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 one of his Amoretti sonnets, written in the 16th century, the poet Edmund Spenser pits all his poetic ingenuity against the inevitable destructiveness of death. His lover's body is bound to decay; but his poetry will give her immortality: "My verse your virtues rare shall eternize,/And in the heavens write your glorious name."

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.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

    £40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

    Guru Careers: Software Developer

    £35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

    Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

    £25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

    Day In a Page

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?