Lust (Book Review)

Author:  Eigen, Michael
Publisher: Wesleyan
Reviewed By: Barbara Zimmerman-Slovak, Vol. XXVII, 1 (Winter 2007), p. 77

This book is thought-provoking, sometimes disturbing, and very beautifully written. In the Introduction, Michael Eigen tells us:

Lust, one of the seven deadly sins, is part of what gives life luster, heightening existence. It can be degrading and part of a will to power, an assertion of dominance. An act of self-affirmation, it can take many forms. It can foster links between people or destroy links. It melds generative and destructive modes of linking into kaleidoscopic amalgams, some finer, some grosser. . .

Since childhood I’ve wondered why “evil” is “live” backward. Why is it that people are so afraid of living, so much so that the devil comes to be a symbol of aliveness? Lust plays no small role in this fear. . .

My approach is to vary aspects of lust, moments of lust in different contexts, and dialogue with different approaches to lust. A good way to read this book is to find fragments that do something for you and stick with them. I mean this book to speak from self to self, make direct emotional transmissions, open possibilities of experience. My intent is not to control or dissolve lust but to vary it in reflective imagination and see what happens when it enters larger associative tapestries. These tapestries are necessarily selective, as I draw from personal experience, art, cinema, literature, psychoanalysis, religion, biology, and history. (p. ix-x)

Thus, the introduction does what a good introduction should do: it sets the stage for what follows. The book is not organized into chapters, nor, it seems, organized into coherent sections or topics with a table of contents. I do not mean, however, to imply it that it is disorganized. Rather, it flows from one idea to the next, like a beautiful analytic hour, one association to the next, with lust as the thread. So, for the reader who requires or is looking for an organized treatise or a simple explanation of what lust is and is not, this is the wrong book. However, a reader who is comfortable following the thread of a good analytic hour will delight in finding him- or herself immersed in what often feels like Eigen’s associations. This book is Eigen’s ideas, musings, and thoughts about lust—multifaceted and complex.

Eigen discusses lust as a powerful life force, and also a potentially destructive force. Lust is “associated with vigor, life drive. Linked to the pleasure of the senses but also the will: lust for power” (p. 1). He provides numerous examples to illustrate this point. Lust takes many forms. There are vignettes, which take us into Eigen’s consulting room and into his own personal life, past and present. Interspersed with these he draws from a variety of sources including psychoanalytic theory, classical and contemporary art and literature, and the Bible. The book flows from one topic to the next, each written as an essay or vignette, sometimes quite brief, sometimes a few pages long. I particularly enjoyed Eigen’s vignettes about his patients and himself. Among the many very compelling patients are:

  • Sparrow, whom he described as “lust surfboarding” (p. 40) “Lust enabled her to enjoy intensity without dealing with difficult feelings” (p. 44).

  • Kyle, for whom there is no lust in his marriage. He lusted for his wife early in their marriage and he wonders if she ever lusted for him. He has a girlfriend—there is lust in that relationship. He says, “It’s not just ‘hedonistic’—a word putting down aliveness of life. And it’s not just dirty, illicit. It’s transcendent. A naughty treat, like ice cream. The best sex. A taste of goodness of life” (p. 50).

  • Lee, just out of the hospital, heavily medicated with antipsychotics, “uncertainty about what’s real, uncertainty about reality… Only his cock is real. It must be real. But his ideas about it are unreal. A ghastly, awesome predicament. Trying to nail the world to his cock. ‘I fuck, therefore I am’” (p. 51).

  • Bernadette who “came anywhere, everywhere—a man’s touch. The touch of the wind, her thoughts could set her off. Orgasm was cellular. She came in therapy when she shared fantasies… Being with a man made her whole (p. 51). On the other hand, “She did not know when fucking started to disorganize her… “Fucking broke her open, broke her down” (p. 52).

Equally fascinating and compelling are Dr Eigen’s passages about himself, women he has known, been with, lusted for, and musing about the many and various aspects of lust. There are some wonderful descriptions of himself as a boy, teenager, and young man—challenging us, the readers, to see the ways lust is omnipresent, inescapable, and essential in our lives. And throughout, he is provocative, for example:

To masturbate is to see God. All through childhood I masturbated, day and night, many, many times a day, constantly. This means I was a sick child. Only sick children masturbate all the time.“ (p. 17)

Sick kids don’t have a latency period. Something I learned when I was studying psychoanalysis. Analysts claimed there is a period in childhood when kids aren’t too interested in sex. They study numbers and other things in school. Me? I was always getting crushes on girls… (p. 18)

Lest you think the book is only the personal and the clinical, there is more. In discussing, among other things, classical and current literature and art, religion, psychoanalytic theory, Eigen is stimulating, challenging, provocative, and scholarly. For example, he provides a wonderful account of the story of Dinah—Jacob and Leah’s daughter—providing an interpretation that goes well beyond what one learns in traditional religious education. Similarly, students of classical literature will likely have their thinking expanded by his interpretations, for example, of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Throughout, we explore with Eigen the many facets of lust, both positive and negative, procreative and fatal, for example: sexual lust, essential for the survival of the species, although also potentially destructive; lust for achievement or power; and lust connected to hate, jealousy, and revenge. However, we inevitably come to the conclusion that without lust, life and living cannot be possible. I found the book captivating and a real treat to read.

Barbara Zimmerman-Slovak


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