JP Sartre – What is Desire?

Broadly speaking, desire is not the desire to do something.

‘Doing’ only comes later, attaches itself to desire from outside and requires training: there is a practice of lovemaking that possesses it’s own ends and means. So, since desire can not choose a particular act as its final goal, it is purely and simply the desire for a transcendental object.

But, what is the object desired? Can one say that desire is the desire for a body? In one sense this can not be denied. Certainly it is the body that disturbs us: a glimpse of an arm or a breast, perhaps a foot.

Attitude does much to arouse desire, but implied in attitude are the surroundings, and ultimately the world. And here suddenly we are at the furthest extreme from a simple physiological itch: desire posits the world, it desires the body in terms of the world and the beautiful hand in terms of the body. We apprehend the Other’s body in terms of its situation in the world.

A living body, as an organic whole in a situation, with consciousness at the horizon: this is the object to which desire addresses itself . Ad what does desire want from this object?

The man who desires exists his body in a particular way and hence situates himself on a particular level of being. The desiring consciousness is stirred up, because it bears an analogy with troubled waters. Our first perception of troubled waters suggests that they have been altered by the presence of something invisible, which can not be distinguished in itself and is manifested as pure actual resistance.

One doesn’t desire a woman while remaining oneself entirely outside the desire: the desire compromises me. I am the accomplice of my desire, or rather, the desire is a total lapse into complicity with the body, we allow ourselves to be invaded by facticity, we cease to flee it and slip into a passive acceptance of desire.

I feel my skin and my muscles and my breath, and I feel them not in order to transcend them towards something, as in the case of emotions or appetite, but as a living and inert datum; not simply as the supple and discreet instrument of my action on the world, but as a passion through which I am engaged in the world and in danger in the world. The For-itself experiences the dizziness of its own body; or if one prefers, this dizziness is precisely its manner of existing its body.

Why does consciousness become, or try in vane to become body, and what does it expect from the object of its desire? In desiring, I make myself body in the presence of another in order to appropriate the flesh of that other. When I grasp these shoulders or hips, one might say not only that my body is a means to touch them, but that the other’s shoulders are a means for me to discover my body as a fascinating revelation of my facticity, that is to say, as flesh.

So desire is the desire to appropriate a body to the extent that this appropriation reveals my own body to me, as flesh.

Extracts from:
JP Sartre, ‘What is Desire?’ in ‘Being and Nothingness’ (1943) pp.382-407

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