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In Defense of Lust (An Essay, and Polemic)

I was working on an essay not long ago and came across a comment from Twilight author Stephenie Meyer that in her novels she wanted to write about “love, not lust.”

At first I barely registered the line, probably because it’s so pro forma. I’ve heard that exact phrase or its gist asserted with prim confidence and nary a peep of dissent thousands of times—in women’s magazines, on grazes through talk shows, and in dating advice columns.

Google the phrase, “love not lust.” Use a comma, or not. You’ll get 385,000 entries for that precise phrasing. A Wikipedia entry will explain how to tell the two apart.

I’m so very tired of hearing lust belittled and trash-talked.

Lust and love have undergone a conjunction metamorphosis.  The “and” that happily and plausibly joins them in partnership tends to get elbowed out these days by a “but” that sets them at odds.

So the first allegation against lust is that it’s different from love, and lesser—by some accounts, it’s a counterfeit love, and like any good undercover agent you need to be able to tell the forgery from the real. 

But is there really lust devoid of any glimmer of love in it, or a lust that isn't on collusive speaking terms with love?  Are we ever just lusting after a body, like an inanimate lump of meat sitting on a barstool, without lusting a bit after the soul that animates the body?

I prefer to think of lust as a kind of love that attaches first, but rarely exclusively, to the ephemera. Lust gets aroused by a curve of a breast or a sparkly eye, or some charming crooked smile.

In French director Eric Rohmer’s moral tale, “Claire’s Knee,” a fateful but random glimpse of the leggy Claire’s knee as she stands on a stepladder under a cherry tree sparks the engaged hero Jerome’s insatiable, subversive lust, to touch that knee.

Feeding on details and glimpses, lust is about nothing and everything, simultaneously. It insists that the random (a knee, or a smile) is profound, and that profound things emerge from the perceptually random. Worlds are upended over so little—except that it isn’t really a little thing.

Lust is a heightened state of seeing, observing, and hearing, of attentiveness to arousing detail. People in car accidents often report that time “slowed down” for them.  Apparently, this is an adaptive neurological reaction. I think a similar thing happens with lust.  Lust isn’t a life-threatening emergency, but its opposite—a potential life-beginning emergency, when attraction might lead to consummation which might lead to conception. In this crisis of bliss rather than trauma, time can slow down just as dramatically.

Turning as it does on exquisite perception, I’m confused when lust’s critics complain that it sordidly cheapens and trivializes the subject of the lust, and dehumanizes them. They might have in mind the objectifying male banter that occurs around cheerleaders or the SI swimsuit issue. That sort of ogling doesn’t really rise, or sink, to the level of lust, I don’t think. It’s an in-group social ritual more than an example of desire. One admires a nice ass on the page or screen to be part of the group, and moves on, with no real persistent, compelling urge behind it.

It seems to me that a genuine case of lust does the opposite. It humanizes more than it reduces. Love, like lust, is an act of imagination, and it’s almost an alchemy, to glean a whole desirable human in the small gesture and minutiae of that person’s being. “I don’t know what she sees in him,” people say. Or, “she’s not all that!” (but of course, she is). Lust magnifies the humanity of the desired, and sometimes attunes us to it excruciatingly, which sounds like one of a hundred plausible definitions of love.

Another of the bum raps against lust is that it doesn’t last. It’s so perishable, unlike love. A friend once called lust “fool’s gold.”

Okay, lust is a passing thing. Let’s stipulate that.

In some cases, two people find each other, have an intense lust, and the attachment wanes, whether it’s consummated or not. But in other cases, it wanes and solidifies into what even a foe of lust would recognize as love. You could think of lust in this example as the evolutionary fuel that ignites love.  In both of these cases, lust may indeed be fleeting, but that doesn’t mean it’s antithetical to love. In one scenario, it’s the “gateway drug” to love.

And, in any case, why is impermanence synonymous with cheap?  Do we believe that only relationships that end in a proposal and lifelong marital union truly count as success stories?

 A lasting union is precious. My parents have been married over 60 years. I have friends whom I’ve known since 6th grade. I also have people that I cared for fleetingly in my life. But they mattered. Evanescently, they did important or pleasurable things for me. They taught me something or elicited new aspects of my character. Some afforded me happiness or confidence about myself, at a time when it was hard to find elsewhere. Some were good comrades. There wasn’t much to them, I suppose, by the implied romantic standard that what doesn’t last doesn’t count.

I was just lusting over them, I guess. However, I know in my heart they did count. I know that I remain loyal to these people in my mind, although we’re no longer in touch. They mattered but they didn’t turn out to be people that I was going to take a long journey with.

These transitory unions of lust didn’t elicit destruction but enrichment.  Lust’s power is thought to be cataclysmic although it can be generative. The association of lust primarily with sexual destruction and demise is a fairly modern one. “Lust” wasn’t always about sex, or pejorative. Its earliest meanings in the 1300s were to “please or delight.” This meaning was refined into the act of desiring or choosing, but this wasn’t specifically an erotic desire; as in, “Who so lusteth to rede this lytell treatyse?” (1526), or “He that lust to see examples, let them search their lives” (1563).

From this point a more pejorative inflection grew stronger. Lust means “to have a strong, excessive, or inordinate desire.” There are examples of this usage from the 1700s and 1800s. A secondary meaning of lust as sexual desire appears from the 1600s as well.

Interestingly, in the 1300s, the more pejorative meaning of lust attached to its absence, with the word “lustless,” to be without vigor or energy,” a precursor to “listless.”

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129 catalogs lust’s fearsome power. It is

savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust

enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight,

past reason hunted, and no sooner had

past reason hated, as a swallowed bait.

 

 It is “mad in pursuit and in possession so.”

Sonnet 129 presents lust almost as an inevitable heavenly torment. It is maddening in “pursuit and in possession.” We hunt it “past reason” beforehand, and hate it past reason afterwards. We’re deranged by lust either in its contemplation or its consummation. And, as the last lines remind us, we’ve no defense: “All this the world well knows; yet none knows well/To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.” While not condoning lust, Shakespeare concedes its troubling ineluctability.

There’s also a mood of futility in “To His Coy Mistress.” If lust is ephemeral, warns Andrew Marvell, then so too is the honor that stands as a bulwark against it. If not devoured and acted upon, “your quaint honor turn to dust,/And into ashes all my lust.” 

These choices appear to balance on the scales—ashes for honor; dust for lust.

 

If there isn’t a good, hard lust that doesn’t have a kernel of love in it, I wonder if there is really a marital love that endures without a kernel of lust? Romantic-disabusing advice givers might lead you to believe so, as they see marriage more as The Longest Day than Casablanca.

They’ll urge you to go about the practical, almost bureaucratic labors of building your marriage.  Be realistic. As anyone on the street now knows to counsel you, marriage takes hard work.

You know what? It also takes lust. I mean lust in the broadest sense, of aroused energy for each other. It takes a zany, joyous, spontaneous, spirited approach to a life together.

There are plenty of marriages that don’t have that frisson in them. Some of them are still together, and sometimes that makes sense—maybe for the children, or because the relationship gives the partners something they need, or because it’s a good compromise, to sacrifice the lust to maintain a household.

But please don’t mistake this sort of reasonable compromise as an exemplary marriage—or, what’s worse, as all that you should expect because, after all, “love” and “lust” work opposite sides of the street.

This trash-talking of lust is part of the disenchantment of love. It’s an ad hoc idea that we should estrange and quarantine love from its mischievous, wild, joyous cognate of lust.

And then, maybe we’ll settle down into lifelong marital unions with each other, quit wanting so much, and save the endangered institution of marriage.

Don’t be fooled: in this regard, the contempt for lust is political. It’s not political in the literal sense of a Romney/Ryan 2012 bumper sticker, or such. Rather, it’s political in that “lust disgust” resonates for culture warriors who are frustrated (and it’s not a groundless frustration) by the demise of marriage in a generation that they feel doesn’t embrace commitment, the long view, a work ethic, or morals.

Under two years ago a bitter harridan who had never read my book sent me one of only two negative emails I ever got about it. She made a point of saying she hadn’t actually bought or read it.  She figured she knew about it because she’d read something online or heard a rumor.  She threatened to shelve it with “whiny books written by rich people.” Quick! Call my accountant and tell him the good news! I’m rich!

Although shelving it in “Whiny Books Written by Rich People” would be more accurate than its current mis-shelving in “Self Improvement.”

Anyway, the harridan’s point was, “what did you expect from marriage? Some thrill ride?”

Right you are. Marriage is like a depressing but secure job. You just gotta show up each day, and grind it out. Work is work—and, now, so is marriage. 

I guarantee you: The woman who sent me that email is the same one who would urge persistence in a gray-souled marriage by saying, “It's about love, not lust.”

There’s this dreary group of people out there who really do want you to lowball your expectations—expectations for your libido, your marriage, and your life. There are people who hate your sex life. If you aspire to more, you’re selfish.

At a time when you as a woman, have the most possibilities, they want you to downsize. They warn you that love isn’t about lust. Others will tell you until they’re blue in the face about the impossibility of really having it all, whatever “really” means, since if you casually survey women in their 40s and 50s, you’ll see plenty who have rich, multi-faceted, satisfying lives with several different elements in them. These women might well be mentors for younger women, except that we’re told that they don’t really exist.

 

To be fair, however, people who trash-talk lust have good, but I think misdirected, reasons for doing so. Some lived through the seismic social disruptions of the 1960s and 1970s. They feel that Americans became a selfish, pleasure-seeking people, who don’t make sacrifices or delay gratification. It’s important to understand that they imagine social liberals as having vastly more sex than they actually do. In their minds, liberals are swinging, or frittering their time at wife-swapping parties while their kids cry in a corner.

I think they’re correct that long-term relationships of any sort require delayed gratification and self-sacrifice. If my husband and I had divorced at each moment when married life sucked, we’d have split up 50,000 times by now. For this group, the “love not lust” phrase codes:  “people think life is all fun and games and lust, and it’s not. Relationships require more. You can’t just split up when things get rough.” 

These people should be waging battle against ethical flaccidity and shortsightedness, rather than lust.

Others who talk down lust are tired of getting bombarded by vulgar, tacky images from Madison Avenue, or of sleazy pop culture that affords no sexual charm. They look at this tawdry landscape and call it an excess of lust. So they wish that people would seek a more meaningful intimacy. For them, “love not lust” codes: “For the love of God, could we please not have to keep stumbling over raunchy crap all day long?”

I don’t disagree with them, either. Our junk sex culture is to erotica what Velveeta is to cheese: a  tasteless imitation liable to make you sick and bloated.  And I don’t want to have to explain Viagra commercials to my child. Nor do I want to be “media-educating” him continuously about how vulgar and sometimes exploitative it is that women get sexed out and used to sell things.

These people should be waging battle against tastelessness, aesthetic-sexual monstrosities, and exploitation, rather than lust.

In both cases, lust stands wrongly accused. 

 

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