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This section was my workspace for philosophy essays between July 2006 and April 2008. I call this "Prehistoric Kilroy" because it gave me practice for more disciplined essays in Kilroy Cafe. Also see my philophical blog and Twitter feed.

Issue #33, 11/26/2006

The Nature of Desire

By Glenn Campbell
Family Court Philosopher

Imagine a nice slice of chocolate cake. I don't mean the store-bought kind but the perfect homemade melt-in-your-mouth chocolate cake that you have only tasted once or twice in your life.

Now that I have mentioned it, don't you want some? The lust you may feel right now for chocolate cake is called "desire," and it is a quest that is essentially unfulfillable.

You can travel the world in search of the perfect chocolate cake, but what happens when you actually find it? The first bite is satisfying, but not exactly orgasmic. Your immediate sensation is one of release. "At last, I have found it!" Your second bite is good, but not as good as the first. The third bite is routine, and by the fourth, fifth and sixth bites, you don't really care anymore. You're just eating the cake because it is there and you feel compelled to finish what you have started.

If you eat too many slices of this perfect chocolate cake, you might start feeling ill. All that sin, without moderation, doesn't feel very good.

The experience of actually obtaining the thing you have long desired can be a bit disconcerting. Here you have travelled the world to achieve your goal, but now that you have it, it's like, "So what?" You pace around for a while, intellectualizing what a great chocolate cake it was, but then, with nothing else to do, you can only pack your bags and go home.

Our lust for chocolate cake illustrates the essential problem of all forms of human desire. The drive can be huge, but the reward, once you actually achieve it, usually feels relatively modest, even routine and disappointing. Mostly what you get when you reach the goal is a release from the drive. This isn't necessarily a pleasant feeling, especially if you have built your life around the quest. "What do I do now?" you say to yourself.

Sexual desire is similar. When you see the perfect specimen of the opposite sex (or the same sex, but let's not complicate things), then your heart (or loins) are filled with desire. You feel drawn to approach and touch the subject, but what happens when you actually have your way with him or her? There is a bunch of feverish activity, then a release, and you no longer feel the same desire. The pectorals don't excite anymore, and the breasts become lumps of fat once again, not sexual objects.

With sex, there is a physical orgasm that you don't get with chocolate cake, but even this is fairly limited and becomes routine after you have experienced it a few times. It's not the heavens bursting asunder or anything. It's just a little rush, a drug-like high that lasts for a moment then is gone.

"Is that all there is?" you say to yourself.

Yup, that's the fact. No desire is truly fulfillable. Whatever it is you want—a million dollars, worldwide fame, true love, unlimited access to the Playboy mansion—once you achieve the goal, it is going to seem routine and ordinary. Your success may even become distressing to you, because your motivation is now gone and your raison d'etre has vanished.

This "conundrum of desire" provides a hint as to why relationships fail. The urge to merge can be huge, but once you achieve all the things you desired, you inevitably find that they don't live up to your fantasies. Okay, you have unlimited sexual access, but it's like having unlimited access to chocolate cake. Over time, it's just not going to taste the same or have the same attraction to you.

That's when the problems begin. Having achieved everything you hoped for, it is alarming to discover that all of your problems and longings aren't solved. Your original lusts may have been satiated, but what do you do now?

Sometimes, you blame your partner. "Why can't you deliver satisfaction to me?" Maybe you start looking over the fence to other potential partners. "If only I had that one, I'd feel better now." Or maybe you start pinning all your hopes on "the next step," whatever that may be—marriage, a baby, a promotion, more fame, a bigger house, etc.—assuming that this must be the missing piece to your elusive happiness.

You can also intellectualize and rationalize the object you quested for. If your real lust for chocolate cake has faded, then you might replace it with verbal slogans ("Chocolate cake is the best dessert, rah, rah!") or maybe with a systematized method for evaluating chocolate cake. Do wine connoisseurs really have the same lust for the product as they had in the beginning? No, they break down the taste in intellectual terms (bouquet, body, etc.) and stop experiencing the true desire.

Later slices of chocolate cake—the same one made by the same cook from the same recipe—can never live up to your early experiences. This is a simple fact of life and of the human nervous system, which adjusts quickly to each new stimulus. You can travel the world to reproduce that original sensation, but you are probably never going to find it. Maybe, you can find the exact same cake, but it won't bring back the same euphoria, which was tied in part to its novelty.

Relationships fail when there is nothing else to support them beyond the initial desire. There are all sorts of delusional systems you can construct for yourself to try to justify and glorify the relationship after it is begun, but the original motivating forces are inherently unsustainable. The relationship itself will also be unsustainable without a rapid and effective shifting of goals. In a land of chocolate cake, chocolate cake quickly becomes irrelevant. Something else must sustain the relationship.

After living with someone for a while, you realize that they are a deluded, inherently gender-less soul just like you. Their body becomes irrelevant and so do all the symbols of romance. You are probably never going to reignite the original passion, no matter how much you spend on roses or candlelit dinners. Who you end up living with is another routine sibling, like the annoying little brother you grew up with.

That's not to say that siblings can't be close and deeply meaningful to each other. Romance gives us permission to be a lot closer to each other than real siblings normally are, but there still have to be boundaries. There are times when you want to be away from that irritating little twit, no matter how much you may love him.

Siblings don't have any particular desire between them. They are drawn together, instead, by their shared experience and their common language. Couples tend to develop this as well, provided there was any real communication between them to begin with.

Desire is, by its nature, unfulfillable and unsustainable, but life marches on, shaped in part by our earlier desires, acted upon but now long past. If our early lust for chocolate cake leads us to a career in bakery product manufacturing and distribution, so be it. We are all suckers for lust, and once we have made a decision based on that delusion, we often have to live with it.

It is just something we need to be aware of in our future decisions: Desire is fleeting. It can't be satisfying in itself. You have to find something deeper.