Underrated: Lust

The clarity of lust should not be mistaken for simplicity. It is both endearing and disturbing

Stephen Bayley

The great thing about lust, especially after exploring the mist-covered territory of love with all its hidden obstacles, is its absolute clarity. In fact, lust is, at least in straight men, spontaneously generated by the sight of a woman with a hip-to-waist ratio of 1 0.7.

That ratio was surely Paul McCartney’s inspiration in “I Saw Her Standing There”. He could only sing “She was just seventeen, you know what I mean” in the days before bitter MeToo! Compliance Officers existed.

And the same might be said of Vladimir Nabokov. Was Lolita one of the greatest novels of the 20th century or a sordid celebration of taboo? Certainly, today you could not write of a teenager that “her bare knees rubbed and knocked impatiently against each other” without attracting the attention of the authorities.

But while lust might be uncomplicated, that is not to say it is simplistic, as the etymology of the word suggests.

In Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery, which I haunted as a child, there is a curious painting of 1891 by Giovanni Segantini, a Milanese foundling who became a mountain mystic in the Engadine. It is called The Punishment of Luxury and shows the souls of (rather beautiful) bad women (“cattive madri”) floating in a snowy landscape, in a sort of limbo.

Its original title was The Punishment of Lust. The floating women had led immoral lives, leading to abortions which the devout Segantini anathematised. But “Lust” was too tricky a concept for Liverpudlian curators and the title was changed to “Luxury”. However the two words are actually cognate: luxuria is Latin for lust. In medieval art, Luxuria is a naked woman with snakes biting her breasts.

Should lust be punished? It is, of course, one of the Seven Deadly Sins and surely the most enjoyable (although, to be honest, all of them apart from envy are really rather fun). Dante placed Luxuria in his First Circle of Hell. It was, he thought, something to do with incontinence.

And that is exactly the point. It’s the spontaneous, trivial, powerful, forgettable aspects of lust which make it so endearing. Lust is about frank engagement with the senses. Here is Sappho: “sweat runs down in rivers, a tremor seizes” in J. Addington Symonds’s translation of her lesbian poems. Lust sensual gluttony: I think “lust for life” is a marvellous expression, taking it beyond mere venery
. . . although mere venery is not to be despised.

But let’s not forget blood-lust: in Anne Rice’s The Vampire Lestat we read “his body was but a writhing morsel of hot flesh”. And we can include Wanderlust here as well: that unscratchable urge to travel.

There are no agonies in lust. No heartbreak. No yearning. It is all about pleasure: hence Freud’s Lustprinzip, his “pleasure principle”. This is perhaps why lust—even if Ulysses was inspired by a handjob—has produced only a small literature when compared with love.

I say small, but John Updike has done his single-handed best to enlarge the subject. Once described as a “penis with a thesaurus”, Updike’s books are libido’s hymnals. A typical line: “inner petals drenched in helpless nectar”.

This is how lust works. Writing this, I am sitting here on the beach watching a young Italian woman. She is wearing a blindingly white and distractingly minimal bikini. Lightly tanned, her hips have a meaningful wiggle as she approaches. She wears aviator shades and has that dirty blonde hair in an up-do, so typical of a certain caste of Italian womanhood. She has gone, I muse, straight from childhood to adultery. I have seen it all before. But goodness me, I want to see it all again.

And then she passes and it passes. Lust comes and goes. Lust is easily explained and easily dealt with. And when it re-occurs, as it will, easily explained and easily dealt with once again. So love and lust? I see love as a dreamy Watteau painting, a mythical land of strangeness and delight, perhaps his island of Cythera, of mystery and imprecision, of delicious sadness.

I see Lust in Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde, that notorious oil-on-canvas groin shot in Paris’s Musee d’Orsay, art history’s most celebrated bush. Hair, sweat and glands. Faceless too. That’s lust for you. Not blameless, but not to be despised.

Love is ambiguous and huge and disturbing. Lust is finite. Love is troublesome. Love is what’s there when you are away from me. True love may be one of life’s greatest benefactions, but it’s a contract that comes with painful codicils.

Perhaps no one ever over-rated the sublime complexities of love, but too often we under-rate the simple mechanisms of lust.

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