As he drew near to her he knew that she quivered and he was almost sure it was not with fear." One sentence from Barbara Cartland's Riding the Moon and we know at once what kind of text we are in for. Catherine Belsey, moving on from her magisterial The Subject of Tragedy is only the latest to give in to the seductions of desire - or rather, of writing about desire (as she argues, the two are hard to distinguish).
Our post-Renaissance, post-Cartesian culture assumes and imposes an opposition between mind and body, between culture and nature, but desire moves across these with cavalier disregard. On one side, desire is "in excess of the organism" while on the other it stubbornly "remains unspoken in the utterance" - the object of desire always sliding away from us so that (here Belsey refers to Freud, Lacan and Derrida) there is no single definable object of homoerotic or of female desire. You cannot reduce desire to the body but you cannot put it into words either.
Even knowing this, Belsey has a very good try, in a book that is pointed, illuminating and beautifully written. What confronts the heroine of romance is an impossible struggle to reconcile lust and morality, body and mind. To transform the lover panting on her breast until he resembles herself and thinks about matrimony, she must not only unite two subjectivities but also each within themselves, in a "utopian wholeness". Only then, and then only for an envisioned moment, may she glimpse that bliss expressed in the familiar cataclysmic, natural metaphors of burning, falling, drowning.
In Secret Understanding Cassandra Preston felt that "she was going up in flames and she tried to control her mind", soul and body even then remaining disjunct. As they must, for if desire were ever completly fulfilled, that would be the end of desire. And so, as Belsey deftly shows, the only successful realisation of desire is a partial one in textual terms. Whether in Mills and Boon or medieval romance with its irreconcilable conflict between love and chivalry, in Donne's love lyrics, or the postmodern novel that both defers and sustains desire by citing it, the reader always desires to read on. Belsey pursues her topic through western culture with a quickness and subtlety that seems equal to the elusive twists and turns of desire itself.
Antony Easthope is professor of English and cultural studies, Manchester Metropolitan University.
Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture
Author - Catherine Belsey
ISBN - 0 631 16814 1
Publisher - Basil Blackwell
Price - £12.99
Pages - 232