John Lahr on Lust
The Guardian, August 2, 1989.
Lust has a voice. It's a predatory growl. "Oh yes... Oh baby... I'd like to..." The voice is unnaturally low, like a cat's keening that gets the adrenalin going in its prey to make the meal taste better.
Lust is the dream of wanting without the disappointment of action. Lust's voice is a braggart: "Get a load of this... I'm gonna..." In lust's code, sentences are rarely finished but the ravishment is complete, which is why people in lust's grip seem to stare into the middle distance. They are watching their conquest go by.
Lust has a look. It's a narrowed eye seized by a sense of its hunger. Anything - the back of a leg, the pouting of a mouth, the way the hair falls over the shoulder - can suddenly infiltrate the mind and turn it inward, Lust's only aim is self-gratification; being irrational, the need can never be satisfied. Lust is the imperialism of appetite which is why it is deadly. In the fretfulness of desire and the violent impulse to slake it, there is no open heart or hand, which is why Christianity ranks it as a sin. Lust sees no glory in the flesh, only greed.
Lust, in its deadly form, is not robust adolescent appetite but a dedication to calculated pleasures. The young are exploring their sexuality, the lustful are projecting their fantasies of fulfilment on to objects. Society drives people crazy with lust and calls it advertising. Blue jeans, coke bottle, cars, food are sexualized. The dream of wanting and the fantasy of fulfilment coalesce. The irresistible images punish us as they please. We must have it. Now. This agitation is both thrilling and unhappy, an itch we must scratch.
Lust's sin is that it is about possessing the world, not embracing it. Lust's spiritual dilemma is the longing to be filled. Fulfilment does not come from things but from one's relationship with the world. Lust, says novelist Fredrick Beuchner, is the craving for salt by someone dying of thirst: "Lust only aggravates the sense of emptiness it tries to fill. Those seized by lust act out an infantile fantasy of having everything all the time: the more they get, the farther their detachment from the life around them."
Today sex has lost its sense of sin and robbed the act of its thrilling danger. Nowadays, lust is primarily part of the human comedy; and perhaps laughing at the follies of appetite is the best way to demystify lust.
I remember with delight that permanent state of tumescence called adolescence. In the Fifties, before the Pill, before braless coeds, lust played merry with our imaginations. I memorized diagrams in sex manuals and imagined making love to my favourite sex object, Rita Hayworth. Rita talked to me (Rita, I still love you!) and in my lusty bravado I pleasured her. But pleasure in sex was harder to achieve than the lust for it.
I remember the ache after a date in which one got nowhere. Lust was one of many fierce ambitions in that American state of perpetual longing. "I dream of wanting," writes Rumanian philosopher E. M. Cioran, "but everything I want seems to be worthless."
The early Church saw lust as an incarnation of original sin and preached its repression. But a little bit of original sin, it seems to me, does you good. St. Augustine agrees. "Give me chastity," he wrote. "But not yet."