The Reading Room

The Logic of Desire: From Homer’s Odyssey to Alice in Wonderland

When one idly day-dreams one frequently imagines how things might be different. What if the clouds were red? What if I had a million dollars, tax-free? What if I did not have to wake up at 5 a.m. during the week? Generally, one likely imagines things which one wants, or wishes that reality would just be slightly more in accord with one's desire
But as we learn from thinkers as wide-ranging as Dante and Lewis Carroll, what we think we desire outside ourselves, as shifting and changing as it is, can actually represent what we desire in ourselves, or what we lack. So, is the object of desire the actual object desired, or is the object of desire actually knowledge of what one senses that one lacks, and thus, knowledge of one's self? As the Cheshire Cat says in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland:
“Alice asked the Cheshire Cat, who was sitting in a tree,“What road do I take?” The cat asked, “Where do you want to go?”“I don’t know,” Alice answered. “Then,” said the cat, “it really doesn’t matter, does it?"
As the Cat suggests, if we do not know what we want, then we do not know which road to take to get it! The diritta via (straight-way) is lost, as Dante writes in the first three lines of his Inferno. Is learning our inmost desire tantamount to learning our destiny? This is possible, because if in learning our destiny, we learn our complete story, beginning to end, even in broad strokes, then what we learn from desiring some object is that in desiring that particular object, we have created a path between where we are, and where we wish to be, and therefore we can actually work to attain what we desire by knowing what it is.
But what if there were a deeper level to this question? What if the function of desire were not to attain any external object at all? Is not the present beneath a Christmas tree, so beautifully wrapped, so often more pleasant even than that which it contains, which we spend endless moments idealizing and fantasizing about? What if the purpose of desire were to discover the root of desire? By discovering the root of desire, would we then discover knowledge of our selves? And if we discovers knowledge of our selves what more could we desire? Rather than pointing outward, then, does desire rather point inward? For in knowing that which we desire, we know better our self and who we are meant to be.
The answer to this riddle is in full display during the Aiolos episode in Book X of Homer's Odyssey. During Odysseus' recounting of his journeying to the Phaiakians, King Aiolos, meets Odysseus and very kindly offers to take three of the four cardinal winds (Boreas, Eurus, Notus) and place them in a bag to keep Poseidon from harrying Odysseus with storms on his final leg home. One wind, Zephyros, or the West Wind, is left outside the bag to help blow Odysseus home. After ten days of sailing, and several during which Odysseus has been manning the helm of the ship all through the night himself, Odysseus falls asleep within sight of Ithaka. Of course his men believe his new secret sack, so similar to Santa's, must be full of gold and treasure! They open it, and lo and behold, they are all spirited back to Aiolos' isle where he refuses to help such cursed men again! But what is the curse, exactly, if it is not lack of self-knowledge? Let us analyze what the contents of the bag of winds could and could not have been.
On the one hand, the men believe that Odysseus might have been holding out on them, which is well in line with his character, but on the other, the men are in sight of Ithaka—the place they have been away from while fighting at Troy for now over ten years. What could possibly have been in the bag that ever would have been equal to returning home finally? There is absolutely nothing. And yet the appeal of the unknown is forever an itch in one's throat or a mote in one's eye. Though their greatest desire lay right in front of them, the men still wanted more, just as the Fisherman's Wife in Grimm's Tale can never be satisfied, though she receives more and more. This is precisely how desire works: though there could be nothing in the bag which would be commensurate to making it home after ten years of war, it was the mystery of the bag, or the allure of an object of desire, which enticed the men to open the bag, and eventually leads to them all dying in various places throughout the Aegean. Though the bag could not contain what the men most desired, they still felt compelled to open it. So, what is it exactly that they were looking for in the bag if what they wanted most lay in Ithaka just a few oar-strokes away? Precisely this: self-knowledge. We open a door to see who is knocking on the other side. We furtively peek at a present to discover what it contains.  We open the bag of winds, because what we truly seek within such mysteries is the ultimate mystery, knowledge of one's self, which no physical items can contain in toto. But the fact that we project our desire to know our selves onto physical objects does point the direction towards self-knowledge. For if what we are looking for in mysterious objects outside ourselves actually resides within, then at least we know where to direct our gaze.