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Friday, November 11, 2005

I Am, Therefore I Want

Thought-provoking NY Times Review review by Kathryn Harrison of William B. Irvine On Desire.

Harrison's acute comments and quotes are enough for now to save me needing the whole book.

Indeed, they are probably enough reminder that Time's wingèd chariot trundles on, the Hounds of Fate in baying slavering pursuit.

"Why We Want What We Want," the subtitle of William B. Irvine's book, dangles the possibility that it is his ambition to let readers glimpse the hidden workings of their hearts ... In fact, an accurate description of the book's contents would be "How Not to Want What We Want," but of course that could scare off all but the determined ascetic.

As every sentient being knows, desire can cause problems. Enslaved to our wants, for food, shelter, love, comfort, community, status - the list is endless - so are we saved by having them.

Anyone who has suffered a serious depression can attest that desire is as vital a sign of life as a heartbeat. Lacking desire we are psychically dead, our bodies in imminent danger of following our souls. [My emphases].

Desire cannot by definition be satisfied. To answer one desire only allows us to pay attention to the next, and beyond gaining what our bodies strictly need, what we want is usually based on our assessment of how others perceive what we already have. Because we are social animals, we depend on constant confirmation of self, whether in terms of admiration or of envy, fear, even hatred.

Every object of desire has a "positional" as well as an absolute value. The car you loved as you pulled into the parking lot at work loses its charm when you see the more expensive machine driven by a rival. And yet you're lucky if what you want, you can, with effort, get. Failures of desire, rightly called crises by Irvine, are not only painful but also potentially dangerous.

Losing the ability to desire is the sine qua non of serious depression. [Ditto].

But to retain desire without finding meaning in satisfying it - what Tolstoy called an "arrest of life" - portends a profound existential collapse that can also presage suicide. Still painful, if not as dire, is to feel disgust with the desires you have, as did Siddhartha Gautama when he understood the limitless suffering of man and began his journey toward enlightenment.

To complicate our insatiability further, our brains have "desire-generating systems," a dominant verbal system that produces "rational" (instrumental) desires and - perhaps more important - rationalizes those desires that arise from other, unconscious systems.

Our adaptive nature, which has ensured our survival, may help explain our eternal dissatisfaction. Soon used to the very things we once craved, we take them for granted, and their desirability wears off.

How can we bear up under the relentlessness of our desire? On to the quixotic subject of "dealing with our desires." In order to satisfy a desire, we must make it our goal and then work to achieve it - but if the goal is transcending desire entirely, this strategy is of no use. Desiring to not desire, after all, is itself a new form of desire. Further, tampering with our "B.I.S.," or biological incentive system - the tangle of dendrites and neurochemicals that rewards us with good feelings when we gratify our desires - is worse than useless.

Really, the only hope of managing - not conquering - desire is consciousness ... The "middle path" between hedonism and asceticism that Buddha advised, the prayers of the Jew or Christian, the temperance of the Muslim ... these aim not to extinguish desire but to arrive at a state of mindfulness that allows us to alter our relationship to our desires.

Fortunately for all the writers whose greatest desire is to comment on desire, there's not much chance of our succeeding."

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