Structures of Desire (Part 2)

Read part 1 here.

In my previous post I talked about how desire motivates our actions and decision-making. It is also clear that the same structures of desire that we see build up and resolve, or defer and frustrate, in our everyday lives, also recur in the structures of the art we make. Desire and fulfilment can only operate in time, and so it is the dynamic art forms, music and literature, that fundamentally express and are driven by it.

Desire in narrative

A good page-turner will hook us in from the start and sentence after sentence compel us to read on. Everything about the structure of the narrative – the framing and arrangement of events, deferral of truth revelations to strategic climactic moments, pacing, all build the reader’s desire to finish the book and achieve a satisfactory resolution. The book makes itself an object of desire. It’s extremely irritating when your reader’s desire is unfulfilled. As a teenager, it hit me hard when the thirteenth book in Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events, entitled The End, failed to resolve most of the series’ mysteries and left many many loose ends.

tapestry loose ends
Like these – but the artist doesn’t claim this is the finished product!

Desire in Dante

I mentioned Dante in my previous post. His allegorical poem (JUST READ IT) is arguably the epitome of making life into literature and embedding the moral philosophical structure of the world into the physical one (as represented by him) and into his poetic structure. As mentioned previously, two of Dante’s otherworlds are conical: Inferno’s contracting descending rings terminate with Satan’s torso; the mountain of Purgatorio has contracting terraces ascending towards Paradiso. For Dante, life and the temporal part of the afterlife (Purgatory) should involve constant progression towards the purification of our earthly desires (for each other, for power, for knowledge), tempering and channeling them up the teleological hierarchy so that they point instead towards our ultimate end, which is God. It is still said by Christians that all desire for any object ultimately points to God. If due to blindness or a faulty hand an archer ends up firing arrows at the wrong targets (money, one-night-stands, the neighbour’s oxen), it’s his/her life’s work to see more clearly and better direct the hand that looses the dart.

The poem’s rhyme scheme also creates a similar spiral of progression; the tercets rhyme thus:

  • Tercet 1: ABA
  • Tercet 2: BCB
  • Tercet 3: CDC
dante rhyme scheme
Excellent graphics again? You’re welcome

Perhaps the two-steps-forward-one-step-back progression embodied here is more strictly reflective of a sin-redemption cycle than a desire-fulfilment one, but there are nonetheless clear parallels between these in the Dantean world, which shows clearly the role of desire in vice and virtue. Our lustful, proud, wrathful habits are sinful because they misdirect our natural human tendencies away from running after God.

Desire in Ariosto

A few hundred years after Dante, Ariosto’s comic epic poem Orlando furioso (another must-read) takes desire and frustrated desire as a main topic of exploration. One of the principal plot lines concerns Bradamante’s search for her absent lover Ruggiero, as chance circumstances and the roll of the narrative dice drive them apart and together multiple times. The fulfilment of their desire to marry is continually deferred until the very end, but there is no such luck for another protagonist, Orlando, whose love for Angelica remains unrequited and eventually drives him crazy (the ‘furioso’ of the title). These are the macro desire structures. On the micro level, there are episodes where:

  • a hermit tries to take advantage of Angelica but is unable to perform – frustration
  • Ruggiero also tries to take advantage of Angelica but is prevented by his armour – frustration
  • Ruggiero and Bradamante repeatedly almost encounter each other but are thrown apart again by ‘chance’ devices like spells and duels with strangers on the road – deferral, prolongation

The poetic form mirrors the theme, with the narrator interrupting the action at climactic moments to skip to another storyline; not only are the lustful characters’ desires frustrated, but so is the reader’s desire to finish the story. Each interruption creates a new problem to be solved, or defers the fulfilment of the characters’ and readers’ desire, which prolongs the narrative and postpones the macro resolution that the end will bring. The very clever Daniel Javitch makes the link between desire in the plot and Ariosto’s deferral and prolongation techniques in his aptly named ‘Cantus Interruptus’ article.

While Ariosto refers to his work as a tapestry, and the long-anticipated ending is neat and satisfying, the various deferrals, digressions and diversions caused by the chaotic interruptive style make it feel, when in the thick of it, more like this:

tangled threads

Deferral and frustration are not wholly negative, however. As I said in my previous post, sometimes we deliberately put off fulfilment, or we trade intensity for longevity – like my mother and her rationing of sweets. I guess this is because the heights of satisfaction unfortunately coincide with their imminent stoppage – like Freud’s competing drives towards Eros (desire-fulfilment) and Thanatos (ending). We don’t want a good book to end, so we half-race, half-savour it.

Desire in music

The existence of music in time, and the presence of structure, pacing and rhythm (all particular to auditory and temporal forms of art) make it similar to literature when it comes to structuring desire into the framework and essence of the art form. Many of the same elements recur here. There is an up and down about it; it starts and ends with the same chord; it often starts simply, tangles itself up into harmonic and rhythmic complexity, and then smooths out the mess. There are build-ups and ecstatic moments, tension and resolution in the same way:

  • The introduction to Zadok the Priest → the choir’s entrance (here)
  • The Tristan and Isolde overture’s seven-minute build up (here)
  • In club tunes, that winding-up sound → the drop (hilariously exaggerated here).

The ups and downs, the interlocking melodic phrases, the entanglement and resolution structures, occurring on small and large scales, match the buildup and fulfilment of desire through our lives:

desire 1
Just to recap

The smallest unit of music is a single note. Two or more notes sounded together create harmony. A larger number of different notes (say, 5+) of varying lengths played in sequence is melody. Put harmony and melody together and you have a yet larger and more complex structure. At a harmonic level, micro structures of desire already begin to emerge.

Here are two bars of music containing two chords:


This harmonic progression is known as a suspension where (let’s say) the ‘tail’ of one chord hangs over onto the next, creating a pleasant clash and raising the listener’s desire for it to fall into place as part of the next chord. There is a preparation (the note to be suspended is prepared by being present beforehand), then the suspension (the suspended note is highlighted in red), then a resolution: the suspended note drops into its proper place in the second chord – without which the second chord is incomplete.

The micro desire for the music to go on builds as the first unchanging chord persists; the desire for it to advance takes an increase at the suspension because the anticipated second chord is not yet complete; the desire is fulfilled at the resolution of the second chord and subsists only to start building again.

This micro fulfilment can be combined and interwoven with other micro fulfilments in a larger structure of multiple chord progressions that altogether, over a wider stretch of time, build up a macro desire.

Here is an extract from a Mozart piano sonata (it’s not the beginning of the piece):


The excerpt starts in C minor, and (to begin with) each bar contains a different type of pleasant clash (not a suspension) that drives us to each successive chord; none of the clashes properly resolve as another clash is introduced each time, and on a larger scale, we never properly return to our starting point. Instead, just after this excerpt we get to a new section ending up in a different key, and the macro resolution is deferred again until later on in the piece. Like in Ariosto, the constantly deferred resolution launches new sections that lengthen the piece, but also, by continually heightening the listener’s desire for completion, propel it towards its ultimate resolution, the end. (More detail on precisely how this happens in a short subsequent post.) That is the listener’s experience of the whole effect of the work; like Ariosto’s tapestry, I can inspect the back of it (the score) and see how the threads intersect and interact with each – vertically in harmony and horizontally in melody.


While Dante, Ariosto and Mozart give us an ending, a macro resolution, it’s harder to see whether this applies to our lives. Death is an ending, but not necessarily a resolution – like Lemony Snicket’s last book. If there’s no macro resolution, is there even a macro desire? Dante and the Christians would say that the macro desire, which we may not even be conscious of, is for God, and its resolution is union with God in heaven. Can we be said to have a single will that bubbles away under the surface and emerges when significant decisions have to be made?

Finally – in another previous post, I talked about the process of narration creating meaning. Similarly, when a novel or a piece of music or a tapestry gets complex and tangles up in the middle, the final resolution will normally bring diverse threads together and create out of them something meaningful, will smooth out the tangle and allow us, finally, to step back and contemplate the beautiful whole.

seul desir tapestry.jpg
The aptly named ‘One Desire’



I wrote most of this post and then decided to google ‘desire and narrative’. Turns out everyone else has already thought about the topic, dammit. On the plus side I’ll be adding this and this to my reading list.

6 thoughts on “Structures of Desire (Part 2)

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