Review: Michael Eigen (2006). Lust. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press. 118 pages. ISBN 0-8195-6809-0 (pbk.)
Donald L. Carveth
In his latest book, Michael Eigen offers us what at times appear to be his free associations on the theme of lust. There is no organization into chapters, little organization overall, separate themes and aphorisms being marked only with a kind of squiggle. “With all my might,” Eigen writes, “I try to keep things open” (p. 5). While it’s true that a closed mind may be an impediment to understanding, mightn’t the same be said of one that is excessively open? In his resistance to what he calls “hallucinated certainty” Eigen seems to have fallen prey to “hallucinated uncertainty”: as against singularity, he celebrates multiplicity; against knowing, not knowing; against stasis, flow; against totality, the partial; against plenitude, lack. In other words, against the metaphysics of presence, he embraces, in typical postmodern fashion (thankfully increasingly out of fashion), a metaphysics of absence.
Although generally opposing anything that might threaten to limit the multiplicity of possible meanings, he opens with a definition: “Lust, one of the seven deadly sins, is part of what gives life luster, heightening existence” (p. ix). Allowing that it “can be degrading and part of a will to power, an assertion of dominance,” he argues that it can also entail “an act of self-affirmation.” He confesses “Since childhood I’ve wondered why ‘evil’ is ‘live’ spelled backward,” an association congruent with his emphasis upon lust’s vital and constructive as distinct from its destructive elements. In refusing to settle for conventional associations of lust with sin or pathology, Eigen departs from its ordinary definition, increasingly conflating it with desire, so that his book becomes as much a discussion of the latter as of the former.
Various dictionaries describe as “obsolete” the association of lust with pleasure and delight. Instead they define it as “intense or unbridled sexual desire,” as “lasciviousness,” or as “intense,” “unrestrained,” “overwhelming” or “obsessive” longing or craving. In other words, common definition associates lust with something essentially excessive, pathological or sinful, and contrasts it with normal desire. While certainly stemming from a sense of “lack”—as the book proceeds Eigen relies increasingly upon Lacanian concepts—normal desire lacks these qualities of obsessive and lascivious driven-ness. This is because, however passionate, normal desire is accompanied by an expectation of response and fulfillment. With confidence that my desire will be gratified I am not inflamed with envy, tormented by a teasing and withholding object, nor driven by the idea that I must aggressively seize what will otherwise be denied me, as is the case in lust. It is not that Eigen altogether neglects the desperate, envious and aggressive qualities of lust grounded in the luster’s experience and expectation of frustration but, rather, that he resists defining it in these terms, broadening his definition to include the vital and life-affirming aspects more commonly associated with desire.
Whereas some may see this broadening as a virtue, I consider it more obscuring than enlightening. If theorists come away from this book wondering what it is about lust that has been clarified (assuming Eigen’s aim in writing is to clarify, a dubious assumption in my view), clinicians will likely feel that not only is there little that is new here, but important elements of our current understanding have been ignored.
One of Heinz Kohut’s important contributions is the concept of the “disintegration product”: the intense sexual and aggressive driven-ness that Freud viewed as a natural manifestation of the somatically-rooted drives of the id, Kohut reinterpreted as a “breakdown product” arising from frustration of what he viewed as natural (though sometimes pathologically intensified) needs for recognition, affirmation, soothing and “holding”—i.e., for empathy and love. W.R.D. Fairbairn had earlier made the same point when he argued against Freud that, in health, we do not turn to others as means to the end of pleasure through drive discharge, but rather for the sake of a meaningful and good human relationship. For Fairbairn, as for Kohut, it is the failure to establish such good relations with others that leads to driven pleasure-seeking of the sort we associate with lust.
At times Eigen foregoes broad generalizations about the alleged nature of human desire in favor of genuine psychoanalytic insight. At one point he writes: “All through childhood I masturbated, day and night, many, many times a day, constantly. This means I was a sick child. Only sick children masturbate all the time. An attempt to soothe madness” (p.17). There it is: lust as disintegration product. Much later, toward the end of the book, he provides a clinical vignette in which such insight appears again. At the outset, Gary and Marge enjoyed “Great sex!” Until one evening, in the midst of a perfect blow-job, Gary was appalled to find himself feeling nothing: “But it was great. It was great—and I didn’t feel a thing. I couldn’t get into it” (p.77). After a host of rationalizations had been worked through it gradually became clear that the root of the problem was that neither partner had ever been prepared to make the other a center. Gary came to suspect that “it was his peripheral status [for Marge] that dampened his spirit. He thought he wanted more, but could he give more?” Each partner was “readily blaming the other out of their own unknown deficits. The beauty of sexual urgency was supposed to fill in blanks of self-knowledge? Too big a burden for lust to keep up with” (pp. 78-9).
Whatever the limitations of his theoretical work, Eigen’s talent for acute and perceptive clinical description is undeniable. In particular, he has such empathy with psychosis that at times his descriptions of it seem to merge with the processes he describes. There are a number of vivid case vignettes peppered throughout an otherwise meandering text, although their theoretical relevance to the theme of the book is not always so clear. But what is of interest here is that, having just implicitly acknowledged lust as a disintegration product of Gary and Marge’s “unknown deficits,” “blanks of self-knowledge,” and incapacity to make an other a center—that is, their narcissism and inability to love—Eigen immediately veers away from such useful psychoanalytic insight (as he did earlier in the text with respect to his revelation of his own childhood pathology) in favor of highly questionable claims regarding the general nature of human desire. It is no longer the narcissistic pathology of Gary and Marge that is the problem: it is the universal problem that for human subjects “desire fades” because, as symbolizing beings, we suffer from “aphanisis,” the perpetual disappearance of the meanings we create and the desires we experience.
But Lacan’s saying so doesn’t make it so—at least not in the case of the healthy desire that is mature and genuine love (which “Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things”) as distinct from the unhealthy desire that is lust. It’s true that lust fades, because lust is about looking for love in all the wrong places. None of its objects will ultimately satisfy because the lusting subject, encased in narcissism and the sadism that inevitably accompanies it, is incapable of giving or receiving love. But as Freud reminds us, "in the last resort we must begin to love in order that we may not fall ill, and must fall ill if, in consequence of frustration, we cannot love."
Writing of a patient who complains he has insufficient appreciation of the role of hate in lust, Eigen admits: “A lot of people are more down to earth than I” (p.28). He writes: “I’m not sure I’ve ever felt lust that didn’t take me closer to God, open God for me” (p. 26). My own experience is quite the contrary: I’ve never felt love, including loving sexuality, that didn’t take me closer to God, or lust that didn’t take me further from Him.
Donald Carveth is Professor of Sociology and Social & Political Thought at York University, Glendon College, in Toronto. He is a Training & Supervising analyst in the Canadian Institute of Psychoanalysis (IPA) and past Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Journal of Psychoanalysis/Revue Canadienne de Psychanalyse. Many of his publications may be found on his website: http://www.yorku.ca/dcarveth. He may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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