An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory - Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle 2016


In Morten Tyldum’s acclaimed film The Imitation Game (2014), Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing, a man who was instrumental both in the invention of the digital computer and in cracking the complex ciphers developed by the Nazis in the Second World War. The film ends with Turing’s suicide in 1954, two years after being prosecuted for ’gross indecency’ — for having sex with another man. Turing’s crime had been to desire the wrong person, to have the wrong desire. The man who helped to transform our world by the manipulation of a binary system (on/off) was prosecuted and persecuted thanks to another binary system — right/wrong, good/evil, moral/immoral, legal/illegal, heterosexual/homosexual, normal/perverse. There is a terrible irony here. The machines that Turing dreamed up are now in our cars, airplanes, watches, TVs, mobile phones, cookers — increasingly everywhere — as well as in our PCs and in the mainframe computers that power the complex infrastructure of society. And they exploit a simple polarity to develop the most complex patterns imaginable (and those beyond imagination). Society’s system of ethics and legality, by contrast, can often seem to be stuck in a rigid and unforgiving set of simplistic binary oppositions. Desire: right or wrong

Is it possible that desire is more complex? The most influential philosopher of desire in the twentieth century was Sigmund Freud. For Freud, all desire goes back to the child’s original desire for the mother, for the mother’s breast. This desire is so strong that it produces an absolute identification: ’“I am the breast”,’ wrote Freud, ventriloquizing the unspoken words of the infant (Freud 1975b, 299). Beyond this originary desire, however, Freud tends to see the precise structure of desire as determined by socialization, by the way in which the child is brought up. In such texts as On Sexuality: Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905; Freud 1977), he argues that desire is ’essentially’ mobile — it has no essence, no proper object, beyond the child’s hallucinatory desire for the breast. Most justifications for the proscription of desire — against homosexual acts, for example — rely on assertions about what is ’natural’. But if we accept Freud’s arguments, we find that the appeal to the natural is highly questionable.

The mobility of desire is demonstrated by a text such as Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night (c. 1601). While his Romeo and Juliet (1595) may seem to reproduce the myth of an absolute and eternal love between one man and one woman, Twelfth Night is concerned rather with the contingency and mobility of desire. Duke Orsino sees himself as a true lover, a man overwhelmed by love and constant only in his desire:

For such as I am, all true lovers are,

Unstaid and skittish in all motions else

Save in the constant image of the creature

That is beloved. (2.4.16—19)

In love with an image of the woman he claims to love, Orsino is at the same time in love with the image of himself in love. A philosopher of love — most of his speeches meditate, often absurdly, on the nature of love and the lover — Orsino is unaware that ’true love’, including his own, is ultimately love of love, that desire is desire for its own image. In spite of himself, Orsino illustrates the accuracy of Nietzsche’s aphorism: ’In the end one loves one’s desire and not what is desired’ (Nietzsche 1989, 93). In fact, by the end of the play it has become clear that Orsino’s desire is radically mobile and contingent. Orsino uses his servant Cesario as a messenger between himself and Lady Olivia, the woman he desires. Cesario is really a woman called Viola, dressed as a man, and is herself in love with the Duke. At the end of the play, Olivia marries Viola’s twin brother and Viola reveals that she is really a woman. At this point, unabashed by the ease with which his desire can move from one object to another, Orsino proposes marriage to Viola. The ’true lover’ in Shakespeare’s play turns out to have mobile and vicarious desires, and even gender seems to be more a comedy of convention than a matter of nature. Does Orsino finally desire Viola or Cesario?

In the context of literature more generally, we can begin to think about the importance of desire in two fundamental ways. In the first place, we would suggest that every literary text is in some way about desire. To say this, however, is not to suggest that it is everywhere and always the same desire. As Michel Foucault’s influential three-volume The History of Sexuality (1976—84) makes particularly clear, desire is bound up with all sorts of social and institutional practices and discourses — with questions of law, gender and sexuality, with the discourses of medicine, theology, economics and so on. Thinking about desire in literary texts — about representations of desire — inevitably opens on to questions of historical context. For example, nowadays we may take for granted the term ’homosexual’ and the notion of homosexual desire. But as we show in more detail in Chapter 28, below, the term and indeed the concept is relatively recent. The first entry for ’homosexual’ in the OED is from 1892. Critics such as Joseph Bristow have demonstrated that a critical appreciation of a play such as Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) is crucially dependent on an understanding of the historical emergence of a homosexual lifestyle at the end of the nineteenth century (Bristow 1992a). While the term ’homosexual’ can refer to both men and women, its entry into the English language in the late nineteenth century did not result in a sudden visibility for lesbians, however. Indeed, the most striking aspect of lesbianism in ’straight’ culture generally has been the denial of its existence. There’s a well-known story that in 1885 Queen Victoria reacted to the suggestion that there should be a law for women corresponding to the new law against ’gross indecency’ between men by remarking that ’no woman could ever do that’ (quoted in Castle 1992, 128). The story is probably apocryphal, but it does register something important about the historical denial of sex between women. A similar denial is recorded in Leonard Woolf’s mother’s response to Radclyffe Hall’s lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness (1928): ’I am seventy-six — but until I read this book I did not know that such things went on at all. I do not think they do’ (quoted in Knopp 1992, 118). And, in literary criticism, despite pioneering studies such as Jeannette Foster’s Sex Variant Women in Literature from 1958, it was only in the 1980s that a critical vocabulary for talking about lesbian writing began to emerge. As far as ’straight’ culture goes, critics such as Joseph Allan Boone, for example, have shown how the very form of conventional nineteenth-century narrative is bound up with the Victorian social dynamics of courtship and marriage (Boone 1987). According to Boone, the traditional marriage plot ’owes much of its idealizing appeal to its manipulation of form to evoke an illusion of order and resolution’: this ’illusory’ sense of order, he suggests, itself ’glosses over the contradictions, the inequalities, concealed in the institution of marriage’ (Boone 1987, 9).

But literary texts are not only about how and why characters desire each other and what happens to those desires. Literary texts also produce or solicit desire. They make us desire, in reading. Literary texts, we might say, are (in Deleuze and Guattari’s phrase) ’machines of desire’. Not only do they generate desire (such as the desire to read on), but they are generated by it (by the desire, for example, to tell). In this respect it might be useful to turn Freud’s famous question of female desire, ’what does a woman want?’ (quoted in Jones 1953—7, 2: 468) — and Gayatri Spivak’s reformulation of it as ’what does a man want?’ — into a question about literary texts: What does a text want? Does it want to tell us something or conceal something? Does it want to make us want it? How? And so on. But if texts can be thought to desire, readers desire, too: we desire solutions, we desire to get to the end of the story, we desire insight or wisdom, pleasure or sadness, laughter or anger. The fundamental paradox of reading, however, is that we always desire an end (a resolution, an explanation, the triumph of good), but that this end is not the end of desire. As Boone has shown, classic nineteenth-century narratives tend to end with the apparent satisfaction of desire (the reader’s, the character’s or preferably both). But as Freud has taught us, this end of desire is not the end of the story: as he speculates in ’Civilization and Its Discontents’, there is something in the very nature of sexual life that ’denies us full satisfaction’ (Freud 1985e, 295).

Perhaps the most important post-Freudian theorist of desire, especially in the context of literary studies, is the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. His particular concern is with what he terms the ’paradoxical, deviant, erratic, eccentric, even scandalous character’ of desire (Lacan 1977a, 286, quoted in Bowie 1991, 134). Lacan’s texts are notoriously difficult to read, in part because they claim to (or are condemned to) speak on behalf of this strange figure of desire. Any attempt to summarize or explain what he has to say about desire is bound to be misguided — precisely to the extent that it will appear to be putting this scandalous figure in a conceptual straitjacket. With that proviso in mind, however, we could be a bit scandalous in our own fashion and summarize Lacan’s characterization of desire as follows: Lacan elaborates on Freud’s contention that there is something about the nature of desire that is incompatible with satisfaction. His account of desire is more radical than Freud’s, however. Freud emphasizes the ways in which we can never get what we want: we may think we have got it (downloading a new tune to our iPhone, paying for a new car), but actually desire will always have moved on again (to the next tune to download, to the chance to get on the road and drive and so on). This, after all, is how capitalism works, what it desires — or needs, indeed — in order to function at all. Waiting for a final fulfilment of desire is like waiting for Godot in Samuel Beckett’s play. For Freud, this endlessly deferred complete satisfaction is seen simply as an unavoidable, if rather poignant aspect of what it is to be human. For Lacan, on the other hand, the nature of desire is at once more alien and more subversive. This can be illustrated in two ways. First, for Lacan, the alien or alienating character of desire is not something that happens to come along and make life difficult for people. Instead, people have become alienated before they even become people (or ’subjects’ in psychoanalytic terms). The human subject is always already ’split’ — divided within itself by the scandalous nature of desire. Second, Lacan gives much greater emphasis than Freud to the role of language in relation to desire. One of Lacan’s most famous dicta is that ’the unconscious is structured like a language’ (see, for example, Lacan 1977a). For Lacan, language is not something that we can use in order to try to make ourselves more comfortable with the alien nature of desire: desire speaks through language and it speaks us. We are, in a way, the senseless puppets of desire as much when we speak or write as when we fall in love.

The interdependence of desire and language in turn is an overt concern of many literary texts. In such texts, there is a recognition that language or meaning can never finally be closed or completed and that desire can never be fulfilled. Robert Browning’s poem ’Two in the Campagna’, from 1855, is one such text:


I wonder do you feel today

As I have felt since, hand in hand,

We sat down on the grass, to stray

In spirit better through the land,

5 This morn of Rome and May?


For me, I touched a thought, I know,

Has tantalized me many times,

(Like turns of thread the spiders throw

Mocking across our path) for rhymes

10 To catch at and let go.


Help me to hold it! First it left

The yellowing fennel, run to seed

There, branching from the brickwork’s cleft,

Some old tomb’s ruin: yonder weed

15 Took up the floating weft,


Where one small orange cup amassed

Five beetles,—blind and green they grope

Among the honey-meal: and last,

Everywhere on the grassy slope

20 I traced it. Hold it fast!


The champaign with its endless fleece

Of feathery grasses everywhere!

Silence and passion, joy and peace,

An everlasting wash of air—

25 Rome’s ghost since her decease.


Such life here, through such lengths of hours,

Such miracles performed in play,

Such primal naked forms of flowers,

Such letting nature have her way

30 While heaven looks from its towers!


How say you? Let us, O my dove,

Let us be unashamed of soul,

As earth lies bare to heaven above!

How is it under our control

35 To love or not to love?


I would that you were all to me,

You that are just so much, no more.

Nor yours nor mine, nor slave nor free!

Where does the fault lie? What the core

40 O’ the wound, since wound must be?


I would I could adopt your will,

See with your eyes, and set my heart

Beating by yours, and drink my fill

At your soul’s springs,—your part my part

45 In life, for good and ill.


No. I yearn upward, touch you close,

Then stand away. I kiss your cheek,

Catch your soul’s warmth,—I pluck the rose

And love it more than tongue can speak—

50 Then the good minute goes.


Already how am I so far

Out of that minute? Must I go

Still like the thistle-ball, no bar,

Onward, whenever light winds blow,

55 Fixed by no friendly star?


Just when I seemed about to learn!

Where is the thread now? Off again!

The old trick! Only I discern—

Infinite passion, and the pain

60 Of finite hearts that yearn.

The poem is about the impossibility of capturing the moment of desire, of capturing or ’holding’ desire, of fulfilling and so ending it. The speaker desires the ’good minute’ — analogous to what James Joyce later calls ’epiphany’ and Virginia Woolf ’moments of being’ — but recognizes its inevitable escape. The second stanza makes it clear that this is also a poem about language, about the tantalizing nature of a moment which poetry attempts to but cannot capture. In stanza 10, the speaker ’pluck[s] the rose / And love[s] it more than tongue can speak’; but the moment passes immediately and he asks, ’Already how am I so far / Out of that minute?’ Exploring the central trope of romantic love — the loss of identity in a merging with the other, the desire evoked in stanza nine in particular — Browning’s poem suggests the impossibility and inevitable failure of this desire. The poem traces the paradoxes of romantic love while discerning the impossibility of expressing in language the flux of life, the fluidity and fragility of experience.

If literature and theory alike demonstrate that desire is mobile, endlessly displaced, they also suggest that it is ’mediated’, produced through imitation and simulation. Particularly influential in this context has been the recent work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Developing the ideas of the French poststructuralist critic René Girard, Sedgwick has argued that desire is everywhere mediated, that desire is structured by a triangular relation of rivalry. Take three people: A, B and C. A, let us say, desires B. Why? Normally, we would assume that A desires B because B is desirable (at least to A). For Girard and Sedgwick, however, things are rather different. For them, A desires B because B is desired by C. We learn to desire, Girard and Sedgwick argue, by copying others’ desires, and our desire is produced, fundamentally, in response to the desire of another. ’The great novelists’, Girard claims, ’reveal the imitative nature of desire’ and expose what he terms ’the lie of spontaneous desire’ (Girard 1965, 14, 16). Now, Sedgwick further points out that most of the examples in Girard’s book Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (1965) involve a specific relation of gender, wherein B is a woman and A and C men: the woman is the object of desire, while the two men are rivals. Love stories often concern the rivalry of two men for a woman, in which the rivalry itself indeed becomes more important than the desire for the woman. For Sedgwick, in fact, Western culture in general is structured by a ’crisis of homo/heterosexual definition’: ’an understanding of virtually any aspect of modern Western culture must be, not merely incomplete, but damaged in its central substance to the degree that it does not incorporate a critical analysis of modern homo/heterosexual definition’ (Sedgwick 1991, 1). She develops these insights to suggest that, in Western discourse, in stories, novels, films and so on, relationships are most commonly structured in terms of what she calls ’homosocial desire’. Homosocial desire is not the same as homosexual desire. It does not need to be explicitly expressed as desire, and it is not necessarily physical. In fact, homosocial desire is often concerned rigorously to exclude the possibility of homosexual relations. The traditional male preserves of locker room, boardroom and clubroom are sites of homosocial bonding which, at the same time, may be virulently homophobic. But in a male-dominated society, such relations are fundamental: in all such societies, Sedgwick claims, ’there is a special relationship between male homosocial (including homosexual) desire and the structures for maintaining and transmitting patriarchal power’ (Sedgwick 1985, 25). Sedgwick argues that a large proportion of the stories, films, songs and other narratives by which Western society imaginatively structures desire can be read as narratives of homosocial desire: while such narratives take as their overt subject the desire of a man for a woman, again and again the really important relationship is that between two men, either as rivals or as colleagues, friends, or associates. Developing the idea first proposed by the French structuralist anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss that in many societies women tend to be tokens of exchange, Sedgwick argues that women are effaced in this triangular structure, as mere objects for barter. At some level, then, patriarchal society excludes women even from relations of desire. Homosocial desire in our society, Sedgwick suggests, is both the most required and the most carefully regimented desire.

Sedgwick offers a highly provocative model for thinking about desire in narrative. According to this model, the workings of desire are inextricably linked to the homophobic, homosocial and patriarchal structures of society. Many canonical works of literature might be reread in these terms. This is not to suggest that the Great Tradition is full of closet homosexuality, for example, just waiting to be ’outed’ (although we make some suggestions in this regard in our ’Queer’ chapter, below). Rather, it is to suggest that homosocial desire in all its forms is central to the workings of what we might like to think of simply as ’heterosexual’ writing. The notions of heterosexual and homosexual need to be rethought. Shakespeare’s Hamlet (c. 1600—01), for example, concerns not only the murder of Hamlet’s father and its revenge, but also a relation of rivalry between Prince Hamlet (as a surrogate for his father, King Hamlet) and Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius (the dead King’s brother), over the Queen. Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847) may gain much of its power from the barely hidden conflicts of homosocial desire between Heathcliff and other men, resulting in rivalry and extraordinary violence. In its focus on the triangle of two men (Eugene Wrayburn and Bradley Headstone) and one woman (Lizzie Hexam), Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend (1865) is a superb, if disturbing, example of the potentially murderous erotic dynamic that exists between men. Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbevilles (1891), a novel that appears to focus on the eponymous and tragic heroine, is also structured by rivalry between two men who desire her, Angel Clare and Alec D’Urbeville. D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1921), while overtly about two men and their love for two women, is also, and perhaps more importantly, about the relationship between the two men, Gerald and Birkin.

Desire, then, is both a fundamental topic of literary texts and fundamental to reading. But one of the things that literary texts consistently suggest is that desire is paradoxical, mobile, mediated. And perhaps the homophobia that may have ultimately resulted in the death of Alan Turing can itself be understood in terms of a distortion or displacement of desire — a fear of homosexuality, a fear of the other, which is bound up in society’s anxieties about such mobilities and mediations. One of the responsibilities of contemporary literary criticism and theory lies in the exposure, questioning and transformation of the rigid oppositions that result in such fear and oppression.

Further reading

Foucault’s The History of Sexuality: An Introduction (1981) is a crucial starting point for thinking about desire. Similarly influential is Deleuze and Guattari’s difficult but compelling Anti-Oedipus (1983). Peter Brooks offers fascinating accounts of the reader’s desire in Reading for the Plot (1984) and Body Work (1993), while Catherine Belsey presents a very readable poststructuralist account of a number of literary texts of desire in her Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture (1994). William Irvine’s On Desire (2005) offers a philosopher’s wide-ranging meditation on the question of desire. Leo Bersani’s A Future for Astyanax: Character and Desire in Literature (1976) remains a brilliant and thought-provoking point of reference for exploring the representation and effects of desire in literary texts. For three excellent brief accounts of the work of Lacan, see the introductory books by Bowie (1991), Weber (1992) and Rabaté (2001); see also Ehsan Azari’s intriguing study Lacan and the Destiny of Literature (2008). On the discourse of homosexual desire and homophobia, see Jonathan Dollimore’s influential book Sexual Dissidence (1991), and for a collection of essays on lesbian criticism and theory, see Munt, ed., New Lesbian Criticism (1992). E.L. McCallum and Mikko Tuhkanen, eds, The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature (2014) is another hugely helpful resource. On the importance of heterosexual desire for the development of the novel in the nineteenth century, see Joseph Allen Boone, Tradition and Counter Tradition (1987). For historically wide-ranging discussions of issues of desire, see Dollimore’s Death, Desire and Loss in Western Culture (1998) and Sex, Literature and Censorship (2001).