The inanimate toy repeats the still life’s theme of arrested life, the life of the tableau. But once the toy becomes animated, it initiates another world, the world of the daydream.
Susan Stewart, On Longing
Frankly the question came to this: what was the matter with her? Was there, without her knowing it, some peculiar lack in her?
Nella Larsen, Quicksand
Your eyes are bigger than your stomach.
My hunger is larger than my heart.
Larger than—to exceed: ‘to go beyond what is allowed’, says the dictionary. What is allowed in hunger? I have asked myself this since I was young. As I gained understanding of the world, the question became more articulate, but there has been no answer to satisfy either body or mind. And yet we are told that excess in certain aspects of life is not desirable; it is indicative of the presence of greed and absence of control. A signal in woman that proclaims not normal, instead of a desire to possess in the pursuit of knowledge: others, the world—but most of all, the self.
If I purged, starved myself of these excesses—curiosity and desire, regardless of what end—who would I be?
At the depths of my life when I had no identity, no face or body in the mirror that I recognised, I still had hunger. I took the memory of excess and tried to rebuild myself—following the keen wail of appetites that had not been fed in years, mourners lamenting as if for the dead.
There is irony in that excess being the skeleton upon which I grew new flesh.
Roland Barthes speaks of remembrance in A Lover’s Discourse: ‘… greedy to play a role, scenes take their position in memory …’ If my desires had not gone beyond what is allowed, I would have starved on the meagreness of them. They rehearsed with no body for a stage, but practised nevertheless; a hope that one day I would re-animate—my muscles flooded with the joy of scenes past, scenes to come.
In Kafka’s short story ‘The Silence of the Sirens’, it is silence—not song—which he imagines to be their true power. In my years of solitude, regardless of the people around me, I had to imagine the song my body wanted to sing, imagine it real in the hope that it was enough power—enough greed—to restore the voice of my hunger, the feeling of existence. Silence brought other voices, and those voices in turn brought me what I needed to feed upon. In that time, I rarely spoke—I did so instead with my fingers: whether I wrote to myself or letters, or when I placed them on my body in pleasure to utter those few words that restored me, if only momentarily. ‘Ah, ah’, says the automaton doll Olympia in the Hoffmann tale. As did I, waiting to come alive.
When I was about 20 and starting to date older men, I began to see discontent all around me. When you are the object of desire, it becomes hard to separate others’ hunger for newness and youth—or a genuine one for you—from what might be their feelings of sexual stagnation, a fear that they were not as desirable as they thought they once were. At that age my body was newly ripe and I was in a world where I could indulge my appetite with whomever I wanted. There were older single men, men who were married and claimed to be unhappy, others who were happily coupled but acknowledged the temptation of someone who looked at them without the repetitions of daily life. I was curious, so I tested the boundaries of such longings, sometimes aware that it was a transgression, but also that it takes two to transgress in such situations. I felt a warmth for the honesty of those who told me openly they wanted me but knew what it meant to go beyond a certain point; they were the ones that I would not do anything with, because without understanding fully, there was a recognition that might be my position someday. I sat in cars and lay in hotel beds knowing I was desired for something I represented, not who I was; curious that my identity could be nothing more than live, willing flesh to others—a mirror of desire; that it and nothing more was enough for some.
There were older single men, men who were married and claimed to be unhappy, others who were happily coupled but acknowledged the temptation of someone who looked at them without the repetitions of daily life.
I was my own experiment then, naively secure enough in who I was at that exact point in time to not be hurt by those encounters—because while I invested all my desire in them, what I knew as intimacy was also a folly; can the fool ever be self-aware? I saw myself distant—a body on a bed—as if I were a cadaver opening itself up for the purposes of learning, both curious about itself and the men who gathered round it. The irony was that the damage caused by unwavering belief in love and trust to come later would feel as if I were being flayed alive.
Standing in the d’Orsay museum in Paris, mesmerised by Gustave Courbet’s painting L’Origine du monde: a faceless woman lying on a bed, legs spread wide, dark fur resplendent and inviting. It was my body in each of those encounters; the anonymous desired. Or was I desired because I what I thought was the anonymity of youth was in reality the homogeneity of a different hunger—the kind that ravages and discards indiscriminately, with no thought to the thoughts of others? Perhaps the line between indifference and appreciation becomes blurred, if the point is to never know or care beyond the topography of a body. But to me it was anonymity, for what was hidden was mine alone. What good is a face when it is only a mask they hang upon you? You learn about yourself from the parts that are wanted and those that are not—allure and repellence being currency like any other.
To be both desired and undesired, advancing through the ages of sex shifts the perspective: there is rarely one position that deserves damning for me, because of the complexities of relationships. Regardless of gender, I have known people who were constant liars, others trapped in their circumstances, unwilling to get out because of greater things at stake: children; financial dependence; greater family pressure; determined to sacrifice a part of happiness if it meant the stability of others. These things are not the domain of one sex or another—instead, human—but maybe women have grown to develop their sensitivity and awareness as a result of seeing the dominance of the freedom of men to explore both the bad as well as the good in sex. We place a polar morality on such happiness, as if all things are fixable and once fixed, there is nothing but contentment. We choose what we want out of life, place greater value on x rather than y. We turn a blind eye to some things if we can have others; a constant balancing act or maybe one of constant denial. And yet I read article after article on open relationships, where people try to get across the impossibility of balance, dispel the myth of being able to be everything for one person. Whatever wisdom there is, it is often drowned out by the narrative that open equals nothing more than rampant hunger, greed, confusion; dissatisfaction in a society that requires us to present the opposite face at all times to be normal, either good or bad, because these things are easy to label and compartmentalize.
In a world where almost nothing is fulfilling but everything can be fulfilled instantly, we hold—hang—ourselves by the idea that we must find a perfect life in one other person. But some say it is unnatural to be monogamous, forgetting that to be natural sometimes is also not an ideal state, as if reverting automatically brings contentment—some plants are poisonous; animals often scratch or bite. All actions have periods of adjustment, reverberations that are felt not just in the person who makes the choice, but almost every person associated with them. The most logical of us cannot simply make a choice and expect the world and even our own emotions to fall in line. If there was such a violent fluctuation of desire and uncertainty with women such as de Beauvoir, who analysed her desire-self with a cool detachment even as she washed Sartre in declarations of love in her letters.
Before email was common, I would write lovers letters so long my hand would cramp, stiffened by desire. But these lovers lived in other countries—Canada, the UK—so part of me had to regard my emotions as a separate thing to the self that went to work and fulfilled the day’s errands. Was it a kind of ideal relationship? Looking back, I think so: there was longing—ever-present—permeating every thought no matter how mundane, but the little hurts and annoyances remained distant from lust and love, let it retain a kind of carnal aloofness that meant we could do nothing but revel in bodies and words and the wonder of each other whenever we came together.
I still think about ideal relationships—how we still try to generalize them as if there were a formula, unwilling to consider individuality part of that ideal. Maybe the ideal relationship can’t exist without compromise, and some still translate that as defeat. Or that the ideal relationship is about imbalance, and we can’t admit that some is healthy, even necessary. My parents were married until my father died—something like thirty years. But I know it wasn’t perfect. I’m just not sure it ever occurred to them not to be married. That makes me think, do I want too much, something I can’t answer rationally; I had nothing but a façade of a marriage for a very long time. And then I think about stillness again, contentment. I was miserable once, but do I want to be happy—is it realistic? We have to maintain misery the way we do happiness. Stillness is reached, but does not require feeding in the same way. But can you be still and still hunger?
My second real hunger—after the coma of a fifteen-year broken relationship/marriage—wasn’t even real; at least in the sense there was a body attached. Of course there must be, but I’ve never seen it except in a slightly distorted photo so its absence is a kind of unreality. But it is a hunger that persists and plagues me. It shouldn’t, because I have someone now that sleeps beside me, talks to me, someone who I desire and who desires me. I tell myself this other hunger is an imaginary hunger, one that exists solely because it is a puzzle: I desire that which is impossible to have. It is a puzzle because I wish to have a solution, or maybe because I just like to create problems for myself. It is an ungrateful and selfish hunger, I know. Lines of words strung together, a polite request that became something else, larger than the two of us. When one is hungry, one senses hunger in others even if it is not immediately noticeable. You draw that hunger out of each other and paradoxically, you feed each other with it. He fed me. I did not know until much later that I did the same. We listened to what the other wrote and said yes, because we wanted to know what it was like to trust and talk freely, to desire in this way. This is not a new way, sending messages back and forth, but it is if there is no promise of a body behind it. Can you do all those things without one, without heartbeat or solidity of flesh, when the voice in your ear is real yet unreal?
The hunger of the body changes the narrative of dreams. The hunger of the mind changes the narrative of desire.
We don’t feed our appetite for food with one thing only; why do we feel we have to for love and desire? We are happy to feed it with fictions—pages and images and songs of myriad pleasures like a bowl full of sweets, the sight and sound and smell of this or that, indulging in the sugared head-rush. We allow ourselves to gorge, but without tasting. One day we will realise that what we have satisfied ourselves with is only artifice; a simulacrum of desire that leaves us with an ache.
I want to plunge my senses into the reality of you, unleash my mouth; eat and drink until I am satiated. I want to hold great handfuls of your flesh as if you were a bunch of grapes, sun-warmed on the vine. I want to taste dripping seed like you were a fig, opened with my shaking fingers, the perfection of the eroticism of nature.
I think of lovers as food and as books—spilling their contents onto me, in me. I want them to be bursting with knowledge and life, ripe with desire.
When one is hungry, one senses hunger in others even if it is not immediately noticeable. You draw that hunger out of each other and paradoxically, you feed each other with it.
Who is you? You started as X—the unknown—who then became XY, real in the sense that you have read us openly, writing about literary desires. The unreal that became real, but even so remains uncanny; bodies whose flesh are made of screen and paper. He was a lover without the trappings of corporeality, intimacy without love; the essence of desire, because desire even in the context of sex is a hunger which creates a complete ideal: a wish, a hope, all false but all true, forever changing imperceptibly. When I write, I am whispering low in his ear; reading and creating him to escape into his being; but above all, devouring.
Viktor Shklovsky, in the preface of Zoo, says that ‘[i]n an epistolary novel, the essential thing is motivation—why should these people be writing to each other? The usual motivation is love …’. Love is just a kind of hunger. The epistolary lover, imagined or real, is hungry—but also a character. When we write of food, love and desire, they are representations of other things: bodies, loss, discovery, knowledge—we create a narrative for the lover and our story. How both intimate and selfish are epistolary lovers who speak in these ways—to be distantly close, closely distant; ideal.
This world—the written one we created—started in truth and became a fantasy no less truthful, but one that can never be made tangibly so. Maybe the ultimate truth is the knowing the constraint of not letting it become more, but is a thing like this less alive for lack of bodies? How do I say I have this although I can’t prove it to you—would you believe me? Maybe this is just the most satisfactory way of writing we know: the creation of characters, ourselves. We remain characters in an ongoing story so long as we never meet—made up, but also partially real.
Tomoé Hill is a contributing editor at Minor Literature[s]. Her essays can be found in in Lapsus Lima, Empty Mirror, Berfrois, 3:AM, and Numéro Cinq, as well as the anthologies We’ll Never Have Paris (Repeater Books) and Azimuth (the Sonic Art Research Unit, Oxford Brookes). She is co-editor (with Andrew Gallix and C.D. Rose) of Love Bites: Fiction inspired by Pete Shelley and Buzzcocks (Dostoyevsky Wannabe). You can find her on Twitter @CuriosoTheGreat
Art by Yanina Spizzirri.