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Love and Pain, Edvard Munch (1895)

On the Similarities and Differences Between Love and Desire


Poet and thinker, J. D. McClatchy has written about the intricate relationship between love and desire, the differences and their deep reciprocity.

Like many of the unknown parameters of the universe, our interiority is among the most infinite of mysteries to have unfolded before us. The labyrinths that make up our thoughts, our desires, and our feelings will always be indecipherable. This is perhaps why we feel an irremediable need to elucidate them. Of these kingdoms inhabiting us, perhaps love is the most opaque, and at the same time, it’s the most fascinating; worthy of all of the poems, songs, paintings, and acts performed in its name.

One of the most lucid tomes about love and its many expressions – eroticism and sexuality – is The Double Flame (1993) by the Mexican Nobel Laureate, Octavio Paz. In a brilliant essay, Paz addresses these very human feelings and the complex relationships among them. To Paz, love and eroticism are distinguished in that the second is the physical expression of the first. Love is the magical combination of sexuality (an animal, reproductive trait) and eroticism (a ritualization of the sexual act). Paz defined love as “one of the answers man has invented for facing death,” for the sensation of immortality it gives us, an experience that “all or almost all revere but few, very few, really live.” 

More recently, the American poet JD McClatchy wrote a text as a preface to an anthology of LGBT love poetry, Love Speaks its Name (2001). It’s an enlightened reflection in which he distinguishes love from desire, two feelings often intertwined and just as often confused. They feed each other with a deep strength, but they are two separate universes. The words of the writer, full of their own poignant poetry, mark a sharp distinction between these blurred differences, and remind us that love, beyond circumstance or behavior, is a metaphysical feeling.

A desire can be a vague wish, a sharp craving, a steadfast longing, a helpless obsession. It can signal an absence or a presence, a need or a commitment, an ideal or an impossibility. The root of the word “desire” links it to consider and to terms of investigation and augury, thereby reminding us that desire is often less what we feel than what we think about what we feel. And the still deeper root of the word links it to star and shine, as if our desires, and bright centers of our being, were also like the fixed fates in the heavens, determining the course of our lives. Indeed, our mundane experience of desire often coincides with this sense of something beyond our control, of something confusing, something driving us beyond the bounds of habit or reason. It is the heart of our hearts, the very stuff of the self. Desire explodes past borders of time or law. It drifts through veils of propriety. It cannot be confined by social expectations or structures.

Love is something else again. As mysterious as are the ways of desire, and as disconcerting its effects, love is desire raised to a higher power. It can be as consuming as desire, but it lasts longer. Love is the quality of attention we pay to things. Love is both the shrine and the idol. Love is what we make of other people, and what they make of us. It can be as dispassionate as a Zen monk’s, or as wasting as the Romantic hero’s.

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