It’s a pleasure to be with you. I’d like to thank Amanda and the other members of this site for their generous invitation to join you and also for their support, which is much appreciated.
In this guest post, I’d like to explore the nature of desire. When desire is described, it’s usually painted as a feeling of hunger or need. The focus of the hunger is on someone or something that one lacks. If you already had the object of your desire, then you wouldn’t desire it. So desire seems to be an extrinsic feeling – a feeling that propels you out of yourself to seek out something beyond you. Desire also forces you to confront your own limitations. If you were self-sufficient, then you wouldn’t long for something.
The phenomenon of desire is, of course, a crucial part of the human experience. It’s frequently associated with love and sex and so novels that explore those themes must address desire, as well.
But desire is also communicated in other art forms. For example, consider the poem “Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost:
“Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.”
This poem is interesting for a number of reasons. My favourite lines are “From what I’ve tasted of desire/I hold with those who favor fire.” Frost associates desire with the flames of fire, which carries with it connotations of heat and burning and the potential of being consumed.
Frost also contrasts two possibilities for the end of the word – fire and ice. So does Dante in his Inferno. If you look at the way Dante structures hell, you see that it begins with the “warm” sin of Lust before descending down to the “cold” sin of Treachery. (See Danteworld) Those in the circle of the lustful are condemned to see the object of their desire but never to be able to have that desire satisfied. Those in the circle of the treacherous are encased in ice, representing the absence of warmth, affection, and even freedom of movement.
For a different expression of desire, examine Auguste Rodin’s (1840-1917) sculpture Eternal Springtime: http://www.musee-rodin.fr/en/collections/sculptures/eternal-springtime
The sculpture is of a male and female figure engaged in an intense embrace. They’re kissing. The female’s back is arched in passion, her right hand lifted to clutch at her lover’s hair. The male is supporting her weight with his right arm; his left arm lifted as if he’d rushed to her catch her.
The sculpture is an expression of physical desire and the culmination of that desire in an expressive kiss. It’s a testimony to Rodin’s giftedness that the viewer feels like a voyeur – as if we’ve intruded on a very private moment. The desire the figures have for one another is palpable.
What Rodin does with sculpture, many a poet or novelist attempts to do with words – to make the reader feel as if he or she has intruded into private moments. In the case of a novel involving love and sex, the novelist seeks to make the reader feel the desire of the lovers. But what one can create in several thousand words can be captured simply and succinctly in art. For this reason, I chose to incorporate paintings, sculpture, and music into the narrative of my novels “Gabriel’s Inferno” and “Gabriel’s Rapture.” This decision was motivated by an interest in showing how the arts can enhance or illustrate the events of a story.
For example, when the Professor and Julia have dinner alone for the first time, they hear Matthew Barber singing his song “You and Me.” You can see him performing the song here:
If you listen to the lyrics, you’ll see how Barber offers antonyms to compare the protagonist and his lover. The desire of the protagonist for within the context of the novel, the Professor sees the gap between his dark nature and the quiet goodness of Julia. She is fire and ice. She is virtue and he is vice. But his desire is for her.
Then there is Henry Holiday’s painting of Dante and Beatrice:
Notice how Dante is staring at Beatrice in a focused and intent way, but she isn’t returning his attention. Her expression seems to indicate that she is aware of his gaze, but she doesn’t respond to it. In this painting, Holiday portrays desire as entirely on the part of Dante. He’s clutching his left side (his heart?), mirroring the movement of her left arm, which holds a flower. It’s typical in Renaissance art, of which Holiday would have been familiar, for virginal ladies to hold flowers as a symbol of their purity. In this painting, Beatrice certainly isn’t offering her flower to Dante …
In fact, when Dante meets Beatrice at the Porto Santa Trinita, they are both married to other people. Dante’s desire for Beatrice remains unconsummated, even though he adores her both before and after her untimely death at age twenty-four.
In my novels I tell the story of Dante and Beatrice in a contemporary setting, choosing to draw out their desire for one another within the context of a forbidden relationship between a professor and his graduate student.
Readers have responded very positively to the narrative, and I think that’s because they find the desire that exists between the two characters to be believable. Certainly, that’s something I tried to achieve with my writing.