top of page

Navigating the topography of desire

Like creeping ivy craving grows in one living carelessly. And so, we leap from life to life like a beast in the forest seeking fruit.

Dhammapada, Verse 334.

We never live, but we hope to live; and always disposing ourselves to be happy, it is inevitable that we never become so.

Blaise Pascal, Pensées Sec. II, § 172

I can't get no satisfaction, ‘cause I try and I try and I try and I try

Keith Richards

Why is desire so insatiable? Why shouldn’t it suffice to hear the words “I love you” spoken as a mere statement of fact? Instead, we crave to experience love over and over again, as though each time it evaporates into some interminable abyss of longing. Desire is a strange thing. Unending. Enthralling.

Lacan argues that desire arises out of the fact that the world around us, including our biological drives, never fits neatly into the categories we use to symbolize it. There is always a gap between our needs and the way we come to represent them in the mind. On this account, the insatiability of desire stems from our incapacity to genuinely articulate the drives that give rise to the experience of longing. The fact that we tend toward desiring behavior even after acquiring the things we think we want leads to an ever-fleeting search for new objects to stand in for this basic and fundamental lack.

A recent work for string quartet, The Topography of Desire, traces this path by exploring the notion that such illusory presences (to wit, desires) are in fact the product of difference, of absence. One way this is iterated musically in the piece is through the appearance of near unisons (in pitch, in time, etc.). When two pitches are very close together (e.g., 1⁄4-tone apart), they yield a strange presence – difference tones – that evokes Lacan's portrayal of desire originating out of the gap between thought and thing. The poetics of the near miss.

In fact, the deferral of unity is a distinctive feature of Western musical history itself, when viewed as the gradual intensification of manufactured desire. From the late medieval period on, dissonance and the concomitant desire for resolution first become codified, regularized and the protraction of desire intensified through the semitone/dominant function — culminating in works such as Tristan und Isolde.

From a similar viewpoint we can see that it is no coincidence that the late Enlightenment, the historical epoch that saw the most intense expression of belief in individual personal identity, was also the period in which we see the rise of thematic musical composition, such that musical themes actually begin to stand in for the identity of the works in which they appear.

Id–entity. Of course, when one really considers what it means to have an identity, a transcendental self, it is not at all clear that it is something distinct from thinking, feeling and experiencing the world in its fullness. As Sartre puts it, the self is really only there “in the corner of our eye” when we examine our own consciousness.

To navigate these questions, the quartet draws from a phantom theme — a melody which is always present but never articulated in a straight-forwardly melodic way. Sometimes it is presented so fast as to sound like a mere gesture, at times it is glacially slow or spread out across the entire range of the ensemble. In a similar vein, the notes of this melody are themselves drawn from the overtone series so that every time we hear a string plucked or bowed, the phantom theme is there, “in the corner of our ear.”

bottom of page