Plants and animals that survive in crises where others perish are gifted with the quality of robustness, the ability to adapt to new conditions. The same is true of ideas, of stories, of artworks: a few are immortal, the vast majority do not outlast their own time.

But there is a species of thought-structures that survive not as a models of reality, but because they cannot be thought away. These are the structures of paradox.

Paradox depends on self-reference. Structures are paradoxical when they refer, directly or indirectly, to themselves. But everything human is self-referential. Our consciousness necessarily includes itself in what it is conscious of. Unlike animal appetite, human desire is enacted on an imaginary scene where I see myself through the eyes of the community that gives value to my choice. But to desire and to see oneself desire are contradictory operations. The fulfillment I envisage in the first case is incompatible with the second, where I imagine myself on the periphery of a circle with the object of my desire at the inaccessible center.

Let us examine the two polar forms of human desire we know so well, resentment and love.

Hamlet at Claudius’s court, Alceste, Molière’s Misanthrope, in Célimène’s salon, Rousseau just about anywhere–these resentful figures are drawn to scenes centered on persons whose authority they find scandalously illegitimate. Ostensibly in order to destroy this illegitimate power, resentment attaches itself to the scene on which this power is exercised; but the destruction is incompatible with the attachment. The man of resentment is in contradiction with himself. He is dependent on the object of his hostility; he lives in secret fear that his desire will be granted and the scene of his resentment will be abolished.

But if resentment is paradoxical, how can this be the case for love, where desire is harmony itself?

Love is the converse of resentment. The resenter dreams of destroying someone who appears invulnerable. The lover, on the contrary, makes every effort to fortify his beloved against the mortality he shares with her. The lover does not fetishize the beloved’s power; yet like the resenter he is attached to the scene of his desire. In the less noble forms of love, I am anxious for the world’s approval, even its envy; but even when, in love’s most sublime moments, I lose myself in my beloved’s eyes, I find myself again, reflected in their tiny microcosm.

Thus even as I work for my beloved’s infinite happiness, I cannot wish that this happiness not continue to require my care. Were my love’s aim fulfilled and my beloved rendered invulnerable to death, the scene of my love would vanish.

Thus love and resentment have the same basic structure–the structure of all desire. But their symmetry is not perfect. Vulnerability is the lot of all mortal creatures. However much energy I expend in caring for my beloved, my care will never abolish the human scene on which it acts. There is paradox at the horizon of my love, where my ultimate aim is to free my beloved from the ills of the human condition; but my efforts can never do more than defer her suffering and death. In contrast, resentment is paradox here and now. The pathology of Hamlet’s delay in murdering Claudius is already revealed in Act I, where he wears mourning in council and affects to regard the new King with disdain. If he really disdained the King’s court, he would go back to Wittenberg. If Alceste really hated hypocrisy, he would marry Eliante and forget about Célimène’s soirées.

 


Desire, of which love and resentment are the extremes, is robust because it is paradoxical: we cannot help thinking about it, but it cannot be thought away. When an image will not leave my imagination, we call it anobsession; but we never explain what property of the image produces this effect. It is not because of some physiological presence of the image in our brains; it is because we cannot renounce our dependency on the scene where our paradoxical desire unendingly abolishes itself.