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Saturday, March 29th, 2003


Labyrinth of Desire: Women, Passion, and Romantic Obsession


A review by Georgie Lewis

Feminist authors such as Jungian analyst Clarissa Pinkola Estes (Women Who Run with the Wolves), Elizabeth Wanning Harries (Twice upon a Time) and Catherine Orenstein (Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked), have analyzed mythology and fairy tales' influence on female cultural and sexual identity. Inspiring and fascinating, Pinkola Estes argues that the Bluebeard myth — a classic fable interpreted as a caution against the dangers of curiosity — in fact, illustrates the opposite: that girls enter womanhood through experience. For Pinkola Estes, Bluebeard is a feminist fable, illustrating that women have an inclination to search for love, for answers, and for fulfillment in another, when ultimately it is within herself that a woman should search.

Romantic obsession, that heady, turbulent mix of pleasure and pain we describe as being in love (often "madly"), provokes this same curiosity, that feeling of wanting to know everything about the other (i.e. the man), to be "at one" with them, to unlock their deepest secrets and desires. I'm guessing most women reading this will probably relate to the experience in one way or another.

Biographer, poet, and professor of English at the University of Toronto, Rosemary Sullivan admits to a long fascination with women and romantic obsession and, in delving into the topic in her thoughtful and captivating book Labyrinth of Desire, reaches similar conclusions to those of Pinkola Estes. Like a heady love affair Sullivan's writing is addictive and engrossing. Slim and deceptively casual, the book begs to be read in one sitting, but the ideas within resonate for weeks. Sullivan applies her own experiences, those of her female friends (oh, you know, when you have friends like author Elizabeth Smart, why not?) and other famous women, and of a host of characters found in literature and film, to examine the motivations of romantic obsession.

The structure of Labyrinth is marvelous. Sullivan begins with an original short story which traces the brief and turbulent affair of an American woman staying in Mexico. Play by play, Sullivan follows the affair from the euphoric beginning, to the gradually growing neurosis and vulnerability, to the eventual, painful end. It is a story that she intends to be familiar to most of us: an Everywoman's journey of the heart. After her short tale, each chapter is headed by a line or two from the story followed by an examination of the romantic motivation evident in that piece. It reads like a wonderful conversation with a friend — a female My Dinner with Andre starring Rosemary Sullivan as Andre Gregory.

Sullivan looks at many perspectives of what she describes as romantic obsession: "hunger and longing, desperation and ecstasy." She illustrates the book with examples from life and art, from Goethe's Young Werther, the original romantic obsessive, to the Bronte sisters' demon lovers, Rochester and Heathcliff, to Simone de Beauvoir and Frida Kahlo, both artistically subjugated to their partners. She also discusses promiscuity, perversity, narcissism, and loneliness, providing specific examples of each.

She states in the introduction that she believes romantic obsession to be "one of life's necessary assignments. It cracks us open. We put everything at risk. In the process we discover the dimensions of our own appetites and desires." But she goes on to warn, "The experience is really an initiation, a process of transition; it is not a place to get stuck and it is never a life solution."

Like Pinkola Estes who sees inherent rewards in female curiosity — a curiosity traditionally scorned — Sullivan identifies the rewards in obsession. But both writers agree that to live and love satisfyingly, that curiosity, that driving need to know, must be finally turned on ourselves. As women, we must be curious about our appetites, search for our creative sides, and not live life vicariously. Or, as Sullivan puts it: "I'm trying to speak of self-worth without falling into those clichés that so trivialize the notion, that seem little more than the ego taking a warm bath....Life is mysterious. And difficult. We need a clear-eyed awareness of the illusions by which we live. We need the resilience to survive the continuous shattering of our fondest ideas of ourselves. But if there is anything that makes life exciting, it's the sense of inquiry, the ongoing discovery."

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