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Art and desire

Excerpt from The Painter: A Novel of Pursuit

After it’s all brought in, we stand in her bedroom looking at each other and then at the rather massive amount of baggage. I think how meticulously she’s been planning this re-invasion.

Her eyes are very wide and alight with a slow fire, as she stalks towards me stealthily, sensing my reactions as she advances. My early warning system is flashing with indications of high imminent risk.

"I mean it about learning to see and feel," she says. I detect a soft velvety expression sweeping over her face like a meltingly gentle breeze, as if she’s remembered something exceptionally pleasant.

She comes closer and seems to read in my face a curiosity that’s not unpromising. Her fingertips linger on my shoulders, and she slips her tongue for an instant between my lips.

If I’m not mistaken, the kind of seeing and feeling she seeks concerns the serpent that offers knowledge of the gods excelling all other bliss the earth affords.

But undertaking an excursion with the serpent will mean a remake of the same old movie — the same promising beginning but the same predictably miserable finish. At the very moment of apparently attaining our goal, the serpent will vanish, the wave of pleasure will break, and we’ll be dumped back on the slime of the earth: unsatisfied, spent and alone.

What else could be expected? Isn’t it a little ridiculous to think that an ephemeral intercession with a few centimeters of downy flesh, a few seconds of dreadful revelry in a bedroom, a sodden exchange of mucous fluids – no matter how relentless and reckless – could emancipate us from our earth-bound existence?

"Good night," I say, firmly but amiably. From The Painter: A Novel of Pursuit, page 44

Desire in poetry

Shakespeare showed the way in terms of writing about desire with his sonnet #129.

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
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 swallow'd bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

                (from Shakespeare's Sonnets, #129)

By adopting a third person perspective on his own experience, Shakespeare is able to express both the intensity of desire and the moral feelings that sometimes follow its indulgence.

The argument that lust leads to disgust might satisfy the moralist, but hardly matches the universal situation, where the reality of desire is that we often enjoy it without succumbing to disgust.

The question arises whether we we push the poetic envelope somewhat further, by expressing the positive intensity of desire in the first person without lapsing into bad taste..

Here is a contemporary illustration:


Anemones are delicate creatures
Whose slow quivering motions beckon us
To relish their mysterious features
With a shy charm that is ingenuous.
The inner architecture I can glimpse,
Initially indistinct and blurry:
Those corkscrew curls, those wisps of flesh called nymphs,
Veil hollow, contour, oval, and millefeuille.
I enter that baroque lobby, thrilling
To oyster-like tissue, pearl of pure flesh,
Mauve and rose and limpid pink, distilling
Wonder that generates the world afresh,
As I realize that I am seeing
The immense pleasure field of your being.

            (from Sonnets 2000)

Here the approach taken is one of analogy to nature, leading sinuously towards "the pleasure field of your being".

A more violent approach is adopted in Sonnet #14:


Breathless, I plunge headlong into those depths,
Driving deeper with each bestial stroke,
Yet also sensing ascent to a crest
On which celestial beings evoke
Sensations of velvet and ambrosia,
The savor of which I have a foretaste.
Yet I know at the moment of closure
All trace of this divine bliss is effaced:
At the instant when I am on the brink
Of sharing the gods’ prowess without bounds,
A little flick will suffice, and I sink
Unmanned to my terrestrial surrounds.
Yet so sweet is this fore-glimpsed sensation,
I wait craving for the next frustration.

              (from Sonnets 2000)

The poem goes on to explore the mysteries of the experience, leaving the author at the end "craving for the next frustration".

Art and abstinence

How can she complain so? After all, she can’t say that I don’t cherish her, care for her, cook for her, put her on a pinnacle and treat her like a princess. No, her complaint against me is a more basic one.

I’ve been through the reasons for my position on this issue with her many times already, and I’m sure she knows them by heart. In the first place, the kind of concupiscent activity she envisages is messy and smelly and wet. Secondly, it’s aggressive. How can a switched-on post-feminist like April accept the concept of men going round sticking their things into women? Thirdly, it’s unseemly, with all these grotesque effusions – throbbing, heaving, flailing, writhing – all leading up to the monotonously inevitable climax like a piece of mediocre Tchaikovsky. Fourthly, it isn’t good for the health. There’s a considerable risk of contracting an incurable illness. Finally, it takes too much time. I think it’s this final reason that’s decisive. I don’t have the time.

April knows my position but she has settled her attentions on someone who hasn’t the slightest interest in doing the one thing that she desires. She knows that there are scores of good-looking red-blooded HIV-negative males who salivate at the chance of getting into bed with her. In fact, a brace of my acquaintances at college spent a great deal of time and inventiveness on trying to create such occasions. It makes no difference to her. It seems that what she wants is me.

I don’t deny that at another time and place, and with different requirements on my time, I might be interested, since there are moments, I confess, when my thoughts do drift to the pleasures of the bedroom and April’s antic attractiveness. But the way of the artist is strait, and the time requirements binding. If once I end up in her bed, then I know what follows: shopping expeditions, visits to restaurants, changing the oil in her Datsun, spending weekends antiquing, entertaining her friends, and then, God help me, her relatives. At present, I can tell her she’s free to do all of these things and see all of these people on her own. I have a different destiny, which requires every minute of my time. That’s the basis on which she came here, and that’s the basis on which she stays. I’ve made the arrangement, and I have to maintain it, if I’m to look myself straight in the face.
    From The Painter: A Novel of Pursuit, page 15

Other quotations on art and desire

There is no nudging of naughty cucumbers, but that foreground peach is not exactly without sexual charge.
    Julian Bell on Chardin
All seducers have themselves been seduced.
    Barry Smyth
On might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women, but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object - and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.
    John Berger
The liberated woman... is the symbol of the English Renaissance, as the beautiful boy is the symbol of the Italian. In Shakespeare, liberated woman speaks, irrepressibly.
    Camille Paglia
With the deep kissing and tonguing of modern lovers, we are back again at the infantile mouth-feeding stage of the far-distant past... If the young lovers exploring each other's mouths with their tongues feel the anicient comfort of parental mouth-feeding, this may help them increase their mutual trust and thereby pair-bond.
    Desmond Morris
We think of the pleasure of the kiss as focused on the mouth, because the thoughts of the kisser are focused on the gesture, upon its tender meaning, and therefore upon the mouth only in so far as it is itself represented in their thoughts. The kiss is a recognition of the other's dearness, and its pleasure lies in the other's rejoicing in that.
    Roger Scruton
Drink to me only with thine eyes.
    Ben Johnson
When the eyes caress, the memory fondles.
    Diane Ackerman
No wonder we are ardent voyeurs, savoring the visual Eden of photograph and film. They offer us homeopathic doses of love, exhilaration, mystery, sexual adventure, and violence -- all enjoyed from a safe remove. To feel but not feel. To gamble but not risk. To undress and unravel and penetrate with mere thought. These are heady thrills.
    Diane Ackerman.
Why do the eyes, mouth, nose, and brow transfix us, when they have little relation to the sexual prowess and bodily perfection of their bearer. The answer is simple: the face is the primary expression of consciousness: to see in the face the object of sexual attraction is to find the focus which all attraction requires, the focus on another's existence, as a being who can be aware of me.
    Roger Scruton


The Painter by Stephen Denning

The Painter

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Sonnets by Stephen Denning

Sonnets 2000

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