Volume 2, Number 1 (Summer 2000)
Jonathan Dollimore, Death, Desire, and Loss in Western Culture

New York: Routledge, 1998.
384 pp. ISBN 0415921740.

Reviewed by Eleanor Salotto
Sweet Briar College

Jonathan Dollimore takes as his subject Western culture’s obsession with death, desire, and loss and traces its cultural history from the Greeks to the postmoderns in his study Death, Desire and Loss in Western Culture. Dollimore’s modus operandi may be compared to that of the nineteenth-century flâneur moving easily from one point to another. He moves with grace from the Greeks to the postmodernists, tackling philosophers and literary writers. The scope and execution of the project evoke admiration.

Dollimore argues that Western culture from its very inception has been preoccupied with death and despair in all its varieties. As he observes, “The experience of change and loss exerts an incalculable influence on the development of our culture. Western metaphysics and culture derive from that experience” (xiii). The strength of the study lies in Dollimore’s creation of an erotics of the literature of death and desire.  His thesis is this:  “Death inhabits sexuality: perversely, lethally, ecstatically” (xi).  At the height of desire, one is haunted by death.  In his discussion of Romeo and Juliet, for example, Dollimore claims that the lovers’ desire for one another actually masks a desire for death.  In his study Dollimore inscribes a memento mori to eros and thanatos.  His project underscores the paradox that desire is inextricably tied to death; it is the love object that precipitates the erotics of death. The Renaissance’s concept of mutability provides the link. As Dollimore puts it: “For the Jacobeans, as for us, what connects death with desire is mutability--the sense that all being is governed by a ceaseless process of change inseparable from an inconsolable sense of loss somehow always in excess of the loss of anything in particular” (xii).  If a person loves that which is fleeting, then desire will always be unfulfilled.  The loved one represents desire and death at the same time. The love object, a priori, becomes a memento mori.  One cannot get past the paradox of love decaying, and this decay reminds one of her own movement toward death. 

Freud is central to Dollimore’s thought, in which much of Western culture’s obsession with desire and death anticipates Freud’s theory of the death drive, Freud’s contention that the aim of all life is death. Dollimore's discussion of Donne is particularly informative in this regard.  As Dollimore puts it, for Donne, “death does not merely end life but disorders and decays it from within; its force is indistinguishable from the life-force.  Death is not merely an ending but an internal undoing” (76). 

In analyzing the modern and postmodern concern with the decentering of the subject, Dollimore makes the claim that Western individualism is founded a priori on loss, absence, and lack.  Thus, Dollimore reads the crisis of the decentering of the subject as one which appears in the early modern period.  For Dollimore, “unconscious desire, permanently at odds with the demands of civilization, is what will always wreck the ego’s attempt to forge a coherent sense of self” (xx). Unconscious desire is always attached to death--a promise of release from the demands of consciousness, which Hamlet so eloquently explores in his “to be or not to be” soliloquy. 

This desire for death is represented in religious thought, particularly in Christianity, where Dollimore posits that the desire for death has to be regulated and sublimated in iconic figures such as Christ and the martyrs who experience transcendence through death.  The story of Christ centers on the idea of eternal life, but underneath this lies Christ’s trajectory or path toward self-destruction.  These paradoxes extend Dollimore’s argument that life and death are inseparable.  Dollimore further alludes to the theological obsession with death, loss and failure, inasmuch as it is a tenet central to Christian belief that man through desire brought death into the world.  Consequently, death must haunt desire as the source of all suffering. 

Dollimore turns to modern thinkers to develop his thesis further.  In illuminating chapters on Hegel and Heidegger, Dollimore lays the groundwork for what perhaps is the most novel aspect of his study, and that is his reworking of the meaning of Freud’s theory of the death drive. He begins this turn in his argument with Hegel and the existentialists. Hegel ascribes being to non-being, to being’s relation to nothingness.  For Hegel, one apprehends identity as emptiness or nothingness, which serves as the basis for longing and loss.  To be is always to lack.  To be, therefore, is to desire. 

As he moves from Sartre to Kojève and their idea of freedom in nothingness, Dollimore begins to formulate a reworking of the idea of loss based on homoerotic desire.  In his words:  “If in homoerotic writing we find insightful contemporary explorations of the Western preoccupation with convergence of desire and death, we also find a compelling alternative to it” (324).  This alternative, Dollimore suggests, might be seen in a celebration of the ephemeral.  Rather than trying to transcend loss, one sees it as the place of, and the condition for, liberation from conformity to a fixed notion of subjectivity. 

To return to the flâneur: as he gazes at one object after the other, he is in the process of becoming, a state which rejects the history of a fixed, essential self.  Dollimore finds in homoerotic writing a convergence of desire and death but with a difference. The casual sexual encounter, the passing from one object to another, becomes a metaphor for transgression and wonderment.  The promiscuous sexual encounter becomes symbolic of  “simultaneous identification and disidentification, which, together, may then involve a re-identification--ceasing to be the fixed, tyrannized subject” (326).  Homoerotic writing privileges the ephemeral as a way to transcend loss, not in the sense of consolation, but in the sense of suggesting another way to identify loss as pure abjection.  In desiring, in risking, one brings to life a fleeting moment, a memento mori.  The death drive, then, in its detours, in its going off the line, creates endless transformations.  The death drive embraces possibility.  If art compensates for loss, then Dollimore’s study is a paean to performing loss and desire.

URL:dollimorereview.html; Last updated: Summer, 2000; mail to:
Return to Table of Contents; Return to Issue List; Return to Front Page