Bad Boys, Bad Girls and the Obsessions That Build Them
Desire. Obsession. Art. Strength. Will. Female power. These are difficult terms with complex meanings that have changed a great deal in the 20th century—so much so that they have become virtually inexplicable. Sub-fields of academic thought have been built around them. They inform and define relationships between men and women and we are as powerless to control their definitions as we have ever been.
But for women, the question of agency has moved inward as third-wave feminism progresses. In many ways no longer bound in the manner that they have been, the question of why women love the way they do becomes a question of self-identity. This is equally true for heterosexual men, although it continues to work in a somewhat different way.
What does love mean? Who is it for? Why the urge to abandon the self, to give full control to another? For some answers, we can turn to Rosemary Sullivan’s new text. In it, she does a wonderful, delicate job of addressing these questions in a personal way that both pleases and angers. Like desire itself, her prose and her message are not always comfortable. They aren’t easy to hear, and although she reserves her text for discussion by and for women, it has many implications for everyone who has ever obsessed or desired another.
Labyrinth of Desire is a problematic book. It draws on literature and theory in a deep, often submerged way. Sullivan constantly flirts with her own inclusion in the canon of self-help literature that includes Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus and could easily find herself an Oprah author. But her approach is daring. She has a message to give and that message isn’t intended for everyone. She is not afraid to exclude certain readers. I myself come to the book as an interloper, studying a culture to which I can claim inclusion only by defying her directives. Written expressly for heterosexual women, she tells me that I may take her points and make my own inferences, but that she isn’t really talking to me.
With her intended audience, however, she is incredibly cautious. As one should be with such a tender subject. She begins with a story. She makes up a pedagogical tool in order to give us the background we need to understand where she is coming from. The story is of a young woman, an everywoman who vacations in Mexico in order to find herself - which, according to Sullivan, indeed occurs, although it happens by way of an obsessive love for a young artist she meets at a gallery. She is smitten with his charms and his strength and they carry out a picturesque affair that lasts for an indefinite time before collapsing into the inevitable strangeness that exists between two people who never actually knew each other. And then the analysis begins.
The brilliance of Sullivan’s lessons is in her assertion that desire is a tool. After telling the story, she walks us through its elements, showing that desire is a way of awakening ones self, of finding the life that we each have inside. It opens us to longings that we aren’t always happy about having, but those longings can act to help us throughout our lives, giving us the power to create and to live fuller, more exciting existences.
The only place I take issue with her approach is in her attribution of so much power and control to the men that she describes. While berating heroic female figures for allowing themselves to be ruled by their obsession for the men in their lives, Sullivan allows those men the intelligence and self-awareness to be in control of their own authority. She imagines that the impassioned, yet self-defeating relationship between Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre to be under his control and allows him to consciously choose its course. To be sure, desire is often blinding, but surely Sartre could be said to be as blind to his actions as Beauvoir. Sexually, it seems clear that these men are allowed a good deal of power by the women she speaks of, but there must be other forms of authority. It seems a shame to continue playing by the same rules.
Why is she willing to allow for this level of control on the part the men, the objects of this thrilling obsession?
Power and control are often decided by the framework in which they are designed. It seems, then, that whoever has created this framework calls the shots. While I agree with so much of what this book offers to its readers, I would simply caution against trying to beat the artist at his own game. There are healthier ways to live than to emulate Sartre’s abusive self-love. I don’t doubt that the kind of self-reverence that Sullivan is calling for is not intended to simply turn the tables on the men who treated their muses poorly, but there is always that danger and one would hate to see a strong and wonderful book tainted by that kind of combativeness.
The intended outcome of this book is a generation of women who are not burned by the force of their own passion; who are not forced to turn inward after being hurt; who see that desire is an important thing, not to be turned away from, but that it is not a safe place to try to stay forever. It should allow the women who read it to realize their own potential without denying themselves the love that everyone needs. It is a book for artists and for anyone who has ever felt themselves letting go of the power that they feel welling up inside themselves and given it to another. It’s a book for those who do believe in love, but who also believe in themselves.
Like many groups in today’s America, women find that their lives are very different than those of their grandmothers. As a culture, we have made a lot of changes, most of them for the better, and the right to property and intellect are only a few of them. But like other groups in the wake of these changes, the struggle has now become a much more subversive one. It is relatively easy to fight blatant abuses of power, but when the very structure of a society calls for certain behaviors, it is much more difficult to rally against. In fact, when it is one’s own behavior that is in question, the task can be incredibly daunting. What’s important to remember is that desire is not only an outward facing fact, but that it is also a way of strengthening yourself. It should allow for your own creativity and control as well as that of the loved one.