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
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
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."