Books: Dancing gaily on the grave
Lisa Jardine wonders where the femmes fatales have gone in a manly history of desire; Death, Desire and Loss in Western Culture by Jonathan Dollimore Allen Lane, pounds 25
In his new book, Jonathan Dollimore traces the ways in which, from antiquity to the present, erotic desire and the pressure towards self-annihilation have engaged each other in a hypnotic dance. For Spenser, he reminds us, "sexual ecstasy might itself be a kind of death". At moments of greatest passion, death is always on the poet's mind.
With unerring accuracy Dollimore pinpoints that dance's most unforgettable aesthetic moments, its richest manifestations in literature and philosophy. He argues persuasively that our century has been diminished by its inability to deal with death - that we "dry dwellers of eternity" (as Walter Benjamin termed us) are in a continual state of denial, stowing death away out of mind in hospitals and mortuaries.
As part of this process of denial, he maintains, our erotic impulses at their most intense have become increasingly, since the 19th century, identified with degeneration and decadence. According to commentators from Freud onwards, violence, perversity, and depravity threaten to overwhelm civilisation, to return society to chaos. Evasiveness and guilt undermine desire. The drive towards death in our erotic gestures is turned back on itself, in an impulse which both knows and refuses to know its own destructiveness.
Somebody has to bear the brunt of this ever-present yet displaced death- wish. Dollimore suggests that, in our own culture, homoeroticism takes the blame for society's innate "perversity". Coincidentally, the trauma of Aids places death at the centre of gay erotic writing. Thus it is that "erotic wonderment" - eroticism that is not disabled by its own self-disgust - manifests itself most convincingly in our time within a gay aesthetic frame: "Erotic wonderment could never be unique to gay writing, but it finds powerful expression in it."
The trouble, for me, is how this account excludes any creative erotic space for women. Grounded in the philosophies of those arch-misogynists Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Hegel and Heidegger, this approach repeatedly lines up destructive desire and femaleness with one another. Constructive desire, which confronts or accommodates the death-drive, is equally inevitably the space of complicity between men. All the examples of passionate homosexual desire Dollimore so elegantly explicates involve only men.
When Billie Holiday recorded "Gloomy Sunday", it was banned by radio stations for fear it might incite young people to suicide: "Death is no dream/ For in death I'm caressing you/ With the last breath of my soul/ I'll be blessing you... Gloomy Sunday."
There seems no room in Dollimore's account for the creative impulse of a death-driven woman such as Holiday. At a morbid, erotically confused stage in my adolescence, I used to play "Gloomy Sunday" over and over again. I have no doubt that her meditation on self-extinction was in some way culturally formative for me. I'd like to think that we were not drifting backwards towards some Nietzschean abyss, and that in a 20th-century fin- de-siecle philosophical exploration of desire and its limits, emancipated women might be able to recognise themselves too.
Life & Style blogs
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
Hershey's angers US chocolate purists by forcing company to stop importing 'yummy' Cadbury bars
Facebook, Instagram websites down — Lizard Squad hint at involvement, but Facebook claims it broke itself
SAG Awards 2015: Best and worst gowns on the red carpet
Nike Back to the Future style self-lacing shoes 'will arrive in 2015'
'We would evict Queen from Buckingham Palace and allocate her council house,' say Greens
French court convicts three over homophobic tweets, in case hailed as a 'significant victory' by LGBT rights campaigners
Greece elections: Syriza and EU on collision course after election win for left-wing party
British Muslim school children suffering a backlash of abuse following Paris attacks
Islamic history is full of free thinkers - but recent attempts to suppress critical thought are verging on the absurd
British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford faces execution by firing squad in Indonesia
- 1 The BBC has just done more to eradicate ‘terrorism’ than all our wars since 9/11
- 2 Dog thinks owner is drowning in lake, dives in and tries to pull him out
- 3 Thank heavens for Louise Mensch and her foul-mouthed tweets to world leaders
- 5 Phil Neville backtracks on Tomas Rosicky 'I'd smash him' comments from Match of the Day 2
£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly developing company in...
Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Application Architect/Developer - Peterborough, Cam...
Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Developer (C#, VB & ASP.Net, SQL Server, TSQL) - Pe...
Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Business Relationship Manager - Enfield, North Lond...