Freed From Desire

“There is one good thing: everyday life is currently making us philosophers, albeit stupid philosophers. I think it’s great that there are people, perfectly normal average people, who now protest against wearing masks and compare masks with muzzles and themselves with dogs. After all, they are thinking – perhaps for the first time in their lives – about dignity and humanity. One can only think that is great. The pandemic has brought out the best and the worst in us.”

Slavoj Zizek

From vaccines and masks to deciding about whether we go into a bar, we all have to have a view on how to behave. Not that our views determine how we always act, but they do influence how we interact with the world and how it reacts to us.

Covid-19 seems to have split the trenches of political thought. There is no left or right-wing way to think about it. No ‘political line’ if you will. At the tailend of the first year I found myself discussing with friends about how the various political parties in Spain and the UK had responded to the pandemic and what they should or more so shouldn’t do in future. We were not in agreement as we often are.

In Madrid, the right-wing regional government had opted for the minimalistic approach, closing some neighbourhoods when the infection rate got above a certain level. Yet they didn’t police these measures and people still had to go to school and work. Whilst the test and trace system didn’t work (and still doesn’t), teens from France were coming here for a party as ‘Madrid is free’. With all this ‘freedom’, or lack of restrictions, one was and continues to be, more obliged to think about their actions and about how they behave. As the pandemic progresses and people get used to it; this will be the new normal. We will be reliant on others choices, no matter their intention or how well/ill informed they are, in one of the most individualistic societies in human history. To me it seems that some people are nonchalant whilst others are the dictator in the group that sets the ethical lines. Of course there are those in-between but it does make life with a virus tougher than it should be.

Having had this long evening with friends, I went home and watched yet another lockdown film. Although this one has kept me thinking, not because it is a deep and meaningful film, or because it has Scarlet Johansson in it, but because it is about choice. Don Jon, the 2013 romcom written, directed and starring the Robin that never was Joseph Gordon-Levitt (if the Batman reference is beyond you think (500) Days of Summer). Jon, played by Levitt, is addicted to porn despite being good looking, popular with women and performatively religious. At the beginning of the film, we see him wanking himself into oblivion whilst simultaneously going home with prime 8s from the club. Jon’s life is not extraordinary. Aside from being popular with women, Jon works in a bar, spends his time in the gym and with his family and friends and he goes to church on Sundays. However, in a montage of him with one of his latest accomplishments, it shows him getting up in the middle of the night to pleasure himself after just having had sex. Jon admits that, for him, masturbation is better than sex with a real woman. Every Sunday he confesses to the amount of time he has had sex outside of wedlock and the number of times had has engaged in DIY.

Don Jon is based on the legend of Don Juan, the famous Spanish seducer that never makes love to a woman more than once. There are various versions of the legend of Don Juan, all with different endings and plot twists, but one thing they all have in common is the pleasure derives from his pursuit of women. He enjoys it so much that even when he is with a woman, he cannot enjoy himself as he is thinking about his next conquest before even finishing his last. Mozart based his opera Don Giovanni ‘the opera of all operas’, on this tale, which in turn was analysed by Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard.

Kierkegaard’s first work Either/Or has a critique and similar parallel themes to the story of Don Jon and in it he analyses how we live. Kierkegaard is looking at the age-old question of how we should live as individuals in a world with others. He was writing in 1843 in Denmark at a time when religion had started to lose its zest. People were religious but as the author would put it they never believed, he felt that it fell to him to revive religion. He even turned down the love of his life that he was engaged to as he felt he could not devote himself to religion and be married at the same time. Kierkegaard is classed as one of the original existentialists by many. He wrote ferociously, and did so under many pen names. His works branch out into many areas, and whilst religion is prime, he also talks about the human subject, emotions, angst and ethical matters.

Kierkegaard states there are three spheres of existence, or stages of life, and I should state that I don’t think that these spheres are mutually exclusive, in fact I think they overlap or are socially conditioned to help us form our desires and direct our behaviour. Often people put these three spheres into a chronological order to mirror the common idea of maturing as we get older. And sure that fits if you apply it to the life of someone else from the outside. You could even say that these are an expectation that is imposed by society, but more about that later.

The first is the ascetic life. The idea that living is fast and that we are here to chase desires that are pleasant to the senses and quick. The hedonism in our 20s, 30s and, for some, after the divorce. In the first part of the book Kierkegaard deals with the first sphere. It is filled with poems and essays, including the one on Don Juan. Throughout the book he adopts pseudonyms writing from a first person perspective, with the writing style changing depending upon the personality of the character. ‘A’ is the first person we meet, he writes in a charming and persuasive manner trying to win over the reader that his way of life is ideal. ‘A’ talks about the wonders of instant pleasure, the chase, the thirst and that basically life is too short to be concerned with ethics. We must live for today or like the tacky tattoo says carpe diem.

In the film, Jon goes full throttle everyday of the week. This is portrayed in a montage of Jon doing different things but sped up (Guy Richie would be proud) We see him going to the gym, saying his confessions at church and, of course, wanking off. Apart from his self-pleasuring addiction, Jon seems pretty happy with life. Some may say it is simple; others may say it is shallow. Yet later we also see despair set in when Jon does get what he wants, his new desire. He becomes frustrated and lost in his everyday routine.

Kierkegaard points out that we often enjoy the wait or chase rather than actually getting the thing we desire. He even recommended waiting three days before you open your post. Something tells me that he would have hated emails and subject lines, but I am sure he would have liked Scarlett Johansson (I mean who doesn’t?). In the film she plays Jon’s interest, the one that turns his world upside down. Levitt said that he had Scarlett in mind for the role of Barbara when he wrote the film (I bet). Jon wants to sleep with Barbara. She makes him wait. and wait. and wait. Now normally you would think a player like Jon would delete her number and move on, but he doesn’t, he wants her. The more he waits, the more he gets infatuated with her.

Here we see the beginning of Jon’s transition to the second sphere called the ethical. However before he fully lands Barbara, Jon shows signs of not being content with his hedonistic lifestyle. Even with his friends he starts to distance himself and even shows signs of being bored with the same weekly routine of picking up women. Now you could say he is obsessed with her and that is why he is not in the mood for the club, but he is having a change. This is something that we experience quite a lot through life. Some embrace it and others hope it will go away. Normally it is with your first partner or maybe it is with studies. I should point out that the ascetic sphere is not just about taking people to bed or popping MDMA at a rave. It is much more about the sensual pleasures or living in the moment, or as Kierkegaard says ‘on stage’.

The intellectual pursuit of good grades or winning an argument, the sound of music or the flickering pictures of the cinema, the taste of an Italian sweet, or a journey to India, the idea of sleeping with someone and finally doing it. Friedrich Nietzsche put it perfectly when he said “Ultimately, it is the desire, not the desired, that we love.”. Kierkegaard says that as a result of living in this mode, boredom is what everyone must face, we chase pleasure to alleviate ourselves from it. If you are not stimulated in this mode then you are bored.

As with Kierkegaard’s advice about not opening your mail for three days, often it is the chase that we thrive on, not actually getting the desire. A hangover comes to mind. Whilst this may not be true for all our desires, our passion for the same desire cannot be sustained. How Jon gets bored in the film is how we all get if we repeat an action too much, for Jon it was taking different women home and not wanking. Kierkegaard compares this phenomenon (repeating an action, not wanking) with the recollection of desires once met, which is a lot more healthy. As Rick says in Casablanca “We will always have Paris”. But often we confuse these ideas. Recollection does not just mean sitting around with friends talking about the good ole days, it can also be reliving experiences. What I mean by this is to spontaneously relive a joyous occasion like stumbling across great pizza whilst out with a partner, and then it happening again unplanned on holiday with other food. But if you were to go back to the same pizza restaurant, even with the same person, time and weather; it would not be the same. Planned repetition loses the spark and the chase of the first experience. Could the same be said about film remakes? Are reboots better?

Jon finally falls into the ethical sphere. Now without ruining the film, I will tell you that for a while he enjoys himself. He is no longer the tail chasing playboy that went to the club with his friends. Now he is enjoying his ethical life. In the second part of Kierkegaard’s book we meet a character called Judge Wilhelm. The Judge is responding to ‘A’ trying to convince him that an ethical life is best. Often this is referred to growing up and the most common example is marriage. It refers to longer term pleasure. It is called the ethical because it means the person should follow a set of rules and societal norms. What Lacan would call the big Other.

Whilst the film, and in Either/Or, the example of a long term relationship is used to discuss this sphere, we can also include things such as deciding on a career path, holding a job down, buying a house, getting a pet or having a child. But it is not so much doing these things, it is the act of doing it and being consistent. Something women seem to be better at than men. That’s why when we first meet a long term partner, we spend more time with them. We might joke about having sex on tap but really we have found a new pleasure that is on a different level to Tinder dates. After all, for most people, falling in love is the greatest pleasure one can experience. But what comes after the fall? Can that ecstasy be sustained?

“Sex is the consolation you have when you can’t have love” said Columbian novelist Gabriel García Márquez.

But the main point of difference between the first two spheres is not the method of enjoyment but the purpose. In the ethical you do something for someone else, not because it will only benefit you but because you get an elevated sense of satisfaction from it that cannot be achieved by individualistic pursuits. This is why we have laws or ethics, a sense of a common life, to allow us to live in relative peace together. If we were all hedonistic pleasure seekers, it would be like we are all living in the USA. Thank god we aren’t.

The reason most people are drawn to this sphere of life is boredom. Bored of repeating the same actions over and over again. We get more from the ethical life. We move beyond immediate pleasure and start to like the comfort, security and the consistency of something more meaningful. But has this changed with the pandemic? Haven’t we all done this recently. I mean no one wants to be inside their homes all the time, being worried about a virus when doing something simple like going for a coffee. We have all had to suspend any chase of instant pleasures. That’s why Amazon made a killing right. Change isn’t easy to come buy when we can continue to live out, or experience, desire on the internet. If anything the virus has made us slow down, and I can’t speak for you but I have found that I am grateful for the slower pace. The things I take for granted whilst out partying, things some people struggle their whole lives to get. Healthcare is the obvious example, but even a regular wage these days is hard to come by for some. Indeed, at times I think we are creating a society of regular and irregular workers. People who use Deliveroo and those who work for them. No wonder people turn to quick gratification or reactionary politics if the steady life is so difficult to come by.

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