March 30, 2006


Lust. By Michael Eigen. Wesleyan University Press. $16.95.

     In light of the many thousands, if not millions, of pages devoted to love, doesn’t lust deserve more than 120?  This slim volume by a New York psychologist is not about quantity, though.  It is, or purports to be, about quality – not the quality of lust, but what sort of quality lust is.

     If this sounds a bit convoluted, that is because it accurately reflects the way Michael Eigen thinks and writes.  Lust is his third book exploring a specific form of intense feeling, after Ecstasy (2001) and Rage (2002).  His method of exploration is to throw thoughts at the reader, scattershot fashion, and see whether some of them make a connection: “A good way to read this book is to find fragments that do something for you and stick with them.”

     Fragmented the book certainly is.  Eigen is perfectly capable of producing a well-wrought psychological case study, and he includes several of them.  For instance, he tells of a patient he calls Sparrow, who flits from man to man (hence, no doubt, the name he gives her) because “she loved the feeling of attraction, of seeing a man light up when he looked at her.”  But she feels an emptiness that comes, she knows, from her relationship with her mother and father, and that she tries unsuccessfully to fill “through spiritual awareness, a quiet sense of self within, unacknowledged, indefinite, not quite seen or heard.”  Eigen’s writing here is part that of a therapist, part that of a novelist (or novella-ist) and keen observer of human nature.  But Eigen undercuts the therapeutic part – which is, after all, not what he is writing about – by noting that “therapy’s contribution is modest but genuine, giving the ache of life a chance to be heard.”

     Contrast this case study of lust with writing like this: “Perception dips into fantasy, fantasy into hallucination, hallucination into delusions of wholeness, completion, totality, certainty.  How do we cut ourselves loose from hallucinatory wholes?  Cut heads off, hearts out?  What do we aim at by cutting?  Cut delusion out of us?  And the delusion of being delusion-free?  A schizophrenic dreams of cut flowers, bleeding flowers.  A poem cuts reality, quickens reality.  Living in the cut of a poem, I think, for a moment, delusion stops.  I stop breathing, breathe faster.  Someone whispers, ‘Parts can’t stay parts.’”

     Eigen loves language and loves to weave webs of synonyms and anonyms, of similarity and contrast.  He talks about others’ lusts and about his own.  He addresses lust directly, then misdirects with an entire section such as: “Green grape, no go.  Ripe grape, also no.  A bit of raisin?”  Punster and analyzer, he suddenly tosses a tidbit of thoughtfulness out of nowhere, or what seems like nowhere: “There are times when you see how God created the universe out of nothing.  You see it because it happens now.”

     All this is clever – indeed, somewhat too clever for its own good.  If the purpose of writing is to communicate, Eigen has at best succeeded sporadically.  He is not entirely sure of what he wants to say – or, rather, he wants to say everything, and wants each reader to hear what is meaningful to that particular reader (which is, in truth, something of a copout).  Lust is entertaining and involving, meaningful and meaningless, focused and unfocused – much like lust itself.  Which may, just may, be Eigen’s point.

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