The Juicy Bits

Love, lust, and the luster of life.

The Specificity of Desire (II)

Is attraction-at-first-sight a danger or the beginning a courageous adventure?

I suspect that many of us are familiar with the thrill of chancing upon just the right item in a crowded department store. We may have spent hours looking for a coat, a pair of shoes, a set of dinner plates, or a birthday present, only to suddenly glimpse the perfect article from the corner of our eye. In such instances, we sense immediately that we have found what we have been looking for. Likewise, when we meet a new person, we usually know instantly whether he or she is a good match for our desire. Even if we don't know anything about the tastes, interests, principles, or character of the person in question, we tend to know if he or she has what it takes to awaken our desire. I'm not saying that this always leads to good relationship choices. But when it comes to the specificity of our desire, such snap judgments are rarely mistaken. They can be a surprisingly good indicator that we have found a person who resonates on the right frequency.

Often the detail that draws our attention is astonishingly small. We can be captivated by the tone of someone's voice, by a connotation we catch in his or her eyes, by the shape of his or her nose, chin, eyebrow, or fingernails, or by his or her manner of picking up a coffee cup. The way in which a person talks or moves can have a tremendous impact on us. Usually we can't name the quality that animates our desire, but we do recognize when someone has it; we speak of a person's "aura" to describe this enigmatic quality without necessarily having any concrete sense of what we are referring to.

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Culturally speaking, we are taught to mistrust such desire. Attraction at first sight, we are told, can mislead us in calamitous ways so that the worst thing we could do would be to follow the thread of this kind of desire. I would say, however, that if instant attraction can often hurt us, it can also lead to relationships that are more lustrous than the average run-of-the-mill alliance. If the risks are higher, so are the potential rewards. It all depends on what we expect from desire. If we equate it with the quest for quiet happiness, it's probably right that we should shy away from instant attraction. But if we see desire as an existential adventure where we are willing to take the chance of getting a little burned, then there is nothing that ushers us to the heart of this adventure more reliably than the instant spark of magnetic attraction.

I emphasize this in part to counter our tendency to let cultural conditioning dictate our desires, so that we come to want what everyone else wants; we come to value certain kinds of people or pleasures for the simple reason that we are taught to value them. What is so wonderful about the specificity of our (authentic) desire is that it trumps such cultural conditioning. When our desire is fully engaged, we are usually willing to sacrifice some of our social comfort for the sake of our object, so that when those around us tell us that the person we have fallen for is of the "wrong" race, gender, religion, nationality, social class, or educational level, we put up a fight. There is a nobility and courageousness to our desire that is able to resist the temptation to go with the flow. But in order for us to activate this nobility and courageous, we have to remain in touch with the truth of our desire. One of the best ways to do so is to trust the snap judgments it makes. Such judgments may not always lead to ever-lasting happiness. But there is an accuracy to them that speaks to something deeper than what we are culturally programmed to desire.

 

Mari Ruti, Ph.D., is a professor of Critical Theory at the University of Toronto. She is the author of The Case for Falling in Love and The Summons of Love.

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