THERE’S SOMETHING DELICIOUSLY INDULGENT about Jonathan Dollimore’s new memoir, Desire. Neither tedious nor tawdry, the book is a delightfully cheeky yet earnest reflection on the utopian and pedestrian possibilities of sexual life, told in the campy register particular to a queer elder of a certain stripe. There is much to admire here: the dewy beauty of Dollimore’s limpid prose, the way his punctuation marks, like so many finely gloved fingers, point out the words and phrases to savor. There’s the self-aware humor of a rebel-cum-scholar with a working-class background who clearly revels in a love of language that is never too far from the love of men.
These are also, perhaps, characteristics that could turn off some readers who may find Dollimore’s sudden movements between the particulars of his personal sexual history and the vast philosophical questions that he brings to bear on them just a bit inflated, the language a bit too performatively grandiose. Consider these two passages from the memoir’s early pages:
I had gone looking for my mother and found her outside, sitting with Tony in the family car. As I approached, unbeknown to them, I saw that Tony was trying to have sex with her. One of several complications swirling from this scenario was that at the time, Tony, an adult friend of my parents, was also having sex with me.
[This memoir] includes the squalid and the precious, the suicidal and the elated, the sublime and the absurd, the tender and the callous and the dangerous and the beautiful — the last two being, perhaps, the most important of all, if only because I encountered them in even closer proximity than the others.
The shift between the flat humor of Dollimore’s awkward first forays into gay sex and the lofty staging of his life as a fire sale of descriptive dyads (“the squalid and the precious, the suicidal and the elated,” et cetera — I guess “the agony and the ecstasy” were already taken) combine a cool campiness with a flourishing gesture at the greater significance of an individual life. Desire’s tone can, in moments such as these, approximate the aesthetic poise and preciousness of Alan Hollinghurst — though removed from and critical of the upper echelons of class and educational privilege — as it moves between snatches of diary entries from the past and the author’s commentary on them in the present.
Yet readers who may not find such queer signatures their cup of tea would do well to stay with the narrative, which is considerably leavened by Dollimore’s equally apt facility with checking the intellectual’s tendency to build castles out of cum. “I wonder if my same-sex desire will strike some as absurdly cerebral or aesthetic,” a younger Dollimore wonders in an excerpt from a journal. “Anyhow, it couldn’t have been that cerebral because all this means is that one night, P and I fuck each other; I have no idea it can be this ecstatic and there’s no going back.” In such moments, Desire gives up its tendency toward stylistic swells and is buoyed by wry, playful prose and the naked sincerity of a seasoned thinker who has waded into a very personal analysis of the flows of risk, relation, possibility, and disappointment that attend our sexual lives.
Desire doesn’t offer some novel, earth-shattering revelation about sex, gay or otherwise. Many of Dollimore’s experiences and reflections are by now commonplaces for most gay men, if not as thoroughly excavated with the precision brought to bear on Desire. What details we get of Dollimore’s life — his interest in the mechanics and danger of motorbikes, to the mechanics of gay sex, risk, culture, and language as a young man, journalist, and professor — are subordinate to his central meditation on how desire and its inverted form, depression, operate. “I’m not attracted to the confessional for its own sake,” he writes; “to be worth writing about the personal needs to have a meaning beyond me.” This is a welcome relief from the sort of navel-gazing that can define the memoir genre for young ingénues with little life experience to draw upon and older authors with much life experience but little of gripping relevance to contemporary readers. And, true to the author’s promise, Desire shines brightest when Dollimore writes about signal moments that are his specifically but also ours generally: the fumbling confusion of youthful sex, the powerful and ephemeral connection one feels with a one-night stand, the amplified experience of sex with a repeat partner, the loneliness that simultaneously draws us to and repels us from others.
In line with critics such as Leo Bersani, Desire renders sex as a scene in which the self is momentarily suspended, altered under the electric heat of orgasm to the point that it risks being shattered, even if only momentarily.
Though at the time we’re usually too delirious to realize it, sexual abandon risks, even courts, self-annihilation if only in fantasy. Is that why, I find myself wondering, we mostly do it in the relative security of the bed? It’s often said that each orgasm is a little death — la petite morte. It’s also a little contradiction: the most intense experience the self can have is a temporary obliteration of self and in this respect carnal ecstasy echoes its religious counterpart.
The sense that sex bears some ecstatic truth of the self is central to the gay experience. Claiming pleasure in a constellation of bodies and experiences often condemned by mainstream culture is usually the moment of coming into one’s sexual identity as a queer person. The moment is often described as one in which something “clicked,” in which the self and its desires were somehow made intelligible, affirmed, clear. Dollimore resists this epiphanic narrative. While other people “‘come out’ as who they really are,” he writes, “for me sexual desire confuses, undermines or at least alters my sense of self. […] [W]hen the confusion of desire clarifies, the always present possibility that what reappears is an altered self.” He understands sex not as the promised revelation of an authentic identity or self, but rather as the possibility of transformation: a fleeting moment in which we might become someone new. Yet Dollimore also confesses a desire for the very self he delights in seeing undone in sex. Caught with the rest of us in the ambivalence of identity, Dollimore wavers between “the desire to consolidate [the self] … [and] an equally powerful desire to relinquish it.”
That ambivalence mirrors the memoir’s treatment of the political potential often assigned to gay sex. For Dollimore, gay sex becomes a site of radical openness, but also decidedly conventional commonplaces. He distinguishes gay sex from its heterosexual counterpart in ways large and small: the “dissolution of the gaze” lasts longer in gay sex, fusing an appreciation of beauty with pleasure, and a relational difference wherein the partner’s “desire becomes the focus of my desire […] in a way which is subtly different from wanting to give pleasure, or wanting him to desire me.” These differences, which undergird the celebration of sex as a path to utopia, are by turns sources of hope and disappointment for Dollimore. In Desire, he reflects on his formative middle years during the 1970s and 1980s, when gay male sexual cultures dramatically shuttled between soaring visions of a new world on the horizon and the terror of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Calling out the “radically egalitarian” culture of the bathhouse and sex club as little more than “commercialized decadence” and “well-heeled hedonism” is well-trod territory. But by linking these critiques to his own struggles, Dollimore manages to make the familiar fresh:
I […] pretended to myself that the hedonism of gay culture was the answer to the recurring depression which had haunted me for at least a decade by then, I told myself that I hadn’t lived enough, that all I needed to do was seize the night a bit more zealously and I could shake off the darkness. It was naïve, of course, as was my inclination, when I sensed that this wasn’t working, to try even harder.
I wonder what gay man has not experienced this feeling, and yet I can’t think of a single instance in which I, a friend, or an acquaintance has ever so clearly articulated what reverberates here as a sense of queer failure. If sex is supposed to bear some truth, some power to liberate the gay subject from the shame, resentment, and condemnation with which our culture treats his sexuality, then not finding that truth can feel like a failure to be the thing that you always already are. If you could only be gay correctly — if you could throw off all of those negative emotions on a dance floor, in a backroom, in the bedroom — then you might be transformed. In pausing over the slippery terrain between desire and its failure, Dollimore illuminates the centrifugal force that keeps gay men bound to a particular vision of sex and liberation that can be “conformist even in its excesses.”
Failure and loss are also intimately connected to the story of Dollimore’s struggle with depression, one that plays out across the memoir as it has his life, a permanent auxiliary character awaiting its turn on the stage. Depression is described as “desire turning back on itself,” a visitor that one never knows when to expect and of whom one can never make much sense. Depression is “a feeling of permanent incompleteness, of happiness as permanently elusive,” trapped in some earlier moment that Dollimore admits may have never existed, at least not in the way that depression makes us believe it may have existed in the irretrievable past. Pulling him back into a past saturated with grief, depression opposes the future-leaning force of desire tearing at the subject in the present where both “desire and grieving merge.”
Ironically, if not surprisingly, the pull of both forces is kept at bay only in the fleeting moments of absorption when Dollimore finds his “pathological sensitivity had softened into something still heightened but insightful, not unlike the effect of narcotics.” As desire turns outward again, it leads to the paradox of seeking out the very experiences that seem to invite grief alongside the promise of ecstasy. “I freely admit that I lived a strange and deep contradiction around cruising, one which remains inexplicable to me to this day. For someone as haunted by loss as I am, these ephemeral and transient encounters should have been the very last thing I went in search of.” In these moments, when desire turns toward experiences that promise but fail to deliver transformation, Dollimore’s memoir closes in on what theorist José Muñoz identified as queerness’s utopian horizon. Straining toward a world and self transformed by the open and ephemeral connection we experience in sex with others, desire retains its glimmer of utopian potential to bring us to a place not yet known save in dreams.
Eric Newman is a writer, researcher, and PhD Candidate in English at UCLA. His work explores questions of belonging and identification across the color line in early 20th-century queer American literature. He is a former reporter for Condé Nast and Nielsen Business Media. He lives in Los Angeles.