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.

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