LABYRINTH OF DESIRE: WOMEN, PASSION AND ROMANTIC OBSESSION
By Rosemary Sullivan
Counterpoint, $22, 178 Pages
REVIEWED BY GABRIELLA BOSTON
In “Labyrinth of Desire: Women, Passion and Romantic Obsession,” Canadian author Rosemary Sullivan sets out to anatomize women’s romantic love, a subject that should prick the ears and peel the eyes of men and women alike.
The writer defines romantic love as a state of mind and body where we want something so badly that we are willing to risk everything to gain it. We’re hungry for it, desperate and ecstatic.And then, as all things that shoot to the top fast and furiously, romantic love often crashes and burns.
Reading this, we nod in agreement. Of course, we’ve been there, done that. The author even calls that type of love one of “life’s necessary assignments.” And that’s where the book becomes a bit of a disappointment. Nothing really is said that we didn’t already know about romantic love. The writing never arouses in us that “I never thought about it that way” feeling. Instead the book’s accomplishment lies in the details, in the telling of stories, fictional and real, about romantic love the analyses and conclusions are not among its strengths.
The author starts out by relating a short story, which like so many love stories is “half invention, half truth,” about a woman who goes to Mexico to jump start her life (we don’t know what her past is, just that she’s in a lull), perhaps by falling in love. She meets a young Latino man and they have an erotic, passionate and short-lived affair. The tale, which is about 20 pages long, serves as a framework for the book’s following chapters in which the author talks about specific areas and stages of romantic love, such as (in Chapter 7) “Erotic Gestures” or (Chapter 14) “Sex and Desire,” all of which her short story attempts to cover.
Again, the conclusions aren’t all that eye-opening. For example, the author says that maybe engaging in romantic love is just a way to fill a void inside; perhaps women fall in love with men’s need for them; and that for many women intimacy is often more important than orgasm, etc. None of these observations feels new or fresh. But the writer’s retelling of the love lives of famous literary and other artistic couples is magnificent.
To illustrate how women often fall victim in love affairs, where they play themselves down, or completely bend their will to the male lover’s and sacrifice their own dreams and passions, we read about the unbalanced love between Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre had a constant stream of new women in his life, while de Beauvoir always felt inadequate both mentally and physically.
De Beauvoir even helped Sartre get acquainted with young women. She turned over to him the women who had attached themselves to her as her disciples, and they became his lovers. She allowed herself to be defined by Sartre’s needs and desires. While brilliant, de Beauvoir always doubted herself and she even read the fashion bible Marie Claire to improve her style (who would have guessed?). The magazine taught her to slim her hips with drapery. Meanwhile, Sartre, less than five feet tall and not much of a looker, moved from lover to lover.
The author goes on to chronicle Frieda Kahlo’s and Diego Rivera’s relationship, in which Kahlo was obsessed with getting Rivera’s praise. She was also as fueled artistically by the intensity of their love as she was by Rivera’s adultery. Another artistic couple we encounter is Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst. Carrington was first empowered by Ernst, who filled the role of father, mentor and lover; and later overwhelmed by him. Carrington, as opposed to Kahlo and de Beauvoir, had the good sense to leave her lover emotionally and physically when she realized that abandoning him was the only way she could find her own art.
The closing of the book like the short story it follows deals with the end of a love affair, which is a bitter occasion, though again a self-evident obversation. But even as our hearts are broken and our world seems to collapse, we learn something about ourselves. One of the lessons may be to become more tolerant of the cards that life deals us, instead of thinking that we have complete control over our own lives.
This book is well written and contains fascinating information about some of the artistically strongest women in history, who at the same time let themselves become overshadowed by men in their lives. Rosemary Sullivan asks interesting, eternal questions such as “is love really the search for another, or is it the search for the missing half of ourselves?” She doesn’t provide answers, but maybe it’s too ambitious to try to give answers to these questions. Each person’s love for another, and each woman’s for herself, is unique, and while there are always common denominators, generalizing our most intense feelings may not really serve a purpose.
Perhaps, we should let love just be.
Gabriella Boston is a reporter on the features desk of The Washington Times.