Labyrinth of Desire: Women, Passion and Romantic Obsession

by Rosemary Sullivan

Published by Harper-Flamingo Canada

179 pages, 2001

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Cul-de-sac of Passion

Reviewed by Margaret Gunning


Why do women fall in love? More to the point: why do so many intelligent, accomplished women fall into obsessive infatuation with men who turn out to be shallow cads? Biographer Rosemary Sullivan has taken a break from probing the life stories of Canadian literary legends such as Margaret Atwood and Gwendolyn MacEwen to try to understand what drives us to hurl ourselves, like lemmings or stampeding buffalo, over the edge of that steep cliff called dangerous love.

"I have spent a good deal of time sitting in cafes with other women talking late into the night about romantic obsession," writes Sullivan (a romantic, obsessive activity in itself). Something in her personality and life experience has drawn her to this scorchy subject, which she explains is not husbandly affection but "the hot thing we fall into," the love of "torch songs and the tango."

Until now the only books available on this topic have been simplistic self-help tomes treating romantic passion like the disorder of the week. Sullivan refuses to pathologize the experience, insisting that it can be quite enlightening once the dust has settled and the players have gone home: "I have come to believe that falling obsessively in love is one of life's necessary assignments. It cracks us open. We put everything at risk ... And life, to be lived fully, demands desire."

That is, if it doesn't kill us first. "It is not a place to get stuck and is never a life solution," she warns, but something we must live through to gain insight -- and, perhaps, to help us eventually find the real thing.

Sullivan, a vivid and accomplished writer, begins her book with a short story about a Canadian woman on an escapist trip to Mexico, who meets a mysterious American artist named Varian. She sets it up this way to condense all the usual elements of these stories into one: an exotic locale, a lonely, drifting woman, a charismatic man with an exotic lifestyle and vocation.

The way this story unfolds and then inevitably explodes ("Her pain filled all of Mexico City. She had been sliced open...") is illustrative of the basic dynamics of passion. Sullivan then takes the story apart and analyzes it piece by piece, as if to seize control over a force which can feel as uncontrollable as wildfire.

She believes this kind of love does not descend on us willy-nilly, but requires certain preconditions such as marital frustration ("How many dead marriages end with one partner falling madly for someone else?") or inner barrenness ("She needs to fill an emptiness, a sense of radical insufficiency within"). In fact, the author's main thesis is that women love this way to fill a terrible hole, or to play out the sort of risky life they dare not lead themselves: "Perhaps the lover is the outlaw in ourselves we don't quite have the nerve to claim .... Is it another we are searching for, or the missing half of ourselves?"

This is a neat, watertight conclusion that only partially explains mad love, not taking into account the blazing chemistry of an affair, its irresistible, primal quality. Applying intellect to raw passion is seldom helpful except in retrospect. Still, Sullivan does come up with a mountain of proof for her idea, citing such passionate but damaging relationships as the long affair of feminist pioneer Simone de Beauvoir and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.

"Sartre, less than five feet tall and one of the ugliest men in the world, moved from lover to lover," she tells us, while de Beauvoir remained faithful and obsessed about her fading looks. If a woman this accomplished and brilliant could subjugate herself so completely for so many years, where does that leave the rest of us?

Sartre's selfishness and egocentricity is typical of the pattern. Sullivan believes obsessive love is in itself a narcissistic, self-absorbed thing, something which seems to demand an audience -- whether it takes the form of whispered confessions to a girl friend or the fascinated gaze of the literary world.

So far men have come out looking pretty shabby in this scenario, offering a false intimacy which turns to dust in the light of day. But what of the female counterpart, which Sullivan calls "Dona Juana"? Scarlett O'Hara is the perfect example, ruthless, self-absorbed and manipulative, thriving best under the terrible, extreme conditions of war. And to bring things up to date, we have the pop icon Madonna as the quintessential sexually aggressive bad girl, the ultimate virgin/whore.

It's no mistake that the Material Girl's act is one huge illusion, for Sullivan believes obsessive love is all about projecting imaginary qualities onto another, transforming the cad into a shining prince (at least for a little while). But what happens when the giant heart-shaped balloon, so inflated with the superheated gas of fantasy and self-importance, finally explodes?

What might happen, the author hopes, is the discovery of a more mature form of love that is clear-eyed and lasting: "To be cherished, to be accompanied -- yes, that's what we want. To be intimately, physically entwined with another. Yes. But not the old fantasy: we are one. Let there be separateness and balance: two resourceful people greeting, face to face."

If we only existed from the neck up, such a cozy ideal would be the norm. But as long as human beings have complex needs and hungry libidos, dangerous passion will always happen. Would reading Labyrinth of Desire steer a young woman away from that hell-bent stampede over the edge of the cliff? Probably not. But the book does offer some valuable insight to the many women who have survived to tell the tale. | June 2001


Margaret Gunning has reviewed over 130 books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International and Room of One's Own. She has written a novel (A Singing Tree) and a book of poems (Nonsongs and Neopsalms), and is currently at work on her second novel, Better than Life.