Essay: The Politics of Desire and Longing By Bijaya Biswal

In this personal essay, Bijaya Biswal elaborates on how prejudices shape desire and it’s manifestations beyond the image of the female body.

“Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of the woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”

― John Berger, Ways of Seeing

When I first watched Blue Is The Warmest Colour, I realized it wasn’t an ode to lesbian relationships as much as an erotic spectacle. Almost pornographic as if, it was made from a male perspective and for the visual pleasure of a male audience. The unnecessary involvement of a male spectator in a love story between two women meant a desperate, forcible attempt to grasp a power which was lost. Lesbian love would mean no space for patriarchy, lesbian love would mean a chance to be equals. Like bell hooks wrote in her book Feminism is for Everybody,

“Woman-identified women, whether straight, bisexual, or lesbian rarely make garnering male approval a priority in our lives. This is why we threaten the patriarchy. Lesbian women who have a patriarchal mindset are far less threatening to men than feminist women, gay or straight, who have turned their gaze and their desire from the patriarchy, away from sexist men.”

In Celine Sciamma’s film Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Marriane, an artist, tries to paint a portrait of Héloïse which has to be sent to the latter’s prospective husband for the approval of their marriage proposal. But disinterested in marrying a stranger, Héloïse refuses to pose for painters. So Marriane attempts to paint her secretly, observing her like a fly on the wall and carrying a vivid impression of her features in her memory to artistically reproduce on the canvas. It turns out to be a technically accurate but mechanical, inanimate portrait like portraits mostly are. The subject in such paintings is always a woman, whose identity is supposedly born only when a man lays eyes on it and offers validation. 

When Héloïse gets to see the painting, she is offended by how shallow the portrait is. Lifeless, distant, not close to even the woman who made it. On being criticized, Marianne destroys the portrait to begin again. But this time Héloïse agrees to pose for her. The one sided endeavor of art is eventually turned into a collaboration. The passivity and powerlessness of the muse is demolished, the manipulative hegemony of the artist is surrendered and a democratic relationship between both, literally and figuratively, starts building as they inform each other’s sensibilities. The choreography of falling in love is captured effectively as the two lovers keep reinventing each other, aware of the fate less-ness of such an ambition in the limitations of life. But also aware, that sometimes the rational choice of choosing a love which can last, has to be given up to make the choice of a poet: chasing love only to keep a memory of it. The slowly growing desire and anticipation of passion climaxes between them, one random evening when they have joined other women for a bonfire and are engrossed in each other’s reciprocal gazes that they do not realize when Héloïse’s gown catches fire.

“Don’t regret. Remember”, they tell each other when they know, they cannot afford to love but only, remember.  “When do you know it is finished?” Héloïse asks, about the portrait and also about their love. “At one point, we stop”, answers Marriane.”The success of a love story is not about how long it lasts”, says Celine Sciamma while discussing the film. “It’s not about ending your life together. In equality, there is emancipation. And also, the movie is fully about consent and how consent is also super erotic and super sexy. Each time they touch each other, they never touch each other without asking first. We tried to make it very mutual. “But power relations in the society invariably manifest in relationships and shape desires, expectations and responsibilities. This makes our general idea of love, heterosexual. This makes us think gender is a binary, alignment of castes can define compatibility, the woman of our dreams is white or the wives must give more than they receive from their husbands. From this perspective, every marriage is only an extension of colonialism rather than companionship, since they aren’t really companions but culturally approved ownership.

How far do power relations and prejudices shape desire? Freud wrote in Civilization and its Discontents about civilization being a mechanism for the redistribution of individual pleasure to attain equality in pleasure for all at a community level. Owing to this, one will also have to bear a considerable amount of displeasure at times. However, such a social contract of mutual repression is not just determined by reason, but also by a function of our instincts which might be at conflict with the conventions occasionally. The system is founded on the very knowledge that the power of the individual will be traded for the power of the group for the sake of greater security and immediate gratification will be compromised for long-term stability. According to Freud, this makes us feel inhibited, restricted by our accession to culture. And since expression of such a desire in its honest form isn’t permitted, we manifest it in alternative ways, project it on other people or simply build a coping mechanism. In Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood For Love, the protagonists whose partners are having an affair, deliberate upon how it came to be and while re-creating the possible situations, discover that feelings can creep up just like that. They curb their desires from materializing into anything solid and love dies a slow death in the arms of social stigma and the monstrous construct of shame. In Aamis, an extramarital affair between a married lady and a young researcher struggles to find platonic ways to channelize their feelings. The symbolic gestures which begin with their mutual love for meat and consideration for social laws, ends up progressing to the extent of cannibalism as a result of the ruthless subversion of love laws. In Her, a lonely man falls in love with a computer application who understands him. In Lunchbox, a love story emerges only by writing letters. In Catsticks, desire for drugs flirts with empathetic friendships and dark streets. In Frances Ha, there is intimacy in girl friendship. In Haider, a son is jealous of his mother’s new lover. In Padmavat, the ferocious king builds an intimate relationship with his close confidant and slave-general, Malik Kafur.In Fandry, desire lurks like an untouchable, invisible ghost, chasing pigs and swimming in gutters, always reminded that loneliness and not love, is his birthright. 

Desire is often understood as exclusively sexual and limited to the body. In her book Infinite Variety, Madhavi Menon writes, “Famously, Kama, the Hindu god of romantic and sexual desire, is ananga—without limbs, and therefore without a body. Which means that historically in India, desire is seen as being everywhere. Anything can be considered an object or subject of desire. Desire is not confined to a (human) body. The legend goes that Kama (in one version, born of the creator, Brahma) is deputed to induce desire in Shiva’s breast so that an offspring of Shiva and Parvati might be created to defeat the demon Tarakasura. Shiva is so incensed at being awoken from his yogic meditations that he opens his third eye and burns Kama to cinders. Shiva relents when Parvati begs him to undo the consequences of his wrath. He allows Kama to live, but only without a body. Thus is born the bodiless god of desire”. She further elaborates upon the omnipresence of desire in bodiless ways: Meera’s love for Krishna, the practice seen in Sufi dargahs of spiritual guides being buried alongside their male disciples as lovers are, the thousand mythological anecdotes in which gods and goddesses are often androgynous, cross-dressing mystics and the queerness in their poetry, the interesting folklore related to the celibate god Ayyappan which shakes the basis of the assumption that he is necessarily heterosexual, kohl and lipstick as a symbolism of desire, the innocuous habit of men holding hands or the legacy of dating in the parks. 

As the world went through months of a complete lockdown, I wondered all the alternative ways one could express their desire for a loved one they are unable to meet. I stumbled upon this brilliant letter which Sartre wrote to one of his former lovers that transcends the tangible and fathomable boundaries of desire. He wrote,

“I am mastering my love for you and turning it inwards as a constituent element of myself. This happens much more often than I admit to you, but seldom when I’m writing to you. Try to understand me: I love you while paying attention to external things. At Toulouse I simply loved you. Tonight I love you on a spring evening. I love you with the window open. You are mine, and things are mine, and my love alters the things around me and the things around me alter my love.”

About the Author

Bijaya Biswal is a doctor and LGBTQIA+ rights activist based in Odisha.

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