A Surprisingly Sexy (and Brainy) Book About Desire

Reading between the lines.
June 7 2013 12:00 PM

“Afterwards, We Are Ashes”

Why is it so difficult to write about desire?

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Illustration by Jess Fink

We have no dominion over desire. It’s our ancient, aristocratic master, like hunger or sleep. It sings in our bones and stains our clothes and conspires to make us look ridiculous. Perhaps that is why every new book on desire—and there is always a new book on desire—seems so brave. Every one, an attempt to put into language what is essentially hostile to language and resists interpretation. 

Unmastered is the first book from Katherine Angel, a British academic who brings a supple intelligence and a slithery style to her personal account of a love affair. She’s a sexual intellectual with the hauteur of a Hitchcock blonde. The lady doesn’t come, she arrives.

Angel asks the same questions we always ask about desire: Why do I like what I like? Am I wrong to like what I like? and Why is it so hard to ask these questions anyway? But she poses them stylishly. The book edges forward in fragments—aphorisms, accusations, snatches of pillow talk. On every page, a riddle or two. On every page, an eel of text.

What’s shocking isn’t the sex, which is (too?) tastefully presented; it’s the extravagant happiness. She’s gone hungry in relationships, Angel tells us. She’d turn “restless, like the cat when we put her on soft food for a week … gnawing at the furniture, pressing her teeth into hard surfaces.” But she’s found her match in a new man. “His hunger feeds me. We meet, and live that hunger—his, mine, ours—and afterwards, we are ashes. We are the good Zen bonfire: we have left no traces. We have burnt ourselves completely.” Locked together, they become a new species, something out of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, “a monster thrashing out of a lake, an arc of splash in its tail’s wake.”

What do we make of this, we who have been trained by life and literature to know desire through lack? We who know eros by its edges, who cut our teeth on “desire makes everything blossom; possession makes everything wither and fade” and “light of my life, fire of my loins” and “She keeps on passin’ me by”?

But Angel packs the story with just enough salt. The more violent the emotion, the icier her tone. The rhythm of the fragment helps too; it cuts the swoon, allows her to stage arguments with herself. She treats the silences between sentences like enjambments; she uses them to bait us. “I travel in a loop of gender,” she writes. “I was weaned on this—the hypostasized, brutal man; the yielding, deferring woman.” Poor dear, we think, turning the page, landing snap in the trap. “So, by the way, were you.”

Thinking women, Adrienne Rich told us, sleep with monsters. Clever women, I’d add, wake to slay them. And indeed, between the moaning and philosophizing, the zipping and unzipping, that’s exactly what Angel is up to—that these monsters are chiefly of her own making keeps things that much more interesting. She takes on sexual entitlement, the pornographic gaze, to spank or not to spank—and her targets are first her own pieties, then your pieties, and then the narrow discourse around desire. “If we are liberated, we cannot critique,” she writes. “If we are critical, we cannot enjoy.” This is, it should be noted, the argument at the heart of Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes’ study of photography, memory, and desire. He writes of “the uneasiness of being a subject torn between two languages, one expressive, the other critical.” He cannot choose just one. “By ultimate dissatisfaction with all of them, I was bearing witness to the only sure thing that was in me (however naïve it might be): a desperate resistance to any reductive system.” Angel comes to a similar conclusion—although she admits she’s arrived at this independence of mind rather late in the day.

Discovering early that “it is dangerous to be a girl. Dangerous to be exciting to others,” she armored herself with a feminism that declares sexuality suspect. It seemed like the sensible thing to do; the world’s hunger for the bodies of women and girls seemed so outsized that to acknowledge her own hunger seemed fatal. “My feminism—the feminism I stitched together—explained the world to me, its ugly, snarling violence,” she writes. But it demanded a pound of flesh: “In order to protect myself from the world I had to protect myself from myself.” She refused to acknowledge her “torrential” grief after an abortion. “The clunky, riven politics of abortion,” or at least the politics she adopted, allowed her no nuance, she says, no room to mourn.

Some of this cranky chastity clings to her, and she admits to her sexual timidity. But one wonders whether this trait contributed to the book’s slightly sanitized quality. Angel worries that hunger is manly; she’s afraid to look, take, be on top: “I am afraid of becoming a man. All muscle, fur, eruption. I am afraid of repelling with my desire.” She’s clearly afraid of repelling the reader, too, hence those very tasteful sex scenes, hence that narrative tidiness that seems out of place. Angel and her lover seem to mate under carefully controlled conditions. The outside world never once impinges upon them. Their desire for each other is abundant and always reciprocated; it never leaks or runs dry or seeps in untoward directions. No one is ever tired or bored, feeling a bit fat or a bit cruel, or fantasizing about an ex.

Author Katherine Angel
Author Katherine Angel

Courtesy of Stacey Yates

But what makes Angel’s book feel fresh is her acknowledgement of pleasure as a source of intelligence and healing; after the abortion, her depression lifts on a fine day in spring: “I sniffed pleasure—openness—light—in the air. I could feel it in my hips.” The usual story goes that for knowledge to enter through the body, a little blood must be let. Sex becomes a means of mortification, a means to extinguish the self or the selfhood of another; disgust, terror, pain its tools. Think of the lives of the saints and the stories of de Sade, The Story of O and The Sexual Life of Catherine M., the films of Lars von Trier and Catherine Breillat. The failed sadist in Mary Gaitskill’s short story “Romantic Weekend,” who seeks women who emanate an emptiness that “made it easy for him to get inside them and, once there, smear himself all over their innermost territory until it was no longer theirs but his.”

But sex is what Angel uses to claim her body, to become more of a body, not less (after good sex, she writes: “I could feel my organs, their ripeness, their contentment”). Sex consecrates. When Angel’s lover masturbates onto her—on “my breasts, my belly, my neck”—she writes, “I love this. The sudden wet coolness on me. The smell: summer rain on cement. Fresh, open windows.”

Unmastered is a smart rejoinder to the idea that pleasure has nothing to teach us. Pleasure—everyday tenderness; ordinary, domestic lovemaking—teaches Angel everything; it washes away her defensive asceticism, her lazy dichotomies. She leaps out of depression and into insight. Where things seemed so established—between men and women, say, brutes and victims—she encounters shifting sands. “I lock him into his masculinity,” she writes of her lover, amused. “I am anxious to protect it, for it pains me, it pains my femininity, to see it fragmented.” Gender becomes a game, a mutually agreed upon madness, a source of strength, a drag, a turn-on. She presents these paradoxes, but never resolves them. Why would she? Paradoxes make things agreeably sticky for her. In bed, she tells her lover what she likes: “I spoke dreamily of how I loved his big frame towering over me during sex; how much I loved his powerful arms around my neck while he came into me from behind; how I loved feeling the strength of him as he fucked me—yes, as he fucked me, because—let’s not be coy or disingenuous—that is definitely what was happening.” He asks, “You’re not really a feminist, are you?” She laughs. She doesn’t tell him why.

Correction, June 7, 2013: This review originally misstated the first name of the book's author. Her name is Katherine Angel, not Elizabeth.

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Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell by Katherine Angel. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Parul Sehgal is an editor at the New York Times Book Review.