"Labyrinth of Desire" by Rosemary Sullivan

Are the great heroines of literature caught in the grip of grand, glorious passion, or are they just women who love too much?

Published February 15, 2002 12:33AM (EST)

Love in the Western world has a notorious history and an irresistible hold on our imaginations. With its reputation for risk taking, law breaking, greed and unseemly hunger, its heedlessness of convention and readiness to suffer, it tempts even as it whispers: This way lies danger.

This is not the kind of love you bring home to the folks or submit to Ann Landers, who always recommends a friendly, estimable, true affection that leads to a happily ever after. (There's no room for any other kind of amorous truth in her philosophy.) Wild love does not thrive in domesticity and it doesn't do Valentine's Day with its Hallmark card schmaltz, waltz and chocolate.

In "Labyrinth of Desire," Canadian writer Rosemary Sullivan attempts to bring passionate, obsessive love into the cool light of everyday life, the better to see and demystify it. Eros inflames Anna and Vronsky, Tristan and Isolde, or even D.H. Lawrence and Frieda, Taylor and Burton. (No, not Wallis Simpson and her prince; they fell more for a pampered lifestyle than for each other.) People like you and I may also have grand passions, maybe once or twice a lifetime. Perhaps sexual lightning strikes because myth and literature have primed us for it. Possibly there's even a biological component. Apparently, neuroscientist Steven Pinker thinks it plausible that we're programmed for romantic love, though I can't fathom what he might mean besides lust.

Sullivan's meditation on extreme love begins promisingly -- I'll return later to the short story she offers in Chapter 1 as illustration -- but then chickens out. Her voice, at first approving of ecstasy, becomes a feminist pursed-lip Viewing With Alarm. We get the boringly familiar pep talk on taking control of our love lives. Turns out it's not passion we want at all, but to be "cherished, to be accompanied." Stick to the subject, Rosemary; you said yourself that passion is not a civilized or kindly emotion.

She introduces the subject by evoking "hunger and longing, desperation and ecstasy." Passionate love is obsessive: "It happens when life stops us suddenly in our tracks and we love in a way that we didn't know was possible. Thinking/talking/ dreaming/obsessing -- life is suspended on the thread of one other human being." Intriguingly, she suggests that this kind of overwhelming love is "one of life's necessary assignments. It cracks us open." It is "a cataclysm breaking up the empty landscape."

Although it feels like a bolt from the blue, it tends to happen at a turning point in our lives. We feel stale, trapped, without a clue how to escape and remake life. In a real way, we blaze a new connection to ourselves through ecstasies of the body and blown-awake emotions. I think Sullivan is on the right track here. At least, I can corroborate her intuition based on my own experience and that of three, four ... let's say a number of friends.

But her tiny chapters with big titles ("The Demon Lover," Pleasurable Cruelty," "Erotic Diabolism") deliver no passionate news. They evade sexiness altogether and settle for a bright "Hey girls, listen up!" pajama party voice. Her scholarship is breezy. For example, she writes about Aristophanes and his theory that male/female, being once conjoined, then split apart, forever after to seek the original union; but she doesn't seem to realize that this Aristophanes is not the historical playwright but a character in Plato's Symposium.

Her analyses of literary texts from Dante to Flaubert to Jean Rhys all yield only the same thin tale of women who love too much, become trapped in illusion and end miserably. Sullivan hasn't heard that real men, as well as fictional ones, are also subject to delirium, obsession, hunger, and that, for a full-blown passion to erupt, the desire must be mutual, at least at the start.

Some of her examples aren't about passion at all. She tells the story of Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre, the grand philosophical couple of Paris in the '40s and '50s. At some early point in the relationship, Beauvoir became a sort of procuress to Sartre, who bedded his students and hers, insatiably. It's a tawdry scene, but what has it to do with passion? The big deal in Beauvoir's sex life was never Sartre. While "with" him, as she continued to be, she fell for the all-American tough guy writer from Chicago, Nelson Algren. That was her grand passion. A roman ` clef, "The Mandarins," followed.

Charlotte Brontë, whose novel "Villette" was based on her experiences as a student at the Pensionnat Heger in Brussels, fell in love with Constantin Heger, who did not reciprocate but also never led her on. So Charlotte was left with an obsession for a fantasy; another tale that isn't quite on point, but Sullivan doesn't distinguish between very different sorts of love scenarios. She's already forgotten her original subject and is now very sad about the psychology of women who fall victim to delusions. That is a much belabored story, and Sullivan wastes her labor.

Consider the short story, I suspect at least partly autobiographical, that opens the book. A young Canadian woman, bored with her life, goes to Mexico City looking for adventure. At a gallery exhibit, she notices a dark-haired man, not conventionally handsome but exuding "a kind of seductive arrogance."

When she leaves, he follows her to a cafe. They share the stories of their lives. He shows her his studio and in no time they're having fabulous sex. But a few weeks later, at a party, another woman greets him "as though publicly staking a claim." Later that night, the same woman lets herself into his room and flees when she sees our heroine and her lover naked in his bed. He follows her and when he returns, everything has changed. He becomes cold, contemptuous, unreliable, evasive. When our desperate young woman confronts him, he reacts with disgust. Another guy who can't commit.

Each of the chapters that follow is meant to deconstruct a strand of the story. But the story is not only trite, it's a rigged case study. It does not feel psychologically true and what Sullivan teases out of the story is -- surprise -- exactly what she put in. Her tale is less about passion than about a woman making an ideal of a shallow man.

Nor can I detect any signs that the affair has broken the stalemate in the woman's life. She goes home totally miserable and takes to her bed, feeling her "life shrivel." But eventually she will learn, Sullivan tells us, that her passion was just a route to self-realization. The guy didn't matter per se. Extreme love means having a man be your personal growth trainer? I always thought passion meant two people fully alive to each other.

There are so many sexy and fascinating questions that never occur to Rosemary Sullivan. She's doing aesthetic philosophy, very lite, thinking readers will fancy a bit of high-toned talk but then want short sentences and paragraphs, and short ideas. Well, that's putting thought as well as style on a starvation diet.

In one chapter, Sullivan brings up love at first sight. Her own parents, she adds, married on the strength of it. But what's that all about, that recognition that occurs in life as often as in literature, and makes for long marriages as often as broken hearts? The Greeks thought of vision as a tactile sense. Your eyes can literally grope and enter me; I emit rays that enter your soul through your eyes. That's one rich subject. Another is the tension between fullness and lack, overflow and longing. Both metaphors describe sexual passion and do so in many cultures and periods. I would have loved to hear more about them. And then there is imagination and excess. We dream and conceive of much more than we do. So the most tantalizing fantasy is to imagine bodies harnessed to the mind's play, and then to try to make it real.

By Brigitte Frase

Brigitte Frase is critic at large for the Hungry Mind Review and an editor at Milkweed Editions. She is working on a family history-memoir about immigration and culture clash.

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