Short Thoughts

Brief musings on ideas around desire

FEEDING CARNAL DESIRES

Despite a relatively recent explosion in food culture in Australia, the intertwining of desire and food is as old as sensory pleasure itself. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the long line of foods purported to be aphrodisiacs.

A quick delve into the past uncovers a dizzying range of foods that at some point in history have linked gastronomy and sexuality. More modern foods associated with love and desire such as champagne and chocolate are all about texture or what chefs call – ahem – mouthfeel. But our ancestors had their own fascinating ideas of what food fuelled our carnal desires: oysters, for example, are an acquired taste at the best of times; durian is a fruit with a famously pungent odour. Then there’s casu marzu, a Sardinian cheese containing live insect larvae (yes, I’m talking about maggots) that not only promises to spice up the bedroom but has the added allure of being outlawed by the EU Food Safety Authority and so must be acquired on the black market.

While their effectiveness might be suspect, these more exotic aphrodisiacs reveal much about how desire and sexuality have always been complicated, maybe even intimidating. If you can overcome your own instinctive sense of revulsion, presumably sensory pleasure awaits.

More about casu marzu, if you’re up for it.

Image of iPhone screen

THE SIMPLE LIFE

In an electronically interconnected world, the detox now has its digital equivalent. A digital detox treats our devices, our smartphones and computers, as the equal of hamburgers and thick shakes, advocating for the benefits of complete abstinence.

Claimed outcomes include reduced stress, better social interaction, greater worldliness, and a deeper connection with nature. In a sign of the times, ‘digital detox’ is also a registered trademark of an American company offering high priced retreats, workshops, and corporate programs, presumably on the assumption that you can acquire newfound worldliness more efficiently with cold hard cash.

This idea that our real world interactions with each other are terminally compromised because of our screen addiction is overstated (and reheated, after all similar things were said about television, cinema, books, and even theatre). But it’s also true that phones and social media have rapidly captured a good chunk of our finite free time.

Social media connects us, but also demands our attention and contribution. It’s relentless and noisy. Anecdotally, many of us have felt the relief of pulling back from our digital lives for a time. Our desire to connect with each other is strong, but it is balanced with a desire for simplicity and, sometimes, solitude.

Maybe a better balance between those desires is all the detox we need. No high priced retreat necessary.

But just in case, keep this up your sleeve.

Image of neon sign

TRANSCENDENCE

Western culture distinguishes between desire and greed. Desire, particularly of the romantic variety, is frequently celebrated on stages and in literature and music. Greed is associated with gluttony, consuming resources beyond what we might consider reasonable, particularly if it’s at someone else’s expense. Desire is refined. Greed is ugly.

The clarity of such attitudes towards desire and greed, however, masks the wicked complexity of determining where exactly to draw a line between them.

In the Christian tradition, thinkers from St Thomas Aquinas to C. S. Lewis distinguished what they termed ‘natural’ desire, separating the universal desires and needs that drive human existence across time and cultures – food, companionship, justice, and so on – from artificial or material desires that are the building blocks of capital G greed.

In contrast, the Buddhist concept of tanhā – roughly translated as ‘craving’ – holds that desire in any form is the cause of suffering and pain. To desire something passionately is considered a hindrance or even a poison that must be transcended in everyday life.

A deep dive into the philosophy of desire.

THE ENDLESS

If Desire appeared in human form, what would he/she/they look like?

For his celebrated series of graphic novels, The Sandman, writer Neil Gaiman constructed a rich world of gods and mortals, centred around ‘The Endless’ a group of seven characters who embody powerful forces or aspects of the universe: Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair, and Delirium.

The Endless are presented as a dysfunctional family of siblings who have existed since the dawn of time, though like any family they have a hierarchy of ‘eldest’ to ‘youngest’. And although their physical forms shift and change, their underlying traits remain.

Gaiman’s Desire is androgynous – capable of appearing as a man, a woman, or neither – with a cruel streak and a sharp tongue. Desire is also a twin to Despair, though, perhaps inevitably, Desire is considered the elder of the two.

More on Gaiman’s work.

Simon Groth

Simon Groth is a writer and editor whose most recent book is Infinite Blue, a novel for young adults written with his brother Darren. Other books include a collection of rock music interviews and a ‘remix’ of stories originally from the nineteenth century. His short stories and articles have been published in Meanjin, Overland, and The Lifted Brow. With if:book Australia, Simon created a series of award winning experimental works including the 24-Hour Book, live writing events at writers festivals around the world, and a city wide project to write stories published to digital billboards.

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