‘Wisdom and virtue are not found in mastering desire, but in the maturing of desire.’
Carey Ellen Walsh (Exquisite Desire) points to the difference between classical responses to desire and the account of desire in the Song of Songs. Using Odysseus and the Sirens as an illustration, she notes how this scene reveals the Greek instinct that desire “harbors danger by rendering its victim under its spell.” To counter desire, one needed to exercise rational management and control: “The Greek philosophical tradition placed desire under the care of rationality. Hence, Odysseus did just what desire calls for; he bested emotion with a reasoned plan. Under this classical influence, Foucault argues, desire became for the West largely something to manage, dominate, and even defeat.” Sexual desire needed to be control, and that control is what makes someone virtuous.
The Song doesn’t minimize the power of desire to control us. On the contrary, it emphasizes that potency even more than the Greeks. It isn’t just possible that desire will escape our control; it’s the very nature of desire to burn like the flame of an uncontrollable fire. Yet “that is no reasons to avoid it.”
“The Hebrew writer might see the classical attempts to secure reason’s mastery over desire as futile and misguided. Flames and the grave have, as it were, a life of their own. Desire’s muscled, tried independence is seen in the Hebrew writer as an essential and not correctable facet. It is most vitally an utter, thrilling loss of control, a giving over to the sensation of want, a foregrounding of that exquisite, aching sense of yearning, while everything else blurs, falling to the wayside. In a real sense, it had better be out of control, or it is not desire.” We our “helpless in desire” and the Song makes “no attempt to domesticate desire, to rid it of its risks, either through moral legislation, shaming, or reason’s mastery.”
Wisdom and virtue are not found in mastering desire, but in the maturing of desire. For the lovers, the “journey through desire is an education between them and for them.” One of the bits of wisdom is precisely about the power of desire: “Desire envelops people, coloring and reorienting their world and their worldview.” Another insight is that “any force that all-consuming has the power also to wound, through exhaustion, disintegration, or despair, dangers for which a person might likely be ill-equipped.” The woman’s education also involves a “cautionary wisdom” that connects love with death and also, importantly, focuses on timing: “do not stir up or arouse love until it delights.” This is not an insight that comes from confining and controlling desire, but comes along the pathway of desire.
Behind all this is, I think, an anthropological point. Desire is extroverted, ecstatic; Narcissus is a case at the margins, and even he falls in love with his image, desires himself as other. Yet desire is intimate, arising (so the Bible says) from the innards, the “reins” or “kidneys.” Desire tells us that at the heart of who we are we are not ourselves; desire teaches us that what is most inner in us is turned inside out. We don’t like to be destabilized that way, and Greek wisdom is largely the wisdom of trying to keep myself to myself, keep my inner self properly inside, under the watchful eye of reason. For the Bible, human beings are much more radically social creatures, oriented without ourselves, finding ourselves not by keeping our “reins” in but finding ourselves along the journey out.
This is also a social and political difference, and a cultural/literary one. Odysseus is curious, but rationally so; and he wants to head home, so he get things back under control. Christianity invented adventure, the journey out and out.
And this, finally, is a difference, as all are, of theology proper. For our God is radically, eternally ecstatic. The Father finds Himself and knows Himself in the Son and by the Spirit. Christianity honored desire because it worshiped a God who went outside Himself. Christianity invented adventure because it proclaimed a gospel of advent.