By Parul Sehgal, Slate, June 7, 2013
We have no dominion over desire. It’s our ancient, aristocratic master, like hunger or sleep. It sings in our bones and stains our clothes and conspires to make us look ridiculous. Perhaps that is why every new book on desire—and there is always a new book on desire—seems so brave. Every one, an attempt to put into language what is essentially hostile to language and resists interpretation.
Unmastered is the first book from Katherine Angel, a British academic who brings a supple intelligence and a slithery style to her personal account of a love affair. She’s a sexual intellectual with the hauteur of a Hitchcock blonde. The lady doesn’t come, she arrives.
Angel asks the same questions we always ask about desire: Why do I like what I like? Am I wrong to like what I like? and Why is it so hard to ask these questions anyway? But she poses them stylishly. The book edges forward in fragments—aphorisms, accusations, snatches of pillow talk. On every page, a riddle or two. On every page, an eel of text.
What’s shocking isn’t the sex, which is (too?) tastefully presented; it’s the extravagant happiness. She’s gone hungry in relationships, Angel tells us. She’d turn “restless, like the cat when we put her on soft food for a week … gnawing at the furniture, pressing her teeth into hard surfaces.” But she’s found her match in a new man. “His hunger feeds me. We meet, and live that hunger—his, mine, ours—and afterwards, we are ashes. We are the good Zen bonfire: we have left no traces. We have burnt ourselves completely.” Locked together, they become a new species, something out of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, “a monster thrashing out of a lake, an arc of splash in its tail’s wake.”
What do we make of this, we who have been trained by life and literature to know desire through lack? We who know eros by its edges, who cut our teeth on “desire makes everything blossom; possession makes everything wither and fade” and “light of my life, fire of my loins” and “She keeps on passin’ me by”?
But Angel packs the story with just enough salt. The more violent the emotion, the icier her tone. The rhythm of the fragment helps too; it cuts the swoon, allows her to stage arguments with herself. She treats the silences between sentences like enjambments; she uses them to bait us. “I travel in a loop of gender,” she writes. “I was weaned on this—the hypostasized, brutal man; the yielding, deferring woman.” Poor dear, we think, turning the page, landing snap in the trap. “So, by the way, were you.”
Thinking women, Adrienne Rich told us, sleep with monsters. Clever women, I’d add, wake to slay them. And indeed, between the moaning and philosophizing, the zipping and unzipping, that’s exactly what Angel is up to—that these monsters are chiefly of her own making keeps things that much more interesting. She takes on sexual entitlement, the pornographic gaze, to spank or not to spank—and her targets are first her own pieties, then your pieties, and then the narrow discourse around desire. “If we are liberated, we cannot critique,” she writes. “If we are critical, we cannot enjoy.” This is, it should be noted, the argument at the heart of Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes’ study of photography, memory, and desire. He writes of “the uneasiness of being a subject torn between two languages, one expressive, the other critical.” He cannot choose just one. “By ultimate dissatisfaction with all of them, I was bearing witness to the only sure thing that was in me (however naïve it might be): a desperate resistance to any reductive system.” Angel comes to a similar conclusion—although she admits she’s arrived at this independence of mind rather late in the day.