Today is the fourth day of the A-Z Blogging Challenge. Just to remind you, I’m doing an A-Z of human emotions, feelings and mental states.Today is the letter D, and there were a lot of choices- doubt, despair, depression, delusion- but I finally went with Desire.
Desire is a mental state that poets, philosophers and psychologists have been fascinated with for hundreds of years. It can have many different meanings. It is usually associated with wants rather than needs. If we desire something we wish or yearn for it. But there are many different kinds of desire-bodily desires such as hunger and thirst, sexual desires, and intellectual desires such as the desire to progress in your career. Some of these desires are instinctual, reflexive and hard to control, whereas some are rational desires that we reason about before deciding that we desire them.
Before the Romantic period, desire was a frequent theme in literature but it was traditionally portrayed in a negative light. Elizabethen and Jacobean playwrights like Shakespeare frequently explored ‘forbidden desires’ such as the love between members of feuding families, inter-racial love, homosexuality and even incest. Typically the consequences of fulfilling these desires were extremely negative, almost a punishment- especially for women. For instance, many of Shakespeare’s plays involve pure, virginal women (Juliet, Ophelia etc.) giving into their desires and then facing madness or death as a result.
But the Romantic era turned everything around. Suddenly desire was something to be celebrated. Read the work of Romantic poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Blake and a great deal of it is about desire versus reason. Romanticism was a reaction to the Enlightenment, in which reason was advocated as the primary source for authority. The Romantic poets, however, believed in following one’s desires rather than reason. In fact, William Blake is quoted as saying ‘Better murder an infant in its cradle than nurse an unacted desire’.
Desire by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Where true Love burns Desire is Love`s pure flame;
It is the reflex of our earthly frame,
That takes its meaning from the nobler part,
And but translates the language of the heart.
Coleridge seems to say that desire is the light of true love. To him it is an innate human reflex that we should accept as part of ourselves. But despite the emphasis put on desire, the Romantic poets did distinguish between higher and lower desires. To them, the desire to love and create works of art would be much more important than bodily desires like hunger.
Much later, psychologists such as Freud began to explore desire from a different angle. Freud believed that our dreams are all about fulfilling one’s desires. He came up with new theories such as the Oedipus complex to try to explain ‘forbidden desires’ and stressed the need to repress them because of their taboo nature. He came up with the theory that we have an id, ego, and superego- the id being the center of our desires and basic drives, the ego being the part of us that tries to fulfill these desires in a realistic way and the superego being the part that strives to act in a socially appropriate manner.
Nowadays Psychologists usually say that repressing one’s desires is unhealthy and ultimately leads to mental health problems in the future. Rather they need to be dealt with and accepted so that we can move on. But we must fulfill them in a controlled, realistic way that isn’t damaging to ourselves. Since the Feminist movement it’s now accepted that women have sexual desires that need and deserve to be met, and magazines and TV programs now focus on how both men and women’s desires can be met. There’s also a general feeling that society is becoming too focused on fulfilling desires- that it’s become all about earning the most money, indulging in the tastiest foods, fulfilling sexual desires even if they have consequences for other people. It seems that desire is still a very complicated emotion and that it is best handled in moderation.
What do you think? Are our desires good things that we should always strive to meet? Are all desires selfish and should be repressed for the sake of making us into better people? Or should desires be met realistically and in moderation, as long as they do not hurt others?