Philosophy Weekend: Siri Hustvedt on Desire

I don’t think we really want to solve the puzzle of desire. What would we do afterwards? But the puzzle seems to be impossible to solve anyway, so we can enjoy pondering it forever. Here’s a passage that caught my attention in “Variations on Desire”, the opening piece in Siri Hustvedt’s appealing new collection of essays, Living, Thinking, Looking.

Desire appears as a feeling, a flicker or a bomb in the body, but it’s always a hunger for something, and it always propels us somewhere else, toward the thing that is missing. Even when this motion takes place on the inner terrain of fantasy, it has a quickening effect on the daydreamer. The object of desire—whether it’s a good meal, a beautiful dress or car, another person, or something abstract, such as fame, learning, or happiness—exists outside of us and at a distance. Whatever it is, we don’t have it now. Although they often overlap, desires and needs are semantically distinct. I need to eat, but I may not have much desire for what is placed in front of me. While a need is urgent for bodily comfort or even survival, a desire exists at another level of experience. It may be sensible or irrational, healthy or dangerous, fleeting or obsessive, weak or strong, but it isn’t essential to life and limb. The difference between need and desire may be behind the fact that I’ve never heard anyone talk of a rat’s “desire”—instincts, drives, behaviors, yes, but never desires. The word seems to imply an imaginative subject, someone who thinks and speaks. In Webster’s, the second definition for the noun desire is: “an expressed wish, a request.” One could argue about whether animals have “desires.” They certainly have preferences. Dogs bark to signal they wish to go outside, ravenously consume one food but leave another untouched, and make it known that the vet’s door is anathema. Monkeys express their wishes in forms sophisticated enough to rival those of their cousins, the Homo sapiens. Nevertheless, human desire is shaped and articulated in symbolic terms not available to animals.

When my sister Asti was three years old, her heart’s desire, repeatedly expressed, was a Mickey Mouse telephone, a Christmas wish that sent my parents on a multi-city search for a toy that had sold out everywhere. As the holiday approached, the tension in the family grew. My sister Liv, then seven, and I, nine, had been brought into the emotional drama of the elusive toy and began to fear that the object our younger sister craved would not be found. As I remember it, my father tracked the thing down in the neighboring city of Fairbault, late in the afternoon that Christmas Eve, only hours before the presents were to be opened. I recall his triumphant arrival through the garage door, stamping snow from his boots, large garish box in hand—and our joy. My youngest sister, Ingrid, is missing from the memory, probably because she was too young to have participated in what had become a vicarious wish for the rest of us. Asti knows the story, because it took on mythical proportions in the family, and she remembers the telephone, which remained part of the toy collection for some time, but the great unwrapping on the living room floor that I watched with breathless anticipation isn’t part of her memory.

This little narrative of the Mickey Mouse telephone opens an avenue into the peculiarities of human desire. Surely the telephone’s luminous and no doubt aggrandized image on the television screen whetted Asti’s desire and triggered fantasies of possession. The Disney rodent himself must have played a role. She may have imagined having conversations with the real mouse. I don’t know, but the object took on the shine of glamour, first for her, and then for the rest of us, because it wasn’t gained easily. It had to be fought for, always an augmenting factor in desire. Think of the troubadours. Think of Gatsby. Think of literature’s great, addled Knight Errant on Rocinante. A three-year-old’s desire infected four other family members who loved her because her wish became ours through intense identification, not unlike the sports fan’s hope that his team will win. Desire can be contagious. Indeed, the churning wheels of capitalism depend upon it.

* * * * *

Siri Hustvedt’s essay goes on to consider the relationship between desire and self-awareness, and between desire and identity.  I think there’s much to discuss about these relationships — I sometimes wonder if desire may be the essential ingredient in the human sense of self.  To desire is to be.  A negative indication of this relationship can be found in the fact that Buddhist texts speak of living without desire, and of being a no-self.

I was reading Hustvedt’s essay in a light-hearted mood, but a darker, terrible angle on the topic opened for me when I watched the latest coverage of a trial that’s been in the news.  A famous football coach for a major American university was found guilty of 45 counts of sexual abuse of young boys.  During the trial, the horror increased: it was uncovered that he had also molested or raped his own adopted son.  Many observers were amazed to see that this coach’s wife stuck with him even through the verdict, holding his hand in court.  He has put up no legible counter-argument, but the formerly well-loved football coach maintained an expression of dignified umbrage through the trial.  I don’t know how his face didn’t crumble, but it never did, and he has not admitted his guilt even though the evidence against him is beyond doubt.

When I see this football coach’s face on television, I see the ravages of desire gone foul.  Or is desire any part of his crimes?   It’s said that every rape is an act of violence, but the details of the coach’s crimes indicates that he was motivated more by desirous greed than by sadism. It’s impossible to imagine what was going on his mind as he was committing these crimes, how he connected the dots to justify his behavior to himself and to his wife. We see in this sad affair the power of desire to delude.  Maybe desire is a puzzle we do need to solve … before we do each other any more harm.

* * * * *

But who am I kidding?  Desire is a puzzle that will never be solved.  Later in the essay, Siri Hustvedt takes a look from yet another angle:

Every week, I teach a writing class to inpatients at the Payne Whitney psychiatric clinic. My students are all people who find themselves in the hospital because life outside it had become unbearable, either to themselves or to other people. It is there that I’ve witnessed what it looks like to have no desire or very little desire for anything. Psychotic patients can be electrifying and filled with manic, creative energy, but severely depressed patients are strangely immobile. The people who come to my class have already put one foot in front of the other and found their way into a chair, which is far more than some of the others can do—the ones who remain in their rooms, inert on their beds like the living dead. Some people come to class but do not speak. Some come but do not write. They look at the paper and pencil and are able to say they cannot do it, but will stay and listen. One woman who sat rigidly in her chair, hardly moving except for the hand that composed her piece, wrote of a morgue where the bodies were laid out on slabs, their mouths opened to reveal black, cankerous tongues. “That’s why we’re here,” she said after she had finished reading it aloud, “because we’re dead. We’re all dead.” As I listened to her words, I felt cut and hurt. This was more than sadness, more than grief. Grief, after all, is desire for the dead or for what’s been lost and can never come again. Grief is longing. This was stasis without fulfillment. This was the world stopped, meaning extinguished. And yet, she had written it, had bothered to record this bleak image, which I told her frightened me. I said I had pictured it in my mind the way I might remember some awful image in a movie, and I tried to hold her with my eyes, keep her looking at me, which I did for several seconds. When I think of it now, bringing up film might have been defensive on my part, a way of keeping some distance between me and that morgue (where I’ll end up sooner or later). Nevertheless, I’ve come to understand that what I say is often less important to the students than my embodied attention, my rapt interest in what is happening among us, that they know I am listening, concentrated, and open. I have to imagine what it feels like to be in such a state without coming unglued myself.

I don’t know what that woman’s particular story was or why she landed in the hospital. Some people come wearing the bandages of their suicide attempts, but she didn’t. Everybody has a story, and each one is unique, and yet now that I’ve been going to the hospital for a year, I’ve seen many variations of a single narrative. One man encompassed it beautifully in a short poem. I can’t remember his exact wording but have retained the images it brought to mind. He is a child again, wandering alone in an apartment, longing for “someone” to be there. He finds a door. It swings open, and the room is empty. I can’t think of a better metaphor for unrequited longing than that vacant room. My student understood the essence of what he was missing: the responsive presence of another, and he knew that this absence had both formed and damaged him.

11 Responses

  1. Why do you say desire is a
    Why do you say desire is a puzzle?

    What needs to be solved?

  2. Well, first, we like to
    Well, first, we like to understand everything that’s present in our lives, but desire often manifests itself as a paradox (the fact that satisfaction of desire often does not bring pleasure is one example of this paradox),

    On a more practical level, I think people often feel that they are controlled or overpowered by desires they can’t even understand. To live rationally, as I think we all want to do, is to strike a balance between reason and desire, but it’s hard to find this balance if we can’t comprehend desire on a rational plane.

  3. I read an interesting comment
    I read an interesting comment about desire:

    “Like anger, desire is initially a response, not a choice”


    I think the current thinking to examine these questions is the sociobiological (often called evolutionary psychology) approach.

    The excerpt from Hustvedt was excellent. It did address desire in animals. The qualifier that animals don’t experience highly symbolized desire (along the lines of the heart warming highly relatable Christmas story) is true enough but doesn’t discount seeing desire in the evolutionary perspective.


    In terms of the Zen conundrum you saw related to the second part
    of the excerpt, do you think desire as a response helps solve that puzzle?

  4. Thanks, T.
    “Desire is a

    Thanks, T.

    “Desire is a response, not a choice.” hmm. That doesn’t really ring true for me. I don’t think it’s a response or a choice. I think it’s the primary ingredient of consciousness. Wouldn’t you agree?

    Regarding the Zen conundrum, well, I see that related to all issues elated to desire. Mainly, I’m just trying to frame Hustvedt’s essay here, and to call attention to it.

  5. I think that desire and need
    I think that desire and need are not always disinct, but exist on a continuum. For instance, I need sex as I’m driven by a instinct to mate, but I desire certain types of sexual experiences with certain types of people. So there is a complex relationship between need and desire.

  6. “Desire” is a journey that
    “Desire” is a journey that soon dissipates after attaining it’s goal of fulfilling a particular want. Understand the want and desire weakens it’s grip upon mind.

  7. Hi Bill,
    No. They mean a

    Hi Bill,

    No. They mean a break. They are characters that go across a key board. It could be done as below as well.


    Levi, I think you will appreciate this NYT Op-Ed by EO Wilson:

    Evolution and Our Inner Conflict.

    And related, Richard Dawkins hates EO Wilson’s Recent book


    Levi, I think desire is of course a primary ingredient of consciousness. But that doesn’t explain or add to solving the puzzle, it is an observation and it is why the puzzle is of interest.

    I think understanding desire, like anger, as a response or a reaction, is quite important in understanding it, or solving the puzzle.

    What was interesting is that Hustvedt set forth the really sad cases who were dead inside as those who’ve given up or lost all desire. (“It is there that I’ve witnessed what it looks like to have no desire or very little desire for anything.”).

    On the other hand, Zen presents getting to a place where desire has been lost — living without desire as you described it above.

    Desire as a response/reaction explains well the tranquility/peace/lack of desire state.


    Bill, you are famous.

  8. Proust was the undisputed
    Proust was the undisputed poet of desire. His alter-ego, M. or Marcel, was constantly in a state of either desire or disappointment. It was only when the experience was crystallized into memory that he was able to look at it, like a dragonfly trapped in amber, with a sense of equanimity.

    “Desire” is a journey that soon dissipates after attaining it’s goal of fulfilling a particular want. – as mtmynd said. Proust would add “and brings dissapointment and longing for the original desire”.

  9. Here’s desire in a nutshell
    Here’s desire in a nutshell — the perceived pleasure one believes they will feel as a result of the experience.

    An author who I will credit anonymously talked about her experiences as a young girl walking down Main Street in her small town many years ago.

    A large color poster for a pineapple sundae caught her eye in a Woolworth’s window. It looked simply — amazing. Mountains of ice cream, dribbles of pineapple sauce and tufts of whipped cream everywhere. And let’s not forget the cherry on top.

    It took her weeks to scrape up the one dollar she needed to buy one. But the visions of that pineapple sundae swam through her head day and night were there to comfort her as she helped neighbors with yard chores, helped out around the house and checking payphones for forgotten change.

    The day came and she had her dollar. She proudly marched into the Woolworth’s, sat down at the counter and ordered her pineapple sundae with a toothy grin. The waitress was skeptical of her ability to pay. The little girl scooped all the spare change out of her pocket and put it on the counter with an even bigger grin as nickels and dimes rolled around.

    Less than a minute later the waitress plopped down a plastic bowl of goopy ice cream, mustard-yellow pineapple sauce and a sorry looking cherry.

    The little girl was crushed. What she strived so hard for day after day ended up being no big deal at all. She ate the sundae but it didn’t seem to taste as good as she thought it would.

    That’s one direction desire can take. There are so possibilities, many of them much more satisfying.

  10. There’s a lot of good
    There’s a lot of good information about desire in the Tao Te Ching…to paraphrase, Lao Tzu says we should let go of our desires

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