault's dying creed: "To die for the love of boys: what could be more beautiful?" Even if sex is worth dying for, it is hard to believe that homosexual love shall revolutionise the world. Dollimore writes warmly about John Rechy's "revolutionary ****". But is it really any more liberating than conventional sex? The gay poet Cavafy wrote eloquently of the wrench of lovers' separation, of the love that is always doomed. But Dollimore does not establish that gay poets can express the pain of desire any better than conventional poets let alone that the promiscuous sexual encounter can lay the foundations of a revolution or of art. A homosexual activist refuses to be labelled: "Just say 'I am -' and you will be saved." That is anarchy, not revolution.

Life is ardent for "the higher degenerate", a person who is over-educated and civilised yet addicted to perversion, even barbarism. Dollimore finds examples in the writings of D. H. Lawrence and Joseph Conrad. All Europe is said to have contributed to the making of Kurtz, a character in Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The higher degenerate is an imbalanced individual, intelligent and cynical, often "wrecked by desire" but discovering important truths precisely through his abnormal tastes and neuroses. Death and desire are intensified by genius and disease.

But Dollimore sometimes goes too far. We are surprised to learn that Romeo and Juliet were secretly consumed with hatred for each other. Deviously, each loved only death with beauty as death's mask. This is overstating the truth that where we love, we also resent; we rarely like those whom we love. The object of love can destroy us though we are, normally, unwilling victims. Hatred and resentment do not extinguish desire but become part of it and intensify it. We do want to hurt the one we love. But do we really want to kill the one we love?

To be fair to Dollimore, he discusses the views of a wide variety of thinkers. He notes Edgar Allan Poe's "necrophilic misogyny" and de Sade's wish to connect death with "some licentious image". But there is also Francis Bacon, who casually dismissed death; Karl Marx and his followers, who see "the ideology of death" as merely a capitalist trick: death, like birth, is only a contingent natural fact. Death, for the existentialists, is an external limit on freedom, and we can make death rational and painless: suicide shall empower us.

We sense the shallowness in the Marxist's politically motivated claim that the nameless pit of death need not concern us. Nothing prevails against death whose power everything called "life" and "desire" has only been able to strengthen. But if we need not eroticise this finality called death, we need not fear it either. Michel Montaigne has the balance right in a passage Dollimore quotes: "I want death to find me planting my cabbages, but careless of death, and still more of my unfinished garden."

Shabbir Akhtar is writing a biography of St Paul.

Death, Desire and Loss in Western Culture

Author - Jonathan Dollimore
ISBN - 0 713 99125 9
Publisher - The Penguin Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 416

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