Superman (II) was flying when I woke up.

With Lois Lane on his back, far away at the North Pole, Superman renounces his power. The fog lifted from my eyes to reveal some basic tropes of American culture. Power demands secrecy. Love prefers disclosure. Love is incompatible with power. Exposure = weakness. And the grand moral of them all, ‘tis better to be powerful in pseudonymity, than a groveling weakling— even if it means giving up on love.

A divisive economics, to be sure: not unlike the modernist division between form and content, or better still, the division between explanation and understanding. The distanciation between text and author fits in the same sort of binary logic. Texts have power— authors have only love. I write that, reflecting on Diotima’s thoughts on love in Plato’s Symposium. Love is the desire for immortality; in a real sense, literature stems from this same fountain. Beginning students of literature resist explanation of the text, favoring instead understanding of the author. They resist because they seem to believe that understanding (love) is incompatible with explanation (power). They resist mapping the lines of power behind a text, as instructors flex their muscles, proclaiming that power is the best.

The problematic part is desire. I’ve heard it a thousand times: “I really enjoyed the book until the teacher explained it.” In “Explanation and Understanding,” Paul Ricoeur has brought me closer to what’s going on. It’s the difference between cause and motive. Explanation is a fairly scientific pursuit, which reveals the causes behind actions. There doesn’t have to be a motive behind a causally related sequence. A text can be explained in terms of effects and their causes, which may or may not be motivated by the nebulous construction of an author behind that text. Indeed, in New Critical thinking, questioning intentionality is strictly verboten. Explaining things concentrates solely on causes, not motives. Desire is something that exists completely outside the text, and lust is pushed into a Victorian closet.

Understanding, on the other hand, requires that questions of motive be addressed. Communication is an intentional act. We bring the sex-toys out of the closet and dress them up. Understanding is built upon a flirtation with belief, a surrender to the world constructed by the text, a slow seduction by the author which pulls you into his world as you imperfectly reconstruct it. It’s no wonder why students resist explanation when it is reduces that carefully constructed world to a web of causality. Causality is not nearly as sexy as motive.

Motive is force, but motive is not synonymous with power— motive springs from desire, and desire, often from powerlessness. There are two contentious desires: the desire for power, and the desire for love. Are they as incompatible as our myths proclaim? Must the empathy which love brings be buried in order to make the story acceptable?

The reader’s interest is addressed, not to so-called underlying laws, but to the turn taken by this singular story. Following a story is an activity that is entirely specific, by which we unceasingly anticipate a subsequent course of events and an outcome and adjust our anticipations as the story progresses, until they coincide with the actual outcome. Then we say we have understood.

This starting point of understanding differs from that proposed by the theory of empathy, which completely overlooks the specificity of the narrative element in the story recounted as well as the story followed. This is why a theory that bases understanding on the narrative element better enables us to account for the passage from understanding to explanation. Whereas explanation appeared to do violence to understanding taken as the immediate grasp of the intentions of others, it naturally serves to extend understanding taken as the competence to follow a narrative.

For a narrative is seldom self-explanatory. The contingency that combines acceptability summons questions, interrogation. Thus, our interest in what follows— “and then?” asks the child— carries over to our interest in reasons, motives, causes— “why?” asks the adult. The narrative therefore has a lacunary structure, such that the why proceeds spontaneously from the what. But in return the explanation has no autonomy. Its advantage and its effect are to allow us to follow the story better and further when the first-order spontaneous understanding fails.

Ricoeur, “Explanation and Understanding”

As I see it now, it seems that Psychology is the land of “who,” Philosophy is the land of “what,” Science is the land of “where,” Literature is the land of “when,” Theology is the land of “why,” and Rhetoric is the land of “how.” Explanation and understanding both seem contingent on how narratives work. Maybe it’s just my dirty-mind at play, but I feel certain that desire has a lot to do with it. This question seems inadequately addressed by all three of these disciplines, due to a residual Puritan ethic which forces sex out of schools, and into the closets where some think it belongs. But I think there can be no real explanation or understanding without addressing just what makes some texts, and authors, sexier than others.

Now, where did I put that kryptonite? That chaste myth of the American Superman has got to go!

1 thought on “Desire”

  1. As I see it now, it seems that Psychology is the land of “who,” Philosophy is the land of “what,” Science is the land of “where,” Literature is the land of “when,” Theology is the land of “why,” and Rhetoric is the land of “how.”

    Dude, you are not allowed to say this if you’re going to call Kenneth Burke a putz.

    Pseudonymously (yet lovingly) yours,


    Yeah, yeah, I know.

    The problem stems from discovering de Man and Burke at the same time; de Man won (at that time). Burke has been gaining ground, mostly through reading other people make use of his ideas in a far more productive ways than symbolic masturbation. I think the problem was reading his later work first.

    I’ve got high hopes for the early stuff, which I have yet to read. You may well see a “Burke is not such a putz” retraction from me yet.

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