Types and Degrees of Desire in Modernist Texts, and Modes of Differentiation Between Them (study notes)


The question of what constitutes desire was paramount at the turn of the 20th Century. The Victorian obsession with the classification and condemnation of sexual ‘perversions’ led to the scientific classification of sexual desires and the ‘birth’ of homosexuality as a medical category. The ideal of the heterosexual marriage was heavily enforced, and all other forms of desire repressed and criminalised as demonstrations of ‘human delinquency’ (Krafft-Ebing, in Psychopathia Sexualis).

Of course, oppression often breeds creative forms of resistance. When referring to the Modernist period, the inevitable starting point for the rebellion is Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. During Wilde’s public trial for sodomy and gross indecency, the book was used as evidence against him. It was seen as literary proof that he sanctioned and participated in homosexual relations, even though it contains no explicit examples.

What is more prominent throughout the text is Wilde’s movement away from binding, universal morality in favour of individual experience. During his defence in court, he cited examples of same-sex admiration shown by Michelangelo and Shakespeare, but drew especially on Plato’s Symposium to argue that Uranian love is not only an acceptable form of desire, but ascends spiritually beyond heterosexual marriage.

The Platonic formula connecting friendship, same-sex love and beauty has a profound influence on Wilde’s representation of desire. Many of the relationships in The Picture of Dorian Gray are of a homosexual or homosocial nature. The artist Basil Hallward is drawn to, and becomes fixated upon, the beauty of Dorian Gray after their first meeting. Drew notes that it is Basil’s ‘Uranian love for Dorian [that] inspires him to the zenith of his creativity’, and the portrait is the symbol of his submission.

Though Lord Henry Wotton does not express desires toward Dorian that are clearly sexual, the character admits the intention to ‘dominate him… [and] be to Dorian what… the lad was to the painter’. Lord Henry is drawn to Dorian Gray initially because of his beauty and the poetic tragedy of his past. He encourages Dorian to explore all of the thoughts and bodily sensations that are condemned by conventional society, and takes pleasure in knowing about his deviancies.

His constant insistence on being the ‘observer’, and the pleasure it gives him, could be interpreted as near-masturbatory. Alternatively, it could be seen as an embodiment of the Ancient Greek conventions of pederasty. Lord Henry, as the older male, could be seen as the ‘eispenelas’, or inspirer. He passes on his wisdom in return for pleasure to Dorian, the younger ‘aïtas’.

Wilde certainly implies in his text that the relationships and desires felt between the male characters are more significant than any desires felt for, or by, women. The marriage of Lord and Lady Wotton, for example, remains detached from Lord Henry’s ‘main’ life with his male friends. He argues that married men are ‘forced to have more than one life’ in order to have a fulfilling existence, but the homosocial aspect of his life is given much more attention and care – his wife must resort to barging into Dorian’s house to be acknowledged at all.

The desire felt by both Dorian Gray and Sibyl Vane is in a highly objective form that has no real substance. Sibyl is little more than a work of art to be admired, and to her Dorian is an imaginary hero, her ‘Prince Charming’. Neither one’s desires are grounded in reality. Dorian rejects her when her acquisition of love draws her into reality, because unlike him she is able to be tainted by her feelings. Dorian, of course, is fixed and the portrait suffers in his place. He is unable to love her if she is real, and thus she is unable to live at all.

It becomes clear throughout the text that the only beauty that has truly intoxicated Dorian Gray is his own. It is his narcissistic desire to remain as beautiful as the portrait, combined with jealousy that it will never age or blemish, which leads him to wish for it to decay in his place. Wilde creates an interesting parallel with the Greek legend of Narcissus here: just as Narcissus’ love for his own image reflected on the water’s surface leads him to drown, so does Dorian’s obsession with the portrait lead him directly to his death.

Wilde’s representations of homosexual and homosocial relationships set a precedent for those wanting to explore and express alternative forms of desire in their writing. Many, like him, benefitted from a private education and were thus familiar with the Greek legends and Hellenic ideals Wilde so avidly enforces.

André Gide rather famously mirrors both Wilde himself (in the form of Ménalque) and his individualist approach to human desire in The Immoralist. By embodying the Nietzschean rejection of broad ‘norms’ and constraints of human thought, Gide is able to give legitimacy to the alternate forms of desire he explores in his text.

His representation of heterosexual marriage is that it is a product of responsibility rather than desire. Although Michel and Marceline grow fond of one another and eventually consummate their marriage, Michel only agrees to it at the request of his dying father. Marceline is seen as little more than a companion to travel with, and Michel’s carer as he recovers from tuberculosis. Though he is very fond of her, their love ‘reaches [its] pitch once and only’ before it recedes.

Once in North Africa, Michel begins to discover his true sexual desires. The initial sexual awakening comes from admiring a young Arab boy, ‘naked beneath his white gandourah’, and continues with his fixation upon the young thief, Moktir. At his Normandy estate, Michel becomes more distanced from Marceline as he develops an infatuation for Charles Bocage, his estate manager’s teenage son, and this begins to influence his decisions.

Michel describes Marceline’s love as ‘like rest, for a man who isn’t tired’. When she falls ill with tuberculosis and loses their unborn child, he drags her back out to North Africa and instead of nursing her, he goes out roaming the streets at night; ‘prowling… touch[ing] things with [his] hand’. Though he succumbs to Moktir’s female mistress, he describes this too as being like ‘sleep’, and it is obvious that this real interest lies in men (and boys). Once Marceline dies, Michel confesses to friends that he has sexual relations with both the boy who delivers his food, Ali, and with his prostitute sister, but that he ‘prefer[s] the boy’, and that perhaps he is the reason that he lingers.

Michel, by indulging his intergenerational/paedophilic homosexual desires, becomes the ‘immoralist’ of the book’s title – not because he has succumbed to immorality, but because he has adopted Nietzsche’s view that morality is a slave mentality.  He abandons morality in favour of individual pleasures, and the pursuit of his true homosexual desires.

This creates a parallel with the intergenerational desire felt by Aeschenbach towards the Polish boy, Tadzio, in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. Aeschenbach becomes consumed by a desire so strong that he struggles to leave Venice; initially, lingering too long in the breakfast room and unwittingly causing the loss of his luggage, and later, being unable to depart when he becomes aware of the cholera outbreak. This leads to him contracting cholera and then, at the close the book, his death.

Mann, like his predecessors, introduces the motif of forbidden love in the context of classic Greek ideals. Aeschenbach’s intense passions are never acted upon, and his pursuit of Tadzio is portrayed as ‘the pursuit of Beauty alone’.  His desire is objective, in the sense that he wishes to fix the boy to the present moment: he takes pleasure in the thought that Tadzio will ‘not live to grow old’ and compares him to an unchanging Greek sculpture.

Luke notes that Platonic Eros theory offered Mann ‘the most appropriate cultural framework for both a sexual and visionary experience of love’. Tadzio is thus represented as ‘the meeting point of the Apolline cult of disciplined, sculptured beauty and the dark, destructive longing of Eros-Dionysus’. As Aeschenbach watches Tadzio for the last time in delirium, he becomes ‘the pale and lovely soul summoner’ (a reference to the death god ‘Hermes Psychopompos’ who escorts souls to the underworld).

Alternate forms of love or desire described in the set Modernist texts thus far are fleeting and momentary, or else the ultimate reason for a character’s downfall.  Forster offers an alternative to this in Maurice. The ‘happily ever after’ normally reserved for heterosexual marriage is offered instead to Maurice and Alec Scudder, as they depart to live as ‘outlaws’ in the ‘greenwood’ (Sherwood Forest).

The classic Greek aspect is still present, but with a rather significant modification. Though Clive Durham is a Hellenist and firmly rejects the carnal aspect of his relationship with Maurice, Forster emphasises the weakness and cowardice in this decision. He is portrayed as a weak man unable to admit his passion to society; though he believes he feels ‘as Pippa [does for] her fiancé, only far more nobly… more deeply, body and soul’, he eventually abandons Maurice for the very hypocrisies he despises his mother for.

His supposed ‘conversion’ to heterosexuality (his engagement to Anne) is little more than joy in his acceptance by society. The ‘delicious interchange’ of sexual interaction is now permitted, rather than ‘never responded [to]’. Therefore, Clive is not seen to have ‘gained a sense, but rearranged one, and [so his] life would not have appeared as a holiday for long’. Though initially seduced by the ‘normal’, by the close of the book Clive regrets his decision to hide his true desires.

Maurice, in contrast, is an actively sexual character. Forster explicitly states that he ‘would have made a good lover… he could have given and taken pleasure’. After Clive rejects him, Maurice resolves never to ‘pretend to care about women when the only sex that attracted him was his own… he loved men and… longed to embrace them, and mingle his being with theirs’. His subsequent affair with Alec Scudder, beginning at Penge when Maurice throws open his window and invites sexual visitors (with an emphatic cry of ‘come!’), celebrates the very carnality that Clive refused.

Though the previously aforementioned texts coincide with the perception of homosexual men as effeminate or ‘inverted’ (an idea proposed by Ulrichs, rooted in a misunderstanding of Plato’s ‘conjoined beings’), Forster offers two strong, male alternatives. Maurice’s masculinity is heavily enforced, aided by repeated references to his athleticism, bulk and solidity. Alec, too, is portrayed as being a strong, reliable comrade, fully equipped for their mutual battle against society. The test of their relationship comes as Alec emptily threatens Maurice with blackmail; realising his partner’s strength and ‘pluck’, Alec decides ‘never to harm [him]’ and commits to their life together.

Unlike Maurice, though, Alec experiences and embraces heterosexual desires. He states that ‘it is natural to want a girl’, and to deny that is to ‘go against human nature’. Indeed, when Maurice first encounters him he is engaged in a clinch with two ‘damned ugly’ girls. However, the lust he feels for these women seems to fulfil a very different need for him than Maurice does, even though both relationships are sexual.

This concept – that the two sexes fulfil very different needs – is explored extensively by D.H. Lawrence in his novel, Women in Love. Though the relationship between Rupert Birkin and Ursula Brangwen is the most functional heterosexual relationship in the text, the profound loss he feels at the death of Gerald Crich leads him to reveal the depth of his feelings for the man to his wife. Though he tells Ursula she is ‘enough, as far as a woman is concerned’, Rupert admits that he yearned for an ‘eternal union with a man too: another kind of love’. He explains that he needs both of them in order to be happy – Ursula, for the perfect relationship with a woman, and Gerald, for the perfect relationship with a man.

Their desires for one another extend beyond the scope of homosociality, even if the highly erotic nature of the naked wrestling scene is disregarded.  Rupert actually wishes that Gerald had loved him in Gudrun’s place, and confesses to Ursula that he ‘offered him’ his love. The event he refers to is his earlier request for Gerald to undertake a blood oath of commitment, closely resembling the vows of marriage (‘swear to be true to each other… love each other… implicitly, perfectly, finally, without any chance of going back on it’).

Rupert certainly seems jealous of the affection Gerald felt for Gudrun. However, Gerald insists that his desire was false; that ‘he had to take pity on [Gudrun], but it was never love’. Gerald does spend the night with her, but their stormy relationship is far from satisfying for both parties. He becomes infuriated by Gudrun’s verbal abuse, the rejection of his manhood and her intense friendship with Loerke – the ‘eternal triangle’ that he finds himself a part of – and tries to firstly to take her life, then embarks on a snowy trek that ends his own.

Lawrence’s decision to create a ‘love triangle’ with a woman at its centre was a bold choice, because it made the desires of the ‘lesser’ sex more central. However, Gudrun is not portrayed as being in a position of power; instead, she is submitting to two masculine powers instead of one. Loerke, though physically diminished, is emotionally commanding, and is thus able to dominate her. Gerald, too, exceeds her in physical and social strength. She possesses no hold over either man, and so is essentially powerless in this sexual struggle.

The situation stated above only considers heterosexual desires in women, and completely ignores the strength of passion that women can feel for their own sex.  In Nightwood, though, Djuna Barnes constructs a complicated three-way relationship between three women: Robin Vote, Nora Flood and Jenny Petheridge. In contrast to previous representations of women’s desires as inferior, Barnes writes that ‘men never know anything about it… but a woman should… [because] they are finer [and] more sacred’.

Feminist critics such as Irigaray would argue that Barnes’ text makes a critical progression in the understanding of desire, because it reimagines it outside of ‘heterosexual and heterocentric ‘norms’’. However, the essentialist implications of Barnes’ statement – that it is the unique genital/sexual configuration of women that allows them to experience desire more fully – is not so helpful, because rather than disrupting the gender polarisation it simply seeks to reverse it (giving women the position of privilege).

The focus of both Nora and Jenny’s desires is the childlike Robin Vote; ‘a girl who resembles a boy’. Though she marries Baron Felix Volkbein and gives birth to his son, she is nonetheless described as a boyish ‘invert’. This initial relationship with Baron Felix is totally devoid of passion: he sees her as the future ‘stand[ing] before him, without effort’ and is attracted mainly to the safety and maternal familiarity of her whiteness. She accepts his proposal of marriage solely because ‘[her] life held no volition for refusal’. The overall weakness of his character means he does not possess the gravity to hold onto her, and she soon disappears into the night, leaving him to raise their son alone.

When Nora first encounters her at the circus, Robin states that she ‘doesn’t want to be [there]’, but does not say where she wants to be. It becomes clear that what Robin really ‘wish[es] for [is] a home’. From this moment, Nora becomes devoted to her and takes responsibility for her care, trying to retrieve her from the anonymity of the Parisian streets. Their relationship relies entirely on Nora’s domination of Robin and her obsessive desire, and is thus destined to descend into dysfunction. Though Robin ‘belong[s] to Nora’, as Forster puts it, ‘she would forget… if Nora did not make it permanent, by her own strength’. This perhaps explains why Robin smiles and calls Nora her ‘angel’ when she strikes her.

However, Nora’s role is assumed by the vulture Jenny Petheridge, a ‘squatter by instinct… [who] appropriates the most passionate love she [knows]’ in order to feel like a significant part of the world. The pivotal moment at which Jenny takes Robin’s affection is also a moment of violence; it is only after Jenny strikes her in the carriage that Robin accompanies her to America as her partner.

All in all, Nightwood provides a very bleak picture of lesbian desire and homosexual female relationships. Winterson notes that ‘Robin’s passivity, Jenny’s predatory nature and Nora’s passionate devotion make an impossible triangle’ which cannot be resolved. The novel ends precariously with Robin’s possible descent into madness, in which she regresses to an animalistic state.

Perhaps the Modernist advancement that Nightwood represents, then, is the acknowledgement that desire bridges the differences of gender, class and sexual preference. Though subjective, multi-faceted and unpredictable, it is universal in its dispersal through human society. We all feel it to some degree: as Winterson puts it, ‘gay or straight, humans suffer [for love]… they break themselves… blur themselves… choose the wrong lover, [then] crucify themselves on their own longings’.


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